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General Unpopular Opinion?: D&D is a terrible venue for horror

Xeviat

Adventurer
Supporter
The best game I've ran in 20 years was a horror game. It requires player buy in. D&D is a combat heavy game and the horror it creates is action horror that can be beaten, but that's still a kind of horror.

D&D has a fun thing doable that literature can't: Metagame Horror! I've been playing in a Rime game. When our first level party had to fight 2 Winter wolves, which I know are CR 3, I was terrified. When the party's familiar saw a talking mammoth, which I know is CR 6, I was TERRIFIED.

Horror literature is speculative fiction that seeks to illicit fear, revulsion, and other negative emotions. D&D can do that.
 

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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
It's funny that Alien was brought up as a horror movie because I think of it more as a creature feature.

But anyway, was Aliens a horror movie? I mean, everybody but Ripley sent to the planet (well and token idiot management guy) were trained soldiers at least theoretically well suited to the task.

I think it just upped the ante by showing that even the well trained marines were chewed up by the enemy. It took more enemies than in the first movie, but the result was the same.
Aliens and Alien (no s) are different movies, with very different genres. Aliens is an action film with some horror tropes. Alien (no s) is a pure horror movie, with multiple layers of horror -- creature horror, body horror, and existential horror. The actual monster in Alien (no s) isn't even the xenomorph -- it's the android and the very human directive and motive behind the android's actions. The monster in Alien (no s) is just a foil to human nature in the film. It's excellent, in all regards.
 

Xeviat

Adventurer
Supporter
It's funny that Alien was brought up as a horror movie because I think of it more as a creature feature.

Alien is a horror movie, but it's more on the side of sci-fi horror and more action horror. It's definitely light on the horror (I mean, spoilers, almost everyone dies), but my roommate, who hates horror, can't watch it, so it's horror.

I kid. I studied speculative fiction in college, and there's a lot of overlap between horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. There's also a spectrum from how heavily you lean into the genre, and blurred lines between them (star wars is a fantasy story with the trappings of a sci-fi story), but genres are often just labels for marketing and don't always match the academic terms.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
The movie Predator shows that it's possible to do horror with competent protagonists, though it is more difficult. Imo Predator only becomes a horror movie about 30 minutes in. The scene early on where the protagonists successfully attack the compound is action, not horror (and is quite D&D-y).
 

jasper

Rotten DM
The two main problems are:
1) Too many winnable combat encounters.
2) The PCs (and players) know too much about the monsters.

To horror-ise D&D there should be only one monster per adventure. It should be very mysterious and the PCs must believe they have no or very little chance of defeating it in a confrontation.
3. No lasting damage. Long rest instant restore.
4. Easy removal of conditions. You got the gold the FNC (Friendly neighborhood Cleric) has a spell for that.
 

Aaron L

Hero
The movie Predator shows that it's possible to do horror with competent protagonists, though it is more difficult. Imo Predator only becomes a horror movie about 30 minutes in. The scene early on where the protagonists successfully attack the compound is action, not horror (and is quite D&D-y).
Predator is basically an Action movie that becomes a Slasher Horror movie halfway through.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
3. No lasting damage. Long rest instant restore.
4. Easy removal of conditions. You got the gold the FNC (Friendly neighborhood Cleric) has a spell for that.

Assuming they can rest. What kind of horror movie would it be if people could just call up an Uber and get out of town? Same for removal of conditions; it's not like people can run to the nearest hospital. But I also throw in stuff now and then that can't be fixed that easily, at least short of a wish. Good luck getting that.

In my current campaign a couple of the PCs are "tainted" because of encounters with outsiders. Admittedly it's just something I made up, to me that doesn't mean it's not D&D. So far I've left it open to what it means other than bad dreams and the occasional horrific hallucination. A third is still affected by residual effects of a trip to the shadowfell and sees dead people who occasionally try to eat him. Usually when no one else is in sight. On the other hand I don't consider my campaign a "horror" campaign, it's more of an action/intrigue story with hints of horror. I guess.

The horror genre is so broad that it's like trying to nail a swarm of hell bees to the wall.
 

Reynard

Legend
The movie Predator shows that it's possible to do horror with competent protagonists, though it is more difficult. Imo Predator only becomes a horror movie about 30 minutes in. The scene early on where the protagonists successfully attack the compound is action, not horror (and is quite D&D-y).
I don't think Predator qualifies as horror at all. It is an action movie with a body count designed to tell you how dangerous the bad guy is. It is never scary.
 

jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
What's your picture of how "proper" horror feels at the table?

Is it about fear of character death?

Is it about the fear of madness?

Is it about the discovery of terrible secrets?

Is it about monsters that you can't hope to escape?

Is it about the gothic trappings--an ancient house, wolves howling in the distance, red velvet and cobwebs?

Is it about facing hordes of undead?

Any of those in any combination could be described as horror.
 

AmerginLiath

Explorer
Horror has almost nothing to do with level in D&D, unless your horror is making players scared their characters may die. Move the stakes to something else -- where the fear isn't your death -- any the level/resource issue is moot. This does mean D&D is terrible at Alien style horror.

That said, I think D&D is terrible at horror because it lacks the kind of mechanics that enable the kind of narrative structure that works best for horror. The pass/fail resolution mechanic combined with the entire ability check system being aimed at resolving concrete, small actions means that you're far to granular in resolution to deal with many horror tropes. D&D is great for exploring a dungeon, but not so good at existential or body horror tropes.

More than necessarily character survival, I think the resolution system is the big issue. Horror works as a narrative by ratcheting up and more rapidly advancing drama’s build and release of tension (in an odd way, farce is the comic version of horror in this way — probably why horror parodies work so well). The binary pass/fail resolution mechanic and the regular turn-based combat system flatten the progression of the story-as-story (purposely, so the campaign can continue at the pace determined by players and DM). This makes for a good game, but there’s by its nature too many pauses and rearrangements for a straight flow of tension (I almost want to make a gridiron football reference here, but I’ve made enough random analogies in one paragraph...).
 

horror can be achieve if the players are willing to feel it.
an adult can easily laugh while the Dm describe the awful death his character will suffer.
you don’t have to play horror for the player but the character.
 
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Vael

Hero
I think the base assumptions of 5e make it difficult. But it's not impossible, or even that difficult. First, make resting both difficult and an actual decision. Like, is it even safe to rest? Second, adding a few conditions that linger like exhaustion are solid. We did a zombie horde adventure that worked as a horror adventure, so I think it's doable.
 

Bawylie

A very OK person
An adventure designer might write a horror adventure more successfully by avoiding powerlessness.

Go ahead and assume competence and agency, and take stock of the capabilities your party has. Once that’s done, think about what your competent party might fear, loathe, resent, or be disgusted/revolted by.

Throughout the adventure, increase either the frequency that horrible thing is encountered, or the opportunity to observe its behaviors or effects. Do not explain anything. It should be consistent, but not symmetric or regular. (Very brief/stripped example: 1 distant howl, 1 closer howl, a call howl and a response howl, 14 howls from all around. It’s consistently howling, but there are either more of them or they are closer and it isn’t a pattern).

During play, when describing what the players see and hear, reverse cause and effect - where possible, put off / equivocate description. “Angry red slashes rake your chest open and blood pours onto your boots. You’ve been clawed for 23 damage, and whatever did it is shifting its weight for a follow-up.” “You feel sharp teeth and hot breath on your throat before sticky wetness cascades down your shirt. You’ve been bit for 18 damage!” Doesn’t have to be combat, either. “As you come down the hall, you feel a tug at your clothes like they’re caught and a tickle on your flesh. Another step and your progress is arrested completely. Thick, sticky, invisible bands hold you fast. You’re webbed.”

Let players conjecture as to the motivations (if any) of your horrible antagonist. Yeah, mostly they’ll be eat-monsters. But they don’t have to be. Just ensure their actions (or the aftermath thereof) are sufficiently repulsive or disgusting.

Now, on competence. It’s actually necessary for players to feel like they have some power or agency. Helplessness is actually counter-productive for horror in a game. (In a story too, but never mind for now). The fear is going to come from uncertainty and the uncertainty is the idea that the power and competence they have Might Not Be Enough. If they are sure they can win, or sure they cannot win, then we lose the uncertainty and we lose the fear. Try “breaking off the attack” by the horrible antagonist earlier in the adventure. Maybe it turns away when an ally shows up, or someone sheds some light somewhere, or speaks elvish - doesn’t matter. Try limited engagements that are cut short. Endanger things that should feel safe or that are taken for granted.

None of this stuff is very difficult. It’s actually easy (except to remember to reverse cause and effect) to write this stuff up. And basically none of it has anything to do with the game system, so long as you write for the expected power level. Meaning, goblins won’t be terrifying past like 3rd level, and certainly not at 10th. Likewise, something that’s obviously overkill on a low level party (like a Death Slaad versus 2nd level players) also doesn’t work. It’s about as scary as “rocks fall and you die.” Some agency/power is necessary to get the uncertainty. But past that, the game system doesn’t matter a lick.
 

dave2008

Legend
2. Mechanics. If you use older editions, there are mechanics (such as aging, level drain, insta-death, and so on) that are legitimately terrifying; these mechanics, or even the thread of these mechanics, can make the game much scarier.
You can do it in 5e too. For instance we have death at 0 and no cleric or any access to resurrection magic in our game. Death is a real threat even into high tiers (lvl 15 now). If you use things like lingering wounds (DMG variant) or liberal use of exhaustion, you can dial up the horror mechanics pretty quick. In fact, we had to stop using lingering wounds because combat became to horrifying for my players!
 

dave2008

Legend
It's funny that Alien was brought up as a horror movie because I think of it more as a creature feature.

But anyway, was Aliens a horror movie? I mean, everybody but Ripley sent to the planet (well and token idiot management guy) were trained soldiers at least theoretically well suited to the task.

I think it just upped the ante by showing that even the well trained marines were chewed up by the enemy. It took more enemies than in the first movie, but the result was the same.
You appear to be confusing "Alien" with "Aliens." Aliens had the soldiers and was not a horror movie. There are no soldier's in Alien and it is a horror movie.
 

dave2008

Legend
3. No lasting damage. Long rest instant restore.
4. Easy removal of conditions. You got the gold the FNC (Friendly neighborhood Cleric) has a spell for that.
3) Their are variants for recovery and lingering wounds in the DMG, and using a houserule (like we do, 0 hp = death) doesn't mean your not playing D&D.
4) I can't speak to the adventure, but there is no requirement or their to be clerics to purchase healing / resurrection services (my game doesn't have any). Not to mention that exhaustion is not so easy to remove.

I am guessing you are aware of both of these options. My point is that if you want to do horror, you should plan do things a bit outside the box, and D&D accommodates that very well. So these are not issues for D&D, but issues for certain style of D&D.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
You appear to be confusing "Alien" with "Aliens." Aliens had the soldiers and was not a horror movie. There are no soldier's in Alien and it is a horror movie.

Well that was the question - if Alien is considered a horror movie is Aliens also considered horror movie? Personally I'm not sure I'd qualify either one as a horror movie, because not all monster movies are horror movies. But if you classify it as a creature feature then I think both fit the bill.

But, we're talking games here not movies. I think D&D absolutely can have most of the features of many of the horror genres, whether it can be a horror game is open to interpretation. Kind of like how "who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman" the real answer is "depends on who you ask".
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Well that was the question - if Alien is considered a horror movie is Aliens also considered horror movie? Personally I'm not sure I'd qualify either one as a horror movie, because not all monster movies are horror movies. But if you classify it as a creature feature then I think both fit the bill.

But, we're talking games here not movies. I think D&D absolutely can have most of the features of many of the horror genres, whether it can be a horror game is open to interpretation. Kind of like how "who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman" the real answer is "depends on who you ask".
Why would they both need to be horror movies? But, no, Aliens is not a horror movie. Alien (no s) is definitely a horror movie.
 


Bawylie

A very OK person
Why would they both need to be horror movies? But, no, Aliens is not a horror movie. Alien (no s) is definitely a horror movie.
Aliens IS a horror movie. It’s also an action movie. But everything from Ripley’s nightmares, to Weyland-Yutani’s nefarious plan(s), to Newt’s capture and rescue are squarely horror.
 

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