The night is dark and full of terrors. But with a little help, the forces of shadow can be yours to command. In this installment from the Brew Crew, we’ve got Daggar here to cover how to create a horror one-shot for your tabletop game sessions, just in time for Halloween.
There are many elements that make a darker tone in tabletop games work. But first and foremost is cooperation. I’ve talked a little bit about cooperation in a previous article, but in horror more so than anywhere, cooperation is paramount. You cannot scare your players without their consent, and a degree of willing participation. So take a little bit of time before the game to establish the expectations of everyone at the table. Horror in tabletop settings is largely driven by the players’ expectation of what’s to come. If they know there’s something lurking in the castle that may horrify them, the anticipation will drive the feeling you’re trying to capture. So get everyone on board with horror first, and /then/ work on scaring them.
Establish your horror. Is the tone of your one-shot going to be gross body-horror stuff, like oozing zombies and hideous mutants? If so, you’ll want to spend extra time on sensory descriptions. Are you working with powerlessness and an overwhelming force of darkness? Then make sure you give them a reason to care about their characters, so they won’t be disillusioned by their struggle. Your horror informs the details you’ll need to focus on, so figure that out before anything else. There are a few themes you can use, or combine, to haunt or terrorize your players to your wicked heart’s content: mistrust, brutality, isolation, and disgust are differing, and sometimes overlapping themes. There are others, of course, but these are some simple directions to take your game.
The next key to the puzzle of horror is pacing. Pacing is absolutely everything in horror. You don’t throw your players into a darkened tower and give them the big, scary scene right upfront. Drag it out. Horror works best in small doses that snowball into a critical moment. The fear you want from your players comes largely from their own heads. Let them simmer on each detail as you painstakingly describe the creak of the wooden doors, or the subtle /wrongness/ of the animal sounds in the area. As they approach the source of your horror, begin to build tension with clues that lead up to the final scene. A rotten stench. A labored, heavy breathing from through the door. Quickened footsteps, and a sudden splash of water. Things that will rouse your players’ curiosity will set them jumping to conclusions. When you finally get to the big scene of your one-shot, quicken your pace. Don’t let combat drag things out. It’s anticlimactic for the hideous undead chimera to roll three natural 1’s, but it can still lead to a great story. Consider upping the damage, and cutting some HP from most encounters. Don’t let your players stall too long. Consider adding a timer, or other narrative or meta threats that keep combat quick. As long as your players aren’t too new, this isn’t a huge detriment, but adds a feeling of urgency.
The final piece of advice I will leave you with is not to force your players into horror. Don’t stifle the jokes. Don’t try to be too serious with everything. Sometimes a player will have a funny one-liner in the middle of a serious moment. That’s fine! Humor is how some people open the valve and let off tension. Especially when trying to do very serious roleplay, sometimes you’ll phrase things awkwardly or flub something. Roll with it! Don’t be discouraged. With a little practice, you’ll be a master of nightmares in no time.
Do you have any spooktacular special sessions coming up for your tabletop games? Let us know in the comments about your favorite moments in horror tabletop gaming, and as always check out more articles from The Brew Crew here, and while you’re at it check out Volo’s Guide to Monsters for some horrifying inspiration for your 5th edition DnD homebrew campaigns.