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Troy’s Crock Pot: It’s an ooky, spooky month

What’s the Crock Pot? Just a simmering bowl of lentils and herbs, with a dash of DMing observations. Don’t be afraid to dip in your ladle and stir, or throw in something from your own spice rack.

The brew that is Gnome Stew is all about dispensing tasty GMing advice. Frequent readers know I tend to offer a nuts’n’bolts approach to such things. I’m not a gaming theory sort of guy. I’m a “let’s gather ‘round the table” and see what works sort.

So, for my D&D Burgoo posts this month, I’m going to offer components that you can plug into a horror-themed game. A batch of nifty ideas and monster choices that I hope make your job as DM a little easier. 

D&D ain’t Cthulhu

Tune into any number of podcasts on this subject and experienced DMs, when asked about their favorite D&D horror games, often will volunteer to describe a particularly fun and scary  “Call of Cthulhu” game. Fair enough. It’s a roleplaying game designed for horror, while D&D is about high adventure.

And while it’s an honest and frank admission, it’s a curious response, especially when it comes during a D&D podcast or the like. Is it possible that D&D just can’t emulate the horror experience? Is the gothic horror of Tracy and Laura Hickman’s 1983 breakthrough adventure “Ravenloft” the only genuine experience in this genre? 

What’s the big deal?

Surely our readers have had any number of ooky, spooky D&D experiences. 

Does the horror genre work at your table — and more importantly — why? What did you do to make it work? I’m curious to learn more.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: It’s an ooky, spooky month"

#1 Comment By ekb On October 2, 2008 @ 6:26 am

I’m very much into horror RPing – but the trick is to nail what “horror” is within context…

Ravenloft works with D&D because it’s not a dungeon crawl, developed in a context where the expectation is a series of dungeon crawls punctuated with wandering damage and the occasional view of the outddors. It subverts personal expectations on a meta-gaming level and as such forces the players (not the PCs) into the unknown. And that state is at the core of what Lovecraft was telling us in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Mechanically, d20 works very well for horror – as long as you approach it as a way of simply limiting what can be done by the PCs. The burden transfers to the DM to set up a number of situations where it’s a detriment to get into combat, to limit the amount of events that the PC will encounter that are chance-dependent, and to set a good pacing and tone through the choice of language and descriptions. It’s one thing to encounter an orc, it’s quite another to find a degenerate brute, covered in dung and blood, breath reeking of human flesh…

Systems-wise, one of the best ones for horror I’ve seen in recent years is ORE – it’s multidimensional and light with minimal look-up needed. I especially like the “Nemesis” variant – it really pegs that Sanity isn’t just a simple linear track…

Advice for running horror in a game? I’d say read. Read a lot. Definitely avoid TV/Video/Movies. Practice the language for the type of horror you want to run – Stephen King is very different from Kim Newman or HPL or even Vance (yes, Vance can be read as apocalyptic horror). Maybe even try it out loud in the bathroom – it really gives you a feel on how to hit what sends the shivers…

#2 Comment By Wild Joker On October 2, 2008 @ 9:24 am

I make it a practice–and my group has come to expect–that October sessions=undead!
I’ve thrown everything from a dracolich to a zombie horde at them. Of course, the lights are off in the room, except for the candles on the table and the glow from my laptop.
Even the skull goblets come out for the beverages (My wife and I HATE to wash them, so they’re only used 1x per year).
The ambience adds to the experience. The second year I did this was a graveyard crawl, with wave after wave of undead. While none of them were particularly difficult, it was the swarming effect that finally wore down my players’ nerves. I had two players that confessed they’d had nightmares afterwards.

Any session that gives a player nightmares is a successful session, right?

#3 Comment By DocRyder On October 2, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

Generating “horror” is not a function of system so much as atmosphere. Any system can do it, even Toons. Tons of games out there have advice on how to create horror, including the D&D 3.5 book, Heroes of Horror.

Monte Cook notes something in his “World of Darkness,” stating that it’s awfully difficult to scare a vampire or werewolf, so you’re not really trying to scare or horrify the character, you’re trying to impact the player, and that’s where your attempts at horror should be aimed.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 2, 2008 @ 11:35 pm

D&D can definitely work for horror – try running U1 (Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh) some time…

As mentioned, the GM needs to be reaching the players, not the characters. And the unknown is the best way to do that.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 3, 2008 @ 1:36 am

Saltmarsh …. Ooooo, pirates meets creepy. 🙂

#6 Comment By DnDCorner On October 3, 2008 @ 10:46 am

I agree with DOCRYDER. Though some systems encourage horror, any role-playing session in any system can be horror driven. I think that understanding that while a tough combat can be stressful and challenging doesn’t make it scary/horror driven.

The DM really has to take the time to build it up. Get the players involved in the setting and the NPC’s by making it real to them.

Not everyone can run a session like this either. If handled poorly it can be very boring.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 3, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

OK, let me posit this: If system ISN’T a determining factor to running horror — why is it that CoC has this almost universal acknowledgment of being superior for horror games?
Does CoC somehow inheritantly encourage the GMing approach you are advocating?

#8 Comment By ekb On October 4, 2008 @ 10:29 am

[1] – if we take that BRP in itself is a way of efficiently running an RPG (simple roll techniques, moderately light-weight crunch), the it follows that by adding multiple damage tracks (mental & physical) a la CoC, we’d have a great horror game.

There’s a problem with this: it ignores one of the arguably best features of BRP/CoC – there’s no such thing as a saving throw. When you fail, you fail. Nothing but nothing will pull your fat from the fire. There’s no one to call on to save you without incurring it’s own flavor of risk. Combined with really really nasty monster-type critters (often looking like regular folks) and you have a wonderfully paranoid game. And, for most players, that’s scary enough.

Me, I have folks I play with that dig Kult, Nemesis, Don’t Rest Your Head, yadda yadda yadda… and each have their own unique vision of what horror is. But the core aspect of it remains the same: it’s encountering the uncanny.

To really pull off horror at the table requires being well versed in multiple techniques and also having some social skills to be able to read the players. The guy with the ear piercings you could shove a fist through probably won’t be frightened by “body horror” a la Clive Barker – but will probably have some fear of a loss of Self through having his hand possessed (no, just one hand. Maybe also his left eyebrow…. ;)). Dirt and disease are squicky for some but not for others. Helplessness is moderately universal, but players can surprise you… best to just be ready and have a good backup.

My favorite CoC trick to do this: I have a variant BRP engine that I use as a “house rule.” Basically, we take the stats and add them to produce a number that’s generally less than 50 and halve the skills to also be 0-50. Add them together in various combinations and you get a percentage to roll under (or add to a d% to produce binary success, rank scaling and hit location). Now, some things will be obvious – Body stat+Brawl/Martial Arts, Mental+Languages…

People get freaked out when I say Idea+Firearms. Sanity + Swim is also pretty … suggestive.

#9 Comment By Bookkeeper On October 6, 2008 @ 3:59 am

I endeavor to run a horror game every Halloween and I’ve done so with D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and 7th Sea. Above mechanics, the most important thing I’ve worked into the game is upping the suspension of disbelief.

See, most people have that intrinsic ability to stop playing along once something becomes uncomfortable. Gamers often work on developing this ability to avoid giving the appearance of being overly affected by a failed saving throw or grievous wound to their character (There’s probably a whole article in our group tendency to affect “coolness” while we pretend to be elves and dwarves, but there you go). Breaking through that often requires a little cheating.

My favorite example is my 7th Sea game: The only light we used was a pair of oil lamps at the table. It provided sufficient light for reading character sheets and dice, but made the area beyond the table harder to see. Our table sat next to a large window and I left the curtains open while I stood at the opposite end. If there’s a large dark unknown behind you and you can’t monitor it continually, it starts to mess with your head. Finally, I would periodically walk away from the table while the players were plotting and make sounds that were either sharp or hard to identify. Banner moment? Near the end, I walked into our kitchen and yelled; one of the players yelled right along with me.

I like EKB’s notion of messing with players’ notions of what they’re rolling and why. Also, I cannot emphasize enough the need for a “live table” rule: you really out to outlaw OOC talking for this particular game or the Monty Python references will kill your mood.

#10 Comment By Omnus On October 9, 2008 @ 8:25 pm

I’ve run Ravenloft for Halloween before, but D&D has several drawbacks for horror: powerful characters who are expected to meet challenges, even deadly challenges, unflinchingly; the occult isn’t as scary when your main damage dealer is himself a practitioner; killing the icky and obscene is part of the job description. Ravenloft has the feel, at least, of an active and powerful evil stalking the players, toying with them, deep in the bowels of its own lair. There’s so much written into it for atmosphere that even a novice DM should be able to keep a group on its toes.

I like GURPS Horror. The characters are, well, human, and die all too easily. The players have buy-in with their characters because of the detail work involved in making the character JUST SO down to little quirks. Things are realistic…you don’t have a wand doing 10d6 damage, you have a machete that does 1d6+2…if you can hit the crawling terror. Vulnerability is a major part of horror, indeed.

Any game benefits from atmosphere. Fog machine, lanterns and creepy candles? Check. Awesomely spooky background music? Got it. Sound effects machine with a hit sampling of blood-curdling death screams, moans, and other fun effects? Of course! A bit of work and stocking up on after-Halloween clearance sales at your local Wal-Mart and you’re ready to rock. Doing this takes the player out of their familiar setting, another key element of horror.

Finally, you need suspense. If the players expect something, throw a blind that makes them breathe a sigh of relief, THEN hit them with the psycho killer with the chain saw and a hook. But sometimes that suggestive shadow really IS the vampire. Who knows? Not them! And that’s the goal.

#11 Comment By pseudodragon On January 7, 2009 @ 10:20 am

Horror is all about the unknown. Players don’t fear most of the monsters they’re characters come across, because they know how to deal with them. However, when the unexpected occurs, when a creature doesn’t react the way it should and the rules of the universe seem to skip a beat, that’s when a player’s breath catches in his throat and his pulse begins to quicken. The trick is in actually pulling it off in a convincing way without coming off as contrived or artificial.

To do this, I like to introduce plot twists. Let the players follow a well defined plot line and think they have everything under control, until they discover that they’re being played and the clues don’t add up. Don’t answer every question or resolve every mystery. Add red herrings to the adventure. Introduce unexplained noises and images that don’t necessarily have a place in the storyline. It will keep the characters off balance and heighten the suspense. Mix in a few meaningful clues, but not overtly. The horror shouldn’t be an in-your-face, hit-you-over-the-head event (although such an encounter, when timed properly, can elicit audible screams from the players), but rather an uneasiness that builds into full paranoid fright. Don’t attack the characters at every turn, torment NPCs instead. Let the players see other characters suffer and die, all the while knowing that the PCs are the only ones who can end the misery. When you do strike at the characters, do it from the shadows with unseen attackers who strike and are gone (or crumble away after they are killed). Make it personal for one or more of the characters. If the players realize that the bad guys know who they are or at least that the adventurers are threats, it will increase the players’ desire to take out the mastermind (and increase their fear of what he might know about or be able to do to them). Then, when the moment is right (usually right before the characters face the villain in a climactic showdown), reveal the final piece of the puzzle so that the full weight of terror comes to bear on the players. The adrenaline and caffeine in their systems will ensure a frenzied battle they’ll never forget! An uncertain death or a missing piece of the story at the end of the adventure leaves the door open for a recurring villain or a larger story.

Of course, you probably won’t find the details and supporting subplots necessary to create these feelings of dread in just any published module, so don’t be afraid to embellish or reconstruct the adventure. Add a twist to the main monsters to fit your needs and to surprise the characters. Bend the rules a bit if it creates a more suitable environment. Put some work into it. After all, in Ravenloft, Count Von Strahd was not just a run of the mill vampire!