Adding Suspense and Horror to Your Fantasy Campaign

November 7, 2010 Off By The Secret DM™

Strahd, from the classic Ravenloft AD&D Adventure Module

Strahd Von Zarovich.

Halloween may have come and gone, but there’s still time to spice up your adventures with some gothic horror elements.  In Save or Die’s last podcast (Adventure #10), DM Vince mentioned he’s been working on adapting the Ravenloft Campaign Setting to his personal D&D game.  This poses some unique challenges, because classic D&D is built more for dungeon crawls than easing the lament of some ancient, love-scorned vampire lord.

That isn’t to say that Classic Dungeons & Dragons is lacking in richly detailed content; one need look no further than Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor setting, or even the Gazeteer series.  Both present volumes of material that enhance their respective settings and add layers of complexity and realism to the game.  Unlike these settings, however, games systems like Ravenloft explore intense themes of terror and fear, drawing characters into nightmarish landscapes from which the only escape may very well be death…and even that is no guarantee.

Challenges to Incorporating Horror in Your Game

As a setting, Ravenloft imposes very serious restrictions on clerics.  Their turning ability is greatly reduced, a number of spells are adversely affected, and they are, for the most part, separated from whatever divine power they worship.  This could impact game play as well as character development.  Paladins suffer negative effects also.  The Domains of Dread do not take kindly to these interlopers, and offer no perks in exchange for these limitations.

Making clerics weaker invariably makes the game that much harder, especially when dealing with a set of rules that favors untimely deaths of characters because of poor dice rolls.

Ravenloft is also very human-centric – even more so than the Basic D&D Known World.  Demihumans are not only rare in this setting – but they are feared and mistrusted by the natives, making any social interactions difficult at best and hostile at worst.

These changes in flavor, among others, can drastically impact the fun of the game and ruin the experience for everyone involved.  DM’s have to be careful when incorporating horror not to alienate their players or make certain character choices unattractive.

Ideas for Overcoming Challenges

One of the best ways to handle these character restrictions is to simply ignore them.  It may be more realistic for the cleric to not have access to its spells, but stifling the character means you possess little regard for the other players.

Ultimately, horror is about fear and suspense.  It has to do with the thrill of facing the unknown, and the uncertainty of what remains just out sight – whether that means something hidden in the shadows, or some ancient and awful mystery concealed in tomes of dark power.  It has very little to do with restrictions on character types.

Those restrictions may still come into play – but rather than being a constant element, you can make them one shot incidents – the cleric’s turning ability fails suddenly in the face of an undead creature that he or she should have no problem warding off – causing the player to doubt just what kind of undead monster this is and their ability to defeat it.

Here are some more thoughts on horror, which can be applied universally – whether you are looking to incorporate elements like the Ravenloft setting into your game or not:

  1. Set the tone and mood. Adapt an ominous tone as you describe even the most mundane scenes, and make sure to keep the jokes at the table to a minimum.  Separate players into separate rooms if you have to, which may prove more useful than just putting a stop to mood-shattering humor.
  2. Create an appropriate atmosphere. Dim the lights, set up some candles, and have some eerie music playing softly in the background.  Midnight Syndicate has some excellent CDs, and you can probably get them at a great price right now as Halloween has already passed.  I also recommend using sound effects, like the free ones found here.
  3. Fluff up your descriptive text. You don’t have to write like H.P. Lovecraft (and you probably shouldn’t, as shorter is better), but your scenes should be a bit more flavored than “You enter a 20 foot by 20 foot chamber with smooth, stone walls, a door in the middle of the western wall, and a fireplace with a burning fire off to your right.”  Instead, you might write something like, “As you slip into the room before you, your eyes cannot help but  fixate on the shadows dancing against the wall — dark shapes which flicker and leap in a macabre waltz.  The shadows themselves are the result of a fire which rages within the hearth of an ancient fireplace, built into the original structure of the chamber.  Despite the intense flames, however, you cannot help but feel a terrible chill crawling up the length of your spine…”
  4. Isolate the characters. Nothing is more frightening than facing the unknown alone, especially when characters depend on one another’s abilities for survival.  To phrase it another way:  Always split the party.
  5. Isolate the players. As I mentioned in #1, physically divide up the players.  It’s one thing to separate the characters, but when the players are divided, with no means of communicating, it makes them feel like their characters are in serious trouble.
  6. When in doubt, roll dice. Players get very uncomfortable when the DM starts rolling dice without provocation.  While you’re at it, follow the dice rolls by jotting down fake notes, so players take you seriously.
  7. Pass messages. The notes can say things like “the hairs on the back of your neck are standing on end,” or “you notice Gregory shiver with a sudden chill”, or even “you get the impression you’re being watched,” – whether any of the notes are true or not, it will drastically affect how the players interact with the adventure.  Plus, players who aren’t getting notes will start to wonder WHY they aren’t getting notes — as if there’s something you’re not telling them.

There’s certainly a lot more that could be said on the subject, but this is a good starting point to begin incorporating horror into your own games.

What ideas do you have about horror in D&D?  What methods have you used?

The Secret DM™ is just an average guy, trying to navigate the complexities of a successful career, a happy marriage, and raising a daughter…all while secretly rescuing damsels from fire-breathing dragons.  Visit him at or find him on facebook (, or contact him at:  Happy Adventuring!