Suspense, or something like it…

2007 October 28
by Dante

Before I get into this post, I must come clean: in younger years, I was a Halloween FREAK. Monster movies, legends, haunted houses, trick-or-treating… I was in for all of it. Then, in 1995, the mood left me entirely. I couldn’t get excited about the holiday any more (I hadn’t trick-or-treated for at least 3 years at that point, but it hadn’t stopped me yet) and I couldn’t muster anything more than a passing handwave as I handed kids their hyper-sugar haul.

I never have gotten to the bottom of why this is, but nonetheless I find my thoughts returning to suspense and horror this year.

Is there a way to do this right?

I have made several attempts at suspense and horror in some of my campaigns, and I am sad to say that I am a better consumer of this genre than I am a creator. All of my attempts generally failed, some spectacularly, and I have pretty much written off any attempt at being able to do this genre justice myself, but I have seen it done.

Our college DM provided us with some of the most chilling scenes of torture that I have beheld since, and he used many classic elements.


By machinations of plot, the characters arrived in a situation where they were isolated from one another and stripped of their weapons and abilities (spellcasters had their hands broken in a grisly fashion). This not only removed most normal means of diffusing the situation, but also heightened the sense of urgency for the other characters that were within earshot of the grisly acts that would occur.

Specific, Terrible Pain

Like any good torture film, the DM went on to act individually on one member of our party (played by our very own Stupid Ranger) and explained the acts of torture in such gory detail that it still makes Stupid Ranger cringe to this day when it is mentioned.

The vivid use of specifics and the descriptions that the DM chose to expand upon was what really painted the scene. It was made even more real by the fact that the rest of the characters did not know who or what was causing the anguished cries, nor could they really do much to effect the situation. After some vain attempts to break free ended in failure, the characters resigned themselves to the scenario which gave the DM license to really get inside the characters heads. This is what made the entire scene so horrifying.

Suspended in-game reality

This was done entirely outside of the realm of a system or rules, it was all storytelling. Knowing when and how to craft a situation that can exist outside of the system of rules is a tricky thing, especially when your characters can possess skills such as bluff and diplomacy that can seriously screw with a horrific scene.

This is not a skill that I have mastered, in fact I have extreme difficulty in making a situation that leaves so few paths out that I can exact my plan of suspense, fear, or intrigue. Matters become even worse when the players can see the plot coming, and have mentally prepared themselves for whatever badness was about to happen. That’s when out of character comments can really ruin the mood, and I don’t have much good advice for getting around situations like that.

My trouble with terror

My trouble with successfully executing a horror or suspense scene is usually the drawn out system of rules, coupled with the fact that obfuscating details or creating unseen twists usually leads to player frustration and disengagement in our group.

A campaign or two back, my co-DM ran a Call of Cthulhu campaign that was good, however the Fear system in that setting often left the players feeling a little cold. The setting itself was very intriguing and the storyline that he was running good, but when having to experience paranormal activities devolved down to a “make a fear check or lose it” roll it seemed to kick me right out of enjoying the storyline.

Has anyone had success applying a rule set to a horror or suspense type of setting? Are there any other key elements that helps drive the spook factor of a campaign through the roof?

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Doug Hagler permalink
    October 29, 2007

    Horror is by far the hardest genre of game to pull off well. I think its a little harder in D&D than in some other games, because part of horror is powerlessness and the fear of the unknown, and D&D characters are almost never really powerless, and D&D players are usually pretty familiar with what monsters are out there. At the very least, monsters in D&D are everyday encounters.

    I like Call of Cthulhu in most of its incarnations, but the Sanity/Fear system can just be tossed. What I’ve found works well is rewarding players who roleplay fear actively. This encourages everyone to get into the situation, and before you know it they begin to feel afraid. This can be as simple as little tokens that allow re-rolls, just given out as the game progresses, or whatever other kind of point or whatever that makes sense in the game. The subtle reinforcement helps bring people out of their shells and ideally players start feeding off of each other.

  2. Vanir permalink
    October 29, 2007

    The thought occurs to me that perhaps Sanity/Fear should be handled by the GM and the players shouldn’t necessarily know how sane they still are.

    That way when something crazy happens, and they start seeing things, they’re not sure what’s real and what’s not, or if their party memeber is actually a bloodsucking ghoul from hell aaaahhhhhhhhhh

  3. Benjamin permalink
    October 29, 2007

    I successfully ran part 1 of my D&D Halloween game last night for eight players. We played by candle light, used a spooky, custom soundtrack, opened with a scary cutscene and eerie details, and enacted a system of notes and taking players to the next room for spot rolls, knowledge checks, sanity, and the like. The whole adventure is one of isolation (the setting is a haunted dungeon the party got sealed into); the rules aren’t helping them make sense of the situation when the dungeon itself is out to get them; the ghosts of past adventurers that haunt it don’t follow the rules of reality; and in a one shot game like this one, there is no mercy in the deadliness of the encounters. What really has them scared, however, is the unknown. There are some monsters from the Monster Manual, but the harmless ghosts that are leading them into harms way and the Amityville-House nature of the dungeon are the most eerie aspects of the adventure.

  4. Reid permalink
    October 30, 2007

    I’ve had good luck with Dread for RPG horror. It’s very, very different from D&D. It uses a Jenga tower as its only resolution system (pull from the tower to succeed at a hard task, if the tower falls, your character dies/is eliminated in some other way). Webiste and quick rules are at

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