DMing 101 – Horror

As any good series should do, this week’s DMing 101 will be a Hallowe’en special, and a preview for a set of genre-specific guides on how to give your games specific themes and atmospheres. Before the new series begins, here’s a look at one of the hardest genres to do properly: Horror.


Genre – Horror

Horror games require certain aesthetics. Certain emotions should be triggered, not just fear, but it’s aspects: tension, and paranoia. It helps to know what makes you and your players afraid, but it’s not so simple as throwing them into combat with a horde of spider-bat-clowns, as over-saturation can kill the atmosphere you’re working so hard to create.


Three factors help make horror and build fear:

I recently learnt of a particularly evil game system called Dread. When making a skill check in Dread, you must pull a brick from a Jenga tower in addition to your roll. Consider the level of tension built by a game of Jenga, and couple that with a narrative designed to put players on edge, with dire in-game consequences when the tower falls!

  • Tension: Once a threat has been established, players should feel as though it could appear at any time. Ghosts can appear through walls, every corner can hide a terror, and any warning-signs you’ve already used can be used to bluff an imminent attack. If players are given a moment to relax, fear is lost.
    Moments of high tension often build suspense for a jump-scare, but if the tension is left unbroken it can linger for a long time. Forcing your players into high-risk situations, close encounters, or forcing them to observe something horrific can leave them on tenterhooks for hours.
  • Vulnerability: Fear requires a level of threat that “heroes” rarely face. Sudden death, or some other terrifying possibility should loom as a constant companion. Depending on your setting, you can either make your characters weaker than normal, or make the threat exceptionally powerful.
    Consider isolating players to make them feel that much more afraid, or have encounters leave lasting effects such as crippling injuries. Many games feature sanity effects that can make it difficult for characters to act rationally, and coming up with creative ways to apply those sanity effects is half of the fun.


  • Shock: It’s very difficult to explain in words what games and films can portray in a split second and have the same effect. Props may be needed to create actual jump scares, but if you want to create the same sense of stomach-dropping terror it’s best to stick to short sentences such as “It’s there!” or “Something screams!”
    Shock can also be applied through shocking material. Emphasis on blood and gore certainly helps, but scenes depicting torture or other unconscionable acts can also grip the players imagination and put their nerves on edge, but BE CAREFUL. If you becoming excessive in your use of these scenes you can either desensitize your group, or worse, lose some friends.

Your set-up at the table helps bring an extra layer of fear and immersion. Keep lighting low, add sinister music or sound effects, and if you’re especially cruel be sure to throw in something unexpected, like a friend to cause noise in the next room, or something to fall nearby if you tug the right piece of string.

There is a cheap trick that horror films use to build suspense: pitches at the upper or lower edge of human perception played at the right times will make viewers uncomfortable. Use these carefully, and try testing them first as they can induce headaches, and in rare cases might be audible to some players who’ll rumble your trick.


Ultimately the content of horror relies on the thing that humans fear most: The Unknown. We fear death because we don’t know what follows, if anything. We fear the dark because we can’t see through it, and anything within could cause us harm without us ever seeing it coming. The classic horror-killers like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers wear masks to hide their identity, making them that much more fearful.

When designing the main focus – or threatof your horror games, try and keep it as mysterious as possible. It may even be the case that you do not fully understand the Horror yourself, so long as it follows rules, as your players will start to get annoyed if their discoveries ultimately go to waste. Your threat need not have a name, or even a shape, and the longer it remains unseen the more terrifying it can become.

Perhaps one of the easiest places to draw mystery is from your threat’s origin. The ocean, space, darkness, the afterlife, even the human mind, anything that still remains relatively unexplored can make your creation more nebulous.

Quest Ideas

As part of the genre series (which will begin in December) I’ll be proposing a few simple quest and story ideas. Now horror lends itself to some fantastic no-win scenarios, and potentially disastrous consequences, after-all, no good horror stories have entirely happy endings.

Survive the night: The streets are full of monsters. People associated with a particular family are vanishing. Something in this house wants you to leave, one way or another. Survival horror benefits from a DM unafraid to kill a few characters for the sake of building tension.
Watch – 30 Days of Night
Play – Don’t Starve


It’s one of us: Who can you trust if not your friends? No one. Not even yourself. One of the group is conspiring the downfall, or even the death of the others, and they may not even be aware. Passing notes amongst the group with instructions, information or suspicions only builds mistrust.
Watch – The Thing
Play – Betrayal at the House on the Hill

Kill it: It rose from the dead to prey on the townsfolk. A virus has gripped animals and people, driving them to murderous rage. Entire houses are being destroyed by something vast, and no one has seen anything. What means can you use to kill something that’s already dead, impossibly numerous, or utterly unknowable?
Watch – The Woman in Black
Play – Alan Wake

The DMing 101 – Genres series will begin in December. In the mean time please enjoy the rest of the series. Any questions or suggestions, please leave them in the comments down below, or through our Twitter and Facebook pages (links on the right).