About a year ago, I started a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) game with some friends to run the official “Curse of Strahd” campaign published by Wizards of the the Coast. It is an open-world campaign set in the gloomy valley of Barovia with a hands-on villain named Strahd von Zarovich. The campaign is designed to really drive home the horror of confronting a vampire. Because it is open world, it was a lot more work than most campaigns I have run, but I had a blast.
To be clear, I am not a horror guy. I don’t find horror movies particularly interesting and I don’t read horror books. I also am not a voice actor — I can do bad, generic Russian and Scottish accents and a slightly less bad but equally generic French accent. I lose all of them after a minute or two. I have also never made a penny running a campaign. I’m just a guy who has run games for about fifteen years, really likes Bram Stoker, and read a bunch of DM tips on Reddit. That said, I had my players fully invested in the bleak horror of Barovia and the bottomless cruelty of Strahd.
I had one player regularly tell me how stressed he was by the bleakness, the horror, and the fact that he never knew if he was making the right call, even when it seemed like it should have been obvious. He went out of the way to tell me he was having fun, but really felt the oppressive atmosphere of Barovia. Another one of my players still gets furious at the mere mention of Barovian landmarks. We haven’t played since February, but she got visibly flustered when I joked that a mushroom ring in a different campaign would send her to meet Strahd. I hope someday she’ll forgive me.
Now it’s time to tell you how to do that to your players. I’ll tell you how you can turn your spooky Halloween campaign into a true horror campaign, even if you’re not Matt Mercer. These tips should apply to any horror campaign, whether professionally written or homebrewed.
Step One: The Horror Atmosphere
The most important part of any horror story is the tension. This is doubly true for a horror campaign that stretches over many, many sessions. Your characters need to eat, sleep, and breathe tension and stress in the atmosphere. Any turn in the road could bring up a new or old terror or something that only looks fearsome from a distance. or it might bring up nothing at all. There is simply no way for them to know.
What’s more, once the characters have left that turn behind, who can say what really happened there?
Did they really sneak past a sleeping skeletal tiger wearing the necromancer’s symbol? They went back two days later and couldn’t find any sign it had been there!
Why would a skeleton be sleeping, anyway?
Your NPCs will play a big role in this, but if you’re like me and not a consummate role player, they can only get you so far. They should be ominous and the characters should have trouble discerning their motives, but that can be quite hard to pull off consistently. Personally, I enjoyed picking a type of enemy that resembles something fairly ordinary. My characters never knew if what they were seeing was an enemy or just a normal scarecrow. I once had a huge ring of scarecrows in a clearing in the forest. The party was a high enough level that it would have trivial to kill them all, but they were so scared of scarecrows at this point that they didn’t dare even engage. They went back later to investigate and the scarecrows were simply gone.
A horror campaign should mess with the character’s understanding of what’s real and what isn’t. It should mess with their understanding of how to even determine the difference. “Curse of Strahd” has an encounter in which one party member sees themselves hanged from a gibbet. A different campaign, “Rappan Athuk,” has a headstone at the entrance to the dungeon with every PC’s name written on it. I did little personal touches like these to two of the party members repeatedly that none of the other party members ever saw. I never gave an explanation for why and it ate at them.
Finally, kill characters. But instead of detailing NPC deaths, kill them off-screen and leave some sign of horrible struggle, like a hand stapled to a tree. Then take it one step further and kill NPCs for seemingly no reason, especially if they seem useful or fun. When you add this quality to your campaign, no one gets to really help the party or provide relief from the horror atmosphere for any significant length of time. And, if you kill a PC, let them come back, don’t have them roll a new character. But let them come back in a new body or let the villain revive them herself. By keeping the same character, you don’t lose all of the tension you’ve built with them and they have to live with being brutally killed. By having the villain bring them back, they have to live with constantly wondering why that happened (more on this point below).
For example, I had a tortle cleric die in my campaign. The official “Curse of Strahd” book has a built-in way of reviving them, but instead of using that, I had Strahd capture his soul and put it in the body of an Aasimar paladin of the cleric’s god. My PC had to watch Strahd kill the paladin to do so. This provided a sense of power to the villain and of guilt to the character. A twofer.
Step Two: Horror is in the Details
The introduction to “Curse of Strahd” suggests that to aid your sense of tension and horror, you can pick an object in any given room to describe in great detail. The creators want you to make your players suspicious of every object, throw red herrings their way, and just generally contribute to the air of decadence in your world. I love this tactic and I highly recommend it. However, be careful not to overuse it. It’s just one suggestion for how to do these things.
The way you narrate setting and action are probably the two most important factors to how interesting your campaign will be. You can have the best story in the world and the most interesting puzzles, but if your descriptions are boring or confusing, it won’t matter. That being said, you don’t need to be a natural storyteller. Just make sure you’re describing what the characters see in every room and then pick one or two other senses to describe. They don’t have to be the same ones every time.
When narrating action, the key is to not stop and think too much. Just narrate what seems right to you in the moment and then keep going. It’s an action scene, it should be quick and no one should have much time to think about it. Another tactic that’s becoming popular today is to ask players to narrate their own kills on important enemies. Critical Role popularized this tactic in recent years and, in general, I think this is a great way to get your players to invest in the utter coolness of D&D. But for a horror campaign, I think you need to avoid doing this. Maybe give this privilege for one or two important kills, when you can tell that the party is feeling particularly worn down by the atmosphere you’ve cultivated, but no more. Instead, try narrating the kills yourself.
Take this opportunity to really remind the party how tired their characters are.
They’ve been trekking through this lightless dungeon for a week and are going mad from lack of sunlight. Their hair is dirty, their faces unwashed and spattered with blood and dirt as the fighter finally, wearily, thrusts her sword through the ribs of the evil druid. Their warm blood gushes over her hand but the sword tip has lodged into the spine, so it takes the exhausted fighter three separate tries to pull her weapon free. When at last she succeeds, she slumps against the wall and watches as the cleric rushes to heal the unconscious rogue who lies in a pool of his own blood.
Describe details, describe smells, sights, and how weary everyone is of darkness, pain, and violence. Use the characters’ senses to drive home the fact that they want nothing more than a bath and a good night’s rest. Then use those same senses to tell them that they’ll never be safe again.
Even as the party take a moment to recollect themselves after a hard-won victory, they hear a howl of wind through a crack in the wall. They smell the scent of werewolf lingering all about them and the shadows claw at the edges of the torchlight. Personify the details and narrate them. You are the players’ window into the PC’s world and nothing is too small to be threatening. But you don’t have to be perfect, just pick one or two things and really drive them home.
Step Three: The Horror Villain
“Curse of Strahd” includes a very hands-on villain and I think this is the right move for a horror campaign. Many horror movies rely almost entirely on atmosphere, using villains that you rarely see. Other movies have much more tangible villains. I think this second approach is better for a horror campaign so the heroes really feel what they’re up against. Every time the villain shows up, it reminds the party of its power and the fact that it could kill them all without breaking a sweat. But it wants them alive.
A horror campaign should feel like a haunted house from which there is simply no escape. To that end, I highly recommend giving the party the impression that the villain wants them to be doing exactly what they’re doing. Maybe imply that their actions to destroy the villain are actually helping them. Or imply that the villain wants someone to kill their lieutenant because the lieutenant was plotting against them. Or the lieutenant just annoyed them, whatever makes them more ominous. This approach means that there is no easy right answer on what to do next. Ever.
The party never feels safe from the world, and part of that is that the villain could appear at any moment. The villain should be an ever-present menace.
In my campaign, I let the party rescue two children from some hags who were going to eat them. But after they had gotten away, Strahd visited them in the night and demanded they give him one of the children. When they refused, he simply took a child and threw them into the fire. The party will never know what he wanted or why he did that, and it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the fear and horror it instills. After any success, he may or may not show up to ruin everything. Sometimes he lets them have the victory, but they always he know that he could take it away if he wants to.
Whether NPCs know of your BBEG or not is up to you, but if they do make sure they fear them and talk about them constantly. Make up rumors about them. Some are true, some aren’t. Some are half true. You don’t even have to decide until later! Whatever feels right when it matters, that’s what’s true. The rest is just atmosphere.
Step Four: Improv your Horror
I’ve alluded to this already but it’s very important: Things become true when you need them to be true. If it’s inconvenient, then that was just a rumor or a hallucination. I mentioned a mysterious, disappearing circle of scarecrows above. The reason they disappeared was because I couldn’t think of a good twist for them to find when they went to investigate. But it turns out that “there’s no sign of them anywhere” is a pretty good twist in and of itself.
Sometimes improv in-depth descriptions, other times don’t. It can get exhausting for you and the players if you’re always doing it. But then you pick it back up and it seems ominous and intentional.
The NPC I killed and stapled his hand to a tree, mentioned above, was named Ismark and in the middle of a session I decided I was sick of my players calling him “it’s Mark” and making The Room jokes. The jokes were fun but they were cutting into the atmosphere so Ismark had to go. But I left his hand behind and they never got over trying to figure out what was up with that. I figured that eventually, it would turn out that the werewolves got him or he owed a gambling debt to the Vistani. Not all roads lead to the BBEG, sometimes you need a misdirect.
Now it is important to remember, you have a life and you’re just doing this for fun. You’re not a pro who gets paid to prepare each session and your players are not pros paid to improvise. I’m the same way. I was writing my PhD dissertation while running my “Curse of Strahd” campaign. I didn’t have time for elaborate preparations before each session but my players were so invested in the horror that it contributed to why we stopped playing earlier this year. Several of them were just overwhelmed.
Because you’re not a professional and your time is limited, I recommend doing as much improv as you can in your campaign. It’s a good skill for a DM and it’s a great way to keep you players on their toes. Narrate things in great detail when you can and narrate other things more briefly to create an ominous atmosphere. Don’t write down too much narration beforehand, though. You never know what the players will take an interest in so you want to be flexible with your narration. Just make sure your villain is terrifying and the world is out to get them, the rest will fall into place.
Do all these things but remember that occasionally you’ll need a break and that’s great. You need it and it messes with the players. You easing off the gas for a moment allows the players to feel like their finally getting a handle on things. Then you get to rip that away from them.
These steps should help you run one scary horror campaign for the spookiest month. Just remember that you’re all there to have fun, so make sure everyone is on board with horror before you begin and make the villain attack the characters. Don’t let the DM attack the players.