In a horror themed campaign with a Lovecraftian feeling, a big part of the game is a constant feeling of threat, but without any visual stimuli other than glimpses, or sounds vaguely heard of things seething in darkness, and with investigation a big part of the game, contrary to fighting.

Having read Heroes of Horror, I am searching for ideas on how to actually motivate players to assume the role of investigator rather than executioner, and how to instil the horror of the unknown, of something that threatens but is not substantial, that cannot be seen or heard, but is there, and has malevolent intent.

I am thinking of D&D 3.5 as a system, but I am interested in answers that cover any system (Call of Cthulhu is unfortunately out of the question), more as role-playing and storytelling techniques rather than mechanical ones.


6 Answers 6


The biggest ally in the bid to creep the players out is their own imagination. The biggest obstacle to that is your own. When running these types of campaigns, less is always more. It's just about finding out what 'less' should include.

  1. Descriptions should hinge around one detail- the players' imaginations should do the rest. It's not about gore, nor about ultra-detailed descriptions, it's about triggering the players' mind to go overtime. Hint at the unknown rather than assaulting the player with it.
  2. Engage all of the players' senses. In fact, engage other senses more than sight; reducing the applicability of sight to the description helps to engage the imagination, i.e the strange coppery smell, or the vision obscuring smoke that smells/tastes faintly of burning meat.
  3. Building upon the details with small incremental revelations helps to lead the players' to where you want them to be. The realization that something is missing, or that something has been lost after an encounter with the unknown makes it that much more disturbing.
  4. Repetition helps to inure the players to what you're doing- especially if that repetition is rhythmic or predictable. Even if not predictable, there is definitely a short shelf-life for when it will no longer be effective.
  5. It is said that the best lies blend a kernel of the truth. It is also true that the best horror blends elements of the every day or of innocence. Take something that is safe and everyday/innocent and twist it for an effective factor of creepiness, i.e. the evil prophesy delivered in a child's singsong.

There are gimmicky techniques that can be blended with these to make them more effective, i.e. the soundtrack that comes on at an unexpected time, turning the lights down/off, sending notes to players in a way that others can see, but forbidding the player to talk about what's on the note... but these are just gimmicks and are not necessary to invoke that feeling of horror. Engaging the players' imagination is the key.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for point (5): Take something that is safe and everyday/innocent and twist it for an effective factor of creepiness \$\endgroup\$ Feb 1, 2012 at 15:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ A horror author once told me, "Horror isn't the threat of death; it is watching your loved ones die and being unable to stop it." sometimes, having bad things happen just before the PCs arrive, or just after they leave, or to someone "off-screen" can have a huge impact. \$\endgroup\$
    – CaM
    Sep 26, 2018 at 19:48

Cthonic entities always have a bigger hammer

The essence of a D&D game nominally goes: "Kill things to get loot to kill things to get better loot to get levels to kill things." Part of this philosophy is that the heroes will be going up against things that they have a chance of killing.

Remember the ancient quote: "Cthulhu, driving 1d4 investigators per round insane." In a horror game, the enemy has an overwhelmingly bigger hammer. Direct confrontation, even in the most epic fights, will lead to player death and high odds of a total party kill. Make it quite clear to your players that you won't be pulling punches.

The second thing to do is to play in "Theatre of the Mind" (taken from Monte Cook talking about D&D Next of all things). Battlemaps give concrete control of the world over to an objective reality. While this is good for tactical games, giving players this kind of knowledge gives them the impression that they'll be able to succeed in a combat. If you play mostly in theatre of the mind, you'll be far better off when combat does happen.

For that matter: never ever describe the ultimate BBEGs. The unknown is always scarier than the known. Players should engage with its cultists and hints of the BBEG, rather than the thing itself. (Contrast: Lovecraft with Ringo's Princess of Wands.)

By making it clear that the players need to engage guile and subtlety because they lack a bigger hammer and by letting most of the game be imagination-driven (have props if you want, mind. A nice leatherbound tome is a fantastic player-trap. Anyone who is silly enough to read the book has his character driven insane.

Hints, allusion, and cowering like roaches against unknown entities who may accidentally step on them. Your players are roaches who are unable to understand the sentences acting for their own ends. Players can strike against their cultists, not the entities themselves. At the same time, make it clear that the players can be hugely effective against the cultists... if only they know where to strike. Combats are easy, finding the targets is hard.

The threat is simple. Unfortunate coincidences are the act of conspiracy. Cultists love conspiracies and are working to achieve their own ends. When their objectives intersect the players, the players may suspect that there are ulterior motives at work. Otherwise... well, stuff just keeps getting worse as the cults get closer to their win state: "May I be eaten first"

  • \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely. A HUGE part of the thrill lies in the PC's fragility versus his/her enemies (and the fact he/she is not wielding a +4 vorpal sword). When a single blow can remove your character from the game, you pay much more attention to roughly heard sounds in the dark... \$\endgroup\$ Jan 30, 2012 at 8:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Tangental, but the most terrifying Computer game I have ever played is Amnesia: The Dark Descent. I think the single most terrifying thing is there is no means of fighting back. If you try to fight, you die. So you have to hide, turn on lights, all the while noises and things up and changing on you.... Awesome. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cthos
    Jan 30, 2012 at 23:04

It's a horrifying feeling for PCs when they get to what they think is the end of the trail, the cause of all the distress and pain and suffering, the root of all evil, and then there's a small reveal that tells them they are just beginning to scratch the surface of something much more profound.

The demented, inbred freak held captive in a basement inside the old mansion can drive PCs insane, control them with its mind, and send its minions against them in waves. The triumph of finally overcoming this foul villain becomes something else entirely when its last words are, "Finally, I am released. Finally I am free of it. If only the rest were so fortunate!" The PCs now know this adventure, which taxed them mightily, is nothing but the prelude to a much bigger battle against a tremendously powerful enemy with resources beyond imagining.

After bashing their heads against the minions of this unseen force, the PCs will start to realize the only way they have even a sliver of hope of surviving is to stop attacking its limbs, its proxies, and start trying to find its heart and its head. Once they're in that mode, it's easier to start introducing more bits of paranoia, because they'll be trying to fit the pieces together. Pretty soon everything will start to look to them like it's part of a bigger pattern.


Horror often comes from feelings of alienation, isolation and powerlessness.

Alienation has to do with lack of knowledge, understanding and empathy. There should be no logic, no way to reach an understanding or compromise. How do you fight something you do not understand? How to you oppose something those goals are unfathomable but includes eating your brains? The more you understand it, the more you use magic (say), the less like normal people you are. First animals run away from you, then people start moving away from you. You fail to see emotions, you are losing yourself. All your NPCs speak in a bland and toneless tone... They are not really doing it: the PC just cannot tell the difference between joy and sadness, calm and anger, pleasure and pain. You are alone.

Thus isolation which has to do with lonelessness and lovelessness. You are isolated form those around you. No one trust you, nor can you trust them -- after all, they are going to eat you given the right time. More so, the easiest way to deal with this one is physical isolation. Fear is greater if you are alone rather than if there are hundreds of armoured troops with ranks and guns around you. The lone cabin in the woods is a better setting than a New York flat. Or is it? There are noises at the locked and barricaded door, but you know it's closed. IT cannot get in. You bring some light towards the door. The clawing stops, followed just by dripping sounds of wet viscous liquid pooling. The door is still locked. The claw marks on the inside. IT's in here, with you.

Which bring me neatly to powerlessness. Weapons are ineffective, it's too big, too strong, too fast, too oozing, too many tentacles. Spells are useless, all they do is attract more servants to it or worst, just power it up. That "bind" spell was a lie, all the minions that were fighting for you are now IT's minions. Kiss your arse goodbye. Time to flee. No matter what you do, you have no hope. No hope for yourself, no hope for mankind, no hope at all. Not even a quick (or a long and painful) death will release you.

As a final note, you as the referee, are the players interface to the world. You can mess with their perception of it as much as you like. Make the players not sure what they characters are seeing and you're going to combine a lot of powerlessness feeling due to isolation.

If you are truly evil, find out what the player (yes player) is afraid of and use that. Girl/boy friend, friends, siblings, may all help you there. However, be careful not to cross the line between fun scary and "Whoops, he just passed out better call 999".


One of the big keys of maintaining pressure is use of pacing and establishing a good baseline of tension and then amp up and ease off at the right points.

These videos are about video game storytelling, but can easily be applied to Table Top:

Extra Credits: Pacing

Extra Credits: Where did the survival horror go?


Take their security blanket away

A horror story usually starts with a build-up phase. As the PCs progressively discover their environment, give them small clues that won't lead to a fight, but hint at an ominous secret.

During this period, give the players reasons to feel safe. Maybe they have weapons. Maybe they escorted by a powerful authority figure. Or maybe the spaceship they're in has "failsafe" security measures.

Then, once the setting is established and the evil shows up, take the weapons away, have the players find the mentor's dismembered corpse after he said he'd "take care" of the crisis, and have the spaceship AI start counting down to a "critical meltdown".

tl;dr: give the players as many hints as you can that they're in danger and in over their heads, in a way that relies on minimalist narration instead of dice and numbers.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this or seen it used in a game you've been involved in or witnessed? Can you share your experience of how this works out in practice? \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2018 at 17:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've run a few games of the "take the safety nets away" kind, eg a Star Trek like one shot with laser-immune zombies. They fought regular pirates first, to give them a sense of security. There was an additional twist where I took a few players away, and had them be attacked first. Overall it was still intended to play out like a fight, but the "Crap, our guns don't work" moment gave them a scare. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 26, 2018 at 20:35

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