Horror in D&D 5e
Published on October 22, 2021, Last modified on October 27th, 2021
The horror genre is versatile, exhilarating, and unique. Running D&D games with a horror theme is a great way for DMs to learn about suspense, pacing, and payoffs. Plus, it can be fun to scare our players every once in a while.
Nestor Ossandon Leal - Wizards of the Coast - Village Reavers
How to Make D&D Scary
Whether you’re running a game in anticipation of Halloween or just looking for a break in the typical D&D formula, horror is a great way to shake things up.
Horror is an expansive genre that spans countless themes and settings. Whether your party is being chased through the woods by a headless horseman or they are exploring a town where something isn’t quite right, horror is all about atmosphere, pacing, and payoff.
There is something extremely nostalgic about Halloween. It’s a holiday that most kids in North America look forward to because they can dress up and eat as much candy as they want. As we grow older, that feeling of excitement still holds true. When the last days of summer have left and the trees begin to change color, you can feel the anticipation in the air.
This anticipation only gets stronger as pumpkins go on sale at the supermarket and houses on your street start putting up their tombstone and spider web decorations. Whether or not you’ve actually seen this with your own eyes or you’ve just experienced Halloween through films, you cannot deny there is something amazing about the atmosphere.
Creating an effective atmosphere in your campaign doesn’t have to be about gory deaths and creepy-crawlies. Instead, it can give the impression that things aren’t as they seem. The atmosphere of a horror campaign should be darker, slower, colder, ambiguous, and deceptive. If you want your adventure to involve blood, gore, and dismemberment, then that’s fine. But, if you create an effective atmosphere you won’t have to include them to have your players on the edge of their seats.
Running effective horror in D&D is difficult, there are no two ways around it. Normally, there is already a lot of creative pressure put upon the DM to come up with storylines, flesh out NPCs, and hook adventurers into the story. With horror, you need to also lay seeds for mystery and foreshadowing, tease the threat without revealing its nature too early, build suspense, and finally pay off all of the tension.
There are two ways to optimize your pacing when DMing a horror adventure: micro and macro.
Macro-Pacing for Horror in D&D
Macro pacing determines the adventure’s story arc. It outlines the events that happen and in which order. In order to help with your planning, here’s a quick macro pacing guideline to follow when writing a horror adventure:
|Establish Normalcy – Introduce the setting and provide a “day in the life” of what an average day looks like.
Create Unease – Provide a small hint that something isn’t right.
Build Suspense – There is an event that solidifies the belief that something is wrong.
Ease off the gas – Provide an explanation for the event.
Lay the trap – Now that the threat is handled, the party is unsuspecting.
Create Unease – Give the party a clue that something still isn’t right.
Build Suspense – Give the party a chance to escape the trap (even if there isn’t one).
The Trap Closes – The climax of the adventure. This is where the party experiences terror but the true threat is still unknown for the most part.
The Threat Revealed – The party comes face to face with the threat. Funnily enough, this is where the situation starts to get less scary.
The Threat is Dealt With – Once the party has defeated the threat, the tension is finally eased.
The Threat isn’t Dead (optional) – This is the classic trope in slasher films. If you feel like this won’t fit your adventure or that you’re running out of time, you don’t have to do this step.
Resolution – The sun rises and the night of terror is over. Everything goes back to normal.
Cliffhanger (optional) – Or does it?
While this structure works for short horror adventures, it doesn’t necessarily ring true for a full-length horror campaign. Horror campaigns that are longer than a couple of sessions will likely go through multiple variations of this outline as the heroes dispose of one threat and are introduced to another.
However, that doesn’t make the lessons we learned from it any less true. Horror is about suspense. In order to create suspense, you need to let the story breathe. If you’re full-throttle on the horror-gas the whole time, there’s no opportunity to create tension, which is what terror is derived from.
Micro-Pacing for Horror in D&D
While successfully creating tension in your adventure is important, it’s almost more important to create tension in each individual scene of your adventure. When writing descriptions to set the scene for your players, consider the pacing of how you describe the location and build tension using sentence length.
If your players enter a dark hallway, you could read:
|The door creaks open on rusty hinges, revealing a hallway that is black as pitch past the flickering light of your torch. Lightning crashes outside. As the clap of thunder booms through the empty house, the details of the hallway are brought into bright relief. The wallpaper is fading and torn in places, the carpet dirty and peeling. The smell of decay hangs in the air, but beneath that you detect something else – a faint metallic scent.|
This paragraph provides a slow introduction to the scene. As you’re describing the hallway, the long sentences allow players to relax and visualize your narration. Then, when you want to create tension, you can shorten your sentences into a more staccato rhythm:
|Another flash of lightning illuminates the hallway. Movement, you’re sure of it. A dark shape streaks down the hallway towards you. You hear an inhuman snarl as the figure closes in. Roll initiative.|
While the outline of your story may be the bones of the adventure, effectively creating tension when narrating your scene is the flesh and blood of effective horror. When writing your scenes, make sure you think about:
- How can I slow things down to let the tension breathe?
- How can I describe the scene to introduce uneasiness?
- How can I switch the pacing of the scene from slow to fast in order to increase the tension?
Some say that horror movies are so popular because they evoke strong emotions and provide a cathartic release to those emotions. If there isn’t a satisfying conclusion, then players won’t get the full range of emotions coveted by effective horror. In order to create a satisfying conclusion, it can be very useful to use foreshadowing and mystery.
Foreshadowing is one of the most effective literary tools in a DM’s arsenal when it comes to writing horror. Tension comes from building unease and nothing causes that feeling more than an ominous symbol.
Don’t worry too much about foreshadowing when creating the initial draft of your adventure or campaign. Instead, read through the adventure once it’s been sketched out and take the unique or particularly horrifying parts, and seed the symbols throughout the story.
For example, having a villager accidentally fall into a lake and need to be saved is a perfect bit of foreshadowing to a horror story that involves drowned zombies attacking a quaint fishery village. In order to make sure the symbols are noticed by players and to create unease, it’s important to have foreshadowing occur when the scene isn’t too tense. The Establish Normalcy, Create Unease, and Lay the Trap scenes are the best places to include foreshadowing symbols.
Horror without mystery is like wading through water instead of actually swimming. In order to get fully submerged in the tension of the situation, there needs to be suspense. The best way to create suspense is by creating a sense of the unknown. As soon as the mystery of the situation has been revealed, the tension begins to leak out of the story.
Running mystery scenarios is a delicate thing to do in D&D. There is always a chance that you and your players are on totally different wavelengths so that the mystery is never solved. On the other hand, if players are railroaded into the solution of the mystery it will feel like they didn’t accomplish anything.
In order to run an effective horror adventure, you need to be careful about what kind of information you will keep hidden from your players and how they’ll be able to find it. Here is a quick rule of thumb when planning your mysteries:
- Don’t lock any information behind a roll. For example, if players fail their Persuasion check on a widow and she won’t reveal any information about her husband’s death, maybe she kept a journal that the players can sneak in and steal.
- Provide modular answers. It’s very unlikely that the players will solve all of the mysteries in your adventure. Don’t make it impossible to succeed without all of the information that you’ve locked away. Instead, make each piece of information the players have gathered grant them a small advantage over their situation.
- Be fair to your players. Don’t hand them the solution on a silver platter, but don’t expect them to make impossible jumps in logic. When in doubt, keep the mysteries and their solutions easier than what you think. After all, you’re the one that thought up the mystery so it may seem obvious to you when it’s not for anyone else.
How to Run a Horror Setting in D&D 5e
Now that you’re titillated by the thought of terrorizing your players, it’s time to get into the meat of how to run a horror setting. Below, we’ll walk you through a step-by-step guide to get your players scared beyond their wildest dreams.
The Session 0
Session 0’s are important for every campaign, but they’re especially important for horror campaigns. Horror is meant to make people feel scared, but you have to remember that you can create tension and dread without crossing players’ personal boundaries.
When preparing for a horror adventure, make sure you talk through the following with your table:
- Create expectations. It should never be sprung upon a player that they are playing in a horror campaign.
- What things are off-limits? This could include certain types of horror (i.e body horror, gore, etc.) or it could be certain acts that can occur during a horror story (possession, nightmares, etc.)
- Establish communications guidelines. Tell players how to let you know to ease off the gas. This could be a safe word, an easily identifiable sign, or it could be an invitation to message you privately if they are feeling uncomfortable. This goes for the DM as well. Sometimes the DM doesn’t have full control of the events occurring in the story. If, as a DM, things are going in a direction that is making you feel uncomfortable, it’s always okay to call for a break and discuss things with your players.
- Discuss homebrewed and table rules. Horror games can run drastically differently than a typical D&D adventure. You may want to include rules for madness, or restrict classes, races, spells, and feats. This is a great time to provide these guidelines to your players.
- Humor. Because joking around is a typical response to feelings of uneasiness, how will your table deal with goofing off? Because the players are the characters in the story, if they aren’t taking the story seriously it can be difficult to create tension and build suspense.
Choose your DnD Horror Genre
Horror spans a wide range of subgenres that each bring something a little different to the table. Below is a quick overview of each subgenre, along with how to shape the D&D ruleset to more reflect the goals of the genre.
Psychological horror is a slow burn genre that focuses more on the characters’ states of mind than violence or monsters. Psychological horror is heavily metaphorical and uses symbolism to convey meaning. Most of the time, these symbols are left open for interpretation and the derived meaning of these symbols is what drives the story forward.
Because this genre focuses on how the characters react to their circumstances, and because players control the characters, it can be difficult to get players to follow the effects of the psychological stress being put upon the characters.
Before playing this genre with a table, make sure to run through the mechanic that will be used to display the psychological damage characters endure. Some effects could be:
- Reduced movement, HP, or ability to save from certain effects (similar to how Exhaustion works).
- Tables that are rolled upon whenever the stress gets too much (such as the Madness table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide). These effects can be permanent, based on a time limit, or have a specific cure.
- A separate pool of “psychological hit points” that can run out and cause characters to die or permanently lose their minds.
- The Shining
- The Silence of the Lambs
The slasher genre has a lot of things in common with monster horror and the gore genre, since each contains a fearsome foe and lots of death and destruction. What makes the slasher genre different is the formula it typically follows:
- A wrongful action causes the death or traumatization of the killer.
- An anniversary of the date of the wrongful act, or some other similarity inspires the killer.
- The killer comes across the protagonists, who reflect some similarities to the event that traumatized the killer.
- The killer stalks and murders the protagonists in a series of ironic or symbolic manners that represent the wrongful acts that were originally committed.
The antagonist of these films is usually an indestructible force that can’t be stopped until the very end of the movie. Some slasher antagonists have certain weaknesses, while others just simply outclass the power level of the protagonists.
When converting this genre to D&D, some things to think about are:
- How can the killer stalk and kill the protagonists without killing the player characters too early? This could be done by killing NPCs or having encounters with the killer be close calls (though the latter can get tiresome and destroy the suspense).
- Does the killer have a weakness that the party has to discover in order to destroy them? Or is the killer simply stronger than the party, so they will have to get their wits about them and set a trap?
- A Nightmare on Elm Street
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Two great examples of gore genre movies are Saw and The Evil Dead. These movies are very different but have a heavy emphasis on the bloodiness of the visuals. Playing a game that follows the story beats of Saw can be quite horrifying, so it’s extra important to confirm with your players that they are comfortable with the events that may occur.
This subgenre will rely heavily on DM narration. You can also think up a system that will account for the injuries the characters will eventually occur.
- The Evil Dead
This subgenre focuses on alterations to the human body. A great plot point to follow would be a mad scientist that has captured the party and experimented on their bodies, altering them in a way that changes their base racial traits. The party would then have to escape the scientist’s lair while fighting all sorts of abominations on the way out.
- The Fly
- John Carpenter’s The Thing
- The Exorcist
Monster horror is to the horror subgenres as fantasy is to fiction. This is what most “classic” horror follows. This genre focuses on the fear of the unknown and the monsters that lurk there. Werewolves, vampires, witches, and zombies are the main forces that the party will face when playing in this subgenre.
This is likely the most comfortable genre to play in if your players are somewhat hesitant to play a horror adventure.
- Night of the Living Dead
- Resident Evil
- Dawn of the Dead
Paranormal horror is essentially a subgenre of monster horror. These stories will focus on the undead and incorporeal, spirits, ghosts, banshees, and demons are the classic antagonists.
The other easy identifier for the paranormal horror genre is the setting. Typically, paranormal stories will involve the haunting of a building of some sort. Whether that’s a prison, hospital, or most commonly, a house.
- The Exorcist
- Paranormal Activity
- The Conjuring
Comedy horror is an interesting conception that was created by people’s tendency to joke around when they are scared. When trying to run a horror game in D&D, you will most likely experience this when players try to laugh off your attempts to build suspense. See the Session 0 notes about how to handle this when setting expectations for your game.
If you want to lean into the genre of comedy horror, I can almost guarantee you will have a fun time. The presence of tension makes the release of comedy that much more effective. When planning the story, create unease and build suspense just like any other horror game, but make sure to also provide ample opportunity to release that tension. This release can come in the form of irony, predictable tropes, or by the monster doing something unexpected and against their typical goals.
- The Cabin in the Woods
- Shaun of the Dead
- Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
Plan Your Adventure
Next, it’s time to get your adventure put together. You can either create your own adventure or purchase a prewritten adventure.
Writing Your Own Horror Adventure
Writing your own adventure is always a rewarding experience. You have the creative freedom to dictate exactly what story you want to tell, structure the story as you see fit, and create NPCs and encounters that specifically add to your story. The only downside of this method is the additional work required.
When writing your own adventure, you have to structure the story, flesh out the locations and NPCs, and create the battlemaps (if you’re using them) all by yourself.
Most of what you need to know when writing a horror adventure has already been covered in this article. Below, we’ve listed some tools to help when creating your own adventure:
Writing/Running a One-Shot
- Running a D&D One-Shot – Advice on how to structure your session when running a one-shot.
- How to Write a DnD Adventure – Robin Langfield Newnham from Golem Factory discusses how to write professional DnD adventures.
D&D Map Making
- The Best D&D Map Makers – A review of each of the most popular D&D map makers and how they are best used.
Prewritten Horror D&D Campaigns and One-Shots
If you don’t have the time to write your own adventure or are just looking for some inspiration, here are the best choices when it comes to prewritten D&D horror adventures:
Gathering Darkness: Whisperwind – We may be a bit biased, but we think our horror-themed D&D one-shot, Gathering Darkness: Whisperwind, has everything you could look for in a horror adventure. In this adventure, you will uncover the mysteries of Whisperwind, struggle to survive the horrors that attempt to drag you into the Dark, and try to escape alive with your sanity intact.
Curse of Strahd – Possibly the best official 5e module, Curse of Strahd is a gothic horror adventure set in the grim land of Barovia. The vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich rules over this region that is full of werewolves, ghosts, and the undead. The adventure is a full campaign (will take 40-60 hours to run) but comes with an introductory scenario called Death House. This module can be played as a standalone and can be finished in one sitting. Death House takes a 1st-level party through a haunted mansion and can be downloaded for free here.
The Arcane Library – The Arcane Library is an absolute masterclass when it comes to horror adventures. We have had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsey, the writer behind the best-selling Dungeons & Dragons 5e adventures, and discussed her obvious talents when it comes to writing horror for D&D 5e. If you’re looking for horror one-shots, there is no place better to look than her Bundle of Horror 1 and Bundle of Horror 2.
Tomb of Horror – Tomb of Horror is a D&D module that was first released back in 1978 by none other than the great Gary Gygax. This module features a lich’s dungeon that serves the sole purpose of inflicting unspeakable pain and death on all that enter. This would be an amazing module to mold into a “Saw-esque” adventure and can be found converted to the 5e system in Tales from the Yawning Portal.
Do you have any prewritten horror D&D modules that you love? Let us know in the comments below!
Create Your Atmosphere
Trying to spook your players will be much harder when the room is brightly light with the sun streaming in through the windows and the birds chirping outside.
Creating a spooky atmosphere requires all of the senses to be covered:
Sight – If playing during the day, try to block out the sun as much as you can. Nothing makes people feel more at ease than sunlight. Once that has been done (or you’re playing at night) create uneven lighting. Try to dim the lights as much as possible and make use of candles and flashlights to create flickering, directional lighting. Once the lighting has been dealt with, decorating the room with spiderwebs, old books, and other props are great ways to set the mood.
Sound – As always, it’s important to play D&D in a distraction-free environment. Try to limit outdoor sounds as much as possible, make sure all phones are on silent, and make use of a spooky ambient soundtrack to set the mood.
Touch – This may not work for everyone, but lowering the room’s temperature will go a long way to make things feel more spooky. You could even have a fan that blows spooky drafts around the room.
Smell – Burning candles or incense can be an excellent way to create an ambiance. I absolutely love Firelight Fables for mood-setting candles. If you’re going for a spooky vibe, I recommend the Haunted Tales candle.
Taste – Break out the pumpkin spice lattes! And I’m only half-joking. We all know that snacks are essential for tabletop sessions, so why not go the extra mile and make seasonal treats for everyone to enjoy.
D&D Horror Plot Hooks
So, you’ve sat down to start writing your horror campaign and drew a blank. Fret not! Below you can find some random tables containing plot hooks for each tier of play in D&D 5e to get you started.
1st – 4th Level
|Roll (d4)||Plot Hook|
|1||The Bloody Butcher – On the anniversary of his death, the town’s late butcher arises from the grave and goes on a rampage.|
|2||Haunted House – The party is invited to a dinner party but the host never arrives. Instead, players begin to suspect that the house itself is alive and is trying to consume their souls.|
|3||Make Yourself At Home – After an accident on the road, the party awakens at a remote manor where their injuries are being tended to by a solitary host. Once the party tries to leave, they discover they are being held there against their will.|
|4||Guests for Dinner – During a party at a noble’s remote hunting lodge, guests mysteriously disappear before suspicious meals are served.|
5th – 10th Level
|Roll (d4)||Plot Hook|
|1||Monster Hunter – A town has been ravaged by a vicious beast during the last full moon. The party is sent into a nearby woods to track the beast as another full moon approaches.|
|2||The Mad Scientist – The party wakes up in a scientist’s lab after being experimented on, having their body mutated in the process. They must escape the dungeon-like lab filled with monstrosities.|
|3||Who Ya Gonna Call? – The party is a group of experienced paranormal hunters that have been called to a large city overrun by the restless spirits of the damned.|
|4||Night of the Living Dead – A terrible curse has been placed on the people of a remote town. They now wander the countryside infecting other settlements with their curse. If they are not stopped, their numbers will grow out of control.|
11th – 16th Level
|Roll (d4)||Plot Hook|
|1||The Scourge – The party arrives in a town to find that the residents are living in a state of fear. People have been disappearing in the night ever since the new governing family came into power.|
|2||The Devil Inside – The party is hired to find out what is going on with strange events happening in a rich merchant’s home. They begin to suspect that the family’s children have been possessed.|
|3||Dangers in the Dark – The party has heard of treasures located in a cave system nearby. When inside, they find strange cave paintings and evidence of an earlier expedition. Then they learn they are not alone. Underground predators inhabit the crevasses, and they have a taste for human flesh.|
|4||Nightmare Land – Residents of a town have begun having nightmares that come to life. The party is hired to find out what is at the center of this anomaly.|
|Roll (d4)||Plot Hook|
|1||A Deadly Escape – The party has been hired to raid the tomb of a long-dead wizard. Getting through the maze-like tomb was easy enough, but when the party arrives in the center they discover that getting out is the hard part.|
|2||The World After – The party consists of a number of patients who were in comas. They all mysteriously awaken and find that the world has been overrun by a terrible disease that turns all who contract it into demons.|
|3||Bubble Bubble Toil and Trouble – A witch has made a deal with the devil to return her two sisters to the mortal plane. Once there, they begin to cast a spell that will transport half of the world’s population to hell as repayment.|
|4||The Prophesized End – An elder god has been released from its prison. The sun is blotted from the sky, demons crawl through shattered earth, and the seas begin to boil.|
Inspiration for D&D Horror Campaigns
“Good DMs borrow, great DMs steal“.
Creating a campaign completely from scratch is a difficult task. When you’re having a hard time planning encounters, cities, or entire campaign arcs, it’s always nice to have some material to grab ideas from.
Below are some resources that will be useful when it comes to brainstorming ideas and “stealing” inspiration.
- 200 Best Horror Movies of All Time (Rotten Tomatoes) – I revisit this list every year around Halloween to comb through the most influential horror movies.
- Best Horror Novels (Goodreads) – A list of the all-time greats when it comes to horror novels. To no one’s surprise, Stephen King is all over this list.
- Amnesia: Dark Descent
- Alien: Isolation
- Dead Space 1&2
- Resident Evil Series
- Silent Hill 1-3
- Until Dawn
- Arkham Horror: The Card Game
Thanks for reading! We hope this article has given you some direction when it comes to running horror in D&D.
What kind of horror adventures will you run? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!