In this episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast, we discuss horror in tabletop RPGs with special guest Asher Ely of the Critical Fails podcast. We discuss the stages of horror, specific ways to make horror work in a tabletop RPG, and how to create a fun horror experience.
Special thanks to @cursedKenku for this week’s question of the week.
Materials Referenced in this Episode
- Blades in the Dark (affiliate link)
- Call of Cthulhu (affiliate link)
- Castle Ravenloft (the original!) (affiliate link)
- Cthulhu Mythos for 5e, by Sandy Petersens
- Descent into Avernus (affiliate link)
- Dungeon Master’s Guide (affiliate link)
- See Chapter 8 for the Chase rules
- Chase rules on DnDBeyond
- Heroes of Horror for DnD 3.5 (affiliate link)
- Ten Candles RPG by Cavalry Games
- Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (affiliate link)
Voice 1 00:04
Let me in.
Voice 2 00:05
Who is it?
Voice 2 00:09
How do I know this is really Jonathan?
Let me hear right now or I’ll scream so loud they all hear me.
Voice 2 00:14
All right. What’s going on here?
Voice 2 00:24
Last place that they don’t seem to like… breached yet. Everywhere else is just compromised. Whole city’s going shit.
Yeah it is. Give me that wine. Thank you.
Voice 2 00:40
The only thing left we can do right now i guess is just get drunk, right?
Yeah. We went to the temple of Pelor. They were… the screams.
Voice 2 00:53
Like… don’t try to think about it.
I figured this is nobody thinks to come here and it looks like, yeah?
Voice 2 01:02
Yeah, it’s just you and me, man. Just you and me.
Voice 2 01:10
What do you mean?
Where’s Sarah? Where’s your wife? She’s dead, man.
How’d she die?
Voice 2 01:21
She got taken by one of the monsters.
Your wife, Sarah, got taken by one of the monsters?
Voice 2 01:32
Yeah, like everybody else.
No. I helped bury your wife three years ago. How am I gonna die?
Voice 2 01:50
I think you know the answer to that. Don’t you, Jon?
Welcome to the RPGBOT.podcast. I’m Randall James. Your… well, dead guy. With me is Tyler Kamstra.
And Random Powell.
Random Powell 02:41
And today we have a special guest ash.
Hi, I’m Ash of Crit Fails. We also are a podcast of D&D of shenaniganerry. I guess that’s a word. Not as professional as this podcast. It’s more of us just like talking bullcrap about how we failed in our D&D campaigns. But please check us out. Our Twitter’s @crit_fails. And you can find us on Spotify or iTunes or wherever podcasts are found.
Good to be here.
Absolutely. It’s good to have you. It’s gonna be great. Yeah, I think we definitely had our case of a case of failures in the past, absolutely. So we had, we had Colby on several weeks ago as well, who’s also from Crit Fails.
Absolutely. Good to have more of the gang on. Yeah, so Tyler, what are we doing today?
Well, it’s Spooktober. We’re going to talk about horror.
And this is a… this is a challenging episode for me personally, because horror is a place where I both as a player and as a DM struggle a whole lot. So I’m actually hoping to learn a lot from the rest of these fine folks on podcast today.
Nice. Yeah, this has been an episode I’ve been super excited about the whole time. So what are we on? We’re uh, this is episode 9, the 10th episode. Is that right? I’m getting… I’m getting some thumbs up.
No, this is Episode 10, the 11th episode.
Oh, okay. No, I’m sorry. Yeah, so this is Episode 10, the 11th episode,
Right, cuz you guys, you guys have episode zero, right?
Absolutely.. We do zero indexing here. It’s the right thing to do.
That’s the proper programming way to do it.
No MATLAB users here. But yeah, so so we’re… This is the third episode of spooktober. I’ve been looking forward to this for over a month since we first started talking about it. And I’m I can’t tell you how excited I am. I think probably a good way to start this conversation is to talk about what content does exist within fifth edition that really brings the horror.
So I think the first thing that everyone’s gonna think of in fifth edition D&D is going to be Ravenloft.
Yeah, I was just gonna say, yeah.
Ravenloft has been kind of part of the D&D canon since second edition. With the original Castle Ravenloft module and now with Curse of Strahd, and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. So the Gothic style horror has been kind of a fixture in D&D for longer than I’ve been playing. And the… let’s see, the most modern guidance on how to do a horror game is Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. And if you don’t have a copy, there is a section in the book that explains just how to run horror. It’s pretty easy to overlook, it’s only about six pages starts on page 185. But it’s actually really good DM advice for how to run a horror game. How to set expectations, how to respect boundaries, how to make your game spooky, while still making it fun. And of course, there’s always the challenges of how do you scare people in D&D?
Yeah, I think to dive a little bit further into this, right, the what it’s really calling out is like, you want the environment to be scary and spooky, and you want in the moment your players to to have the gratification of horror. But you don’t want to make a player feel like either personally attacked or or essentially you don’t want you don’t want to be something that they take home at night and can’t sleep that night unless everybody to table explicitly says that’s exactly what they’re looking for. And once again, we want you up here, yum. Yeah, party on.
And so to figure out how to do that, I think it’s really important to look at the types of fear there’s, there’s different ways to scare people. And in the most basic, you’re going to look at it as like, Okay, well, maybe I’ve experienced something being unsettling versus something being like a jumpscare. And that’s, that’s a good place to look at it from the start. But there’s actually like some real concrete definitions. And some of these types of fear work better than others. So malaise, something just like, kind of not right kind of off in the back of your head. This is really like an… what I like to think of is like uncanny valley, you walk into a town and you see only children at all. No adults. That’s not the way a town’s supposed to run. You know that that’s not the way town’s supposed to run. But you can’t figure out why.
Also children are creepy, like…
Inherently. It’s true.
Also like, a good example of that is like shadow over innsmouth by HP Lovecraft. You know, guy comes in… bunch of strange, fishy type of people. Just malevolent sort of vibe.
Right. Yeah, absolutely. So actually, I had a module that I was interested in running through real quick just to talk about how we can like an example of bringing Malays. Do you folks want to do it?
All right, short, sweet, it won’t take too long. Okay, so imagine a setting where you’re in a town you don’t know anybody in the town and the town is kind of far out the middle of nowhere. No one even knew this town was here. And yet you find yourself in a room with a bunch of townsfolk. Okay. You’re in a room The room is aged but elegant wood solid plank flooring. The molding is intricate, but aging and dirty. A fire crackles in the heart providing the only light in the room. There are shelves on each side of the fire, lined with books. The men and women are dressed… oddly. You only thought that it’s as if someone described to a poor tailor the modern style of dress clothing, fine clothing, and this is what this is what they come with. They talk quietly amongst themselves ignoring you except for short, accusatory glances. Roll perception. Nobody has dice on them, right?
*terrible vocal impression of dice rolling*
So what happens? When you have everybody in the room roll dice right? Somebody is gonna break 10. You know, you can call that a success. You could not happily and you can keep going with it. Although it’s late in the day, the men in the room appear to be freshly shaved. Maybe to another person you notice the books on the shelves have no words on the binding they appear to be sorted by color. Before you can decide what to do, all heads snap to look at an open doorway. A second goes by. Two seconds. Three seconds. A woman enters dressed like the others. The room returns talking in their quiet circles.
Yeah, it’s weird.
It’s definitely headed toward spooky but I almost feel like like that’s even a great segue. That doesn’t really read like, vaguely not right. Because you’re in a specific situation. You’re in this room. You’re surrounded by these people who are explicitly aware of your presence. That honestly almost starts hitting more like anxiety. Now anxiety is one of the great things that as a DM you have a lot of tools to build. You know, just like a few things that I have come across and done. And one thing that I’m going to touch on real quick. Humans love pattern recognition. We’re actually too good at it. This is where you Get these medieval stories of superstitions about like, Oh, it’s a comet, I need to sacrifice three goats or I’m gonna have a bad harvest. That immediate desire for pattern recognition is what makes malaise and to some extent anxiety possible. Preying on that is how you’re going to be able to generate the… these sorts of fears in your players really well. So pattern recognition, right? As players, when we see our DM, do something that we can see we expect it to be meaningful. And sometimes that’s just, I’m going to roll a handful of dice behind my screen and not tell you what I’m doing. The answer is scaring you. It has no mechanical effect. But just roll some dice. Take a sand timer, like a five minute sand timer, if you can find on it, just casually set it out in front of the players as they’re talking. Don’t tell them anything.
But at the end of it, though, roll the dice again. And like…
You know, it’s interesting that you bring up the idea of pattern recognition when it comes to horror. Because I think that that is true in different ways. People can have anxiety in a pattern, when they recognize a dangerous situation, sort of like they’re in a dark hallway. Nothing good ever happens in a dark hallway. I think also you can explain that a little bit. To humans, because we are so addicted to patterns and pattern recognition, when there is no discernible pattern, the pattern doesn’t make sense. That is also a form of anxiety. And that’s what makes makes cosmic horror such a thing. That’s why HP Lovecraft, his thing is like, you trying to find patterns, and what I’m creating is the reason why you’re doomed. And the reason why you will never understand. It’s the whole idea of “man was not meant to know certain things.”
I think one of the things out of that is already like a running gag that I’m sure folks have heard of right is putting an obvious timer in a setting where that’s obviously a problem that I’m supposed to solve. And so you have player characters scrambling trying to find a solution, because obviously, like I hit the button thinking it would open the door, Instead, the timer started, and I don’t know what’s gonna happen when the timer stops. And then when the timer stops, the door opens. And that was it. That was all that was gonna happen the whole time. But as player characters, it’s hugely anxiety inducing, because you think I have to do something. And obviously I only have so long to do that thing.
I think that time-based anxiety is that can be a really effective but difficult tool to use. Since RPGs, are typically like, turn based in a lot… in, in cases where time matters. It’s usually in a turn order. Using time as a… as a way to produce anxiety seems difficult, but I mean, it obviously works, yeah, the sand timer thing would drive me nuts.
So there’s, I think there’s two pieces of this, right? There’s the, the meta for the players. And I think you’re right, like if you’re trying to do something in the real world time-based, it’s gonna be hard, because that’s not the nature of the game. But if you can bring the time into the world of the player characters, I think that’s where you can really have success. You know, so if, if the timer is obviously, you know, roll survival, roll something, you get a good roll back and you say, “you get the feeling it’s going to expire in about a minute.” What does that say? That says they have 10 rounds to do whatever they’re going to do, which in which case, don’t make it a minute. Make it 18 seconds, because you know, dear god.
Yeah. So there’s, as a human, there’s nothing scarier than the concept of time itself. Well it’s the enemy of everything. But you say that it is difficult to bring in time mechanics into D&D. I disagree. I think there are ways that you can do it. And some of the ways that you can do it, you just have to look at other systems really. Like there is this system in… I don’t know if you guys have ever heard of Blades in the Dark, but they have this time dice. And based on like, certain actions that you take, it reduces the time days. And so that still gives you the freedom of the you know, turn-based sort of structure, but it also has the ticking clock mechanics so that it’s sort of half real-time, half not. The other way that you can kind of do it is have a pressing, without like having an actual timer, have a pressing thing that’s going to be happening and people know that they have to get there. But they have to decide whether it’s worth it to press on and maybe risk exhaustion or something bad, or just let whatever bad’s gonna happen.
So you can definitely do in-world time or IRL time and if you’re going to do something like I was talking about with the timer, don’t try to do it in combat. Just do it during exploration. That’s, you know, yeah, if trying to enforce real-world time on turn-based combat is absolutely difficult, and it’s I guess, technically speaking possible, but I wouldn’t even try. Now one interesting thing that time-based anxiety is really good for, and particularly, it’s like what Randall talked about. If you just keep people anxious, they will become inured to it pretty quickly and so just like any other story you need tension, release, tension, release. Doing something like a timer that then just you know counts down, scares people, and then opens the door they were trying to open anyway. Superb. That is a great way to have some anxiety for a while, give them a release, and then you know, make them possibly even. like. more afraid of oh god, you know, what is it going to be next time? Something like that, really good, really good way to get that going.
That is an excellent point. And I think the other thing that you can do with time is that sometimes you don’t, you just, you don’t need to show people the timer, you just need to tell them that there is a timer, but you don’t tell them when it’s going to end. And that in and of itself can cause a lot of anxiety because it goes back to the sort of pattern recognition that humans like we’d like to know. Okay, we have this much time to do a thing. If we don’t know how much time we have, suddenly all of our priorities become skewed.
One thing I’m going to say definitely that’s a great way to go. A thing that you might want to do to avoid triggering frustration instead of fear is if you go that route make sure that their penalty for failure isn’t something that’s actually all that negative. You know, don’t don’t give people an unknown timer and then like “oh, you’re dead, lol”. That’s, that’s not gonna end well for anybody that’s right
Obviously you want to have a way out and you don’t want to just punish people for not knowing what the how long the timer was. But even just having an arbitrary time limit and then not knowing can push them to make decisions they normally wouldn’t otherwise. But yeah, I think you’re right, you got to be careful not to just be like, “figure it out or you’re dead” because that’s not fun for anyone
You talk about like pushing them into an anxiety and I think probably the hardest part about doing this kind of storytelling versus a typical game is reading the room, right? Getting a feeling for like, okay, how anxious are you? Should I pop this cork and let a little relief? Or do I need to keep building? And I think managing, like, the velocity. So we’ve talked about malaise and anxiety and I think we’re gonna move on to the deeper feelings in a second, but, you know, managing it’s like okay you know I’ve got you up to the top of anxiety, you know, almost to like our next feeling which you know, spoiler: dread. Let me pop it open, all right, so like the, the nob was jiggling and you heard scratching at the door, and then the door opened and it was the caretaker holding a rake and everybody’s like, oh, okay, good. It’s the caretaker. And then something eats his head!
Like that’s you know, that’s classic, that’s classic.
But it’s classic because it works! Right? You get built up, you get built up, you feel relief and you’re like “ah, okay, wait, what’s that? No head? No head? Roll initiative, let’s go!”
One last thing I do want to touch on before we get past anxiety for another…
We’re never gonna get past anxiety, let me be very clear.
I’m anxious this entire podcast in case you can’t tell.
So another just like specific thing you can do to build anxiety just as a not time based thing. People are wandering through you know, if they’re exploring something, you set them in a spooky area, it’s hard to see… which, by the way, light!
Longtime listeners will know that I was in a very long Strahd game. One of the things that the DM said at the outset is look I am going to make light a very focused part of how we are playing this because not everyone has darkvision and even those who do have darkvision you’re seeing in black and white in… well okay that’s that’s more 3.5, but you’re seeing as if it were low light. Using light to good advantage… Don’t be afraid to check some magical darkness in there. Even if it doesn’t make sense. Like here’s an item. It creates magical darkness. Why? Because I wanted the plot to do that. That’s one thing and then also like as you are exploring these scenarios, again triggering the pattern recognition and people wanting to have their thing. Roll perception. Have your players roll perception. Don’t tell them anything just like give a very like explicit description of where they are trying to lead them on a bit like “oh yeah, no, man, you find this thing and this thing and this thing” and, you know, have them feel like they’re missing something. Be careful with that one too because that can lead to frustration. “No, you missed it” and then roll right on into your next story beat so that you have some stuff built.
Yeah, I feel like for a lot of these tools and let’s let’s take this idea of like I give you this detailed description of the room, including you know, the the frame that was slightly crooked and the desk with a door that’s slightly ajar and on and on and on. Like I almost say as a DM, like, have a checklist next to you. And when you’ve used that trick once for the night or twice for the night, let’s not do that, because it will become frustrating. But you can put enough of these tools together that in the right moment, you know, okay, I know that this is an anxiety inducer and right now I need an anxiety inducer. So where are my anxiety inducers? Okay, what do I got? Rolling behind the curtain and overly describing the pink curtains. Those are the tools in my bag.
Now how much of that is delivery? The, the tools all makes sense, but me as a person who just, like, I don’t engage in horror as a like, subset of media in general. How much of that is just delivery by the DM? Like, Randall, your module that you read us earlier? Like the description was very spooky. I felt a little anxious and was like, okay, there’s something spooky going on here. If I as a DM read that same text, the delivery would be very different. People in like, they’ve heard of fashion type clothing is just like, oh, okay, these are just people who don’t get fashion. Books that are sorted by colors. Oh, these people have an interior decorator who bought them books by color. That’s a thing that happens in real life. Like that, like all of that seemed mostly normal, except the delivery sold me on the horror. Like how much… how much of all of this is just I as the DM am successfully using these tools.
So I’ll challenge that. And I’ll say that I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit RPGBOT. I think in order to do this, right, like if everybody was laughing and having a good time, and and everybody just thought this was a joke. And I delivered that the same way that I just delivered it. People would still treat it like a joke, I wouldn’t be able to build anxiety and the story wouldn’t work. I think the most important thing is having a group of players who are excited about the adventure you’re about to go on, you know what we say all the time, right? The collective storytelling that we’re about to do. And I think if you have those players with you, I think you could deliver that and absolutely give them the goosebumps,
I think, yeah, you you hit the nail on the head. And the thing is, is that you say that it’s all about delivery, but that’s most of exposition in D&D. All of it is about delivery. How do you deliver an awesome moment if your players don’t really buy into it or you yourself on’t try to evoke those emotions? Horror requires a certain delivery. Something that, like the module that Randall read, if he read it like he’s right if he read it in a comical voice where people were treating it as like a joke it would be like you know Scary Movie. it’s a Scary Movie does the same things that a lot of horror movies do, they just do it in a comical fashion. And that’s, that’s just their shtick. So yeah, I think core more than any other genre requires you to set a mood. It requires ambience it requires you to deliver it in a way that unnerves people.
100% and then you know not taking it into absurdity because as soon as you take like the anxiety into absurdity then I think you do lose the room. And I’ll bring up like what if you have one player who’s giggling, laughing, not taking it seriously, you know, I’ll again, I’ll steal a phrase and Random I think you try the social correction. Pull them aside say hey, look, we all kind of wanted to come together for this. I can you kind of get into the game and try to keep this a little bit more serious this session? And if it’s the whole campaign, is this really a campaign that person wants to be a part of?
Or if you want to be a bad DM you just say hey, you laughed so much and the goblin, the monster killed you first, so congratulations.
Yes, the social fix versus the mechanical fix.
That’s that’s an attempt two. Oh no, you failed your death save. I don’t…
I’m so sorry. You don’t get a saving throw. No, he just bites your head off. Oops, sorry. Give me a character sheet now. Bye.
We’re gonna burn it.
You’ve built this malaise, you’ve built this anxiety, what do you do with it? And you know, Randall did a great job saying “you transition that to dread.” Dread is more like, “I know that something is coming for me.” This is the I am being chased by the serial killer. I am sliding down into the Silent Hill basement. Something is very immediately bad about to happen to me.
Yeah, if I don’t jump out of this building through a tiny tube that I barely fit into I’m going to burn in the fire. So I have to jump in the tube. For me personally, that induces significant dread.
This is where I feel like D&D lacks a bit in terms of making chases compelling. The Chase mechanics and the DM’s guide, I’m just gonna say it: they’re bad. They’re not good. They’re like good for maybe an Indiana Jones thing. They’re just not very good for horror. If you want to idea of what a good system is, and a system that I’ve used in the past for D&D, take a look at the Call of Cthulhu j systems. Those are really well done.
So how does that work?
So the way it works is, you have a series of nodes on the line, you can either pre-plan it, or you can roll it randomly for each node. But basically, you have on each node, maybe an obstacle. Each monster has a sort of speed initiative, based on, like, a number of factors, like their dexterity and stuff like that. Based on how, how high their dexterity and stuff is they get to move a certain number of nodes per turn. And you can do certain things to like slow or increase that based on the actions that you take using the abilities at your disposal or your environment. So let’s say you’re being chased by a monster down the hall, and the first node has a locked door. So now you have choice to make, you can bust down the door to get through the node fast. But it also leaves the door open for the monster chasing you. Or you can try to qui– if you’re good enough and you think you have doubt you can try to quickly click the lock, it might take you a little bit of time and the master may gain a node or two on you. Depending on how good your check is. You get through the door. And that gives you the opportunity to bar it on the other side, thus creating obstacle for the monster chasing you. So now he has an obstacle that he has to overcome once he reaches that node.
Okay, now what if the monster’s a lock-picking monster?
If it’s a lock-picking monster, you’re f***. Yeah, but most monsters just try to bust through things. But yeah, that is that’s just one example. And it’s one that I’ve used in… because I’m currently running a survival horror sort of D&D as my main campaign. And it, it works really well. If you, if you’re dissatisfied with the DMG’s way of doing chases, I recommend giving the Call of Cthulhu chase things a try. It is a bit more complicated. But that complexity comes with depth.
Yeah, that sounds way more satisfying. Definitely.
So, that’s an interesting point you bring up that I think this is maybe something that just like a quick tangent, as you were talking about where delivery is such an important thing and then buy-in is such an important thing. I think horror in particular, as a game genre, is something that you’re really going to want to prepare more for than just your standard swords and sorcery, power fantasy, let’s be four wizards murdering through the countryside. Because it… because it is so immersion-based, anytime you break that immersion you’re going to be losing a lot of what you’ve built, you know, if you are keeping these your players on a good like tension, release of anxiety, dread, and then back. Having to take even a couple minutes to look through your notes is going to really kind of draw people out. Now, I’m not saying that if you need that, you need to set everything up ahead of time you need to be the best whatever. Just that is something to be conscious of that if you are going to try and run a session or, you know, an arc, a more horror than than other genres. Be aware that immersion is a huge factor and that you know, if you are going to plan it, you know, if you are going to try and run this habit planned like this, like Ash was talking about with this Call of Cthulhu thing, or even if you are going to try and I will admit I chose something chasing you just randomly I had no idea there were rules for that in the DMG.
Give it a look. Give it a look. See what you think. Maybe you’ll agree with me, maybe you’ll disagree.
But yeah, so yeah, that’s sort of like I really like what Random was talking about, like, here’s an immediate lose/lose situation, right? Like in any sort of jump into this claustrophobic tube, or burn to death, right? Yeah, that’s… something like that. I think either of those are going to be really good ways. And dread is hard because, even if something is chasing you, which you know, in Call of Cthulhu, it makes a lot more sense because you’re just a human and these things are cyclopean. I’m going to get stabbed for using that word, but such is life. You know, they’re meant to kill you. In D&D monsters aren’t really meant to kill you. Making them scary,0 you kind of have to go back to some of those tricking your players things. Particularly any veteran players, they’re going to look at the monster and they’re gonna go “Oh yes, I know what this monster does.” And so you need to come up with something that they don’t expect. Because I’ve been fighting either like, ah, a tree blade has walked out of the forest, he’s gonna kill me and you know, someone says, “Oh, it’s a tree, I’m gonna light it on fire.” You light the tree on fire, it gets angry or now it’s on fire and coming at you on fire. Rather than you know it being typically vulnerable to fire like somebody might expect. That sort of reversal can build some really immediate dread even in combat. I think that that sort of making your monsters do unexpected things, is the way to bring some of that back in when killing monsters is sort of a big focus.
Or just make new monsters.
And it’s I think that’s actually the right answer, right. So #monsterizer. You can always take a monster and rescan it, and with the tool that’s on our RPGBOT.net, the Monsterizer, you can truly customize it and if you need to, like level something up or level something down, you know somebody says it’s like “Ah, you know, I’m obviously way too high of a level to be worried about this tree into that is coming towards me.” And then they get into combat and the first time they take a hit, they’re like, “Oh, nevermind, I was wrong, and I’m in danger.”
And that’s the, that’s the big thing about D&D and why I think it is hard to do horror effectively. Just coming at it from a regular mindset is D&D at least fifth edition is a power fantasy. And with horror, the way horror is effective is you need to feel powerless. And the way I’ve done it in… in the survival campaign is I just, I make fights literally unfair for my players. I’m like, and I go from the outset saying “don’t get attached to your characters because they very well may die and it is often in your better interest to run from a battle then fight it,” which is a concept that takes some getting used to in D&D because you’re not used to running from fights. But I think if you can do horror effectively, fighting should be your last resort. It should be the first thing that you go to.
I think that’s huge and I think that’s something you say in kind of a session zero, right? Like, many if not most of the encounters you’re going to have you are not meant to take the encounter, like, full frontal.
So in the end when you did Castle Ravenloft, Random, would you know, did you go into most combat and engage in combat every single time you went into a monster or was there a lot of you know, running away hiding using trickery?
While it was in a spooky setting, and the gothic horror was very strong and my DM did a really superb job selling us on it, in general it’s still fifth edition right. It wasn’t really modified fifth edition. It is a pre-written Wizards of the Coast module so it’s intended to be played like straight fifth edition. Now with that said, we absolutely had encounters that beat us either because we… if you have looked through you may know that Death House is intended to be sort of a prequel to Curse of Strahd.
Oh god, Death House is awful.
One of the great things about death house is so because you start at level one you do kind of hit on that powerless end and so you can have Death House actually feel like horror because me and my 10 hit points are all that standing between, you know, this character horribly dying, turning into a ghost. With that, you know, I think I mentioned this when we were talking about in the skill feats episode, two of us died in the final boss of the Death House. That felt totally fair and also horrifying. You know that, that was just oh, there’s my friend who I’ve been traipsing through this god-awful plane with for a week and a half impaled on a wheel. Great. As things went on, it really did become much more of a standard D&D game. That’s fine. You know that you can still use the spooky setting and use that to build narrative engagement. And still have it be a typical power fantasy fifth edition game. That’s good, too. But I think Van Richten’s covers some of this. You can also use other parts of Ravenloft to do other scary things apart from just your typical gothic horror. And you know, in particular, if you pick up Wild Beyond the Witchlight, and you mash those two things together, that’s all kinds of spooky. Would recommend. That’s some good stuff.
Creepy carnivals are always where it’s at man. Love ’em creepy carnivals.
More people are are afraid of clowns than vampires.
Oh, yeah, no.
Yeah, number one fear in the United States: clowns. Number two: spiders.
It’s so one session that I’ve always wanted to run is a creepy carnival. I was going to run it in one of my campaigns, but then the campaign died. So… but eventually I willget to do something like that.
This is kind of neat. And give me 30 seconds to spoil something from Wild Beyond the Witchlight. Van Richten’s guide has a carnival that’s mentioned in fabric tins guide. It’s the spooky shadowfell carnival. And the people that originally ran that carnival are featured in Wild Beyond the Witchlight. So if you go read Van Richten’s and then read Wild Beyond the Witchlight, play, intending to run it, hopefully you’ll be like, “Ah, this makes a lot of sense.”
Yeah, actually, I’m not, I’m not gonna say anything other than I thought that that tie-in in that story was really cool when I read it.
I like it has a lot of WoTC’s, like, supplements kind of feed off of each other. So that’s really cool.
So I yeah, we’re talking about, right, What did we just said? We’ve said that it’s okay, if you play like a power-driven fifth edition D&D session in a horror or spooky setting?
Oh, yeah, no.
Today’s episode is about actually executing the horror. And so we were talking about dread and like, how do we bring in dread. And I think everybody nailed it, right? Like when you have super powerful creature, or super powerful player characters, or even moderately powerful player characters, if they go into a fight, unfortunately, in fifth edition, either you have overpowered that fight to the point where they’re likely going to lose, in which case that’s not going to induce dread, it’s just going to induce frustration, because you as a DM, I put them in a situation, made them think they should fight, and then they died. The alternative is saying, “look, you need to run, you know, session zero, you need to run from a lot of fights.” If you don’t think if you’re not 100% confident that you can win, don’t engage, find a way out, and then run your session that way, where if they test you push them back, you know, maybe it’s maybe a PC just has to fall, but their backup cousin was sitting in a closet and so you brought ’em out and, put it, put them into the game. But there’s a lot of ways that we can induce dread. One one thing that I love leveraging is if you can introduce a pet early on, right? Here’s an NPC and how adorable is this NPC?
Oh, no, absolutely.
Boblin the goblin!
I know where this is going, you heartless monster.
No, but it’s it’s super powerful, because they’re not going to feel dread for themselves because they know in combat, they can take care of themselves. But if you put them in a combat situation, or like a skill challenge type situation, where something might happen to the dear NPC, they’re going to do their best to rescue and they’re going to feel the anxiety and the dread that something bad might actually happen.
I like that idea. So I spent some time researching for this episode, because I was woefully underprepared. The third edition supplement Heroes of Horror is kind of like the third edition equivalent of Van Richten’s guide, But instead of focusing on Ravenloft, to focus on just horror more generally. Random you will probably remember this is the book that gave us the Archivist.
Also Dread Necromancer.
Also dread necromancer! Yeah, there’s some cool stuff in there. So Van Richten’s guide has like five or six pages on how to run a horror game. And they’re very dense, and they’re very good. And I recommend that you read them. Heroes of Horror has 85 pages on how to run a horror game. So in terms of sheer page count, there’s way more ideas in Heroes of Horror.
But the question is, is it quality? Or is it just quantity?
A bit of both. Some of it is really good ideas. A lot of that is filled in with like examples of like, here’s how to do this one thing in horror. And then here’s like two or three pages of an example of how you would do this, like, here’s an encounter, here’s an adventure, here’s the statblock for a villain that you’re going to face. And of course, the stat blocks are going to be totally useless unless you’re already familiar with the third edition rule set. But there are still a lot of good ideas in there. So Heroes of Horror on DMsGuild, go pick it up. I had a whole point that I was going to circle back to… Oh, it was the picking on the NPCs. That is one of the things that they recommended in there. Basically, like, because you can’t threaten the players very much with direct action, the monsters aren’t a threat to the players. If a fight goes badly, they’ll just teleport away, whatever. So you go and threaten their friends, their family, their, their pets. And as long as… as long as no one came to the table with “my backstory iss my entire family is dead and I have no friends”, that can work.
Yes, the Sasuke Uchiha defense.
So you talk about Heroes of Horror, and Descent into Avernus actually, is something that I’ve been playing recently. And while we’re here, so let’s talk about mechanics that actually revolve around fear. 5e has sanity rules, which are really neat. They actually feel a whole lot like three point x and sanity rules. Basically, you fail a save, something bad happens for a little bit, you have one layer of madness. If you encounter some madness, again, you fail another save. Now something bad is gonna happen for like, a week to you.
So what are, what are the kinds of things that would potentially raise your level of madness?
Well, so spoilers for anyone who may play Descent into Avernuse at some point, very early on, as like a level three character Demogorgon appears and just wrecks a village that you run away from, because they’re Demogorgon. And don’t care about three, you know, but about a party of level three people running away. So that or, you know, there are in pre-written modules like this one, there are several things that explicitly trigger like, here’s what’s going to be something scary, you know, maybe it’s a cavern full of gibbering mouthers. And they’re just horrifying because they’re whispering things that unnerve you, or whatever the case may be. So these are things that you can put to use to have a mechanical effect on the characters as opposed to just affecting the players. You know, eventually, the third level, if you fail, the third level is permanent. You… your character now just has like a phobia, or a tick or something. Some permanent impression from the fear that the character has experienced. And so winding that in can be a really good tool. And while we’re talking about 3.x, the Rise of the Runelords game that Tyler has talked about me running for him, there is a whole section where you go investigate a literal, haunted house and Pathfinder had these rules for haunts. And they are super cool, you could very easily put them in. Basically, if a room is haunted, when you walk in, you get a Perception check to maybe notice it’s haunted, you have a much higher perception check to figure out what will trigger the haunt to occur. And then the haunt can be anything from it, it’s functionally a trap. It plays out like a haunted house, like a haunted area. And, you know, you’re not able to disarm it like a trap, because it’s ghosts. So, you know, there’s actual rules for “how do I exorcise a house,” for instance,
Cleric plus holy water? What’s…?
I mean, there’s some nuances. The short answer is, it’s not something that the players are expected to be able to do by themselves.
That’s one of the the other cool thing is and I would recommend reading up on those if you want to try and bring in actual mechanical fear instead of just building the ambiance.
So I do want to say, I think that is interesting to me. But if you if you engage in the sanity rules, or you bring something like the haunts in, but you’re not attempting to build anxiety, you’re not trying to build that anticipation. I feel like it can feel hollow. And if that’s the game, everybody’s coming to play, that’s, that can be fun, it would be great. But if folks are coming for horror, I almost feel like everything you do has to be attempting to affect the player first. And the player character through them.
Talking about the insanity mechanics. It’s interesting you bring that up because I… my hot take is I don’t like the insanity mechanics for 5e. I think they’re kind of boring, personally speaking. But if you want a better system, one that I can recommend that actually has been tuned for 5e is there’s this independent author I forget his name is Peter something. He wrote Cthulhu Mythos for 5e. And he created his own sanity system, which I’ve been using and it’s, it’s pretty interesting. Basically, you have seven levels of dread. Seven, I can count. Seven levels of dread. And each dread level is like how, how far gone, your fear is, and they have different detrimental mechanical effects. Like maybe you have to roll to get closer to the object of your fear and stuff like that. Once you reach four levels of dread, then you get into insanity. And there there are less insanity like conditions. Like the way it works in 5e is like you get a flaw for your character, like permanent sanity conditions are basically like a flaw for your character. For these, there’s less of those is like paranoia, schizophrenia, amnesia, other stuff, and it has like seriously detrimental effects. Depending on what you’re running. Like, some of them are brutal. Like amnesia, you lose all your class levels basically. Then you’re reduced to level one until you get your amnesia fixed. And you basically just start from scratch. One thing that I added to that system is, if you at a certain point, once you reach a certain level of insanity, because of the world that the game takes place in, you have a possibility of meeting what is called “the rapture,” which is a living embodiment of your own fears and insanity. And it’s sort of like a living shadow that you basically have to fight against, or you just become an insane husk of a person. And people, because the world takes place in the world that’s always in night, people call it “dark madness,” like people go into the darkness, and they go mad. And so using that kind of stuff to really sort of… making, I don’t know if I want to say torture is the right word, but maybe a little bit of torturing yoor players with some brutal mechanics can really sort of bring in the fear of like, rather than just an inconvenience or something, they just have to like, you know, live with now that’s like, Oh, this completely changes my character. And I don’t want this to happen. I have to manage my stress levels.
So I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think, in my mind, what would make that most powerful would be in session zero, pulling up the chart, and saying that, you know, step by step, this is what it is, this is how it is, here’s a couple canned examples of ways that your dread level, your sanity level might go up. And this probably works for either system, but almost over-exaggerating how much you don’t want this to happen. Yeah, not because the consequences are drastic, but because you’ve, you’ve hopefully put it into their head that when this happens, it is bad, and therefore it is going to help induce anxiety. I guess, in either system. Part of the takeaway I’m taking both from Random what you’ve described, Ash what you’ve described, is, whatever your world just put things in the world and say, this increases your insanity, or this increases your dread, right? So if you were already, you know, go back to my fire versus claustrophobia thing, right? Like whichever one you choose, I’m going to say that this increases your insanity level because as a character, this is something that we’ve agreed you’re worried about. Where I’m, I’m telling you, you’re worried about.
Oh, yeah. Another thing you can do going off of that is, if you’re playing to run a horror game, ask your players is very simple question. What is your character’s greatest fear? And then use it against them.
And we’ll balance that with having having that session zero, the, you know, lines and veils basically like what are what are the things that you as a, you as a human being sitting in front of me do not want to talk about? And don’t make that your character’s greatest fear, because otherwise I’m going to leverage it.
Yeah, with horror and stuff like this it’s always important to establish like lines that are unacceptable across for your players. Like okay, we’re not going to cross these lines. These are like hard set rules, because you don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable. Yeah, nobody
No one should have to use the safe word during D&D. That’s what I always say.
So if I can just touch on some safety tools there real quick, Randall, you mentioned Lines and Veils, which is a excellent safety tool and RPGs. For people unfamiliar, a line is a hard line that the game shall never cross. So if you say like this, this subject is a hard line for me that that line should never be crossed within the game table
Real quick, I’m going to give a classic, a very serious example, you might have somebody at the table who says never hurt children, or no children, period, like we’re gonna have a word game, do not bring them in, as it as a DM or as a GM. honor that 100%
And like me and Colby ran an evil game and one of the things we started out was, these are the few lines we’re not gonna cross one of those is like, we’re not going to do sexual assault, because that’s just not okay. And that’s not something that we want to bring into our games, stuff like that. There are just lines that… people are here to have fun. I know that the world is shitty, you don’t need to remind me the world is shitty.
Now, two good examples of lines but you had one more.
Yeah, so veils are a little bit softer. So a veil is something that you’re okay being in the game but you don’t want to specifically describe so that’s a like “fade to black” moment. So if so, for me, real-world example, terrified of spiders. I would probably declare spiders is a veil in a game. Like if someone were to be… or if the DM were to say like “and your character is covered in a mountain of spiders.” I woul,d I would be super not okay with that. And yet somehow Random managed to run the demon web pits for me one time.
As someone that afraid of spiders, it wasn’t a good time for either of us.
In defense of him, you can’t tell him something like that and not expect him to use it, come on!
That’s what, uh, that’s why you use lines and veils because it’s it’s an easy target. But there has to be a line. So for me, veils, if someone or if the DM were to say, “hey, spiders happen” and I, and I had to establish that as a fail DM says “spiders happen, fade to black” and be like, okay, I personally am, and my character, we are both now terrified. I’m sold on the horror, I bought in. But I appreciate that I was not… I did not have to listen to a verbal description of spiders existing.
So your wife has to kill spiders for you, huh?
Oh, gosh, no. We got cats because we were told that cats would hunt bugs.
Yeah, I could have told you that. No, don’t get cats for that. They will never do that for you. I have a cat and she… We had roaches when we were in Savannah. And she would she would like bat it around. But she wouldn’t like kill it or anything to now.
Actually pro-cat propaganda put out by the cats.
Well, yeah, so the cats didn’t work out. So now we just have a really good exterminator.
They kept the cats. Like the cats didn’t workout for killing spiders, the cats are still alive.
They didn’t serve their purpose. They’re gone. Yes.
Yeah, my cat appeared on the the previous bonus episode if you listen very carefully.
I see also Dan has a cat in his lap right now.
Producer Dan, office full of cats all the time.
He’s the perfectly sane cat fella. So what have we done? What have we talked through, we’ve talked about the roller coaster of emotion that we want people to experience. We started with malaise. We want people to be uneasy. Want folks to know that the road isn’t quite right, but not be able to put their finger on it, not understand why not understand the negative that’s going to come with it. We want folks to feel the anxiety. We want them to be worried about the unknown consequences or outcomes that are in front of them. Because that’s what anxiety is, right? Like we’re anxious because we don’t know what’s gonna go wrong. Just it never goes right for me, so surely this is going to be bad. Now that’s an easy assumption. We want to build that into dread, which is anticipation of a negative near-term outcome that is going to be bad for my character, and potentially bad for me, like spiders.
And and we’ve talked about a lot of great tools for building this. And I think the biggest thing that we’ve, like, my takeaway from our conversation, is that we need the players to experience this if the goal is horror, if the goal is to induce dread. And to get that endorphin rush that we all enjoy when we sit and we watch a scary movie, if we’re into that. We need to have the players have that experience more than we need the player characters to have that experience.
But yeah, no. And I think that is definitely key difference between horror and just like anxiety inducing situation or normal fantasy game because like it’s easy to scare players. It’s hard, uh, player characters, it’s hard to scare players.
Yeah, 100%. But there’s tools for it. I think we talked about some cool ways that you could do this within the rule set of fifth edition, and certainly bringing things from other rule sets, and leveraging them to kind of play in your fifth edition game. So you don’t have to have everybody flipp through a brand new rule set just to have maybe one arc or one session. Definitely makes sense. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of great content out there if you wanted to play. So one that we talked about already is Call of Cthulhu. It, right, looks fantastic. I think it actually would be something I’d be pretty interested in.
It’s a lot of fun. You should give it a try.
No, definitely. We talked about Death House, we talked about Ravenloft, one we haven’t talked about is the 10 Candles RPG.
Yeah, so this this is an indie RPG from cavalry games that came out a couple of years ago. It’s… it is a horror one-shot game. Like, that is the premise of the game. You play the game sitting around a table in a room lit only by 10 real-world tea lights, and the mechanic of the game is over the course of the game, you will gradually extinguish those tea lights. And the game ends when all 10 lights are out, at which point all of the characters die. And that is the expectation you go in. And you go into the game with that expectation. Everyone is going to die at the end of this one-shot. And the characters in the game know that they are about to die. They are essentially looking for hope in the last few horrifying hours of their existence. And everything I’ve heard about it has been absolutely wonderful and I have been too scared to read it.
I definitely have to check that out.
We should actually just play it some time. I think that’s the answer.
I feel like that’s a good answer. It would probably It’d be good for me.
Cathartic? Yeah. All right. Tyler, do we have a question of the week this week?
We do have a question of the week. I even wrote it down. And here it is. Okay, so this comes from @cursedKenku On Twitter: “do you think 5e will eventually rework the once progressed mechanics in favor of x per proficiency bonus?”
That’s a very specific rework.
Can you, uh, can you repeat that question?
Yeah. Do you think fifth edition will eventually rework once per rest mechanics in favor of X number of times per proficiency bonus? So I think they’re referring to more recent mechanics, which started… started appearing in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, where like a class, I would have I can do this thing a number of times per day equal to my proficiency bonus, and as we’ve seen, yeah, so in my opinion, will we see a rework? Probably in the, the 2024 next evolution of D&D.
I’m really curuous as to what that is?
Yeah, there’s supposed to be some announcements this month, and we’re recording this episode before we get those announcements, unfortunately, but look for look for news about that in the podcast feeds.
But I get the feeling when it comes out, we’re probably gonna talk about it.
Oh, yeah, most definitely.
I agree. I mean, I think that it is a much… so it’s a great way to keep it as a limited number of uses per day without, you know, trying to balance around something like how many short rests a party might take, while still give you more than just once, because a lot of things at only once per day can feel really not impactful.
But you know, particularly one of my favorite instances of these is Flash of Genius off the Artificer, it is incredibly satisfying to use, it is always impactful. And you know, you’re gonna get it somewhere between, I think you by the time you get it, you’re already proficiency bonus three, so you’re going to get it somewhere between three and six times a day. And that’s enough to feel like maybe that’s once per fight. Or, you know, maybe that’s I’m going to use it a couple times in this really critical social encounter with the king of the realm or whatever, I think that they’re definitely going to start heading that direction, because it is much more satisfying. Because at once per day, you sort of run into that problem of like, Ah, yes, I’ve got this potion in the tutorial. I am never going to use it because I have one potion, then I can’t use it. I say because what if I need it? And I don’t have it? Right?
On the other side of the spectrum, what is it? It’s the, this, the feature that clerics get, I can’t remember the name.
Channel divinity, thank you, they get an absolutely pitiful number of uses out of it. It’s only like max two.
it is per short rest, though.
especially for… It is per short rest, that is true. But especially for clerics, some of them have like really situational challenges in the uses. And you’re gonna be like, I don’t want to use it in case I can’t get a short rest in. Like, I’ve played clerics before, and I think I’ve used my channel divinity like, very rarely, because I’m always like, no, I gotta save it for this next thing. I think like channel divinity could probably benefit from a proficiency bump.
So I’ll ask the question, like, if you’re DM why wait? You could just put out this rule today?
I would definitely be careful of that for the things that are currently once per day because they are power balanced around X number of times per day. I can’t think of a lot of good examples that are explicitly, like, once per day that aren’t either racial-based or on casters. Again, you’re gonna want to be really careful about who you’re granting these things to, because in general, anything that’s limited to once per day is already on a thing where they needed to limit that to once per day because it’s already strong. Maybe you look at this as like, okay, has this character gone through and picked a bunch of blue options? No, you get it once per day, stop that. Has this character built someone who’s interesting and maybe needs a little bit of a boost? Sure, let’s give you proficiency bonus per long rest. And so I would say, woulf I allow it? Case by case, but with a real heavy leaning towards I’m probably not going to unless there’s a good reason for it.
Yeah, I think there’s probably a social care here of having that conversation of like Okay, look, I noticed you’ve never used this is it because you’re saving it for when you really have to have it. In which case I don’t mind you having to have them because just use the feature.
Especially it was a really cool feature and counter that argument. Nothing’s balanced in 5e. And like, I’ll quote Mike Mearls, and he says, I don’t mind giving my players broken shit because I can break the game like 10 times more than they can as the DM.
So just kind of depends.
They’re mutually assured now anyway.
Awesome. So I think the answer to this from everyone is yes, we’re gonna see more of this. If you want to backport it, case-by-case basis is a good way to look at it. My personal opinion, if it recharges once per short rest, using the one time per proficiency bonus is probably a good transition. Like the dragonborn’s breath weapon is probably a good example of something I would say yeah, okay. Once once per day, per proficiency.
Yeah, they need the proficiency buff.
Yeah, I’m really hoping Fizban is going to do a lot of great things for the dragonborn.
Okay, I just want to check on that. Right? So I can cast Dragon’s Breath and then for a minute, right, because this has actually happened on our game recently. I can twin spell Dragon’s Breath. So I can touch two people and for a minute they can breath fire.
Or just touch your familiar.
Yeah, and yeah, can can breathe fire 10 times, but the actual dragonborn and gets to use it once.
And it’s a pitiful amount of damage. Like it’s so bad.
Because sorcerers are better dragons than dragonborn, I guess?
I know, it makes me so mad. Dragon line sorcerers are better dragonborns than dragonborns. See what the f*** wizards?
Yes. When you want to choose dragon for your race and your class. We did have one very, very glorious moment in our… Randall and I share a game currently where everyone in the party had a breath weapon for about two rounds. And it was spectacular.
That sounds, that sounds awesome.
It was a beautiful 12 seconds. All right. Well, I think we did it. I think that’s a whole episode. Next episode, we have something really special. It’s the culmination of spooktober. We’re going to do a horror one-shot. Yeah, yeah. All right. I’m Randall James. You can find me atr amateurjack.com also @JackAmateur on Twitter and Instagram.
I’m Tyler Kamstra, I’m already scared. You can find me at RPGBOT.net. You can find me on Twitter and Facebook at RPGBOTDOTNET and patreon.com/RPGBOT.
I’m Random pal. You won’t find me much on social media. Although in places where people play games, I’m often there as Hartlequin or Hartlequint. But mostly you’ll find me here contributing to RPGBOT both articles on the website and here on the podcast.
And I’m Ash. I don’t have a lot of public social media. But like I said at the beginning, you can follow our podcast, my podcast and Colby’s podcast, Crit Fails. Twitter at @crit_fails, Colby kind of manages all of that stuff that they just did sort of temper where they put a bunch of custom swords every day for 30 days. So check them out, because they put a lot of work in.
Yeah, a lot of those were really great. Honestly, I might use a couple of my games and Colby drew all of the art too, which was a surprise.
Yeah, they were they were exhausted by the end
I can imagine!
Nice. Nice. All right. Thanks to producer Dan. All hail the Leisure Illuminati. Oh,
All right. You’ll find affiliate links for source books and other materials linked in the show notes. Following these links helps us make the show happen every week. I think we talked a lot about a lot of cool stuff. In particular, the Heroes of Horror from 3.5 on DMsGuild. Go get it. Castle Ravenloft is also available. If horror is something that you want to delve into, there’s a lot of great resources, and if you happen to buy them through the affiliate links, it really helps us keep doing what we’re doing. You can find our podcast wherever find podcasts are sold. If you enjoy this podcast, please rate, review, and subscribe and share it with your friends. If your question should be the question of the week next week, please email podcast@RPGBOT.net or message us on Twitter @RPGBOTDPTNET. If your monster should be the monster the week next week. Please message us on Twitter at RPGBOTDOTNET, hashtag #Monsterizer.