Night descends, enveloping the small town in creeping shadows. The party looks out from the safety of their inn room. They know the kinds of monsters that lurk in the dark and the many ways to face them, and the time for that will come. Before they can destroy the horrors, they must first research, investigate, and prepare. There is much to do, and they can only hope to succeed before their names are added to the list of victims.
Knowing the content of horror encounters is all well and good, but there is more to it than that. Handling elements of fearful suspense requires careful management of tone and pace. Player investigations, unraveling clues, and your own descriptions all need to be juggled at once, meaning that most of your effort is outside of combat. It is the planning and running of these moments that we’d like to ease. Whether you’re making use of our horror encounters, running a particular horror adventure, or simply wanting to learn ways to invoke terror and scares in your players, we aim to help.
1d20 Horror Encounters
Our advice here is written to be universal across any horror setting. While we will reference our own encounters and adventures, they are not the only applicable situations. If you’d like to learn more about our specific encounters, or simply find inspiration, have a look at our other content. We have a series of 20 Horror Encounters, as well an entire horror adventure set in the hag-cursed Banahogg Swamp.
Encounters by Environment – Horror
We also have an ‘Encounters by Environment – Horror’ PDF that collects the information from this article and our 20 encounters, bundled with a selection of appropriate maps and resources. The format makes it more mobile and significantly easier to reference and use at the table. The downloads also go towards supporting our writing efforts and allowing us to continue.
Part of a Larger World
One of the first things to consider about your encounters is how they fit into the larger campaign and world. The specific tone of horror adventures gives both advantages and disadvantages by creating an atmosphere of isolation. This is usually easy if your entire campaign follows a horror theme. For those that don’t, there are some aspects to keep in mind.
A Pocket of Darkness
As mentioned, horror adventures thrive on a sense of isolation and helplessness. It’s hard for players to feel scared if they have access to allies they can call on or simple ways to escape. This is one of the reasons that small towns are such effective settings. You can use the settlements as microcosmic worlds separate from the wider landscape. Using the context of the encounter to emphasize or cause this, such as an affliction in the town or a monster stalking around it, creates an effective feeling of claustrophobia. Your players should experience the mindset of the townsfolk; the walls are closing in and time is ticking away.
Isolating the encounters can create troubles when linking it to its surroundings. You don’t want your horror adventures to feel as if they have a defined border, outside of which the world is perfectly fine (unless that plays into the specific encounter). Try not to have detours from the encounter’s center that would see players leaving the threat’s influence. Instead, consider having the events lead them to other affected areas or even closer to the source where the effects and pressure are more apparent. This serves to gradually build fear and stress until the climax. The only breaks should be small reprieves for the sake of your players. This not only helps with consistency and tone but also adds a greater reward for success. The first signs of regular life after leaving the encounter will act as an exhale of relief.
While moving within your horror adventures should give a feeling of disconnection, it is still important to still integrate them into your world. The simplest way to do this is for people nearby to have a passing knowledge of the events or circumstances. In terms of towns and temporary influences (murders, monsters, cults), this can take the form of rumors that have drifted out. By nature, not much will have escaped the area due to not many people escaping. Inhabitants of a neighboring town might recognize a lack of shipments or travelers or mention talk of “nasty business” in the affected area. If asked why nothing has been done about it, you can either tease a previous attempt or simply mention a local guard force, understaffed and struggling against the threat.
Encounters involving hauntings, curses, or corrupted landscapes can be similarly teased before entry. In this case, it is most likely that people in the immediate vicinity will be aware of the rumors and stories. You can position them either as local legends or as a known issue. In the former, neighbors can mention different recountings as one might when speaking to tourists. Characters can be split between those that do and do not believe them to be real, acting with fitting levels of frivolity. In the case that the encounter’s contents proven, stories will shift to warnings from first-hand witnesses. Locals will shy away from the areas, adjusting their lives to avoid it. They will likely also have more concrete information to pass on.
Both of these options work to connect your encounters with the larger world before players enter. This is done to alleviate the negative effects of isolation, such as a slowed campaign pace or even feeling like filler. The next steps to preventing this come from maintaining flow within the encounters, which we will cover next. A final note is that these connections can also be done after the encounter. The same characters that would warn the party might congratulate or be impressed by them on the other side. Perhaps an innkeeper who profits from the area’s reputation could offer the players a free meal in exchange for their story?
Due to the segmented nature of horror adventures and encounters, many quiet moments occur within the events. Each encounter tends to be divided into different, progressive events, connected by stretches of player control. Similarly, it is rare for them to occur as roadside or random, quick occurrences. They are inherently more involved than other encounters. This all boils down to the quiet moments being more about maintaining tone and ambiance while your players move between sections of single encounters.
Understanding Your Horror
While we use ‘horror’ as a catch-all term for the genre, there are more specific categories within it. It’s important to understand the different types of horror, as each one uses different effects and has its own purpose. Certain people are more susceptible to specific categories and some are likewise resistant. As an example, I know that my players are squeamish towards body horror. This helped point me in the right direction for the previous Banahogg Adventure. It is important to have an understanding of your own players and what can scare them. This can come from previous encounters, knowing them out of the game, or may involve using a horror adventure to test them. Once you understand their habits and preferences, encounter design becomes much easier and more focused.
There are different ways to categorize horror. Our own explanation will use Stephen King’s ‘3 types of terror’ for ease of use as well as applicability to our own encounters.
The Gory and Gross
“The sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.“
The fear of gore is perhaps the simplest to explain and utilize, though not always to greatest effect. Blood, wounds, and dismemberment generate scares simply by being witnessed. They also lead those involved to begin thinking; what if the same thing happens to them? This form of horror is used to great effect in film and other visual media, where the sight of the gore creates an air of disgusted chills or fright. It is the chest-burster’s appearance in ‘Alien‘, or Glen’s death in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street‘.
This puts an obvious obstacle in the way of using gore in tabletop settings: your players cannot physically see what is in front of them. Circumventing this comes in part from the visuals and ensuring a detailed description, as well as focusing on the mental aspects. Rather than lingering or reveling in the description of blood dripping, describe it in the same pace and calm tone as you would anything else, focusing on visual details rather than drilling in the gory visuals. Doing this pushes your players’ minds to fill in details and reasons for what their characters are seeing. This plays into a common theme among horror media: what you can’t see is scarier than what you can see.
An example of this was Encounter 12 of our Banahogg Swamp Encounters. The obelisk, strung with parts from human and animal subjects, acted as a ritual site for the nearby hags. Nothing happened in the encounter after finding the stone. Instead, I described the formation as clearly and plainly as I would anything else, leaving my players’ imaginations to form horrifying questions. They were filled with thoughts of what had done it, why they had done it, and simply recognizing that it had been done to another person. I didn’t ask, and certainly didn’t answer, any of these questions. They did. You might also notice that these link to other forms of horror, which was intentional; gore serves especially well to enhance the other categories.
“The unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.“
Horror, as a specific category rather than the umbrella term, can closely resemble gore. This is particularly apparent when making use of body horror, which acts as a combination of the two. To simplify it mentally, you can narrow King’s definition of horror to be a fear of ‘the unnatural’. It usually involves the twisting of something familiar into a monstrous, alien form. Examples of this are the creature from ‘The Thing‘, the many mutations in ‘Annihilation‘, and the slow metamorphoses of ‘District 9‘ and ‘The Fly‘ (David Cronenberg being a pioneer filmmaker of the body horror genre).
With its close ties to gore, horror is perhaps the easiest to achieve in a tabletop medium. This comes from the same ability to describe important aspects and leave players to fill in the rest. Your descriptions will focus on the familiar pieces and how they have been changed, rather than covering every intricate detail. The gore takes a backseat to the unsettling form of your monster or location. Don’t just tell players that they see a zombie. Describe the way its humanity has been stripped away; detail the damage its form has sustained and the way it looks at them, empty save for its hunger.
An effective method of doing this is to initially hide the unfamiliar, either by distance or visual obscurement. This serves as a ‘calm before the storm’, before your players’ heartrates spike with the realization of the truth. It forces similar questions to gore, however here they see the result rather than the method. As you may have guessed, all this is extra effective when the ‘familiar’ is a human form.
Examples in our own content include Horror Encounters 8 and 17 and Banahogg Encounter 17. All of these use a similar thread of a form that appears initially human before revealing its true nature. Kindly innkeepers or a mounted fighter lull players into comfort and hope, respectively. While the former prevents them from suspecting anything, the latter is designed to push them towards a closer investigation. The lurking face in Horror Encounter 17, conversely, puts them immediately on edge. These three approaches represent different ways to prepare players. They create an atmosphere of either safety or anticipation, which can both enhance the later revelation. The description of what is truly lurking should suck the air out of the room.
“…when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”
While horror is the unnatural, terror is most often the unseen. It is the fear of a predatory threat that is not directly witnessed, hides in plain sight, or acts as a mastermind behind the curtain. It is the fear of being prey. Terror plays into the building of gore and horror but can also be the most difficult to use precisely. This is where many movies fail by placing their creature in plain sight or direct, physical interaction with characters. The key is to maintain the unknown. Successful film examples of this are ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘, ‘The Ritual‘, and (most of) ‘It Follows‘.
Fair warning for anyone that has not seen these movies, as we are about to spoil the latter two. If you have not seen them, skip over the next paragraph and go watch them. They’re both enjoyable and reasonably effective horror films, despite some shortcomings.
Terror often serves as the buildup to horror. This is mostly due to the need for a climax in traditional stories, in which the monster must be overcome in some way. But these confrontations can go either way in terms of quality. We chose our latter two examples specifically to demonstrate this. Both avoid direct reveals of the antagonistic creature until later in their runtimes. In ‘The Ritual’, the creature is hidden behind trees and in quick movements, only witnessed by its actions. When it is shown, its full form is still cloaked in shadows and silhouettes and involves a mix of human and animal parts, in addition to its size. This trades terror for horror. Meanwhile, ‘It Follows’ loses both when the lurking entity starts grabbing hair and throwing haymakers. The monster doesn’t change but it directly interacts with the characters in a way that is not horrifying.
The point of this comparison is to show that terror must often develop into other forms of horror to avoid risking an anticlimax. Tabletop groups, as unscripted characters in a world designed for their enjoyment, will expect to be able to solve problems. They will move towards a resolution. Your horror adventure should account for this in some way, even if the solution is simply reaching safety. If there is to be a confrontation, consider making use of gore and horror in your creature description. Alternatively, terror-based encounters can conclude with solutions other than conflict, by solving the issue indirectly. This could mean breaking a curse that is raising the dead, casting a banishment ritual, or reuniting the bodies in our Horror Encounter 1 (the Daughter of the Mill).
Keep in mind that there are acceptable ways to relieve the terror and horror elements for your encounter’s conclusion. It can be done without affecting the quality, as long as the journey there was sufficiently scary. Having your players feel empowered to face a previously terrifying threat can act as a great reward and motivation for their efforts. Good examples of this are the conclusions of ‘The Cabin in the Woods‘ and our own Horror Encounter 12. You can incorporate similar story elements to lead to a point where the power dynamic shifts in favor of the party.
Horror Encounters 11, 13, and 17 are some other examples of building encounters with terror. While 11 uses an entirely unseen threat with growing influence, the other two feature monsters that hide behind human faces. These generate terror from players knowing or realizing that something is watching them, yet not knowing what or who. You’ll notice that all three encounters lead to varying conclusions: 11 has an indirect solution that may involve combat, 17 trades the terror for the horror of an oblex replicating consumed victims, and 13 sacrifices its terror to emphasize the revealed human aspects of its ‘monsters’. These all represent different ways to resolve a terror encounter without losing the impact that it all built towards.
Preparing a Canvas
Horror adventures are generally built on the idea of putting in a lot of effort to achieve an equally large payoff. This begins with careful preparation of the encounter’s area and tone. While many horror encounters function as the usual series of sequential events, some of the most effective do this in sandbox environments. These work to put players in control of their actions and consequences. They likewise shift the focus of planning. Rather than creating a concrete story for players to follow, you should be dropping them into a realistic, pre-existing network of locations and characters. It is up to them to find their way through.
Outside of the immersion of realistic towns and spaces, putting your players in control also adds to the horror. The pressure it places on them forms an atmosphere of stress and isolation. By making your players feel much the same way their characters do, you shorten the disconnect between them. This makes it easier and more effective to scare players through what their characters witness. After all, your objective is not to scare the party, but rather the players controlling them. Having full influence over the encounter also adds weight to its resolution. Success will be more rewarding, while failure will appropriately feel more taxing.
While many horror adventures can be very linear, the maintained player control means that they function similar to investigations. Our Encounters 7 and 20 focus on escaping a threat, but it still falls on players to find the solution. This is in contrast to encounters within settlements, in which the investigation format is at its peak and these tips are the most relevant. That said, some others act as roadside or very brief encounters. In this case, your focus shifts to atmosphere and tone, which will be covered in the next section.
But how do you go about creating these spaces? The first step comes from designing a setting that exists independently from the encounter. This is to emphasize realism and to help disguise the encounter’s introduction (more on that in the next section). Rather than stringing together different encounter locations, do what you can to map out an area that is functional and realistic, whether it be the streets and buildings of a town or the natural randomness of a forest. Once the location is created, you apply the encounter to it like overlaying a filter. Choose appropriate locations for key clues and events and think about how they connect. Alternatively, you can proactively integrate this step into your town planning. Just make sure that their placement and presence make sense outside of the current encounter.
Next comes doing the same for any characters. Assuming you have notes and roles for some key faces, expand them with their knowledge of the encounter. Think about each individual character’s habits, schedule, and connections, and use that to determine what they might know. Ration the available information, as it should ultimately come down to your players to discover important truths. Similarly, think about how the characters each react to the circumstance. Their outlooks and motivations should be varied and will determine the information they give out. Some might be confident enough to have their own plans, while others’ fear might affect their perception, making their information less reliable. Others might have reason to withhold information from nosey interlopers.
As Danger Arises
The key to introducing a horror adventure or encounter is to take it slow. Transitioning to an effective horror tone requires subtlety to ensure players are not aware of it. If they know it’s coming, they are less likely to be scared. This means maintaining tight control of both planning and delivery.
For a start, the encounter itself should be a gradual reveal. You will notice with many of our encounters that they do not instantly betray their true nature. Instead, we use progressive steps to build towards the true horror encounter. These steps come in the form of clues to discover, minor events to hint what is coming, or atmospheres that motivate players to investigate. All of these promote player immersion and interaction by giving a feeling of autonomous pursuit. While the first clues might be unsettling, players should still feel confident in their control of the situation even if they are now on guard. This confidence is, in essence, your bait.
As your clues build, you can unveil more and more horror aspects. This can come either as a sudden turn or a more gradual progression; both have their merits. This is also where each encounter will deviate along its own path. As you do, remember the effectiveness of terror and the art of the ‘slow build’. Just because players are hip-deep in the encounter, doesn’t mean you should stop using suspense. Give them brief reprieves if and when you need to but always use that as a way to introduce more scares.
In the Moment
Controlling your tone and actions at the table can come with more difficulty than in planning. It is important to not get carried away and remember what your ultimate goal is. If it helps, keep some small notes of key aspects you need to focus on or improve. You can even pre-write your descriptions. This can help not only improve the quality of writing but also requires less improvisation when you have so much else to be thinking about. Find what strategies work for you and do whatever helps simplify and streamline your job in the moment.
When it comes to horror adventures, there are a few techniques that can help your delivery, many of which boil down to the avoidance of action scenes. Remember, combat is only scary if players are out of their depth and parties will tend to believe they have a chance of winning. Rather than proving them wrong with a TPK, try to avoid the situation entirely. If you do want to involve a clearly unwinnable fight, we find players catch on faster when they are wildly outnumbered or greatly impeded than when facing one enormous creature.
For your descriptions of the party’s environment, try to keep a measured and steady voice. Unlike other encounter types, your voice should not be directly telling them what to feel. It is scarier to keep a blank face as you describe the horror. This serves to make the description come off as more villainous and unfeeling, as well as enforcing the isolation that we are constantly striving for. You separate yourself and any sense of ‘DM protection’ from the party to leave them stranded in the situation. When combat does engage, you can change to a more expressive tone as the scene shifts from terror towards horror or gore.
It might seem a minor point, but it can also help to keep any battle maps hidden until combat has begun. The purpose of this is to prevent telegraphing the possibility of battle. Putting a detailed map in front of your players will flip their subconscious switches to think tactically and expect combat. Why else would the DM have made the effort to get a map, after all? Instead, do what you can to stick to ‘theatre of the mind’, making use of descriptive notes or simply referring to your own version of the map. If they are using a town or region map, feel free to leave that on the table. The battle map should only come out as initiative is rolled and the combat or puzzle begins.
Matthew Mercer is, as always, a great example of this. You can often notice that he will approach scenes of terror by shutting down his own expressions and separating himself from jokes at the table. He isolates his players in the moment. Likewise, the battle maps only appear when initiative is rolled. Mercer is a professional actor, of course. Don’t expect to be able to immediately do the same and remember that your players don’t expect it either. Comparisons should only be used to find constructive ways of improving yourself.
Once the Storm has Passed
Whatever might come next, give your players a moment to recover after your horror adventures. The inherent stress and pressure of horror themes can make them taxing on players. Use their conclusion to give your party time to breathe and relax. You can expect them to be moving slower and thinking less tactically, provided the threat has passed. This makes it a good time to give the characters themselves some time off. You can step back and rest your own mind from the constant, detailed focus. Meanwhile, let your players remain in control but don’t pressure them with anything important. They may simply be walking back to town, continuing their travel, or having a much-needed drink in the nearby tavern.
Remember also to have associated characters react to the encounter’s conclusion. This aids the tonal relief if the party was successful. Appreciative townsfolk could buy them a round at the bar or otherwise celebrate their victory. If your players did well, reward them for it. Likewise, failure should come with consequences. We would still advise a quiet period between the conclusion and any fallout to not overburden your players. When they do face the aftermath, your results will vary by the encounter. You could formulate a new plot thread as a way to redeem themselves, or an angry mob might drive them out of town. Or maybe everyone is dead; it depends entirely on what went wrong.
As a small note, we would still encourage slowing the pace between encounters set in larger horror campaigns or regions. Even if you plan for another horror adventure to follow, it is still important to reset your players and give them time to recover. Propelling them from one scary encounter to another only serves to undermine your work by normalizing the horror. You might consider including a small, more ordinary encounter to distract them. Make them comfortable between horror encounters to avoid them becoming comfortable with horror encounters.
With the scary month passed, we also find our horror adventures coming to an end. Fortunately, this means it’s time for you and your players to take a breath. While you’re relaxing, you might want to look at some of our previous articles for other environments.
We’d love to hear anything you have to say, whether it be feedback, ideas, or stories. Also, let us know if there’s a particular environment or theme you’d like us to cover next!
Fear not, travelers and masters of dungeons. We have all the articles, maps, and resources you might need for your next perilous adventure…