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Horror Events

Horror

Hundreds of birds flock into trees surrounding a property, watchful and silent as anyone nears the gates. All the buyers of a fine sword all seem to die within a year of owning it, killed by the blade. Your favorite fruit seller has gone missing and no one seems to remember them...only you. Members of your hunting party camp in the old stones of a fallen house, and wake to find matching symbols tattooed on each of your hands. Local fisherman speak of a lights on a small island in the lake, but none dare go near it. You and a group of strangers arrive to a tower in the mountains, invited by a lady few remember, inviting you all to a late dinner... Farmer Peters has the finest apples in the county and a terrifying scarecrow in the orchard wearing a familiar old cloak. Prayers to a new statue in the old church seem to come true, then turn sour.

What is horror? A sense of fright, feeling off? A moment that strikes and earns a yelp of surprise? A rising tension that claims your breath and makes you want to run, yet you cannot move? An anger that consumes the senses and spurs a terrible need to destroy everything around you? A chilling silence and absence of...everything?

Horror events and campaigns delve into not only the macabre (disturbing depictions of death and injury), but into situations and sensations that leave us uncomforatble. The genre highlights a series of situations with growing unease and complexity, even a slasher flick has a complicated backstory and splinter of true fear beyond brutal murder. This guide helps you find your way through creating and running these events.

Not a fan of horror?

Horror does not have to be overwhelming amounts of gore, terror, grandiose speeches, or Hellraiser levels of twisted themes. These events can lightly tough on aspects of horror, evoking a dark angle without giving YOU nightmares. If you have an event you have run before, and want to add a touch of darkness, give this a try following the guide. Slight tweaks to writing alone can shift a battle into chilling terror.

Game Genres

This guide can be used for MMO-RPG in-game events, tabletop games, LARPs, and more! The rolling rules are for a d20 system, but you could easily convert this to a d10 World of Darkness table of successes and botches, d6 Shadowrun system, and so on.

Too Scary?

If a bit of information or example scene may be too dark, it will be hidden in an option to click and expand.

Deeper Horror
This is an example of hidden content to watch for.

What makes a good horror tale?

Before plotting out terrifying scenes, let's consider the elements of a good horror story.

Dark events begin with normal circumstances and touches of something off-kilter, uncertain, or out-of-place. You build upon these elements, leading through the senses and mixing history and lore. Woven details. Rushing players through an area, mentioning something lurks in the dark, and ending in a sudden gory scene with exquisite details of dismemberment and lustful wrath is one type of horror. Giving the killer some backstory unearthed through discussions, investigations, and strange interactions touched with a series of incidents forwarning the inevitable definitely chills players to the bone and leads to glorious tension and conflict.

What frightens you and your players may differ greatly as these tales depend on subjective fear. Simply throwing a ton of blood and skulls in a room may not send the warrior half-orc running for the hills. A creepy noble sharing the same cat eyes as the feline settled in his lap may not concern an elven druid of the wild. There are methods to twist and turn these scenes to make those hardened folk quake.

Likewise, delving too far into horror can send players running or disturb them, not their characters. Driving players on a Cthulhu mythos journey of extreme details in madness, people carving each other up, gory ritual circles, without pausing to breath can end badly. Using too many real-world images and catastrophes, personal histories of players, or surgical levels of detail can sicken rather than disturb.

Strike a balance in details, between gore and darkness, between realism and magic.

Rate Your Event & Warn Your Players

When you run these events, always let your players know what they are in for! Not many players want extreme levels of horror, they may have nightmares or retch from descriptions. Consider giving your event a level of horror from 1 (light acts of evil) to 5 (Cthulhu is at the door) and a genre description. Some folks may run in terror away from a body horror event and arrive excited for a ghost story.

Horror Building Blocks

The following are a few building blocks of story and mechanics to consider when creating tales of horror.

Determine what haunts or hunts the story. The story can include multiple facets of horror, but needs a clear focus for the core of it. Is it a villain, an object, a location, a person, history, magic, religion, and so on.

Decide on what kind of fear and horror you want to express. This gives you a theme to work with. Here are some theme examples:

  • Gorefest: A joyride through death like Mad Max Fury Road or Freddy in Nightmare on Elm Street. War, murder, deviltry all with a high death count can be the crux of horror. What would players to do stop it? What is driving the murder?
  • Psychological Horror: Consider this type "hooked on a feeling". Pick an emotion and take it too far. How can love become twisted and torn? Perhaps the antagonist kills everyone in their path to gain the object of their desire, lying, killing, and capitalizing on situations. What would the villain need to commit for a perfect sense of peace? They may need to destroy all considered evil or mind control those that refuse to live by the rules.
  • Ghost Stories: Look through all of the amazing supernatural ghosts available and craft a tale. Why does it remain, not contiuing to their afterlife? What will players need to resolve?
  • Aberration Terror: These are creatures from the beyond, cosmic horror, strange and alien concepts that cause madness. How do you dispel or return the evil? Who brought it and what keeps it here? How do you stop something summoned by cults or reawakened by accidental sacrifice in an old ruin, or released from magicial bonds.
  • Cursed Creations: These are considered classic cult creatures including vampires, werewolves, and mummies. They have intelligence, a past. Are they tragic, long lived and hating it? Do they despise themselves and seek to spread the curse? Are they awakened by rituals and spells or disturbed awake? Other curses could be nature gone wild, magic or science accidents. Lepergnomes...
  • Utopic/Dystopic: Take the extremes of perfection and apocalyptic worlds and turn it into a tale. These sometimes require a setting, but can work as a singular event or campaign.
  • Body Horror: This type can truly disturb or freak out your players. The body turning on itself or against the owners mind, twisted creations, shaped flesh can delve far into descriptions that can sicken. But the tales can also be incredible.

Define the intent of the horror, what causes and draws it, what does it want. Some things are inherently dark, such as demons. They may have a clear order to destroy or kill in key locations to summon others of its kind. And others can be gray. A noble may want to remove rivals, gaining control of a city or kingdom through magic and war. A holy paladin may fall to their zealot need, moving from cleansing and preaching to destroying all in their path...convert or die. This desire gives evil a realistic edge that can concern and terrify.

Define the acts of this evil. There are clear actions considered evil or twisted to become evil. Players can track these acts, the plans and effects, to find and deal with the evil or their adversary. Here are some examples:

  • Cheating and breaking rules for personal gain, forcing others to do their dirty work, twisting simple rules into life breaking situations. This can edge into greed, another intent that leads to many evil actions.
  • Theft of items, people, and riches by themselves or through others. Hiring the players to steal something, killing all witnesses, seem beneficial but soon drives them all into darker actions.
  • Betrayal through a simple lie, earning and destroying trust at just the right moment, committed intentially for gain, to protect others, under duress, and so on. A paladin could betray faith, king their people, a lover their loved.
  • Murder is the destruction of others. The evil is a delight in ending lives, an expression of power, a willingness to answer a call or demand, all for a specific goal.
  • Vengeance can lead to a series of evil acts all to gain ultimate revenge. These can occur by the hand of the villain or induced through others, even the players.
  • Worship of dark powers to gain some end. Demons, gods, ghosts, so many supernatural entities wander the world waiting to be called or sated through dark arts.

Provide multiple methods of ending the evil. Players may miss the one or two clues you place before them, or come up with incredible ideas of their own to solve the problems. Write up a few ideas of what created the evil, how did it get to this point, and how to solve it. For example, if summoned through a ritual, will breaking it actually send it back or release it for greater evil? What then?

Create a believable evil with greatness and faults. A mustache twirling, laughing, ultra powerful villain with vampire and werewolf curses without weaknesses is boring and far more ridiculous than dark. For every strength, give it a flaw. Listing these invigorate a story and generate so many options for dark acts and ending threats.

Expand or change existing history and mythos with care. Integrating aspects of the game world you are in is excellent, but shifting major timelines, historic events, or well-known NPCs might cause players to focus on continuity or their favorite arguments of lore than interacting with your story. Borrow and flavor, and feel free to create something new and fresh. Not everyone needs to be Arthas Jr.

Evil does not have to start evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions is a perfect quote for expansive horror. Starting with a sense of lightness and goodness juxtaposed to the players revelations that their actions are truly despicable may envelop the seemingly fine tale with a dawning horror. Characters may see a foil or mirror to their views, actions, and past with a sudden clashing of their future writ in this evil before them.

Horror Inspirations

You can find a ton of incredible sources for inspiration. Here are just a few:

  • TV: Death Note, The Strain, Supernatural, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Grimm, Helstrom, Wynona Earp, Penny Dreadful, The Twilight Zone, The Following, Castlevania, Ash and the Evil Dead, American Horror Story, Castle Rock, Folklore, Alice in the Borderlands, Dark Carbon, The Outer Limits, The X-Files
  • Movies: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, In the Mouth of Madness, Event Horizon, Crimson Peak, The Changeling, The Thing, Mad Max Fury Road, Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Pumpkinhead, The Fly, The Exorcist, The Eye (original, not the US remake), The Conjuring universe, Equalibrium, Us, Pan's Labyrinth, Relic, Train to Busan, Anything del Toro and John Carpenter, Hellraiser, Ringo and Juon (originals), Hereditary, Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Omen (original), In the Shadow of the Vampire, The Shining
  • Books: Egdar Allen Poe, Lovecraft, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Stephen Graham Jones, Joe Hill, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Yoko Ogawa, Tananarive Due, Kafka, Guillermo del Toro, Harlan Ellison, Brian Lumley, D&D The Book of Vile Darkness
  • Other ideas: Myths and legends, historic events (real or in-game), Cthulhu video games, Sunless Sea
Some Dark Videos

Convert or die... Chronicles of Riddick

Madness of existance... In the Mouth of Madness

Refined Cthulhu

The classic body horror... The Thing

Building a Horror Event

To build an entire horror campaign starts with smaller ideas, key villains, and arcing plots. Before coming up with a campaign, let's start with an initial event to start. For these steps, we will create two types of horror events: psychological horror and splatterfest gore horror.

See How to Run Events & Campaigns for information and the following tips for horror:

  • Give your event and horror a theme. This can help you form ideas and give your players expectations. For example: ravaged by a curse, haunted mansion, rise of the dead, ritual gone bad, becoming a lich, death knights breaking from service, the fallen rightous, monster attacks, stolen artifact of a major power, murderous designs.
  • If the evil can be ended, have multiple methods for players to learn what is needed, materials/weapons/prayers to end the threat, NPCs to aid in resolving issues, and other ideas for conflict. If you tie everything to one or two places and items, they may not catch on and miss opportunities.
  • Provide NPCs and items that will have details to help, some may not know what they have or found, some may demand payment for the information. This can also be an interesting hook for a fight, learning the past, determining weaknesses, creating a solution, and so on.
  • Consider asking your players for backstory information or some of their fears. You can use these pieces to enhance and personalize the dark aspects touching on their personal story.
  • Create a map to track your horror story. Here is an example for horror events, MMO Warcraft and tabletop.

Craft the Villain

Every tale of terror has an antagonist, be it a person, location, supernatural element, and so on. To increase the drama and tale, consider building this villain as you would the entire campaign or a character you would love to play. Give them strengths and flaws, capable of bein truly diabolical or aiding others to become horrific. While I could write a ton of ideas, WoW DMing DM Craft has tackled that for us!

For a great guide on crafting villains, see DM Craft's Antagonist guide.

You may also use an uncommon villain, such as a curse or location:

  • Determine the level of intelligence. Is the location alive and aware or merely destroyed, dangerous, and reactive? A landscape of seething from a magical war or natural disaster may actively provide challenges to the players. They may need to cleanse, rebuild, deal with the dead, etc. If it is intelligent, players may feel watched, trees and earth may try to swallow them, animals driven to attack, etc. For curses and contagions, it may be virulent and medical infecting, or parasidic with an agenda and awareness through those it consumes.
  • Define what is required to end the threat. Do they need to cleanse the area, destroy an artifact, collect stolen items from a tomb? Can the illness be treated, how does magic affect it?
  • Build a history for the dark location/curse. A terrible battle, death, or spirit may have fallen on the land causing this change. The curse may have been seen before, enscrolled by casters or laid by fiends/celestials. Crafting a backstory gives you details to aid players and enrich key scenes.
  • Provide multiple methods to learn the secrets, while considering dark prices to pay for it. If they can't get to a library, perhaps they need to pay an eldering crone for insight, get sick with the illness to provide feedback, sacrifice something important to a higher power, and so on. Don't forget the horror aspect, demand a tithe.

Set the Horror Stage

Determine what the horror event is. This could be a couple sentences, which gives you something fantastic to give players when starting the event.

  • Lady VanDain's Invitation: Psychological horror of a haunted mansion where the host has turned trespassers and visitors into statuary in a garden, extending the life of a dying child with their enchantment. The party arrives based on your story needs, such as a summons by a host, investigating lost friends, seeking a missing carriage, or idle curiosity.

    Lady

    Map by Tom Cartos!

  • Mark of the Golden Hand: A slaughter horror adventure set in a market fallen to a cult. Those in the city district that fell asleep now waken to chanting outside their windows, a pain in their palms. There a brilliant sigil of some maddening language burns. Cultists have started killing all of those marked, blood for the blood god.

    Portal

    Map by Cze and Peku!

Set the Goals

Any event type can have horror elements woven through it: battles, scouting, investigations, social events, magic, healing, and so on. Goals give players a focus to seek or complete while moving through your story, and give you story arcs to develop dark and light moments to let the event breath. Too much horror without pause can upset or push too far for some players.

  • Battle: Warring through normal creatures until they reach the terrifying leader or boss. The enemies may increase in madness, twisted body horror, reasons for battle, or tasks the players may need to complete per group until reaching the final boss.

  • Exploration: Wandering through a seemingly normal land that shifts with darker corruption as they pass through key locations affected by curses, items, villains, or magic. Perhaps the entire area twists and rips apart, or holds living nightmares, until the players complete a ritual.

  • Investigation: These events have endless horror options:

    • Tracking down a death has many aspects of horror to delve through including the reason of death, method of killing, curses and magic, become a ghost, soul stolen, serial slaying, something missing from the body, ritual death, etc.
    • Seeking lost items can also lead into horror such as soul bound artifacts, eye of a demon, holy sword of a dark god, tome of ancient secrets (necronomicon), scrolls of forbidden magic, etc.
    • Hunting bounties or kidnapped people have opportunities of reasons for the capture such as nobles, pure blood, prophecies, hired, returning cult members, etc.
    Learn More

    See Investigation Events for ideas on these events, crafting those tales, and more.

  • Social: A grand ball, meeting of allies, diplomacy council, tea time with the ladies, all of these social situations could have goals and darkness added for flavor without falling into battle. A dark figure with a reason to cause a person or group fall to corruption, or set groups into fighting later, could greet and afflict the event with aspects of horror. Perhaps they add something to drinks/food, curse the location with magic, threaten and hold players hostage, use illusions to look like others twisting a situation, etc.

  • Magic: Your imagination is the limit for creating magical horror. Consider the senses, soul, and aspects of magic when involving evil: sacrifices, strange language, use of blood/collected materials, mind-afflicting runes, etc. Also consider the source of magic: dark deals, fiends, zealot celestials, pacts with enemy forces, murder, liches, etc.

Borrowing From Life

If you need a bit of help, use historical events, archeology, myths, and legends with added twists to make it your own. Borrowing from aspects of a war, serial killer, and rituals from ancient civilizations woven into one tale may craft a provoking experience. Or draw from nightmares, taking images and feelings from those into a villain's dialogue or description of a room. For a creepy addition, use poetry and song lyrics as whispers around the players, giving strange imagery to the unseen.

Keep these goals in mind when setting up situations and scenes. Here are some ideas using our two events:

Evil GoalsLady VanDainGolden Hand
Source of evil?
  • Ritual magic using ancient artifact
  • Lady VanDain controls an artifact
  • Petrified guests in garden
  • Magic circles with a ritual caster in center
  • Zealot ancient power siphoning souls
  • Golden marks placed on palms of the cursed
  • Murderous cultists killing people
Specific villain?Lady Vandain wields all of the horrible power. NPC servants may support her work due to fear or belief in saving the child.Kha'voss Dek, That Which Lies Beyond Flesh, speaks through a door opened by a ritual, requiring more souls to be released. Cultists seek those souls.
What does the evil want?Save her child from illness and death through collected lives.Collect souls through marking and killing to fully open a portal.
How does the evil win?Capure players in the garden, turn them into statues.Mark people and collect 20 souls. They have 10 collected properly when players enter the fights.
How do players win?Break the artifacts, release the petrified people.Break the ritual circle, break marks, release collected souls, and end cultists.
The hard choice?Ending the evil may kill the child. Give players a method of the life of the mother being consumed to save the child or other option if you want a happy ending.If they don't break the marks and just start killing, the portal opens anyway from collected cultists. They then fight a weakened elder fiend entering the world.
The Hard Choice

Sometimes ending the evil is not a simple feat. By breaking rituals or killing the villain, they release something worse. Or ending the threat may require a sacrifice or trade, one life for another, one versus the greater good. This can add an element of tension and storytelling laying the choice in the hands of players, not an NPC. Steer clear of true trauma.

Set the Mystery

Craft your tale of horror by showing small elements to develop a sense of the unknown, dread, concern, and interest. These elements may describe the villain, goals of the horror, results of success and failure, and so on. Feel free to expand beyond these ideas.

ElementsLady VanDainGolden Hand
Villain
  • Something she wears is always tattered or discolored at the edges.
  • Heavy scent of orchids trying to mask the constant sickly sweet edge of decay, tucked in pockets.
  • Never smiling showing teeth, for they may be rotting or fanged or discolored from something.
  • Her shadow moves when she does not, or is missing at times.
  • Never blinks, a strong direct gaze.
  • Kha'voss Dek is mute, speaking only through those marked on their palm.
  • Marked NPCs may speak oddly with a different voice of this demon.
  • A merchant may sell items of the demon: old goblets used to hold blood, rugs that were tapestries marking its history.
  • Its true face is not seen until players partake in the ritual, increasing the potential for failure.
  • Anyone possessed by the demon jerk and pop, bones cracking from too many joints.
Atmosphere
  • A mist always rises around the point of Ravenhill in the evening, disappating at 3am.
  • Soft whispers like bound lips may be heard in the garden or from windows facing the garden.
  • It rarely rains, yet all of the flowers bloom beautifully.
  • The garden is overrun by flowers in reds and deep pinks: roses, orchids, etc.
  • Colors outside are muted yet sharp and vibrant in the house.
  • Stars wink out in the sky as more die, their souls collected.
  • The night is overly dark, no moon, any lantern or firelight painfully bright.
  • Any rain is actually drops of blood flying from the frenzy of battle and sacrifice.
  • The air hangs with a coppery taste, close and dense, overly hot or cold, never comfortable.
  • Dawn never comes.
Conflict
  • Lady Vandain will encourage the players to rest, visit, enjoy a bit of dinner and exploration. She wants their last moments to be happy, relaxed, enjoyable. She believes this may affect the health of her child when the ritual is used.
  • The house staff love the young daughter of the deceased lord, but do not entirely agree with the choices made by the lady. Some of them may trade glances, leave notes, not unpack their luggage encouraging their leaving.
  • The daughter is lovely, bright, with such infectous happiness. Her illness though is seen and felt through accidents, leg braces, smaller than children her age, etc.
  • Not all cultists attack like zealots. Some may be silently crying, pleading with their eyes, as they seek kills.
  • The demon seems beautiful, golden, a refined creature akin to a celestial spirit or angel. But the truth lies in sharp angles, harsh demands, unflinching hatred.
  • Some of the merchants and townfolk may beg the players to die, to sacrifice, for their lives will be better under the demon than the local lord.
  • A bard singing that night in the tavern foreshadows the hell to come through song, tales. Merchants and cultists may watch the party, drinking tea not booze, eager for the party to indulge.
In Medias Res / In the middle
  • Previous visitors have guested, some of their items left in the bedrooms or throughout the house. Perhaps there are extra horses and carriages.
  • Some of the players may know some of those that guested but have not been seen.
  • The child is in terrible need of new lives, showing signs of illness.
  • Someone intended for the garden is being held, not transformed yet, giving players an opportunity to catch the horror in the middle of happening.
  • Convert or die situations have been occuring recently, some members of the neighborhood marked in tattoos and symbols that are starting to glow golden.
  • Members of the local tavern the party rests at are fearful of the nightmares haunting the populace, whispers of a great figure in gold, wings of an angel, face of a king.
  • Some folk at the tavern seem to get drunk or food poisoned as the party arrives, incapacitated for the night to come.
  • New symbols and statues are found throughout the market venerating this new god, enchanted to capture souls in a magical net.

End the Horror

With the mystery in place, villains in action, and goals in mind, it's time to end this terror. This may require multiple actions such as stopping the violence, cleansing the events, and informing others. Or it may be as simple as fight the grand villain as the sun rises.

Create a list of tasks they need to complete to stop the vile actions. Break these down on difficulty mixing simple and death defying. Provide multiple methods to find and complete these tasks. Give players agency to decide how it will be done while keeping track. For example:

  • Breaking the evil artifact or stopping a ritual
  • Killing or stopping the villain
  • Dispelling or cleansing corruption
  • Aiding the hurt and fallen
  • Setting right the wrongs committed
  • Performing rituals to turn the tide and remove power from the evil
  • Removing the injured or innocent from harm's way
  • Solving riddles, gaining power, and other tasks to strengthen the party

Define the levels of success. Not all conflicts and terror end cleanly, some continue on for decades while others just need spring cleaning with prayers and a bucket of holy water.

  • Grand failure: They arrived too late or fell to corruption themselves. Perhaps members of the group joined the villain, and seek to further the evil on their terms. It seems bleak for the heroes, and they need to report, regroup, and research to better attack their enemy.
  • Failure: Rituals enacted, many died, and the villain gained the upper hand. But they know the face and name of this terror, and have a clear idea of where to strike next.
  • Minor success: They stopped the ritual but many are dead and the villain escaped. At least it was stopped and they have a new journey to begin. Now the villain has opportunity to heal, regroup, and try again.
  • Moderate success: They found the clues, stopped the ritual, saved the injured, and cornered the high priest. Victory is at hand, next is just the villain to contend with and ensuring it never happens again.
  • Major success: Beyond the moderate success, they have cornered the villain, verified all aspects of the horror, and put a final end to it. Peace returns and a chance to fully heal, cleanse, and return. They have much to consider, and internal wounds of their own to lay at rest.

Is this one chapter of many? Perhaps this is simply the first of many terrors in your campaign, leading to an ultimate showdown with a force greater than the first ones encountered. A power behind the villain and throne. Or the source of the ritual, magics, and artifacts. Players may also wish to seek further, sparking ideas for additional adventures and events in your horror story. Be open to the narrative flow, player responses, and craft further with new goals and targets in mind.

Cleansing when the darkness passes. Give players an uplifting moment or event after the darkness ends. They have the opportunity to learn from this adventure, test their spirits and minds, and resolve final conflicts among each other. Members of the party may have suffered from the horror event and need downtime to deal with the experience. And this gives you breathing room after constant dark storytelling. Provide rituals, cleansing items, healing magics, medical aid, and the like to rest, heal wounds, and relax the mind and emotions.

How to Write Horror

When developing your events and campaigns, I recommend writing content for scenes for easy copying and pasting. These can be descriptive phrases, lists of words, full paragraphs, and insights. But how do you write for horror?

Be descriptive considering all of the senses. Details bring horror to life just like other events. Beyond simple sight, what does something feel like, scents on the air, sounds in the area or outside, a taste on the air or if something is sipped or licked.

Create lists of words that evoke emotion. Saying something is terrifying, horrific, spooky, creepy, and dangerous all sound like saying food is great. What does great food taste like? Give serious thought to potential colors, flavors, expressive and simple words mixed together, and so on. You don't need to write like Lovecraft, just expand your thoughts.

Write a short story about the event or scenario. Flexing your thoughts and delving into the focus of evil, craft a short story or journal. Remember to include strengths and weaknesses, too perfect and powerful leaves players not invested or able to relate to the horror. If getting into the mind of the horror is difficult, consider writing as a witness, investigator, or victim. React and freely write, don't worry about perfect voice and grammar.

Perhaps also consider another sense...emotion. You should never dictate how a player feels about a scene. but you can give them a sense of emotion you want to covery or evoke in them through the environment, beasts, and NPCs. You have full control of these actors on your stage.

Embrace music. Soundtracks give you a perfect score to layer your words against. Pick some songs and listen as you write. If they aid in chilling, save links and songs, create a playlist. Weave these into music available through Discord or Watch2gether to play during events.

Writing Exercise

A great exercise to find your dark voice is to search for a piece of art that disturbs you (painting, scene, movie trailer, character) and write about it. Consider every sense to evoke a felt place and specific sensation. Need a little help? Reach for a thesaurus and writer resources, such as 240 Dark Words.

For this exercise, determine the emotions you want to convey, the kind of horror, consider colors, seasons, imagery, to find little details for players to latch on to.

  • Emotion to convey: List ideas of feeling and sensations you want the reader to feel, list words you may want to use
  • Senses to focus on: Color, scent, sounds can help a mind fill in details through imagination
  • Aspect of horror: What kind of horror elements do you want to highlight

A House in Decline

In this example, using this video of ambience and movie still from Crimson Peak as inspiration.

  • Emotion to convey: Unsettled, moldering house and slight rot points to the inherent darkness in the location and owner
  • Senses to focus on: Tarnished gold, patina of rotted greens, neverending autumn on the verge of winter, sickly sweet
  • Aspect of horror: Corruption and madness, the sacrifices for saving a child have pushed the lady of the house into dark magics and madness
Expand to read the story.

The letter arrived in the passing of days to each of the company. Crisp night-inked script itched across fine bone-white parchment with hints of pressed flower, a scent of orchid and sea-- it spoke of refinement, greed, and a woman. When the call to war lead us to distant shores, we aided the Lord of Ravenhill Manor to safeguard the populace and deal with constant incursions of a witchly sort. Never once did we meet his beloved wife and child, only hearing of them from his fond memories.

To learn of his death in such a way as this only reminded me of how the ills of home and nation, the constant warfare, had worn to fraying the ties of new friendships. Yet looking over these penned words again, and seeing the darkened windows and loaming walls of Ravenhill, I must give pause until the rest of my party arrives. Best to enter together, my courage failing.

Long have the nights become. I bid you welcome to my estates, dear friends of my late departed lord. You aided him in times most dire, and sought to end threats beleaguring our people. Come and allow me to repay the honors you have imparted.

Spires seem to lean toward me as curled fingers. Flitting azure shades move against the hand-blown glass, a rattle in them despite the stillness of air. The taste of the ocean in the mist sharpens the senses, biting harder in my jaw already tight from some concern I can't place. The creak of saddle leather and nearing crack of shoed hooves under me tell me even my steed wishes to return to the open road.

Nearly turning away, the door opens and a familiar face brightens the near night with a child's warmth, little Katya. The tension burst like a soap bubble, perhaps battle senses and too many days of ill omens and war leaving me sensitive. Nothing but memories here, no true ghosts. Though I cannot deny the chill on my arm as I lift the lord's only daughter, tossing her in welcome as soft laughter fills the air.

Past the threshold, she prattles of childish tidings, tea time with dollies, the lessons in pony riding, cook catching a fish big enough to swallow her whole. The home holds far too much warmth, unlike my expectations. A blazing hearth stuffed of old coals and fresh wood leaves a sharp glow through the room, subduing the gentle candleglow at sweeping stairs. Flowers festoon vases, float in a bowl of herbed water for washing hands in the foyer, painted in large canvases of the lord and his family. A few petals fall, edges darkened, cracked, withering as they land.

Here the scent of orchid and cracking hearth push away something sweeter, a scent that causes the echo of battlefields in the northern kingdoms to ring in my ears again. Then she descends the stairs, or perhaps was always there waiting by the ballistrad, hand resting on the railing, the other reaching to take mine in greeting. Light casts her features in a ghoulish glow, motes in wide eyes like the final rays of the sun at sunset driven back by storms. Swathed in heavy layers, she seemed frozen in garb despite the oppressive heat.

"Thank you for attending my request. If Frederick was only here, he truly would welcome your visit. Come, you must need rest before dinner."

Grand Designs

In this example, using this video of darkness sinister mix as inspiration. The Gloriae Templum channel has many inspirational dark compilations if you need something different.

  • Emotion to convey: Heart thundering fear, excitement, speed
  • Senses to focus on: Glimmering golds of holy light, blood and scarlet reds, chanting, wet sounds
  • Aspect of horror: Bloodbath of death, alien presence
Expand to read the story.

Athul nak'vach'thurl... Mua'tollvex... Heralds fall upon the mark... Accept our gift...

Waking with a sharp twist in bedding, interrupted in conversations with friends in the tavern, startled during nightly prayers recounting the moments of your day -- whatever you sought in the deep night ends abruptly. Through windows, harsh glows spark and flash, an infernal firelight licking at the sky yet nothing of smoke or char hangs in the air. Drops speckle the glass, vermillion rain of the dying.

Calls for aid echo outside the tavern, loud banging of fists on the door...falling silent with a gasp. Weight falls upon the wood, requiring force to shove open. A robed figure pulls free a blade from the newly fallen, blood dripping from the scarlet caked metal.

"Athul nak'vach'thurl! Mua'tollvex!" Spittle flies from shouting lips, wild eyes fall on you all in the common room, rushing in the moment of surprise. The face familiar, having sold simple jewelry in a stall of azure silks mere hours before. Purpose turned to a new currency sends him smashing through the doorway.

The battle enjoins as the killer leaps at each of you with arcing slashes, the blade hungering and pulling to seek your flesh!

As the battle ensues, flashes blind and burn from golden lightning through the open door and window. They stream across, landing beyond sight, lost behind buildings and market stalls. Each of you tear away at the robed man, blood splattering wet across the scuffed floor, darkening tattered robes and clothing. Breath froths at lips and nose, as the last glow of life burns.

"Mua'tollvex..." Breath catches in a final gurgle, as pain sharp and heated lances in your palm. Each of you gasp and grip at bare or gloved hands, the gleam of a sigil flared to life that left the freshly killed man to mark you. Accept our gift.

Stumbling into the night, many townsfolk and merchants lay in broken heaps. Details of faces caught in rictus of surprise and pain caught in scarlet light edged in golds. Softly shifting hues of dawn, motes of brightness lifting to the heavens, lure your sight to the end of the city block. More flickers of streaming gold leave newly killed to seek that shimmer, joining it in harmony.

And the rythmic song of cultist chanting strengthens.

Systems of Madness

Various tabletop game systems have charts and options for adding madness, sanity, corruption, and other aspects to mechanically track how your players and NPCs are affected by the horror of the setting and event. These are guidelines and open to interpretation and customization for your events.

What requires a sanity check?

Any situation, experience, or knowledge that may be well beyond the normal. This includes witnessing terrifying deaths, experiencing torture, recurring events connected to a character's painful or traumatic backstory, meeting god-like entities, or finding knowledge alien to human understanding. While magic and nonhuman races form an everyday part of a character’s life, even a seasoned adventurer cannot conquer or understand some things.

Optional: Forbidden Lore

Excountering the horrific, strange, alien, or ancient, you may want to give players an opportunity to learn for the future. This may be exceptionally important for long campaigns delving into horror. The Forbidden Lore trait or knowledge skill could provide players aid when traversing your tale.

Optionally, you could make this a pool of points they earn through the event(s). By experiencing the horror, they main earn points to add to rolls or questions to ask.

  • How to Attain: Players may have a backstory reason for having this information. Provide opportunities to learn through libraries, scrolls, NPCs (masters, spirits, scholars), artifact, experiences, or other mechanism.
  • Roll Version: When gaining forbidden lore, players may receive a +2 (or point pool) to d20 rolls for unearthing knowledge, dealing with situations, determining the evil and how to deal with it.
  • Roleplay Version: Players may receive 2-3 (or earned pool) questions they could ask the storyteller or through roleplay to learn something about the evil, how to deal with it, and so on.

Madness d20

D&D settings have alternate rules around fear, horror, and madness with numerous options for afflictions and madness. These rules are modified to support multiple types of events and calculations. Modify these as needed for your event and DM style.

Hit points as a madness counter. As players take damage, they experience elements of horror. When they reach death, they survive but gain a madness specific to the cause of that death. For example, dying by vampiric bite, they may constantly feel weakened, hungry, see wisps or hear soft words of the vampire about them. Perhaps they were stabbed through by many blades. They may feel dread when raising their sword, feel stabbing pain when attacking others from their old would, or hear and see every slashing attack by others as hyper real overwhelming and gruesome. Or give them a short term or permanent derangement. World of Darkness has many incredible options.

Madness effects based on encountered horror elements. They may roll against a difficult class (DC) for the situation, or roleplay out the scenario. Winning or losing may incur a different effect. Madness can be short-term, long-term, or indefinite. Most relatively mundane effects impose short-term madness, which lasts for just a few minutes. More horrific effects or cumulative effects can result in long-term or indefinite madness. Depending on which is easier, choose one of the following methods for tracking madness:

  • Sanity points: Start with 6 sanity points that are lost or gained through the event. As they are afflicted, they lose sanity. Zero or less is madness.
  • Madness points: Start with 0 madness and earn points as afflicted. When they fail a roll, they earn 1 madness point. At 6 points, they are afflicted with madness.
Player Consent is Key

Not all players may want to delve into madness. Communicate with your players, make note of who welcomes the madness or requests not to be corrupted. Be willing to change directions and results according to player acceptance and comfort.

The following are opportunities and scenes to request a roll for fear/stress. The DC may range from 11 to 20 depending on the level of horror and darkness:
  • Witnessing or committing traumatic acts against others far more inline with horror than normal battle.
  • Remaining in a corrupted or cursed location may increase stress.
  • Receiving harsh magical spells, curses, and wounds of a corrupted nature.

Fear/stress is lowered in the following ways:

  • Resting in a location away from the horror, corruption, or curse.
  • Receiving blessings, meditation, restorative spells, or wards.
  • Seeking solace and sanity with others without stressers.

A stress test is a 1d20 roll with a DC set by the DM. You want to roll higher to succeed. If you have lost sanity, you may have a hard time fighting the effects of fear. Consider using one of these systems:

  • Sanity: Add your sanity points to the roll.
  • Madness: Subtract your madness points from the roll.

Failing these rolls may incur fear and madness. Select from the following depending on the situation, scene, and strength of failure (simple to critical, modify amounts to fit the failure):

  • Fear Struck: Consumed by fear and visibly shaken. Simple failure they have a -1 to their next roll. Critical failure they cannot act too afraid and are in absolute shock.
  • Aversion: The scene and situation is too frightening, causing them to flee in terror. They must move away from the source of terror. Simple failure they have a -1 to their next roll. Critical failure they cannot act just run repulsed to the point of sickness, needing to get away.
  • Living Nightmares: At first they seem fine, but after images remain with them as living nightmares. Whispers, ghosts, movement at the corner of their eyes. If they sleep, they suffer nightmares. Simple failure they have a -1 to their next roll. Critical failure they are surrounded by visions of terror.
  • Obsession: The moment of terror plagues the mind, causing the afflicted to be obessed by it. They may speak of it constantly, seek it out again, relive it on others. Simple failure they have a -1 to their next roll. Critical failure they are so consumed they focus on the horror entirely, delighted or terrified.
  • Rage: Abject terror leads them to absolute destruction, sending them into a berserker rage. The mind is cast aside for the primal need to break things/people. They receive a +1 or higher (depending on failure) to attacks with the increased chance of attacking friends and objects as much as foes. Critical failure they will not stop fighting, attacking everything, until they are roused from it.

When all sanity is lost or madness is reached, the player takes on an aspect of horror until cleansed. It will last with them through the event until relieved. This madness may be an enhanced version of these above fears with far more twisted results.

Simplified Insanity

For an interesting twist on insanity and inner darkness, consider the simplicity of sigils, their meaning, and how it affects players. These additions can be fantastic for visual cues by marking players and locations in MMO-RPGs, placing a symbol over or under a token in VTTs, or handing a card to each player at the tabletop.

Here's how to use this system:

  1. Based on your story, select up to five different symbols of horror. These could be from myths, legends, folklore, tarot cards, or your imagination. Give them a meaning and name in case players investigate.
  2. Set a perk and curse for each of these symbols.
  3. Assign the symbol to a player (1 only) as they journey through the event. Inform them of what it looks like, what it means, and allow them to explore this new aspect of themselves. For added interest, only give them a little of the info, or a short couple lines of poetry.
  4. As they adventure, place these symbols in the environment. Enhance that area, enemy, object based on the symbol. Allow the players to work through it. You can use these for sacrifices, solving puzzles, attaining power, closing/opening a lock for a portal, learning a secret, and so on.

The madness may be the curse that rises the longer they are marked, or the more they interact with it. Some helpful ideas and examples:

  • Tarot Cards: Pick any of these, so many options
  • Folklore: The Maiden, The Mother, The Crone
  • Symbols of Time: Dawn, Zenith, Twilight, Night, Eclipse
  • Chess Pieces: King, Queen, Abbot, Rook, Pawn

Tarot Cards

This is an example using five tarot cards:

  • Strength - Symbol of prowess, courage, persuasion. Mighty in arm and soul, able to press back the dark physically, and force it aside. But to do so changes them, muscles become stone, eyes become light, an embodiment of strength less humanoid.

    "Cry out and rejoice the warrior born! From this landscape of woe shall darkness be shorn. Yet from such battles the flesh is stone reborn."

  • The Magician - Symbol of inspired action and power. To use this power against their enemy, they bear a physical burden taking damage to win strong attacks against the evil. Perhaps till they die too.

    "Blessed is the wellspring of a soul's might. From within cast forth magics that give fright. Though as power soars does life fall into night."

  • The Hermit - Symbol of introspection, wisdom, lonliness. To understand the dark, they connect with it gaining a memory and information. The more they remember, the more it becomes their past and history.

    "From afar comes a whisper of something lost. A siphon of memory and experiences tempest-tossed. Know in such understanding comes an inner soul's cost."

  • Justice - Symbol of fairness, truth, cause and effect. To know if what they experience or hear is real and truthful, they must become blind for a number of minutes, becoming longer the more times you use it.

    "Before your symbol shall truth be uttered. No falsehood can stand as lie is sundered. Beware for such knowledge else true sight be plundered."

  • The Hanged Man - Symbol of release, new perspectives. By giving up a memory to the dark, they learn a truth. But soon they will forget too much.

    "At morrow he spies the light coming from earth up-ended. A maze of a grave, he knows cannot be defended. Let go and become one, no more the conflicted."

Corruption Body Horror

Enter at your own risk!

Some tales of terror delve into alien minds, abhorrent flesh, and twisted perceptions all part of body horror. Few players may be interested in these tales. Be prepared to change or simplify the descriptions accordingly, and explain what they are in for.

For those willing to go into body horror and supreme corruption, you may want to consider a different system of perks and curses. Players may earn an opportunity to accept a gift (perk) but it comes with a cost (curse).

These are optional features to use or modify as needed.

Set a maximum amount of corruption, be it points or number of enhancements. When they reach this amount, they have become one with the horror, becoming part of the enemy rather than an adventurer. Typically, you may want to set this to a maximum of 5 points or perks. They may take the same one multiple times, but the curses likewise stack.

The darkness takes root, crafting within you new organs, twisted bones, scaled flesh, or empowers magics to aid the player in some meaningful way.

PowerTypeAbility
Shifting AnatomyArmorYour organs become more fluids, joints unhinge, bones reform in new formations in response to danger. These changes may save your life, but to what end... When you roll a natural 1 or critically fail, you may use this perk once. Every time you use it, you shift and change, less ordinary and more frightening.

Using this ability increases your corruption by 1.
Living WeaponPhysical WeaponYour weapon has errupted with strange, new life. Tendons and flesh wrap about wood, metal fractures with joints of bone, serpentine otherworldly eyes may open upon it, teeth may serrate the edge dripping poison. On a successful attack, you may command the weapon to poison the enemy inflicting more damage. Soon it may become a permanent part of your body.

The damage equals the number of times this perk is taken 1 for 1.
Umbral AssaultCaster AttackWhirling from the darkness at your feet, your shadow rises to take form. As you cast magics, words echo through the void form of endless night, in different languages, perhaps in reverse, to jettison an attack in spectral screaming horror or slithering shadowed nightmares. Attacks from you and your shadow land together on a target. When battle ends, your shadows remains alive and seething.

The damage equals the number of times this perk is taken 1 for 1.
ShadowmendCaster HealYou become a conduit of stolen life, drawing lifeforce from allies and enemies to mend another. You become greyer in color, red or black veins rise under your skin, edges of deathly colors round your eyes and tip your fingers. Reaching forth to those around you, including yourself, you draw 1 HP from them (damage they take) and siphon it all to another as healing.

The damage to others and healing equals the number of times this perk is taken 1 for 1. Select as many targets as you like to take 1 point from each.
VoidsightPerceptionYour eyes bear the mark of the void, the horrors you parley with, the darkness within. Evil designs reveal themselves to your midnight stare, as your entire eye is a living pool of onyx darkness consuming light. If taken too far, you may never see the living rightly so again, everything in your vision deathly or corrupted.

Gain +1 to perception and environment rolls as many times as you take the perk, 1 for 1.

Additionally, ask for corruption rolls (d20 + levels of corruption) for dramatic moments or actions of enemies, using this corruption against those that imbibe this power. This gives you additional options for attacks, environmental situations, perceiving the afflicted, and more. For example, when players find a place of sanctuary, anyone with corruption over 2 cannot enter or take damage if they do. A fiend of vile corruption roars, causing those with 3 and higher corruption to roll a will save or join its mind with a potential terrifying effect.

Healing and cleansing this corruption may become part of the event or story arc, seeking more than simple prayer to purge the horrors within.

conquest

These rules are simplified from rules used by DMs during the Warcraft Conquest Shadows in the Sands campaign warring against N'zoth, Sathog, and various denizens of the void. Incredible thanks to Virsandir MG-Horde for crafting these ideas and the many DMs and players that aided!

Congratulations Dark Lords!

You have created a dark, thrilling horror event. Have fun, tweak as you need, build your events one to the next for a grand campaign. May you leave your players hungering for more!