Hello Nerdlings and fellow Role-players! I decided that, as it is Halloween, I would make a blog post about something that I am really passionate about. I feel that great role-playing is enhanced by, among other things, dramatic atmosphere and descriptions. Using all of the senses to make the world come alive for your players for me, is more important than how tough the monsters are or anything else about rules and game mechanics. You need to fully immerse your players into the world you are creating for them.
I am somewhat known for making horror themed adventures (To the point where I start to reveal a bit of the plot and the players are like “Uh-huh, get ready for some undead, guys.” I just love those stories thematically and I love making them come to life. These stories benefit, and can really only be truly effective, from immersive atmosphere.
Now, I openly admit that I am no Matt Mercer when it comes to being that good at off-the-cuff ad-libbing so incredibly. I do alright, but my main aid in atmosphere is narrative storytelling. I enjoy writing out encounters and making them more immersive that way. By describing the room or area in detail ahead of time, from the comfort of my computer I can really find the right words. Of course, you have to ad-lib things all the time – I’m just more likely to forget to describe how things feel, taste or smell, as opposed to sight and hearing.
Don’t forget the mood. Describe how the hairs on their arms stand up or how an area just “Doesn’t feel right – like the oppression of centuries of corruption has befouled this place, leaving you with a heavy feeling on your souls, as if by mere proximity this corruption might overtake you.” etc. or whatever. This really helps keep your players on the edge of their seats. This mood will help make even mundane things seem creepy and a sense of paranoia can begin to set in upon the players. When you’ve got them all jacked up on adrenaline, and keep making normal things seem creepy, they will never know when the real danger will come.
A word or two about the story
Sometimes, you can make a really creepy adventure by simply including all of the things mentioned above, you know, lots of vampires, ghouls and zombies, but I like to make adventures with some heart. A back story that might be really sad – like the ghost of a long lost lover is cursed to roam the earth until a certain object sets her free or there is some quest that is undone and to free the soul of the ancient knight a task must be completed. I try not to worry too much about whether a ghost has the stats of a ghost from the rule books, or whatever freaky powers I need to give them to tell my story. A well thought out backstory can really add to the drama, and more importantly can add to the emotions your players feel. We’ve talked about scaring your players into paranoia, but making them feel empathetic or sad can really affect the role-playing at the table. And your work as a DM can make all of that happen for them.
Some adventure ideas I have used
The lost tomb type adventure:
Some adventurous teenagers have gotten themselves captured as they explored the ancient ruins in the hills near the town. For ages people have been told to stay away from this area for long-forgotten reasons. A powerful and evil king of ages past had found a way to make himself immortal, but was sealed away in the catacombs beneath his now ruined castle. Then some meddlesome kids come along and poke around into something they shouldn’t.
Ghost Town type adventure:
As the PCs are travelling they find themselves surrounded by a thickening fog which completely envelops them. They have now been pulled into a demi-plane where the history of what evils had befallen a nearby long lost town are being played out again – reaching out from the depths of time. Perhaps the PCs can save the town and let them rest in peace, or will they fall to the same fate?
How about a ghost ship:
The PC’s are in the town or city visiting relatives and hear of the strange appearance of a ghost ship that only appears every “x” years, and when it does – there are always mysterious deaths. Local people found washed up on shore as nothing more than shrunken husks. If the PCs investigate, they just might be pulled into history and find themselves on a very real feeling merchant cog whose sailors either ignore you or assume you are a shipmate. The players are forced to be sailors and watch the events play out, right until their ship is attacked by a Thayvian Dreadnaught captained by a lich and her undead crew. The captain has gotten everyone into some serious trouble.
In my campaign when they won I let them have the ship – ghost crew and all! That was a really fun plot hook for future adventures. Anyway, I don’t want this post to go too long. I hope that some DM’s out there can get a little inspiration and create their own horror themed adventures, if they haven’t tried one yet. It can be so rewarding.
A free adventure included?
I have included a link to one of my adventures below. Now, I’ll warn you – this is an old adventure I had created about 20 years ago, and unfortunately some of the pages got lost over the years so you may need to flesh out some of the missing stuff. But the story, plot and maps are all there. Hey, it's free right. If you try this adventure, let me know how it went for you and what you did to flesh it out.
If enough people are interested, I might be convinced to either go digging through old storage to try and find the missing pieces, or complete the adventure with some new pieces. Alas, time is not something that I have a ton of, but we’ll see.
Doug Little (This goofy guy to the left) is a co-founder of Nerdychicken who is a serious nerd who likes TTRPGs, drawing, writing, video editing, creating, eating, & long walks in the park. Okay that last one not so much - he would have to go outside for that.