Dungeon Mastering Horror: Tips on making your Halloween D&D game memorable

From Tomb of Horrors (Wizards of the Coast)

So I realize I’ve been lagging in my posts. Then I agonized about reviewing something, but I couldn’t settle on anything. Then it came to me: As someone who loves Halloween and horror games, why not impart a little wisdom on you aspiring DMs out there on how to make your Halloween D&D night memorable?

This is a collection of things that I’ve done, or that others have done to great affect, both within the game itself, and in terms of making the play area and gathering itself more memorable. Without further ado, lets begin!

Outside the Game
Naturally, you’ll want the lights dim for this evening, to further set the tone. If you play in your dining room, or similar location, use the dimmer on your light fixture if you have one. If you are feeling more adventurous, just turn the lights off and use some alternate light sources. One thing you’ll want to make sure of, no metter what you do with your light sources: make sure people have enough light to see the play area even if it ends up being dim, as well as read their character sheets and what not. Here are a few things you can do to set the visual tone.

-Using lamps that can be bent to change the direction of their lighting can be very handy in keeping the room moody but at a suitable light level. Aim the bulbs towards corners of the room. Keep them away from white surfaces and the play area if you can. Diffused light makes the setting feel more dramatic.
-Use candles around the room to add flavor. Candle holders with several pillar candles which can burn for hours are especially useful. A tip before the game though: try to burn the candles a bit beforehand so you can get that partly used, dripping wax look. It goes a long way!
-Avoid scented candles unless people don’t have issue with them. Perfumes and other chemicals used in the candles can be irritable to some people, especially if you have several scented candles burning.  Plus, unscented candles are cheaper.
-If able, use normal skinny candles, tea lights, votives, and other shapes as well. Keeping the candles irregular also adds to the feeling of the scene.
-Finally, unless you are sure nothing bad can happen, keep burning candles off your play area unless they are contained within something like a lantern. Open flames mixed with paper and cardboard is not really a great idea. Also, melty minis is a recipe for sadness. Granted, this stuff is pretty unlikely to happen, but why risk it? Pick up some LED candles from Target or something and set those around the table. Better yet, use them as props in game.

Game Components and Set Pieces
Of course, we don’t all have access to Dwarven Forge tiles and whatnot. At our table we use a mix of items for our play area, including vinyl mats, Dungeon Tiles, and interlocking tiles from Descent (the Fantasy Flight game). With the advent of 3D cardboard Dungeon Tiles from Wizards of the Coast, cost-conscious gamers now have a lot of leeway when spicing up their play area. Here are some things to keep in mind when building your maps for your upcoming horror adventures.

-Try to avoid the vinyl mat when you can, and try to use the same or similar tile sets when building your encounter areas. Keeping the visuals congruous makes the whole experience more immersive and will keep the tension up.
-When selecting music, keep to atmospheric, lyric free tunes, unless they are fitting for the game. Everyone has their favorites. Lately I’ve been using Ulver, the soundtrack to The Fountain, the Witcher soundtrack, and a collection of other gloomy treats.
-Use 3D props when you can, even if its just cardboard boxes.  Steal furniture and minis from other games (my personal favorite for furniture is Hero Quest, though being out of print its tough to recommend). Get a few sets of Hallowed Halls Dungeon Tiles and use the 3d tiles included in them. You don’t have to go overboard, but when you take the LED candles mentioned above, even simple boxes come alive. You can use the candles as actual in game light sources if you wish, or keep them nearby, but either way, the net effect is that all your 3d terrain is going to cast some great shadows over the play area. If you are able to use some LED tea lights as your in game light sources, those shadows are actual shadows for your characters. You don’t have to worry about pointing out shadowed areas, because your players can see them. It will really bring out the character of the dungeon or set piece you are using. Trust me, the coolness of this cannot be stressed enough.
-Some other props that can be handy: Bendy Dungeon Walls can help make the dungeon seem more claustrophobic and darker than it might otherwise (more on this in a second). Descent’s interlocking tiles are appropriate to D&D scale and also have very claustrophobic design. I personally love the above ground tiles from the Tomb of Ice expansion, which features some very grim terrain. We used these last year as part of exploring a haunted forest.
-Lastly, if you know some people who play wargames and have some terrain, steal it! Or borrow it. Or buy/create your own, though the time investment might not be feasible for you. I personally get a lot of use out of the Warhammer Fantasy Arcane Ruins scenery set. It contains pieces to make a ruined shrine, as well as several free standing, crumbling pillars. They can add a lot to a scene. Just make sure the terrain works for your game. If its a large set piece and lacks a grid, using it in an encounter might be more trouble than its worth.  Don’t be afraid to get creative though. Use chalk to sketch out a grid on a large set piece, or spice up your 2d forest with some model trees from your local hobby shop.

From Open Grave (Wizards of the Coast)

In Game Tips

Finally, here are things to keep in mind when you are designing or running the game itself.
-Turn things on their head. Shake your players up by challenging their existing knowledge of the setting. Have your characters whisked away to impossible locations. Despite their being located deep in a forest, have them stumble upon an eerie old fortune teller. If a character dies, have them rise again, but slip the player a sheet of notes with an explanation of the cost they paid to return. Or leave it blank, and let it seed discomfort amongst the other players at the table.
-Be descriptive, but don’t give too much away. If your players encounter some beings of shadow, give them just enough to know something is wrong, but don’t go beyond that. In last week’s game, I used the Black Reaver Zombies from the Dark Sun Creature Catalog as a primary creature in one encounter. I modified their appearance slightly, as well as their origin. The players stumbled upon them at an abandoned outpost, above which an enormous mote of earth floated originating from the Badlands, an arcane wasteland and very real remnant of the Dawn War in my homegrown setting. It positively oozed magic and the characters were wise to be wary of it. At the end of my description though, I mentioned that the shadows of some trees near the outpost seemed to be bending the wrong way. That one line created some serious tension in the group. When one of the shadows bent and then seemed to move to another copse of trees, the anticipation of what was next was palpable. It set the scene for a very memorable combat encounter. Which brings me to…
-Don’t abandon the build up! Often the scariest or most memorable part of an encounter is the build up to the action. Once a monster appears or a trap is triggered, the threat is real for the characters, but the tension deflates quickly. Make those descriptions stick out. Create unease. Ask for occasional skill checks whether they need to make them or not. If you don’t have them written down already, ask your players for their passive perception after you describe something. Whether or not anything is there, the players will become more and more wary. Board games are like this too. The spookiest part of Betrayal at the House on the Hill is the build up to the haunt and the turns right after when you are still learning about what the antagonist can do. Get the most you can out of the buildup and initial reveal.

Sure there is more you can do, but hopefully these tips and ideas will go a long way in making your Halloween themed sessions more memorable. Keep your players guessing, and the horror will create itself. Just don’t burn your house down or anything.

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  1. [...] are many good articles on the internet about role-playing a night of blood curdling horror. But what if you aren’t satisfied with one night? What if you’re [...]



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