How to Make D&D Scary
By F. Wesley Schneider
May 26th, 2021
As many of you plot to infuse fear into your D&D adventures, we wanted to share some of the methods employed to spotlight horror in the Domains of Dread and help you focus on fright in your games.
How to Make D&D Scary
It’s been only a short while since Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft released, and already we’ve seen incredible enthusiasm from players and DMs eager to introduce horror themes into their D&D campaigns. But we’ve also seen a recurring question: can D&D, a game that’s fundamentally about incredible feats of heroism and bravery, actually be scary?
Honestly, we also wrestled with that question.
I’m Wes Schneider, Senior Game Designer for Dungeons & Dragons here at Wizards of the Coast and project lead on Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. As so many of you plot to infuse fear into your D&D adventures, I wanted to share some of the methods we employed to spotlight horror in the Domains of Dread and help you focus on fright in your games.
Left: Concept art of Ivana Boritsi, Darklord of Borca, by Shawn Wood
A simple, overarching truth about D&D’s rules directly opposes building long-term dread: the numbers go up. In the time between creating your character and finishing your tenth adventure, you’ll have more experience, more hit points, more class features, more everything. D&D characters steadily get stronger and more versatile, giving them the resources to triumph over ever-greater threats.
I play a lot of horror games, and that’s not the case in most of them. In many of these games, from the time play begins, participants’ options start dwindling—resources begin ticking down, constraints multiply, time starts running out, and the chance of defeat (or worse) increases. In many such systems, the game mechanics doom you from the moment you start playing.
The classic comedy and tragedy dramatic structures rear their heads starkly here, with the mask of comedy falling squarely on D&D. But could we change that structure in a way that supported frightening themes while still having D&D feel like the same game?
We didn't have to wonder overly much. Bending the game’s mechanical trajectory toward terror has been tried before—specifically for Ravenloft.
Learning from the Past
With second edition D&D, the Ravenloft campaign setting wrestled with these exact mechanical questions, and it sought to counter the potential of D&D characters in a logical way: penalties. Game systems for fear, horror, and similar effects became impositions a DM could dole out, matching their terrifying narrations with character-hindering mechanics. And these rules certainly did hamstring D&D’s brazenly heroic characters, using fear as a universal Achilles heel applied to adventurers in the Domains of Dread. Characters might still gain level after level of incredible options, but at any time terror’s grip might snatch those powers away.
Rules like this certainly bent Ravenloft’s dramatic trajectory toward tragedy, but it also made the Domains of Dread a setting with extra saving throws and where read aloud text (combined with a bad roll on a fear or horror check) could potentially kill you.
That never felt satisfying to me. In fact, it always felt like an attempt to make D&D into another sort of game. In second edition adventures, I used the fear mechanics grudgingly, and I never exported them to my non-Ravenloft games.
On the other hand, Ravenloft accessories were filled with details on how to tweak familiar game rules and craft horror narratives, how to build atmosphere and suspense, and how to disguise familiar rules touchstones. Some of the ideas were wild or laughably over the top, but they encouraged a sense of experimentation that inspired me to try, fail, and try again with various creepy gimmicks, both mechanical and narrative.
Building on the designs of Ravenloft past, we incorporated several lessons into our thinking about horror in fifth edition:
- D&D is D&D, and we shouldn’t try to make it a game it isn’t.
- Small adjustments and narrative can blur the hard lines of familiar rules, making them sources of uncertainty and surprise.
- There’s no one path to horror.
With these philosophies in mind, we began several experiments you’ll see in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.
Who Makes a Game Scary?
One of the first concepts the book explores is who owns fear in a D&D game. Who’s responsible for a horror adventure being scary? The kneejerk answer is the Dungeon Master, but what if it wasn’t? What if players also had a role in building fear in their adventures?
To this end, Van Richten’s Guide avoids making fear the exclusive responsibility of the DM. Not only does it seek to engage with players as creators and storytellers, but it strives to avoid creating an antagonistic relationship between the DM and players. Having just the DM decide when characters are frightened isn’t scary, and frequently losing control of your character simply isn’t fun.
Instead, we wanted to facilitate DMs and players being coconspirators, expressly inviting players to participate in the creation of horror stories. There’s nothing about a horror game that needs to make its rules antagonistic. And ultimately, there’s nothing a DM can do that will be more effective at scaring characters than having players who also want to see those characters scared.
Above: Concept art of zombies animated by various types of D&D magic, by Shawn Wood
Horror Adventures Are Different
Thrills and chills aren’t what come to mind for many players when they think of Dungeons & Dragons. So, before we got into encouraging players and DMs to explore the depths of terror, it was important to us to highlight that fright-filled games are fun, albeit a little different from your typical D&D fare.
Why is this important? Because miscommunications ruin games. Maybe not for everyone and maybe not in every case, but enough. Embracing the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, from Van Richten’s Guide’s earliest pages we outline straightforward discussions that groups can have about what they want to see in their scary adventures—and what they don’t. These conversations aren’t necessarily complicated, but they’re important to make sure everyone understands what they’re getting into.
D&D is played by countless people the world over, and we wanted to make sure groups could use the book’s tools to create the horror experiences that were right for them and their play styles. If a group’s players enjoy a moody, serious horror experience, Van Richten’s Guide’s provides plenty of tools and narrative suggestions to facilitate such adventures. By the same token, groups that prefer only hints of horror in their game, or that include younger players, will also find options suited to their play style. And groups who like their horror campy will find ways to take their horror experiences in that direction or any other. Throughout the book, we prioritized range and versatility of options so groups can create the horror experience that’s right for them.
Once the entire group is on the same page about what that D&D horror experience is, though, there’s still a challenge: how do you encourage players to want their characters to be afraid?
Characters as Horror Stories
One simple answer we explore is to have players bake terror into their own characters. Macabre lineages, unsettling Dark Gifts, ominous backgrounds and characteristics, even spooky trinkets—every part of the Character Creation chapter of Van Richten’s Guide tempts players to buy into characters that have their own built-in horror stories. These mechanical options serve as springboards into a broad range of narrative possibilities, but they also give players their own personal terror tales to indulge or overcome amid the group’s greater adventures. This might lead a group to create a party of outcasts, all hiding their own sinister secrets sure to be revealed over the course of a campaign. Personally, though, I’m eager to see groups agree on shared options, like having every party member choose to be reborn (perhaps collective victims of the same terrible accident or ill-fated adventuring disaster), or to collectively share sibling parasites via the Symbiotic Being Dark Gift, or to all be investigators on a thousand-year-old cold case. With a little collaboration, a group’s players and the options they choose during character creation can be the source of a great deal of a campaign’s overarching terror.
Planning Character Fears
More than enticing characters to embrace ominous origins through player-facing rules, there’s a direct way to get players to consider how fear fits into their characters: simply asking, “What’s your character afraid of?” Certainly “nothing” could be an answer, but what if being afraid was something players were incentivized to embrace with their characters?
“Seeds of Fear,” part of the Fear and Stress system in chapter 4 of Van Richten’s Guide, is a straightforward incentive for players to keep fear front of mind. The system asks players to invent a reasonable fear or two for their characters. When those fears arise, it’s up to the player to respond as they please, but should they react with fright, they might gain inspiration to use later on.
The thing I like so much about this is not just the simplicity and that many players are already familiar with how inspiration works, but that it creates a sense of heroic horror. Compelling terror tales aren’t just about frighted innocents meeting horrible ends; they’re about being afraid, reacting, but then overcoming internal fear to face an external threat. Using this simple system, characters might run screaming from a foe only to come back later steeled to overcome the terror. It’s a system that encourages fear but also heroism, which is a big part of what a scary D&D adventure is about.
Above: Concept art of the Apparatus, a route to all manner of character-altering adventures, by Shawn Wood
Fear in the DM’s Toolbox
As much as we work to engage players in the horror storytelling experience, at times it still makes sense for DMs to call for saving throws to make characters frightened of terrifying events. But that shouldn’t be the only way DMs can use game mechanics to coax fear out of their horror adventures. Statistics-based fear effects still have their place (as outlined in the “Fear and Stress” section in chapter 4), as do various frightful options among the book’s other rules, from the shocking actions of terrifying monsters to varied rules for running domain-specific terrors.
Afflicting characters with the frightened condition is very much an option in the DM’s toolbox, but we’ve provided guidance on when to use it and how to work with players to get the same fearful effects. The goal of all of this is to help avoid an antagonistic experience, where the DM of a horror adventure is constantly calling for saving throws that send players running. If players embrace fear when it’s fun, then DMs need to impose it only when it’s necessary—freeing them up to focus on other aspects of the horror experience.
Varieties of Fear
By now, you’ve probably gotten the idea that there’s not just one way to make D&D scary, and that’s mostly true. Another way of answering the question “How do you make D&D scary?” is “variety.”
Fear can’t have just one predictable place in D&D adventures. As soon as rolling to overcome fear is referenced with the familiarity of saying “make a skill check,” the suspense is lost. So, for Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, we didn’t try to provide one solution for inspiring fear in your adventures. Rather, we worked to make all the options we presented encourage horror in their own distinct ways.
Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, here’s a rapid-fire list of just some of the other distinctive ways you might evoke horror in your adventures:
Atmospheric Horror. Easily my favorite route to creating moody game experiences, atmospheric techniques explore how to make everything beyond the game fade away and immerse players in a terror tale using theatrics, music, props (like the spirit board you can download here), and more.
Doomed Destiny. I know I said D&D is a game where characters are destined for great things. But sometimes it’s fun to experience a tragedy that doesn’t involve losing years of character development. The “Survivors” section provides less-than-heroic substitutes players can use to experience nightmares, one-shot tragedies, or the grim freedom of knowing their days are numbered.
Mini-Horror Stories. Every monster in the bestiary of Van Richten’s Guide is a micro horror story. The wicked priest that won’t die, the annoyance that explodes into a lethal swarm, the skin that tears free from its own bones, the graveyard that stands up—they’re all there to shock characters in their own unique ways.
All Together Now. Want an example of how to put all these terror techniques together? The adventure “’The House of Lament” not only serves as an introduction to the Domains of Dread but also highlights how to put what you’ve learned throughout the book into action. Use it as your first foray into the Mists or tear it apart to see how a variety of frightening techniques can create a compelling horror adventure.
Above: Concept art of Alcio Metus, just one of Ravenloft's notorious vampires, by Shawn Wood
Frighten Characters, Not Players
Scaring players is not an objective of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. We’ve provided tools to help groups make their horror adventures an enjoyable experience for everyone at the table, including agreeing on how scary a game should be and using tools for readjusting if things get to be too much. The goal is for players to enjoy their characters’ fear, like they’d relish their favorite scary story's thrills—not to blindside them.
Make Your Own Horror
Ultimately, whether D&D is scary is up to you. What D&D players enjoy about horror differs from table to table, so we’ve approached this challenge in all the ways I’ve noted here and more. Use the pieces that work for your entire group, sideline the ones that don’t, try techniques you’ve never considered before, fail, and try again, ever experimenting to create a horror experience that’s memorable and perfectly suited for your table. When the lights are dim, everyone’s leaning in, and someone finally releases a long-held breath, you’ll know you’re close.
Above: Concept art of a gremishka, by Shawn Wood
Bonus: Eight Things the Dark Powers Don’t Want You to Know
Beyond all these frightful storytelling techniques, countless secrets lurk throughout Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Some are mysteries we left purposefully vague so you can define them in your adventures. Others have mysterious links that sinister forces don’t want you to know about. At the risk of tempting the Dark Powers, here are just a few secrets hidden within Van Richten’s Guide or with misty links beyond the Domains of Dread.
- The mysterious groups known as Priests of Osybus and Ulmist Inquisitors haunt the history of Count Strahd von Zarovich and were first hinted at in Curse of Strahd. In Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, more about their otherworldly origins and ties to the first vampire are revealed.
- The mystical symbol formed by the Sigil Lakes of Mordent shape the landscape of more than just that domain. Where else does this symbol appear, and what connection do these mysterious landmarks hold?
- The haunted curio shop depicted in chapter 1 holds several fateful relics, such as an icon of the Lower Aerial Kingdoms (see chapter 4) and a familiar puzzle box (see Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus).
- Supposedly the last member of the Eris family lies buried in the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, but nobles in other domains also claim to be last of the Eris line. Who among them in the true soul heiress?
- Isolde, leader of the Carnival, has ties to more than one group of otherworldly entertainers. What could have become of her former crew?
- If your copy of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft features instructions on page 257, do not follow them under absolutely any circumstances.
- Several creepy tales from the Domains of Dread are among those embodied by the artifact known as the Teeth of Dahlver-Nar (detailed in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything).
- The closets in area 2 of the House of Lament have an ominous connection to Death House (in Curse of Strahd). Who knows what might happen should the fateful contents within be reunited?
Expect more on the secrets of the Domains of Dread here on the D&D Studio Blog in the coming weeks as we further explore the design behind Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.