Tuesday 1 December 2009


"My name's Jason and I'll be your Dungeon Master tonight...."

Recently, Jim Raggi was posting on Horror in RPG, the mechanics of fear for PCs and particularly on scaring your players. He’s not posted Part 2 yet, which I’m looking forward to reading. But it led me to think on ways that DMs have of putting the frighteners on players, or creating that feeling of unease in a dungeon.

A recent blog from Alexis on Tao of D&D talked about keeping players in the dark and allowing their imaginations to fill in the blanks. This is sound advice – no-one is better at scaring someone that the person himself.

A wise man once said “When you know what frightens someone, you can control them”. If you’ve been playing with the same group for a while, you will have a fairly good idea of how they react and what does frighten them. That knowledge can be used to rack up the tension and make the players sweat. Everyone likes being frightened at a certain level and there’s nothing guaranteed to make a dungeon memorable like making it scary.

Here are a few of my ideas – some are just DM psychological tactics, others are things to present to your players that may well create that edgy feeling.

Ask the players to describe what they are doing in great detail. Then seize upon the most mundane statement and repeat it back to them as a question, putting the stress on some harmless word.


Player: “We’re standing around the table, looking at the dusty bottles to see if they’re potions”

DM: “You’re standing around the table?”

Player (as minis are hurriedly moved) “No, we’re well away from the table. We’re nowhere near the table. Wherever the table is, that’s where we’re not”

The same can be done as a party enter a seemingly empty room.

DM “Okay, now could everyone show me exactly where they’re standing”

Have a corridor strung with fine wires and strings which are perfectly visible. The party must try and bypass every one as they have no idea which is the trigger for the inevitable trap. Maybe they all are. Or maybe none of them is.

Finding the remains of other adventurers who have fallen to the dungeon’s perils is a sure-fire memento mori, especially if those adventurers look as if they’ve died horribly and are sufficiently fresh as to display that.

Ask the players to make a series of D20 rolls but don’t tell them why. Once they’ve rolled, scribble something down, check in the PHB or DMG, mutter meaningfully to yourself, then smile pleasantly and continue with the game. Now the players are on edge, waiting for the inevitable. Or is it inevitable?

A DM with whom I played long ago used to observe dryly as the party marched down a corridor in a tight cluster

“Oh look – fireball formation”

And how quickly the party would spread itself out.

Smells – DMs often forget this feature of a dungeon – I’ve recently been using it myself and the party now associate a certain smell with carrion crawlers. What they didn’t realise was that ghouls smell very much the same.

Dungeon floors – why should they be level and smooth? Why not have them made of uneven slabs, crooked flagstones, pieces that don’t seem to match the rest of the floor. They’re not pressure pads but the party don’t know that.

Whilst we’re thinking about dungeon geography, the walls don’t have to be perfectly smooth and featureless. If you’re underground, you would expect there to be small holes, perhaps a foot or so in diameter every so often. Dark holes. Holes out of which things could crawl when you’re not watching. And why stop at the walls? What about the ceilings? A lot of players ask about the walls and the floors when they enter a room but how many look up?

The party is confronted by a stretch of water blocking their way. It’s only knee-deep but there could be anything in there. Or nothing.

If your party is one of those that actually remembers to post rearguards, they can be a good source of tension. As they move deeper into the dungeon, either pass the rearguard a note or ask to speak to them alone. Suggest that they hear slight noises, unnatural shadows. When they report back to the rest of the party, someone will invariably ask if anyone else sees anything. Say no. A bonus will be if the party then starts to mistrust the rearguard and subsequently ignores real warnings.

That having been said, shadows that flit across the far end of a dimly-lit passageway and then vanish are a good way of making players edgy. Do they investigate and risk being led astray or do they press on and risk something following them? A lot of DMs treat a monster encounter as a pretext for immediate attack, but more tension can be obtained from having the monster bide its time, waiting for the right moment to strike. Stalking the party.

Splitting the party is always a good tactic – I mean, what’s the one thing that the bold adventurers on any good horror film always do? If the party has split up and is out of visual contact, why not have magic mouths that are triggered by one or two people passing by and let out a blood-curdling scream of terror or something like “Help me! Please don’t kill me! No….aaaaargh!”

The idea is really to keep the tension up. If the players are scared of their own shadows three rooms in, the DM has done his job well.

What do you think? Have you got any techniques for getting the players freaked out and ready to run? Or perhaps you’ve got a story about a time when this happened. Let me know.

1 comment:

  1. The only thing is, I don't usually have to fake a few die rolls and fake staring into a book or two. The circumstance happens so often for real.

    Well done, excellent post.