Season 3, Episode 4

The Horror Episode


Thank to an inspired email from listener Adam J, we adopted the topic of "how to be effectively eery" for a campaign or campaign session and delivered a top notch set of 10 tips of how to pull of a scary/horror/terror session, six "do" tips and four "don't do" tips.

But first, we read some listener emails from:
  • fellow Exemplary DM Christy (she who matchmakered our bromantic podcast)
  • Kristof (our ambassadeur extraordinaire in far off Hungaria who runs delve vignettes) who provided our 
  • Graham Krak (of the Shakespeare tee shirt gadget and Drunkards and Flagons - Rise of the Many
  • Christian (he of the Planescape-inspired campaign with dinosaur PC's) (link to the Topeka reference) (The Land Before Time)
  • mentioned a touching/funny tweet from @delayedsession. 
  • We also mentioned a super-long email from listener Blair (not Michael), who sent us a 1680-word epistle on his Oni character concept, which we will consume and use in a later podcast.
Oh, and if you're curious, Chad looks like Game of Thrones' Jon Snow and William looks like Eddard Stark plus a toddler with a beard.

So, how to pull off "horror" as a DM? Another big thanks to Adam for writing in with an excellent, podcast-driving email about his horror campaign in Tarryall. Are ya'll ready for ~10 helpful tips;;;?

Horror Do's:
  1. Different people are going to react differently to your horror attempts. So if your crew gets into detailed gross dissection-type descriptions of horror, then do that. If they actually want you to dim the lights, speak in a scary voice and put spiderwebs on the chairs, then do that. But if they’re going to giggle when you wear vampire teeth, try to predict that and do something else. But really, you may be surprised how “into it” your players get if you earnestly try. It’s likely you’ll have a class clown, but work with them, perhaps by describing what their character is feeling, and direct some of the spooky at them.
    • Even horror movie aficionados have different preferences and favorites. Tastes vary widely. Try different things, earnestly, and admit when you're falling flat. 
  2. Engage the senses - good storytelling always informs how the characters experience your world with their 5-9 senses. What’s the smell, what’s the air temperature and humidity, what are the ambient noise, does the air have the taste of heavy metals that accompanies the presence of freshly spilled, oxygenated blood? 
    • This is also important to get your point across as a DM that the player’s characters are entering something bad. If you haven’t set it outright, DM to player already, this is when the message is sent - we’re about to do something scary.
    • Link: football player loses sense of proprioception after abdominal injury.  
  3. Anthropomorphising is one of the scary tropes of modern horror films. Chairs start floating, doors slam, lights turn on and off, mirrors have people in them, water moves on its own accord, boobies jiggle by themselves... all these things are terrifying to the rational mind, because they cannot perceive the invisible forces or powers that control them. I’m not talking all the china in the Beast’s castle coming to life and singing songs for Belle. Use this same technique in your storytelling.
    • Just remember, that the first thing the players are going to want to do is to interact, shout out loud, or destroy. Be prepared or what they want to do, and don’t make up the rules about interaction with this invisible force as you go along.
    • Similarly, removing the agency of the PCs to interact with the world is another common horror experience and an effective tool... but watch out for railroading, see tip #10.
  4. Messages from beyond are always good. Read a haunting passage or dire warning in the whispered voice of a ghost. Or, make one of the players read your totally freakydeaky message. This is where you DM’s who excel at writing fantasy fiction can really shine. 
    • If don’t want to whisper it live, record it, add some echo on both ends, and get a spooky mp3 track to play, using basic tools like what we use to record this podcast, which would be the free Audacity sound editing software and a microphone.
    • The Castle of Aaaauuuuuuuuggghhh (yeah, William said Temple. Minus 5 points.)
  5. Music is hit or miss. We've heard tell of DM’s that use mood music without fail. We ourselves aren't huge fans. But mood music needs to be long and non-repeating so that it doesn't become tedious, and yet dynamic enough to change on demand with the campaign. That's extra overhead of effort.  
      • If you want to give it a shot and don’t mind keeping up with that task, there’s lots of youtube videos that are plainly described as fantasy thematic ambient noise.  Movie soundtracks are winners, if you set a certain track to repeat during various sections of dialogue, combat, intrigue, etc. Video game soundtracks, which are usually installed with the game on your harddrive and playable outside the game, could be a really good source of looping ambient music material.
      • Chad's Links in this item: Radio Rivendell, Small World: Underground 
      • The the-realmsound-project kickstarter project was mentioned to us in a bonus email from Kyn. Looks interesting.
      • The grimsh, the grimsh, yes, yes, the grimsh.
    1. And then, of course, there’s madness. Because this is probably involuntary but a major part of a character’s development, this should be a cooperative effort with the player as his or her character descends into madness. Remember, the idea is not to drive the DM or player mad with and endless fountain of plot-neutral or pointless depravity, or to cripple a PC mechanically, but to build the case for a character’s descent into uncontrolled states.   
        • You can do the same thing mechanically and in non-mechanical roleplaying as madness with disease, infection, dehydration, and possession by another entity.
        • As the DM, you can provide context to the madness with visions and voices, panic attacks, the reactions of NPC's and town animals, etc.
      1. As a DM at a tabletop game, the format doesn't allow you to do a jump scare or orchestra shock, where all the string instruments screech and the hand reaches out to grab the shoulder. That usually doesn't work when you’re just describing it, or when you actually act out the sudden hand grabbing the shoulder of a player. Avoid jump scares, in our opinion. They're cheap in movies and ineffective IRL.
        • This would probably be effective (or hilarious) on kids at a camp fire, which should tell you... don’t try it on adults.
        • Anyone tried this and had it work? Or more hilarious, have it not work?
      2. In fact, physically acting out the horrifying action yourself is usually hilarious, not horrifying. Hey, we’re not LARPers for a reason, right? Tell with words, not your clumsy ass jumping around the room. It'll come across as stilted or hilarious or something bad in between.
        • We don't condone LARPing. 
      3. Shock and Awe - a field of dead villagers or a carrion-filled battle aftermath is shocking in a classical way, without getting into gross over-the-top details. There’s no need for a volcano full of babies to get your scary across, unless you’re playing with jaded psycho paths. Don't go for gonzo gross, and leave room to escalate your gore, don't give em the worst right away.
      4. As Adam feared in his email, mind your pacing and railroading. Horror movies aren't all slow creeps and camera pans. There are twists, surprises, and glimpses and shadows of horror that is eventually revealed completely. Don’t bog your night down in a long monologue of creepiness. 
        • While you’re busy setting your horrible menagerie down, don’t forget to get interaction from the players, allow them creativity and all the same nonlinear decision-making that they have in a regular campaign.
        • Have your "set piece" monologues ready to go and in any order. Go for environmental effects instead of "cutscenes".
      Gadgets of the Podcast

      Encounter: The semi-solid, stillness-averse room trap  from Kristof's email, where PC's are "unaware that the floor is only solid if they move constantly. If they send more than a few seconds in one place, they start to sink." "I had to come up with ways to teach them that stationery combat is not fun, and that was one of them :)" And then, throw in a skill challenge that requires them to stand still? You're mad! #nakedgatelifting

      Tee shirt: The RPG League: http://www.jinx.com/p/rpg_skeleton_premium_tee.html

      Also for you sportsies: how would you rename the NFL's Washington Redskins... if it had to be a fantasy/D&D name? Best answers read on the next episode. Especially if you're from the DMV area.

      Character concept: Dick Winters from Band of Brothers, the war-scarred Pacifist, who in a D&D 4e campaign could be a Cleric Pacifist build. "That night I took time to thank God for seeing me through that day of days. And prayed I would make it through D-day plus 1. And if somehow I managed to get home again, I promised God and myself that I would find a quiet piece of land someplace and spend the rest of my life in peace.” But of course, he has to keep fighting, for himself and for his country but most of all, for the men beside him. Talk about party unity!

      Adventure Hook: Visions of a long lost love. Think Rick Grimes in Walking Dead, seeing visions of Lori, or William Wallace at the end of Braveheart seeing Fallon in the crowd. Aragorn had telepathic moments with Arwen. Chad's character Wendell seeing lavender springs from his long lost lady. Many different reasons this hallucination/vision could be happening, especially if it is involuntary.

      Player Tip: Don’t be a dick... by getting into it. If your DM is obviously trying to set a mood, don’t be the asshat who wisecracks everything. If the DM wants to get quiet in the room, get quiet in the room, talk in a hushed voice. Have your player move more deliberately and slowly. There will be time for “that’s what she said jokes later”, after the last of the terrible tentacles has been beaten and forced deep into the darkness.

      DM Tip: Out of the behavioral change handbook from your friendly Human Resources department - encourage and reward the behavior you want to see out of each individual. DO treat everyone differently depending on their strengths. Think of it as rewarding a dog. You can't beat dogs but you can reward their good behavior and ignore them when they behave badly. Enforce emerging positive behavior in each individual at your table with a reward system.

      Big Thanks for music, once again big thanks to the Diablo String Orchestra, The Kobolds, our listener Chuck for the gadgets intro jamz, and mega-fan Joshua Bentley for voice-overs galore (@voiceofthebigjb).

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      Mirror 1 (128kbps) (Oregon US) (80.9mb)  
      Mirror 2 (128kbps) (Atlanta US) (80.9mb) slower

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