Halloween is almost upon us and that means it’s time to for Spooky D&D. While D&D is already full of potentially scary things, Halloween is a great excuse to pull out all of your best monsters and scariest encounter hooks. So what makes a great Halloween one shot? Let’s break it down.
First things first, horror is all about tone. This is the perfect time to do a little more story telling in your campaign. While typically you want to keep the storytelling collaborative, there are some benefits to setting the scene. A good introductory story can set a perfect atmosphere for a scary dungeon crawl. Start with a Bard’s tale or a drunk’s rumor. Have a kid talk about the abandoned house on a nearby hill. Have a soldier regale the heroes with tales of a battlefield where no one walked away. Get to something really mysterious right off the bat and have some fun with the embellishments.
While a spooky preamble is a good place to start, a story alone will not be enough to set the tone. Halloween is a time to go over the top. Dim the lights. Get some spooky ambient music/noises. This may sound cheesy at first, but it can pay off over the course of the session. With our Halloween session last year we added a soundtrack with some creepy house noises (floor creaks, door slams) and it really helped put all our players on edge.
Descriptions matter. If you normally don’t get too into it when you describe your scenes, this is the time to pull out your thesaurus. You’re going to want to use a lot of $10 words- not because they are scarier than normal description, but because they call back to horror classics. Do you think H.P. Lovecraft ever said anything was simply decaying? No! He’d describe it as a putrid pile of disintegrating flesh that reeked as if death itself was emanating from within. Get crazy with your descriptions and paint a horrible picture in your players’ minds. Be like an evil Bob Ross painting sinister bushes with your words.
Horror alone is not enough to make a game scary. Sometime you have to get to what makes people squirm. I have a roommate who hates teeth. In a spooky campaign I ran, there was a mechanic that made them think they were going crazy. Every now and then the rooms she was in would appear as if everything was cobbled together from teeth. Then it would return to normal. This is creepy for everyone, but especially bad for her. I am only able to play on these specific fears because I know my players. While I think this can be fun if used correctly, be mindful not to cross any lines.
After you start playing on personal fears, throw in a few things that will make anyone feel creeped out. Instead of a normal spike pit, it can become a pit full of centipedes. The trap is essentially the same, and you can even keep the damage stats the same. But now it’s something that might give your players the creeps. Most people hate centipedes. Remember that D&D is played in the mind, so the more you defy the players expectations the spookier the story can become.
Choose a theme. A theme can go a long way towards keeping your story together. This is a great chance to pull out all the undead you want to use but never really get around to. Or if undead are a little too commonplace in your campaign you can always try Kuo-Tao cultists that sneak around in the dark waiting to sacrifice your party to their dark Ichthian gods. If you want to get really involved, you can even theme your game around some sort of psychosis. Maybe set the stage early that something is driving people mad and anyone could snap at any moment. This is also a great excuse to have people play anti-party.
Danger Increases Unease
Amp up the danger. D&D can be rough on your players normally, so play on those fears. Put your players in harm’s way. Present them with things that they think will outright kill them. The tension of thinking your character is about to die, even if things will be fine, is great for this kind of session. Remember when you do this that it needs to seem like the stakes are real. So even if you have things planned for your heroes to live, you need to make them think they are just barely able to escape. Fudging rolls is usually not a great thing to do, but I highly encourage it for Halloween. It really turns the danger scale up to 11 and your players will feel that much cooler for coming out of the story alive at the end of the night.
Throw in some paranoia. Begin a session by telling the team that one of their players has become infected or possessed by a horrible creature and is now working against them. They need to figure out who it is. It could be any of them… or best of all, it’s none of them because you didn’t actually tell anyone to play anti party. You just want them to think you did. It’s like playing a game of Werewolf where everyone is a villager. That’s just a game about crazy people hanging one another based on paranoia, and that’s plenty spooky.
You really can’t go wrong with Halloween D&D. So dust off your oldest forbidden tome, break out your most festive skulls, and get ready to scare the crap out of your players. Happy DMing and Happy Halloween!