Horror in Dungeons

With all the OCR-stuff going on dungeons are getting better rep than in ages. Dungeon World is a certain classic and a game I would be willing to play at any time. Almost a year ago I talked about making dungeons on the fly and this subject raised its ugly head last Tuesday when the party descended into an ancient underground city in Egypt. Granted I was pretty tired then but I still think I had something good going on.

We are going to continue our descend into this forgotten tomb tomorrow and while I was searching the web for ideas and made notes about how to get it right I came into a conclusion that what I am actually doing is building a dungeon while I thought I was making a scenario for Call of Cthulhuish game.

As I am sure everybody here knows horror is a difficult subject. It is mostly different for everyone but there are some common factors that could be used to make a dungeon adventure feel more like horror.

Isolation – the party travels into an unknown location and is out of reach for warm and cosy situations. Though this might be a thing rarely highlighted in a game making it a key factor can easily change the whole setup in a dungeon. Think about Evil Dead or Silent Hill for example – they are all about isolation without a hope of getting help.

Play this up with closing doors that cannot be opened once passed through, limiting their visibility and making damn sure nobody wants to split the party and you are on the right tracks. If there is no way to get back there is no way to get help or resupply their wares. They just have to move on.

Unknown – Simply put there is quite nothing so frightening than entering a location you know nothing about but can easily assume to house monsters. We all have experienced this in our youth while visiting unknown basements and attics. Usually the adventurers know a little about the dungeon they enter or at least can make assumptions according to their previous experiences. Take this away and suddenly the fear of unknown is there.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

As an example I would say that one of the most successful horror moments I have GMed was while the adventuring party where on a cursed ship out in the ocean. They went under the deck to investigate and found the mess. They open the door and could only see absolute darkness. I described the smells they could smell and sounds they could hear (a axe chopping meat) but did not let them to see anything. They even lifted a lantern into to the darkness only to have the darkness engulf it. They closed the door and moved on never knowing what actually happened inside.

Monsters – It could be easy to go through a bestiary for the game you are running and just choose the Most Horrible Monster(tm) but in the end the players are not likely to be afraid of it. They simply cannot relate into their characters in that way (or if they can, do not ever let them leave your gaming group). They known they can most likely beating anything you are throwing at them or if not their characters just die. Though it might seem like a gruesome encounter it will quite quickly degenerate into a dice orgy and kill count.

What you can do is change the rules. The monster cheats. Let it have something the players know it cannot do and suddenly the situation changes. Dragon goes invisible, the cops pull out rusty knives, the grey aliens burst open revealing a ghastly protoplasmic goo that attacks the character with tentacles of black acid. The key here is to do something they do not expect so they are on their toes without a chance to guess what is coming next.

The Dungeon – The last trick in your sleeve is to use the Dungeon itself as the big bad. Clearest example of this is naturally Silent Hill but it should not be too difficult to copy the feeling into any surroundings. If it follows the narrative and facts as established you can pretty much get away with any strange fuckery you can come up with.

After all descending into a dungeon is not a trip to a grocery store. The party are on their way to the belly of the beast and their journey should shadow this. Making the whole experience dreamlike could work, so could changing the narrative time on the fly. Players hate to loose control on their character and usually I would advice against it – but if you can make it worth their while to cheat them out of options and make them uneasy about just how the dungeon works it can be quite rewarding.

While making the dungeon plausible is usually the best way to make it seem more real nothing is keeping you from making an exception. If you think your group is ok with it try out different things and see what works for them.

Most important lesson here is “less is more”. Do not over do it. Trying to force horror into a game just won’t work. But if it works out and you can surprise your players of the guard it is likely that they can appreciate it.

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