Archive for August 25th, 2010


Fear and Loathing in Greyhawk

His hand jerked back in instinctive repulsion. Sword shaking in his grasp, horror and revulsion and fear almost choking him, he backed away and down the glass steps with painful care, glaring in awful fascination at the grisly thing that slumbered on the copper throne. It did not move.

—Robert E. Howard, “The Devil in Iron”

Over at The Delver’s Dungeon, there’s an interesting thread about whether you can have a frightening dungeon crawl.

I’m of the opinion that while it’s very difficult to scare players who don’t want to be scared, it’s very easy to scare players who do want to be scared, as they’ll do all the heavy lifting for you. It’s a matter of personal investment; the more immersed a player is in the game, the more likely it is that they’ll react emotionally to what’s going on—whether or not you intend for that to happen!

If your players are fully engaged and you’re aiming for a bit o’ fear, there are a couple of factors you’ll want to bring in:

1) Threat: If the players actually value their characters’ lives and put themselves in their characters’ shoes, then they’ll be at least a bit scared of anything that they recognize as a serious threat to the PCs. Note that this is a matter of perception rather than fact! In my game, the players often charge into fights with powerful opponents without too much worry, but they’re chary of ghouls because several encounters with ghouls have resulted in near-TPKs.

2) Mystery: Sometimes unknown danger is more threatening than the known, because it could be anything. For at least a dozen sessions, the thing in my dungeon that most unnerved my players wasn’t a monster, but a stairway. It was an enormous thing that wound deep into the earth, its lights growing dimmer as they went down until it disappeared into darkness. They didn’t know how far down it went or what lived at its base. This allowed them to invent their own fears.

As a player, what have you found scary in a D&D session? As a DM, what have you done to scare your players during play?


Random Table: A Rising Goblin-Tide

Moved by a sudden impulse he groped for a loose stone, and let it drop. He felt his heart beat many times before there was any sound. Then far below, as if the stone had fallen into deep water in some cavernous place, there came a “plunk,” very distant, but magnified and repeated in the hollow shaft.

‘What’s that!’ cried Gandalf. He was relieved when Pippin confessed what he had done; but he was angry, and Pippin could see his eye glinting. ‘Fool of a Took!’ he growled. ‘This is a serious journey, not a hobbit walking party. Throw yourself in next time, and then you will be no further nuisance. Now be quiet!’

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

The PCs attract the attention of a horde of humanoids—goblins, orcs, gnolls or what have you—which inhabit a lower level of the dungeon, possibly by means of dropping something down a well. How do the humanoids react?

Roll 1d6 on the following table. Apply an ad hoc penalty to the roll if the PCs seem especially dangerous (the booted footsteps of a score of hirelings echo through the dungeon, or the party is preceded by the flash and crack of lightning bolts), while applying a bonus if the PCs seem like a juicy target (they’re accompanied by the cries of frightened children, or they spill coins like sparkly rain down a stairwell).

    1: The humanoids withdraw and hide.
    2: A scouting party (1d4 humanoids) skulks up to investigate.
    3: A raiding party (2d6 humanoids) strafes the PCs with missiles.
    4: A war party (3d6 humanoids + 1 sub-leader) assaults the PCs.
    5: A strike force (3d6 humanoids + 1d3 sub-leaders + 1 affiliated monster [dire wolf, troll, etc]) slams into the PCs.
    6: The entire horde swarms up to overwhelm the PCs.

Past Adventures of the Mule

August 2010

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