It's finally October, and that means it's time to switch out board shorts for board games. With Halloween on the horizon, there's a good chance Dungeon Masters are looking for some scary campaigns to run. And while there are plenty of those out there, running a horror campaign can prove to be pretty difficult. It takes an experienced Dungeon Master to set the mood for a horror campaign, or at least some good pointers to maximize how enjoyable the entire experience is.
First off, it's important to understand the ins and outs of the campaign that's actually being read. A lot of the time, horror campaigns are less about combat than they are exploration and role-playing, with plenty of puzzles and secrets sprinkled in to add to the mystery of whatever haunted manor or demonic cave system players are trying to navigate. It's important to make sure that players understand how the individual pieces of a puzzle fit together. Otherwise, the campaign can completely crash and burn - ruining the entire evening. It's up to the Dungeon Master to convey these ideas clearly and concisely, and the only way to do that is with an in-depth understanding of the source material.
That isn't to say that there's no room to improvise. Dungeons and Dragons is at its best when the DM throws in some creative flair. However, it's important not to over improvise. Doing so can lead to mistakes, including skipping over key aspects of a campaign that then have to be reinjected to the narrative. It isn't the worst possible thing that can happen, but it certainly doesn't help.
While DMing a horror campaign, in particular, it's incredibly important to establish a tone. Of course, there are a few tools a Dungeon Master can use to help with that tone. Try playing some spooky music in the background with some dimly-lit candles. Bonus points for those with a secondary speaker playing the sound of heavy rain in conjunction with the music. YouTube is full of three or four-hour videos of horror music, which will do nicely in most instances. The candlelight is also a nice touch, but watch out for players misreading their rolls.
For a horror campaign, it may be wise to strip players of their power - at least temporarily. Having to run and hide is a lot more frightening than being able to banish ghosts with a snap of the fingers. Most individual monsters would normally be nothing for a group of adventurers that have killed giants and dragons. Look at the best horror games out there - most involve the run and hide approach, and for good reason. It isn't necessary to leave them completely defenseless, just weak enough that being stupid will get them killed.
Speaking of killing, it's Halloween - disembowel players. If it's part of an on-going campaign, maybe have some mercy, but if it's a one-shot with a new cast of characters that have no future plans, don't be afraid to show some brutality. It's the one time a year that a DM can fulfill their bloodlust without feeling awful about it. Don't do it right away, players want to actually be able to play, but towards the end, it can be a good tool to raise the stakes. Just make sure to handle it the right way, as it's never fun to just have a character arbitrarily killed. Don't be afraid to eliminate a PC, but it shouldn't be the goal. Knowing when to kill a PC is something that's important to learn for beginner DMs, but is something some long-time Dungeon Masters still haven't learned.
Halloween is also a good time to break into the Monster Manual for creatures to take inspiration from. It isn't necessary to use the weirdest creatures in the Monster Manual, but there are a lot of options that get overlooked. Different monsters can be a good way to shake things up. Plus, there's interesting lore about most of them in the Monster Manual, which can help add a little bit of depth to a villain.
Horror is a challenge, but it doesn't need to be overly complicated. Really, it's most important to deliver all the pieces of a puzzle clearly and establish a tone early on. Doing so will pretty much guarantee that players are having fun, which usually means the DM is having fun too. Halloween is a great time to get players around the table for some dice tossing, so be sure to take full advantage of it by designing, or finding, a great campaign to fill in a spooky evening.