During my childhood my parents exposed me to several movies that would more or less shape my career as a dungeon master. While I love the tales of heroic adventurers saving the world against evil there is a soft spot that I developed for horror and thrillers. One of the first true horror movies my mother had me watch was the first Alien movie, yes the one from 1979. Since then I have moved more toward thrillers as too many horror movies are based on jump scares, which is not what makes horror great. Many of the titles I will be including may not be horror movies at all, but would more properly be considered thrillers.
Being the seed to my horror/thriller kick as an adult, there is so much that Ridley Scott did right in this amazing movie. Even for being produced in 1979, this movie has held up against the test of time (so far) with its visuals. You can’t just watch any of the Alien movies for this inspiration; you need to watch the first, as it was really the last the series saw of true horror genre. Overall, it shows an unknown monster hunting down the crew of a ship where all they are armed with are tasers and patched-together flamethrowers.
This can be an epic theme or a short horror campaign. For systems like Call of Cthulhu or Dread, this is easy to integrate. If you are using a more combat focused system like Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll need to tailor the monster to the party entering the campaign. The focus will be to make the character feel powerless against the creature while still having a way to fight it. Removing the player's’ ability to fight back entirely feels more punishing than terrifying.
In reality, I despise these movies. If I had to recommend any of them for the sake of inspiration I would say watch either the first or second. I do not see these as horror movies so much as punishment and gore cinema. The reason I include them on this list is because the concept behind them is unique and can cause wide-eyed terror in your players.
Saw highlights one of the fundamental aspects of horror: the consumer’s imagination. I say consumer and not viewer because the person in question experiencing the horror may be in the shoes of the target, the one experiencing the situation. They are not a viewer. Saw takes the idea that you will scare yourself far more than another could, but then they take that thought and display it in all its gory detail. If you put your players in a situation where they have to follow the beck and call of some distant and terrible voice to escape, you can create several moments of absolute terror when they have to face that decision. Reinforce that decision with an in-game mechanic and it will really feel like their life depends on the roll of a die.
3) Soma, Bioshock, And H.P. Lovecraft
It might seem strange to include all three of these in the same point but they all share some similar elements of inspiration that can play off one another. If you haven’t guessed, it’s time to take your players deep beneath the waves and leave them there.
In both Soma and Bioshock you are trapped at the bottom of the ocean. Pretty simple concept, but in each story, the world below (and maybe even above) has gone insane and you might be the only sane ones left. In Bioshock, the culture itself has become the absolute primal aspects of society and it has some pretty terrifying moments for an action game. To avoid spoiling Soma, let’s just say that a pretty nasty discovery isn’t playing too nice.
If you haven’t taken the time to read some of Lovecraft’s work, you really should. Mostly for getting to experience his strange imagination. The part I am pulling from his work is his dealings with strange creatures from the deep. Mix those with the settings like Soma and Bioshock and you can create some strange and horrifying places.
System Of Use
I’m going to take a quick break right here to elaborate on something I mentioned during #1 on this list. The system you use can be critical to maintaining atmosphere and mood. Some systems are absolutely designed for it, like the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu and Dread. Some systems work harder to create that feeling, mostly in systems where failure is minimal and rewards player creativity. Dungeons and Dragons is a difficult system in which to integrate horror because the players are inherently powerful. You can turn that power against the players to enforce the feeling of dread, but you can risk turning your players off from playing if they are not told they are getting into a horror game because they may feel like they are being cheated.
4) Alan Wake And The Hangover
Yes, I am including a comedy on this list. The Hangover took a common trope used in media and turned it on its head in the best way possible: amnesia. That movie could have been a horror movie had the writers decided a different set of events or even changed the setting. Even Skyrim played off this movie for one of the most enjoyable quests in the game (see a Night to Remember quest). The basis of the trope is waking up having forgotten everything from the night (or nights) before and dealing with the consequences.
Here Alan Wake comes into the fray because it also plays on the amnesia trope to an amazing degree. We are going to ignore the monsters and crazy events that occur throughout the game because those pale in comparison to the Manuscript. Early in the game you discover that during Alan Wake’s stay at a house on a lake he blacked out, went crazy, and wrote a Manuscript that pretty much plays out like the movie Stranger than Fiction. The Manuscript Alan Wake writes details events that end up happening in the game.
Mix these together and you can get some pretty nasty surprises for your players, who knows what they got themselves into or what they or someone else wrote themselves into. Having to face the consequences and allowing their imaginations to roam as to what actually occurred can be pretty terrifying.
F.E.A.R. or First Encounter Assault Recon, plays with the terrifying little girl trope. While it may be a trope, it can sure be effective; just look at Ringu/The Ring. While the little girl is terrifying, what she actually is and how you interact with her is more terrifying. If you want to play these games I actually recommend the first two, ignore the third F.E.A.R. game as it is not terrifying at all. The small child you see is Alma, a psychic who causes hallucinations and controls people all while being in a coma.
Throw in a super powerful psychic entity that can’t be directly interacted with and has grand plans for the party or things surrounding them, and you get some terrifying moments. Be warned, with mind control you can quickly shut down a player’s sense of agency. A player losing agency can really kill the feeling of dread if used too frequently because then they feel like they are on rails.
6) Werewolf, The Darkness, And The Clue Movie
The game Werewolf is one of those “secret role” type games where one person is the werewolf and the object of the game is to figure out who is the monster. This is pretty close to the plot of the Clue movie where no one knows who the killer is and it is up to everyone to find out. This idea can be really well executed if done properly, the use of secret messages is crucial to maintaining secrecy while the party works to solve the mystery or the party tears itself apart.
But what about the murderer or the victim of a possibly deadly virus? This is where I bring in The Darkness. The premise of this game is that you are the host to an ancient evil that is called the Darkness. You have no real control over it and it sometimes forces you into situations; like watching your girlfriend get shot in the face right in front of you. You can create a truly unknown and terrifying entity that has possessed or infected the host, causing them to do the things, all while it is threatening them to keep quiet. This can create some really horrific secret dialogue and evoke dread in the player who is infected, while causing dread in those around them.
The X Card
I feel the need at this point to bring up a useful tool for at the table, especially when going into areas that can touch close to home on individuals personal trauma. Having a card available for players to raise in order to signify that the topic is crossing into dangerous territory emotionally is incredibly important, often this is a card with a large visible “X” on it. You do not want to touch on a subject a player does not want to explore because it can create real harm. When running horror campaigns I believe the X card is an absolute requirement.
In this case I am talking about the video game developed by Bungie, not the hidden power said to determine the future. While the game is not horror, the theme leans toward Dark Sci-fi. Overall there is a “Darkness” that is encroaching on the universe and you are part of the last bastion of civilization not consumed by it. Out of the darkness crawl creatures and monstrosities that are trying to consume everything.
This is a pretty common theme and one that can be used to varying degrees. You can go as far as Destiny has and make the Darkness consume the known world, or just a region of your fantasy world that traps people inside. Mixing this with any number of other ideas and themes can create lots of dread and that extra sense of being trapped that helps solidify fear.
I’ve spent a ton of time consuming media and can pull inspiration from just about anything. If you use any of these let me know what came from the inspiration!
Jacob is a writer, editor, and dungeon master for Nerdolopedia. He runs a podcast discussing and reviewing homebrewed content and streams miniature painting, video games, and D&D 5th Edition. He writes articles on the Nerdolopedia website to assist Dungeon Masters making the most out of their games and writing.
Picture Reference: http://www.picswalls.com/pic/horror-wallpapers/
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