Just two weeks until Halloween! Horror has been a part of D&D since its earliest days, and the most popular adventure of 5th edition (probably) is a horror adventure. Rather than just a general post about horror D&D (which I’ve done), this is specifically a guide to Halloween one-shots: a spooky, four-hour game that’s easy to run and doesn’t upset anyone. Let’s go.
Halloween this year is on a . . . Monday. Not ideal. Maybe this day works for your group, but for most people, Friday night or a weekend is probably going to work better.
If you normally play in the afternoon, I highly recommend playing later. 7 or 8 pm till midnight (or just before) can be really fun.
Give people plenty of notice for your Halloween session – now is probably a good time to book it in! You don’t want to run a special session only for half the group to not be there.
The darker your game (see below), the more important it is to check in with people. Even relatively tame horror can include blood, gore, entrapment, and creepy-crawlies, and that’s before you get into full-on body horror, dismemberment, demons and so on. As a bare minimum, I would suggest the following:
- ‘Pause for a moment.’ A useful verbal ‘X-card’ that allows any player to stop the game for a minute and talk things through. Remind players that it’s an option at the start of the session.
- Consider the adventure you want to run. If there are any elements that might be upsetting, let people know.
- Think about what film certificate your game would have. The game’s default is a PG, maybe a 12. If you want to cover darker content, you should let your group know.
For a fuller (and fantastic) overview of this subject, check out Consent in Gaming from Monte Cook Games. It’s free.
Types of horror
‘Horror’ covers a very wide territory. You’ve got everything from Gothic horror (Dracula) to horror comedy (Shaun of the Dead) to survival horror (The Walking Dead) to slashers (Friday the 13th). You’ve got possession, haunted houses, zombies, werewolves, ghosts. D&D does some of these very well and some . . . less well.
Personally, I would recommend something at the lighter end of the scale: creepy and atmospheric without being too unsettling or frightening. Most well-known Gothic stories fit this mould well, and you’re more likely to get universal buy-in from the group. There’s a reason why Ravenloft is such an enduringly popular adventure. More on this gem in a moment.
Do you need to introduce loads of new house rules for your Halloween session? Nah, not really. Most of it comes down to atmosphere. Consider the following:
- A spooky soundtrack!
- Description: the ultimate special FX team.
- Dimmed lighting (or even candles).
- Snacks! Witches’ fingers are particularly horrible . . .
- Choice of monsters (undead, hags, mind flayers . . .)
Most of this comes down to DM choices, but encourage the players to join in, too. A clear adventure pitch will help them build characters that fit the flavour.
If you’re playing online, some of this is harder to do. Still, you can certainly share a playlist with your players and ham it with your descriptions. Consider the art you share, too: it’s really good to have a ‘focal point’ in an online game like a map or a puzzle.
Running four-hour games
Most in-person sessions run to three or four hours; online is often a little shorter. The game you play on Halloween is probably going to be a one-night special. So how do you get it all in?
Keep the situation small. One adventure site, one main villain, a strong opening, a simple story. Less is more. There’s nothing wrong with finishing a little early and having some time to chill out together.
A good tip (I don’t know where this came from, so apologies for not referencing it): think about what your half-way point is and try to get there by half-way through the session. If you’re falling behind, trim the adventure a bit.
Choice of adventures
Mike Shea has an article on running Ravenloft in one night. James Haeck has a similar write-up. I’ve done this a couple of times – it’s fun! – but I wouldn’t recommend it for new DMs. Even if you know the adventure well, it’s still a big castle with complicated maps. ‘Death House’ might work better.
The Tomb of Horrors could work (see Tales from the Yawning Portal), but as a killer dungeon, it can get pretty relentless. Ghosts of Saltmarsh has ‘The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh’ and Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft has ‘The House of Lament’.
Wizards of the Coast put out a 1st-level adventure last year called ‘The Haunted Cornfield’. It looks fun, but I haven’t played it. Back in the day, I had a lot of fun playing ‘The House on Harrow Hill’, the second adventure in the AD&D First Quest box. Maybe I should adapt it.
What am I doing for Halloween? Why, that would ruin the surprise! I’m running a published adventure, but I’ve renamed it to hide key plot points. Let’s call it: ‘Cursed Tower of the Undying King’. Perhaps regular readers already know?
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