Investing In: Dread

Maybe you’re home alone and you hear a creak up in the attic. Or it’s time to change the laundry in the basement and the light bulb blows as you head down the stairs. Perhaps you’ve gone to the store but its eerily empty. It could even be a beautiful, sunny day but a strange sound in the bushes raises goosebumps on your flesh.

That anticipation, that fear is Dread.

As a GM I often ask myself when planning any sort of horror in my games what is scarier: the danger you see coming or the danger you know is there but can’t see? It’s usually the latter. Narratives that are based in fear are often broken down to two sub categories or genres: horror and dread. Horror can be classic horror like werewolves and vampires. It can be the cosmic horror of Lovecraftian, otherworldly beings. It’s gore and blood and often very physical. That can be good for very specific campaigns (Strange Aeons anyone?) but also maybe an adventure like into a specific land (Ustalav, Isle of Terror). You might even punctuate an otherwise typical adventure with such, much like that beautiful, sunny day I had in the opening little narrative.

But it’s the dread that I feel really impacts players, especially those jaded adults. Now that’s not always so easy when you’re all sitting around the table, possibly with computers and overhead lighting. There’s no physical jump scares from a suspenseful approach of that noisy bush when you’re at the table. Instead you need to set the scene and utilize some tools to help build the dread in your characters and their players!

Horror & Consent

First, consider the players, your lines and veils, and all you discussed at your Session 0!. Horror Games and Consent (I’m linking to the still very relevant Horror Adventures rules of Pathfinder 1E) is very important. You might want to consider warning that the session has a “increased rating” for the night or feature certain elements. Remind your group you can pause at any time, use that X card, step away for a moment, or simply ask that you change how something is handled. Finally depending on your playership, you may want to encourage them to read that Horror Games and Consent link for perspective and tools to help you and the rest of the group in the enjoyment of the game!

Next, I encourage you as a GM or even you as a player wanting to support your group, consider Horror Storytelling (I love the Horror Adventures book) and how we scare characters and players. Setting the scene helps put all people in the right mood and tying it to the themes you want to use. Some of the theme and mood setting I talked for the World of Darkness is applicable. You can’t have jump scares from the bush, but you can use darkened lightning, candles, or creepy music to help. Scented candles can evoke smoky fire, forest, or even dungeons. I picked up Adventure Scents as well for a localize aid or something the players can take a quick whiff of to get that right feeling!

The Set Up

With your group aware of the themes ahead, your mood set, now it comes down to the story. Dread is often best served by building suspense and knowing something dangerous or scary is out there, or at least fearing that there is. You evoke it for your characters but also the heroes this way. Consider the following when creating a Horror Adventure:

  1. Know the Medium – framing the adventure around their interests, their abilities
  2. Choose the Terror – what sort of horror, ultimately what monster?
  3. Spread the Terror – introduce lesser threats, set the stage of what’s to come
  4. Fear From the Unexpected – surprise your players and characters with terrible details or the threat of greater danger
  5. Horrible Success, Terrible Rewards – allow the heroes to succeed but with ramifications and dire consequences

Considering all that for my Expedition Coalition Pathfinder 2E game I’m running I have been slowly developing a dangerous threat to the heroes. My players are curious but very roleplaying driven, trying to be in character. They’ve been judicious heroes thus far, focused in their exploration and less in the heroics but still well-meaning. Their talents are in healing and striking magic, not in utility though the Druid is very capable in the wilderness. With the knowledge related skills spread between them I felt almost any danger could be utilized. I chose something the heroes could grow (level really) toward fighting while also providing some creatures at lower level to fight that would hint towards it. In this case, I chose a Barghest.

The Terror

The heroes were heading toward a town and a recently unearthed temple in the mountains, traversing a rarely used road and a bit of the wilds to get there. Wolves happened upon them and then the rest of a pack wondering where their scouts had gone. They found some marks on the wolves, not altogether odd, but the Druid deduced a few marks seemed larger than any of the ones they’d had to kill (and later skinned to sell the pelts). They didn’t quite think they’d found an Alpha even. Later they heard an irregular howl and as they talked over a campfire – the skins drying – I had the night be particularly dark. I ensured the lights were low and a smoke-based candle was burning as they talked. One hero deduced with a large occultism roll that there was a creature that often influenced wolves, otherworldly and capable of shapeshifting, called a Barghest that they should watch out for.

Much of the current story quest continued, wolves not coming up, though at least one townsperson they met referenced how hunters avoided wolves altogether. Later, while moving through a different section of nearby forest they found a set of tracks that seemed to have double-backed behind them. They were wolven, but massive, and primarily on roots or within bushes and high grasses. Very clear intelligence showed there. They reasoned correctly it was a Barghest, though perhaps larger than a typical one… Indeed, I planned to use a Greater Barghest. Back in town they found hobgoblin footprints circling outside the perimeter. Could it be the Greater Barghest? It could. And later during a very Halloween-like Allbirth holiday they spotted a hobgoblin in costume. They made friends with him, but noted how incredibly strong he is. Suspicion was afoot.

The Consequences

Moving through the forest the next day they heard the howl again and activity south of them. I knew I’d succeeded in sewing some fear as they chose to avoid, not to investigate, returning to a safe camp where they could spend the night. The next day they paid for their fear, smelling blood as they headed back to town. Their dread was realized not in finding the Greater Barghest but a gorey campsite, with numerous lumberjacks and townspeople torn asunder and dead. Skins hung to dry…

Now their dread would also turn to despair as they returned to the town to inform the townspeople of their deceased friends and families. How long before they realized it’s the heroes fault not only for the attacks on the wolves but also for avoiding the howling, dangerous creature? Could they have saved even one? And the Greater Barghest is still out there. Is it the Hobgoblin or are they even related? Who will be attacked next? Is it truly stalking them? That’s the dread I like to see and to hear their in-character deliberations of what the right thing to do truly proves the spread of fear. Ultimately their success should have some consequences once they confront the Greater Barghest, but I can’t reveal that just yet!

If you want to punctuate your games with a touch of horror, I highly encourage you to invest some dread into your adventure! Consider also suggestions on your GMing as well as use of Hazards (haunts specifically) to spread that terror and create fear of the unexpected! I love how haunts can be formed up to your creative desires based on your goals! And remember to sew those dangers in with disturbing foreshadowing!

Investing In:

I wasn’t quite sure what to name my article series when I first started but the idea of showcasing or discussing things that make me excited, that I find new and interesting, or maybe I’m otherwise passionate about seemed to fit with the idea of Investing In something like the Pathfinder 2E mechanic. To use some magic items you have to give that little bit of yourself, which helps make these things even better. I like the metaphor of the community growing and being strengthened in the same way!

I also want to hear what you’re Investing In! Leave me a comment below about what games, modules, systems, products, people, live streams, etc you enjoy! You can also hit me up on social media as silentinfinity. I want to hear what excites you and what you’re passionate about. There’s so much wonderful content, people, groups (I could go on) in this community of ours that the more we invest in and share, the better it becomes!

Sources

Banner – Horror Storytelling, Horror Adventures, Paizo

  1. Don’t Fear the Reaper, Creative Commons Attribution, alexcherrypicks
  2. Horror Games and Consent, Horror Adventures, Paizo
  3. Creepy Neighbors House, Creative Commons Attribution, Yatzenty

Rob Pontious

Rob Pontious works in web commerce by day and is a writer for KnowDirectionPodcast.com's #InvestingIn, a player for Roll for Combat's #ThreeRingAdventure podcast, and also a player for GehennaGaming's #GehennaValley MonsterHearts2 twitch stream. He's a lover of TTRPGs for over three decades, a gamer, and a GAYMER. You can find him on social media as @silentinfinity.