The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.
~ Devendra Varma in The Gothic Flame (1966)
Terror. Horror. Many Dungeon Masters (DM) will try and evoke these emotions within their players. Much like a horror movie, the sense of adrenaline and discovery associated with these emotions are compelling for the players. Monsters are suppose to be creatures with horrific visages or terrifying might. Even the lowliest goblin is a monster that invokes terror into the hearts of the common folk, who couldn’t hope to stand against such a hellion. So what exactly do these terms mean from the perspective of Dungeons and Dragons and how do you invoke these two emotions as a DM?
Terror is a feeling of anticipation. It occurs when the players are about to uncover something that they believe to be dreadful or sinister. Terror is the trail of hints towards a terrible scene, such as a monster or slaughter.
Horror is a feeling of revulsion. It typically occurs as the climax to a sense of dread, when the players’ fears are truly confirmed and they are forced to interact with a situation. Horror is the immediate consequence of a situation, such as the monster’s appearance and strength or the corpses littering the streets.
I see three basic methods to invoke these two emotions within a campaign of D&D: keeping things hidden and unknown to invoke terror, providing details and vivid descriptions to invoke horror, and using players meta knowledge to assist in either. However, it’s also important to remember the consequence of death in a campaign. D&D is a game, but player death has unintended consequences for invoking Terror or Horror.
When trying to invoke these two emotions at your table, it is often best to lead the players into terror before horror.
I suggest you read about Understanding the Six Types of Descriptions, posted by Michael to understand more about how to describe things within your games. Within the proposed model, terror is mostly found within atmospheric, spacial and informative descriptions, whereas horror is mostly found within the intriguing, motion, and sensational descriptions.
In essence: terror leads to horror, description wise.
The Unknown of Terror
In order for the players to feel a sense of terror, it’s important that they do not fully know what sort of situation they are in. The players must face the unknown. This is perhaps the most important and powerful tool at the disposal of the DM. The players minds know how to scare them better than you ever could, and when things are left out of the narrative, the players start making assumptions based on what might be most terrible for them.
Terror works with the unknown when the players see the evidence of something sinister, or otherwise have a sense of dread and anticipation regarding an event or beast. The players are left to wonder what terrible beast awaits? what is the source of something unusual, or odd? Often times, terror involves a level of gore to it. However, the gore is not the terrifying element of a scene, it is simply the props for the players to wonder where the gore came from or what it means. Below are a few examples of invoking terror through the unknown:
Atmospheric. After falling through the trapdoor, you find yourself in a cavern. The cave is illuminated by blue torches, revealing the numerous pitfalls, and the only path forward.
Spatial. There is a gap, no more than three feet wide in the caverns wall. The din becomes louder as you look into the hole, where you can see a slight trickle of blood.
Informative. The home is empty of any belongings, but you still hear the sound of footsteps within. A sense of disquietude washes over you, as you can see symbols of vampires etched into the walls.
Intriguing. The goblins do not pursue you beyond the red chalk line. Their normally vicious and hungering demeanor seems to drastically turn craven once they get near.
The Details to Horror
While the unknown is key to experiencing terror, horror requires explicit details. Details engross the players into the scene you are trying to portray. Perhaps the most important of details are the minute details. If the players are not visualizing the situation well, then they will not feel horror. It is difficult to be scared of a child’s drawing, just like it’s difficult to be scared of simple descriptions.
Horror works when the characters are standing front and center of a scene. The characters need to be able to hear, see, or just generally experience the scene that is occurring. We humans rely heavily on visuals, and due to this it’s quite common for DMs to describe a grizzly scene too visually, and forget about all the other senses. The most horrific scenes are those that incorporate sounds, smells, and touch. Not only will these sensations creep out your more imaginative players to an extra degree, it will make your scene far more memorable for games and sessions to come.
Yet, an important point about Horror is that it often relies on gore to invoke a feeling of disgust and revulsion. Gore, though, is not the goal of horror. It’s simply a tool used to focus the player’s attention on the immediate situation, transforming the building feeling of dread into a climactic feeling of danger. Knowing when, and how much, to describe gore is trial and error, and is largely dependent on the audience. A few examples of horror are shown below:
Intriguing. The ogre encampment is empty at the moment, however you can see the corpses of a dozen men, torn to fragments and stored in boxes. However, from a box filled with organs you can hear a childish weeping.
Motion. The monstrous behemoth rear back it’s massive tentacle and slams it into the ground at your feet. The beast does not seem worried, it’s strikes with the alacrity only found in children playing with their food.
Sensational. The necromancer envelopes you in a powerful necrotic aura. You watch as your skin shrivels and your lips begin to crack. Energy flows from you, and directly into the necromancer’s wand. He has begun to desiccate your living body, and from it draw in power.
The Meta Horror
D&D is a game filled with heroic characters and villainous creatures. In many encounters, monsters are placed as obstacles that the heroes are assumed to overcome through combat. This is in essence, the core aspect of D&D that most players are expecting. However, this aspect is often very counterintuitive to terror and horror. When you give the victim the tools and capability to fight back against the monster, then the monster stops being scary, and becomes a bag of hit points waiting to hit 0.
This whole issue is amplified when you consider that for many experienced players, monsters are not a mystery. Once the players know the minotaur is a CR 3 creature with a charge attack, it’s a trivial encounter. Why should they fear it at 4th level? It’s not actually scary to them mechanically. Even if you describe the monster as horrific as you can, the players will not respond to it because internally, the monster is not scary.
Does this mean that terror and horror are not possible in D&D?
Well, of course not. However, you need to get clever. Instead of demanding the players not to “metagame” and act surprised, unaware, or ignore obvious weaknesses, you should be focusing on utilizing creatures that will scare the characters through their shear strength and power. The Minotaur is a horrific foe to encounter at 1st level, as the players will know they just can’t mechanically defeat it. The creature will kill them. One a round. With its greater speed, they won’t be able to escape.
Your descriptions should be matching the threat a monster poses to the party. Below I will describe an encounter with a troll monster, the first description is assuming the players who found the troll are 1st level, and the second assumes they are 5th level or higher. The reason is, despite the trolls known weakness to fire, it will still kill any first level party by itself and any party of 5th level or higher could easily kill one with only minor injuries.
Before you is a massive creature. It’s hide green and thick. The creature’s arms dangle down to it’s calfs, nearly 7 feet long alone. A Troll. The creature’s mouth is a mess of razor sharp teeth that seem to drip with thick, red salvia. At least, you can only hope it’s saliva. The troll stands tall and speaks out. “More meat.”
You find yourself face to face with a troll. Its body is bulbous and round, its arms are lanky and uneven. The monsters brow protrudes offensively far. From the sickly skin to the disproportioned structure, the creature is a sinful cacophonous mass of flesh and bile that has no place amongst the living. The beast stumbles towards you aggressively and shouting in broken common. “Now you get eat!”
The goal is to make the situation sound terrific or horrific regardless of the power of the players, but use the description to show when the situation can be overcome. The players will pick up from these descriptions whether they can, or can’t win. As well, you are creating a consonance between what the players know about the situation mechanically, and how you want them to feel about the situation.
The Death Paradox
Most players will find themselves facing death when they end up in a horrific situation, especially a mechanically significant one. Yet, death is a polarizing topic in D&D. Some DMs swear by it, others try their best to avoid it. Regardless of where you stand, the threat of death is often a sword of Damocles for the players. It is supposed to keep them invested into their characters, and make them play out situations as if their characters actually possess a sense of self-preservation and a lust for life. So naturally, death should be a constant struggle for players in a game looking to force a feeling of terror and horror.
But, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
A player will only experience terror or horror at the prospect of losing a character they care about. Usually, a character with a deep history and a web of connections. In general, the player needs to truly like their character. The players need the sword to dangle precariously overhead, but that very blade must not fall often, or possibly at all.
Players learn to love their characters over months of play time. If your players’ characters die often, each new character has a smaller history than the last, they’re less interesting than the last, and more mechanically focused than the last. Soon the players stop trying to play into the terror and horror. They know death is inevitable. So they focus on killing monsters and disassociating from the character they are playing. Any why would they? Making a character interesting and fun takes time. Making a history takes time. A player will not invest this huge amount of time into the game repeatedly.
There are solutions to this odd paradox. The goal should be to focus on the illusion of death. Have the monsters take people hostage, but alive: perhaps the troll keeps people jailed until he’s ready to eat. As well, focus on scenarios that involve some sort of close but assured escape. The giant may bash a player to single digit heath but they are also launched back to a conveniently located rope bridge. The player will realize death is inevitable, and the giant won’t be able to pursue beyond the bridge.
The most important thing that must be pounded into the players is that escape and retreat is not a failed combat, but a successful one. Think of any good horror or slasher movie, the hero is not trying to defeat and kill the monster. More often than not, the hero is trying to escape before they are killed. Therefore, in a game focused on horror or terror, the combat is about overcoming and escaping the situation to live another day, not to kill something.
As the DM, you need to tailor your descriptions to the situation at hand, and the desired emotion you want your players to feel. Terror and Horror are not the same thing, and they have different purpose. You must consider the players at your table as well, the more experienced players require different approaches than those who are still new to the hobby, as different tables want different things out of a campaign.
Terror and horror are not the only or even best ambiance to invoke in a game of D&D. When the goal is to make the players out to be divine or otherwise great heroes that can overcome all odds, invoking horror or terror is counter to the goal of the game. This is important to remember: not all emotions are important to every style of adventure, let alone campaign.
Lastly, D&D is a social game, and is played for fun. You can execute a situation flawlessly, but any player at the table may just make light of the situation with a joke, and suddenly whatever mood you have set is shattered in an instant. This can, and will happen. It’s part of the game, it’s part of friendship, and it’s a part of life. Don’t get mad at them, and don’t get sad your situation isn’t working. Sometimes a dark game needs a humorous element, as it can be very taxing on the players to constantly feel dread and hopeless.
Just be happy they show up every week and pay enough attention that they can make situationally relevant jokes. Because at someone else’s table, the players may just be waiting for initiative to be called, and couldn’t care less what they’re fighting.