When starting a horror adventure or campaign, it helps to know what particular flavor of horror to you are attempting to evoke. One of the most common sub-genres, Gothic Horror, has a proud history in Dungeons & Dragons. This is probably because of the influence of the classic module I6: Ravenloft and the subsequent campaign setting it inspired.
An interesting alternative is Lovecraftian Horror, which gets its name from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraftian Horror also has roots that reach back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons as well. Mind Flayers, Sahuagin and Aboleths are some of the most obvious creatures to draw from this tradition, but all creatures we would now call “Aberrations” as well as the alien terrors of the Far Realm are all inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s work.
There are many important themes to keep in mind if you are planning on running a D&D game inspired by Lovecraftian horror.
The Irrelevance of Mankind
Humans like to think they are the center of the universe. Lovecraftian Horror makes the assumption that humans are utterly irrelevant. Humans are subjected to the whims of alien and unknowable beings, and there is nothing they can do to change that.
When building adventures based on Lovecraftian Horror, it is important to keep this in mind. While the player characters may be able to unravel a mystery or enact change on a small scale, that the big picture remains unchanged is essential. Reminding the players that ancient evils continue their plots unabated and that ancient cycles continue unchanged goes a long way towards driving this theme home.
Related to the irrelevance of mankind is the fact that the great powers, whether gods, primordials, archfey, or terrors of the Far Realm, care nothing about the fate of man. Lower than even pawns, humans are completely inconsequential to their machinations.
If you are creating an entire campaign based on Lovecraftian Horror, this will probably have repercussions on how you present the gods and on characters with the divine power source. The ideological battles between the deities are fought without care for how they affect mere mortals. Even “Lawful Good” and “Good” gods should be focused on their own affairs, and unconcerned with how their actions affect the natural world.
As for their worshipers, there should be little to no communication with the gods, even by the highest levels of the clergy. The tenants of religion are human constructs. In fact several opposed denominations may spring up with each denouncing the others as heretics. In such a game, the gods will not deign to make their opinion on the subject known.
There is a reason why the old Call of Cthulhu game had a sanity mechanic. Many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories featured protagonists who were pushed to the brink of sanity or beyond by the sheer horror of what they encounter.
An easy way to introduce this into an adventure is to present the characters with Non-Player Characters who have been driven mad by what they have encountered. Choosing to set portions of the adventure in insane asylums or similar locations is another common way to evoke this feeling that there are some things that simply should not be known.
If you are planning a campaign based on Lovecraftian Horror, it is probably worthwhile to add some form of sanity or madness mechanic to your game. For inspiration you may consider looking at Call of Cthuhu (Chaosium or d20), Ravenloft (TSR or White Wolf), and Heroes of Horror. Also, be sure to check back at A Hero Twice A Month, since you can expect updated rules for Fear, Horror, and Madness in D&D 4e during Horror Month.
The Ocean is Evil
Practice using words like cephalopod, squamous, and mucocutaneous in a sentence. If you can use them convincingly, you may have a chance of sounding authentically like H.P. Lovecraft.
H.P. Lovecraft took great inspiration from creatures of the depths when designing the elder evils that inhabit his universe. Tentacles, slime, scales, and giant unblinking eyes are all common elements. Luckily, Dungeons & Dragons is filled with creatures with these attributes.
Just make sure to emphasize these elements when describing them to your players. Saying that “You see two mind flayers” is different than “You see two inhuman creatures. They they have gaunt unnatural frames and their heads have an unnatural octopoid shape. Grey lidless eyes stare at you and where their mouth should be is a writhing mass of tentacles. The creatures’ skin is a sickly mauve and glistens with a mucocutaneous substance.”
Good horror lets your mind do the hard work, and Lovecraftian Horror takes this to an extreme. It is best to hint at deep horrifying truths, but leave making the connections up to the players themselves.
This requires a high player involvement, but when it works it is much more effective. Simply telling the player something lacks the same impact.
If you have the temperament for it, Lovecraftian Horror can add a unique feel to your game. Since some elements of Lovecraftian Horror have been present in D&D since the beginning, it can be added with a minimum of fuss.
Well, except for learning how to pronounce mucocutaneous.