Darkvision and Other Inconveniences
“The air is cold and dank, heavy with the weight of the earth hanging high above your head. Jagged, black stone walls stretch ahead and behind. The torch in your hand flickers as a dead breeze staggers down the passageway. You draw closer and closer to the end of this bleak tunnel until finally, the narrow rock walls vanish on both sides. You can hear the heavy breathing of something in the darkness ahead and…”
“I have darkvision!”
“You… Oh, whatever! You see a feral troll in the back of the cave. Everybody, roll initiative.”
It can be hard to create an atmosphere of danger and lurking horrors as a DM. You can put hours of time, care, and creativity into designing the perfect nightmare dungeon. It’s packed full of unseen traps and terrifying monsters. You’ve written dozens of pages dedicated to describing the specific positioning and decay of each corpse within. By the end, you fully expect the characters to be inching through passageways, utterly terrified of what they will have to face next.
But you forgot darkvision would reveal the threats easily. Plus, the party always gets lucky with perception rolls and avoids the traps. Worst of all, you forgot you gave them a magic item that easily beats your scary monster.
It can be especially disheartening in an Underdark campaign. A subterranean realm filled with monstrous horrors, alien flora and fauna, and formidable drow seems like the perfect place to strike a little fear into your players’ hearts. Below, we’ll examine how fear works in stories and go over some of the ways you can inject more fear and suspense into your Underdark and Rise of the Drow campaigns.
Remember to always ask players before starting a campaign if they are comfortable with the horror elements you plan to include. If someone planned to see a new kids movie then wandered into a zombie horror flick screening on accident they would be pretty upset. The same goes for your tabletop games. You don’t have to go into too much detail and spoil the scares, but make it clear beforehand so everyone is on the same page.
Terror vs. Horror
In the realm of horror literature and cinema, there’s a long-standing distinction between terror and horror. Terror is a feeling of dread or suspense created by the possibility of something frightening, while horror is the revulsion created by actually witnessing it. Devendra Varma, an expert in Gothic literature, described it best, saying “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”.
What does all this mean for your campaigns? Well, knowing the types of fear you can inspire helps you narrow down what you should focus on and when. Terror can be laced throughout your adventures in the Aventyr Underworld, but horror should be saved for key moments and encounters.
Terror in the Underdark
Traveling in the Underdark is a terrifying and wondrous experience. It is filled with winding tunnels and ravines that fall away into darkness. Vile drow patrol the passageways looking for new victims to sacrifice and enslave. There are also ancient, forgotten ruins and fantastical fungi. For all the wonder a foreign and bizarre landscape can inspire, there are just as many things to instill dread in adventurers’ hearts.
Your players will always be on the lookout for danger in the Underdark. This could end up being a roadblock. How are you supposed to sneak something scary in amongst the constant perception rolls and careful travel? However, the party’s hyperawareness can also be your greatest tool in scaring their pants off!
They could come across a number of humanoid skeletons that have been picked clean or hear skittering somewhere in the darkness. Suggest the danger lurking all around without actually showing it. Our d100 lists are a great place to look for terrifying options. Save the best ones to make every perception check nerve-wracking. All you have to do is imply terrifying dangers lurking just out of sight, your players will fill in the rest on their own. As H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”.
The beauty of terror is you can plant it anywhere. For example, your party might be setting up camp for the night in the Underdark wilderness. Just as they are lighting a fire and deciding the watch rotation, a deep laugh echoes from somewhere in the darkness. Except, only one of the party members hear it. This should unnerve all of them. What does it mean? What could have made the sound? Was there a laugh or was it imagined by the character? Feel free to join in the speculation, neither confirming nor denying what’s waiting out there for them in the dark. If done right, you’ve definitely ruined the characters’ chances for a good night’s sleep.
Horror in the Underdark
Horrifying your players is easier than terrifying them. Where terror creates the possibility of things lurking out of sight, horror rips back the curtain and displays what’s actually there. You can go into great detail about the disgusting features of the ogre attacking them or how it’s using a human corpse as a weapon. Horror doesn’t always need to be an immediate visual, though. It can come in the form of new information which leads to a sickening realization. NPC’s might have dozens of stories of the horrible torture techniques of the drow. They might even have suffered through them personally, leaving them with horrific scars and lost limbs.
Film and literature are generally better than roleplaying games at creating horror. DMs have to lay out a scene, answer players’ questions, and react to anything they might do. Scary movies choose what people see and don’t have to answer any questions. But DMs can outshine any horror movie in one respect; player choice and failure. The characters are as much a part of the world as anything else and their actions (success or fail) can lead to horrific consequences.
For instance, if a character fails a save against a mental attack, they might begin to hear voices whispering inside their head. The ogre’s human club could still be alive and the players can choose to save them or watch them be battered to death. Or maybe an important NPC in a character’s backstory has been abducted by the drow due to that character’s involvement in the plot? Every story about tortured drow captives will be that much more horrific until they manage to find the kidnapped NPC. Being able to attach horror to a choice made by the player or consequences from it is a great way of making it linger in their minds.
What Lurks Ahead?
While most of the examples we’ve gone over are specific to the Underdark, you can apply the principles of terror and horror to any region or scenario. Hopefully, this post has given you a few frightening ideas to use when you drag your players through the horrors of the Underdark.
If you just can’t wait to delve below, the Rise of the Drow Collector’s Edition provides a complete Underdark-centric campaign with a unique setting, new magic items, and extensive bestiary. It makes for the perfect adventure to truly scare your players.
We’ll be producing content related to Rise of the Drow and everything drow throughout the month of June, so look for more interesting topics and tools in the future!