Preparing for 5E D&D Horror with Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft brings us a swarm of new ideas for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons and among those are tips for running horror games. As an avid fan of horror and incorporating horror elements into my RPG sessions I felt like I probably had a fairly good grasp on what this book had to say. However some of the things I found in this section of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft took me completely by surprise. Not only does this book give you a guide for how to run horror in 5E D&D it also offers step-by-step instructions to ensure you and your group have the most fun possible with a horror game. Before you can run a horror game there are some important steps to set up your 5E D&D horror campaign so it can be the most enjoyable for you and your gaming group.
Preparing for horror step by step
This section explains one of the most important preparations you can make for horror — communication and consent. Unlike other genres, horror is intentionally jarring and can ruin people’s fun or worse yet it can even cause harm if the Dungeon Master doesn’t communicate from the beginning of the campaign it will contain horror elements.
This section points out how a DM suddenly springing a horror theme on the players can feel like a trap. While jump scares are all well and good, shocking your players with the sudden revelation they’re in a horror campaign is not the kind of nasty surprise that makes players want to play with you.
Setting expectations in horror
Horror is a sensitive genre to present and breech in 5E D&D. Because it relies so heavily on fear and tension it can be triggering to those with trauma or mental illness. Even those who haven’t experienced something particularly traumatic can struggle with horror themes in a game.
As such Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft very responsibly reminds DMs that communication with the other players such as in a session zero is crucial. Equally important is a talk about themes and consent. While talking with Nerditor Doug about horror I expressed my fascination with body horror as a means of evoking menace in a 5E D&D monster. He replied, sharing some horror elements he disliked and we had a fascinating discussion on horror themes and moods in D&D.
Just because you enjoy the menace of a necromancer who uses body horror to twist the dead into his abominable minions doesn’t mean your gaming group will.
Horror content survey
This is one of the best ideas I’ve seen presented in a 5E D&D book. Ever. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft suggests a content survey to allow the players to freely communicate with you about themes they want or need to avoid during the campaign. This could be as easy as composing a Google form and sending the link to your players.
Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft includes several questions to include in your own content survey. By asking your players about specific content in your horror game you are literally asking for consent to present these things. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Steven provided a similar sort of survey for his upcoming Nerdarchy Live campaign and it was tremendously useful. I highly encourage groups — especially groups who aren’t as familiar with each other and their playstyles but even longtime groups — to use tools like this. You might even surprise yourself!]
Because you are asking for consent to present horror themes in your campaign it’s important to remember if even one person does not consent to an aspect then it is off limits, period. If you end up with very few or even no viable options for horror left from the players’ answers then it might be good to ask if your group really does want to participate in a horror game.
Never violate trust by including elements a player indicated as potentially triggering on the content survey. Bear in mind the content survey is designed to prevent anyone from having a traumatic experience. The questions are designed to learn themes that could cause mental or emotional distress so the DM and other players can avoid these themes.
Remember when doing this to ensure you don’t enable others to see anyone’s answers but their own. This keeps private things private. Not everyone is comfortable sharing their fears or reservations. Also be sure if you’re the DM not to talk about someone’s answers with others in the gaming group unless you already have permission to do so.
The content survey is a positively brilliant idea because it allows DMrs to tailor their campaign to their group. While I think the content survey is super important for a horror game it could easily be modified to fit any genre and you could tailor many of the questions to include desired themes.
Presenting a content survey to players is simply a responsible thing for every DM. This extends beyond the world of 5E D&D as well. I fully intend to use content surveys in the future with all of my RPG groups.
Content surveys beyond horror
One takeaway I had with this section of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft was content surveys are just universally useful. While the questions presented in the book are tailored for a horror gaming experience you could just as easily ask questions about character’s pasts, goals, weaknesses, secrets and more.
Content surveys are a fantastic way for DMs and players to connect and build a story together before ever beginning the campaign. Asking questions about themes and character backstories can also help DMs prepare for sessions well in advance and they can enable the DM to pepper foreshadowing into the narrative. If done well this can cement a memorable story for years.
On the whole I absolutely loved this section of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft and this section alone made the book worth the purchase for me.
TL;DR of horror game
It’s critical (pun intended) for DMs to negotiate consent with gaming groups prior to presenting a horror themed campaign. In fact it’s critical for any genre. By tailoring your campaign to the players’ interests and avoiding triggers you ensure a better, more immersive and enjoyable experience for everyone.
*Featured image — During a seance, a spirit makes itself known to the Keepers of the Feather. Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft includes resources to make sure your 5E D&D game is both spooky and safe in ways right for your specific group. [Image courtesy Wizards of the Coast]