As the nights get darker and the days get colder (at least for those of us tuning in from the northern hemisphere!), it’s become a tradition at this time of the year for D&D players to embrace the scarier side of fantasy.
Now, given that our favourite tales of horror are often rooted in helplessness against seemingly invincible supernatural foes, and that Dungeons & Dragons is more about heroes kicking ass, often without breaking a sweat, many are those that say D&D and horror don’t really mix…
There’s some truth in that, and this post comes with the warning that some thought and effort needs to go into running a successful Dungeons & Dragons horror adventure. What is certain, however, is that D&D has always strongly embraced elements of horror – as any glance at the Monster Manual will tell you – and that some of its most celebrated adventures have been the scariest ones… it’s hard not to think of Ravenloft and its 5th edition renaissance, Curse of Strahd (reviewed below)!
In this article I’m going to count down the best 5e horror stories that I have personally read or played, then share a few tips on how to run a pants-soiling adventure this Halloween (or any other god damn time you like!).
Top 7 Horror Adventures for Halloween
These reviews contain spoilers, and are not suitable for players (who are encouraged to share this article with their DM, and head over to read about some of my optimisation tips instead!).
The adventures below are presented in no particular order. Post contains affiliate links.
1. The Haunt
This adamantine best-selling adventure is probably the most famous horror story published on the DMs Guild. It leans into one of our favourite tropes – that of a haunted mansion! This particular mansion once belonged to General Oscar Montarthas, who was seduced by a night hag, with the help of a powerful necrotic emerald, and now lies in ruins waiting for a hapless party of adventurers to make the mistake of entering.
The adventure makes great use of many of horror’s favourite devices: such as animated dolls, falling chandeliers, Frankinstein’s monsters (a flesh golem in this case), secret passages that split the party, deadly traps, and ghosts playing out their formers lives. The latter sets up a good little mystery, at the heart of the adventure.
Overall this one-shot adventure has all the things you want from a D&D adventure (exploration, combat, puzzles, NPC interaction, intrigue), plus enough creep factor and genuinely threatening encounters to test the party and keep them on edge throughout!
If you want more info, check out the many favourable reviews on the DMs Guild, or watch this run through by Youtuber, Rogue Watson.
2. The Haunt 2
The Haunt 2 can be played as a sequel to The Haunt, or as a standalone one-shot. It revisits the haunted mansion trope, but not literally this time. This time the location is an abandoned children’s hospital, which, if that wasn’t creepy enough, is also sentient with the ability to reconstruct itself. Yikes!
The Haunt 2 builds nicely on the lore of its prequel… and when I say ‘nicely’, I mean very nastily indeed. The heroes are going to uncover a gruesome history of twisted experiments on innocent children via a series of visions and childish drawings (supplied as part of the adventure). Honestly, this adventure is pretty dark and should probably come with a content warning… and I mean that as a compliment.
The gameplay looks similar to the original Haunt: which is essentially a dungeon crawl, but really well-flavoured with enough descriptions and on-theme encounters to aid the DM create the required atmosphere. You might have to skip some encounters if you really want to run it as a one shot, as I suspect it runs rather longer.
The Haunt 3 + The Haunt Trilogy (Hardcover)
For the sake of cracking on to review some other authors’ works, I won’t review The Haunt 3 – but it looks like a fitting way to provide resolution to the story of Carol Anne, the poor girl who becomes the Evil Doll! If you’re already convinced by the premise, you can buy all three Haunts in this trilogy, which is also available as a hardcover book! Included in the product is a .zip file with printable paper minis of every adversary in all three adventures!
3. Smashing Pumpkins
Authors: S.P. Cole
Length: Short adventure (3-4 sessions)
Levels: 3rd level
For something truly Halloween flavoured to play over the holiday season, look no further than this unsettling sortie into the rural community of Brindlebury. In this recently released adventure, the players are recruited by the reeve of the aforementioned village and asked to come and perform at “The Reap” harvest festival. They will be well rewarded, naturally.
If scarecrows that move a little too much in the breeze, and a rare encounter with a winter wolf, aren’t enough to convince the party that something strange is afoot as they enter Brindlebury, then the folks they encounter at the Leaping Satyr Inn, while they tuck into a flagon of Two Sisters cider and a steaming hot pumpkin pie, should set the alarm bells ringing.
Confession time – I was actually a consultant on this adventure! Not that it really needed any help from me. The author successfully conveys the atmosphere of a rural idyll riddled with intrigue, always hinting at a darkness within, and the result is a folk horror story in the vein of the Wicker Man – with more than a touch of Cthulu in the climactic scenes.
What I like most is the adventure’s structure, which offers curious players a sandbox (the village of Brindlebury and its environs) to explore, all the time revealing more dark secrets of the town, while still maintaining a tight structure, dictating by the three day festival, in which the heroes play an active part.
If some of the other stories on this list are rather grisly horror tales, Smashing Pumpkins is more spooky and fun, with more dread, unease and anxiety than graphic gore and violence, and there’s a gentle country charm juxtaposing the horror. Something to bear in mind, depending on your audience!
4. The Madhouse of Tasha’s Kiss
A demon-possessed jester is the eponymous villain of this adventure; her goal, to lure unsuspecting folk into her madhouse, which exists in a pocket dimension, to feed on them – body and soul!
The adventure begins in suitably eerie fashion. A deserted village, with posters fluttering in the breeze, advertising the arrival of “the marvelous Tasha’s Kiss”, tells us something is awry, while shortly afterwards the party find an abandoned circus tent, from which can be heard a child’s muffled cries. The child is sitting outside a magnificently constructed wagon, into which it appears that the whole village, including the child’s family, have disappeared.
The wagon, of course, is a portal to the Madhouse, where faceless Dream Weavers and sinister soul strippers, amongst other nightmarish folk, work at the twisted behest of their mistress. Each room offers a new maddening encounter, such as facing Chimaera Chron, who is a compound being of the entire party and knows all their secrets. This encounter struck me as very sophisticated, because it can play out in a number of ways… from Chimaera Chron turning the party against each other, to them accepting his devil’s bargain of a treasured memory (he will replace it with a much more problematic one!), or essentially defeating themselves in combat… something that will require them to save vs. madness. Naturally, the adventure eventually leads the party to face off against Tasha’s Kiss herself.
Overall the adventure’s encounters are exceedingly creative and twisted, and I think story-loving players will relish the opportunities provided to peel back their character’s insecurities. The story also makes good use of the optional madness mechanics in the DMG. The Madhouse of Tasha’s Kiss is intelligent horror at its finest – so perhaps no surprise it’s an adamantine best-seller with 4.9 of 5 rating.
The Horror Collection Bundle
Can’t get enough of twisted tales of terror? Then let me highlight the Horror Collection Bundle that packages up The Madhouse of Tasha’s Kiss with three other best-selling adventures by the same authors.
The Freak Show Bundle
5. Curse of Strahd
Authors: Christopher Perkins (lead), Adam Lee, Richard Witters, Jeremy Crawford. Based on Ravenloft, written by Tracy and Laura Hickman.
Levels: 1st to 10th level
Price: $49.95 (well, usually cheaper)
Curse of Strahd is one of the Dungeons & Dragon’s most legendary adventures, and certainly its most celebrated horror story. The tale of a conquering prince who sealed his own fate by committing fratricide, the vampire Strahd is an unforgettable villain that every D&D player should encounter at some time during their roleplaying career!
The adventure, in fact, is an extended retelling of the 1983 classic adventure Ravenloft, which was originally written by none other than Tracy Hickman (of Dragonlance fame) and his wife Laura, who painstakingly researched the history of the vampire and vampire stories to bring Castle Ravenloft and its denizens to life in the early 80s.
The modern Curse of Strahd adventure details so much more than the imposing, nightmarish castle though, and hardy adventurers will need to explore the desolate village of Barovia, Tsolenka Pass, the Old Bonegrinder windmill and Van Richten’s Tower – amongst other memorable locations – before they dare accept an invitation to dinner with the devil.
This adventure really is a classic, and I personally love the whole Eastern / Central European vibe that runs through Barovia, from the gloomy landscapes and the tricksy Vistani travellers, to details like the broken English slogan of the Blinsky Toy Shop (“No Blinsky, no fun!”) and the naming conventions of the various NPCs. (I should note that, while the Vistani make for excellent antagonists, their portrayal is problematic given that they seem to be created from every negative Romani stereotype going – something that WOTC has tried to address with a “re-vamped” version of the adventure. In any case, you might want to put some thought into how to round out these folk in a more enlightened way. This guide by a person with Romani roots, may help).
Meanwhile, a tarrokka reading from Madame Eva is not only an evocative way to kick things off, but it’s also a genius story device (the reading affects the location of several key magic items the PCs will need to gather to stand a hope of defeating their nebulous nemesis) whose magic I wish I could relive as a player.
So there you go, if you don’t own it already buy Curse of Strahd: your players will thank you. I am also tempted by this genderbending version that just came out on the DMs Guild.
6. Weekend At Strahd’s
Authors: Anthony Joyce and Oliver Clegg
Length: One shot
Levels: Playable from 5th to 10th level
Ok, enough doom and gloom already! It’s time to lighten the mood with an 80s-tastic addendum to D&D most famous adventure. Weekend at Strahd’s starts with the premise that the players having just dispatched the villainous vampire lord in his castle… but now they have to dispose of his body before the terrifying apocalypse known only as “The Final Credits” rolls over Barovia. To do so they must visit five locations around the enormous Castle Ravenloft to gain the required five parts of the Pentaforce, that will help wave goodbye to the creepy count forever.
In fact, Weekend at Strahd’s details 10 separate locations (5 are chosen at random), each with their own 80s-inspired encounter, which in turn comes replete with its own soundtrack (the adventure PDF is hardwired with links to Spotify for instant aural bliss). Examples include the Brunch Club, detained in Castle Ravenloft’s Study, three vampire spawn (all called Heather) playing croquet in the Catacombs, and a suave singing banshee who seems desperate to come out of the Closet. Random encounters may see players have to appease bad zombies with a thrilling dance performance.
This is very much my jam – and something that everyone of a certain age is going to love! The artwork and layout is totally on point, and given that players are all encouraged to contribute a liquid of their choice to a bespoke real world beverage called New Koke (drinking from it gets you advantage on your next roll!), Weekend at Strahd’s feels more like an event than an adventure!
Riding a similar vibe, my eyes were drawn to this Scooby-do themed adventure!
7. Candlekeep Mysteries
Length: 17 short adventures
Levels: 1st to 16th level
Price: $49.95 (usually cheaper).
Candlekeep Mysteries is my most recent official D&D purchase, and I absolutely love the lore and gorgeous fold out map of this sprawling citadel library – so much so that it is will be the location of my next adventure (stay tuned by subscribing to the blog! Check right sidebar).
As you’re probably aware, the main section of the book is given over to 17 new adventures, mostly by folks who had never worked with Wizards of the Coast in an official capacity – although dedicated nerds likely recognise names like Amy Vorpahl, Mark Hulmes, Kelly Lynne D’Angelo and Jennifer Kretchmer. Given that these are all short adventures, one for each level between 1st and 16th (and two for level 3 for some reason), Candlekeep Mysteries is a pretty handy book to wheel out during any holiday season where you might have just an evening or two to blast away on some dice. There are, however, specifically three adventures that I’d label horror stories…
And those are Book of the Raven by Chris Perkins (hence me saying ‘mostly’ new voices), A Deep and Creeping Darkness by Sarah Madsen and Shemshine’s Bedtime Rhyme by Ari Levitch.
The latter is probably my favourite ‘story’ within the collection, as a musical curse threatens to spread through the Candlekeep community faster than a Delta variant – but it’s also maybe an illustration of the difficulties combining horror and D&D, because it rather railroads the party into a predetermined situation, and may frustrate players. Still there’s something amazing there if you can mine it.
The former is more of a setting – a hunting lodge that hides a Shadowfell crossing – that I feel is supposed to be used in conjunction with another adventure (possibly Curse of Strahd!).
Which leaves A Deep and Creeping Darkness as my top Halloween choice. The adventure leverages the incredibly creepy meenlock monsters (from Volo’s Guide) that are spawned from terror and are capable of torture via telepathy. The adventure text also begins with several great suggestions on how to foster a sense of unease amongst the players as they try to solve the mystery of an abandoned village, just as they themselves are haunted by nightmares.
Other Horror Adventures
I haven’t had a chance to read the following stories, but here are some adventures that I’ve been recommended, and which I plan to review in the future. You might want to go ahead and check them out now:
Note: There’s a also a search filter on the DMs Guild that effectively reveals an entire section dedicated to horror.
How to Run Horror in D&D
Firstly, I don’t think I can do better than the Angry GM, who tackles this subject – rather grumpily – on his blog, and does a fantastic job. He makes an excellent point when he splits horror into: fright (wtf, run!), repulsion (ewwww, OMG, what is that?) and dread (noooooooooo, please, god, nooooooooo!!!!), and discusses the challenges of replicating these responses in a game that is built around empowerment and agency. Go read!
Otherwise I do have some advice of my own for DMs, most of which pertain to adventure design, but a couple that involve creating the right atmosphere out of game. Let’s go…
Tip 1: Create Vulnerability
In order for players to be scared, it can really help to cut off some of the options they are used to. That could be geographically: they are stuck in a dungeon and the way they came in is now blocked (isolation is an extremely powerful horror device!).
Or it could be removing powers they usually rely on: for example they are forced to pass through an antimagic zone, where they can’t cast spells or rely on magic items, or maybe a temple to an evil god, where divine powers of other gods and patrons can’t reach. For martial classes, maybe rust monsters render their armour and weapons next to useless.
Change the expectations of the average D&D session and let them know they’re in a bad place!
Tip 2: The Situation is Getting Worse…
However bad things are, make sure they keep getting worse… very slowly at first, and then faster and faster, as the adventure reaches its conclusion. The poison gas is rising, the necrotic energy is sapping their strength, while vital supplies like food, air, or arrows are running out…
Exhaustion and madness are two great mechanics that you use to slowly destroy the players in front of their very eyes. (You can chip away at their hit points too, but these are often easy to replenish – unless, of course, they are in the dungeon of an adversary so powerful that healing is impossible. Hint, hint!).
In general, you probably want players to be making a saving throw every 20 or 30 minutes, preferably with a rising DC each time, and possibly with more frequency as the adventure reaches its climax. And whenever they fail a save, be sure to describe what is happening to their characters (as mechanical penalties don’t inspire much fear by themselves.).
Related reading: You might enjoy my post on ticking clocks in D&D, which can help ramp up the tension.
Tip 3: Leverage The Unknown
Don’t use a monster from the Monster Manual (unless you have new players!). Whatever the party are facing should be unheard of, unseen (for as long as possible… but their presence should be felt) and seemingly invincible. Or actually invincible… see Tip 4!
Tip 4: Invincible Monsters (Changing the Goal!)
D&D players are accustomed to winning every fight they get in. Find a way of showing them they can’t win, and change the goal – victory is now getting out of the dungeon with most of their limbs, and hopefully their sanity, intact.
Tip 5: Prepare Your Descriptions
It’s really hard to write a terrifying description of a monster or moment, and as for improvising one – well that’s beyond my skills at least. If you planning a spine-tingling moment or entrance then do some prep on how you will get that across to the players. If you’ve bought one of the adventures on this page, some of the hard work should have been done for you. Otherwise work on some gory, gruesome descriptions, remembering not just the freaky appearance of the big bad, but also the smell, the presence, the touch (if they get too close!).
Tip 6: Invite Your Players To Explore Their Fears
I haven’t tried this, but it occurred to me while reading The Madhouse of Tasha’s Kiss that maybe the players themselves can take on the onus of making a scary adventure – by exploring their character’s deepest fears and insecurities, and bringing them out in the table. The hard fact is that someone who doesn’t want to be scared during an RPG game, won’t be. Someone who is willing to co-create the horror atmosphere might revel in it more. Try asking the player privately about their characters psychological weaknesses (probably best to hint at least that you plan or exploiting this info, in case there’s any real world trauma mirroring!).
There’s a bit more on this topic on the D&D official website.
Related reading: This list of phobias might inspire your players!
I think that’s as far as I can go on adventure design and preparation, but there remains a couple of tips regarding external factors we can bring in to play, like location, lighting, sound effects!
Tip 7: Creating Atmosphere
It’s hard to be scared with all the lights on in a nice warm comfy lounge, with a table full of sugary branded snacks. But maybe your mate has a nice dingy basement or garage, with rickety tables and chairs, a cold draught and spiderwebs in the corners. Meanwhile, wherever you play, it shouldn’t be hard to dim the lights, and perhaps you can even rig up some surround sound for the old dripping water, creaky hinges or howling wolves sound effects. If you can isolate a speaker behind the players and crank the volume up at the right moment, there’s your jump scare right there!
Tip 8: Let’s Get Physical!
I remember I was playing Call of Cthulu one time, when my character tried and failed to escape from the jaws of some unfathomable terror. The Games Master helped recreate this moment by physically grabbing me by the head and doing his best to rip it from my shoulders… this was quite painful and not a technique to be recommended, but it was fucking terrifying to be fair.
If my buddy went a little too far on that occasion, I do think the DM can use their body to create fear (in less violent ways). Jumping up from your chair and wailing at the top of your voice can be pretty effective at the right moment, as can slamming down your fist (or heavy book) on the table. Or perhaps slowing drumming your palm on the table, louder and louder, as the menace approaches.
You might even consider what props or physical sensations you can bring to the game (consent will doubtlessly be needed here!).
…And Your Horror Experiences?
So there we go, this post has turned out rather longer than I intended, so I’ll wrap it up… meanwhile, please do share your experiences on running horror stories in Dungeons & Dragons in the comments section…. both successes and failures!