I recently went down a Reddit rabbit hole and ended up rereading a legendary terrifying post on /r/letsnotmeet – The Bridge. I’d suggest reading it if you’re both not squeamish and can handle some pretty graphic material, including pictures.
Now, I don’t know if this post is 100% real, and honestly I don’t care. I don’t read scary stories for a history report, I read them for entertainment, and The Bridge provides entertainment and then some.
I’m a big fan of the horror genre – a bunch of games I love are horror, and it’s generally my favorite type of movie if I’m looking for something fun to watch. I’ve read (and written, honestly) a fair amount about efforts made to run horror RPGs and the difficulties – and rewards – that come along with it.
Dungeons should be terrifying. I agree with the common belief that fantasy and horror are a hard mix. Horror often comes from some sense of powerlessness, and fantasy usually provides the opposite – power we don’t have access to in real life.
But the dark is still scary, even in a suit of armor, kite shield, and greatsword in hand. No one is impervious, invulnerable, and the darkness represents potential. It can hold that thing each person is especially weak to, or that thing we all want and are afraid to actually get. Anything can be in the darkness, and this is what the dungeon represents.
This goes hand in hand with cartography. When players map out the dungeon, they are conquering it, in a way, even without defeating any enemies. Those potentials are made certainties (or close to), and the unknown becomes known. That fear of the dark dissipates as they outline of the dungeon becomes apparent.
But that’s great! That’s a huge part of play that I think gets taken for granted. Having run a medium-sized dungeon with The Black Hack and paying attention to lanterns and sources of light has been a revelation for me as a GM. Just the act of asking “who has a light source?” when a player character opens a new door can be just as exciting as telling players to roll initiative.
If we put ourselves into the shoes of the author of The Bridge story from above, suddenly the sharpness of the fear of the dark should become clear. But why is that story so scary? Two reason jump out to me – 1. As mentioned above, there could be anything in those tunnels, but even a mundane answer is quite terrifying – perhaps even more unsettling than a supposed supernatural explanation, and 2. We (or most of us) have absolutely no training to fight someone or something, and even if we did, the tunnels are so small at points that the other option – running – isn’t readily available.
You’re going down there simply for the sake of curiosity and hoping you don’t find anything worthy of that curiosity! That’s pretty interesting to me, and I want to do some more thinking on that question as well down the road – motivations for PCs to enter such an awful, dangerous place as a dungeon in the first place.