"Man, those Legionnaires marching around, not talking ... they're giving me the creeps!" (paraphrased from Ostlen's player this weekend)
It's dawned on me over the past month just how the old schlocky 70s creepy B movies, the classic "scare you, not show you" films and even certain own old fears sitting in the lizard brain have influenced my game. The things that scared me before I knew there weren't monsters under the bed, that things couldn't come alive, that Alien wasn't real, and that the Mud Monster couldn't be created.
It's those kinds of things that I've brought to my games. Things that aren't explained. Things that no, I can't provide a SpellA-ObjectB-FeatC-SkillD recipe for. That's not the atmosphere that I'm shooting for.
In some ways, the amount of instant information we have, the number of myths that have been busted, the way we've been peering and starting to peel back the mysteries that end up being pretty mundane... that's taken something away from what people expect at the table, I think. The mystery of the dark tunnel isn't so scary when we have movies that have shown gore to the extreme, have TV series that lay waste to kingdoms in pretty gruesome detail. When at any point, I can do a google search and have a metric ton of information at my fingertips.
This isn't a Luddite-aw-screw-science post. I think that we are, as a society, going to be better off with information for everyone. It just makes my job as a DM harder.
I look for the things that give me the creeps so that I can make them into the things that can creep the players out. Blind attacks. The encounter by Bilbo with the spiders in Mirkwood. When I read The Hobbit for the first time, I was 8. That chapter left me scared at that age. Now? My spiders ALWAYS attack from above. 8 legged DFA, yo. The players hate going into woods, because almost invariably, spiders attack from above. They really hate the talking ones. They hate finding the cocoons, usually filled with half-dead people...
I love using dolls. Creepy dolls that simply turn their heads and follow the players every movement. Or the ones that walk and look human, but really aren't. No explanation for how or why... they just are.
Voices that beckon. "Yes... open that door. Come to us..." Things that you know are going to happen when you open that door. Hints of horror, of things unspeakable. Leftover experiments on bodies left. Pods with half mutated humans dripping slime.
Show, don't tell. Hints, not full disclosure. People come to the table to do a lot of things, but if you can inject that mystery in some way, push those buttons just so slightly...
I have "rage zombies" in my campaign world. They're called "The Damned." They are easy to kill at 1HD, but they also provide me with a lot of fun opportunities. Like this weekend... a lost contingent of Legionnaires who went hunting a monster a couple of generations ago, but never returned. The players went chasing down this rumor.
They eventually got near the monster's lair, and found a beaten circular track. They found the Legionnaires marching, silently, in formation. Not saying a word. Not looking left or right. Just mindlessly marching. The players didn't know they were The Damned. They didn't know anything... but the Legionnaires kept marching on... closer and closer each round...
Well, the players confronted them, rage zombies vs PCs happened, nobody was infected, all was good.
But they don't know what the Asygma looks like. The old man who told them of the rumor told stories of "Keep a huge fire lit!" His glee over the horrid deaths of the villagers made them a bit wary. Then, in the woods, they heard it. They found slime dripping off the trees. They heard it make vague noises, almost like a gobbling. They saw shadows and glimpses through the trees, but they didn't see it.
So now, that image is in their heads. Some joked of giant turkeys or pigeons... but they don't know. And there was the slime... so now the visual grows.
It's not easy to always inject that horror or dread in your campaign. But if you find the buttons to do it, I highly recommend it. I never knew I was running my Rob Zombie-esque horror shows or American Horror Story visuals in my campaign.. but I do now.