[RPG] How to make combat encounters terrifying


I'm running a 5e, self-written, horror/psychological themed adventure for a group of experienced players this weekend. Noting that many players have the mindset of "meh, if this character dies I'll roll a new one", I'm finding it difficult to come up with combat scenarios that are actually unsettling or scary.

Background (can skip):

The main villains of the adventure are home-brewed living shadows which possess a startling degree of intelligence and always use the surroundings to their advantage. The players will have to fight many of these shadows over several encounters that will increase in frequency and severity the closer the PCs get towards their goal.

End of Background

My current ideas include:

  • Encounters in total (magical) darkness, forcing perception checks and miss chances
  • Encounters under a strobe light effect which will impose a -10 penalty (before bonuses, which are around +7) on all attack rolls with a negative roll meaning they strike a teammate

I do also want to make some normal combat unsettling as well, but I'm having difficulty thinking of anything that doesn't include the darkness aspect and I feel overusing darkness in these scenarios can make the players' perspective go from "This is creepy" to "Oh look, this again" fairly quickly.

What are some ways I can make encounters legitimately terrifying either with darkness elements or without?

NOTE: The players' characters are level 11 so there can be quite a decent degree of danger involved

Best Answer

If they aren't scared of death, make them scared of negative modifiers.

DMG pg. 272, Lingering Injuries

Nothing is stopping you from having a monster tear a guys arm off in battle with a particularly vicious strike. The kind of magics needed to reconstruct a limb are a lot harder to come by.

Other things you can run into are things that can cause real damage to magical weapons and gear. Things that erase spells from a wizards mind (temporarily, you want to scare them not give them a stroke). Things that steal all the rogues money.

Think outside the box. Death isn't always terrifying, especially with the ease of reviving people. Being a burden to the team because you're short an arm and leg would be. Not being able to use Zeus' Lightning Sword of Olympus because it's two handed and you don't have a right hand would be enough to terrify your Champion until he's rolled into a ball crying.

Think about critical wounds. Take an eye. Make somebody deaf for a weak. Cripple the most mobile member of the team.

See how they react. Watch how fights become a more cautious affair, as traps no longer deal just damage, but take things from your players permanently.