Haunted mansion adventure
So we've looked at why you might want to add some fear to your campaign, and we've looked at a few options for doing so, but I've always found examples to be more beneficial than just lessons. So I want to tell the story of a little fear centric game that I ran for my players.
The basic idea was simple, run a Halloween 1 shot that would give my players a good nervous time. And I went about it in grand fashion. I'd run a nice self contained haunted house adventure for them. The goal was to escape the mansion and find the key to the gate around the mansion grounds. I knew I wanted to give them a fright so I put a lot of thought into how to do that.
Step 1 was to take away the sense of familiarity. My players are quite savvy when it comes to the games I normally run and I wanted to take that comfort away. I considered running something I rarely use, a call of cthulu or a savage worlds perhaps, but I didn't want too much focus on the rules. So I created my own simple system instead. A few different skills that also worked as defenses, and instead of a health stat there was more of a wellness stat, it covered not only physical, but also mental health. I wanted a game where you could be scared to death or madness.
Next I made some very basic "classes" each one with different skills and each with a unique ability. A jock, a skeptic, a nerd, and a comedic releif, The Jock could resist physical injury but was weak to fear. The Skeptic could handle fear better by denying some supernatural events. The comedic relief could make a pithy quip to restore some wellness to players, and the nerd had abilities to help progress through certain areas easier but was vulnerable to both fear and physical danger. And then came the crowning glory. At the start of the game, each player received an envelope that foretold how they would die.
The cards read as follows: Exanguination, Buried alive, Burned to death, Drowned. My players asked what that meant. Would they take double damage? Die instantly? How severe were these methods of dying? But they got no answer. Each player now had one thing to fear especially. And that meant every time their threat came up they were spiked to high alert. I mention a broken window, or a kitchen knife, and exanguination player tensed. Bathrooms were a drowning waiting to happen according to drowning player. And it also meant that no one could or would handle every problem. The jock wouldn't try to "tank" their weakness, for fear of dying from it outright or being horribly maimed. Likewise the other players couldn't just rely on who was healthier or most likely to succeed on every problem because their weaknesses added a dangerous variable. Even more than that, it gave them something real and specific to fear and made them constantly searching for how their weakness might get them.
To heighten the constant dread, I made each player their very own hand written card with their weakness. Something they could hold and touch and feel constantly in their hands, physical and real. The goal was to make them constantly on the lookout and on edge for their weakness and it worked wonders. Everyone was fidgeting, nervous, and tense the whole game, focused on their wellness damage and constantly alert for any sign of their fatal weakness.
By the end of the game, everyone had a blast, and my players still talk about this game from almost 10 years ago even now. Every year they beg me to run it, or something like it again, and I very well just might. Hopefully you'll be inspired to run your own terrifying game for your players by taking a few ideas I've talked about here, or heck, just lift the whole concept if you like. As long as everyone has fun you can't go wrong.