Evil DM Tricks TM
Descriptions and Story Building
Sense of Realization
Remember, too, that horror is a sense of realization. It's that "oh crap" moment, when you put two and two together and you don't like the result. Like when you find out that the little girl you are trying to protect from the vampire is the vampire. Or when you realize that the whole town isn't being attacked by undead, but is populated by phantoms doomed to repeat the same events over and over.
Try to cover all the senses with your description. Sight isn't the only thing that scares people.
I know that Ravenloft is a low-magic setting, but eventually any party is going to run into magic, whether at the hands of an opponent or even at those of an arcanist ally (or party member). As Ravenloft is a setting where the "storytelling" style of play is the optimal one, cast spells should have a little more detail than "the Fireball explodes".
My question is this; how do you handle the "visuals" of magic? What do spells look like when they're cast? Is there any sort of "special effect" from a wizard (sorcerer, shadowcaster, whatever) as they begin to cast a spell? What do "generic" (+1 sword etc) magic items look like?
A personal idea on the matter is for the Shadowcaster, from Tome of Magic; the darkness seems "drawn" to the Shadowcaster- it doesn't actually move, or provide any concrete bonus, but in the eyes of the viewer the nearby patches of shadow seem to stretch and waver ever so slightly in his direction. When he prepares to cast, shadows and gloom coils and flows around him, shaping itself into an undulating umbral mass that silhouttes him. But I'm not too sure if that's suitable though....
Jester of the FoS
I like to describe the environment. A wind rustling papers despite the calmness a moment ago, odd scents and sounds, perhaps a trembling of the ground and dimming of the lights.
Well for necromancy spells- I usually have the speech of the caster grow far heavier than normal- seemingly slowed. This goes along with their hand movements slowing as well seeming to broil the air around them. Those watching might see shapes on the edge of their periphery or think they hear the voices of the damned leaking up from the ground. Only for the 'dark' necromantic spells- some of them I don't count as evil.
I heard a really good idea on the DnD Wizards forum for necromancy spells. The caster prepares his spell, and then whatever effects the spell would normally have, it takes effect on HIM first. His eyes seem to grow and his face seems to shrivel as his flesh turns a ghastly pallid grey... Then, with an inhuman effort, he wrenches the effects off of himself, and targets an enemy, sending the magic across as an unholy shadow....
JoŽl of the FoS
Cool idea, indeed. And it makes the PCs think twice before rummaging through the necromancer's spellbook!
Try to describe spells which can advantage your players. A wizards who cast stoneskin or barksin have a visible effect so the warrior won't lose his time trying to put his sword in his stomach.
As spells are a rare thing they're spectacular. A fireball will explode in a screaming sound, putting fire to everything. The druid make a deep and long sound in order to call the thunder, the holy symbol of the priest shine in a bright halo and the wizards just put some disgusting things from his pouch to the air while singing a complex mantra.
One thing that worked especially well was this: Let your players think they're getting attacked, then don't let them be. For instance, in my game, my players passed the Rolling Bridge of Harmonia (in Kartakass) and I explained how some of the Gargoyles on the building seemed much more real than other ones. One of the players even saw one of them move, though he wasn't sure of it.
Now, when the players were on the road, at nighttime, during a full moon, I had them spot strange giant bird-like creatures flying past the moon. They were scared alright...
Sephiroth du Lac
I find that using the environment itself to create fear into people is quite effective. For example using the natural sound of a cave I had the players listen check for the echo of their own footsteps once. They chased the sound and got deeper and deeper into the cave until I waited for the proper moment to tell them they were lost and a giant spider dropped down on them.
Also phantasm images are very useful when used sparingly. Lull them into a false sense of security by having the party go to town. Meet the townsfolk. Do a few ordinary hero missions. While doing this lay the foundation by having them hear about the place you REALLY want them to go. The lore, the history, then when you tell them where they need to go their on edge. Then use creepy, but seemingly small events to build tension. For example mine was a haunted house. For weeks I alluded to it and built up the idea the players were going there. Then when it happened they approached. The gargoyles seem to growl but didn't causing the party leader to destroy it. The swing on the porch seemed to bang steadily and sway in a wind though no wind blew and we they approached it stopped. The cleric cast the "Speak with Dead" spell on a head in the jar only to have it scream as though it was in agony. The party leader failed a fear check on this and beat the head till it stopped screaming in terror and rage. Afraid of waking something "Otherworldly". The whole thing was indeed memorable and my players liked it so much that they've insisted I do another campaign. For creepy build up I highly suggest the creepy thread on the wotc website. Really effective stuff.
To contribute to the Evil DM Trick, send your ideas to Joel@fraternityofshadows.com