Most campaigns can be considered lighthearted with some more serious and dramatic sequences. But some campaigns try to incorporate the horrors of both the real world and the imagined. These dark campaigns incorporate more violent and sexual themes than other campaigns and can be considered the equivalent of an M-Rated, or AO-Rated, video game in the content they offer. Because of these darker themes it is important to keep multiple things in mind when both setting up the campaign and running it. The first thing that should always be done is the establishing of rules. What content will and will not be allowed in the game is the most important as it sets the tone for everything else moving forward. The next is making sure that the story makes use of these new elements without using them excessively. It is important that a story does not simply turn into “torture porn” or even regular porn unless that is the explicitly stated intent.
After you have the story and rules set you need to address your players. Everyone has different limits for what they feel comfortable with portraying or hearing. You need to be respectful of your players’ boundaries. When you have your rules and story you need to tell your players exactly what they can expect to experience in the campaign and what they can and cannot do with their characters. You do not need to tell them the plot of the campaign, simply communicating that there are planned scenes of torture, sexual assault, gore, or anything else that you would not put into a regular campaign is enough for them to know if they are comfortable going through with the game. Once everyone has agreed to play, knowing what is in store, it is important to communicate to them what they are allowed to do to each other. Obviously most campaigns do not work if the players immediately begin murdering one another. Mediating communication between them as they discuss what they are ok with doing to one another is important and the job of the narrator. During the game you will need to keep a close eye on how the players are reacting and when you might be pushing things too far. You should always consider how graphic your descriptions of events are. If the players begin responding negatively then consider reducing the detail for some scenes.
Including breaks is also important to the game. Narrative breaks are useful for the player characters. With horror you do not want to desensitize the players or their characters so having calm or even happy moments in between the darker scenes can be of great help to everyone. Giving them a moment to bond, recover, and feel safe will make the dark moments stand out even more and increase their impact. Physical breaks can be just as important. Some scenes that may come up in the game can be too much for a player and it can be helpful to have brief 5-10 minute breaks where everyone relaxes, makes jokes, and even eats and watches some quick tv. These breaks make sure the players do not become overwhelmed and prevents them from disengaging.
Lastly, an important aspect of these campaigns and one of the things that makes them so appealing is the psychological ramifications on the characters. It is more than ok to sometimes devote an entire session to how the characters are handling what they have recently gone through. If they begin doing terrible acts themselves then some self reflection or conflict between teammates can make for a very interesting session. Characters are often meant to be like real people and like real people they each respond to and handle terrible situations differently. Showing how these events change the characters and allowing them time to process what has happened can lead to much more interesting and satisfying moments later in the campaign.
Dark campaigns can be amazing to play but communication is more important than ever in these games because these campaigns deal with very serious and sometimes painful subjects. Great care and respect must be taken in portraying people and events, as well as communicating to players, when running these campaigns. But if communication is open and clear and the subject matter is handled right you can make campaigns that you and your players will remember for a very long time.
On that note some games are more inclined towards these tones than others such as the World of Darkness game, Black Crusade, and Shadowrun. These games and many others are already set up to allow dark and haunting campaigns to be played. Any game can work with the right narrator but these have built-in tools to help with that.