I have always been a fan of horror in my games. In fact the games that I remember the most have been those that I have centred around a horror fantasy concept. But not just any horror. If you are after a horror game that will make the players sweat bullets and jump at your every word then you are trying to create a setting that is the hardest to pull off. It is a prize I have tried for many times and failed each time. But if you want to run a game which will leave the players at the end with open mouths because of the horror story that has just been told read on.
A horror game that leaves an impression needs to be a story game on the whole. Every horror story that has been successful for me has had at its heart a tale of tragedy. Every single game that I recall was based on an innocent situation gone wrong. If you look to popular culture for examples of horror you will find a broader range of possibilities available to you but some of those are really precluded by the style of game we play. For example, the slasher flicks like Halloween or Friday the 13th are not really recreatable in Fantasy Horror as everyone has Combat abilities so the only way this style can deliver horror to the players is through the NPC’s they kill in gruesome ways. If that happens it becomes a story game rather than a gore fest. Movies like Jaws could be created but rely on a lot of suspense. Having a creature that lives in an environment like the shadow/astral plane that attacks from surprise may be an option but how long you could sustain that suspense may be limited. I must admit I have never really tried that style of game and I will put it on my to do list.
The horror that really leaves me and my players in love with an adventure are those that detail tragic circumstances leading to a horrific manifestation of evil. In my games this tends to gravitate to ghost stories but in reality it can be any style, vampire, zombie, ghoul, werecreature etc. that involves transformation from a normal innocent being into a creature of malevolence. I use ghosts a lot because I am a fan of them, especially Japanese spirits who are rich in story detail. Not to mention there are a massive amount of Japanese spirits out there to draw information on. So many you could create an entire campaign around the theme. For some idea check out http://hyakumonogatari.com which translates traditional Japanese spirit stories into English.
Once you have chosen the style of threat you want you need to weave a story around it. To be fully effective the story should be one of terrible corruption and circumstance. I will give you a few ideas for you to work with.
- A girl married in secret to her love murdered by her own mother (who did not know she was married) who caught her in the act of consummating the marriage
- A husband finds a box filled with letters to his wife from an admirer. Not realising they had never been opened (and therefore it is a love not returned) the man kills his wife and then commits suicide
- A child born with an affliction (mental impairment or physical deformity) is kept in a sealed room until their death to save shame on the family
- A vicious werewolf attack barely scrapes a baby in the wound as the mother is killed. The baby transforms into a horrid thing come the full moon…
- A demon possesses the body of an innocent girl who is then convicted of witchcraft and burnt at the stake
This gives you a few basic ideas that you can turn into your own games or you can build your own from these ideas. At the heart of them all is one concept and that is innocent corrupted. If you want to look at a great (and cheap) module that follows this style designed for Pathfinder look at the recent release Haiku of Horror for inspiration!
Why is this corruption necessary? Well it may not be but in every game that I have run that seemed to get the best reaction it was at the point that the players put together the story. They find the journal that details the neglect, they find the box of letters and realise three quarters of them are still unopened etc. It is these twists in the tale where the players realise that the horror was built out of misunderstanding or prejudice that really hammer home that horror. These adventures make great side track adventures and tend to bring out a lot of roleplaying in a group if you can get them interested in the story to begin with which may be a challenge.
So how do you get them interested? Well, the easiest way is a reward. The town mayor wants to know why all his townfolk are turning into werewolves. A young couple have moved into the previous home of the murder/suicide and the parents seek the help of the players to find out what is behind their increasingly unusual behaviour. Reward is good, but then the players are not overly concerned if it goes poorly and they just don’t get the reward. Try to get them personally interested as characters (and players)! If you are playing Pathfinder, grab the Gamemaster Guide or go the the reference document and read up on haunts. You can use haunts subtly or overtly to drag the players into a game. The walls of the basement begin to ooze blood, the player gets distracted by a sound, looks back blood gone. Or something as simple as the innkeeper warning them not to wander around the Inn at night. No reason, just “Stay in your room under all circumstances!” Players love to break rules.
To keep the interest in the story really requires good pacing. String out a series of events that alternate between storytelling and supernatural activity. The players need to get a sense that there is a story to be had before they pursue it. Make the first visitation of a spirit enticing and the players will be seeking information from NPC’s everywhere. Have every NPC have a variation of a story, and throw in a couple of red herrings too. Watch them try to chase down the truth. Prepare artifacts (props) for the players to handle (the box with the letters or an old toy etc.) that will increase the interest in the story. If you feel that your players will not buy into the story without some fights make them mean something. Have the players rewarded after the battle by a bit of the story, e.g. a diary or a map that shows a secret basement level of the house.
The climax of an adventure should not be a battle with the spirit or creature. It certainly should happen though. What needs to happen is the players have to finish what they have started or the problem continues. With a spirit, they just continue to show up! You have to bring to light the circumstances that lead to the malevolent spirit coming into being. Remove the body from the hidden basement and have the parents arrested (Lawful Good) or seal them into the same room (Neutral!) should do it. One way or another the players need to continue to pursue the story until its end. It is when they put all the pieces together that you will get the response you are after. That wow factor from them as they complete their investigation and they marvel at the evil that can be done to even the most innocent amongst us.
I strongly suggest you give this style of game a go once you have run some regular games and are looking for a challenge to your GMing. To run one of these games well takes a good amount of skill and they do not always work, but when they do they have a lasting effect on your game. The players will get a boost out of solving a story based option and may reach for a roleplaying situation first. Or they may just talk about the game a lot. Both are satisfying for a GM either way!
Mark Knights is 39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia. I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games. I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM. When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules. I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner. When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be. On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.