Designing A Successful Modern Horror Campaign
By Jeremy Brown
Preparing a Modern Horror Campaign
1. Put a Hovering Menace in the Background
This menace should be supremely powerful, old, mysterious, and preferably close to invulnerable at the beginning of the campaign.
It’s best to use original ancient evils. Using another ho hum vampire just doesn’t stir the blood of most role players. Picking your favorite tentacled horror from the Lovecraftian end of the spectrum usually doesn’t cut it either.
One must develop an original idea, and make it personally abhorrent to the PCs.
In the campaign I just finished, my ancient evil was Tsamaela, a demonic entity from an outer dimension who had been summoned by an Indian tribe. Readers of Lovecraft immediately see the parallels. However, my demon had been improperly summoned some 364 years ago, and was now trapped in a dimensional in-between and unable to fully manifest in our world. The evil cult of my campaign (yes, there had to be an evil cult) was attempting to summon him fully.
While this scenario is familiar to horror fans, I tried to tailor my creation away from the standard multi-armed, acidic blooded, larva spawning maniac murderer of many films and stories. To fulfill my desire for multi-armed nasties, I used chuuls as a servitor species associated with my big bad, modifying them slightly for use in a modern game.
As the campaign developed, I also introduced “children of Tsamaela” who had various portions of his powers, which introduced the PCs to various situations that gave them insight into the larger menace.
Until the final battle, Tsamaela was never seen except in fragmentary visual references in art and religious iconography of my Indian tribe.
Further, though I used ghosts extensively, I tried to give each ghost a different suite of abilities to make each ghost feel different.
I used a vampire, but with a set of vampire base classes I found in the unfortunately now defunct ezine Modernized. When I did use a werecreature, the monster was a house cat that could change into a woman.
These tweaks made the creatures memorable. Where I did use generic monsters, a race of deformed and devolved humans bred in ancient alchemical and magical experiments, they became the “kobolds” of the game.
2. Define the Powers of Your Villains
Early on I decided Tsamaela’s partial presence would influence supernatural occurrences in the town. I had my characters prepare detailed character dossiers that included fears of the PC. I gave Tsamaela the power to operate on these fears.
Further, when his name was mentioned, he would manifest as the character’s fears and be able to hear and spy on that location for a brief time. My players eventually nicknamed him T-Smack so they could speak about him without invocation.
Finally, Tsamaela could occasionally influence the PCs through a form of domination. One stirring section of the campaign arose when two characters failed their Will saves and a third had to prevent them from leaping from a water tower.
Having powers beyond the realm of the understandable is important. In all cases, I allowed Will saves to prevent the characters from being possessed or overwhelmed with terror.
Further, the vast reach of the demon and his ability to manifest anywhere within the town the PCs were investigating added to his mystique. By the end of the campaign, he was not another monster to defeat. He was a menace the party hoped to be able to defeat.
3. Define Backgrounds—For Everything
Before I began play, I developed a detailed background of historical fact, rumor, researchable information, and important players. With NPCs I developed agendas, motivations and personalities. Each NPC had to be a fully fleshed character.
In the end, the major cult leader turned out to be a sometime ally of the party and a man that many of the PCs liked and respected. Another example was an old man who lived across the street who turned out to be a spy for the cult.
These touches made my players paranoid, but they also brought home the fact that the evil was human as well as demonic.
Lastly, I had my players develop detailed character dossiers. These gave hobbies, interests, dislikes, fears, traumatic events, physical description, family and friends, medical conditions, legal past, and other details. With these documents in hand, there was never a discussion of, “but I’m not afraid of this” or, “that would not affect my character because. . . . . “
My players are good role-players, but even the best role-players, when fearful for their characters, will fudge things. The dossiers reminded them of what they had said, and allowed them to role-play their characters accurately.
I never had to bring out the dossiers as proof of why a character would behave a certain way. Additionally, many hobbies and interests provided hooks to get characters into adventures. In horror gaming, the characters’ pasts and motivations are as important as their present and future.
4. Define the Role of Magic
In this last game I made up two spell lists: a black magic one and a white magic one. Further, divine magic was represented by a feat-based ritual system I borrowed from Blood and Relics. The ritual system could only be learned by a person who had devoted time and allegiances toward making it happen.
The white magic spells were only accessed through a specific advanced class that was organizationally based. This effectively limited magic in the hands of the PCs. I did this to make monsters more challenging.
As it happened, ritual magic was the predominant form used in the campaign, though I had one PC learn white magic at higher levels. While this white magic saved the party in the final battle, it made some monsters far too easy.
5. Define Places to be Investigated or Visited
By locating the places of maximum supernatural encounters, I set up a situation where my PCs could visit anywhere in town, and I would have some idea what would happen.
These were most often places that had seen major tragedies in the past. Some of them were haunted by ghosts of people who had fought the demon in the past, and were now infiltrated by the forces of evil to prevent communication with the ghosts.
The encounters ranged from simple to horribly overpowered. I wanted my PCs to learn to run away.
6. PC Power Versus Monster Power
One of the best lines from the first edition Call of Cthulhu Keeper’s Guide was something like this: in most RPGs you send a scout ahead, and when the scout screams you run to his aid. In Call of Cthulhu, when the scout screams you think to yourself he went the wrong direction, and run the other way.
This is a mantra to live by as a horror GM. Monsters should be overpowered. PCs should be allowed to flee. Players should be allowed to triumph with careful research, a good battle plan, and a study of the monsters’ weaknesses. If the group encounters a monster ill prepared, it should be scary and almost sure death.
I cannot emphasize this enough. The standard role-player expects to win every battle no matter how one-sided. You cannot allow this mentality in a horror game. PCs should be afraid.
7. Watch Character Choices
In d20 gaming this would involve classes, advanced classes, prestige classes, feat choices, and skill uses you think will imbalance the game.
One issue I ran into at high levels was one character’s use of the shadowslayer advanced class. This class’s tenth level ability was word of slaying, which automatically with the expenditure of an action point and a full round action, dazed and stunned monsters with no saving throw.
This was problematic with certain monsters designed to be powerful threats as it allowed the PCs several rounds to act with no retaliation. I did not interfere with this ability until the final showdown with Tsamaela. I allowed Tsamaela a will save to negate the effect. In future games, I would prohibit this class from a horror game or modify the class ability to allow a saving throw.
8. Decide on the Time Frame for Setting and Campaign Length
I set my campaign in 2004, and decided that it would span a year of game time. This gave me a few advantages. I knew what happened in 2004 and what technology and information was available. By knowing the game was lasting only a year of game time, this allowed me to plan events ahead, and thus arrange for surprises for the PCs. One example was a fireworks display on July 4 in the town that exploded all at once killing dozens of people.
9. Decide on Fear Mechanics
A strength of Call of Cthulhu was its method of tracking character madness. As characters grow in knowledge of the horrors they fight, their grasp on reality slips.
A good d20 system that tracks panic, fear, horror and madness, is that used in Adamant Entertainment’s Victorian Monstrosities. It is relatively quick to run, takes little power away from the PC and allows the player to develop interesting quirks and problems.
My players actually had a sick enjoyment in developing how their characters reacted to the horrors they encountered.
During the Game
1. Ensure Party Cohesion
The party must have a good reason to work together. In my last campaign, the PCs were investigators for the National Trust for Historic Preservation assigned to a single town for a year to do a historic survey. Characters that do not play well together die quickly. Witness any slasher film.
2. Create Danger and Paranoia Everywhere
I strove hard to make any chance encounter potentially dangerous. That said, I introduced plenty of mundane meet-the-storekeeper sorts of encounters. Not every person the party met were cultists. However, enough were that the party rapidly developed a “trust no one” attitude.
3. Supply Clues
The party must be given progress toward their goal. It need not be much, nor readily understandable without other information, but progress must be possible.
I scattered clues in the form of researchable facts, rumors, and direct encounters with NPCS. These clues ranged from DC5 to DC45, but they were there for the PC who went looking. One useful tool for this was the town’s paper. I prepared one issue per week of game time with three to seven articles. Some articles were merely window dressing, but others held clues and the party often scanned the newspaper for info. It also provided a way for giving the PCs credit when they accomplished something.
4. Threats Must Be Real, But Avoid Killing PCs
I began the campaign with a TPK plan. In the event of a total party kill, I would reboot the characters as FBI investigators sent to investigate the disappearance of the Historical Survey team. With this in mind, every monster encounter was potentially deadly. I had several near TPK incidents.
However, in this sort of investigative game built on trust and party cohesion, killing characters is not a good option. I used some near-TPK incidents as a way to introduce plot complications. In one, a rival cult leader thwarted a monster attack to irk her competitor. In another, a vision of the young girl who would become a central part of the end game appeared as part of a “holy” presence that drove back a monster that was ready to kill the party.
I found that near TPK was often as good as the real thing in terms of making my players more cautious. Further, they quickly learned that researching monsters and events often led to more victories than going in guns blazing.
5. Provide Hope
There must be occasional victories, breakthroughs, and aha moments for the PCs. These are necessary in every campaign, but in a horror campaign, weighted against the characters, these become major occurrences for PCs. The key is to allow battles to be won, but the war to continue to look grim.
1. Do Not Overbuff Monsters, Provide Monster Weaknesses
In a modern horror game one cannot overbuff monsters. The characters have limited resources to overcome damage reduction, various resistances, and special qualities of monsters.
Monsters are often already higher level than the PCs and provide a challenge without making them almost invulnerable.
Tsamaela, my main demon, was vulnerable to silver and ash wood. My players discovered this and utilized this weakness superbly.
Further, make these weaknesses extend to NPCs. What is an NPC or an organization’s blind spots? Are these discoverable and exploitable? Use these opportunities to reward careful planning by the PCs.
2. Define Processes and Ensure Players Understand Them and How Difficult They Are
If you are using some extra-dimensional bad guy, how do you banish it? What is entailed? My players had to discover the banishment ritual, banish the demon back between dimensions, and then enter a portal to confront the demon in the between to defeat him fully and put him back where he was supposed to be.
The players did not discover all of this information until a few sessions before the final encounter. They were not sure they would survive or be able to return to our world. This added to the tension and dread of the final encounter.
3. Be Willing to Fudge a Little
I have seen good arguments made here and in other sources for never fudging the GM’s dice, but as I mentioned before, campaign continuity is very important in an investigative-based horror game. The occasional fudge allows PCs the little bit of hope necessary to confront the monsters.