RPT#221 – Something Dark, Something Evil, Something Bloody: Adding Elements of Horror to Your Game
A Brief Word From Johnn
The Briar King Not A Bad Book
I recently finished The Briar King by Greg Keyes. It’s standard fantasy with a folksy flare. An evil curse is awakening in the land and various characters in the book become involved via seperate threads that eventually collide. I felt the characters were great–I plan on borrowing some for my campaign–by the game world felt a little flat to me (pun probably intended). I plan on getting the second book in the series when it comes out, though I think I’ll check my local library first.
Thinking About Eberron
Eberron from Wizards of the Coast comes out next month–the same time my new campaign will start. I’ve been thinking about using Eberron as my campaign’s setting. Its theme is “a cinematic world of pulp/noir action, adventure, and intrigue.” Sounds pretty cool. More slash than hack, perhaps. I also have a new campaign world in the early design stage. It requires a lot of work yet, so I’m weighing the pros and cons of published versus homebrew world carefully. Has anyone else cast their gaze upon Eberron yet?
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By Kate Manchester
So you want to throw a little bit of horror into your game. But how do you go about doing it without giving it that cheesy B-Movie feel?
You need to consider the elements required for Horror. They are the things found in a good horror movie (though they can be found in bad ones too), and can be reduced to the following: something dark, something normal, something evil, something scary, something bloody, something fatal, and perhaps one more: something papery.
- Something DarkBright lights and daytime settings do not typically make for good horror. It’s pretty hard to be scared when you can clearly see what’s around you. Therefore, be sure your characters should be out after dark, and the setting either dimly lit or not lit at all. If you’re using an urban backdrop, the surrounding area should be either empty or nearly empty, and more than likely, far too quiet. All the better to hear the screams of the dying or the sounds of the attacker(s).
On the other hand, if you’re going for a forest setting, then the characters should have a sense of being ‘surrounded’ and ‘watched’. Describing the errant night noises (coyotes, owls, rustling leaves, etc.) can help increase tension. There is much that can hide in the darkness, so use it to your advantage.
- Something NormalAdd a bit of normality to the story, or at least, a small respite. After they’ve been chased or scared, let the characters spend a little time catching their breath. Horror movies often show the characters doing something normal (taking a shower, feeding the cat, etc.) just before the bad guy strikes.
One scene that comes to mind takes place in the movie the Shining, where the wife is being chased by her insane husband and hides in a room. The quiet is quickly shattered by the sudden appearance of an axe chopping through part of the door.
To accomplish this in your game, you could allow the characters to interact with ordinary people or do ordinary tasks. But once you’ve established that ‘normal’ pattern, be sure to destroy it. For example, you could have the PCs chatting with someone until the person is stabbed in the back by the killer, who then proceeds to chase after them. In addition, a campaign newspaper can also help establish a bit of normality with stories that don’t immediately pertain to the matters at hand.
- Something EvilEvery horror movie has to have a ‘bad guy’, whether it’s an alien, a zombie, a crazed killer, or what have you. But whatever you choose, determine your baddie’s motivation. Is it revenge? Hatred? Brains? Colonization?
For example, Freddy Krueger (from Nightmare on Elm Street) was attempting to gain revenge on the parents that killed him by killing off their kids. Return of the Living Dead had one zombie explaining their need for human brains by saying ‘it makes the pain (of dying) go away’.
Knowing your villain helps you determine what actions, if any, they will take against the PCs. But along with knowing their motivations, you should also know their strengths and weaknesses. While this is easier with a classic monster like a vampire, it can be tougher with human enemies.
You might want to try drawing out the suspense by trying to arrange it so that the PCs don’t face the baddie until much later in the scenario. Many classic horror movies often don’t show the creature until late in the picture, preferring to show victims disappearing or the victim’s remains. If you opt for this, be sure to offer a really good description of the baddie.
- Something ScaryYou can’t have horror without a good scare. But keep in mind that not every scare has to involve your baddie. How many times have you watched a movie where you’re startled by something that jumps out at the characters, only to learn that it’s just a cat? By the same token though, try to limit the minor scares, or you can wind up with characters that either aren’t scared or jump at every single shadow. (Then again, dealing with the latter isn’t all that bad…)
Also, keep in mind that one of the ‘cardinal rules’ of surviving a horror movie is to never go anywhere alone. So, try to separate the party members, even if you’re only separating them from a larger group. Not knowing where your friends ran off to can heighten tension and increase the scare factor. Especially if you hear a blood-curdling scream not long afterwards.
- Something BloodyBlood is an important part of any horror setting. You can go with the “a little blood can go a long way” philosophy, as in the classic movie Psycho, where the actress’s death is shown by blood going down the drain. Or, you can go with the “blood, blood everywhere” philosophy, where blood is used as decoration, as is well demonstrated in the Silent Hill and Resident Evil video games (as well as in many others) where lots of blood, along with creepy music, can definitely set a mood.
Blood can also provide clues. If the bad guy is wounded, for example, the PCs can use the trail of blood drops to follow it to its lair. A trail of blood could also lead to the next victim. Worse yet, the characters see a lot of blood, but there’s no sign of a body.
- Something FatalPeople die in horror movies. If you want horror in your game, people should die. Don’t be afraid to kill off NPCs or retired PCs (though it’s a good idea to get the players’ permission first). The more ties the PCs have to the dead people, the more involved they will be in the plot.
In addition, the death of a known ally can increase the shock value as well as the sense of loss felt by the PCs. If you’re watching a horror movie, and you really don’t care whether the characters in it live or die, then why bother continuing to watch (or in this case play)?
For example, I recall one of the many Friday the 13th installments featured a camper in a wheelchair that vowed to get out of it before they died. I found it rather disheartening when the villain killed the character by catching him unaware.
- Something PaperyIf you don’t have a campaign newspaper, consider starting one. There are many things a newspaper can help you do. For starters, the newspaper can convey a flavor of the setting. The newspaper for my own campaign often contains real stories of the time period to give my players a sense of current events, as well as made up ones that are relevant to the storyline.
As previously discussed, the paper can convey a sense of normalcy. But it can also serve to provide foreshadowing. Is it mere coincidence that there’s a lot of lost cat ads in the paper? Or something more sinister?
But wait, there’s more a newspaper can do for your campaign:
- Provide leads to follow. If your players haven’t a clue about how to proceed, a newspaper article can sometimes point them in the right direction.For example, a series of ‘brown-outs’ (minor power failures) have been seemingly affecting random parts of the city, and the PCs have decided to investigate the phenomenon. Now, throw in a story about a number of robberies or break-ins that took place in the affected areas, and your players have a possible lead. Then again, if I had a nickel for all the times that my players decided to check out one of the real stories instead of or in addition to my fake ones, I’d be fairly rich by now.
- Provide tangible results of PC actions. For example, if the players didn’t find the killer, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the killer’s next victim to be the lead story in the morning newspaper. Similarly, you can offer the players a sense of accomplishment or pride by mentioning their character by name, or at least referencing their actions. For example, if Character X rescues people from a burning building, the character should be mentioned (unless they’re not publicity hounds).
- Taunts. The villain can taunt the players, or vice versa. Many serial killers sent letters to the police, perhaps most notably the Zodiac Killer. However, taunts can also be accomplished in a less sensational and more succinct way by using the “personal messages” section found in the classifieds of most city’s newspapers. For example, having the following show up in the paper: “Hey Z, do you know where your mother is? -Slasher” may be just enough to totally freak a player out.
- Consider The Game EnvironmentNow that the elements of horror have been covered, it is time to consider the setting once more. Not the campaign setting, but rather the place where you run your game. The atmosphere of where you play can and probably will affect your players, so here’s a few ways to create a bit of creepiness:
- Turn out the lights in favor of using either candles, colored bulbs, or black light bulbs. Just be sure that you have enough light to be able to see and move around with.
- Use dry ice or a fog machine to ‘fog’ the floor. But take care, chemical fog in a poorly ventilated room can sometimes set off a smoke alarm, which could definitely kill the mood.
- Have creepy music playing softly in the background. If you want to try using it to added effect, either set up close to the stereo or have the remote handy so you can gradually raise or lower the volume to offer audible clues to approaching (or receding) danger, as many video games often do.As far as selecting the music, stick to stuff that doesn’t have a lot of lyrics, as that could distract your players. The music from horror type video games (such as Silent Hill, Clock Tower, etc.) would be a good choice, as would Midnight Syndicate (I’m told they have one CD that’s designed as a D&D soundtrack), Joe Satriani, Alan Parsons Project (I recommend side two of Tales of Mystery and the Imagination if you can find it), Blue Oyster Cult (the instrumental part of Don’t Fear the Reaper), along with the soundtracks to more classic horror movies (Friday the 13th, Jaws, Dracula, etc.).
- Sources Of InspirationIn the end, it’s not hard to add horror elements to your games. The real trick is doing it well. So, I conclude with a few possible resources to inspire. Keep in mind, this is by no means a complete list, nor have I read, seen, or listened to each and every one, as some are pulled directly from lists of top movies and books, and others recommended to me.
Books and Authors
Blatty, William Peter “The Exorcist”
Bradbury, Ray “Something Wicked This Way Comes”
Edgar Allen Poe, particularly the “Raven” and the “Tell-Tale Heart H.P. Lovecraft”
Jackson, Shirley “The Haunting of Hill House”
Poppy Z. Brite
Shelly, Mary “Frankenstein”
Stevenson, Robert Louis “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
Stoker, Bram “Dracula”
Friday the 13th
John Carpenter’s The Thing
The Lost Boys
Night of the Living Dead
Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes
Silence of the Lambs
Blue Oyster Cult
Music from the Succubus Club
Music From Dario Argento’s Horror Movies
Psycho: Horror and Fantasy at the Movies
Tales of Mystery and Imagination – the Alan Parsons Project
Themes of Horror Bernard Herrmann
Clock Tower (1 – 3)
Resident Evil (various)
Silent Hill (1 – 3)
* Message Boards and Photo Galleries * News
- Team Leader Tips For Paranoia The RPG
From: Tim Riley
http://www.silven.com/Always volunteer first to be the team leader. This throws everyone off, and with power comes the ability to blame or assign blame:
- Fellow team members who fire their weapons recklessly (i.e. miss) are destroying computer property and are thereby guilty of treason.
- Team members who have allowed their uniforms to be damaged by mutant commie skum are in league with them and are traitors.
- Team members who do not say “the computer is my friend” when you say it are traitors because their thoughts are not on serving the computer.
- Team members who question you are thereby questioning the computer. Therefore they do not trust the computer. Therefore fragging them would be ok.
- Always volunteer to stand watch. It is easier to shoot the traitors who have fallen asleep or to summon the cleaning crew to send the sleepers to the food vats.
- Online D20 Gaming Platform
From: Johnn FiveThough I haven’t used this software, it looks interesting. Seems to be Windows and Mac OS X supported too.
Has anyone had success with it?
- Board Games And Roleplay
From: Stuart CurtisI haven’t GM’d or roleplayed in quite a while now (lack of time and gamers in South Wales, I’m afraid!) but I still enjoy the newsletter you bring out. I have a few thoughts on your musings about using board games as a GM aid in roleplay games.
My campaigns tended to be grandiose affairs with characters starting off on small tasks, picking up mentors, allies, and enemies as they went along. This eventually led to realm changing (in some cases, world changing) events that the PCs were inexorably tied up into. The players loved it.
They often ended up commanding vast armies. (Now THAT can be a campaign in its own right! Not the battles so much, the running of the armies themselves, and all the intrigue, politics, back stabbing, and alliances that go with that.) They even went on to become rulers – that’s where board games came in.
There are a lot of lands-and-armies type of board games out there, such as Risk and Kingmaker. Well, when the PCs became quite powerful, and the inevitable clash of armies and lands became near, out came the made-up board game (very Risk like, but with added mythical creatures and spells) and a few days of battling across the board would entail. Again, the PCs loved getting into their part of ruler or general.
This can be taken a step further: the wargame table. But this requires planning, room, and a lot of figures. It can (and has) been done, and again, is a really impressive way of expanding on the roleplay campaign. If the PCs loose, are defeated, or even killed on the battlefield, then you can have them injured and fleeing (or captured?) ready for the continuation of the roleplay part again. If they win, then it’s back to the roleplay to see how they interact with prisoners, what information (links to further the campaign) they can discover, and of course, divide up the loot.
It is an easy job to make a board game. Just use the Risk rules to start with and add bits as seems appropriate. Change the landscape to suit. Draw it out on some cardboard and name the regions. Counters can be obtained from other board games easily enough. Then it’s PCs versus the GM’s forces.
If you have never had PC generals before, it is a most rewarding thing from a GM point of view. They tend to become paranoid about drinking from cups, food eaten, messengers… And spies and assassins are everywhere! When you’re at the top, the only way is down, and there’s an awful lot of lieutenant I-could-run-this-army-better types ready to take their place.
- Use Newspapers For Plot Design
From: Roger N.Here in the UK, on the weekends, we get bigger, fuller newspapers than the daily variety. They’re usually supplied with numerous magazines as well as additional sections on history, arts, etc. A simple read-through will provide an GMs with hundreds of storylines.
Story 1) A famous novelist is in town carrying out a book signing session.
Story 2) A terrorist group has threatened the government with further action should “x” not take place.
Story 3) A new shopping mall is due to open the following weekend.
Now take all three stories and combine into one, or better yet, use something like Traveller as the game setting.
“An offworld Alien author will be honouring the world of Ethan this week by agreeing to carry out the first ever book signing session they have performed away from their own home planet. During the week long visit the alien author is abducted by the terrorist group in an effort to embarrass the government. The terrorists use the new, but as yet unopened, shopping mall as a hideout.”
Now bring in the players! Private operatives hired by an embarrassed government to recover the missing author without fuss…
Hope this is of some use.
- Encouraging Roleplay With XP
From: Robin MatteAwarding XP is where many GMs falter. You want your players to play the best roleplay they can. You incite them to play better with rewards and cover them with gold pieces and magical weapons, but what makes them legendary characters is their XP–their level. Here’s what I usually do when distributing XP.
- At the start of each game, I take a blank sheet and watch my players interact. When I spot a great idea, a great move, from a character, I write it down. Same thing when it’s a bad move, bad idea.”Good” or “bad” means that it actually WORKS with the character profile. Burning down the forest to trap a dozen trolls is a good idea for the true neutral fighter coming from the biggest city of the kingdom, for example, but not for the ranger or the druid.
- At the end of the game, I take 30 minutes, my once-blank sheet, and think again about everything that happened in the session. I talk to every player. I tell them what I liked, what I didn’t, what he should have done or what he shouldn’t and I then ask them what they think about what I said them: they usually agree.
- To improve the use of skills, I give them skill bonuses. Plus one, or two. Not plus ten! These bonuses depend though on what they’ve done in the game. If a character, of any class, decides to spend a couple of nights in the library during the game, searching for the ruins of an ancient city, I will give him bonus on Knowledge-History, accordingly. Why not?
- Do not be scared to irritate anybody. Tell them what you think. Of course, Dungeons and Dragons is a game, but it is a relatively serious one. If there is not a minimum of seriousness and determination, the game is spoiled. Don’t hesitate to remind your players what is the goal: BEING the character for a couple of hours. FORGETTING yourself. ENTERING a new world. ENJOYING victory but also possibly SUFFERING a bitter defeat. It’s all about that. Tell them YOU WILL give XP, and other rewards for role-player their character, not just playing it.
- Three GM Tool Reviews
From: Strider StarslayerProgram Name: GURPS GURU
OS: Windows (Works OK under wine)
- Very exacting character generation program
- Handles enhanced ST very well, and skill defaults
- Extensible through included utilities
- Massive time saver (can easily make a character in GURU within 5 minutes)
- Can make many kinds of printouts/saved copies
- Doesn’t handle enhanced ST cost reductions at all (for sessile or no fine manipulators)
- Does not handle maneuvers well
- Extensibility utilities somewhat unintuitive
- Very few stats have descriptions
I’ve been using this for my GURPS games basically since it became free all those years ago. It’s a great way to build and maintain a GURPS character sheet, and in my opinion, is actually superior to the product that the SJgames people themselves put out.
- Built-in database tool allows easy rules updates
- Nice, relatively intuitive interface
- Very good gadget creation utility
- Doesn’t let you add/change advantages/disadvantages
- Some of the more esoteric power rules cannot be covered by the existing set-up
- Program has not been updated in a LONG time.
- Program was originally more useful but was ‘defanged’ (i.e. no descriptions for powers)
Another old and useful program, this one was written by Mike Love, who has put a fair amount of effort into it. The program is possibly on the verge of being released open source, and if so you can probably expect to see a Java/Python version that will run on all OSes soon.
Program Name: AU spells
System: D&D (Arcana Unearthed)
OS: Microsoft Office (you’ll probably need Windows too then, though the Mac office would probably work)
- Quite possibly one of the most detailed Excel macro-sheets I’ve ever seen!
- Radically cuts down on the amount of lookups required to figure out just how many spells your character can cast, what level which spell is on, etc.
- Oh god, my eyes! The colours in this program are PAINFUL!
- Spells lack actual descriptions; if you don’t know what they do in advance, it’s back to cross-referencing spells in the books
- Battlematt Substitute
From: Peter LarsonI purchased a single sheet of A2 grid paper for 60 cents and had it laminated for $8.50. So for $9.10 Australian, I have a battlematt that is as portable as a Chessex matt and compatible with whiteboard markers. All for less than 1/4 of the price of a regular matt.