I want so scope out the topic of what is “horror.” I have ordered Heroes of Horror and eagerly await its arrival. In the meantime, from my own gaming experience and that of movies there seems to be two broad catagories:

1. The Suspense- this is the creepy, I do not know what is going on aspect of horror. The sounds in the distance, the clues that something is not right. It is not the seen, but the unseen. This is the buildup of tension and suspense.

2. The Gore/slasher side of the genre. Evoking images that are slightly distrubing to the player/viewer. This is the release, the horror revealed.

Both will be critical to this module. Putting the figs out on the table immediately puts it back into the plain old D&D game. Being able to switch between Suspense and the Gore will be a tough challenge. My reading of the module reveals to me a big flaw in its design. The module opens with Gore, then shifts to Suspense. My introductory adventures will help fix this flaw. They will get to know some of the NPCs and get a sense that something is “not right.” The early Gore can then be a preliminary release of Suspense. This will be good, as then Suspense can build again. There will need to be several of these cycles in order for this campaign to work. As I read through the material again, I will map out the Suspense/Gore cycles.

I also want to give thought of what techniques will work to enhance both Suspense and Gore. A study of what works in books and movies is a start, but the gaming table is its own medium. Some techinques will transfer, some will not.

Some stuff when I was chatting with Big Dog on the OhioGame, which may be horror themed:

Keep in mind there is “mindless zombies attacking” type horror and the Bram Stroker intelligent brooding evil type horror (which Ravenloft attempts to replicate). I have only done “horror” at the table a couple of times (which I think is its limitation — hard to keep that mood for a campaign). As a GM, I really think you might like it. The key is the unknown and players imagination. The whole goal is to hold off the combat side of things as long as possible. It is all about mood, setting, description, and pacing. One of my finest moments as a young GM was to creep the players out so they did NOT enter into a graveyard. There was a fog rolling in over the graveyard, and they then heard a door creaking open, end a few other sounds. That was enough to scare off the players (this was Mark D, his cousin Mike Adams (bury tough football player), and Craig Cooley (God rest his soul) while sitting around a kitchen table in broad daylight!)

An excellent article on running horror

Pretty good from a web-board

From an ok article, a nice comment
Adding a sensory detail: shuffling feet, the smell of lilacs, a drop in temperature, etc. can set the players on edge each time that they encounter the sensory detail even when they can easily handle the zombies.

Always describe the results rather than the cause. Allowing players (and their lovely imaginations) to fill in the blanks will result in more horror atmosphere than simply describing what caused it. Besides, once the cause is known (be it monster or whatever), the horror transforms into action, as the characters now have a known threat to deal with.

Tension, conflict, release, repeat as necessary. This simple formula will help you create a horror game. Build up the tension in the scene. Have an event occur. Everyone breaths easier for a moment. Each time the process is repeated, the stakes go up. The first time is just the cat, the second time is the wind, the third time you don’t know what it is, the fourth time it is the monster.

Great post from ENWorld:

Making evil be suitably monsterous and the terrorifying suitable scary is hard, and particularly hard to do without simply crudely and graphically smashing a sensitive subject button in hopes of getting a viceral reaction.

  • Fear of the unknown: Lovecraft has the right of it. If you want players to respond to your scary monsters, one of the most important things to do is make sure that the players aren’t sure what it is that they are facing. If the monster gets replaced in their minds eye by a list of printed attributes and numbers, most chance of them finding it scary is lost. Even with a monster that the player ‘knows’ give it some flourish in the description or tactics they aren’t expecting.
  • Make sure that you make the monsters existence a non-enviable one: One of the biggest problems you get into trying to scare people is if you make the monster ‘cool’, attractive and powerful, people don’t fear the monster they instead want to be the monster. You can play this underhandedly occasionally, where you make the monster cool and attractive at first and then reveal the monster beneath the mask, but for the most part monsters should live loathsome and terrible lives (at least from the perspective of anyone sane).
  • Hunt the PC’s: One of the problems scaring the players is that they are running very capable individuals who always seem to have the initiative and who are hunting down and destroying their foes. What do they got to fear? To scare the players, you have to take away their feelings of being in control of the situation. You have to knock them back on their heels and make them react rather than leave the monsters always reacting to them. Put them in nasty tactical situations.
  • Throw NPC’s to the monsters: Most of the time the PC is secure and will always be secure. The monster can’t get them because they are one bad dude (or lady), so the player doesn’t know what to fear. To heighten the fear, you need to toss a few victims to the monster so that the PC’s can observe how it kills/maims/cripples/destroys or the aftermath of such an attack. The player needs to be thinking, “That could be me.”
  • Go after primal fears: Everyone is scared of something, and its usually pretty basic. Instead of going right for something loathsome like rape or torture or gore all over the place, go after the player’s fear triggers: snakes, spiders, darkness, heights, being alone, dirt, being upside down, confinement, drowning, being touched, being contaminated, being eaten, betraying oneself, children, aging (or its effects), whatever. Try to think of every monster as a fear and then supernaturally heighten thing in the monster that is fearful or put the monster in the situation that the player finds fearful.
  • Be immersive: Try to force the player to imagine the situation from a first person view, not looking down at the character but through the character’s eyes.
  • Don’t show the monster: You can’t do this all the time, because D&D is about combat, but often you get more out of the monster if you set the mood first before the monster jumps out. Be creepy. Creepy sounds. Creepy smells. Creepy setting. Sometimes it helps to use misdirection to get them looking at where the monster isn’t. That mummified corpse on the throne in the tomb is just a corpse, not an undead monster and the dead king isn’t haunting his tomb but enjoying his afterlife. The real monster is the immortal snake spirit that gaurds the tomb that gets you from behind will you are worried about undead leaping out of sarcophagi or wraiths rising out of the dust, or mummies lurching from the throne.
  • Whatever the PC’s expect, make it worse: The BBEG must not only be dangerous, but more dangerous than they imagined. You want to provoke the reaction, “You want us to go against that?!??!” You have to make the PC’s question whether they have the chops or the tools to take on the monster at this time, even when you secretly know that its not as bad as the PC’s imagine it to be. You can do this either by playing a metagame where the monster appears to be something with higher stats, or really is a something normally associated with deeper in the dungeon./further in their careers but is a (relatively) weak specimen. Or you can do it by taking something relatively weak and making it appear relatively invincible by giving it surprising hit dice and abilities.


A thread to see what can be learned from other sources, how they apply, etc (others, feel free to add). Obviously, there are spoilers here.

Red Sands (6/15/2009)

Synopisis: From the creators of the horror cult hit, Dead Birds, comes a psychological horror film about a unit of U.S. soldiers in present-day Afghanistan who unknowingly release a vengeful supernatural force that wages upon them a deadly war. The Afghani people believed there were beings on Earth far older than humans—the Djinn. The Djinn, according to legend, were made of smokeless fire and could take on any form they wished but could be imprisoned in certain vessels such as a lamp as told in teh tale of Alladin. According to legend the Djinn hated humans and most fled the Earth as humans grew to dominate it. But a few remained imprisoned in vessels designed to contain them waiting to be freed. The soldiers on routine patrol for insurgents came upon an ancient statue deep in the desert. They have no idea what they have found and one of them shoots the statue with his M-16 tearing it apart. Unfortunately for his unit the statue seems to have been a vessel imprisoning a Djinn who decides to take vengence. The " Djinn, is in D&D terms is more of a doppleganger in its approach than the “genie.”.

Observations/Cool Stuff:
1. Cut off from their unit, they hear strange voices on the radio as they try to reach their unit (my Message spell impact was based on this)
2. Use of a woman as the vessel for the Djinn. Her dialect is not familiar to the unit translator. She appears the helpless one. She plays on the weaknesses of the group. I will have to look to see if there is a shapechanger in the module.
3. Dreams/visions, especially of bad events in the past. I will be asking for an event as the Blaspheme early on will know “secrets”, some of which even the PCs do not know about their family (inspiration – Pet Semetary — those humans that came back “know things”).
4. Limited range of sight. This is common to most movies — the creature always is able to sneak up on its victum, regardless of their diligence. In a couple of places, the movie made it more “realistic” due to flashlights or night vision scope that have an inherent narrow field of vision. This certainly points to keeping the figs off the table as much as possible.
5. Pacing was very slow and deliberate.
6. It was interesting that the movie opens with the lone “survivor”. The twist we learn at the end is that the survivor is a Djinn.

Saw 6/16/2009

Synopisis: Two men wake up at opposite sides of a dirty, disused bathroom, chained by their ankles to pipes. Between them lies a dead man loosely clutching a hand-held tape player and a handgun. Each finds a tape the perfect fit for the player in their back pocket. They play the tapes. One is threatened, the other isn’t. But they have a task: One must kill the other by 6:00, or his wife and daughter will die. They find hacksaws in a toilet, and try to cut the chains, but it doesn’t work. They are the two newest victims of the Jigsaw Killer. In a flashback, we learn of Amanda, a girl who falls victim to the Jigsaw Killer. On her head is a mask, which is hooked into her lower jaw. There is a timer on it. Only one key will unlock it, and that key is in the digestive tract of her cell mate who lies paralyzed on the opposite side of the room. If she doesn’t unlock the mask in time, her lower jaw will be ripped wide open. She survives, but her cell mate doesn’t. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of more victims, and of the nearly-successful capture of the Jigsaw Killer, who doesn’t actually kill his victims. Instead, he finds ways to make them kill either themselves, or each other, and he thinks the entire ‘game’ out perfectly, with no other ways out. Or so it would seem.

Observations/Cool Stuff:
A fascinating movie about choices. Much like Red Sand, the central characters struggle with trust, and Adam hears Lawrence’s tape – that Lawrence must kill Adam by 6 (about 7 hours away) or his family dies. Many twists and turns.

1. For most of the movie, the BBEG is unseen. Eventually, he is seen and gives Lawrence a focus for his rage as he knows the man is an orderly in the hospital in which he works. However, it is a falsehood – the twist at the end is that the orderly was also part of the Game — he had to kill an innocent family in order to get an antidote for a poison. The BBEG really was in the room the whole time (a “dead” body in makeup). The BBEG is a patient with an inoperable brain tumor that wants to teach those that “win” the game to appreciate life.

2. Choices is the name of the game. This can be ported over into the Ravenloft campaign. Giving the PCs moral dilemmas that have no satisfactory solution. In addition, there is one really sick NPC that this might be his side hobby (the trapper). If a PC gets isolated and caught, this could be a fate (give the player a choice of “running” it, or the group finding them later and figure out what happened.

3. There was some “narrow vision” effects, mostly in flashbacks that helped flesh out the story. The main scenes with Lawrence and Adam did not us this, as the horror there was the interplay between the two characters and the situation.

Jenifer 3/28/2010

A one-hour movie (I think it is part of a series). A cop comes upon a scene in which a crazed man is about to kill a helpless woman. He is forced to kill him. The woman turns out to have a perfect body and a horrific face (thankfully covered with hair most of the time). She cannot speak. To her savior, she is very demure. She was going to be locked away, but the cop becomes infatuated with her (he is also scratched by her – it is unclear if this wound has any impact on this or not). Over time, she commits horrible violent act – bascially eating a cat, a child, a man, then a teenager (basically ripping their guts out). But to the cop, she is docile and “willing”.

Finally, he snaps and drags her out to the woods to kill her…the cycle starts again as a hunter kills the cop to save the girl, and she “transfers” to him.

Gaming applications – The classic wolf in sheep’s clothing. Could be a disfigured succubus – she creates a cycle and influenced events to keep getting fresh victims.

Also, the scenes was pretty gory and it led me to adding something like that to Kavan’s house in my Ravenloft game.

Dead Space (about 1/2 through 7/27/2009)

This is the beast that got me into horror of late. Some great effects (some may or may not translate to the table)

  • Since it is on a spaceship, the classic “they are using the airducts to move around”. This just means the DM needs to be creative with movement (secret passages, etc).
  • Sound – all sorts of sound that hints at things to come. In the game, they are not just ambiance – they have meaning (sometimes it is nothing, sometimes it is something).
  • Lighting – of course, there is always something more interesting in the dark areas
  • They use logs and video clips to tell the backstory – in my game I will try to use psychic flashbacks.
  • Paranoia – the three survivors do not trust each other. Obvious suspicion is on the security guy (like the Company Man in Aliens). However, that may be a red herring (so obvious that they may pull a switch later in the game).
  • Detail – moving around the ship, something horrible has happened. No question.
  • Movement – there is one scene in a repair bay – there is a large structure suspended from the ceiling – it has its own movement, creating moving shadows. There are also times a creature will “flash” by – at the end of the hall, someplace you cannot get to quickly. It adds to the “where will the attack come from” feeling
  • They use the Overwhelming Doom scenario. Your ship is destroyed. You are now on this massive ship where systems are failing. So you have two things to deal with – (1) a ship you have to get working and (2) all the nasties.

*Creepy things:

  • they turned babies into nasty things
  • the few survivors you encounter are insane. One is beating his head on a bulkhead (you hear the repeated thud around the corner lone before you get to it – see #2 above), another is a woman operating on someone before they kill themselves. Later in the game, you go back to medical and there is a woman standing over a body – she is alternates between crying and laughing → that freaked me out. Not all horror has to be action – these items build suspense and doom of the outcome.
  • There is an progression of creatures. In simple terms, think from the Aliens series – facehugger / normal Alien / Mother Alien. That helps tie the story together, and makes the creation of the creatures more horrific. In Ravenloft, there is a tie between Strahd, the Necromancer, and the Plague Zombies.
  • The ship is huge, so space for lots of interesting rooms (I particularly enjoy the zero-gravity rooms). However, there is a suspiciously high number of corridors that double back, and doors that open into hallways that only go one way, yet all have a little cubby in the other direction. This is obviously to hinder line of sight and the cubby is to try the occasional ambush.

Session 9 (7/5/2010)

Netflix Link
Desperate for cash, asbestos remover Gordon (Peter Mullan) claims he can clean up an abandoned psychiatric hospital in a week. But by the time Gordon discovers the truth about the asylum’s gruesome past, the place may cast its curse on his entire crew. The former site of untold human misery, the decaying mental ward now works its dark magic on each member of Gordon’s team. David Caruso co-stars in director Brad Anderson’s psychological thriller.

Observations/Cool Stuff:

This one was kinda creepy to me for two reasons:

  1. On 7 mile road there is an abandoned psychiatric hospital that I used to drive by all the time. There was this red pick-up truck out there all of the time. It was enough to get your mind chewing on it just driving by. In the movie, there is a red van in front of the building…
  2. Horror can be very personal. A good movie or story “attacks” what you value. For example, in Saw you are tumbling through the movie just wonder when/who is willing to cut their foot off. In this movie (SPOILER ALERT), you eventually that Gordon did not just “hit is wife” in that accident back home, but he beat her and his new child do death. Five years ago, this revelation at the end of the movie would have evoked a minor “thats interesting” from me. As a new father (with another on the way), that aspect was much more personal and had more of an effect.

Savage Worlds Rules that might help

Dramatic tasks (which were not around when I did my Ravenloft campaign) might be a good tool to use. Really think about the steps and what could go wrong and describe those to the hilt. Its all about building the tension then release (or something horribly bad happens :)). Another option would be the pre-Deluxe chase rules. This work nicely as well for a straight-line chase. The one thing it has over the Deluxe version is the visual representation of how close something is. Tension builds as the number of tokens between the Unbeatable Horror and the PC’s decreases. When the PCs finally get the MacGuffin one can use the Deluxe chase – how to get close enough to the Unbeatable Horror to use it but not get killed before they can use it.


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