Designing A Successful Modern Horror Campaign

From Jeremy Brown

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0522

A Brief Word from Johnn

Hello fellow game masters!

I hope the summer is treating you well, and that you are fitting some games in.

I have finally caught up on all my emails. If you contacted me and I did not reply, please email me again. I either did not receive it, or I fat-fingered the keyboard and accidentally whacked it.

I recently did an interview over at You can learn a bit more about my gaming past, what my favorite RPG is (bet you can’t guess it), my favorite NPC, and other titillating topics of conversation.

Read it at:

I Realized I Don’t Buy Much RPG Stuff Any More

In a recent thread over at Gnome Stew, I commented how I only buy utility type books for RPGs nowadays. I like the design- and advice-oriented stuff. Teach a GM to fish and whatnot.

Overall, I buy a book every couple of months. My last purchases were The Kobold Guide to Game Design Volume III, Dice Games Properly Explained, and Crafty TV Writing. Only one RPG book in the bunch, though all three are applicable to GMs.

It makes me nostalgic for the days when I scooped up RPG books like a blue whale eating krill.

But I’ve got shelves bending under the weight of modules, worlds, and game systems. I don’t need more of those. I’m recycling S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth in my Pathfinder Riddleport campaign right now, in fact.

What I feast on is stuff that helps me be a better GM.

I also still get the odd RPG book. I’m ogling Wolfgang Baur’s Zobeck books right now, and their upcoming Planescape project sounds awesome. Gnome Stew has an NPC book coming out soon that looks great, too.

Still, I miss the days when each Saturday I’d cycle three miles with a friend to the best game store in the area to check out the new releases and bag a couple.

What about you? Do you still buy RPG books? What kinds? Have your buying habits changed over time?

But I Still Game Often

Though I buy less, I still get to game every couple of weeks. There was a time a few years ago where I had no time to game at all. I was too busy at the day job, and writing and working on home projects.

I’m still freaking busy, but gaming takes high priority. Life has to have a good balance between work and play. A good life does for me, at least.

These days I’m on the cusp of being too busy to run a campaign twice a month. So a player is stepping in to run a Paizo Adventure Path for us monthly, letting me still get my gaming fix in every couple of weeks. I’ll be playing a magus and look forward to throwing dice _at_ the screen, for a change.

Designing A Successful Modern Horror Campaign

Preparing a Modern Horror Campaign

Horror RPG Campaign

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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During the Game

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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End Game

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.

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.

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.

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Reader Tip Request

Maintaining Story When Players Can’t Make A Session

RPT reader Tristan sent me this request:

Hi johnn I am new to being a GM and have only been running a dnd campaign for about 6 weeks now (one day a week). I’m a high schooler and have convinced some friends who have never played before to play.

We have had a bit of fun and adventure. However, due to schoolwork and activities it is hard to get everyone to come all together, which makes it difficult to keep a story going.

What should I do to get a story or campaign to stay consistent? And how do I manage pcs when they are gone?

Thank you for your time.

If you have any advice for Tristan on how he can keep his campaign consistent while characters are absent from sessions, drop me a note: [email protected]

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Monster Features and Terrain Game Changers

From Ben Scerri

Monster Features: The Premise

Monsters in RPGs have had a long history of special abilities that add additional cool tidbits to encounters. For example, a dragon’s fiery breath and a rust monster’s corruption of metallic objects.

However, seldom do they have attributes that cause players to think outside the box or that kill them in a specific way (think Medusa from Greek Mythology here).

Consider the following two examples:

  • Without Monster Feature

The party fights a dragon with a breath weapon. To avoid it and kill the dragon, all the players need to do is hide whilst the dragon breathes, then strike whilst it recuperates for its next attack. Difficult, but not that exciting.

  • With Monster Feature

The very same dragon has draconic armour covering its entire body. There is no way the party can touch it. However, just before the dragon releases its breath weapon it must expose its neck and then it is time to strike. This introduces a level of risk. Should you attempt to cut its throat even though a few seconds later it will be erupting lava from its mouth?

If overdone, this could be seen as railroading or corny. But I guarantee if used now and then as something special, it will stick out in the minds of the players.

Monster Features: How Do I Make Them?

Take a normal monster, add a power, and then attach a weakness to this power that isn’t obvious.

Then, have the players fight the monster and make it clear something needs to be done to kill it.

For example:

  • The Rancor in Star Wars Episode VI had to be killed by dropping a spiked door on its head.
  • Medusa (as mentioned above) had to be killed by reflecting its gaze.
  • The Basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets could only be faced once its eyes were destroyed.

Terrain Game Changers: The Premise

Terrain features introduce a game mechanic element to the combat environment. For example, lose or slippery floors, periodic explosions, varied elevations.

Terrain Game Changers are there to enforce a different style of play. If your players usually run into an area shooting their guns at everything that moves, perhaps add in some explosive barrels that will kill them as well if they go off. Or maybe a piece of technology or art they need. Or hostages.

Terrain Game Changers will get your players thinking on their feet and increase their awareness of alternate tactics.

Terrain Game Changers: How Do I Make Them?

Consider the standard moves of your players and insert something that prevents them from doing this.

For example, if your players usually shoot, add in something they can’t damage at range. If they usually go in swinging, prevent them from getting close enough to the enemy (or give the enemy something that would make getting in close too dangerous).

More examples:

  • The shields employed by the Gungans in Star Wars Episode I that prevented the Trade Federation Army from using their tanks.
  • The invention of the cannon that removed the purpose and usefulness of castles.
  • The Fire Nations’ use of catapults in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode, “The Cave of Two Lovers,” which forced the Aang Gang to travel underground instead of in the air.
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Basic GMing Rules

From Garry Stahl

Garry’s First Rule of Fantasy

  • Do not change reality more than necessary to make your universe work. Real world physics are your friend. You do not need to explain gravity, weather, or in general how the world functions. So don’t complicate things that do not need complication. Adding super science or magic is complication enough.
  • All role-playing games are fantasy, even if it is not. Of course it’s fantasy. If it was real you would be living it, not playing it in a game.  Even the modern games or science fiction games are a fantasy.
  • Fantasy is not an excuse for sloppy writing or world building.

Fantasy is not an excuse word that means you don’t have to do your homework or keep track of things.  Good fantasy is internally consistent.  We do wish to write a good fantasy.

And we do want good writing. When I was talking with Melissa Scott at ConFusion and her friends some years ago (2003) I mentioned running a D&D game for 27 years (at the time). Her eyes got as big as saucers and she said “That is writing too!”

So you have it from a pro, and a well-educated one.  Your RPG writing is writing. Treat your game with respect, take writing it seriously, and it will furnish you and your friends decades of enjoyment.

Last note, just don’t take yourself seriously.

Write to Your Audience

Know your players. Ask what they like and what they want to see in the game. Vital: ASK. Don’t assume. Poll the players, inquire and check things out. Their role in the game is as important as yours.

On that note, seek adventures of mutual enjoyment.  If you are a sea adventure bunny (like me) and your players are not (like mine), then don’t write sea adventures.  Write something you both like.  You are part of your own audience. If you don’t like what you are doing it will show and enjoyment will be lessened.

Explore the limits, but be careful. Pushing the limits can be a good thing if you do not push them too far. Push people’s limits too far and they get uncomfortable. Uncomfortable people are not having fun.

People who are not having fun stop coming. Don’t even go there if you do not know your players well.  It’s a game, not a psychological test.

The Rule of Yes

  • Unless there is a compelling reason to say no, say yes. Playing a game with Dr. No isn’t fun. Players want to have fun and do things. There is a time and place for obstacles. Learn and know that time and place. Trying to find a royal blue shirt or spell components in the market is not that time.
  • A roll is not required for everything, even if a roll needed. Use judgment in applying the dice. Dice are random, random isn’t vital even if the rules say it is.  Remember the Rule of Yes.

Keep Encounters Open Ended

  • An encounter with one solution is bad. I do not write encounters with a solution in mind. I present the problem, and let the players tell me how it will be solved. Remember they are creative too. Use that.
  • Frustrated players are bad. Look back to the Rule of Yes.

If your players cannot solve something because you wrote in a single solution they didn’t think of, they get frustrated.

This makes the GM look bad.

  • Use any reasonable solution and be open to solutions you didn’t think of. As above, Rule of Yes and keep an open mind. You have one brain; your players have one each. Use the brains around you to improve the game.

Be Flexible

Don’t script. Players will do the unpredictable. And that is that. You want north they go south. You have the old gypsy with the legend, and they visit everyone but.  When that happens, punt.

If an encounter is important, it can be fit in elsewhere. Only you know how the scenario is assembled. No one will smite you if you shuffle the parts. If the Vicar has the legend and not the Gypsy you don’t lose GMing points.

Most Important, have fun. The game is played for fun. If everyone is having fun, you are a successful GM.

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Character Creation and Roleplaying Rewards

From The B’omarr Punk

When I started emphasizing in-depth roleplaying in my games, some players didn’t want to play along. So, I instituted an incentive program that granted bonus xp, items, or ability points for giving characters’ depth.

The program has two phases: character creation and roleplaying rewards.

Character Creation

During character creation, players complete my character depth sheet (a simple one-page questionnaire, see below). Based on completeness, creativity and depth of answers, I give bonuses before the game starts (ability points for buying ability scores, xp for item creation, equipment).

I give players unlimited draft submissions to me before the first game session. I advise what I’m looking for and help players get the maximum bonus.

An unintended benefit of this is I get to see what these characters are all about well in advance of session one, and I can tailor adventures (or even campaigns) around them.

The most effective item in the questionnaire seems to be the influential NPCs entry. I require three, with name, age, race, alignment, class, level, and relationship to the character. I’ve seen mentors, friends, parents, idols, and even nemeses. I get to use these NPCs in my game, and the personal touch it brings to campaigns is amazing.

Roleplaying Rewards

I rate players’ roleplaying quality after each session and grant bonus xp. The better they do (GM’s subjective assessment), the more xp.

My current formula is: [current level] x [number of hours played] x [rp quality factor between 1-10] x [extra multiplier] = bonus xp from session.

I give an extra multiplier for things like adventure journals in-character, providing food or drink, or cartography.

Character Depth Sheet

Here is my one-page questionnaire:

  • Attach background:
  • Personality (must work with deities, moral codes, background, player interaction, enemies, alignment):
  • Patron Deity(s):
  • 3 NPCs (at minimum provide name, race, age, class, levels, alignment and relationship with you):
  • Quotes/parables/proverbs you live by:
  • Your heroes:
  • Goals (short and long term, for you as well as your PC):
  • Why do you adventure?
  • What irks you?
  • What do you value?
  • Do you work well with others?
  • Where do you call home?
  • What’s your approach to combat?
  • When faced with a challenge, how do you tend to react?
  • When you die, where will you go?

Try it in your next campaign and let me know how it works!

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How-To Game Master Books

In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:

NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

Free preview:

Filling the Empty Chair

How to find great gamers fast and easy online with my list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites. Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area. And attract the best players with my tips and advice on how to create the right kind of ads.

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, plus several generators and tables :

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

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One More Tip

Bright Destiny and Dark Destiny

From Mark of the Pixie

I have used the following in a few games with success: have players write a Bright Destiny and a Dark Destiny for their character.

Bright destiny is their happily ever after. It is the point where the player can happily retire the PC. “Happily married to Sue, the land safe from evil, wealthy and secure on my family’s reclaimed lands.”

Dark Destiny is the worst possible fate. It is the point where the player will discard the character as un playable. “Permanently crippled, oath broken and stripped of wealth and title.”

Dark destinies vary a lot between different players. Sometimes “losing my good name” or “being made less beautiful” may seem superficial, but it is what is important to that player for that character.

It doesn’t matter what they write (except as guidelines for the GM). By getting players to look at two possible futures for their character, it opens them to other possibilities. It’s subtle, but in my experience it works well.

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