The end is nigh!

The end of the year that is. It’s mid-September now and fall is approaching fast (at least in the northern hemisphere). Perfect time to start a horror RPG campaign! So, why should you start a horror campaign now?

Especially fall and winter are perfect seasons for horror campaigns. The days are getting shorter, the shadows are growing longer, it’s cold and uncomfortable outside and oustide activities become less and less attractive. Usually when you try to run horror campaigns in summer and spring you encounter several problems. For one it’s usually easier to pull off a horror atmosphere when it’s dark outside. Most people have fear in the dark or at least feel slightly uncomfortable which definitely helps to set the mood. I also noticed that people are usually more willing to get into the right mood for horror when it’s cold and rainy outside. Your mileage may vary of course.

Rippers There are a few games I am considering right now. I am already running a Rippers campaign for quite some time now, but it’s not as horror-laden as I wished, but that’s something I can easily change. But my players are currently happy with the campaign’s style right now, so I consider offering them to run a second/alternative campaign over the fall/winter months.

As an alternative I could run a horror solo game with my girlfriend as I planned a long time ago. Alas this plan never left the development stage, but since the "stars are right” this idea may see the light of day (or the darkness of night) after all.

Call of Cthulhu One of my all-time favorite horro games is Call of Cthulhu. Most of you are probably familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, so I don’t have to go into details about the setting here. Especially on a rainy winters day nothing is more fun than to fighting a losing battle against old gods, aliens and insanity. This time I am actually considering purchasing one of the classic CoC campaigns. I have run self-written Call of Cthulhu adventures before, but I just don’t have enough time to properly research, write and prepare an epic Lovecraftian horror campaign right now. So just using a tested campaign may be the best way to go.

Trail of Cthulhu Instead of using the Call of Cthulhu rules by Chaosium I actually consider using Trail of Cthulhu, which is using the Gumshoe system. The Gumshoe system was created for campaigns where the focus is on investigations and less on combat. And that is exactly what I am usually aiming for in any horror game. Pelgrane Press’ another horror roleplaying game Esoterrorists could be an alternative to classic Lovecraftian horror. As Trail of Cthulhu it uses the Gumshoe system, but this time the players have actually a chance to make it through the campaign alive (and somewhat sane).

Esoterrorists Especially if your players are well versed in the Cthulhu mythos, Esoterrorists could be a welcome change. Instead of “just another Byakhee” or “not Nyarlathotep” again, they are confronted with new and original adversaries. Esoterrorists also allows you to run a campaign reminiscent of the X-Files, with federal agents investigating all kinds of mysterious events all over the United States (or wherever you want to set your campaign). If you haven’t done so, you should at least leaf through the book in your local game store. There are already a couple of supplements and adventures available including a full-blown campaign and even a soundtrack!

Hunter: The Vigil If you want some more action in your horror game, I would have a look at Hunter: The Vigil or its predecessor Hunter: The Reckoning. I recently acquired a copy of the latter in a garage sale and I enjoyed reading it very much, but from what I’ve heard, Hunter: The Vigil is a better game in all respects. First and foremost the updated World of Darkness rules are in my opinion many times better than the old ones.
The new setting in Hunter: The Vigil finally allows players to play real humans. In Hunter: The Reckoning the player characters had special abilities which made them just another kind of monsters. The updated setting of Hunter: The Vigil allows for a three-tiered game, where GM and players decided which power-level they prefer. Especially a tier 1 game could be a great basis for a horror campaign.

Ok, you’ve decided you want to run a horror game, you’ve chosen one of the many available settings and perhaps you have even prepared a campaign. Now you really should think about music and props. In my opinion both may not be vital for a good horror game experience, but if used right, they can contribute a lot.

As I’ve pointed out in many posts before, music can help to set the mood. And especially in a horror game mood is everything. Horror movie soundtracks usually work pretty well. I have also used candles for lighting in horror games in the past which usually works great. But beware candles on the game table can be a distraction, too. So, if your players are playing with candles wax instead of focussing on the game you should consider using electrical light instead. 😉

If you ask me, handouts are a must in any investigative game. If the players find a newspaper article, a scrap of paper in the clenched fist of a dead man or some strange runes on the wall of an desecrated church, make sure you have an appropriate handout ready. If you have any artistic skill, a sketch of the monster they encounter or perhaps even a small statue may be pretty cool.

I believe these tips should help you jumpstart your horror campaign. As always I am keen on hearing from you. What horror roleplaying game is your favorite? And what do you use to set the mood? Please post your thoughts in the comments below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

5 thoughts on “The end is nigh!”

  1. All through October my group is putting our current Dragonlance/Pathfinder campaign on hold to run horror themed one shots. This serves two purposes for me 1) I get to run horror themed games and 2) I get to run different systems, something that doesn't happen very often…. actually never.

    I'm going to run Dead Reign (Palladium), Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) and either Beyond the Supernatural(Palladium) or Monte Cook's World of Darkness(White Wolf).

    I have run the d20 WoD a couple of times before, when it first came out, and really like that game but I am trying to get my group to try new systems (I want to run Rifts)so I think I will go with BtS. Of course if they don't take to the Palladium system during the Dead Reign one shot, I always have Monte Cook's WoD to fall back on, because I know that one goes over well.

    My ultimate goal is to get them in the habit of switching systems on occassion so that I don't get bored running the same thing all the time. Plus I have tons of systems I have never gotten to play.

    If this little test goes well then I plan on fitting in a Hollow Earth Expedtion, Mutants & Masterminds, Serenity/BSG, and maybe an L5R game.
    .-= Geek Gazette´s last blog ..Top 10 Books to Read on Halloween =-.

  2. If you'd rather not go the candle-route, the perhaps consider using flashlights as described here:

    I felt it helped to set the tone of the game and could even be tweaked a bit as follows: If the players are split-up, only allow the specific players who are currently "in scene" to use their flashlights… all other players would be encouraged to sit quietly in the dark.
    .-= Kevin´s last blog ..How Universal is your Universal system? =-.

  3. @Kevin: Good idea, I will try this out sometime!

    @Geek Gazette: Thanks for reminding me of Monte Cook’s World of Darknes. It's another great horror RPG. His reinvention of the WoD is just awesome. I especially like his version of Vampires.

  4. My two cents I guess.

    Horror has always been one of my favourite rpg genres (one I have the most experience GMing anyway), mostly thanks to my beloved Call of Cthulhu so I’d say that any time of the year is good for running scary adventures. Still I generally tried to set my games at roughly same season as the one outside the window( in an attempt to slightly improve immersion I guess), and I agree autumn/winter provides just what you need. Anyhow, while tales of Lovecraftian horror were the staple diet, I have a few alternatives.

    One game that has always captured my imagination is Kult, originally by Target Games. While not without flaws the setting is very captivating if controversial – definitely mature content only. It’s a contemporary (predominately urban) horror set in the world that borders with a much darker and more twisted universe. There are places where the boundaries of our reality blur; deep down disused subway tunnels, at mass-murder crime scenes, in abandoned buildings one may sometimes catch a glimpse of the other side or even trespass over, sometimes what’s on the other side will creep in… Kult is a game of psychological horror more than action-oriented monster hunting. The game has a quite sombre and serious feel to it and its many grotesque elements do not detract from this mood. It draws from works of Clive Barker, and Koontz among others, yet while violent and graphic it doesn’t emphasise gore even when using it as a stylistic device. I would recommend the game to groups who look for an opportunity to portray tormented and often forsaken characters and want something different than the White Wolf’s cocktail. Unfortunately, the game is out of print and extremely hard to get, however there is some good (and free) setting material online, which can easily be ported to your system of choice.

    Another campaign worth considering is more on the quirky side. It’s is a type of a horror game which puts gamers in unusual roles either of children or animated toys. There are numerous examples here but the following two are the best in my opinion:

    Puppetland is the setting inhabited by different puppets and marionettes, created by the enigmatic Maker. There is a twist however, long time ago one puppet grew jealous and greedy; it killed the Maker and claimed the Puppetland as its realm, since then the land has became dark and oppressed, a prison full of despair. The players are puppets that are desperately trying to oppose the terror and/or escape. Sadly they are much weaker then the usurper’s minions and they can’t tell what lies beyond their land. This is a brilliant little game, which can be a great rpg option for our busy lives; each session takes exactly one hour of a real time (timed with an old fashion clock natch). Still it can be very demanding and rewarding since it encourages a peculiar way of acting and narrating.

    Grimm, originally a Horizon booklet for d20 now a separate stand-alone from Fantasy Flight. Does exactly what it says – places children characters in the setting derived from the original (more sinister and uncensored) fables by Grimm Brothers. The ideas and artwork are top notch.

    Finally, I think that one shouldn’t neglect settings of fantasy horror. I personally would always render my Warhammer games to be darker (then necessary), and this would be my game of choice, however I also enjoyed the setting of Ravenloft, which highlights the very themes I often borrowed for my WFRP campaigns. It’s still one of the best-crafted settings available out there and it’s definitely worth taking advantage of. I would recommend going back to the roots (nostalgia creeping in, sorry) and picking up the original edition of this setting. There is something absolutely phenomenal about those old TSR supplements, starting with the stunning cover art.

    Have a scary autumn!

  5. @Voidman: Thanks for the great comment. That's almost a blog post in its own right. I think I'll have to track down a copy of Kult, it really sounds interesting. I also agree that WHFRP and other fantasy games can be used to run great horror campaigns. Especially "Death on the Reik" (from the "Enemy Within" campaign could be pretty creepy).

    Alas I haven't played nor run Ravenloft yet, but this is another campaign I should look into.

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