View Full Version : D20 modern horror ideas.

2010-03-29, 02:36 PM
Hi folks, im in need of a bit of help.

Ive been running a d20 modern for 2 sessions now, and im starting to have problems with ideas. IT wasnt supposed to be a campaign, and now that it seems to be turning into one i feel im having problems keeping the 'horror' feel alive in the game...

It is set in the 1920's, based mostly out of Baton Rogue.

The characters are all human, and consist of a Wildlord(a female friend), a Gunslinger(my wife), a Psionic agent(my friends boyfriend, hes a US Marshal in character) and Gangster(other dude-friend). The level is sixth after this last session.

So far, the first session was an investigation of a small town in the middle of the bayou(because i feel that Louisiana is really just one giant swamp :smallbiggrin:). The players are drawn in by the disappearance of a pair of tax collectors, and find a string of dead bodies on the swamp floor(thanks to the wildlords animal companion). When the return to town, there heavy firearms are missing, and a spell is being cast that summons a avatar of Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god. Yadda Yadda, Animal companion dies, and the hit point total of the group is -11. The characters all survive.

The players and I decide that this is going to be fun, so everyone picks a mental problem . The Agent picks Quixotism, the wildlord is delusional, and my wife, who is some kind of glutton for punishment, takes hydrophobia, among other things.

At this point, the ganster joins.

See, the next adventure is psychic experimentation, on a prison island. She thinks itll be awesome to be a prisoner(Bad Doctor wrangles her into being transferred from a normal ward, which she checked into herself, to his creepy island, as the doctor wanted to draw in a natural psychic to the island, aka the Agent)*

Heres the first problem: i expected the Agent to RP his Quixotism, and bust her out asap. Didnt. The major fight happens without her, and the only part she gets to hang on to is the end roleplay.

Secondly: the sessions feel was, well, pretty bad. I found out playing a horror game during the daylight is just not something im good enough to do. The fight was brutal enough to really scare the players, but that was it: a single hard fight that messed with them.

So currently, i have: a nearly dead PA and gangster, who will need at least 3 weeks to heal fully, a wildlord who fell in love with the bad guy, and a gunslinger who has multiple overdose threats(party sedated her), hydrophobia, post-hypnotic suggestions implanted, and can barely function.

I do want to put in I A.) dont hate my wife B.) im not a horrible DM and C.) these are all player chosen, so...shes just really dedicated to the insanity thing.

Anyway, im at a loss. Id like to make a session the focus's on either the wild lord or the gunslinger, but im not real sure what to do. Id appreciate any thoughts, game session ideas and, as a side note, any cool homebrew d20 magic items.

Thanks in advance

*For help, imagine Shutter Island if he wasnt just insane at the end.

2010-03-29, 02:51 PM
First off, mention OOC that anything in game does not reflect accurately your views on the real world and you should be covered. If after that your players opt to believe your game to be allegory, they're idiots, and really, any marital crap is between you and your woman.

Beyond that, I recommend possibly shifting the game into a gritty shadowchasers style game. You can read up more about the shadowchasers campaign setting in the back of the main d20 Mod book, alter it a bit to incorporate more doubt and less fantasy tropes and you'll be fine. Nothing freaks players out more than monstrous critters melting out of the walls and floor behind them, above them, etc.

Except when, mid combat, you make those monsters disappear for several moments, then reappear. Perhaps in unison with a flickering streetlight or passing trolleycar.

At the end of it all, to tie in the Shutter Island stuff, you could issue them fake psychologists reports about their characters, talking about severe detachment from the world, intense psycho delusion, perhaps the killing of shadow beasties over the course of the game is the characters destroying portions of their psychosis, or just making it even worse.

Atmosphere effects will likely be your best friend. Shadowy illumination most everywhere, make all the action happen at night (use the characters' jobs, or any rationale you choose, to explain why they're busy during the day, or just make it never be day.) I just ran a session where the PCs dealt with an artifact that released pulses of Shadow irregularly, creating rifts through which horrors could appear and terrorize the party. They broke the artifact, resulting in a final, strong pulse that threatened to absorb one of the PCs entirely. (their feet began sinking into the floor. They're lucky they were running at the time, their momentum carried them past the edge of the shadow well)

Don't be afraid to mutate the characters either. New scars they don't remember getting, spreading stains of icky color... just anything that trips one of the levers in the back of their heads.

2010-03-29, 04:19 PM
ok here are the questions you ought to ask yourself... One, WHY does the doctor on the island need a psychic to experiment on? what are his motivatuions and who does he work for? Two... Who or what else might be watching this go on? I am thinking of the crocodile god at the moment. What's his interest?

And if you'd like an actual suggestion, how bout this? They escape from Shutter Island, but are forced deeper into the swamp, where they encounter a remote vallage of VERY misshapen cajuns who worship the lights that come out of a bottomless pit near the village (and yes, Repairman Jack fans, that is so totally borrowed from "Gateways" which is one of the creepiest books I've read in a while).

2010-03-29, 05:08 PM
It is set in the 1920's, based mostly out of Baton Rogue.

If you are new to this forum, you might not understand why this is utterly hilarious, but suffice it to say that I am extremely amused.

It is hard to run scary role-playing games. They are the very hardest type of RPG. However, it looks like you have the home-court advantage in that your players are game for it and are interested in role-playing and not just stomping on the bad guys and stealing their loot.

In horror: description and atmosphere is all. Content is nothing. Challenges do not matter. Mechanics do not matter. Treasure and experience are irrelevant. What really matters is the slow, gradual build of tension, accomplished through expository storytelling. It's the gradual decay of the familiar, as the comforting and mundane world you present displays tiny, jarring inconsistencies that multiply into a growing sense of wrongness, little discoveries lead to a nagging suspicion, a growing mystery, and finally an awful, horrific realization of the terrible truth. And then there is running, and screaming.

Subtletly and inference should be your watchwords. A few examples:

Avoid the obvious. A bucket of blood spilled on the floor is just gore; it's not scary. However, a single crystalline goblet standing alone on a nightstand by the bed, filled to the brim with a blood-red liquid... is suggestive...especially when the players notice a few drops of bright red spattered on the coverlet and the floor...and the setting grows more disturbing when investigation shows that the fluid in the goblet is a sweet red wine, but the liquid on the sheets and the floor gives off the sharp metallic tang of fresh blood.
Ignorance breeds fear. Knowledge breeds security. You can describe a horrifying monster shaking the ground as it plows forward, and the players will grab their guns. Or you can tell them "something vast and obscene fumbles towards you in the darkness, its movement a sound that is not quite scrabbling, nor crawling, nor slithering," and watch them quake in their boots as they wonder what manner of thing approaches.
Odd coincidences can accumulate powerfully. I once added an extra layer of detail to the inhabitants of a war-torn village by describing their scars, illnesses, and missing limbs. After the first two or three, on a whim, I decided that I would describe every inhabitant of the village with some manner of sickness or crippling injury. As they met more villagers, the players gradually became uncomfortable...they knew something wasn't right, but they couldn't quite place what it was. When they had a long conversation with a local lawman who seemed hale, their trust in him was suddenly shattered when he emitted a wracking cough and made an offhand comment about his persistent pneumonia. One of the players finally ventured to ask if they'd seen ANYONE in town who wasn't sick or maimed. When I said no, a ripple of fear went through the group. They knew something wasn't right, but they didn't know exactly what was going on. They practically stampeded out of the town in their hurry to escape whatever it was.

2010-03-29, 06:18 PM

The doctor wanted a true psychic because, well there rare. Thats really it:its fairly easy to inflict enough trauma for a mind to gain psychic powers, but its very rare in the real world, because you need something akin to systematic torture on a fairly strong mind. The psionic character for example, had his kindergarten 'girlfriend' killed in front of him.

I prolly should have mentioned there was a large period of time between the sessions, somewhere between 3-6 months.

If you are new to this forum, you might not understand why this is utterly hilarious, but suffice it to say that I am extremely amused.

:smallredface: I assume its similar to the rogue/rouge hatred of bad WOW players?

So, in these games, how would you run a fight? i normally build a session around one, but it seems that rather than the capstone of the session, it should be...something else. Words fail to express my point.

Kuma Kode
2010-03-29, 07:02 PM
I second everything jiriku says. A slow buildup of tension surrounding the unknown is a must. The tension is created when the player's expectations are turned upside down, especially if its only in subtle ways.

Horror is extremely hard to do properly. Many people overdo the lethality of the game and it becomes a kind of dark humor, like Call of Cthulhu is often run (What horrible way is my character going to die this time?). If done right, however, it's AMAZING.

When I ran my Shadow Theory campaign, I did so at night, in an apartment kitchen with no windows and candlelight on the table. It was phenomenal. Setting the tone in the real world and keeping chatter, jokes, and out of game distractions to a minimum are the best ways to start. Some joking is fine, as it releases some tension, but too much can sabotage the horror atmosphere.

The fear of the unknown is ALWAYS worse than anything you could throw at the characters. Expectations and imaginings of horrific creatures that could potentially be making that strange scratching sound upstairs will always generate far more disturbing challenges than whatever IS up there. "Oh, it's a ghoul? At least it wasn't a wight!" or "Oh, it's a wight? At least it wasn't a deathknight!"

Throw in red herrings. Sometimes, that weird scratching sound really IS just a rat.

Creepy music in the background can work phenomenally. Depending on what you are running, the soundtracks for The Suffering, Dark Sector, and Obscure are favorites of mine. Silent Hill and Resident Evil are too much like disconcerted racket to be useful, as tabletop games are slower and highly energetic music has the wrong tempo, not to mention grates on the nerves after 10 minutes.

I'll add more as I think of it.

EDIT: Have the environment/monsters be active, not passive. Don't let the party burn time reloading their ammo, discussing their next plan in painstaking detail, or healing. Interrupt their attempts to rest, forcing them to be on the defensive against an ever-present foe.

On the topic of resources, make sure resources are somewhat limited. Characters in most modern games have HP, ammo, and daily uses of special abilities. If the monsters are tough, they can devour HP like candy and the party will avoid melee, which forces them to burn up their ammo instead. It's a juggling activity. They have to burn the other resources to conserve the one they deem most important at the time. If ammo is also relatively scarce, the party may simply try to avoid confronting the dark forces head on.

2010-03-29, 08:27 PM
:smallredface: I assume its similar to the rogue/rouge hatred of bad WOW players?

one is a sneaky theif, one is makeup. When I came to the boards there was a rash of people telling stories about how the makeup in their group missed a trap and got the rest of the group killed. things like that.

2010-03-30, 04:38 PM
Does anyone have any good monster ideas, or at least ways to adapt myth or pre-made monsters to be creepier?

I mean, theres the old 'add tentacles' but thats a poor excuse. Im looking for ways to change the standard 'ogre' types to be a monster worth being worried about.

Kuma Kode
2010-03-30, 04:57 PM
It really depends on what your theme is. If you're doing a Lovecraftian campaign, then adding tentacles and weird body parts is quite appropriate, but not if your campaign involves a lot of the undead.

What the monster is isn't so terrifying as how it's presented. If the players feel that it is familiar, they will instinctively know how to handle it and won't fear it.

When I ran a horror campaign, the players were not at all terrified of the zombie-like monsters, simply because our modern culture is so saturated with zombies and vampires and werewolves that they simply have stopped being scary. We've been desensitized. When it came to the strange, ghost-white lotus flowers that mysteriously grew in the shadowy alleys around town and the blue, faceless scorpion-like critters that accompanied them, the players were significantly more cautious and a lot more scared.

Because they didn't know.

So if you're really looking to make your players cautious and play up the fear, make sure the monster does not resemble anything they can identify. Use the ogre stats, but make sure it doesn't LOOK or ACT like an ogre. Or even a minotaur for that matter.

2010-03-30, 05:15 PM
The chief impact this will have is that it's important for each session to be self-contained story. No two-part episodes.

[quote]:smallredface: I assume its similar to the rogue/rouge hatred of bad WOW players?

You got it.

So, in these games, how would you run a fight? i normally build a session around one, but it seems that rather than the capstone of the session, it should be...something else. Words fail to express my point.

It's an art, so it's difficult to explain. Nevertheless, I'm stubborn, so I shall try.

Ignorance breeds fear. Don't name a monster -- describe it. Avoid iconic monsters that are easily recognized from their description. For example:

"You see a tendriculous" -- BAD. Now the players know what they're up against.
"A spicy aroma fills the air a moment before you hear the shambling, sloughing sound of something scraping towards you in the darkness. A dried, withered corpse emerges from the shadow, its body wreathed in funereal wrappings, its arms outstretched." -- POOR. The description is good, but every player will recognize this as a mummy. No one's been scared by a mummy since 1935.
"With a wet, ripping sound, the hummock of vegetation tears itself free from the ground. Vines covered in stinging nettles lash at your exposed skin, and the mass towers above you, bearing down with murderous intent" -- GOOD. This is the tendriculous from the first example, but at first, players won't know exactly what it is or what it's capable of.
"Agent Mary Jones gestures for you to be quiet. 'Shh! I think I hear somethi-' her words are choked off suddenly as she is jerked into the air. She utters a single pitiful scream of terror and pain as some unseen force whips her violently about. Her cries go silent as the force slams her against a wall with crushing force and the audible snap of broken bones. As the mangled corpse drops wetly to the floor, you feel of sudden rush of foul-smelling wind. It's coming for you." -- GREAT. This monster is an invisible stalker, but the players have no idea what they're facing, just that it's big, strong, and knows how to kill. This is a frightening setup.

Battles should be fast-paced. It may help to pre-roll initiative and other start-of-battle variables for your monsters so that when combat starts, players are immediately thrust into the action. Make players give you their actions quickly. Once it's their turn, don't let them sit around looking up a psionic power or adding up their attack bonuses. If they aren't ready, then the character is shell-shocked and loses her turn. Use your posture, tone of voice, and other non-verbal cues to communicate urgency and tension. Describe battles vividly, but speak fast to maintain the breakneck pace. If a rules question comes up, don't stop to look up the rule. Just make a temporary ruling and keep the action going. Don't give them time to think.

Don't reveal more than you have to about a monster. Don't tell the players what the monster has rolled to hit, or what its AC or save bonus is. Unless the effects of a passed/failed saving throw are immediately obvious, don't state whether a save was a success or failure. Be vague when you can afford to, without witholding necessary information from the players. For example:

DM: Bob, your turn. Gusts of foul-smelling wind are roiling all about you.
Bob: Umm, where's the monster?
DM: All you see is Mary Jones' corpse crumpled against the wall. The howling wind seems to be coming from directly in front of you.
Bob: I'll shoot there then. What's it's AC?
DM: Roll to hit, and I'll tell you what happens.
Bob: Okay, a 23.
DM: The shrieking of the wind rises to a fever pitch. Your bullet didn't strike the wall, so you definitely hit something. Roll damage.
Bob: Ok, 18 points, and my hollow points have nerve gas, if this is affected.
DM: What's the save DC? (The creature has damage reduction, but the DM doesn't tell that to Bob, because he has no way to observe that his bullets have reduced effect on the invisible gas monster).
Bob: 18
DM: (rolls dice, doesn't announce the result, but notates any impact on the monster). Ok, Cindy, you're next. Bob's character is firing madly into the center of the room, which is completely empty. Something like a cyclone is whirling around him, kicking up trash and dust and dirt. What do you do?

Urgency. Limited information. Players are denied the usual metagame information they've come to rely on, so instead of crunching numbers and figuring out how to win, they're reacting to what their characters can observe and trying to survive. Good stuff.

Does anyone have any good monster ideas, or at least ways to adapt myth or pre-made monsters to be creepier?

I mean, theres the old 'add tentacles' but thats a poor excuse. Im looking for ways to change the standard 'ogre' types to be a monster worth being worried about.

Well, you can advance and template it a hell of a lot. A yuan-ti abomination is pretty stock, but an advanced dark alien yuan-ti abomination is pretty creepy, especially if you don't call it that, but instead refer to it as "The Horror of Dry Hill" (or whatever little out-of-the-way town it's haunting).

Better, though, is to avoid stock monsters in the first place. An ogre will always be an ogre, but a death giant, wreathed in and protected by the tortured souls of its past victims, is pretty freaky...especially when the players fight a group of them and after a giant kills the first PC, it claims his soul for his own soul aura right there on the spot, and the captured soul starts crying "I'm sorry...I don't want to do this, but he's making me...I HAVE TO KILL YOU! Please, run. Run now! I HAVE TO KILL YOU!"

The Big Dice
2010-03-30, 08:25 PM
A classic way to build tension in a horror game is to put the characters in a place they don'tmind being. Then arrange things so they don't want to be there anymore. Then hvae events conspire to make sure they can't leave. And finally, start killing the NPCs one by one, preferably "off camera".

Set that up right and your players will love it even as their characters freak out.

It's been done in a thousand movies, Alien being one of the best for using this device. Though a personal favourite, and one that could fit in with the 1920s setting mentioned by the OP was the Doctor Who story, Horror of Fang Rock.

In that, the setting is a lighthouse on a rocky island. An alien ship crashes into the sea, setting off a thick fog. However, the people in the lighthouse don't realise the falling star they saw was an alien ship. The shapeshifting alien comes ashore and kills one of the lighthouse keepers, taking his form. Weird electrical disturbances cause problems with the new fangled generator, causing the lights to flicker. And then a ship crashes on the rocky island, carrying abourd it a bunch of interesting characters.

The shapeshifter kills it's way through the crew and those rescued from the shipwreck, only to be defeated by the Doctor and his companion.

It's a fairly simple story, but you can use the devices I mentioned to create memorable and claustraphobic horror games.

The fear of the unknown is ALWAYS worse than anything you could throw at the characters. Expectations and imaginings of horrific creatures that could potentially be making that strange scratching sound upstairs will always generate far more disturbing challenges than whatever IS up there. "Oh, it's a ghoul? At least it wasn't a wight!" or "Oh, it's a wight? At least it wasn't a deathknight!"

In general I agree. However, fear of the known can also be a powerful thing. Suppose you're trapped in the lighthouse I mentioned, stranded until the fog lifts and you can get to the mainland. The pretty girl your character had been comforting, and that you as a player had thought of as a romantic interest, asks your character to go for a little walk with her. Away from the others. And as you do, you start to chat about how she's tired of being alone and how she wants to be with someone for the future, and that she hasn't eaten all day. And then you realise she hasn't got a reflection in the window. Or the mirror. And that you're on your own with a vampire who is blatantly telling you how she's hungry and thinking of turning your character.

That's a method I call the bait-and-switch. The trick there is to let the players think they're dealing with one situation, right up until you reveal that the situation is very, very different from the one they assumed. The looks on people's faces when the penny drops can be priceless.

If you can find it, there's a Legend of the Five Rings book called Bearers of Jade, the Second Book of the Shadowlands which has some excellent advice for running horror campaigns. It's a bit hardcore and definetly for mature readers only. It certainly makes the BoVD look like the Book of Things That Are A Bit Icky. The writers also made a module called Mirror, Mirror. Again, it's mature material, but it's one of the best horror adventures I've ever seen. The writers put all the advice they'd written into the book into practise. And I've always found that no matter how good the advice in a gaming book, seeing it applied to actual situations in play is worth a thousand pages of explanation.