Rules | GM Screen

<- Return to All Rules (Group by Source)
<- Return to Running Horror Adventures

All Rules in Running Horror Adventures

+ An entry marked with this has additional sections within it.

Creating Horror Adventures

Source Horror Adventures pg. 198
Typically, when creating a Pathfinder adventure, a GM begins with nothing more than the kernel of an idea—a setting she wants to explore, a monster she wants to use, or a scheme on which she’d like to elaborate. This basic idea provides the framework upon which she hangs the other elements of the story. A GM can create a horror adventure in the same manner.

Chapter 1 of the GameMastery Guide provides extensive details on creating and running adventures. As horror adventures are just another type of Pathfinder RPG adventure, all of that advice still pertains. The difference, though, is that now the GM has an additional goal: to make the story scary. The following advice supplements the advice in the GameMastery Guide to help GMs do just that.

Know the Medium

Source Horror Adventures pg. 198
Through the entire adventure design process, GMs should keep in mind that they’re not writing a horror novel or screenplay—they’re writing a horror RPG adventure. It’s easy to get distracted by nuanced lore and charismatic villains, but all GMs should remember that the PCs are the stars of the story and ultimately the most important characters. Along with this, remember that Pathfinder characters have a variety of magic and other options that might allow them to make things that frighten everyday people meaningless or that instantly reveal any secrets. Therefore, it’s important for GMs to know characters’ strengths as much as their weaknesses and customize the adventure to play upon what they fear most (see below for more details). These powers might be daunting in their effects or variety, but each ability might provide a new way to reveal terrors.

Choose the Terror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 198
Once a GM has decided to create a frightening adventure, what sort of terror should be included? As explained in the discussion of horror subgenres, there are many types of horror. A GM should be able to boil her horror story down to something basic, perhaps even a singular fear. This might be as primal as a fear of spiders or of losing one’s teeth, or it could be more sophisticated, like the fear of abandonment or mechanical disasters. Once the GM has chosen a fear, then she can choose an avatar or incarnation of that fear. This might be a monster, person, or other threat that embodies that fear and proliferates it. For example, nothing exploits a fear of spiders quite like giant spiders or spider swarms, while representing the fear of abandonment might require a creature like an attic whisperer or the spirit of a bitter old man who waits for death but can’t be convinced that he’s dead. This avatar can be anything a GM wants. Feel free to make it more terrifying or unnatural if that helps—the giant spiders could actually be scheming Leng spiders, or the attic whisperer might control an army of animated dolls. This can work as mere flavor, or a GM might search out rules (or designs of her own) to back it up. Remember that the chosen threat might not need to be a literal embodiment; for instance, a fear of alien abductions and experimentation is literally embodied by grays but also metaphorically embodied by derros.

Spread the Terror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 198
Once the incarnation of a fear is chosen, the GM can then support it with surroundings and allies that evoke the same theme. Horror often takes place at night since the dark holds the promise of lurking threats, but a horror tale might take place anytime or anywhere with a disturbing atmosphere that reinforces the chosen menace. For example, the tooth fairies that embody the fear of loosing teeth might have created an underground hive constructed from billions of molars, and a mechanical terror could unfold in a half-functioning clock tower. Whatever the choice, it should provide challenges for the characters to overcome, as this—or another later setting— will likely become a sort of dungeon to explore.

While the horrors of fiction and film often work alone, such is rarely the case in Pathfinder adventures. GMs should choose lesser threats that prop up the horror’s main avatar. These might be its allies, opportunistic hangers on, deranged victims, the remnants of the creature’s work, or the source of the creature’s monstrousness. These allies might be less powerful than a primary foe, or at the very least, less actively horrific. For example, the Leng spiders might surround themselves with a cult of ettercaps, while the tooth faeries might feed their stolen teeth to a half-slumbering, albino purple worm. Traps, hazards, haunts, and other challenges should provide lesser encounters that grant the PCs experience but also winnow away their resources, causing them to face the final threat with some vulnerabilities.

Fear from the Unexpected

Source Horror Adventures pg. 199
While the Pathfinder rules present a finite number of statistics and rules options, how a GM pieces them together allows for infinite scenarios. In the case of horror adventures, this also means infinite opportunities to shock even the most jaded, rules-obsessed players. Opportunities abound in adventures to surprise the characters by revealing terrible secrets or presenting images that make them realize things are far worse than expected. For example, perhaps the PCs find a life-sized mother doll among the attic whisper’s collection, one that’s tending to a mewling newborn. Or maybe the automatic clockwinder at the top of the clock tower is rebuilding the interior to account for a thirteenth hour that occurs only once every eon.

While startling revelations in a narrative are most powerful, a GM can also twist the game rules specifically to unsettle the players.

Mask Monsters: There’s no reason a GM must adhere to the basic bestiary descriptions of monsters. By adjusting or completely revising monster descriptions, she gains not only new versatility from the bestiaries, but also the adventure-perfect foe for whatever terror she’s unleashed. The PCs might be horrified by the thrashing pile of snakes and maggots that tangle their legs, knocking them into its squirming maws, but behind the GM screen are just the stats for a wolf.

Transform Monsters: Veteran players might immediately identify a ravenous corpse as a ghoul, but if the tooth faeries have stolen its teeth, perhaps its bite attack is changed to a harmless, wet gnawing. While this might mean the ghoul is less powerful, the shock and revulsion it evokes is far more important to a horror adventure than dealing 1d6 points of damage. Altering creature statistics can be easy, particularly if a GM does so with the intention of creating unsettling encounters, not of making a creature more powerful. Use the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary appendices to swap around attack types or perhaps exchange abilities with creatures of similar CRs. As long as a GM doesn’t intentionally combine powers that can be exploited for some lethal synergy, such a unique encounter should be fine. And if a GM accidentally improvises something that’s more deadly than it is narratively unsettling, she can err in the PCs’ favor and keep the story moving. The Rules Improvisation section includes tips on how to make the Pathfinder RPG rules work for a horror tale.

Warp Reality: The rules are the physics of the game—the laws of what can and can’t happen—and sometimes the most unsettling thing a GM can do in horror adventure is plan to break those rules. Maybe the PCs have a bizarre group nightmare, are pursued by a reality warping mothman, or begin to lose their minds. Regardless, a GM can convey this by having the game not work the way the PCs expect. Maybe a detect magic spell reveals its information as a chorus of screams, an isolated character can momentarily walk on walls, time reverses for an instant, or when a PC tries to use an ability, he’s told it doesn’t work, without explanation. These tricks work best when used sparingly and when the PCs’ lives aren’t in jeopardy, because they signal that perhaps the world isn’t as reliable (or unbiased) as the characters thought.

Horrible Success, Terrible Rewards

Source Horror Adventures pg. 199
In most Pathfinder adventures, the PCs are destined to succeed. When running a horror adventure, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be more challenging, and it certainly shouldn’t be a guaranteed total party kill. Most of the time, a GM wants the PCs to be unsettled by the story instead of their die rolls, so she should plan for the PCs’ success; many adventures have horrific consequences for failure, but in a horror adventure, consider the various ways that success, too, could have horrific consequences.

During the course of the adventure, the PCs should have numerous victories over lesser enemies, traps, haunts, and other challenges. This is standard for Pathfinder adventures, and a GM should reward the PCs as normal with experience and treasure. Follow the usual rules for awarding experience, but don’t save experience just for successful combat encounters. Horror adventures often include investigation, research, and roleplaying encounters. If a GM wants players to take those elements of the game just as seriously as the combat encounters, she can reward them for successes in those arenas—typically with an XP reward equal to their average party level. See the Encouraging Horror Roleplay section for more details on using experience in horror adventures.

Treasure can also be particularly useful in horror adventures, both in revealing more of the plot and in unnerving the PCs. A GM can customize treasure to her adventure’s needs. There should rarely be just a +1 dagger lying around in a horror adventure. Rather, that +1 dagger could bear the symbol of the city watch and the letters “J. B.,” the initials of the guard who disappeared after claiming he saw spiders drag a dog into the sewers. Even when an encounter just calls for a heap of coins and mundane supplies, don’t hesitate to slip in letters, journals, or books the PCs can research to learn more about the plot (though try to avoid the adventure cliche of including a bizarrely specific letter or unnecessary journal entry that directly reveals the story in an awkward and heavy-handed manner). Tidbits that make sense for that NPC and that the PCs can piece together contribute more to the air of mystery and horror. Evidence that the PCs aren’t the first to face the horror can be rattling—especially if their predecessors failed—and can also serve as a reason for why magic items perfect for fighting a creature are in its lair. Additionally, rewards that act as a double-edged sword, such as a partially cursed item that provides just what the PCs need at a cost, often work better than cursed items that the PCs could just avoid as if they were other hazards. This gives the PCs the chance to dig their own graves and tempts them to keep the rewards around.

Finally, a GM should know what success means for her adventure. PCs often assume that violence puts an end to things. For instance, they may think that killing the attic whisperer or setting the clock tower on fire destroys the fear. But fear and evil are notoriously resilient. Truly destroying the horror might require learning its origins or discovering its special weakness. If the attic whisperer continually arises from the ashes, eventually—with a little guidance—the PCs could discover that the creature’s father is still alive, and might even be the priest who asked them to put an end to the lonely creature’s menace. Of course, even then, it’s difficult for the characters within a horror story to know whether an evil is truly exorcised—or merely lying in wait for a sequel.