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Horror Subgenres

Source Horror Adventures pg. 191
Horror stories are not all alike, and neither are all horror adventures. In fiction and film, horror is divided into numerous subgenres. This section introduces just a few of those subgenres to help the GM choose the type of horror story she wants to tell and create adventures that match. While nowhere near a complete listing, the following horror subgenres have been singled out either because they translate easily into Pathfinder RPG adventures or they are particularly challenging to translate and often need more advice than usual to succeed.

Each of the following subgenres follows a similar format: a general description, followed by four sections.

Storytelling: This section features notes on themes common to stories in this subgenre and elements to consider including in a subgenre-based Pathfinder adventure.

Monsters and Threats: This section includes a selection of creatures and rules content that make appropriate threats for this subgenre. Monsters in products other than the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary include a superscript reference.

Basic Plots: This section contains examples of plots with central subgenre elements that make fine one-off adventures. A GM can flesh out these ideas or use them as departure points to create her own adventures.

Advanced Plots: Advanced plots are more complex, and can serve as the basis for entire campaigns. Again, they can be used to inspire unique adventures.

Body Horror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 192
The body is a frail, little-understood thing that might betray its host-consciousness at any moment. This visceral subgenre concerns itself with the organic terror of the flesh, including disease, physical corruption, and transformation. At its basest level, body horror is the revulsion felt upon hearing a bone break or seeing a joint violently bend in the wrong direction. Elaborated upon, it’s the terror of becoming physically monstrous and the awfulness that might hide within.

Storytelling: Body horror plots often concern themselves with transformation. This might be in a mundane fashion, such as a character racing to find a cure for a withering disease, trying to escape enemy territory with a broken leg, or knowing that a parasite is devouring his flesh. Unleashed from reality, body horror might involve an uncontrolled transformation, a disease that has gained sentience, or a monster that consumes flesh or blood. Body horror plots can involve a timeline or countdown, evoking a disease running its course or an untreated wound turning gangrenous. The only way to stop the spread of whatever fleshy terror has been unleashed is to cure it medically or excise it with sword or spell before it is too late. Doing so often comes with the greatest threat of body horror: infection. Characters might suffer curses, contract terrible illnesses, undergo horrific corruptions, or become host to ravenous parasites. Customize body horror effects to the story’s needs, pairing nauseating descriptions with game-affecting effects like loss of limbs, hit point damage, ability score drain, inability to naturally heal, or worse.

GMs running body horror adventures will likely find that many players have powerful reactions to descriptions of gore and disease symptoms. A GM should describe such scenes in a way that’s right for her players, and remember that gratuitous descriptions quickly lose their impact. Uncertainty and time are also powerful factors in body horror stories, with PCs often unsure whether they or those they love are safe from infection—and if they don’t show signs today, what about tomorrow?

The enemy in a body horror game can also be unclear. While it might be individuals spreading a plague, a race of sentient parasites, or a mad scientist transforming victims, it might also be simply a disease itself. The former examples lend themselves toward common Pathfinder plots. The latter, though, might unfold as a scavenger hunt or series of challenges that contribute toward concocting a cure. In such cases, the final challenge should be the most harrowing and present the greatest risk of exposure to infection. In that way, the defeat of the invisible menace has a climax, but it also has the extremely personal threat of another outbreak.

Monsters and Threats: Parasites and diseases often feature in body horror stories, so consider rot grubs (of the giant variety or more common hazards), ear seekers, intellect devourers, or visceral plagues of disease (though consider using the unchained rules for diseases) or the disease section of this book. Creatures that implant their eggs or are born from other creatures include lunarmas, vegepygmies, and xills, while those who cling to or take over a host’s body include incutilises and wizard’s shackles. Fleshwarps and oozes like carnivorous blobs embody the horror of abominable transformation, beheaded and crawling hands are unbound body parts, and drow and kytons use flesh as mediums for their art or taboo experimentations. Many of the corruptions and the fleshwarping rules also allow a PC to experience the terror of transformation firsthand.

Basic Plots: A quarantine traps the PCs in a city suffering from bubonic plague. A breed of oozes infests a community’s sewers, changing those they touch into melting zombies. Ghorazaghs capture the PCs in a labyrinthine scab-hive.

Advanced Plots: The secret of an incestuous imperial dynasty reveals an undercity of vain, inbred mongrelmen lurking beneath the capital. A mind-altering disease (to which elves are mysteriously immune) becomes sentient, infects the minds of hundreds, and launches a pogrom against those it can’t infect. A nation’s pervasive, cowlike herd animals stave off famine, but the nation turns on the PCs when they expose that the creatures are semi-sentient drakainia spawn.

Cosmic Horror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 192
Often called cosmicism or Lovecraftian horror, stories in this subgenre involve the realization that humanity and all its struggles are insignificant amid the greater workings of the universe. Such plots typically involve revelations of the truth that shelters the limited, shared lie society calls reality. The forces beyond this veil are fundamentally unfathomable, indifferent, and dangerous. Brushes with these powers typically scar a character, resulting in death, insanity, or understandings that make her an outcast from society. Ignorance and willful delusion then become virtues, shields that protect a fragile narrative from the truth of a vast, apathetic cosmos.

Storytelling: Cosmic horror stories aren’t about tentacles— they’re about the truths mortals are better off not knowing. Perhaps these revelations are the secrets of cosmic overlords, or maybe they’re leaps of understanding—realities radically different from what society thinks it knows. The pursuit of greater knowledge can begin as a noble quest, gradually revealing an organic conspiracy propagating truths too great for the characters to influence. A GM might provide bread crumbs leading toward this knowledge, but the PCs’ limited perspective grants only glimpses of the terrible whole. The discovery of strange cults or unsettling artifacts might push characters to uncover devices and creatures not native to their understanding of the world. These elements are best revealed slowly, like evidence in a mystery story, and they should build upon one another to suggest ever-greater threats. Ultimately, the threat might be entities from beyond gulfs of existence, or even be something like the arrangement of the stars themselves—foes that can’t be defeated with sword and spell. While the PCs might win a skirmish with such forces and prevent the apocalypse du jour, their world’s days are numbered. Depending on how much the PCs learn, they might never again be able to share in the vision of reality needed to function in society. If that wasn’t terrible enough, when they glimpse the truths beyond the veil, those sanity-bending forces gaze back.

Monsters and Threats: Cosmic horror games frequently feature aliens—intruders from other worlds, planes, or epochs. These are not typically spiritual beings, like angels or demons, but neighbors in existence that prove the laws of reality aren’t exactly fair. Many creatures from the works of H. P. Lovecraft and other authors of this subgenre exist in the Pathfinder RPG and fit naturally into cosmic horror adventures, such as deep ones, denizens of Leng, elder things, Great Old Ones, mi-go, shoggoths, and Yithians, to name just a few. Lovecraftian creatures don’t have exclusive dominion over this subgenre, though. Given the right backstory, any creature with an aberrant form or mind makes a useful cosmic horror foe, like aboleths, chokers, cloakers, hunduns, hyakumes, immortal ichors, and otyughs. Consider casting whole races or creature types as manipulators from other worlds or beings possessed of enigmatic agendas, such as aberrations, certain monstrous humanoids, or fey.

Beyond bizarre monsters, tools and artifacts from other worlds might prove to be equally dangerous. Consider taking a familiar item and describing it in an otherworldly fashion—a crossbow takes on an entirely different aspect if it screams every time it’s fired. Magic, too, if learned from otherworldly sources, might gain a dangerous cast, perhaps dealing damage to the caster or eroding a character’s ability scores. Shocking discoveries can also present their own dangers in the form of sanity effects. See Madness for a host of reactions characters might experience when their visions of reality shake and their pillars of sanity crumble.

Basic Plots: An ally, fearing for his life, provides the PCs with a secret or relic pursued by servants of a god-ocean that covers a distant moon. Opening an ancient vault unleashes a member of a race for which time means nothing. A town forsakes its religions after a seasonally appearing comet lands atop a windmill outside their community.

Advanced Plots: A strange nightmare, swift-growing plant, or spreading wound holds a means of communicating with a future dominated by another species. In the wake of a planetary alignment, an entire race begins fleeing the planet. A musician discovers tones that allow her to reshape reality, drawing the attention of otherworldly star-shrieks.

Dark Fantasy

Source Horror Adventures pg. 194
As its name implies, dark fantasy isn’t a subgenre of horror but rather a fantasy subgenre that relies on horror themes. Dark fantasies typically involve the same tropes as fantasy tales—swords, castles, magic, heroics—but viewed through a grim lens. Deadliness, despair, and the macabre are common here, elements that threaten innocents with forces beyond their power to understand or overcome.

Storytelling: In these tales, magic and the supernatural take on a darker and deadlier cast. Enchanted lands become accursed places filled with ravenous predators and dangerous outcasts. Magic might bear the threat of arcane backlash or addiction. Monsters are fearful things, whether they are born from the corpses of former neighbors, demonic incarnations of temptations, or terrifying beasts that city walls dubiously hold at bay. It’s a pessimistic sort of fantasy where threats are many and death seems likely, yet the heroes of these stories have the opportunity to defend the rare places of warmth and light. Not unlike other fantasy heroes, they become champions of the helpless and foes of evil. However, here the odds are stacked far more heavily against them.

Monsters and Threats: Aberrations, constructs, evil outsiders, and undead are common in dark fantasy adventures, as are grim reimaginings of magical beasts and other classic fantasy creatures. Evil spells, cursed magic items, and magical environmental hazards are also typical. With a properly grim twist, nearly any fantasy element could find its home in a dark fantasy adventure.

Basic Plots: Necromancers use the corpses of a plague-scoured village to create a gashadokuro. A gargoyle trophy hunter is responsible for a series of baffling murders. A troll uses the sewer to slip into the basement of the royal archives and preys upon scholars who linger too long after dark.

Advanced Plots: A genius arcanist seeks to recreate the empire of a fallen undead tyrant by retracing his path to lichdom. A rift between realities allows the hordes of the Abyss to invade the world. The corpse of everyone who dies returns as a ghoul within 1 day, forcing the PCs to investigate why souls are not passing on to the afterlife.

Ghost Story

Source Horror Adventures pg. 194
These stories feature ghosts—whether they’re actual spirits or the characters simply believe in those spirits. Usually relatively short tales, stories in this subgenre focus on wayward souls and the tragic events that keep them from passing on. They usually feature a haunted place—such as the archetypical haunted house—but this might be any location, object, person, or other element that is somehow tied to the spirit’s unfortunate past. The protagonists of a ghost story tend to be latecomers to the tragedy. By entering the zone of spiritual fallout, they either embroil themselves in healing residual scars or try to escape before becoming the next victims.

Storytelling: Ghost stories make fantastic single-adventure plots because they typically link an atmospheric story with a specific location. The tie between a ghost and its haunting grounds means that PCs can indulge in a ghost story without it necessarily interfering with a wider campaign.

Ghosts come in an enormous variety, but for horror adventures, the two most useful are ghosts that want something and violent ghosts. The former might be sorrowful entities that make the PCs their agents in the hopes of being set free. The latter are vicious things, incarnations of madness and violence that take their wrath out on any who dare trespass on their haunting grounds. In neither case does a ghost need to be a sympathetic character, but in both, the spirit’s origins affect its appearance, abilities, and behavior. While revealing the lore behind a haunting might be story enough, in a typical Pathfinder ghost story, learning the spirit’s background and using it to put the ghost to rest is central to the plot.

With the wealth of ghost stories in fiction and film, a GM can plunder existing works for inspiration and experiment with the definitions of “ghost” and “haunting.” She might also consider giving the ghost story a trigger, an event that activates a dormant haunting. Perhaps the return of a family member to his ancestral home or a PC gazing through an orb that reveals the spirit world sparks a full-blown ghost story.

Monsters and Threats: Obviously, these tales focus on ghosts, but in the Pathfinder RPG, “ghost” might mean a variety of things, not just the monster of the same name. However, a ghost is an excellent choice of monster due to its rejuvenation ability, which means the spirit can only be truly defeated if the PCs discover the correct means. This ability forces the PCs to involve themselves in a ghost story to defeat their foe. A GM might use any number of ghostly spirits to create specific sorts of ghost stories—for instance, banshees terrorize barren moors, poltergeists disturb peaceful households, and yuki-onnas haunt snowy vistas. Looking up creatures with the incorporeal subtype in Appendix 8 of any Pathfinder RPG Bestiary volume can point to strong ghost story candidates. Ghosts don’t need to be incorporeal. Phantom armors, revenants, skeletal champions, and zuvembies, for example, all make fine corporeal threats. A “ghost” also doesn’t need to be undead, especially as the line between spirit and outsider is often blurry. Consider having any of a variety of fiends—such as owbs or vulnudaemons—haunt a ghost story. For story purposes, a GM shouldn’t hesitate to give non-ghosts the rejuvenation ability as well, but only so long as the threat stays bound to a single plot-rich locale. More so than in other subgenres, haunts make obvious choices. Spectral beings (especially geists) teamed with a variety of flavorful haunts can work together to create a wider and more satisfying haunting.

Basic Plots: The destruction of a local asylum releases years of pent-up mental trauma as an allip or caller in darkness, the dominant personality of which wants nothing more than to visit the sea once more. The ghost of a golemcrafter intimidates a young trespasser into reactivating her laboratory and creating a soulbound body for her to inhabit. A painting from a far-off land drags the ghost of the portrait’s subject with it, a noble but frustrated foreign warrior who speaks only his native language.

Advanced Plots: A ghost becomes the PCs’ patron, offering its treasure (or home) if they complete what it left undone. A violent, mute ghost the PCs thought exorcised reappears— could they have mistaken its identity? The ghost of a defeated villain or a fallen ally becomes linked to one of the PCs’ pieces of equipment, though the connection seems to be stronger than simply that between victim and murder weapon.

Gothic Horror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 195
Gothic horrors exude atmosphere and portent. This is the subgenre of The Castle of Otranto, The Raven, and Dracula. Lightning-illuminated castles, baroque cathedrals, tortured minds, and unquiet souls fill these stories, every element fostering moodiness and presaging dooms—often through ornate description. While gothic horror regularly focuses on darkness, decay, fallen grandeur, and the wages of sin, it can also be rich with romance and bravery, making it well suited to Pathfinder adventures.

Storytelling: More than any specific monster or type of fear, in the best of these stories, grim details work together to create an oppressive atmosphere of perpetual fall or winter, where secret transgressions exert dark prices in the form decrepitude, sickness, curses, and monstrous predation. Settings, characters, and plot all work together in gothic tales, and a GM should strive to insinuate that dark things are to come through elements of the narrative. If any subgenre is going to feature sudden thunderstorms, ominous coincidences, or peasant warnings, it’s gothic horror. The evil force at the end of this foreboding path might have the statistics of a brooding vampire or an ageless wizard, but by the time the PCs meet her, what they’ve experienced should have built her up as something much more.

Gothic horror tales highlight and develop wealth, extravagance, and the noble or positive qualities of characters to better wring pathos from their ruination. Romances are also common, whether as the spark that ignites dark passions or as the motivation for heroics. Death, desperation, and madness are frequent results of both themes, paving the way for encounters with the fantastic, deals with wicked forces, and passions that keep characters from a peaceful death. Indulging these themes suggests not only a host of settings (like crumbling manors, grim cathedrals, and misty graveyards), but also stock characters (suspicious townsfolk, penniless nobles, and ghostly governesses) waiting to populate a gothic tale.

Monsters and Threats: The mainstays of gothic horror include some of the most identifiable monsters in fiction and folklore: fiends, ghosts, hags, lycanthropes, skeletons, vampires, yeth hounds, and the like. Almost any monster could make a fine villain in a gothic horror story, though, so long as it has a tragic background and intentions of menace. For example, the sorrow of a lovelorn dryad might extend beyond herself, transforming a wilderness into a savage nightmare. Insidious magic items—like monkeys’ paws and soul portraits—also often appear in gothic stories, the objects taking on the sins of their past owners. Bargains with fiends, foul gods, or perhaps even death itself can inspire tragic villains. Haunts also make useful threats for gothic horror tales, their descriptive dangers providing a way to reveal mournful histories—perhaps piece by piece through a series of interrelated, tragic events.

Basic Plots: Every hundred years, a graveknight appears and challenges the high priest of the goddess of valor, whose cathedral stands upon an ancient battlefield. A changeling begs for the PCs’ protection, fearful of the crone she’s seen in her nightmares. The PCs must retrieve a lost locket from a spectral house that appears only on the night of the winter solstice.

Advanced Plots: A PC is the reincarnated lover of an ancient vampire baroness. A mothman follows the PCs from afar, intent on creating, ending, or repeating an age-long curse. The entire faith of a just deity is convinced a PC holds the key to a horrible prophecy and can’t be allowed to live.

Psychological Horror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 196
As a counterpoint to body horror, the psychological horror subgenre plays upon the fears and uncertainties rooted deep within the mind. The possibility of becoming detached from reality, plots to drive people mad, and the menace of taboo urges all fill the surreal world of psychological horror. While these stories might involve supernatural elements, it’s often difficult for characters to be sure whether such menaces are real or entirely within their heads.

Storytelling: Among the most challenging subgenres of horror to re-create in a Pathfinder adventure, psychological horror stories often deal with themes of conspiracy, doubt, and paranoia. In film and fiction, these stories might focus on a single individual being pushed beyond her limit as the lines of reality blur around her. In a Pathfinder adventure, it’s difficult to make one PC the victim of such horror—but it is possible. While the rules for sanity simulate a variety of psychological effects, these are most effective when a player chooses to roleplay their effects, forcing the group to acknowledge that the character’s grip on reality has slipped. Beyond those rules, the techniques described in the Warp Reality section and in the Secrets and Suspicion section can help sow uncertainty among the players, leaving them wondering what’s real and who they can trust.

Easier to create are adventures where another individual has lost his grip on reality, leading him to commit monstrous acts and possibly transform his home into a manifestation of his delusions. Conspiracy plots might unite a cadre of foes seeking to hide some shocking truth, perhaps making the PCs question whether lifelong beliefs have been lies all along. In more extreme cases, the PCs might become victims of gaslighting (perhaps by a gaslighter mesmerist), either in subtle ways or in elaborate experiments—like a dungeon of shifting passages or a deadly puzzle room— meant to drive them insane.

Monsters and Threats: Cunning shapechangers (like araneas, doppelgangers, and rakshasas) and creatures with manipulative mind powers (like aboleths, grays, and lotus trees) make fantastic foes in psychological horror adventures. Psychic magic is an obvious threat in these tales, warping memories and outright controlling the weak willed, but so are illusions, which can manipulate what a victim perceives or thinks he knows. More insidious than monsters in psychological horror stories are the everyday people who manufacture plots to undermine someone’s sanity or the individuals whose stresses and delusions become uncontrollable enough to set them on deadly courses—like a deranged individual who makes his home a trap-filled murder pit or a zealot who believes his sins can only be purified with innocent blood.

Basic Plots: A divine emissary in animal form comes to a PC and encourages her to slay a secret enemy of the faith— but it only speaks when the PC is alone. The PCs need to cure a scholar who has gone insane by entering his hag-haunted nightmares. The PCs come to a town where a teenage girl can turn herself invisible, and everyone lives in fear of what she does, doesn’t, or could know.

Advanced Plots: The PCs become aware they are the only true humanoids in a society that consists entirely of doppelgangers. Derros kidnap the inhabitants of an entire village without their knowledge, relocating them to a near-perfect re-creation of their community deep underground. A pakalchi sahkil convinces the queen that her court mages have turned against her, leading her to start a bloody witch hunt throughout the entire nation.

Slasher Horror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 197
Violent stories that pit relentless murderers against defenseless victims, slasher horror is the home of some of film’s most brutal killers. These tales typically follow the rampage of a single weapon-wielding psychopath and his targets’ desperate attempts to survive. The slasher is usually more than a normal person, possessing a drive or fortitude that makes him more akin to a deadly force of nature. Only bravery and cunning hold any hope of defeating the slasher, and even then, usually only after he has spilled seas of blood.

Storytelling: Of primary importance to a slasher story is the sense of inescapability. If the would-be victims can just leave an area and escape the slasher, his threat is undermined. Therefore, seclusion is important. Perhaps the PCs—the likely victims—are isolated by geography (on an island, in the mountains), by terrible weather, or by some other physical factor (a flood washed out the road, the PCs are in a labyrinth that’s supposedly inescapable). Social factors can also create seclusion. Perhaps the PCs don’t speak the language and can’t effectively go for help, know the town guard wants to shield the murderer, have a responsibility to stay in a place, or are cursed and can’t leave an area. In any case, the PCs are trapped with a menace they’re not likely able to physically overcome.

As monsters and combat are such fundamental parts of the Pathfinder RPG, it’s easy for a slasher attack to become just another fight. Elusiveness, relentlessness, and the perception of invincibility are the slasher’s greatest weapons. To avoid this, the slasher can’t just be an opponent the PCs outmatch, making them have to find ways other than combat to defeat their foe. A GM should make the slasher difficult to fight, but not impossible to defeat. The PCs need to be able to find tools and prepare traps that give them an edge over their foe. Objects meaningful to the slasher (and perhaps his origins) might aid them in their fight. The plot might encourage characters to split up to defeat the slasher and thus make them vulnerable to their foe—see Splitting the Party for ways to help build tension in situations like this.

Signature weapons are powerful elements in slasher stories. A GM might give the slasher a weapon that’s threatening but also metaphorical—like a headsman’s axe or a scythe. Tools and unique creations that tie into the slasher’s history and origins also make great murder weapons—like a harpoon, a daggerlike quilting needle, or a shark jaw fitted onto an iron mask.

Monsters and Threats: Slasher tales are monster stories. What constitutes the monster, though, is entirely up to the GM. The implacable stalker template specifically allows for slashers to be made out of any sort of creature or character.

Often slashers are murderous humanoids who have been driven violently insane or who have become possessed by brutal objectives. These sort of slashers emphasize the monstrousness of everyday people, which might be a concept a GM wants indulge.

Actual monsters can also make fine slashers. Creatures that bear a semblance to everyday people but obviously aren’t work well for this, like apes, bugbears, goblins, ogrekin, redcaps, and trolls. Finally, more monstrous creatures easily become slashers, even though the PCs might have a limited ability to see something of themselves in such foes. Rather than creatures with obviously monstrous forms, certain beings might pass as humanoids with the right disguises or magic, like babau demons, bogeymen, dark stalkers, denizens of Leng, or dullahans. Or perhaps the slasher’s form is inconsequential, and the true murderous entity is the sentient weapon he bears.

Basic Plots: The daughter of a villain the PCs slew years ago catches up to them at a lonely country inn and proceeds to poison everyone in the establishment, one at a time. The PCs’ journey forces them to pass through the Valley of the Skulleater, home to a strangely intelligent and elusive bear that relentlessly stalks trespassers. A marsh giant shaman begins murdering everyone associated with the village that killed his son.

Advanced Plots: The PCs find a crimson garrote that belonged to a famous killer, leading to a rash of murders following in their wake. Mere months after raiding a crypt, a mummy lord appears and attempts to slay the PCs, reappearing yearly on the anniversary of the defiling. Because of her remarkable lineage, the notorious serial killer known only as the Queen of Razors can’t be killed without infuriating the royal church, but the PCs can’t allow her to kill again.