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Running Horror Adventures

Source Horror Adventures pg. 190
Game Masters don’t have to run a horror-themed Pathfinder adventure differently from how they would any other adventure—but they can. Before running a horror adventure, though, the GM should consider a basic question: Who is she trying to scare? That might seem obvious, but horror adventures are about fear, so the GM needs to understand the nature of that fear.

If a GM doesn’t want to scare anyone, she can incorporate this book’s options into her game like those from any other Pathfinder RPG book. The options herein might feature darker themes, but that’s all that makes them different.

But perhaps a GM decides she does want to frighten someone, and naturally, she targets the player characters. In this case, the game changes to incorporate elements meant to shock the PCs or explore darker parts of the campaign setting. Ultimately, this probably doesn’t mean much more than deciding which monsters and settings the game employs. An otherwise normal Pathfinder adventure featuring ghosts, haunted houses, faceless murderers, and similar creepiness might be all a GM needs to effectively spook the PCs.

If the GM wants to frighten her players, she must do so with the utmost care and thought, making changes from how she would run other Pathfinder adventures. This doesn’t mean making the game a farce to startle the participants. Rather, it gives the GM the opportunity to use her adventure like a storyteller telling a ghost story, using the medium to build tension and unnerve the other participants, each of whom expects to enjoy a good scare. This sort of game focuses on intentionally evoking feelings from the players themselves, rather than their characters. So long as the players know what they’re in for and explicitly want to be scared, horror-themed games can be exceptionally memorable.

This chapter includes tips on how to run any sort of horror adventure, describing various horror subgenres and including tips on how to create horror adventures, cultivate an unnerving atmosphere, and use the Pathfinder RPG rules to adjudicate terrifying encounters. Before any of that, though, the GM should understand how horror adventures differ from normal Pathfinder adventures and why she should take exceptional care to make sure her players are willing participants.

Horror Versus Heroism

Source Horror Adventures pg. 190
Especially if a GM has run frightening adventures using other roleplaying games, she should understand that the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is not designed with horror in mind. The Pathfinder RPG is a game of heroic adventure where the characters gradually become more powerful than they were at the game’s outset—by accumulating special abilities, treasure, and so on. In most games designed to tell frightening tales, however, the characters instead begin play on a downward trajectory toward corruption, insanity, or death. Yet using this chapter’s techniques doesn’t mean transforming the Pathfinder RPG into an entirely different game.

Nor does a horror-themed Pathfinder game suggest that the PCs become less heroic or that they are suddenly destined for a grim fate. It might change what plots, monsters, and locations are included and what sorts of characters players make, but the assumption remains that the PCs will undertake adventures, win treasure, gain power, and ultimately accomplish their quests. The GM might mask these assumptions a bit more than usual—there’s no sense of threat if success seems like a foregone conclusion. In the end, though, it gives the GM the opportunity to pit the PCs against escalating horrors and levels of terror.

Horror Games and Consent

Source Horror Adventures pg. 190
If the story’s objective is to unsettle the players rather than their characters, the GM needs something before even starting to seriously think about running such an adventure: the players’ consent. Players should understand what it might mean to participate in a horror adventure. Knowing that the game is intended to be creepy is not enough—in the same way that some filmgoers might be on board to see a horror movie aimed at teenage audiences but not one exclusively for adults.

Anyone planning on participating in a horror adventure should read the following section—GMs and players alike. Of all the content in this book, this section is the most serious because it doesn’t deal with fictional characters, but with real people and reactions.

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.

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.

Horror Storytelling

Source Horror Adventures pg. 200
The promise of fear is often obvious from the first glimpse of a horror film or story, as subtly abnormal choices in the ambience set the mood for terror. Horror adventures should feel much the same. More so than other Pathfinder RPG adventures, these rely on the creation of the atmosphere, the mood that surrounds the game. Atmosphere can mean the difference between a normal session and a truly frightening experience. This section focuses on gameplay techniques and storytelling special effects aimed at creating a moodier, more disturbing atmosphere. These suggestions step beyond game rules, and the advice herein can help GMs deftly defy the expectations of both the characters and their players.

Ten Questions to Help You Design a Horror Adventure

  1. What is there to be afraid of?
  2. What caused the horrific situation to develop or spike?
  3. How does the adventure’s environment reinforce the horror’s fearsomeness or a sense of dread?
  4. What hides the horror or builds the tension?
  5. What do the PCs fear losing?
  6. Do the PCs have resources that allow them to negate the horror?
  7. What gives the PCs hope of defeating their enemy?
  8. What shocking event lets the PCs know that nothing is safe?
  9. What scenes or settings exist to release tension?
  10. Are elements unintentionally predictable, cliched, or similar to well-known horror tales?

Going Too Far

Source Horror Adventures pg. 204
Some GMs make the mistake of thinking that if a frightening gimmick works for a haunted house or campfire story, then it will work for their horror adventures. Such is rarely the case. At best, overdoing it on artificial, half-creepy tricks can break the atmosphere and distract from the game. At worst, they become jokes or can upset players. As a rule, a GM should keep a horror game on the game table. Here are a few gimmicks to absolutely avoid.

Don’t Fake Emergencies: Faking choking or pretending the slasher attack is real can be legitimately scary in a way that violates players’ trust. The game must remain a game, and as soon as it breaks the fourth wall and enters reality, things can go off the rails fast. Never risk someone getting hurt or having the authorities get involved.

Don’t Involve People Outside the Game: Those who haven’t joined the game should not have to experience the game’s creepy elements, whether that be loud music, in-character shrieking, or other disruptive sounds. Additionally, never ask outside coconspirators to secretly participate in the game unbeknownst to the players.

Don’t Touch the Players: Whether this means getting into character and clamping a cold hand on a player’s shoulder or physically dropping plastic spiders from the ceiling, never invade the players’ personal space or set up tricks that could backfire and cause physical harm.

Don’t Use Costumes or Makeup: Costumes and fake blood are distractions. If a GM tries to make herself look creepy, it might work for a minute, but most games run longer than that. After a while, the prop or special effect becomes commonplace, or worse, just silly.

Creating Atmosphere

Source Horror Adventures pg. 204
An adventure might be a masterpiece of terror, but if it’s being played on a sunny day with people laughing in the background, the players still might not be able to feel the mood. The surroundings can be a GM’s greatest ally in telling a truly effective horror tale, but they might also work against her entirely. Consider the game space as a stage. This section includes ways that a GM might manipulate that performance space to create an atmosphere perfect for horror adventures.

Rules Improvisation

Source Horror Adventures pg. 206
It’s impossible to predict every character action, and Game Masters often have to improvise when a party follows an unanticipated plot thread. While GMs can cultivate the ability to remain flexible in the face of unpredictability, coming up with new plot elements on the fly is only one challenge. Creating and employing new rules without any preparation is another one entirely. In the context of a horror adventure, such rules improvisation is not only useful, but all the more critical, as interruptions and page flipping can ruin a scene’s atmosphere, while a quick improvised decision can keep the tension intact.

Fortunately, as a benefit of being a well-developed game system, the Pathfinder RPG offers guidelines and subsystems for adjudicating hundreds of hazards and encounter types. Still, the game rules can’t account for everything. In such cases, it’s up to the GM to use her knowledge of the rules to improvise options. Coming up with quick, simple ways to support characters who find themselves in unique situations or who want to attempt audacious actions is usually preferable to avoiding such game-defining events. Depending on the case, a GM might ask players to merely roll an ability or skill check, setting a DC that seems appropriate. Another option—which can often be more fun—involves considering the situation and adapting existing rules to work for the game’s needs.

The remainder of this chapter presents a variety of situations that might appear in a horror adventure, but for which concrete rules don’t exist. Each of the following sections references existing Pathfinder RPG rules (largely from the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook and Pathfinder RPG GameMastery Guide) that GMs could retrofit to handle the encounter. These aren’t definitive rules for any of the situations described below. Instead, they are a primer on customizing rules to meet specific needs, and they should help GMs look beyond the overt purpose of certain rules systems and identify precedents and components that might be repurposed in unlimited ways.

Improvisation Benchmarks

While encyclopedic knowledge of existing rules certainly helps with improvising new ones, it’s not necessary by any means. The majority of the time, existing rules supply all the direction needed. In cases where they don’t, don’t worry! Almost everything in the Pathfinder RPG comes down to the roll of a d20. So the main questions are often simply how high to set a DC and what sort of bonus the PC should apply to it. While the latter is largely thematic and up to the GM’s judgment, setting DCs can get a bit more technical. Fortunately, the likelihood of a too-high or toolow DC “ruining” an adventure is infinitesimal, especially when taking the following into account.

Custom DCs: Need to generate a DC for a specific situation on the fly? Look at tables like those for the Acrobatics, Bluff, Escape Artist, and other skills and extrapolate whether the challenge should be harder or easier based on the DC precedents there. GMs can find some great charts for adhoc DCs for parties of various levels in the sections on social conflicts and influence.

Monster Statistics: Need something other than a DC? Table 1–1 on page 291 of the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary provides a wealth of level-appropriate benchmarks for creature hit points, Armor Class, damage, saving throw DCs, and more. These aren’t just for monsters, though. Consider finding the party’s level and using these statistics for any challenge required, increasing or decreasing the figures as necessary to adjust the difficulty.