Five Horror Movie Plots for Your RPG Campaign
Constructing adventures and campaigns for a horror RPG requires a different angle than your standard fantasy RPG. You can’t bodge together a dungeon, add some monsters and traps, and call it a day. Your players will need mysteries to solve, secrets to uncover, and terrors to be terrified of. Luckily, horror movies have been doing this sort of thing for 100 years, give or take.
Horror RPGs are experiencing something of a renaissance, with excellent offerings like a new edition of Chill, Fantasy Flight’s End of the World, a Lovecraftian take on Numenera, a pretty neat Dresden Files RPG, the all-time classic Call of Cthulhu, and more modern reworkings like Trail of Cthulhu, the horror-loving RPG player has a lot to choose from. And a lot of horror movie plots to rip off!
In this solid sci-fi horror tale, two crew members come out of cryosleep on a worldship, a massive starship sent from Earth decades ago to colonize another planet. They have no idea where they are; worse, due to the effects of the cryosleep, they don’t even know who they are or what their mission is. It doesn’t take them long to figure out that the ship is now inhabited by a race of ultraviolent cannibals.
The details of the rest of the plot aren’t really important. What’s great is that totally off-kilter, who/why/what/where are we opening. Admittedly, a lot of RPGs start off this way inadvertently (“Hey, everyone roll some characters. Ok, you stand before the entrance to a dungeon”). But if you do it on purpose, you can really screw with your players. Obviously, it works best at the start of a campaign, but imagine how weird it would be if your players show up one night, are handed new character sheets and start out in the middle of something they don’t recognize.
You can have them tied up in the hold of a derelict ship, either a spaceship, a modern cargo ship, or maybe even an airplane, depending on your specific horror sub-genre. They awaken, break free, find they’re alone, and one of them discovers he can pilot the ship/plane, but doesn’t know why. They find a desolate island or a lonely airport. Who knows what happens there, but you can weave in clues about the characters’ pasts, their connections (this is starting to sound like Lost), and, if you stick this into an ongoing campaign, their connections to the main PCs.
Return of the Living Dead III
This is a tragically overlooked entry in the classic Living Dead series. It’s seriously one of my favorite movies ever. The basic plot is simple: Romeo and Zombie Juliet. This is no Troma goof, though. It’s played straight, serious and genuinely romantic by a cast and crew who vastly surpass their reputations (unless you’re a major niche horror buff or their moms, you’ve probably never heard of anyone in this).
Curt is the Romeo, a teen whose dad works in the military on a project to use Trioxin gas to make zombie soldiers. Curt accidentally kills his girlfriend Julie in a motorcycle accident. Desperate, he breaks into the military lab and exposes her to the gas. Because she was zombified so soon after death, Julie retains her human personality, but soon undergoes the agonies of various post-mortem processes, and also develops a painful craving for human brains.
Julie’s attempts to curb her zombie instincts and Curt’s devotion to protecting his one true love are unexpectedly touching. In between, Julie uses her awesome zombieness to kill gangsters and deliver some splattery gore scenes. The ending is pure Shakespeare.
You could run with this is a basic fantasy RPG — just make all the military officials into wizards and necromancers running zombie experiments. But imagine this in a horror adventure, where one of the players is zombified and another is the love interest. The rest of the players have to deal with this horrific transformation and the fact that all their plans need to account for the presence of an actual zombie in the party.
This is perhaps the original plot. The first story ever told might have been, “There’s something scary out there in the dark and we need to kill it. You can layer on the urgency of the town needing to get the monster killed quickly because it’s screwing up their tourism industry, but the best thing about Jaws is that it happens in the ocean.
This presents a prime opportunity in a fantasy RPG, because a shark is hard to find and kill. A dragon in a forest? Let’s go kill it. A hook horror in a cave? Kill it. Demilich in a manor? Kill. But a shark, well, let’s go find someone with a boat (preferably a bigger boat), maybe contact some merfolk for help, and think up some combination of spells and magic items that will allow us to fight a shark before it destroys our boat and eats us.
For good measure, I’d make it more than just a huge shark. Demon shark. Undead shark. Dragonshark. Sharktopus. Go nuts.
Tombs of the Blind Dead
This Spanish movie from the 70s sadly doesn’t live up to its awesome concept. Not that it’s a bad movie, but it could have been so much better. No mere zombie tale, this one involves the remote ruins of a medieval fortress. Centuries ago, the fortress was built and inhabited by an order of Christian knights. Off they went to some Crusade or another, and they came back bearing Egyptian paraphernalia, plus some Satanic rituals. One of the rituals offered the knights immortality (in zombie form, so I guess they didn’t read the fine print). To get it, they had to drink the blood of virgins. They were eventually caught, had their eyes burned and stabbed out, and were put to death.
Now, if some nubile Spanish woman happens to jump off a train because she’s jealous of her boyfriend making eyes at her former lesbian seducer (hey, it’s a Euro-horror movie from the 70s), and she decides to spend the night in the ruins, the knights erupt from their crypts and graves to stalk and devour her, and anyone else who comes along.
This one isn’t really a plot, per se, but rather a collection of awesome elements that could make for a good adventure. First, you’ve got the theme of the corrupted paladins. What caused their downfall? Then you’ve got the blind part — because of the whole eye-poking thing, these zombie knights track their victims by scent and sound. I think you could play with that idea and create some very tense stealth encounters. Finally, the zombies in the movie ride horses! It’s the first and only time I’ve ever seen that (until Game of Thrones, I guess). There’s no explanation as to where the horses come from or why they’re not also zombies (they wear mottled grey cloaks like their zombie riders). But it’s seriously awesome watching zombie knights on horseback galloping across the countryside.
If you’re running a horror RPG instead of fantasy, there’s so much to use here. Picture this: the party has to sneak into a high-tech corporation to uncover their nefarious zombification experiments, but the whole place is guarded by blind zombie security guards. What the hell, put them on motorcycles. Or maybe a blind zombie biker gang? Look, all I’m saying is, throw some blind zombies into your adventure and maybe give them steeds and thank me later.
Suspiria is a horror classic by Italian legend Dario Argento. It concerns a young woman who attends a prestigious dance school that happens to be staffed entirely by Satanic cultists. There are a couple of ways to approach this from an RPG standpoint. You might try making your characters students, possibly even teenagers. Or you could just play up the authority of the school’s staff — even if the characters aren’t directly under their authority, they are regarded so highly in the town that it would be impossible to simply attack them without evidence.
One of the notable things about Suspiria is how it shifts gears at key moments. It starts with a gruesome murder, like a slasher film. Then it spends a long time wallowing in dark paranoia and psychological tension, with a strong undercurrent of strangeness but nothing overtly supernatural. In the final act it becomes a runaway train of hellacious lunacy, when all is revealed and the main character faces horror after horror. If you can pull that kind of pacing off in an RPG, you’ll leave quite an impression on your fellow gamers.
This post originally appeared on Robot Viking Oct. 28, 2010.