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Horror Campaigns

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 46
Starfinder is already a wondrous collection of genres—star pilots, scoundrels, freebooters, and mystics hopping from alien world to alien world in search of adventure and glory. Science fiction, fantasy, and good old-fashioned action collide in a perilous universe. In all this space, there’s plenty of room for at least one more genre. Rejoice!

Or, perhaps, despair. For in the lightless void between the stars lurks an older and darkly fascinating wonder: horror. It’s an oft-misunderstood genre that is, by itself, a complex cosmos encompassing a variety of flavors, tones, and subgenres.

That’s why horror is a hard genre to define. Only some horror is frightening, and something scary might fail to be horror. Some horror relies on tension and jump scares to start your heart racing. Other horror methodically slips in dreadful clues to freeze your blood when their true meaning is revealed. Some horror throws heroes into the thresher only to watch them emerge brutalized but triumphant. Other horror never lets its protagonists up for air, leaving its audience traumatized. Some horror drives a stake deep into the heart of our cultural flaws. Other horror plays its tropes for laughs.

The ancient tree of horror drinks the first fears of our ancestors in through its roots and stretches its branches into an endless night in search of new genres that are emerging from the darkness. These pages contain tools to help you and your fellow players seek out what brought you to this genre. Further, you’ll find tools to help you define horror—not to delineate the genre, but to find the sort of horror you want in your game.

Types Of Horror

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 47
Listed hereafter is a selection of horror subgenres that meld well with other Starfinder genres. As you prepare to play a horror campaign, discuss the characters’ role within the subgenres you’re considering. Establish whether the PCs are potential victims of the horror, its witnesses, or both.

Action Horror

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 47
Starfinder is about action heroes braving challenges others are unwilling to face. Action horror is about that, but with a menace that is just as relentless as the heroes, whether it’s hordes of undead or one monstrous alien crawling through the ventilation system of a starship. This sort of horror pits the protagonists against a problem they might not be able to confront with their usual methods. Even if those techniques are effective, they might not be reliable or they could produce unexpected results.

Witnesses of action horror discover this unrelenting threat when it plagues someone else, perhaps those close to the heroes. Such a situation plays out like a normal Starfinder game, but with dreadful stakes. Victims of action horror know or learn that standing and fighting is a last resort—far better to run, find safety, regroup, and attack only when conditions are at their most desperate or when the moment is just right.

Body Horror

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 47
At its heart, body horror is about physiology behaving in unnatural ways, betraying its owner’s expectations and sense of self. Starfinder is filled with aliens and other creatures that have unusual forms. These facts provide ample opportunity to introduce body horror, but they can also lessen its impact. When any character can have a body that behaves as human and insect, lizard, or rat, it can be hard to find the terror in a misplaced limb or waking up with a new mouth growing on your arm.

The key is to anchor body horror in the mundane. Witnessing body horror means interacting with creepy monsters that begin as normal individuals but whose bodies behave in troubling ways. Victims of body horror might suffer according to the affliction rules, the phantasm rules in "The Diaspora Strain" (see page 20), and the "Corrupted by Shadows" article in this book. All of these can be used to sever the bond of trust between PCs and their bodies.

Cosmic Horror

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 47
The stars have aligned and awoken a being older than time whose very existence renders our own moot. Cosmic horror relies on the existential fear that we aren’t the most significant creatures in the universe. Instead, some horrific intelligence from eons past holds dominion over the cosmos. This subgenre pairs well with others, since the true nature of the universe is in question.

Witnesses of cosmic horror might be able to do something about it. They look upon this terror and despair no more than when they face any other titanic fiend and its worshipers. Victims of cosmic horror are forced into despair that their world is not what it seems. They tangle with cultists and lesser monsters, but faced with the true menace, corruption and afflictions turn their world upside down.

Psychological Horror

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 47
Characters in a psychological horror story are victims of their own anxiety, belief, doubt, guilt, and passion. Psychological horror is rooted in the personal. It can manifest internally, driving a character to self-destructive or appalling action. If this horror occurs externally, a character’s troubles could take phantasmal form or manifest as a monster.

Witnesses of psychological horror encounter NPCs with unnatural or troubling behaviors. Each one’s psyche compels them to do the shocking and unthinkable. Victims can find themselves facing a creature, phantasmal or real, that mirrors their own fears or guilt. Alternatively, they might instead struggle internally with a curse-like affliction using the normal Starfinder rules.

Preparing For Horror

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 48
We must ask ourselves what draws us here. What do we seek in the macabre, unsettling, and repulsive realms of horror? What is so fascinating and thrilling about such a morbid genre?

Answers to these questions are neither easy nor unanimous. As you delve together into this abyss, you could find that you and your fellow players disagree.

Before you play in any type of horror game, examine the following questions as a group, including the GM.
  • Why horror? What compels us to play a horror game?
  • What’s out? What do we leave unexplored?
  • What’s scary? Within the bounds we’ve established, what scares us the most?
The following sections examine each of these questions in more detail. But first, a word of caution:

Don’t judge your fellow players.

Everyone, player and GM alike, should answer these questions as honestly as possible. Don’t feel you need to be brave or that your answers should be edgy. You might find sexy vampires the most compelling horror, leaving all else unexplored. The scariest thought could be that such a vampire might not love you. These are legitimate answers.

Likewise, don’t conceal the horror fan that lurks inside you. Be respectful of your fellow players, and spare them unsettling or shocking details. However, if you’re fascinated by tales of forced surgery, wish to leave nothing unexplored, and can think of little more terrifying than self-inflicted violence on your own eyes, this is the genre for you.

To find the boundaries for your group, start safe and probe outward. Ask in vague terms if its okay for you to describe violence before going on to depict it. If someone says no, stop there and go no further—they don’t need to explain. You have found a boundary. Make note of it. Do not cross it.

Together, you explore horror with careful attention paid to each other’s limits and comfort. You shouldn’t judge each other for what you each find scary or for what you each find fascinating. You accept and work within the affordances and constraints you build together. Chase thrills together, but keep each other safe.

Why Horror?

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 48
Take turns naming one thing you find compelling about playing a horror game. Is it a fear you want to face? A monster you’d like to confront? A feeling? A specific scenario? What horror media have you enjoyed?

Heed your fellow players’ answers. Respond to them. Does the same thing compel you? Is it something you’re willing to explore? And if it is, does it give you any ideas about what shared interests you can explore together?

You need your players’ consent for a horror game. If someone in your group isn’t uncomfortable playing in a horror game, set it aside as a genre—there are many other great options available!

What’s Out?

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 48
It’s likely you already have some answers to this question based on the previous one. That’s as it should be. Here we find the boundaries of play. If there are places you don’t want to go in a horror game, bring them up. You needn’t explain why. You need only tell your fellow players where those boundaries are.

During this question, you might acknowledge, agree with, or ask for clarification from your fellow players. However, don’t justify why you want to explore a horror element someone else is unwilling to delve into, and never argue or push back. Enforce your pact. None shall be judged—neither them for their aversion, nor you for your interest.

What’s Scary?

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 48
Now, consider what has already been discussed and take turns finding what scares you. Players each offer horror elements they find to be scary, revealing something that terrifies them but exists within the boundaries you already established as a group.

This frightening thing doesn’t have to be specific to the Starfinder universe. It doesn’t need to be original, either. It could be a movie you saw, a book you read, another game you played, or a nightmare you’ve had.

Reasons for this exploration are twofold. First, you might find someone’s answer to this question crossing a line you didn’t know you had. Speak up, and as before, say only that you wish to leave the subject unexplored. No justification is needed. If someone stops you while you give your answer, be respectful of their boundary and find a new answer. You needn’t justify your answer. Second, this discussion sets the mood and whets your appetites. It lets you prepare for the horrors that lie ahead.

Playing Horror Games

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 48
A horror roleplaying game is not a horror movie or a novel. Differences among mediums warrant special attention. Chief among these are the players and their characters.

When you consume horror media, you can envision yourself in the characters’ place and sympathize with their plight. You can feel terror through them. Or, you can distance yourself by insisting you’d never make the mistakes they’re making, never fall for the traps they fall for, and never behave as selfishly or repugnantly as they do. You can even make this decision unconsciously as someone’s fate changes during the tale.

As you play a horror game, however, you are responsible for your character’s actions, thoughts, and behavior. Since you are the creator of these aspects of your character, you can’t make unconscious decisions about how you relate to them. You must make conscious ones.

Before you play, answer the following questions about how you prefer to play. Keep these issues in mind as you play, as well.
  • Who’s afraid? Is it the player, the character, or both?
  • Who’s the focus? Are PCs witnesses, victims, or both?
  • How can you opt out? If you find a boundary you didn’t expect, how can you retreat back across it?

Who’s Afraid?

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 49
When playing, whose fears are you addressing? They could be your fears or your character’s. The two can align, but in many cases, they won’t.

If you wish to be scared, help the GM out. Offer up fears you’re willing to face. Place your character in situations where these fears must be confronted. Be honest about your reactions to these fears, even if they aren’t your character’s. Accept the disadvantages that might occur in the game due to the horror.

Many reasons exist why someone might want to feel frightened, including the desire to witness someone overcome that fear. This form of pretending can be very effective if you play a character who doesn’t share your fears, who wanders into a dark room despite your grave misgivings. Similarly, you might wish to revel in your terror and play a character with the same fears, who flees when you would, intent on staying whole and safe.

If you want only your character to be scared, help the GM and the other players out. Offer up the PC’s fears and play to them when they show up in the game. How does your character react? The way a character reacts to a fearful situation might be contrary to what folks would expect in a typical Starfinder game. Make sure your fellow players know when a decision is your character’s decision and not yours. As your party plans the next move, your frightened character might argue against actions that you, as a player, think are strategically or narratively favorable. You can work with your fellow players to find a way to convince your character, or the group might agree to let your character make a dangerous or unhelpful choice.

Who’s The Focus?

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 49
It’s also important to consider, with the GM, whether the PCs are to be witnesses of horrors affecting those around them or they are themselves the victims of that horror. They could also move between these roles, which is usual in most horror stories.

Starfinder PCs are ready-made to be witnesses to someone else’s horror story. They can step in and apply their ample will and might to the situation. If you can adjust your expectations to such circumstances, it’s still possible to have creepy and unsettling adventures. Odds are, the PCs are unlikely to remain passive witnesses for long, but the shift in focus can be on your terms.

If you chose for your PCs to be potential victims, expectations must again be adjusted. Your character might not remain a passive victim for long, but you should spend some time relishing the terror. Embrace the fear, even if it comes with mechanical disadvantages in the game. Find small victories, and steel yourself for what’s to come. When your PC is a victim, elements that might seem unfair or unbalanced, especially in a non-horror context, can instead serve to create the horror.

Opting Out

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 49
Despite your careful planning and setting of boundaries for your horror game, you might run into a situation in which a limit is reached, whether known or previously unknown—no one can be expected to realize all their boundaries before the game. Therefore, it is vital that players are free to end a game situation that’s too much for them at any time, without having to explain and without questions or judgment from fellow players or the GM.

Before beginning play, agree on a way to allow someone to opt out as quickly and wordlessly as possible. Quickly, so the game doesn’t continue to cross a boundary, and wordlessly, so no explanation needs to be given. Each player, including the GM, might have a token they can hold up to silently indicate opting out.

When a player opts out, stop what’s happening in the game immediately. If you, as a GM, need clarification on what needs to change before the game can continue, take the player aside and talk. This conversation takes place only so you can understand what bothered the player and what the boundary is. The player doesn’t need to explain why they feel the way they do. After clarification, as with other limits agreed upon for the game, don’t cross that boundary again.

Running Horror Games

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 49
The challenge for any GM of a horror game is to take a game about brave adventurers who launch themselves into the void in search of the unknown and bring the stark terror of their reality to the forefront. This task isn’t easy, but you don’t have to do it alone. Recruit the players as your allies. Reach out to them, encourage them, and check in with them. Find out how they’re doing and how they feel you’re doing. Make sure that no one’s limits have been crossed.

If your goal is to scare the players, rather than just their characters, you need their consent and their buy-in. They can tell you what scares them and what their boundaries are. Listen to them. Ask them whether they’re willing to buy in, and help them do so if they are.

Don’t forget to scare yourself, too. Terror in a horror game shouldn’t be a one-way street. Answer the pre-game questions with the players. Find what fascinates you about the genre and what you want to explore. Share with your players before you play. Anticipation of exploring what was revealed in those exercises only serves to build tension.

If you, as a group, have decided that the characters are to be scared rather than the players, you still have plenty of horror tools, tropes, and themes at your disposal.

Here are some options that can help you build a horror experience tailored to your group.

Personal And Impersonal

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 50
When creating a menace to terrorize the PCs, the personal is scarier than the impersonal. Focus on something hooked into the story of the PCs or their players, whichever you’ve agreed to scare. Set your sights on fears brought up in the discussion with your players. Invest some time in pondering those fears, finding your menace in the metaphor. The following examples can guide you in exploring other fears.

Animals: Many folks are willing to explore a fear of animals, such as wild dogs, spiders, or sharks. But what is it about these animals that might cause fear? You can offer monstrous or alien versions of animals, but dig into why such a fear might exist. Are wild dogs scary because they’re feral versions of beloved pets? What do the PCs cherish that you can twist into a feral version? Are spiders fearsome because of the way they move or because they could be lurking anywhere? Are sharks terrifying because they move about unseen and strike from the depths? How can you tap these fears?

Infection: Hordes of undead, a lycanthrope’s bite, a worldspanning pandemic—so much horror has been drawn from the festering well of infection. The affliction rules in Starfinder and the corruption rules in this book cover what happens once you’re infected. However, it’s up to you to uncover the nature of the fear. Does it originate in vulnerability to the unseen? Is it a fear of losing agency over body or health? Could it be an apocalyptic fear about the fate of civilization? Or is it born of a deeper fear of losing your sense of self once you’ve been infected?

Invasion: Horror and science fiction genres overlap with tales of alien invasions. These incursions can take numerous forms, including military and technological might that hammers society to the ground, insidious infiltration through shapeshifting or mental domination, harvesters and butchers disguised as ambassadors, or beings from between galaxies that treat other species as trivial. Dig into the fears that can manifest in these tales. Is loss of cultural identity terrifying? Could it be a primal fear of becoming prey? Is it the terror that familiar people could turn against you?

Real And Unreal

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 50
The balance between the real and the unreal is important in a horror story. So is the power to switch between the two.

Unreal elements allow us to distance ourselves from horror. The unreal not only can produce wonder and awe, which are akin to horror, but can also offer reprieve. Imagine the following scene.

A giant pillar composed of fleshy faces twists as it towers over a barren plain. Twin suns set behind it.

That scene isn’t comforting, but it’s also unreal. Players can, therefore, hold it at a distance. If there’s too much unreality, that distance grows, overwhelming horror with mere spectacle. However, the mundane anchors us, even if its something real twisted to fit the horror. Imagine if the previous scene were presented the following way.

Your companion leans forward and takes tentative steps toward the pillar, his head cocked. He looks back, brow furrowed, and says, “Don’t you hear it? They’re whispering our names.”

As you prepare horror adventures, keep this balance in mind. Think about where you want to emphasize the unreal and where you want to nail the real. This tool can also shine in play. When you’re running your game and find you need to shake things up, ask yourself, is this situation or scene more unreal or more real? Then look for a way to push the narrative in the opposite direction.

Reason And Perception

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 50
The Starfinder universe is filled with strange beings, alien cultures, and unfamiliar ways of thinking. The PCs rely on reason and perception to take in all of this possibility and parse it into motivations and actions. Taking the PCs and shaking them from this paradigm into one that repulses or frightens them can make for compelling material. PCs unable to trust their senses or how those senses are interpreted in the mind can suffer intense anxiety. Having perceptions rewired by a drug, an experience, or a word can be truly terrifying, especially when the menace hides just beneath those alterations or in plain sight among false sensory input.

These grounds are fruitful for a horror game, and you can explore them to great effect without resorting to stigmatizing and stereotyping mental illness. Don’t talk about PCs losing their sanity. Focus instead on the shift in their perceptions and their way of thinking. Emphasize what’s actually happening to them.

In many cases, such as with the phantasm rules in this adventure, you’ll be describing things to players that their characters experience, but those situations won’t be accurate. Although it isn’t necessary to forewarn players about exact circumstances, it is important that they understand they’re partaking in situations where all is not as it seems. Some truths might be hidden, and some falsehoods might seem true. Horrible secrets might be kept from them until the right moment. All these obfuscations might have hidden mechanical effects in the game. Knowing these possibilities ahead of time allows players to prepare for disagreeable surprises that could seem unfair without this context.

Unknown And Known

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 51
Tension is a part of every adventure, horror or not, and it is most often found at that moment just before a critical roll—before the unknown becomes known. The task before you is not to create tension so much as draw it out. You want to sow doubt, causing growing anxiety over the outcome. This is a balancing act between hope and despair. Shift too far either way, and no doubt remains.

You can use the unknown and the known as tools in this vein. This tactic works much like using the real and the unreal in equal measures.

Unknown: The truth behind the horror is hidden, unknown, the mystery to be solved. Not every horror story needs a mystery, but mystery is a classic way to build tension. Hide the true menace. Show the aftermath, like so:

Globules of blood and viscera float in microgravity. Everything else in the airlock is pristine.

Or, show the prelude like so:

The countless people on the city streets stop. As a unit, they turn to stare at the same distant point. An inhuman scream from that direction hits like thunder. Then, the people start to walk toward it.

The cause remains indiscernible in either case.

Because the cause is unclear, you can reveal that cause slowly. Let the PCs chase after it, uncover clues, find red herrings, and develop theories. Don’t place your true menace in a position where it can be forced into a confrontation sooner than you want.

Known: Great tension can be found in the known. The known is horrifying when the truth is plain, and it doesn’t look good. It might look something like this:

Down the tunnel, deeper into the asteroid mine, other survivors huddle at their own barricade. A few infected creep into the intersection between their barrier and yours. Then more come, and more... and more.

In this case, the players know what’s at stake. Show them the ghastly challenge before them. Prepare them for a Pyrrhic victory. Often this sort of tension hinges on the fact that the PCs can’t save everyone. They might even have to decide who to save, and who to leave behind to a known and horrendous fate.

Isolation And Betrayal

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 51
A common theme in horror is the loss of social safeguards. This situation happens because lines of communication and routes to safety are cut off. It also happens when those who maintain safety act inappropriately. Is the real danger the unknown pathogen loose in the colony, or the doctor who’s secretly infecting colonists with it for further tests?

Starfinder PCs don’t rely on authority figures often, but in a horror game, it’s important to hold even these rare appeals to authority at bay. When preparing your game, find ways to ensure authorities can’t be reached, are less effective in response to the menace than the PCs, or have an agenda or problem that makes them as dangerous as—or even part of—the menace. For example, Stewards might arrive in good faith to help fight the mind-controlling alien symbiotes, only for each to quickly fall victim to the invaders because one of them was already under the symbiotes’ control.

Death And Rebirth

Source Starfinder #10: The Diaspora Strain pg. 51
Death is more common in horror games than in typical Starfinder games. How you plan to deal with this aspect of horror needs to be clear from the start. You and your players should set expectations before play. Everyone needs to understand how likely PC death is and how it will be treated. Some forewarning helps your players buy in.

If a PC dies, normal methods for bringing back the dead are an option. However, the intersection of science fantasy and horror offers other options, including weird science, sinister sorceries, dark pacts, and spontaneous reanimation (as with borais). Only a couple questions need to be answered. What ghastly options do PCs have for revivification? What horrific price do they have to pay to use those options?