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Horror Campaigns

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?