This article originally appeared in Pyramid #9
Mock horror adventures are one-shots based on low-budget, high-gore "slasher flicks" and satirical horror movies. The plots are simple, the player characters are common people, and there tends to be a lot of screaming.
Mock Horror Adventures
by Scott Paul Maykrantz
da horror . . . da horror . . .
Mock horror adventures have a shock appeal and a low level of sophistication, just like most of your fellow gamers. The three key elements are (1) gore, (2) cheesy, juvenile plots and creatures, and (3) Tor Johnson. These are adventures for those of you who can't decide which you like more, Friday the 13th or Plan 9 from Outer Space. (You'll also find inspiration in Young Frankenstein and Scooby Doo.)
Not everything in the adventure has to make sense. In fact, almost nothing makes sense. Production values are low. The characters don't actually see the zipper on the monster's back, but no one would be surprised if they did. The player characters are common people, not heroes. When they are in peril, they scream, run, and fight frantically. They want to survive, not save the world.
Mock horror adventures can take place in any age or any world. Most take place in modern America, but other exotic environments are possible -- World War I or World War II, a post-holocaust world, Iowa, outer space, the bottom of the ocean, any foreign country with a name ending in "vania," the Roaring 20s, the Dark Ages, or the near future.
The "plot" of a mock adventure is simple. Immediately after the PCs meet each other, they discover that they are trapped in their current setting with a Menace (a creature, a psychopath, etc.) that can kill them in a very gory manner. The Menace is much more powerful than they are. But they've got lots of running room, a few places to hide, and (if they're resourceful) they might find something they can use to destroy the Menace. When the sun comes up the next morning, either the Menace or the player characters are dead. The end.
These adventures are a great way to introduce your players to the horror roleplaying genre, or just to take a break from your current campaign. You can create and play a mock adventure all in one night.
Hey! How Do I Design a Mock Horror Adventure?
It's easy. First, come up with a theme and a title for the adventure. Next, create the Menace -- the creature (or creatures) that the PCs must destroy in order to survive. Map the various settings where the action will take place. Let the players create their characters, and then start playing.
Each of these steps is detailed in the next few pages. This is followed by a short section about playing the adventure you've created.
These adventure design guidelines are quick. Mock adventures are meant to be laughingly simple, so there is no need for complex plots or skillful character roleplaying. Just wing it.
The Theme and Title
The theme of a mock horror adventure is the one scary idea on which the adventure is based. Yes, one idea -- the plot should be painfully simplistic. The theme can be (a) the location where most of the conflict takes place, (b) the Menace of the adventure, or (c) an object that plays an important role in the adventure. You should be able to sum up the theme with a short phrase. This phrase is your adventure title.
Example: The theme is a hotel where the adventure takes place. It's a castle in the Transylvanian highlands. The proprietor is Mister Hans Sate. The title of the adventure is "The Sate Inn." The adventure takes place in some pre-World War II era. Although the hotel's guests never come back alive, travel guides recommend it (especially the food, served by Master Chef Hannibal).
The Menace is the evil thing that threatens to murder the PCs: an alien, a vampire, a robot, a demon, a living house, whatever. The Menace can be a group of creatures: a horde of zombies, a swarm of huge bats, a trio of psychos, or an otherworldly creature with a handful of hench-things. To create your Menace (or customize an existing creature), use these five steps.
Example: The Menace in "The Sate Inn" is a small army of deformed, possibly-undead humanoids called Monster Men. Their leader is a gargoyle-like creature with a human head that lives in the bowels of the castle: Hans Sate himself.
1. What Can It Do?
If you're designing your own Menace, here's a few tips. First of all, get a feel for the type of creatures and psychos that appear in slasher flicks. Few are fast or smart. Most of them are very large, very strong, dumb, grotesque, and eager to mutilate helpless humans. Hey, can you blame them?
Second, powers should be of the physical, combat-intensive variety. The Menace doesn't need telepathy because it isn't looking for information; it just wants to kill, and resist attacks against it so it can keep killing. Violent psionic abilities, most super powers, and natural attack advantages are appropriate.
Third, goofy Menaces are best. If it is an alien, it should have a laser rifle and speak perfect English. If you can't help but imagine the Menace in black and white, you're on the right track.
The Menace might have some abilities that are difficult to define in game terms. Don't worry about getting everything down to hard numbers and Character Point costs, as long as you have a good idea what the Menace can do. If the Menace is an army of zombies and the people it kills become zombies, just make a note of it; don't search for just the right advantage or skill to simulate this effect.
Example: The Monster Men are Walking Dead (see GURPS Horror, p. 67), but worse. Their entrails hang out of their bodies. They moan and howl. They drool. They rarely bathe. They can be found lurking around every corner of the castle. Most use an old tool or heavy object as a weapon (choose from the sidebar on p. H75). Note that Monster Men can be inexplicably armed with modern implements like garden weasels -- a little dose of bad continuity never hurt anyone . . .
Hans Sate has ST 50, IQ 12, DX 4, and HT 15/70. He has DR 30 and regenerates 1 HT per minute! He suffers from Lecherousness, Megalomania, Sadism, Delusions, Halitosis, etc. He has taloned toes (+1d cutting); his strength does 5d+2 thrust, 8d-1 swing (but he misses almost every time).
He can transform humans into Monster Men by hypnotizing them. He has Hypnosis-17. After a successful roll, the victim falls unconscious. Then the transformation begins. 3d minutes later, the victim is a Monster Man, totally subservient to Hans Sate.
2. Where Did It Come From?
Give the Menace a little background, where it came from and how it was created. You don't have to go into too much detail. The background can be tied into the clue to the Menace's Critical Weakness (more on that later).
Some possible places of origin include: another world (a dimension, planet, or time), a laboratory, a tomb or grave, the basement of an old building, or an acre or two of untouched wilderness (the bottom of a canyon, the inside of a cave, an eerie forested hilltop in an Indian reservation, etc.).
Example: Hans Sate sold his soul to the devil. In exchange for his soul, the devil magically paid off the castle's mortgage. As an afterthought, the devil transformed Hans, gave Hans super powers, and turned all the hotel's guests into Monster Men. The devil is like that.
3. What Does It Want?
Choose one of these three:
It Wants to Kill: The Menace wants to kill every creature it encounters. Maybe it needs to kill to survive. Or maybe it's just having a bad day. This is often the most terrifying goal -- the Menace concentrates solely on murder, so it must be good at it.
It Wants to Increase its Power: The Menace wants to increase its power by perpetrating some deed regularly (kill innocent people, hypnotize people into becoming its servants, etc.). We don't know what the Menace will do with its increased power. All it wants for now is to get stronger. If the PCs can't stop it, they'll be dead before they find out.
It Wants to Rule the World: The Menace wants it all -- total power over everything. This can be Earth, the galaxy, or even the whole universe. It has a scheme to achieve this goal, and the PCs are the only thing standing in its way. This goal could include the other two goals: the Menace kills to increase its power, which in turn allows it to rule the world.
Example: Hans wants to increase his power. He does this by transforming hapless male visitors into Monster Men. Females are forced to sire his children, who are then transformed into Monster Men. The children of Hans are all male. What will he do when the castle is full of Monster Men? He hasn't thought about that yet.
4. How Will it React to Opposition?
The PCs are going to try to stop the Menace from achieving its goal. Make a note of what the Menace will do when it encounters resistance. Responses come in three categories.
Basic responses are what the Menace does against all non-threatening resistance. When the Menace first runs into the PCs, this is its response. This will be its most common mode of attack -- its claws, spells, axe, whatever.
Responses to potent resistance are responses triggered by the Menace's survival instinct. These responses occur when the Menace feels it is in danger of being seriously injured or killed. This will involve backup plans, secret weapons, or more vicious attacks.
Last ditch responses are the Menace's final stabs at survival. This occurs when the Menace is mortally wounded and/or is in great danger of being destroyed. This is its Big Attack, its Secret Weapon.
Of course, the exact modes of resistance depend on the brains of the Menace. If the Menace is a horde of giant bats, none of their responses will involve strategic counterattacks on the PCs. Their response to potent resistance will be to claw and bite even more than usual. Their last ditch response will be to try to escape. If the Menace is a gang of demon-worshipers, their responses will be carefully planned, involving special weapons and combat strategies.
Example: The basic response of the Monster Men is to claw, bite, and attack with weapons. Their response to potent resistance is to shriek and make All-Out Attacks. Their last ditch response is to shriek . . . and run away.
Hans Sate's basic response is his hypnosis. His response to potent resistance is to smash assailants with his fists, claw at them, taunt them and make fun of their haircuts, whack them with his wings, or slash at them with his tail. His last ditch response is to run away (to fight again later).
5. What Is Its Critical Weakness?
The Menace should have a Critical Weakness, a vulnerability that allows the PCs to destroy it. The PCs will have to learn the Menace's Critical Weakness during the course of the adventure. Go ahead and define the Critical Weakness in game terms (probably a Vulnerability, Dependency, or Weakness).
Some possible Critical Weaknesses include: vulnerable to fire, hypnotized by bright light, lulled by music, will do anything for a slice of Spam, will obey anyone who threatens to harm or destroy a person or object that means a lot to it (for example, the Menace has a DNPC the PCs could kidnap), can't swim or survive under water, destroyed by a certain spell, dependent on a drug to stay alive.
The Critical Weakness will either kill the Menace, or make it weak enough to be killed with conventional weapons. The PCs have to use the Critical Weakness to survive the adventure.
Example: The Monster Men die when frightened! Anything that might scare a regular person has the same chance to scare a Monster Man. And, because the Monster Men are stupid, wearing a sheet and moaning a lot might work! Make a Fright Check for all the Monster Men present when the players come up with a good scare. If it fails, they crumble to dust. If they make the roll, they All-Out Attack.
Don't worry if the players get good at this. There's an effectively infinite number of Monster Men. And -- let's face it -- the players will have fun devising frights for zombies.
The Critical Weakness of Hans Sate is his throat. His DR there is 0. Ten hits in one blow with a cutting weapon will decapitate him.
Decide where this adventure takes place. It will take place in one area. The area can be rather large -- a small town or island. But it might be very small -- a cabin, a ten-man spacecraft, a theater.
A great way to come up with a detailed setting is to find a high-quality map in a roleplaying game product (a GURPS book, or some other game product). The map could be part of a superhero adventure, a fantasy sourcebook, or anything else. Fantasy adventures offer great maps of castles and underground tunnels. And most superhero adventures have maps of modern places like museums or a few floors of a skyscraper.
You might even find a group of maps, the first of the general area and the others offering detailed views of certain sections of the area. Suppose the setting is a small New England town. You'll want a map of the entire town, supported by maps of each major building, the local sewer system, the park, and the graveyard.
Whatever the setting, it must fit these two requirements:
(1) The PCs cannot escape until the Menace is destroyed.
(2) There are hidden locations in the setting which hold the clues to the Menace's Critical Weakness.
The player characters will discover soon enough that they can't escape until the Menace is dead. They are isolated from the outside world, and cannot get help.
Their imprisonment might involve physical barriers. They could be in a haunted house with shifting rooms, preventing them from finding a door or window that leads to the outdoors. They could be on an island with no access to a boat or plane. They could be locked in the dungeon of a castle, trapped until they can pry open one of the thick oak doors that leads to the ground level.
Their imprisonment can also be emotional. A DNPC could be held prisoner by the Menace. Or maybe the Menace is a loved one who has been transformed; the PCs must "kill" the Menace by causing it to change back.
As the PCs explore the setting they should find hidden locations, small places that are hard to reach or locate. This could be a secret room under ground, an attic, a natural shelf at the top of a cliff, a nook behind the engine room in an ocean-liner, or a tiny island in the middle of small lake.
Some of the hidden locations will contain information about the Critical Weakness, and/or weapons used to attack this vulnerability. Other hidden locations are just used to hide from the Menace, a place to rest and plan a survival strategy.
Each hidden location should be hard to find but easy to enter, or easy to find but hard to enter.
For example, let's say the adventure takes place on an old satellite space station. The PCs search the on-board computer and learn that there is a secret chamber somewhere on board. The Menace has been chasing them around the space station. It has already gobbled up all of the NPCs, and it's hot on the PC's trail. But the computer does not say where the chamber is located. Eventually, they find it -- a small lab located under the cargo bay floor. They have no trouble entering the lab. Alternately, the computer could show the exact location of the lab right off the bat but, when the PCs arrive, they find the Menace in the cargo bay, waiting for them.
At least one hidden location in the setting must be stocked with the key to the Critical Weakness. This can be a weapon that strikes at its Critical Weakness, or something that merely tells them what the Critical Weakness is. If the latter, they have to find the weapon in another hidden location, or construct it themselves.
If the Critical Weakness is a spell, a book containing the spell (describing exactly how to cast it) should be in the location. If the Critical Weakness is music (soft melodies put it to sleep), then the hidden location can contain a phonograph player, stereo system, or whatever music-playing instrument is appropriate to the setting.
The key to the Critical Weakness does not have to be immediately obvious or usable. The PCs may have to test their Critical Weakness-attacking weapon. Or, they may have to find a second hidden location and combine items found in both.
Example: The Sate Inn has the same floor plan (coincidentally enough) as Ravenloft Castle in TSR's Ravenloft. Once the PCs enter, the doors slam shut. A raging storm outside keeps them from climbing out of windows and down the walls. There are lots of hidden locations -- just take a look at the map and let your imagination run wild.
Two locations will reveal Hans' Critical Weakness (the Monster Men's Critical Weakness will have to be discovered by accident). In a room full of books, there is a big red tome that begs to be examined. Inside is a picture of a creature that looks vaguely like Hans (bat wings, small human head, etc.). The text describes a mythic warrior killing the creature by decapitating it. The second location is a room holding one of Hans' expectant mothers; she almost got away from Hans when she tried to choke him. She's fairly sure that's his weak spot because he yelled out, "Hey! Not my throat! That's my weak spot!"
Stock the Setting
After you've found or created a setting that meets the two requirements, stock the setting.
Stock the setting with vehicles, tools, weapons, clothing, old junk in storage, books, appliances, furniture, etc. You don't have to list every single item, of course. Just make a map key and list the general types of places. From the place descriptions, you should have a good idea what can be found there. For example, if Room #4 is a "Study," we can assume it has plenty of books, a desk, and a few chairs. When the PC get to a particular location in the setting, then you'll have to decide exactly what can be found there.
Feel free to stock the settings with weapons . . . but only those weapons that cannot easily kill or cripple the Menace. If the PCs are being chased by a 40-foot spider, steak knives will not hurt it. So the setting can have as many steak knives on the premises as you want.
Of course, the PCs could come up with resourceful uses for a handful of steak knives. Encourage this. They might use the knives to attack the spider's vulnerable eyes. Or, they could line the bottom of a pit with steak knives, then trick the spider into falling into it.
Items that do not require resourcefulness to be effective should be hard to get to, operate, or move. In other words, balance all of the truly valuable stuff with limitations. If the PCs are in dire need for a source of light, any light source should be difficult to find or use, or impossible to transport.
Example: The castle/hotel is full of medieval stuff, early 20th Century stuff, and some anachronistic modern stuff. The guests of the past decades have dragged just about everything into the place, so go wild. There are also quite a few swords (perfect for decapitating people, if you know what I mean). The castle also has lots of really gross stuff in it: dismembered bodies, puddles of blood, Spam, muck and guck in the plumbing system, two-headed rats, heads rolling down the stairs, etc.
Characters in a mock adventure are not heroes. Special circumstances may push them to make desperate actions that seem heroic (see Heroic Responses, below), but they are not courageous adventurers.
They only want to get away from the Menace alive. A character who wants to save others from the Menace (in addition to himself) will invariably convince himself that the best way to save the others is to save himself first so he can find help. The characters won't sacrifice each other to save themselves (no backstabbing is necessary to stay in character), but they won't stick around to save everyone else if they can get away, either.
The Player Characters are always 25-pointers . . . or less. They come from realistic walks of life. They have normal lives and they want to keep it that way. To them, a boring, non-glamorous existence is infinitely preferable to a gruesome death by supernatural forces.
Don't allow FBI agents, special operations soldiers, or telepathic Olympic athletes. If a player wants a character who can fight, let him play a former amateur boxer, an ex-con, or a bouncer.
Character professions should be funny. Pick one that is a) so mundane, it's humiliating, b) completely irrelevant, c) strange and impossible to describe, or d) all of the above. Examples:
a) Assembly-line worker, clothing inspector, janitor, garbage collector, ditch-digger, tele-marketer, door-to-door salesman.
b) Professional cheerleader, RPG freelancer, Caucasian "world music" critic, bingo organizer, weather man on local news, mall security.
c) USFS AFCM of the CWP-FCNR (south branch), performance artist, mung specialist, fiberglass finish re-furbish consultor.
d) Graveyard shift guy at Kinko's.
Playing a common, run-of-the-mill police officer is fine. You're bound to have at least one player who wants to play a cop, if only so he can justify a high Guns skill level. But don't allow a player to play special agents, investigative officers, or Dirty Harry.
Characters with abilities beyond the norm are not appropriate for this type of adventure.
Skills should fit the character's profession. Don't pick a skill just because you like it or you think it might be useful (it's hard to justify a plumber who knows ninja-style martial arts). Some skills can be attributed to hobbies, non-professional interests, and former occupations . . . but don't push it.
Resourcefulness Skills: Some skills will signify the measure of a character's resourcefulness. Engineering, Armoury, Mechanic, and Scrounging can be used to build weapons from available mechanical parts, or to identify and use unusual machinery. For example, Elliot the Electronics Expert uses his Engineering skill to build a wire net at the foot of a tower supporting high-voltage power lines. He plans to lure the Menace to the net so it will fry itself on the wires.
Streetwise, Survival, Fast-Talk, Hobby Skills, and many Professional Skills are also significant resourcefulness skills. A character with HS: Undead Lore might be able to identify what kind of creature is after him . . . and how to kill it. Of course, the player has to come up with the resourceful ideas -- the skill roll just determines if it works or not.
Disadvantages: All appropriate disadvantages are allowed. Players who take inappropriate (or too many) Disadvantages will pay the price when the GM brings them into play. If your plumber's Enemy is the US Government (very unlikely), the Secret Service will show up at the beginning of the adventure and arrest him, forcing the player out of the game before it even begins. And then they'll confiscate everyone's computers.
Some Disadvantages are recommended. Dependent NPCs can be used by the GM to make the adventure more suspenseful (when the DNPC is missing, everyone searches frantically), and to keep the PCs in the setting (the Menace has the DNPC in its clutches). Mental disadvantages are appropriate when they reflect the mental attitude of a common, mundane person. Recommended: Pacifism (Code Against Killing), Mild Phobia of the supernatural, Intolerance.
Personalities should be simplistic, even stereotypical. If a player wants to, he can have a little fun playing an over-stereotyped character. For example, an over-stereotyped nerd would carry a pocket protector full of pens and pencils, have black-rimmed glasses with tape on the bridge, and would become catatonically shy around attractive members of the opposite sex. Of course, the over-stereotyped nerd will also have a high IQ . . .
Other stereotypes are possible, but be sure to avoid insulting your fellow gamers. This is one aspect of mock horror films that you don't need to recreate. Playing a nerd is fine, but no one will be amused if you play a stereotypical Southern bigot, or a woman who can't do anything but scream and shed her clothes.
Heroic Responses: For every player character, there is one situation that will trigger a heroic response -- the character will risk his life, sanity, and soul to change the situation. This situation stirs something deep inside the character, making him forget all present dangers. Usually, the situation is a threat to a loved one's life.
Each player should come up with one heroic response situation for his character. Make sure the situations are not too specific ("Becomes heroic when his nephew is kidnapped by Russian zombies in July.") or vague ("Becomes heroic when he or anyone around him is in danger."). Good examples include: a doctor becomes heroic when one of her patients is in a critical condition; a boy with a faithful pet dog becomes heroic when his dog is killed; a veteran soldier becomes heroic when anyone who has saved his life is in danger; any character becomes heroic when his or her loved one's life is threatened.
Create a few NPCs when you stock the setting. NPCs are created just like PCs, except their personalities are even more simplistic and they have no heroic responses. When faced with danger, all but the stupidest or craziest NPCs will run.
They come in four general varieties: cannon-fodder, caricatures, local weirdoes, and the savior. None of them are required parts of a mock horror adventure. The first two types will be used if the adventure takes place in a populated area. The second two are purely optional.
Tor JohnsonST 17
Advantages and Disadvantages
Big, bald, ugly guy
Speaks broken English
Freakish (in a cuddly sort of way)
Has a secret desire to direct
a major Hollywood film
Acting (specialization: slack-jawed zombies)-21
Acting (specialization: slack-jawed detectives)-21
Tor is friend.
Tor big movie star.
Every adventure must have a big, bald, dumb guy NPC -- this is Tor Johnson, from Plan 9.
These NPCs are born to die. They are normal, mundane people who just happen to get killed more often than player characters. This gives the PCs someone to run into, briefly converse with, and then discover seconds later horribly mutilated by the Menace. Their personalities are irrelevant, and so are their stats.
These characters are just like cannon-fodder NPCs, except that only one of each type exists in the adventure. They are colorful stereotypes. The personality of each can be summed up in a quote. Here's a few possible caricature NPCs.
The Witness: "A-and then . . . I saw the thirty-foot Koala . . . tear Professor Jackson's head off! It was awful I tell you, awful! <sob>"
The Old Sheriff: "You saw a what? Have you been drinking?"
The Young Sheriff: "Wait, sir. I've got a gut-feeling she's not lying."
The Brainy Doctor/Scientist: "Don't interrupt me! Can't you see I'm working?"
The Hillbilly/Backwoodsman: "You all git offa my land!"
The Local Weirdo
The local weirdo is a neighborhood fixture. He lives with the general populace and can go wherever he wants, but he chooses to keep to himself most of the time.
He has a strange appearance and unusual mannerisms. He might twitch, smell like gasoline, scratch himself constantly, argue with himself, act like a bird, wear a white stripe in his hair, carry a dead animal in a sack, continuously write notes in a ragged notebook, or call everyone "Betty." For inspiration, watch a David Lynch movie.
In the adventure, the local weirdo encounters the PCs, says and does something funny (or eerie), then he leaves. When the weirdo speaks, he may quote a prophecy regarding the PCs (which may come true or not), ask them random questions ("What's your mother's maiden name? Why? Do you think that's my last name?"), or pretend he's somebody he obviously is not (he introduces himself as the Duke of Windsor).
He will make from one to four of these brief appearances in the adventure. What he says and does may or may not have an effect on the adventure -- that's for the GM to know and the players to find out.
The savior NPC is the GM's tool to help the PCs survive -- when the PCs are dangerously close to dying and everyone is having too much fun to end the adventure, the savior NPC shows up to keep them alive. Use this type of character sparingly, as he tends to steal the limelight.
The savior is a parapsychologist, ghost detective, outdoorsman (if the adventures place in the wilderness), scientist, medical doctor, cop, etc. Most of his aid comes in the form of advice, information, and shouts of "Look out!" that warn the PCs just in time. Physical disadvantages (blind, lame, weak from sickness or old age) will help limit the savior's ability to assist the PCs.
Before the final scene in the adventure (when the PCs destroy the Menace), the savior NPC will be killed by the Menace. He will be a martyr, having given his life to save the PCs. As he dies, he will give them vital information as his last words. This death will force the PC to destroy the Menace themselves -- the savior can't do everything for them.
Example: "The Sate Inn" is open for lots of NPCs. The other hotel guests are cannon-fodder, locals can show up as caricatures, and there's room for two or three local weirdoes. If a savior is introduced, he could be a visiting scientist, a veteran soldier, a cliffhanging adventurer, or maybe Elvis.
Playing a Mock Horror Adventure
You've created your adventure. You've got a theme and title, a Menace, a well-stocked setting, a handful of player characters, and a few NPCs. Now you can play it.
For the most part, mock horror adventures are played just like any other kind of adventure. The differences are described below.
The Establishing Scenes
All mock horror adventures start off with these three establishing scenes: the PCs meet each other, the PCs meet the Menace, the PCs learn they are trapped. If this adventure was a 90-minute "slasher movie," these scenes would take place in the first half-hour.
When the PCs (and NPCs) meet each other, let everyone roleplay a little. This scene occurs during daylight hours, ending just as the sun goes down. Everyone will have fun acquainting themselves with the rest of the PC group. During this scene, a character might develop a "crush" on another character (which may result in a Heroic Response later in the adventure). Some characters will also develop rivalries.
Soon after the sun goes down, the Menace shows up. You can introduce the Menace through mysterious disappearances of some of the NPCs, an outright attack by the Menace, or both. Either way, as soon as the night comes, the players will know that they are in immediate danger of being horribly killed. If the players roleplay accurately, their characters' first response will be to get as far as possible from the Menace. But, as they try to escape, they discover that they are trapped.
Now the adventure is under way. The chase is on.
After the establishing scenes, the PCs are chased around the setting by the Menace. They have to survive long enough to find the hidden locations in the setting, discover the Menace's Critical Weakness, and prepare to destroy the Menace. This is the majority of the adventure; in a ninety-minute film, the chase starts after the first half-hour, and lasts until the final ten minutes.
Keep the chase suspenseful. The Menace should be a hair's-breadth away from grabbing and killing the PCs. If a PC hurts the Menace, it will slow down or run away (only to return, of course). The PCs can use this time to search for a way to destroy the Menace.
If they keep trying to escape, let them know that they are wasting their time. Once they accept the fact that they have to destroy the Menace to escape, their chances of surviving increase.
If a player comes up with a viable method of escape before the Menace has been destroyed, delay the escape plan or throw in a random event that makes the escape plan impossible. If the PCs call on a radio for help, delay the saviors until dawn. If the PCs fix an old helicopter and are about to fly away, an NPC could hijack the craft and leave the PCs behind.
Keep It Scary, Bloody, and Goofy
To scare everyone, use shock effects like ambush attacks by the Menace, explosions, and sudden discoveries of the Menace's past victims. Throw in a few incidental surprises as well, horrors that don't have any relation to the Menace. You could trap the PCs in a tomb full of decaying corpses. They might run into a batch of vermin, snakes, or spiders.
If your players like gore, go for it. Describe dismemberments in fine detail, throw in a few feasting cannibals, and be creative in your methods of killing characters. Use minor NPCs to illustrate how the Menace eliminates its enemies.
A few game mastering blunders -- and outright contradictions -- can be fun. The adventure will be more like a low-budget movie if the Menace somehow gains a second set of arms halfway through the gaming session. Don't explain it, just keep playing. The players will have a good laugh.
Screaming is more appropriate than dialogue. Don't allow discussion during frantic chases, combat, or terrifying encounters; no one talks when they're trying desperately to stay alive. Remind the players that their characters are not heroic adventurers. They should run from danger, not confront it.
Another attitude to roleplay is disbelief -- characters will convince themselves that there's no such thing as supernatural horrors. The character thinks it's all a big prank . . . until he meets the Menace face-to-face.
Bad acting is essential. Overdo it every time. And make sure your character's emotions turn on and off like a light switch. One minute he's stricken with grief, sobbing over the dead body of a friend, and the next he's laughing when one of the other characters cracks a joke.
Hey! Give 'em a Fighting Chance
If the PCs are going to survive, they have to find the hidden locations and learn about the Critical Weakness. They also need to find the weapons that can be used against the Critical Weakness. As the adventure goes on, increase the number of clues (and lucky opportunities) that will lead them to hidden locations and information. Even if the PCs die in the end, the adventure will be enjoyable if they at least made it to the final battle.
Keep All of the Players Involved
When a PC dies, there are ways to keep the player in the game. One way is to convert a major NPC into a new player character. Or, the player can help the GM by giving him scary ideas and taking the role of some of the NPCs; this makes the GM's job easier and can add a lot of new twists to an existing game. Better yet, let the player act as the narrator -- in his best imitation of Orson Wells (or James Earl Jones), the player can passionately describe the actions of the remaining PCs and the settings for the rest of the adventure.
The Final Battle!
The chase ends when the PCs know the Critical Weakness, they have the weapons needed to strike at that Critical Weakness, and they are too tired to keep running. They are about to begin the climax of the adventure: the final battle.
This is a battle between the PCs and the Menace. The Menace will use its Last Ditch Responses. The PCs will be triggered to action by their Heroic Responses. They will use the weapons that exploit the Critical Weakness. This climatic battle should take place in a dramatic location: the edge of a cliff, a temple room, the tower of a castle, etc.
Unlike the rest of the adventure, the final battle feels like the climax of a first-rate romantic adventure. These final scenes are full of young men leaping into the jaws of doom to save their girlfriends, unexpected heroes drawing on hidden reserves of determination, and the destruction of a creature that threatens the lives of unseen innocents. If this part of the adventure becomes an engaging drama for the players, forget being silly until it's over. If it stays silly, make it worse.
If the PCs survive, they heave a sigh of relief and look forward to returning to their normal lives. If they die -- well, the game's over and the bad guys won. Hopefully, a failed adventure will end in a punch line.
As the Credits Roll
Any surviving PCs will look around at each other, amazed and dead-tired, surprised that they survived. The sun comes up. Any calls for help (by radio, messenger, or otherwise) made during the chase will be answered at this time (calls for help are always answered too late).
Some of the "surviving" PCs may not have escaped the Menace fully intact. A character may be alive, but incurably insane -- the horrors he faced were too much for his fragile mind. A character might destroy the Menace just after he has received a mortal wound or lost a limb. He falls after delivering the final blow to the Menace, surviving long enough for some melodramatic last words.
Back to Our Example . . .
When playing "The Sate Inn," the establishing scenes can be full of bad tourism jokes (assuming the PCs are Americans). Make good use of the line "We have only one room, but it's haunted." To get them checked in, Hans could have a human underling like Igor, an old man who does everything from bellhop to chef. Let the chase begin after the characters have bedded down for the night.
Once they relax, the fun begins. Maybe a Monster Man will bring them room service. They could hear noises (distant screams, etc.) and start creeping around the castle. Any DNPCs are sure to disappear as soon as the lights go out.
Roleplay Hans as a violent but stupid madman. He tries to act like an intellectual when he encounters the PCs, but he always comes off sounding dumb. "I'm the Einstein of evil! Only my mindless Monster Men are smart enough to recognize my great power!" During the final battle, make sure he trashes enough of the castle to start it crumbling after he dies. Just before he dies, he says: "My plan would have worked if it weren't for you meddling kids." When he dies, the Monster Men die.
Article publication date: October 1, 1994
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