Using media to inspire roleplaying games is a tradition that goes way back. GMs have long used films like Star Wars or Lord of The Rings* to inspire their works of fantasy and scifi. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy if your game is of the horror genre. There are many great horror films out there, but few are useful for roleplaying games. Most of them depend on tropes that genre-savvy PCs will figure out in a heartbeat. They also tend to focus heavily on a single character, as horror is a very personal thing and is often best in isolation. That won’t work for your party of half a dozen players who all expect the spotlight.
Fortunately, there are still options out there for the GM looking to kickstart their horror game. These shows and films, while not perfect, offer valuable insight that will help you scare the pants off your players. If that doesn’t motivate you to watch them, then nothing will.
1. The First and Second Season of Supernatural
CW’s drama about a pair of hunky yet emotionally vulnerable brothers hunting down monsters is now known as the show that may never end,* but back in the day it was actually scary. Before Sam and Dean could kill anything that moved, they were constantly coming up against enemies far more powerful than themselves. Not only that, but the monsters were legitimately creepy and inhuman, and their actions made just enough sense to be terrifying.
In particular, episodes like Wendigo and Phantom Traveler make for great horror. Wendigo features… well, a wendigo; a human devouring creature from Anishinabe Native American mythology. While Supernatural strays from the original stories somewhat for the sake of budget,* they kept the idea that the Wendigo was originally a human, transformed through a monstrous act of cannibalism. This made the encounter far more disturbing than a normal monster hunt.
In Phantom Traveler, Sam and Dean have to stop a demon that’s taken up the hobby of crashing commercial jetliners. Instead of going straight to the exorcism, the brothers must learn about the demon and figure out its motivations. This personally invests them, and the audience, in the story. It’s a great method to use in roleplaying games. The final confrontation also takes place in the unconventional environment of an airplane midflight, meaning that Sam and Dean are taken way out of their comfort zone.
In addition to some excellent monster ideas, Supernatural is especially useful as roleplaying fodder. Instead of running away and hiding, the characters react to horror by trying to defeat it, even when the odds are stacked against them. That’s a much more player-character reaction than you’ll find in most horror movies. GMs who can make their scenario scary even as the PCs work to defeat it will go far indeed. Supernatural is also great because it feels like a televised game of Hunter: The Vigil. You can even tell that Sam spent points in Academics and Persuasion, while Dean went with Occult and Deceit. Good character synergy there.
2. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
As every GM knows, players are genre savvy. This can be a big problem when trying to make them split up, go on long walks in the woods, or make out in an abandoned house with the power out. Behind the Mask is useful because it’s a deconstruction of horror tropes that’s still quite scary.
The premise is a documentary crew filming the titular Leslie Vernon as he trains to become the next great Slasher, in the same vain as Jason or Freddy.* Leslie walks the film crew through all the painstaking work that goes into being an unstoppable killer. He does several hours of cardio every day so he can always keep up with fleeing victims, carefully scouts out his chosen ground, and sabotages any weapons the victims might be able to use. In addition to the physical stuff, Leslie talks about the psychological tropes of a slasher movie. He discusses the “virgin survivor,” and how he looks forward to the moment one of his victims finally empowers themselves by turning on him.
The twist is that Leslie has secretly chosen the film crew to be his first victims. When the slasher rampage begins, it’s more frightening because both characters and audience understand exactly what is going on. It’s a window into why we watch slasher films in the first place.
While the exact plot of Behind the Mask wouldn’t work well for a roleplaying game,* it’s great for understanding the way PCs interact with tropes. Simply putting a horror trope in your game is more likely to result in mockery than fear. On the other hand, if you explore the trope, maybe make fun of it a little, your players will be much more accepting. They’ll be in on the trick, rather than feeling like it’s being played on them.
Getting PCs to go along with the conventions of a horror story can be hugely valuable, especially in one shots. We’re all familiar with those tropes, so acting them out is a lot of fun, so long as no one feels like they’re being made a chump.
3. The Secret of NIMH
That’s right, the heartwarming story of a plucky mouse trying to save her family is ripe for horror inspiration! Well, certain parts of it anyway. There’s the obvious owl scene, complete with giant spiders and crumbling bones, but that’s just a matter of scary imagery. What makes the movie a true source of horror is the theme of mice trying to deal with a human world.
Near the beginning, Mrs. Brisby* has to stop a tractor from plowing over the field where her family lives. Mrs. Brisby is a mouse. The tractor is built for humans. You see the problem. The scene plays more like action than horror, but it contains two important themes. First, the tractor is a problem so massive that Mrs. Brisby has difficulty understanding it, let alone stopping it. The unknown is great for putting the creeps on your players. Second, the tractor is indifferent to her. Neither it nor its human operator are trying to destroy her home, they’re just doing what they do. Cosmic horror often depends on the threat being ambivalent to humans, rather than hostile. It’s the basis for much of the Lovecraft Mythos, and an absolute must if you plan on bringing Cthulhu or his ilk into your game.
The theme continues when Mrs. Brisby learns the story of how Nicodemus and his rats escaped NIMH, the experimentation center. It shows how the world we live in can be made horrific with a change of perspective. The uncanniness of watching intelligent rats escape from a human built prison is not to be underestimated, especially when they get into the air-vents. The idea of climbing through a vent and being sucked into a giant fan is not only terrifying, but a credible scenario for rats.*
The Secret of NIMH transitions well from horror into more laid back scenes. The parts with Mrs. Brisby’s family are touching, and the big climax is more thriller than horror. The movie manages these transitions without clashing, which is a valuable lesson for GMs everywhere. It’s difficult for a campaign to be all horror, all the time, so you must be able to maintain story cohesion when the game changes gears. Secret of NIMH does this by tying every scene to a central theme – Mrs. Brisby trying to save her family. Because the entire film relates back to that story, the audience is willing to be scared in one scene and excited the next.
4. American Horror Story
The title is a giveaway, but this series from FX is chock full of great material for a horror campaign.* Specifically, how to start small and build to something amazing. And terrifying. Amazingly terrifying.
American Horror Story’s first season is about a small family moving into a haunted house, and somehow it manages to put a new spin on that old yarn. It’s perfect for GMs looking to run a small, personal game. If AHS were a roleplaying game, only the three family members would be PCs. The rest would be supporting NPCs, put there by the GM to play on the secret weaknesses and fears of each character. Horror is much easier to do with a smaller group, so this is something you should be considering anyway.
The horror in AHS is slow burning and takes time to mature properly. There’s very little “adventure” to be had, and even the investigations are secondary to the interpersonal relationships. The show does contain some gore, but that’s not what makes it scary. Instead, the terror comes from the psychological elements. Each main character is taken down their own path to hell by people who know just what to say at just the right time.
To accomplish this in a roleplaying game, the GM and players need excellent communication. It’s vital for the GM to know exactly what makes each PC tick, so they can provide tailor-made guides on the road to madness. It’s probably the most difficult kind of horror on this list to emulate, but it’s rewarding if you and your group are willing to put in the effort.
5. Attack on Titan
At first glance, Attack on Titan* looks more like high action fantasy than horror. It’s about dual-wielding badasses with Spiderman-style grappling belts who kill giants. How scary can it be? Oh, the giants’ sole purpose is to eat humans alive? And they have uncannily gleeful grins plastered over their faces when they do? And some of them DON’T HAVE SKIN? That’s not even considering that all of humanity is confined to a steadily shrinking area of walled territory, with extinction looming ever closer on the horizon.
What makes the titans horrifying isn’t just their gruesome way of killing people, although that certainly helps. It’s that they represent an ever growing and seemingly unstoppable threat. Humanity has thrown up countless defences against them in over a century of fighting, and none of it has been enough. The characters aren’t going out adventuring against distant threats to civilization; they’re struggling to survive against a threat which has already brought civilization to its knees. Attack on Titan* is the mirror image to Secret of NIMH. Instead of representing an uncaring danger, the titans are a manifestation of malicious intent. They exist only to kill humans, and no one knows why.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Attack on Titan to aspiring horror GMs is the way it handles character advancement. It’s often difficult to maintain horror in roleplaying games as the PCs gain experience and become more capable. At some point, their new abilities make the game less threatening. One way to handle this is to have very low powered characters, but Attack on Titan takes a different approach.
The characters spend a story arc training to kill titans, and eventually they become quite good at it. Just when it seems like the show has lost its edge, a new type of enemy is revealed that knows exactly how to defeat them. This foe is made all the more terrifying because the audience has grown a little complacent, expecting that the characters will always be able to handle what gets thrown at them.
If you can capture this process in your game, then you have the best of two worlds. On the one hand, your PCs will get all the powerful abilities they need for their scenario of empowerment. On the other, you still get to scare them silly. To do it, you’ll want a suitably mysterious enemy. That way it will be much easier to justify whatever change occurs to make them more dangerous. If the threat is a living embodiment of cosmic radiation, then perhaps it changes its wavelength, rendering the PC’s protective suits useless. If bloodthirsty vampires are more your style, then the characters could encounter a new group of them who cover their hearts and necks in armor. There must be more to it than an abstract ‘level up’. The threat must fundamentally change in some way.
Of course, no TV show or movie can teach you how to run your game, but they can get you thinking in the right direction. Whenever you watch something scary, think about what it’s doing to affect you, and ask yourself if it can be adapted to roleplaying. Often the answer will be no, but there’s a lot of material out there. If you’re the kind of GM who enjoys horror, you don’t need much excuse to watch more of it. Horror is probably the most difficult genre for roleplaying, and you deserve all the help you can get.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.