Halloween Surprises

As we’re approaching the season for horror gaming, it’s worth considering some ways to surprise your players with something different but recognisable. It’s always good to revisit the classics, like zombies and werewolves etc. But the classics are so well known they can be predictable and even a little cliché sometimes. One way to revitalise them is to take some of the expected tropes and turn them on their heads. It’s a good way to mess with your player’s expectations and keep them on the back foot, but still deliver some classic horror.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Fast Moving Zombies (Dawn of the Dead)

Zombies are usually slow moving and easy to avoid, but the walking dead are often a lot scarier when they are running. Fast moving zombies are not that unusual now though so you may have to trick your players. In most cases your zombies should be slow and ponderous, but as soon as they get a smell of human brains they leap into action. Seeing them slouch around will lull the players into a false sense of security, Only when they are in the thick of them do they realise that once they get too close the undead are much harder to escape.

Vampires That Don’t Drink Blood (Lifeforce)

While blood drinking is a standard for a lot of horror creatures, it is often a metaphor for the soul or the essence of a victim’s life. So you can be more literal if you want to switch up your vampires. Emotion draining is the most obvious of these. In this case the vampire might feed just by being in the same room as the victim. Some might drain a specific emotion, and so work to try and inspire it in others. So the really cool guy who knows how to bring a party is actually only doing it to drain everyone of their joy. Some might drain any and all emotions, leaving their victims passive and lacking in any drive or energy.

But there are also a lot of weird things vampires might take to feed from victims. Bone marrow, specific body parts, plasma, or even more ephemeral things like ‘your mojo’. Some of these feedings will kill a victim, others might leave them traumatised but alive. A few might not even be aware of what they have lost. Essentially, each different type will leave a different victim and a different trail of clues to follow.

You can go the other way as well and have vampires that aren’t really vampires. An ordinary human might be drinking blood, either due to some illness, deficiency or because they like it. The players might stock up with all manner of supernatural defences and be shocked when holy water or sunlight proves ineffective. They may not bother trying bullets, assuming it will just be immune, although the stake through the heart will certainly do the trick.

Corporate Haunting (Ghostbusters)

Ghosts are usually found in places you’d expect to be haunted, such as graveyards, old houses, deserted factories, and other places with history. But a new building might just as easily play host to a ghost. The new place might be built on an old site, of it might have suffered some tragedy during its construction to generate the haunting.

The advantage of a ghost in a modern or an ‘ordinary’ setting is that it takes away the feeling of safety in the mundane. It is easy to believe you are safe when you get back to somewhere ordinary like the grocery store or the office. But if that proves to be the haunted place, is there anywhere really safe?

It’s Not Your Fault (The Ring)

Quite often in horror films, the victims are to blame in some way. They were immoral, or they disturbed the tomb or they walked across the ancient graveyard. But you can take a page from Japanese horror and make it not their fault at all. The players did nothing wrong, it was just the wrong place at the wrong time. Then watched the wrong video tape, visited the wrong house or looked through the wrong window. Now they are going to die.

When the players are trying to figure out what they did wrong, it offers them hope. You can sometimes appease the supernatural by undoing your transgression. But if they did nothing wrong there is nothing they can do. As the adventure progresses, this is the real horror that will gradually dawn on them.

Having said that you do need to be careful with this approach. An adventure where the characters are doomed from the outset requires careful management. Players expect to be heroes and expect there to be a solution. But, with the right group, the gradual dawning on them that there is no hope, and no escape, can be a powerful and dramatic end for a one shot.

Immoral Behaviour (Hellraiser)

Usually, the supernatural punishes bad behaviour. Murder and immoral behaviour are the things the serial killer is looking to purge or the ghost is looking to punish. But what if the supernatural only respects those who are as corrupt as the ghosts and shadows? The characters might have to commit some horrible or ‘immoral’ act to save themselves from the horror that is chasing them. Goodness and purity are the death sentence.

Now you have to be careful here as forcing the characters to commit horror can take you to some very dark and triggering places. Keep aware of your player group and modify the expectations of the supernatural not to traumatise your players. But if you want to throw in another twist, you can also make it a test. Only those who didn’t take the opportunity to commit a horror to save themselves will actually be spared in the end.

Nice and Nasty (The Faculty)

As my friend Walt realised a long time ago in his horror games, people don’t name the places they live in scary ways. No one wants to live in ‘the forest of evil’ or ‘the damned village’. While these names can come up if the place gets a reputation, people prefer to live in places called ‘Sunnydale’ or ‘Pleasantville’. So give your places of horror and despair nice sounding names. After a few games your players will quake with fear when you tell them the adventure will take them to ‘Fluffy Bunny Hollow’.

The same applies to people, although this is a trope commonly reversed. Make the crazy old tramp the one trying to help the group, not condemn them. Make the pleasant primary school teacher the leader of the secret blood cult.

A similar plan can also be applied to weather. Make the most supernatural time a nice sunny day, not the storm or the fog. Maybe the monsters can’t see any better in the dark so want a nice bright day where they can hunt the characters properly. In such a case, the players might only have a chance against them in the dark or when fog restricts their vision.

The Children Are Messing with You (Cottingley Fairies)

Finally, another common trope is that the local children know more than they are saying. They understand some things the adults are ignoring or trying to forget. This often comes up in spooky games or nursery rhymes, or small children declaring they have seen a monster under their bed or in the closet. But what if the kids are just screwing with everyone? They don’t think there is anything scary, they just like messing with adults and telling tales. It’s all a game to them and the more adults believe them the more they stick to their story. If you don’t believe children might be capable of that, note that the two girls who had the world believing the Cottingley Fairies were real kept the secret that it was all a game and how they did it for decades.

Your Turn: What favorite horror trope twist do you use in your games?
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


A Good Uncle: a member of character's family, a helpful and generally nice person. Nastier variant: a Loving Parent. I think everyone knows where this leads... Twisting the screw further: They get to save the protagonist's life along the way further putting the PC in the state of emotional debt.

Halloween Revenant: They can never be really gone. It's just that they return in nightmares, or as a legacy of horrible stuff they done.

Mistaken Identity: Find the wrongdoer, punish them, only to discover them to be an accidental person fitting the description, later to discover them to be guilty of a different crime.

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