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Non-supernatural horror

The Shaman

First Post
Horror in roleplaying games most often involves elements of the supernatural, from vampires and vengeful spirits to unkillable boogeymen and tentacled creatures from another dimension.

Relatively less common, in my experience, are mudane, non-supernatural horrors. Off the top of my head, I can think of two basic types of non-supernatural horrors, serial killers and monsters.

Serial killers
Serial killers are well-represented in both fact and fiction, from Jack the Ripper, Elizabeth Báthory, the marquise de Brinvilliers, and Burke and Hare to Hannibal Lecktor, Sweeny Todd, and Norman Bates, but my impression is that this is less common in roleplaying games, perhaps because the squick factor is too high - dealing with an imaginary monster like a werewolf is less disturbing than a killer inspired by the likes of Ed Gein.

Monsters
The stories of the beast of Gévaudan and the lions of Tsavo open up all sorts of interesting possibilities for encounters with animals which are both monstrous and mundane. They could be wild animals running amok, trained pets (as in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"), or 'lost' species.

Other potentially non-supernatural horror elements come to mind, such as ritual cannibals or pagan cultists, but I'm sure I'm missing a whole bunch of great ideas. I'm honestly pretty bad at horror when it comes to gaming, since my squick meter trips pretty easily - I have one encounter in my Flashing Blades game that gives me chills, but I imagine it's unbelievably pedestrian to, say, your average CoC fans.

Have you incorporated non-supernatural horror in your games? What else am I missing?
 

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Nagol

Unimportant
Ritual cultists count as non-supernatural like satanists or thugees of Kali. Freaky obsessive people also fit the bill; think of movies like The Roommate, Fatal Attraction, etc.


Horror requires a feelinmg of 'otherness' in the risk. The object must be outside the norm. The threat of death or destruction needs to defy conventional logic enough that a rational person can enter the danger zone without recognising the risk exists.
 

Coldwyn

First Post
Horror oly requires mood. If the mood is right, even a quite normal hobo can scare the hell out of everyone. Now imagine being in the seedier part of town, lights are low, all doors locked and barred, not sound and no police anywhere and you notice those squatters/hobos. They look at you, they start to whisper to each other....

Ok, maybe it won´t work b/c most D&D characters are simply able to fireball them into oblivion, but it´s still a horror encounter for low level.
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
The Lions of Tsavo awesome. Try Jaws. Abnormal, sure but not supernatural. PC's should get to be the crew of the ORCA. Tough guys going fishin'. Once they are commited then you let them know that they're gonna need a bigger boat. The horror comes in when the threat refuses to cooperate with conventional or D&D wisdom.

Oh.. and a handful of mutilations couldn't hurt.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Moby Dick was based on an actual attack of a whaling ship by an unusually large & aggressive male sperm whale.

"Horror" can also be generated by natural disasters- earthquakes, hurricanes, sinkholes, etc.- especially when exacerbated by human intervention. Being trapped in a building that collapsed due to shoddy manufacture, for instance, or being in a country terrorized by secret police, mercenary armies or death squads.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Fungus Spores

There is a story maybe by Lovecraft(I can't recall the name) which involves the investigation of a 'haunted' room. The major focus is the strange black patch that continues to grow on the ceiling and a strange yellow dust that covers everything. The protagonist hears stories about the former occupant having gone to foreign lands, returned then disappeared. Anyway in the course of the story the protagonist goes upstairs into a hidden room where he finds the source of the black patch
and the corpse of the former occupant - the yellow dust was the spores of a fungus which when inhaled kills the host, such was the fate for the former occupant and is now also the fate of the protagonist.


I've used a serial killer in a game session before, I called him Myk Elmyers. The PCs were town constables who came across a serries of bodies missing various body parts

I also use lots of cultists and cannibals too.

Swarms can be fun (The Birds the Birds! or the Frogs, the Frogs!)

Ninjas - striking from the shadows and silently killing the people around you - can also be used for horror effect

Also in a situation where you can't fight back, just anyone trying to catch you (could be Military, Police, Gangs)
 

RandomCitizenX

First Post
I know some genre conventions differentiate Horror by the fact that the supernatural is involved, where as Thriller would be the equivalent if it is not supernatural. Specifically this is coming from the 24 hour film project's genre judging guidelines, but I know one of my creative writing classes in college made the distinction as well.

With that said I have played in a supers game where a run in with a non powered serial killer was possibly the most horrific thing I ever encountered in gaming. If you can make the insanity come across as happening organically (as in just the product of his regular life) and still make it clear that the thought processes would no longer pass as human it can be very very unnerving.
 
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Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Then, of course, there are the effects of chemistry.

Both man-made and natural chemicals can radically affect behavior. Mercury poisoning, PCP, certain plant, fungal, parasite or insect toxins, diseases like schizophrenia, rabies or even late-stage syphillis- all can make otherwise normal beings (human or animal) act/react with unexpected violence. Some do so by inducing hallucinations, some by simply eating holes in your greymatter or other methods.

While scary in individuals, a mass dosing could lead to something truly horrific.

Ergotism, an affliction due to ingesting ergot of rye in bread and other foodstuffs happens because of the LSD and alkaloids the ergot produces. It causes convulsive and gangrenous symptoms, and has also been accused of responsibility for several outbreaks of mass psychoses.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Fungus Spores

Or diseases in general. Flesh eating bacteria, a fast-acting leprosy, or the like.

Ninjas - striking from the shadows and silently killing the people around you - can also be used for horror effect

If those ninjas kill neatly and cleanly, as ninjas are wont to do, then this isn't horror, it is just fear. If they desecrate bodies, they might qualify.

For real horror, it is not enough to be in fear for your life - you must be in fear of the way in which you're going to die. To me, horror implies not just fear, but revulsion.
 

Supergyro

Explorer
The chemistry thing touches on a part of this, but technological horror is also a staple of the genre that doesn't involve magic and ghoulies.

The interconnectedness of our lives via internet, surveillance, new chemicals, machines, computer manipulation, all of these have ample ability to frighten.

Imagine the film 'The Net', except done well.

And, as ever, Soylent Green.
 

Sorrowdusk

First Post
On the subject of serial killers and nonsupernatural horror-take a look at the life of real outlaws like Boone Helm and for villains of more 'wealth and taste' take a look at the four nobles in Marquis de Sades 120 Days of Sodom and their horrific acts locked away in a castle in the mountains surrounded by vast forest. They were "lawless and without religion, whom crime amused, and whose only interest lay in his passions and had nothing to obey but the imperious decrees of perfidious lusts."

I can definitely see a party running into someone like Boone Helm and perhaps accepting his offer to join up with him on some journey somewhere, thinking him an ordinary traveler OR passinge by a castle and unknowingly being invited into a dungeon filled with complete monsters who look like men.

A serial killer is would probably be the most effective in my opinion

Imagine a high powered group of heroes almost brought to their knees by a low level commoner who happened to be Very intelligent and very good at killing people

Dont forget. You can be coup-de-graced in your helpless sleep.
 
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Saeviomagy

Adventurer
Dont forget. You can be coup-de-graced in your helpless sleep.

The problem is that running a game with a 'normal' serial killer against your normal group of PCs is not going to be a fun experience. He's only ever going to kill PCs if he takes them out instantly when their guard is down, at which point there will be zero conflict.

Imagine taking any non-supernatural horror film and replacing every scene where a victim fights back or tries to flee with the killer murdering them in their sleep with a single clean attack. I think you'll find that you'd be hard pressed to stay awake.

You'd be much better off placing the PCs in the investigation role: but you have to avoid any scene where they come in contact with the killer. Pretty much any serial-killer investigation flick that has direct contact with the killer relies on passing the heroes an idiot ball to let the killer escape.
 

Supergyro

Explorer
one more...

And, of course, the disease idea can be expanded to include all medical horror....

Insane surgeons, horrific medical experimentations, check the works of Robin Cook
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Mad scientists & horrific medical experiments?

Consider:

1) Animal men, a la Island of Dr. Moreau, or animals with boosted intelligence.

2) Zombies of science, such as Hatian tetrodotoxin zombies, disease zombies such as from the aforementioned Ergot poisoning, Frankenstein's monster, undead SS troopers from Shock Wave, or androids such as RoboCop...all with liberties, of course.

3) Men with extra heads, arms, eyes, etc.

4) Mind control via human chemistry, brainwashing, or using certain parasites.
 

Coldwyn

First Post
I don´t think the "who" really matters in the horror context, mostly because I think it´s next to impossible to create either fear or horror at a game table.
Come on, most of us will be lounging around in confort, having a drink and some snacks, chatting amiably with friends, how should fear work there?

Chosing the enemy doesn´t do anything as long as it doesn´t offer any clues on the "how". Add to this that real emotional involvement is also hard to come by.

So instead of asking what a good natural Enemy would be, I´d instead ask how to make natural things really scarry, how to set the mood, how to create that involvement. The enemy itself then doesn´t matter.
 

Somebloke

First Post
A few months ago I ran a FATE game using the A/State setting. The setting itself- a sort of blend between Blade runner, City of God and Dark City- lends itself precisely to this sort of horror. I really wanted to capture the bleakness and inherent horror of the setting, so I pushed forward a lot of 'mundane horror' elements using real-life nightmare stories as examples. The best (or worst) of these was the adventure 'Suffer the little children' which I used to really explore the grim implications of child trafficking. The players were hired by a macrocorp rep to 'rescue' a child that had been kidnapped from a lab and then accidentally sold on to regular slavers. I drew on half a dozen stories of real-life incidences and urban legends for the adventure, which included:

* The players breaking into a slaver fort, built in a deralict school, after buying off a pack of feral hobos (similar to the enemies of 'Condemned'-criminal origins). The children were being kept in a completely dark storeroom and were intensely traumatised, showing signs (thankfully not descibed in detail) of severe physical abuse. The child they were looking for was not there, but they managed to obtain a log-book detailing the slaver's customers; these included 'Shaft 9, Deeps', the 'Little Lady Gentleman's club' and 'GeneBlue vitality spa- donor ward'. The list was hundreds of pages long. The child itself was sent to 'Greygate orphanage and school'.

* Greygate turned out to be school for children meant to be menal workers at the nearby Macrocorp center, staffed by sociopaths and worse. One of the characters managed to infiltrate the school, and found it a cross between the Ministry of Love in 1984 and a kindergarten. Isolation cells were covered in nightmarish imagery to terrify and break down the will of troublemakers. Parents caught attempting to rescue their child were killed in front of them to utterly break any hope of escape. Any repeat offenders were sent into a pit- made to look like the mouth of a terrifying monster- where 'The Spider King' would eat them. (The spider-king was a supernatural element, as it was an Ogre-like creature; I decided to keep it in since by that stage, the players wanted something to fight).

This was pretty much the worst of the non-supernatural horror elements in the game- other examples included a drug that made people psycotic for short periods of time (a loving father killed his family under the influence- the players had to deal with his disbelief in what he had done) genetically-enhanced soldiers who needed to feed on a pituitary gland to survive, and occasional moments of random, senseless violence, like a information-gathering scene in a cafe that was interrupted by an anarchist suicide bomber. There was also a helpful, polite manager who worked for a factory that more or less supported the economy of the player's borough...said factory was a 'Soylent Green' esque production plant, and he gave the player's reward as a month's worth of food. Which they then ate.

In the end, I discontinued the series- one of the players found it so utterly grim that his enthusiasm simply stopped. I gave all assembled a happy ending (they escaped the setting to somewhere vague but clearly better than where they were).
 

Rel

Liquid Awesome
I think it would be a shame if this thread doesn't get a mention about Dread so I'll go ahead and do it myself (apologies if I missed it somewhere in somebody else's post). If you've never played Dread then it's hard to describe how well the Jenga tower resolution mechanic ratchets up the tension at the table.

Another atmospheric thing that I've seen done in conjunction with Dread is by none other than the illustrious Piratecat. What he does, if the game space allows, is to get up and walk around the table behind the various players. This is something that is very viable in Dread from the mechanics of the game because there are no dice and the GM never pulls from the tower. You honestly don't even need a seat at the table (I've seen Rodrigo run Dread and never sit down at the table).

Anyway, it's not ok to screw with people while they are trying to pull from the tower. But just going behind them while the atmosphere is tense anyway and having your description of creepy stuff happening is a way to make them feel a bit unsettled. Also when the GM is up moving around the table like that it seems to cause everybody to be incredibly focused on his description.

It worked so well when I saw him do it that I did it myself when running a game that wasn't Dread. It was actually a d20 Modern version of one my Sky Galleons of Mars games set in the Space: 1889 universe. The PC's were exploring a large crashed airship called the Titanic (ayup) and it was unclear as to why it had crashed but clearly most of the passengers had died fighting...something.

My description as I walked around the table of how their bodies lay in the hall, the way that they had barricaded themselves into certain compartments and how, even though the barricades weren't breached they had been killed inside had the players VERY much on edge. I won't describe the whole scene but I really feel that if I'd sat there at the table and described it that it wouldn't have had nearly the impact that it did with me walking around the table.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
And of course, there's music. Just like in a movie, a soundtrack can add to the tension. It can help erode that distance between reality and fictional events.

As I've mentioned before, I used Kodo's theme to The Hunted for a chase scene in which the party was being hunted as game animals. IOW, as food. I watched players at my table- veterans and noobs alike- start to act/react as if they were their PCs: voices raised in pitch, people talked faster, tempers shortened a little. All because I had their hunters playing some drums...

So if you have the time, find some appropriate theme music to cue up for specific scenes, and you may just take them on an unexpectedly intense journey.
 

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