Burst of Insight

Burst of Insight – About Horror

Welcome to the latest installment of Burst of Insight, the designer’s blog where we offer a unique and (hopefully) inspiring perspective on the industry for GMs and potential freelancers. So while there was big RPG news from the Paizo Preview Banquet over the weekend (*cough* Starfinder *cough*) There were other announcements as well including the forthcoming Horror Adventures. So in the spirit of Horror Adventures, I’d like to talk a little bit about gaming horror.


“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud. ”
—Stephen King

I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King, I’ve enjoyed some of his books others less so, but I love this quote. Especially, for gaming. I love crafting situations that have my players off-balance and afraid for their characters. However, when your players game from the safety of a snack-laden table creating that sense of horror isn’t easy. Which means sometimes I’m not proud either, and I go for a gross out.

But, before you delve into vulgar depictions of depravity to gross out your players or really any horror depictions even terror or suspense, make sure you know your limits. If you are writing for publication your publisher will have solid guidelines as to what is or isn’t acceptable. Follow those guidelines. If you are not certain where the boundary is, don’t guess, ask. Same goes for your home games before you start a horror campaign make sure you have a frank discussion with your players and establish what everyone’s expectations are. You might establish a safeword so players can opt out of situations that make them too uncomfortable.

Okay, with all that said once you have your limits how can you write to scare the players? Most horror comes down to making the character’s feel powerless.

Any loss of agency can be a frightening prospect, especially in a game designed to work in the player’s favor. With Pathfinder the CR system and Wealth by Level rules skew heavily in the PCs favor. So how do we divest these heroic scale characters of some power?

If you are writing or running from a new setting there are a few mechanical tricks you can employ right from the onset such as reducing the amount of treasure you hand out and going with a slower XP progression but escalating the threats faster. An untested idea I once had was to award slow XP but keep a secret tally of the average XP earned and set the average party level from that total as if they were on the medium or fast XP tracks. I’ve never run the math or tried playing with this rule so it could go wildly off the rails but the point is you can run so that the threats grow more powerful faster than the PCs are ready for them. Which means they may need to solve encounters in methods other than blasting their way through.

Even without tinkering with the rules directly you can achieve this by making them face epic threats for their level or higher. When 3rd level PCs enter the moldering old aristocrat’s castle if she’s a CR 8 vampire the PC’s will be hard pressed to face her in combat. And if you slowly reveal what she is building a sense of impotence and dread your players will be afraid even if you place the means to destroy her in the player’s hands.

Another way to make the characters feel weak is through isolation, either from each other or from their support networks. If the vampire from the previous example has dominated the PC’s closest allies in town and turned the other townsfolk against through deceit then the players will have to defeat the vampire alone. This works especially well if there is some sort of betrayal. The town guard pledges the heroes their service one night, then under the sway of the noble vampire tries to hang the PCs for treason the next.

On a smaller scale, you can also use traps and misdirection to separate the party mid-adventure. There’s a reason for the old adage “never split the party” and if a trap suddenly leaves a PC or two alone and vulnerable when the vampire sidles up, even if she’s friendly the PCs are going to be afraid.

Often even more effective than isolation is facing the unknown. In “From Shore to Sea” Brandon Hodge offers an early encounter with a Colossal aberration attacking a lighthouse. The PCs don’t get to see the actual monster just the tentacles. As a 6th level party, the PCs have no chance to kill the aberration but can drive it off. For much of the rest of the adventure the PCs will be wondering what exactly attacked the lighthouse and will they have to face it again?
Warning!! I’ve tried to keep this PG-13 but there are elements some readers may find disturbing. I’ve drawn no small amount of inspiration from The Lord of the Flies and so if you do not like horror that involves children and teens you should read no further.

Otherwise, I present Ravenstone. A village that can serve as a kick-off point for a survival horror or general horror campaign. The principle themes of a Ravenstone campaign include isolation and impotence. The heroes are children and young adults who have been effectively abandoned by every authority they knew: adults, gods, and even the natural world. In time, the PCs will discover what caused the Terrors and what role the Ravenstone played in it. Ultimately in order to get home the PC’s will have to face not only the power that caused the Terrors but also the forces of darkness that threaten both the village of Ravenstone and the whole world.


Village of Orphans and Nightmares
The black, slightly avian, crystal monolith that towers eighteen feet over the center of Ravenstone’s town square once drew scholars wizards and sages from across the world. These experts in the occult and ancient history sought to unravel the mysteries surrounding the Ravenstone but instead helped to found one of the region’s most prestigious academies of higher learning and a thriving town surrounding the university.

The Terrors began suddenly with a lunar eclipse but have continued for five long years. That night every child became trapped in a terrible nightmare until the first faint light of dawn touched the town. Unfortunately, waking did not end the children’s nightmare. The children found they were alone every adult fifteen and older had vanished.

Around the village’s perimeter, a dense mist-shrouded forest appeared overnight. As the older children ventured into the new forest they discovered the fate of the adults. Every tree nearest the village had grown around some neighbor or loved one so that the corpses partially trapped within the trees. Even now five years later the trapped skeletons are still visible. Bleached white skulls stare silently out of the dark bark into the menacing depths of the forest now known as the Blightwood.

Since the start of the Terrors the orphans of Ravenstone have been unable to sleep without suffering deep ensnaring nightmares. As time has passed the nightmare curse has grown stronger. Sleepers are unable to waken from their dreams unless touched by sunlight. Many of the orphans try to remain awake for as long as possible while others surrender to the nightly horrors. Only fools or madmen wander into the dark of the Blightwood for any length of time that would require sleep.

That is until recently. A few townsfolk (including the PCs) have been receiving dream messages attributed to the Ravenstone itself. These messages seem to be encouraging them to explore the Blightwood and find a way back to the normal world. But first, they’ll need equipment, resources and answers that may only be found in the ruins of the university. Unfortunately, not every member of the community wants an expedition into the wilds. Many fear the monsters such an expedition may rile up while others fear the loss of their personal prestige.

Over the last five years, the orphans of Ravenstone have tried to preserve some sense of normalcy and society. They have had some success although it is a fragile arrangement with numerous factions vying to influence the direction of the village. This balance is further complicated by the loss of every member of the local clergy and nearly everyone trained in arcane magic.

Ravenstone is a village setting intended to be the starting point for a human-centric horror-themed campaign. Isolated from the rest of the world, Ravenstone is home to the three-hundred some orphans of the university town’s twelve hundred original residents after magical tragedy claimed the lives village’s adults. While the campaign is intended to occur about five years after the start of the Terrors. A GM could run a horror survival campaign that begins when the children first awaken from their first nightmares.

Ravenstone For Pathfinder
A Ravenstone campaign can be run with human PCs and standard heroic classes or for a more horrific feel you could opt to run it with NPC classes only at least to start. My recommendation is for the later and allowing the adept class to cast spells from the adept class list as psychic spells.

PCs younger than 16 are viable character options in this setting. You should at least apply the ability score modifiers from Ultimate Campaign. [Detailed here.] You might even play with one of the lower point-buy options in addition to the adjustments made for youth. Either way, this is one of the most obvious points where we’ll take some agency from the players. As young character’s, their stats should not be as good as adult PCs and as a village of orphans, these kids are totally isolated and without their normal support structures. Combine those points with creepy imagery and you have a pretty solid recipe for a horror game.

Until the release of Horror Adventures, I also suggest you use the Sanity and Madness rules from the Game Mastery Guide. [Detailed here.] Loss of sanity also represents a loss of agency. Worse it’s a loss of character self-image.
Low-level Adventure Ideas
[A Prelude or Day After Adventure] The town needs to secure new food supplies. An expedition is mounted to head into the Blightwood to see if the nearby Adler’s farm survived the disaster. Either to find help or to bring back needed food stores. Along the way the PCs encounter a number of threats stalking the Blightwood.

The PCs nightmares reveal a secret from before the time of the Terrors that may unlock a secure vault beneath the university. What secrets and dangers lurk in the sealed tunnels?

A child who can no longer sleep wanders into the village from the Blightwood. Where did the child come from? What does she want?

The skeletons in the trees around the village begin screaming. Despite the lack of sun, every sleeper in the village wakes.

In a future blog, we’ll discuss building some rules elements specific to this mini-campaign. In the meantime. Please leave a comment and join the conversation. Tell us what your favorite horror module is and what makes it scary or let us know what elements of horror you like to use in your games or writing.

Andrew Marlowe

placed in the Top 16 of RPG Superstar in 2012 and 2014, one of the few contestants to get that far in the competition twice. Since then, he has contributed to many Paizo and third party Pathfinder products, including one of the network’s favourite releases in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, the Dirty Tactics Toolbox. Every other Tuesday, he will be sharing his Burst of Insight, with design tips for would-be game designers from a decorated freelancer.

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  1. David

    I’ve been thinking about this type of adventure setting after having been listening to a lot of “Welcome to Nightvale”. There’s a lot about that series that opens up interesting options for scenarios.

    In addition to some of the methods you mentioned above, one of my favorites is to play with morality. A scenario I’d love to run at some point involves a town where a human sacrifice must be made by town elders/nobility. The PCs run in to try to stop it but find out that if this does not happen the ancient evil trapped below the town will rise up. They are guardians, and part of that requires sacrifice. Now the PCs have a problem. They can either allow the sacrifice of an innocent or risk unleashing something that may devour everyone. How the PCs react to all of this should have a lasting impact on all of them.

    • Absolutely, morality plays like that are also great tools…and your specific example takes some agency away from the PCs, they must choose between two terrible choices: A human sacrifice or the rise of a great and powerful evil. The World of Darkness games (from White Wolf) also play with a certain lack of agency because they often deal with these sorts of moral issues although on a more personal scale. “Do I unleash my inner monster and risk losing my humanity or do I risk failure and keep my beast in check?” There is really no win in either example, except in the terms of a good story. Great point! Thanks.