Posted by: allhailthoon | May 3, 2010

Killer Game: Horror Movie Murderers in D&D

Inspiration for D&D can come from any number of places. Today, in honor of the surprisingly good Nightmare on Elm Street remake, I’m going to focus on one that is very near and dear to my heart: the horror movie.

Horror movies can provide an abundance of great ideas for games, but the key is to rework them in a way where they are still fun to play. For this reason, some types of horror work better than others.

The Conditional Killers (Hellraiser, Candyman) –

Whether it’s opening the box or saying the monster’s name in the mirror, a specific event needs to occur in order for the killer to be any threat. These actions can occur either with or without the PCs having some idea of what the consequences might be. This can work very well for a party that is known to be curious or trusting. The rogue who likes to make Use Magic Device checks to activate items blindly or the fighter who will take the advice of seemingly harmless strangers without trying to Sense Motive are excellent candidates for moving a plot like this forward.

The problem with this type of plot arises from the fact that what makes killers like Candyman and the Cenobites scary is the sense that they are all powerful and inevitable. Frankly, it’s not going to be a fun game if it’s guaranteed that anyone who takes the bait on a major plot hook is going to end up dying horribly.

One way to avoid this problem is to make the game an investigation. People are dying in strange ways and it’s up to the party to find out why. While this might be an interesting back drop or sub plot to other events, investigation games can get a little boring, especially at higher levels.

To give the concept a little more flare, I suggest taking cues from the films themselves. In Hellraiser, the Cenobites are nothing if not lawful. They will only kill people who really intended to summon them. If whoever calls the monster is clever enough, they might just be able to strike up a bargain in order to save their own lives. Of course, a deal with the devil is a deal with the devil and the consequences should be sufficiently horrible.

Candyman, on the other hand, looked at the woman who called him and saw his lost love. While that may sound hokey, there can easily be any number of ways for the monster to decide that he wants to do more than just kill the summoner. As in the film, the monster can begin to kill people that the character comes into contact with and hold dear, doing the killings before their eyes and in ways that would lead anyone investigating into believing that the character was the killer. This should all play into some greater goal of the monster’s that only reveals itself after quite a bit of trouble has gone down.

The Unstoppable Killers (Halloween, Friday the 13th) –

Stone cold, impossibly strong, and possibly un-killable. As entertaining as they can be in movies, Michael and Jason are probably not the best villains for a D&D campaign.

In a D&D game, the players are the characters, not the audience, and in order for someone like Jason to be scary, characters need to die. If only NPCs die, the villain can be interesting but not a real threat, and if PCs die without being given a fighting chance, nobody is going to have fun. If you do given them a chance to fight back and they kill or wound the killer, the killer has lost his horror value and become just another serial murderer to be put down, and if the PCs are forced to flee, only to confront the killer again and again, the game becomes redundant.

The only way I can really think of to make something like this interesting is to make the PCs flee, but only once or twice. In the meantime, let them look for clues to find out how to put the killer to rest forever.

The Dream Killer (A Nightmare on Elm Street) –

Nightmares are a great element for a horror game, but they really shouldn’t be overused. I would suggest putting this kind of killer into a game as a sub plot rather than a main story, at least for a while.

First, find a reason why the same entity would be antagonizing part or all of the party. Then go to work on the players individually. In a given session, take one or two of the players aside individually and run them through a short sequence, then as time progresses make the sequences longer and more intense. Don’t tell the rest of the group what is happening to the individuals.  Ideally, members of the party will do anything to keep themselves awake (If you can keep them from finding magical means, all the better) and after a while, you can turn the nightmares into hallucinations that begin to legitimately skew their perception of reality.

The Crazy Family (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, House of a Thousand Corpses) –

I like the idea of this for a low level game. At higher levels, it becomes too easy to teleport, fly, or straight up murder your way out of a place.

The key for this is in the setup. Anyone who has ever seen this type or horror film or any number of others with similar elements knows that if you go to the house in the middle of nowhere on the rainy night, the people inside are probably going to want to cannibalize you. That’s just the way things tend to work out.

Because of this, the horror should not be rushed. First the PCs should be lulled into a false sense of calm. Perhaps they should be in the area to deal with another problem (which may or may not be related to the family of psychos). The family members themselves may even have been the ones that asked for the PCs help. They should come across as honest, hard working people. Even make them seem a little bland so that the PCs won’t focus on them anymore than they would on other NPCs.

It’s even possible that not all the family members are evil. Mom, dad, and little Suzy might be decent people, but Uncle Jim and Bobby the teenage hunting enthusiast are actively killing and butchering travelers to feed to cannibal grandpa who lives in a secret room under the cellar.

Hell, maybe they even legitimately like some or all of the members of the party. Bobby might come across as a hero when he valiantly defends Shanktits the sexy party rogue from evil Uncle Jim, only lay traps to kill the mage later so that he can no longer try to steal Shanktits’ attention.

The sky is really the limit on this one. As long as you can keep the party contained without them getting annoyed or bored, you’ve got solid GP.



  1. What, no mention of the town full of cannibal Southern zombies? Seriously though, good article 🙂

    And speaking of horror movies, I’d love to run the 3.5 version of Castle Ravenloft some time.

    The original 1E module (By Weis and Hickman!) was different each time you played it because the rooms and encounters were basically from a deck you assembled, like a murder mystery board game.

    In the 3.5 update, the DM chooses the type of horror adventure he wants to run – Hammer horror style with lots of combat against mindless zombies, suspense-style where Strahd’s minions are stalking the party, the dream killer (Strahd has like 50 Nightmare spells…), or the ye olde monster mash with werewolves and ghosts and vampires. Depending on that, the encounters are all slightly different.

    • You’re actually quite right. I was remiss in leaving out 2001 Maniacs. The town full of cannibal Southern ghosts is really a subset of the Crazy Family category. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the crazy town is much easier to put in a game than the single house because you don’t raise as much suspicion. An isolated house in the middle of nothing will immediately put the party on high alert, but a town that’s out of the way probably won’t.

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