Monday, October 12, 2015

The Supernatural, Immortal and Invincible Serial Killer in Fantasy

I wrote this a couple years ago when I was running Pathfinder exclusively but never posted it (probably wanted to do a rewrite). Luckily time has a way of dulling the memory of what I didn't like, and I need something to put on the blog this week, so a October/Halloween themed article seems perfect....

The Supernatural, Immortal and Invincible Serial Killer in Fantasy

There’s something to be said for an occasional game in which the horror ticks up to thirteen and the blood starts flowing freely as the hedge trimmer gets a thorough shakedown in Murder 101. What follows is some advice I can offer on how to take a movie like Friday the Thirteenth or Nightmare on Elm Street and turn it into a fantasy horror tale worth remembering…

Start with the Mechanics and Establish the Genre Rules

D&D and Pathfinder are quite fair in their expectation that adventurers tend to face foes of like strength, though it is by no means required and in fact works against the grain of some styles of campaign (sandbox, for ex.) All editions of the game do support mechanical features that allow for some deadly foes if presented against a party of sufficiently lower level with few or no magic items. A ghost or vampire presented to a party of 1st to 3rd level in any edition is a sure sign of a looming TPK. Any single demon in the game vs. a party of low level adventurers with no magic is going to be terrifying. That said….it’s rarely enough to just take a stock monster and stick it up against some low level adventurers. For the supernatural killer genre you need something more unique.

One way to thoroughly shake up a party of erstwhile adventurers is to throw something horrifyingly traumatic at them: in D&D and Pathfinder this usually means something which won’t die, and which in turn is uncannily effective at instigating TPKs and which is unrecognizable to anyone in the group. It might look like something they all know….and that only makes it worse! If it looks like a zombie but moves quickly and with intelligence….and gets up again and again….and is immune to daze/stun effects….that’s a pretty terrifying creature.

There’s honestly no easy way to introduce an invulnerable regenerating monster without feeling a bit unfair, so when you plan on integrating a Jason Vorheese-like serial killer zombie in your game you also need to establish a precedent. One way to do it is to have everyone roll up some side characters; traditional D&D these days is all about heroic adventurers who have a chance at life if they play their cards right. An even better way to do this is to have a bunch of disposable pregens ready for the evening’s horror gaming.

There are a couple other styles of gaming in D&D that lend themselves to this mentality as well: the archetypal mentality of the OSR manifesto allows for the possibility of the unkillable and unstoppable monster as a de facto expectation; you’re barely supposed to want to (or be able to) fight something as simple as a swarm of kobolds, on average….so a supernatural monster that suffers no harm from the adventurer’s weapons is actually baked into the rules, really.

The other way is the “implied setting” approach. In 1st and 2nd edition we were introduced to Ravenloft, a land where the evil dark lords rule and even set the norms of reality according to their twisted personalities. 3rd edition introduced Midnight, arguably one of the best of the crapsack worlds (look it up in TV Tropes) in which despair and misery were par for the course. There are many other examples of such worlds out there. Pathfinder has specific regions of Golarion where Bad Guys Rule and horrible things are the norm, as well.

Once you’ve established location/expectation in a way that will at least avoid the sense on the players’ parts that tonight’s game is not about heroes but victims, you can move forward with your diabolical plan to murder them all with an unstoppable zombie menace. So how to go about doing this without making it feel entirely like a crude encounter built around the one-sided premise of “GM wins, everyone dies?”

Just throwing the players into the mix with a supernatural killer isn’t going to cut it, trust me. You need to establish the following ideas for your murderous Halloween plot to make it full of horrific genre fun:

Here are the bullet points for Supernatural Killer Games:
Location – Victims – Personalities – Motive -  Direction - Secrets - Murder! – Achilles’ Heel


Jason and his cronies tend to frequent certain locales. It might be Lake Pleasant, or perhaps it’s the old school house, the abandoned refinery, or something more abstract like dreams. The villain needs a location to which it’s attached somehow, for some reason. The players will need a motive for going there, or being stuck there. In a fantasy setting this is easy: the tomb, castle, haunted mansion….all easy fodder for supernatural killers. If you’re playing Pathfinder take a look at the haunting rules in the Gamemastery Guide; they can come in handy for setting a location with some spooky properties.

Double points if you pick a locale that’s also just plain old dangerous. Often in this genre the area itself lends to the mayhem.


Victims are what drive the story and get everyone into trouble. Jason doesn’t just kill anyone; he kills teenagers who are overly egotistical and promiscuous. Freddy hunts the children of the parents who burned him to death in their dreams. These killers usually have revenge, or an unresolvable desire for punishment driving them.

If you’re making pregens this part is easy; you can structure the “why” of the murder part into the PC backgrounds. If you let players roll up their own or use pre-existing PCs (with foreknowledge that they are in “evil domain X” or at least aware that the conventional D&D genre is being set aside) then you can always craft some background hooks that relate to their established personalities. “You remember your aunt Tabitha, who was burned as a witch in your youth; she cursed the whole village, but looked you in the eyes and said that the children would pay for what the fathers had done” type stuff.

Ideally, you may want to have 1 or even 2 backups for players, so when their first character dies they can wander in with backup #1. If you don’t do this, then treat the game like a sort of elimination match….last man standing gets the prize!


It’s far from a requirement, but the genre of supernatural killer horror is usually punctuated by exaggerated or deserving personalities. From the promiscuous cheerleader to the quiet goth type who hides in her room all day and  broods about death….the victims have lots of personality, sometimes in sync with what the killer hates most.

One way to handle this is to hand out (or randomly roll) on a list of excessive or exaggerated personality traits; if your players are creative just tell them to pick something a bit over the top. If you’re using pre-established characters then maybe they already have some personality quirks that work; if not, suggest that the players play it up a bit.

If you want to make the whole process a bit more spontaneous and organic, just indicate you’ll be passing out kudos or rewards (extra XP if they survive) for the person who hams it up best  or brings the most to the table.


Motive is two sided: you need the killer’s motive (see victims, above) as to why he does what he does….his back story. Then you need the PC motive about why they are creeping around the abandoned castle or the old sawmill looking for trouble and stirring up the undead. Motives in this genre of fiction can often be very basic: a gang of foppish nobles out for a little fun and hanky panky go to the old sawmill where thirty years ago everyone was slain by the son of the old witch said to have been possessed by a demon….and who of course still lurks there! The possibilities flow easily with a bit of thought. If you choose motives, pick ones that the players are both comfortable with and which are easy for them to respond to without feeling rail-roaded.


Direction refers to how you pace your plot. The supernatural killer theme lends itself very well to single game sessions, which means you need to keep players on focus, usually by starting them in the place you want them to be with their ducks all in a row already. Alternatively an ambitious GM could run the game open-world style and populate a region with several such supernatural killer events and other horrors (a la Ravenloft).

You want to avoid a railroad event when you set up this sort of game. Sometimes the easiest way to avoid a railroad (or sense of such) is to just start the game where you want it to be. Don’t put everyone in the proverbial tavern and then force them to haul their butts out to the sawmill (unless you want to let them choose more than one path, or have more than one option anyway)….if the destination is the sawmill then start them at the front door with some backstory. Get right to the action, and avoid confusing the issue. It’s not a railroad if they start at the destination, only if you need them to go there and then pretend like they have the option to do otherwise.

If you’ve built a story with a more open scope, then this becomes less of an issue. If (to use the Freddy Kreuger example) the villain strikes in dreams then the scope of your locale is infinite, essentially. If the monster haunts the entire city, then you need not worry about getting them to Lake Pleasant. This style of story works better for multi-session events, especially if the planned scope of the game can expand beyond just the specific horror theme you’ve decided to go with. Here then you could create the sandbox horror setting, with multiple supernatural killers and horror events lurking in the shadows.


Every supernatural killer story has some secrets, even if they are simple ones (i.e. finding out Freddy was really a dream-demon back from the dead to gain revenge, or the deadites being kandarian demons summoned by the tape of a scholar who probed too deeply into the unknown…)

Secrets can involve the PCs as well, such as the gang of adults who remember the hobo they murdered a decade ago, the weird hobo with the pentagram on his chest. In fantasy it’s easy enough: perhaps they all belonged to the same mob that murdered the witch woman, or were all descended from families that seven generations earlier had made a pact with Evil and then reneged on their part of the bargain….or agreed to condemn the souls of future generations in exchange for immediate power.

Secrets are something you can find to lend clarity to the murdering going on, something which can serve as a big reveal, an explanation, or an ironic twist…


And then there is the murder. In the supernatural killer genre of horror murder isn’t just a thing that happens, it’s sort of The Thing that Happens….it’s the driving force behind much of the tale. Murder in these stories is never clean and simple….it’s bloody, eviscerating, involves unconventional weapons, and even if the supernatural killer gets it, he’ll come back, moments later, unphased by the holes in his body. Likewise, when the adventurers die, they die grisly, sordid deaths that may or may not have an ironic, camp, and always gory twist to them.

Think of a dozen or two unusual murder instruments and grizzly deaths. Keep those in mind, write them down, and look for ways to execute them during the course of the game. Bonus points for putting the action in an environment that just leds itself naturally to gory deaths. Butcheries, dwarven smelting chambers, a trap-laden mansion of evil…you name it. Remember that if there’s a river it should have zombified piranha in it. If there’s a forge it should be uncomfortably easy to fall into when fully lit. If there’s ornamental weaponry on the wall it should take no more than a shove to become impaled.

Achilles’ Heel

There’s one great and final secret which should become evident over the course of the session, perhaps in sprinkled clues, or as a side effect of dialoguing with various NPCs in the know, or even from the ramblings of the murderer himself: the way to kill the thing…or at least stop it for another year.

When you’ve presented an unstoppable monster with DR 15, SR 33 and Regeneration 5 to a party of level 2 adventurers, it’s hard to dispute that you’ve created an impossible beast for them to overcome. What you need is the thing they must do….be it a ritual, a sequence of events, a discourse, the location of an artifact or the means of revealing the true horror of the creature to itself to at last put the monster to rest.

Perhaps a ritual to close the dark portal from which the creature emerged is buried in the tomes of the old witch who summoned the thing by accident. Maybe the elder of the village remembers that restraining the beast and impaling it on the tree where it was originally hung will force the demon back into the dead wood. Perhaps the only thing that will sate its murderous lust is to find the elder nobleman who escaped its wrath forty years earlier. Hell: maybe it just needs 12 victims for the night and then it’s happy.

The means of defeating the beast should ultimately be part of the plot, and something potentially attainable, even if it requires the adventurers to question their own moral compass at some point. 

1 comment:

  1. Great article - I have been meaning to write up a D&D version of "The Thing" and you have inspired some ideas.