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The Creepy GM: Dark Teleportation and Other Horrors

The Creepy GM: Dark Teleportation and Other Horrors

The Night's SkyStephen King describes horror as a subtle effect that uses the victim’s own mind to terrify. As GMs, we can sit back and watch the players create a horror scenario from some spare base pieces and run with it. This is some of the most fun I’ve had as a GM, and now I want to share a few things that have worked for me. Note that a GM should know his or her players, including whether horror of this sort is what they are looking for. It’s important that players can make choices and have an impact in these events—they should not simply end up as powerless victims.

The Wrong Teleport: Teleportation magic is inherently creepy, and movies such as The Philadelphia Project and The Fly can vouch for that. I have a player in my home game who is intensely aware of her character’s vulnerability as a wizard, and she works hard to make sure her character is surrounded by tough allies. She also makes use of mage eye and other viewing spells. When that character learned the spell teleport, I played up the possibility of accidents, mainly as a way to minimize its casual use without preventing the players from using it when important or necessary. I also had read a short story by Clark Ashton Smith.

I rolled a teleportation error early in the adventure, but decided to save it until a more climactic point in the plotline. The victorious adventurers were preparing to teleport back to civilization from a cursed dwarven citadel. The magic of the teleport began, and then things went downhill.

Horror Technique 1—Isolation: I moved the wizard’s player to another room and told her that the wizard alone appears before a huge golden door in an abandoned city. The rest of the characters appeared normally in their home city.

Horror Technique 2—The Bizarre: Beyond the door was a vast empty palace. Within the throne room was a writhing undead horror, spiked to the throne with a huge nail of gold. The entire city was empty, with doors open and items left around as if the entire population had just recently left. The wizard used her mage eye to find out all of this.

Horror Techinque 3—The Unknown: As the wizard is taking this in, the sun begins to set, and a loud thumping noise, roughly one beat per minute, begins to echo through the city. The noise is actually a large tree dropping head-sized fruits 100 ft. to break among its roots, but the wizard can’t know that.

Horror Technique 4—It’s Not Working!: At this point, the wizard attempts to teleport again, but it fails. (The golden door is an artifact that temporarily suppresses teleport attempts.) Panicked, the wizard runs into a house, hides in a wardrobe, and makes her familiar stand guard all night. The next morning, the wizard memorizes teleport. The character casts the spell, and the player’s knuckles are white as I describe the results: She is able to teleport out.

Horror Technique 5—Distrust: After a night away, the wizard suddenly teleports back into the group’s headquarters. The rest of the group is not certain she is who she says she is, though. A tense confrontation ensues with magic detection spells being cast and questions about her past history being asked. Finally, she is accepted as herself. They know that if the wizard is a doppelganger, her player will play it to the hilt in return for extra experience.

This is a nice little freak-out to slip into an adventure, especially if a mid-level party is using teleport constantly.

Some Other Ideas

While You Were Away: The adventurers return to their home base, but everyone in town seems somehow subtly changed: People in town now have eyes that are slightly different colors, teeth that are a little more crooked and sharp, and a more shambling way of walking. The locals insist nothing has changed. What is the truth? Perhaps they have been tainted by dark energy? Or has the party been glamoured by a malevolent fey? You can always run with whatever terrifying answer the players decide on.

Kill the Protector: If the horrible unseen monster kills a high-level NPC that the PCs rely on for protection or mentoring, this will raise the fear level immensely. For example, if the grizzled sheriff of the town who is at least 8th level is discovered by a party of four 2nd-level players after having had both eyes ripped out of his or her head as if by great claws, that’s going to scare the players. What did this? Is it still around? If it can kill him, what can we do about it? Of course, it may be that the sheriff wounded the creature in the fight, or perhaps some clues at the scene can allow the party to find the creature’s weakness. What do the players think is capable of this?

7 thoughts on “The Creepy GM: Dark Teleportation and Other Horrors”

  1. In the few times that I have tried to use horror in a game, I have discovered that it is VERY true that your players will tell you what creeps them out the most about what is going on as they discuss the possibilities among themselves.

    My favorite thing to do is to pepper in a few totally unrelated details within a few scenes and see what they start to come up to connect the dots. Throw in a scary-ish, kick-in-the-door kind of encounter, and call it a night. Between sessions, use their ideas to tie the details together, but don’t use them exactly as they figured on it being, because they will start to figure you out.

  2. Creepy teleport problems is where it is at, getting lost in the space between, arriving at unexpected places (or times), opening doors for other things to manifest in the world . . .

  3. Great set of tips and techniques! And yeah, horror is one of the harder flavors to run, or rather to sustain over time.

    The Shadow Realm in Midgard is pretty much the place where nightmares live in my campaign, but I’ve found I have better luck sustaining that tone if I sprinkle a few safe places and a few friendly fey among the vampiric fogs, roach-demons, and other terrors.

  4. One of the best ways to put the players on edge, especially if there are things like murder and eldritch abominations is casually every so often ask for die rolls of thematic skills.

    “Johansen, you’re skilled in Knowledge:Planes, right?”

    “Yeah?”

    “Make me a knowledge check.”

    He’ll roll the dice, you nod, note something on your side of the screen.

    Soon enough, after enough such random selection of skills, your players will begin trying to put together pieces to this ‘puzzle’. That’s when you ask for a benign check, like a Sense Motive when they are meeting the local constable or staying the night at the Inn. Suddenly, you will have players expecting an attack by eldritch monsters while they sleep.

    Paranoia goes a long way. It can also give you great ideas to feed that paranoia, like shadows through the window(if staying at an inn), strange groans and creaks, muffled sounds in the night. Stuff that under normal circumstances are … well, normal. But, you’ve put some concern and maybe fear into them. They’ll expect anything. And when morning comes, they feel like they somehow survived a potential run with something horrible.

  5. Very interesting read and most useful tips.

    Still I had to discover in one of my last campaigns where we planned with the accord of the players to build in a “horror”-session how difficult it is to add the horror-element to a fantasy-setting.

    We used the discussed options and added some tools like darkened room, creepy noises and music and the tension did build but the players kept their distances to their own characters – except one. For him it got even too much and we had to relief him. Bring him and his character to a safe place.

    In hindsight what was lacking was a game-technical system to hurt the characters mentally like mental stability as Cthulhu uses it or the horror factor from Palladium which will leave the characters mentally scarred after such an experience. For me an excellent rpg session is less about experience points-wise then the consequences of an encounter be they good or bad they offer new opportunities for a new session.

    It is funny how players are ready to accept that their characters get physically wounded even maimed but don’t touch their mental state.

    So as a further tool to really creep your players but of course with their accord and most important of all with the possibility to make their choices I can only advice to add a similar rules system to your game.

  6. One of the coolest games I ever ran was a session of the old D6 star wars. The players boarded a delelict ship floating aimlessly in space, and saw grisly scenes of bloody handprints on the walls and dark smears along the corridors, with the occasional mutilated corpse here and there, with hasty barricades rent to shreads. Eventually the PCs made their way to the cargo bay, where I asked the two of them when the last time they replaced the power cells in their helmet lights was… when the inevitable answer was “uhm… never?” I made them roll some dice and told them their lights just flicker and went out, and just after than, they start hearing noises….

    I used several tricks to heighten the tension and the sense of fear.

    I held the session at night. Never underestimate the impact this can have!

    I turned the lights down just a tad. You could also do this with by turning them off and using tiny desk laps or candles to see character sheets (or a lot of peoiple use tablets and laptops these days)

    Keep the descriptions creepy. Like: “You open the airlock to find a dark hallway. Debris is scattered around the passage, and an ominous bloody handprint on the bulkhead in front of you gives you a disturbing feeling.”

    And this one is the one that sent the PCs over the edge:

    “As you near the armory, you can see obvious signs of a scuffle. Blaster burns, damaged deckplates and bloody footprints mark a relatively recent battle. You reach the armory and can see a wall of rubbish, obviously meant as a barricade, at the armory entrance. The armory doors lie on the floor nearby, rent from the bulkheads by a large prybar of some sort. Entering the armory, you see a disturbing scene. Blood spattered walls, blaster burns and a severed human hand on the deck give you a very uneasy feeling.”

    Try to use the time-tested “less is more” method in early encounters with the source of the PCs terror. If there is a bloodthirsty demon crab monstrosity hunting the PC’s allow them to see brief glimpses of something moving in the sahdows. If your PCs have darkvision, then plan the encounter to happen in a place with blowing dust, steam, snow or some other obscuration.

    Don’t break the tension. Dramatic tension is the real source of the players feelings, which is the source of the PCs feelings. Bathroom breaks, smoke breaks, and trips to the fridge will ruin the building tension. This takes a bit of preparation. Make sure before your horror scene that the players have a nice long break first.

    Along with not breaking the tension, avoid any source of comedy in your horror scene. Comedy breaks tension, and will ruin the feel of terror you’re building. Also beware of using comedy to relieve tension on purpose. In film this is easier to pull off than in an RPG. In my experience, it should be avoided. A cheap gag at the end of a high tension horror scene only cheapens the experience.

    There are probably other things I did but I can’t recall off the top of my head. But it worked marvelously and I’ve done it successfully a couple other times in D&D using various similar techniques.

    Scott

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