Genre Switching - Fantasy to Horror
rating: 0+x

Basic Information

To the casual observer, fantasy and horror are hard genres to fix together - after all, much of horror is based around the protagonists recoiling at the alien and monstrous, not killing it and stealing its wallet, and the combat heavy empahsis of most fRPGs doesn't sit well with the horror standard of protagonists struggling to fight the monster effectively.

So if you're a fantasy DM and want to inject a bit of horror into your campaign, how the hell do you do it?

Subverting tropes can help. For example … the victim switch is always a good one - let's see where it can take us from a standard fantasy plot hook: eg. PCs are called in to defend a village against orcish raiders.

Now here comes the hammer:
The orcs are attacking the village to root out something very nasty of which even they don't approve. Demon cults, 'flayers and the like are good candidates. Of course the typical PC party won't bother to do anything but massacre the orcs or chase them off … so you then have a nicely forshadowed base for the BBEG ('no, we've been to X. Nothing there.') or, if you have other ideas for your campaign (which might include new PCs), the real fight starts when they return to the village to recuperate from their battle.

Looking into the psychology of your villains is always good as well … if you're a Buffy fan you'll recall that Faith was probably scarier than many of the rubber faced villains, and closer to the alternate reality Buffy than she would have cared to admit. Villains that remind the PCs of themselves are scary (Alt Willow for that matter as well). Also villains that challenge PCs ideas of right and wrong - the evil Baron who is still better than the alternative (or the rebels who overthrew him and are so much worse). The 'good guys' who come after the PCs (Buffy episode: Gingerbread). The supposed good guy who is, in fact, evil (Mayor Wilikins?) - particularly if the PCs have been pulling jobs for him. Even if the jobs were genuine ones (not everything the BBEG does has to be malicious), they're going to go over their notes with a fine tooth comb. And how do they prove that they aren't deeper in his pocket when the resistance catch up with them?

How about BBEG with kids - when the villainess has a baby a few months old (particularly if it happens not to be half-fiend, or not visibly so anyway)? When they're faced with a villain who has a family who are not obviously evil but hate then for killing dad. How does a paladin cope with a seven year old kid spitting on him? What happens when that kid hires on as the PCs servant years later in search of revenge (and you don't need to be evil to want to avenge the murder of your parent)?

To help with horror, reduce the utility of 'detect evil' and suchlike - and you don't have to just bin the spell, having evil people around who aren't plotting something will soon get the players less reliant on it - the stable boy seeths with jealousy and resentment (a la Alfred Noyes), the barman is a virulent racist, the field hand a grubbing miser, the shopkeeper a bully and a sadist … (remember how pseudo-Moody claimed the continual lying and scheming of Hogwarts students interfered with his insturments in HP&GoF) then, one day, use that level of evil that makes the user puke and watch them run. Not only that, but when you have a villan, they don't have to be evil. Or supernatural.

And then there's ghosts … especially the ones that regenerate until you fix their problem. Even if what you have to do isn't all that pleasant. Or the ghost of a child that kills other children by trying to play with them. Evil children are generally fun villains, particularly when they really are just kids.

And the screen of hostile innocents (Buffy: Bad Eggs) is also a head cracker for players.

But despite my relentless citation of the work of Whedon, don't copy Joss in everything -

We've already covered stuff not staying dead and not being easy to kill but how about:

1) The bad effects don't go away at the end of the episode - people are still addicted to the monster's drug (or whatever) and then PCs have just cut the supply. Mind controlled pawns stay programmed. The disease keeps spreading when the source is cut off (or at any rate doesn't miraculously go away). Maybe the disease is incurable and contagious and the PCs are forced to quarantine people and leave them to die - possibly even having to kill those that try to break quarantine.

2) The monster doesn't die at the end of the episode. Sometimes it gets away and can't be found before the next job. You can then have it come back when least expected, or follow the party hitting places they've just left, or in such a way that they only find the corpses once the PCs move on, leaving people to ask how it is that these heros are leaving a trail of corpses.

And another idea (somewhat forshadowed by my Faith reference) - the quality of mercy may be very, very expensive. Sometimes sparing your prisoners helps, and sometimes you're just storing up doom for the future.


  • Obviously, relentless citation of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
  • Also cited, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • More generally, in terms of de-Whedonisation, you can darken the tone markedly by not having enemies simply vanish when they die. Once the fighting is done, there are corpses everywhere to dispose of to avoid having to explain them - or just avoid having to listen to the locals moan. Even down a dungeon, the corpses are still there when you come back … they've just swelled and rotted a bit. Eventually it will actually be worse for your PCs when the enemy dead aren't there anymore.
    • If the site is too clean, suspect a gelatinous cube (at least in D&D).
    • Perhaps someone is cleaning up the dungeon - which implies the threat of organised resistance.
    • If the corpses are the only bit of battle debris missing, your PCs may suspect that they got up and walked off.
    • And if something has eaten them, perhaps it will trail the PCs around looking for more food - and then get bored and either attack them or follow them out of the dungeon and start snacking on civillians.
    • Of course, something could still be in the process of eating the corpses when the PCs return they way they came, wounded, tired and laden with treasure….
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License