From Heavy Metal to Horror Role Playing: The Birth of an RPG Scenario

As I've said before (probably many times) my go-to genre for role playing is horror. Up until the last decade or so, I've run or played in more horror adventures than any other genre. (The count may still be in favor of horror, but I've played enough other sorts of games in recent memory to make the delineation a little less clear.)

As anyone who runs games can probably attest, after running enough of them it can start to get a little challenging to come up with ideas for new ones. At one point, we were playing so frequently that I had to come up with an idea for a new scenario every week. (With the occasional break thanks to being able to trade off game master duties with another member of our game group.) I can still recall moments of desperation and doubt as I wracked my brain for scenario seeds while my deadline grew ever closer. There were many game sessions for which I'd completed my scenario as the players were settling down at the game table. (Even a couple instances that I recall where I had to ask the group to indulge in a TV show or chit chat while I finished fleshing out NPCs, Big Bads, and/or timelines.)

But for as often as this down-to-the-wire situation occurred, there were other times when scenario ideas just landed in my brain as if borne on the wings of ravens - often when I wasn't looking for inspiration for a game at all. I was simply inspired from seemingly nowhere. (Touched by the horror gaming muse, as it were. Let's see.. that's not Calliope. Or Terpsichore. Which one is that? Anyway...)

Often, this would happen as the result of some background process in my brain throwing a mismatched assortment of ingredients into a mental cauldron. Often, ingredients that had been lurking in the back of my mind, covered with cobwebs and otherwise forgotten.

Take the scenario for the game session I'm about to discuss, for example.

It was a frigid November morning, 1991. It was one of those mornings where the air has suddenly turned so cold that it feels like everything - even you - is brittle and liable to break at the touch. A stinging snow, whipped along by the wind, pelted the windows of my study. No matter how I tried, I couldn't get warm.

The study was a large room - the front bedroom of a good-sized Victorian-era home, of which we rented the upper floor. A trio of windows, the big old sash-style ones, lined one side of the room (and a fourth occupied a wall perpendicular). The wind whistled through them and the pitter-patter of the snow on the panes was incessant. Opposite the windows stood a trio of large book shelves, housing hundreds of novels and gaming books. In between the two sides sat our large table at which we had played many dozens of games and would play many dozens more. It was an ancient thing, two inches thick of oak, darkly stained, with heavy chairs to match. (Gods, I miss that table set.)

I sat off to one side, working on some random game paraphernalia (probably a character sheet in AmiPro) at my computer desk. The hard drive of the beige machine crackled as the 16 gigahertz processor (22 GHz when the "turbo" button was depressed) accessed the drive's 105 megabytes, and the huge 14-inch monitor glowed warmly at me in the cold room.

We had no plans for the day - often how many such days would start. Even though we played almost religiously every weekend, there was no standing arrangement. Games were usually put together the day of the event, often with a late-morning phone call that went something like:
Me (answering the phone - without the luxury of caller ID): "Hello?"
Les: "Hey, it's me. Wanna play something today?"
Me: "Sure. Who's running?"
Les: "Craig's got an idea for something he wants to run. Stalking." [Meaning Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic. And Craig was Les' younger brother - Craig ran the games, Les made the phone calls.]
Me: "Sounds good - see you at the usual time?" [There really was no usual time.]
Les: "Cool. See ya."
We had variations on this conversation almost every weekend between 1990 and 2003 (with a brief break between '97 and late-'98, when I moved away for work). We still played after that, but the sessions were standing events. Phone calls were only made post-2003 if someone wasn't going to be able to make the game.

So although we had no plans this particular November day, it was an assumption that someone would call looking for a game. As I hadn't worked on anything to run, I was expecting to be the one receiving the call.

Then it happened. I don't know if it was the cold in my bones, the howling of the wind, or the sound of brittle snowflakes on the frozen panes of glass, but inspiration broke over me like an icy wave. Suddenly, I had an idea for a scenario - a game of our beloved Bureau 13 that would take place in our beloved version of Arkham, where a sudden, unexpected, and unprecedented winter event attended the coming of an ancient evil. A demon of a magnitude never before faced by any of our intrepid monster hunters. A quick flip through the Bureau 13 book and its list of demons, followed by a fact-check in Drury's Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult and I had my antagonist's name and nature: Forcas, demon prince of Hell.

But how did he come to be there? I needed backstory, otherwise the verisimilitude would be suspect and the much-needed suspension of disbelief would make immersion into the game harder.

Before I could think further on the subject, I had the answer. My Dark Muse had sent her ravens.

Since I'd first read H.P. Lovecraft's "The Hound," I'd been haunted by it; I was moved by the visceral imagery of occultist tomb robbers collecting grisly memorabilia. Two such people, I decided, lived in Arkham, and had brought home from afar this demonic force in the form of a recently exhumed corpse. But why hadn't it taken them on the boat from The Continent? Why wait until arriving in Arkham?

Again, the dark wings flapped in my mind. They flew me back to an earlier time...

It was 1987. I was sitting in my friend Walter's bedroom, listening to his favorite albums. He had eclectic musical tastes, much akin to my own. His albums were a diverse mix of rock, hard rock, punk, heavy metal, psychobilly, etc. He pulled from the stack of vinyl records below his turntable an album and showed it to me. He explained he'd bought it earlier in the week. "You gotta read these lyrics," he said, pulling the disc from the sleeve before handing it to me.

He placed King Diamond's Abigail on the player and the music washed over me as I sat and read the lyrics.

Since that moment in Walter's cramped bedroom I'd been enthralled with the story told within that album. Several times since having started playing horror RPGs in 1989, a couple years after that afternoon in Walter's room, I'd tried to build a scenario around it. I'd shelved dozens of handwritten pages containing ideas, trying to find the right scenario - none of which ever felt solid enough to produce a good game.

On this cold morning, four years later, I'd finally found it.

Forcas hadn't killed the collectors on the boat ride because he'd been immobilized for centuries, an unkillable demon prince, locked in his mouldering human form and held in his coffin by seven silver spikes. And upon arriving in Arkham and being installed in the collectors' morbid shrine, those spikes had been removed...

A few monster stats later, and with the introduction of an NPC monster-hunting priest who was searching for the body, had clues to its whereabouts, and conveniently died on the steps of the church where one of the PCs worked, and my scenario was ready.

I made the phone call, and the others arrived at "the usual time." (Which this day would be shortly after noon.)

The game was a blast. The pervading cold and the howling wind saw to it that immersion was never a problem. The PCs found the dead priest and fought the biting, driving cold and the undead minions raised by Forcas (possessing his new human host, the body of one of the former tomb robbers, an unfortunate man by the name of Preston). This included fighting a baby-stealing vampire at an emergency shelter in the Arkham High gymnasium and a memorable fight with zombies in the aforementioned PC priest's (Father Aeon Fox, Les' PC) church basement soup kitchen. 

(Amusing, this-one-time-in-a-game anecdote: after the church basement firefight subsided, a strange noise was heard coming from behind a counter in the corner of the room. The PCs cautiously approached and circled the counter, only to find a zombie that had its leg blown off with a shotgun early in the fight duct taping the appendage back on. It went down in a hail of tool-using-zombie-prejudiced gunfire. Later, Father Fox would forever ban duct tape from the church.)

Finally, they found Forcas and confronted him and a pair of his vampire minions. He was smug and overconfident, sure that he could woo the hunters - or kill them if they refused to join his ranks. He invited them to sit at a dining room table and chat with him. As he seduced the team's resident necromancer/demonolater (my then-girlfriend's PC, Persephone Tillinghast) with promises of power, Father Fox hatched a plan. In his hand and pointed at Forcas was the Webley revolver found on the dead priest earlier in the adventure. In the pockets of the third member of the team, Zach Fielding, the team's reident psychic investigator, were the seven silver spikes they'd found earlier at Preston's house. Without a word, just a glance between them (even the two players said nothing - just looked at each other and nodded) Father Fox turned the pistol around and offered it to Forcas, butt-first.

"If you're so powerful that you think you can convert us," he said, "Take my faith."

Cock-sure, Forcas winked at Persephone and reached for the pistol.

"I whip the pistol around and shoot him with the silver rounds that the dead priest had loaded in it," Les said.*

"You can't do that," I said. "You're holding it by the barrel."

Les then asked me to produce my pellet gun that was a fair replica of a Colt Python revolver, which I did. He took it and handed it to me, butt-first. I reached for it. Before I knew what was happening, he'd flipped the gun in his hand and pulled the trigger - twice. As he did so, Craig leapt up and made the motion of shoving over the table. He held his right fist high, his pencil in it, showing me how Zach Fielding was leaping forward to strike Forcas with a silver spike.

I nodded and smiled. "Make your attack rolls," I said.

Les rolled two twenty-siders - the rolls weren't great, but Forcas was only able to dodge one of the silver bullets. (We've always used the combat to-hit resolution from the Palladium system in Bureau 13 - it's a cleaner system and meshes seamlessly with B13.) He was hit and stunned by the silver.

Craig rolled his single attack die: a natural 20.

Zach hit the demon-host and knocked him backward, out of his chair. They landed together on the floor, and Zach channeled the momentum of the attack, driving the silver spike through Forcas' mouth, out the back of his skull, and into the hardwood floor below.

After that, Father Fox and Persephone held off the vampires while Zach straddled Forcas's writhing form and nailed it to the floor with the six remaining spikes. As the last spike went in, he stopped struggling and the vampires fell lifeless to the floor.

The wind outside stopped howling.

In reality, the wind had stopped howling hours earlier, while the sun was still up. But we hadn't noticed. Throughout the duration of the game, no one had significantly broken character and when Forcas finally lay still on the floor, you could cut the tension in the room with a knife.

That's how all horror RPG sessions should end...

During the epilogue to the game, the players described how they were dismantling the floor around Forcas' body, careful not to disturb the spikes. They disposed of him in some way I've long since forgotten, but I'm sure was both creative and thorough. (If memory serves, his staked corpse is entombed in the cornerstone of a Miskatonic University building.)

Forcas has returned in other sessions and other forms since this one, and although they've always been hard-fought battles, the PCs have always overcome him. His defeats at the PCs' hands have led him to become the brunt of jokes for over two-and-half decades, and the players would often concoct anecdotes of him being belittled by his fellow demons for being repeatedly bested by a motley bunch of humans. (To paraphrase a well-known cenobyte: "His mocking is legendary, even in Hell.")

I've had few role playing sessions as memorable as this one, and it was played from a scenario that quite literally sprang from nowhere - or from years of collecting inspiration from varied sources, depending on how you look at it.

If nothing else, this game stands as one example of why role playing is one of those things I'll never stop loving.

Some of my notes for the scenario

A super high-tech handout I made for the game on my Packard-Bell PC
and printed out on tractor-feed paper with my Epson dot-matrix printer!

*That was Les - always thinking with his gun/sword/fist. It usually worked out for his characters, but I wonder how the game would have played out if he had actually used his priest's special abilities, which included things like battles of wills with demons. Of course, as powerful as Forcas was, this approach may have done nothing more than bought them more time, and in the end things may have still devolved into a firefight. But it would have been nice to see how it might have gone down differently...


  1. Interesting. FWIW, I'm thinking Melpomene would be the muse of horror roleplaying. They usually end in tragedy, after all.

    1. @Dick McGee, maybe! If we're not specifically looking for a "muse of creating horror RPG scenarios" and just looking at how the sessions played out, I'd say Melpomene would be working side-by-side with Thalia on many of our games. :D

  2. Great story about putting the game together, and also the game sounds like fun! I also love that you, like me, still have a bunch of your old notes and handouts.

    Great to hear from you!


Post a Comment