View Full Version : DM Help Surreal Horror

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-15, 03:55 PM
I am trying to write a horror scenario right now inspired by surrealist horror such as Phantasm, Reanimator, Inception, and the work of David Lynch.

I'd like to make it as scary as possible, but mostly not through attacking the player characters. Instead I want to offer up a buffet of disturbing images that are Not Quite Right and make players doubt their sanity or wonder whether the world is maybe not the way they thought it was.

If you've ever seen Mulholland Drive, this is the feel I'm going for.

I think I'm going to have the players investigating something (a disappearance or theft) and enter another dimension or dream world.

The system is Dread if that matters, but mostly I am looking for encounter ideas that let the players be proactive, but that create feelings of surreal horror and dread.


The game was a big success! See post 29.http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showsinglepost.php?p=20024898&postcount=29

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 08:41 AM

I think the issue I'm having is - it is easy to show players a disturbing image, but a little more challenging to make something unsettling into a "scene" that players can react and interact with. The weird thing about most Lynch movies is that weird things happen and people act like they are normal, because the people in the movie are part of the weird world. But that's not how I would expect the players to react.

I suppose I could make them pull from the tower if they want to buck the strangeness.

2015-10-16, 09:19 AM
What exactly do you want to know? I think surreal horror is easier than straightforward horror, because descriptions of violence aren't particularly effective and jump scares don't work in P&P. How well it works is mostly up to your imagination.

As for people acting like things are normal, you've got NPCs for that.

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 09:35 AM
So what is the conflict in a scene where something is just not right? What actions do you have the players make a check for (pull a block)?

"The thing is really weird and disturbing, but everyone is acting normally!"

Do you make the make a check for not breaking down? Or for not being fascinated, or becoming obsessed? What if they try to make it clear how F'd up this is? Do you make them check for that, even though it is impossible? Or make a check to avoid losing their tempers at the NPCs?

Some of these could work, but I'm interested in hearing more ideas on making the scenes interactive and engaging.

2015-10-16, 09:54 AM
I generally don't force any checks just for seeing weird stuff. Encounters have checks for other things, like encounters in a non-horror game would. "You see something weird" isn't really an encounter, right? It's just a scene. On the othet hand, if the weird thing attacks or talks, you have an encounter. IMO rolling a lot in a horror game is counterproductive, because rolling isn't scary.

I'm not at all familiar with Dread, so ignore this if it's a game that's all about sanity checks or something similar. Even then, though, I'd save checks for special events so that they don't become too mundane.

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 10:00 AM
In Dread, whenever you do something difficult, you pull a block from a Jenga Tower, and if it falls, you die.

It is common to make checks to avoid running away screaming or whatever. Players can always refuse to pull, which means they fail (you run away screaming, you become fascinated with the object, you become temporarily stupefied, or whatever).

If people aren't making frequent of pulls during the early game, the dangerous encounters where players have to pull constantly are not dangerous.

2015-10-16, 10:53 AM
I just finished reading "This book if full of spiders" and some "scenes" you could steal from the book (SPOILERS):
- running shower, the water splashes as if bouncing from an invisible figure, suddenly the water flows normally, but the shower curtain is moving...
- a mysterious guy in a suit walks through a restaurant and into a broom closet, once somebody opens the door there is no one inside and no hidden trapdoors or exits (turns out a whole network of such "doors" connects randomly across town)
- monsters/shadow figures only one person can see (or someone that meets very specific conditions), can doubt sanity at first or seek to show proof ("see this chunk of my skin disappearing? it's the invisible spider monster eating it")
- little girl that turns into a slimy tentacle monster when in total darkness (but actually she's still friendly and is learning to keep the alien parasite inside her under control)
- reality/history altering enemy - can erase someone or something from existence (it doesn't kill your wife, you're just left with a nagging feeling that you're married, but you're obviously single)

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 12:29 PM
Here's a good example of what I'm going for:


Sorry, you have to watch this, too. It happens right after the above clip.


Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 12:44 PM
Another good example. It's a bit of a jump scare, but it's all about the tension of the scene before it happens, the dread it inspires:


2015-10-16, 12:57 PM
Haven't seen any of the videos you're talking about, but you can help make an encounter surreal for the players by changing things such that pcs doubt their memories.

Have them wander into a conflict between two visually distinct sides, with one group behaving evilly towards the pcs, and the other filling good guy cliches. Later have them come across the sides having switched morality, and insist in universe and out that the faction wearing white was the evil side all along.

Use pregenerased tiles to map out the locationn picking up tiles beyond there soght, but sometimes, only sometimes mind, change which tiles you replace, making it impossible for them to retrace their steps. Insist that your following your notes there have been no mistakes and the layout of the house hasn't changed.

It's not your fault if they can't remember the simple path it took them to get here.

...I wish I had the poker face to pull this stuff off.

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 01:03 PM
Dread doesn't use a map, and doesn't have D&D style combat. The characters are the protagonists/victims in a horror story.

2015-10-16, 01:13 PM
So what is the conflict in a scene where something is just not right? What actions do you have the players make a check for (pull a block)?

"The thing is really weird and disturbing, but everyone is acting normally!"

Do you make the make a check for not breaking down? Or for not being fascinated, or becoming obsessed? What if they try to make it clear how F'd up this is? Do you make them check for that, even though it is impossible? Or make a check to avoid losing their tempers at the NPCs?

Some of these could work, but I'm interested in hearing more ideas on making the scenes interactive and engaging.
Those are some really interesting ideas! You can also have them make a pull whenever they try to do something normal in a weird, screwed-up place. If you really want to push stuff, you can even have them pull during a totally mundane scene. If they refuse or back off, you can narrate something grotesque going on.

Dread is the sort of game where there's a lot of art to the GMing, so keep that in mind.

Fosco the Swift
2015-10-16, 01:42 PM
This forum is full of tips for running horror games, but I've found two so far that should be fairly useful. I don't know the Dread system (but I love the Jenga-style sanity), and these threads are based on d20 systems, but they are still full of fantastic information.
"Oh the Horror!" (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?346728-Oh-The-Horror!)

For this one, take the time to read Thrawn4's spoiler (it's the 17th post) as he does an incredible job summing up horror for roleplaying games.
"Genre Savvy" (http://www.giantitp.com/forums/showthread.php?450012-Can-you-make-a-horror-game-work-with-genre-savvy-players)

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 01:59 PM
have them pull during a totally mundane scene. If they refuse or back off, you can narrate something grotesque going on.

That's really interesting. I'll marinate on that one!

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 02:05 PM
This forum is full of tips for running horror games

That's a good point. I did some google searches, but didn't think to search the forum. :smalleek:

Those links look quite good good and I will check them out.

I actually have run a 3.5 horror game, which is exceedingly hard to do. The key, as the second thread indicates, is isolation, taking control away from the players, and making the threat difficult to understand (the unknown). Of course, it is only satisfying if you reveal everything at the end, and it all makes sense.

Surreal horror is special, because it might not ever make sense! The truth can be implied in a vague way, but some things are not understandable because they are supernatural or beyond our ken.

Another good example of a surreal horror is the hallucinogenic fungus episode of the X-Files! It is all explained by the end, but during, it is completely off the wall.

2015-10-16, 04:01 PM
This might or might not be an entirely valid idea, but I think that surreal horror can be close to the concept of Uncanny Valley. We don't feel uncomfortable around factory machines or even humanoid robots, which are obviously machines, but a robot, which looks almost as a human unsettles us on a deep unconscious level.

Therefore to instill fear and a sense of paranoia in your players you might want to keep things really close to reality. The horror will be amplified by all the ties with normal life. Let's say you want PCs to encounter a mad butcher, which would be more unsettling:
1. The butcher in blood-soaked apron charging them.
2. The cheerful butcher offering to make delicious saussages out of their legs.

Works even better when it's incorporated into a bigger scene: let's say they go through a bustling market, people go around shopping, talking and laughing. Around the butchers stall there is a thick line of customers, the butcher himself has his hands full preparing the orders... out of limbs of the clients themselves, which they calmly provide while chatting up with the butcher and each other. When he sees the PCs he offers them some saussages for just an arm a piece. When they obviously refuse, the people around would be confused, how would anyone decline such a great bargain and start to persuade the PCs that they really should give it a try. They can be very insistant - for the good of PCs of course.

Another market scene (this one for background): some vegetable stall has rocks instead of apples, yet everyone treats them like apples to the point that some customer buys one and starts eating. Obviously he breaks his teeth without noticing that and with blood coming out of his mangled mouth compliments the apple's taste.

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 04:32 PM
I like where your head's at.

2015-10-16, 04:58 PM
Might this help at all?

2015-10-16, 05:31 PM
I think the key to what you're looking for is in texture and flavor rather than substance. For example, a monster threatening the party---no matter how strange---is not "surreal," it's just an immediate threat. Now, imagine a cave carpeted with a variety of shaggy mosses in a blotchy riot of weird colors, with the occasional waist-high fungus erupting in a trumpet-like funnel and releasing clouds of pink or gold spores into the air. There appears to be no effect whatever, and in fact the spores are harmless, but no player is going to be comfortable breathing in some unfamiliar substance. That's less "horror" than it is "dread" or "suspense," but try applying it to something really disturbing and you may be onto something.

Imagine a village of people who all have a very visible, dog-sized parasite attached to their back, its small sucker-studded head attached to their neck as it steadily sucks and pumps in a regular cycle, to no immediately or apparently harmful effect. The villagers behave with complete normality, treating the party as they would any roving band of adventurers and providing all the usual services, ignoring the pulpy grey bladder-like creatures dangling off their shoulders. If the PCs ask what's up with that, the matter is simply waved off. Also all the food in the village is rotten and obviously spoiled, but consumed without any apparent issue by the inhabitants, nor do they see any issue with offering their visitors the moldy or infested provisions.

There is nothing here to fight, nor any real mystery to solve. It just is. Neither the parasites nor their hosts make any hostile move towards the PCs unless attacked. Why is this happening? Is it happening? If you can get the players to the point where they begin to doubt what they're seeing is real (no easy feat in a fantasy world) you've topped yourself.

Things that are just wrong follow the players around. The fighter will be visiting a blacksmith's shop to buy a new sword and notices that the wooden walls are glistening with fine beads of moisture, as if sweating from the heat of the furnace. He can't seem to get anyone else to take it seriously. The Rogue visits a stable to buy a new horse and notes that sickly, mutated foals are staggering around the yard, dragging a limp second head, or hopping on a central fifth leg. The stablemaster seems bemused at the idea of putting the animals out of their misery. The Cleric visits a local shrine and is grievously offended at the bizarre, Geiger-esque artwork with which a local artist has chosen to portray the deity and her celestial messengers---who could conceive of angels that look like that? No one else seems to see why it's offensive and praise the artist's originality.

So on and so forth. You don't need to be subtle, really, just have an atmosphere of benign strangeness as if giving the world a dreamlike air and I think you'll really hit the idea of Surrealism.

2015-10-16, 05:37 PM
Another fun one is when things that are not supposed to move clearly are, despite the fact that the players never see it- used to great effect in the Doctor Who episode 'Blink', and shamelessly stolen by me in my brief foray into horror DMing (although, as all my players are fans of Doctor Who, I tweaked things a little :smalltongue:) Have the most perceptive/paranoid player realize that things aren't where they remember seeing them, but nobody else (not even the other PCs!) notices (best done via note-passing). Or statues/mannequins are in the same place, but in different poses.

On a related note, play with their perceptions- you control what they 'see', hear, etc.- have one PC suddenly find themselves in the ruins of an ancient, deserted town, when they were in that same town bustling with life a second ago... and as far as the rest of the party is concerned, they're still with them in the town, just acting weird. At least until one of the other party members tries to interact with them physically or they climb through a gap in a broken wall... and from the party's perspective, apparently phase straight through a wall that's quite solid to the rest of them.

For just straight horrible weirdness, have bizarre crap happen that at first glance seems incredibly strange, but beneficial, and only on closer inspection does it show itself to be awful. For example, an old lady feeding the pigeons is suddenly swarmed under by them, led by a blood-red pigeon that gleams like a possessed ruby, and leaving behind nothing more than a tattered, empty coat with some spatters of blood on it. Later on, as they're passing the same spot, the same pigeons form another swarm on that bench, and when they clear, an attractive young woman is there, still wearing the same clothes as the old woman who was feeding the birds before- if the PCs haven't disturbed the coat, she'll even pop back into it- and continue feeding the birds as if everything is fine. But if they talk to her, or even just look at her more closely, her eyes are totally blank, and she can no longer speak- just coo like a pigeon. And the tips of her hair are turning the same shade of red as the blood-red pigeon that led the swarm in the first place.

Actually, thinking about it, the SCP Archives (http://www.scp-wiki.net/) might be a good place to trawl for ideas. A lot of the stuff in there is friggin' weird and creepy.

2015-10-16, 05:54 PM
Since you're running Dread specifically, I'll point out that it's useful to remember that your PCs should be pulling anytime they're trying to do something outside their usual experience or training. For instance, say your running a game in the Grand Canyon, and the PCs are all going on a river rapids adventure for the holidays. If they aren't experienced with setting up camp in the wilderness, they should pull. This is useful for removing blocks from the tower during the early game, which makes the encounters where you have the real danger that much more thrilling.

I'll also throw out that the thing that makes surreal horror frightening is that the rules don't work like people think they should. I think that's what is at the core of the genre. So, if your players seem to have figured out how something works, change the rules on them. I mean in game, of course. The rules of the game itself should probably remain constant, especially with a game as simple as Dread. But if they think they've got a lock down on what the 'monster' is, and they guessed right, don't be afraid to change it to mess with their heads. Set up rules in the mid game, and then break them in the late game. Things that protected them don't, things that were okay to do provoke attack, remove places that are safe.

Last thought, Dread may be at its best when the PCs lose. Don't be afraid to pit them against something they can't win against. It is horror, after all, and powerlessness is at it's core.

Human Paragon 3
2015-10-16, 06:14 PM
Thanks folks! It seems like most of you really get the mood I am going for. I'm not worried too much about creating texture or which specific images to use. I'm more concerned about what to make people pull for, and what the effects of failure-to-pull would be.

2015-10-17, 03:37 AM
IMO don't ever explicitly ask them, if they pull or not. Just narrate as things unfold in a way that gives them time to judge, if the situation is dangerous enough to warrant a pull. Obviously with all the weird and unsettling stuff going on around the PCs they should be constantly in doubt on what's harmless or not. The tower they are pulling from is their lantern in the darkness. They should dread to burn it away and at the same time dread to walk without light. Each and every time they decide to pull or not to pull they should feel regret.

That being said: if they pulled, it shouldn't be obvious that they needed to. When they did not pull, the bad consequences shouldn't be fatal. Horror is not about killing everyone - they would be free to soon. It's more like chipping on the characters piece by piece. Depending on the situation the consequences can vary: in the encounter with the butcher a PC might be forced to actualy taste their arm... and it's delicious. Bad encounter with some rabid animal might end with an infection, which slowly develops with time. Some encounters might cost the characters their sanity, other will simply wound them, which obviously requires some first aid, if they know how to go about it.

edit: I just got another thought. Maybe the consequences don't need to always be purely negative or positive. A character that went insane started to see things that noone else sees. Sure, most of it is halucination. If it were that simple, they'd learn to ignore it and rely on others to guide them. On the other hand, what if some of those halucinations are real things that noone else can sense? Then they'll have to focus on their unsettling vision and constantly question reality.

On the other hand, when they menaged to avoid a danger, they might loose some opportunity. Without going insane they are defensless against all those invisible or otherwise hidden creatures of the night.

2015-10-21, 10:08 AM
Dread doesn't use a map, and doesn't have D&D style combat. The characters are the protagonists/victims in a horror story.
I am aware.

I suggested adding a map specially to facilitate invoking the feeling of "This isn't what the room was like before."

You can do similar with narration, but i was suggesting you achieve surrealust horror by making the players feel like their memories are off.

A more Dread-specific approach would be to pocket the most recently moved Jenga tile when people get up to get drinks or are otherwise not looking.

Hell, maybe do that while everyone is watching the first time anyone moves something every hour, and imply it's related to something they did in game.

2015-10-21, 10:15 AM
Pass lots and lots of notes (make sure to take them back after they are read). To the style of "your character notices/feels something the others don't." One way to kick this up a notch is to pass out conflicting notes to two players. You could also keep passing the same note to a player, something like "you see a ceramic figurine of a woman on the shelf" but when they point it out to the party, they still can't see it...

2015-10-21, 01:46 PM
The anime, Melody of Oblivion, is a good source for surrealism done well, and it is almost always (nearly Lovecraftian) horrors that invoke it.

Surreality is about reality being just slightly "off."

Cartoons are surreal; Loony Tunes and Animaniacs would be dread horror shows if they weren't couched in humorous tones. They follow rules, but the rules are only sensible until you think about them.

An aspect, too, of horror that builds the tension is the notion of safety and the nature of the power the protagonists DO have. As I mentioned in another thread, if there is a ritual action which you can perform to keep yourself "safe," but it doesn't FEEL safe, that's a form of power and helplessness combined.

"Hold your breath, and the monster cannot see you," works well for this. Whether it's a supernatural creature which is magically blind to all save your breath, or it's that you're hiding under water from a creature that tracks by scent and has lousy eyesight, the fact that it's RIGHT THERE and could snap you up at any moment, and only doesn't because you're not breathing...but your lungs are beginning to ache......

Two-sentence horror stories can also lend themselves to the surreal. Not all, but some of the best tend to.

My son asked me to check for monsters under his bed when I tucked him in. I looked under there and saw my son, who whispered in a panic: "Daddy, there's something on my bed!"

Lvl 2 Expert
2015-10-21, 02:13 PM
The only thing I'd like to say is: avoid direct combat as much as possible.

RPG combat can really break building tension, but it's also a form of control the characters have over their environment. Imagine a ghost similar to the famous "The Ring" girl (might not be the flavor you're looking for, but it works as an example) crawling towards the players. They try throwing something at it, but it goes straight through her. They try hitting her with a stick, but that also doesn't work. If they're stupid enough to stay put for another turn, the person in front stands unnaturally nailed to the ground as (s)he feels cold hands on their shoulders when the ghost girl stands up before them. Her hair falls away from a pale and unnaturally skinny face, and when she opens her mouth everyone hears or rather experiences a spine chilling scream. And then she is gone and the room looks normal. It feels about 5 degrees warmer in here as well now, and there's something subtly different about the color of the light than just moments before.

The hard thing is probably to still give the players a lot of influence on the story in a game about horrors you can't do much about. Make sure to give them plenty of options in where to go, how to run away, which weird objects to examine and which to stay as far away from as possible. Give them hints as to where they can travel and who they can talk to to find out more etc, and make some if not most of the scenery useful. Maybe that weird gas lamp can be used to trap a single ghost. They'll only find out if they happen to take it and hold it up in front of them during their next encounter. They think it might help them see, but they'll be cool with the ghost screaming, charging straight towards them and disappearing in a puff of mist that gets sucked into the lamp. Weirded out, sure, but that was the point of the game, right?

2015-10-22, 05:00 AM
Have you ever listened to Welcome to Night Vale, or watched The Twilight Zone? WtNV especially is really good at describing bizarre **** as though it's totally normal and you should know about it already.

Have an NPC refer to a ball of spikes and tentacles as a kitty. Have someone talk to the party for several minutes before mentioning that his face has been upside-down this whole time. Have the sheep sheered of meat and the cows milked for wine.

Complain about the bloodrain, offer a job at the people farms, go to a screaming-at-pigeons festival.

Go crazy. So very, very crazy.

Human Paragon 3
2015-11-02, 09:32 AM
Hi everybody!

I'm back, and I'd like to report that I ran the game and it went great! Here is what I ended up with:

A group of cash-strapped students check themselves in to a university sleep study. But who - or what - will check out? Who can you trust when you can't trust your own senses? And what price are you willing to pay to escape your own nightmares?

This Dread scenario explores the deepest fears in our subconscious and unleashes the monsters lurking within the dark night of the human spirit.

It turned out to be VERY easy to get players to pull from the tower. They made almost every pull offered to them, and pretty much never abandoned the pull. Three of the five players died, two survived, and all were thoroughly freaked out.

One cool thing I did was a trick with the lighting. In the story, they are all hooked up to hospital monitors, which are their only light sources. To light the table, I used just the screen from my laptop and my cell phone, which made it very eerie.

I can put up a full log of the game and provide links to the scenario and all the character questionnaires if there is interest.