Helpful framework for prepping horror mysteries

Hello, this is a framework I have adapted from Brennan Reece’s Dark Depths doc for Cthulhu Dark. I’ve had success with it and thought I would share. It is used as a guide when deciding how much and what kind of information to reveal at a given stage in a horror mystery investigation such as mythos, urban fantasy, etc.

This framework is in addition to whatever plot notes or other tools you are using. For example when I write a horror mystery, I use this, a doom clock, and conclusion/clue list.

The goal is to build tension by revealing the horror little by little. The mystery has levels that you move through and get more revealing and scarier. You don’t have to spend the same amount of time on each level and some can be brief. Don’t go back to a previous level if you can help it. You can replace the word “creature” below with “phenomenon”.

Level 1. CURIOUS (something to peak their interest but nothing gruesome or too weird).
Examples: Second hand information (newspaper articles, folk tales, unreliable witness accounts, grainy footage) about weird stuff (traces of the creature’s passing, artefacts of unknown or disturbing origins).

Level 2. UNSETTLING (something to give them the creeps but nothing dangerous).
Examples: Ambiguous evidence. Direct encounter with weird stuff (see previous examples). Indirect pushback by the creature, its minions or other interested parties (spooky stories, threatening note, feeling of being watched).

Level 3. CONCERNING (something to indicate further pursuit would be dangerous but nothing scary).
Examples: Direct pushback by the creature, its minions or other interested parties (friendly or unfriendly warnings, direct attack by minions, lunatic ravings).

Level 4. FRIGHTENING (something gruesome or truly weird but not the cause).
Examples: Glimpse of the creature (fleeing, probing attack). Horrific remains of victim. Clear evidence.

Level 5. HORRIFIC (the cause of the horror first-hand).
The creature itself. Try and be somewhere that is at least two of the following: dark, underground, ancient, alien.

Here is an example of how the same scene may vary depending on what level you are at.
Scenario: finding the body of someone who has been killed by a vampire.
Level 1: the body is dead and basic cause and time of death can be guessed at. It is unusual there is not more blood around considering the wound on the neck.
Level 2: you realise the body has been completely drained of blood. You get the feeling you are being watched.
Level 3: there are signs the assailant is unusually dangerous (e.g. was very strong, is probably a vampire, has help, disappeared without a trace, etc.)
Level 4: something about the wound is horrific (e.g. indicates high aggression, torn in half, clear bite marks, etc.). You see a figure watching you from a rooftop which then leaps impossibly away.
Level 5: the vampire is still feeding and you are isolated somewhere.

Here is an example of how it can be used to give you a sense of flow to the events of the mystery.
Scenario: a haunted house where anyone who enters is eventually possessed and acts out the horrific events that previously took place there.
Level 1. They hear about a house that no one wants to move into because it’s haunted.
Level 2. While in the house they hear faint conversation and arguing.
Level 3. They are possessed for short periods but have no memory of it (end up in a room but don’t know how they got there). Have strange conversations with friends.
Level 4. They start having bouts of uncontrollable rage.
Level 5. One of the team is possessed and tries to murder the others.

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I’m so thankful for this post! My kid and her friends are desperate for me to run a Creepy Pasta themed story, and I have no idea what I’m doing. This is a great framework, now I just need to spend the time digesting all the internet nonsense that is Creepy Pasta.

As a follow up question, can you point me toward some resources for more “modern” style characters to use in this kind of game? I typically run Dungeon World, and I’d rather not have to learn a whole new system, if possible. Aside from creating custom character classes, do you know of any patches to DW that might work?

I’m thinking of ripping off my favorite horror movie, The Thing, and I plan on GMing for three kids. I’m thinking I need a scientist, a mechanic/pilot, a soldier, and a doctor. I’ll use your adapted framework to build tension, just like in the movie. Should be fun!

If you don’t know of any canned character sheets that would work, i.e., if I need to make custom characters, would you point me to some further reading on the subject? Like, how do you make sure the moves are not overpowered?

[[EDIT: I got so excited about running a game based on The Thing, that I am basically going for the custom character, monster, and moves method. I’m aiming for a playable one-shot, and I’ll post a draft here later (in a separate thread. If you want me to move all this to a separate thread, please let me know, but, I want to again share my appreciation for the inspiration!]]

Tremulous, City of Mist, and Monster of the Week have varying levels of horror and mystery that you could check out. I’m not sure about direct hacks for Dungeon World. Cthulhu Dark also has a simple system that you could use.

The other thing I use for mysteries is a conclusion/clue list and a doom clock.

The basic idea of a conclusion/clue list is that for each conclusion you want the players to reach, you need at least three clues that would lead to the conclusion. I’ve found mysteries work better when the players can pursue or drop different elements at their leisure rather than Clue A leads to Clue B, etc. The conclusion/clue method builds in redundancy so if they miss a particular clue, the investigation doesn’t stop dead.

The rest of this post has spoilers for The Thing which is John Carpenter’s best movie.

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched The Thing but the conclusions I might go with are:

  • The thing can change form and perfectly mimic any living thing
  • The thing can split into multiple entities
  • The thing is afraid of fire

As for a doom clock. There are at least two PbtA games that use this already. You make a list of things that will happen that represent the horror’s plans if the players don’t intervene. You can start the story at any step depending on what you need. This helps keep you focused on where the story is heading next.

For example in The Thing I would go with:

  1. The thing is released from the ice and kills almost everyone at a Norwegian research station
  2. The thing escapes in the form of a dog with the survivors in pursuit but they crash their helicopter (this is where the movie starts)
  3. The thing infiltrates the animals at the new station and absorbs them
  4. The thing takes over one person at a time when the crew are alone
  5. After taking over everyone, the thing finds a way to get back to the mainland and start the process again

Thanks Bloodwork, this is great!

Here’s a couple examples of what I’m working on for “character classes:”

The Scientist

  • Access to the “new” (as in, it’s the 1980s, so all computers are new) computer network (can view and control cameras, electronically locked doors, heating system, comms, anything reasonably related)
  • Access to the Science Lab (specimen analysis, potentially useful tools, equipment, etc.)
  • Can work with the doctor to understand biological systems
  • Can fabricate chemicals and compounds
  • Can sequence genes, microscopy, etc.
  • Intelligent (+1 ongoing to Discern Realities, Defy Danger (DD) (Int, or Wis related), Parley (Int), Spout Lore).

The Pilot

  • Access to/can fly helicopter (or any vehicle, including sled dogs) and +1 DD rolls related to piloting (intrepid Vietnam helo pilot, and all)
  • Can fix most mechanical things, or at least understand how they work
  • Has a revolver (6)
  • Basic firearms training (+1 to Volley with pistols and rifles)
  • Gritty (-1 damage reduction (DR))
  • Survival skills (+1 ongoing to DD rolls involving surviving/braving the elements)

So far everything is shaping up clearly in my mind. The final piece to this one-off, though, is figuring out how to have the Thing assimilate a PC without the other players knowing. I’m thinking the best way to do it is to use the Separate Them GM move and send them off on their own, in pairs, with an NPC, etc. I think if I have the doomsday clock set up so that they have to split up to keep the base online (and themselves from freezing to death). Like, The Thing takes over commander Garry, let’s say, and shuts off the base power. The impending doom is that they will all freeze to death. Some of them have to go deal with the power, while some of them decide to protect the armory. Something like that.

Then, here’s my thought on the assimilated PC:

The Assimilated

  • When PCs and/or NPCs are assimilated by The Thing, they become The Assimilated
  • Driven by the one urge to assimilate others [[[need to come up with a mechanic for shared control w/ GM and w/ other assimilated players]]]
  • Retains stats, bonuses, and moves of unassimilated self
  • Gains the following moves:
    • Monstrous Metamorphosis
      • Details…basically turn into a monster, selecting a number of tags to represent it’s attacks/properties, etc.
    • Assimilate
      • Turn another living thing into one of the Assimilated
      • It takes time
      • The living thing must be incapacitated or otherwise unable to resist (basically, a significant part of The Thing turns to a gelatinous, intelligent ooze, dissolves it’s victim, and then reconstitutes itself into whatever germane form.
    • Disassemble
      • Drop a part, melt into a puddle of ooze, explode into bits, whatever, and try to escape
    • Mimic
      • Change appearance/voice to escape detection, isolate another, confuse, obfuscate
      • Sabatoge
        • Destroy base’s infrastructure
      • Escape
        *Attempt to make it to the mainland (assimalating the Pilot PC and stealing the helicopter is a logical choice)

I guess I have this pull to want to make the assimilation thing a “move.” Thoughts?

I’m always for transparency. In a nutshell : dramatic irony goes up to 11 when Dela goes on their own looking for Tim in the cabin outside.
For that, there can be a way that Splitting is a desirable move for a player. Like, when multiple players choose it at the same time, they will activate more McGuffins and gather more clues. This can be done with locations on a map or different clocks to watch.
Maybe it’s not what you want at all, mind you.

I’m not particularly good at designing moves but this seems fine. Kids are into Among Us at the moment so you could try to model the flow of story based on that. It will try to sabotage things in order to split the group up and then kill/take them over. To be honest the whole thing seems pretty tricky with players taking on the role of the enemy but lots of luck.

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