If you’re running an ongoing campaign and you’d like to incorporate a horror-themed session for Halloween, that can sometimes present a challenge: it’s not a horror game, the calendar in the game doesn’t line up, you’re mid-adventure, Haloween doesn’t exist in the game world, etc.
Some of those problems aren’t easily solvable except by running a one-shot unconnected to the campaign. For example, if you’re mid-adventure and don’t want to insert a “flashback session” set in the past, or run an extra session to finish that adventure, then your only option may be to run a Halloween one-shot unrelated to the campaign. But assuming that’s not the case, there are lots of creative ways to build a Halloween-themed session into an ongoing game.
Let’s look at four of my favorites.
A one-session detour into horror
Not running a horror game? A horror session can be a great change of pace.
Think of your favorite episodic TV drama outside the horror genre: Chances are, they’ve done a horror episode or two. It’s fun to stretch the boundaries of your genre of choice for one adventure, and horror can be handled so many different ways that its usually pretty easy to insert the right kind of horror for your campaign.
Sometimes it works best if this session also lives outside the overall narrative of the campaign — a side trek, if you will. But in other cases it can and should be part of the story, using elements that have come before and creating new ones that will come up again — after all, it’s happening to the same characters, and it’s part of their personal narratives.
I can’t recall if it was included specifically for Halloween, but the Stew’s own Don Mappin ran a fantastic horror episode in the middle of a generally-not-horror Stargate campaign, and it was one of my favorite adventures overall. It both fit and didn’t fit in exactly the right ways, which is the strange alchemy of this sort of departure. When it works, it rocks.
New characters, same campaign
If there’s no easy way to involve the PCs in a horror adventure, create new characters just for that session and connect them to the main campaign in some way. You can create characters as a group if you have time, or you could create them all yourself and let your players choose among them. (You should have a sense of which option will work better for your group.)
Playing another character in an ongoing campaign is a fantastic way to see other aspects of the game and/or system, try something new, and then let your experience inform how you approach the game through the eyes of your usual PC. As a player, it’s a blast — and it’s fun as a GM, too. You’ll find that your players, playing their one-session PCs, can take the game in unexpected directions.
I’ve never done exactly this, but I did co-GM a Star Trek campaign (with Don) that featured two sets of PCs on the same starship. I GMed for one set of PCs and played a PC in the other set, and both “sides” of the campaign informed each other and made the game as a whole more fun. (Don wrote an article about “guest GMing” in this campaign.)
In another place and time
If neither changing the tone of the campaign nor swapping out the PCs works, you can always tweak the latter approach: Set an adventure in the past, or the future, with the characters being a) past versions of the PCs, b) future versions of the PCs, c) new characters entirely.
Option B is the trickiest, as it involves guessing how they’ll turn out, but it’s also the most interesting in some ways. I played a D&D 3.x one-shot that, while not Halloween-themed, featured the PCs’ future selves — and it was a hoot. The GM made good guesses, I got a sense for one way my character could turn out, and we all got to play with epic-level toys in the process.
Options A and C are both pretty straightforward, and both give you new ways to enrich the overall story of the campaign. They offer different kinds of fun for your players: Option C lets them play characters wildly unlike their usual PCs, while option A gives them a chance to explore key events that shaped their normal PCs.
Sometimes horror is easy to work into the game but horror that involves Halloween is not, in which case you might need to take a left turn of a different sort. I don’t know how to explain this except by way of an example.
This past weekend, my group’s ongoing Hunter: The Reckoning campaign took a detour into the past via time travel. I’d asked if we could play a Halloween session, but as it was March in the game world and the game is already horror-themed, our GM did something clever to make it work: He gave us access to a potion that would transport our PCs’ consciousness back in time for long enough to find a MacGuffin we were already after.
We then found it, in the past, and hid it somewhere we were reasonably sure our present-day PCs could locate it again 800 years later. This gave him the leeway to set it during a harvest festival, with pumpkins and a scarecrow monster, and took us out of the usual kind of horror that features in this campaign and into a different sort of mode. It worked out great, and it inspired me to write this article (thanks, Jaben!).
Those are four approaches I enjoy, all of which work also well for other sorts of “detour” adventures (as you’ve probably guessed from the fact that most of my examples didn’t actually involve Halloween sessions). How about you — what are your favorite ways to work a horror-themed session into your ongoing campaigns?