Need a one-shot horror scenario on short notice? You’re in luck: Plenty of horror movies are ready-made templates for RPG adventures — and I’ve picked three doozies.
As a GM, you should already be a raging kleptomaniac. The best thing about these three particular movies is that you can use them almost as-is, with very little prep on your part:
- 30 Days of Night
- The Thing
All three share some similarities, but they’re more than different enough to stand apart as distinct scenarios. I’d love to play any of these at a convention, or as one-shots in lieu of a cancelled home game.
Spoilers ahead: Needless to say, I’m going to spoil the hell out of these movies — if you don’t want to know plot details, stop here.
30 Days of Night
I expected this movie to suck, but it’s actually surprisingly good — and throughout the whole thing, I found myself thinking, “This would make a perfect convention scenario.”
Plot summary: Based on the comic of the same name (which I don’t like, despite the gorgeous artwork), the premise is simple but sexy: vampires descend on the small town Barrow, Alaska just as the sun sets for the last time in 30 days — the town gets a month of night once a year, making it a perfect environment for vampires.
The vampires don’t come every year (that would be too obvious); this is a special occasion for them — and they know what they’re doing. They steal and destroy every cell phone they can find, shut down the broadcasting station, stop anyone who tries to leave — then declare open season on Barrow’s populace.
The main characters are a couple on the outs — one of whom is Barrow’s sheriff — supported by a cast of horror staples: the cranky old guy, the younger brother, the determined loner, etc. Nothing new, but perfectly suited to this kind of movie.
Most of the townsfolk die in the first few days, but the ragtag band of protagonists goes to ground in a boarded-up house and tries to wait them out (as they know the vampires will have to leave after 30 days, because the sun will come up again).
They get picked off one by one as circumstances spiral out of control, and of course plans are hatched, vampires are fought, and there’s a final showdown.
Why it’s perfect: Five things make 30 Days of Night a great template for a horror scenario:
- The simple, meaty premise. The concept is great, and it immediately gets you thinking; it’ll do the same for your players.
- It’s set in a constrained environment. Barrow is a small town (easy to map), and it’s completely cut off. This will keep your players focused on the set-piece locations you prep in advance (like the power plant).
- It’s open-ended. Sure, in the movie it goes one way — but if your players fuck it up, or do a better job than the movie’s protagonists, it could easily go another. This will keep you on your toes (and if you run it at a convention, ensures reusability).
- Archetypal characters. You don’t need to provide a whole lot of backstory for the pregenerated characters in this scenario — they’re straight out of so many horror movies that your players will be able to get a handle on them right out of the gate.
- The vampires are cool. They’re bestial, with heightened senses and distorted features, but they don’t evoke Nosferatu. They also don’t seem to be as smart as humans, though they’re cunning, and they’re quite powerful — perfect RPG adversaries, in other words.
Watch it once, take some notes on the characters and locations, and you should be off and running. What makes it cool isn’t a complex plot, it’s the setup and the sandbox full of options you make available to your players.
The John Carpenter version of The Thing is one of my favorite movies. Kurt Russell is perfect for his role, the old-school, pre-CG special effects are fabulous, and it delivers some great horror moments.
Plot summary: A shapeshifting alien makes its way to an isolated Antarctic research station, where it preys on the scientists who are trapped there, picking them off one at a time. Whenever it kills someone, it takes on their appearance.
It arrives in the body of a dog, brought by a Norwegian team that discovered the thing’s UFO out on the ice. The scientists take in the “dog,” and it feeds off their dog pack, gaining strength and working its way up to the humans.
No one knows what’s going on right away, of course. Once they figure it out — and discover that the thing is masquerading as one of them — the tension ratchets way up.
A test is devised to find out which of them is actually the monster, and they all reluctantly submit to it. When it’s the thing’s turn, it goes batshit; from there, the movie is all-out war between the scientists and the thing — which has now infected several of them.
In the end, they realize that the only way to keep the thing from escaping and infecting people all over the world is to kill everyone at the station — including themselves.
Why it’s perfect: The Thing would make one dark, dirty, unforgiving horror one-shot:
- A robust hook. There’s not much to the plot, but what’s there is compelling — and scary; there’s a reason this is a horror classic. A simple premise makes it easy for your players to grok with no prep time.
- The cast. The fact that the characters are mostly scientists — and not buff, Hollywood-style scientists, but actual nerds (albeit hardy nerds) — gives this adventure a Call of Cthulhu vibe.
- Psychological drama. Finding out that the thing is there is creepy enough; finding out what it actually is, and what it can do, will make for a great gaming moment. And when everyone starts looking at each other funny? Priceless.
- Infighting and backstabbing. Most ongoing campaigns don’t have a huge amount of infighting, as it tends to derail the game fairly quickly — but in a one-shot, the gloves are off. PCs could be killed out of suspicion, or because they’re actually infected; the infection could start with NPCs, but jump to PCs — any way you play it, it’s going to be brutal.
I wouldn’t force the movie ending on your group. They might decide to do something totally different, or favor their own survival over the fate of the world — and since it’s a one-shot, as long as it’s fun it doesn’t matter how things shake out.
Quarantine is a remake of the Spanish horror film REC (which I haven’t seen), shot handheld from the perspective of one of the characters. It sounded like fun, so Alysia and I grabbed it on Netflix — and holy shit was it good. It’s easily one of the creepiest horror movies I’ve seen in years.
Plot summary: A TV show host and her cameraman are filming local firemen for a story when the squad gets called out in the middle of the night to respond to a 911 call at an apartment building.
The cops are already on the scene, and screams are coming from one apartment. They follow the cops and firemen inside, and in one corner of the kitchen is a woman covered in blood who looks like a zombie. Naturally, she attacks and bites one of the cops — and from there, everything goes to shit.
The source of the problem is an infection that makes those who get bitten become feral and violent, though this takes the cast a little while to figure out. When they try to escape, they find that the CDC has sealed off the entire building, and soldiers are posted at every possible exit. No one knows what’s going on.
You’ll recognize the character roles: mother and child, cops, firemen, the opportunist, thd old people, the calm and collected guy who dies early on — horror staples across the board.
One by one, the building’s residents get bitten; the infection spreads, and people get shot, beaten to death, pushed down the stairs, and hacked up — until the only people left are the TV host and the cameraman. The power is out, and they’re stuck in the penthouse apartment with patient zero.
They don’t make it out, which was the CDC’s plan all along — why risk letting the infection spread?
Why it’s perfect: Like 30 Days of Night, I watched this and couldn’t help but imagine playing it — it’s essentially already a horror adventure:
- Our old friend, the constrained environment. This time around, not only is there only one principal location, but if anyone does manage to escape they’ll be shot dead by soldiers. Knowing that there are people right outside who could be helping you, but are instead keeping you penned in to die — that’s creepy.
- The mystery of the infection. Are they zombies? How does the infection spread? Can it be cured? How fast do people turn? How do you know they’ve been turned? Even though the infection is nothing new, in a gaming scenario there are lots of possibilities to rule out before you really know what’s going on…
- Intense drama. The characters will be in a pressure cooker for the entire scenario, and while some of them may start out with strong bonds (two cops or firemen; the TV host and cameraman), the temptation to fuck each other over is going to come up quick.
- Desperation. This scenario is even more bleak than The Thing, where right up until the end they still think they can escape — and there are lots of props scattered around to encourage jumpy PCs to act rashly: handguns, an axe, drugs (found in one apartment), etc.
If you wanted to depart from the movie in a big way, you could leave the characters an out — maybe the CDC is just waiting for a specific science team to arrive, for example, or maybe the characters have a shot at breaking the cordon. Again, it’s a one-shot: even if there’s no hope, getting there is all the fun.
There are loads of other movies (and TV shows) that can be used as-is to create one-shot horror scenarios. I picked these three because I like them, I’d love to play them, and they illustrate some of the best and most basic elements you can mix to create this kind of scenario.
What are some other good candidates? Have you ever played a horror adventure based directly on a movie? How did it go?