Is Slasher Horror Impossible? The Mound in the Yard

October 22, 2020

The slasher film is a popular take on horror. In RPGs, slasher adventures are utterly underrepresented.

For Halloween this year, I went on a search for a great ’70s or ’80s style slasher killer adventure. I almost came up empty. I found RPG-adjacent storytelling games like The Final Girl and Slasher, and I also found suggestions that were spiritually close but didn’t fully embrace the genre, such as Call of Cthulhu‘s excellent Dead Light scenario or Dungeon Crawl Classics’ claustrophobic Creep, Skrag, Creep!

So I found myself wondering – does the slasher killer genre even work in RPGs? The genre definitely has qualities that are great for roleplaying games. Slasher films usually focus on a small group of friends, they have a colorful villain (usually with some kind of fun trademark weapon), they take place in contained towns and neighborhoods, and there’s usually a narrative twist involved, such as discovering the surprise identity of the maniac serial killer.

But the genre also has elements that are terrible for roleplaying games:

  • The genre is based on characters making stupid decisions. The heroine runs up the stairs vs. running out into the yard. Cell phones are uncharged. Nobody grabs a weapon until the last act. Someone has to take a shower at the worst possible time. RPG players have the exact opposite instincts. The moment they see someone in a mask staring at them across the street, players pivot into SEAL Team Six mode – even if they are roleplaying librarians and used car salesmen.
  • Slashers constantly break the laws of physics (and game rules). Slashers appear from nowhere and then impossibly disappear without explanation. Like human Marauder Maps, they also seem to know where everyone is at any given time. This kind of NPC behavior drives players nuts, since it can feel like the GM is cheating and being arbitrary. This could be why there are more supernatural slasher villain adventures vs. straight up versions. GURPS literally suggests giving maniac serial killers the ability to Warp when out of sight.
  • Slasher villains need an experienced GM. In many traditional, Lovecraftian horror adventures, the villains sit quietly in their lair, waiting for the PCs to finally discover them. Or, they suddenly burst from an otherworldly portal in the final conclusion. In contrast, slashers are always on the move, responding to the players actions, appearing and disappearing at perfect times. Many times, they are not even in their slasher disguise, acting like a normal NPC. Running this kind of villain requires a lot of judgment, a solid understanding of pacing, a great understanding of the villain’s motivations, and a deep understanding of how your players will react in situations. All of this is hard.

Finding a lack of slasher adventures, this month I decided to create my own – The Mound in the Yard. This is usually where I tell you “it’s possible!” but I’m actually still on the fence. I overcame none of the problems above! I think The Mound in the Yard still requires an experienced GM (who can cheat without it being too overbearing) and a group that likes investigation over SEAL team action.

Four Slasher Adventure Tips

Though I still think this genre is problematic in RPGs, I have some tips to offer GMs running or writing a Halloween slasher adventure:

  • Don’t let the players know it’s a slasher adventure until it suddenly is. Players who think they are in one kind of horror game act a certain way. If they are expecting cultists and shoggoths, and suddenly they’re faced with a maniac wielding a hook, they won’t automatically know how to act. This switch-up will create confusion — the good kind — that slasher stories need.
  • Have a backup plan. It’s very possible that halfway through the adventure, one of your PCs will corner and shotgun blast your slasher. Plan for it. Keep a second killer in reserve, maybe a copy-cat, fellow conspirator, or even a mom wanting revenge.
  • Limit resources! This is your best way to prevent the game devolving into a tactical firefight. In my adventure, I used pregenerated characters that don’t have a lot of tactical experience, set it in a small town without a lot of resources, and set it on a holiday (where everything is closed). This should help.
  • Fill the adventure with lots of friends (and then kill them off). Key to the slasher genre is the villain cutting his way to the finale. Building a lot of allies into the adventure gives the GM more victim options, and more opportunities to split the PCs up. If the PCs get calls from two frantic friends at the same time, they’ll have to make a hard choice… or split up. By the end of the adventure, the PCs have no one left to rely on but themselves.

The Mound in the Yard fully leans into the slasher genre. Set in 1981, the PCs are lured to a small, rural Tennessee town to investigate unexplained phenomena. Several bone-ridden, dirt mounds erupted in the yards of the town, and one man has already gone mad and suddenly died. Hopefully, the PCs are expecting those shoggoths and cultists at this point. But then, the adventure takes a hard left and soon the PCs are being stalked by one of the town’s most notorious killers – “Longhandle”.

You can download The Mound in the Yard here:

The Mound in the Yard (GURPS Horror)

The Mound in the Yard (GURPS Horror) - Printer Friendly

The Mound in the Yard (Call of Cthulhu)

The Mound in the Yard (Call of Cthulhu) - Printer Friendly

The Mound in the Yard - VTT Tokens & Assets

Check out an overview of the adventure:

Have you read or run a successful slasher adventure? Let me know in the comments below!

Related: Writing a Great Haunted House Adventure

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