As the first issue of 2001 we presented you with a list of “instant plot hooks” and examples thereof. These are small, quick items that you can drop into your games without much preparation when you run out of material. They’re great for those times when you didn’t prepare enough material, or your players short-circuited your plots for the evening. Then you can drop an instant plot hook in and give them something to do. Some instant plot hooks are short things, designed to take up those last thirty minutes or so. Others are ripe for further development; during the week between gaming runs you can flesh them out and use them to start off your next plot.
Well, people seemed to like our instant plot hook issue, so we decided to run more of them! This time, however, we’re going to give you creepy plot hooks. These are plot hooks designed to produce or foster a horrific, suspenseful, confused or disturbing mood. If you’re looking for a way to establish the mood of a plot, these will hopefully give you a place to start, or at least a few ideas. Some of these are instant plot hooks; others will require a little preparation and thought.
Blood is always a good sign that something isn’t right, particularly because GMs often neglect to describe PC (player character) injuries in terms of something other than hit points or health levels. Depending on your game and your GMing style, blood may be a relatively foreign thing to your players. Just the sound of the word can make them sit up and shiver. It can set them on their guard and worry them. Use that!
- The party finds a small pool of blood somewhere, preferably in one of two places: someplace creepy (a dark alley; an abandoned warehouse), or someplace very personal (their bedroom). There are smudges in the blood; a partial hand-print? A partially-formed word? A dragged heel? The party has to figure out who or what the blood belongs to, and how it was spilled.
- A PC’s wound just won’t heal quite right. Whenever he gets distracted or stressed it opens up again, leaving a trail of blood down his hand, staining his shirt, or pooling in his shoe. Why won’t it heal? Was it a combat injury, or did it come as mysteriously as it reopens?
- If you want to go all out, let the party find a room doused in blood. It’s splattered all over the place: over the windows, along the walls, up to the ceiling. It’s used to mark ornate occult symbols along the lintel. Where could the blood have come from, with no bodies to be seen? Who would do such a thing? What kind of ritual was performed here? What has it set in motion? How can the PCs set things to rights?
- The party finds a trail of blood. They keep losing it and then finding it again. No one else can see this trail. Where does it lead? How will they follow it to its end if it keeps disappearing? Is it just a symptom of something else, something stranger?
Things Aren’t Quite Right
One of the creepiest things for anyone is to have the world be not-quite-right at them, in either small or large ways. It leaves them scared, confused, paranoid. If the discrepancy is subtle then the idea that something’s wrong might nag at them for a while before they even figure out what it is, heightening the tension. Things being wrong could be due to a perfectly logical explanation. Or someone could have messed with reality. Maybe the party is hallucinating, dreaming or experiencing virtual reality, or they somehow ended up in an alternate reality.
- Everyone vanished. This can reveal itself in large or small ways. Your party is walking down a rural street, and it takes them a little while to realize that there’s anything strange about the fact that no one’s around. After all, there could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Mrs. Mavent isn’t sitting out on her porch today; she could have the flu. And almost anything could account for the mail being late.
- A PC’s body isn’t quite right. Her voice sounds wrong. She’s pretty sure her eyes were a darker shade of blue than that. It’s the sort of thing that friends can easily dismiss: “Your eyes look normal to me.” “Maybe you have a cold.” What happened to her? This can range from an alien abduction story to medical experimentation, spirit possession, insanity, hallucinations, and so on.
- Little details are wrong. The blue of the sky is a little too green. The shape of the clouds is slightly off. There are plenty of details that we note subconsciously every day. We probably don’t consciously note what color the sky is, but we might well note if it looked a little off. Why are things wrong? Is the party hallucinating? Has the party slipped into another world, or a shared dream or nightmare? What brought them here? Why does it want them to think that everything is normal?
- An NPC (non-player character) isn’t acting right. A PC’s little sister is less recalcitrant than usual, and she forgot that she has basketball practice every Thursday. The neighbor smiles a little too broadly, and he doesn’t seem to sleep any more. Has the NPC been replaced by something else, or taken over by something? Why? What does that thing want? Is it a clone, a demon or spirit, or an alien?
- Allegiances are all mixed up. Your friends are your enemies, and maybe vice-versa. The power structure of your city has entirely changed and the party needs to figure it out before they screw everything up. Has someone messed with everyone’s heads? Is the party hallucinating? Have they found their way into another reality?
Weird and unexplained changes to the human body freak everyone out. What’s going on? What’s causing it? If you can, start slow and draw the changes out a bit; it’ll really screw with the characters’ heads. Remember to figure out what’s behind the changes, how they can be stopped and/or reversed, and what happens if they aren’t (if you’re using these changes as a last-minute “instant plot hook” at the end of the night, you can figure all of that out during the week).
Causes of body changes can be many and varied: scientific experimentation. Alien abduction. Mystical effects. Supernatural contamination (the traditional contagious werewolf bite falls here). Spiritual contamination. The party has to figure out what’s happening and why, and how to reverse the effects! If it’s part of a wider plot, then they need to figure out how to keep the same thing from happening to others.
Caveat: keep in mind that not all players are comfortable with having their characters messed with. If your players get upset then back off. Make sure you have some idea of how the characters can get back to normal, unless you have the kind of players who really don’t mind having their characters messed with!
- One or more of the PCs are growing gills. Their skin itches; it’s becoming scaled in small patches, and it’s spreading. Maybe air-breathing is becoming a little difficult.
- A PC was bitten by an animal and now she’s starting to take on some characteristics of that animal. She’s feeling a bit territorial, her fingernails are growing long and sharp, and her thinking isn’t so clear any more.
- A PC (or the entire party) is starting to disappear! Slowly, bit by bit, he is becoming incorporeal. He’s losing substance. It becomes harder and harder for him to affect the world around him, to move things, to be seen or heard.
- If the party is in a supernatural universe where they’re fighting some sort of monsters, then perhaps one or more of them start turning into the very monsters they’re fighting. It’s happening little bit by little bit. Why? How can they make it stop?
Weird and unexplained changes to one’s mind can also be pretty darn freaky! Be careful playing with this one, as some players don’t feel comfortable having the free will of their characters messed with. Others will take it as an exciting challenge. You might want to ask some cagey questions first, or start slowly and see how people react.
You don’t want this plot to leave the player sidelined for any real length of time. Either take him aside and explain things to him enough that he can play the “altered” character himself, or otherwise allow him to take the reins for the most part. I’ll put a few suggestions for how to do this in brackets, below.
A character has short blackout periods. Eventually he starts meeting up with people who have memories of him doing things that he doesn’t remember doing. His neighbor says “hey, thanks for helping me move that sofa yesterday,” but that was during one of the blackout periods and he doesn’t remember it. Is someone or something taking him over, or simply distorting his memory? What else might he have done that he can’t remember?
[You can have most blackout periods happen during times that the party isn’t roleplaying. For example, the party goes off to sleep, and one player is told that he heads home, and then the next thing he remembers he’s getting up in the morning. This way the player isn’t made to sit and wait while the rest of the group gets to roleplay. Alternately, if you trust the player to treat the out-of-game information correctly, then you can give him some idea of how to roleplay the character during the blackout phases and let him do it. One possible advantage to this is that you could set things up such that the other players have no idea what’s going on, and only know that one moment the character is acting strange, and the next he seems to have no idea of what’s going on.]
A character starts experiencing emotions that don’t match what he’s used to. He gets inexplicably angry when someone asks him to help them, or he feels frightened of a large dog that didn’t bother him at all last week. Has he been drugged? Is he suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other psychological or psychiatric problem? Is someone trying to screw him over somehow?
[You could explain what is happening to the player and let him roleplay it as he sees fit. Or every now and then you could tell him/pass him a note that says something like, “that makes you really angry,” or “you feel very sad for the rest of this scene.”]
A character experiences episodes where he’s just a passenger, watching and listening to his own actions and words. Does he behave abnormally? Does he interact as friends with people the character doesn’t know? Does he rob a store or kill someone? Has he been hypnotized or drugged in some way, put under a spell, or taken over?
[This is a trickier one. In order to really make this one effective, it’s preferable to not have the player know what’s going on. So I’d recommend making the “passenger episodes” brief. Alternately, or additionally, you could allow the player to hold a conversation/argument with whatever entity is in control of him, or give him small ways in which to try to thwart it. This way he gets to do some roleplaying, even though he isn’t in control of his character’s body.]
A PC has thoughts that aren’t his own. To him it seems like he’s just thinking in new directions, or having odd hunches or intuitions, at least until things become more blatant and obvious. Whose thoughts are they? Are they helpful or dangerous? Is it a prelude to something worse?
[This is pretty easy. You just tell the player (or pass him a note that says) that he thinks thus-and-such. Before you play with this you might want to have a talk with the player, to make sure he understands whether these thoughts feel like hunches or intuition, or sound like a foreign voice in his head. Always be clear on the difference; PCs are likely to react very differently to these cases.]
Everyone gets scared when they realize they’re being hunted. What’s doing the hunting? How dangerous is it? Why is it so difficult to get away from? How does it keep finding them anyway?
- The unseen (or invisible) hunter. The party hears it occasionally or sees signs of its passing. It pounds on walls or roars in the distance. It leaves deep scratch-marks on the door. But since the party doesn’t see it, they don’t know what it is. This tends to make party-members very paranoid!
- The party is hunted by something or someone slow-yet-inexorable. They can outrun it. They can flee it. But slowly, somehow, it always catches up with them again.
- The party is kidnapped and dumped somewhere that confines them to an area. They are told that if they live through the night, they’ll be set free. The hunt commences. Why are they being hunted? Is it someone with a grudge? Is it someone who’s impressed with them and testing their abilities? Is it a cover for something else entirely? (Note: this plot on its lonesome is a bit tired and overused. But if you give it some interesting motives or an interesting spin, or make it a lead-in to or cover for something more fascinating, you can take advantage of that. Precisely because it feels so cliche, the players are likely to be very surprised when the plot turns out to be something unexpected.)
I don’t mean any old random monstrosity. I mean truly frightening creatures. A few suggestions for creating frightening monsters: Give them emotions; an angry monster or a panicked monster can be a lot more frightening than a… well… a “just kind of there” monster. Don’t just put your monster out in the open for the characters to see it; most terrifying monsters don’t seem nearly so terrifying in the full light of day. Make use of darkness, uncertainty, partial glimpses, small details and barely-heard noises. Hmm, maybe we should do a whole issue on this subject at some point. (Any interest?)
- The monster that the party somehow sets free. It goes on a bloody nighttime killing spree, and the party is left knowing that it’s all their fault. It’s their responsibility to somehow stop it.
- The monster that comes in human guise. Maybe its eyes are just an unnatural shade of blue, or its smile a little too wide. It doesn’t bleed, or its skin is impossible to cut. Come up with small ways for the monstrosity to differ from the human it’s pretending to be.
- The vicious, murderous monster that actually turns out to be a “normal” person. This is the string of killings that seem so vicious or horrible that they must have been done by something inhuman, but turn out to be the work of a human serial killer.
- The monster that someone else set free. If the person who freed the monster isn’t dead yet, then maybe she knows a way to send it back where it came from.
People and objects disappear all the time. This plot can range from the small (hey, where’s my gun?), to the huge (so what happened to the Empire State Building last night anyway?), to the macabre (as you’ll see in example number one, below). Sometimes these disappearances turn out to be misunderstandings, hallucinations, dreams, or something even stranger. They might be kidnappings, thefts, or something much more nefarious. Let your imagination run a little wild.
- Someone (a party member, friend or ally) ends up in the hospital, where he discovers that patients are disappearing. Not slowly and carefully, but in a real hurry! Perhaps every five or ten minutes, or under circumstances that should really have left evidence behind. Who’s doing it? Is there a supernatural explanation? Why doesn’t the staff seem to notice (or do they)? Are the missing people dead? Were they drugged and kidnapped for some horrifying purpose? Is an NPC who works at the hospital trying to screw with the party in some way? Will the party get implicated in the disappearances, or do the authorities seem to think that nothing’s wrong?
- A party member’s weapon is stolen and used to commit a crime. How will the party convince the authorities that the party member didn’t do it? This is a good one to start when there’s only a half-hour or less left; the party can start looking into things, and then you’ll have a whole week to figure out what evidence they can find to clear their friend.
- The entire city disappears from around the party while they’re asleep. So where’d it go, anyway? And why weren’t they taken with it?
- A friend of the party disappears (screams & vanishes; melts away; gets sucked into a vortex…) in front of the party’s eyes. What happened to them? Where’d they go? Are they okay?