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'Tis soon the season and I want to treat my players to a Christmas-themed adventure as part of my ongoing horror campaign. I want to keep the horror element, but I don't mind mixing in a bit of humor or even a jolly ending to make it feel more like Christmas.

How do I design a Christmas-themed horror adventure?

For instance:

  • Can I adjust any normal horror adventure to make it Christmas-themed?
  • Are there published Christmas-themed adventures that can serve as inspiration?
  • Are there some elements of horror that I should definitely include or avoid?
  • What kind of techniques or props can I use during the game session to evoke the Christmas spirit?
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Charles Stross's Overtime would not be a bad start. – Sardathrion Nov 13 '12 at 10:44
You can use the Norse tradition of Yule to bring the ancient and bloody aspects of old Christmas forward into the clean and commercial version. – Simon Gill Nov 13 '12 at 10:51
Watch Nightmare Before Christmas. Make it less PG. – Yamikuronue Nov 13 '12 at 13:23
Watch the Doctor Who Christmas specials. – BBlake Nov 16 '12 at 13:12
Why the downvote? – Jakob Nov 18 '12 at 21:49

12 Answers 12

up vote 11 down vote accepted

In an nut shell: Twist Christmas or a threat to Christmas.

Twist a theme of Christmas (whichever you pick) to make the opposite of what it should mean. This will corrupt Christmas into something dark and horrible. Remember that most of horror/fear comes from familiar setting suddenly being unsafe (isolation), from not knowing what is out there (ignorance), and from being tapped (hopelessness). If you can get all three, preferably in the story and the location you play the game, you should be onto a winner. I am sure you can come up with a long list of horrible things such as Santa Clause being a paedophile hunting "naughty" children.

Or go for a more Pratchett Hogfather feel of a plot to destroy Christmas -- aka destroying something good. Ditto for Stross's Overtime (see comment). Something is using Christmas to do some terrible things. Maybe accepting the gifts of Stana this year will open everyone to be Horror Marked (a la Earthdawn). The threat is now external and your characters have something noble to save. Another classic example would be the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Finally, you could got for something more humourous but still horrible such as Invader Zim's Most Horrible Christmas Ever.

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The trick here will be to walk the fine line between horror and parody humour. You could go either way but will need to be quite aware when you plan and run of the danger of slipping in the opposite direction to that which you desire. – Gaxx Nov 15 '12 at 14:23
+1 for the Hogfather reference - that's a good example of how to make Christmas horrifying without actually changing much at all. You'd better not laugh, you'd better not cry, you'd better watch out.... – Ananisapta Nov 15 '12 at 22:15

This is a wonderful question! Sure, you could adapt an existing horror adventure but it could easily feel like you did just that. If you want it to be special, it really needs to be custom from the ground up (imo). Other than lighting and music I don't use props, but for a holiday horror I would suggest working in music from "A Very Scary Solstice"

Play it softly, so you almost can't make out the words. It will sound like you have carols playing and it is the holiday season. As already mentioned, part of horror is taking the familiar and twisting it. Over the course of the evening you can up the volume a bit at a time. When they do finally make it out it will creep them out. If you need to hear one this is a fav of mine, Carol of the Old Ones.

As for the story and it's elements that is a matter of taste. Let me tell you what I would do. Please keep in mind this is all off the top of my head.

There has been a good bit of focus on Santa and elves so let me take it in a different direction, the yule log... Yule log, it's big, it's heavy, it's evil wood!

A remote village, blanketed in snow. The air is crisp and cool. The local woodcutter, Olaf, and his two eldest are off to harvest a tree for this year's holiday season. It's for the whole village so it needs to be a big one and Olaf has just the tree in mind. He spied its monster branches rising from the mist over a week ago and just that glimpse was enough for his well trained eye to gauge it a prime specimen. That and the fact that harvesting one huge tree would take less time than five smaller ones. Which means more time for beer! Which was what Olaf did with most of this past week rather than scouting for more trees.

Olaf will go and cut down the strange and huge tree. But that is just the beginning. This tree is fundamentally wrong, bad, evil, jinxed, maliferous, the last slice of pie. When burned, the wood will release its magical toxin which alters the fabric of reality, bringing nightmare versions of the idea of joy found in the minds of nearby sentient beings. Or just go for their deepest fears if you like.

What happens? Anything, everything, whatever you want! As more wood burns the effects get stronger. Here are some examples off the top of my head:

  • A parade of tiny, walking, sweet cakes that are intent on force feeding themselves to a victim until they die. (name that movie?)
  • Gifts with wrapping that strangle you.
  • Summoning evil spirits to eat the children.
  • Turns all the bad children into savage little gnome like beasts willing to kill to feed their sweet tooth.
  • Mulled wine that sends the drinker into a murderous frenzy.
  • Raise the dead as a horde of flesh eating snowmen.
  • Opens the portal for an elder god.

You do have to ask why the wood is like this. Well, you don't, but someone will. It could be an insane tree spirit. Or the tree was a prison for a demon. Or a hiding place for an nightmare entity that has just escaped the world of dreams.

How would it play out? Like a mystery? Say the days before the holiday there are a couple of deaths, bloody awful affairs. It's just some stray bits of the evil tree being burned in the victims' proximity. Or you can go the route of full blown Armageddon! No warnings, every house in the village burns the logs and all hell breaks loose. Or the path of aftermath. It happened a day or two ago. The evil stuff is still about and the town is found in a state of post-apocalyptic-ness, maybe a few survivors scrap for survival and/or escape.

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Welcome to the site. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 17 '12 at 7:51
Thank you Brian :) – Leezard Nov 17 '12 at 8:00
I give up; what's the movie? – cartomancer Aug 15 '13 at 22:19
@cartomancer – Leezard Aug 18 '13 at 0:18

He knows your darkest sins, he knows when you are sleeping, and neither lock nor door will keep him from your home.

Seriously, Santa Claus as bringer of wrathful justice is trivially easy. Have your players attempt plant a curse on him to make him into the jolly gift giver we know and love today. Bonus points for having their descendants pick up the pieces in the sequel, when he breaks the curse after a few decades/centuries of impotent rage.

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"He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows when you're awake." You'd better watch out. Although there was a separate figure known as the Krampus who was responsible for punishing the naughty children. – Ananisapta Nov 15 '12 at 22:12
I remmembered the Krampus right away too! My wife is of Austrian descent and she was scared to the bone as child of it. Take the folklore and flesh it out as a Grimm tale (darker and more dangerous). – Yianes the Sneak Nov 19 '12 at 2:29
Came here to make sure Krampus was remembered. I'm not disappointed. – Philip Nov 20 '12 at 22:38

In a word: Futurama!

Well, the Santa Claus theme has already been mentioned. Let's try something different.

First of all, I wouldn't try to pick a regular adventure and christmasfy it. You want a Christmas adventure, not a strange hybrid.

What you have in Christmas aside from Santa? Baby Jesus, that is, the birth of a god.

So, my first suggestion is make the adventure about the birth of a dark god. You can stick as much as you want with the paralellisms. Adoration of low class people? Wise evil men bringing their gifts to the new king of the world? You can make a nice contrast between the christian themed christmas and the dark rites of the harbingers of the new god.

Second suggestion: go back to the pagan roots of christmas. Many pagan people used to think that in the winter solstice the sun was about to die. So they celebrated that in that time the sun begun to resurrect. What if the Sun could really die after centuries without the proper sacrifices?

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It's a Woodland Critter Chriiiiistmas (One of the South Park Christmas Specials). – Simon Gill Nov 15 '12 at 12:43
"What if the Sun could really die after centuries without the proper sacrifices?" That is a brilliant idea! – Maurycy Nov 15 '12 at 12:49
@MaurycyZarzycki Sounds like you need to read Hogfather :) – Tacroy Nov 15 '12 at 21:57
@Tacroy I don't know that book Hogfather. But I haver recalled that there is a film that could be similar to the first plot I was suggesting: birth of an evil god. The Day of the Beast. It's quite old, but highly recommendable and a good inspiration for christmas horror. . I wast thinking on something more cthulhuesque than satanic, but it's still good. – Flamma Nov 16 '12 at 9:26

Chrismas, a time of caring and joy... is an excellent way to raise the stakes locally about people the PCs care about. Once those ties of care and affection have been established in the world: tighten your grip and let the threat create its own horror.

To answer: "Can I adjust any normal horror adventure to make it Christmas-themed?"

Yes. Yes you can. And the trick is to use Christmas to play up tension and drama. Kathrine Kurtz did so very well in her adept series (especially Book 2). Christmas imposes family obligations, and the winter solstice is the dark of the year when the forces of good are weakest. (If you go by any pagan influences, at least...)

Horror, and the way of inspiring horror, can either raise the stakes or become more personal. Christmas is a fantastic way of becoming more personal and raising the stakes. It provides an unusual set dressing: snow is a right royal pain in the ass. It provides unusual requirements: "What, I have to go to a party for my job? But I have to... kill... er..." And it allows you to ask the character: "So who do you actually care about? Why?" and then threaten those people. And it's that threat to loved-ones that can be quite quite horrific, especially if you juxtapose it with Isolation (one of UA's insanties that should be adopted into any system that measures sanity) and the pain and terror of being unable/helpless to help the ones the player just positioned in the game world.

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Is there anything inherently Christmassy that can be twisted?

Things coming down the chimney to leave things behind? Sounds like an excellent element for horror.

Opening closed boxes, to see a surprise? I don't know why people do it, sounds like an excellent way of having your mind blasted out of your skull by things that should remain unknown to mankind.

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You can easily twist Christmas by making it slightly wrong. Santa who murders people by climbing down their chimney is less scary than Santa who is nice and jolly and doesn't know that an evil mastermind has poisoned every single gift he is giving out.

Try either setting up a clichéd plot (e.g. where Santa leaves a path of destruction, but it's genuinely not his fault - an enemy has set up a trap where Santa will bring bad luck behind him. Bonus points for the players having to choose between killing him or letting him unwittingly kill innocents) which takes an unexpected turn, or forcing the players to make decisions with huge negative impacts either way they choose, then letting them correct it later.

Also, maybe try an alternative world where Christmas doesn't exist - instead, there's a horrible alternative event that everyone is scared of. The players don't get the references for a while, and are then confronted by the true horror of 'Christmas'.

If you're playing in a fantasy world you can make Santa a very powerful mage, who is able to make matter from nothing and travel throughout the world in a single night. Wouldn't it be a shame if someone were to take over that power, or maybe if the mage was corrupted by the powerful forces he wields?

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I suggest you (re)watch Gremlins.

It is horror, with a bit of humour, and it is set right before Christmas. You can turn up or down the dials on humour and horror, at your will.

Even if the players know the movie, you don't need them to replay the part of the main characters (i.e. causing the "infection") - they just have to deal with the results, even if they don't trigger it.

I also seem to vaguely remember an old White Dwarf scenario which may be relevant... I am not sure I can dig it out (we are talking of early '80s here...). Let me know if you need more details about this.

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I have several ideas:

Ancient tradition

Christmas it's actually a much more ancient tradition than it's thought from a small tribe on an isolated island... and the rituals like Christmas dinner and New Years Eve are quite more bloody and terrific than the ones we know.

The players go to the island on a well deserved Christmas holidays and some how found the truth.


Literature already has gave us the bad guy of Christmas... The Grinch, it's from a children's book, but it can be changed to a more real/scary history.

Santa's evil helpers

The players are explorers on the North Pole and they are getting ready to have a Christmas dinner on their base, when something strange happens... and they discover that Santa's helpers and Santa's factory are not as we have seen on the movies

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There was an episode of Supernatural where there where two Pagan gods who posed as Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus and snuck into people's houses and ate the children. This could be a cool story, adjusting it correctly to fit your genre. For example, instead of being Pagan gods they could be carnivorous aliens, or robots who need fuel, maybe some other hell-beast that you created for your game specifically. This may seem like several of these other answers, but the thought of infant consumption seems like it would fit your horror theme quite well. I must say, a threat to Christmas seems sort of cliche, but if you don't mind unoriginality, that is always a good way to go.

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One way to do it is to take a classic Christmas story and alter it to be horrific. Not only does this bring in the Christmas theme, but as the players realize what's happening, they can get a nice feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a nice Christmas-y feeling, which makes for a nice contrast with horrific elements.

A good example is Silent Night, Hungry Night, a free adventure for Deadlands, a horror-fantasy wild west RPG.

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Two-Faced Santa's Village

The players are lost in a wintery desert (not necessarily the North Pole - there is plenty of magic to go around when talking about Santa), when in the distance they see the lights of a small village. As they approach it they are dazzled by the Christmas splendor. They have stumbled upon Santa's Village.

They are greeted like royalty, with elves ushering them in and tending to them with hot chocolate, and blankets by the fire. However, the players are trespassers, and no one leaves Santa's Village. Santa's Special Forces (perhaps a group of broken toys or specially trained elves or Santa's evil, forgotten brother) are setting up accidents for the players.

The splendor of Santa's Village plays out against the threat of death (if you are looking for an example of this, watch Polar Express and note the change in mood whenever the Christmas Ghost appears).

To help set the atmosphere, play Christmas music when in the village, but switch to something contrasting when the players find themselves in a hazardous situation.

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