I'm going to use Savage Worlds to run a horror campaign in a modern day setting; think X-Files or Supernatural.

My players all agree and are excited about the horror concept, but they want to be able to have powers as well... I want this to keep being creepy for them, making them feel helpless while being chased by a slasher villain, being swarmed and bitten by zombies, or facing a poltergeist.

I don't want this to turn into a Devil May Cry... I know there are stories/shows where the main characters have powers and still face horror (like Shadows of the Damned or Shadow Hearts). I would like tips from other GMs on how to do this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welocme to RPG.StackExchange.com! Good first question. If your players want powers, they may not want to feel helpless. Make sure you're on the same page about tone. Also take a look at the About page when you get a chance. \$\endgroup\$
    – C. Ross
    Jul 13, 2013 at 19:57

3 Answers 3


Considering checking out some of the Savage World supplements - Savage World Horror Companion and Realms of Cthulhu. Both have discussions on how you can have Powers, but at the same time still maintain an atmosphere of horror, and provide some Setting Rules you can consider. You may also want to check out Rippers, which is about a secret order dedicated to fighting the supernatural set in Victorian London.

Restricting Powers

Powers in Savage Worlds tend to be quite powerful. You can restrict Powers by making Power Points valuable - Go through the available Edges with a fine comb, and remove those that make the Power Points economy moot, such as the Wizard professional edge and any edges that give quick regeneration. You can also limit the number of times the players can boost their total Power Points.

Also consider removing Powers that may not fit with your theme - Invisibility and Fly are two examples. You may also want to handicap Bolt and Blast -- Realms of Cthulhu imposes a flat penalties to those spells, for instance.

Making Powers Hard and Dangerous to get

Realms of Cthulhu require the investigators to get their hands on magic by acquiring and reading tomes -- a feat by itself, providing that reading the tomes of powers doesn't drive you insane. Worse, it also costs some of their sanity.

For other power types, consider similar drawbacks. A psion may acquire mental stress as he hones his skills or making himself more vunerable to demonic possession or the like.

Using Powers can Be Dangerous

The core Savage World rules have certain variants on Powers causing backlash on a fumble. You may want to use rules for hitting a TN to cast a spell instead of spending power points, as this make magic more mysterious, and that higher end effects are harder to get.

Escalate your Villains

Another idea to consider is that while the player-characters may have Powers, that doesn't really even the board for them. Consider that in the TV series Supernatural, there is a food chain of sorts among monsters. Leviathans > Angels > Demons > Monsters > Common Human. Your common man may elevate himself to the level of monsters through Powers, but there are bigger predators out there.

Ensure that combat is not the solution

Also think of what's really terrifying, cases where even having the firepower of a battleship is useless. Can Bolt stop the bad guys from poisoning a town water supply which would turn the townsfolk into mindless zombies? What's good is Blast or Bolt if you can't find the creature to begin with and he moves in perfect silence? Some of the best horror movies have cases where violence isn't the answer. I'll recommend the Supernatural series mentioned, and if you like Japanese anime, the Mononoke series (NOT the movie).

Essentially, require the PCs to defeat the bad guys through investigation, research and putting clues together. Mononoke is outstanding in that aspect is that each demon/ghost can only be slain by the hero's 'demon-killing sword', only if he knows what's the form of the demon, what it is after and how it came to be.

Update: Regarding monsters vulnerability

Mix it up with monster vulnerabilities. In Supernatural, there are a few times when monster vulnerabilities didn't work out - the writers has to make sure there's a show worth watching! For example, the Colt didn't kill Lucifer, holy fire only sends an angel away for a while, Ruby's demon killing knife didn't kill Alastair, Alpha werewolves are immune to silver bullet, smart demons notice Devil's Trap in times and there's no way in Hell you are going to kill Death.

There is also the hard part of actually striking the monster with their vulnerability. Demons are vulnerable to cold iron? But when they have Quickness and Level Headed, do you think you can get to him before he can get to you?

Another thing to consider: never, never let your supernatural horrors fight your heroes fair. That's what horror is, isn't it? Unexpected terror. They pounce at you when it is least expected, stalk you in the dark, and fight dirty.

Emphasis the difference If you want to emulate the "oh no we are like insects unto them", whenever a player gets into a physical conflict (trying to hit with a gun, smite with a spell, but not when trying to bluff or outsmart them), all supernatural goons are considered as Wild Cards...and the players aren't...

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    \$\begingroup\$ Elaborating on the "Combat is not the solution", give enemies Invulnerability with a specific Weakness to overcome it that must be determined through investigation of the enemy's backstory. For instance, the ghost of a woman who went insane after her lover left her can only be put to rest if the posse manages to track down the child of their pairing. Or a man who traded his soul for immortality can only be harmed by a sword of sentimental value that he owned while mortal. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 13, 2013 at 19:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, my players now are saying "But all demons are weak to cold iron, isnt's that enough to know hoe to kill them?", and they think they can solve an entire session by throwing a successful knowledge roll... \$\endgroup\$ Jul 13, 2013 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AldathLe'Carde If you make your demons invincible except to a blade wet with innocent blood, now you've got a truly horrific situation both supernaturally and humanly... \$\endgroup\$ Jul 13, 2013 at 22:01

Remember, Sam had powers on Supernatural because of the demon blood, and there were consequences, his death, Dean's damnation, and Sam's addiction to their use. Likewise with Willow on Buffy. Make the use of the powers come with an ever increasing price until the player has to chose to give them up somehow, or become an NPC villain, or even die. Then even the PC's own powers can be a source of horror.


Horrors should be Horrible

It sounds like a tautology, but it's not. Don't confuse "horror" with "enemies with (more powerful) supernatural abilities." It's fine for PC to have some supernatural abilities but they should never be complacent.

One key factor is that horror is transgressive. It break the boundaries between life and death, what is your body and what isn't, what is real and what is imagined. Your players need to face fundamental uncertainty at times. For example:

  • Cast doubts that one of the party members might have been replaced by a ghost. The easiest way is to do it once, and then let them always be suspicious.
  • Have their powers work in ways that start to get out of their control - the fly spell that pushes everyone to the ceiling, the invisibility spell just affects the outer layers of skin to reveal glistening muscles and quivering organs.
  • Threaten the characters with non-violent horrors: the creeping fungus that is slowly consuming their left arm, their gradual fading away into non-corporeality, their increasing inability to control their own rage when the party disagrees with them.

I have found that my players don't mind of I mess with the rules as long as it's consistent and for a thematically appropriate reason (i.e. not just a random and nihilistic attempt to frustrate them). There should be some insane logic to the horror.

Some players might not like this - they are looking more for a "thriller" story that an "horror" story. That's fine too!


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