I'm planning an adventure where after death, the PCs go to a kind of shadow world, as spirits. What would replace the fear of dying when you're already dead?

What should I do to avoid a horror campaign looking like a cartoon?

It's a GURPS game, so supplement ideas would help too.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ What "kind of umbra"? It's hard to say what a character could fear at such a place when you don't describe it in any way. Can they feel pain (physical or emotional)? Do they have any (meta-) physical needs? Can they have possessions? Can they be restricted in movement or action? \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 14:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, do they have the goal to return to the world of living? Making that impossible could be a serious threat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Question: Are the questions about cartoons and supplements related to replacing the fear of death somehow? If yes, it's not clear how they're related, so that needs to be fixed. If they're just extra questions about setting up your adventure, then they should be posted as separate questions. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 16, 2014 at 14:52

5 Answers 5


I ran a game where players had their spirits projected into the realms of the damned and they were damn1 glad to get out of there by the time they'd escaped.

Wraith: the Oblivion is a game you should consider having a look at for ideas but there are several things (depending on your world) that can threaten those who are already dead.

  • Insanity – There's little point being still alive if you're a gibbering, crazy lunatic who's stuffed full of mania—reference Call of Cthulhu
  • Presence – You may not be able to die, but what you can do, what you can interact with can fade, spirits can fade (or get more powerful). If their presence fades completely then they vanish to... well, who knows?
  • Forging – Souls can be forged into coins in some systems. Think about that—the coin you hold in your hand as a spirit (perhaps everything physical) was once some kind of living person or being. That could be your fate...
  • Hell – The Umbra and limbo are traditionally "in-between" places; souls can move on. Move on up, move on down. Temptation can land you in the depths of the fiery inferno; corruption and temptation—each time you succumb you are one step further down those steps to eternal pain and damnation.

1 Sorry

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, was going to mention Wraith. Similarly, ghosts in Exalted (same publisher) can be forged into Soulsteel and used to create weapons and armor. \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian S
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 15:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oblivion and Harrowings. Well, Harrowing is like small samples of Hell, but in a generic setting the torment or torture is worth mentioning. For those who don't know WtO, Oblivion is the final end, the nothing, when the spirit simply ceases to exist. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented May 16, 2014 at 15:43

Depending on the character's temperament, relationships, etc. reincarnation could be a potential threat. Normally, reincarnation would be considered a good thing, but what if you still have things to do? You might be free of your mortal coil, but a ghost can still act; a soul reclaimed to the great cycle... not so much.

Not only would a reincarnated character cease being able to deal with any remaining duties, obligations, revenge plots, and so on, he or she would be reborn as a baby (and that's assuming the rebirth happens immediately!), and depending on the setting, the new individual might have zero connection to the previous one, even subconsciously. It's a new character with a recycled soul. Sure, getting reincarnated might be a positive ending, but as far as playing the character goes, you might as well have re-died.

For bonus points, unwilling reincarnation could be a threat while willful reincarnation could be the character's "happy ending" (in much the same fashion as a character's Epic Destiny in D&D 4e). You still don't get to play the character any more, but you've closed the book on him or her, after progressing through the full story.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, several settings have a "void" or "oblivion" which can annihilate ghosts in the underworld. Sure, you've already died and now you're a ghost. Sure if you get beaten up enough by people capable of punching immaterial spirits, you might have to rest for a few days and regenerate your corpus, but ultimately you'll be fine. If you step into the void, though... you're gone for good. (Without even the possibility of reincarnation.)


One solution I like is to add a mechanic by which there is some sort of spiritual energy required to actually do anything; if you run out of energy you aren't technically dead, you just become completely unable to act floating along trapped in your mind. To me that's more terrifying than death, so it might be worthwhile if you're going for horror.


What replaces a fear of dying might be taken in different ways:

  • what should an already dead character fear in a similar way to a living characters fear of death?

  • what is something analogous to death for a dead character?

and those two questions might not necessarily have quite the same answers.

In answering either question, the starting point is to examine what a character in a spirit world has that they might still lose - and what things matter for their sense of self (to a large extent that second thing relates to the players sense of the character's 'self' - what would give the greater sense of loss-of-character-self to the player? That will tend to be where the 'fear' lies).

One way to heighten the fear of some of the various possibilities I mention is to make them gradual - so rather than a switch of state, have a progression toward the worst case, (perhaps with some possibility of mitigation or cure) - e.g. what if something is 'feeding' on their essence, or otherwise using/altering or manipulating them for its own purposes?

So what might be important? What makes a character who they are?

  • ability to sense or make sense of the world

    what if they became unaware of what was happening around them (whatever the the spirit world equivalents of blind, deaf or both might be)?
    what if their perceptions became so distorted that what they understood to be happening was 'false'?
    what if they became insane?

  • ability to act

    what if they lost the ability to communicate?
    what if they were aware of their surroundings but couldn't do anything?
    what if they became "catatonic" - neither able to sense nor act?
    what if they began to slip into some kind of complete oblivion?

  • autonomy/free will

    what if something else 'takes over'/controls or influences their actions? (the connection to the Victorian/gothic-horror theme of taint or corruption comes in here)
    what if what they intend is not what happens?
    what if their will is progressively weakened so that they can only act with difficulty? (though it can be done mechanically, it might work better if the player was cooperative)

  • the perceptions of others

    what if they can still sense and act, but others lose the ability of be aware of them? (their actions are interpreted as something else, for example - chance events, or the actions of others, or just some unexplained "thing")
    what if their actions are progressively more and more misinterpreted?

This sort of situation is replete with roleplaying possibilities and plot hooks.


If we are talking about a spirit world, it's not much different from a non-spirit world unless there is an actual relation to a non-spirit world.

If there is such a relation, you might still exert power by influencing people's dreams and memories of you.

The more they forget about you, the less connection you have to the non-spirit world.

So if you have any reason to hang on, slipping into oblivion before getting your goals wrapped up would seem a defeat.


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