The first time I played Dead Space, I had to keep all of the lights on in my room. I couldn’t play if I was the only one home, and certainly not after the sun went down. It was horror at its finest.
Eventually, however, your body acclimates to the jump scares and limited visibility. After that, it’s just a walk in the park. It’s an issue that the horror genre faces everyday: how do you keep the fear alive?
I’ve set out on a mission to create my own Dead Space campaign tips using Paizo’s Starfinder tabletop role-playing game. These are applicable to most horror-genre campaigns, but especially for those involving massive hordes of sprawling undead alien scourges.
One of the big draws of the first Dead Space is that you have no idea what’s going on. You arrive aboard the USG Ishimura to find nothing but catastrophe. All you really know is that you need to be careful.
Sprinkling clues as to what happened is important in developing the story. Don’t use a heavy hand; mystery works best when developed slowly over time. It’s a lot like making a good, hearty goulash that’s been simmering for eight hours.
Let’s look at some examples from Dead Space:
- Audio Logs – Journals, notes, and logs are great sources of information for the party. These are first-hand accounts of what’s going on! Audio logs are exceptional because you can add in things like heavy breathing, static, and sudden cuts to unnerve the party.
- Quarantine – When the room suddenly goes on lock-down and you hear the words ‘Containment Breach’, you know that something bad is about to happen.
- Cryptic Messages – Whether it’s blood on the walls, signs of a struggle, or strange iconography, creating mystery is easy if there aren’t any witnesses.
Once you’ve established that something’s not quite right, your next goal is to keep that fear train rolling. Now, this part is important: you can’t start things out with your biggest scare. If you do, you’re going to dull your players’ senses, and future events aren’t going to have the same impact.
You really want to build up the fear. The Trajectory of Fear by Ash Law is an excellent resource for devices to keep fear present in the background. It’s more about the little things than the big reveals.
With a Dead Space campaign, the fear comes from fear of the unknown. What happened to the crew of the Ishimura? Where did this abominations come from? Can I please go home now?
Flickering lights and total darkness work really well at the table, especially if you can set the mood in person. Leave other clues too, like a bloodstained ID badge, quarantined rooms, or slithering tentacles coming from the ductwork.
Sometimes it isn’t the fear of what you see. Rather, it’s being afraid because you don’t know specifically what to be afraid about.
Another big theme in Dead Space is isolation. Not only are you working alone to figure out this mining rig mystery, but you are basically cut off from the outside world.
Overemphasize how alone the party is. Help isn’t on the way; they have to manufacture their own way out. You can build in missions like repairing a satellite array to send out a distress call, or holding off waves of enemies while ship logs are accessed.
If you’ve played the games, you may remember a certain escape pod being intercepted by a potential rescue ship, the USM Valor. What’s worse than finally thinking you’re going to be saved when your would-be saviors suffer the same fate that you’re apparently headed towards?
You can also flip the script and view isolation from the opposite perspective. Let the party see surviving crew members get dragged off into the darkness. Maybe they’ll meet a survivor, but they’re on the other side of impenetrable glass. So close, but so far.
Dead Space is all about the environment. I’ve already talked about the quarantine, locking of doors, and the grisly scenes that are portrayed. Lean into those descriptive words and find some good, eerie music.
Just because your tabletop maps are usually in two dimensions doesn’t mean you’re restricted to those. Dead Space had some really interesting zero-gravity moments where you float from box to box to make your way across a room. Bonus points for turning it into a combat and using things like fire extinguishers as projectile bombs.
The necromorphs are lurking just behind the scenes. Every corner, every bit of darkness, every duct can contain one. If I was running a Dead Space-themed campaign, I would probably make an air duct map on a transparency that I could lay over my main map. If you’re playing digitally, draw out those maps on a separate layer.
Also remember that you’re aboard a mining rig! If you can give your party some reskinned weapons or similar upgrades, that would really help recreate the atmosphere of Dead Space. Isaac’s primary weapon is just a plasma cutter; a tool of the trade.
You could also house-rule dismemberment for the necromorphs. Add in a penalty to specifically aim at a leg, for example, and if you’re successful it’ll halve their speed or something like that. That was another aspect of the games that was really well-done, especially with the unique weapons you’d find along the way.
Not all survivors have to be mute or carried off by terrifying necromorphs. Their testimony and recollection of what’s going on will help to piece together the larger story.
Memories can be fickle friends, however, and some of their interpretations of what’s going on might not be entirely accurate. Maybe they’ll overemphasize certain things or exaggerate their experiences. In this way, you can force the party to prepare for everything, feel vulnerable, and possibly have them prepare for the wrong things, all at the same time.
If you’re focusing more on the necromorph ‘disease’, you could also have some of the survivors be latent and infected. This will make the party think twice about getting too close, lest they become infected themselves. You could also think about including an ‘inside-man’ or someone who’s on the side of the necromorphs, adopted as one of their own.
Dead Space in Starfinder
These are mostly broad stroke tips for incorporating some Dead Space elements into your Starfinder campaign. However, they extend to most horror games as well.
I’ll never forget that first jump scare when the necromorph pops up and suddenly attacks. I practically jumped right out of my seat. Those are the kinds of moments that you want to create for your players to make a memorable campaign. Paizo also has some good pointer in their Horror Adventures supplement for first edition.
Stay safe out there, Starfinders!