17 January 2015

Small Town Horror: Stuff You Can Use

On one of those sites where people chip in on a list, there was a thread concerning elements you might find in a small town, suitable for a mystery or horror campaign. 

I don’t GM horror.  I think it’s a uniquely difficult milieu for gaming, and I believe it takes a rare player to manage.  But I seem to have a knack for producing these little bits, and I know small town New England intimately.  Herewith my own entries, for your edification.

1) There's a stereotypical country store (fitting into the milieu), with four elderly men sitting on the porch, smoking pipes. But they don't talk. They never talk, except when directly addressed, and then only curtly and briefly. They are always there, from just after sunup to just before sundown, they always sit on the porch in the exact same order, and they just stare at the street traffic ... including one who’s plainly blind, with a cane, but staring anyway. Puffing silently.

2) There are no pets. Anywhere. No dogs, no cats, no parakeets. There is evidence of pets - the occasional dog house, the bird cage in Mrs. McGarry's window, the bin of rabbit food in the feed store - but no critters. Except by nightfall, one can hear the occasional cat yowl or dog bark ... but never see any.  If the PCs bring a pet with them, it will go bonkers the moment it breaks the town line, berserk and doing its level and continual best to Get Away.

3) The perky young sales clerk behind the counter of the five and dime is a different one every day. She's friendly, wholesome-pretty, hourglass-figure, is always a cheerleader at the local high school, always an orphan (living with an uncle and aunt), always a parishioner at the Congregational church over on the corner of West and Bridge Street ... and looks blank and confused if asked who was clerking there the day before.

4) Speaking of Bridge Street ... the bridge crosses the Mill River, where the old abandoned furniture mill is, right up against the mountain. No one ever goes there, and no one in town will talk about it except to reaffirm that everyone stays away, because, well, they "just do." The local police will drive across the bridge once per shift, do a donut, and come right back across, losing no time to do so.

5) There's a modest town green, with a band gazebo, an old war monument, a public drinking fountain built a century ago ... and a weathered sandstone menhir entirely jarring and out of place amidst the 19th century granite and decor. On the menhir is a bright yellow ceramic 1950s style bowl. Broken. It's always there, no one will talk about it, and the villagers will gasp in horrified consternation if anyone touches it. Even so, they'll plaster strained smiles on their faces, won't talk about it, and try desperately to change the subject.

6) Every 66th day, the high school sports teams change IDs. In December it was the Red Raiders; now it's the Lakers. Completely new name, completely new uniforms, completely new mascots, for all the school's teams. Booster club jackets will suddenly change to conform. It will be as if there never was a difference. The town's weekly newspaper will have sections clipped out of the back issues at the library which would indicate the old names ... or they'll be replaced.

7) Something you tell one person seems to spread to the rest of the town instantly.  Mention on your first trip into the town to the waitress at the diner as you're paying your tab that you're a writer for the Patriot Ledger, when you cross the street to get a pack of smokes at the corner store, the proprietor affably says, "My, bein' a reporter must be an excitin' job, eh, sir?  I keep reading of all them criminals in your paper!"

8) At six minutes past 7:00 pm every day, all the residents above the age of ten, all at once, break into a couple of verses of a song popular on the charts ten years before. It is a different song every day (and a very discerning and musically apt PC will realize that the first initial of the song title the first day is "H," the second "G", the third "F", slated to count backwards to "A" during their stay), and no one sings for longer than about fifty seconds. If asked why they do it, the PCs will get answers ranging from "We just like it" to "This is just something we all do."

(Yes, this is indeed the 66th minute after 6 PM.)

9) All the televisions in town, be they old-fashioned analog sets with dials or digital jobs with remotes, lack Channel 2; they all start at "3." The only exceptions are three sets, all with navy blue cases; one in Town Hall, one in the Congregational Church basement used for social hour, one in the local barber's shop. In every case, the PCs will be told the sets are broken, and they will be prevented from examining them, physically if necessary, violently if it comes to it.

10) No family name in the town's two graveyards seems to have any living relatives in the town now; even townsfolk who claim their families have lived there for generations have no one buried there. If asked, they will say "Oh, Grandpa Leach was buried up around Ballardsville" or some such other location, but even if a PC goes to the Ballardsville cemetery to investigate, no such grave is found ...

11) There's some relatively common plant (dandelions, say) which grows right up to, but not into the town; the break is sharp enough to accurately demarcate the town line. Locals will shrug and respond "Tain't never tried, mister," or "Plant some your own self, if you've a mind," or some such; in any event, they're blandly incurious.

12) Digging into the soil with a shovel, below about seven inches (trowel depth), will produce a slightly ringing tone, as if you're digging into metal-laden soil. Nonetheless, the dirt doesn't look or feel any different. Digging into the dirt across the town line - even inches apart - has no such sound.

13) Tree sap for all trees in the town, no matter the kind, is unusually runny and ruddier in hue than normal. Any local products made from tree sap (maple sugar and syrup, for instance) will have a similar tinge.

14) There's a popular vanished brand in town, one no longer extant in the real world. The men use Hai Karate aftershave, ailing children are dosed with Peruna, the local auto dealership proudly peddles 2014 model Packards and Nashes, the grocery store has Lucky Strike Green on sale and the breakfast cereal aisle sports boxes of Quisp and Quake. The brand is plainly up to date, the product is new and sound, and the labeling carries all appropriate current dates, up to and including bar codes even for products that vanished decades before such things were mandatory. The locals react to questions about the same way you would if a stranger dashed up to you and blurted out "Omahgosh you're drinking Pepsi, where did you get that??" If pressed, a salesman will say "Well, mister, they come on the delivery truck every week with all the other new stuff."

15) The local weekly newspaper is a county-wide paper, supposedly printed at the county seat ... but it doesn't actually exist outside of town, and the address on the colophon is on a street that was redeveloped into a ten-acre wide shopping mall (the clerk at the county Registry of Deeds snorts and says "Heh, Oliver Street's about where ladies' lingerie is at Steiger's now, pal") decades ago. Nevertheless, the local library has musty old issues dating back forty years or more ... and, doubly creepily, the paper's "Town Talk" section has ongoing columns and articles for at least three other towns that don't exist, but for which locals can be found to claim to have relatives living "up that way."

16) There aren't any local maps. Anywhere. Markets don't sell any, the police and firemen shrug and claim they don't need them, the clerk at the assessor's office sighs heavily and admits she spilled a coffee cup on hers last week, and they're still waiting for a new one from the printer's.  Word is that you can scavenge one from the library, but it was printed in 1851 ...

17) When you walk into the five-and-dime, the store's playing musak - but the instant you walk in, the musak flips to stereotypical horror movie incidental music: cellos playing a loud DUM DUM DAAAAHHHH, oboes in minor keys, a quick violin pizzicato. After a short tympani roll, the horror theme music stops, and bland cheerful pop musak more typical of such places resume. The aforementioned perky young clerk, if asked about it, says "Yes ma'am, I sure heard that. Last time they played music like that was, gosh, the day there was the accident at the sawmill."

18) The town's cemeteries prominently display war dead, whether through notable monuments, sections where Revolutionary War (WWI, Great Patriotic War, the Boer War, etc.) dead are clustered, wars noted on headstones. Plainly the town is heavy on military service - the aforementioned monuments list a few dozen names apiece - but one notable war is conspicuously and inexplicably absent. An American village will have a Civil War monument and a Vietnam War monument, but no WWII monument and no sign of WWII casualties or involvement, for example.

19) There are three times as many of a particular business as a town that size, in its location, could possibly support. A small town far away from highways with four (seemingly thriving) gas stations, for instance. 

20) There’s a key element of national history that the locals seem to get badly wrong.  For example:

Oldtimer: Why, it's true, ma'am. Clark County only rejoined the Union in 1955. Big flap about it up around the county seat back in the day when them reporter fellas found out it'd been exempted from Reconstruction, yes'm ...

Bewildered PC: (interrupting) ... err, but, sir, this is Iowa - the state never seceded in the first place!

Oldtimer: (furrowing his whitened brow) Ma'am, I don't know rightly what to tell you. We never had much t'do with the lawyer fellas up to Des Moines. (takes a puff from his pipe) Anyway when the reporter fellas up at the county seat found out the county'd seceded in 1866, why they ...

21) The shabby Congregational church the PCs investigate (or the town clerk's office, or the Chamber of Commerce, etc ...) has two completely contradictory pieces of computer equipment up and running: a top-of-the-line Gateway FX quad core overclocked gaming PC and a WiFi hookup with a 30 year old Panasonic KP dot matrix printer. The clerk sees nothing amiss in this, claiming that she doesn't know much about these computer things, or where the wireless router might be ...

22) March only has 30 days. Every calendar in town says so, every reference book backs that up, and somehow all TV, radio, cell and transmission reception starts going on the fritz on the afternoon of the 30th ...

23) No one in town wears blue. No article of clothing has a scrap of the color in it, or wears any logo that would. That aside, blue is used in common decor, draperies, paint, wallpaper and everywhere else about as often as it would be in anywhere else.  Inexplicably, “blue jeans” are still called that, even if they’re scarlet or mauve.

24) Any items made of silver or silver-plated that the characters bring with them start to tarnish, and tarnish unnaturally fast. Items that leave the PCs' possession cease to do so.

25) One of the town's two cemeteries is decommissioned now; graves started petering out in it after WWI, and dates on headstones thereafter became quickly and increasingly sparse. The second to the last date is 1955 ... but there is one single headstone, not in any unusual spot or sequestered at all from the other graves. According to the headstone, the person there died the day before his or her 100th birthday ... and though the date of death is 1986, no grass grows on the gravemound.

26) Cars are visibly around, about as many as the locale would normally support. Locals can be seen cheerfully washing and waxing them, they are in carports, driveways and on sidewalks as appropriate, and Slim down at Slim's Garage gives you a friendly wave before going back into the SUV's engine to finish the tuneup. Cars all see reasonable signs of use: baby seats set up, a styrofoam coffee cup in the holder, books and papers in the backseat, mud or frost in appropriate seasons. Yet no one is ever seen by the PCs to drive one, and none are ever visibly on the roads, although the town's one traffic light changes at appropriate intervals. The PCs can also hear appropriate car sounds ... horns outside their hotel window, the sound of an engine revving around the corner ... but they will never see one in motion, and should they dash to investigate, the most they'll ever see is someone getting out of a newly parked vehicle or a cloud of exhaust fumes just around that corner there ...

Should the PCs stake out a spot where they know a car should arrive soon - that friendly couple Dave and Karen, say, with Dave due home from work in a few minutes - either Karen will get a phone call from Dave apologizing, but his sister's not feeling well and he's going to run over her groceries, or Dave's silhouette will suddenly appear through the window, and he'll reply blandly that sure, he just got home from work, why there's his car in the garage right there.

The locals will universally assert that they do, indeed, drive, that deliveries are made, that the bus comes through twice a day to the city ... although they never will say "Look, there goes one now." They will react much the same way as you would if some nutcase came up to you and insisted that no cars ever drive by in your own hometown.

27) After school, every afternoon at the same hour, a bunch of kids are in the junior high’s schoolyard, playing duelist with boffer weapons.  One kid is plainly superior to the others, winning every fight, even against odds.  The next day, that kid is still out there; all the other kids are different.  The next day the same, and the next one after that.  If that kid is ever to lose (either through PC interference or some other machination) the new winner is there the next day, all the kids are different, and the cycle begins anew.  On that first day, the old champion stands at the edge of the schoolyard, looking on with bleak, redrimmed eyes.  If approached, he’ll run like the clappers.  In any event, the PCs will never see him again.


  1. Cool stuff!
    I live in a small town, out in the desert, and some of these don't feel that far off into fantasy.
    It seems like a lot of odd characters choose to live in in out of the way places, seek them out, and do odd things there.

    1. I think we *notice* more in small communities. I live in the county seat in rural western Massachusetts; it's 16 thousand people, about. I'd lived in Boston's immediate southern suburb for the previous decade (and for much of my life), and we talked to our neighbors more in the first ten HOURS here than in the previous ten YEARS. Heck, it's not just that I got flagged down on the street yesterday by someone I knew -- it's that it happened *twice* in ten minutes!