I feel like one of the great RPG traditions is the Halloween horror one-shot. Sometimes that's Ravenloft, sometimes it's a Vathak one-shot, sometimes you're terrorized by clowns, and sometimes it's one big call-back to your favorite horror movie.
But converting movies, novels, and other media is always a tricky prospect for a roleplaying game. Even if you give characters a freer hand than a scriptwriter would, not all plots are at their best in a roleplaying setting.
Which brings us to tonight's movie, released 35 years ago:
Before we get to the challenges, there's obviously a lot about The Thing that can work well. It presents a focused environment with a lot of NPC interaction. Characters with different skills all have chances to shine. There are enough action scenes and they're all unique. The stakes are high but understandable. And, of course, the monster preys on primal fears.
So, that's all great and several great adventures have been built from those inspirations. But can we play out the paranoia that made The Thing so famous around the kitchen table?
While games like Werewolf and Shadows over Camelot have proven having a player as the traitor can be effective, it's very much against the usual social contract of gaming and requires a lot of buy-in. If you have a group that's into it, that can make for a great one-shot, especially with secret rolls. Even if everyone can hear the GM's answers, they know who the traitor is and can tweak the answers appropriately.
But there are also less adversarial ways to play through that. A scenario like The Thing lends itself to small group play (or even a single player). If you're missing a couple of people for game night, you can make that into a strength.
Monsters like the insidious riven from the Silver Tower can take over entire communities, but for the full Thing experience I'd probably go for a disease in Ina'oth. Ghoul fever is already there, but a gut-churning custom multi-stage disease seems like the best bet.
Speaking of body horror, one more way The Thing can scurry its way into your games is by including even more body horror. You might, very rightfully, say "it's The Thing! Not enough body horror?"
But part of body horror is not knowing or trusting yourself. If none of the players know who the traitor (or disease vector or what-have-you) is, that levels the information back out as well and lets everyone talk freely at the table.
The trickiest part with that is to not force horror-movie logic onto the players. If one PC is a Thing or a werewolf or the like, let it play out with the rules you've established. Think about what happens when they figure it out on your first clue and lock up the Thing... and what happens if they miss all the clues.
My suggestion is not to start with a PC as the first infected, which brings us back to the introduction of The Thing and the climax. Even without the paranoia we're talking about evoking, even if that thread is tied up neatly by the players' ingenuity, there's still a threat for the PCs to face. And that's one last good, probably accidental, takeaway from The Thing.Cheers!
Landon Winkler, Shadows over Vathak Line Developer