Monday, February 01, 2016

Horror Adventures
There are things that dwell in the dark places of the world, deep beneath the ground, in long-abandoned crypts, or in musty attics; terrible things that can destroy your body and shatter your mind. Few sane individuals would ever think to seek out such nightmares, but those that are drawn into the darkness often find it infecting them, corrupting them in ways both subtle and gross. Some think that those who die facing off against such horrors are the lucky ones, for the survivors are forever scarred by their experiences. Horror Adventures gives you everything you need to bring these nightmares to your game.
Well; except the actual things; most of which, no doubt, have already been featured in one of the Bestiaries published by Paizo (up to five now!)  I've got them all in pdf, but they sell for cheap in pdf (at the price, they're worth it for the art alone) and I love monster books.
Horror Adventures includes:
  • Corruptions that can turn your character into a monster, from a blood-drinking vampire to a savage werewolf. The only cost is your very soul!
  • Character options to help heroes face the forces of darkness, including horror-themed archetypes, feats, spells, and more!
  • Rules for sanity and madness, giving you all the tools you need to drive your characters to the brink and beyond.
  • Tips and tools for running a scary game, along with expanded rules for curses, diseases, haunts, and fleshwarping to bring your nightmares to life.
  • New templates to turn your monsters into truly terrifying foes, from creatures made from living wax to the stalker that cannot be stopped!
…and much, much more!
In other words... it mostly contains a bunch of stuff that's already readily available in open content, included as part of the SRD thanks to the great book Unearthed Arcana; one of the greatest rules books of the 3.5 era.  Of course, as I've embraced the more rules-lite approach of m20, much of this is not necessarily important to me.  But I will admit that I really like the Wayne Reynolds cover art, at least!

I've talked before a bit about how to make d20 play more like a horror game, and since my tag-line is "D&D Rules, Call of Cthulhu play paradigm" maybe it's time that I take some time to talk about how this would apply to my current rules; or any other rules-lite approach, including games such as B/X, Swords & Wizardry, etc.

Some of this isn't really applicable at the system level (although some of it is)—much of the success of any purported horror game (or dark fantasy game that plays like horror, as is the case for me) comes from the skills of the GM in presenting the game, and managing to get people on board for the concept of a horror game.  In my experience, that latter task is much more difficult than it sounds, or than you'd expect it to be.  Some players naturally do well with a horror game, especially if they're fans of the genre, but many simply struggle.  If you're playing D&D or a D&D variant, many will simply be unable to shift their preconceived notions of what the game is to be like, and simply play it like it's D&D.  Many others have different preconceived notions, and struggle not to just be silly, expecting that their characters are too disposable for them to ever really take the game very seriously.  How, then, can you get your players on board, both with modest system changes, and with presentation changes at the table?  How do you get D&D rules (regardless of what iteration of those rules you're actually using) and a Call of Cthulhu play paradigm, and for that matter, how do you successfully execute a Call of Cthulhu play paradigm anyway?  Here's what I think.  Much of this applies to any system, but I'm especially thinking of rules-lite D&D variants.
  • I think the overtly competent character classes of many modern D&D variants work against the feel of a horror game.  These characters are designed to "win" D&D, quite clearly, and broadly speaking, they do so at all levels except perhaps the very lowest.  Older versions of D&D actually work much better; with the level caps of B/X, for example, your characters get powerful, but only so much so.  B/X also has much more modest characters at the same levels as, say, 3rd Edition characters.  If you're already playing an old school game, then you probably have already taken steps to address the power inflation that later editions engaged in, but something that addresses the rampant, exponential growth of characters is welcome too.  Whether its some kind of "bounded accuracy" house rule that keeps stats (especially hit points) from running away, or simple level caps or campaign time frames that by design exclude the higher available levels, something has to be done.  Players instinctively and subconsciously lose that feel of horror if their characters feel too competent.
  • This can go overboard, though.  Few people enjoy playing for very long with characters that they feel are incompetent, and the classic meat-grinder type of campaign is not really associated at all with horror—it's actually associated with the very tactical, gamist, "skilled play" paradigm of the game.  To feel any degree of horror, the player has to feel at least some sense of attachment to his character, but also feel that it is possible, and possibly even easy if he's foolish, for the character to die.  But if the characters always die, and especially if its arbitrarily so, then there won't be any sense of attachment to the character.  It's a fine line to walk to keep the perceived threat of death always in the players' mind, yet not actually kill characters all that often, but that's integral to fostering a successful horror tone.  In my games; I have both a slightly dampened hit point escalation scheme, as well as level caps at 10th level.
  • PC death isn't the only thing that suffers from over-familiarity.  Monsters in a D&D like fantasy game are not really horror icons, even if they are, actually, horror icons.  This is because of the way that the game is traditionally played.  If you have your characters wander through a dungeon "stocked" as if it were a fishing pond, with monsters, then the monsters become routine—not scary.  More and more, I think its important to actually minimize the presence of monsters in my fantasy games.  They should be more unique, more rarely appearing; they need to be significantly foreshadowed before they show up, it's desirable that many are not meant to be defeated in a straight up fight (and probably can't be), etc.  In other words, a monster encounter should be more like a set piece than a routine experience; the equivalent of a small module, even in and of itself.
  • This also means that monsters should be somewhat mysterious.  There's nothing quite like having a well-known monster, who's strengths, weaknesses and basic abilities are very familiar to the players, being dragged out and described quite simply in terms that make it prosaic and routine.  Even for those who are hyper-allergic to anything other than player controlled sandboxes and hexcrawls or the like have to admit that there is always going to be an element of story-telling to these games, because if nothing else, a GM has to describe the scenario.  This is where you need to take the time and effort to create some mood and tone.  Don't go overboard, or you'll sound like Lovecraft on a bad day which is more laughable than scary, but there's a real opportunity for you to create tension at the table over the course of the session if you do it right.  
  • Along these lines, some other ambiance can be helpful (although in my opinion, less so than many think.)  If there's anything you can do to influence the tone via the setting in which you actually play; i.e., lighting, decor, spooky background music, etc., it helps.  Yeah, yeah—I don't know anyone who's going to create a gaming room with dark paneling, decorations bought at the Halloween store, and creepy sounds and soft music playing in the background, with dim candle-powered lighting, and a GM that can speak with the voice of Orson Welles or James Earl Jones or Vincent Price.  But if you could; wouldn't you?  And some of that can be done easily; I prefer playing in a more dimly lit rather than overly bright room, and spooky music and sounds isn't exactly hard to find; I've got an entire library of movie soundtracks, which aren't hard to pick up for relatively cheap on CD or mp3, and you can also get really cheap sound effects CDs if you really want them.  I actually think tinkering around with tracks in Audacity or some such app is kinda fun; I'd love to make an actual entire CD for the soundtrack of DARK•HERITAGE or CULT OF UNDEATH that takes movie music soundtracks and adds a light layering of Halloween sound effects to them.  And even if you don't want to go to that much trouble, maybe something more simple, like some of the music tracks by Sonic Legends¹ would be right up your alley.  Keep the music low, quiet, almost on the edge of being noticed—its easy to overdo this kind of thing.  Subtlety is the key to success. 
  • Also along the lines of creating tension and dramatic tone via GM presentation, the session is such an obvious unit of measure to do this, and it is ignored at your peril.  The ideal way to do so is to create tension without giving a lot of opportunities to relieve it during the course of a session.  Let it peak near the end of the session, but leave plenty of unanswered issues dangling so that the campaign overall retains a tone of unreleased tension and scariness.  For those who play in a more sandboxy environment, you may think that GM control of things like pacing and tension is Verboten, but that is actually not true.  You need to be more skilled to do it, of course, compared to a more railroady game, but it is absolutely possible to do, and the more you can learn to do so, perhaps via on the fly adjustments to what (or when, or how) PCs discover the contents of any given hex or whatever, the better you will be as a GM.  In fact, in my opinion, the only truly good GMs are the ones that allow the PCs to feel in control of the game while successfully delivering tone, pacing, descriptions and environments that play out more like an episode of a scary t.v. show like The X-Files or something.  Besides, all that said; I'm hardly a sandbox purist.  I'm almost rabidly in favor of having the players drive the game rather than the GM, but there are lots of ways to accomplish that, and hexcrawls may be a "purist" approach to that question, but certainly is not the only answer.
  • I think the templates referred to above in the Paizo book description are over-rated.  Templates are a fun idea, certainly, but in an older school, rules-lite game, they're not needed.  Monster stats are pretty sparse to begin with; making some minor adjustments to them, adding a special ability or two, changing minor features, or even just swapping a new description to go with a known monster.  It really is much better if your players aren't quite sure what it is that they're fighting anyway.  Just describe it and run it; don't label it.
  • Some kind of fear and/or sanity rules are nice, but in the past, I think they've over-taken their usefulness by being too clunky, too clinical, and too cumbersome.  These kinds of rules can never bog the game down; they need to be very quick and easy to implement, with relatively simple effects.    For this reason, I recommend against doing anything too much like the now open content sanity rules from Unearthed Arcana; which are really just the original Call of Cthulhu rules all over again.  Not only are these way too clunky to use, but they're also "non native" to d20, so it always feels weird using them, like they don't really belong in the rules system that you're using.  The authors of the original d20 version of Cthulhu claimed that this is good, because it gives them a feeling like they're weird and unnatural, but that's just a really stupid cop-out.  They take the player out of the game, and therefore sabotage their intent—to ratchet up the tension in any given session.  I prefer something much simpler, and my m20 rules reflect that.  There are other open content sanity rules that have been floated around over the years: Green Ronin did some good ones for their Freeport system that I quite like.  I recommend searching for an alternative and just taking it as is, with only minor modification, unless you really like writing your own rules.  No need to reinvent this particular wheel.
  • Not every horror or dark fantasy game really needs some kind of corruption or taint mechanic—but if that's a feature of the fiction of your setting, you better have some kind of alternative in your mechanics.  I don't really have any recommendations, since I don't use this type of mechanic myself, but again—I'd echo my comments on fear and sanity; keep the system simple and easy to apply at the table without bogging down the game with tables, major changes to characters that have to be recalculated on the fly, etc.
¹I have "Ancient Archives," "Arabian Bazaar," "City of the Dark Elves," "Country Village," "Forest Journey," "Magical Spell," "On the Open Sea," and "The Summoning" from Sonic Legends.  You can probably guess pretty well which ones are most appropriate for dark fantasy or horror games.  There are a few others that I'd like to try out, but honestly—I don't use the ones that I have all that much; I have too many movie soundtracks.

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