Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Horrifying High Fantasy for Dungeon Masters, part 1

Well, yesterday's post led me to realise that running horror in Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and related systems is actually quite tricky. Since I'm playing Carrion Crown and running the Castle Scarwall segment of Crimson Throne, I'm very much starting to see how hard it is and what sort of tricks of the trade can really help move it from an often gothic horror style to injecting truly horrific substance.

First of all, let's look at the tropes of Dungeons & Dragons and how they get in the way.

Kick in the Door. In a fantasy game, heroes are meant to be brave and face their enemies in open combat. At the very least, they're not meant to cower behind garden walls away from it. In a horror game, caution is the better part of valor, so taking the time to figure out what you're facing, preparing accordingly, and then ultimately considering a stealthy choice, is often the best option,. Running up to a blood-smeared door and booting it open screaming threats is likely to cut your life short.

Kill the Monster. Your average fantasy game involves killing monsters. Often lots of them, in short order, without guilt or (much) fear. The loss of ambiguity removes any tragic element. Familiarity also tends to breed contempt, not fear, so if you simply throw several enemy encounters against them in quick succession that are too high a Challenge Rating, the players are more likely to become frustrated than afraid.

Loot the Bodies. Sometimes its wiser to leave things well enough alone. This is, however, a trope you can play with and is fairly welcome in the horror genre.

Level-based Kick Ass Powers. To make matters worse, not only do D&D characters have kick ass powers but Challenge Ratings factor in certain expectations that might cause a lower level party to literally be unable to even hit a monster several levels above them. Traps and other elements of ingenious tricky are also unlikely to work due to the monster's saves -- unless you decide to get creative with it and allow the players to build much higher DCs into their traps. You could also create two sets of stats for the same monster. One for if the characters are wielding a bane against them (i.e. hit it with salt first!) and one for if they're completely unprepared.

Alignment Issues. While horror games often do play with strictly evil enemies, sometimes the tale is more horrific if people are doing bad things for the right reasons. You can move past this by having such people appear as Lawful Neutral but the alignment system still removes a lot of the moral ambiguity. It can also lead to long, philosophical debates for some players about the nature of Good and Evil that can sometimes derail the game. Also, you don't want Detect Evil solving all of your problems (though at least the enemies doesn't show up until they hit Level 5 in Pathfinder).

Next up, I'll talk about how to coax the characters into having the right mentality for the game. Finally, I'll discuss some techniques I've spotted in Pathfinder horror campaigns that have worked well.

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