Using D&D for fantasy horror





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  1. #1
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    Magsman (Lvl 14)

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    Using D&D for fantasy horror

    Cross-posted from another board. I got some good discussion there, but I think it's about played out so I thought I'd reopen it with a different crowd...

    I keep tossing around ideas for potential games (Sky Pirates of Mars, Ice People of the Outer Planets' Moons, etc.). Right now (maybe because I'm re-reading Libris Mortis, the Fiendish Codices, and a few other similarly themed books) is to use D&D (3.5) for fantasy horror.

    "But Mr. Hobo, you idiot," you may be saying, "why in the world would you use D&D 3.5, which is a system totally inappropriate for horror?"

    Well, here's my thought. First of all, level isn't something that you're entitled to in this game. You don't actually gain levels. Levels are for me to calibrate the "power level" of the game, and the game is meant to remain at that level the entire time. That doesn't mean some character advancement isn't possible; I think you can spend 1,000 XP to gain a rank in a skill (up to your maximum ranks for that level. I'm thinking 3rd is probably where I want to set it) and you can spend 5,000 XP for a new feat. BAB increases with skills like Weapon Focus, HP increases if you take Toughness, etc. You don't automatically get increases here.

    The paradigm of play needs to change, too (obviously.) If these 3rd level character encounter, say, a vampire, they're going to get their butts seriously handed to them if they think they can just walk into combat like normal. I can also give a lot more monsters a fear aura, or something similar, to represent the fact that "adventurers" aren't expected to just go looking for monsters to kill, because that's a crazy, usually suicidal endeavor in this kind of setting.

    But systemwise, I can't think of any reason why low(ish) level D&D, stuck permanently at that level like an even lower powered E6 variant, couldn't be used to evoke the same feel as a game designed specifically for horror.

    "I realize that I am generalizing here, but, as is often the case when I generalize, I don't care." Dave Barry

 

  • #2
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    Come to think of it, let me see if I can head off some of the predictable responses now. Yes, I'm aware of other games and systems. I even have some of them. I'm aware of WFRP. I'm aware of Heroes of Horror. I'm aware of Darkness & Dread. etc. I choose to use D&D 3.5. For two reasons, really.

    1) I like the basic rules framework well enough that I just can't be bothered to not use it anymore. I don't care much about experimenting with systems, I care about experimenting with settings and mileus, and maybe seeing how an interesting house rule or two can totally change the feel of the game. I run everything in some d20 iteration these days, and have done so for the better part of nine years. I'm a creature of habit, and although I'm not totally in love with everything about d20, it does everything I need it to do reasonably competently.

    2) The material. There's so much material! Fantasy horror gaming? Dude, you can't go wrong with Book of Fiends, the Monsternomicons, and some of the other books I have. I've got so many options to choose from that almost any other system choice would feel impoverished and limiting to me now. Not only am I a creature of habit, I'm a spoiled creature of habit.

    So please, I don't need suggestions for other systems. I'm resolved to do it this way. What I want to talk about is some ideas on how that could/should be done.

    "I realize that I am generalizing here, but, as is often the case when I generalize, I don't care." Dave Barry

  • #3
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    Quote Originally Posted by Hobo View Post
    Well, here's my thought. First of all, level isn't something that you're entitled to in this game. You don't actually gain levels. Levels are for me to calibrate the "power level" of the game, and the game is meant to remain at that level the entire time. That doesn't mean some character advancement isn't possible; I think you can spend 1,000 XP to gain a rank in a skill (up to your maximum ranks for that level. I'm thinking 3rd is probably where I want to set it) and you can spend 5,000 XP for a new feat. BAB increases with skills like Weapon Focus, HP increases if you take Toughness, etc. You don't automatically get increases here.

    The paradigm of play needs to change, too (obviously.) If these 3rd level character encounter, say, a vampire, they're going to get their butts seriously handed to them if they think they can just walk into combat like normal. I can also give a lot more monsters a fear aura, or something similar, to represent the fact that "adventurers" aren't expected to just go looking for monsters to kill, because that's a crazy, usually suicidal endeavor in this kind of setting.
    No, no, no... I think you're thinking about it too hard. I agree that D&D can work just fine for a horror game. I also think it can not work. It depends entirely on the players and who's running the game. What I'm saying is I believe that the system you decide on should be inconsequential.

    Horror is a really difficult genre, at least for me. I find that the less you depend on the system, the more the players care about the atmosphere. It's because they're not thinking about crunch you see. I like the rules you made just fine, it gives them some advancement, but not so much that they grow out of control.

    As far as the vampire example. I say let them get killed. Have them face off against an impossible monstrosity and quickly realize there is no hope for victory. They may even drop their weapons, groveling and begging for their lives (if you're lucky!) If the entire party gets wiped out, let them make a new one. They may be a little wiser. I find with groups that are used to running around killing monsters all day you need to take drastic measures to put the fear of death in them. Only then will they be truly horrified.

    Either that or they'll just hate the game and stop playing. Horror isn't for everyone I've found.
    Poop

  • #4
    I'd probably start (after selecting base system; check) by asking myself two questions (among others, but these are fairly important, IMO):

    'Do PCs and NPCs use the exact same rules' and 'What kinds of opponents/complications do I want a PC / typical group of PCs, at a given power level, to be able to have a good/slim/barely plausible chance of defeating, and what kinds are going to be basically death, fleeing, or outwitting time?'

    Something like that. The second one, in particular, would help (me) determine what kinds of house rules should be put in place. The first is more about 'feel' I guess, but is a more important factor, IME, than many seem to give it credit for.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Sanzuo View Post
    No, no, no... I think you're thinking about it too hard.
    Well, it wasn't exactly hard. I thought about it for somewhere between five and ten minutes maybe before typing up that little treatise that I call the first post, for example.
    Quote Originally Posted by Sanzuo
    I agree that D&D can work just fine for a horror game. I also think it can not work. It depends entirely on the players and who's running the game. What I'm saying is I believe that the system you decide on should be inconsequential.
    While I don't disagree, it's not entirely inconsequential. A few well-placed houserules can really help remind the players constantly that they're not in Kansas anymore, so to speak. I certainly am not interesting in a radical teardown of the rules, just a quick and dirty twist on them that says, "this isn't D&D like you normally play it."
    Quote Originally Posted by Sanzuo
    Horror is a really difficult genre, at least for me. I find that the less you depend on the system, the more the players care about the atmosphere. It's because they're not thinking about crunch you see.
    I've had a fair amount of experience with it. Actually, that's a big part of the reason I want to use D&D; the rules "disappear" because they're familiar. The house rule on advancement is just enough to remind them that they're doing something different. I actually find that something like that is important. Some kind of crunch twist helps the players remember that this is a joint effort, and they have to be in the mood for, and buy into the idea that this is a horror game. You already inferred as much yourself, but the point is, you need a few cues to keep the players on track. A few unobtrusive houserules that nonetheless have a significant impact on the campaign over time can really go a long way towards accomplishing this. The Cthulhu Sanity mechanic, for example, accomplishes exactly this goal.
    Quote Originally Posted by Sanzuo
    As far as the vampire example. I say let them get killed. Have them face off against an impossible monstrosity and quickly realize there is no hope for victory. They may even drop their weapons, groveling and begging for their lives (if you're lucky!) If the entire party gets wiped out, let them make a new one. They may be a little wiser. I find with groups that are used to running around killing monsters all day you need to take drastic measures to put the fear of death in them. Only then will they be truly horrified.
    A trick I've used successfully in the past (and will probably do again) is to give the players some quick pregens to run, and the pregens will die nastily. Kinda like in an episode of The X-files or Supernatural where you see a teaser of how nasty the monster of the week is going to be before the real stars of the show turn up.

    Of course, once that backfired on me; all the characters died quickly except one who had infernally good luck on his dice and kept running around for a good four or five more rounds beating the odds before he finally got killed.
    Quote Originally Posted by Sanzuo
    Either that or they'll just hate the game and stop playing. Horror isn't for everyone I've found.
    It's a genre we cycle through periodically in my group at home. That said, it's not going to be my turn to run for some time yet, because I just did the last campaign, we're only about halfway (or maybe less, I dunno) into our current campaign and we've got at least one, possibly two others on deck who've been patiently waiting their turn to run something. So I'll probably do this via Ppb first. Which has its own unique set of challenges, but that isn't one of them. The players tend to self-select and gravitate towards games that are of the type they enjoy.

    "I realize that I am generalizing here, but, as is often the case when I generalize, I don't care." Dave Barry

  • #6
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    ø Ignore Kamikaze Midget
    It might help if we knew exactly what you meant by "fantasy horror." Gimmie a picture of the genre you're working with. Chuloid mental insanity? Gothic castles in fog? Survival horror with werewolves or zombies? Splatterhouse teenagers in a cabin in the woods? Fear of the unknown with witches and dread beyond the next hill (where the foreigners are!)? I mean, those certainly aren't incompatible, but each one needs a different kind of focus, at least for a given adventure/session/whatever.

    But as a start, for weak PC's, going with something like E6 should work just fine. A resolution mechanic is a resolution mechanic, they're all percentages on a d20, and the major difference between "heroic" and "horrific" is that the former succeeds 60-70% of the time, the latter succeeds 5-10% of the time (but can't get too frustrating).

    Do you expect PC's to generally survive from adventure to adventure, or are you willing to put the fear of actual permanent character death before them as a common (and likely) thing?
    -- Jacob J Driscoll, Unsleeping---
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  • #7
    First fight Encounter level+4
    Either they get lucky or they run, either way, they should get the idea they ought to think things through.

    Second fight Encounter level +2
    The pressure is on, they now should have a decent idea on what their real foe might be and what might be a good avenue of investigation to follow.

    Third fight Encounter level -1
    Around the time the players could have gotten 'what they need", an easy calm before the storm encounter clam encounter

    Final fight Encounter level+5
    The party either uses the research/maggufin that they could have done/sought out, or they die really badly.

  • #8
    Are you acquainted with the Call of Cthulhu d20? I don't have any first-hand experience with it, but from what I've heard it's quite an effective "port". My guess is that the material would be mechanically pretty compatible with D&D 3.5.

  • #9
    The important thing to remember is that horror is not a genre defined by trappings or tropes (werewolves, vampires, ghosts, etc.); it is an emotional response. Horror is "an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying or revolting; a shuddering fear." Related is terror, "intense, sharp, overmastering fear". To my mind, horror is distinguished by a sense of dreadful wrongness that disturbs on a level deeper than rational fear. Mere disgust at gore is sometimes mistaken for the desired affect in clumsy attempts to evoke horror. Skilled practitioners know how to use suspense, "a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety".

  • #10
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    D&D can most certainly be used as a horror game. See if you can find copies of [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Dungeons-Dragons-Fantasy-Roleplaying-Supplement/dp/0786936991/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1244707043&sr=1-1"]Heroes of Horror[/ame] and [ame="http://www.amazon.com/Call-Cthulhu-Horror-Roleplaying-WotC/dp/0786926392"]D20 Call of Cthulhu [/ame]for some very good pointers as to how to run a horror style game.

    The difficult thing about running a horror game is keeping the suspense and mood right. Don't let the players find out too much too soon, feed them in small pieces. Have a look at Last Breaths of Ashenport by Ari Marmell (Mouseferatu) for some good pointers. I ran the 4e Version and can highly recomend the module.
    David Muller

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