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D&D General [+] Ravenloft, horror, & safety tools...

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Take two. This is a "+" thread. Report and ignore the trolls, don't feed them.

With the new Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft coming out in just under a month, I thought it might be a good idea to have a thread about doing horror games with D&D and gather up some safety tools and horror gaming resources for anyone who might not be used to the idea of either doing horror with their D&D or using safety tools in gaming.

First up the free safety tools. The best two that I've come across are TTRPG Safety Toolkit and Consent in Gaming. The TTRPG Safety Toolkit collects various safety tools into one place for ease of use and reference. Consent in Gaming is a free 12-page document that gives an in-depth overview of...well, consent in gaming. It has a handy-dandy checklist at the end of the main PDF and as a separate download for ease of use.

Next are the horror tools. There's a lot of really great horror games to use and draw inspiration from. If you're new to horror gaming in general, you might not be aware of these resources, so here goes. The Fate Horror Toolkit is a great resource if you're unfamiliar with gaming in the horror genre. It focuses on the feeling and highlights of horror, what makes the genre tick in gaming. If you try nothing else, try this one. Stay Alive! from Monte Cook is a bit newer but it also provides a great overview of the genre, its tropes, and how to run horror games. GURPS Horror is yet another great book for use as reference, though this one has a bit more page count eaten up by system specific crunch than the last two. If you like to mix your horror gaming with mystery and investigation, a great book to check out is GURPS Mysteries. Again, it has a bit more crunch but a lot of the non-crunchy bits are wonderful as a reference for non-GURPS gaming.

For 5E specific horror gaming, there's Grim Hollow, a grimdark & dark fantasy pair (soon to be trilogy) of books that present a wonderful setting that can easily be used as is, as part of Ravenloft, or simply stripped for parts and ideas. And of course there's Sandy Petersen's Cthulhu Mythos which comes in Pathfinder and 5E varieties. It's a wonderful book. Packed with systems, subsystems, backgrounds, subclasses, feats, spells, monsters, and a bit about adding horror to a typically more action-adventure focused game like D&D. Petersen Games also has a line of adventure paths called the Cthulhu Mythos Sagas. Each adventure path is presented in four parts, in print or PDF. The art is amazing throughout and the adventures are wild affairs. If you want something a bit more cosmic horror you can't go wrong with this stuff put out by one of the creators of Call of Cthulhu.

Honorable mention to the granddaddy of horror gaming, Call of Cthulhu. It's more horror and investigation focused and has far less combat than your typical D&D game, but it does have 40 years of material and many wonderful scenarios to pick through for inspiration, including what is the first adventure path in gaming...Masks of Nyarlathotep. Other wonderful adventure paths for CoC are Horror on the Orient Express and Beyond the Mountains of Madness.

So what about you? Any great safety tools or horror gaming resources to share?

No affiliate links were harmed in the making of this post.
 

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overgeeked

B/X Known World
So since I'm prepping a game that will be set in Ravenloft and draw heavily on some more explicitly horror-based tropes and themes, I was working through the lines and veils worksheet from Consent in Gaming. I thought it would be helpful to people to see what it is and what that looks like. The Stay Alive! book has an expanded list so I used that instead.

Lines and veils are basically hard lines (do not include) and soft veils (it's okay if it's not the focus and/or kept to the background). It's a really smart system and easy to use. The answers below are my lines and veils as a DM, there's no player involvement or answers yet. Blank spots or the word "blank" is a green light.

Social and Cultural Issues
✦ Homophobia. Line.
✦ Racism. Line.
✦ Real-world religion. Line.
✦ Sexism. Line.
✦ Specific cultural issues. Depends.

For me, I have to deal with these things directly on a daily basis in my real life. I play RPGs to escape. I don't want to have these topics dragging down my real life and my gaming. So they're all lines, except "specific cultural issues"...which is, ironically, utterly non-specific, so "depends" is the best I could do.

Relationships
Romance...
✦ Explicit. Line.
✦ Between PCs and NPCs. Line.
✦ Between PCs.
Sex...
✦ Explicit. Line.
✦ Between PCs and NPCs. Line.
✦ Between PCs. Veil.

I am absolutely terrible at RPing romance, and sex scenes...forget about it. If two PCs consent to a relationship and want to RP that out, more power to them. But I'm not interested in sitting through any kind of description of their love making, so veil...aka fade to black.

Horror
✦ Blood.
✦ Body horror.
✦ Bugs.
✦ Demons.
✦ Eyeballs.
✦ Gore. Veil.
✦ Harm to animals. Domestic pets, line. Otherwise, blank.
✦ Harm to children. Line.
✦ Mummies.
✦ Occult/witchcraft/Satanism.
✦ Rats.
✦ Spiders.
✦ Spirit boards/Ouija boards.
✦ Tumors.

I'm fine with any of the blanks. But if my players want those veiled or lined, so be it. We'll be playing a horror game, so there's some gore expected, but I prefer a more gothic horror vibe, so it's a veil for me. I will not abide even the hint of child harm or endangerment, so line. Likewise with domestic animals and pets, line. But it's also D&D and a horror game so things like wolves, bats, etc will be a thing...unless the players object. In that case I'd talk through if there's any specific animals that are lines instead of veils and see how much resolution there is on that, i.e. dig into the specifics through conversation to see what's okay.

Mental and Physical Health
✦ Cancer. Line.
✦ Claustrophobia.
✦ Darkness.
✦ Drugs and addiction.
✦ Freezing to death.
✦ Gaslighting. Line.
✦ Genocide.
✦ Heatstroke.
✦ Mind control. Inflicted on the PCs, line. NPCs, blank.
✦ Natural disasters.
✦ Paralysis/physical restraint.
✦ Police, police aggression.
✦ Pregnancy, miscarriage, or abortion.
✦ Self-harm. Line.
✦ Severe weather.
✦ Sexual assault. Line.
✦ Slavery. Committed by the PCs, line. Otherwise, veil.
✦ Starvation.
✦ Terrorism.
✦ Thirst.
✦ Torture. Inflicted by or on the PCs, line. Otherwise, veil.

I have an uncle who is currently dying of cancer, so line. PS: FY cancer. Gaslighting is evil, so line. Likewise I have to draw a line for self-harm. Pure nope. So too with sexual assault, line.

As a player I despise having my character mind controlled, it's literally the only thing I get to do in the game...control my PC, so taking that away means I might as well not even be there, so big fat line. But if the PCs want to mind control NPCs, go for it. I've played in and run a lot of Dark Sun, so slavery is a weird one for me. I tend to make a point of it existing early on in Dark Sun games but let it mostly fade into the background. Then I had some PCs try to become slavers. Nope. Line, line, line. I also take a rather dim view of the players torturing NPCs for information and I will not torture PCs...it's just...line. But as something that exists in the world, absolutely. I just don't want to focus on it.

So that's it.

That's a basic run through of a lines and veils worksheet.

If lines and veils are something you want to use, it's that easy. Just send the checklist to your players and have them fill it out. Collect 'em all. Compile the list. And pass that out to the players so they know what to expect. If anyone lines something, it's lined. If anyone veils something, it's veiled. It's really simple and easy to look out for your fellow players and make sure everyone can have a good time escaping the real world for a minute.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Last spam post from me.

I think the expanded list in Stay Alive! is a good start. But there’s a lot it doesn’t cover. I’d imagine simply listing the horror icons / subgenres from Ravenloft would be a good start. Finding a list of horror subgenres and using that might be useful or it could be utterly unwieldy. Having subgenres also broken down by most common themes and tropes would be a good idea. Maybe one checklist per subgenre so if someone’s planning a zombie survival game they can just grab that checklist as a starting point rather than sift through dozens of irrelevant subgenres and their tropes / themes.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
As a player I despise having my character mind controlled, it's literally the only thing I get to do in the game...control my PC, so taking that away means I might as well not even be there, so big fat line. But if the PCs want to mind control NPCs, go for it.
This is where someone might look at your list and wonder if there's some cynicism at work. You don't want a common fantasy trope (magic that enchants or manipulates the will) used against the PCs (or specifically your PC) but are OK with using it. If I had a player coming to me with that, then I'd be wondering about their commitment to the principles of free will/control rather than fair play in a game and be tempted to take it right off the list of PC abilities as well so that it's never a question at all, for anybody.
If I'm going to incorporating players' lists of topics off the table or veiled, I'm going to work toward some reciprocity in order to keep some level of fairness in the game's ground rules, particularly if the topics are thematic to the game system or how the game system plays. If there's an objection to mind control, all variations on it go.

I suppose the nutshell version of this is - I'm OK with removing something that genuinely squicks you out as a thing in general, I'm a lot more skeptical if you want to keep yourself from being targeted by something you're OK with inflicting on someone else.
 
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Faolyn

Hero
I found GURPS Horror--the one published for 3rd edition--to be my favorite horror how-to gaming book because it goes so deeply into why various monsters are horrific. Vampires and ghouls represent the fear of being corrupted or tainted, for instance--and vampires can also be used to represent a fear of sex or lust, as are succubi/incubi and "shaggy ones" such as fauns.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
This is where someone might look at your list and wonder if there's some cynicism at work. You don't want a common fantasy trope (magic that enchants or manipulates the will) used against the PCs (or specifically your PC) but are OK with using it.
I don't think it's cynicism, I think it's honesty. The only thing I get to do at the table as a player is control my one character. Losing control of that means I might as well go for a walk. That's lame and boring.

And to be clear, the list above is one I'm going to present to my players for a game I will run. This is me telling them I will not take agency away from them, but that they are free to take agency away from the NPCs.
If I had a player coming to me with that, then I'd be wondering about their commitment to the principles of free will/control rather than fair play in a game and be tempted to take it right off the list of PC abilities as well so that it's never a question at all, for anybody.
And as the DM that's your call to make. For me it is about the imbalance of control at the table. As a player, I get one character to control and that's it. If the DM takes control of that character away from me, I get to do nothing. The DM controls the entire game world. They don't need to take control of the one thing I get to control, too.
If I'm going to incorporating players' lists of topics off the table or veiled, I'm going to work toward some reciprocity in order to keep some level of fairness in the game's ground rules, particularly if the topics are thematic to the game system or how the game system plays. If there's an objection to mind control, all variations on it go.
Again, that would be your call as a DM to make. Though I'm not sure why you'd make that call. If a player doesn't want their character to lose a limb, for example, would that mean you'd never have any character in the game ever lose a limb? That seems extreme to me. If the player doesn't want anyone to lose a limb, then that would make sense. I see safety tools as a player empowerment tool. They get to explicitly tell me what they're uncomfortable with and as the DM I then avoid that.

It's not about reciprocity. There's no negotiation or give and take about lines and veils. If someone tells me something is a line, I don't cross it. I also won't try to negotiate that line away. That defeats the purpose of safety tools.
 
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Faolyn

Hero
This is where someone might look at your list and wonder if there's some cynicism at work. You don't want a common fantasy trope (magic that enchants or manipulates the will) used against the PCs (or specifically your PC) but are OK with using it. If I had a player coming to me with that, then I'd be wondering about their commitment to the principles of free will/control rather than fair play in a game and be tempted to take it right off the list of PC abilities as well so that it's never a question at all, for anybody.
I've read more than a few horror stories involving terrible GMs who have their DMPCs mind control PCs for really creepy (usually sexual) reasons. I would assume that @overgeeked wanted to avoid something like that.

In this particular case, though, I'd ask them to define mind control. In one game, I had an NPC monster cast enemies abound (or as I like to call it, create temporary ally) on a PC. Would this count as mind control? Does something like charm person count, which is short-term, or are we talking full-fledged domination that's off-limits, like with a vampire or 'cubus or nymph?
 

Remathilis

Legend
The issue with some tools is that their is a tendency to overgeneralize. For example, the problem with mind control magic isn't "you failed your save, attack your allies for me!" But more issues with consent and scenarios where things happen to the PC and due to the magic they cannot fight back against (Jessica Jones style).

I think in addition to tools like this, a general overview of tone and such helps. I tend to run my game PG-13, with lower levels of gore or sex. If a line gets crossed, it's non intentional and we will walk it back as needed. That sort of communication presented plainly can fix some of the more generic issues with these tools...
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
It's not about reciprocity. There's no negotiation or give and take about lines and veils. If someone tells me something is a line, I don't cross it. I also won't try to negotiate that line away. That defeats the purpose of safety tools.
It may honest but if mind control is ok as long as it's not used on your character it starts to look a lot less like a safety tool. That may be the scrutiny you invite when you take the concepts in the safety list and start to break them out between you as user/you as target rather than the Green, Yellow, Red of Consent in Gaming.

Ultimately, I want my players to feel safe, but not necessarily protected from events that may occasionally frustrate them when the dice don't go their way.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I've read more than a few horror stories involving terrible GMs who have their DMPCs mind control PCs for really creepy (usually sexual) reasons. I would assume that @overgeeked wanted to avoid something like that.
Gah. That honestly never crossed my mind. Crap like that is exactly why safety tools are necessary.
In this particular case, though, I'd ask them to define mind control. In one game, I had an NPC monster cast enemies abound (or as I like to call it, create temporary ally) on a PC. Would this count as mind control? Does something like charm person count, which is short-term, or are we talking full-fledged domination that's off-limits, like with a vampire or 'cubus or nymph?
For me, it depends. I'm fine with things like failing the save on a fear and having to run away until I make the save. It's still lame that I get to do nothing until I make the save, but it's not objectionable, to me. The objectionable stuff is where the DM gets to directly control my character, or forces me to control my character in ways I don't want to, like mind controlled to attack my party. Something like charm where I'd be forced to be neutral or friendly...it's iffy. For me.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
The issue with some tools is that their is a tendency to overgeneralize.
Absolutely. There needs to be tools with greater granularity...resolution...whatever that dig down to the specifics. The safety tools we have are the beginning of the conversation, not the end. I'm going to be digging into subgenres of horror and pulling the main tropes / themes and turning those into a safety tool checklist. I think something like that would be useful.
For example, the problem with mind control magic isn't "you failed your save, attack your allies for me!" But more issues with consent and scenarios where things happen to the PC and due to the magic they cannot fight back against (Jessica Jones style).
For me, it's nothing more complex than "it's the one thing I get to control in the game, don't take that control away."
I think in addition to tools like this, a general overview of tone and such helps. I tend to run my game PG-13, with lower levels of gore or sex. If a line gets crossed, it's non intentional and we will walk it back as needed. That sort of communication presented plainly can fix some of the more generic issues with these tools...
Absolutely. I tend to run games about the same movie rating and caveats as you, though I typically go somewhere between PG-13 and R. I like the Sly Flourish video on safety tools I linked above. In it he talks about using the movie rating system, lines and veils, and the pause button to have your bases covered. That seems like a good idea to me.
 

I'm not sure I understand where the distinction is between "Having this in the game is emotionally harmful" to me and "I just don't care for that". when it comes to lines. Or maybe there is no distinction?

I dislike halflings in games. (No really, I do!) They spoil my enjoyment of the game by making it too explicitly Tolkien derivative. But they don't make me feel unsafe.

Would that be the sort of thing that should be covered by a "Line"? I haven't encountered the concept enough to be able to say.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
It may honest but if mind control is ok as long as it's not used on your character it starts to look a lot less like a safety tool.
Why? If I presented you with that on a safety checklist would you insist that I go into excruciating personal detail to justify my desire to not have my autonomy forcibly removed? That seems like it defeats the purpose of the safety tools.
That may be the scrutiny you invite when you take the concepts in the safety list and start to break them out between you as user/you as target rather than the Green, Yellow, Red of Consent in Gaming.
I think that split is important. Someone might be fine with spiders in a game but refuse to have direct interaction with spiders themselves. I don't see why this is any different. Adding granularity to things like this can only help.
Ultimately, I want my players to feel safe, but not necessarily protected from events that may occasionally frustrate them when the dice don't go their way.
So do I. It's funny you think that's what I'm after. When I get to play I keep asking the DM to make things harder. When playing 5E it's basically a foregone conclusion that the players just win...all the time. That's really boring. I don't mind losing. After seven years of 5E I'm longing to have something even minorly negative happen to a character of mine.
 



jayoungr

Legend
Supporter
For 5E specific horror gaming, there's Grim Hollow, a grimdark & dark fantasy pair (soon to be trilogy) of books that present a wonderful setting that can easily be used as is, as part of Ravenloft, or simply stripped for parts and ideas.
I've been hearing/seeing enthusiatic references to this supplement a lot lately. Can someone sell me on it? What makes it stand out?
 

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