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09 September 2013 @ 08:02 pm
Dungeons & Design 13: Horror and Madness  
I was going to do more on the subject of sandbox vs. plotted games, but I can't organize my thoughts properly, so this one goes first.

One thing I often say about my GMing style is that every game I run turns into a horror game regardless of what it started out as. But that's just based on the fact that I like Lovecraft and like including cosmicism, the insignificance of humanity, vanished pre-human races, and creepy monsters with tentacles, not really based on the mood my games are trying to evoke.

The problem is that invoking a horror mood, as opposed to just using horror tropes, is really hard and almost entirely relies on player buy-in. In a passive medium, it's easier to evoke the kind of dread that horror requires because the narrative is entirely under the control of the author, but that's not the case in most RPGs. The addition of the dice means that it's harder to maintain a consistent feel, barring GM intervention. Sometimes the axe murderer gets a lucky hit. Sometimes the player gets a lucky hit. In a book, it's easy to put the protagonist in continuous danger without actually killing them, making you worry about their safety and thus invoking the connection that actual horror requires.

To demonstrate what I mean, here's an example the other way. One of the inspirations for Delta Green was that John Tynes played a game of the infamously-deadly Call of Cthulhu campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep in university and...well, it was infamously deadly. So deadly that they went through all the various family and friends of the original characters who could have reasonably gone to investigate what happened and started bringing in people on the street and random guys they found in bars. They basically zerg rushed Nyarlathotep with such luminaries as Backwash McJesus and his brother Bastard, two hobos the PCs randomly found on the street and later roped into saving the world. I think it was a triple-digit death toll by the end.

In essence, horror without an investment all too easily becomes farce. Then again, that's pretty true of roleplaying in general.

Assuming you have that investment, though, there are still better and worse ways to go about it.

By far the best system I've seen for representing madness is the Madness Meters that I've mentioned before, but while they work just fine for a modern-day occult horror game like Unknown Armies or the excellent Delta Green, they make much less sense for a fantasy game--even a dark fantasy one. Penalizing adventurers for killing people or stealing things or seeing weird monsters might work okay in some kind of meta-game about how adventurers are crazy because no sane person would come out of a underground cavern system laden with enough treasure to set them up for life, only to walk to the Mages Guild, blow it all on even sharper swords that go *ting* and armor that glows, and then go back underground, but for a typical fantasy game about hardass murderhobos it's not that great. That cuts out the Violence, Unnatural, and Self gauges right there and doesn't leave much of the meat left.

Ravenloft is pretty clearly a topical example. I'm only familiar with the second edition version, but there are three different mechanics there: Fear, Horror, and Madness Checks. Fear is when the ghost jumps out and shrieks in your face, horror is when you hear children laughing in the decrepit old mansion, and madness is pretty obvious. Failing Fear checks makes you have a short-term freakout, and failing Horror or Madness Checks have long-term consequences. Horror can give penalties on Fear Checks, and Madness is CoC-style with permanent disorders. That's workable, if a bit tailored to the heavily Gothic overtones that Ravenloft has.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has something similar, though it's oriented differently. Fear Tests give you a dice penalty if you fail them but don't constrain the PC's actions, Terror Tests make you run if you fail them, and Insanity Tests give you insanity points. Anyone who hits 6 IPs needs to make Willpower Tests to avoid getting a disorder, and if they stave it off until 12 IPs, they automatically get one. After a Disorder, IPs go down to zero and the counter starts up again.

Call of Cthulhu, of course, has its Sanity system that are basically mental hit points. Lose too many at once and you freak out.

Dread is one of those new-fangled indie games, but it's the only game I've seen that has an mechanic that directly invokes apprehension. Take a Jenga tower. When you do something dangerous in game, pull out a block. If the tower falls, your character dies at the end of the scene. It wouldn't work for a hexcrawling fantasy game, but it is a mechanic that perfectly does what it's designed to do.

Finally, this isn't really a rules example, but the entire reason level draining exists in D&D is to make undead actually scary on a metagame level. I'm sure everyone's familiar with players treating all monsters as bags of HP and special powers regardless of their appearance or capabilities, but if they can suck out your levels? That's scary. Undead being immune to morale served a similar function back when battles were PCs + hirelings vs. tons of monster and most battles lasted until one side broke and ran, but undead always fought to the last.

Honestly, I'm tempted to just rip off the WFRP system. I like the idea of encouraging a sense of creeping horror à la the Ravenloft mechanic, but I actually think that giving it mechanical weight works against that in the worst way. Horror, as I said above, is more of a mood thing determined by investment in the situation and the characters, and attempting to induce it mechanically just draws attention to the artificiality of the game and works against the end goal.

But fear is easily represented, especially stealing the Conditions I mentioned from my social post. Fail a Fear Check, and you get a choice--run away, cower, Conan-style berzerk rage to wipe out the unnatural, etc. Maybe penalties if different options are chosen, like automatically gaining an Insanity Point if you go berzerk but hey, you can fight the monster from beyond.

I'm currently leaning towards using this system I'm thinking up to run Sun and Storm, since my other idea of sword-and-sorcery Romans in the jungle would be better served by Runequest, and using fear/insanity there would fit perfectly, since the game is about a civilizational collapse after being conquered by an army of the undead. Though oddly, the original game has no sanity or fear mechanics. I'd think that having to fight your friends and family who now serve the Storm Legion is way more psychologically damaging, even to the generic adventurer, than fighting goblins.

Wait, who am I kidding. Everyone knows that murderhobos don't have family or friends.

Anyway, Fear Checks and escalating insanity points, resisted with Willpower. Simply, nonintrusive, and it already works in another game system.
Current Mood: scaredscared
Current Music: World of Warcraft - Nightsong Extended
marianlhmarianlh on September 10th, 2013 01:35 am (UTC)
I don't know if it's just me, or if the GM was good or not, but the one time I played Call of Cthulhu it was plenty creepy.
dorchadasdorchadas on September 10th, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
I think the group has a lot more influence on successfully invoking dread than the mechanics or the system. One of the creepiest games I've ever run was a freeform Lego-based pseudo-RPG. :p

Edited at 2013-09-10 02:14 am (UTC)