Miscellaneous Musings: On Horror Part III – d20-based Gaming

Miscellaneous Musings: On Horror Part III – d20-based Gaming

In case you missed Part I and Part II, here are the links:

Part I

Part II

It is impossible to talk about the history of horror gaming and the d20 system without first taking care of a couple of misunderstandings that have claimed much of the discourse without being properly addressed, so that’s where we begin.

As we have established in Part II of these essays, a big component that led and continues to lead to frustrations would be the lack of a moral contract between players and GM and the clash of their expectations, so let’s start there and let us begin with the player-side of things.

D20-gaming, more so than old-school gaming, promotes by virtue of its very engine player- and character-agenda and as such, it promotes more power. It can be used in games such as Minecraft, which demands this feature. You can check out Minecraft Server List if you’re not aware of where to start playing. I don’t have to talk about the vast variety of options available for the respective d20-based games – it’s a fact that no other game engine has this many supplements of varying degrees of quality. Now, while this does allow a player to play nigh infinite different characters and concepts, at the same time, it leads to power-creep by virtue of options alone. Moreover, the math-heavy aspects of the game cater to a type of player or better, a mindset, where it is easy to do the numbers, tinker and optimize, and then grin – min-maxing, to a certain degree, can be a source of fun and enjoyment for many groups, mine included. There are plenty of potential issues when taking this to its logical extremes. With the supplements at my beck and call, I can literally make characters that insta-gib anything statted. While certainly fun from a theory-crafting experience, this type of power and horror do not necessarily blend well. (Unless, and I have done that, you’re exploring the concept of the wet-paper-tissue-world for high-level characters….but that’s another essay…)

In short, heroic gameplay and its power are, to a degree, coded into the game system. That does not mean, however, that players that enjoy the like are left out in the cold for horror games. It is just a matter of mindset. If you take a look at fiction and texts out there, we can see quite a few series, books, etc. that are clearly defined as horror, but that also sport capable and competent characters. What sets these characters apart are two things: One, they are well-rounded characters with flaws and rough edges; by virtue of being multi-faceted, they offer some sort of intriguing roleplaying regarding the development of their personalities. Two, they tend to have Achilles heels – an addiction, madness, a character flaw, a kink in the armor of their build, if you want to go meta. They are potent, but not invulnerable. This brings us back to the concept of the contract I mentioned in part II.

It also should influence the reception of horror gaming supplements and the player options therein – you see, when optimization per se is not the main goal, complaints like “XYZ is not the best option!” just don’t help anyone. That does not mean that some options can’t be considered to be sucky – just that the parameters you use to judge these options needs to be slightly different. You still can take a look at mechanical integrity, at whether it allows you to break the game, etc. – sloppy, untyped damage, for example, can be a big no-go – but you should also take a look at whether a given option allows you to play a distinct and multi-faceted character, well-situated within the context of the campaign world – and that should probably be more important than the options to min-max such an option, at least more important than in murder-hoboing fantasy gaming.

The second series of misconceptions stems from the GM-side of things and is, partially, home-grown, the consequence of an unquestioned discourse filtering into the game and the expectations we have towards the game. Let’s start by taking a step back to the past, to the age before d20-gaming blew up like it did. The horror aspects of gaming are represented at that point by roughly three schools of horror gaming, all of which have carried their respective baggage to the contemporary horror gaming options – if not explicitly, then in the way they influenced design-aesthetics.

Let us take a look at these classics, starting with the WoD, the World of Darkness that housed Vampire, Werewolf and similar games. I am not going to address recent controversies here, and instead take a look at these games. Now personally, I am a huge fan of the world and lore and while I always hated the mechanics of the systems, I do appreciate that mature themes, grisly ones even, have been made available thus; these supplements dared to offer roleplaying material for adults and this, to me, is a great thing. At the same time, the respective systems are set up, lore-wise, to promote, to a degree, player-conflict and disparity – via associations with various clans, via the losing-control-mechanics, etc. – these paradigms are powerful and hail straight from the subject matter’s canon of texts, yes, but in other games, these aspects can be rather destructive forces -more so than they already are in WoD. (I am NEVER GMing a WoD campaign again…)

The grand daddy of horror gaming, if you will, the amazing Call of Cthulhu system, is still one of my all-time favorites and rocks my world; it focuses, if you didn’t know, on pretty regular people dealing with things that are VERY likely to kill the investigators (how the PCs are called in it) and/or drive them insane. Dying horrible, gibbering deaths is very much a part of the game that makes it fun and there is a reason why purist and highly deadly adventures work so well with CoC – one of them being that character generation is SIMPLE.

Simple and FAST.

If you take these design-aesthetics to a mathematically more complex system, however, you generate frustration. If killing off characters that literally take even experienced players an hour or two to design happens willy-nilly, you’ll get those screams of GM-fiat and the negative connotations of killer GMing.

Lethal does not equal horror…and vice versa.

I once ran an adventure I wrote that had NO COMBAT. Not even an option to die or become insane…and it is still quoted as one of my most horrific modules.

Why? Because the adrenaline spike that stems from danger to the character also represents an instant catharsis. One you have rolled the bones, you see the outcome. Done. Enjoyable, yes – but it also releases built-up tension. If you can instead continue to escalate the tension without providing the release…well, you get the idea. It’s a bit like wondering if Schrödinger’s Cat is alive – once you open the box, you ascertain and fix reality…but before then, there is still tension.Suverting the experience of rolling dice can make for a powerful tool…but that as an aside.

Once again, I adore CoC, but once again, its design-paradigms don’t translate well to d20-based gaming – killing off characters that take hours upon hours to design with the frequency of investigators…is not fun for anyone. Moreover, at this point, the mythos is very often included in the realities of regular fantasy gaming and dark fantasy gaming, which does eliminate a bit of its oomph.

Thirdly, we’ll take a look at my beloved Ravenloft. Chances are, that if you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you’ll be aware of how much I love this setting…or rather, how much I love my hodgepodge of classic stuff, tons of obscure 3pp-books, blended with material by Kargatane and fraternity of shadows (check out their sites – tons of cool, free material!!) into an amalgamation.I love the potential of the setting. What it *can* be.

It pains me to say this, but here goes: A lot of the, in particular the early Ravenloft materials, SUCK. And not just a bit. More like “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?”-levels of suck.

Bad adventure-writing, obtuse plots, horrible mood-breakers, save-or-suck galore, one-dimensional baddies, obscure storylines, wildly diverging capability-assumptions…the list goes on.

Name one cardinal sin of adventure design and I can point you towards at least 2 Ravenloft supplements that commit them. The most prevalent and annoying, to me at least, is also the most pervasive, the one that has crept into a TON of the games: “Blood, bones and undead are scary.” “By extension, so are mythos creatures.” Newsflash: They’re not.

Particularly if you’re a powerful guy with cosmic power at his fingertips who can cleave through multiple ones of them without any issue. Hamstringing characters by saying: “This is creepy!”, forcing an additional mechanic like fear or insanity for the character to continue working properly and implying that players, by extension, should be frightened DOES NOT WORK.

Don’t get me wrong – I am very much in favor of calling for insanity checks and the like in horror games – but these have to be the results of choice on part of the players, not an integral mechanical component. I still feel the bile rising up my throat when I think about a feat that helps against madness saves. Seriously? Bringing optimization against insanity, chosen freely, into the fray defeats the very purpose of horror gaming.

Picture me frothing at my mouth there. Secondly, this aesthetic has taken an unholy life and blended with the first two: Optimization versus the mythos, versus being compromised in the context of the party…ugh. There is another tendency in Ravenloft, a most unholy one that worked well in exactly ONE module…and then was copied time and again: Of-screen PC-death and then “awakening” in the control of the villain, in e.g. another body and the like. Thankfully, that abomination of a plot-device has mostly been purged from gaming, but it can be found here and there. Apart from being the worst of railroads, taking player agenda away, it also cheapens death horribly.

Which brings me to the aspects of the very game-engine that can compromise a good horror game in a d20-system- and there are more than you’d expect. Number one would be alignment. I loathe it with all my heart and while getting rid of it takes a LOT of effort, I strongly suggest doing so. With the amount of articles, archetypes and toolkits out there, it is not impossible, just a bit time-consuming, to do so. This will, however, carry with it a significant array of repercussions with spells, class abilities and the like, so be prepared for that. The second aspect would be death. Death, in most d20-based games, is cheap and basically just a slap on the wrist. It shouldn’t be.

In my games, not just in my horror-games, death is almost always final – resurrecting characters requires a lethal, divine quest and is only undertaken when a player really wants to continue playing a given character…and even then, it is not a linear return: Returning from beyond the pale should have profound changes on psychology of the PC and, imho, also the mechanics – returning from the dead is how I use races like restless souls (one last task to complete), gearborn (What have I become??) and can lead towards really interesting conundrums, open theological and transhumanist questions and the like – it should not be a call for mere linear continuation of a characters, but instead be considered to be a chance for the player to explore and develop new facets of the respective character.

Now, I have touched on fear before, so here is what I do in my games:

I *do* use a fear-mechanic…but at the same time, I only call for rolls when the PLAYERS don’t play their characters in a manner befitting of the threat.

Once you tell the players that, the ROLEplaying at the table will organically improve, since you actually reward the players for being in-character, for being involved in a “realistic” depiction of the character.

Once again, this ties in with the contract between player and GM and requires deliberate and nuanced decisions from the GM- it makes e.g. no sense for an undead hunting elite-member of a church to be afraid of mere skeletons…but when he meets the lich that annihilated his order, for example, that may result in anger, fear, etc. Similarly, a character who has just evaporated a legion of zombies probably won’t be scared of a particularly fat, bloated one…until that thing opens its mouth and lamprey-like rings of teeth lead to a strange, cosmic abyss in a maelstrom of teeth, with one friend vanishing at the event horizon of saliva and ichors within its gaping mouth – and here GM-responsibility comes in.

The requirement of GM-maturity here is that you can’t force the script: You can’t tell players “That’s how your character would react!” – UNLESS the reaction is in no way corresponding to the threat faced. If a PC, for example, has arachnophobia and wants to go face-to-face with a giant spider, it should be a plot point for that character: “I have to do this to save my beloved!” – and even then, it should be diffult for the character. In such a case, forcing a roll will not result from complaints from the player and both success and failure will help to change the character: Has he temporarily overcome his fear? Maybe his intervention is not enough, in spite of that? Perhaps he almost dies, enforcing the phobia? How does the saved character react to living through this ordeal?

Good horror gameplay, to a significant degree, hinges on the characters involved in it being organic, well-depicted and rounded characters, yes – but they also need to be treated as such and whenever possible, it should be the goal of the GM to actually promote transparency of player and character agendas for the PCs, the GM should help them align.

Which brings me to another aspect of d20-based horror-gaming that is a source of a lot of criticism: The realities of actually publishing gaming materials.

You see, what I consider to be perfectly acceptable horror may really rub you the wrong way or trigger some associations with personal tragedies you suffered.

I noted that in my elaboration regarding communication being key when preparing a good horror game. Now picture this issue being amplified a thousand-fold and you get the inevitable perfect storm that PUBLISHERS face when dealing with horror. Know why mythos, blood. bones and undead are so common? Why we often have such hack-and-slashy-pseudo horror adventures, toolkits and the like? Because it is, at least moderately, safe to publish them.

You see, not only do our cultures very much define what we deem acceptable, our individual parameters are radically different and they are shaped by our upbringing, experience and the like. The examples for this are plentiful: Take, for example, sexuality – a topic ostracized in large arts of the US and considered more taboo than depictions of violence, whereas in Germany, we have the inverse. Picture being a devout Christian (or perhaps you are!) and witnessing the cultural reappropriation of Christianity in manga and anime, where the religion often is coded as weird, strange and creepy.The list, potentially, goes on – and what one person can consider amazing and fun may be horrible to others.

On a personal level, perhaps you have no issues with violence against fictional characters, but playing a module featuring animal cruelty as a leitmotif churns your stomach. Perhaps you are like me and have lost a friend or more to suicide, which makes depictions of the like hit home pretty hard – but also efficient. It depends on how fresh the wound is, how you’re dealing with it – even in the context of one person, the line is anything but carved in stone. Thing is, horror, by definition, needs to be somewhat transgressive. Its very nature requires generating a bit of uncomfortable feelings…but where to draw the line?

That is the central issue of the subject matter, not only in gaming, but academia as well – it’s a reason why horror texts tend to be rarely codified and analyzed thus: What can provide a sense of unease and pleasant creepiness for one person can utterly repulse and disgust another.The subjectivity is hard to grasp objectively and it is all too easy to dismiss horror materials as bad, as disgusting or, on the other side of the spectrum, as bland and ineffective.

Now, controversy can lead to publicity and the like, but just take a look at e.g. the treatment several publishers of the OSR-community have unfairly received and the whole storm of outrage that sparks, time and again. One cursory look at that part of the hobby should make it abundantly clear that this concept of “horror” can be exceedingly subjective. It also has something to do, at least in my opinion, with one’s expectations and not talking about them beforehand. Getting a book about inbred monstrosities may not be a smart move if the like triggers some sort of negative association on your part. Similarly, on the other hand of the spectrum, having a family-friendly adventure-series devolve into a grimdark hackfest of utter misery helps no one.

If you’re a small or niche publisher, you can push the envelope, sure…but if you’re the industry-leader, things look a bit different. On one hand, you don’t want to ostracize the customer base, but on the other, you have to present tools and themes. Oh, and you have, almost certainly, the PR-issue: While the witch-hunt versus D&D never really started around here in Europe, I can very much remember how it was to be a metal-head with Cannibal Corpse and the like blaring from speakers, Cds lying around, in one of Germany’s most conservative and rural areas…so I can kind of relate why e.g. even 3.X’s “Book of Vile Darkness” felt very tame to me and were considered, at least partially, edgy when they came out. The memory of the anti-D&D-movies and hysteria is still fresh for some.

As a big publisher, you have to consider the realities of your own customer-base – if you’re catering to the darker genre, this is where the bucks are, sure. I can point towards several publishers that make excellent use of the market that can be found here – you can make a living as a publisher catering to these aesthetics. But d20-systems tend to represent the mainstream of roleplaying games and thus, also have to take the realities of the market and, more importantly, its sensibilities into account.

What do I mean by this? Name 5 genuinely scary Hollywood horror movies. Yeah, thought so.

If you’re like me, you can *perhaps* name 3; if you’re more of a scaredycat than I am, perhaps a bit more – but once we stop and think about “genuinely scary” for a second, there won’t be many we can classify thus. At least personally, I tend to be more amused by them than scared. Startled, perhaps. (Heck, there is a whole industry of annoying startling-movies…but you know my stance on that matter by now…) But genuinely horrific? Chances are that, if you’re an aficionado of the horrific, you’ll be going to weird movies only those “in the know” have ever heard of. They exist in the fringes and do so for a reason – their transgressive nature can potentially violate too many sensibilities. (And yes, more so than production values and the like, I think this is one reason horror media tends to fail to get mainstream acceptance.)

That being said, the “horror” movies that *do* make it big, that do find the market penetration influence our aesthetics, plot-expectations and the like…but more often than not, they are not genuinely horrific – the employ the tropes and characters we associate with horror, but do not have much in common with horror per se. They don’t frighten or disturb us, they don’t stay with us. And, indeed, if you take a look at how recent movies have taken classic horror monsters and made dumbed-down (Guess how much I liked e.g. Cruise’s Mummy…) action-flicks of them, you’ll arrive at a simple conclusion: We cannot expect, realistically, for mainstream media that requires a certain amount of money, people involved, etc., to provide fringe entertainment at the cost of their paying customer base.

Now, thankfully, roleplaying games are more flexible in these demands than the movie industry. At the same time, however, the adage does hold true when looking at what publisher can release what. There are different expectations involved when buying something LotFP has released as opposed to what you expect from Paizo. Heck, take a look at Goodman Games’ DCC-rules and how the material for these rules, how the adventures published radically differ from what you can find for PFRPG. The question of aesthetics is a deeply personal one, but one that publishers can’t easily break out of. Even for WoD, back in the day, their 18+ books for mature players created some serious controversy – not necessarily due to the quality of the content or lack thereof, but by mere existence – and they *had* the same aesthetics as the less explicit ones.

Thinking about these realities, the plethora of conflicting expectations, and it should come as no surprise that 3.X’s Ravenloft Player’s Guide ended up disappointing many people so hard…or that Heroes of Horror failed, in many folk’s minds, its mission statement. You see, these big books must allow for the playing of basic fantasy with a horror coating and they may not diverge too much from the basic aesthetics of the system…at least in these so-called core books for the “horror experience”. Once we move to supplemental material, things become more interesting  -in 3.X Ravenloft’s example, the Gazetteers and later books remain prime examples of their craft and rank among my favorite books of that era; I could name quite a few adventures or supplemental books that do a pitch-perfect job at displaying horror in d20-gaming…but I digress.

That being said, there has been a bit of a paradigm-change in the more recent gaming systems based on d20-engines, with many a base campaign setting hard-wiring pretty creepy adventures and horrific material into the very setting, albeit to a lesser degree than the “underground” (in lack of a better word), while still retaining, at least for the most part, a relatively wholesome take on the subject matter.

Yeah, you guessed it – the review of Horror Adventures is coming up. And yes, I very much believe that it took all these ramblings as a preamble to understand the review and what I expect of the book.

See you soon for the review!

You can support my ramblings and review here on patreon!

Endzeitgeist out.


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2 Responses

  1. Kiel Howell says:

    Still digesting this post! But I have to say that I cannot agree with you more on open and honest communication between player and DM, publisher and author, publisher and fan base, and so on. Its the key to being able to execute a truly horrific thing and not fall prey to being accused of being simply gore-tastic (which is another discussion), sick minded, etc.

    Can’t wait to see your review on Horror Adventures!

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