How To Bring Horror To Heroic Fantasy

Three Basic Rules of Horror

M. R. James was a writer in the early 20th century who specialized in creepy ghost stories. One of Lovecraft’s favorite authors, James wrote an essay in which he laid out three rules to construct an effective ghost story. His rules apply to any type of horror, however, and I consciously apply them to scenario-building and when running horror-themed games.

The First Rule: Don’t Use Jargon

Nothing spoils the sense of fear more than bringing the player out of the game and back into real life. Every time you refer specifically to game rules or introduce concepts by means of technical terminology, you lose a bit of potential creepiness. Pathfinder is filled with tactical options, all of which use precise terms, which means you, the game master, need to find ways to avoid saying things like, “Let’s see… the Shoggoth has +11 Initiative. He rolls and hits with an… er… engulf attack, inflicting 4d6+22 damage, plus 8d6 acid. Is there a saving throw vs. acid?”

Instead, do the rolls without overmuch commentary. You still need to inform the players of damage inflicted and special restrictions, but you can accomplish this without parroting specific game rules. Experienced game masters may already be doing this—it is one of the basics of drawing players into an adventure.

The Second Rule: The Enemy Must Be Malign

Friendly ghosts aren’t scary—it’s a fact of life. This applies to monstrous forces too. If the players find out that the fungi from Yuggoth are trying to establish a quiet mining base, all terror of them vanishes. The Mythos is full of entities that players can interact with, but all of them are malign and creepy, even the sometimes-peaceful ones. You can learn the language of ghouls, but even when they are friendly, they are always eyeing your physique with an eye to how tasty you look. Even the small and seemingly harmless zoogs occasionally trap and eat visitors to their forest.

Fortunately, the Mythos is filled with terrifying purpose. Sure, the fungi from Yuggoth might only say they want a quiet mining base, but there must be more to it than that. What are they mining? What is their underlying purpose? Are they using the ore to construct some sort of gigantic bio-techno-magical device? If so, what will it do?

At first glance, the great race of Yith appears neutral—even benign. That is, until you realize that they periodically exterminate entire sentient species by mass mind-swap to continue their existence! (Humanity has only escaped this fate because it is too puny for Yithian ambition. Thus far.)

The Third Rule: Set the Tale Somewhere Mundane

James points out if you set a ghost story in an esoteric and inaccessible locale, readers can’t easily imagine themselves in that situation. As a result, he set all of his stories in the places and locales he knew well: seaside hotels, old country churches, public libraries, and so forth.

You have a major advantage here, since you are running a roleplaying game. Your players normally throw themselves into the roles of their characters, empathizing with them and cross-exchanging personality traits. As a result, they know and feel their characters, and it’s easy for them to buy into the setting you choose.

You can make the story even more dangerous by putting it right in the heart of the players’ stomping grounds. You could set up an adventure with a shoggoth as a dangerous enemy under a distant glacier, but the players will be more invested if you have that same shoggoth patrolling the sewers under your campaign’s capital city, sneaking up through openings and pulling victims down to feed. Knowing that shoggoths exist in some distant place in the world is one thing. Knowing that there is a shoggoth in your home city eating folks every night is another thing entirely.

Adding Horror to Adventures

Horror is a delicate topic. When Horror is combined with another genre, the usual result is that the other genre wins out. For example, most horror-comedies are really just comedies with a horror element.

Many attempts have been made to mix horror and superheroes, and, again, the end result is generally a superhero story with a horror element. Most players of Pathfinder understandably are focused on high adventure, derring-do, and sword and sorcery. And of course, when horror is added to the adventure theme, just as with other genres, the adventure is what remains, though now horror-tinged.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider the difference between the films Alien and Aliens. The first is a horror movie. The second is an adventure movie with horror elements. Both are great films.

If you just want new enemies for your players to battle and investigate, this book has everything you need, with a variety of interesting creatures you can pull out of your back pocket to surprise and intrigue your players. Almost all of these entities have their own little tricks and traps to spring on the players.

They range in power from the easily-defeated (zoogs, ghouls, etc.) to the almost unstoppable (flying polyps, starspawn, etc.) to truly awful impossibilities that will drive the hardiest adventurer mad (Hastur, Azathoth, etc.).

The fact is that Lovecraft’s monsters aren’t just monsters. They have personalities. And as such, you can use them for much more than just bags of hit points. Most obviously, they need not always be treated as enemies. Yes, these monsters can be malign, cannibalistic horrors, but they are most often intelligent horrors who are able to understand and sometimes communicate with humans. They have purposes.

For example, on a lonely road, the player characters arrive at an inn run by zoogs. This simple premise is alight with possibilities. What would the zoogs want as payment? What do they offer in exchange, beyond sleeping quarters and a fine meal of moonberry wine and rat-on-a-stick? The zoogs could have a gift shop, consisting of goods taken from people foolish enough to sleep alone and unguarded in the zoogs’ rooms. (After all, they are still zoogs.)

Even more horrendous monsters may be able to interact with an adventuring party outside of mere combat. The fungi from Yuggoth maintain a secret society of people who do the fungi’s will in return for technological and biological wonders. The fungi actively evangelize for this society, and the most useful people for their purposes are, clearly, adventurers: itinerant and well-traveled, generally individually powerful, and highly experienced. For all these reasons, they make excellent agents. While your own group of adventurers are, no doubt, unwilling to serve the terrible goals of the fungi, there can be no doubt that another party might not be so high-minded, and the players may therefore encounter these individuals.

That they serve the fungi would not be immediately obvious, but perceptive adventurers will invariably notice signs of Yuggoth’s control…

As you look through the monsters and other elements of this book, consider many such possible uses, both obvious and subtle. You can certainly use any adventure or situation you like, merely plugging in the Lovecraftian entities. But for a memorable and compelling game, spend some planning time considering how the situation is now different because the Cthulhu Mythos is involved.

Everyone’s familiar with the classic dungeon crawl, commonly constructed by an insanely powerful lich or a mad wizard. Perhaps the dungeon is instead being run by a Lovecraftian entity of enormous power. I’ll randomly select a possibility (rolls dice).

Okay, I came up with Nyarlathotep. Arbitrarily I’ve named this dungeon “The Twisted Pyramid.” (Seems Egyptian-ish.) Now obviously the Crawling Chaos has the ability to create a vast maze full of treasure, traps, and monsters, but why would he? Let’s think about Nyarlathotep’s personality: he is the mind and voice of the Outer Gods, and what he primarily cares about is serving them. What if his goal in creating this dungeon is to keep up to date on how dangerous the most powerful adventurers in the world are? He doesn’t necessarily want to kill them—he just wants to know how they’re doing and how to challenge them. And if these top adventurers are weak enough, he can bring back the Old Ones to destroy the world with the flick of a metaphorical wrist.

Of course, the best way to ensure that he gets a good analysis of these adventurers is to tell them the unvarnished truth. Let everyone know that there is wealth—as well as danger—in the Twisted Pyramid to draw the finest adventurers available. Once the current crop of adventurers proves too craven and feckless to brave the pyramid, Nyarlathotep will know the world is ready for the end times. Thus, the players have two reasons to brave the pyramid—one obvious, one subtle.

First, they can seek the wealth, which is genuinely there as a lure. And second, they might wish to save the world from the Old Ones’ return. (They may not know about this aspect of the adventure until they get to the pyramid, or perhaps only in retrospect.)

But how else could Nyarlathotep affect the dungeon crawl? Well, I would propose that as he has a thousand forms, each separate dungeon level features its own avatar of Nyarlathotep, starting out with comparatively weak forms, and working up to the most powerful. I would also suggest that each time the adventurers encounter Nyarlathotep he speak with them, mocking their efforts and making suggestions, foul offers, and promises.

This is a dungeon with a kick to it, and yet in many ways, it is a normal, expected experience. The Mythos has added that little extra touch to bring it beyond the mundane. With this twist, you can turn Nyarlathotep into an ongoing foil for the players and for your campaign, using a mere dungeon crawl as their introduction to him.

How to Use Horror in a RPG Environment

Many of the creatures in the Mythos are so horrendously powerful that even a high-level group cannot kill them. Some of the entities described in this book are literally impossible to defeat. Don’t force such a confrontation upon your players without giving them warning. You don’t need much of a premonition—perhaps a shadow suddenly darkens the moon, or the city’s dogs suddenly and abruptly cease their howling.

The entities of the Mythos almost always corrupt those who learn of them. Adventurers who investigate the ancient lore of Yog-Sothoth or other Great Old Ones should do so through a sea of terrors and ethical or religious quandaries. Learning more about these entities should never become humdrum.

An adventure centered on the Mythos should be put together in a style I call “layers of the onion.” The idea is that as the players uncover one layer of dark secrets, they expose another. This goes on and on: just as when an onion is peeled, successive strata appear.

At first, the players may think that a scenario involves an evil cult-worshiping nobleman or a haunted castle. But as they probe more deeply, you, the game master, can gradually show them the significance of this particular nobleman or haunted castle. As the players decide to find out more information, this leads to other adventures.

In Lovecraft’s epic “At the Mountains of Madness,” the characters uncover some odd fossils, excellently preserved and reminiscent of the ancient tales of the Old Ones. The hero and his companion go scouting and find what seems to be a huge and complex rock formation inside a glacier. When they return to the camp, everyone has been killed, and the “fossils” are missing. The heroes are horrified and decide to follow the trail which leaves camp, headed toward the icebound rocks. This all occurs in the first layer of the onion.

They probe deep into the rocks and find tunnels under the ice which lead lower and lower. As they chase after the tracks of whoever (or whatever) killed their companions, they gradually come to realize that it is a true city, not just an unusual formation. Furthermore, nonhumanoid entities, whose history is found in carvings on the walls, built the city millions of years ago. This is the second layer of the onion.

As the heroes penetrate deeper, and come upon more and more horrors, they realize that the “fossils” are actual, living (albeit cryogenically-preserved) elder things. The heroes follow the path anyway, and the story culminates in an awful conclusion, where the heroes meet not the elder things preserved in the ice, but the dread things (shoggoths) that wiped out their species. This is the end of the story, but clearly it would be possible to extend it further.

For instance, a gamemaster could have the heroes investigate the shoggoth “civilization”, and find out that these amoeboid horrors are up to something (the fourth layer of the onion). Since shoggoths are not really movers and shakers, no doubt something even worse than shoggoths is directing their efforts. And for what purpose? The destruction of all surface life? The return of the star spawn? The formation of a gigantic device designed to break the continent free from the world’s surface and form a new moon? Who knows? The wheels within wheels keep turning, and the players can continue following the tale forever.

Alternatively, they could progress a certain way down the stories, and then you, the game master, can switch to another storyline: a new civilization of nightmare creatures; an ancient tome with unspeakable secrets; something else altogether. String together Mythos concepts and bury the heroes deep in the darkness.

The reason for this system of episodic revelation is because horror, by its nature, is difficult to maintain for a prolonged period of time. This is why horror movies typically have only short moments of terror, interspersed with sections (possibly ominous) in which non-horror-based scenes take place. It is also why horror novels are never as consistently terrifying as short stories.

Thus, each time a new layer of the onion is revealed to your players, there is an opportunity for a new shock, a new understanding. The players may wish time to discuss the ramifications (you may or may not allow this time, depending on the adventure’s needs), and certainly their understanding of what is going on will change.

You can also use this to up the ante. Let’s use another example. The town suffers from an outbreak of ghouls. Of course, the players are worried because ghouls are a potent, intelligent foe. There are scary moments, desperate ambushes in dark alleyways, and so forth.

Then, during the course of this conflict, the players uncover the second part of the storyline and learn that the ghouls are up to something–some grandiose plot. So now the player’s focus changes from physical danger to worrying about a larger threat–what are the ghouls up to? Instead of just defending the township, they now have to descend into the ghoul tunnels to find out the secret. Now the ghouls lay traps and call unholy allies to their aid. The ante has been raised for the players, not just in terms of danger, but in terms of what happens if they fail?

When the players finally discover what the ghouls are plotting, you the game master have the opportunity to transform the adventure once again, in a third storyline, and confront them with an existential threat! Perhaps the ghouls are replacing all the important humans in town with their evil changelings. Maybe the ghouls have accumulated enough sacrifices to summon and (they think) control a monstrous dhole to destroy the entire town. It’s even possible they plot to magically teleport the entire township to the Vale of Pnath, where they can feast at their leisure.

In this way, you have three simple, separate plotlines, each with a different type of frightening threat, and you can keep up the horror element far longer and more effectively than in a one-shot adventure!

Turning an Encounter Into an Adventure

It is perfectly plausible to plop down a gug guarding a treasure chest. The gug in this case would just be another monster—a bag of hit points hindering the players from gaining loot. A gug has some unique powers that you can use to your advantage in planning your encounter. For example, gugs are completely silent, so players are likely unaware of the creature’s presence until it chooses to show itself. Since gugs have religious tendencies, perhaps it has an altar to its foul deity in its chamber. Perhaps killing the gug triggers a curse which follows the party around.

With a little effort, the gug can be used for more.

For example, gugs are an intelligent species known for crafting organized plans. Perhaps the gug was in that room for a reason? It’s not hard to extrapolate that after the party murders the gug for his loot, his fellow gugs might find the corpse, and—thirsting for vengeance— track down the party. All of a sudden, perhaps when hotly engaged in another fight, a group of gugs emerges silently from the darkness and joins in the fight against the players. You’ve kept the adventure element of your game strong, but the gugs have taken on personality and perhaps even become a permanent part of your game. After all, even if the players manage to drive away or kill the pursuing party of gugs, this doesn’t mean they’re done with them: they might have to deal with gug hunting bands for the foreseeable future.

In the end, you have turned an almost random encounter with a lone gug guarding some treasure into a recurring enemy that may plague the heroes’ future endeavors, potentially for an entire campaign.

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