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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Can You do an Effective Fantasy Horror Campaign with OSR Style RPGs?



Ravenloft isn't horror, or at least, not horror like CoC and the like. Ravenloft is more camp than anything else, where any of the "classic horror stereotypes" could be lurking behind the next door. I still remember the one module
where my players were turned into puppets - the only horror was how annoyed and yet disappointing my players were.

The 3e Midnight campaign is probably the closest I've seen it come, but that is just damn depressing as a long term campaign. There is no hope, just survival (if you can call it that), and even that isn't much.

Evernight for Savage Worlds could probably convert OK if one wanted to try it, but it is such a railroad I think we'd be off the rails within a session and a half - and the big hook happens in the second session.

My instinct tells me a horror campaign using OSR rules would have to be short - probably 4-6 sessions, as anything longer would lessen the effects of the horrors the PCs encounter ("not THIS shit again!").

I'm just not so sure how well a level based RPG could do horror...

31 comments:

  1. ravenloft is not non horror just hammer horror/50s movie horror
    clark ashton smith weird fantasy horror works fine in oldschool dnd
    if players are squealing and panicking you have horror
    i would consider rewriting a bit with open ended damage rolls, healing harder, things you cant hurt or kill
    Ive been running a few classic cthulhu scenarios vs vikings and they really mop up monsters better than guns
    DnD is very heroic fantasy, BRP is more gritty and players are in fear all the time

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  2. LotFP's whole schtick is fantasy horror, so I'd say yea it's possible.

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    1. it's shock horror - most of it is visual - it's not made for campaign style play, but a one off "kill the party" type of game session

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    2. Woah man, I thought you of all people would have run or played some LotFP at some point.
      I've run a fair few LotFP modules by now and they're simply not what you say they are.

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    3. I think Carcosa, Qelong, and Better Than Any Man all do horror well and all are certainly (even explicitly) campaign-able. Beyond just "shock horror", the horrors of war and the cosmic horror of living among uncaring and/or predatory powers beyond the scope of most men to possibly deal with also figure prominently.

      I wouldn't sell LotFP short.







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    4. Agree. If you can accept Call of Cthulhu as horror, than LotFP definitely is.

      CoC seems more mechanical and overhanded with its horror, imo.

      Lovercraft, in general, never struck me as horrifying. Creepy and weird sure.

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  3. Horror is certainly doable with OSR style rules, even more so with solo PCs or small groups. The basic setup of a black hell-hole full of soulstealers, bonebreakers, and flesh eaters that is a dungeon is pretty darned horrifying when you really think about it. Anyone that is complacent or comfortable in a dungeon has lost all their sanity rolls a long time ago.

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  4. A lot of the OSR clones as you know are based on D&D which i've always thought of as 'heroic' simulations, something 'terror' based horror is far from. Perhaps a sytsem similar to Numenera's effort resource pool style of game? Overcoming obstacles saps the very thing players ned in order to keep them alive?

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  5. Interesting question. When I think "OSR-style", I think " a system that lends itself to action-combat situations." (Storm the castle, kill the thing, take its stuff.) PCs in these types of games are powerful, heroic, etc. In contrast, PCs in a horror game need to be weaker, ill-informed, and outmatched by the creature or the situation. Plus, in a horror RPG, there's more investigation and OSR mechanics don't lend themselves easily to that kind of game. I think you can very well use an OSR system to run a horror-type game, but not without a bit of fiddly tweaking to cover the basic tropes of the genre. The current OSR-based game that comes to mind is Transylvanian Adventures for the DCC system.

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  6. Horror as a campaign doesn't have to be short, but the effective adventuring lives of the characters should be. Either they die or retire due to early-onset old age.

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  7. You can do proper horror with any game. I would dig up a copy of I.C.E.'s "Nightmares of Mine" and apply that to your game of choice.

    I would not call Ravenloft camp, but it is a pastiche of horror.

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    1. Just FYI, most (if not all?) of Nightmares of Mine's advice ended up in GURPS Horror (and was further refined) once SJG brought in NoM author Ken Hite to do the rewrites on the 3rd and 4th editions of the book. As you say, Tim, the advice is highly applicable to any genre that's crossing over into horror.

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  8. I dunno. I kinda see the term "horror" as an atmospheric thing, rather than tied to rules.

    So, in my book, yeah. I know I've certainly tied horror elements into my AD&D games in the past.

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  9. I think the Carcosa game I'm playing in certainly counts as horror, especially survival horror. We are squishy humans trapped in a hostile environment full of things that wish us ill. We scrounge for every dagger and ration we can find and spend more time running and hiding from monsters than fighting them. There is no guarantee of survival and every day could be our last.

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  10. I guess the problem is in the fact that real horror has a depressing undertone to it. I mean, the heroes are mostly confronted to a horrible Thing against their will, they hardly stand a chance, they barely survive, but even that doesn't guarantee the Thing won't return again... Whereas in heroic fantasy the hero's destiny is to win. The darkest thing in CoC are IMHO not the cultists or the cthulhoid monsters. Not even the fact that you can't destroy Cthulhu and his friends. It's the fact that the more your character knows about the Mythos, the less Sanity they have, and are, sooner or faster, destined not to win, but to lose - by becoming mad.
    I haven't read or played Carcosa, but from what I've heard about it, this seems to be a combination of fantasy and horror. Though I'm not sure I'd like to play it...

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    1. This is where Midnight succeeds, in creating an unwinnable scenario.

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  11. I think horror should be more about atmosphere, mystery, pace, fear of the unknown, and other emotional factors, than about 'game mechanics'. Therefore,if the DM manages to convey such emotions properly, horror should be possible with any rules set.

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  12. Horror is an RP mechanic, not a game mechanic. Any game be a horror game. It's all in the presentation. It doesn't matter what the "monster" is, what matters is that the players don't know what it is until the right time, and then it has to be something they aren't quite ready for. There needs to be a suspension of dibelief, and players need to view their characters as more than numbers on a page. There needs to be a real sense of danger and peril, tinged with a bit (or a healthy dose) of hopelessness.

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    1. I disagree with this comment, at least the idea that horror is solely dictated by RP. How mechanics are flavored (and when they trigger) can do a lot to add to the tone of a game. So, sure, you can run horror using D&D, but is it optimized? I would say no.

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  13. Into the Odd is intended to be a Survival Horror game. Prolonged combat is a surefire way to die, the monsters break all the rules, and the way Saves work encourages cautious exploration and the occasional retreat. https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B6MR1KWIUR9UeUI4czl2TGhlTnM

    And certainly my own adventures for the game try to push that even further, like this one: http://soogagames.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/mini-module-rusted-vault.html

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  14. Considering some of the roots of D&D are rooted in horror (Conan stories often have elements of horror as does Clark Ashton Smith). How to get horror across in a game is how the DM sets the atmosphere and presents scenarios. The players have to be game for it too. Sure you can have a mechanic that forces a character to be scared or a HORRIFYING LOSS OF SANITY isn't really horrifying...it's just another mechanic/occasion for another kind of saving throw. The other danger is to get 90s on everyone by going "ROLE-playing NOT ROLL-playing!!!!1" on people. No thanks.

    Atmosphere, a group that is game, compelling elements conveyed with strength.

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    1. As I said above, I think that's a dismissive view of how mechanics play a role in the game. One of the issues, I think, with D&D is that you are by definition extraordinary. CoC style horror is almost always ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

      Of course, you can always run D&D as a horror game. But a game that is built for horror is always going to be a better choice.

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    2. Sure, you can have mechanics for horror, but it never really horrifies anyone. I've played plenty of horror games and campaigns (Ravenloft and CoC) and I've seen them fall flat and I've had them genuinely horrify me, but mechanics had nothing to do with it and everything to do with the atmosphere conjured whether by atmosphere, props, content, and lethality.

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    3. Being ordinary isn't horrifying. It's ordinary.

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  16. I personally think trying to run an "all horror" fantasy game is a mistake. When everything is all horror, all the time, it loses a lot of its impact. I think it's far more effective to add occasional "horror" adventures to a more standard campaign.

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    1. Absolutely. Horror is served in small doses. Otherwise it dilutes very quickly.

      Look at The Excorcist vs Hostel, for example.

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  17. OSR rulesets may not lend themselves to horror, not encourage horror, but horror is mostly about presentation. I've played in a Ravenloft module that was done well enough (by the DM) that I figuratively shit my pants with angst ridden, hopeless horror.

    D&D mechanically doesn't really suggest any certain mood. You can play it for slapstick yucks, with bone crunching brutal shock, existential horror, noble tragedy, or anything in between. That's why it supports Krynn, Oerth, The Outer Planes, Ravenloft, Fearun, and everybody's homebrews.

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  18. I don't think it's levels, you can have levels in many games that don't resemble D&D. I just consider it a form of gated advancement.
    I think it's hitpoint inflation that drives the horror down. Low level games can do horror well because you are very squishy but once you start gaining levels, there's less of a reason to run away from monsters.

    I think you can MAKE an OSR style game that's good for horror though. I think it could work out on Lamentations of the Flame Princess if you do Con = HP and halve the fighter's attack bonus.

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  19. In non-wimpy versions of D&D, you can bypass hit points with save or die attacks: poison, petrification, death spells. Energy drain doesn't even get a save! Not coincidentally, monsters with these attacks are the ones that terrify even high-level players...

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  20. Yeah, Midnight's tricky. It's something I've given substantial thought to, because it is iconic - anyone who's read Lord of the Rings can instantly grasp the premise. I've been thinking that the proper ways to run Midnight are probably either late in the Third Age as the Shadow rises (and players attempt to interfere with that rising), in the service of a heretic bishop in the Fourth Age (Dark Heresy-style), or as a guerilla delaying action for the elves in the Ice Woods (attrition, starvation, undead, orcs without number...).

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