Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Can D20 / OGL / OSR Be Used for an Effective Horror Campaign?

I know its the day after Halloween - so shoot me!

The thing is, I was thinking of effective horror gaming and it occurred to me that is hard to accomplish using most of the D20 / OGL / OSR rules.

Here's my reasoning: D20 is based on level. Skills and Hit Points increase with each level. Higher level characters by nature of the rules have less to fear. That is why Ravenloft never really satisfied my taste for "Horror Gaming". It felt almost campy. My players were never really afraid, at least not more so than in any other level appropriate adventure. Annoyed maybe that they were yoked to the Demi-Plane of dread, but scared? Nope.

Call of Cthulhu and such are skill based. There's no bucket of Hit Points to save your ass. A more skilled investigator may have a few tricks to pull out of his hat, but it's still very easy to die within the framework of the rules. Also, CoC is less geared to campaign play, which assumes some character survival to move the plot along.

D20 / OGL may be able to do effective horror at low levels, but even in a game like LotFP Weird Fantasy, higher levels will by nature of the rules be less scary.

Can D20 / OGL do an effective Horror Campaign? I'm leaning heavily on the side that the game is built against it, but maybe some of you can or have prove(d) me wrong.


  1. Sure you can. Extremely simple house rules can fix any issues you might have. Critical hit rules temper the impact high HP numbers have on the game, and the sanity mechanic from CoC can pretty much be borrowed wholesale.

    As for the rules as written, I can't say, as i use S&W White Box, which can't really be played strictly as written.

  2. Heh. S&W Whitebox is fun to houserule.

    Hmmm... probably could steal that from Monte's D20 CoC, but I'm still not sure D20 can do the job that skill based systems do better.

    D20 works well for heroic fantasy, less well for horror fantasy.

  3. Horror can certainly be done with OSR/D20 and related rules. It's been done many times.

  4. Monte Cook's CoC was something I dearly regret not buying. The magic system was pretty rad and the spells were nuts.

  5. Can it be done effectively at higher levels though? Once PCs hit 5th level, the bucket of HPs and the major spells start to turn PCs into heroes.

    I think at lower levels it can work fine... the higher you go in levels, the less effective horror is in the OGL

  6. One key thing is to keep characters fragile, so if you dump the hit point increase with level, that should go a long way.

    You can still have skills and other abilities increase with experience -- they increase in Call of Cthulhu too -- but as long as characters still have about ten hit points, they'll still have much to fear.

    You might have to figure out some sort of change to the experience rules depending on what kind of feel you want to go for. Experience for gold might not be the best fit for a horror game, but something like experience-per-hit-die-of-creatures-fled-from might be genre appropriate.

  7. I'm inclined to think that high-level D&D-style rules don't really work well for horror settings.

    A big part of horror scenarios is that the protagonists are facing things they are not prepared for. This goes beyond "OMG that's tough" (higher level than us) and into "WTF do I *do*?!" (it can do things we can't obviously deal with -- in the base materials it's often not possible to kill the horror, just make it go away for a time).

    High-level D&D gives you lots of tools (personal abilities, spells, and so on) to deal with many situations, and it gives you lots of hard-to-kill (hit points, plus high defenses to protect them).

    If I wanted to run a horror game using D&D-based rules, I would probably start with the following:

    * keep it low level

    * if not low level, at least low hit points (even as simply as 'everyone has half the normal hit points', or a vitality and wounds deal)

    * limit magic -- availability of magic items, and certainly of spells

    * probably make some high-level spells available at 'inappropriate' levels (yes, you can (try to) cast planar ally, but don't count on it working for you, and it'll probably cost you something you'd really rather not pay)

    * include a fair number of bad vs. worse choices (such as for planar ally, above)

    ... off the top of my head. The idea here is to limit the players' options between Do Not Want and Must Not, strip them of 'good options', leave them vulnerable to harm.

    I'll be honest, I don't really like to be involved in horror games, for the simple reason that I think for them to work, you have to horrify your players. "You watch as it gloms onto your best friend and eats his head. Roll d10 SAN damage" doesn't do anything for me or my players, it's not horrifying at all ("whee! I'm insane now, fun times!", rules that let you go off the rails can be fun, to these guys). To really work I think you need to build a true sense of dread, and to do that you have to mess with your players... something I don't want to do because it is messing with my players.

  8. Hit points are only one mechanic in the game and high HP doesn't really help against a lot of magic spells, traps, level draining undead, etc.

  9. Physical challenge is only one dimension of a horror game, the most shallow, and even high level characters can be challenged by things that are overpowered or don't attack the hit points of the character (age effects, level drain, save or die).

    But horror is all about presentation, and it's easy to spike tension for short periods of time and create horror moments.

    Psychological and ethical horror is another matter, and also doesn't depend on the power level of the characters.

    Horror is certainly easier with fragile characters, as simple physical threats are simple to implement, but it's not the only way.

  10. Yes. And I have done it a lot.

    I like Spellcraft & Swordplay for grittier horror. Not so much Lovecraft or even the Gothic Traditions, but more along the lines of Dark Fantasy.

    I have used D&D 3.x plenty of times for horror as well. It doesn't matter how powerful the characters are because horror is more about tone and setting. IN FACT sometimes the most powerful characters become the easiest to scare since they do have so much power and still can't do anything to stop what is happening.

    I have played horror games where a 1st level halfling cleric successfully kept a high level lich at bay through nothing more than her desire to protect another and other games where 16-18th level characters were unable to defeat a simple poltergeist.

    Power isn't everything.

  11. Alter the nature of damage a little and lot's of HP in D&D aren't' as big a deal.
    Say any blow of 10 or 20 points is a gushing wound where hp keep pumping away until first aid is applied and HP aren't as big a safety net.

    D20 has massive damage rules already but they essentially turn combat into "your hit, make a save or die" which gets boring after a while.

    Fear and stress could inflict damage. Certainly so if they are supposed to be abstract.

    There's lots of room to make HP not as big a deal in the game.

  12. d20 System doesn't fit to horror at all.

    If you wanna make it fit, you should only twist it in an unnatural way.. turning it into something totally different, like GRR did with T20-base Mutants&Masterminds for superheroes.

  13. christian said...

    Monte Cook's CoC was something I dearly regret not buying. The magic system was pretty rad and the spells were nuts.

    d20 Call of Cthulhu is a great product. While I think I'd stick with my 5th ed. BRP rules for running a CoC campaign, the adaptation of the classic game to the d20 engine was wonderfully done and very true to the spirit of the game. The section on GM-ing Horror & the Mythos is excellent reading, regardless of system.


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