My first exposure to horror role-playing was a write-up in Dragon Magazine back in the early 90’s. The review was for Chaosium’s newest edition of Call of Cthulhu. The author described characters “having the life-span of gnats” which I found intriguing, so I learned about Lovecraft in a sort of backwards kind of way. Call of Cthulhu first, then the books.
Running my first game was surprisingly successful, but that had almost nothing to do with me. We were in my friend’s old decrepit house in a bad part of town. It was midnight, his folks nowhere to be seen, and the place was known to have rats that would occasionally make an appearance in the wee hours. It was a good place to try our first horror RPG, though we had more to worry about from real life threats than from Nyarlathotep.
Some players were into the historical element of Cthulhu, set in the 1920’s, and some into the general adventure, but all in a way that was no more engaged than any other RPG, meaning there was chatter, snacking, and thumbing through magazines mixed in with our gaming. As a clawing came from the other side of a boarded up window in our game, I reached down and scratched at the bottom of the table, so that my players couldn’t see what I was doing, but heard the noise. Suddenly, everyone was alert, and nervous! Magazines were set aside, snacks back on the table. One player started sweating. Steve went to check the locks on the door. I was amazed at how that focused the game and brought suspense to the table. The game was a success, and largely because of this small thing that made the game more present.
I cannot claim to be a master of horror role-playing, and would love to see the input of our fans on this particular issue, but I have learned to pick up a few things since those first days
- Know your rules or be prepared to fake it – Nothing will limit the impact of a creepy situation like stopping the momentum and looking up the rules of the game, or fumbling documents and stats. It’s just good storytelling to be able to keep the game flowing. Any time the players can separate themselves from the events or what’s going on with their character, you lose the feel that is so important to the success of this specific genre of game. Better to take your best guess and roll with it.
- Know your adventure – This goes somewhat to fumbling, but players in a horror game will go in directions you probably won’t see coming because in some ways, many horror stories have been considered by players before, and a pragmatic, unheroic response to those scenarios might be the one the player chooses. Characters in these games are often everyday kinds of people, and everyday people aren’t heroic all the time. Knowing your adventure will help you to be able to respond more freely and improvise more quickly when players go in unexpected directions.
- Props – Any Call of Cthulhu fan will know that props are key items that are really emphasized in a number of Chaosium materials, like their award winning Horror on the Orient Express box set.. These are part of breaking the wall and bringing the characters and players into the world of the horrific events. But, moreover, these games are usually not combat games. These are games that reward thinking, deduction, and observation. The combat character, if there even is one, is usually the dead weight. Props allow the player to focus on details, and enjoy the gathering of information beyond the rolling of dice to determine success or failure.
- Access the senses – Many games can rely on the verbal imagery to convey the message and be enjoyed, but in eliciting a more visceral response to a game, deviating from the expected can place that player on the edge of their seat. My simple example of the unexplained scratching noises is one, but using lighting effects (like lighting your room with just a candle for parts of your story where the characters travel in darkness), or apps with sound effects such as Syrinscape might bring a new level of engagement to your game. By way of a great example, our GM played this for us when we tried out Fantasy Flight’s End of the World system. I have never been more haunted and focused than after hearing this message.
- Music – Good music can really shift the feeling in a game, especially if coordinated well. It may be necessary to groom your playlists. I’ve been using a playlist from Spotify, wherein some particularly good Lovecraftian mixes, but a ‘Creepy’ play list might be just what the doctor ordered for your highly creepy campaigns.
- Go with what creeps you out – I know what makes my skin crawl. I try to access that part of my mind when running these games, then leak bits and pieces. Not everything has to make sense or be explained, but avoid contradictions or red herrings. Little things can be the most haunting: Exploring the suspects home to find a personal item from the investigator’s bedroom or a lock of their hair; a glimpse of someone watching the investigator and the discovery of a lengthy surveillance (cigarette butts in the yard, photographs, etc.); dead animals appearing in their yard inexplicably; phone calls with quiet breathing on the other end.
- Less is more: A great GM once said “Things are always scarier when you keep them behind the curtain, just giving a little peek or a hint as to what lies beyond. Show them the monster in the light of day, and it’s just a guy in a rubber suit.” You’re always better to keep things out of the direct line of sight if at all possible. If at the last moment they have to see the guy in the suit to wrap it up, so be it, but if your players are finally relieved to see Cthulhu’s face, then it’s Mission Accomplished as a GM..
Finally, realize that horror role playing is not for every type of group. It may not be the kind of game you can play with your dungeon crawling axe-potato group of murder hobos. But, with the right group, you can access all that is rewarding about the horror genre. While these tips are helpful, there are probably numerous tips our readers could share, or great stories to be told. I invite those of you who do to share them with us, and let us know what keeps you up at night from your favorite horror RPG.
I have said this before and will no doubt say this again: but one of the very best things about the Dungeon Crawl Classics community, something I see in absolutely no other game system, is the creativity of the fans and player base. As a whole and as individuals, the members of the community have created some amazing add-ons to the basic game.
One of my few issues with the DCC Core Rulebook is that the patrons section is very light. There’s full write-ups for three patrons, a few that are a little more fleshed out and some only have very basic information. This was a great opportunity for the community to step up and pitch in with some additional patrons to fill any perceived voids in your games.
Two of my favorites are Myassari, The Patron of Birth and Decay and Urhatta the Worldwalker.
Myassari is a harpy-countenanced being with a penchant for the passage of time and the secrets of the flame. One of the best spells I’ve seen is a patron spell from Myassari called “Healing Womb” — with a high enough roll, your target can be enveloped in a “fleshy amniotic sack” in which your targets can be healed… with some side effects, of course. Who wouldn’t want that? Written by Clinty Bohaty and Julian Bernick with art by Trevor Hartman from Order of the Quill, the PDF is available for download at RPG Now.
Urhatta was written by Eric Hoffman at Stormlord Publishing, and is currently available as a free download direct from their site. A “time-traveling, space-warping, energy breathing patron” — Urhatta is described as an ancient and powerful djinn who exists in several dimensions and timelines simultaneously. All of the patron spells are great, but the Invoke Patron results are really spectacular. I would have loved some artwork to go along with the great patron write-up. Maybe we could get that an option in a future Kickstarter?
Both of these patrons have concerns with time and with space and with energy… but they couldn’t be more different. While both would fit in any DCC (or MCC?) scenario or campaign: I can definitely see Urhatta striding the space lanes as the patron of a futuristic broken world crawler or of mutated wizard-warrior in a forgotten city, whereas I see Myassari more as the secret patron of an old blind witch deep in the Shudder Mountains or of a trio of flame-haired hags.
Check them both out for yourself and let us know in the comments what you think. Have some more patrons we haven’t seen yet? Let us know that as well. I have plenty of space left in my Zine Vaults!
In honor of the Pathfinder Society Organized Play’s new Year of the Serpent season and the Occult Adventures sourcebook (READ OUR REVIEW!), here are some snake-themed characters ready to download and play. Yes, Year of the Serpent refers to the Aspis Consortium, but would it not be interesting to showcase a race that does not get as much publicity as others and in a different way? All of these characters are nagaji and of a class from Occult Adventures with one archetype each. They may not be overly optimized, but they’ll be fun to play! Enjoy!
Here they are:
- Ganjas Wataris – Hydrokineticist (Overwhelming Soul): Claiming the direct lineage of a water naga, she commands water as easily as other creatures breathe.
- Kasile Ecdyss – Medium (Reanimated Medium): As a murdered ex-gladiator, he struggles to keep his (almost) lost spirit in check.
- Cawbra – Mesmerist (Vexing Daredevil): Whether or not in battle, the sly and hypnotic Cawbra uses his snake-charming abilities less worthy creatures.
- Spragor Greysnake – Occultist (Battle Host): Bonded with the ancient samurai armor of a great warrior, he feels compelled to continue in the footsteps of its previous owner.
- Maraguar the Mutate – Psychic (Mutation Mind): After experimenting with chemicals infused with naga scales, he finds his mind and body reacting unpredictably to the aberrant psychic energies coursing through his blood.
- Sakara – Spiritualist (Fractured Mind): Dedicated to his people, Sakora’s psyche seems to have split into two, constantly competing with itself to reach new heights and do the right thing.
In October and November of 2014, Paizo conducted a playtest of six new classes all themed of the occult. During the playtest, players were encouraged to test and report all of the things they encountered and ways to help the classes improve. The playtest was then closed and players started the speculation about how the final product would turn out.
Fast forward to the release of Occult Adventures at GenCon 2015. People are estactic. The book is beautiful and fully loaded with everything needed to introduce the psychic and occult into players’ campaigns. Between the new classes, their archetypes, archetypes for existing classes, feats, equipment and psychic magic, this book has it all. All of this is new and it does not feel like a rehash or reskinning of established material. Combined with Pathfinder Unchained released a few months ago, Paizo is hitting on all cylinders and is putting out some quality books.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty and look at what is really important – the classes. We will take a look at what we saw in the playtest, what was changed and what we can expect from these classes in players’ hands. This may be a long article this week, but there are some interesting tidbits in there (and, of course, characters at the end).
Kineticist – Playtest Review
Quick Description: “With a connection to the elements, a kineticist can bring forth energy in the form of kinetic blasts. Instead of casting psychic spells, the kineticist uses unique psychic spell-like abilities called wild talents to manipulate elemental energy and matter.” – Occult Adventures, page 10
Final Changes: This class got the most attention out of all the occult classes. The appeal and nuances of this type of genre is popular and will drive this class for quite some time. Being able to understand, use and apply ‘burn’ will be one of the challenges of this class as will the amount of material this class encompasses. There are 20 pages devoted to this class (24 if you count the archetypes) and there is simply a lot to cull through to get what you want. Understanding the different types of blasts and how they are delivered remain the same with an added bonus of full damage to swarms creeping in there. This class looks like a lot of fun and with the right group, you could have campaigns builts around these types of characters.
Archetypes and Feats: The archetypes for the kineticist are interesting with the Elemental Aescetic (monk-like kineticist), Kinetic Chirurgeon (healing kineticist) and Overwhelming Soul (replaces constitution with charisma as the kineticist’s key ability) leading the way. The Overwhelming Soul will definitely see the most play since so many of the races that players enjoy have charisma bonuses.
As for feats, notable ones includes Parting Blast, giving a character a heroic, self-sacrificing death, and Delay Blast, sort of a I’m-over-here-but-I-hit-you-from-over-there trick.
4 out of 5 Rating: The concerns from the playtest (one-trick pony) are still there and even with feats and archetypes available, it just does not bump it up to a five.
Medium – Playtest Review
Quick Description: “By contacting spirits in places of power, the medium allows the personalities of legendary heroes to overcome his own, vastly changing his abilities and spells. He holds seances to benefit himself and his allies.” – Occult Adventures, page 10
Final Changes: This class was almost totally rebuilt. It is less confusing and much more interesting. Like in the playtest, the medium is very versatile and can take on any role with little preparation, but the spirits are much simpler. The medium channels entities not from the alignment axis (good/neutral/evil/chaotic/lawful) but from legendary spirits from the Astral Plane. The bonuses a medium receives from the spirits are thematically on point and the versatility is unparalleled. Even spell progression improves when certain spirits are selectd. The only confusion with this class may come from the influences and taboos that each spirit impart on the medium.
Archetypes and Feats: The archetypes of the medium are some of the best out of the entire book with all of them actually being used by someone. The Kami Medium gives an oriental flare to the class while the Spirit Dancer lends a Varisian (or gypsy) theme to the medium. Only the Spirit Focus is noteworthy; it adds +1 to the spirit bonus for a specific type of spirit.
4 out of 5 Rating: This is a complete turn around from the playtest. This version is so much simpler, yet versatile. This was a huge improvement and a great find in this book!
Mesmerist – Playtest Review
Quick Description: ” A mesmerist’s piercing stare lets him insinuate himself into other people’s minds. A master of enchanement and illusion, the mesmerist controls and influences the behavior of others.” – Occult Adventures, page 10
Final Changes: Still the consummate ‘face’ of the party, the mesmerist excels in this role. Still able to stare down its enemies and implant ‘tricks’ into party members, granting them protections and abilities. The mesmerists stare abilities are impressive, but lacking. There is some versatility where the mesmerist provides temporary hit points as healing, but when dealing with something without a mind, he is useless. At that point he must rely on ‘tricks’ to boost himself or party members and just try to survive. On the plus side, the mesmerist does have the capability to get Improved and Greater Feint without the Combat Expertise and intelligence score of 13 prerequisite. Mesmerists are tricky guys and gals.
Archetypes and Feats: The only two archetypes meaningful to the mesmerist are the Spirit Walker (who can actually affect the minds of the mind-less undead) and the Vexing Daredevil (a combat feinting mesmerist). Feats that work for the mesmerist include those that give more ‘tricks’ per day or add more effects onto their stares.
3 out of 5 Rating: This class is lackluster. Even from the playtest, the mesmerist had problems and they were not addressed fully. Players will have to find alternative ways to deal with ‘mindless’ problems.
Occultist – Playtest Review
Quick Description: “To make use of his powers, an occultist channels psychic energy into a varied collection of antiques and mementos with storied pasts. Every type of implement allows him to use a different school of magic.” – Occult Adventures, page 10
Final Changes: Was a fan of this class already, now even more. The spell lists were fleshed out and implements available for use were expanded. Other changes include being able to use mental focus without being afraid of losing power in an implement. During the playtest, players would not use mental focus because, when empty, it would cease functionality. Now the focus is placed and keeps the charge even if you use the mental focus to power other abilities. The only real problem now will be action economy. Using standard actions to activate abilities (like legendary weapon or aegis) take time from combat and keep them out of the fight a little longer.
Archetypes and Feats: Occultist archetypes and feats are actually the most lackluster element of the class. Honestly, they do not add much to the dynamics of the class. The best is Battle Host because it makes an excellent combatant and only one implement is needed, but the problem is that it is a masterwork weapon/armor/shield. You get this item for free at first level and youcan upgrade it as need be. Masterwork fullplate at level one, anyone? Granted you are stuck with it permanently, but still.
5 out of 5 Rating: The occultist wins. It does pretty much everything from the playtest and more. It has the versatility and the power to effect the outcome of any situation, even with action economy being low.
Psychic – Playtest Review
Quick Description: “With her incredibly potent mind, the psychic can cast spells that are more powerful than those members of any other occult class. She accesses these spells though a specific discipline, and can bend and amplify psychic spells as she casts them.” – Occult Adventures, page 10
Final Changes: The psychic has arrived! Pure psychic power is on the table and it tastes good. The final product is excellent. The spells are there and there are more disciplines. Once you master how psychic magic works (undercasting and such), this is probably the most powerful class in this book. Just make sure you choose the ‘Will of the Dead’ phrenic amplification as soon as possible so that you can affect mindless undead with mind-affecting spells.
Archetypes and Feats: Unfortunately, the archetypes do not do this class justice. Period. With the different spells and disciplines, they are not really needed. The different psychic and chakra feats are very, very interesting, but that is another article entirely.
4 out of 5 Rating: This class came a long way from the bare-bones playtest version. It is so much better, but something there is still lacking. It just just cannot get to five yet.
Spiritualist – Playtest Review
Quick Description: “Attuned to the spirits of the dead, a spiritualist forms a bond with a phantom – a returned spirit that has unfinished business but did not become undead. This spectral ally can alternate between forms, emerging from the safety of the spiritualist’s mind to take on an incorporeal form or an ectoplasmic body.” – Occult Adventures, page 10
Final Changes: There are so many similarities between the playtest and final versions of the spiritualist that it may as well be the same. The class has many of the same capabilities as before and could have been released on its own not as a playtest. More spells and phantom emotional foci have completely rounded out this class and it is now one of the best in the book. Expect to see level dips in this class, especially for the Dedication focus. While in the spiritualist’s consciousness, the phantom grants Skill Focus to Diplomacy and Sense Motive and Iron Will to the master. A single dip right there is a total of 10 skill points, +2 to Fortitude save and +4 to Will saves. And you have a sometimes-incorporeal creature that can run errands for you (scout, etc.). GMs will have their hands full with this class. It can definitely take over a game and utterly break it.
Archetypes and Feats: Sad to say that the archetypes are not super-exciting, but the Onmyoji does stand out for flavor (oriental) and spellcasting (divine instead of psychic). Feats are very close to the same feats that are available to summoners.
4 out of 5 Rating: Care has been given to this class and it is very well done. Power creep is the only problem that I see slowing rearing its ugly head.
Other Class Archetypes
Included in Occult Adventures are archetypes, cavalier orders, bloodlines and patrons for the other established classes. There are several very interesting ones to note: Promethean Alchemist (alchemist that brings a homunculus to life), Ghost Rider (cavalier with a spectral mount), Esoteric (tattooed magus monks), Mindblade (magus that forms weapons from psychic energy) and the Psychic Sorcerer Bloodline. Some of these archetypes and bloodlines convert to psychic magic. Remember that characters use thought and emotion instead of verbal and somantic components and there are inherent advantages to this magic (cast while grappled, etc.).
Stay tuned for tomorrow when a group of Occult Adventures playable characters appear. This time they aren’t dwarves…
2015’s Gen Con En World RPG Awards, or “ENnies”, should really be called the “Year of the Dragon”. Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition product line won 13 Gold and 2 Silver ENnies (out of 23 available). Of those Gold ENnies, they won the prestigious Fan’s Choice for Best Publisher and Product of the Year for the D&D Player’s Handbook. WizKids also picked up two Gold ENnies for their D&D related miniature products. The Dungeons & Dragons products line dominated the RPG world this past year and the awards show that players really liked what they got. It looks like D&D is back on track to become a force in the RPG world once again.
Last year saw Monte Cook Games versus Paizo, Inc., battling it out for RPG domination. This year Monte Cook Games won a Gold and 3 Silver ENnies while Paizo, Inc. won 3 Silver ENnies, with one being Fan’s Choice for Best Publisher. With Wizards of the Coast releasing their products at a brisk pace this last year, MCG and Paizo were simply overrun by sheer numbers. It will be interesting to see what next year holds between the three. What products will MCG or Paizo deliver that will push them over the top and dethrone Wizards from their 2015 throne? We’ll have to see.
Other notable ENnie awards were Best Software won by roll20 for the third year in a row with Lone Wolf Development’s HeroLab and Realms Works taking Silver for two of those years. Another big winner this year was Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ A Red & Pleasant Land. This hardcover won two Golds (Best Writing, Best Setting) and two Silvers (Best Adventure, Product of the Year) and gets praise for its versatility, setting and the art; definitively a book to check out.
Well, until next year!