Thursday, April 29, 2010

Researching Cthulhu - Part 1: Horror

Picking up where I left off in my formula for Icosa (Elric + Cthulhu) it's time to visit the realm of horror that is the Cthulhu Mythos. I don't know why, but I'm really attracted to the idea of marrying fantasy with horror. Maybe it makes the heroes more heroic: standing up to the terrors that leave others running home and crying for mommy.

I think the seed of this idea was first planted after reading through Monte Cook's d20 Call of Cthulhu. The last section of the book was deticated to incorporating these horrors into an existing D&D campaign. It painted a facinating image of dark Druids and evil Clerics devoted to these mad gods of cosmic Chaos. I was hooked.

Coupling Cthulhu with Elric seemed natural after reading Moorcock's eerie description of Arioch, Duke of Hell in his natural form: a roiling mass of pure Chaos that would do Shub-Niggurath proud. Perhaps Elric's Chaos Lords were simply the Mythos in another guise.

My limited experience playing Call of Cthulhu has endeared me to the Sanity mechanic used in that game. I think it does an excellent job of instilling in the player the horror that comes from knowing dark secrets that should best be left alone. This seems to be a nice counterpoint the nigh-immortal and fearless heroes of modern fantasy. It makes those that survive to tell the tale more special when compared to other adventurers.

Swords & Wizardry has no built-in mechanic to handle Sanity, but it should be easy enough to reverse engineer. S&W already has the single Saving Throw which simplifies matters: a failed save indicates Sanity loss. Sanity itself can be a composite stat made up of (Intelligence x 2) + (Wisdom x 2) + Charisma. Failure means roll as many d6's as the horror rates on a scale of 1 to 6 and subtract those points from Sanity; i.e., horror rated 3 would cause a player failing a save to roll 3d6 and subtract the total of the dice from the PC's Sanity. Successful save could still cost Sanity points on some sliding scale. The scale here will depend on how frequent these horrors will be used. Too steep and I can guarantee a high rate of madness.

The frequency of these horrors is something that I'll have to play with. I expect to run into some as the players go delving into deep dungeons; the deeper they go, the worse it gets. I will really have to see how my players dig this. I have to remind myself from time to time that the low end range age of my players is 8 to 13. I'm not out for giving them nightmares, but they claim to enjoy books like Goosebumps and American Chillers. I hope to find a happy medium.

That being said, I do like heroic adventure. Unlike Lovecraft's bleak tales of helplessness in the face of cosmic horror, I want the PCs to be the only thing that is standing between Chaos and humanity (elfity? humanoidanity?); I want them to have a chance. Where Lovecraft's protagonists were leafs before the storm, I want the PCs to be mighty oaks. With deep roots (levels) they may be able to weather the coming hurricane and act as a protective bulwark for those seeking safety behind them.

More and more this campaign seems to be about the battle between Law and Chaos and surviving said battle. Perhaps the PCs can plot their own course through these stormy, tentacle-infested waters. How will they choose sides and what impact will that have?

Here's an interesting side note on Alignment as it relates to this campaign. Since OD&D was about Law, Neutrality and Chaos, I found this great (and strangely appropriate) post thanks to Grognardia on how to run OD&D Alignment from Jeff Rients.

Thats enough Chaos for now. Time to turn in before I fail a Sanity check. Next time around I'll be looking at a staple in Lovecraftian horror: ancient books of evil.

Follow Your Bliss,

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  1. JJ,

    I really like this post as it hits on an aspect of DnD that never quite gets properly implemented, Horror.

    No matter what level the characters are they should get some 'scare' from skeletons or various other undead coming upon them. Too often the 'horrific' in DnD is overlooked due to them being stalwart heroes.

    I try and implement the concept of the Fear and Horror checks from the 3.x Ravenloft supplements.

    The first time the players meet either a scary creature (most undead) or an abomination (mind flayer), I would have them make the appropriate check and recieve the appropriate effects of the check. Each time they meet the same type of creature they might get a cummilative +2 to their saves, as they should eventually 'get used' to them but still have the slight chance that the continued exposure might just wear on them (i.e. a mid level character rolling a 1 on the save and therefore failing their check despite having multiple +2's applied).

    Think of how you and I have probably seen hundreds of depictions of skeletons (from the first Monster Manual and the Sinbad movies to the modern horror art and modern movies) yet there could be a picture/scene next week that would that would just creep us out, despite our constant exposure.

    Undead and abominations are scary because they are a coupling of things that should not be 'alive' with forces beyond what should be. Therefore wandering into one while adventuring should no be 'just another monster' but something to remember and be unwanting to meet again.

    Keep up the great posts.
    The Crazy Canucklehead

  2. @Trevor, thanks for the kind words. I like what you said about the cumulative effect for seeing them multiple times. I'm thinking I would tie that in as a +1 per occurrence, but after a certain point it might be an automatic save. In that case not rolling would save time, but I think maybe still rolling to see if they get a 1 would put that edge into the encounter. You never know if your nerves will hold out.

  3. Not in favor of another stat / "hit point" pool for sanity. I'd rather have table of afflictions/quirks/mental issues. Whenever character fails sanity save they roll on table. Thus accumulating neurosises, and slowly going (mechanically) insane. Character eventually having so many phobias, handicaps, and quirks that they are useless as adventurers and must be retired to some, nice quiet place in the country.

    Although, that is more towards the bleak than the heroic. So, proly not what you want.

  4. @Norman, I do want to keep it as simplified as possible. That said, there is something to seeing your mental strength/sanity points slowly dwindling; I think that adds a level of player anguish to the sessions.

    However, your comment did put me to thinking about if there would be any ways to restore mental strength. Perhaps only magical means. Or a good shot dwarven ale to give some liquid courage (only to be used in a more adult game, not wanting to encourage drinking for my younger players).

    Thanks for the comment.