Posts Tagged ‘horror’
The awesome Wes Schneider gathered a pretty cool array of folks at PaizoCon 2013 for a panel on horror in roleplaying games — Brandon Hodge, James Jacobs, and me. He took the audio from the 75-minute panel and made a video with visuals and notes — so it’s not just a boring video of four people talking. I’ve got that video below, and since it’s primarily audio, you can treat it like a podcast: listening to it while doing stuff in another window.
As I said yesterday, I decided to post up the two articles I wrote in Pyramid Magazine years ago.
This is from December 8, 2006.
A School Of Magick for Unknown Armies
You know the horror of the magick. It makes slaves of people, consumes them, and turns them into monsters that bring reality crashing down on the innocent. You understand their power, and use it against them. If you must become the monster to fight the monster, so be it.
For every person who is successfully brainwashed — “trained” — by an adept, there are a hundred students who “fail,” and get ditched for the next punk who might have “an open mind.” These poor souls are left battered and broken, having stared into the abyss and lost their minds, their souls. They’re left unable to function in the real world, useless to the occult underground, and have nothing to show for it but a look of disappointment and pity.
You were almost one of those. When you stared into the abyss and saw it staring back, you didn’t smile with newfound insight, nor did you cower or let yourself be consumed. You screamed “NO!” with every ounce of your being. Your mentor ditched you, but you didn’t become another victim. You stood up, recognized the horror for what it was, and lashed out.
The Unnatural is anathema. You learned how to fight it, how to stop it, but to do so you had to become it. It doesn’t matter anymore you can’t ignore what you saw or try to pretend it didn’t change you. The only alternative is to live as a broken shell. If you must become a monster to fight monsters, you’ll drag as many of them down to Hell with you as you can.
The central paradox of Countermancy is using the unnatural to stop the unnatural. You are friend and foe to the occult underground at the same time. They’re the only ones who can understand and accept you and your “curse,” but they’re also the ones you’re fighting.
Countermancy Blast Style
Countermancers (also known in the occult underground as “buzzkills”) don’t have a blast. Instead, they have an “anti-blast” — a spell that undoes the effects of a blast spell. This takes the form of a miraculous recovery when the damage isn’t obvious to an outside observer. When there is visible physical damage, then the person recovers rapidly, but not unnaturally or alarmingly so. Dead people cannot be affected by an anti-blast.
If someone is hit with a blast and anti-blast at the same time, the blast is reduced or completely neutralized. A significant anti-blast will neutralize any blast. A minor anti-blast will neutralize a minor blast and reduce a significant blast into hand-to-hand damage.
Anti-blasts cannot be done with tainted charges (see Generating Tainted Charges below).
Countermancers must pick the school their teacher attempted to pass on, which may be any school except Countermancy. This is known as their Affinity School. Record this alongside the skill name: “Magic: Countermancy (Entropomancy) 55%”.
Buzzkills also have at least two Hardened and two Failed Unnatural notches, rather than the standard one.
Generate a Minor Charge: Live the “normal” life. Every 24 hours spent without contact with magick or the Unnatural generates a minor charge for a buzzkill, as long as he is able to keep magick out of his thoughts as well. Every day that the Countermancer remains abstinent from magick and the Unnatural, the GM secretly rolls against the buzzkill’s Magick skill without flip-flopping or shifts. On a success, his inherent magick blocked the chare from forming. On a failure, he gains a charge — but he doesn’t know about it until he checks on his charges, which ruins his charge for that day. There are no additional effects for matches or critical successes or failures.
Countermancers can also gain tainted minor charges from their affinity school. See “Generating Tainted Charges.”
Generate a Significant Charge: Stop an adept from gaining a charge, disrupt a charge ritual, or force a charged-up adept to break taboo. The Countermancer does not have to be the direct cause of the disruption. He could have a dipsomancer thrown out of a bar by talking to the bouncer, instead of slapping the drink out of his hand, but he must have instigated the disruption.
The buzzkill cannot gain any more charges from the same adept during the next hour. Since the adept can still try for more charges, the wise Countermancer subdues his target or gets the Hell out of Dodge.
The biggest drawback to intervening (aside from the lethality involved in getting between an adept and his charge) is that the Countermancer cannot stage it. He must truly be stopping an adept for the sake of keeping magick at bay, not to accumulate power himself. Others may stage this and trick him into getting a charge but he must fully believe in the act.
Countermancers can also gain tainted significant charges from their affinity school. See “Generating Tainted Charges.”
Generate a Major Charge: Disrupt an adept from your affinity school from gaining a major charge, or force him to break taboo while he’s holding the charge.
Countermancers cannot gain tainted major charges from their affinity school.
Generating Tainted Charges: Buzzkills who need power in a hurry can gain minor or significant charges by following the rituals for their affinity school. This is a dangerous, desperate act. First, any non-tainted (or “clean”) charges he has are immediately lost since participating in a charge ritual breaks taboo. He cannot gain any more clean charges until he’s rid himself of all the tainted ones and spends three days away living a normal life, as if generating minor charges. Gaining a tainted charge is a deliberate act — a Countermancer of Plutomancy doesn’t get a charge everyone he receives money, only when he does so with the intent of gaining a charge.
That’s the good news. Tainted charges cause severe problems for those who utterly reject the Unnatural. The Countermancer suffers a negative shift on every stat and skill while holding the charge, -10% if only holding minor charges, -25% if holding any significant charges as him soul is rejecting the charge like a bad implant. This doesn’t end until the adept loses all the tainted charges. Because of this, these charges are unstable. When using tainted charges, they are spent every time a spell is attempted, even if the Magick roll fails.
Regardless of whether the charges he is carrying are clean or tainted, he can only fuel Countermancy spells with them.
Taboo: Countermancers have two taboos. First, they may not be a willing participant in an unnatural effect, magick spell (aside from their own Countermancy spells) or ritual. Only clean charges are lost when breaking this taboo. Buzzkills may partake in the company of adepts and their ilk without breaking the taboo (if they can stomach each other in the first place), but that’s as far as it goes.
Second — and here’s the kicker — they share the same taboo as their affinity school. There is enough of an imprint of his former teacher’s school that he is bound by those rules. This is a never-ending source of frustration for buzzkills. Breaking this taboo affects both normal and tainted charges.
Random Magick Domain: The cosmic status quo reinforcement of the Natural. Strange noises in your home? It’s just old floorboards. Get mauled by some unspeakable thing? It was just a bear, and you’re recovering a lot faster. Countermancy has no effect on avatar channels avatars are the paragons of the cosmic status quo.
Starting Charges: Newly created Countermancers start with as many charges, all clean, as new adepts in their affinity school start with.
Special Effect: If the Countermancer is holding any clean charges, an adept from his affinity school who attempts to affect his with a spell has their magick roll flip-flopped if it would make the roll fail or be less effective, even if the adept flip-flopped it already. This effect works against every spell, not just harmful ones. Only running out of charges turns this off. If the spell is suppressed, the Countermancer doesn’t know he did it, and the adept treats it like a normal spell failure.
When the buzzkill is charged (clean or tainted), adepts from his affinity school sense him as a malevolent force when they see him. Those who have dealt with Countermancers before knows what this means, though the message is clear enough to those less educated.
Countermancy Minor Formula Spells
Unlike other adepts, Countermancers rarely give their formula spells interesting or inspiring names. Some even go as far as to not name them at all, to avoid the idea that they’re actually doing something unnatural. The names below are as inspiring as most Countermancers get.
Peace and Quiet
Cost: 1 minor charge
Effect: The Countermancer can suppress a minor unnatural phenomenon or the effects of a minor artifact within visual range for a number of minutes equal to the magick roll. If the phenomenon or effect would expire by then, it does not return.
Cost: 1 minor charge
Effect: The Countermancer can cause minor charge charges to leak out of an adept by pushing one of his charges in, causing them both to cancel and disappear. He must grab the adept flesh-to-flesh and focus — not just mere casual contact or have any clothing in the way. He can only cause one charge to be lost at a time, but can continue until there are no charges left.
Soul Healing does not affect significant charges directly, but if the target doesn’t have any minor charges left, any significant charges will be converted down until there are some minor charges to lose.
This spell does not work against Countermancers with clean charges, and cannot be done using tainted charges. If the target has no charges to affect, the spell fails and the buzzkill’s charge is not lost.
But Fear Itself
Cost: 2 minor charges
Effect: The target of this spell becomes immune to Unnatural madness checks. He doesn’t suddenly become fearless, but ignores non-threatening effects (even If they are shoved right in his face) or rationalizes any dangers as mundane threats. This lasts for the sum of the dice, in minutes.
If the target also recently failed an Unnatural check, this works like Psychological First Aid (p. 69), by having the target forget the unnatural event or rationalize it as something mundane. While many people do this on their own, this spell makes that concrete.
Since the target saw the event differently than others (or blocked it out completely), he may be subject to Self or Isolation checks if confronted aggressively by other witnesses.
Cost: 2 minor charges
Effect: This is the Countermancer’s minor anti-blast. It may be used to heal damage done by a blast spell, whether the damage was done to Wound Points, Soul, or something else. The damage healed is the sum of the dice or the amount of damage done by the blast, whichever is lower. The anti-blast cannot heal anything but the damage taken from magickal blasts. It also neutralizes a minor blast thrown at the target at the same time, and turns a significant blast into hand-to-hand damage.
If the effects of the blast are not outwardly visible (like the pornomancers’ blast), the healing is instantaneous. If the effect is outwardly visible (like the epideromancers’, or any blasts that direct physical threats such as the dipsomancers’ or urbanomancers’), the wound points are gained back immediately, but the physical evidence remains, though it heals faster than normal (bruises fade and cuts heal faster, etc.).
Anti-blasts cannot be done with tainted charges.
Cost: X minor charges
Effect: Disrupt a minor spell as it’s being cast. The cost is the same as the cost of the spell being nullified, though the buzzkill only finds out the cost after the fact. If he doesn’t have enough charges to stop it, the spell goes off as normal and he doesn’t lose any charges. The target adept spends his charges, even if the spell is nullified.
Against a minor spell from his affinity school, this only costs 1 clean minor charge, regardless of the target spell’s cost.
Countermancy Significant Formula Spells
I Said Shut Up!
Cost: 1 significant charge
Effect: Like Peace and Quiet, but for significant unnatural phenomena and effects from significant artifacts. You can also use this against minor unnatural phenomena and effects from minor artifacts, for a number of hours equal to the sum of the dice.
Bring Peace Unto The People
Cost: 1 significant charge
Effect: Works as But Fear Itself, but for a group of people the Countermancer can see, up to the number the dice rolled.
Cost: 2 significant charges
Effect: The Countermancer can undo the effects of any minor spell that has already been cast, as long as he knows a spell was cast, and is either in the vicinity of where the spell effect took place or knows who the caster was. The target adept does not regain his charges. For every 10 people affected or witnessing the original spell (aside from any adepts), this costs another significant charge.
Note that the longer it has been since a spell was cast, the number of people affected by countering it increases. Practical limitations are usually around one hour for very obvious spells, a day for subtle spells that actually affected someone, to a week for information-gathering spells.
The Countermancer remembers the spell having been cast, and any events based on it, rather than the altered reality. This could result in Self or Isolation checks when dealing with people remembering the past differently.
This costs one less significant charge when used against spells from his affinity school.
That Didn’t Happen!
Cost: 2 significant charges
Effect: This is the Countermancer’s significant anti-blast. It works like the minor anti-blast, only the damage healed is equal to the dice rolled or the damage done from blasts, whichever is lower. It also neutralizes a minor or significant blast thrown at the target at the same time.
Anti-blasts cannot be done with tainted charges.
Punish the Traitors of Reality
Cost: 4 significant charges
Effect: Adepts near the Countermancer (within 33 yards) who are holding any charges take damage as the charges explode out of them. Adepts containing only minor charges suffer damage equal to the same of the buzzkill’s Magick roll, just as if hit with a minor blast. Those who are holding significant charges are affected with firearms damage, as they would be by a significant blast. The damage manifests as trauma and burns from the charges literally exploding inside their body. Bystanders near the adepts are not physically affected, though they may be shocked to see people around them suddenly convulse or die.
No one is exactly sure what happens when an adept holding a major charge is affected. Theories range from them being immune to the magical equivalent of a nuclear weapon.
Countermancers are not affected by this spell, unless they are holding tainted charges. This includes the buzzkill casting this spell, if he’s holding any taint. Adepts affected may make a Magick roll to feel something wrong with their charges, and can let them go before they’re damaged — provided they actually understand what’s going on.
Cost: X significant charges
Effect: As Minor Counterspell, but for significant spells and charges.
Countermancy Major Effects
Undo any spell. Permanently nullify any artifact or an unnatural phenomenon. Cause all practitioners of a school of magick to lose their charges. Remove an adept’s ability to do magick. Remove all the memories of an unnatural event.
- There’s a buzzkill hunting the Freak in Chicago. They’ve duked it out once, and he walked away with all his body parts in the right places. He’s got quite a few people in Chicago nervous.
- Rumor has it that there are a number of Countermancers working for the Sleepers, but they don’t do the run-of-the-mill jobs. If you’re an adept, and you kill a Sleeper, you can expect a few to hunt you down, happy to rid the world of another abomination.
- A Countermancer in Vancouver is challenging the Godwalker of the Pilgrim. Most of them don’t play the avatar game, but he’s hoping to ascend and make magick more difficult, if not impossible.
Here’s another post for the May of the Dead blog carnival put on by the Going Last Gaming Podcast. I was recently thinking about how to handle damage in a horror game. Naturally, it depends on what sort of horror game we’re talking, and I’m overly fond of Delta Greens-style games (at least when they actually respect the “horror” side of action-horror.)
In my ideal horror games, it starts by emulating Unknown Armies: the players never know how badly hurt their characters are. The GM keeps track of that secretly, which means two things:
- The players can never fully calculate the risk factor of a given moment — not just because they don’t have the numbers, but because they’re relying on the GM to tell them what they perceive due to pain, injury, etc. Which could always be better or worse than how the body actually is.
- Having the communicate through description rather than through statistics makes for better horror.
But that comes with a problem: persistence. being told an awesome bit of description won’t help with traction unless we record it — we’re not physically experiencing our characters, and another exciting thing can (and for some people with attention span disorders, certainly will) cause us to forget our character’s state.
You ever have that moment where everything is suddenly wrong because you remembered about an injury, but you’re in the thick of narrative? “Wait, you couldn’t have run up the hill, your leg was injured…shit, uh, let’s not ret-con the last 15 minutes, just remember for next time.” Yeah, that. So recording it is still to our advantage.
We can record experiences just as easily as we can record numbers, like so:
So when the rules state you’re injured, the GM determines that (see the next part) and describes what happens. You then draw it on the part of your character sheet that has a body outline. There could be space underneath that for other descriptors, like “acid burns on right arm.”
Even psychological ones like “I think I’m seeing ghosts” could be recorded, in a space underneath.
(I’m certain I’ve seen this idea — or at least parts of it — before, but I cannot recall where. Maybe the chart for Godlike? Or Deadlines?)
As for damage itself, I have this crazy and possibly unworkable idea: first of all, as with Unknown Armies, the damage is hidden. That means the GM does all damage rolls behind the screen, from and to the Threat.
People can get scared of all sorts of things if they’re only experiencing part of the story — like hearing a bunch of dice rolling, rather than just one, and wincing. That makes me want to play with disinformation in the form of making unpredictable damage:
- 2d10, pick the highest
- 5d8, take the two lowest, describe intense agony — the pain is worse than the wound
- roll 5d6. Damage: 20, regardless.
- 2d8. Describe no pain or wound, aside from a weird goo on the skin where it came into contact and some numbness
The goal isn’t to be cute, but to attempt a representation of the alien nature of what the team’s facing. If one week you’re up against something and you hear four dice rolling when it tries to eat your face, the next week you’re up against something radically different, four dice shouldn’t feel the same.
Now, I don’t know what the baseline health is, and whether I’m looking at a countdown system like HP, or some sort of wound threshold system where every X wounds, you have to make an increasingly more difficult unconsciousness/death check. I’m leaning toward the former, to keep it slim. If the latter, it’ll be something the GM does, I think. I dunno.
I would take the same approach to defining the Threat’s reaction to weapons:
- Firearms: 3d6
- Knives, etc: 2d6
- Flesh: physical contact with bare flesh is extremely violative. 4d10, keep top two. Apply same damage to attacker.
- Fire: 1. But it’s very afraid of it.
- Salt: a large amount of salt on its “skin” will immobilize the muscles around that area
This would be flexible enough to allow a GM to figure out what the hell to do with a player comes up with some different way of harming.
As part of May of the Dead blog carnival put on by the Going Last Gaming Podcast, I’m going to wax about some horror thoughts. Long-time readers know that I loves me some horror gaming and have a lot of thoughts on it. Today, I want to dive into some thoughts on a hypothetical game system: what separates lowly monsters from truly horrible beings.
What notion I’ve come to is: the scariest of monsters are those that don’t miss.
Part of horror comes from a discrepancy between the protagonists’ competency and the Threat’s. Whether that Threat is Dracula, Azathoth, a Terminator, or other sight that causes nightmares in those whom encounter it, the core is that the Threat will win in a stand-up fight.
Oh, and yes, I so want to run a horror game that is about the first Terminator movie.
But many of our games don’t reflect that, at least not strictly speaking. Games often have the Threat roll to see if it hits, and there’s a good chance that it won’t. It’s reflected in our language: “the vampire attacks!”
Let’s fold, spindle and mutilate that. This means trying some experimental stuff with our games, namely (as the title says): Don’t Roll for the Horror. Start it off not with something as wishy-washy as “attacking,” but something more concrete:
The vampire jumps on you and rips your neck open with its fangs!
Now, the reason we tend to say “attack” is because we’re inviting the potential victim to respond, in no small part because the game system gives them that privilege. But by jumping right to what the Threat seeks to do with no softening, we’re doing two things:
- We’re changing the language used to respond. Horror as a theme is partly about rebelling against that which is more powerful than you. So instead of just saying “I defend” in response,” you’re saying “No! You don’t just rip my neck open!”
- We’re saying that if the Threat doesn’t succeed, it is entirely because of the protagonist’s action.
Those are both awesome things to me. So let’s look at how to rock that structure:
- The Threat does something. Something big. It doesn’t ask. It doesn’t try. It just plain does.
- A protagonist responds to push back, drawing the line in the sand and fighting the good fight.
- The protagonist rolls for that action. And just the protagonist. Not an opposed roll setup. You know how strong or dangerous this specific moment is, so set the difficulty accordingly.
Depending on the result (and the numbers involved will vary from game to game), the following happens:
- Fail by bad enough: the Threat fully succeeds. Someone is probably dead.
- Fail by some amount: the Threat doesn’t get what it wants, but you’re hurt in the process.
- Succeed by a small amount: give-and-take. You’re hurt, but so is the Threat.
- Succeed by a large amount: a moment of reversal, when the Threat is the one hurt or driven off.
Each of these is important. If we’re saying that a Threat might just straight up kill someone, the roll has to reflect that chance. Otherwise, we’re just lying in our descriptions, and everyone at the table will see through it. Tension is dropped. And the middle two reflects the notion of partial failure & success — horror thrives not on absolute moments but on small victories and setbacks. Finally, you need to give hope in the moment, which is where the last result lives.
If we’re doing away with rolling, this means we throw out the idea that the Threat might act slower than protagonists — you know, initiative. Horrific competence means Threats push first. The only time when that might be different is if the protagonists are aware of the current situation and somehow make themselves able to get the jump on the Threat, and even then that’s about chance rather than certainty.
After all, that’s how it often works in horror fiction.
Finally, since I bought up “getting hurt”…my favorite system for damage in any horror game comes from Unknown Armies. It’s easy to die, and you never know how many hit points you or anyone else has left. The GM rolls & keeps track of stuff in secret. While normally I hate secret rolls, I like it for damage in horror. It has two things going for it: one, you don’t have absolute certainty of how far you can push your character; two, and frankly far more important, it causes the table to rely on the hurt described rather than numbers. That’s very powerful mojo, because it’s language that makes a horror game really pop.
Again, this is about an idea of a new game system, but it wouldn’t take much to try some of these ideas in an existing one, as long as the game can support horror beats.
A word of note: this setup doesn’t do action-horror — at least, if it’s the sort of “action-horror” that is more action than horror. Which most are; it’s a fun subversion of classic horror construction, where competency is more at parity even if vulnerability is still vastly not.
To be fair, it’s not entirely hypothetical to me. I have notes about using this idea for a game system that uses my Emerging Threats Unit campaign frame, but it’s far from primetime.
It should be noted that I’m a huge fan of horror games, and that I’m always working on one. Last night, I got to meet & talk with the fantastic Morgan Dempsey about horror movies & video games. We talked about The Orphanage, Alien, Aliens, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame 2, and others. One of the bits we talked about is how the camera work heightens tension & anxiety, challenges hope, and gives the viewer the sense of characters being watch. (Which, in good horror, makes us feel like we’re being watched.)
Role-playing games used to do this, and then some of the current fashions of gaming, particularly in indieland, went away from this. Namely:
- Die rolls should be out in the open
- Failure should be interesting and move the story forward
While those are fucking great ideas to put into most games, they inadvertently weaken the horror game. And I’m not talking about games that engage horror tropes without its themes, like Monsterhearts (which is not a slam against it, since it’s not emulating a horror story but a damaged supernatural teen romance one, and does it well), but an honest-to-fuck scary, anxious, terrifying game.
Let’s go back the camera work. That’s such a huge element of visual horror media, and it’s not something that RPGs can emulate well.
Or is it…
You remember the old-school trick of “roll notice” and saying nothing if people failed? That created the sense of “did we miss something?” and “are we about to get our faces eaten?” You ever watch how people react in those situations, where suddenly the tone of play changes because there is a sense of impeding doom?
That’s our version of camera work. So let’s unpack what’s similar.
Being watched isn’t just about the feeling of impending doom. It’s also the feeling of knowing you’re missing crucial, immediate information. In horror, camera placement that shows, say, the Alien stalking the humans shows you that the humans are missing that crucial information, and you so dearly want to tell them to run or turn the fuck around and fire. Or jarring camera placement that suggests stalking without revealing the stalker gives the viewer a sense that there’s information somewhere they can’t quite see, again achieving the same effect.
What’s important is that the viewer either knows or believes that there’s missing information. It’s not just that there is the lack, but that the lack is felt. It’s made tangible in our minds. That’s key. The dread of knowing that you don’t know, the loss of confidence — all those are hallmarks of horror.
This is why I love that Unknown Armies hides hit points. The idea of hiding notice rolls is also interesting (as long as it’s not a long mechanical beat). Hide all damage rolls, and rely on the GM to describe what that damage looks like — the unreliable narrator element can also play here.
By the players knowing that there is something going on but the information is not guaranteed, we can create a sense of being watched and truly dealing with the unknown. So my horror games will involve these elements — but new takes on them, to see if we can’t make them shine a bit more. It may not be what’s in fashion right now, but those are the right choices for the genre I cherish.
 Once Mythender’s done, I’ll pitch the Emerging Threats Unit game that I started to attempt as a Fate game some time ago. It’ll likely be its own system, and that’s why I keep tweeting about Delta Green stuff.
 At the time of this posting, there’re twelve hours left on its IndieGoGo campaign. Check it out!
 The horror game and the mystery game are kissing cousins, as they’re both when done well very tight information games. And that’s why some Call of Cthulhu games fall flat, because the information is already loose if you’re dealing with Mythos elements that everyone knows about.
 Though, I’m jumping onto a tangent here by talking about hidden damage rolls. Something for later.