Ash vs. Evil Dead was a fun little romp of a first season, and got me thinking about different ways to model what it (and a lot of other action horror shows/films) demonstrate: the supernatural threat can mow through cops and soldiers like grass, but comes up short dealing with initially lucky but now badass everymen. One possibility uses the ideas of Epic 6th (E6) to go even further into the realm of grittiness.

First off, make some classes that make sense for your timeframe. If you’re doing a fantasy horror game, the standard D&D/Pathfinder classes are probably fine. If you’re doing something more modern, you might need to work to update D20 Modern’s classes (or just make your own as modern interpretations of existing classes). The important guidelines are:

  • Each class you include should have interesting tradeoffs at 1st level compared to the others (e.g., more class skills vs. more HP vs. +1 BaB).
  • They should probably get some interesting unique ability at first level.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to retain the NPC Class/PC Class split, if you want to model highly-trained characters that flat out have an advantage even at 1st level.

Most people in the world reach 1st level at adulthood, and improve further by gaining more feats. Depending on how egalitarian you feel about human competence, some people may just be born with better ability scores, or ability scores may be something you can improve over time as another way to advance. But almost no one will ever reach 2nd level.

This creates a pretty interestingly constrained system space that models reality (or at least movie reality) much better than standard D20:

  • It’s virtually impossible to get an ability score over 20.
  • The grandmaster in the world of a skill has a +12 bonus before circumstance modifiers (+4 ranks, +3 skill focus, +5 ability score).
  • The toughest character in the world has 20 HP (D12 HD, +5 from Con, +3 from Toughness), so will die to a few hits from a d8 or greater weapon. Most characters have 6-10 HP (d6 or d8 HD and some Con bonus), so will usually get dropped by one, maybe two hits from a deadly weapon.
  • The biggest badass in the world with a weapon can maybe eke out +10 attack bonus in ideal circumstances (+1 BaB, +5 ability score, +1 weapon focus, +1 masterwork weapon, and a couple points of situational feat bonuses like point blank shot).

On its own, this might be a passable way to run an extremely low-powered/realistic/gritty game. If you don’t allow a feat that gives extra skill ranks, you’d probably want to allow respeccing class-granted ranks in some way. You’d probably also want some way to gradually respec ability scores and class. But, particularly if you gave out bonus feats on a regular enough schedule, and the rest of the world was clearly on the same power level, it might hold your players’ interest for a decently long time.

But it’s also a good way to run an action horror game.

Here, the premise is simple: supernatural monsters are the only source of XP that can improve your character level.

Whatever the in-narrative source of these monsters, they’re basically an out-of-context problem for the existing paradigm. They’re going to have supernatural abilities. They’re going to have multiple hit dice. They’re going to have high AC, attack, and damage relative to what’s possible for even the best of the best that are stuck at 1st level.

So surviving an encounter with one is going to be more likely if you’re a cop or a soldier, with good combat stats and feats, but it’s far from guaranteed. Against even a CR3 creature, particularly one that uses surprise attacks so soldiers can’t get organized, it’s going to be almost pure luck who survives out of a random sample of people. When the monsters hit the cross section of humanity in a department store or a diner, the survivors may just be a bunch of everymen that happened to get some lucky hits in and somehow not die.

And then they start to level up.

You’re now telling the story of a bunch of ordinary people that have become extraordinary purely by virtue of the standard D&D advancement mechanic. Who has a greater chance of taking out a nest of monsters: a team of the very best 1st level Fighters in the world, or a lucky bunch of 6th level Commoners? You don’t go to Ash Williams to solve your Deadite problem because he’s easy to work with, forward-thinking, or able to respond to tactical suggestions. You go to him because he’s the highest level character in the world, and monsters that can threaten a whole Seal Team aren’t really that much of a bother to him.

Hail to the king, baby.

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