D&D 5e: Fear and Horror Checks

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Clearly what the world needs is another fear/horror system for D&D. This one popped into my head thinking about Ravenloft.

In general, my current thinking on fear systems in games is that being afraid should be a penalty to action as an incentive to flee, but should not take away control of the PC and force particular actions. The Frightened condition in 5e, while a useful shorthand that I’ve used for this system, may be a little too far on the forcing action side since it prevents approaching the source of fear, but I think it’s workable with the attached horror subsystem.

Fear

Certain terrifying creatures (and some scary/horrifying situations) inspire Fear by being encountered. Upon seeing (or otherwise becoming aware of) the creature/source, all encountering characters must make a Fear save. The DC is equal to 10 + the creature’s CR (for games where fear is a very real difficulty) or half that total (for games where fear is more of an occasional issue). Non-creature situations should have an equivalent scale.

A Fear save is made as the player’s choice of an Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma saving throw based on chosen tactic:

  • Denial (Intelligence): You rationalize or compartmentalize the worst aspects of the creature, using sheer brainpower to imagine the threat as something less terrifying. This tactic is the best choice (of several bad choices) for truly unnatural creatures (like aberrations) and horrors from beyond, and grants advantage in those situations.
  • Perspective (Wisdom): You think of how big the world is and how, in the grand scheme of things, the creature is just another thing to encounter, no different than any other threat. This tactic is the best choice for supernatural (but not unnatural) creatures (like fiends, fey, and undead) and divine situations, and grants advantage in those situations. (If your world’s cosmology suggests that undead aren’t created by the divine for some reason, they may fall better under Denial).
  • Courage (Charisma): You just decide that fear is not an option, and muscle through based on sheer force of will. This tactic is the best choice for natural creatures (like monstrosities and dragons) that are just scary due to their ability to inflict serious pain, as well as more natural sources of horror (such as grisly murders), and grants advantage in those situations.

If the Fear save is failed, the character suffers the Frightened condition toward the trigger until the creature is killed, a point of Horror is accepted (see below), or the situation is escaped and everyone has a chance to cool off (which may require a short rest, at the GM’s option).

Characters may take a point of Horror as a free action to override the Frightened condition (taking long term mental trauma to overcome short term inability to act). By taking a point of Horror, the character is not subject to making additional Fear saves against the trigger or the same type of creature until the next sunset.

Characters can choose any tactic for the situation (but may not truly know whether it’s natural, supernatural, or unnatural before rolling), but likely use their highest save as their preferred tactic.

Horror

Characters gain Horror by overcoming Frightened (as described above) and by suffering a Horror trigger.

Common Horror triggers are:

  • Domination (Intelligence, Wisdom): For the strongest minds, losing control of one’s own mental processes is the most horrifying situation. Whenever you suffer the Charmed condition or are otherwise unable to act on your own volition due to mental compulsions, take a point of Horror.
  • Mutation (Charisma, Constitution): For those possessed of great beauty and health, horrors of the body can strike deepest. Whenever you suffer the Poisoned condition for a minute or longer, a disease for a week or longer, or are subjected to unwelcome polymorph or other shapeshifting effects, take a point of Horror. (Only one point of Horror for one poison or disease, even if it is ongoing for quite some time.)
  • Restraint (Dexterity, Strength): For those used to relying on their strength and mobility, being trapped is a profound phobia. Whenever you suffer the Paralyzed, Petrified, or Restrained condition (with nothing you can do through your own physical means to try to free yourself), take a point of Horror.

GMs may choose to define other phobias as additional Horror triggers. At the GM’s option, players may choose to remove a point of Horror by taking a new permanent Horror trigger. It is up to the GM whether all PCs start with one Horror trigger, or only gain them in play (which will usually require failing enough Fear saves to start needing to remove Horror points). It’s also up to the GM whether mental therapy in downtime can remove triggers.

For the most basic way to implement this system, Horror points are equivalent to levels of Exhaustion (and stack with them). At the GM’s option, a separate Horror track that works similar to Exhaustion may be created.

Heavily Networked Player Characters

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As cellular networking improves, the ability to tell certain types of story become harder and harder, approaching impossibility.

Horror movies made in the last decade almost always need to justify that their protagonists have no signal, and that’s going to become an increasingly unlikely scenario. How often have you had no signal lately, compared with even five years ago? For modern games, you already have to explain a signal dead zone because it’s very unusual. For games set in the near future, the networks are only going to get more and more extensive (and, if mesh networks ever come into vogue, everyone’s a chain to the nearest node).

Occult and other weird mystery stories have a similar problem: everyone has a camera to put secrets on the internet, and everyone has a smart phone to pull them back off again. It’s particularly problematic if you want to build your story on real-world inspirations; your players only need a few points of reference to find all of the online resources you used to build the mystery, and telling them the Wikipedia page they’re looking at doesn’t exist in the game world stretches credulity.

Assuming you want to continue running modern games and/or futuristic games not set after an information apocalypse, how to you handle this prevalence?

A wizard did it

The go-to explanation that I see the most often is interference in technology caused by the mystical. Weird shit causes signal dead zones and extra dimensional beings can’t be recorded or even described electronically. This is hard to do well for a few reasons.

First, it means that you have to integrate this trait throughout your world building. It’s generally considered cheating if your magical beings can use technology perfectly well when they want to, but then deny it to the player characters whenever necessary. And not every game about the occult wants the monsters to be like Dresden Files wizards, forever blowing up any high tech they try to use.

Second, unless you are an IT professional, you’re probably not going to close all the loopholes your players come up with. Maybe it’s just because I’ve regularly had at least one programmer or network engineer at my table for the last several years, but I’ve grown accustomed to never satisfying them with a simple block. Saying that something technological doesn’t work correctly simply opens you up to a series of increasingly complex steps to route around the problem that they would use should they encounter something like it at work, many of which you won’t even have realized were possible or have any way to adjudicate.

Third, the natural response to the previous is a blanket, “it just doesn’t work, okay?” This tends to piss the programmers right off (unless it can be pointed out that their characters have less computer knowledge than they do, so they should have put more points into it). But even in the simplest denial, you tend to shake faith in the world. Players are becoming more and more complacent with information solutions to real world problems, and denying them in game sometimes stymies rather than inspires creativity. Technology not working the way we expect it to is already an out-of-context problem for tech junkies, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on. If Googling doesn’t work, what do you do next? If it prevents an online search, is an electronic search for a dead tree book at the library going to work better?

Finally, frequently jamming technology might be more of a survival risk. A group of secretive beings that regularly causes cellular outages is eventually going to have their secrecy blown wide open by something as innocuous as a crew of telecom employees trying to figure out why their customers keep complaining about roving dead zones. That’s awesome if your protagonists are those telecom employees, but maybe not so much for other campaigns. And your IT-savvy players will try to use any “rules” you put in place to their advantage in detecting threats.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Perhaps a more plausible solution, given all the governmental wiretapping revelations, is that networking always works, but you might not want it to. While shadowy conspiracies with a back door into various telecoms can’t necessarily destroy information on the internet, they can potentially be alerted to people looking for it.

This mode relies on the protagonists being more worried about the men in black showing up than they are about the monster, but that kind of paranoia tends to be pretty easy to create. Also, from a mystical standpoint, “I have a spell/power that alerts me that someone’s looking for me, even via an internet search,” is probably an easier sell than, “magic cleans my traces from the internet entirely.”

Essentially, this says to players that they can use technology to investigate, but if they don’t cover their tracks they’ll give away the element of surprise and possibly have even more threats dropped on their heads. The PCs need their hacker not just to do a search, but to correctly configure TOR and come at a topic via search terms and linking that won’t set off any alarms.

And in a future game with mesh networks, you can even pull off the trick that suddenly there’s signal… because the enemy is in between them and the cell tower, and they’re sending all their searches and conversation right through its own computer.

You can’t ever split the party

Players in most games don’t ever want their characters to split up, so much that “never split the party” is a meme. GMs love to throw out threats against lone PCs, and the players have learned this lesson too well. Refusal to split up, even when it makes sense, is almost pathological.

This is an area where taking communication for granted is a strength. I’ve found that players are much more likely to split up in modern games where they can instantly call or text to share information or ask for help, and even more likely in futuristic games where they don’t even have to grab a phone to accomplish this, but can simply stream their permanent video feed to friends in real time.

You don’t even have to cut the feed to make this work. Normally, when you’re describing something terrible happening to a split PC, the other players at the table are having to struggle to avoid metagaming with information they know but their characters don’t. Getting it all on speaker phone while unable to do anything more than shout advice can make them more invested, and lower the metagaming dissonance.

Even if you’re not regularly going to pile tragedy on a lone party member, open communication can be a boon. Unless players have extensively played games where party splitting is common, it can be hard to retain focus and be polite when another player is getting spotlight time and you can’t interject in character. That is, they’ll tune out and become a distraction to the GM and active player. Giving them the ability to keep up with what’s going on in-character and to potentially give advice but not physically affect what’s going on is likely to keep them much more invested without detracting too much from the main player’s spotlight time.

Random Horror Plot Generator

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Holiday weekend with the family, so you get the EMP Museum’s horror film timeline legend turned into a plot generator.

Mood/Style (d6):

What type of film should the game feel like? (optional)

  1. Body Horror
  2. Comedy
  3. Faux Documentary
  4. Mystery
  5. Psychological
  6. Suspense

Hook/Exposition (d8):

How do the PCs stumble across the plot?

  1. Carnival Tricks
  2. Creepy Castle
  3. Electronics
  4. Excavation
  5. Atomic
  6. Old House
  7. Science Experiments
  8. Roll Twice and Combine Results

Source/Conflict (d10):

What is at the root of the plot?

  1. Curse
  2. Disaster
  3. Disease
  4. Disfigurement
  5. Madness
  6. Murder
  7. Nature Revolts
  8. Phenomenon
  9. Revenge
  10. Torture

Antagonist/Character (2d4):

What kind of creature is either behind the conflict or created by it?

  1. Mundane:
    1. Country Folk
    2. Serial Killer
    3. Troubled Youth
    4. Reckless Teens
  2. Undead:
    1. Ghost
    2. Vampire
    3. Zombie
    4. Other
  3. Paranormal:
    1. Alien
    2. Urban Legend Monster (e.g., Cryptid)
    3. Shapeshifter
    4. Other
  4. Supernatural:
    1. Demon
    2. Evil Child
    3. Witch
    4. Occult Monster (e.g., Werewolf)

Examples

1-7-4-1-4: A group of teens show up with bizarre mutations and lost time after a night of urban exploration. Did they stumble across a science experiment and become lab rats, or were they just contaminated by something left in one of the buildings they were exploring? One of them is still missing… is he still held by their tormentors, or is he the half-seen figure shadowing the party? What do the heroes do when they start to feel sick halfway through the investigation, and their own skin starts to itch?

5-5-8-1-1: Rumors of strange phenomena near an old nuclear testing range reach the heroes. The folks in the nearby town are friendly, but seem to want to change the subject whenever the phenomena are brought up, and to get the party to go away. Who will the heroes trust when weird, dangerous things start to happen all around them, but the townsfolk never seem to notice? Are they protecting a powerful secret, or just running a con to pick up tourism? Either way, will they be willing to kill if cornered on their deception?

3-6-10-2-2: Driven into a big old house by a vicious and sudden storm, the party finds a seemingly abandoned mobile documentary suite in one of the rooms, including a camcorder. The footage still in the camera shows a small group of filmmakers setting up for their shoot, each taking cameras into various parts of the house. The film follows a spooky trip through the house, where other filmmakers are sometimes seen, and ends on a terrified soliloquy as the director explains that she’s leaving the camera in the suite for others to find while she goes to find help. As the heroes explore the house and find more cameras, it becomes increasingly obvious that there’s a seemingly impenetrable basement room in the house… and that it might contain a vampire that enjoys playing with his food.

4-1-2-3-1: The heroes attend a local fair that seems to be the common denominator in a series of similar paranormal events (strange lights and the like not long after the carnival left town). They play a series of games rigged in a way that seems to defy physics, such as darts curving through the air away from their targets. The mystery thickens as the party discovers that the carnival convoy was in an inexplicable road accident during a hurricane a few years ago. It turns out that they were crashed into by an overwhelmed spaceship full of weird tech that they’ve been trying to put to use. The peers of the dead pilot have been following the carnival’s trail, just a little behind the heroes, trying to find their missing friend… who is even now just another seemingly fake exhibit in the freakshow.