Darker And Grittier or Black Dog Isn't Dead


WARNING: This thread, and the subject matter it may end up discussing, may be offensive to some readers. This is not my intention; my only intent is to discuss ways to bring these subjects into the game in a serious, meaningful, tasteful way. That said if subjects like genocide, rape, child sacrifice, animal abuse and worse disturbs or offends you, please navigate away. This first post is a bit long winded and I apologize in advance.

So I finally got a group together and I'm running them through Jade Regent (which I'm going to have to take up the power level a bit as they killed the Soggy River Monster in three rounds, and the faceless stalker in the halfling's house in two.) But the entire group cant always get together as one of our players works nights and sometimes cant always get our gaming night off. So I'm prepping a secondary campaign for just the other players. It was going to be a standard epic fantasy campaign, starting with The Godsmouth Heresy and running to The Moonscar, with servants of Nocticula tying it all together, ending with a climactic showdown with an avatar of Nocticula. But then I was made aware of a game by Black Dog Games Factory called Charnel Houses of Europe, a modern fantasy epic putting players in the roles of holocaust victims.

Still with me?

So, with that work (and other Black Dog games) in mind, I'd like to run a Pathfinder game that delves into the deepest, darkest parts of the human psyche. Something that makes games like Call of Cthulhu and Amnesia: the Dark Descent look like Candy Land. My players have agreed that, if I do it right, it'll be an interesting break from our standard light hearted fantasy games. But I need some help, both crunchy and fluffy.

First, I dont even know where to start. I'd like to stick with daemons as the major antagonists but some eldritch horrors would be good too; I really wanna play up that hateful, careless evil. Is there a World Wound-like area with a heavy daemon presence? Or can someone recomend a good region for a setting?

I'm going to ban a normally common race and kick off by explaining that something horrible has happened; That race was driven into extinction by the peresecution of other mortal races in an event that (true to the inspiration) draws on the horrors of the Holocaust. The first few games will likely take place in areas where these tragedies occured, and will be rife with hauntings. Can anyone recomend a race that would be perfect for this? It should be something sort of unexpected; niot tieflings, for example, because Blood of Fiends makes a show of how even good tieflings are persecuted. Im thinking like elves or something. Can anyone recomend some appropriate foes for this part of the game?

Players will be 5th level and I'm going to be taking liberties with their backstories (with player permission); the memories they have now are fabrications, and their true history is linked to this holocaust event, probably as perpetrators. This is something they wont learn for some time, so the (hopefully) good deeds they've accomplished since will keep them from being crushed by the weight of the horrors they visited upon their fellow beings.

Sovereign Court

Go with Elves and have it all tied to the Drow, as the Drow hate normal elves. They set it up or were integral to it. The Drow are supposed to be grimdark and nasty, not misunderstood. They routinely kill family members for advancement and live with demons. Make them properly evil.

Of course, that's Demons, not Daemon. I don't know that Daemons have any really associated mortal allies. My understanding has always been that Daemons trick other outsiders into evil towards mortals, but they hate life too much to work with them. But Demons would totally go with a genocide against a single race plan.

This adventure scales too, as you can easily have them facing Drow with PC levels, teams with Driders, and eventually up into higher Demons. You can adjust between heavy combat or heavy politics, as the Drow society is typically quite political, if you wanted to go Game of Thrones-y for some parts.

Have them level really slowly.

Also, check out the Wendigo. Hell, check out mythology and folk tales in general, you'll find all sorts of crazy stuff.

Also-also...don't have them fight everything. A monster is much less scary if you can stab it in the face and kill it, and it's not scary at all if you've been stabbing hundreds of them in the face.

Humans. It's worse when it's from within.

I want to harp on a point I just made.

Have every monster, whether a grunt or a zombie or a friggin' Deathgod, give out like five exp. Killing them shouldn't be rewarding, it should be better to run away and figure out some way around what's happening.

Alternatively, they shouldn't actually see a badass monster until it's far, far too late. Until they're crawling, blood from their eyes, wasting away and helpless.


8 people marked this as a favorite.

The most frightening things are the things we CAN'T see; the worst horrors are those we're POWERLESS to stop. If you want to sicken, horrify and burn the brains of your players, deliver these.

I don't mean cheaply either. It's not horrifying at all if the party walks into a bar and there's a daemon there sating her appetite with the blood of a dozen nameless mortals. Instead have the party meet the woman as a mortal, have a good time with her. They go to take their third drink; THAT'S when they notice it tastes like hot saltwater and copper. Glancing up, their hostess is unchanged, save for an odd sag in the flesh on her arm they hadn't seen before. They also notice that the waitress has been robotically going to an old drunk in the corner before returning with every round.

Perception checks at that point help them make out that the chatter from the other tables seems artificial. A better than average one shows the waitress has kept her eyes fairly well-hidden through the evening with good reason; they're sewn shut. There's an undercurrent of sound in the bar, like swarms of flies. Just then one of the rotting corpses propped in the chairs around them finally oozes to the floor.

The hostess, obviously aware she's been found out peels the "skin suit" from her body. The woman she'd been infesting was still alive. Regardless of any action the party takes at this point the Coup De Gras she inflicts on the Commoner 1 she was "wearing" is an instant kill. Meanwhile the barmaid flops to the ground, tearing at her eyes in obvious agony. Finally the fetid dead begin to rise and shamble, bearing down on the hapless victim on the floor. Now, 4 5th level PCs could easily tear up the hostess daemon, but they're faced with a dilemma - leaving an innocent to the tender mercies of a dozen ravenous zombies is truly monstrous, but if they don't do something about the hostess, she's gone by the end of round 2.

As a cherry on top, after the PCs save the barmaid, she thanks them, then immediately doubles over in pain, clutching at her eyes (now freed by PC intervention hopefully). Eating their way out from inside her brain come thousands of maggots, erupting from her eyes. They form a swarm but rather than attack the swarm becomes the daemon's face. She congratulates them for showing off their powers to her so she's better prepared for next time. She then proceeds to give them exact, graphic details of where her next strike will be, but leaves out one crucial detail in the timing so the party has the chance to be wrong.

As for mechanics, I'd suggest that a lot of the fights actually be some uber-powered baddie supported by dozens if not hundreds of mindless -2CR minions. Imagine a dozen CR1 zombies, each falling to a single hit but moving in waves toward the PCs. Meanwhile the walls of the fight's setting (cabin, dungeon, castle, etc) shudder with the pounding of a dozen more and then some. Amid it all there's a main villain preparing to remove the favored NPC's spleen as he lies helpless, alive and awake on a table.

1 person marked this as a favorite.

Mark. I love you. Not in a gay way. In a prison way. Where it's about power.

Sovereign Court

Yeah, Mark has some great ideas. To run with that, look at the spell Nightmare. Once a baddie knows about the party, they should have to make a will save for a good night's sleep. Constant nightmares and being fatigued or frighted (shaken? whatever the lowest is) are a good way to keep the suspense up. I'm a fan of making the numbers represent the game. If they are in a haunted house and have reason to be super jumpy, then use mechanics to reflect that. Tell them they're shaken.

Or, if you want to be really mean, straight up lie to them. Not in an unfair way. But tell them they have perception penalties they don't have. Then ask for a roll every now and then and cringe when they say something low. Consider a critical fail threshold for perception. Something has a stealth of 20. If they roll over 20 they see it, that's how the game works. If they roll under 20, they don't see it. But if you want to be mean and psychological and terrifying, if they roll under a 10, they think they see something move in the other corner of the room. They hear a wrapping on the window, but it turns out to be just a tree. A failed check no longer means you're blind or deaf, it now means you're jumping at shadows. That'll keep them on their toes.

I remember Black Dog Games. I liked them:)

Perhaps instead of a race, you might consider it to have been a holocaust of all arcane magic users? Then you set it in Earth's past so that they know that the bad guys win, at least to some degree, since magic is no longer around in our time? Should also allow for an interesting element of dis-empowerment by allowing you to cut them off from magic, either from the beginning or at plot critical times.

I had been toying with adding some elements of that to my third campaign(in a series of three) as a potential direct result of the players' actions in the second campaign.

Have you actually picked up Charnel Houses of Europe? I've been thinking of trying to get a copy ever since I saw it on EC.

Most groups in D&D are used to having the power to stop evil stuff before it happens and stabbing enemies in the face. Call of Cthulhu's assumption is that fighting is a very bad idea, as you're very likely to go insane or get eaten by some alien horror. Which kind of players does your group have? I'm asking this because if they're the former, you'd only frustrate them if you go with Mark's idea or anything of that sort. "You saved her! ...oh wait, no you didn't. She's dead. Good job, guys, failing to save innocents and letting fiends run rampant on the streets." - If they never, EVER, actually succeed at saving anyone (or beating back the dark to any degree), I can assume they'll just turn apathetic and drop the notion of adventure by that part. Why bother even trying if it's always an automatic win for the bad guys?

Either way, I'd say that using elves and drow would be a good idea. Nocticula ties in with the latter especially well.
Also, being jewish, I can't help but feel weird about this whole Charnel Houses of Europe thing. Anyone want to tell me more about it?

The ultimate trick to making PCs feel desperate is to make them feel fragile. Icyshadow makes a good point about not wanting the PCs to feel completely helpless, after a while it just stops being fun. A friend of mine built a zombie campaign set in modern earth off the D20 system and one set in a Slender setting. Both heavily limit the PCs' abilities, and even make it heavily apparent that there isn't a happy ending for any of our characters. It kind of becomes a Walking Dead scenario where you begin to relish the small victories, but eventually go back to the understanding that all hope is fleeting.

I'd also say that the best encounter I've ever played in Pathfinder was Rise of the Runelords, book 2, the haunted house. Our GM modified it by adding a bit of complexity to the mysteries and personalizing the hauntings a bit more. Every will save was a moment of terror. We felt perpetually helpless, but that was broken up whenever we set down to trying to solve the mystery based on the clues we'd gathered. The alternation of atmosphere, pace, and action made it awesome. The fact that one guy survived two insta-kill traps just added to the excitement. Of course, I was delighted when we finally got to fight somebody.

I think that's the key. What pops into mind is F.E.A.R. It's a horror video game that stops being scary the moment you enter a shootout. You recognize that the things you're shooting at are scary, maybe even hard to kill, but you have a sense of control because you can kill them. The rules are simple. But between shootouts, the rules aren't as clear, and so you dread what's around the corner, despite the fact that most times it'll be something you can shoot and kill like always.

Deprive the PCs of combat as often as possible. Make them crave a fight just to make them feel like they have some control over the evil and the darkness. When they finally get one, they'll be all the more pumped, and the stakes feel higher. The outcome if they win should be at least a little positive, no need to pull out the rug from under them right away.

Then just stand back and let the dread creep back as they realize that there's more evil and more darkness just around the corner.

More than anything, I'd also say that I think making a dark campaign is a fantastic idea. I'm currently designing one that gets pretty dark. I really love the idea of playing with their memories.

D&D is a game about killing monsters. Combat is a huge part of the system. That makes the whole horror thing slightly more challenging to pull off well.

Actually, it's why I prefer GURPS when we want to make dark, low fantasy or horror games. The rules cater to that kind of settings much better than the D&D ones.

It is, but it's also a cooperative role-playing game. There's a visceral experience available through coming up with unique challenges in this game that makes people play it rather than WoW or Skyrim that particular night. I'm not saying no combat, I'm saying limit it and find other ways to challenge the PCs, then when combat comes make it extra challenging and high-stakes. That way the tension stays high as long as possible.

Sean, GURPS and Call of Cthulhu, like D&D, are cooperative games.

I wouldn't have suggested them if they weren't table-top RPGs in the first place.

Of course, I don't doubt that. Just this fellow asked about generating that sort of campaign in a Pathfinder setting to run as a second game for his group (I'm gonna assume Dragon Knight is a he for simplicity's sake). I was just explaining how I believe D&D could be successfully used to generate the desired effect so the group in question wouldn't have to learn a new game to do it.

Maybe, but I'm just on the side that believes that D&D does not work well outside the thing that it does really well.

High fantasy with magic, plenty of chances to fight and odds shifting from favouring the players to being slightly against them.

From my own experiences and the analyses made by others, D&D / Pathfinder does not do low-magic nor non-combat too well in most cases.

Before I start, I would like to express one thing. The Holocaust was a series of events and actions taken by the Nazi's during WWII. The word you're looking for is Genocide (threw me for a loop when I read that in one system you played as Holocaust victims.). The Holocaust WAS a Genocide... but it's a case of all apples are fruits but not all fruits are apples.

That said, dark and gritty can go one of two ways. Epic or Epic Fail. By the second session of my homebrew campaign, all human life that the PCs were aware of other than themselves and the antagonist had been wiped out... but the act of it wasn't nearly as defining as I had hoped. The players treated it as just another element of the story and moved on.

In the third session I tried something different. I introduced a race of anthropomorphic amphibians that for some reason never matured past adolescence and the start of sexual reproduction. The race was seemingly without strife or argument, they created crude yet effective traps along their small borders which kept out the monster hoards, but they never seemed to do anything openly hostile. A sense motive check when the one they met invited them to a feast for the Life Giving revieled 'you have never heard anything in your life that felt so... honest."

During the feast, the frogmen... or rather frog boys and girls, presented an alarming amount of food, a perception check showed that it was likely ALL the food in the village. They ate until their bodies were bloated and almost unable to move... except for Mit (the one they met) who was so focused on being a good host and 'sharing with my pink friends' that he forwent stating at all himself.

All around the altar with the food, small grey orbs (eggs) sat in massive piles. MIT begins to grow nervous as he realizes that almost all the food is gone and he has not eaten. One by one, the frogs swallow their tongues, committing suicide... but Mit... having not gorged himself is unable to do so.

He looks back to the PC's just as needle like teeth begin to burst from his lips, his purple eyes flickering red as he glances back and forth between them and the now squirming eggs. In a last grasp of sanity before he bursts off of the log bench towards the eggs he whimpers, "Kill me..."

This led to a frantic 'combat' event where he completely ignored the PC's as he ate the eggs, one 5x5 square at a time, his body morphing, growing, twisting with each mouthful.

While a smaller event in terms of actual lives lost, the impact on the party was MUCH greater because they had emotional involvement with the NPCs before their deaths. It was a natural and selfless act that they had no control over, and acting as good guests doing seemingly nothing wrong, they had made things far worse. It really compounded it when they noticed the wax drawings on the sides of trees that crudely detailed the ceremony for the new generation as they would nor be around to teach them. More so when they finally met the 'God' who had taught them the importance of sharing... a hologram on an infinite loop of Kermit the Frog.

"Kermit de Frog here! The word of today is... sacrifice.". Going on to say how in times such as these (referring to when the recording was made so many thousands of years ago) we must all make sacrifices to the greater good.

Make your players grow attached. Give them the world... then make it rot and drip between their fingers. THAT is how to make them care about the horror you are trying to weave into your story.

Wouldn't overdoing it make them apathetic in the long run? Again, if nothing ever goes right, there's no reason to care.

The outcome is always the same, after all. Seems to me that this is the real challenge in making a good horror campaign in D&D.

You need to invoke feelings in your players. Doing too little makes them not care, while doing too much will force them to a state of apathy.

I completely agree. Right now their adventure is based on vengeance... but there will be an opportunity to set things right, a final goal, but one that comes at a great price. Even my frog thing had a semi-happy ending when they returned to the village later and spotted a tadpole with purple eyes.

If the Genocide thing is really what you want to aim for, look into Mass Effect, The Krogan, Genophage. Those three key phrases should open a few dark ideas.

Mark Hoover wrote:

As a cherry on top, after the PCs save the barmaid, she thanks them, then immediately doubles over in pain,...

Holy crap. I thought I had a good handle on horror in my campaigns. You, Sir, are a Master! You have just opened my eyes to new realms of possibilities... (evil chuckle)

You're quoting the part that can be problematic for many reasons, and that worries me greatly.

@ Icyshadow: you are right. I should amend my previous post to state: this should NOT be the norm of the game. By that I mean to IS's point, this shouldn't be allowed to go stale and turn the party apathetic. I still support having lots of zombies or whatever, but the barmaid encounter should be used sparingly.

Think of your fave horror movie. The protagonists encounter the bad, then they get away. They learn some stuff about the bad, then try to encounter the bad again, only to lose once more. Each time they encounter the whatever, they learn a bit more giving them the hope that, if they can JUST: put together the clues; find the bad's weakness; stop the rite; salt and burn the corpse...etc, THEN the nightmare will be over.

Unfortunately the nightmare is never over.

The thing that makes horror horrible, IMO (and those of you who've really studied the genre please chime in) is this idea that you might win some battles, but you'll never win the war. The nature of the human spirit is to keep striving so long as there's hope, so to avoid apathy you must give them that hope. But in order to maintain good horror you must be prepared to crush that hope. You'll just have to give them more later to begin the cycle again, but you get the point.

It is a delicate balance, and one I've not been able to hold for very long. Such games are taxing not just on the players, but on the GM as well. When you GM such a game you'll be fighting every natural instinct you have. Such instincts are things like tossing in some goblins just to get some combat on the table; TPKing your party for being foolish ("no, I think it's a GREAT idea to split up and look for clues..."); or follow other gaming tropes to avoid mental fatigue.

This is why I can't keep one of these going for very long. My current game has horror "elements" but ultimately is just high fantasy. True horror takes endurance, brains and resources I haven't had since college.

But seriously; if you're interested in these things go and watch some GOOD horror (whatever you feel that is - I'm not here to be the horror-police or judge anyone. Some of my favorite horror has rubber monsters or one of the Raimi's attached to the project :) ) and pick out some of the tropes and pacing there.

@Icyshadow: Why should it worry you greatly? We do not know each other, and while it is possible, it is highly unlikely that we will ever play at the same table.

I am a fan of horror elements in my games, and use it as an effective story-telling tool. In reading Mr. Hoover's post, I received a valuable education on how to use perception rolls as related to the horror element.

As to the portion of his post I selected to quote, I merely selected a brief portion of the quote, rather than reply-posting the whole thing. I did not specifically choose that portion over any other.

I will add that I am not beyond using an NPC in that manner to drive home the point. I have pissed players off, and had them leave my table as a result. I have also used GM Fiat in their favor, too. (I'm not a complete monster, after all...)

Grand Lodge

For what it's worth (not sure if the OP knows this or not), but Charnel Houses of Europe was not a game in and of itself. Rather, it was a supplement for White Wolf's "Wraith: The Oblivion" game where players took on roles of the ghosts (or wraiths) of the dead. CHoE itself dealt with the horrors of the Holocaust and the effect it had on the society of the dead.

I haven't read the book in a long time (sold off all my gaming books but for a very select few) back in '03 before I moved to NY, but I remember liking it. I also seem to recall it being controversial.

Community / Forums / Pathfinder / Pathfinder First Edition / Advice / Darker And Grittier or Black Dog Isn't Dead All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.