I've recently taken control of an online game that was already well on its way through HoH. The previous GM made the game pretty dark so I figured I'd continue along those veins. Party makeup is (all 2nd level):
- Half elf Paladin of Pharasma (GM prior to me permitted it, despite Pharasma being a TN deity)
- Barbarian (half orc, extremely surly but rather smart)
- Ranger (half orc, genuine nice-guy but not that bright) (notice the parallels?)
- Dhampir Sorc/Bard
- Human Witch
Long set up to follow. There's a reason for it, so bear with me please!
They've done a decent job of earning some trust, but they haven't quite gotten there yet. So I devised a custom encounter whereby a storm ravaged the town overnight. In the morning, there was repair to be done around town (basically giving them an opportunity to do some community bonding, so to speak). But I threw a wrench into the mix: at one location, they opted to repair a roof of one house that was damaged by the winds/rain. There was a married couple and a 12 yr old child there. They successfully removed the large branch from the roof, but then I had the wife start berating the paladin once she noticed the holy symbol. She got angrier and angrier and when her husband tried to calm her down, she picked up a fireplace "poker" and hit him upside the head, knocking him unconscious, then turned her ire on the group.
One of them grappled her (not wanting a kill a villager and ruin the work they'd done, which was smart on their part. It was one of the "gotchas" I was hoping to catch them with, but c'est la vie) and that's when the other part of the encounter triggered. The whole reason this happened was due to a "rage spirit", basically a minor incorporeal undead thing that I made up.
(The rage spirit is a manifestation of someone who died while violently angry and never got resolution on the thing that made them so angry, so it waits for a suitable host to possess, kind of like a weak ghost. It has few hit points but it's primary thing is that it transfers by touch until it accomplishes whatever its goal was in life. In this case, I had it as a prisoner that died before being able to kill the Pharasmin priest that had been unfaithful with his wife, and thus in undeath, wanted to cause the death of a priest of Pharasma. So when it saw the paladin, it triggered the "rage" and its host attacked.)
When the ranger grappled the woman, the rage spirit "jumped" into him (he spectacularly failed his Will save) and then he attacked one of the party members (again, terribly failed his Will save, which was only DC 12). So, they cast healing magic on the possessed PC to deal damage to the spirit (and in the process, making their save resisting another "jump").
So now there's tension among the party, thanks to that. But then, after some discussion and involving father Grimburrow, the NPC wife (who legitimately doesn't trust religions in the first place but is not violent about it) admits she thinks that her other son was the one that "picked up" the rage spirit. This is because he has been secretly following the party to the prisons and being a young boy (9 years old), dreams of being a heroic adventurer like them. Something likely happened (picked up something, found a thing linked to that old spirit, whatever) and he became the vessel until he came in contact with his mom, who was the unknowing vessel for this spirit but was strangely on edge and angry all the time.
So anyway, not long before the PCs initially showed up to help with the roof, she sends her son to the store for supplies but yells at him to hurry and not disappoint her. (again a manifestation of the rage spirit) Instead of going to the store, he decides he'll make his mom proud and do something heroic and wanders off to the prison (unknowing to his parents).
Later on, after they're talking with her and father Grimburrow, she and her husband come to the realization that their son should be back by now.
The PCs dash off to the prison to find him (the heroes they are). So here's the whole point of this post: how dark should I have this little mini-quest end?
I have in my mind a couple options for the conclusion of this quest:
1. Super Dark Ending: they find the boy face down in the mud, dead with a wooden stick clutched in his hand like a toy sword. Now they have to placate the grieving couple, possibly convince the mother that they're not responsible, and of course attend a funeral for a child.
2. Dynamic Ending: they find the boy bloody but alive, trying to fend off some undead menace. Depending on how quickly they react, the boy may survive or die.
3. Introduction: due to a truly comical (to me, the GM) path through the prison, they have yet to actually meet Vesorianna. So, I thought perhaps they'd find the boy huddling against the western wall of the prison, scared but protected by some undead threat by strange ephemeral bluish arms hugging him. The PCs will have to defeat the undead threat and then they'll get a hint that Vesorianna dwells on that side of the prison, AND bring the boy back.
So, I thought I'd ask this: what would YOU do if you were the GM?
The Trust Mechanic is one that ultimately can't be resolved as written, so its extremely important to have a way to offset this imbalance by giving your own opportunities for your PCs to earn more trust (I had additional side-quests in mine to do this), which you seem to be doing. A few things:
1)I would choose the second option. It gives the PCs a chance to gain more trust by saving an NPC. The three encounters I would consider to use would be A) The Skeletons in the Lake (might be too brutal for NPC), B) The Rat Swarm in the tower, or C) the Haunted Scythe. The Scythe is probably your best bet since it needs to still roll moderately well to hit a moving target, giving your PCs time to deal with it; the swarm could be as bad as the Burning Skeletons for the same reasons (auto-damage).
2)Be careful with possession before your players have access to magic that can directly force some things out. While possession is an important theme in a horror game, without a means to deal with it, it might make your players mad if they lose control of their character for an extended period. I would allow protection from evil to allow a re-roll against the effect of the Rage Spirit. If you are treating it as a haunt or a spirit tied to Harrowstone (which in my opinion would give them even further reason to go there), I suggest tying it somehow either to the Splatterman or the Lopper.
3)There's a lot of resources for running it for 5 players or adding extended content to the first module in the Carrion Crown sub-forum. Its fascinating if nothing else to see the many different takes on the first module of the AP (which in my opinion is the strongest).
Good luck, and have fun!
I personally would use Option #3, because I would be incapable of actually running a dark game (we meet twice a month at best, who wants to be sad ...), and it would be what actually builds trust (which seems to be your goal) and helps the party find the ghost wife.
However, the Super Dark Ending is not quite as Super Dark as it could be if you are looking for something like that. What you've described is dark, but "Super Dark" would be when the boy rises from said mud puddle, rib-cage exposed, entrails hanging out, still clutching his wooden sword, and with an unearthly smile, attacks the PCs. Now the PCs must put the boy to rest and have to approach the subject gingerly with his parents.
I like both Option #2 and #3. #1 has a very strong "You did everything right, but screw you anyway"-vibe. This might be appropriate in a Call of Cthulhu game, but at least I like my Pathfinder to be more upbeat. Yes, it's a horror adventure, but killing children just to show the PCs that there is horror around is textbook fridge-stuffing.
They reacted like true heroes should, they tried to get the situation under control without killing anybody innocent. I know plenty of people who would've smashed the woman's head in with no second thought.
A few other thoughts:
1. The trust mechanic is broken, simple as that. Easiest fix is to double all the rewards while not touching the penalties or just throwing it overboard alltogether.
2. Some people may have problems with violence against children. Make sure your group is okay with stuff like that being in the game. Same goes for sexual themes (violent or not), violence against animals, graphically described torture and so on. If everybody is okay with that no problem, but it should be adressed.
3. "It was one of the "gotchas" I was hoping to catch them with, but c'est la vie" - I had to really force myself to let go of my "Me vs. them" mentality. I'm not sure if you have this mentality or just wanted to put in a quick "Dang those intelligent NPCs!"-comment, but look out for falling into the "I have to really punish them for being clever"-mentality I had not so long ago. You presented them with a difficult problem, they managed to solve it in a great way - that's great for them, it's great for the story, no need to get them back for that.
So I've gone with a mix of 2 and 3. The boy was chased by the swarm of rats in the guard tower (the party didn't do anything about them at the beginning of the adventure). He collapsed due to the bites against the back wall of the prison, wooden toy sword in hand. The adventurers find him motionless surrounded by rats, but they do not approach any closer to finish him off as he has ethereal blue arms hugged around him from behind thru the wall. The arms are fading though, as technically Ves cannot leave the room and she's expending a lot of "will" just doing this. So it's up to the heroes to save him before she completely loses the strength to protect him (1d4 rounds). Suitably heroic but still with a chance for terrible outcomes.
Thanks for the great advice everyone!
My own Carrion Crown game is very dark but even I wouldn't arbitrarily kill a child in game as per suggestion 1.
It will be more rewarding for them to have genuine danger to the child but a realistic chance to save him. Something like a round counter during the combat with the skeletons or scythe at which point the boy gets in the way.