Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Framework for D&D Horror

It's no secret I've been casting about for the right vehicle for running a campaign merging horror and D&D styles.  I have a deep passion for the genre, although it's not always the best fit for my gaming groups - especially when I have a bunch of kids at the table.  Earlier this year I put horror development on hiatus to focus on developing an adventure campaign appropriate to all ages - regular readers are familiar with Taenarum, my mythology themed megadungeon.  Taenarum is going great, but that doesn't mean I won't revive the horror side projects.  It's just a matter of finding the right approach.

Specifically - I need something that lends itself to episodic play and small scenarios so we can do some one-shots and interpolated games.  It also needs to merge the key tropes of D&D and horror.  Before delving forward, let's take a moment and identify said tropes.

Old school D&D emphasizes exploration and recovering treasure over combat, separating it from newer iterations.  Settings assume gold and treasure is sequestered in old ruins guarded by traps and monsters, lending itself to a player-driven sandbox style.  Exploring old ruins to recover treasure, while avoiding combat - these shouldn't be too hard to work into a horror game.

Traditional horror game scenarios are almost always presented as mysteries.  The players are engaged with defining the mystery, then presented with clues and evidence that allow them to ultimately confront the danger or solve the mystery.  The mystery structure lends itself to horror when you overlay uncertainty, isolation, and the weird and unnatural over the top.  The place where horror gaming tends to break down is the ongoing campaign.  Either the entire campaign represents a macro-mystery, or you need a good narrative explanation for why the adventurers keep running into  the horror of the week.  Monster hunter shows, while greatly entertaining, usually  don't generate much terror or horror.

Stepping back, I'm thinking the theme of "bad places" supports blending the genres.  Picture a countryside littered with mysterious and forbidden ruins, each surrounded by peculiar lore and shunned by the locals - for good reason.  A handful of horror writers have gone down the path of mythologizing a local area with lurking horrors - HP Lovecraft's Massachusetts, Ramsey Campbell's Severn Valley, or Stephen King's Maine spring immediately to mind.    Creating such an area as a D&D style sandbox, with most plot hooks represented as legends and lore around lost treasures, seems well within grasp of our available technologies - the hex crawl, the site-based location, the conventional mystery structure.

Of course, each place necessarily represents a challenging, 'screw you' style of dungeon - as in, you woke the dead, now deal with it.  I've repeated it before, horror is ultimately conservative, and victims and protagonists alike bring the horror down on themselves by treading into the forbidden.  Monsters stand as warnings and signposts at the limits of humanity, guardians of the frontiers.  Striving to learn things 'man was not meant to know' calls for destruction.  (Grave robbing old tombs and recovering secrets best left buried fall into the same category).

This reminds, I saw something either this week or last where a reviewer was making cranky complaints about Death Frost Doom and the way the twist  in that dungeon can screw over the players.  I tend to view this as misalignment of audience.  Spoilers about Death Frost Doom:  In a moment of greed, the scenario sets the players up to destroy a thing that unleashes ancient horrors, sending the adventure into a radically different direction.  It's brilliant.  But it is very much true to the tropes of the horror genre, not heroic  adventure fantasy.  Springing a survival horror twist on the players is fair game in a horror scenario.  There has to be alignment of expectations between the players and referees (and I guess, in some cases, module reviewers) around the nature of the game and the genre we're actually modeling.

Anyway - this is where I'm at with it.  Start small, with a simple hex crawl and a few scattered lairs, and craft the sites into locations filled with mystery and horror.  I'll post an example in the next day or so to demonstrate the flavor.  Some of the more interesting questions fall into whether 'the horrors' should revolve around traditional monsters imagined fresh, or creatures generated whole cloth ala Lovecraft or Campbell.  What do you guys think?