Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mini-Review: A Stranger Storm

More thoughts on Horror, Demon Possession and D&D - and a review!

I've been on a bit of a demonic possession kick over here at the Lich House - the past few Mythic Mondays have had pieces on the origins of demons, exorcisms, and using possession in your game.  Yesterday I talked up REC 2 and it's blending of the zombie and demon genre.  I'm just about done exploring the theme and thought it would be worthwhile to take a moment and discuss why it works as a horror element.  Abstraction and distance help one apply the idea in alternate contexts.

Demonic possession pushes a number of buttons, but the ones that stand out to me are "The Enemy Among Us" and "Loss of Control".  There's an older article here, Horror in Dungeons & Dragons, that lists more horror themes, and how to sprinkle them into your game from time to time.

The Enemy Among Us
Classic demons are invisible, immaterial, undetectable.  At some point in the possession pathology the victim might manifest terrifying external symptoms, but until then, there's no telling.  Movies like Fallen and Paranormal Activity work because a loved one has been compromised and suppressed by the invader and it's not obvious.  You see a similar idea at work in movies like The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or Heinlein's The Puppetmasters.  The Enemy Among Us theme invokes paranoia, distrust, and a bit of vicarious horror; we don't know who is staring out at us from behind those familiar eyes.  And it could happen to me, too.

Loss of Control
The other piece of the demonic possession theme is Loss of Control.  In the game setting, players hate being hypnotized by the vampire, charmed by the dragon, forced into servitude by the naga, enslaved by the mind flayer.  The most primary mode of interacting with the game world is the integrity of the player character and the player's ability to make decisions.  Free will and free agency are important.  Why else is there so much vitriol against railroading?  Taking control of a player's character as part of a horror theme can be highly effective.  What does the villain do with their new toy once they seize control of a character's mind?  The sky's the limit on the damage that can be done to the PC's in-game lives when the DM takes over, but know your group.  No mind games!

Mini-Review:  A Stranger Storm
It turns out there's an excellent short adventure that takes the themes of The Enemy Among Us and Loss of Control and runs with them - it's James Raggi's A Stranger Storm.  Let's talk about it!  (Like all my reviews, there will be spoilers…)

A Stranger Storm appears in the LOTFP Grindhouse Edition, in the back of the Referee's Book.  It's 16-17 pages and billed as an "introductory" adventure, though I would challenge that it could be run well by a brand new DM.  The structure is significantly different from most of the other offerings by this author.  Death Frost Doom, The Grinding Gear, Hammers of the God all describe site-based locations; this one features a combination of loose scenes and time-based events to move the action forward, and has a large cast of NPCs.

Here's the general synopsis: the characters are isolated in a remote inn and nearby village due to torrential downpours that are miring travel on the dirt roads; while isolated in this remote community, foul murders are happening, and it becomes readily apparent, when identical doubles of some of the characters begin to appear, that there are supernatural shenanigans afoot. The scenes tend to move between the inn, the village, the roads, and ultimately the nearby orphanage.  The players have quite a bit of agency on how they react to the discovery that not everyone around is how they appear.

The stars of the adventure are the new monsters - "changelings" - Weird Fantasy versions of D&D's doppelganger.  For all intents and purposes, they're demons in material form, here to sow confusion and chaos on their way towards murder.

Most folks will be familiar with the doppelganger; it's a dungeon-dwelling monster that can mimic the appearance and thought patterns of a humanoid, and seeks to replace them, slowly murdering it's way through the adventuring party.  The doppelganger has always presented staging problems for DMs at the table when a player has been replaced, and the author presents an interesting twist on the doppelganger conundrum that keeps everyone in the dark until it's too late - it's a really nice method for handling "changeling replacements".

Tying it back to the horror themes with demonic possession, you should start to see commonalities.  A flood of shape-changing demons breeds immediate distrust and paranoia once the characters and villagers catch on that people are being duplicated, murdered and replaced.  You can imagine interesting situations like John Carpenter's The Thing begin to develop, where the various people involved try to create tests to weed out the humans from the impostors.  There's also the Loss of Control theme, particularly if a player character was slain and the player later learns he's been carrying out the changeling's agenda for some time.

From A Stranger Storm
There's one other theme I really liked in the adventure - the Awful Choice theme.  A lot of horror is visceral and involves a man vs nature physical conflict - external forces - but as our man Friedrich N says, battle not with monsters, let ye become a monster.   What do the players do when they realize the nearby orphanage, which normally has 20 children, suddenly seems to have 21?  Has one of the escaping demons taken refuge hiding amongst the innocents, or is it a mistaken count?  Depending on whether the group had pioneered an effective way to identify the mimic, they could be in for a crisis of conscience and grapple with some ethical horror (or not - like the chap in the pic).

How would I rate this one?  I'd give it a 3.5 stars.  The swarm of demon changelings, the advice on using them, and a few of the set encounters are really a lot of fun, top notch stuff.  This is a great interpretation of the D&D doppelganger.  However, it's only a short introductory adventure tucked away in the back of the Grindhouse book; there are no maps to any of the locales, and it's fairly short.  Presenting adventures is all about information structure; sandboxes and site-based locations have evolved over 30 years; I'm not sure this hits on the best structure for blending events and scenes, but it gets the job done.  If you're lucky enough to own the Grindhouse edition already, you have a nifty little adventure to spring on your players that highlights some excellent horror themes.

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