Thursday, October 18, 2012

Survival Horror in D&D

Wahoo.  The new season of Walking Dead is back, and thoughts turn to Halloween.  Has anyone done a survival horror scenario or campaign in their game?  The core elements are limited resources, overwhelming or seemingly endless opponents, and one of two objectives - holding out until help arrives, or escaping to somewhere safe.  In campaign mode, no place is safe... for long.

Here's a simple one-shot scenario:
The dungeon is at the old ruined wizard's tower, where an attacking army met it's demise in ages past at the hands of the wizard's curse.  When character's return from the dungeon beneath the tower with the cursed book, the dead rise from the ground around the tower and swarm over the rubble.  Can the characters find a defensive position and hold out until dawn?

Plenty of published D&D and OSR scenarios have danced around the edges, touching on themes of resource scarcity while the characters maintain a precarious position.  Only a few of these are actually horror themed, but they're all good inspirations for how other writers have created memorable resource tests:

I6 Ravenloft
The players are trapped in a vampire's castle, and hunted until they either kill or get killed.  Level drain slowly whittles the party away.

B10 Night's Dark Terror
There's a fantastic siege sequence, where the players arrive at a remote homestead tower as night falls and multiple goblin tribes attack; the players have to plan a defense with limited defenders and repel varied attacks over the long night.

A4 In the Dungeons of the Slavelords
The players have to escape the Slave Lord's dungeons without any equipment, scavenging gear along the way.

WG4 Lost Temple of Tharizdun
Although not technically a defensive siege, the entrance hall fight throws wave after wave of well-organized defenders after the party, testing the resolve and draining the resources of even the most prepared groups.  (G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King presents a similar tactical tour de force - Gygax loved those challenging tactical puzzles and really knew how to build them).

Here are a few OSR scenarios I've reviewed that put characters in similarly desperate situations:  The God That Crawls traps characters in a labyrinth where they're hunted by an implacable monster; Death Frost Doom potentially unleashes 13,000 undead; The Grinding Gear traps characters in a dungeon with a time limit; Inn of Lost Heroes shifts the characters into a dark otherworld inspired by Silent Hill.

Seems like we should be able to borrow ideas from all these scenarios for building a Halloween survival horror adventure.

What other elements (mechanical or otherwise) would you put in a survival horror piece?  How do games explicitly set in a zombie apocalypse, like All Flesh Must Be Eaten, do it?


  1. Internal conflict is essential to the genre. Holed up, low on resources, the best way IMHO is to stick them with NPC's who either arrive or were already in the safe area. Then dissension begins as everyone has their own ideas of how to survive and drama unfolds.

    1. That's true, breakdown of society is a big part of the genre (chiefly when it's apocalyptic and characters revert to Law of the Jungle) but I could see the argument that morale failures in a siege situation create a similar dynamic of NPC's flipping out.

      How about switching from ammunition counting to ammunition checks - so it's never clear when the quiver runs dry?

    2. Ammo checks and firearm checks immediately before combat to check for malfunctions, failure to reload, etc would be amusing.

  2. DnD not best suited to this genre normally but the easiest resource-wasting-horde-sceanrio is another wave of monsters come, then another then another - sounds of battle, a few war drums and trumpets from the bad guys and that corridor encounter turns into battling the whole dungeon in one battle - Zulu movies great inspiration - in war of roses thousands of equally matched halberdiers battled at a standstill till fatigue was decider. The kill then run rest repeat mode of play is safe - shake this up to make players fear. What if dungeon lice made rest for spell recovery impossible in dungeon?

    1. The siege sequence of Night's Dark Terror, and the opening battle of Lost Temple of Tharizdun, both feature well done wave attacks (and Tharizdun literally empties most of the dungeon against the characters).

      Fatigue is a really good point - we usually don't think about it for those short D&D combats, but when you're fighting wave after wave, it should matter.

  3. my players panic when they hear goblin drums but the wise blood druid just counts them then picks one to head for and attacks - not always the best plan but better than frightened indecision

  4. I ran an undead siege against the party after they fled to their base, after they had unleashed the 13,000 undead from Death Frost Doom; ended in a TPK.

  5. One more (free) OSR adventure of this sort is Telecanter's Undertavern.

  6. I think the elements of SH in D&D would have to be

    1: Unlimited opposition
    2: Opposition starts out simple and grows if you interact with it
    3: Limited resources to be used against opposition
    4: Ways to avoid opposition
    5: Method of completely overcoming opposition is possible to acquire - MacGuffin
    6: Intermediate goals

    The enemy has to be so durable you can't kill it without the MacGuffin. Otherwise we don't have SH, we have some kind of heroic fight thing.

    If the opposition is offensively strong right away, it will just kill the PCs. You want the enemy to react to PCs so if they avoid fights they can survive but if they get bogged down they will get swamped and die.

    Resources can be health and recovery abilities, ammunition (silver arrows, maybe silver swords eventually break), fuel, food and water, illumination, etc.

    If there is no way to avoid the enemy, the PCs will always get bogged down and overwhelmed. They need paths to follow, rhythms to match, maybe resources they can use to get past obstacles.

    If there is no way to solve the enemy-problem, the game devloves into "play until you die" which while true to source material isn't as fun. If you have a cure you have a goal to work toward.

    If you can stroll down the street and solve the crisis, it's a quick game. There should be intermediate steps to take in acquiring the MacGuffin. Try to not let this devolve into "zombie apocalypse maintenance man" where all you do is fuel generators and fix elevators.