Monday, March 30, 2015


The word "monster" comes from the latin monstrum where it means both a thing which is not of the natural order but also a sign, omen or portent of the same. It is both the thing in the dark, but also the claw marks it leaves on the door, the way animals walk backward when it is near, an eclipse heralding its birth. 

Also, we've got internal/safe spaces and external/potentially dangerous spaces. Horror has monsters lurking on the outside, trying to get into the safe spaces or it has a revelation that there is no internal/safe space, that the whole world is monstrous (or it has some combination of the two). In both cases, we're talking about ontological rupture of the first order, of the truest essence: something that makes being human as we understand "human" deeply problematic if not impossible (or at least, I feel like good horror should do that).

Where you put magic-users is up to you, but:

1. When you make a Magic-User, tell the GM what is out beyond the veil, chasing you, trying to get in. You might be wrong, you might have seen it incorrectly. It might have changed its form.

2. Whenever you cast a spell, roll a d20 and tell the GM the result. The GM keeps a record of the results. It's always getting closer.

D&D provides two approaches to this. On the one hand, you've got points of light in a howling wasteland populated by the monstrous (Greyhawk, the encounter tables in the first edition of D&D and the map it suggest you use for your game world all are of this order); on the other hand, you've got relatively civilized, late medieval peoples living their lives and then tucked away in a few dark corners is an alternate world of monsters (B/X and most of the Basic modules have this more Beowulf feel to them). The former seems to often be the end result of a campaign, the latter its starting point.

Both can work as a kind of horror game. Where D&D really falls down on the horror front is the monotony of dungeons and the way it deploys monsters.

A part of the solution that I've found has to do with how you talk about things. Here's an excerpt from something on which I'm working:

Give Players however much information they want; their characters still have to dig around for it, they'll still have to spend Turns and actions poking around into thing, but they get the information. They get information, but no explanations:

they are in a dark tunnel and they see eyes in the dark, reflecting like a dog's, and they hear oncoming steps, quick breathing, the sound of metal hitting stone.

one of the magic-users throws a torch forward and they see something human shaped, clothed in rags, moving towards them at a run.

two fighters move forward, jabbing into the dark with their spears.

in the aftermath, they find a body, mangled.

Players: What was it?

You: Do you want to look at it? How are you going to inspect it?

Players: We'll poke it. If it's lying face down, we roll it over.

You: (because rolling it over sounds good and because you want to be verbose) it's human-shaped but small, maybe like a teenager or a malnourished teenager. It's bony and its skin is sort of grey, but it's also very dirty so you'd need to wash it off to tell its skin color for sure. Maybe the proportions are a little off? Maybe it's legs are a little short? It's wearing rags that look like they might have been clothes once. It's not holding anything. It has stringy hair. It doesn't respond when you poke it, it's like poking a raw turkey or chicken. You roll it over with a pole, which one of you is doing that? How close are you getting?

Players: I'm rolling it over and I guess I'll put a torch down by it and get close, but I'll have a shield up, in case. I'll have my spear like, on it.

You: OK. You roll it over with a pole and its arm flops to the side. It's nose is bloody and its face looks mostly human, though its mouth looks too big, maybe? There's something weird about its mouth. Anyone want to put their hand in its mouth?

Players: Nope. So is it like a human?

You: It's like a human, sure. It looks a lot like a human."

What they've just fought, in terms of stats, is a goblin. When they find more goblins later, they all look like the first one. There are also children like this goblin, and they're just as dangerous. Some don't speak, others speak in a language no one recognizes.

It's possible that in another bolthole there are goblins that look like this first one. There are certainly other goblins that look the same but who work differently. One can only be harmed in the light. Another heals whenever it's in the dark. A third heals any injury, even fatal ones, if buried in the earth. Others make elaborate traps. Some worship something made of blood and fire and it is their king and it gives them great strength and sight beyond the veil.

That's part of the puzzle anyway. The other part has to do with mechanics.

attribution: Sam Wolfe Connelly (who is amazing)

Thursday, March 19, 2015



There is an inside and an outside. Inside is always safe. Outside is maybe not safe. The imminence of danger outside and its desire or propensity to test the boundary or how leaky the boundary is describes your living circumstances or, if you're a character in a book or a game, your genre.

Adults have a much bigger inside space than kids. For kids, inside is your home and maybe some grassy area nearby. Maybe not your home all the time, just when it's well lit. And maybe not certain parts of the house, the places that are alcoves and behind a number of turns, where no one goes and being there feels like you're almost not in your house anymore. This is how you get to Narnia and this is why Pennywise peeks out of the sewers.

This isn't really rational, it's about feelings. It's about feelings and space and other living things and our senses interacting.

Senses and experience help make things inside. Sight is always better than sound and sound is better than smell and taste is pretty shit. I'm not sure where touch goes, touch seems to often betray me (why is it wet and slimy?). 


-If experience says: a dog bites the dog is outside and being confronted with the dog I may find myself suddenly outside too; 

-If experience says: a dog is warm and friendly and maybe even a protector and an ally, dogs are inside and I am inside when I'm around a dog;

-If I hear a dog and experience says: that's a dog, then we fall back to the previous constellation of things one could feel about dogs upon seeing them;

-If I hear a dog and experience says nothing about dogs,  then I default to "animal"

-If I hear an animal, and animal reads "probably another rabbit or something" I'm still safe

-If I hear an animal, and animal reads "could be a coyote" and then I think about teeth and claws or just rabies, i'm teetering on the border between in and out. 

Think about this and then think about what it's like running or sneaking through a forest at night or a dungeon with the short radius of a light a torch casts.


There is something nearby, something potentially outside, testing the boundary. Confronting it may leave me immediately outside, leaving it be may mean it gets in.

Lacking sufficient experience or knowledge, imagination jumps in and supplies possible answers to, "what is it outside?" and imagination gets dragged along by lizard brain until you're imagining someone living the crawlspace, scratching at the floorboards.

The point is: what is reliably in and what is likely out is learned but there are ways you trick yourself or let yourself be tricked out of knowledge.


For players to be frightened they (a) have to be willing to be frightened and (b) have have something to be frightened of. 

You can't do anything about (a), really. (b) requires a subtle series of traducements and something they care about that is being threatened.

Jaws and Alien and Phantasm and ghost stories and possession stories and slasher movies are usually about something implacable that emanates malevolent outside, something whose sheer presence gobbles up the safe inside and spits out outside and then navigating a small space with limited options to get away, to find your way back off this ice or out of the water and into safe territory. You don't see the monster all that much because being around it enough to really get a good look gets you dead.

Lovecraft and Ligotti and others are about the anxiety of outside getting in or that you've mistaken the outside for the inside and realize you are suddenly in deep, dark waters and something is brushing your feet. 

In the second mode, there is a hint of something wrong and then other hints and the players pull the thread and the whole thing comes apart. 

A boy stands inside his house looks out a window at night, and the light outside is dark blue, and the boy sees a shadowy man he does not know burying a sack at the base of the tree in his backyard. He is inside, watching the outside act like the outside. When the man is gone and things feel less outside, the boy digs up the sack:

He opened the bundle, to find a human heart inside. He recognized its shape and color from the picture he had seen in his encyclopedia. The heart was still fresh and alive and moving, like a newly abandoned infant. True, it was sending no blood out through its severed artery, but it continued to beat with a strong pulse. The boy heard a loud throbbing in his ears, but it was the sound of his own heart. The buried heart and the boy’s own heart went on pounding in perfect unison, as if communicating with each other.
-Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

That's the outside: dangerous, enigmatic, alien, unknown, communicating something almost understandable but not quite.

attribution: Osric90

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Monsters, new ruleset sort of

Working on new rules. Endurance is like HP, HD (hazard die) is what's rolled for damage. Here are some monsters.

scrambling eaters
Dextrous Monstrous Halfling HD6, 4 Endurance
-small, like a cross between a child’s corpse and a big cat
-night vision: eyes reflect light like a dog
-heal injuries in a few minutes in the dark or when eating
-hunts in threes, nests in 6s; nest has d2 Treasures

ghoul, ascended
Charismatic Monstrous Human HD8, 9 Endurance
-tall, humanoid form, translucent skin, bones and organs glowing as bright as daylight, speaks with two voices
-4 SP: Restore, Calm, Silence, Phase
-takes an extra pip of harm in star light
-attended by d3+1 pupal ghouls, in chapel: d3 Treasure, 1 Art

ghoul, pupal
Strong, Charismatic Monstrous Human HD6+1, 8 Endurance
-Light Armor
-tall, translucent humanoid, a whisper echoes whatever it says, but awkwardly, like it’s not used to a mouth or tongue

lonely hungerer
Strong Monstrous Human HD10, 12 Endurance
-Thick skin and bloodlust; as Heavy armor with helmet
-Tall, muscular, hulking, always male-looking, with wide mouth and baleful eyes (red in the half-light)
-lairs solitary, among the bones of humans, has d2 Treasure

Undead HD6+1, 6 Endurance
-luminous, ectoplasmic human shape, slit mouth, black eyes
-becomes something worse if it opens its mouth
-Cannot be injured or killed by normal means
-corpse may be treated as Fetish

failed chimera
Hardy, Monster, Once Human HD8+1 10 Endurance
-random Trait (determined by components)
-claws, teeth or beak in a jagged mouth and long black tongue and long stringy hair, 3+d4 limbs
-somewhere between a child and a predator, hunts, sings

infernal juror
Wise Enormous Masked Demon HD10+1, 16 Endurance
-increase damage die size for human or smaller creatures
-can only be injured by weapons of its own making
-can change sizes, and its mouth is a door and its throat a tunnel to hell
-d4+2 Treasure

star mite
Fast, Intelligent, Dextrous Monster HD6+1, 8 Endurance
-glowing, burrowing tick-like and dog-sized, attacks from loose earth and retreats, hates being seen
-sleeps when immersed in water, immune to heat, cold and pressure (including blunt trauma)
-consumes darkness, dreams, fantasies, nightmares; falls apart when it dies
-d4-3 Artefacts

Human HD6, 5 Endurance
-marked with a sign visible only in peripheral vision or mirrors
-knows a Secret about something dark and deep or far, inky and cold
-1 in 6 have a random Trait, HD6+1, 7 Endurance, +1XP, d2-1 Treasure

Human HD4, 3 Endurance
-important villagers have a random Trait, HD4+1, 5 Endurance, 1XP

the horde
Wise, Intelligent Monstrous Human HD6, 5 Endurance
-once abandoned children in rags, emaciated, a sign in their forehead
-appear in d3 or d8+2 numbers
-linked consciousness, telepathy
-live in sewers, alleys, dark places, hate the Empire, the wealthy
-1 XP

attributions: Rec, Blame!, Berserk, Sankai Jutsu, the Grudge, Dorehedoro, Wikipedia, the Village of the Damned
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