Shadows over Vathak
Psychological horror is a close kin to cosmic horror and a tool that should always be considered for your games in Vathak.
One benefit of Vathak is that most of the PCs are going to have minds fairly close to our own. Setting aside the svirfneblin, Vathak's residents have brains that are similar to ours and reasons for their actions that meet human expectations. As such, it's easier to understand the thought process of a bhriota or even wretched bowing under stress than a completely alien creature.
Although psychological horror follows humans wherever they go, and even Pathfinder's normal magic makes the situation worse, the reality-warping powers of the Old Ones can open up new doors. Beyond that, the strange mixtures of the Dedicants to the Miasma and the unreality of places like the Silver Tower can all expose new cracks in the mind.
Pitting players against their own minds can be easier than it sounds and sometimes even comes up without intending it. Doubt in perception and doubt in pre-conceived notions can crop up, even if the player treats their character as nothing but a veil of numbers between them and the game world.
GMing a table gives a unique opportunity to control someone else's perspective and perceptions. Use it with respect and, until you're sure of yourself, with a light touch. But you can do some really cool things.
As in traditional cosmic horror, an unreliable narrator is one of the central conceits of psychological horror. What are people seeing and what does it mean that they're seeing them? Are the shadows supernatural monsters or the demons of their own minds?
Around the gaming table, having unreliable narrators presents a hurdle, but there are several ways to approach it. Some GMs prefer to hand out notes, trusting the players to keep things separated or even using the notes themselves to foster paranoia. But you can also twist the entire party's perception at once or pit competing visions of reality against each other within the party.
One tool for this can be secret rolls. When half the party can see a bridge over the chasm to freedom and the other half can't, it's much more effective if the players don't know which half failed their Will saves.
Perhaps even more so, is the character who sees the shape moving in the mist succeeding at a Perception check or failing a Will save?
Landon Winkler, Shadows over Vathak Line Developer
If Fallout is to be believed, war never changes. That's a bit of a double-edged sword for our exploration of the horrors of war in Vathak, because those horrors mirror the ones in our own world. On one hand, they're always relevant. On the other hand, do we really want draw horrors from that very real well of problems?
Regardless of how terrifying we make war, Vathak's history is written in red. Particularly since the coming of the vindari, the continent has been shaken by one war after another. The battles with the Vampire Lords, understandable civil unrest during the Great Cleansing, and now the war against the Spawn of the Old Ones.
Smaller conflicts also boil up, no less horrific for their size, with the mountain raiders trampling through Ina'oth and rebels in Sileasia trying to throw off Grigoria's yoke.
There are several facets to war horror stories and some of those will generally work better at the table than others.
The uncaring, unstoppable machine of war borders on cosmic horror, painting a universe that is deaf to the demands of its inhabitants. Using this theme when the other side are literal spawn of the Old Ones might be a little on the nose, but it can be surprisingly effective when players expect to be big damn heroes.
On a similar vein, the visceral horrors of war turn the expectations of Pathfinder on their head. Combat is brutal, in description even if not in mechanics, and often pointless. Hopelessness and futility are not often guests welcome at the gaming table, particularly because a lot of players sit down to blow off steam by dipping into a fantasy world where violence actually solves things. But, if you've got a group looking for a change of pace, a gritty war story can take you further from the expected than a game about prancing unicorns.
There is one piece of the war horror that every table can use, though: the horror that humans commit on each other. Even without talking about full-on war crimes, let the ethical grays of war seep into the populace, fighting or betraying for their own survival and ends rather than based on any moral compass... good or evil.
For your next story in Vathak, try to take your eye off the Old Ones for a moment. And consider what price the war has exacted from those fighting in it and those waiting back home for the hammer to fall.
See you next week!
Landon Winkler, Shadows over Vathak Line Developer
But there are a lot of types of horror out there and most of them have a place in Vathak. One type, as old as time but codified more recently, is body horror. It's a hard definition to put your finger on and why would you want to put your finger there?
Generally speaking, though, it's a question of the body betraying itself. There's an important line between something just being physically "wrong" and the sense of loss of control that goes along with body horror.
Cambions are a great example. A vindari sprouting tentacles, particularly if they don't obey him, is an excellent candidate for body horror. A cambion that's always had tentacles wouldn't have much reason for concern, unless they started acting on their own or suddenly went away.
Diseases and parasites, as can be found in Ina'oth and across Vathak, are considered the primal origin of body horror. Ghoul fever, lycanthropy, and vampirism are all manifestations of that fear, ripe for the taking.
As always, not everyone is interested in body horror or even its specific manifestations. You might suddenly find out your friend isn't into anything happening to teeth or your spouse can't handle fungus growing out of people. Sometimes you'll find out these new things together, so keep a close eye on people's reactions.
Even beyond the races and themes of Vathak, a lot of Pathfinder material can become fodder for body horror. Setting aside kytons and tumor familiars for a moment, a well-described baleful polymorph can be nightmare fuel and even attribute damage can be brutal when you capture the players' imagination.
And, perhaps more than anything else, that's the lesson of body horror. When you choose the right words and tone, even "everyday" adventuring obstacles can resonate through to the players in your living room.
Where Cosmic Horror might fly under the radar, even those who hate horror know the classic Gothic roster of monsters. Everything from fantasy to science fiction to romance draws from the deep well of Gothic horror. Shadows over Vathak continues that proud tradition, echoing Gothic elements throughout the setting.
The most obvious Gothic elements in Vathak are the fallen Vampire Lords and their progeny, particularly in the Colonies. But there's more to horror than the big "face" monsters. The crumbling towns of Ina'oth and the corrupt clergy of Grigoria are equally part of a Gothic setting.
Even more so than other forms of horror, it's easy to throw in the symbols of Gothic horror without really reaching its essence. A few bloodsuckers don't make a Twilight book or Buffy episode horror. And plenty of adventurers explore crumbling castles without experiencing the faintest flicker of fear.
The actual horror depends on pushing social and moral boundaries, showing the beast inside us all and the rifts we'd rather ignore in society. It's a tricky beast to capture at the gaming table.
Gothic horror is typically a slow burn, particularly compared to the average tabletop session, with a lot of time spent establishing the expectations... followed by transgressions that can be more unsettling than dramatic. For groups that really get into their characters' heads, the GM can push lightly and receive some horrifying results. But not every group or even every player in such a group works that way.
Especially for experienced players, the game carries its own set of expectations. In Pathfinder, combat solves a lot of problems and challenge rating is roughly appropriate to average party level, for example. And most gaming groups consider player agency important or even paramount. Like traditional Gothic horror gradually transgresses the social expectations of its era, a careful GM can push against willing players' expectations to achieve much the same effect.
Pushing against the expectations of the world and the game at the same time can be surprisingly effective as the horrors bleed into each other. The fact that it's in Vathak aside, one of my favorite examples of this is Red Rose Manor.
Although pacing for Gothic horror can be ponderous when set in our world, characters' baseline life in Vathak can be exciting and interesting (or terrifying in entirely different ways). By setting those expectations, you're doing the work of Gothic horror every session and your payoff sessions will be all the more memorable.
The second stop in our tour of horrors of Vathak is survival horror. Although some would argue that our greatest fear is fear of the unknown, death is definitely up there.
Perhaps its just me, but I don't think death is the scariest thing about survival horror. Terrible choices wait at every turn. At its most intense, survival horror is every bit as hopeless as its cosmic cousin, reflecting an awful loss of control. The slow, grinding loss of everyone valued by the players can also be worse than the simple threat of death (or, you know, become a popular series on HBO).
Vathak offers many possible fronts for survival horror. The spawn of the Old Ones threaten all human life, bridging cosmic and survival horror. An outbreak of lycanthropy in the Colonies or ghoul fever from Ina'oth can be a sign of Gothic decay or the spark for a blaze of survival horror. Perhaps worst of all, humans seek to exterminate others, with followers of the Old Ones coming down from the mountains and memories of the Great Cleansing still fresh in romni minds.
The unending supply of threats makes survival horror a natural fit for game sessions, but not every group will want to be slowly worn down by those threats into the realm of survival horror. It's important to judge how bleak players want things, even in a land as hostile as Vathak.
In many cases, the easiest way to handle survival horror is with a one-shot or short campaign. Tension can be kept up without slipping into depression and Pathfinder's arc of character advancement won't have the time to switch the PCs from hunted to hunters.
But, with the stirring of the Old Ones, Vathak can grow darker at a rate equaling or even exceeding PCs' rise to power. Players that strive under adversity could spend an entire campaign trying to catch up with the rising threat.
That said, survival horror, like many of Vathak's terrors, can be even more effective with a light touch. A few nights in a spawn-infested forest is all the more effective after a psychological session infiltrating the Dedicants to the Miasma or even a traditional dungeon crawl.