Sundays over Vathak - Visions of Horror

Last week, we talked about the way description and senses play into horror. There's a lot of ground to cover there, even without delving into the likes of Poe or Shelley.

And staying away from the greats of literature actually can help us here. Horror, particularly Gothic horror and cosmic horror, depends as much on what isn't seen as what is. And there are times that's the right approach. But, much in the way that slavishly following fantasy epics can result in lackluster campaigns, withholding information on Lovecraft's level can be unsatisfying as well.

Particularly for a Pathfinder game, where PCs might regularly find themselves toe-to-toe with the horrors in question, a more visceral or even "splatterpunk" feel can be a better fit. Survival horror can be just as good, if not better, when the full stakes are laid out on the table.

Faces of Vathak: Survivors

Before we can pull players into the depths of horror, we all need to remember it's still a game. This isn't a plea to play up the "game-like" elements, but instead a reminder that the game needs certain features to operate. Specifically, the players need to have enough information to make informed decisions. Even if leaving the house in the middle of the night and heading into the dark basement are both awful choices, those choices are vital to getting players invested in the story.

Most of the information players need to play the game comes in through their characters' sight. Obscuring sight needs to be done carefully in game, because it's easy to become frustrating rather than frightening.

Absolutely darkness is achievable in Pathfinder with certain spells or, with some parties, by a quick plunge into the water to snuff out torches. And remember that light only works on a single object per caster. But, even if spells and darkvision didn't make darkness a losing battle, you want the characters to be able to see your horrors the vast majority of the time... just not necessarily every detail of those horrors.

Even more so than movies, carefully directing characters' sight becomes important. Tools like Perception checks are the players windows into the world. With secret rolls, you can confuse and frighten players into doubting their characters' sanity. But with public rolls, you can just as easily hand out clues as little fragments of horror to those who roll the best.

As far as what they're seeing, movement is a key component, whether it's something only appearing for a moment or a bed of wriggling insects. Even the anticipation of movement can serve the same purpose, amping up the tension as players expect the snake to strike or the corpse to rise. Even in combat, keeping things both moving in description and literally moving around the battlefield is a key part of bringing horror into the action.

But, as we might talk about more in the coming weeks, sight is also a way to convey information about touch without trusting players to make mistakes. Sight lets us know when horrific things are slimy or cold or sharp without being dumb enough to touch them.

See you next week,

Landon Winkler, Line Developer Shadows over Vathak