Silent Hill 2: A Psychoanalytical Reading

1. Putting things in context[*]

The plot in Silent Hill 2 is more complex and has more edges than one would suppose. It all begins when James Sunderland, in a rather depressing scene, in a dirty bathroom, looks at himself in the mirror and recapitulates what brought him here. He has received a letter from his wife, in which she asks him to come and find her in the resort town of Silent Hill. Nothing alarming, true, although strange enough for a video game, an industry where the narrative standard is that of a zombie invasion and a group of agents who must stop it and restore order. But right away comes the first quirk: James recognizes that it is absurd to be there looking for his wife, since she has been dead for three years. But he’s somehow convinced himself that she’s there, and he won’t leave without finding her. Let’s admit it, it’s crazy.

Characters

Throughout his adventure, James will meet other characters who seem to be looking for something in the same town. He interacts briefly with them, but although their relationship doesn’t go very deep, we get to know them quite well.

These characters catch our attention because of their realism and humanity, and the great interest they arouse can only be a representation of how important they are to James and to the story.

James Sunderland

James is the main character, and the one who will be controlled by the player[1]. He also serves as the link between the player and the universe displayed on the screen. He’s not an action hero, but a common man, still young (he’s 29 although he looks older), which allows the player a complete immersion in the plot. In other words, James is an average man who could be any of us.

At the beginning of the game, James makes it clear (to us) that his wife, Mary, has been dead for three years, but also that he’s recently received a mysterious letter written in her handwriting. In this letter she asks James to go find her at their “special place”, somewhere in Silent Hill. When in town, James is confronted by strange, nightmare-like events that force him to question the town, but also, and more importantly, his own sanity, his memories and his relationship with his deceased wife.

Mary Shepherd-Sunderland

James’ wife. The couple had vacationed in Silent Hill some time before, and James made a videotape of them in their room, but when they left, they left the tape behind. Mary liked the town so much that she asked James to take her there again.

Mary suffered from a painful illness that caused the progressive disintegration of her body and marriage. James didn’t visit her in the hospital often, as she had become grumpy and lost her beauty. But in the hospital, Mary found some solace in Laura, a little girl whom she grew to love and whom she planned to adopt when she overcame her illness.

James decided to put an end to their suffering, smothering Mary to death with her pillow. But James has forgotten this event. Throughout the game there are several symbols that have the function of reminding James of the tragic event, but only until we find video footage where the moment of the crime is explicitly seen (the video tape he recorded), James cannot make the repressed memory conscious.

Maria

When James arrives at Silent Hill following the letter Mary has sent him, he thinks he will find her in the park by the lake. In the letter, Mary asks him to look for her in their “special place,” and he assumes it’s there, where they had spent many happy afternoons.

But when he arrives, it’s not Mary but Maria who seems to be waiting for him. Maria not only shares the same name with Mary, she also has the same appearance, except for her hair and clothes (Mary has brown hair, wear light-colored clothes and has a sober style, Maria is blonde—bleached—with red tips, wears bright-colored clothes, sexy style and makeup).

After exchanging a few words she asks James if there might not be another “special place” to look for Mary, and he mentions that perhaps Mary meant the hotel. Maria tells him which way to go there, and as they say goodbye, she asks him not to leave her alone, as the city is full of monsters. James decides to take Maria with him.

Along the way, Maria is killed by an enemy known as Pyramid Head, a monster wielding a gigantic knife. James is shocked and devastated by the loss of Maria, more than what might be considered normal when faced with the death of a stranger. He later finds her again, alive and with no memory of what happened, except that they were separated. This confuses him, but he ends up accepting it without much questioning. Maria is killed several more times. This is, no doubt, a metaphor representing the murder of Mary by James himself. Maria is, of course, a copy or a reflection of Mary. This is clear in the extra scenario included in some versions of Silent Hill 2, called “Born from a wish”, i.e., “that which is born from a wish”: James’s desire to get Mary back, distorted because the sick Mary was not exactly what James wanted; but it’s also the unconscious desire to punish himself by reliving over and over again the crime he committed against his wife.

Mary’s personality is a dense web of complexes[2], at times she seems shy and fearful, at other times she appears confident and even mischievous. There are moments when she uses a sweet or seductive tone, which indicates her tender feelings for James, but she also knows—as seen in “Born from a wish”—that James is a bad man, who has killed his wife, however she “remembers” that underneath it all, he’s a kind and wounded man.

In several moments, Maria makes it clear that she’s a representation of Mary, as when she exhibits a remarkable concern for Laura, and demands James to look for her and protect her, or when in the hospital she feels sick and lies down in a room to recover, while James continues looking for the girl.

Despite the fact that Maria seems to have the keys to heaven (literally and figuratively speaking; remember that scene where to get from one street to the next they must go through the bar where Maria supposedly works, and which is called Heaven’s Night—a night in paradise?—she pulls out the keys she carries hidden to open the door and enter), James is so obsessed with finding his wife (or at least discovering the meaning of the letter received) that he generally does not pay too much attention to Maria, although after each of her deaths, he remains silent, suffering a real mourning for her death, which is also Mary’s death. In the last of these deaths, at the hands of not one but two Pyramid Heads, James has realized that he no longer needs Maria, for he has recognized his sin and is willing to purge it.

Angela Orosco

Angela Orosco is a young woman (she is 19 years old, but her appearance and voice make her look much older) who is looking for her mother in Silent Hill. She’s been a victim of sexual abuse by her father, Thomas Orosco, who, according to a note in a newspaper that we find, has been killed by receiving multiple stabs in the neck; neither the attacker nor the weapon have been found.

She’s a shy, introverted woman, and her clothes (jeans, white turtleneck sweater, covering her whole body) give her the typical appearance of a person who has suffered abuse in the past (partly because wearing a lot of clothes makes abuse difficult), and the first time we see her, she’s in a cemetery, in a white mist. She also suffers from delusions; on one occasion she mistakes James for her mother, and in another scene, when James has defeated a monster, Angela finishes it off by throwing a television at it, and complaining for the damage it has done to her. The monster is called “abstract daddy”, and represents Angela’s father.

When later James finds Angela in a room holding a knife, evidently contemplating suicide, he tries to help her and talk her out of it. Angela asks him to hold the knife for her in case she needs it later. Elsewhere, James tries to touch Angela’s hand to instill reassurance, and she complains, tells him he’s a liar and that he has surely left his wife to go with another woman (this is important, can Angela see James’s real face?) She also shows her repulsion for all men. Some of her words addressed to James are: “So what do you want, then? Oh, I see… You’re trying to be nice to me, right? I know what you’re up to! It’s always the same! You’re only after one thing!“, “No… don’t pity me. I’m not worth it… Or maybe… you think you can save me. Will you love me…? Take care of me…? Heal all my pain…? …That’s what I thought.”

The last time we meet her, she’s going to the top of a building; the stairs where she is leaving are on fire. We have entered her personal hell, which is not made up of monsters but of burning fire. We can intuit that the only monster she sees is her father. Her delirium would have led her to take literally the idea that her father, the abuser, is a monster; James manages to see this monster, but only in an abstract form (“abstract daddy”). At times Angela seems to be interested in James, and it seems that she tries to seduce him but does not succeed.

James sees himself in Angela, who wants to punish herself for having murdered her father.

Laura

She is an 8-year-old orphan girl whom James frequently encounters in Silent Hill. Unlike the other characters, she doesn’t seem to be afraid of the city, and when he asks her if she’s not afraid of monsters, she looks at him curiously, almost mockingly (monsters? How crazy), since she’s the only innocent person, and therefore doesn’t see monsters or strange things, including Maria (although Maria tells James to protect Laura, we never really see Maria and Laura together or interact in any way. Truth be told, Maria never appears with any other character besides James).

Before the events of Silent Hill 2, Laura and Mary became friends, and during the game’s story, she also seems to be looking for Mary. In the introductory video to the game, we see her with Eddie, and this brief scene indicates that they may have arrived in town together in the van he drives. Laura is a temperamental child, James calls her a liar on one occasion.

Laura also has a dislike for James. But the aversion she feels is due to his relationship with Mary. To Laura, he’s a bad man who has hurt her friend, and near the end of the story, it is she who, indirectly, helps him recognize that it was he who ended his wife’s life.

Although at the beginning she is an enemy of James, in the end she becomes kinder, because perhaps she has gotten to know him a little better and realizes that he isn’t the monster she thought, but a man tormented by his inner demons, by guilt and sadness.

Or, you know, because she’s a little girl and was hoping to find in Mary a mother… and in James a father.

Eddie Dombrowski

Eddie is the least ambivalent of all the characters in Silent Hill. When you first meet him, he’s vomiting copiously in a bathroom, having found a dead body in the refrigerator. He seems like a scary and somewhat ridiculous young man, he dresses like a child and his clothes are too small for him. He also seems to see monsters, but he doesn’t know about “that red pyramid thing” James talks about. Eddie sees his own monsters.

He has arrived in town along with Laura, and on one occasion we see them interacting more or less amicably. Laura insults him, but he doesn’t seem bothered, as busy as he is eating a pizza. There is not much we can know about his life before these events, but it is clear that he has not had it easy and that he’s been a victim of abuse (bullying, probably), on top of that we know that he’s on the run from the authorities, and that’s why he ended up in Silent Hill.

Eddie usually represses his anger (as happens when Laura insults him), but he also manifests some aggressive outbursts, as we can observe in some of his conversations with James.

Every time we meet Eddie, he’s near bodies that have been horribly murdered, and he always insists that he had nothing to do with it (psychoanalysis has taught us that when someone is faced with a fact too uncomfortable to accept, he or she rejects it by insisting that it is not true, even if there is evidence to the contrary. When a person offers a denial without being asked, as Eddy does, it’s a clear indication of this kind of abnegation.)

In one of their encounters, Eddie boasts of having killed the man whose corpse we can see to one side, but then laughs and says it was just a joke, and immediately leaves. Soon after James finds three open graves, each with a name written on it: James, Eddie, Angela: the three sinners who roam the streets of Silent Hill.

In his final encounter, Eddie no longer presents the defensive attitude but is proud of his crimes. He states that he will kill anyone who belittles or mocks him, even with their eyes. James manages to penetrate Eddie’s personal hell, becoming a cold-blooded murderer, which appears as a container of meat. It’s a cold space, with pieces of meat hanging from hooks, the pieces vaguely human-shaped. Although James tries to reason with him, it’s not possible, for Eddie doesn’t listen to reasoning and takes it as an insult, so James will be forced to defend himself against Eddie’s attacks, and must kill him if he is to survive. This shows that James, deep down, is indeed capable of killing another human being.

James sees himself in Eddy, who stops running away from his personal hell to instead embrace it, becoming a murderer and feel proud about it.

Monsters

Monsters are more relevant in Silent Hill 2 than almost in any other video game (and many literary and cinematic works of horror), as they are not creatures thrown around randomly, but serve a symbolic function in addition to their normal function as enemies to fight.

Pyramid Head

He is the main monster in Silent Hill 2. He looks like a burly man wearing a pyramid-shaped helmet that causes him pain (that’s a common thing in the Silent Hill series, the monsters not only cause pain to the characters, but they themselves are victims of some kind of suffering), and he carries a gigantic knife with which he attacks James and Maria, and later, a wooden spear. His first appearance is in a hallway, right in front of James, but there is a grate in between that prevents passage for either of them; at this point, he represents a mirror of James himself. Later he’s found attacking or maybe sexually abusing two mannequins, and James makes him run away with pistol shots. Shortly thereafter, the creature attacks James on a stair landing, from which James manages to escape with his life almost by miracle. In the end it is two identical monsters that James must fight. After causing them a certain amount of damage, the creatures walk to the center of the room and commit suicide.

Pyramid Head represents James himself, tormented by his burden (the metal helmet for the monster, and the guilt for James; the helmet is a kind of shackle but for the head, for the mind). This representation is clear from the first encounter, when James and the monster face each other, as if in a mirror. Pyramid Head attacks James, but also other beings (demon patient, mannequin, Maria), symbolizing James’s own aggressions against Mary (the mannequin seems to symbolize Mary; at one time we find a mannequin wearing Mary’s clothes after all). When he finally recognizes that he’s to blame for everything, he no longer needs Pyramid Head, so the latter kills jimself, which could also be a warning of James’s own suicidal desire.

In essence, Pyramid Head is James’s punisher, who believes he deserves to receive punishment for killing his wife, but at the same time he represents James himself, as we see the creature commit the same brutal acts that haunt James’s mind, whether he committed them (such as the death of Maria/Mary) or thought them up (he’s not only a punisher, he’s might be a sexual abuser). Pyramid Head tries to kill James, but at the same time opens the way for him to move on (when he allows him to go down the flooded stairs, and when he throws him over the edge of the hospital rooftop, so he can move on), i.e. Pyramid Head is James’s unconscious mind, which at the same time tries to remind him and hide his crimes from him. It’s the repressed desire that seeks to come to light, and also the resistances that want to keep it hidden.

Demon patient

They look like psychiatric hospital patients trapped in straitjackets, naked and semi-disembodied, but the straitjackets are made of their own skin. There is no doubt that their primary significance is to remind us of James’s madness, both in their aggressiveness (they are slow, persistent, wide-ranging enemies, just like the madness) and in their fragility. Trapped in their own bodies.

Mannequin

It’s a mannequin that, from the waist down, is shaped like a woman, and instead of arms has another pair of female legs, which lack feet. The mannequin is a representation of James’s sexual desires and his frustration related to his wife’s illness. The first time this monster appears, there’s two of them, and both are being apparently raped by Pyramid Head, while James watches the scene, hidden in a closet.

A mannequin is a less-than-human thing that reminds us of a human. Mary’s illness took away her beauty, and this, in James’s eyes, is tantamount to having lost what made her human.

Bubble head nurse

These are nurses who wear provocative attire, but are covered in filth and their faces are bandaged, revealing only jagged jaws. A second class of nurses, found in the dark, have their heads covered with a semi-transparent latex-like material similar to a condom, but which also could be interpreted as a symbols of suffocation. These monsters attack with a rusty tube. They represent, no doubt, James’s sexual desires, but they also remind him of his wife’s condition and her hospitalization. This enemy reminds us that James killed Mary by suffocating her, but at the same time, it’s another reminder of the sexual theme so present in the game. Sex and death, so close to each other.

“Bubble head,” in colloquial slang, is used to denote that someone is stupid (“empty-headed”). James shows a grudge against the doctors and nurses who “let Mary die” during her illness, and killing these monstrous nurses may also be a form of retribution.

Mary

Mary is the last monster that James fights, at the end of the game. Depending on the decisions made during the adventure, James meets either Mary or Maria on the hotel rooftop. If it is Maria (disguised as Mary; a last attempt to convince James to stay with her), James will reject her and she will transform into the monster. If it is Mary we meet, she will reproach James for killing her and immediately attack James.

This monster is a representation of Mary in her terminal stage, she’s lying on a metal frame, her limbs have turned into tentacles and she’s hanging upside down. It attacks James in three ways: by throwing a swarm of moths at him, by hitting him with the metal frame, or by suffocating him with the tentacles. The moths represent death (compared to Maria’s tattoo, which is a butterfly and symbolizes rebirth—a new beginning, perhaps?)

2. The Theme of the Three Caskets

The central motif in Silent Hill 2 is one that comes from ancient tales and legends: the choice of the casket. This theme concerns a person, usually a man, who must choose between three metal caskets (gold, silver, lead), and the one he chooses will seal his fate. The caskets represent women, like any other similar objects (brooches, drawers, trunks, baskets, chests). They’re actually symbols of the vagina, and the vagina represents a woman.

We find this motif in two of Shakespeare’s plays: King Lear (the old king must hand over the kingdom to one of his three daughters, the one who proves to love him the most) and The Merchant of Venice (three men will choose between three caskets, the one who makes the right choice will marry the merchant’s daughter), and also in many folk tales and fables, such as Cinderella (the prince who must choose between the three sisters), or Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (where a man must decide which is the most beautiful among the three goddess sisters), and so on.

James must choose between three women: Mary, Maria and Angela. This is not very clear in the game, but is a very subtle element, related to small decisions that we make throughout the game. For example, when Angela hands over her knife, we can enter the inventory to observe it, and this would be interpreted as James considering the possibility of suicide; when we meet Mary for the first time we can go directly to the hotel or wander the streets, which would be interpreted as a desire to meet Mary or to spend time with Maria; and so on).

This series of decisions will lead to one of the three possible endings of the game, i.e. the different fates for James. Each ending is represented by one of the three women.

Mary

If we or James choose Mary, what happens is the following: James discovers that he killed Mary and therefore felt guilty and sought his punishment in Silent Hill, but now he has forgiven himself and decides to continue with his life. As Mary is dead, it seems that James, regaining his sanity, will be left alone… but this is not the case, as he is soon joined by Laura. Laura becomes the daughter of Mary and James. They both visit Mary’s grave, leave her flowers and leave together, like a father and daughter. Sanity and life has won out, one might say.

Maria

If on the other hand we or James choose Maria, upon defeating the monster Mary, James returns to the lake where he first met Maria, and she’s there, waiting for him. Together, they leave Silent Hill. But, as they walk away, Maria begins to cough, perhaps an indication that her story with Mary is to be repeated. It’s delirium that has triumphed (remember that Mary is not real, but an illusion created by James to remember and hide the fact that he has killed his wife), and the tragedy can be expected to repeat itself. After all, trauma has a tendency to repeat itself over and over.

Angela

Although James doesn’t seem interested in Angela, she is presented as a seductress (in one scene, James finds three tablets, representing the “archetypes” of “the oppressor”, “the gluttonous pig” and “the seductress”. The latter represents Angela and sexual urges). James, though he doesn’t manifest it, might be interested in her in a sexual way (this is inferred only by the presence of this tablet), and it’s sometimes obvious that she thinks that to be the case, but what is clear is that he’s tempted to follow the fate she has outlined by handing him the knife and telling him “You are just like me”: i.e. death. If the choices in the play lead James to choose neither Mary nor Maria, which are the two active choices, that is, if he chooses Angela, which is the passive choice, the non-choice, it means that he chooses death over madness and sanity (life) and ends up committing suicide, throwing himself into the lake.

3. Who are they?

But who are these three women really? In myths, tales and legends, like those mentioned earlier and other similar, the third and younger of the three women (sisters, most of the time) is always chosen. “The third of those sisters, among whom one has to choose, would be a dead one. But it could also be something different: death itself or the goddess of death”[3]. Following this reasoning, these three women represent “the three inevitable relationships with woman: the mother, the companion and the destroyer. Or the three forms that the image of the mother takes in the course of life: the mother herself, the beloved, chosen in her image, and, finally the mother earth, who welcomes us back into her womb.”[4]

Mary is the mother, the one who gives birth, the one who gives James a daughter, though not a natural daughter but an adopted one: Laura. In this sense, Mary is also a mother, James’ wife who was chosen in the likeness of the biological mother (this we can only assume, as there is no reference to James’s parents); moreover, Mary’s name refers to the Virgin Mary, the mother of God and of all men, in Catholic mythology.

Maria is the companion, or the beloved, chosen in the likeness of the mother/Mary; Maria is similar to Mary, even in name, but idealized, modeled after James’s desire.

Angela, whose name is the feminization of the angel, is the destroyer, the corrupter, the seductress; her seduction goes beyond the sexual, it’s above all biological: she’s death, the grave, so seductive to James that it is the most likely ending we will get (and it’s the canonical ending). She wears white and appears for the first time among white mists; this color, in Japanese Buddhism (the game was created by a Japanese team), represents death. Also, as in the stories, Angela is the youngest of the three women, but unlike these stories, here we can choose any of them. We can choose our own fate.

Notes

[*] I wrote this essay as part of a postgraduate course in psychoanalysis applied to works of art, in 2013. Although some concepts have changed over the past 8 years, my thesis on SH2 remains the same. I publish it here because I have no other space where to do it. After all, I have written about video games before.

[1] These two sentences seem obvious, but whoever has played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (deconstruction of the original game) knows that being a protagonist and being a player character are not necessarily the same thing.

[2] Complex: Organized set of representations and memories endowed with intense affective value, partially or totally unconscious. A complex is formed from the interpersonal relationships of childhood history; it can structure all psychological levels: emotions, attitudes, adapted behaviors. (Jean Laplanche y Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. “Complejo”, en: Diccionario de psicoanálisis. Barcelona. 2004.)

[3] Sigmund Freud. “El tema de la elección de un cofrecillo”, en. Obras Completas 2. España, Biblioteca Nueva. 2003. p. 1871. (en 3 tomos). [English translation]

[4] Ibid. p. 1875.

1d6 effects The Blood has (2 new OSR random tables)

I am paralyzed by the Blood of Christ
Though it clouds my eyes
I can never stop
-The Cure

So you got a test tube worth of Christ’s blood*. Surely you can use it as a grenade or, perhaps, as a potion. I mean, why not? But its effects may not be so obvious.

I Drink The Blood

  1. You gain the ability to cast spells as a Cleric two levels below your current level. You cannot progress as a Cleric, you are not multiclassed.
  2. You regenerate your cellular tissue. If you have wounds or scars, they are erased. Your hair regains its color. You no longer need glasses. Your HP is full again. If your HP was already full when you ingested The Blood, make a saving throw vs poison; if you fail, you gain 1d4 permanent HP; each week repeat the above. When the new total is more than double the original value, your blood will mutate and become cancerous, you will gain 1 permanent HP each day, but you will lose 1 permanent CON point; as you lose 25% CON, tumors, bruises and oozes will begin to appear all over your body. Now only a miracle could save your life.
  3. Save vs poison or you will go blind. From now on, you can only eat fish and bread.
  4. The water in your blood turns to wine, you are now permanently drunk with the penalties this entails: -1 or -2 to most rolls, you lose your inhibitions–you become sensitive, violent, cheerful or sad, depending on your personality or what you want to roleplay now.
  5. You can revive a single person or animal that died no more than 10 minutes ago. The revived must save vs poison; if it fails, it will become undead in 1d4 nights. If you die before using this power, you will be the one who revives (with the same chance of becoming undead).
  6. You understand the language of pigeons, snakes and burning bushes. In addition, you gain the Carpentry skill (2-in-6 or 33%).

I Throw The Blood

  1. The target must save vs paralysis or for 1d4 rounds she will not be able to approach you more than 5 meters, not as though there were an invisible barrier, but as though she was afraid to do so.
  2. The blood erupts in a flare of red fire in the shape of a cross like in Evangelion, causing 5d4 damage to the target, and 1d4 to anyone in the immediate area.
  3. The victim gets bleeding wounds on hands, feet, side of the body, back and head; each round she does not treat these wounds, she will lose 7 hp (1 hp for each wound).
  4. The victim must save vs paralysis or he will be blinded for 2 rounds; all his sight-dependent rolls will be made at -4.
  5. The target has an epiphany and realizes the error of his ways. He flees as fast as he can and goes in search of the true meaning of his life. He will convert to Christianity and join the first Christian or Catholic community he comes across. Perhaps he will reappear as a friendly NPC, and have a special fondness for the PC who threw The Blood at him. And when I say special, I mean special; you know how those Christian perverts are.
  6. The target is multiplied; 1d4 replicas, with the same stats, sprout from it.

*Or any other imaginary being, of course.

1d6 things that happen when a spellcaster dies

  1. After 1d4 rounds, the lifeless body explodes into a pillar of energy, two or three meters in diameter. The pillar can pass through any surface. After 5-10 seconds, the energy dissipates.
  2. Something like a black hole is formed over the corpse, from which “something” will escape in 1d4 rounds (anti-matter slime, a lich with whom the caster had a contract, jesus christ… the referee should have a list of special random encounters for a situation like this).
  3. In 1d4 rounds, the corpse is re-animated. It uses the stats of a zombie or skeleton, but every time it should attack, instead of making a regular attack, there is a 1-in-6 chance that it will cast one of the spells it still had before it was a stiff. Can’t prepare more spells.
  4. A door-like portal opens at the corpse’s feet; from it a demon, angel, or other soul trader emerges, takes the corpse in its arms, and departs the way it came without addressing a word to anyone. If the body has what the PCs were looking for or they just want to loot: “You want this? Let’s make a deal.”
  5. Dozens of horrible and in general ‘wrong’ rats come out of all the holes and corners and in one round, all they leave of the corpse are the bones and any non-organic objects it had on it.
  6. In 1d4 rounds, the corpse begins to convulse and moan, but its voice is heard as if coming from within. One round later, a living replica of itself escapes from the corpse, its eyes flooded with cosmic horror. If the character belonged to a player, he can continue to use it normally, but now it will be obsessed to know what happened (as a child it made a pact with the devil as a joke, but the devil pretended it wasn’t a joke. Or something else).
‘Oh, it seems Vaudelare the Sublime bit the dust. I wonder if I can find anything of value there.’

Dungeon Design | Dungeons are Angry Houses

I think a lot about dungeons. I have written several things about the nature of dungeons, it’s a subject that fascinates me, and I constantly read things that make me think about them from a different point of view, or that allow me to complement the ideas I already had.

This time I came up with an idea that sounds both absurd and intriguing: dungeons are angry houses.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met nearly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

An uninhabited house (or castle, or fortress, or wizard’s tower) begins to present anomalies. Houses don’t belong to nature, they’re human creations to be inhabited. An uninhabited house begins to dream, and given enough time, the house loses its sanity and its dreams begin to present anomalies: the dream of the house invades reality in an attempt to replace what it’s missing.

Eleanor shook herself, turning to see the room complete. It had an unbelievably faulty design which left itchillingly wrong in all its dimensions, so that the walls seemed always in one direction a fraction longer than the eye could endure, and in another direction afraction less than the barest possible tolerable length”.
-Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

The things of the dream that invade the reality of the uninhabited house modify its structure. The house longs to be inhabited, thus becoming a beacon that attracts strange things, both from the dream side and from worlds that do not belong to human reality: monsters and madmen.

The very structure of the house begins to change. With no human presence to control it and direct it at its convenience, the house changes by itself, in a cruel parody. Labyrinthine corridors separate rooms that should normally be joined, narrow corridors link chambers that should never touch.

After enough time, an uninhabited house loses every characteristic that once defined it as a house. It is now something else, something uninhabitable (at least by humans; at least by humans with a normal mind), a labyrinth, a tomb of horrors, a dungeon.

What happens to a house when it is left alone? It becomes worn, and aged. Its paint peels, its foundation begins to sink. It goes for too long unlived in. What does it think of? What does it dream? How does it look on those creatures who built it, brought it into existence only to abandon it when its usefulness no longer satisfies them? They grow lonesome. It stares for long hours into the darkness of its own empty halls and sees shadows. And they jump as they think, here, here is someone again I’m not alone. And each time it is wrong, and the hurt starts over. It may haunt itself, inventing ghosts to walk its floors, making friends with its shadow puppets, laughing and whispering to itself at the end of some quiet culdesac. It may grow angry. Its basement may fill with churning acid like an empty stomach, and its gorge may rise as it asks itself through clenched teeth, “what did I do wrong?”. It may grow bitter. It may grow hungry. So hungry and so bitter that its scruples dissolve and its doors unlock themselves. While a house may hunger it cannot starve. And so in fever and anger and loneliness, it may simply lie in wait. Doors open, shades drawn, halls empty. Hungry.”
-Kitty Horrorshow, Anatomy

Artist: Mutartis Boswell

Gone mad at last, the house begins to attract (or develop) strange technologies: traps, riddles, tricks. Now she dreams of taking revenge on those who abandoned her, but… how to attract them? How do clams attract men?

The house produces treasures; the anomalous inhabitants of this house are not interested in these treasures, but the humans are, and whether they decide to go themselves for those treasures they intuitively know are in there, or they send a group of adventurers willing to risk their skin for a handful of silver coins, the house will be waiting for them to attempt their annihilation or to lock them within its walls, forcing them to inhabit it again. Angry-mad houses long to be inhabited again but their longing is perverted.

And what happens when someone stays long enough locked up in an abnormal house? The house changes him. This is why a large number of dungeons are inhabited by “things” that were once human and are now just a decadent shadow of themselves, crazed and hungry, or desirous of companionship, of someone to make their doom more bearable. Robbed of their agency, they seek to impose what little power they have left on others.

And he shall look at the lesion. Now, [if] the lesion in the walls of the house consists of dark green or dark red sunken looking stains, appearing as if deeper than the wall…”
-Leviticus 14:37

More time has passed. The structure of the uninhabited house goes from bad to worse. If at first the structure, although changed, maintained a semblance of reality or conformed, at least in general, to the laws of physics, after some more time these same laws begin to mutate inside. The house is completely sick, the house now looks like a teratoma.

Visitors (invaders) feel confused or disgusted when contemplating the stained walls of these rooms and corridors, stains that seem to float off the wall or to be embedded at a deeper level than the wall itself.

Perceptions are affected and it is not easy to know if it is due to the “psychic force” of the house, or if one is really immersed in a non-Euclidean space, or even outside space itself. The most sensible thing to do would be to destroy this anomaly, to set it on fire, to eliminate it from reality.

Mundaun

Dungeon Design | Elements that a dungeon must have

There are three main motivations for an old-school player, and all three must be fulfilled in a dungeon:

  • Explore and find things
  • Gold and treasure
  • Fighting with something

There is a fourth motivation, but I consider it secondary to the previous ones:

  • Talking to someone.

Exploring and finding things

Some players are more interested in exploration and discovery. Give them something interesting to discover and they will be satisfied. Ancient or alien technologies; murals and clay tablets depicting the origin, evolution and decay of an extinct race; a microscope with lenses of an unknown crystal that allows you to observe an entire universe in a drop of water; a glimpse into an entirely new reality.

Gold and treasures

Perhaps the easiest motivation to satisfy, but it doesn’t have to be boring. Yes, gold and silver coins are fine, but a library of incunabula is better; other options are: works of alien or perverted art, weird biological samples for a scientist or a magician, the only existing portrait of the last king of Atlantis, a set of silver and jewelled weapons and ornaments that seems to have been used in a ritual eons ago.

Fighting with something

What makes a violent encounter different from any other violent encounter? A) What’s at stake. The adventurers have already found the treasure and discovered the secret origin of the human race, but these bandits stand between them and the luxurious revelry and glorious fame that awaits them upon their return to the surface. B) A new monster. Something that could only inhabit these dark corridors lost in time, something that the adventurers do not know how to defeat and that forces them to use their wits and any available resources. C) The terrain. A dungeon is not a city, it is not a forest, nor is it a castle; the terrain can be used to your advantage, but it can also be a risk: if a room contains fungi that produce gases, can it be used to make the enemy go boom?

Talking to someone

Not, of course, with people identical to those found on the surface, in the cities and towns of the human world. What will the snake-man talk about when he is awakened from his 100,000-year slumber? What will the strange formation of mold and fungus that has acquired consciousness after eons be thinking about? What does the King of the Tyrant Lizards have to ask you? And what about that incorporeal voice that seems amazed or amused but not hostile?

So, motivation

This guide is not definitive or absolute, it is just a reflection of where I am as a referee at the moment, a guide for the adventures I have designed and will continue to use for my next adventures.

Art: Brian Allen

Random Troll Generator

Trolls call me moon of the dwelling-Rungnir, giant’s wealthsucker,
storm-sun’s bale, seeress’s friendly companion,
guardian of corpse-fjord, swallower of heaven wheel;
what is a troll other than that?
(Snorri Sturluson)

The Nature of Trolls

According to existing literature, trolls were originally “creatures of nature”, i.e. creatures that one could encounter in nature. And specifically, they were present in the Scandinavian landscapes, before the industrial period, before they began to travel the world and be found in the soup.

But Scandinavian languages are complex, and the origins and meaning of ‘troll’ is lost in time. For example, the prefix troll- means ‘magic’ in Swedish, as in Mozart’s Zauberflöte (‘Magic Flute’), or Trollflöjtan. At the same time, troll- means ‘giant’ in Icelandic.

Basically, trolls are bad news. Either magical or gigantic beings, they are not good. And, like the troll woman from Snorri’s poem, a troll can be, ultimately, anything.

Making Trolls

1. Size

Trolls come in various sizes, some are smaller than a human being while others are as big as a sequoia (or, perhaps, even bigger).

Roll 1d10 to find out the size of the troll, then roll the die in parentheses to get the troll’s HD; you will also find out the movement rate (MOV) of each variety; remember that humans have a MOV of 120′.

1d10 / Size

  1. Small (1d2 HD), MOV 90′
  2. Small (1d2 HD), MOV 90′
  3. Human-size (1d6 HD), MOV 120′
  4. Human-size (1d6 HD), MOV 120′
  5. Human-size (1d6 HD), MOV 120′
  6. Large (2d4+1 HD), MOV 120′
  7. Large (2d4+1 HD), MOV 120′
  8. Huge (3d4 HD), MOV 180′
  9. Huge (3d4 HD), MOV 180′
  10. Colossal (3d6+1d4 HD), MOV 240′

Note: Small and human-sized trolls are social beings and are found in groups of at least 1d6+2. The others are solitary and are usually found alone, only rarely found in very small groups.

Morale: Referees have every right to assign any morale value (ML) to their creations, but if they wish to leave it to chance, it is easy to do so: To find out their current ML value, small trolls, roll 2d6; human-sized trolls roll 1d6+6; large, huge and colossal trolls, roll 1d4+8.

2. Armor Class

Not all trolls have the same type of skin, some are as fragile as a human being, others may be as tough as a rhinoceros or even invulnerable to physical attacks.

To find out the natural armor of a troll, roll 1d6 and compare the result.

1d6 / AC

  1. AC 12
  2. AC 12
  3. AC 14
  4. AC 16
  5. AC 18
  6. AC 20

Note: AC 12 is equivalent to an unarmored human; AC 14 is equivalente to leather armor; 16 is chainmail and 18 is full plate. AC 20 is beyond full plate; it can be harder than stone or an almost immaterial substance.

3. Attacks

Trolls are aggressive creatures, intelligent enough to use weapons, but malicious enough to prefer the use of claws and teeth to tear apart the bodies of their victims.

Roll 1d8 twice to know the troll’s attack(s).

1d8 / Attack

  1. 2 claws (damage: 1d4+1d4 small; 1d6+1d6 human-size, large; 1d8+1d8 huge, 1d12+1d12 colossal)
  2. 2 claws (damage: 1d4+1d4 small; 1d6+1d6 human-size, large; 1d8+1d8 huge, 1d12+1d12 colossal)
  3. 2 claws (damage: 1d4+1d4 small; 1d6+1d6 human-size, large; 1d8+1d8 huge, 1d12+1d12 colossal)
  4. Stone mace (dmg: 1d6 small, human-size, 1d8 large, 1d10 huge, 2d10-1 colossal)
  5. Stone mace (dmg: 1d6 small, human-size, 1d8 large, 1d10 huge, 2d10-1 colossal)
  6. Bite (dmg: 1d4 small, 1d6 human-size, 1d8 large, 1d10 huge, 2d8-1 colossal)
  7. Bite (dmg: 1d4 small, 1d6 human-size, 1d8 large, 1d10 huge, 2d8-1 colossal)
  8. Bite (dmg: 1d4 small, 1d6 human-size, 1d8 large, 1d10 huge, 2d8-1 colossal)

If you get the same attack twice, the form of attack or the damage it causes, changes like this:

Claws: The damage die goes up to the next type (1d4 becomes 1d6, 1d12 becomes 1d20, etc.) Note: If both claw attacks succeed against the same enemy in the same round, the troll will make an additional attack, tearing the flesh of its victim, causing an additional damage die equal to that of one of the claws.

Mace: The troll can make one additional attack at the end of each round, regardless of its position in the initiative queue; this extra attack is made with a -2 penalty and can only be directed at an adjacent target.

Bite: Roll a die; if the result is an odd number, the damage die goes up to the next type; if the result is an even number, the troll can make an extra attack at the end of each round, at a -4 penalty, using its inordinately large and protruding fangs.

In addition to this, trolls usually attack by throwing stones (or trees!) from a distance. More than a form of combat, these are intimidation tactics.

4. Ability Scores and Modifiers

All abilities start with a score of 12.

Roll 1d12 for each ability score you want to modify, or choose the one you prefer. The result indicates a modifier between -3 and +3; the number in parentheses is the corresponding ability score (for instance, DEX 16 has a modifier of +2).

1d12 / Modifier (Ability Score)

  1. +1 (13)
  2. +1 (13)
  3. +1 (13)
  4. +2 (16)
  5. +2 (16)
  6. +3 (18)
  7. -3 (3)
  8. -2 (5)
  9. -2 (5)
  10. -1 (8)
  11. -1 (8)
  12. -1 (8)

5. Powers

Just as trolls come in all sizes and varieties, their powers are also quite varied. Make a roll according to the table corresponding to the size of the troll to find out its powers.

Small. 1d6 / Power

  1. None
  2. Regeneration (1hp)
  3. Regeneration (1hp)
  4. Immortality
  5. Metamorphosis
  6. Opportunism

Human-size. 1d8 / Power

  1. None
  2. Regeneration (1hp)
  3. Regeneration (1hp)
  4. Immortality
  5. Metamorphosis
  6. Invisibility (1/day)
  7. Opportunism
  8. Roll again until you get two powers

Large. 1d10 / Power

  1. None
  2. Regeneration (1d4hp)
  3. Regeneration (1d4hp)
  4. Immortality
  5. Invulnerability
  6. Invisibility (1/day)
  7. Freezing Touch
  8. Blizzard
  9. Fascination
  10. Roll again until you get two powers

Huge. 1d12 / Power

  1. None
  2. Regeneration (1d4hp)
  3. Regeneration (1d4hp)
  4. Immortality
  5. Invulnerability
  6. Invisibility (2/day)
  7. Supreme Strength
  8. Blizzard
  9. Fascination
  10. Freezing Touch
  11. Howling (1d3)
  12. Roll again until you get two powers

Colossal. 1d12 / Efecto

  1. Intangibility (1/day)
  2. Regeneration (1d8hp)
  3. Regeneration (1d8hp)
  4. Immortality
  5. Invulnerability
  6. Invisibility (3/day)
  7. Supreme Strength
  8. Blizzard
  9. Fascination
  10. Freezing Touch
  11. Howling (1d4)
  12. Roll again until you get two powers

Blizzard. The troll summons forth a blast of icy wind that can blow out any flames and hurl flying creatures or hold human-sized creatures back from moving.

Fascination. When contemplating this troll, the adventurer must save versus magic or be fascinated (or terrified if the monster is particularly horrible or bizarre) and won’t be able to act for one round.

Freezing Touch. The troll must succeed on an attack roll to touch its victim with its palm, causing 1d4 cold damage; the victim must also save versus paralysis or suffer a -2 penalty to his attacks and AC, due to the cold that has numbed his muscles and frozen his bones.

Howling. Once a day. The troll howls like a wolf, but the howl is much more ominous. It’s a call. Roll the die indicated in parentheses and compare the result to find out how many trolls and what kind come: 1: 1d3 small trolls; 2: 1d2 human-sized trolls; 3: 1 big troll; 4: 1 huge troll. These trolls will arrive in 1d4 rounds and must be generated with the same tables or, if you want to save time, you can assign their powers and characteristics without rolling dice.

Immateriality. The troll becomes a floating cloud of smoke, fog or vapor with a movement rate of 10′. Cannot manipulate objects or pass through solids. The troll decides when to interrupt the effect, but its maximum duration is 1 minute per HD.

Immortality. When reaching 0hp or less, the troll collapses as if it had died but does not really die; in 1d4 rounds it will recover 1hp. Additionally, if it has the power of regeneration, each round after its “resurrection” it will recover the indicated hp.

Invisibility. The troll and all its equipment become invisible for one minute per HD. It can interact normally with objects and it is possible to detect it if it makes noise.

Invulnerability. Immune to mundane weapons and damage.

Metamorphosis. Once a day for up to one hour, the troll can take one of the following forms: 1d4: 1: wooden log, 2: dog, 3: cat, 4: human.

Opportunism. This troll has an initiative advantage. This troll’s initiative roll is made with 1d8. If group initiative is used, this troll rolls its own die.

Regeneration. Each round, the troll recovers the amount of hp indicated in parentheses.

Supreme Strength. This troll has an extra bonus to its attacks equal to +1d4. This bonus is independent of the Attack Bonus it’s gained from its strength modifiers and HD. Life is unfair!

6. Distinguishing Features

Trolls come in all shapes and sizes, with very varied traits; the following table does not list all possibilities, referees can create their own. Sometimes, these traits are cosmetic, sometimes they add something special.

1d8 / Feature

  1. Tumors
  2. Multiple Heads
  3. Multiple Arms
  4. Stone Skin
  5. One Eye Sharing
  6. Clothes
  7. Arboreal
  8. Horrible Appearance

Arboreal. The troll’s skin is similar to wood; larger trolls even sprout branches and trunks on their heads and backs. If the troll has the regeneration power, it gains 1 additional hp each round.

Clothes. The troll is dressed in gaudy colors, but its clothing is ragged and misshapen. If the troll has the power of fascination, the opponent suffers a -2 penalty to his saving throw against magic. If the troll is successfully attacked, there is a 1-in-10 chance that its clothing will be torn and entangled, causing it to suffer a -1 penalty to its attacks.

Horrible Appearance. The troll is particularly ugly, so much so that all adventurers must save versus paralysis or they won’t be able to act for one round.

Multiple Arms. The troll has a total of 1d4+2 arms, allowing it to make one additional claw attack at the end of each round, without penalty, with damage equal to the general 2 claw attack. If the troll does not have the 2 claw attack, the extra arms give it a -2 defensive bonus to its AC.

Multiple Heads. The troll has 1d8+1 babbling heads, causing it severe stupidity. Its intelligence is 12 minus the number of heads (from 3 to 10), affecting its ability to save against magic. This trait replaces the INT score (step 4.)

One Eye Sharing. Two or more troll share one single eye between them. The one troll who is wearing the eye has normal stats, the rest suffer a -4 to their perception-relatd checks, including attacks.

Stone Skin. The troll has a thick and rough skin, like granite. It gains a +2 AC bonus against mêlée attacks and +4 against ranged attacks. These bonuses are in addition to those already in previous steps.

Tumors. The troll body is full of hideous, oozing tumors. If the troll has the power of regeneration, it heals only half the hp. When the troll is attacked, there is a 1-in-10 chance that a lump will burst and splatter the adventurer, dealing 1d4 acid damage (save versus breath weapons to dodge).

Henrik Ibsen ain’t afraid of no troll

Mood Can’t Be Concrete (horror RPGs)

(This article was published originally in Hidden Shrines of Setebos).

Atmosphere, mood, it is essential in any horror story, and horror adventures are no exception. I added a small ​mood​ section in each room.

Mood descriptions are made of abstractions, ideas and symbols. Mood can’t be concrete. Is the mood sad? ​Sad mood​ sounds concrete enough. But what does sad​ mean?

Each of your players will have a specific idea of what ​sad​ is. Of course I could’ve made all the mood entries similar to ​sad​ or ​lonely​ or ​bleak​. These look concrete concepts; they aren’t. They’re just familiar and can only convey ordinary feelings, not the real sense of the weird (weird sadness, weird bleakness), which is what I’m trying to do here.

But the way I made these descriptions is just as abstract and subjective as the ordinary, but much more evocative (I think) and odder, and the Referee can do one of three things here:

  1. ignore my mood entries,
  2. read aloud my mood entries,
  3. describe it with her own words; express her feelings after reading mine.

Either way, their players will have their own interpretations of what a ‘misery curdled, but also ancient and intriguing’ mood means. Personal interpretations are more horrific than whatever I can think of. At least, that’s what all the horror writers I read say, and I like their stuff, so I follow.

Mention to the players what is included in the ​stuff​ section (below mood in every room) as well, and the room should start getting a better shape in your player’s mind. The name of each room is also a tool for evocation, especially the deeper they explore.

Once they imagine the meaning of it, they will have to update its meaning when confronted with ​a Charlotte Perkins Gilman nightmare​. When they realise things are not as they thought they were, that’s where horror lies.

room of angel
A room description from this module

Why I prefer d6 (1-in-6) checks over 3d6 or d20

I prefer 1-in-6 chance checks, sometimes modified by your attributes: a +1 STR would translate to a 2-in-6 chance, while a negative means it’s impossible for you, or else you must roll 2d6 and only succeed if both dice come up 1. If you’re benevolent, let them roll without a penalty.

Why? Because some of the actions are not inherently difficult or easy depending on your own physical or mental traits. The difficulty of finding a trap is about the same for everyone regardless of their stats; high intelligence doesn’t necessarily make you better at finding traps, so INT 10 and INT 18 and INT 6 have the same 1-in-6 chance of finding the trap.

Yes, sure, some have an easier time doing so, but it’s certainly due more to experience and knowledge than to intrinsic intelligence values, or simply due to good luck (i.e., chance). And this is where the flexibility of OSR comes in: Can you give me a good reason why, on this occasion, your character should have a better chance of finding a trap? Maybe you have already found another trap in the same area, you are using some useful tool, or you remember reading or hearing stories about this place. For this time, you have a chance of 2-in-6 or even 3-in-6.

A base chance of 1-in-6 gives a 16 or 17 percent chance, which neither is too high nor too low. It’s unlikely but possible, as it should be. See, a group of 3 characters will have a 50-50 chance of success if all 3 make the roll, which I allow if it makes sense, but sometimes only one person can roll. If it was easy, then what would be the point? Just tell the story and avoid rolls. Decide the result by only speaking and move on (which sometimes might be the right way to do it).

However, if an action becomes harder or easier due to a character’s innate traits, then their range of success is modified by their attributes (as explained on the first paragraph). Why not roll 3d6 in those cases, since those traits are based on a 3d6 roll? Because I firmly stand that we shouldn’t make a different rule when your traits alter the result than when they don’t. Let’s use the same system for both cases, when your stats are relevant and when they are not. (Later I talk against D20 system using the same rule but it’s not a contradiction; here we use the same rule for tests, D20 uses the same rule for everything).

1d20 is basically the same as 3d6, albeit more elegant; in both cases you roll under your traits, so it only makes sense when the difficulty depends on your stats and not on the action itself, which means we should not use these (pro tip: use whatever you like, I’m just saying.)

Games like Into the Odd rely on d20 rolls under your traits; it’s ugly but at least the game is quick and easy. ItO is based on quick and easy. In that sense, this is the right choice.

Other games, such as DCC, call for a d20 roll against a difficulty set by the referee, and a high score is needed. Depending on the game and circumstances, the result can be modified positively or negatively by the character’s attributes or the tools used. It is the same principle as the 1d6 system, but in the 1d6 system it is very easy to modify without having to think whether this action is of a standard difficulty, or higher, or lower. And if we take into account that the standard difficulty is 10, it is actually very easy to succeed in about half of the attempts, and if more than two characters can roll, success is almost guaranteed, although in the case of DCC, if you are not trained in an occupation or profession related to the task, you don’t roll 1d20 but 1d10 instead. It makes sense but it adds more complexity.

In the d20 system (where this last mechanic comes from) all the rules are the same, so finding traps, climbing, attacking an enemy or seducing an NPC, don’t feel like different actions to the player.

Shelter 15 – Dungeon Poem Challenge

Better late than never. Here’s my entry for the Dungeon Poem Challenge. Map by Dyson Logos, of course.

Shelter 15

An adventure for Death is the New Pink (now on sale) or Into the Odd. BADassery = Strength; Dodge Some Shit (DSS) = Dexterity; MOXY = Willpower.

Why are you here?

  1. The air-purifying device in your shelter has broken and no one knows how to repair it, but it is possible to find a replacement, and the logical thing to do is to look for one in another shelter.
  2. Communications with Shelter 15 were lost a little over a year ago; it’s time to send someone to investigate.
  3. Due to bad behavior, Shelter 13 held a vote. It was democratically decided that you could no longer stay at the shelter, so they gave you some weapons and equipment and “let you go”. The Overseer, in an act of good faith, revealed to you that perhaps in Shelter 15, a few days’ walk away, you might find asylum.

1. Living Quarters

The access door is made of one meter thick steel, and displays the ‘Shel-Tech’ logo. It’s slightly open, allowing passage.

4 abandoned tents.

  1. Rotting blankets.
  2. One shoe. 3 gold bits inside.
  3. Two skeletons hugging each other. On closer inspection, it’s a single skeleton with extra limbs.
  4. The booklet “The March of the Pigs”. It takes 1 day to read. Once per adventure, you can create 1d4+1 Molotov bombs using improvised materials (1d6 damage per round to all inside the area; one extra point of damage to cops, sheriffs, soldiers, politicians and other enemies of freedom).

a) High above the doorframe to the west corridor, a plasma shotgun is pointed towards the floor. A motion sensor detects anyone passing under the rifle, emitting an energy discharge (1d8 damage). If the victim suffers critical damage, they are turned into a green sludge.

2. Cleaning Room

The lock has been melted as if by intense heat.

A shovel (1d8 damage).

A clutter of metal sheets with the ‘Shel-Tech’ logo engraved.

The observer notes that they are made of lead and can protect from some forms of harmful radiance (yes, like laser and plasma weapons).

3. Flowerpot

A pot filled with soil and a healthy-looking flowering plant. Above it, on the wall, a small painting depicting something you have never seen in real life: an autumn landscape. Looking at it for a moment fills you with vitality (either your hp or MOXY are replenished, only once).

Hidden in the pot’s soil, a sophisticated green bronze key.

The key opens the safe box in area 6.

Eat a mouthful of soil and in your next fight your attacks will be Enhanced. Only works once.

Eating the plant has no effect.

4. Latrines

Six holes in the floor reveal the original use of this room; a foul odor escapes from the holes.

Graffiti on the wall reads, “The Overseer is a son of a bitch.”

Roll 1d6

1. 1d4 lurking mole rats, mutated mammals with no fur and a bad temper due to their constant pain. There is a 2 in 6 chance of being hostile and trying to eat one of the PCs (they all attack at once). BAD 10, DSS 14, MOXY 6, 4hp, Bite (1d6).

2-5. Nothing.

6. The huge tail of a scorpion pokes out of one of the holes. A DSS roll allows cutting it without suffering damage (1d6 BAD poison damage). The poison gland allows creating 1d2 doses of antivenom in one day, not while adventuring.

5. Workshop

The room is full of old sawdust and rusty carpentry machinery.

A saw in good condition can be a nice weapon if someone manages to adapt it (1d8 damage).

A ditch was partially plugged with sand and sawdust. Someone buried a body there, only the bones remain but the blue uniform of an Overseer with a white 15 on the back remains intact.

6. The Safe Box

A safe with the ‘Shel-Tech’ logo; to open it, a key is required (area 3). Explosives destroy the box with all its contents and due to its construction, there is no way to pick the lock or use a crowbar.

Inside the box are 2 scrap pistols (they fire nails, nuts and bolts, and all sorts of similar-sized junk, 1d6 damage), a hammer and a sickle with red hilts (when used in each hand, they deal 2d4 damage; separately, 1d6), and 500 gold bits.

1 in 8 chance of encountering 1 aquatic marauder just chilling out here; mutated human with pisciform characteristics and radioactive psyche. BAD 12 DSS 10, MOXY 14, 6hp, 2 claws (2d4), Horrific gaze (1d6 MOXY damage). In water, it always wins initiative.

7. The Underground Stream

Its limpid waters flow towards the south-east.

Drinking the water heals replenishes but causes 2d4 BAD radiation damage; dipping into it, causes 1d6 dame, and other 1d6 each hour you spend there.

2 in 6 chance of encountering 1d4 aquatic marauders, mutated humans with pisciform characteristics and radioactive psyche. BAD 12 DSS 10, MOXY 14, 6hp, 2 claws (2d4), Horrific gaze (1d6 MOXY damage). In water, they always win initiative.

8. The Boat

The remains of a stranded boat.

Among the debris is a human skull apparently made of gold but it’s bone. Its possessor can automatically succeed on a MOXY check, once per day, but also suffer 1d4 BAD damage (it’s radiation!)

1 in 8 chance of encountering 1 aquatic marauder just chilling out here; mutated human with pisciform characteristics and radioactive psyche. BAD 12 DSS 10, MOXY 14, 6hp, 2 claws (2d4), Horrific gaze (1d6 MOXY damage). In water, it always wins initiative.

9. Common Area

A wall is full of notes and messages corroded by time, only three are legible:

  1. Sergei, I left your box key in the geraniums. -Cass (includes a flower doodle)
  2. Sergei, the water filter needs maintenance. -Foner
  3. Everyone, emergency meeting today at 23:00 to discuss the Overseer’s disappearance. -Gyllenhaal

10. The Mushroom Garden

Inedible mushrooms and mildew flourish in this area.

When entering it, make a BAD check to avoid inhaling the spores floating in the environment (1d4 BAD radiation damage each round of exposure).

There are 3 pedestals holding urns.

  1. The ashes of the first Overseer of Shelter 15.
  2. The ashes of the second Overseer. Actually, a formless black sludge. Attacks on “sight”, so DSS check for initiative. BAD 14, DSS 7, MOXY 1, 4hp, Lashing tendril (1d6), Black spit (1d6 BAD damage). Fire deals 1d12 BAD damage to it.
  3. The ashes of the third Supervisor. Among the ashes, two gold teeth and a glass eye.

11. The Overseer’s Office

The door can be opened with either a BAD check, with a crowbar, or with explosives.

  • A successful BAD check reduces BAD by 1, a failed check reduces it by 1d4.
  • If explosives are used, there’s a 1 in 6 chance that the stagnant air in the shelter will react, causing rooms 5, 9 and 10 to explode (1d20 damage, and 1d6 each subsequent round for 1d4 rounds).

In an open locker there’s an anti-radiation suit, an air purifying filter and a rusty key (for room 13).

3 booths with working computers. The only relevant thing is a document reporting that the entrance door of Shelter 15 was designed to not close properly, as part of an experiment that allowed Shelter Technologies to investigate the effects of radiation over time on the population.

In another corner there’s a coffee table turned upside down. The table hides a trap door leading down to room 12.

12. The basement

A human (human?) skeleton holding a revolver, a hole in the skull. It appears to have died defending itself from something.

The revolver is functional but has no bullets.

Dark goo stains cover most of the floor.

13. Cemetery

From the padlocked door, a smell of decay escapes.

The remains of dozens of people lie here, unburied.

9 ghouls wearing common Shelter 15 uniforms, orange and a white 15 on the back, roam here, and will attack immediately. BAD 12, DSS 8, MOXY 6, 5hp, Sharp fingernails (1d6 BAD damage). When killed, they melt into a black goo.

Making monsters for OSR games

Creating a monster for any OSR system is the easiest thing in the world, you don’t even need a detailed guide or deep rules, just fill out this form:

AC: ___
HD: ___
hp: ___
MV: ___
#ATT: ___
DMG: ___
ML: ___
SPECIAL: ___

When creating a monster, don’t stick to the rules of character creation, monsters can, and indeed should, break the rules.

Let’s have a closer look.

Armor Class (AC)

Assume that the AC is 12 when a character wears no armor, 14 when wearing leather armor, 16 when wearing chain mail, and 18 when wearing full armor. Some games use descending AC, where the better the armor, the lower the number. See this table of equivalences.

Monsters usually don’t wear armor, unless you consider orcs and goblins to be monsters, in which case the real monster is you. So what we must do is think about how easy or difficult it is to hit a monster, and we can use these values to guide us, but we must not follow them to the letter, that is to say that you can give an AC of less than 12 or more than 18 if you consider it should be so, just keep in mind that a 10 or less might be trivial, and a 20 or more, might be impossible.

Hit Dice (HD)

In addition to armor, HD helps us define how durable a monster is: the higher its HD value, the more hit points it will have, so you need more successful attacks to kill it.

HD also determines how powerful a monster is and how easy it is for it to make its attacks. Although each system calculates the attack bonuses of monsters according to their HD differently, all these systems are similar. Let’s say that each HD translates into a bonus equal to its value; thus, a monster with 5 HD gets a +5 to its attack roll.

Hit Points (hp)

The standard method is to roll a number of d8 equal to HD, so 5 HD translates into 5d8, and the result of that roll is the monster’s hp, but we’re not gonna be making that roll every time a monster appears, so we’d better use the average value.

This value is obtained by multiplying the number of HD 4 or 5 times. Thus, our 5 HD monster would have on average between 20 and 25 hp.

Depending on the role of the monster in the adventure where you want to use it, you can reduce or increase this number.

An ordinary monster might have 1 or 2 hp per HD, but if the monster is the main enemy, consider giving it 6, 7 or even 8 points per HD (in our example, between 30 and 40 hp).

Keep in mind that the stronger and tougher it is, the more likely it is to cause a TPK. Consider alternate ways to cause it damage if the players are smart, such as luring it into traps, shooting it from a safe area, or something similar.

Movement (MV)

As a base, use standard human movement, which is 120 feet per exploration turn (10 minutes), 40 feet per combat round, and 120 feet per combat round when running but taking no other action.

How fast or slow is your monster? Equal to a human, half the speed of a human, twice the speed of a human?

To keep it simple: Standard, half, double, or more than human; in feet this translates to:

  • 120′ (40′)
  • 60′ (20′)
  • 240′ (80′)
  • 180′ (60′)

Accuracy is irrelevant, the important thing is to know if the monster is going to catch us if we try to run away or how long it would take us to catch it if we want to recover the gold ring that our partner who has been eaten by the monster was wearing on his finger.

These values correspond to the speed of the monster on the ground, some creatures may have another mode of movement with a different speed, for example flight. We write it down like this:

  • MOV: 120′ (40′), flight 240′ (80′)

That is, on the ground it moves with the same speed as a person, but when flying it’s twice as fast.

Number of Attacks (#ATT)

You don’t need to complicate things, as a general rule all monsters can perform only one attack per round.

But some monsters must break the rules, right? A radioactive octopus can maybe hit with 8 of its tentacles each round, in which case you’ll write down this:

  • #ATT: 8

If it can squirt radioactive ink, but can only do one of the two types of attack per round, you write it down like this:

  • #ATT: 8 or 1

On the other hand, if it can attack with tentacles and ink in the same round, you write it down like this:

  • #ATT: 8 and 1

If you want it to have other attacks, follow the same principle, but write down all the ones it can do during the same round one after the other, and then the ones it cannot. Following the example, if our octopus can launch a mental discharge, but to do so he must concentrate and not do any other action, it should be written down like this:

  • #ATT: 8 and 1, or 1

Damage (DMG)

To decide how much damage each attack does, compare the attacks with common weapons. Depending on the type of weapon, the damage may be 1d4, 1d6, 1d8 or 1d10 (although some systems may include other values).

  • d4: Knive, club, cane
  • d6: Short sword, hand axe
  • d8: Standard sword, battle axe, mace
  • d10: Two-handed sword, great axe, maul

Let’s say each tentacle hits like a whip, how much damage does a whip do? 1d3 damage.

The ink does no harm, but it can blind an enemy.

Mental discharge can cause 1d8 damage due to the strong emotional charge it represents.

Assuming that our octopus can strike with the tentacles and throw the ink in the same round, but the mental discharge can only be done separately, we would write it like this:

  • #ATT: 8 and 1, or 1
  • DMG: 8 tentacles 1d3 and Special, or 1 psycho blast 1d8

Note that we write down each type of attack followed by the damage; this can be used to eliminate the line for the number of attacks per round, but it is advisable to leave it for clarity.

In a moment we will explain “special”.

Morale (ML)

The morale value is a number between 2 and 12. When you need to know if an enemy surrenders or tries to flee, or if it continues to fight during an encounter (usually when it has suffered more or less considerable damage or its party has suffered many casualties), you make a morale check, rolling 2d6. If the result is equal to or less than the monster’s ML, it keeps fighting; if the result is higher, the creature tries to flee (or surrenders, if your monster is an orc or goblin).

It’s impossible to get more than 12, so a ML of 12 means that the creature may fail this roll, is unaware and will fight to the death, or has lost all interest in its own well-being.

To understand it clearly, morale means “will to fight”. Passing the morale test means that the will to fight is still intact, failing means that it has lost its will.

Special

All information that cannot be abstracted with a simple numerical value or that requires further explanation is placed here.

In the case of our octopus, the ink jet does not cause quantifiable damage (a numerical value) but has the possibility of blinding the target. Can this attack be dodged, does the octopus roll its attack die, or how does it work mechanically?

This is one possibility:

  • Special: The octopus squirts a blast of ink at a target; the player must make a saving throw vs. breath weapons to prevent the ink from touching her eyes. If she fails, she can’t act for 1d3 rounds until the ink effect ends, or a single round if she can wash her face and eyes immediately.

This is another:

  • Special: The octopus squirts a blast of ink making a normal attack roll against a target, if successful, the target can’t act 1d3 rounds until the ink effect ends, or a single round if she can wash her face and eyes immediately.

Both methods are equally valid, in some cases one may be easier or more difficult to avoid, but don’t worry about that, choose the one you consider more natural, you can even have two identical monsters with the only difference that one uses the first method and the other uses the second.

Now it’s time to show off our finished creation.

Psychopus

An octopus the size of a horse. Its color varies according to its mood (make a reaction roll; the more hostile, the more purple; the friendlier, the whiter).

AC: 11
HD: 5
hp: 20
MV: 60′ (20′), water 240′ (80′)
#ATT: 8 or 1 or 1
DMG: 8 tentacles 1d3 or Special or 1 psycho blast 1d8
ML: 9
SPECIAL: The octopus squirts a blast of ink at a target; the player must make a saving throw vs. breath weapons to prevent the ink from touching her eyes. If she fails, she can’t act for 1d3 rounds until the ink effect ends, or a single round if she can wash her face and eyes immediately.

Note how I wrote the damage. My monster can only make one type of attack per round, either tentacle lash, or ink, or blast.

Final words

Making monsters for your games should be quick and easy, not a chore. It can feel arbitrary, but once you get the hang of it, you can make a monster in less than a minute and it won’t be totally random. Spend a couple more minutes and you can make a reasonably interesting monsters that fits well in your game. Make a bunch and it will become second nature in no time. Need some inspiration?

OST

While I was writing this, I was listening to this playlist.