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

Tricks & Traps | The Horror of the Fourth Wall

We are in a cube shaped room of 1,000 m³ (10 x 10 x 10), there are no doors or windows, virtually no exit.

How did we get here?

As the referee sees fit: falling through a trap door, using a teleport, the door disappears as it closes, the four walls rise up from the ground around the unfortunates as they step on a slab, or they simply wake up there after dreaming of the idiotic chaos at the center of the universe.

Three of the walls have something written in red letters

South wall: “Our Mother, who art in earth… etc.”

West wall: “The thoughtless chaos at the heart of the world”.

North wall: “Azathoth, the amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity, who made the gods and thereafter rested, sleeps eternally, lulled by the music of your heartbeat.”

The fourth wall is different

East wall: There is an eye-shaped stain of dirt and moisture on the wall. When your and its eyes meet, you can feel the look in that eye judging you, you can see your darkest or most shameful secrets, those things that you deny even to yourself, those things that if you contemplate for more than five minutes would lead you to suicide or insanity.

If someone pays attention, they hear a scuttling sound behind the wall.

It is not obvious to the naked eye, you have to throw something at it or hit it, but the wall is easy to knock down using a little brute force or a sledgehammer.

What’s behind the fourth wall?

A bulbous, shapeless, bubbling mass. It is composed of thousands of cockroaches constantly moving. Normal weapons are useless but fire will kill them quickly, revealing a hole behind the wall, and the hole leads to the exit.

Exit

Again, as the referee sees fit: it can be a staircase leading up, a teleport, or a simple hole that takes you out of the room.

What is a dungeon? | Another take

The nature of dungeons is a theme that fascinates me!

I have written about this subject before. Perhaps it all comes down to a search for meaning. I mean, whenever I make a dungeon, I try to give it a reason, an original purpose, but at the same time I like randomness (also I am not an artist or designer), and I use a random dungeon map generator (although I make changes to the final map to fix some inconsistencies; with Paint is actually easy).

This results in things as strange as a Victorian mansion with a layout that doesn’t correspond to a mansion, but more like a maze.

However, a realistic layout of a Victorian mansion, although attractive to the eye, is boring as a dungeon.

So I make again a weird maze and impose a sense, mainly, to choose the taste, color, aroma and general or specific characteristics of each room.

But I have been thinking a lot these days and I came up with another possibility. This is a dungeon, more or less typical:

Who built it and for what purpose? The answers may be many: a magician, an ancient civilization, aliens!

But what if it was built by a race of antimatter beings? What if solid spaces are the voids for them, and vice versa? From this antipoint of view, the antidungeon would look like this:

I don’t know about you, but it gives me the impression that it makes at least a little more sense as an architectural layout, as if it were a small village with roads and buildings.

If this was not the plan of an underground dungeon but of an open-air village, it seems a somewhat more reasonable map. The white areas are pathways and gardens, the black squares are buildings, and the black lines, only the antigod knows. Perhaps the foundations of crumbled buildings?

Take into account that the subterranean of these antibeings is their “open air”, while our open air for them is a “compact solid”. Perhaps our villages and cities are dungeons they crawl. That would partially explain the presence of ghosts and apparently immaterial beings in our streets, especially during the night, because following our unscientific logic, our night is their day, our darkness is their light.

These meditations were accompanied by the beauteous music of the gods.

Over the Edge | Situation Rolls

How difficult is it to deactivate a magical lock? Many games will ask for a roll versus some difficulty assigned by the gamemaster, but how do you assign a difficulty for some task that doesn’t exist in real life?

In real life, we cannot know how difficult or easy it is to pick a witch-lock, or for a Tiger-Man to do a triple somersault, or for a Space Ninja to blend in with the atmosphere of an urban environment. Maybe it’s hard, maybe it’s easy. But we really cannot tell.

Over the Edge provides a pre-designed list of difficulties (called Levels) for the GM to use, and is fully functional, but sometimes a GM may want to deviate and improvise a little, or players decide to go and investigate that other building that the GM has nothing prepared for.

What is the difficulty of the task? To find out, just roll a d6 and compare the result to the table below:

[1] Two levels below the party’s highest level
[2] One leve below the party’s highest level
[3, 4] Same level as the party’s highest level
[5] One level above the party’s highest level
[6] Two levels above the party’s highest level

Most characters begin the game at level 3, which is the standard. But if for some strange reason the highest level in the party is 1, remember that the lowest difficulty-level is 0.

If you want a more exact result for level-1 characters, simply roll 1d4-1, and the result is the difficulty. This roll gives a range of results from 0 to 3.

If you’re the kind of GM who breaks the rules and allows players higher levels (like 6 or 7), remember that 7 is the highest possible difficulty. To interpret the result of the roll, extrapolate what I said about the lowest level.

The dungeon: dumping ground and portal to otherworldly realms

The last time I went down to the dungeon I wondered where so many undead came from. Someone said that Magick-Users had put them there.

At first, that doesn’t seem to make sense. But, as Robert Macfarlane describes it, the underworld is the “repository of nuclear waste sites and burial chambers, both a dumping ground and the portal into otherworldly realms.” In the fantasy (or weird fantasy) worlds of OSR games, there is no nuclear waste, but what we might call “magic waste.”

When a Magick-User cast a spell, hazardous waste remains. Perhaps the ingredients (or components) of its magick, even if they become unusable ashes, retain part of the magical properties that have disturbed the stability of nature by producing their effect*.

A Magick-User does not want that waste to represent a danger to him or, probably, to others (although almost all of them are misanthropes, not all of them actively pursue the destruction of humanity), so the best option is to bury them; this sepulchre is not perfect, but when the harmful effects begin to take place, he will no longer be alive or, if he is, he will take care of the matter.

Many years later, or centuries, when a group of adventurers descend in search of treasures, artefacts and relics, in addition to undead, the place will be plagued by anomalous entities from the deep past and outer regions, which will have been awakened or attracted by the residual energies of magick.

Among the most common anomalies is spatial distortion, which explains why a simple and mundane drainage system or an old underground vault have become the labyrinths of often unconnected or inconsequential corridors and rooms we commonly know as dungeons.

Of course, some very sick people, invaded by the disease of logic (in a game of magic and goblins!), will not find this explanation satisfactory. For them I have no better answer than to suggest that they make an appointment with the Psychoanalyst to keep that OCD at bay.

*This means that magick and its effects cause the sensation of something that should not be, but is. Magick, then, is not an anomaly; it is our conceptions of the nature of reality that are inadequate.

Dungeons & the Undead

Why are there so many zombies and skeletons in the dungeons?

Most dungeons are partly tombs, crypts, mausoleums, hypogaea, and partly ruins of ancient cities or fortifications, and what is a lost city if not a large cemetery?

But the dead don’t come back to life in any cemetery. What do dungeons have that make them prone to this inconsistency of the natural laws of life and death?

Magick-Users, of course

Magick-Users play with “forces” or “energies”, “agencies” or “intelligences” that seem to defy the natural laws of the universe or, at least, human understanding of those laws. We call this discrepancy Chaos, because we can’t see the order or the laws that govern it.

Magick-Users (and Clerics as well) are repositories of such forces (or energies, or agencies, or intelligences… let’s call them “forces”, then, or magick), that is, spells.

(Magick-Users are more or less aware of how they channel magick, manipulating weird forces at will. Clerics are not aware of the same; they believe that their gods grant them their powers, they don’t realize that their prayers are magick formulas, identical [in latent if not in manifest content] to the Magick-Users’ formulas, and that through them, they “steal” their powers from the gods, who are not really gods.)

The frequent observation and praxis of magick transforms the world around it. Over time, the places that were once centres of study or use of magick, such as laboratories, temples, towers of stargazers, fairy rings, necropoleis, akelarres, begin to present anomalies.

This is normal now

One of these anomalies is the disruption of normal, ordered life and death cycles. The dead in the area begin to return to life (or to a parody of life) and roam the place. Probably hungry and angry, and totally baffled.

Another is the appearance of the weird, including monsters and traps. Raw magick sneaks through cracks and recesses accidentally opened by the practice of magick. Unchecked magick has the tendency to produce unexpected effects, such as the opening of gates to parallel, adjacent or perpendicular worlds (or universes?), and these gates are crossed by their inhabitants.

Sometimes, finally, the reality on the other side pollutes ours. That’s why there are rooms with inverted gravity, or full of water, or where magick does not work properly, or of impenetrable darkness, or any other imaginable or unimaginable effect.

But we were talking about the undead.

Another kinds of undead, such as vampires and ghouls, less instinctual and more rational (so to speak) than zombies and calacas, could simply feel more comfortable in an environment with residual magic, for them it’s like going to the beach*. This is why ghosts are so happy in houses where misfortunes and tragedies have occurred.

*I hate going to the beach; if god** wanted us to go to the beach, he would have made us crabs.

**There is no god.