When you are on a tight deadline for, The Blackmoor Gazetteer.
And also -
When you are heavily ADHD and you should be working on one book, but you can’t feel inspired or motivated. Then suddenly you get an idea and are ready to work on it, only your idea is for another book entirely!
I’ve been working on my new RPG book, The Terror of Spiral Keep, with the goal of making a setting module that teaches referee’s how to infuse their own game with a feeling of exploring the unknown and psychologically disturbing elements of horror. One main premise I have been trying to get across to referee’s is that you don’t need rules for fear, or sanity, to make your players actually feel terror. All you gotta do is make their skin crawl - in this case I mean it literally.
Since it will be a few more months before TToSK is finished, I thought I could share a chapter draft on the blog and just throw out some ideas on using horror themes in RPGs. This is written toward a Fantasy setting, but it can work in pretty much any old school game you may be playing which also has magic, or psionics in it.
This is a classic horror trope and I’m not inventing anything new here. I’m just recycling what works in both sci-fi and horror in order to creep out my players.
*cough cough* - Alien.
The Burrower, a.k.a. Skin Borer
Skin borers are anything which is parasitic and literally enters a player’s body somehow. If you describe how one of the your players has had something chew through their skin and is now inside them, everyone at the table is going to be saying “EEEeeeewwwwww!”
Ideally, you want to personalize what this is for your own game, so the players who have read about these won’t be able to identify what it is ahead of time and run like hell.
While these creepy crawlies are always small and about the size of a beetle to the size of a mouse, yours can be anything, a small mammal, an insect, a strange alien fish that crawls on its fins, whatever suits your mental image of creepy.
What is critical here is the encounter and how you play it out.
Just to help you get a feel for this thing, let’s stat it out. I've even expanded the D&D stat block to conform to AD&D for all you AD&D referees.
No. Appearing: 1-12 (it’s always fun to use the D12 and it is the most under rated die of all of them.)
Armor Class: Variable - are yours fast moving or slow moving, soft or crunchy. If fast give them a 4 to 2 AC, if slow 9 - 5, same for crunchy and soft. Apply what you think is most effective.
Movement: Is your creature a Dropper or a Rusher, more on that later.
Hit Dice: 1 HP
% In Lair: Technically these will almost always be In Lair because they tend to appear on or near their former victims, or places that have been covered in blood.
Treasure Type: There is usually some kind of equipment or small treasure in a sack nearby. Although this is not planned as bait, players will be lured to the area by the goodies lying about.
No. of Attacks: See below
Damage/ Attack: See below
Special Attacks: 1 per round, the first attempt is a roll to get through armor and the second is a roll to pierce the skin.
Special Defense: Outside of the body they are difficult to detect, once inside a body they can be seen easily enough - they need to be cut out in order to kill them.
Intelligence: low, insect like.
Alignment: it’s up to you - do you want them to throw off players by emanating evil, or do you want them to be devious and neutral?
Size: Very small.
That is pretty vague I know. What is important here is the purpose of this encounter. We aren’t out to kill any players, though it may happen. What we are trying to do is cause them to feel very uncomfortable.
Let’s begin with the encounter type, Wandering Monster, Surprise, Fixed, Decoy, or Compound Encounter.
As a Wandering Monster Encounter these can arrive in the form of a person who approaches the players. Roll up a character and figure out what kind of NPC they could be. Is it a crazy old man in rags wandering the dungeon while moaning and screaming in pain? Is it a beautiful man or woman in elegant clothes? How about a lone halfling, dwarf, or elf?
Play out how this seemingly benign person who has likely dropped their weapons and only wants to find the safety of being out of the dungeon can transfer a burrower to a player. It won’t be the NPCs objective to harm the players, It is merely a result of how these parasitic critters behave.
Does the person appear and interact with the players, or does this person appear and then collapse on the ground as they are dying with only 1 HP left.
However you choose to run this situation the NPC is not the threat. They could even be Lawful Good. Sadly, they happen to be carrying something very dire on them which will attack any players who gets too close.
No matter what the situation, because these are small critters, they are able to surprise on a 1-4 using the standard OD&D surprise roll of 1 in 6 for normal encounters. They are small and may not be moving right away. Once seen the players can avoid them.
As an old school referee’ing technique, if they are hiding in someone’s clothes ready to be passed onto a new subject, then unless a player states they are examining before making contact, well then, players don’t get a die roll to perceive the presence of these vermin.
A good clue that something may not be right, is the presence of ruptures in the person’s skin where the creatures have entered and then sometimes leave. Again, a player needs to state they are examining the subject. There are no freebies in old school play, you can’t just roll dice, you have to state what and how you are doing something. This is not a video game on paper.
The Surprise Skin Borer happens if a pre-encounter die roll comes up as surprise. This encounter is also similar as a Fixed Encounter the Referee has placed in a location within their dungeon.
Generally these things hang out on or near present or former victims. In this encounter your players will come upon a place which is splattered with blood. They can smell it and they can see it clearly on surfaces. Maybe something was brutally murdered here and then dragged off. Perhaps a trail of blood leads away from the location.
Or, a former victim of these creatures is lying on the floor in a hallway. They may have a sack of coins and gems spilled on the floor next to them, and even on occasion a magic item, or a nice suit of armor.
The little burrowers might be hiding in a crevice in the floor waiting to rush out and attack a player, or they may be lurking on the ceiling above and waiting to drop on unsuspecting players, hence the question earlier regarding whether your vermin are Rushers, or fast moving, or Droppers, who wait for an opportunistic moment to jump out of a hiding spot, or drop from above.
The Decoy is similar to other situations. D&D players are really paranoid of wooden objects like treasure chests and tables for some reason. Thus, if you have this kind of object in a room and it is entirely benign, you could place some Droppers on the ceiling that can attack players even if they are using a ten foot pole to check for mimics.
Of course a wood table is a bit dull. Why not make the table creepy too and have it be dropping with fresh blood. Decor and mood is so important. Martha Stewart might even say "It's a good thing."
A Compound Encounter might be something such as surprising a group of evil priests in a secret ritual chamber where they are applying these creatures to a sacrificial victim. Once the evil cultists are dealt with one can proceed to examining the rest of the location. Did a jar full of these creatures fall on the ground and shatter. Are these creatures on the living, or dead, victim. There are so many glorious options here and all of them are not a good result for the players.
As a referee I have so much fun running vermin like this vs. my players. It is my nature as a referee to mentally torture, and dare I say, trigger my players. All I can say is, if you like this kind of game then come play against me sometime. Otherwise, avoid me at all costs. In our house group half the players will look at me after an encounter like this and shake their heads as if to say, “that was awesome, even if my character died horribly.” The other half gives me the kind of look which I read to mean as, “that was totally disturbing and wrong, what happened to you as a child to make you think of things like this?” The funny thing is - they keep coming back for more!
Before we talk about Attack, I think we need to discuss what Damage is for these.
Damage is mostly psychological. The gaol is to create an experience similar to watching a favorite horror movie. Thus rules related damage is minimal, but perhaps emotional damage is not.
Attacks are a variety of events in a real RPG, in that different variables will require different methods - this is key to properly running most older systems as referees gain experience in how to adjudicate anything that happens and players can literally opt to try anything as well. Most game systems that have tried to create a universal mechanic of die rolls end up destroying the immersive aspects of a low rules high stakes RPG. Ideally, these encounters work best when using earlier game systems.
This may sound like an ‘edition war’ type of rant where I am claiming to only play the correct, or right, game system by using one of these older editions. That is not what I am saying at all. All I am saying is that the experience of these older systems is different from newer systems. If you want to experience an immersive and terrifying RPG it is best to play with a low rules game system.
Damage caused is 1 point on the first successful attack to pierce a victims skin. The creature has gotten into the player’s body and can be seen as a lump under their skin, much like a mouse running under a bedsheet. This is the main reason for having these be smaller critters, we want this disturbing descriptor of the event.
What if a player only has one hit point. It would be a shame to lose out on the entire encounter experience by letting them die. Hit points are abstraction. Thus you could tell a player, you lose 1 half hit point. Nothing in most rule books says you cannot split HP into fractions, and also, this attack is not really big enough to kill a PC, it never should be.
Perhaps if a player cannot get rid of the vermin - they may, 50% chance, take a point of damage every 12 hours as the creatures crawl around under their skin eating whatever it is they like most about their new home.
On a successive combat round after the player has been ‘invaded’ they must roll a D20 and roll lower than Intelligence or they are overcome by the trauma and the pain and cannot do anything truly useful this combat round. This happens every combat round.
How does one fight these things?
It’s simple, the players get to do even more disturbing acts out of their own free will - they must cut the things out of a victim with a dagger. It may be worth putting a knife over a torch to sterilize it first too.
Cutting always works, but the player takes damage based on a D12 roll. Since most people would not be well versed in anatomy this can lead to serious problems. Good clerics are the exception, trained in the healing arts, they can cut it out and will only do 1 point damage. All other PCs must roll a D12: 1-6 = 1 hp damage; 7-11 = 1d4 damage, 12 = 1d8 damage (Oops you must have hit an artery!). If you are playing AD&D, and or using a class like Rangers, or Druids, they too can do it without causing major damage.
In my game being at zero points causes unconsciousness. Thus cutting one of these out should not kill a player, but now the party may have to deal with carrying the PC out of the dungeon.
We’ve gotten this far, how do these things conduct attacks?
In the first round assuming a player doesn’t see them and manage to smash them, they get an attack roll vs. AC9 to see if a Rusher manages to climb onto and up a players leg, or an arm if the player is touching something the creature is on. The same attack is made for a Dropper, failure means it falls on the ground near the player and the player can attempt to smash it in the same round. If the player was surprised, they get a 50% chance, or 1-3 in 6, to notice something move through their field of vision, or bounce off their body.
Once on the player, the creature will try to eat into a players skin or get through armor in order to do so. The next attack is vs. the player’s armor class. Better hope you are the Fighter in plate armor!
The second attack causes 1 point of damage and means the thing has gotten in you.
It should be noted that a roll of 20 on the first and second attack always succeeds - thus even if a fighter is wearing magical armor that would make a low HP monster unable to succeed, they still have a tiny risk of being bitten.
This covers most of how this kind of creature can be used in a dungeon adventure. The thing is, once you’ve used them they lose a little bit of their charm, as players will be wary of things like this.
You can use the same concept for, yet, another kind of creature.
What if you have a ghost appear. This apparition silently beckons. Maybe it is floating over a lure of some kind. Perhaps a locked treasure chest. Maybe the ghost is a warden of this prize and is warning the players away from the chest. Except, when the players come near to the chest the undead is floating over it suddenly rushes a player and enters their body becoming a lump that is sliding around under their skin.
This is even worse. It is super natural. It may be evil. It certainly cannot be killed via mundane means. It will require clerical assistance and magic weapons. I won’t stat this one out for you as you should be able to create your own based on what I have already provided above. I would suggest a low HD creature that can only be driven off by a high level cleric.
Let me know if you have any ideas for variants on this trope. Most of all, please tell me how your players reacted to this kind of encounter.
I truly hope using these ideas in your own game will help bring more fun to your table.
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