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Howling Tower: When Heroes Meet Horror

Howling Tower: When Heroes Meet Horror

Howling Tower 3When swords & sorcery heroes come up against cosmic horror, there is a chance that the characters themselves will catch a whiff of the universe beyond, whether or not they want to. Most horror games deal with that corrupting influence through some type of psychic decay or sanity countdown. Such mechanisms aren’t well suited to heroic fantasy. Heroes are resilient. Besides, no one really wants to see Fafhrd reduced to a drooling, babbling idiot.

Just seeing something frightening shouldn’t be a problem; heroes deal with gut-wrenching nastiness all the time. Even so, exposure to inhuman forces is dangerous. Studying the notes of a deranged sorcerer puts your psyche and soul at risk, as does inhaling the mind-altering perfume of the lilies of Leung Poq, being cut by a blade made from meteoric iron (who knows what outerworldly toxins lurk in the spaces between its atoms?), casting spells in moonlight on a night when the visible and invisible moons align, returning from the dead, or taking life among cyclopean, dream-haunted ruins.

If heroes are not subjected to slow, long-lasting degeneration through loss of sanity, stability, or whatever you choose to call it, then what is the price of confronting cosmic horror? I think any of the following are fair game in a heroic fantasy RPG.

Not more conditions! Energies that originate outside the norms of reality are tailor-made for dishing out conditions of every imaginable type and a few that are unimaginable. Battles against the forces of an eldritch terror often have a time component—defeat the high priest before he completes the ritual . . . or else! There’s seldom any question whether the fragile high priest can be defeated, but can he be laid low in time? Conditions slow down the characters’ steamroller advance toward victory. Some people complain that having your character limited by conditions is no fun. Do you know what else isn’t fun? Being enslaved by squamous leviathans from the id. Just be sure to spread the conditions around so everyone shares the pain.

Hit points? Everything points! D&D and its many offshoots use hit points as a catch-all for a character’s ability to carry on. What are they? They’re an abstraction. All we can say for sure is that when they’re gone, you’re done for. Usually that means you’re dead, but maybe you’re only unconscious, or bleeding out, or in a coma . . . or temporarily insane? Why not! Being out of hit points is just another state of being. Hit points that are licked directly out of a character’s brain might be unusually precious—impossible to replace with potions and spells, for example—but that’s a small price to pay, because . . .

A long rest cures everything. Anyone who stares cosmic horror in the face and survives to crawl away deserves a vacation. If the characters are psychically crippled in the process of saving this universe and the one next door, give them a rest. We know just the place . . .

The dream quest. So characters have meddled in things better left alone, learned things man was not meant to know, and gone crackers. Now what? Instead of having a new char-gen session, send the loonies on a quest through an insane world inside their own blistered minds. Perhaps this is their chance to fix the world that got broken when they lost their battle to save it. Besides, there will never be a better opportunity to pull out all the logic stops, along with all those ridiculous monsters you swore would never make an appearance in your campaign, and really go wild for a few nights.

None of this should be taken to mean that D&D or Pathfinder can’t be played like Call of Cthulhu, with everyone understanding from the start that their characters are doomed even in victory. But heroic fantasy serves different traditions from horror, especially cosmic horror. Melding the two is fun, but it’s best to honor both in the process.

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4 thoughts on “Howling Tower: When Heroes Meet Horror”

  1. This is the perfect article for what I’m doing in one of the campaigns I’m currently running. My son’s youth pastor has asked me to run Pathfinder for them once a month or so, and none of those kids, except for my son, have any background in Lovecraftian horror. They don’t realize it, but they’re dealing with escalating signs of something “unknown” about to happen, and having a blast doing it.

  2. Wonderful article indeed and it only supports my style of gaming – alas my current group are too sissy to allow mental wounds to their characters. A point we need to discuss with them, as I would loose a very important tool of tension otherwise. And what is a good tale if not about tension?

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