The Pett Scale

The Pett Scale

Tales of HorrorThe gruesome, the ghastly, the horrific, the sick. How often have we come across monsters, traps, or adventure scenes and wondered just how morbidly dreadful they are? Sure, I’m both drawn and repelled by it, but how much? Is it more grisly than the last book I read? Less so than the last guest I invited over? Or the last time I ate? Is there some standard by which we may measure all things grotesque and macabre?

As I sit here, typing away—pausing occasionally to caress the severed hand on my desk—I ask myself, how can we gauge the level of morbid dreadfulness that we read about in quality RPG adventures or feel surging through our hopelessly depraved hearts?

At such moments, my mind turns to the works of that master of the macabre, Richard Pett. I’d like to call to mind some of his most inspiring adventures. In The Styes (Dungeon #121), Pett described the watery boardwalk city thus: “Under smoke-bent gables, palsied carcasses of houses lean against each other—languid, broken, awaiting the peace of collapse.” Of Mr. Dory he wrote, “Rumors abound that he has a skin condition—in fact, his condition arose after he died many years ago…” The adventure that followed was one of his best…

Or maybe, “At the mound’s apex squats a flat-topped altar stone, with towering barren trees… their leafless branches twisted and groping toward the ceiling above as if in search for a sun’s warmth they shall never feel.” Your brother’s bedroom? No, it’s just the Sunless Grove from Pett’s Carrion Hill module from Paizo. Since his work has been so definitive when it comes to ghastly RPG adventure, I salute Mr. Pett by naming this scale after him. May it live on in the twisted hearts and minds of us all!

The Pett Scale
The Pett Scale is a 6-point calibration with 1 point being the most basic of creepiness and 6 points being the most disturbing. Gentle reader, you may well be thinking, “Why 6? Why not 5—as in 5-star films—or the oft used scale of 10?”

Well, if you must ask, you must consider that a 6-point scale has long been neglected…

After all, six is the number of sides found on the most common RPG die: the d6. Yet we do not honor the number six. Well no more! This scale gives the number six its rightful place of honor. Six is different. Six is arbitrary. Six is the number of legs on a cockroach. Six is not quite the Seven Deadly Sins but more than the Four Riders of the Apocalypse. Six is the number of dwarves you would have if one of them had been strangled in his sleep. Six is creepy. Six smells a little funny. Six has some deep, personal problems that will haunt it forever.

So SIX it is!

Now follows the scale along with examples at each level to give a feel for flavor. This is by no means a complete list, merely a brief wellspring of calibration. I invite you all to share more examples in the comments section!

1 Point

  • A dead body with worms crawling out of its eyes and mouth.
  • Wolves howling in the distance but never seen.
  • A child’s toy is found in an evil place where children never play.
  • After battle, your dead foes seem to smile at you.

2 Points

  • Shaking hands with Mr. Dory.
  • A dozen skeletons, dressed as troubadours, dancing and playing instruments.
  • A ghoul eating a dead body.
  • A cemetery at night: you hear your mother’s voice calling you.

3 Points

  • Shaking hands with Mr. Dory while standing in a pool of blood and gore.
  • A pack of ghouls eating dead bodies.
  • A gibbering mouther—gibbering.
  • A dozen human arms thrusting out of the ground to grab you.

4 Points

  • A pack of dogs advance on you—they all have human faces.
  • Being attacked by a ghoul or wight: it’s a former friend of yours.
  • You or your friend melting away as the corporeal instability from a chaos beast takes hold.
  • A dead king leading a charge of undead knights.

5 Points

  • Your best friend—now a vampire—promises it won’t hurt a bit.
  • A flesh golem made of various body parts from aquatic creatures but with a beautiful woman’s head lurches eagerly toward you.
  • The wail of a banshee.
  • Being turned into a zombie by The Well of Souls.

6 Points

  • Seeing a shoggoth kill and eat a house full of people. Perhaps an orphanage.
  • Walking the streets of R’lyeh, where great Cthulhu sleeps.
  • Trapped and helpless, you watch as the alien egg opens up only a few feet away and the spidery thing emerges from it.
  • Surrounded in the dark by a horde of flesh-eating things, your light sputters out and you shoot your last bullet—suddenly realizing you forgot to save one for yourself. No one will hear your screams.

15 thoughts on “The Pett Scale”

  1. Richard Pett’s horror writing is very evocative. I look forward to his Ustalav Adventure Path piece next year.

    P.S. Fun article!

  2. They’re all lovely(?) ideas, but the one for #2 with the dancing and playing skeletons sounds less horrifying to me and more like, “When did I walk into the sequel to ‘Corpse Bride’?”

  3. So where would ‘Walk through a village that has been burned to the ground, finding charred corpses curled into fetal poses amid the ashes, many clutching one another in a morbid embrace’ fall?

  4. Gosh, you go away to Wales to be suffocated for a week in a burial mound of twitching gull corpses with a whispering something buried beneath and come back to an admirable new system.

    I watched Southern Comfort whilst I was away – now that must rate a 6 at least, awesome stuff.

    James old chap please consider it fully endorsed:) I love some of those ideas, and Open Design has clearly become a breeding ground for the twisted, which of course means Mr Baur in fact deserves all the credit.

    I hope, once its edited and put on sale you’ll like Empire – a gothic horror novel I’m about to release. I’ll keep you posted, that has lots of palsied things walking its streets beyond their natural lifespan and knocking on doors in the dark.

    Huzzah and up her majesty!

  5. Having had the pleasure to play under Mr Pett this year (I was the gnome with the orangutan eidolon), I heartily approve of this thread.

    As for my own contributions to player-discombobulation, I’d like to think I’ve played my part.
    I’ve been running Age of Worms, and the potential is there to expand on the material, if you know how to push their buttons. Heh.

    I have one player of a paladin, which I suspect was a total metagame decision, given the nature of the campaign; I revised the paladin’s total immunity to disease, to be a 1/round remove disease effect, that flushed his system, requiring the new PF mechanic of a caster-level check. Effectively the same total immunity vs diseases with a day of incubation, but not an auto-pass vs effects (like the worms) that can take you down in rounds.

    Anyway, come chapter 3, he got tricked, by a dragon wymling and a bunch of kobolds, into making a tactically terrible decision (no spoilers, but if you’ve run it, there’s a picture of this exact moment, happening to the iconic ‘unlucky Abelard’).

    The actual mechanics for this part seem to have been left rather vague by the author, so I made my own, deciding that there were a potential total of 200 worms that could spray over him, and rolling d% for the number that actually got a chance to latch on. 98%. Hmmm.

    His companions see that he has become the Green Spaghetti Monster, and promptly fireball him. I decide that this kills 90% of the worms on him, but there are still 20 lodged in the folds of his clothes, or in the water round his ankles.
    Let the fun begin!

    As he keeps himself alive using LOH, we roll for each worm, climbing higher and higher, up his thighs, through his neck, toward his spine and brainstem. Some are stopped, but a few prove tenacious, and the player is well aware they cause Int damage,…he’s felt their effect before, and come close to losing his personality, reverting to a mad beast who fights with teeth and claws…

    As his time runs out, he sloshes back to the party on the shore, none of whom want to go in for him, since the waters are alive, and frothing with the remaining worms, reanimating the corpses of the lake.
    He trudges on, not willing to look back at the scene the rest can see, of an army of zombies, keeping pace with him, all equally infested by cerebrophagic parasites.

    He finally kills the remaining worms via his divine health, which causes all a wave of relief, but I don’t believe they should just go ‘poof’, and describe the frenzied thrashings of the worms, as they are destroyed, and the way they attempt to gnaw their way to safety, chewing their way from tearducts, eardrums, through the septum of his nostrils, as he simultaneously vomits, defecates and urinates the rest, though this is blocked by the last survivors forcing their fat, pulsing, hook-barbed paths out of his oesophagus, anus and urethra.

    What a blast! It takes a lot to get ex-Forces players to feel queasy, but I think I did, and he’s not been blase about his immunities since.
    What’s that one worth on the scale?

  6. My daughter was full of joy when reading this line on your blog “…, with towering barren trees… their leafless branches twisted and groping toward the ceiling above as if in search for …” it causes me to feel brighter after understanding it.

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