Review – Horror Adventures (Pathfinder RPG)

Horror Adventures (for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game) was released at GenCon 2016. Following on the heels of its sister book, Occult Adventures, Horror Adventures provides guidance to GMs and players on how bringing the tone, feel, and conventions of various horror genres to the tabletop. Horror Adventures is a 256-page, full-color hardcover, and retails for about $45.

Note that the contents of Horror Adventures may not be suitable for all players, especially younger ones. Horror Adventures itself emphasizes the importance of ensuring that all players know (in very broad strokes) what sort of horror their characters might face, so that the players are all comfortable with what might unfold. Similarly, if a player is simply not comfortable with, or not interested in, concepts like bodily mutilation, spiritual corruption, gore, torture, and so forth, then the player should probably give Horror Adventures a pass.

PZO1135-CosmicHorrorAlthough Horror Adventures is, in theory, aimed at both players and GMs, it is far more a book for GMs. Indeed, I would generally recommend against reading the entire book if you’re going to be playing in a horror campaign. Horror Adventures is not about scaring the players (or the characters) by making enemies more powerful or more threatening – it still uses the same mechanical framework (there are some new mechanics, of course, but they don’t pertain to the fundamental challenge system of the game). Rather, horror is introduced to the campaign through how the story is told and through the addition of particular implementations that evoke grotesque or terrifying concepts. Part of that implementation of horror is through the unknown (as Horror Adventures itself notes). If the players know exactly how an apocalypse fog works, or exactly how to cure brain moss, or exactly how to remove the curse from a jealous structure, that significantly detracts from the mood of horror than the GM will be trying to convey (indeed, simply knowing that those things exist and are labeled as such might be more information than is ideal). Additionally, a much higher portion of the mechanical content in Horror Adventure is most functional for NPCs or monsters.

That is not to say that there is no content for players in Horror Adventures. There is material about fighting valiantly against the darkness, and there is material about characters who draw upon darkness to fight darkness. There is also content about playing in a horror campaign, especially the need to fully flesh out the character, and be willing to let the character be truly afraid, rather than wearing a cloak of perpetual bravery. I’m just inclined to say that this content is best mediated through the GM, or filtered in some way, rather than a player simply sitting down and reading the book. I would suggest that players can freely read the first three chapters, which cover the basics of the new mechanics (fear, sanity, corruption), the new racial and class options, and the feats. I would suggest that in general players should avoid the remainder of the text, including spells/rituals, gear, the GM advice, and the specific implementations of horror mechanics.

Contents

PZO1135-ReapersBargainNew Mechanic – Expanded Fear: I feel like, for most Pathfinder books like this, the review leads off with the new base class, but Horror Adventures does not include one, instead providing several new mechanics to play up the theme. This is a horror book, so first up is an expansion of the fear system, replacing the standard shaken/frightened/panicked with seven different levels of fear. These expand on both the lower end, where the spooked status imposes minor penalties, and on the high end, where the horrified status renders the character helpless. It is also recommended that fear immunity be downgraded to fear resistance, so as to not completely spoil the entire point of the genre.

New Mechanic – Sanity: Sanity is not terribly important to some works of horror, but it is critically important to others (e.g., anything with the word “Cthulhu” or “Lovecraft” in the title). The sanity mechanics add a sanity score to go along with the characters’ hit points, but is more complex, with long-term lesser and greater madnesses being inflicted when a character takes too much damage at once, or has their sanity score drop down too low. Horror adventures offers up 16 broad categories of madness, from minor phobias to schizophrenia, as well as guidance on how spells like restoration interact with the new sanity system.

New Mechanic – Corruption: Corruption has a number of specific versions presented, but at the core they all represent some sort of spiritual and physical infection of the character, inflicting unnatural urges and the possibility of a permanent fall to evil (and NPChood). Each corruption has four stages, from an initial “level 0” stage, through two stages of progressing mental (and physical) adjustment, and then a final stage where the character is lost to the player forever. Each type of corruption has its own triggers for what might advance the corruption. For some kinds of corruption, resisting the corruption requires iron-clad will and the avoidance of certain negative conduct. Others fall into the A Beast I Am Lest A PZO1135-MerisielBeast I Become milieu, where the character must engage in more mild improper acts lest they lose control and commit a greater evil (and, yes, Vampirism is one of those). Along the way, the character has the opportunity to receive manifestations – powers (based on character level) granted by the corruptions source. For example, a character might become subject to Deep One corruption through exposure to chthonic entities, subjecting the character to a constant mental background noise and a need for exposure to seawater. Failure to meet that need, or exposure to evil divine magic, forces the character to make Will saves, with failures resulting in alignment shifts, a physical mutation to deep one hybrid, and finally becoming an NPC deep one. In the meantime, however, the character might develop extensive abilities to operate underwater, or slow aging. Other types of corruption include accursed (vengeance), ghoul, hellbound (any sort of demon or fiend), hive (your body is infested), lycanthropy, possession, promethean (e.g., Frankenstein’s monster), shadowbound (Shadow Plane corruption), and vampirism.

Racial Options: Each of the standard PC races received a half-dozen alternate racial traits, as well as three favored class options. These options are often quite thematic. For example, a dwarven barrow scholar replaces stonecunning with improved knowledge of the undead, an elven keeper of secrets improves their enchantment spells and bluffing ability, and a blessed halfing gains bonuses against curses and hexes (at the cost of fearlessness).

Archetypes and Class Options: Each base class receives a two-page spread of new options. These are mostly archetypes, but include other options like new rage powers for the barbarian and new legendary spirits for the medium. Some archetypes are highly steeped in the concept of horror adventures (such as the elder mythos cultist cleric archetype), while others have little or no relation (such as the barbarian dreadnought). A good number of the archetypes (at least 10) require an evil alignment (or a really nasty sort of neutral) and, to my eyes at least, are effectively NPC-only. A few of the archetypes that caught my eyes were the cult hunter (an investigator archetype that specializes in – you guessed it – hunting down secret societies, and also banishing any extraplanar allies they may have summoned), the hallowed necromancer (a wizard who specializes in necromancy in order to enhance their ability to combat undead), and the hexenhammer (an inquisitor archetype that seeks to use the power of witches against them).

PZO1135-KyraVampirismFeats and Spells (and Rituals): There are, as usual for this sort of book, about 50 feats and spells included in Horror Adventures. Many feats are strongly geared towards NPCs or monsters, such as Skinsuit (which lets an undead hide in, well, a skinsuit), Touch of Evil (which can compel others to commit evil acts), and Sacrificial Ritualist (murder a sentient being in order to increase the power of a ritual). Of those appropriate for PCs, many interact with common horror conventions (causing or resisting fear) or require sacrifice to protect oneself (such as clarity of pain, which allows a character to injure themself in order to resist charm or compulsion effects). Personally, I’m the most excited about the appearance of more Story feats. The spell selection is even more heavily pushed towards evil uses, to the point that this is where I would draw the line for how far players should read in the book. Better to let some of the nasty, brutal spells here be a surprise when first encountered.

Horror Rules: Under the umbrella of horror rules, Horror Adventures introduces specific implementation of five concepts (curses, horrific diseases, environments, haunts, and madness), plus rules for fleshwarping. All of these, I think, benefit greatly from the players’ ignorance of what they might face.

GM Advice (~30 pages): This section of Horror Adventures goes over different horror subgenres that a GM might wish to invoke (body horror, cosmic horror, dark fantasy, ghost stories, gothic horror, psychological horror, and slasher horror), and how to go about doing that within the confines of the Pathfinder system. Advise is provided on how to infuse concepts of fear into the game, especially with uncertainty and the unknown (hence my advice on players skipping the second half of this book and leaving it for their GM to read), but also out-of-character matters such as sound and lighting, and the importance of in-advance conversations with players about how they are expected to behave (e.g., don’t crack a lot of jokes at the table, because that will ruin the mood). There is also some advice on the mechanics of a few horrific situations, such as being buried alive or burned at the stake.

Gear and Magic Items: Emphasizing the ‘not for readers of all ages’ nature of Horror Adventures, the mundane gear in this chapter leads off with a variety of implements of torture. The magic items have an appropriately macabre theme, such as the hooked massacre, the murderer’s machete, or the crimson alter (which gains power from nearby death). There are also a few items that are potent against the forces of evil, such as the heavenly aegis ring or the threshold guardian. There’s also a few cursed items, and some artifacts (including elder signs, for those who literally need to banish Cthulhu). A personal favorite of mine was the Rings of Alien Geometries, a matched pair of differently colored rings that creates a matched pair of portals … but that affection probably doesn’t have anything to do with horror.

Bestiary: The Horror Adventures bestiary is heavy on templates, including full templates for dread lord and its cursed lord variant (basically the Curse of Strahd), the implacable stalker, apostle kytons, and the unknown, and also simple templates for creatures affected by the various corruptions presented earlier in the book. Also included are an array of hive creatures, evil magical paintings that come to life, and waxwork creatures.

Final Thoughts

Horror Adventures is an excellent book for game masters interested in the genre. In my review of Occult Adventures, I applauded Paizo for trying to bring that genre to Pathfinder, and I opined that they had created a lot of good content for Pathfinder games, but that I did not leave the book convinced that actually running an occult campaign was a great idea. With Horror Adventures, however, I do think that they have succeeded in presenting ways to play good horror games in Pathfinder (I don’t know that I personally want to play in a campaign that requires the mechanics for thumbscrews, but there’s nothing the authors can do about that). A key difference is how much the unknown matters. It matters a great deal in horror games, but it matters in a different way – the fact that the players are fully familiar with all of the magical systems of the universe doesn’t prevent a GM from invoking horror with the unknowns about this particular manifestation. Horror Adventures not only presents a lot of creepy new material to use within the Pathfinder framework, but also properly focuses the GM (and players) on the importance of the mood and trappings of the game session in executing a good horror session. I would recommend Horror Adventures for any GM interested in the horror genre. As I discussed above, I would recommend that players restrict themselves to the first 100 pages or so of the book, and leave the mystery to the GM.


Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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