Dark Fantasy – The Horrific End to Heroes

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Dark Fantasy UndeadDark Fantasy is certainly an intriguing genre. It brings many traditional fantasy concepts together and wraps them within a lovely horror ribbon. This package is often served on a platter of “Things Mankind Was Not Meant to Know”. Gritty rule sets, unhappy endings and dismal environs are all part of the genre. If there are peasants and people in the setting they tend to be insane, cursed, diseased, perpetually depressed, racist and littered with hopelessness. Those who aren’t suffering usually become the next villain of the story.

Over the years we’ve been given many successful games in dark fantasy settings. Dark Souls, Diablo, Darkest Dungeon and for those who remember the days of Super Nintendo, Demon’s Crest. I’d even include Final Fantasy Tactics in the list, though it doesn’t saturate itself in the darkness as the former titles. Even Doom by ID Software is dark fantasy taking place in an Ultra Tech setting.

In this article I’ll examine the game play elements that will aid the GM in creating a rich dark fantasy experience. I will layout guidelines for the setting itself in the beginning. After which I’ll provide GURPS mechanics to help portray the setting effectively.

Why Play Dark Fantasy?

The first question some of you might ask is, “why dark fantasy?”

Fantasy settings throughout the years have instilled in us a sense of rules. True love conquers all, villains lose, good guys win, heroes are upright and there’s no greater force than united friendships. It may sound like a Saturday morning special but you’ll be hard pressed for find a world free of the notion “happily ever after.”

Dark fantasy rewrites these rules. It challenges the ideals we have surrounded ourselves with and creates a certain theme. It helps to keep players on their toes and thrust them into great unknowns. Characters shudder to accept these immutable truths and some might not survive them.

I’ll outline a few reasons people might enjoy a dark fantasy setting instead of a traditional game.

The Hero We Deserve

Legacy of Kain - Raziel

Raziel from Soul Reaver

The traditional setting would paint a hero as a shining example for the masses. They bravely seek to right wrongs and see justice done. They may even stop to help old ladies cross the road.

Dark fantasy allows players to explore the darker nature of heroics. Their hero may have a dark past or a closely kept secret. The dark fantasy hero may not be interested in heroics at all. The defeat of the villain is just a side effect of their true goal. They may even be a villain themselves- at least to a degree. Heroes filled with corrupting forces are definitely common themes within the dark fantasy genre. They might be half vampire, demon spawn, part monster or partake from these things.

Players often look for a change of pace in their character design. After saving endless villagers for years and listening to rambling monologues of villains, they may crave a break from these concepts. The anti-hero can be appealing to those who wonder why they have to bother with all the troublesome problems of the world. Selfishness, greed, pride and search for power is a strong motivator to fight darkness. Doing so because it’s right isn’t always the drive of the dark fantasy hero. Sometimes saving yourself from damnation is all you need to tell a lasting story.

Such characters have no time for nonsense. They don’t care about how the monsters affect your dear old granny. They just want the facts and move on. GMs might enjoy running a dark fantasy campaign for just this reason. The need for constant heroic motivators disappears. NPCs passing plots around might become minimal. Generally the players already have endless motivators to stomp around all over the darkness. It may not be a cheery world when they do, but it is clear none the less.

Be Cruel! Be Very Cruel!

darksouls_610Fantasy would tell us villains have grand schemes the hero is meant to thwart. The challenges ramp up at a slow enough pace to keep the hero alive. The hero has to only follow the bread crumbs to level up while they seek to right wrongs. Few bosses confront the hero directly. When they do it’s in order from weakest to strongest. Eventually the protagonist meets their arch enemy and come out victorious.

Players may want something completely unfair to truly test their meddle. They may enjoy the challenge of odds stacked against them. Rewards can be so much sweeter if you risked everything to attain them. The players may simply want to jump right in to fighting Big Bads. They save goblins, kobolds, animals and trivial critters for someone who cares.

To illustrate my point I’ll bring up the game Dark Souls. Few people will say they found Dark Souls easy. Every player knows the small chime of music that plays when the words “You died” fades into the screen. Endless frustrating ends to the would-be champion have played out in the game. Dark Souls II even charted statistics for player deaths to remind us how grim things were. Yet players kept throwing themselves at the problems like lemmings. There was nothing fair about the game but we kept playing. We enjoyed the challenge and accomplishments we made.

Players in table top might crave that same feeling. They want you to bring your strongest enemy forth. They want to have to pause play a moment to look at the tactical map like chess. They indulge their cunning by pouring over their character sheet for ideas. They want to win but they want it to be with great effort. They don’t mind that sometimes they might even have to run away (or die).

A Whole New World

tumblr_ndpu1jlOhQ1sn3ne4o1_500Some players just want to try new things. They know paladins, rangers, clerics, mages, rogues, bards and the classic classes inside and out. They might want to try the necromancer, the demonologist, the warlock, the plague bearer, the blackguard, the assassin and other dark flavors of classes. These same players might enjoy the change to being something a bit more monstrous.

It can be a refreshing feeling for those who are used to the same character creation rules again and again. After all, how different can you truly design one paladin from another? Other classes can differ quite a bit more than a paladin, but few people can say they tried all the variants of classes and races that walk the shores of darkness.

The dark fantasy player may also have a certain penchant for the macabre. Role playing is often taking on roles of characters we ourselves are not. I’m certainly not a vampire Drow Tiefling priest worshipping a spider god, but going down that fork in the road might make for an interesting story. Other players might feel the same.

GMs may also take joy in writing out a story without expectations of happily ever after. They might want to play with the more sinister natures in humanity. They might just be feeling the need to touch on something dark in general. Dark fantasy can fulfill such cravings. With mystery and possibilities the world has never seen in their arsenal, GMs might find players utterly engaged when they can’t find the enemy they’re facing in a monster manual. Nothing like the chaos of elder spawn to make people question if the thing is even following the laws of physics.

No Nonsense

yEDOBSometimes it’s just the need to skip over pleasantries of fantasy which drive people towards dark fantasy. As I said before, heroes may not have a need to intermingle with the locals. It can also go even further. The players might feel like the only real force with a vested interest in seeing the demise of the antagonists.

Dark fantasy suits the group that enjoys jumping from the frying pan into the fire. They may just want a moment to spend any hard won character points and meager rewards before leaping head first into the next problem with little care for what or why it’s there. Without the need for rhyme or reason to the coming swathes of darkness the play can almost become action packed.

Diablo series is a prime example of this idea. It has a plot line but you don’t spend a lot of time exploring it. You’re just rushing from one locale to the next while chopping down hordes of enemies. Every boss you destroy seems to simply be a road map telling you “The villain’s in another castle”. Players ask few question and mount up for more bloody combat.

Dark Souls certainly doesn’t need a giant lore manual to explain the story. You unravel bits of it while you die over and over. Conversations with NPCs are brief and to the point. Darkest Dungeon just gives players a narrative voice echoing the tale of the challenge they are about to face.

Maybe players are only interested in specific trials. Some might only want to delve into the brutality of combat. Others may feel they want more twisted mystery. Whatever the players wish to focus on, dark fantasy can easily hand waive unwanted elements right out of the setting. Who remembers any part of Dark Souls which needed actual social rolls?

Dark Fantasy Settings

Dark fantasy should echo in the setting all around the players. It’s not enough to just be a jerk GM, the world itself needs to feel as though it hates the players more than the GM does. The GM shouldn’t feel the need to be an unmitigated bastard, the genre does that for them. The brutality is expected and the mechanics will make certain even small details are brutal.

Engrossing players in a theme doesn’t mean it must be a constant. There is room for joy and happiness in the dark fantasy campaign, but these values are often temporary or built upon lies. The joyful world of possibilities with a darkness overshadowing now and then are not the goal of dark fantasy. If anything, these ideals are simply a calm before the storm. They might be the eye at the center of the hurricane. They are built up only to make the grim fall that much more harrowing. They might also be the finally of the campaign when the players solve the problems of the setting.

Below are some tips for creating a dark fantasy world which will captivate your players every step of the way.

Darkness Came… Nobody Could Stop It!

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“In this world the bad guys can win!”

A reoccurring theme of dark fantasy is the evils nobody can do anything about. They were there long before the characters got involved in the setting. Whether it’s hordes of vile monsters that ravage the land or some corrupt power spilling out from mysterious sources, it’s not something that just needs a hero to go investigate. In fact, all the heroes that did are probably dust in their graves. Sometimes it’s the dark overlords and wicked gods having a firm hold on the world. Other times it’s rampaging zombies. It might even be some element of goodness that was stripped away from the world. Nothing like a game where Pandora’s box  was opened. What would the world be like if love was sapped from every living thing? Maybe the gods lost to the devil. Things Mankind Was Not Meant to Know are common in the dark fantasy world.

Whatever the case, players shouldn’t feel too driven to do anything about it. Much like a natural disaster, you don’t avert it, you simply try to stay out of it’s way. You might slow it’s progress at some points in the story, but it’s going to be there. It saturates all the elements of the world. If the world has average individuals they are not looking for heroes, they already gave up on their ability to save them. This could even be a post apocalyptic setting in that case. Hope should take a back seat in the setting. If players are meant to eventually bring a brighter future, nobody believes it and it seems unlikely.

An alternate theme for this natural disaster is the count down to the apocalypse. Maybe it’s Gehenna, Armageddon, Ragnarok or oblivion. This theme permeates all over the World of Darkness. Players can’t stop the end of all things. They might have a glimmer of hope for being the sole survivors but this won’t save the world. Maybe the whole game is simply the last chronicles of existence before the end.

The setting becomes more enjoyable if the concepts are shrouded in deep mystery. The GM shouldn’t feel compelled to explain to the player. Even scratching the surface is enough to turn hair white and fill the most stalwart individuals with dread. Nobody understands Elder Gods. They simply know they suck when you want to live happily ever after.

Dystopia. The Land Of Dead Hopes.

5629318+_8eec4cc6e9e34c75505e4fb52bfba2bcIf there is a civilization in the setting, it has all the color sapped out of it. Kids don’t go outside to play because that risks having their souls sucked out by the monsters. Every day people walk the streets in masks and hazmat suits to keep from getting the evil on themselves. Their homes are little more than garbage stacked on top of itself. The sun forgot how to shine so famine and desperation are par for the course. Disease seems like it’s throwing a 24/7 party with everyone’s immune systems. Empires conquered the lands and oppress the citizens. The GM should also feel compelled to roll on a table for derangement on the NPCs behalf before having any conversations with players.

Nobody is happy. The only thing that makes them feel remotely better is making others less happy than themselves. Racism is a seasoning on top of every meal. This isn’t based on what’s reasonable, they simply enjoy having someone to blame. If it isn’t the elves, it’s anyone doing slightly better. The neighbor eating decently must have sold his soul. It’s the only explanation!

Those who actually are doing well always have some deep secret or some means of working with the darkness. These individuals might be the devil’s right hand in disguise, or think they are. They might be deluded and collect skeletons in their closet. They could even be the problem themselves. The players just have to pull back the curtain to show them for what they really are. The problem is, nobody else is any better. Can you really punish the guy for doing what everyone else is trying to do better than they did?

Very few people, if any, are rooting for the heroes’ success. They’re too busy dealing with the basics of life to care that someone wants to save them. Any promises to help are likely to be taken with a grain of salt. They’re too used to disappointment. They might even react badly to anyone who suggests life can be better!

Here Lies the Party that Tried Before Us!

Dying HeroThe word hero really doesn’t exist in the world. It’s an insult to think it does. Nobody has time for fairy tales. If anyone tried to stop what has happened or followed the path of altruism they are probably resting within graves in the nearby yard. That is if anyone could find their bodies, or want to.

Players might stumble across journals and video logs of these past heroes, but they always end with last entries of realization that justice is futile. If only they had been a bit more selfish, callous or paranoid. Their legacies are simply warnings to the player “Yeah, the world sucks… I know that now.”

Just like horror movie tropes, going back to help others generally means you die with them. Your heroic end might be pulling the pin out of an explosive while seeing how many baddies you can take with you. There is little hope for a silver lining. You’re likely going to die in the end. If you’re lucky you get to choose how.

Life isn’t fair, and being a hero just means finding that out in the most gruesome way possible.

Power Corrupts. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.

warlock-fireIt’s hard enough thwarting evil with tools granted to you. In the dark fantasy genre even the tools hate you. When you get power from gods they are usually deplorable entities of malice. When you channel magic it has an ultimate price. Finding magic weapons usually means they are cursed. Potions that grant bonuses tend to make players choose if they want to stomach whatever is to come with it.

Storytellers should make every step forward have a catch. Players can become all powerful, but that generally means becoming another lackey to the inescapable darkness. Ticking time bombs surrounding typical fantasy elements are widely used. If any NPC seems more capable than the player it’s almost certain they are corrupted too.

Corrupted means aren’t just present, they seem to be everywhere. This should be central to any ability available to players. Double the problems for any NPC. That’s how the world works. Nobody is allowed to be too comfortable or too happy. The moment you find success the floor opens to a Rancor beast. Only this beast is sitting around waiting for you to read the “Dummy’s Guide to Wizardry”. The sad thing is the player can’t seem to put the book down to eat their rations.

Any forces of good art littered with inaction. They are decadent, prideful or feel the problems the world is facing it it’s own issue. Maybe they are simply being overwhelmed! Whatever they case, they’re little more than a title with no backing. Take the setting of Diablo as an example. Angels could have went to war against the forces of hell. Why did they leave your characters to do it?

Dials of the Dark Fantasy

After clarifying the setting you wish to portray, it’s time to put that clarification into rules. GURPS Horror is almost mandatory reading to grasp the nature of the setting.  Mood is more important to rules when it comes to dark fantasy. Therefore any rule that takes away from mood should be thrown out. If you don’t feel overbearing darkness then you’re not in the right balance of roll play and role play.

Mortality Rules

One hit point leftEvery mortality dial that the GM can get away with enabling should be turned on. GMs should not feel that massive damage is required to make a good horror feel. With the right dials, even small injuries become a big deal. Some might slow down play if the GM isn’t wholly ready for them, so make sure you have a primer , checklist or notes ready to quickly go through. With practice it will become second nature.

Hidden Injury: This optional rule helps players really feel terrified when injury occurs. In reality you may be stabbed, cut or crippled. How many can equate that injury to a hit point number? Many people died thinking an injury was small, only to find it was life threatening. Some groups might enjoy the mystery of wondering just how bad the internal injury from that small spear wound is. GMs simply describe the wounds to the players and they choose what to do about it. Without a quantifiable number players will likely be slow to risk life and limb. They don’t know if they can easily handle another poke from a pixie, so it’s best not to risk it!

Bleeding (B.420): This rule is generally a must. It doesn’t slow down combat much since it’s a minute interval for blood loss. It does, however, turn loss of hit points far more horrifying. Much as the Hidden Injury guideline above, this rule make it unclear to the players when injury will stop ticking down. First aid and help become greatly sought after. You want your players to be naturally burdened by the world without arbitrary enforcement. This will certainly help in that endeavor.

Infection (B.444): Bleeding has stopped, but did the players keep the wound clean? Dealing with the grimy world has more downsides than just looking ugly. GMs should make every injury count. Infections creeping up on players will certainly help that. Soap, antibiotics, clean water, sterile bandaging and beneficial magicks are definitely a blessing.

Teeth (Martial Arts P.115): Creatures have teeth they want nothing more than to sink into a player. Since biting damage is often based on thrust, players tend to laugh at the 1d-2 damage a Timber Wolf can produce. What makes a timber wolf scary isn’t the fact it can output a sudden blast of damage, it’s that it bites and latches on. With this rule every animal with teeth becomes a large burden. Players find themselves grappled with failed defense rolls making themselves sitting ducks for other enemies!

Injury and Recovery (Martial Arts P.136): GMs can get a lot of bang for their buck turning on a few rules from this section. Just because a game is cinematic doesn’t mean part can’t be grounded in reality. For example, having a roll for every torso injury to see if it also hits vitals can have players on the edge of their seats. It’s also fair because they can inflict the same on their enemies, assuming either has vitals. If recovery from injury is pain staking, players will be far more careful to avoid it at all costs!

GMs should never feel they have to injure the player to make the game fun and challenging. Just having the above threats tend to be enough to make players worry. On top of that enemies will eventually roll critical success, no matter how well the players do at mitigating attacks. The player goal should be 0 injury in a dark fantasy setting. That’s part of the challenge and enjoyment in the setting. Stick to the guidelines of those rules and it’ll be enough.

That doesn’t mean GMs can’t put devastating attacks. Giant monsters that players should have no possibility of defeating are part of the game world too.

Disadvantages on Overdrive

Every character in a dark fantasy setting should have a strong list of disadvantages. Don’t just have players take disadvantages, exploit them! You needn’t be secretive about it. Let players know you are going to take every disadvantage they choose and use it to the max. This doesn’t mean a 5 point disadvantage should come up every session as problematic, but it fits dark fantasy to paint every disadvantage as a foreground problem.

Make it your goal to make players want to buy off disadvantages or at least have a fun story to tell around the disadvantage. If players feel the disadvantage is too harsh in your setting, allow them to replace it with another or swipe it from the sheet and give them a point deficit. The goal isn’t to take the fun away, but to provide the immersion in a world that hates everything. Few players will complain unless they don’t like dark fantasy to begin with. Some players will absolutely enjoy seeing their negative points come up again and again, even if it’s against them!

Be especially aware of reaction rolls. People should feel the weight of anything that stands out against their character in this regard.

Repeat After Me… FRIGHT CHECK!

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I cannot stress enough how often this should be rolled in a dark fantasy setting. Players should never tell the GM “My character is used to dealing with XYZ, so why should I roll?” That is a heroic trope for a traditional fantasy setting. Such a concept has no place in the gritty world of dark fantasy.

When combat is about to start, roll fright checks. If a scene is particularly grim, roll a fright check. If a rabbit hops out of a bush while players are on edge, roll a fright check. Anyone used to dealing with xyz can get a bonus to their roll, but they cannot negate it fully.

Be very aware of modifiers involved in these fright checks. The first few you roll might feel clunky, but after you go through the motions enough times they will feel common place.

You need not always use the results from the fright check table. Failed fright checks can be very momentary changes in a character. They might simply jump with a start and shout “JESUS!” when faced with a scare. However, it’ll make people consider that their characters don’t react well to frightening circumstances, and morale is an important feature of the campaign.

Permadeath… The Scary P Word

GMs are often terrified of the word permadeath. It has caused many frightful battles at a table and bad tastes in people’s mouths. I am not going to petition you and say this should be in the game. What I am going to say instead is talk it over with the players and be very clear about expectations. If players are for the fear of utter doom on their character then no problem. Make sure they know that the setting isn’t going to be fair. You may not be going out of your way to kill them, but a dark fantasy setting with the nobs tuned right will probably do it for you.

If they are against permadeath, all deaths that would normally kill a player should be horribly detrimental. Charge 25 points for extra life every time they die. Maybe have disadvantages stacked on. Maybe they lose everything they are carrying. There’s plenty of ways to make death scary without killing. However, few will be as scary as actual death. Make sure not to surprise players with a new rule around death. Nothing will make them feel more slighted than a sudden shift against expectations on such a serious matter.

The People Have Spoken – Resistance Rolls!

If players aren’t resisting something every other game, you aren’t trying hard enough. Dark fantasy should challenge the very fiber of a man. Pestilence, poison, mind altering drugs, magical domination, debilitating powers, curses, cold, heat, dehydration, hunger, sleeplessness, ecstasy… put them all in a blender and pour them all over your campaign. Players should feel like like the gods of luck are testing their dice rolls.

Monster and environments can all be sources of these problems. If you are going to have players walk into a forge or a volcano, keep in mind the sweltering heat surrounding the player. If they are going to be in the cold it should be bone biting. Even walking through a swamp can cause hypothermia if the boots are soaked. Disease is everywhere. Treat cities like they have the black plague waiting around every corner. It need not kill a player, but even a common cold can be a problem.  GURPS City Stats has some guidelines for making an environment more or less safe for HT rolls against disease.

NPCs quite often resort to toxins and subtle methods of dealing with players. It’s hard to warrant facing a man with a great sword head on, but if you can slip a drug in their drink…

Encounters++

If you think an encounter might be difficult, make it harder. Use all sorts of rules you aren’t often placing in your games. GURPS is full of mechanics. Try them all! I don’t mean optional combat rules, I mean exploit mechanics all over the rainbow. Have darkness, flicking no mana zones, bad footing and any little modifier/challenge you can find in any book. Dark fantasy is the place to try out every mechanic.

Don’t just fight in a house, have the house burning around the players with threats of smoke inhalation. Don’t just fight on a boat, have a kraken sinking it with tentacles becoming wide area attacks everyone has to avoid! How is your knowledge on balance checks? Read up on the rule then put a situation in that needs it. Taking a running jump between platforms to face mobile enemies can be quite an enjoyable experience.

If you think 5 enemies are enough put 10! Give them different tactical advantages! Surround players and beat them from every angle because they didn’t exploit choke points. Make players work for their victories!

This isn’t a world where the hero is supposed to win. This is a world where the hero wins after losing almost everything.

Now We’re Stressed Out

InsanityRealism in a cinematic setting can accomplish the goal of adding challenge. Stress grows while dealing with the elements of a dark fantasy setting. Players may seek respite or individuals who can help them work through their stress. They may require periodic unwinding to refresh themselves for later. This can be an incentive to get involved with the realm on more than a superficial level.

There are various ways to deal with stress. Kromm wrote a simple method for dealing with the effects of stress in the forums here. GURPS Horror has a tallying system for dealing with repetitive stress stimuli and the eventual downfall into derangement. This can easily be worked to fit a model like Darkest Dungeon.

Stress should always lead to worsening state of the mind. Derangement and new disadvantages should pop up on a character who is feeling the heavy burden of stress. They need not be permanent. If a player does find a relief then it can erase the disadvantage. Worsening existing disadvantages is also useful.

GMs who allow stress in the setting should give methods for getting rid of it. If there are no methods then eventually every character will be so littered with stress that they will become unplayable. How easy it is to release stress should be a slider based on how beat down players should feel. Easily released stress will be as simple as returning from an adventure and going through the motions. Difficult removal will have players working desperately to find some method of countering their descent into madness.

Corruption

GURPS Horror, GURPS Fantasy and GURPS Magic has many guidelines on dealing with corruption. GMs who want evil to have an outward effect on the player should delve into these rules and work out a formula for their setting. Light corruption will likely make nice people a little less nice. Heavy corruption might lead a hero to becoming a villain themselves. If the corruption has outward influence then once stalwart men might find themselves slowly declining into a face of a demon or monster.

Will rolls to resist corruption will likely be a strong factor in the method. This can feel artificial for some GMs. Such GMs can take the extra time to make corruption tempting. If the situations players are dealing with have all the difficulties laid out previously, this can be a simple matter of giving players corrupt tools to make the burden easier. There’s always a catch involved of course.

Roll Dice For No Reason!

This can have a strange psychological affect on players. It’s especially true if you game in person instead of over virtual table top. In a virtual table top you can accomplish the same thing. Most have a command to /roll 3d6. Do it! A GM should periodically roll dice before they describe anything, even if the actions around them are mundane. Roll dice needlessly. This puts players on edge. They can’t help it! They want to know what you’re rolling. They want to know if they failed. See if they don’t ask. See if they aren’t making guesses as to what’s going on.

You might even see players act as though they figured it out. They might point at another player and tell them they failed a perception check. In truth it’s nothing more than a mood setter. Dice represent possible failure to players. They should always feel they might fail in a dark fantasy setting.

Adventure Seeds

tumblr_mwn04y0wA61rfyiu4o1_1280There is likely little need for me to lay out specific seeds. Dark fantasy tends to suit any number of adventures. A wise GM can take any adventure module and turn it into dark fantasy. Simply place the plot under a distorted lens, sap the color and joy out of it and make the struggles much more horrific. They can range from space faring ultra tech to medieval fantasy. Some worlds and ideas can be wholly alien. Everything is fair game for dark fantasy. As an example, World of Darkness takes place in modern day.

Even simplistic monsters like goblins can become a terrible force in dark fantasy. They are heartless critters who enjoy ganging up on enemies. They revel in filth and disgusting practices. Their allies are vermin and their weapons are rusty, poisoned and otherwise. Turning on a few of these settings can turn a simple adventure into a goblin cave a veritable nightmare.

Make sure to consult your thesaurus for descriptions that aid in painting the horrific picture of dark fantasy. Some words are great at eliciting the emotions a GM wants to portray. Storytellers can simply say a room is filthy. Describing why it’s filthy will get more resonance with players. Try to challenge all the senses with every description.What do players smell, taste, touch, hear and see?

Let me give two examples:

Simple: You enter an enclosed cavern with filth and garbage littering the floor. There are mats the goblins use for sleep half made and the smell of disgusting refuse.

Overdescribed: Your nose is assaulted with the putrid fragrance of rot riddled feces. Discarded carcasses of old meals and waste matter are splattered in piles. The buzz of flies hum in your ears as they swarm the heaps looking for sustenance. Those moving closer can see maggots and wretched carrion writhing alive in the masses. Straw once meant to keep the goblins dry has become caked with mud and grime. Containers and buckets that were receptacles for waste overflow and spill out upon the cavern floor itself. The place mats the goblins bed themselves on are no better. Old brown stains and speckles of various materials mat the rolls.

Then it’s more insult to injury to require a HT roll or Will roll to push the characters to enter such an environment. Those with a phobia for filth wouldn’t dare to enter such a place.

Picking out one feature that is unimportant and giving it a large depth of description can really set the tone. This is especially true for scenes that should be frightening. Two examples are outlined here:

Simple: You pass through the front door of the home into an entry way. It’s dark with little more than moonlight to paint a path. Door spread outwards into the home around you and twin stairwells rise to the upper parts of the home.

Overdescribed: Passing through the doorway into the shoddy manor brings little comfort. Every step on the floorboards causes nails to creak and warp. The echo of boots to ground reverberates around the empty halls. Darkness smothers all light save for the few rays of the moon that pierce the dust coated windows. Two stairwells cling tightly to the walls and ascend to the upper parts of the manor. Each has a carpet folded along the case which is loose with age. The deafening silence of the home is broken by the tick of a grandfather clock. Each swing of the pendulum clatters off another second. Tick tock it repeats with hollow clicks that jar the ears. It seems to form eyes watching your every motion through the dark though nothing appears present when it’s granted a second glance.

I chose to focus on the clock for no reason. Players may investigate the clock, but that’s typical of a horror setting. Often people are distracted by mundane situations around them while evil is afoot at their backs. It’s also nice to give them a bit of a scare as they expect to find a normal clock but a reflection of the old resident is seen behind them, only to turn around and nothing be present.

Unhappily Ever After

640x912_3296_Undead_2d_fantasy_guild_wars_undead_picture_image_digital_artHopefully this post gives some food for thought in the quest to bring out a dark fantasy world. GMs should not feel beholden to guidelines laid out here. There’s an invariable amount of sources that can be drawn on for dark fantasy. For those who never tried it, go ahead and give it a shot. It might surprise a GM how well received such a setting can be for people both new and veteran to role play. It’s especially nice as a great equalizer in games with mixed players. Veterans may not know what to expect from you or the setting which can put them on equal footing with new players.

As always I look forward to feedback.

 

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2 Comments

  1. In the grim dark past…

    While you touch on all the dismal aspects of dark fantasy, I think you really miss the mark by not once mentioning anything to contrast the darkness against. Even Melmoth has his Immalee. If the players never know a warm home to return to, they may not feel like there is anything to fight for. Dark fantasy, like any horror genre, requires contrast to avoid a bleak sameness that gets boring quickly.

    It is also worth noting that horror (dark fantasy is basically horror in a fantasy setting) relies on the interplay between the sublime and the grotesque. By sublime, I mean powerful imagery or events like the description of Usher by Poe or of Immalee’s paradise before Melmoth arives. The grotesque is the subverted, base, and corrupt. This is seen when Melmoth gives Immalee a spyglass to glimpse the mass suicide of Indians throwing themselves before the rolling statue of Juggernaut – the sublime purity of Immalee is contrasted with the baseness of such a violent seen.

    If you want your players to make Fright Checks, you need to immerse them with powerful imagery and then upset them with grotesque changes to the paradigm you have established. This requires contrasts. After all, the highest compliment I ever got from a player was when he was physically nauseated at an unexpected description of a pork soup.

    • Everything you mention is true. Mostly an oversight on my part after the fact. I didn’t assume people would only use darkness 100% of the time. Though some settings it is darkness on without any reprieve. Still, you are correct, there is definitely a place for contrast to the horrific elements outlined here.

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