I’m going to talk about horror for a little while, using events from the last session of my D&D campaign as examples. It was the final session before Thanksgiving break, and it was a good one. During it the players broke into the fortified monastery of the Monks of the Ascension and went on a vampire hunt as part of a group of mercenaries hired by the Veras City Watch. The vampire hunt was meant to be a horror scenario, and the monastery was meant to be a heist adventure; at least, that’s what I expected them to be. Instead, the monastery turned out to be a much more effective horror scenario than did the vampires, which quickly turned into tactical combat with no element of fear. I want to do some analysis of why the adventure that was intended to be horror-based turned out not to be, and the one that wasn’t turned out to be.
First up, the monastery heist. I’m going to tell the full story of this little adventure, just because I liked how it turned out so much. The target was a set of bones in the crypts, belonging to a man called Adeptus Hallgate. The Jujhar priests at the Cathedral D’Agmont had told the paladin Gibson that if he wanted to get his god to stop being mad at him and revoking some of his powers he would have to undertake a quest for the Church. Adeptus Hallgate was the man who had thrown the Imperial Mother Church’s first missionaries to the island of Verdan into the ocean; the Jujhar felt it only proper that Gibson throw his bones into that same ocean. The party knew the layout of the monastery, as they had visited it the day before as customers, and bought some of the weapons that the Ascension is famous for; as such, they had a map of the compound on top of the Order’s mountain.
The planning at this stage was pretty intensive; they knew the locations of the watchtowers with the mirrors that the monks used to flash signals to each other across the compound, they knew the locations of the various gates and a couple entrances to the catacombs, they knew about the Order’s aversion to magic…they knew a lot of stuff, and they took all of it into account. They eventually decided to have Gibson, the rogue Verrik and the monk Atlas Brulio simply walk into the compound during the day, posing as customers (entering through a different gate in the hope that the monk who had escorted them to the Exhibition Hall the previous day would be working the same gate today). When the druid Arianne, in owl form, saw that they were safely ensconced in the Hall (with Verrik having acquired monk robes along the way, leaving one unconscious monk tied up in a lavatory), the mages got the signal to start the diversion. Sh’vass and Marcus Bighammer, the two clerics, cast six darkness spells on six coins. Sh’vass went invisible, Bighammer cast a flight spell on him, and the invisible flying elf tossed darkness coins into six mirror towers in the southwest sector of the monastery, while the wizard Faust spammed ghost sounds and other illusions as fast as he could. The resultant confusion gave Verrik (now posing as a monk) and Gibson enough time to dash out of the Exhibition Hall, leaving Atlas behind to cover for them in case someone came looking. They made it to the entrance of the catacombs before they were spotted.
“You idiot! Don’t go in there!” a monk shouted at them. “The alarm bells are ringing, can’t you hear? They’ll be awake!”
This was the first sign of anything going wrong with their plans. They had planned their breaking into and out of the monastery down to the last detail, but had neglected to think of what might happen in said catacombs, since they didn’t have any real information on them going into the operation. They made up some bullshit story about having seen someone else going into the crypts, to placate the monk who’d seen them, and dashed inside. There were no torches in the tunnel that they stepped into, so Verrik pulled out a sun rod and cracked it against the wall, giving them some light.
After a while, it became clear that the catacombs were more extensive than they had originally thought. Gibson sat down and prayed for guidance while Verrik tried to figure out if there was anything besides dust that he could loot. Gibson’s prayers were answered; he opened his eyes and saw, at the very edge of the light from the sun rod, the words ADEPTUS HALLGATE engraved above the door to one of the crypts. He also saw something moving at the edge of the light, a flickering motion, jerky and unnatural. There was something there, something that moved stutter-stop, like a marionette run by a controlled epileptic. Whatever it was, it saw Gibson staring at the door to Hallgate’s crypt and adjusted something on the wall outside it before stuttering away.
When they approached the crypt, they found that a figure in the decorative engraving around the door had been turned sideways. It was obviously part of some mechanism, but they couldn’t get it to budge. After some discussion as to whether Verrik should keep watch outside the tomb in case the thing they had seen tried to come back and seal them in, they opted to stick together. Gibson heaved the door open and they entered the crypt.
The predictable happened; they caught a brief glimpse of a stutter-stop figure outside the door before the slab of stone came crashing down, sealing them in with Hallgate–who turned out to resent having his bones removed. This was not the first time that the Imperial Church had tried to break into this particular guy’s tomb, and over the years the Monks had built some interesting countermeasures into the crypt, the most obvious of which was the metal- and steam-shrouded skeleton that lunged out of the stone coffin and tried to strangle Gibson when they were shoving the lid off it. The Monks dislike magic, so they weren’t about to animate the skeleton with necromancy, but they are past masters of machinery; thus, Hallgate’s skeleton had a boiler in its ribcage and a pipe pushing steam into it from below to power the mechanical arms and torso. It couldn’t get up and move, but the room was so small that it didn’t have to. The two PCs finally defeated the skeleton by breaking the steam pipe, thus cutting off its power supply. They shoved the bones into a burlap sack and turned their attention to the door, which seemed to be locked into the ground, or at least too heavy to lift. Fortunately, they’d bought a couple “breaker” grenades from the monks the previous day, weapons which were designed to deal with this sort of situation. They propped one against the door, retreated as far as they could, and set it off, blowing out the lower section of the door. They still had to crawl out above the rubble, though, and they could see the thing in the darkness moving stutter-stop at the edge of the light cast by the sun rod.
Gibson crawled out first, on the theory that he had more armor and hit points. The stutter-stop thing tried to punch him as he crawled through, but missed, putting a dent in the stone where it hit. Verrik decided to take a faster route and dived straight through the hole, making the tumble check with aplomb. The creature shrieked when the light from the sun rod caught it full-on, sounding like a tortured animal that had been run through an old-time radio, and moved so quickly away from them that it seemed like it had vanished. They had one instant of seeing what it actually looked like, but I’m guessing that that instant is burned into their characters’ memories.
After that, they just ran.
They could see the light of the exit ahead of them when they were ambushed a second time. The creature that they had started calling “The stutter-stop” dropped from the ceiling and broke the sun rod, causing a flash of light but afterwards plunging the tunnel into darkness. It then started beating the shit out of Verrik with its bare hands, with the only way to track its movements being the traces of sun rod residue on its knuckles. They’d only had one sun rod between them, hadn’t brought torches, and had no light spells. Things were looking dire.
And then Verrik remembered something that he’d picked up in the very first adventure of the campaign; a little bag of clay beads that, when broken, lit up the surrounding area like it was day. He found the pouch in his pockets (getting punched by the stutter-stop while he did so) and smashed one of the beads on the ground. The creature shrieked once more and leapt into a hole in the ceiling, driven away by the light.
Everything else about the heist was a piece of cake. Once they got back to the Exhibition Hall, the monks kicked them out of the monastery until they sorted out whatever the rest of the party’s diversion was all about. The next day Bighammer laid a fly spell on Gibson, who flew out over the ocean and dumped Hallgate’s bones into the depths.
And that was that.
In the above recap, I make it sound like my players acted calmly and reasonably the entire time. This was true for the most part–their plans to get into and out of the monastery, for example, were very intelligent and went off without a problem. However, as soon as the monk who saw them going into the catacombs said “They’ll be awake!”, they were on edge. They hadn’t considered that there might be something besides them in the tunnels under the mountain. All throughout the catacombs was the fear of the unknown. What is awake? What is this unnaturally-moving figure at the edge of our light? Why the hell do the Monks of the Ascension–the guys who, thus far, have all had the most realistic and nonmagical, nonweird equipment out of anyone we’ve seen–why do they have this guy in the basement? What the hell is this thing? None of these questions were ever really answered. Even when they found out what it looked like, and what its capabilities were, that fear of the unknown never went away. Knowing that a supernaturally fast guy who knows the terrain way better than you ever will is lurking in a very dark place, wanting to kill you, is not much better than simply seeing the dark shadows flickering in the distance. Sure, he fears light, but he’s also made it clear that he’s not above attacking that light–and you’ve only got the one. We’ve got fear of the unknown, fear of the dark and fear of death, all wrapped up in one stutter-stop package, as well as a bit of body horror; the stutter-stop was described as an emaciated dark-skinned man with perfectly round eyes and black, constantly-moving machinery imbedded in his flesh. Everything about him was unnatural, from his appearance to his movements to his very existence, here in the catacombs of the Order of the Holy Science. There were only two players in the catacombs, they were alone and scared and all in all it made for very effective horror.
The vampire hunt, on the other hand, ended up holding very little in the way of horror. This was because what would have been the main source of horror–the master vampire, Lord Fallhath, and his children of the night–were known ahead of time. None of the things that made the stutter-stop in the catacombs so frightening applied to the vampires. The players knew what they were up against, and had several days to prepare; thus, they had several days to methodologically strip away the things that make vampires into figures of terror. They found a book on vampires that they were reasonably sure had good information in it, blessed gallons of holy water, melted down silver coins to cast silver bullets and electroplate arrows, cut bandoliers of stakes, polished holy symbols, bought more sun rods and about a hundred cloves of garlic, and constructed vampire-hunting spell-lists. They went up Mount Terror during the day with a group of almost thirty people, including a bunch of mercenaries, a priest of the Imperial Mother Church, a cleric of Orsag the Guardian called “The Patriarch,” and a squad from the Veras City Watch. They were ready for anything the vampires could throw at them and, indeed, did remarkably well against them. There was never any real horror involved, just strategic thinking and the pleasure of a plan unfolding perfectly. They staked two lesser vampires and forced Lord Fallhath to go into mist form and retreat to his coffin, which they suspect is somewhere in his manor, and they did it without too much trouble, thanks to all the planning they went to. There was only one moment that I would classify as effective horror in the vampire hunt, and that was the little girl they met on the gravel drive up to the manor. She was crying, wearing a bloodstained dress and clutching something to her chest in both hands, but didn’t appear to be injured. Everyone hung back except for Marcus Bighammer, who moved forward and tried to comfort the girl. This worked as horror because, again, of the fear of the unknown. The little girl was such an incongruous element in the middle of this gothic estate on the slopes of Mount Terror that the instinctive reaction was one of fear. Something is wrong here; something is out of place. This little girl crying, saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again, she should not be here.
Turned out she was clutching a cussor grenade, which Bighammer managed to pry out of her hands before she could set off. She tried to get it back, saying that “He’ll kill her if I don’t.” The players managed to calm her down and put her on a horse headed for Veras, promising to rescue whoever it was that the vampires were holding hostage. The situation changed from horror to different themes; disgust at evil, and revenge, and broken promises (they assumed that the dead woman they found in Lord Fallhath’s lounge was the one the girl had been talking about, slain because the girl didn’t blow herself and the PCs up). The rest of the adventure was absent of horror, but was rather a driven push towards the master vampire, through the hordes of undead standing in the way. They had weapons they knew could hurt the vampires, they had the spells and equipment to take down this very specific threat, and thus they were not afraid as they walked into Fallhath’s manor, decked out in strings of garlic and flasks of holy water, silver on every weapon and searing light in every clerical hand. They were not alone, they were not helpless, and they knew what they were facing. The horror in this session did not come from the vampiric foe, but rather from the flickering at the edge of the light, the stutter-stop of unnatural mechanisms and a pair of round, white eyes, staring blankly in the dark.