In this month's exclusive interview, James Wyatt, one of the designers of the new Heroes of Horror book, discusses a new brand of fear, plus the monsters, magic, and prestige classes that inspire it. This brand-new genre book introduces lots of useful material on horror-themed campaigns that's guaranteed to give your players and their characters a new respect for things that go bump in the night.
In the interests of better involving the player community with the features on the D&D website, questions for this interview were solicited in part via the message boards. Our thanks to the players who go by the screen names Arcen, babysmith, barronazrael, Bluntpencil2001, ChronosCrow, Crimson Concerto, Drink Shoehorn, Epic Commoner, EvilDuck, Findsman, Foxboy2000, Gallameed, GenesisDK, Gilean, GrimOdinson, Hell Bane, Honety Algebra, kaeso, Kobold Avenger, Lathlander, lightman, Lord Schpungus, makeshiftwings, Melmoth B, Mercurius, MerricB, pierworker, Prak, Prof. Pacali, Proof, Rathik, Razz, Return of the Flumph, Rotipher, Silent Infinity, slainthehornedgod, Solidcobra, tallforadwarf, tec-goblin, the Mad, The Morninglord, Wolfen Fenrison, and Zepherin for their participation. New questions are now being solicited for the spotlight on December's Spell Compendium supplement.
Wizards: A title like Heroes of Horror is enough to strike fear into the hearts of players. But exactly how does this book handle the mechanics for fear?
James Wyatt: The sad reality of the D&D game is that fear is, mechanically speaking, not very interesting. In the rules as they stand, a character experiencing fear is either mildly inconvenienced (shaken) or out of the fight (frightened or panicked). So we offered a set of mechanical additions collectively known as dread rules that should make the game experience of fear more interesting. These rules essentially describe ways of using other conditions that exist in the game to model characters' responses to horrific occurrences. For example, characters who suddenly face scenes or creatures of utter horror might become dazed, stunned, or even paralyzed. Likewise, characters might become fatigued after a particularly horrible encounter and exhausted after a series of them. Scenes of horror can transfix characters, commanding their complete attention and shutting out any other sensory information, thus rendering them fascinated or even confused. We give concrete examples (with save DCs) for each of these ideas and more, as well as a few ways to use them in place of existing game effects, such as a mummy's despair ability or a devil's aura of fear.
As an optional rule, the book also includes a variant description of the frightened condition. This version is simply a more extreme form of the shaken condition that doesn't make the character run away.
Wizards: Does Heroes of Horror provide advice for creating frightening experiences -- not just for the characters in the game, but for the players as well?
JW: Beyond the mechanics, the book is full of excellent advice (mostly written by my co-authors, Ari Marmell and C.A. Suleiman, who know a thing or two about running horror games) for building encounters, adventures, and campaigns that will strike fear into the hearts of your players. And that's really a lot more fun than forcing characters to run away from scary monsters.
Wizards: What about those goody-goody paladins -- does the book offer effective means to circumvent their pesky immunity to fear and give 'em a good case of the willies?
JW: Actually, Heroes of Horror outlines two ways to achieve that result. One is to use the dread mechanics mentioned above. Because these aren't necessarily fear effects, the paladin's immunity to fear doesn't always apply. The book also presents a prestige class with a special ability that lets him cast fear spells that affect even creatures immune to fear.
On the flip side, a paladin's immunity to fear helps to make her special, and I don't think it would be good for the game if the DM regularly went to great lengths to get around it. The paladin still has plenty to worry about in a horror campaign -- including the possibility that she may be the only one left to face the monster when the rest of the party has run away (or is staring transfixed) in fear!
Wizards: On that note, what about high-level characters who've grown so powerful that they're no longer afraid of the boogeyman? What does Heroes of Horror offer to send them straight back to their 1st-level memories of jumping at shadows? Does it offer advice on running high-level characters through horror settings? Some might argue that a horror-based storyline traditionally relies upon the inherent weakness of the protagonists, and their vulnerabilities, to generate some of the fear?
JW: It's not just horror games. Part of what makes the D&D game exciting is the possibility that the PCs might lose an encounter -- even if "losing" is just a temporary setback. The possibility of losing involves some recognition of the characters' vulnerabilities, no matter how high-level those characters are.
In designing this book, however, we took a deliberate step away from Gothic horror, with its virginal heroines and everyman heroes, toward a flavor of horror that I think fits better in the D&D world, with its superheroic characters. Influenced more by Clark Ashton Smith than Bram Stoker, Heroes of Horror threatens characters with the possibility that the evil they fight might corrupt them -- not just by luring them into evil deeds, but also by eating away their flesh or devouring their souls. Thus, even high-level characters have plenty to fear from this book.
Wizards: Aside from fear, what other mechanics are introduced? Does the book include sanity checks, or strange and horrific elements that impose curses and diseases? (In previous editions, for example, ghosts made characters age supernaturally, and rot grubs ate people from the inside out.)
JW: The most significant mechanical element detailed in this book is taint. Originally introduced in Oriental Adventures and modified for a more general audience in Unearthed Arcana, taint is a mechanic that seamlessly blends horror with the high-fantasy world of D&D. We revised and expanded the taint mechanic significantly, into its most robust incarnation yet, then used it to define a genre that's distinct from what's been done in D&D (and Call of Cthulhu) before.
Unearthed Arcana also picked up the sanity system from Call of Cthulhu, but I didn't include it in this book because I felt that that it didn't fit well with the medieval fantasy setting of the D&D world. First of all, the sanity system reflects a particularly modern style of horror in which the terror stems from effects that break the laws of reality as defined by scientific knowledge -- knowledge that doesn't exist or doesn't apply in D&D. Second, using sanity rules in the D&D game means cluttering your medieval fantasy with such words as dissociative disorders and obsessive/compulsive behavior, which just feel out of place.
Fundamentally, the difference between Call of Cthulhu horror and fantasy horror comes down to a single point. In Call of Cthulhu, innocent people who are exposed to horrors beyond the realm of human experience go insane -- either slowly or rapidly. In fantasy, evil people are often mad, and mad people are always tainted by evil. No, that definition doesn't square with our modern understanding of mental illness as a disease that affects people whether they deserve it or not, but it's true to the tropes of fantasy that portray madness as an expression or a result of evil gnawing away at the mind and soul.
Not every birth resulting from the mating of an evil outsider and a mortal produces a half-fiend. If the female partner in such a union is impregnated in an area of high taint, the result is an unholy scion. Such a creature can also be created when a fiend mentally possess an unborn child within the womb. In either
case, the unholy scion has fiendish power and malignance that are all the more terrifying because of its ability to pass as mortal.
An unholy scion looks like a normal member of its mortal parent's race, but it is subtly disturbing. Its features might be ever so slightly off, its eyes may seem to have an evil gleam, or it might simply make everyone around it nervous for no obvious cause. The overwhelming majority of unholy scions are humanoid, although animal scions are not unheard of.
Wizards: What about the older edition's portrayal of baby hags bursting out of their humanoid host mothers like xenomorphs from Aliens?
JW: Baby hags? Well, check out the unholy scion template, below.
Wizards: And what about the nightmarish element of dreams?
JW: The book includes an excellent section on dreams and nightmares. (Ari wrote it, so I have no hesitation in saying it's excellent.) His tips on how to make dream-events seem real but somehow wrong are really, really good stuff.
Wizards: Does Heroes of Horror promote its own setting (akin to Ravenloft), or can elements of it be used in any campaign world? Can you share any details of how horror might be specifically placed in the Forgotten Realms or Eberron Campaign Setting?
JW: I think this aspect of the Genre Series (which includes Heroes of Battle as well as this book) is really cool. While I was working on this book, David Noonan was running an Eberron campaign set during the Last War that made extensive use of Heroes of Battle. Meanwhile, I was running an Eberron campaign in which I made use of the mechanics I was writing for Heroes of Horror. Both campaigns used the same setting, but they were different genres.
So no, Heroes of Horror doesn't present a setting -- defined or implied. It is explicitly designed to be usable in any setting. We devote about a page and a half of the book to ideas for integrating Heroes of Horror into the Forgotten Realms, Eberron,and Greyhawk Campaign Settings, using specific elements of those three worlds as launching points for horror campaigns. The rest of the book, however, is just as useful no matter what setting you're using.
Wizards: Does Heroes of Horror offer any good and spooky NPC villains for the PCs to encounter? Some would claim that NPCs are 50% of a great horror adventure!
JW: Of course it does!
Wizards: The other 50% of a great adventure would have to be creatures! Does Heroes of Horror focus on vampires and feature any new rules or effects that cover vampirism and/or lycanthropy?
JW:Heroes of Horror does not focus on any particular kind of monster. A nice five-page section at the start of the monster chapter discusses the classic gothic monsters and their role in a horror-themed D&D game, then goes on to discuss existing monsters by creature type before launching into new monsters.
Wizards: Do you have any favorite monsters from the book? Did any of them keep you up at night, in a cold sweat?
JW: I'm particularly fond of the corruption eater, though I confess to no cold sweats. I do have a story I just have to share, though. One morning a couple of years ago, my wife told me about a nightmare she'd had the night before, which involved a spider attaching itself to her. She still gives me a hard time about the fact that my completely unsympathetic response was, "Oh cool!" That nightmare eventually took form as the soul tick on page 220 of the Fiend Folio.
Mantle of Pure Spite
Level: Spite 8
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Duration: 1 minute/level
By means of this spell, you wrap yourself in a pulsating nimbus of netherlight -- the mystical aggregate
of all your unresolved frustration and rage. Anyone foolish enough to attack you while this nimbus is in effect is in for a most unpleasant surprise.
Each time you are the target of an attack, you gain increasingly greater power over your attacker. First, this
spell gives you a cumulative +1 bonus on all your attack and damage rolls against that foe each and every time it strikes you (maximum bonus equals your level). Second, you gain the ability to overcome any damage reduction your opponent might have, as though you possessed the necessary alignment or weapon materials. Last but not least, you gain a cumulative damage reduction of your own, equal to 1/--, each time your opponent strikes you (maximum benefit DR 15/--).
If you are fighting multiple opponents, you must keep track of how many times each one has struck you in order to determine the benefits this spell grants you against each. A mantle of pure spite provides its benefits even at range, so a wizard launching harmful spells at you from what she thinks is a safe distance will still kindle the mantle of pure spite's nimbus and experience its spiteful reprisals.
Material Component: A smidgen of your spit.
Wizards: What sorts of diabolic magic might players (and their foes) now have access to? Personally, I loved the implications of the quote, "In a horror campaign, resurrection doesn't always summon the soul it's meant to."
JW: Heroes of Horror features two new standard classes, both of which are spellcasters. The archivist is a divine caster with a spellbook, while the dread necromancer is a new take on an old specialist. The dread witch and tainted scholar prestige classes offer some new magical capabilities as well. More than two dozen spells (including cloak of hate, mantle of pure spite, rigor mortis, and vile death) round out the "diabolic magic" in the book.
The quote about resurrection actually appears in the campaigns chapter, in a section on death and resurrection. One of my players should tell you about his warforged character who got raised and became the villain for the next several sessions of the adventure.
Wizards: What sorts of dark locations does the book provide for trembling parties to explore?
JW: In addition to several cool maps just thrown in for your adventuring enjoyment, the book offers a pretty extensive section on horror environments such as tainted locations, dread effects (including blood rock, for you D&D Miniatures fans), haunting presences, and mortuary terrain. (You always wanted to know how much cover a gravestone gives, right?) In addition, some brief adventure seeds can take your PCs to desperate villages and a lich's shrine, plus a couple of sites linked to the prestige classes and monsters in the book.
Wizards: As a horror-themed book, is Heroes of Horror aimed at a mature audience, along the lines of Book of Vile Darkness?
JW: The book is not intended for the squeamish. However, it does not carry a warning sticker, and it's not intentionally provocative.
Wizards: Was the book influenced at all by Call of Cthulu/Lovecraft or Ravenloft? Does it have any atmospheric influence from movies or the Brothers Grimm fairy tales?
JW: I've already discussed why I didn't include sanity rules. Though I've been a big Ravenloft (and Masque of the Red Death) fan, I tried very hard to steer this book in a different direction. Of course, every horror movie I've ever seen had its influence on the book, but the short stories of Clark Ashton Smith probably had the greatest influence on the way I defined the genre for the purpose of Heroes of Horror.
D&D Heroes of Horror, October 2005 Release Date, hardcover, full color, 160 pages, $29.95.