Excerpts 10/07/2005


Heroes of Horror Excerpt
By James Wyatt, Ari Marmell, C.A. Suleiman



Add a frisson of fear to your game with Heroes of Horror. This supplement goes over the techniques of terror within D&D and can become a valuable resource to both DMs and players who prefer a more chilling side to their adventures. Heroes of Horror provides everything players and Dungeon Masters need to play and run a horror-oriented campaign or integrate elements of creepiness and tension into their existing campaigns. Players can develop heroes or antiheroes using new feats, new spells, new base classes and prestige classes, and new magic items. The book presents new mechanics for different types of horror, including rules for dread and tainted characters, as well as plenty of new horrific monsters and adventure seeds. Different types and genres of horror are discussed in detail. Our sneak peek gives you a look at villains, the archivist class, deformity feats, summon undead spells, and the cadaver golem.

Villains in a Horror Game

While the PCs are the central characters of any roleplaying game, the villains are arguably almost as important, especially in a horror game. Random monsters, no matter how dangerous or grotesque, are rarely as powerful or memorable as adversaries with well-planned goals or burning motives. With sufficient planning and detail, a single villain can drive an entire campaign.

Types of Villains

Villains in horror stories can generally be categorized into several broad types. Some villains will not fit easily into a category, some will fit more than one, and most have at least a few traits that don't fit a specific category. Nevertheless, the following are useful generalizations; deciding which one suits the game you wish to run is the first step in developing an appropriate and memorable adversary for your PCs.

The Hidden Danger: Perhaps the most common trope of horror, this villain is nearly impossible to detect. She kills from concealment and engenders mistrust and suspicion among all who would thwart her. In D&D, this is the archetype of the doppelganger, the werewolf, the mystically disguised assassin, the corrupt noble, or the cannibalistic witch masquerading as a kindly little old lady. This category also includes the subtype of villains who aren't even aware of their own evil, such as the victims of demonic or ghostly possession or, in some instances, the aforementioned lycanthrope. This archetype is particularly appropriate for games with moods of betrayal and distrust, confusion, shock, or the weight of suspicion (see Mood, page 22).

The Overt Threat: The opposite of the previous archetype, this is the villain that stands out from the crowd, that doesn't care (or isn't capable of caring) who notices it. Its arrogance might be due to sheer power and confidence, arrogance, lack of intelligence, insanity, or a simple lack of interest in its effect on others. Perhaps the villain holds a position of authority and doesn't need to hide. Many of the relatively large creatures of D&D, such as giants or most dragons, fit into the overt category. So do many undead, dictatorial kings, church inquisitors, evil necromancers sequestered in their towers, most bestial humanoids (such as goblins or orcs), golems, and the utterly mad. This villain type is a particularly appropriate choice for games with moods of claustrophobia, desperation, helplessness, isolation, revulsion, or violence (see Mood, page 22).

The Poor Fool in Over His Head: Sometimes, the greatest of horrors are unleashed by the most ignorant or the most well-meaning people -- individuals who have dabbled in powers beyond their comprehension, or whose hubris has led them to believe they can tame the forces of the world itself. In most cases, it is the result of the individual's actions that is evil, rather than the individual himself. But when he refuses to stop against all advice, he might become a true villain in his own right. This category includes the cultist who summons his demonic lord without taking the proper precautions to contain it, the sorcerer who attempts to cast a complex ritual for which she is not prepared, the petitioner who feels he can get the better of a devil or an evil god in a bargain, the summoner who makes a careless wish of an efreeti, or the classic Frankenstein archetype of the man who allows his obsessive need to complete some task to blind him to the repercussions. This villain is appropriate for games with moods of confusion, eeriness/incongruity, internal struggle, self-loathing, or the weight of suspicion (see Mood, page 22). These last three are particularly appropriate if it's one of the PCs who made the mistake that unleashed the horror.

The Normal Person: Given the plethora of supernatural horrors D&D has to offer, it's hard to consider an average person to be all that scary. Then again, perhaps it is because the game provides so many truly horrific creatures as points of comparison that terrible acts committed by normal people truly strike home. As evidenced in the real world, a brutal crime can become even more horrible when the perpetrator appeared to be "one of us." In a D&D campaign, a so-called normal person might still have access to spells or other potent abilities. For advice on using members of adventuring classes as villains, see page 30. As a particular shock to your players, consider making a truly average person -- a commoner or expert -- your perpetrator.

Given the abilities available to most PCs, a commoner is never going to be particularly frightening as an opponent in face-to-face combat. Don't try to make him so. Instead, play up the horror of his actions, and the investigation required to figure out who he is. Not every mystery must end with a terrible battle. If the PCs follow a trail of obscure clues and mutilated bodies to a house filled with furniture made of corpses, only to discover the killer is the fellow they met fixing the roof on the general store, they're going to realize to the core of their being that anyone is capable of the most horrific acts. (Take a few moments to research real-world serial killer Ed Gein, for example. That alone should suggest the sort of over-the-top horrors of which a "normal" man is capable.) Since the PCs will probably miss what's right under their eyes as they search for a more traditional D&D villain, confusion is an appropriate mood here (see page 23).

The Decoy: This is a bait-and-switch combination of the other techniques, in which one villain or type of villain appears to be another. This tactic can be extremely effective if used sparingly, either to give the PCs one last shock or puzzle or to change the course of a plotline just as the players feel they've figured it out. Decoy examples include the evil elf necromancer who is secretly a polymorphed blue dragon, a serial killer who seems to slay at random but is actually performing a summoning rite to call her diabolic patron, the rampaging giant possessed by an even more malevolent entity, the "demons" who are actually illusionist kobolds in disguise. Not every decoy is a more powerful being cloaked in a weaker one; it can easily work the other way around. Decoys and misdirection can add to the atmosphere of stories that play up confusion, eeriness/incongruity, and shock. They also work when combining a number of moods in bizarre ways, as one mood gives way to another with the discovery of each deception.

The Treasonous Loved One: The villain of the story stands revealed -- a friend, relative, or lover of one of the PCs. How did the NPC's evil nature come to be? She could be possessed or otherwise controlled by an outside power. She could have been corrupted and turned to evil. She might have embraced taint or been transformed into a vampire. Perhaps she has always been evil and has been deceiving the heroes all along. Whatever the case, this discovery has a personal impact beyond that of the standard hidden danger.

This sort of villain can do substantial damage to the PCs both physically and psychologically. She knows their secrets and their vulnerabilities. She could besmirch their reputation with a few choice words in the right NPC's ear or with public revelation of their weaknesses. Yet she was once someone they deeply cared about, someone to whom they owed much -- creating quite a quandary for the characters regarding how to deal with the threat. Betrayal and distrust is clearly the primary mood of such a story, but any or all of the other moods are appropriate as well.

The Evil PC: Recommended only for groups of players who are truly comfortable with one another, who trust the DM, and who are experienced roleplayers, this can be the most shocking and unexpected twist of an entire campaign. In this variation, the villain is none other than one of the PCs! Perhaps he has been possessed, or replaced by an evil duplicate (see The Evil Duplicate Ploy, page 34). Even more disturbing, however, is the notion of a PC who has been evil all along, who has been deceiving the other characters and working against them from the start of the story. While an evil duplicate of a PC can work with or without the knowledge of the player in question, the character who was evil from the start requires player-DM cooperation. Only make use of this technique in groups who aren't going to take the deception personally. It's usually a good idea, once the deception is finally known, to let the other characters mete out justice to (or take vengeance on) the traitor; this helps to allay any hard feelings. Of course, it need not be immediate justice, and the DM might decide to keep the character around as an NPC villain even after he's been discovered. The villain is going to have substantial knowledge of the PCs' movements and weaknesses, making betrayal and distrust an ideal mood choice.

If you're planning this sort of twist, bear in mind that the rest of the characters might discover the traitor before you anticipate. Whether because of the various spells and abilities designed to detect evil or deception, or sheer random luck, the traitor might be caught passing information to others or simply revealed for the nasty person he is. Using the optional behavioral alignment rules presented on page 76 mitigates the chance of such discovery to an extent, but you should always have a contingency plan for if -- or perhaps when -- the discovery occurs. Except under truly bizarre circumstances, you should not violate the spirit of the rules in order to keep this secret hidden. When the other players do finally learn that their compatriot betrayed them, they are likely to take it better if they feel the player of the evil character and the DM both played by the rules. Those who feel they should have known and were cheated out of a chance to make the discovery might not react well, and with good reason.

Intelligent Villains

Unless a villain or monster you're using is specifically unintelligent, you should always have your adversaries act in a creative, intelligent manner. Nothing creates a sense of fear and paranoia in players more than the realization that the villain they are facing is willing and able to take advantage of their weaknesses. Have the villain strike while the heroes are distracted with another task. Target their loved ones. Take hostages. Frame the PCs. Attack them with methods they are less able to defend against (such as using poisons against casters and other low-Fortitude types, and charms against fighters). Don't allow the villain to make use of knowledge she couldn't possibly have, but even adversaries of average intelligence can make logical deductions based on player actions and appearances. In some games, the DM might hesitate to use a monster's or NPC's full arsenal of capabilities, focused where they'll do the most harm; it's somehow considered unfair to take advantage of PC weaknesses. Such a concern is inappropriate for a horror game. Your villains are not (or should not be) invulnerable. They have weak points the PCs can attack. Do not be afraid to turn the tables.

Unstoppable Villains

The adversary who seems unstoppable is a mainstay of horror tales. We've all seen the movie in which the villain keeps getting back up, no matter how often or severely he's been killed. Powerful evil wizards (evil geniuses, every one of them) seem always to be one step ahead of the heroes' plans, countering their tactics before they've even fully formed them. Not all villains share this trait, of course, but those that do are among the scariest.

The DM must walk a fine line: You want to make the PCs (or even the players) afraid, but you don't want them giving up in frustration. It's okay to make your villains seem invulnerable, but they should always have at least one exploitable weakness, and you should drop sufficient clues for your PCs to eventually find it. The ghost that cannot be slain by any physical means was abused when she was a living girl and can be burned by the tears of a child. The illithid sorcerer can anticipate almost any action the PCs take, but because he's completely incapable of self-sacrifice, he never considers that the heroes might be willing to engage in almost certain suicide to thwart his plans. To pull two examples from the same series of classic literature: The dragon Smaug could only be slain by penetrating the one weak spot in his otherwise impenetrable armored hide; and the armies of men and elves could never have defeated Sauron directly -- but because he could not even conceive of someone destroying a source of power as great as the One Ring, he doesn't guard thoroughly against the hobbits' attempts to do so.

Damage reduction and regeneration are examples of abilities that can make monsters difficult to defeat. A PC without silvered weaponry will find it difficult to kill a werewolf; trolls are nasty when fire and acid are nowhere to be found; and a group without magic and holy weapons is in great trouble when faced with a powerful demon. Consider changing a particular creature's damage reduction or regeneration ability (a vampire with damage reduction effective against cold iron rather than silver, for example), requiring the PCs to determine its weaknesses before they dare take it on (see Finding the Achilles' Heel, page 34).

On occasion, a villain can be truly invulnerable to harm. In none of H. P. Lovecraft's Mythos stories, for instance, does the protagonist have any true hope of defeating one of the Old Ones. Even in such a case, however, a road to accomplishment should exist for the PCs. They might not be able to slay the awakening evil deity, but perhaps they can disrupt the ritual calling it and send it back to slumber. At the very least, perhaps they can escape the creature's environs, surviving to fight another day. Unstoppable need not mean undefeatable, and the heroes should always have at least a chance of coming out even, if not ahead.

Motive

How do you construct a believable, memorable villain? What makes a villain horrific is the combination of her motives, her goals, and her means of carrying out those goals.

Motive is the need or desire that causes a person to take action. Most villains don't do evil for the sake of doing evil (except for monstrous races that are usually or always evil-aligned). Like everyone, villains always feel that they have something to gain or that they are striving for what they consider to be a greater good. In some cases, commonly referred to as tragic villains, circumstances beyond their control have driven them to evil. Their actions are no more excusable than those of any other villain, but perhaps they are more easily understood.

The following list of possible motivations is far from comprehensive but should provide a strong starting point.

Enrichment: One of the simplest motives, this is nothing more than the desire for personal gain. The common thief is often spurred by a desire for treasure, but so are many dragons or invading armies willing to slay hundreds and level towns to gain the wealth within.

Freedom: The desire to be free of an oppressive government or ruler is a justifiable one, and those who struggle against such regimes are often considered heroic. If the means by which they fight grow too violent or indiscriminate, or if someone fights for freedom from lawful imprisonment, they become rather less admirable. The terrorist who targets the civilians living under the government she wishes to overthrow, or the prisoner who slaughters guards and bystanders alike in his quest to escape punishment for his crimes, is ostensibly seeking freedom.

Hatred: Be it racial, religious, or cultural, hatred and prejudice motivate a substantial number of villains in fiction and in the real world as well. Everyone from the thug who beats halflings to death for no other reason than that they're halflings to the dictator who enslaves or slaughters all of a specific faith within his borders falls into this category. Hatred can spring from cultural or inherited prejudice or come from no apparent source at all, but it's often inspired by other motivations, such as loss, revenge, or the desire for social change. It often overlaps with the desire for purification (see below).

Illness: Plague and the fear of contamination have inspired all manner of horrific acts. To avoid contagion, otherwise good-hearted people will turn away from those who suffer, burn them to ash in their own homes, imprison (quarantine) them in isolated camps. Those infected might also commit horrific acts in a search for a cure, or in the madness brought by the raging fevers. The simple act of seeking human contact can spread the plague to others, resulting in more suffering. Illness rarely stands on its own as a motive, but often inspires others, such as hatred and madness.

Justice: The need to redress past wrongs leads obsessed individuals to take inappropriate actions. A woman hunting for the criminals who murdered her husband, with violence on her agenda, is something most people can understand, if not support. When she grows so obsessed with her search that she's willing to kill anyone who stands in her way, or refuses to consider her actions' consequences for others, she crosses the line into villainy. Justice is subtly different from revenge as a motive (see below), but the one often leads to the other.

Loss and Desperation: Even the best of people can be driven to commit horrors under the proper circumstances. If the life of a loved one is at stake, for instance, they might take any actions necessary to protect it. Consider a noble lord whose daughter has taken ill with a plague that seems to resist magical cures. When he leaves home to quest for the cure, he is heroic. When he determines that he will acquire the cure no matter the cost, even taking it from the hands of those who are equally sick, or slaying others who seek it lest they find it first, he becomes a villain. Tragic, yes, but a villain nonetheless. Or consider the young apprentice wizard learning magic from her father, whose soul is eventually claimed by the demon lord with whom he dealt many years ago. If the apprentice agrees to sacrifice others to the demon in exchange for her father's return, or to let loose the demon on the Material Plane, her actions are villainous no matter how well intended.

Madness: Some villains have no easily understood motives. They are driven by madness, an insanity incomprehensible to those whose minds are relatively whole. Many serial killers fall into this category. Madness frequently results from illness or loss and desperation.

Order: The villain seeks to bestow order on what she views as a chaotic world or society. She believes she has the best interests of the people at heart, that all the death and pain she causes now will be worth it when she rules. The vigilante who slaughters even the most minor of lawbreakers and the tyrant usurper who imprisons any who would dare speak against her might both be motivated by a need to impose order.

Personal Power: Sometimes the villain seeking to rule over others is not driven by a desire to make the world a better place or a need for order. Sometimes he's just power-hungry. Personal power is a prime motivator for many nobles and politicians; they seek to exalt themselves and rule over others, and they care nothing about whom they must step on to reach that eminence, nor who suffers under their rule once they achieve it. The second-born prince who schemes to murder his brother and ascend the throne, the doppelganger who wishes to replace the mayor in order to control the city, the king who invades other nations for no better reason than that he seeks to expand his own kingdom's borders: All fall into this category.

Possession: Villains might not be evil of their own accord. Someone possessed by a demon or ghost or mentally controlled (such as with a dominate spell) is hardly responsible for her own actions, yet she still can be the primary villain of a game or even a campaign.

Purification: A close cousin to hatred, this is the motive when someone believes that a specific group -- be it a race, religion, gender, or even profession -- is responsible for corrupting society. The desire for purification often motivates ethnic cleansing or religious persecution. It could be argued that so-called "purification" is not so much related to hatred as a subcategory of it.

Revenge: A step down from justice as a motive, revenge refers to those villains who seek to redress a past wrong against themselves or others but are not particularly selective regarding whom they target for their vengeance. The angry ghost that lashes out at every living being in retribution for its murder, the king who sends his army to invade a nation because a citizen of that nation tried to kill him, or the witch who curses the entire family of the priest who ordered her burned at the stake are all examples of villains with revenge as their motive.

Self-Gratification: One of the most primal villainous motives, this is nothing more than the fulfillment of some personal desire. The addict who commits violent crimes to attain her drug of choice, the rapist (whether he seeks sexual release or feelings of power and dominance), and the hot-tempered killer who slays out of rage and frustration are all examples of self-gratification.

Social Change: Some individuals are willing to turn to violence in an effort to change the society around them. While this might be justifiable under certain circumstances, it becomes inarguably villainous when innocents suffer for their actions. The insurrectionists who target anyone who lives under or supports the current system, and the government that uses violence to put down those who seek change, are both motivated by social change. Though one seeks to cause it and the other to halt it, both are equally villainous in their methods.

Survival: Even individuals motivated by little more than survival can become horrific villains under the proper circumstances. As mentioned under illness, people will go to truly unpleasant lengths to avoid contagion. If all the people of a community believe that a certain man is responsible for a rash of crimes, he might feel compelled -- even if innocent -- to kill everyone who comes across him, lest they report his location to the growing mob. One could even argue that certain monsters, such as vampires, have no choice but to slay others in order to survive.

Zealotry/Fanaticism: One of the most common justifications for villainy is love of, or orders from, a higher power. Whether it's a nation, a church, a family, an organization, a philosophy, or a deity, the individual strives to serve and protect the object of her devotion at the expense of all others. The patriot who sees foreign spies everywhere and commits crimes against foreigners, the religious zealot who converts "heathens" by the sword, and the church launching an inquisition against members of other faiths (or indeed its own) are all examples of zealotry or fanaticism.

Recent Excerpts
(MORE)
Recent Articles
(MORE)

About Us Jobs New to the Game? Inside Wizards Find a Store Press Help Sitemap

©1995- Wizards of the Coast, Inc., a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Terms of Use-Privacy Statement

Home > Games > D&D > Articles 
You have found a Secret Door!
Printer Friendly Printer Friendly
Email A Friend Email A Friend
Discuss This ArticleDiscuss This Article