Pathfinder Review: Horror Adventures

Photo 2016-08-26, 8 58 05 PMThe big GenCon 2016 release from Paizo Inc is Horror Adventures, the latest in their “skin books” that allow gamemasters to customize their campaign’s tone (aka “reskin”).

I’m a big horror RPG enthusiast, and a diehard Ravenloft fan, so I was really excited for this book. I would have killed to have this book back in 2011, when I was running my Ravenloft homegame.

Horror Adventures is a full colour hardcover book with 253-pages of content plus an index. This is roughly broken up into 34 pages on horror character (with 24 pages specifically on on corruption),  32 pages of class archetypes,  16 pages of feats, 24 pages spells, 52 pages on horror rules, 20 pages on running horror campaigns, and 16 pages of magic items. This is rounded out by a few new monster templates, 7 new monsters, and a couple pages of inspirational material.

The Good

Photo 2016-08-26, 9 03 45 PMA book focused on horror should have a distinct gamemaster focus, which this product has; Horror Adventures has a lot of new options for opponents. Despite the biggest section of this book being class archetypes, many of these are not just for PCs and are outright villainous options. There are several class options that require an evil alignment, and many are just ill suited for the adventuring life.

Archetypes in the Pathfinder RPG have been stretched a little thin, becoming increasingly niche. However, as the vast majority are heroic, evil options open up a unique design space, drawing upon very different tropes for inspiration. Horror also focuses this theme for some pretty interesting archetypes. Villain archetypes can also bend the power curve a little, since villains don’t need to be as balanced as player characters: they’re only in play for one or two encounters rather than every single encounter for potentially an entire campaign.

Similarly, there are a number of monster feats. Feats in monsters can be a little tricky, adding complexity for very little gain, especially at high levels. But when modifying monsters, feats are a neat way of customizing monsters without having to make up and design an option from scratch and calculate how much it affects the monster’s challenge.

Many of the spells in the book are also villainous and just plain creepy. They provide useful methods of surprising players. There are the standard heroic options as well, designed to counter horrific monsters, but these feel like a minority. This isn’t the best book of spells for fighting enemies.

Also included in the book is a sizable section on curses. There are a number of new curses, which are designed a little like poisons or diseases, with an effect and a cure. The set DC makes them pretty useless- effective only in a very particular level band – but that’s easy enough for a GM to change. There’s even advice on making curses, with a good half-page on breaking curses. This is a nice addition as too often the remove curse spell is just the default method or removing curses, which has the disadvantage of being both bland and troublesome if you lack that spell. This section even includes a number of cursed items and lands, because sometimes a region just needs to literally be cursed. Great inspiration and advice for any gamemaster (or Dungeon Master).

Environments are included, which are an often underused part of the game. Interesting terrain can make or break an encounter, but always gets far less attention than monsters. These are both positive and negative, such as holy ground or divining water. There’s even some advice/rules on how long it takes to dig a grave. That’s pretty cool.

There are a handful of haunt options, expanding on the rules from Occult Adventures. Haunts are a lovely bit of design added to the Pathfinder RPG before there was a Pathfinder RPG, effectively being spontaneous magical traps. These have been revised and updated of late, and this book includes a surprising number of new haunts at a wide range of challenge ratings. Some are particularly creepy and evocative.

The Bad

Photo 2016-08-26, 8 58 18 PMThis book features another variant on sanity/ insanity. This feels included to satisfy a check-box of what should be part of a horror RPG book. With the subsystem in Gamemastery Guide and the Carrion Crown adventure path, this marks the third distinct Pathfinder RPG sanity systems I’m aware of. Plus the insanity spell. It’s useful, but as its only given two pages, the section is ridiculously small with not enough to really use in an extended campaign. After first level, only monsters cause sanity loss. It’s barebones, almost wasted and unlikely to be expanded since this book is the place for expanded sanity rules and most optional rulesets are never returned to.

Further making this feel awkward, the accompanying madnesses are later in the book, requiring flipping. The art on this section is also ridiculously generic. It feels like filler art, possibly left over from Occult Adventures.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the archtypes in this book are for villains. However, they’re included in what is ostensibly the player section for all to see, taking some of the surprise out of their mechanics. Plus, if I’m making a custom villain, I don’t *really* need to follow the class rules to give a villain a unique power or tweak their abilities. So long as an enemy is the appropriate CR it’s fine to have a unique variant. This happens all the time in Paizo’s own adventures: the very first Adventure Path volume had a three-armed Medium-sized fire breathing goblin. There’s this curious design tenet in 3.X where a humanoid NPC can’t have an ability that a humanoid PC can’t also acquire: NPC fighters should not do things PC fighters cannot. However, if you’re just inventing a class archetype that only NPCs can take… what’s the difference between a unique power? (Other than the option that evil PCs in a villainous campaign can take the options. But that’s a rather niche argument, even with the Hell’s Vengeance adventure path…)

I suppose I would have rather seen these options akin to simple templates. Ways of quickly customizing NPCs, which also has the advantage of making them quicker and easier to use, rather than having to build a PC to use as a villain. More than other types of campaign, horror adventures often end with a singular and deadly foe, and more ways to make that opponent deadly, memorable, and unique would have been nice.

While I’m whining, I’m not sure why this book really even needed player content at all. This feels like a book that could have been aimed exclusively at DMs. There’s no shortage of monster fighting or semi-horrific archetypes for players, especially with last year’s Occult Adventures. Player content could have been handled in one of the two other supplementary books. This is why the Haunted Heroes Handbook exists. The Pathfinder RPG is already arguably one of the most well supported RPGs in gaming history, possibly second only to RIFTS, so a second GM-only book (that isn’t a Bestiary) might be nice…

In the spells section, there’s a curious sidebar on casting evil spells, and how doing it once or twice isn’t necessarily eeeevil, that casting one to protect people might not be bad. However, given the preparatory nature of Pathfinder’s spellcasting, this is a little odd: spellcasting tends to be premeditated. If you cast an evil spell to protect people, you do so because you prepared that spell rather than any other spell. I hope the wizard in the example was casting animating dead via a scroll. The sidebar seems to exist as an excuse for players to point to, arguing against their GMs. Not something I want to encourage…

The book uses the disease rules from Pathfinder Unchained. Thankfully,  those rules are reprinted, so that book is not necessary. (Probably why this book isn’t included in the list of eleven books referenced at the front.) These rules are pretty chunky, spreading out the rules in multiple sections and trying to fit diseases into various templates. It feels overly complicated for a simple concept. Not really a fan.

The Ugly

Photo 2016-08-26, 8 58 44 PMThere are expanded/ revised rules for fear. This makes sense given the focus of the book, but it does so by increasing the conditions from three to six. Ironically, one of the changes Pathfinder made from 3.5e was reducing the types of fear from four conditions to three. Heck, I can never differentiate the three existing, and even the Condition Cards product only really details two of the types. A revision of the fear system might have been nice, but imagine that would have to dance around too many feats and spells to be possible. A way to differentiate between magical and mundane fear would have been interesting, or ways of players being stricken with fear in a roleplaying sense, being afraid without being frightened.

Corruption was the big selling part of the book. When the book was announced at GenCon 2015 this is all that was talked about, and it’s the first bullet point in the book’s rear cover (and focus of back illustration). Corruption: become a monster. However, this is a very small section, dwarfed by the new archteypes and equal in pages to the new spells. It’s a tenth of the overall book, which is a serious disappointment.

While most of the corruptions are iconic, “hive” is a curious addition. It comes at the expense of other corruptions, like a madness corruption inspired by Jekyll & Hyde, an ancient dead/mummy, and the like. I imagine it was to fill a need for more body horror, but it just feels like filler.

There’s not really many choices in the corruptions. There’s often just enough manifestations to hit every level. So at higher levels you often have to choose between powers you skipped earlier. Since corruption is tied to your character’s levels, you only get so many powers, but for balance reasons the options are very low power, quickly becoming an insignificant part of the character at high levels. Like getting DR 2/ Cold Iron or the ability to make a touch attack that deals 1d4+1 damage at 7th level. While presented as a way to play monsters, most of the powers are only inspired by monster’s abilities. (Ironically, while NPCs made via this book have to follow PC rules, PCs cannot follow the rules of NPC monsters.

Some of the corruptions seem to set-up the PC for failure. The deep one corruption requires you to immerse yourself in saline water every day, such as a salt water sea or ocean. However, the iconic location for horror in Golarion only has a freshwater lake by the otherwise landlocked nation, making that corruption a trap that results in your PC becoming an NPC in under a week.

At PaizoCon, the writers of the book talked about how they linked each iconic character with a particular corruption for story reasons. There’s reason for why each character is affected by that particular corruption. But this is completely absent from the book itself. For all the impact that has on the product, the choices might as well have been random. Paizo works hard on their story and their setting, but the rulebooks are very generic and setting neutral, which just seems less and less appropriate.

Fleshcrafting is odd. I love that this is a topic in the book, as twisted spellcrafters altering creatures into other creatures is such a trope: that’s ostensibly where the owlbear came from. But there’s never been rules for it. However, here, fleshcrafting is treated like a magic item with an associated penalty: the crafter gets the feat and “crafts” a hideous crab claw onto you, for the appropriate price in gold pieces. So evil fleshcrafters are spending a freakin’ fortune on their crazy experiments. Which also prices fleshcrafting out of NPC gear except at high levels. At 22k the burrowing claws are the entire wealth of an level 13 NPC and should be better than a +3 weapon. There’s a simple template at the back meant to cover doing it to monsters, but it just boosts some stats and changes a mode of movement, and lacks the neat customization and weirdness of adding body parts. I’m uncertain what giving a regular creature fleshwarped mods would do to its CR, if anything, which makes this awkward to use. And, like sanity, it really doesn’t get enough pages to really do justice to the topic.

There’s a four page section on “rules improvisation” which is – in theory – meant to give advice on quickly adjudicating situations rather than breaking tension with page flipping. Useful in a horror game. And then the following three-and-a-half pages give examples of how to use the existing rules for certain situations. This doesn’t sit as well for me because the advice is effectively “gain system mastery”, which isn’t very useful, especially for such a complex system as Pathfinder. Not just because system mastery is hard, but if you’re relying on obscure rules… you’re not really improvising. Plus, focusing on the rules reduces horror situations to mechanically puzzles: how can I use my knowledge of the rules to escape. It takes the player out of the situation and moves them to the table where they’re looking at numbers on a character sheet. Because the focus of this sections is on the examples more than the advice, this section is effectively “here are rules for being buried alive or burned at the stake”.

The Awesome

Photo 2016-08-26, 8 58 32 PMHorror Adventures includes rules for domains of evil, which are described as pockets of supernatural activity. This is a very deliberate nod to Ravenloft. Similarly, there is a dread lord template in the monster section for the masters of these domains. Cool.

The beginning of the Running Horror Adventures chapter has some great advice on horror games. Most of this chapter is pretty awesome, and arguably a must-read for anyone planning a horror game, regardless of system. It breaks down the horror subgenres with descriptions of their characteristics, along with storytelling suggestions and monsters that work. There is excellent advice on atmosphere, simple DM tips, and storytelling suggestions. It advises on how to write a horror adventure, how to scare heroes, and how to encourage roleplaying and terror.

In two places of this section, Horror Adventures deals with consent and crossing the line: initially, on a half-page section on consent and a second time in a sidebar further in the book. I’m torn on these inclusions. I think they’re a good addition and say some things that need to be said. But… I’m not sure the people who need this advice are going to learn it via reading; this advice will very likely fall on deaf ears, making these sections wasted. However, I’m not going to fault the authors for trying, and attempting positive change is admirable and to be encouraged. So the discussion on “consent” is here in the “Awesome” section.

The equipment has torture implements. This is some *ahem* fun stuff, with detailed descriptions for people unwilling to delve into the Wikipedia articles on the topic. Most tend to do particularly minor damage though, and feel significantly less intimidating than they likely should be. It’s easy enough to house rule them into dealing Con damage or the like.

There’s no shortage of nods to horror films and literature in this book. It’s probably the most Easter Egg heavy product I’ve seen from Paizo. To name just a few, reanimating fluid is a nice nod to Herbert West – Reanimator; the hive monster are basically xenomorphs from Alien; the implacable stalker is every slasher movie villain that comes back in sequel after sequel; there’s a Hellraiser-esque puzzle box; and the trompe l’oeil feels like a reference to Picture of Dorian Gray (which is a “horror” in the sense it was made into a number or horror films).

The book ends with a series of inspirations, broken up by their horror subgenre. Both film and books are included. This is almost a checklist of movies to enjoy.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to summarize my feelings on this product. I have a huge soft spot for horror this is a product almost aimed at me. It has useful advice on running a horror game, rules options for villains, and ways of turning players into monsters. All very cool.

But the actual execution…

The keystone of the book is the corruption subsystem. But at 24-pages, this could have been a single, focused Player Companion product. Heck, with 32-pages, the topic would have received almost ten more pages of detail in such a product. It feels ill served here. Barebones: the minimum amount of content for each option. The rules themselves are a compromise between balance and new options, with balance winning more often than not. The execution feels safe, as if terrified of breaking the balance of the game or making one character significantly better than another (ironic give the range of power levels in Pathfinder, and doubly ironic after Mythic proved even more balance shattering than expected).

Compromise seems to be a theme of the book. The new fear rules tries to add depth to being scared without changing any existing options. The sanity rules are a compromise of space. The new class options are a compromise between new villain options and providing splatbook material for players.

I didn’t walk away from the book thinking “this was the best horror themed RPG book I’ve read”. I wasn’t the definitive work on horror. It was decent, but not game changing.

For Pathfinder GMs, I would recommend this book. For people planning a horror themed campaign, I would recommend getting the PDF. For Pathfinder players in general I would advise against this product, doubly so for Pathfinder Society players, as so many options are evil themed and thus inappropriate for that campaign (a third of the archtyepes are not allowed in the campaign, so the book becomes a minigame of  “pick the legal content”). The advice is good. And the archetypes are good and different, providing some nice villainous alternatives. And to the book’s credit it doesn’t try and provide archetypes for every single class (or even the majority of classes). So even if you don’t plan on ever using the corruption mechanic, this is a useful book.

 

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