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Heroes of Horror (D&D) RPG Review

Posted on March 31, 2008 by Flames

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The game of Dungeons & Dragons is, at its core, a game of epic fantasy. The characters we choose and role-play more closely resemble the mythological heroes of ancient times or modern fantasy literature. The nature of an epic fantasy adventure is that the hero(es) will face a great threat which will endanger the lives of innocents/family/the world. There will be a great struggle, but the outcome is never in question. Epic fantasy stories end with our protagonist overcoming the long odds and great trials to become a truly legendary hero. But this begs an interesting question.

What if the hero can not succeed?

That question is at the heart of all good horror games. In a horror game, the heroes are up against forces, be they mundane or supernatural, that far outclass their own abilities. Whether it is a fight with a supernatural serial killer or a battle for the fate of the planet against otherworldly seamonster-like creatures from before time itself, the protagonist’s success and sanity are in question at every moment. In a horror story we are not surprised to see characters we have grown to like surreptitiously killed off by the fearsome creatures and forces they are fighting. If anyone makes it out alive at the end of a horror story they are considered lucky.

How do we reconcile these two worlds? In D&D, we have a group of heroes and we can’ just start offing them slowly, one by one to build dramatic tension. How are we to take these two very different methods of story-telling and bring them together into one shared gaming experience? Heroes of Horror attempts to answer that very question.

This book is not very long by Wizard’s standards. At only 157 pages of actual material, there is a lot of ground to cover and not a good deal of space to do it. Heroes of Horror takes a headlong rush at setting, pacing, mood, encounter, PC rules, prestige classes, new monsters and horror-filled locations. If the book has one great flaw, it is that it tries to cover too much information in too little space.

The majority of people playing D&D are just that players. When they consider the purchase of a supplement they ask a simple fundamental question; what is this book going to add to my options when making a character? Some players may be searching for additional rules, some for new character concepts and others for great role-playing opportunities.

The tie that binds however is options.

Heroes of Horror offers two new full twenty-level base classes; the dread necromancer and the archivist. The dread necromancer is built on the foundation of specialist arcane classes, such as the warmage and beguiler. The class becomes a little tougher than your average wizard and gains more abilities and spells per day in trade for losing a tremendous amount of versatility. As classes go, this is probably the best attempt at a real necromancer offered thus far by Wizards. If you are a player who enjoys casting life-draining magic and raising massive hordes of undead to do your bidding, then this is the class for you. The archivist pulls on a completely different thread of horror literature the dark scholar. The archivist is made to represent the Beyond the Supernatural type of character that knows a great deal of secrets about things other, wiser people, ignore. The book also offers six new and completely forgettable prestige classes. The major problem with these classes is that they either deal with a mechanic that is often irrelevant for the PCs, i.e. fear, which most monsters (undead, constructs, plants, oozes, etc) are immune to or they deal with the specialized mechanic of Taint that the book utilizes. If you are not using taint in your game, you are not using these prestige classes. The biggest thing lacking from the perspective of the PCs is good character motivation or archetype ideas that would want to make you play in a horror game. The book seems to mostly assume that your normal fighters and clerics, upon finding themselves in a horror themed world, will have the motivation to survive, and that will be enough.

From a DM’s perspective, the book has far richer options. The first three chapters of the book are exclusively for DMs and slowly walk through the nature and building of a horror game. Heroes of Horror begins with teaching the difference between a standard D&D encounter and a horror encounter. The key differences make a good deal of sense. Use more visceral descriptions, and to rely more on the unknown, the unforgivable, the unexpected and the unthinkable. (So if we have a room strewn with human entrails hung like curtains upon the walls while a cult of devil-worshipping masked men of mysterious origin gather around a sacrifice pit holding both the PCs parents over the pit while one of their own companions slowly bleeds out from raked, whip-scarred flesh while hanging from rusty manacles on a blood-soaked wall (this is a horror encounter.) I am simplifying here and certainly they also talk about the necessity of building mood and tension among the PCs and their advice is solid. My favorite section of the first chapter is the table of “creepy effects.” Small bits of fluff flavor text that can be added to descriptions to grab the PCs attention and start their dark imaginations working. Chapters two and three simply build upon this foundation instructing you how to build this single disturbing encounter into a full adventure and finally into a full-blown campaign.

Though Wizards often puts some great artwork into print, this book excels. The cover alone is a subtle and horrible joke to those with enough knowledge of the established “hero characters.” We, the reader, are staring at the faces of the PCs as they come upon what must be a grim discovery off camera. Following the cover from front to back we see strange mannequins and dolls hanging in the trees a la the Blair Witch Project which slowly become pieces of armor, Regdar’s armor to be specific. It is then we are free to let our imaginations run wild and imagine what awful fate has befallen the off-scene body of their trusty fighter. The interior art continues the high level of quality all the way through. My particular favorite is a full page spread by the master himself, Wayne Reynolds, depicting a few brave heroes fighting a huge group of undead up a small pyramid while an ancient lich and his vampire lieutenant look on. This picture captures well the nature of the overwhelming odds of a horror game. The image of the grey jester, a sinister fey joker combines two deep seated images of horror, fey and clowns, to create an unsettling masterpiece. Heroes of Horror without a doubt has the best and most thematically appropriate collection of art of any D&D book in the past five years.

The writing of Wizards of the Coast is always clean and well constructed. This book is no different and James Wyatt, Ari Marmell and C.A. Sulieman effectively organized and laid out their ideas. My only complaint with the writing is in its focus. There is not enough space devoted to the motivation or inspiration for the players to want to partake in a horror themed game. In fact, the book even goes so far as to say the following.

A horror adventure or campaign is not, in the end, all that different from a standard D&D game. Just like more standard fantasy fare, a horror game is full of terrible monsters, evil necromancers and malevolent sorcerers, nightmarish landscapes and cunning fiends. What sets a horror game apart is its atmosphere, which presents all the horrific elements of a fantasy game in their worst possible light, emphasizing the dread they inspire.

With all due respect to Mr. Wyatt and team, I can not explain how wholeheartedly I disagree with this statement. As I stated at the beginning of this review, there is something fundamentally different about a horror game. I believe this incorrect understanding of the nature of a horror game is what causes the lack of character motivation and inspiration support.

Dungeons & Dragons, like any game, is ultimately a construct of rules that allow your characters to interact with an imaginary world. It should come as little surprise that Heroes of Horror offers a large amount of new rules to build on the sense of dread the characters should feel. The overwhelming issue with these rules is that each is in effect a new sub-system within the game and they can often feel like an artificial construct added the base rules-set.

Nothing exemplifies this sub-system issue better than the taint rules which I mentioned briefly above. The concept of taint was first introduced in Oriental Adventures and was meant to represent the dark stain that such horrific encounters can often leave on the soul of those who participate. That system was horribly broken and usually caused more headaches than it was worth. This problem has not been solved in its newest incarnation. Taint is meant to represent long-term and often irreparable damage to the character’s mind and body. These manifest as physical corruptions and mental maladies that force the character’s hand in how he portrays his brush with darkness. The problems with this implementation are two-fold. First, the penalties are represented in the basest terms by statistical penalties. If there is one thing PCs are stingy with, it is their ability scores. These six numbers often determine how the player sees his character and form the bedrock that image is built upon. Damaging these scores in the short term causes the PC some discomfort, but the knowledge that the damage may be repaired can allow the PC to overcome his displeasure. Taint carries no such guarantee and in fact often results in permanent penalties that can never be erased. While this might be thematically compelling as the darkness in the character’s soul can never be fully cleansed, it is mechanically lacking and overtly punishing to any character that utilizes the abilities most heavily punished; e.g. wisdom and constitution. This also places the DM into a balancing act where he wants to utilize the mechanic, but is afraid of using it to its fullest extent for fear of turning the character into something the PCs no longer recognize or have no motivation to continue playing.

The other rules issue that creeps up so often is the over utilization of fear effects in the book. Fear, as a mechanic in D&D has always been problematic. Sending a hero running for his life can be fun if the PC make a reasoned (or even split-second panicked) decision to run. Forcing them to flee in a random direction for the next X number of rounds is far less compelling and usually results in losing that player from the table for the next hour while that encounter plays out. The other problem with fear is how quickly it can become irrelevant. I gave a short list of creatures that immune to fear completely, making it a questionable resource for the PCs to rely on, but the PCs can quickly become immune to it as well. Any 11th level cleric worth his holy symbol repares a Heroes Feast each morning, effectively rendering the whole party immune to fear. The DM has recourse to deal with this through things like dispel magic or banning the spell, but when the DM starts taking away the PCs toys wholesale, it can create a rancor and further reduce the PCs interest in the game.

Finally, the big problem with any of these rules is the issue that this is ultimately a 3.5 supplement. With D&D going to 4E in the summer, these rules sub-systems are of questionable value at best. The commentaries on tone, mood and atmosphere, as well as the maps and adventure ideas are edition proof though and could easily provide DMs with inspiration no matter what edition or even game they are playing.

Great advice for the DM on setting, mood and tone
Interesting monsters and twists to spring on unsuspecting PCs
High quality, terrifying adventure locals and sites

Lack of PC motivation to play a horror game
Bad and overtly specific prestige classes
Poorly implemented sub-systems

Style: 4.5 (Some of the best DM flavor, art and descriptions of a Wizard’s product)
Substance: 3 (Old edition and complex or unnecessary rules)
Overall: 3.5 (If you’re a DM, a worthwhile purchase, if you are a player, pass.)

Review by Vincent Venturella

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