Ask Angry Megablitz 4: Aberrants and Amnesiacs

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It’s time to clear out more of the massive backlog of Ask Angry questions. Today, I tell people how to pull off some interesting campaign ideas about aberrations and amnesiacs. And also we talk a lot about what makes horror horrible and why I hate Lovecraft.

Jonas Larsson of the Swedish blog Trevliga Scenarion asks:

I wonder how to best utilize the concept of aberrations in my campaign.

They are presented as unnatural Lovecraftian horrors and would surely cause several SAN checks if thrown upon a poor human in the 40s, but so would most of the monsters in DnD. To me, beholders, aboleths and mind flayers don’t really feel weird or scary next to dragons, owlbears and kuo-toas. They don’t even feel that alien and out-of-this-world when compared to demons.

How shall I make the denizens of the Far Realm fascinating and unique compared to the normal freakshows of the DnD bestiary?

Run Call of Cthulhu.


Let me honest, first of all: I don’t GET the Lovecraft thing. I mean, I GET Lovecraft. I understand the themes in his work and I understand why it worked as a sort of rationalist horror. That is, as a new intellectualism and general social prosperity was spreading throughout the United States, I understand why Lovecraft’s crap was scary. The idea that all of our attempts at rational understanding were useless because the real truth could not fit in the human mind. Our intelligence and ability to understand the universe was limited by our crude gray matter. And the real truth lie not in the possibilities of a prosperous and utopian future brought about by technological, social, and scientific reason, but in a terrifying, superstitious past filled with ancient incomprehensible horrors that lay sleeping while we forgot about them. As humans, we are utterly insignificant in the face of such horrors. Our pathetic faculties aren’t even sufficient to contemplate the horrors we face. And the people who do manage to find even a hint of that truth are the isolated crackpots and crazies we easily dismiss. And their discoveries make them isolated and crackpot and crazy, easily dismissed. So, yeah, I get all that. The problem is, I don’t think most people who LOVE Lovecraftian horror understand it and understand why, in the context of the era it was written in, why it worked as horror. Lovecraft purposely used antiquated language, even (or especially) when dealing with the trappings of the modern era. The horror was regressive and anti-intellectual. That’s what made it horrible.

In fact, I do understand why geek culture gets a hard-on for Cthulhu. What is scarier to the modern nerd than the idea that the universe is incomprehensible and all of their self-proclaimed brilliance is essentially meaningless? That their precious rational brain would be destroyed if they glimpsed even one iota of real truth? And that real truth is closer to the religion and superstition they despise. Science and math are an illusion?

The thing is, the trappings of Lovecraftian horror – the protoplasmic masses and tentacles and strange symbols and Elder Things – aren’t really what it’s about. Just like how zombie horror isn’t really about zombies. And, that’s the thing. In D&D, zombies aren’t horror creatures. They are just low-level humanoid monsters to kill.

In fact – can I digress for a moment because this pisses me the f$&% off a little – so I’m going to digress. The undead thing. Undead are supposed to be scary, right? They aren’t supposed to be just some other kind of monster. But, not only are they just another type of monster, they are the only monster in the entire game that is specifically weak to an entire class of PCs. And once upon a time, ONE QUARTER of all PCs were the one class that all undead were weak to. So, yeah, great job there. It’s kind of like if I decided to add kaiju monsters to the game and made them specifically weak to all melee weapons ever.

D&D doesn’t get horror. Horror doesn’t belong in D&D. D&D is built upon a collection of fantasy themes. Themes like the idea as hero – heroes as the embodiment of ideals. Or the everyman hero, rising over adversity to become great. Or the hero as chosen one, people given great destinies by cosmic forces and powerful gods. The gods are distant, meddling, and little more than more powerful, bickering humans. And ultimately, even the gods can be defeated. D&D is about becoming stronger. It’s about individual heroes getting better or discovering their destinies. And I don’t just mean by gaining levels. Everything in D&D is about getting stronger. Individuals unite in groups that, through synergy, are stronger than the sum of their parts. They gain power through experience. They gain better equipment. They gain magical items. They become rich. They earn favors from the powerful and the meek. They gain new spells. They discover more about the world. They discover more about their destinies. It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the challenge of our rivals.

D&D is the opposite of horror in general and very specifically the opposite of Lovecraft. Lovecraftian horror is about isolation. And the deeper you get into the mysteries, the more powerless you become. In Lovecraftian horror, the best you can ever hope for a temporary victory which shatters you in the process and only serves to stave off the inevitable. Your victories are not celebrated; they are rarely even remembered or understood.

You can’t do Lovecraft in D&D without completely misunderstanding Lovecraft as “tentacle horror” instead of “anti-intellectual cosmic horror.” Or without completely changing what D&D is.

That said…

You can make ANY monster in D&D unique if you build it up the right way. The thing is, everything in D&D has stats and everything can be killed. On the battlefield anyway. Adding a touch of the horrible to D&D is about theming and about how you build things up. And about understanding what things upset people. What things people find horrible.

Lovecraft plays upon fear of the unknown, hopelessness, and isolation. But those aren’t the only horrors. For example, zombie horror plays on the fear of losing our humanity. Zombie horror is about how we are merely animals with human trappings. And those trappings can easily be stripped away.

In one campaign I ran, the Far Realm aberrant were colonizers and terraformers. They were attempting to invade by changing the world into one that was anathema to our life but suited their life. The first time the PCs encountered the Far Realm in that campaign, it was through a strange illness that was infected people. It seemed like your standard bubonic plague-like setup with ugly boils and sores growing all over the infected who gradually became weak. But the infected would isolate themselves. They would disappear.

See, when I was in High School, I had a cat. And, although it seems crazy to hear me say it, I loved that cat. Yes. I am capable of loving another living thing. But when the cat got old and sick, I learned that cats would often go off on their own to die. They would wander away to die alone. And that filled me with fear and dread, that one day the cat would wander away and I would never see it again. Because humans crave closure. The idea of a loved one isolating itself, hiding, suffering alone, and dying stuck with me.

So, the PCs learned of an illness that was spreading and that people were disappearing, leaving loved ones alone and scared and lost and begging for some clue what had happened.

Eventually, the PCs stumbled upon their first clue as to what the illness was really about. While searching the poor neighborhood where the illness was starting to spread, they came to a house with a baby crying. Inside, they found a baby in a cradle, emaciated and starving, heaving dry tears because it was dehydrated and crusted with its own filth. It had been abandoned.

As humans, we care for our kids. We are social creatures by nature. The idea of a mother abandoning a child to waste away is terrifying. It takes away something that makes us human. Even animals don’t abandon their young to die. See? Horrible.

And in the cellar of the house, after they’d had time to be utterly horrified by the idea of a baby abandoned to die, they found the cocoon. It was basically a slimy, translucent membrane stuck to the ground with viscous mucus. And it had been burst open. Whatever had grown inside that cocoon had escaped.

They fought their first “farspawn” soon after. They were a group of creature I’d invented based on the D&D Foulspawn minis. You can check out the Pathfinder stats here (I was running in Pathfinder). The farspawn were basically “terraformed humans.” There were several varieties, and they were interesting combatants. But what made them horrible was that the party always knew what they were killing. They would never encounter farspawn without encountering broken cocoons first. And each cocoon was a symbol of abandoned children and families, of people with lives and hopes and dreams and fears, stripped of everything and twisted into a diseased alien.

So, yeah, my aberrant were zombies.

Except, the whole situation gradually got worse. The city and the sewers and the catacombs under it were gradually changing. Tentacle-like veins were growing and spreading, oozing strange fluids. These were the biological terraforming engines. First, they found an organic vein that had grown into a cellar and was oozing strange fluid. There were cocoons there. And farspawn. As they explored, they found more places where the Far Realm was “growing” into the real world. And eggs and cocoons would grow from the muck. And that’s where your grells and gricks would spawn. The PCs learned to destroy all the eggs they could, but there were always more. As they revisited old locations, they would find the growth was always spreading. There was always more. Weird, pulsing organs would form. They had no function because I didn’t invent one. They just did stuff. Gradually the underside of the city was turning into the inside of a hideous living thing.

Many of the beasts were just strange predators or weird animals or burrowing worms. Most aberrant are just disgusting animals from another universe. But eventually, beholders, illithids, and aboleths, would start to appear. The masterminds. I purposely didn’t design any sort of relationship or caste structure or roles or anything for the creatures. They could not speak common. The PCs could not understand them. And the aberrant wouldn’t bother to speak to humans. Language, communication, social structures, castes, hierarchies, those are comprehensible. They are human. So I couldn’t risk any chance of the players figuring out any of that.

Now, all of this was gradual. It was a long con. The game didn’t START OFF about aberrant. It started off about magic guilds running a city with ancient ruins underneath it and treasure hunting and dungeon delving. The aberrant plot gradually TOOK OVER the game in the same way that the aberrant were gradually infecting the setting.

Of course, it wasn’t really a horror game. The PCs did gradually beat back the aberrant menace. They eventually killed the tentacled thing, the mother brain, the alien queen, the leader of the invasion. But the aberrant were particularly horrible and unpleasant and alien and terrifying because the party could figure out what they were doing, but couldn’t really understand them. And everything they did touched a primal fear.

THAT is the only way you can make monsters feel special. An encounter in a dungeon with an orc, an owlbear, a devil, a dragon, or a beholder – those all feel exactly the same. It’s everything that leads to that encounter that makes the encounter special. Undead are special because they represent the darkness within humans or our powerlessness in the face of death. Ghosts represent unfulfilled desires or unfinished business and remind us that death can come at any time, whether we are ready or not, regardless of what we’ve left undead. Zombies are human animals stripped of humanity. Vampires are the worst lusts and excesses of humanity brought to the fore until they consume the person. Dragons are primal forces of nature. They are like tidal waves and earthquakes and hurricanes. Unrelenting, merciless, and inevitable. Devils are our ambitions and drives twisted to evil. However noble our desires, they can lead us to evil if we let the ends justify the means. Owlbears are wild creatures, they are a part of a primal wilderness where humanity no longer belongs. They are where are trappings of civilization fall away in the face of raw power and primal instinct.

Even in a single encounter, you bring that s$&% out. The owlbear is a beast, foul-breathed, bloodstained, roaring and snarling, it’s lair littered with bones that crunch and crack underfoot.

Ashley K., Whose Humanity 2.0 Campaign is on Obsidian Portal

I’m a new GM running a campaign in the rule set d20 Modern Apocalypse. We play in person. My players started the game having lost two years of memory (not a story crutch, I promise). I’d like to refill their memory in an interesting way: running sessions for “recovered memories”. In the beginning of the session, something will clue them into the fact that this is sometime within the lost memory time period: a newspaper, radio broadcast, etc.

You get it.

I will pepper these sessions in with sessions happening in “real time”.

My question is this: what problems should I be prepared for as far as player confusion, break in the suspension of reality for the players, or narrative problems?

Also, as new GM, I feel like this is a cool idea, but it may be a dumb one.

Let’s get a few things straight. As a GM, NEVER apologize for your ideas. That is just a thing you don’t do. Second, never think an idea might be dumb. Some ideas work and some don’t. But ideas aren’t dumb. Ideas are experiments and you run them to see if they work or not. Honestly, this actually sounds really cool to me.

I like how you said the “amnesia” is not a story crutch. Character amnesia gets a bum rap because it DOES get used often as a crutch. It’s an excuse to skip the first act, especially in video games, because people can’t figure out how to reveal backstory. If you’re doing something interesting with the amnesia, though, it becomes cool. So don’t fret.

If I’m understanding your idea correctly, you’re going to mix up your sessions between normal adventures and flashback adventures. Normal adventures advance the plot, flashback adventures reveal the backstory and plant the seeds for future adventures. That’s a really cool structure and you should stick with it.

The first danger I see, though, is in subtlety. You can never be TOO obvious with players. Players are kind of stupid. They don’t pick up on anything you don’t scream at them. And, as a GM, because things make sense to you, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being TOO subtle. Don’t do that. On TV, there’s two types of “flashback” scenes. The first are gotcha scenes where the audience doesn’t realize they are watching a flashback until a sudden end-reveal. Those work for TV, but they are terrible for RPGs because the players are also acting as the protagonists. Players in RPGs can handle suddenly recontextualizing an entire adventure when they discover it was in the past all along. That’s not because players are stupid, but because you’re asking them to act IN the story and then suddenly changing the entire context of the story after they’ve already been mentally invested in the story.

The other type of flashback scenes in TV shows always have tells. I mean, nowadays we make jokes about foggy borders around the screen and wavey patterns and “diddle-diddle-diddle” music cuing a flashback, but that’s only because those techniques have been played out. Nowadays, shows and movies use color palette shifts to show flashbacks (like sepia or black-and-white) or establishing shots showing distinctly “out of time” features (like old-timey cars or old-fashioned military uniforms and so on) or they just use subtitles.

In an RPG, repetition is your friend. A single clue at the start of a scene or adventure is easy to miss in the pile of flavor text you drop to start a scene or session. Instead, you want to use multiple clues. Lots of clues. It might seem like you’re making things TOO obvious, but you can’t do that. It is impossible to make things TOO obvious to players. You want to keep inserting little details in your flavor text over and over again.

The best thing to do is to find some way to have a “tell” that the players can learn to associate with flashbacks. A verbal equivalent of sepia-tinting. If the PCs are recovering memories and then relieving them, the flashbacks could be dreamlike and you can incorporate some dreaminess into your flavor text. Things might briefly “go out of focus,” for example. Imagine if, for example, the “memories” had some kind of “loading time,” so very detailed stuff took a moment to resolve. Whenever the PCs look at fine details, you can give little momentary clues that it takes a moment for things to “load.”

“As you open the book, you have trouble focusing on the words. They seem to swim for a moment, and then gradually your head clears. The book tells the story of…”

Think of it like “texture popping” for the brain. Like how video games sometimes take a minute to load the textures so you can see the plain shapes of polygons under the game before or how distant objects suddenly resolve out of the draw distance fog? Maybe memories are very poorly optimized for modern video cards. Who knows?

Beyond that, the other major risk of such a game is taking away some of the players’ autonomy. You have to be careful with flashback games because, if you’re filling in the players’ memories, it implies the actions and events already took place. And if you try to force the flashbacks to conform to a specific story to setup current events, the players might start to realize that they don’t have any real choices in flashbacks. So, you have to be prepared to change the story if the party does something weird or unexpected in a flashback.

Basically, you’re going to have to accept that the backstory to your campaign might change as the players f$&% around in flashbacks. I once ran a flashback game where one of the PCs actually died in the flashback. Basically, it created a time paradox. And the party won’t accept the Prince of Persia’s explanation of “oh, wait, we remembered that wrong.”

Obviously, part of the flashback sessions will be to reveal the big events that shaped the world the PCs currently live in. I mean, I assume. And, if that’s the case, you’re going to have the PCs acting as spectators to major world events. And that is more sight-seeing tour than RPG. So, make sure that minor choices that the PCs make come up.

In point of fact, it is VERY important that you constantly connect the flashbacks to the current events, even if it seems contrived. If the PCs help an NPC in a flashback or betray him or get him killed, make sure that NPC’s story comes up the very next time them are in the present. That way, even if they are spectators to the big apocalyptic events, the players feel the effects of their flashback choices in the game.

Beyond those two caveats, I don’t see any particular dangers. Like every great game idea, you’re just going to have to run it and see how it goes. Give it your all. Remember: dare to fail gloriously.

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16 thoughts on “Ask Angry Megablitz 4: Aberrants and Amnesiacs

  1. Nice article on how to approach horror. It gives me something to think about since I am interested in running the upcoming Pathfinder/Chaosium crossover adventure path, “Strange Aeons.”

    To build off of your argument, I always pegged the effectiveness of horror in a more passive storytelling medium like books or movies versus a more active medium like gaming was that the participants have more agency in a game. When you watch a film or book, the most agency you have is the choice to keep going or to stop – you don’t control the characters, you can’t tell them to make the right choices to escape or beat the horror.

    With a game, you have that control over the characters or situation that lets you find a way to “win.” In fact, if a game doesn’t give you that control or makes it obvious it isn’t giving you control, it is often held up as a poorly designed game – agency is inherent in the medium. I have to imagine hitting the right balance between giving players enough tools to feel like they are in control while removing or holding back enough tools to maintain the atmosphere of horror is incredibly tricky to do right.

  2. Brilliant article, man. I know these ask angrys mostly end up into you ranting about things, but I love it. I’ve read it three times already, and now I want to delve into all sorts of pop culture monsters and figure out what fears they are tapping into.

    Also, minor point. Should this sentence:
    Players in RPGs can handle suddenly recontextualizing an entire adventure when they discover it was in the past all along.
    say “can’t” instead of “can”?

  3. The more I hear about your “living city” campaing for PF, the more I want to have it published so I can find a GM to run it for me. Also, your big map (you know, that one in youtube) was for that game, right? Please continue the mapping series, and please, please, one day release that adventure for PF.

  4. You wrote a very good description of Lovecraftian horror, Angry. Too many people don’t get it and treat Cthulhu like a kaiju. It happens in a lot of “horror” video games that don’t understand power fantasies are incompatible with the genre, devolving them into action games with zombies and tentacles.

  5. Oh man, your aberrants were messed. up.

    And that’s exactly how it should be.

    *furiously takes notes*

  6. Audience: “And then you died?”
    Storyteller: “And then I died!”

    The different reactions systems have to the same content are very important to track. The first example I found for explaining this was comparing GURPS to Sorcerer, to date the article; a Code of Conduct in GURPS is an inviolable restriction placed on the character in GURPS in exchange for additional character points, while precisely the same Code of Conduct in Sorcerer is a set of strongly-held character principles which must necessarily be abandoned over the course of play as the sorcerer’s contract consumes them. Breaking your Code of Conduct in GURPS is against the rules (while you can make checks to do so anyway, trying this frequently is grounds for losing the benefits of your self-imposed restriction), while following your Code of Conduct is against the rules of Sorcerer as you’re no longer telling the story of a person giving up everything.

  7. Nice. I’ve played Call of Cthulhu since 1982 and it is really well-baked into my psyche as a gamer. But I run fantasy and the lot of us (all CofC players) often get a little confused about how we are supposed to react to Horrible Things. We know that fantasy characters are supposed to step up, be heroes and defeat them, but there always seems to be something missing there — why aren’t characters bothered by gibbering undefinables? You have really done a fine job analyzing the differences and how to make something relevant and legitimately terrifying. Thanks Angry!

  8. Really threw me when you called zombies “humanoid monsters”.

    Obviously I understand that you meant it in literal terms and not in-game terms, but my first instinct was to think “Zombies are Undead, not Humanoid! Gaah!” before correcting myself. 😛

  9. That end quote though, “Give it your all dare to fail spectacularly.” That’s some good old motivation right there.

  10. That’s a good breakdown on Lovecraftian horror. I have a particularly fun villain planned for my next game as a post-storyline adventure called ‘the Impossible Man’. He’s a little bit of everything a la epic-level proteans, but it’s mostly played comedically (“this nondescript man in a tophat strikes at you with two claws, a tail attack, and a bite… you’re not really sure how.”)

    It is a storybook character who was brought to life, alongside a few others, by a malicious Efreeti twisting someone’s wish. The Eldritch horror part is that all of the storybook characters find out everything they’d thought was real was just a lie, and the Impossible Man realizes that this is still true. He will make passing references to this and occasionally call out a PC by the actual player’s name before correcting himself. He’s trapped in some bizarre tale of fantasy even now… and he wants out.

    I find it interesting because it places the players on the other side of the equation; they ARE the unspeakable truth. It forces them to really think about their characters as being separate from them. Ultimately the Impossible Man plans a way to escape into our reality by destroying the game world, and offers to bring the player characters along. There is some interesting morality even for the most goodly of PCs, who are left to wonder if their world is real and, if not, if its destruction could really be called ‘evil’. Even if the players agree to follow him, I think it would be a memorable end to a campaign.

    • If they decide to go along with the guy in the end, you should end the last session by saying something like “The ritual begins… the Impossible Man drones out the arcane incantations” then fall silent for a while, and then look at your hands, gaze around the room, get up and walk out the door muttering `it worked… it really worked`, and don´t come back.

      • I actually have something more practical in mind than showing up on the back of a milk carton. The characters don’t know if the ritual will destroy their fictional world or not, so if they go with it the plan is to nonchalantly ask “can I see your character sheets?”, rifle through them like I’m taking note of their skills and/or saves, ‘absentmindedly’ place them off to the side out of reach of the players, then begin describing the ritual…

        “The impossible man’s voice starts in on a rolling chant, splitting into several different voices until it becomes a chorus all its own. The gridlines of reality are laid bare to you, then torn asunder!”
        *begin tearing up the battle map*
        “Your minds falter as each of you in turn are met with a truth you could never have fathomed; you had been trapped in a cage you could neither see nor feel, an accounting of everything you had been… everything you were allowed to be.”
        *pick up character sheets and tear them in half*
        “But now you’ve outlived your cage, and wake to find yourself in a strange new world…”
        *Game ends*

        Of course, this makes sone assumptions about how gullible my players are and the format of their character sheets (I can just imagine pausing mid-speech while pathetically failing to tear someone’s laminated character sheet in half, giving up, then reaching over and smashing the laptop that someone else keeps their sheet on!) but you get the general idea.

  11. First timer posting… Weighing in on the flashbacks. My most effective flashback was running KotSF in 4e. First night sleeping in the keep everyone woke up as a member of the keep before the fall (priest, guard captain, etc.), and played the fall of the keep. It wasn’t part of the module but ended up being a great way to fill in backstory and invest the players in the setting. Almost all of them died without risking the time paradox thingy. Great article, keep it up!

  12. Interesting subjects! Nice to hear a honest and careful discussion of H.P. Lovecraft and what his horror was actually about. As for the “flashback” style game, I thought of doing that once too. In the end though, I thought about the fact that the PCs would soon figure out that I needed them alive in the “future”, and that having them die in the “past” would break the game. (Your idea of a party that continually ressurects could make that tenable mind you). In the end I felt like it was too much trouble and moved on to other ideas.

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