Traditional swords-and-sorcery role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons and its bastard successor Pathfinder, thrive on empowering their players, making them feel like heroes who can conquer any challenge with their wits, muscles, and magic items. These games are pretty much the opposite of horror role-playing games like Call of Cthulhu, which aim to disempower their players, to make them fearful and afraid as they inch toward confronting something unknowable and perhaps unstoppable. So, how does Paizo’s recent supplement, Pathfinder: Horror Adventures, reconcile this difference?
Rather well, as it turns out. I remember eagerly picking up the 3.5 edition Dungeons and Dragons’ (the system which Pathfinder is based on) supplement Heroes of Horror way back in 2005, only to be disappointed by the options that lay between its pages. It treated horror as essentially a flavour, something that could be sprinkled over your existing campaign by including gore and weirder monsters. The game played pretty much the same, bar a rather clumsy corruption system that managed to ruin more than a couple games with its unevenness (a player character who could never pass up the opportunity to stab someone in the back does not contribute to a cooperative experience!). It was also a bloated beast, packed with the unnecessary feats and prestige classes that would soon bloat the game into an early grave and usher in the dark days of 4th Edition come 2008.
Fortunately, Pathfinder: Horror Adventures avoids these pitfalls. From the start, it is eager to stress the difference between role-playing a typical Pathfinder hero and a Pathfinder horror hero, and is packed full of tips on how both the players and the Dungeon Master can adjust to this new style of play. In fact, this supplement has the largest emphasis on actual role-playing that I’ve yet seen in a Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons supplement (of any edition). As someone who likes to get deeply into character, whether as a player or DM, and whose favourite part of role playing is telling memorable stories with my friends, it’s great to see this part of the hobby emphasised. It might not be for everyone, though, especially groups who are used to moving from meticulously-crafted combat to another without pause for discussion.
Pathfinder: Horror Adventures also deals with the thorny issue of consent in a horror-based game better than any other I have played. It makes a solid case for discussing the themes of the campaign as a group before starting play, and for finding out (and respecting) each player’s limits when it comes to gore, violence, or difficult subjects. This may seem obvious but as everyone role-plays to have fun, it is important to make sure that what is planned is fun for everyone. There’s no point upsetting someone for the sake of a game. And of course, if your group has little or no limits, then you can get as dark and depraved as you like.
The majority of the book functions as a toolkit, introducing new mechanics such as sanity damage, madnesses, new character archetypes, and a much better system of corruption than in 3.5, as well as refining some already existing elements like curses, diseases, and a massively enhanced fear system. There are new spells, magic items, and monsters for the PCs to use and encounter, and a whole chapter that contains some excellent advice on creating and maintaining a suitable mood for a horror adventure. DMs are encouraged to pick and choose as they wish and even improvise additional details to give a real sense of the uncanny and unknowable to the game.
Most DMs will use most of the book, though, taking the presented rules as a solid blueprint for a horror campaign. This increases the amount of record-keeping round the table quite a bit, as you will be tracking sanity, corruption levels, madness, and fear, as well as a potential wealth of debilitating effects and conditions. Paizo have missed an open goal by not providing a specialised Horror Adventures character sheet that would allow these details to be tracked quickly and easily by players.
I’m also not fond of all the Lovecraftian references within the book, and I say this as a Lovecraft fan who’s read everything the man ever wrote. Of course, Lovecraftian horror is having a huge boom and the Cthulhu Mythos is hot shit at the moment, but does it really need to be shoehorned into anything and everything horror-related? This shoehorning isn’t even subtle – Elder Things and Mythos creatures are simply lifted wholesale and dumped into Pathfinder’s world of Golarion, nothing changed, not even the names. By all means pay tribute to the Mythos, and include as much cosmic horror as you like, but at least take it as inspiration and create your own version for your own world, in the same way that the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses have been re-imagined, re-purposed, and re-named to create a flavourful but still unique pantheon for the setting. Having Shoggoths and Cthulhu mentioned in Golarion is as jarring as having a Game of Thrones character start talking about Jesus.
Overall, though, these are minor things. By emphasising role-play and player disempowerment, rather than the usual sourcebook approach of providing plenty of power-ups for the players, Pathfinder: Horror Adventures asks gamers to look at Pathfinder and do some fundamental restructuring. I haven’t been this excited to play a fantasy RPG since I first played third edition D&D thirteen years ago. I had felt burnt out, that I’d been everywhere and seen everything. Now, I want to dive in and play again: my character could be a tortured vampiric paladin, a cursed gingerbread witch, a rabble-rousing mesmerist lycanthrope, or a nihilistic devolutionist druid who wants to destroy all sentient life. Or I could run a game based on Alien with the new Hive monsters, attack my players with a horde of cannibalistic flesh puppets, or set them against great, terrible challenges that will slowly drive them mad. Pathfinder: Horror Adventures is a supplement aimed squarely at DMs who want to shake up the very core of their Pathfinder games and turn the traditional swords-and-sorcery template on its head.