Horror Atmosphere

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Not all campaigns need to use all rules or "flavor" abilities. Horror campaigns or campaigns with horrific elements are not something for all players and should be used only if the Game Master feels the group is capable of handling the psychological aspect of a horror game. Possession, haunting, and corruption are levels of detail that the players may enjoy since they must pay attention and take the game from a hack-and-slash to a mystery in many respects.

Standard Dungeons and Dragons has always treated Possession as a temporary affliction like some easily curable disease or a simple poison. Cursed items sometimes would Possess a character or monsters temporarily take control, but the answer was always a quick spell or otherwise prolific use of violence. This has always disturbed me as it minimizes a mechanic that has caused hysteria and has been a driving factor in real-world myths and culture since recorded history. Haunting and Possession are ingrained in our collective psyche. Look at the vast array of horror films and books that utilize these mechanics to make millions of dollars with each iteration.

In no gaming system I have ever played, the horror and subtlety of a possessing spirit or haunt have been adequately portrayed. I find this deficiency absurd and untenable. Over the 40+ years of tabletop, mainstream role-playing games no system creator has successfully captured the essence of a true haunt or possession and how characters are to deal with it. Players should be forced to contact the spirit and confront it based on the nature of the entity instead of bashing, blasting, or otherwise forcing their way through an encounter like a blinded bull in an alchemist shop.

Horror Atmosphere
Haunting Haunt Haunt Templates
Variant Haunts New Haunts Exorcism

Haunting

A Haunting should be subtle at first but then become more effective over time depending on the strength of the entity behind the event. A Haunting can be as simple as a nebulous entity who manifests in ways that are hard to quantify and seem benign in nature, or as powerful as an apocalyptic force worthy of a great horror movie franchise. Most Hauntings should fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Players should sense something is amiss and gain clues that there is something supernatural happening. The nature of a Haunt shouldn't be immediately obvious and with ease could present as something entirely different than the real nature of the threat.

In modern gaming, there are two major focuses of a Haunting. The first is an undead creature, similar to a Ghost, who can be defeated with the correct dispel effect or bypassed by simple combat. With the Haunt represented in Tome of Horrors Complete, at least players are given the option of interacting with the spirit to "set right" what caused it to manifest in the first place. Still, this is a clumsy mechanic considering the vagueness and available alternate methods of dealing with the creature. In my experience as a Game Master, few parties would take the time to permanently dispatch a Haunt by completing a task and instead would opt to use a dispel or be content to leave the area after temporarily banishing it with brute force.

The second method a Haunting is portrayed via a generic trap-like effect that is powered by a latent undead force. At least with this type of Haunts there is room for the effect to be centered on an area, an item, or an entity. These Haunts are more effective in capturing the power and difficulty in dealing with a Haunting but still fall short of the absolute horror of a Haunting that requires the players to determine the nature and history of the event in order to overcome it. The rules for Haunts were expanded in Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Occult Adventures to allow for better interaction and Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Horror Adventures brought more horrific and difficult to defeat Haunts into play.

Haunts can and probably should include many different aspects including the presence of Ghosts, Phantasms, Demons, Devils, and the use of Possession. One of the major issues I've always held with RPG Haunting and Possession is that they are all undead-based and do not account for the influence of other supernatural forces. Even with the new rules introduced in other publications, none have yet to fully address the creation and dissolution of Haunts driven by forces who were never living. Even stray emotional energy or powerful psychic strain can create Haunts that are not undead in nature. These alternate types of Haunts simply are not represented and in many places ignored.

Players should be forced to struggle to discover the nature of the threat when dealing with a Haunting. Haunts can manifest as simple monsters who appear to be defeated or they can have several aspects that seem unrelated in nature. A ghost ship that wanders the coast attacking stray vessels is a pretty standard Haunting in our collective myths but has infinite variety. Why is that ship restless and wandering? What powered the transformation into Haunts instead of a less pervasive type of undead? Are the targets somehow related or not chosen by chance? Are there actions that can be taken to put the Haunts to rest without direct confrontation? Is there some continuing force or entity that drives the Haunts to destructive methods? Is there some goal the Haunts is trying to reach but is thwarted? These questions could be the basis for an entire gaming session or quest hook just to discover the most basic elements of the Haunts and give a clue to dealing with the entity.

Possession

Most players encounter Possession either through curses or spells. Certain occult classes have abilities that allow characters to be the invaders or hosts. Some Game Masters will allow Fiends and Demons to possess people to grant them different powers but this is much rarer since details on power manifestation are limited. Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Horror Adventures contains limited information for possessed Manifestations and refers to it as levels of corruption. While being a workable system, it does not go nearly far enough in depth to cover the scope of Possession and how it can be presented in a campaign. A patchwork of rules exists in many campaigns but often they are at odds and there is little to no cohesion.

Generally speaking, there are three accepted types of Possession. People who enter into pacts with entities to inhabit their bodies are considered to be willing vessels. Powerful magic can allow a living entity (or other spell-casters) to force their way into the mind of a host, the victims of such magic are considered possessed. Lastly are those who are victims of an often malevolent entity that forces themselves upon the host. These final possessed people are overwhelmed by an invading entity and may or may not even be aware of the possession.

Player characters can find Possession to be difficult to even detect. Often the signs and symptoms of Possession can be mistaken for schizophrenia, depression, illness, or some form of madness. Sometimes a Detect Evil spell will show faint signs that someone is possessed but often the entities will hide themselves deep within someone whenever they fear detection. Possession in game-play can be used as an adventure hook where players must confront someone acting oddly and determine if the person is evil or truly possessed. Of course, the players could confront and even kill a villain, only to discover too late that the person is a victim of Possession. In cases like that, killing the host may bring consequences and complications far worse than if they had allowed the villain to live.

Willful Possession happens when someone allows an entity to inhabit their body as part of a bargain. Most possessions of this type are entered into with fiendish entities who grant powers in exchange for the soul of the possessed upon their death. Occasionally, undead such as ghosts are allowed to possess a willing host for various reasons. The host for an undead entity often gains very little but acts as a conduit for the undead to influence the mortal world. In some cases, someone who enters into a Willful Possession will lose the memory of the possessing entity and will be unaware of any influence exerted by the foreign sentience. Those who enter into these situations will never seek to end the possession and will often struggle against anyone attempting to banish the entity.

No matter the type of possession, the possessing entity never leaves willingly once they have inhabited a host. In the case of forced possession, the victim must often be restrained before any attempt to cure the Possession, or else the entity will kill the host. Those subject to a Willful Possession may or may not be in danger of death or worse due to exorcism, depending upon the nature of the possessing entity. Spells and other magical abilities that allow for Possession have their own duration and rules for termination.

Exorcism

Removing or expelling an entity from a person, place, or item should require more than just bashing something with a hammer or sword. Exorcists are called on to expel possessing entities or otherwise subduing hostile spirits. Even the most experienced exorcist must protect themselves from the wrath of the possessing entity and in many cases they must try to safeguard the life of the victim of Possession. In the case of Hauntings, simply being able to survive the attacks of the entity is sufficient that most exorcists require the aid of a dedicated group.

Exorcism falls within the province of those who wield divine magic or are accustomed to dealing with spirits. While a Game Master is encouraged to discuss exceptions to this rule, generally speaking it takes specialized skills to exorcise an entity. Certain class abilities allow for characters to banish possessing entities. Spells like banishment and even dispel evil aid in the performance of an Exorcism. Certain rituals may be performed by those without divine magic but in those cases the most that can be accomplished is making the possessing or haunting entity become temporarily dormant.

The difficulty in ending the Possession or Haunting depends greatly on the entity involved. Exorcising Asmodeus will be much tougher than dealing with some random lost soul. In the case of Possession, there is always the chance that the possessing spirit will jump hosts, possibly attempting to possess the exorcist. Hauntings that cover a large area could require multiple attempts at Exorcism in many different locations. No matter the method or difficulty of an Exorcism, characters face a challenge that should be a significant event in their character's lives. While many entities simply cease to be after a successful Exorcism, entities who are banished can always seek to return to seek vengeance against those who thwarted their plans.

Corruption

Even the most pure creature can succumb to tides of darkness. What begins as a minor malady or errant idea can grow into something malignant—a spreading corruption that can obscure your morals, cloud your judgment, and ultimately devour your soul. There are a number of different types of corruption, from the hunger of vampirism to the horrifying transformation of the Promethean. Living with corruption is often a terrifying experience, but also offers the temptation of dark gifts. Hosts sometimes choose not to fight the corruption, but rather accept it and allow it to progress. These unfortunate folk either succumb to lust for the corruption’s power or attempt to control the stain of corruption and use its gifts for some greater good.