So I realised recently that, thanks entirely to Shannon, I've ended up writing quite a lot of stuff that discusses horror, darkness and light. I wondered whether they could be pulled into anything semi-coherent, and so I'm going to try sketching out a fairly basic game along those lines.
Naturally, as I'm recycling stuff here, it will probably look pretty familiar to readers of our respective blogs. It’s a first draft being created as I write it (although I did revise it rather than leave it as a stream of consciousness) so there may be inconsistencies (sorry) and it’s a rambly exposition rather than a tight set of detailed rules.
Also, I did what I could with images to break up this very long post, but it is shockingly hard to find any pictures of people hiding from monsters, running from monsters, or that involve shadow monsters of any kind that aren't being shot in the head by Alan Wake. So they are, at best, semi-topical.
Core systems outline
In the Darkness Find Them (henceforth IDFT) has a few key features that I want to pin down.
The first is lighting. Concealment and visibility are important in any stealthy horror, affecting what players can do and what they know. Because this game is about darkness, it's obviously doubly important. The level and type of lighting in an area will influence its safety from various kinds of antagonists, how visible both characters and antagonists are, the ease of perceiving features of the area and performing tasks, and the protagonist's mental state. As such, every zone of play must indicate the nature of the lighting.
Secondly, light is a vital tool. Against the dark-themed monsters, light can be a barrier, a shield, a trap, or an actual weapon. Enemies can be rendered vulnerable by light, but by the same token, light is a precious resource; naturally, as well as a defensive tool, it is also essential for sight. Players must judge how to best use the available light sources.
Third, the characters are not heroes, they are victims. This doesn't mean they can't act heroically, but they are the weaker half of the equation, always vulnerable to their adversaries. Their chief resources are judgement, self-control and ingenuity. The core abilities will be Nerve (self-control and courage) and Stamina (physical endurance). Secondary abilities will be Perception, Strength, and Knowledge.
In order to maintain an air of tension, eroding pools are a core mechanic. The Nerve and Stamina pools are liable to decrease whenever they are rolled, which is whenever courage or fitness are needed. This forces the player to judge whether a particular objective is worth eroding their dicepool for, and to seek safe strategies, or trade off these core abilities to ensure neither falls too far.
Fourthly, for the same reason, the game features a Countdown. While safe areas can be found, very few stay safe for long. An eroding Countdown pool is rolled during exploration, decreasing irregularly but inevitably until something happens. The player is forced to decide how to spend their time, and may have to leave some objectives incomplete in order to evade danger.
Fifthly, time is arbitrary. As with Monitors, I'll be using Ticks as the unit of time. A tick is a narrative unit of time and has no constant real-world value. It is the amount of time it takes for something non-trivial to occur.
Sixthly, friends can be your worst enemy. There is no safety in numbers. More people means more noise, means more chance of getting noticed. There isn't room for everyone to hide, which means someone's going to get spotted, which means everyone's in danger. Even body heat might build up enough to attract attention. And then there's congestion! Games generally assume a turn-based structure even if there’s no traditional round, for convenience; one person acts at a time. That’s not how reality works. People move simultaneously, and often get in each others' way. When you have numbers, urgency and obstacles coinciding, things tend to go wrong. Of course, sometimes numbers will be an advantage, whether it's lifting the other end of the crate, helping you climb over obstacles, or just being enough slower than you that the monsters eat them first. You need to trade off mobile, stealthy solitude against the flexibility of numbers.
All characters have three attributes and three traits.
Attributes are current properties of a character, modelled as dicepools that wax and wane to reflect (and shape) the events of the game. These are Nerve, Stamina and Luck. Each begins at 10d6.
Traits are inherent properties of a character reflecting their capabilities. They do not generally change in the course of the game. Players assign three Traits to their character at the start of the game, all of which should be basically positive. These might be things like Strong, Perceptive, Agile, Academic, Technical, Patient, Methodical, Scientific, Good With Animals, Ex-Military, Survival Expert, Medic, or whatever else seems appropriate.
The attributes are used when a character attempts to do something taxing, most often survive. Anything requiring courage, self-control or patience in the face of danger is Nerve. Anything that is physically exhausting, uncomfortable or painful is Stamina. Matters of chance, and survival against the odds, are Luck. Luck is ultimately the Not Dying attribute, but also allows players to edit game reality to a limited extent: they might stumble across a spare torch, deafening thunder rolls just as they step on a squeaky floorboard, the hinges of the locked door give way as the monster rushes towards them, and so on.
Whenever an attribute is used, set an overall difficulty for the task and roll the dicepool. The sum of the dice represents the amount of progress you make during this Tick.
With dicepools, successes are usually the mechanic used. However, I don't think it's quite right for this. A summing system means you can reliably make some progress and aren't cursed by never making that one success, which seems particularly important when your dicepools are also shrinking. On the downside, you do need to do some arithmetic, but arithmetic is good for you.
However, the biggest set of matching dice are removed from the pool, unless this would leave exactly one die (in that case, leave two). This represents the fact that, over time, a character depletes their reserves by using them. Nobody can keep going forever, constant terror wears down your barriers, and luck always runs out.
I initially proposed just flat-out removing multiples, but that has some issues. Most obviously, a bigger pool actually makes doubles more likely, and a sufficient big pool will disappear immediately! I suspect it's not intuitive, but I haven't run the numbers. Alternatively, you could go with removing any 1s rolled, which is simpler.
If a character finds a safe place to rest, they can refresh their pools. They regain one die in each pool for each Tick they spend resting. Note that resting will erode the Countdown pool.
If a pool runs out, the GM dictates the consequences. A Nerveless character will panic, freeze, run, thrash about, scream or otherwise act inadvisably as they lose all self-control. A Staminaless character is simply exhausted, no longer able to make any significant effort. A Luckless character has taken too many risks, and nothing goes right for them any more; most importantly, their ability to survive attacks or edit the environment is gone for now. Each pool should tend to fail in different ways, keeping things interesting.
Some things are much more challenging even by the standards of horror. Hiding in a room with a monster is nerve-wracking; hiding in that room while six feet away the monster is noisily dressing itself in the skin of your Financial Director is rather more so. If a challenge is extraordinarily taxing, the GM may call for a reroll of one or more dice. These rerolls are made after your achievement is calculated and do not affect it; they are made purely to check for dicepool erosion. You can never reroll more dice than the pool contains.
Some tasks aren’t especially unnerving, exhausting or reliant on luck. In these cases, a straightforward Success roll is used, or multiple rolls if a task is complex. A Success roll represents one Tick of activity. Success rolls are used for just about everything you might need to do, from electrical engineering to shooting monsters in the face.
Success rolls are a 2d6 roll against a set difficulty. A simple task is difficulty 5, normal is 7, a difficult task is 9, and a very challenging task is an 11. Difficulty should be altered to reflect the circumstances, as well as any inherent difficulty of the task.
Characters can use any of their Traits to gain a +2 bonus on their rolls. If multiple traits apply, the bonuses stack.
The result of the roll shows how accurately you performed on the task. A failure may mean you misjudged the effort required, undershot, moved too soon or too late, misremembered some fact, or whatever seems appropriate.
For example, Omar tries to force open a jammed door, which requires a 7. He rolls a 3 and overdoes it by 4 points, which the GM rules to mean crashing right through the door and landing flat on his face. The accident makes some noise and may cause a minor injury. However, Omar has still made it through the door.
Anika encounters another door and also tries to push it open. She rolls an 3, but Anika is Strong, allowing her to boost her roll to 5, so she only pushes a little too hard. She stumbles through the door as it wrenches open, which would leave her vulnerable if danger lurked on the other side. However, she doesn't fall and makes only a little noise.
A failure by 1 is an adequate success, 2 means you misjudged things a little, 4 is a definite error, and anything more is increasingly severe misjudgement. It’s important to remember that failure doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t achieve your main objective, especially when this might be fatal! On the other hand, it doesn't necessarily mean complicated consequences ensue. You might simply waste your time and have to start again. In our door example, Anika might simply have heaved the door ineffectually, while Omar might have body-charged the wrong spot and bruised his shoulder.
Where two characters are acting in opposition, they both simply roll and add any Traits that apply. The highest score succeeds.
Avoiding monsters will generally involve using Nerve, Stamina or Luck. Luck may allow you to turn events in your favour: the creature turns its attention to another room, allowing you to slip away unnoticed. Stamina may let you simply run away, clamber over obstacles, shimmy up ladders and so on. The most important is Nerve, though.
There is no skill for stealthy movement in IDFT. Instead, we use Nerve. The assumption is that a horror protagonist is capable of moving quietly and carefully when they need to; the problem is holding their nerve enough to be slow and careful, when you know there's a ravening monster six feet away that might turn around any second. When you wish to sneak away from a monster, it must first be plausible that you can do so at all. If that's true, the GM then sets a difficulty for the overall task, and you begin rolling Nerve.
For example: Omar is hiding in the grounds of the ruined observatory, while a werewolf prowls nearby. Omar wishes to slip away, get around the corner of the nearest building, and slip inside. The GM assigns this a difficulty of 30. With a full pool of 10d6, Omar can reliably expect to do this in one Tick. However, Omar's Nerve is already frazzled by previous encounters with ghouls, leaving him only 2d6. It will take him at least three Ticks to succeed, and likely five, which means something else may go wrong in the meantime. The werewolf gets to do at least three things, and possibly more. It's also more likely that his Nerve will fail entirely. Omar should really look around for the best possible way to proceed.
As your pool decreases, you not only have a greater risk of breaking down, but your progress slows down. Instead of bravely sneaking slowly and purposefully away, you scuttle a few feet and then freeze, scuttle again and duck behind a bush; maybe you take a longer way around that seems safer, but slower. If you're not sneaking but (say) trying to quietly open a door, then maybe you're more cautious about it, or maybe your rattled nerves mean you fumble.
It's worth bearing in mind that even with only two dice, the odds are that you can make three rolls before you'll roll a double. This means that even a terrified character on the edge of collapse is likely to pass a difficulty 20 challenge.
Nerve isn't just for sneaking, or staying hidden. It's also for doing anything that requires you to stay calm and not panic. Trying to rewire the lighting while a shadow-fiend hammers on the door? Roll Nerve. Trying to walk across a plank between two rooftops? Roll Nerve. Trying to stay absolutely still while a dinosaur stands right next to you looking for prey? Roll Nerve. Defuse a bomb? Nerve.
I need to actually calculate difficulties sometime, bearing in mind that pool size will vary, and this will affect how quickly a task can be accomplished.
At times, it may be appropriate to make a supplementary Success roll while you're using your Nerve. Maybe you spot a safer route, adding to your current score and helping you reach the target faster. Maybe your knowledge of physics informs you on the safest way to cross that plank, adding to your score (and thus making it a less stressful experience). Maybe your bulging muscles make it easier to climb quietly over the fence and get away.
So my next question is, what's the difference between hiding from a monster and sneaking away from it, or indeed towards it? Well, I spent a while thinking about how to model this. It seems like sneaking away should be a faster way to escape, but simultaneously risker during that time; hiding is safe in the short term, but you're then sat waiting on the monster's timescale.
Unfortunately, my current mechanics don't offer that distinction. Difficulty affects how many dice you need, which means you're likely to need to roll more dice for a more difficult task, which means it's going to take longer. You can't have a slow easy task or a fast difficult one. Is this a problem? I considered switching to a success-based dicepool rather than a summed one (and I might still do that) but this has the same issue.
On the whole, I'm thinking it isn't a problem. What this does is make the situation one about changing the narrative, rather than mechanically overcoming the monster. You don't escape by rolling a particular set of dice that achieves the Escape number; you escape by taking actions that would get you further away from the monster, and how stressful (or exhausting, or risky) you find this is determined by the dice roll.
So, you did everything wrong, and now a nine-foot hairy green thing is trying to eat your spleen. What to do? Run, obviously.
Now I need pursuit rules. Damnit, game.
Wait, first I need rules for creatures taking actions. Double damnit.
And before that, I need to decide how creatures work. Grr. Okay, we’ll come back to this.
Chase scenes are essentially just a Nerve roll with room for interruptions. The GM sets an initial difficulty for the roll (almost always Stamina) which represents how hard it’ll be to get away. Remember, because we use arbitrary time, the number of rolls doesn’t represent the duration of the chase but how much happens during that time.
As well as rolling Stamina, characters may attempt other actions that would help them, assuming it’s plausible they could do them while running. Most will require a Success roll, but some may be simple decisions or bright ideas. For example, a character might roll to slam a door behind them or turn over furniture as an obstacle to pursuit. They might also try to leap through a window or scramble over a fence. Success on these will add to their progress in escaping, but failure will detract from it or simply cause them additional problems. There might also be other consequences. Coming back to our furniture, sending tables flying might well delay the cultist, but it’ll also make a lot of noise that brings other creatures to investigate, which the GM rules calls for a Countdown roll.
Each Tick of the chase offers the monster a chance to do something. This will often be an attack, which will typically suffer a penalty because the PC is trying very hard to get away from them. Nevertheless, the PC may need to burn Luck, as well as Stamina, to escape.
Simply being caught by running out of Stamina doesn’t immediately kill a character. There are many options, depending on the story at hand. Some creatures will capture PCs to use for some purpose, giving them a chance to escape. PCs might have to use Luck to soak up the creature’s attacks, or Success rolls to fend them off for several rounds until they find a way to escape. Regardless, after a fairly short time the encounter should end, generally with the PC surviving. This may emerge from mechanics, or the GM may simply narrate the PC’s frantic escape. They may also rule that running out of Stamina means the character has escaped, but is now exhausted and can’t really rely on running away in the future.
A hide-and-seek scene is essentially a chase using Nerve rather than Stamina. Similarly, a direct confrontation may turn into a Luck-based chase, where the PC just has to keep ducking and diving to stay alive while they look for a way to get out of the situation.
Cooperation and Party-Splitting
One of the things that can detract from horror is safety in numbers. This is absolutely a case for what I tend to call Negative Marking.
When Attribute rolls are called for, in most cases the whole group will need to roll (Luck rolls are the likely exception). Poor performance from anyone will tend to cause problems, most particularly in the case of Nerve rolls - anyone losing their Nerve is likely to draw attention to the whole group.
Moreover, having one of your companions break and panic is in itself very bad for your self-control. Panic is infectious. So any time another PC exhausts their Nerve, all nearby PCs must make an additional Nerve roll.
When things are going badly, it's very difficult to coordinate a whole group of people to work together. People don't move with perfect efficiency, or take neat turns. This applies even more when you're hurrying or panicking. One person can run through a doorway without pause, but six will tend to turn into a nasty logjam unless they're trained soldiers moving in file. One person can sneak past a monster quietly, but in a group it only takes one failure for everyone to be in danger. Scrambling to put out a fire, build a barricade or get a machine working is likely to result in mistakes that would be hilarious in another genre.
Often, this will emerge naturally from the system. One exhausted Nerve pool endangers everyone by sparking panic and attracting attention. A set of poor Nerve or Stamina rolls leaves one person straggling, and offers additional chances for the monsters to spot them. However, if the GM feels the system won't naturally reflect the situation, they can simply change the difficulty of a task.
For an Attribute roll, the increase equals the number of people. It takes longer for everyone to get through the doorway, increasing the risk and making it more more nerve-wracking. The scrambling, shoving and last-minute change of route to avoid some else makes running through the museum even more exhausting. The minimal difficulty of 1 that makes a roll worthwhile increases to 6 if six people are getting involved.
In most cases, Success rolls aren't particularly affected by these situations. There might be an argument over interpreting some occult writing, but generally understanding, noticing or breaking things benefit from being able to combine efforts or have multiple independent attempts. In other cases, it's not possible for multiple characters to interact with something, so no interference can occur. If a specific situation occurs where the GM feels numbers will cause problems, use half the number of people, rounding down. Thus, a group of five people would suffer a 2-point penalty on their rolls.
Luckily, there's no real need to use a separate interference mechanic for Success rolls. The chance of low-skill characters failing is good enough. Their complications can create new problems that need solving, or otherwise impede the work of their allies.
On the flip side, sometimes a group is really helpful. Three people can hold a door shut far more easily than one. In these cases, do not make multiple rolls. Instead, decrease the difficulty of the task to reflect the number of people, and also allow characters to stack their Traits together. Three Strong characters might easily have a +2 number bonus and a +6 Trait bonus to their roll.
What about monsters? Well, sometimes they benefit from the size of the PC group. When monsters roll Success in a situation where the group size would be a disadvantage, they gain a bonus equal to half the size of the group. If the group size would be an advantage to the PCs, a penalty applies instead.
Action horror stories are not a genre that lends itself to relaxing. Player characters should not have ample time to go about their investigations or recover from shocks. They should be hauntingly aware that they need to keep moving, keep ahead of the darkness, if they are to survive.
The Countdown is an eroding pool just like the Attribute pools. It begins at 10 dice. Unlike those pools, the Countdown is never rolled in dangerous situations. Instead, it is rolled when there is no immediate source of danger. When the PCs are exploring, searching, building, breaking, researching, resting or otherwise at relative ease, each Tick of time they use (so each substantial action) calls for a roll of the Countdown.
For optimum effect, the Countdown should be rolled in secret, so that players cannot tell exactly how safe they are, only make a rough guess at how many dice are still in play. This should help build the uncertainty suitable to a horror game. However, it's also unpredictable enough that even open rolling retains some uncertainty.
As the pool shrinks, the PCs should receive hints that things are getting dangerous. Eerie sounds and movements grow more frequent and closer, they feel restless and uneasy, and there might even be a tentative brush with danger - a monster brushes past the door without noticing them, a wall crashes down from an aftershock, or a random NPC is killed noisily nearby.
The Countdown is refreshed when the PC actually encounters the danger that's been building up. They don't have to confront it (and it's generally wise not to) but they will otherwise need to abandon what they're doing and take steps to get to safety. Their time has run out; it's time to move on.
If a party does split, it will generally be best to use separate Countdowns for each PC, but this may be irritating to manage. Alternatively, use a smaller pool to begin with.
Because lighting and concealment are essential to the game, any location should be assigned descriptors for its lighting. Generally, these should reflect the Intensity, Quality and Shadows of the area's lighting. But I don't want to pin this down too rigidly.
Intensity can be described as None, Faint, Dim, Moderate, Bright or Dazzling.
Quality includes descriptors like Steady, Intermittent, Patchy or Flickering, as well as specific colours, angles or other facts.
Shadows may be Minimal, Occasional, Plentiful, Deep or something else.
These are more qualitative than quantitative features, intended to suggest actions for players to take, or make them cautious (or complacent) as appropriate to the area.
They may also act as modifiers to both PC and antagonist actions. For example, it's very hard to read in Faint light; Plentiful shadows make it relatively easy to find a hiding-place; and Flickering Green light helps you (or a monster) to escape notice even if you move around, because everything seems to be moving. These will adjust the difficulty of tasks.
These descriptors will also indicate how prominent a PC or NPC's light will be. Using a bright torch in a Faintly-lit room will be very obvious. Flicking a lighter in a room with lots of stuttering monitors will be much less obvious. A steady light source is obvious in flickering light, but a flickering light like a flaming torch tends to draw more attention in general.
A location might have Dim Flickering Candlelight, Bright Steady fluorescent tubes with Minimal Shadows, or be Smoky with Deep Shadows. A courtyard might be Dimly Moonlit with Plentiful Shadows, and a nightclub have Flashing Moderate light with No Shadows due to the arrays of pulsing spotlights. A murky street might have Occasional Amber Overhead lights, and otherwise consist of Deep shadows. A control room on a broken spaceship might only have Blinking Pinpoint light from various LEDs. An overcast spring day might feature Moderate Steady Ambient sunlight, leaving the world flat and bland with Minimal shadows.
Sometimes, something will happen that would tend to harm the PC. A ceiling collapses. They stick their hand in a bit of machinery, or grab a live wire, or walk through a fire, or seriously misjudge rushing down the stairs. A creature made entirely of scalpels attempts to remove all that inconvenient flesh they're lugging around on their skeletons.
Some of these events are environmental, others occur when some actor (PC, NPC or monster) makes a die roll (typically a successful attack, but potentially a bad failure of some kind). In these cases, the PC is likely to be injured. They're often likely to be killed. But serious injury is a problem in a game like this, so what intervenes is narrative imperative, or Luck.
In most cases, when a PC should be injured by an event, they can roll Luck to absorb it. Here, Luck is a little different from using the attribute pools normally. Being injured (or not) is generally a very quick process, and so it doesn't make sense to allow successes to build up over multiple Ticks. So in most cases you simply roll the pool once and see what you get.
First, the GM determines the likely severity of the injury, rating this from 5-50. A 5-point injury is inconvenient and lingering, but trivial in the circumstances. A 50-point injury is either lethal or totally disabling, leaving the PC utterly helpless and out of the game.
I'll work on specifics some other time.
The player then simply rolls their Luck, subtracting their score from the injury rating. The difference indicates how severe the final injury is, and the GM (with the player's input) assigns an appropriate injury. As always, any doubles are removed from the Luck pool. You only get lucky so many times...
Injuries are narrative things, but they have mechanical effect. Whenever an injury should make things more difficult, it applies a penalty to rolls. Specific injuries are typically more severe than general ones; blood loss might impose a weak penalty to most tasks, while a broken thumb makes turning keys very difficult but has limited effect elsewhere.
Some 'injuries' may be more specific, and relate to the abilities of particular monsters or environmental conditions. Supernatural dread, or a creeping werewolf curse from a bite, are valid injuries too, even though they'll work a little differently in terms of their consequences.
This mechanic can be tweaked easily to alter the lethality of the game. By varying the way injuries are rated, or changing the Luck pool, PCs can have charmed lives or be horribly doomed.
An important facet here is that PCs may always choose not to roll Luck. This helps them maintain long-term survivability, at the cost of performance. But it should also make things more interesting. For serious injuries, rolling Luck is generally pretty obvious. For more trivial things, though, the player has to choose whether they want to roll Luck and hope to avoid injury, or let the injuries build up. Minor injuries will drag a character down and expose them to further damage. But if you keep risking your pool, you may not be able to soak more serious injuries when they come up.
Initially, I worried because for moderate or serious injuries, there's no reason not to roll Luck - this is the main thing you need it for, after all. Because the severity of the injury doesn't affect how many dice you might lose, there's no reason not to roll it for mid-tier injuries, while it makes sense not to risk losing multiple dice from a large pool by rolling for trivial injuries.
But I think this is actually appropriate. Most of the time, horror protagonists should be fairly safe when the story begins. They may have close calls, but they pick up minor scrapes and knocks from those, maybe the odd limp, not broken kneecaps. When monsters attack, they initially escape mostly unharmed. The more dramatic injuries tend to appear later in the story, as a narrative tool. Having now set the scene and established how Heroine copes with the horror, now they change things up by giving her a handicap - blood loss, partial blindness, a broken arm, a twisted ankle. Or one of a duo is badly injured and has to be helped along, leaving everyone vulnerable. And it's only towards the end that the core protagonists tend to be killed off, or left behind helpless while the others press on to End The Horror At Its Source.
I think the Luck mechanic should tend to do pretty much this. Most injuries will be trivial (or rolled down to trivial) in the early stages, having mostly flavour effects. As the pool shrinks, players either choose not to roll for moderate injuries to preserve their dice for the worst cases, or find it harder to hit high targets and are left with increasingly serious injuries. When you only have a couple of dice, it may be a tough call even for very serious non-lethal injuries, if you think something worse is in store...
Once injuries have occurred, there's no real healing mechanic. Hey, injuries don't recover in minutes, especially not when those minutes are spent racing to survive. However, characters may ameliorate the effects of some injuries by taking appropriate measures. Injured limbs can be wrapped in wet cloth to soothe swellings, or splinted to help with movement. Burns or chemical injuries will be less severe if treated with lots of cold water. Cuts can be bandaged to reduce their lingering effects. Such treatment requires you to seek appropriate resources (which takes time) and make Success rolls to use them (which also takes time). It's important to note that the injury doesn't go away and sticks with the character; its severity is reduced as long as the treatment holds. In some cases, when things go wrong elsewhere, a GM may use these treatments as fallout from a poor roll, with bandages snagging or crutches being dropped.
At some point, PCs will have to deal with whatever it is that's tormenting them.
In general, PCs should be avoiding monsters, not confronting them. Monsters are scary, and confrontation is dangerous, taxing your reserves of courage and energy. But sometimes it might seem safer, or just easier to handle, than sitting quietly just waaaaaaiting for something to pounce.
Antagonists have a set of Traits to resolve their actions. They also have keywords, whatever special abilities make them appropriately creepy, and non-mechanical fluff that guides the GM. PCs do not know any of the properties of antagonists unless they discover them through experience. In some cases a Knowledge test may help them learn a property by observation or research.
Unlike PCs, antagonists have no limit to their number of traits, and also have negative traits. This reflects the fact that ordinary humans are the baseline for capabilities in the game. For example, a zombie is both Slow and Lurching, which means many movement-based actions will incur a -4 penalty.
Creatures are described with three keywords that summarise how they act, in terms of their Sentience (how capable of thought they are), Attitude (how they'll react to a human or suspicious events) and Behaviour (their overall behavior).
Sentience: Mindless (purely instinctual), Beast (capable of self-preservation and simple deduction), Drone (capable of simple thought), or Humanlike (full human reasoning capabilties).
Attitude: Cautious (observes, picks its moment, takes some care), Ferocious (attacks whenever possible, destructive), Inquisitive (observes and investigates boldly), Placid (purposeful and hard to distract), Sadistic (toys with victims, draws out fights or chases).
Behaviour: Ambush (lie in wait), Chase (follow up signs but don't go looking for them), Drift (aimless movement), Hunt (look around for possible prey), Patrol (purposeful and predictable movement), Swarm (congregate and mob), Wait (static threats).
Mindless entities are purely reactive and instinctual, with basically no memory or intelligence, so as soon as they can’t detect a PC, they forget them. These work almost like environment or traps, posing a threat while you’re navigating them, but very possible to simply leave behind. Beasts are more like animals, and will pursue prey based on senses, prediction and cunning, but have no higher thought. They can’t anticipate tricks, traps and double-bluffs, or think outside the box. They can’t cleverly manipulate anything, or work together effectively, and will probably react like animals too, running if wounded. Drones are like very stupid or unenthusiastic humans, capable of manipulating the environment, simple tool use, and the sort of reasoning a child can manage. And Humanlike creatures are fully thinking and calculating. These are likely to be physically less dangerous that the earlier categories, but very hard to deal with or permanently stop. They will logic around your tricks, think up solutions to barriers or defences, and plot against you in advance. They will remember, learn, bluff, lie and extrapolate. They can predict how you might react, and manipulate you - a wounded friend is a strong lure, and scary noises are good at routing you exactly where they want you...
For example, a Sadistic Drone blood stalker may pause to gloat and cackle when it first spots a victim, giving them a crucial chance to flee. A Mindless Placid Drifting zombie may randomly shamble around, or be attracted mindlessly to noise. Mindless man-eating plants will Wait and Ferociously bit at whoever comes near. Cautious Humanlike vampires seek prey, but know that humans are dangerous, so don't go rampaging around. Ferocious Beast Swarm creatures might be mutated rats that rush out to eat anyone they see, while Inquistive Beast droids Patrol the starship and just tackle any potential threats.
But these are guidelines; don't get too hung up on them.
In some cases, special rules apply. A werewolf may feast on fresh corpses, so a PC has a chance to escape if their ally is killed. A fungal taint may infect slain victims, causing them to rise as fungous things. A zombie doesn't breathe, a fire demon will be unhappy about water, you get the picture.
Antagonists also need rules for confrontation. They will have set damage thresholds for each of their attacks, showing the severity of injuries inflicted, as discussed under Harm. For example, a tiny shadow grub might have a damage of 5, while a possessed lurker has a damage of 25.
They also need rules for taking damage. Let’s keep this simple.
An antagonist is basically injured in the same way as PCs. A PC may injure an antagonist using a Success roll (although potentially a Luck or Stamina roll might be appropriate) and inflicts damage determined by the type of attack. Fists inflict less damage than cricket bats, which inflict less damage than dropping a settee out of the window. Cunning PCs may lay elaborate traps. Antagonists are, however, much less resilient overall than PCs for simplicity’s sake. Typically, one or two moderate injuries will disable them enough to not present much of a threat, causing them to flee, or allowing the PC to walk away or (with certain enemies) to finish them off.
Many antagonists have special vulnerabilities, resistances, healing abilities and so on. A successful roll should generally do something, but if the antagonist is resistant it may simply stagger them for a round or two, buying the PC time. An injured antagonist is always easier to attack next time: a minor injury is a +1, a moderate injury a +3, and a major injury a +5.
Things of Light and Shadow
So given the premise of dark-and-shadow-thing-themed horror, I need to get back to that.
Things we need here: player light sources; light resource management; shadow monsters.
Torches, torches, run with torches
Players are going to want portable light sources, and that’s fine. Because light is important, we also want to model them in rather more detail than most games need to.
Light sources will have the properties of Brightness, Nature, Shape, Fuel and Lifespan. You don’t necessarily need to formulaically write these down, but they’re the important things.
Brightness follows the same pattern as area lighting, above.
Nature is how the light is made. It may sound daft, but there’s important differences between an electric bulb, a fire and a jar of glowing ectoplasm. Fire flickers, makes yellowish light, makes heat, makes smoke, makes noise, can set things alight, and doesn’t like water. Electricity is steady, light colour varies by bulb, makes no heat nor smoke nor sound, doesn’t set things alike, and is either waterproof or reacts very badly to water. A flaming torch is handy for fending off monsters, but a real problem when you’re in the library and really need both hands to get up a ladder.
Shape is just where the light goes. Is it a vague globe of light, as with a flaming torch? A narrow spotlight beam? A broad arc? Controllable, like some lanterns or theatrical lights? This is quite important for establishing both what you see, and what sees you.
Fuel ties into nature. What feeds the light? Batteries, a mains supply, kerosene, wood, life-force absorbed from your victims? These all affect how the light might react to situations (power cut? rain?), and more importantly, what you need to keep it burning. Some fuels might be useful for other purposes too. Some are easier than others to replenish safely (pouring kerosene onto a fire is usually bad, so you may need to let it burn out and refill it). There are even wind-up lights, which require you to regularly pause and wind them. Sounds good, but that’s precious time right there.
Finally, Lifespan is how many Ticks a single charge will last. This is going to be important. Light needs to be a precious resource. Fires generally don’t last that long. Although real-life batteries will often last up to an hour, we can be stingy here for dramatic purposes. Hey, someone bought cheap batteries, that’s just hard cheddar.
Obviously, lights may have other properties as defined by the GM to reflect their specific nature, potentially including special modifiers to particular tasks. I’m assuming a reasonable amount of common sense and on-the-fly adjustment to keep things working in a way that satisfies. For example, some light sources are powerful but very heavy, and this will encumber characters.
The idea here is that the PCs (and players) have to keep an eye on their light supply, and with it on lighting conditions. Do you need the torch here, or is there another light? If you use the room light, will it attract too much attention? This route will let you conserve battery power, but then you’re travelling through a well-lit area – is that good, or bad? Do you spend time trying to scav up some more batteries from this storeroom, or hurry on? Can you get this done without using your torch; is it worth making the job harder to save battery? How do you get through this water-themed area with only a flaming torch – is there a better route, a way to keep the torch burning, or a chance of fresh lights on the other side?
If torch life is a worry, an isolated setting does give you some options (a city not so much). The only torches are powerful heavy-duty camping ones that pack enough punch to actually get around semi-easily in the wilds by night, but really drain the batteries. Or they're very old, inefficient models that aren't entirely reliable either (occasional repairs needed), maybe you need to jury-rig them to take the batteries you have got.
Also, assume off-brand batteries. The owner of the cabin was a cheapskate, or the one local shop only had knockoff "bargain" own-brand imports that only last an hour or two in a torch. I dunno if you've ever run across those, but I've had some off market stalls a couple of times, and they really can be that bad!
You could also emphasise paraffin lamps or some other non-electric fuel source, which is easier in pre-modern settings, though magic complicates it again.
There are a few types of shadow monsters that come quickly to mind.
Nebulous creatures are like clouds of darkness; they might be literal clouds, or blurred shapes whose outline can’t be discerned. In this form they’re essentially invulnerable, and the most a character can hope for is to disrupt one and slow it down. However, light causes them to coalesce (think of it like a jellyfish or microbe bunching up) making them far more vulnerable. Thus, the characters can use torches together with weaponry to combat them, although they may still be very dangerous.
Next, shadow-jumping creatures. These aren’t made of shadow, but can teleport through shadows, or grow from darkness, which means light is an important weapon to drive away those areas where they can appear. For fairness’ sake, I’d limit the range on their pursuit or senses, because otherwise every critter in the game could just spring out as soon as the player walks into a dark room!
Thirdly, old-fashioned living shadows. These creatures aren’t just vulnerable to light, but actually harmed by it. This means they’ll generally avoid rooms above a certain brightness threshold, and stay away from characters with bright lights. On the other hand, they can readily spot those characters and stalk them, waiting for the lights to fail… characters may need to use light alone to attack these creatures, which have no real physical form. This makes them a good fit for non-combatants.
Fourthly, hiding shadows. These creatures are fast, sneaky and insectlike, lurking in places you wouldn’t expect, scuttling along ceilings and squeezing through holes half the size of their bodies. They reach through holes and move in unexpected ways, making them hard to hide from; hiding well requires you to take on the searcher’s perspective, and we can’t tell how a room looks from the ceiling. They may be fairly easy to destroy when spotted; their strength is in being hard to pin down, and the creeping uncertainty such elusive creatures instil.
Fifthly, the swarm. Individual shadows may be very fragile, but they’re also a seething mass. The problem isn’t destroying one, it’s that while you’re aiming a torch over there, fifty shadows are leaping towards you from the opposite direction. Think of these as like Hollywood rats, or gremlins. Your best defence is to make sure you never encounter many of them; you can squish a few, but you need to keep moving or else they’ll simply overwhelm you.
Keeping things interesting
For the most interesting gameplay, I’d suggest using a mixture of these and other shadow-beings to emphasise the importance of light, but also throwing in other hazards. For example, a shadow-demon/cultist mix forces players to think hard about when they need light and when they want to hide in the darkness. Cultists don’t care about your torch, but it’s a great way to track you down; equally they need light and even carry batteries. Demons like to lurk in the dark, but can be repelled with torchlight.
Players may be tempted to lurk and wait for daylight, if the setting makes that an option. The Countdown should mitigate against this.
The other thing is that if the shades are given free reign during the night, they make plans. Move foliage or cloth around to create shade to lurk in. Lay traps. Maybe set fire to the building the party are hiding in (shades may not like fire, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way to use it), or flood it. Maybe they howl horribly and keep the party awake, or give them nightmares, so they're exhausted and vulnerable next day. Maybe they have magical or psychic abilities that can affect the party even inside, so long as the shades know where to look for them…
Regardless of all that, more shades gather nearby with every wasted night. That way, the best bet is to keep moving as much as possible, to try and get through before the shades realise they're there and can swarm them. Dressing themselves up in light will help against the shades, as long as the batteries last, but advertises their location to all and sundry.
Where enemies have specific weaknesses, ensure it’s difficult to exploit them. The anathemas should be restricted: limited resource stockpiles, environmental effects limited to specific areas, anything that makes the players plan and means most encounters can’t be dealt with that way. You don’t want the game turning into a dungeon crawl – at least not unless the endgame is supposed to work that way. Varying the resources will change the tone of the game, so you might switch from a plentiful supply in one phase to a dearth in the next. Ensure players are aware of what’s happening when you do this – their characters would be.
While light is the assumed anathema, you could include things like silver bullets, phosphorus ammunition, garlic, anti-alien genetic weapons, or whatever seems appropriate for the enemies. The type of such anathemas will tend to influence the game; those that are clearly weapons will generally encourage a combat-based approach, while light tends to be a more defensive tool, mystical incense is a placeable environmental effect, water can be a barrier or an improvised weapon, and so on.
That’s all, folks
That looks more or less like a functional draft to me? I mean, there’s maths and stuff, or actual statblocks for creatures, but it’s basically there.
Alternate thematic names:
- From dark Oblivion
- And darkness must again prevail!
- Since Darkness o'ershadows
Suggest your own, and win* a free copy of the game, if I ever finish it!
*if I like it, obs, not just automatically