As promised, the third extra for The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady is up, and it’s all about using Horror Mode during the adventure. If you want to get your Horror Mode on from the Cypher System book while running Sleeping Lady, check it out. (GM’s only, spoilers for players.)
What’s Horror Mode? It’s the tabletop rpg equivalent of the spooky music ramping up in a horror movie. Read about it here.
For Halloween, I tried out the horror mode rule from the Cypher System. I ran a horror Numenera game down at my Friendly Local Game Shop (Modern Boardshop), where I reskinned an adventure for horror. I used The Nightmare Switch, from the original Numenera Kickstarter, which worked well.
Horror mode changes the way the players’ die rolls can create GM Intrusions. Instead of only on a 1, you start off at a 1 or 2, and keep adding to the threat range for the GM Intrusion. Once we got it up to 8, and with six players rolling dice, we had a huge number or GM Intrusions.
The Cypher System book has all the details, but the idea is that GM Intrusions bring on the horror. Once the PCs beat a local horror, or successfully flee from it, you set it back to normal (only a 1 gives a free GM Intrusion).
To help create the right mood, I took a huge red d20, and slapped it down on the table with the 2 up. Then I explained the rule. Every time I upped the chance to get a GM Intrusion, I picked it up and slapped it down with the new number up. I may have chuckled evilly.
So what about when you want the horror to show up? Easy. Just use a normal GM Intrusion, hand out the 2 xp. And add one to the horror die. Slap!
How did it work? It worked great. The players focused on their die rolls, constantly glancing at the big red die in, well, horror.
I’m coming to appreciate when a game designer like Monte Cook uses a core component (GM Intrusions) of their existing system in a new way. This reminds me of why I like how 13th Age designers have come up with new ways to use the escalation die and icon relationship roles. I find this so much better than the old way of slapping on a new mechanic to the side of an existing game. Eventually the system is defined by a collection of non-related mechanics that have been shoved into the game until I find it unplayable.
I can totally see adding horror mode to any cypher system game where I have a horror component. In fact, it would work great in The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, which has a strong eldritch horror vibe.
I think I know what my next Sleeping Lady Extra will be…
So, how does horror work in the Cypher System? First, I should explain a little about how the Cypher System Rulebook works. It’s a menu of rules a GM (and players) can chose from to create their own game. Besides horror, there are rules for science fiction, fantasy, modern, and superheros. Within each genre, you get more choices. Lots of optional rules to tailor the game to just the right kind of horror.
The rulebook has a big bestiary of creatures to choose from and the horror section lists the ones that best fit a horror campaign, including Deep Ones and Mi-Go. It also includes 3 horror artifacts, so if you want more, you’re going to have to make some yourself.
The horror rules are all optional rules. Madness will be familiar to Cthulhu players. Cypher System madness grew out of the madness rules found in In Strange Aeons: Lovecraftian Numenera. In this case madness puts a hurt on your Intellect pool and can even change your descriptor. I do something similar in The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, which has a seriously eldrtich horror vibe.
Shock is another optional rule, more for short term effects like losing control of your character and running away or sitting down to sob rather than fight. Trail of Cthulhu players will find it very similar to Stability losses. Different mechanics, but going for the same effect.
Combine both Madness and Shock if you want a game like Trail of Cthulhu, or just Madness if you want a Call of Cthulhuish experience.
I’ve saved the most interesting for last. Horror Mode. Horror mode is a great way to ramp up tension, as the range for a GM Intrusion (the dice fail kind, not the 2xp kind) goes up to a 1-2 on a d20 roll. Then 1-3. And so on. You can get to 1-10 fairly quickly. Each GM Intrusion brings new horror AND widens the GM Intrusion range by one.
After the horror mode is over, you reset the GM Intrusion range to 1. Until the next time…
Which has me thinking of a Cypher Cthulhu adventure. I’m sure my players would love it!
Writing Prompt: Take a character, and from that character’s point of view, describe their reaction to something horrific and awful, but do so without describing the thing itself.
OK, great fiction writing prompt. How can we twist this for gaming? If we use an npc, when would the players ever hear about it? If we take a PC, how would you describe something to them without describing it?
Here’s my shot. It’s a PC, and here’s the READ ALOUD text addressed to ONE character:
As you step across the obsidian floor, white glyphs flare into existance across the surface and twist and turn. The rest of the party watches in horror as you vanish.
You fall to the floor in front of your friends, covered in a foul caul of mucus. How long were you gone? Thankfully you don’t remember, until, then you do. Just bits and pieces. Being on a stone table as surgical implements held by what? Pincers? As you were cut open? There was a lot of screaming. Yours.
And they put you back together. But not quite the same as before. And didn’t they add something? Cold and wriggling? Can you feel it now wrapped around your heart, or is this some delusion?
You hope it never happened. But you know better. There is no hope, and it’s only going to get worse.
So the poor player doesn’t really know what took them away, nor what they looked like. What all the players know, is any of them can be taken at any time. And unspeakable horrors are hovering.