War was probably at its fiercest when, out of nowhere, an enigmatic dim light surrounded Cyre, one of the fighting nations. A few moments later, a thick fog risen from all horizons and everything inside vanished. The very few who were able to run and escape in fear tell stories of wails and screams from within the smoky curtain that surrounded everything. No one ever found out if this was caused by the gods as a punishment for the war, or a secret weapon test gone terribly wrong. What everyone did know at the moment is that they could not risk anything like that to happen again, so every ruler involved in the war rushed into peace negotiations.
According to canon, no one knows what caused the Mourning, and Keith Baker has stated that this is on purpose, to allow DMs to create their own version of the facts in their campaigns (you can read some more of his ideas in his article «The Mourning and the Dread»). And considering how hard is to survive inside this barren land, and the horrors that aventurers must face while traversing it, we decided to kill two birds with one stone: you’ll see…
…as chance would have it, the Doctor at Daemons & Deathrays has been summoned to host the RPG Blog Carnival for November, and he has selected Survival Horror as its topic, and the Mournland seems like the perfect topic for my collaboration. So this article is not only one of the 12+1 Days of Eberron, it also is a RPG Blog Carnival entry. Before we delve too deep in the dead-gray mist, let’s see what exactly is survival horror.
Considered a subgenre of action-adventure video games, survival horror features vulnerable and under-equipped characters. They usually emphasize solving puzzles and evading danger, rather than straight-forward combat. According to IGN’s Travis Fahs, «Survival horror is different from typical game genres in that it is not defined strictly by specific mechanics, but subject matter, tone, pacing, and design philosophy.»
Surviving the horrors
Resident Evil is probably the first survival horror game, at least the first one I played (and not for too long!). The main challenge in this game was managing your limited inventory and the scarcity of resources, such as healing (in the form of very suspicious herbs) and firepower (in the form of ammo). Additional themes into it were the obvious zombie apocalypse and isolation: there were no more people like the PC, and the story of what had happened was told through journals. Let’s talk about how to take these principles to tabletop roleplaying games in general.
- Exploration becomes the main pillar: combat and social interactions are much more limited than in a regular game. Your players should consider that combat may not be the primary option, due to limited resources or invulnerable enemies. Their characters need to be reminded how vulnerable they are. Locations are usually labyrinthine and dark, even claustrophobic. As a DM, you may want to incorporate more XP into this (you can follow the rules by Mike Mearls in this Unearthed Arcana article).
- Non-combat challenges are more frequent, or even permanent: Solving mechanical puzzles to open gates will be highlighted because of their importance, but something that normally isn’t an inconvenience can become something very relevant: not losing orientation and even map tracking are key skills, and encumbrance can turn into a deadly enemy as collecting and managing an inventory of items becomes part of the strategy.
- Common enemies use surprise to their advantage. Since it’s hard to have a representation on our gaming table of a particular camera angle, we can play with passive perception scores and some checks in order to get the required feeling of not being able to see much around. Many survival horror games make use of off-screen sound or other warnings to notify the player of impending danger (think of the malfunctioning radio in Silent Hill). Asking for a Perception check and telling the players they don’t see or hear anything no matter their result can have the same effect, creating some anxiety and uncertainty. Once enemies attack, not describing visuals as the surprise round unfolds becomes critical and accomplished if we use other sensory inputs, such as smell, texture and temperature.
- The enemy, and the horrors it involves, must be researched before being dealt with. One more time, puzzles become a crucial part of the campaign as they can involve some clues about the horror the heroes will have to face. In Eberron, there might be even hints that the formidable force to be reckoned with may not be but one step in the ladder to success.
Thousands of soldiers lie in the middle of what was Cyre as if they had died mere minutes ago. The dead and their spirits rise often to continue fighting the war. Arcane energy runs rampant and monster have mutated into extremely dangerous killing machines. Weather and terrain are hostile to life, and even sometimes take on what paranoid witnesses describe as a will to destroy whatever they touch.
For whatever reason your players need to get inside the Mournland, their goal will turn into not dying before they can reach a way out. Now, let’s apply our four rules in order to play in that desolate place.
So let’s say the PCs need to reach Whitehearth, right in the middle of the Mournland. For them to be successful, they need to get across this dangerous place, not only once, but twice, as they will need to go back after they finish their mission. The PCs will have to use their knowledge and endurance to survive the passage through the mist that shrouds what once was Cyre. Key skills for them to not get lost include Nature (avoid terrain hazards, identity dangerous plants), Perception (spot enemies) and Survival (keep the correct direction) and some key saving throws are Constitution (to avoid exhaustion) and Wisdom (to keep the characters from succumbing to hopelessness and be affected my the Mournland Affliction, see below). Failing the skill checks can have the characters face a random encounter, which may feature not only undead, but also living spells or even scouts serving the Lord of Blades. Once they are inside the Mournland for too long, players will be suffering because of limited resources: magical healing is not as efficient as it normally is, and food (even rations) rot way faster.
Our final touches include some puzzles: corpses found around the are have journals in them, but the ominous text must be interpreted for it to make sense; an arcane compass is not working properly until one of its pieces gets replaced; the key that was provided to enter Whitehearth needs to be manipulated to work properly.
- Mournland Affliction
The Mournland feeds of willpower, and people venturing inside it can become victim to its sickening condition that fills them with hopelessness. This affliction is measured in four levels.
A creature suffers the effect of its current level of affliction as well as all lower levels. Only effects that can remove a condition can remove a level of affliction, and only one at a time.
- Can’t spend Hit Dice to recover hit points.
- Disadvantage on Ability Checks based on Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma.
- Healing effects, both natural and magical, are halved.
- Disadvantage on Saving Throws.
The End is Coming
Note that simply featuring large amounts of monsters, zombies and/or demons does not make it survival horror; even if the game has supernatural elements, manages to scare you or contains horror tropes, it may not be a survival horror game; it requires a particular atmosphere to get there. No matter if you want to play in the Mournland or a similar location in another setting or of your own creation, turning your campaign into a survival horror one, just requires you to keep in mind the basic precepts outline above. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, draw some ideas from Star Trek: Voyager and Stargate. Both shows had memorable episodes in which the influence of this genre is noticeable. If you’re a fan of videogames, I don’t think I have to mention the original Resident Evil, along with Manhunt, Silent Hill and ZombiU.
Are you playing a survival horror campaign? Are you planning to run one for your players? What kind of character do you think is best suited for this kind of stories? Don’t let the zombies keep you from posting in the comments below!