12 September 2012

Earthdawn: Part 7 - Horrors

This is the seventh part in an ongoing series about Earthdawn. Introduction and Index.

The most insidious and dangerous things in Earthdawn are the Horrors. Completely alien and unknowable, they come from deep astral space to feed on fear and pain. Infinite shapes and sizes, and powers that even dragons fear. While the magic levels have dropped considerably, Horrors are still present, ravenous and deadly.

Horrors are intrinsic to the setting, representing the greatest threat to Namegivers (besides themselves) and adepts will expend considerable resources, including their lives, to free the world from their presence. There are two different perspectives on Horrors: the players' and the GM's. For players, Horrors are a significant (perhaps the most significant) challenge you will face. While they represent the potential for incredible stories and legends for GMs.

When hunting a Horror, the most valuable weapon any Group can have is information. Earthdawn is a setting of legends and there should always be some account, some evidence, some story about the Horror. These should give you clues on how to confront them. Most Horrors worth hunting in this fashion will have minions; undead, constructs, or Namegivers they have Marked. Learn everything you can and prepare. If the Horror has a Name, so much the better and worse. That means it has done something to earn a Name, which is bad, but this means it has a Pattern and you can take advantage of that.

Thread magic is the biggest advantage adepts will have over Named Horrors; use it. Follow the Horror's path, figure out it's Pattern Items. They will give you a significant advantage in any conflict for a minimal investment. Never be afraid to run away from a Horror if need be. Despite all of the power an adept has access to, discretion is often the better part of valor. Take what you have learned and begin to plan in earnest.

The standard of the power and fear Horror's wield is through their Mark. It is a stain upon your Pattern and each is unique, the fingerprint of the Horror. They can be detected through careful scrutiny with astral sight. Through this Mark a Horror can influence you, tempt you, hurt you, exert its terrible will on the world through you. Their powers can be used against you or through you against those around you freely and it is nearly impossible to escape their voice as they taunt you endlessly. Some can apply a twisted version of Thread magic directly against your Pattern to plunder your essence and memories, or take control. While you are Marked, no one is safe.

For the GM, Horrors are the other side of the coin. They are a powerful weapon in your arsenal to drive the story. Entire campaigns can be constructed around the legend of a particular Horror. From finding the Thread Items of those that have fallen before it, learning of their legends, and their collective will driving the Group to the Horror. Following it's trail, learning about the legends of what came to pass. It can be a powerful event, the final showdown, when everything is on the table and victory is uncertain. That is just one idea, however, and there are many other great ways to use these antagonists.

When a Horror is first introduced into the game, there are a number of factors to consider. Specifically, what is this Horror supposed to do? They work poorly (not to mention are completely wasted) as random encounters. Instead they should be used as long-term implacable foes, whose logic is unseen and insidious. Develop some themes for the Horror; it doesn't need a Name, but it should be distinctive. The Mark should be related to these themes, reveal some part of the Horror's character. Perhaps it has an affinity for musty crypts and the undead it creates within. Recently I used a Horror that had a thing for Elemental Earth, which was bad news for many kaers (their primary defense is a bunker of Elemental Earth). Everything associated with it was earthen or crystalline, tinged with blood. The Horror also had a special fondness for obsidimen and their Liferocks and it's Mark was a bleeding mountain.

What kind of story do you want to tell with the Horror? Not every Horror encounter has to be an epic, but it should at least be significant. These are the enemies of the setting. Set the stage for a Horror with unsettling dread. They are subtle; they don't feed on wanton destruction or death. They are artists and they are patient. Figure out the modus operandi of the Horror; they don't have to make sense, but there should be internal consistency. A little mystery will go a long way, but there doesn't have to be a big reveal. At the end of the day, the motivations of a Horror are simple: they're hungry. They can also be finicky eaters and can go to outrageously bizarre lengths to make their meals that much more succulent.

Less abstractly, what powers does the Horror possess? There are a number of Horrors that can serve as excellent templates to build from, as well as lists of powers that are unique to them (though a number of Nethermancer spells are suspiciously similar). An important lesson to learn is don't give the Horror more powers than you can remember. A few good, iconic powers will go much further than a new ability every turn. Even with all of the research, every Horror should have one good surprise for them.

How do the basic assumptions of the setting work? The best example of this is the Greeting Ritual. When two Namegivers meet they perform an exhibition of their artisan skill, as it is believed that Horrors (and those Horror-Marked) cannot create beauty. What if it is just a meaningless superstition, or only works for some Horrors? Maybe it is foolproof? How that basic assumption works will shape how player's interact from that point forward; though let them figure out the truth the hard way. Whatever you decide, keep to it, but also keep the Greeting Ritual in place. It is an important cultural element that highlights a sense of vulnerability and false security (especially if the ritual has no practical benefit).

As the Group begins to track down the players, don't forget about the minions. Most Horrors have time to lovingly craft their favorite constructs and bring a semblance of life to their fallen foes. Also they may have Horror Marked Namegivers to use against the Group. These can be sympathetic NPCs, but don't be surprised if the Group doesn't show mercy, despite their plight. Particularly devious GMs can have the NPC be politically powerful, meaning that direct action against them is nearly impossible. Horrors typically have little interest in killing; they are not direct and will only act as such when they truly feel threatened. This leads them to behave like grandstanding villains, gloating and performing unspeakable, but unnecessary acts just for the sake of the fear and pain they cause. Give the players these opportunities to escape if need be, especially if one has been Marked. Horrors want their legend to grow as well and corpses are notoriously poor at spreading the word. In the end, Horrors are somewhere between Dr. Doom and Cthulhu. Which is just beautiful to me.

In the end, if the Group swears that they are never going to take down another Horror, that is a job done well. If they find evidence of another Horror, or the same, damn Horror, then that is a job done very well. Horrors are native astral creatures, so killing them in the physical world is rarely enough to actually slay them. That just makes them retreat and plan for some extremely elaborate and painful vengeance. These are some of the best stories that Earthdawn does so easily and so naturally.

Coming up with be an article on citadels and kaers, and eventually more detailed looks at crafting Horrors and integrating them into the story.