Fantasy horror settings

Being a fan of Castles & Crusades, I’ve been attempting to catch up on buying some of their supplements. Over the last few weeks, I’ve ordered half a dozen different titles including the Tainted Lands box set; it’s roughly the C&C equivalent of the original Ravenloft boxed set.

Even though I’ve not read enough of it to give a full review yet, I have to admit that I’m having the same problem that I have with Ravenloft. The setting is eschewing traditional fantasy motifs in favor of stereotypical gothic horror elements. I find this trend rather odd as I would expect that anyone buying a horror supplement for a fantasy setting would expect just that – horror in a fantasy world. Instead, in each of these cases, the entire world is built around gothic horror conventions with standard C&C (or D&D) characters shoved into the mix.

I ran several mini-campaigns of Ravenloft when it was first released. The games were constructed in such a way as to almost preclude any form of traditional fantasy tropes. I understand the appeal of the gothic/Victorian setting; Victorian fiction is still a favorite of mine. But for a fantasy-based game, I didn’t find the idea to be nearly as appealing.

I eventually wound up creating my own setting with the elements I had hoped Ravenloft would offer. The process I wound up taking was to design a standard fantasy kingdom with the typical elements – the usual classes, races, etc – but with a flavor of horror that provides a slightly different taste to the adventures. The entire setting was constructed to use undead of varying degrees of strength as the defining thread. As the campaign progressed, the adventurers were slowly uncovering ever-greater dangers that are lurking within the kingdom.

Which leads me to ask, if you use horror in your fantasy games, how do you go about integrating the two?

3 thoughts on “Fantasy horror settings

  1. I’ve thought of this a lot. My blog is chock full of horror stuff that I’d love to bring into a (High) Fantasy setting. But I’m beginning to think that isn’t really possible.

    The problem with most Fantasy Horror is this: in it’s native form, the game just isn’t geared that way. Fantasy games and genres tend to have the characters pitting might and magic against the horrors that lurk in the shadows, it encourages seeking these terrors out and vanquishing them rather than avoiding and surviving them. I’m specifically speaking of most High Fantasy settings and all the trappings and baggage that comes with the trope.

    One of the main reasons that Call of Cthulhu works so well is that the mechanics of the system, and the nature of the setting evokes a feel that death (or worse) stalks the characters at every turn. That’s not to say that everyone has to die or go insane every session, but the players know that they’re playing in a world where while seeking certain knowledge is useful, it’s also like playing with fire.

    Contrast that with Fantasy Horror where the players are still the heroes and are expected to fight the werewolf, or exorcise the demons without concern. Sure, death is present, but in most High Fantasy games there’s a cleric in every town willing to raise your buddy from the grave. And the lack of tension in that aspect of the game just doesn’t lend itself to horror.

    Players think, “Hey, we fought that dragon last week. Your vampire issue should be a welcome respite from something really challenging.”

    Want to make your fantasy game more horror-friendly? Remove access to the bulk of the magic from the characters and let them face the monsters with their wits alone. Make magic creepy and dangerous, make it the works of things dark and sinister best left asleep.

    But then you’d have to ask yourself if you were still playing a High Fantasy game.

  2. I use a low-fantasy setting, so horror is something close to the heroes as they can’t simply trust magic or magic items to solve their problems. With limited magic (including healing magic), the threat of undead beings chasing them if they steer too far from the protected lands is a dread one.
    In fact, Dark Fate was created following the premise of mixing low-fantasy and horror, so if this is a subject that interests you, you should check what I’ve written.

  3. Kevin, those are all excellent points and I believe this is ultimately why my “horror” games are basically D&D with cults and necromantic villains. I’m not particularly upset by that — because who doesn’t love a necromancer as a villain — but it would be nice to figure out how to blend the two a bit more seamlessly. I think one of the problems is that you almost have to change rulesets in order to make it work; I could more readily blend Cthulhu with fantasy for instance using Savage Worlds than one of the retro-clones.

    The more I read of The Tainted Lands the less I’m enjoying it. I’ll do a proper review once I finish but so far it’s a real mess of fantastic horror and planar adventuring.

    Marcelo, thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.

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