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Cosmic Horror

Source Horror Adventures pg. 192
Often called cosmicism or Lovecraftian horror, stories in this subgenre involve the realization that humanity and all its struggles are insignificant amid the greater workings of the universe. Such plots typically involve revelations of the truth that shelters the limited, shared lie society calls reality. The forces beyond this veil are fundamentally unfathomable, indifferent, and dangerous. Brushes with these powers typically scar a character, resulting in death, insanity, or understandings that make her an outcast from society. Ignorance and willful delusion then become virtues, shields that protect a fragile narrative from the truth of a vast, apathetic cosmos.

Storytelling: Cosmic horror stories aren’t about tentacles— they’re about the truths mortals are better off not knowing. Perhaps these revelations are the secrets of cosmic overlords, or maybe they’re leaps of understanding—realities radically different from what society thinks it knows. The pursuit of greater knowledge can begin as a noble quest, gradually revealing an organic conspiracy propagating truths too great for the characters to influence. A GM might provide bread crumbs leading toward this knowledge, but the PCs’ limited perspective grants only glimpses of the terrible whole. The discovery of strange cults or unsettling artifacts might push characters to uncover devices and creatures not native to their understanding of the world. These elements are best revealed slowly, like evidence in a mystery story, and they should build upon one another to suggest ever-greater threats. Ultimately, the threat might be entities from beyond gulfs of existence, or even be something like the arrangement of the stars themselves—foes that can’t be defeated with sword and spell. While the PCs might win a skirmish with such forces and prevent the apocalypse du jour, their world’s days are numbered. Depending on how much the PCs learn, they might never again be able to share in the vision of reality needed to function in society. If that wasn’t terrible enough, when they glimpse the truths beyond the veil, those sanity-bending forces gaze back.

Monsters and Threats: Cosmic horror games frequently feature aliens—intruders from other worlds, planes, or epochs. These are not typically spiritual beings, like angels or demons, but neighbors in existence that prove the laws of reality aren’t exactly fair. Many creatures from the works of H. P. Lovecraft and other authors of this subgenre exist in the Pathfinder RPG and fit naturally into cosmic horror adventures, such as deep ones, denizens of Leng, elder things, Great Old Ones, mi-go, shoggoths, and Yithians, to name just a few. Lovecraftian creatures don’t have exclusive dominion over this subgenre, though. Given the right backstory, any creature with an aberrant form or mind makes a useful cosmic horror foe, like aboleths, chokers, cloakers, hunduns, hyakumes, immortal ichors, and otyughs. Consider casting whole races or creature types as manipulators from other worlds or beings possessed of enigmatic agendas, such as aberrations, certain monstrous humanoids, or fey.

Beyond bizarre monsters, tools and artifacts from other worlds might prove to be equally dangerous. Consider taking a familiar item and describing it in an otherworldly fashion—a crossbow takes on an entirely different aspect if it screams every time it’s fired. Magic, too, if learned from otherworldly sources, might gain a dangerous cast, perhaps dealing damage to the caster or eroding a character’s ability scores. Shocking discoveries can also present their own dangers in the form of sanity effects. See Madness for a host of reactions characters might experience when their visions of reality shake and their pillars of sanity crumble.

Basic Plots: An ally, fearing for his life, provides the PCs with a secret or relic pursued by servants of a god-ocean that covers a distant moon. Opening an ancient vault unleashes a member of a race for which time means nothing. A town forsakes its religions after a seasonally appearing comet lands atop a windmill outside their community.

Advanced Plots: A strange nightmare, swift-growing plant, or spreading wound holds a means of communicating with a future dominated by another species. In the wake of a planetary alignment, an entire race begins fleeing the planet. A musician discovers tones that allow her to reshape reality, drawing the attention of otherworldly star-shrieks.