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All Rules in Running Horror Adventures

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Rules Improvisation

Source Horror Adventures pg. 206
It’s impossible to predict every character action, and Game Masters often have to improvise when a party follows an unanticipated plot thread. While GMs can cultivate the ability to remain flexible in the face of unpredictability, coming up with new plot elements on the fly is only one challenge. Creating and employing new rules without any preparation is another one entirely. In the context of a horror adventure, such rules improvisation is not only useful, but all the more critical, as interruptions and page flipping can ruin a scene’s atmosphere, while a quick improvised decision can keep the tension intact.

Fortunately, as a benefit of being a well-developed game system, the Pathfinder RPG offers guidelines and subsystems for adjudicating hundreds of hazards and encounter types. Still, the game rules can’t account for everything. In such cases, it’s up to the GM to use her knowledge of the rules to improvise options. Coming up with quick, simple ways to support characters who find themselves in unique situations or who want to attempt audacious actions is usually preferable to avoiding such game-defining events. Depending on the case, a GM might ask players to merely roll an ability or skill check, setting a DC that seems appropriate. Another option—which can often be more fun—involves considering the situation and adapting existing rules to work for the game’s needs.

The remainder of this chapter presents a variety of situations that might appear in a horror adventure, but for which concrete rules don’t exist. Each of the following sections references existing Pathfinder RPG rules (largely from the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook and Pathfinder RPG GameMastery Guide) that GMs could retrofit to handle the encounter. These aren’t definitive rules for any of the situations described below. Instead, they are a primer on customizing rules to meet specific needs, and they should help GMs look beyond the overt purpose of certain rules systems and identify precedents and components that might be repurposed in unlimited ways.

Improvisation Benchmarks

While encyclopedic knowledge of existing rules certainly helps with improvising new ones, it’s not necessary by any means. The majority of the time, existing rules supply all the direction needed. In cases where they don’t, don’t worry! Almost everything in the Pathfinder RPG comes down to the roll of a d20. So the main questions are often simply how high to set a DC and what sort of bonus the PC should apply to it. While the latter is largely thematic and up to the GM’s judgment, setting DCs can get a bit more technical. Fortunately, the likelihood of a too-high or toolow DC “ruining” an adventure is infinitesimal, especially when taking the following into account.

Custom DCs: Need to generate a DC for a specific situation on the fly? Look at tables like those for the Acrobatics, Bluff, Escape Artist, and other skills and extrapolate whether the challenge should be harder or easier based on the DC precedents there. GMs can find some great charts for adhoc DCs for parties of various levels in the sections on social conflicts and influence.

Monster Statistics: Need something other than a DC? Table 1–1 on page 291 of the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary provides a wealth of level-appropriate benchmarks for creature hit points, Armor Class, damage, saving throw DCs, and more. These aren’t just for monsters, though. Consider finding the party’s level and using these statistics for any challenge required, increasing or decreasing the figures as necessary to adjust the difficulty.

Buried Alive

Source Horror Adventures pg. 206
A character wakes up in a claustrophobic space, walls barely a hand’s breadth above his face and to either side. The air is already growing sour, and his increasing heart rate and frantic breathing aren’t helping the situation. There’s only one thing to do: he has to escape.

By the Rules: In a coffin, a character’s ability to move is restricted by the tight confines. Even if he’s able to move, the coffin itself and the earth beyond present nearly insurmountable barriers to escape. Relevant to these challenges are the Escape Artist skill, rules on hardness, and details on cave-ins and collapses, as well as the bury alive ability of the gravebound, which uses the aforementioned systems to determine the ability’s effects, including the amount of time it takes to dig up a buried character, with or without a shovel.

Extrapolation: The Escape Artist skill allows a character to move through a tight space by spending 1 minute and succeeding at a DC 30 Escape Artist check. This seems similar to the difficulty of moving within a coffin. As such, the GM might rule that for any action requiring motion to be successful—such as producing an item, making an attack, casting a spell, and so on—the character must spend 1 minute and succeed at this check.

As for the coffin itself, a normal casket is probably of similar quality to a good wooden door or treasure chest, which would mean it has a hardness of 5 and 15 hit points. As soon as the coffin is broken, though, things get much worse for the character who was buried alive. According to the rules on cave-ins and collapses, characters take 1d6 points of nonlethal damage per minute while buried. If such a character falls unconscious, he must succeed at a DC 15 Constitution check each minute. If he fails this check, he takes 1d6 points of lethal damage each minute until freed or dead. Thus, a GM might rule that a character can attempt a DC 20 Strength check every minute. If the character succeeds, he manages to clear enough dirt to drag himself upward 1 foot. At that rate, then, it would require six successful Strength checks for a character to dig himself free from a coffin buried 6 feet underground. This, of course, assumes that loose dirt covers the coffin. Other substances, like rocks or metal slabs, would make such a dig far more difficult, at the least, if not outright impossible.

Horror Considerations: The experience of being buried alive can be all the worse if a character isn’t alone. Tiny or smaller creatures would not have their movement restricted in a coffin constructed for a Medium creature. Crawling hands, rot grubs, scarlet spiders, and vipers all make particularly horrible coffinmates, particularly if they’re crawling all over the character in swarms. Additionally, breaking out of a coffin and finding himself underwater, buried in a walled-off enclosure, or at the bottom of a tank of flesh-eating beetles might make a character quickly regret his escape.

Burned at the Stake

Source Horror Adventures pg. 207
Public burning tops the list of preferred ways to dispose of witches, heretics, and undesirables of all sorts.

By the Rules: This is a simple matter of reskinning an existing rules set: being burned at the stake rather than being trapped in a forest fire. With rules for heat damage, catching fire, and—most realistically— smoke inhalation, the forest fire rules can be combined with the grapple rules for tying someone up to provide everything necessary for binding a character to a stake and lighting the roaring flames.

Extrapolation: Binding a character to a stake—and setting a DC to escape said bindings—can be covered by the tie-up options detailed in the grapple combat maneuver. Once the character is bound, likely amid heaps of unlit kindling, the process of starting the fire is relatively simple. Given dry conditions and a ready flame, a GM might rule that it takes 1 minute to get the fire burning to a point that smoke inhalation becomes a threat to a bound victim. After some initial encouragement, the fire takes over; after 1 minute, the victim begins taking 1d6 points of fire damage every round while facing additional Fortitude saving throws as detailed in the heat damage portion of the forest fire rules. Finally, 1 minute later and every minute after that, the victim must succeed at a DC 15 Reflex saving throw or catch fire, as per the catching fire rules. Characters still bound to the stake take a –4 penalty on this saving throw.

Horror Considerations: Don’t trust a burning wooden post in an open square to hold every heretic. Cages and magical paralysis are more effective at restraining victims, while illusions can lure unfortunates into traps. Placing the stake at the top of a spire or the bottom of a pit also makes access and escape more challenging and could extend the threat of smoke hazards.

Burning Buildings and Crumbling Structures

Source Horror Adventures pg. 207
The fire in the tavern has gotten out of control, the ancient fortress is falling apart, the villain’s death causes his dark castle to collapse into the darkness below, or the powers holding together the alien sanctum have failed and are tearing the place apart. Is there any hope of escape, or will the PCs find themselves just another group of casualties in this catastrophe?

By the Rules: Few of the game’s ordinary rules operate on the same timer as a self-destructing structure, least of all the abstractions of combat rounds and character actions. Characters counting squares to move out of a dungeon as swiftly as possible hardly captures the adrenaline of panicked flight, rather resembling a chess endgame. But the rules for chases work more like a race against the clock and thus fit the situation far better than combat rounds would.

Extrapolation: In this case, a chase isn’t that different from an escape from a structure that’s collapsing around the characters; all it requires is a few tweaks to represent the differing circumstances. The GM can simply do away with the “fleeing character” entirely (unless the PCs are also chasing another character out of the collapsing structure) and instead set out a slate of obstacle the PCs must overcome to get out of the structure in time.

These might include dodging falling timbers, leaping across gaps in the floor, noticing paths that circumvent dangers, squeezing through narrow gaps in the rubble, fighting off the effects of smoke inhalation, and so on. Some challenges might allow characters to charge through walls of flame, weakened barriers, or splintering banisters, causing them to take hit point damage in exchange for successes. Typically these barriers deal an appropriate amount of damage to add to the sense of urgency for characters of the PCs’ level without making the barriers themselves harmful enough to kill the PCs—unless they press their luck on these damaging barriers one too many times. In total, the GM should establish a number of challenges just like she would for a normal chase, but replace the threat of a fleeing character “getting away” with the threat of the PCs failing to escape the crumbling structure before it’s too late.

This does mean that all the PCs will have to navigate the escape all the way to its end, or die trying. This means that it’s more important than usual to consider each of the pairings in the chase and make sure to include at least one option in each pairing that the characters will be able to attempt. For example, pairing a DC 15 Knowledge (engineering) check with a high DC Escape Artist check might mean that the paladin can’t possibly pass that chase square; for a normal chase, this would put the paladin out of the action for a little while, but in this modified chase, it means the paladin might be guaranteed to die.

GMs should consider whether or not players can aid one another during an escape. If they’re allowed to do so, perhaps any character near an adjacent obstacle can use the aid another action to assist another character. Additionally, the GM might want to have monsters or other enemies factor into the escape, giving the PCs the choice of standing their ground and fighting—while the timer continues to count down—or to continue fleeing, now with some foe nipping at their heels.

How long characters have to escape the structure is up to the GM. This should be a number of turns that exceeds the number of challenges by 2 or 3 (or even fewer in particularly harrowing situations). Once that time expires, the GM determines the consequences—which should be ones decided on before the escape begins, even though the GM won’t reveal her decision to the players until afterward, the better to build tension. Consider the following three options.

No Threat: Perhaps the whole escape might simply be for show—dramatics that heighten tension but pose no actual lethal threat (not that the PCs should be allowed to know that). Immediately after the last PC escapes, the structure collapses, implying that the characters escaped at the last possible moment.

Heightened Danger: Once the time limit expires, the situation in the structure becomes increasingly dangerous. Perhaps anyone still in the structure now takes damage every round. This might begin as 1d6 points of fire damage (or whatever is appropriate), but every 2 or 3 rounds the amount of damage doubles, suggesting a worsening situation. Or in the case of an alien sanctum falling apart into an unknowable void, perhaps strange and dangerous creatures crawl their way out of the nothingness with increasing frequency. Either way, this makes lagging behind dangerous, but not immediately fatal.

Near-Fatal Conclusion: The GM might rule that, once the timer expires, the structure collapses—a fate that probably means death for anyone trapped inside. See the Cave-Ins and Collapses rules on page 415 of the Core Rulebook. The GM might add the threat of additional damage to those trapped within (or who try to rescue those left behind) if the conditions call for it—like dealing additional fire damage to those caught beneath a collapsed burning ruin.

Horror Considerations: Write a 10 on a whiteboard or set a die at 10 in front of the PCs. After their first turn trying to escape, change the number to 9. Decrease the number every turn. A generous GM might let them know that when the count reaches 0, the structure collapses (to whatever terrible end; consider the rules for cave-ins and collapses) or not. In either case, few things motivate a group like a ticking clock. Beyond collapsing structures, PCs may need to flee a burning topiary garden, a tsunami-battered village, the nightmare of a waking dreamer, a city being destroyed by kaiju, or a forest come to life.


Source Horror Adventures pg. 208
Simple and relatively clean, execution by guillotine proves as humane as it is grisly. But when the PCs need to prevent such an execution, the rules and timing become more important.

By the Rules: Traps like the wall scythe already provide rules for hurtling a significant mechanical blade at a hapless character. With the pillorylike restraint at the guillotine’s bottom holding a character, the dropping blade essentially makes a strike against its victim’s neck a coup de grace.

Extrapolation: One can easily treat a guillotine as a special kind of mechanical trap. Without the restraint, it might function exactly as a wall scythe trap. With the pillory, it becomes more deadly. Any creature in the pillory is considered helpless and so, the guillotine, when activated, makes a coup de grace attack against the victim—potentially causing death. If the guillotine strikes a killing blow, the victim is decapitated. If it fails, there has been some malfunction with the device, catching the blade part way through the pillory. A standard wooden pillory holds a character’s head and both wrists. A character might slip free by spending 1 minute and succeeding at a DC 40 Escape Artist check.

Horror Considerations: A GM might use an even more horrific versions of the guillotinec in which the creature it killed has its soul trapped within the lethal blade, preventing resurrection.


Source Horror Adventures pg. 209
Whether by the snapping of a neck or lengthy strangulation, hanging is a time-tested form of execution, and stories abound of heroes rescuing a victim in the nick of time.

By the Rules: Being hanged kills by either breaking the victim’s neck or strangling the victim. Breaking the neck implies a quick, instant death from damage, like a coup de grace. Getting into a noose (and the DC for escaping it) would be covered by the tie up aspect of the grapple rules. Strangulation suggests consulting the rules for suffocation.

Extrapolation: How a PC might have wound up in a noose is up to the GM, but once he has, a few things might occur. If the execution involves a drop, the noose could deal 1d6 points of damage + 1d6 for every 5 feet he falls, to a maximum of 20d6. The victim is considered helpless, and this attack is treated as a coup de grace—requiring a successful Fortitude save (DC = 10 + damage dealt) to avoid death. If the character has his hands free and uses them to hold on to the noose during the drop, he gains a +2 bonus on this saving throw.

Once a character has survived the drop (or if one never occurred), his time is still limited as the noose chokes him to death. As the rules for tying someone up describe, a character can bind someone, creating a situation where the DC to escape such bonds is equal to 20 + the rope-tying character’s CMB. This seems like a good way to set a DC for escaping a noose. A character can attempt to escape a noose, but doing so requires that his hands be free (otherwise, he must escape from those restraints first). Once they are, he can attempt to break the noose’s “grapple”. While dangling from a noose, a character is helpless.

Horror Considerations: A noose quickly turns into a lifeline when the ground is hundreds of feet below a struggling victim. Nooses made of chain or metal cord might also be more difficult to escape.

Thematic Creepiness

Source Horror Adventures pg. 209
Be it a misbehaving reflection, a whispering taxidermy, or a leering portrait, sometimes the most minor supernatural effect—noticeable as the subtlest feeling of wrongness— proves the most unsettling.

By the Rules: The rules for haunts allow GMs to generate practically infinite terrifying effects and create creepy but harmless encounters with which the players can interact.

Extrapolation: A purely thematic or otherwise harmless haunt probably shouldn’t grant experience points and so shouldn’t have a CR.

Horror Considerations: One doesn’t have to bother with rules at all. GMs don’t need to explain every thematic effect or unnerving embellishment, especially when these exist in the space between supernatural manifestations and the PCs’ own uncertain observations. If a situation doesn’t require hard-and-fast rules, a GM doesn’t need to complicate things.