Homebrewing an Investigative Horror RPG, Part 1

142857 Dice

[This post may seem arcane for the uninitiated; it is on the topic of roleplaying games.]

For a long time, I have wanted to gamemaster an investigative horror roleplaying game that involved the Cthulhu mythos. The problem was finding a game system and setting that balanced my players’ expectations with my own. I’ll focus here on system, and detail setting in subsequent posts.

For systems, there were the obvious choices: Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium), Trail of Cthulhu (Gumshoe), Delta Green (Arc Dream), Fate of Cthulhu (Fate). But none of them were familiar to my players. We’ve played all editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but using the latest edition (5th) wasn’t appealing to us, having played it for a few years and found it wanting. I also considered the various OSR offerings—preferring their lightweight rulesets—but my players prefer rulesets with more complexity.

In the end, we settled on a modified version of 1st edition Pathfinder for several reasons.

First, my players and I were all familiar with this system, having recently finished a yearlong play-through of a mega-dungeon (The Emerald Spire) with that system. We were happy with its rule fixes that improved upon the older original system of D&D 3.5, and that it had a solid focus on classes and archetypes rather than branching off into innumerable and obscure prestige classes.

Second, Pathfinder offers a lot of useful material for investigative horror: Occult Adventures, Horror Adventures, Ultimate Intrigue. There are many Cthulhu mythos monsters scattered through its six Bestiary books. And there is Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for Pathfinder.

Third, since 1st edition Pathfinder has reached end-of-life in terms of development, Pathfinder is, to me, a “complete” system. As such, modifying the system to suit the setting is a subtractive rather than an additive process.

Races, Classes, and Magic

As part of this process, I limited race selection to human only, with certain additional optional human traits allowed for variety. Elves, dwarves, goblins, and other fantasy races are merely fairy tales in this setting.

I selected a list of 16 classes (out of 40) from the Pathfinder ruleset that were appropriate for the setting, eliminating anything unsuitable for a low-magic campaign. Class archetypes were similarly limited.

  • Alchemist
  • Barbarian
  • Brawler
  • Cavalier
  • Fighter
  • Gunslinger
  • Investigator
  • Medium
  • Mesmerist
  • Occultist
  • Ranger1
  • Rogue
  • Slayer
  • Spiritualist
  • Swashbuckler
  • Vigilante
1 Skirmisher only.

What is notable about these classes is that none of them have access to potentially game-breaking or genre-breaking magic. There are no full spell-casting classes: no wizards, sorcerers, clerics, druids, psychics, bards, etc. None of the selected classes have spells levels higher than six, and spell level progression is slow. None have divine magic. Few use arcane magic. Some use psychic magic, which I find more suitable for this setting.

Additionally, I made magic items extremely rare. They are never sold in shops. One may be guarded jealously by a private collector, or lost in old ruins, but they are not piled in treasure troves. The secrets of making magic items (except for potions) has been lost.

Due to these class and magic item limitations, healing magic is extremely limited. A character in this setting would not go to the party cleric to receive divine healing. Instead, they may quaff a medicinal concoction, or receive first aid, or visit a hospital to rest and recuperate from any injuries suffered. And since no character can cast raise dead or resurrection, for the PCs, death is not just a temporary setback—it is final.

Without the real threat of death, there is no real horror.