This is the fifth in a series of blog posts offering ideas on how a DM running Empire of the Ghouls (or another Midgard campaign) can steal things from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft to enhance their game by adding an extra touch of horror.
Running a Horror Campaign in Midgard
The fourth chapter of Van Richten’s Guide, Horror Adventures, contains ideas and advice on creating horror stories that we can use when running Empire of the Ghouls or another horror-tinged dark fantasy campaign set in Midgard.
The chapter kicks off with a section on Preparing for Horror, featuring advice on talking to your players about the content and themes of your campaign before the game begins, and on running a session zero. There are adult themes in Empire of the Ghouls so it’s certainly a good idea to discuss these with your players to check they are comfortable with them being part of the game. These include cannibalism and body horror, the blood magic and lust domain spells of the Red Sisters and other evil cults, and anti-kobold racism in Zobeck. As I mentioned in this post, running a session zero and sending my players a campaign brief got my Empire of the Ghouls campaign off on the right foot by making sure everyone knew what the game would involve and helping the players to create characters who want to end the ghoul threat to the surface lands.
As well as Survivors, covered in Part 4 of this blog series, there are other helpful ideas in the Horror Toolkit section of Van Richten’s Guide for a Ghouls DM to steal. The rules on Curses offer dramatic longer-lasting hoodoos that the party cleric can’t get rid of with a simple remove curse spell. These powerful curses cause the character to suffer nasty effects like disadvantage on attack rolls, saving throws and/or ability checks, multiple levels of exhaustion that a long rest can’t remove, and extra necrotic damage every time they are hit in combat. It’s best to reserve these curses for formidable foes and significant events in the story.
At the end of Chapter 3, Kenas Sipkiln could pronounce a terrible curse on the character that delivers the killing blow to him in the Midnight Temple. The sample Final Breath curse on p. 194 of Van Richten’s Guide works perfectly here – the character must appease Chernobog by causing a symbolic setting of the sun or by empowering the night to be rid of it. In Chapter 4, characters that steal the treasures of the Elia family could be subject to the Ancient Seal curse on p. 193 that can only be resolved when every purloined item is returned to the catacombs. Also in Chapter 4, the Ghul King’s curse (Empire of the Ghouls p. 179) might require more than a successful Wisdom saving throw to remove – perhaps only the Ghul King’s permanent demise will suffice?
Fear and Stress rules give the DM the opportunity to reinforce some of the horror in a Ghouls campaign. Each player chooses one or two Seeds of Fear for their character, such as “I’m terrified of spiders (or bats or wolves) or “I hate dark, confined spaces” – perhaps not ideal for an Underworld-focused campaign! – and has the opportunity to gain inspiration by roleplaying their character’s fear, but also to become frightened if they fail a Wisdom saving throw. Stress can be caused by things like witnessing the death of a loved one or a traumatic moment involving one of a character’s Seeds of Fear and causes a -1 penalty on d20 rolls per point of Stress. Personally I am not a fan of adding small penalties and bonuses into my 5e games, but you may feel differently.
Finally, Haunted Traps are ghostly threats to intruders created by negative emotions or supernatural evil. Characters who enter the Banqueting Hall in the Stone Galleries in Chapter 2 might run into the Danse Macabre sample haunted trap as they become swept up in past balls and feasts of the ruins’ former inhabitants. You can use the Morbid Memory sample haunted trap when the characters explore the ruins of Yarosbirg or Castle Orzelbirg in the same chapter to give the characters a glimpse of a tragic event that took place when the castle fell to the undead armies.
In my next and final post, I’ll take a look at the monsters in Chapter 5 of Van Richten’s Guide. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear them!