Friday, 13 November 2015

Primordial Horrors teaser: Creeping Dread

I'm still playing around with cover designs!
Illustration inside the circle by Bruno Balixa.
I released Savage Undead for Halloween 2013, and had originally planned to release a Savage Demons supplement for Halloween 2014 - but I was strapped for time, so I just created a random demon generator instead. Codex Infernus was also announced shortly before Halloween 2014, and I didn't want to step on their toes, so I ended up shelving my ideas and working on something else.

For Halloween this year I thought about putting a different spin on my old ideas, replacing the demonic theme with a Lovecraftian one, and renaming the supplement "Primordial Horrors" (not my first choice, but I needed a name that wasn't already taken). However the project became a lot bigger than I'd originally intended, and I also found myself investing a lot of time into experimenting with the layout and presentation. Rather than rush it for Halloween, I decided I'd rather wait and do the job properly.

But as today is Friday 13th, I thought it might be fun to post a teaser - my Creeping Dread setting rule. Thanks go to Mathew and Todd for helping me test it!

Design Overview

Savage Worlds includes simple Fear rules in the core book, and there are a number of variations such as the sanity point system in the Horror Companion, the "mental wound" mechanic in Realms of Cthulhu, the Reason and Delirium setting rule in The Thin Blue Line, and so on. However these are all linear systems on a single sliding scale, while for my particular setting I really wanted something that reflected the different types of fear people can face, along with the different psychological responses that fear can provoke, including desensitization at the expense of humanity.

The key concepts of Creeping Dread are therefore:
  • Intended to feel like an expanded version of the SWD Fear rules (thus it still includes Nausea, Terror, Jaded, etc).
  • Splits fear into four categories, each of which are tracked separately.
  • Incorporates the four psychological responses to fear without removing player agency.
  • Simulates humanity (through Regret and Jaded levels), and the loss of humanity as a way to insulate ones sanity.
  • Differentiates battlefield desensitization from other types of fear.
Thus you could have an emergency physician who is desensitized to blood and gore, an occult investigator who is desensitized to supernatural monsters, a violent street thug who is desensitized to committing murder, and a war veteran who is desensitized to the battlefield. But their desensitization wouldn't help them against other categories of fear.

It should be noted that the inspiration for responses comes from Unknown Armies (which I've admittedly never played, but which I've heard good things about), while the idea for using a slash or cross to differentiate between Distress and Jaded levels comes from World of Darkness (where it's used to indicate lethal versus nonlethal damage).

Creeping Dread

Fear checks in Savage Worlds are normally categorized as either Nausea or Terror. The Creeping Dread setting rule adds two more categories, Regret and Trauma, with each category defined as follows:
  1. Nausea: Caused by a macabre scene or object, those who fail Fear (Nausea) checks often faint or throw up. Roll Fear (Nausea) for things like discovering the bloody aftermath of a dark ritual, or reading a grimoire of black magic, and apply a penalty if the ritual is exceptionally gruesome, or if the grimoire is particularly horrific.
  2. Terror: Caused by terrifying supernatural activity or creatures, those who fail Fear (Terror) checks often run away screaming. Roll Fear (Terror) if you witness the effects of a haunting or other paranormal activity, or if you see a monster, and apply a penalty if the haunting or monster is particularly frightening.
  3. Regret: Caused by the individual’s own decisions, those who fail Fear (Regret) checks often feel terrible guilt, and start to doubt their own actions. Roll Fear (Regret) if you kill a human foe in the heat of battle, or accidently kill an innocent bystander, or intentionally cause serious injury to yourself or a loved one. Apply a penalty when your actions are more severe, or cause extensive pain and suffering.
  4. Trauma: Caused by witnessing terrible tragedies or brutal acts of violence beyond the individual’s ability to control, those who fail Fear (Trauma) checks often react with denial or go into shock. Roll Fear (Trauma) if you find yourself in the middle of a deadly pitched battle, or when you witness a particularly gruesome or violent death, and apply penalties as the scale and intensity of the violence increases.
Most Fear checks are resolved as unmodified Spirit rolls, but penalties of -1 or -2 may be appropriate for particularly severe situations, with penalties of -3 and -4 reserved for the most horrific scenes and the most depraved of acts.

As a general rule, characters shouldn't need to make more than one Fear check per session for each particular “thing”; if you come across a horrifying crime scene, or see a terrifying monster, you only need to roll for it once. If you encounter more of the same type of crime scene or monster, you shouldn't need to roll again unless they raise the ante in some way.

The Brave Edge and the Yellow Hindrance apply to all Fear checks except Regret.

Responding to Fear

Each character has three Distress levels for each Fear category, but unlike wounds and Fatigue levels, Distress levels do not give a penalty to trait rolls. They should be tracked on the character sheet as follows:

If you fail a Fear check, you suffer one Distress level in the appropriate category, which you should indicate by drawing a single diagonal line through the first empty box. You must then choose one of the following four responses:
  1. Fight: You become angry and aggressive, facing the source of your fear head-on. This could be in the form of a physical assault, or you might shout and argue, lashing out verbally at those around you. If the response involves combat and the foe is within range, make an immediate free attack with a +2 modifier to attack and Strength-based damage rolls, then apply a level of Fatigue afterwards.
  2. Flight: You attempt to flee from the source of the fear. This can involve literally running away, or you might find somewhere to hide, or perhaps you just try to avoid any further confrontation. If the response occurs during a combat situation, take an immediate movement and running action, and then become Shaken afterwards, suffering a level of Fatigue if you were already Shaken.
  3. Freeze: You stand frozen like a deer in the headlights. Perhaps you scream, or vomit, or faint, or curl up and play dead, or maybe you just stand there quivering in your shoes. You might even withdraw into yourself, refusing to speak of what you saw. If the response occurs in combat, you become Shaken if not already.
  4. Appease: You submit to the source of the fear, or attempt to defuse the situation. Perhaps you fall to your knees and beg for mercy, or try to appease a monster with a sacrifice. Maybe you suffer an uncontrollable bout of paradoxical laughter, or coweringly agree with whatever is asked of you. If the response occurs during combat, you become Shaken if not already.
Players should choose whichever response they feel is most appropriate to their character, depending on the current situation; someone with the Arrogant Hindrance may well choose to attack a foe who scared them, while someone with Yellow would probably run or surrender, but there can always be exceptions. If the player responds in a particularly appropriate fashion, the GM should consider awarding them a benny.

The character must continue acting in a manner appropriate to their response until they next draw a Joker or Hearts for initiative (if they have Level Headed, their calm demeanor allows them to keep a Hearts card even if it's not their highest card), or they may spend a benny at the beginning of their turn to break free immediately. Fatigue caused by Fight or Flight typically lasts only a few minutes.

Becoming Jaded

If you succeed a Fear check with a raise on the roll, you may add a Jaded level to the appropriate category if you wish. This is done by drawing a cross through the first uncrossed box; if the box already contains a diagonal line indicating a Distress level, upgrade it to a Jaded level by turning the line into a cross. This means you always have at least as many Distress levels as you have Jaded levels (a cross represents both).

Whenever you're required to make a Fear check, and your Jaded level exceeds the Fear check penalty, you automatically succeed unless the source of fear is particularly unusual (GM’s discretion) or caused by a derangement. Furthermore, you always add your Jaded level to Fear checks of the appropriate category.

For example, if you had two levels of Jaded for Nausea, you would add +2 to all Fear (Nausea) checks. You would also automatically succeed any Fear (Nausea) checks made at +0 or -1, unless they were caused by a derangement or the GM ruled that they were particularly unusual (but even then you would still add your +2 Jaded bonus to the roll).


If you fail a Fear check and have no more empty Distress boxes, or if the modified result of your Fear check is 1 or lower, you suffer a derangement instead of a Distress level. Make a Spirit roll: on a success you suffer a random temporary derangement, while each raise allows you to roll an additional time on the Derangement Table and choose which result you keep; on a failure you suffer a permanent derangement, while on a result of 1 or lower you also suffer a severe reaction such as heart failure or an aneurysm rupture (treated as if you were incapacitated by lethal damage, except instead of Bleeding Out, failure on the Vigor roll causes you to enter a long-term coma or stupor).

Derangement Table (roll d20)
  1. Amnesia: You're unable to remember the event, or perhaps just certain parts of it.
  2. Angst: You suffer from deep anxiety and dread, usually related to the horrors you have witnessed.
  3. Apathy: You suffer from emotional numbness, and a lack of interest and motivation in life.
  4. Delusional: Your mind has developed a defensive delusion to help cope with the horrors you've seen.
  5. Denial: You blind yourself to the event, or minimize its importance.
  6. Distress: You have intense reactions to memories of the event, include nausea, sweating, and feelings of intense distress. You suffer a -1 penalty to future Fear checks of the appropriate category.
  7. Flashbacks: You suffer from flashbacks, during which the horrors of the past feel real. Whenever you roll a critical failure, you become Shaken and must make a Fear (Terror) check.
  8. Guilt: You suffer from shame, guilt and/or self-hatred as a result of your response to the event. You suffer a -2 penalty to Spirit rolls when attempting to recover from Regret.
  9. Habit: You’ve developed a habit of some sort. Perhaps you have a nervous tic or twitch, or maybe you have frequent animated conversions with yourself. Alternatively, the horrors you’ve witnessed may have turned you to drink, drugs, or some other form of addiction. Choose a Habit Hindrance (Minor or Major).
  10. Hallucinations: You experience vivid hallucinations, making it difficult to tell what is real and what is not. At least once per session, the GM should make up something and describe it to you as if it were real.
  11. Infirm: You suffer from organ weakness as a result of the stress caused by the event. Gain the Anemic Hindrance.
  12. Isolation: You try your best to avoid things that bring back memories or feelings associated with the event.
  13. Mood Swings: You suffer frequent mood swings, ranging from deep sadness to uncontrollable anger. Gain the Mean Hindrance.
  14. Nervous: You are very excitable and easily startled, and unexpected noises and events provoke a strong response from you. Whenever you are surprised or ambushed, you must make a Fear (Terror) check.
  15. Nightmares: You suffer from frequent and terrible nightmares related to the horrors you've witnessed. Whenever you try to sleep, draw a card; if you draw Clubs, you failed to get any sleep.
  16. Panic Disorder: You suffer from panic attacks. Whenever you draw a deuce, you have to choose a response as if you’d just failed a Fear check.
  17. Phobia: You suffer from a phobia related in some way to the event. Gain a Phobia (Minor) Hindrance.
  18. Repetition: You unconsciously repeat traumatic life patterns, such as putting yourself in danger, or making bad relationship decisions.
  19. Sociopath: You become impulsive, violent, and unfeeling. Gain the Remorseless (Major) Hindrance.
  20. Trust Issues: You have difficulty trusting people and building relationships.
If you roll the same derangement twice, increase the intensity of the reaction, but record both derangements separately for recovery purposes. Not all derangements apply a mechanical penalty, but they all have some sort of impact on the sufferer, and the GM should try to incorporate them into adventures.


While receiving professional psychological help, make a Spirit roll every 5 days, applying your Jaded level as a penalty to the roll: on a success you may remove a Distress level, or convert a Jaded level into a Distress level; on a raise you may remove a Distress or Jaded level, or convert a temporary derangement into a Jaded level. A critical failure is resolved as if you’d just failed a Fear check in the category you were hoping to cure.


While exploring an abandoned laboratory, Dwayne encounters a zombie. He makes a Fear (Terror) roll and fails, so he marks off a Distress level for Terror, and chooses to trigger a Fight response: he attacks the zombie in an adrenaline-fueled rage! As he continues to explore the laboratory, he encounters more zombies, but he doesn't need to make any further Fear (Terror) checks for them this session.

Later he enters a room where an experiment is taking place, and witnesses someone being torn apart by a pack of zombies, blood spraying everywhere. He makes a Fear (Nausea) roll and gets a raise, so he marks off an immediate Jaded level in Nausea.

Later he encounters several savaged and partially-devoured corpses, which would normally require a Fear (Nausea) roll. However Dwayne is already Jaded against Nausea, so he automatically succeeds.

However when he eventually spots a hideous ghoul feeding upon the corpses, Dwayne is required to make a Fear (Terror) roll, as it's something he hasn't encountered before. He fails again, and adds another Distress level, and this time chooses to freeze in place as he watches the ghoul chewing away, oblivious to his presence. After recovering his wits, Dwayne carefully retreats from the room without attracting attention.

Later still, Dwayne joins up with his ally Joe, and they find themselves being chased by a vast horde of zombies. This is a new threat, and a particularly scary one, so they both make Fear (Terror) checks at -2. Joe manages to roll a 3, which is reduced to 1 by the -2 penalty; his sanity takes a hit, and he’s forced to make a Spirit roll: critical failure! Joe clutches his chest and collapses to the floor, while Dwayne succeeds with a raise, converting one of his Distress levels into a Jaded level.

But leaving his friend behind to be eaten requires a Fear (Regret) roll. Dwayne rolls snake eyes, but then succeeds on his follow-up Spirit roll, so he suffers a temporary derangement. He rolls on the Derangement Table and gets a 9 – Habit. Dwayne feels terrible about leaving his friend behind, vividly recalling the sound of rending flesh and snapping bones as the zombies caught him. He tries to drown his guilt in hard liquor, searching for absolution at the bottom of a bottle.

After much counselling, Dwayne is able to come to terms with his actions, realizing that he had no choice – if he’d stopped for Joe, they would both have died. He gets a raise on his recovery roll, and converts the Habit into a Jaded level.

Dwayne no longer needs to make Fear checks for Nausea, Terror or Regret, unless they are particularly unusual, or incur a penalty to the roll – and even if he does have to roll, he receives a +1 bonus.

However nothing that Dwayne has ever witnessed has prepared him for war, to deal with the helplessness of battle, and the overwhelming intensity of a military bombardment.

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