Recently I stumbled across an old review of Rafael Chandler’s Teratic Tome on d20 Dark Ages from 2013.
I still stand what I said in the review:
“…some might view the female monsters in here as bad taste. There’s at least twenty creatures with sexualized female forms altered in a horrifying way. You have the ‘lamia’ trope throughout (woman’s torso and breasts on a monstrous body). But there’s also more, monstrous, mutations.”
Since then I’ve used some of the monsters in my game–though I’ve stayed away from using the “lamia” and “monstrous woman” types.
At the beginning of these series I criticized The Curse of Strahd for being “bad horror” because of its overuse of violence toward women, children, and so on.
Does the same criteria apply here?
It does, more or less. Yet The Curse of Strahd is meant for D&D 5th Edition players. And The Teratic Tome targets the OSR crowd. While there is some overlap, they are two different products for two different demographics.
And I can’t really complain much about The Teratic Tome–I did get it for free after all. Yet I find myself passing over the pages with the monstrous women. I just don’t like looking at them. They’re… offensive.
And they’re repetitious, just like the horrifying things that happen to women and children in The Curse of Strahd. The upside with the Teratic Tome is that you know exactly what you’re getting by page 4–there’s an illustration.The Curse of Strahd might blindside some players if the GM isn’t careful.
And yet there’s an interesting difference: the women in The Curse of Strahd are the victims, while the women in the Teratic Tome are the perpetrators.
The Demimondaine avenges murdered women. Eremites destroy followers of religions other than Tola-Xor. The Excruciator encourages its victims to mutilate themselves before she feasts on them. The Magistrate–whose monstrous illustration appears on page 4–is an eldritch weapon of law, pursuing criminals.
So if you can handle the graphic illustrations, there is more substance to their backgrounds. Well, sort of. They’re all variants of medusa, really–save they are not confined to an island, locked away (a standard “crazy woman” trope), or inhabiting some other lonely place. They’re active, instead of passive-aggressors, with motives and goals.
Which is the worse “horror”?
I’d lean more toward The Curse of Strahd, but I also know that I’m not the target audience.
The Teratic Tome, however, might shock some readers who might think they’re getting a “retro-clone” monster manual.
A GM must be willing to bring the offensive material in horror to light.
Horror must be offensive. By definition it offends, it frightens, it gets the person to ask: “how can that be possible?” Yet at the same time, if the horror is done right, it can shine light on certain truths and themes underlying the human condition.
The only caveat: the players should be forewarned.
People experience stress and even horror on day-to-day basis. You experience it dealing with people at work, or getting bombarded on social media with the news that the world is failing apart. If gaming is a so means to escape from these stressors, then many players might not like horror scenarios.
Keep in mind, however, there are different layers of offense.
Some of the best advice on this comes from the old Vampire Storyteller’s Handbook: Revised Edition, Chapter 3: “The Storyteller’s Craft” (which is worth picking up just for the content in Chapter 3 alone):
“It sometimes works to give a game rating system, namely, ‘Hey, everybody, tonight’s installment is going to be very intense, I’d give it an NC-17. Do you think you can handle that?’ (Not ‘be comfortable with,’ handle.)”
My games are usually around the PG-13 rating, and this includes the content in the scenario itself and the behavior I expect from the players.
What’s offensive and what’s too offensive depends on your group.
This is why, at least in my experience, published horror adventures and game aids will almost always fall short. Good horror is based on timing and pacing.
At best, constructing the “perfect horror moment” in a published adventure requires a lot of set up–which might seem too forceful. (“Sorry, the mists of ‘Ravenloft’ have to come get you.”)
Second to this, the game designer makes a list of “tips” to bring horror into your game, followed by a bunch of rules and monsters.
Worst, is when the game designer resorts to shock value, “pushing the limits,” being “dark and edgy,” or just grostesque, and then sell it off as horror.
The game master must then decide what’s too offensive for her group.