DriveThruRPG Review: Savage Worlds Horror Companion

It embarrasses me a little to admit that it took me three of the Savage Worlds genre companions before I realized that the same woman was presented on each cover. She is simply changed to fit the genre contained within the book. The red-headed Amazon on the cover of the Fantasy Companion is the red-headed flying heroine on the cover of the Super Powers Companion and the red-headed vampire on the cover of the Horror Companion, simply adapted to each genre. The cover art is not the only thing the companions share, though. Each of them also includes extensive rules to modify the simple core Savage Worlds mechanics to make them an appropriate gaming system for each genre.

As in the other companion books, these genre mechanics begin with edges and hindrances in the Horror Companion. These edges and hindrances alone do a great deal to help foster the feel of a horror game. Horror Companion hindrances include things like Bleeder and Screamer while the edges are things like Necromancer and Monster Hunter. It should not be hard to guess the purpose of those hindrances and edges given the names and all of the edges and hindrances presented in the book reproduce classic features displayed by characters in horror stories.

The player section of the book also includes a number of new character races. This is one place where the Horror Companion noticeably diverges from its sister books. The Fantasy Companion has a short section of fantasy appropriate races which are carefully balanced and rules about how to create additional balanced races specific to each group’s campaign. The bulk of the rules in the Super Powers Companion consists of balanced character creation, with the idea that alien and unusual races are simply created by generating them using the character creation rules.

All that balance goes out the window in the Horror Companion. This makes sense in a genre that includes angels, demons, werewolves and vampires as possible characters. It would be purely illogical to assume that these creatures start out at a power level balanced with that of even an uncommon human. There is nothing stopping a member of a gaming group from selecting one of these strange races, except the rest of the group and the GM should it not be appropriate. Getting the whole group’s agreement or at least the GM’s permission would be vital to using these character races as it would be all too easy for a player with one of these characters to steal the limelight from the rest of the group if they were playing ordinary humans. For that matter, the unusual races presented in the game are not even balanced against each other. The angels, for example, are far more powerful than the other races presented.

The last section of the book aimed specifically at players is gear. This section of gear is quite extensive and it seems as though every piece of equipment that appeared in any horror movie ever has been included in this book. This includes everything from armored collars that protect an individual’s neck from a vampire’s bite to cameras that can take pictures of ghosts to assorted types of ammunition meant to exploit the vulnerabilities of various supernatural creatures.

A variety of genre rules come next, including systems for handling all the usual tropes in any horror story. This includes things like the Buckets of Blood rule which means that any attack that succeeds against any character causes fountains of blood to spray everywhere, causing fear in the people it lands on and attracting any monsters who feed on blood.

Perhaps the most important genre rules in the book involve sanity. After all, what would a horror game be without rules to monitor just how close to the brink of madness the characters are? It would be impossible in a game featuring Cthulu and even a high adventure game would suffer from not having such rules. Without the chance that your character is reduced to a drooling shell of a man or a bloodthirsty, raving lunatic, it just isn’t a horror game. In true Savage Worlds style, the Sanity Rules are fast and easy but effective. Unlike dedicated horror games like Call of Cthulu Sanity is not a one way street in the Horror Companion. While it is not easy, it is entirely possible to strengthen a character’s fragile grip on his frayed sanity in Savage Worlds.

Another valuable set of rules in the book involves magic in a horror setting. While appropriate in a rare few horror stories, the usual fireball throwing, spell casting on the fly style of magic that is common to most Savage Worlds settings does not have a place in most tales of terror. To that end, rules for ritual magic, including long casting times and assorted types of sacrifice are provided to replace the usual rules from the core rulebook. There are also a number of spells provided that are particularly appropriate for a Horror campaign.

Additional magical actions for Horror Campaigns are provided by the Signs and Portents and the Wards and Binds systems. The former system is a way for game masters to provide plot clues and motivation in a way that is designed to build the tension and the story. The latter system brings in all the strange rules in myth and legend for trapping demons and other supernatural horrors and the multitude of ways that the creatures know of to break out of such bonds.

Most horror stories also involve an arcane artifact or other magic item in some form or another. To this end there is an extensive list of magical items provided in the Horror Companion. Unlike an adventuring game, these artifacts are rare, if not unique and they are generally of a darker bent. If they are not simply creepy in origin they require something from their user that impairs or corrupts them.

The game master section of the book starts with monsters. A lot of monsters. In fact, it may seem strange to say, but there seems to be too many monsters. While the book covers a lot of different horror genres and there needs to be a wide variety of monsters to cover them all, the broad array of monsters in the book almost makes it feel like little more than just a bestiary for the Fantasy Companion. After all, most horror creatures can be broken down to variations on a few of the same themes.

This customization of a theme is the approach that is taken with Vampires in the book and while there are a couple of different stat blocks for the creatures, most of the specifications for Vampires are given as variable special qualities that the GM can pick and choose from to make the creatures exactly what he wants them to be in his game. The same is true of the Zombies in the book. Given zombies’ recent rise in popular culture, there are a dozen or more different types of zombie ideas. Rather than giving individual stats for each one of these possibilities, a number of variable abilities is given that can be picked and chosen to narrow down how a zombie behaves in each campaign. The zombie section of the bestiary has a feel not unlike that from the zombie selections made at the beginning of an All Flesh Must Be Eaten campaign, though obviously much more simplified. In fact, there are enough variables for each of these that a gaming group could play two campaigns back to back with a few different special abilities for the antagonists and make a completely different feeling game. For that matter, there could be multiple types of zombies in the same campaign to keep the players on their toes.

Compare this customization approach to the section for Mummies. Instead of there being a single stat block for mummies with some variable special abilities that could be added there are four different mummy stat blocks provided. This limits what can be done with mummies. This defining of a few mummies actually limits what can be done with them. Of course, an experienced game master can tweak the stats to his liking, but it would be more difficult than the open way vampires and zombies are presented. The same is true of the were-creature section. Rather than providing the method for creating were-creatures, allowing GMs to make a wide variety of the creatures, three examples are given. While these are useful examples, it simply feels like they are just more foes for the heroes to slay rather than creatures that can be made truly frightening in their capacity to hunt and torment the characters in a specific campaign.

Following the bestiary is a fairly standard discussion of the various genres and settings common to horror games. As a worldless system, Savage Worlds has to fill any need a game master might have and this section does a good job of explaining how the various rules can be adapted to various settings as well as giving good advice about adding personalized twists to what might otherwise be mundane or common settings.

This section is most useful to the new or inexperienced GM but there are important bits of advice that even a veteran GM could benefit from thinking about and remembering.

The end of the book is some generic advice for GM’s about running horror games. As anyone who has run a horror game knows, it is one of the hardest genres to present effectively. While it is entirely possible to scare characters and good players can properly role-play their frightened characters it is all but impossible to actually scare the players or set up the kind of tension that would make the players truly feel like they are experiencing a horror tale. This section includes assorted techniques a GM can use to overcome the difficulty of immersing the players in the story.

Much of the art in the book is done in what appears to be chalk and it all has a dark feel that is especially suitable to the genre. This is another area where this companion matches its sister books. The art in the Fantasy, Super Powers and Horror companions are each diverse but perfectly fit the genres they present rather than being the same sort of art again and again across the three.

There are more than a few typographical errors in the book, with some missing characters, misspellings and formatting issues, but no more than what are common to Pinnacle products and far less than many small gaming presses. In fact, there are no more than one might expect from some of the sourcebooks from Wizards of the Coast.

It is not certain that the Savage Worlds system can really convey a good horror game. There are a number of systems designed specifically for such genres and the Fast! Furious! Fun! style of Savage Worlds is antithetical to the brooding, tense feel that a horror game should have. Still, the Horror Companion examines the genre as thoroughly as any of the other sourcebooks from Savage Worlds explore their genres and if nothing else, it is useful to GM’s who want to add an element of horror to their ongoing or future Savage Worlds games.

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