Paizo’s current adventure path, the Carrion Crown, evokes an undertone of gothic horror. It takes place in a haunted, benighted land where the bumps in the night are something to be feared, and there just might be monsters under the bed. It’s a great atmosphere, one that I’ve loved in D&D ever since I discovered Ravenloft.
Having said that, the most atmospheric part of a good gothic horror campaign isn’t the setting, nor is it the mechanics (even if they do use special horror-themed rules). It’s the PCs. If you have players who get into it, and a GM who works to weave their backstories and choices into the campaign thoroughly, you can create stories as gothic as any classic novel.
One of the best – or most popular, certainly – ways to go about this is to make the heroes into creatures that aren’t quite “people,” at least to everyone else. While it’s become so prevalent in post-modern fantasy (particularly urban fantasy) to make angst-ridden monster anti-heroes who bemoan their eternal damnation yet still continue to do good in a vain hope of someday being redeemed, the core essence of what made this trope so popular remains. What’s more, it thrives in a role-playing game.
The Gothic Hero
The basic element of this emo characterization is that these are characters who A) are laboring under some sort of condition that separates them from “normal” people, and B) could easily separate themselves from the human condition altogether if they decided to embrace their monstrous nature. Now give those motivations to PCs, who regularly engage in violence with intent to kill, and – presuming that they have some sort of “humanity” that they want to protect – you actually have some opportunities for great role-playing.
Taking all that into account, what’s left is to create player-characters that have some sort of dehumanizing condition. This is somewhat harder than it seems, because we need something that represents something beyond the control of the character, even as it’s part of what the player chooses. This is significant because classes tend to be representative of a character’s in-game career decisions. A necromancer isn’t a necromancer because he was born that way; he’s a necromancer because he went to wizard school to study necromancy. There’s some wiggle room with classes like the sorcerer, but for the most part this has to be a condition that exists independent of personal choice.
That pretty much leaves the PC’s race. Luckily, thanks to Paizo and other third-party publishers, there are plenty of gothic races that your character can play as. We’re going to go over a half-dozen or so here and outline just what makes them such excellent choices for a darkly atmospheric campaign.
As a note, these choices were selected not for how monstrous they are – there are plenty of options out there for playing succubi or liches. What makes these such good options is that these are the creatures that are standing on the proverbial doorstep of humanity. They look human (for the most part), and they might even have been human (or still be part human), but they fundamentally are not human, and they know it, and anyone who gets too close to them will invariably know it as well. And as emo as it seems, that should be a point of pain for them, since almost no one will accept them when they find out what they really are, and those who do accept them will likely come to a bad end for it, whether at the hands of monsters or a fearful lynch mob.
When your PC sees his best friend strung up purely because they were friends, and knows he can’t go out there and save him or he’d be lynched too…that’s gothic.
So without further ado, the gothic races of Pathfinder.
Tiefling: The most well-known race on this list, tieflings are caught between their mortal and fiendish heritage. In all likelihood, their planar heritage is an obvious part of their physique, leading to prejudice before they’ve had a chance to say or do anything. And of course, their mortality makes them unsuited for life among the evil planar denizens.
While they might be able to form communities among themselves, this is unlikely to create any sort of better life for tieflings, as such enclaves are likely to be little more than ghettos. Moreover, if there are typical features, or even powers, among tieflings with particular fiendish heritages, then these ghettos might very well be further divided among gangs that fight with each other in a struggle destined to never accomplish anything. Now imagine this being the background of a budding adventurer…
Tieflings can be found in the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary, but supplemental information can be found in Pathfinder #25: The Bastards of Erebus (such as the aforementioned variant tiefling statistics based on fiendish heritage), as well as in the free Council of Thieves Player’s Guide (the practical material here is largely restricted to a single trait that nerfs your tiefling, saying their fiendish blood is watery).
Changeling: The changeling is the new girl on the block, having debuted in the recent Pathfinder #43 – The Haunting of Harrowstone. Changelings are the immature form of a hag; when a hag has a dalliance with an unsuspecting man, the changeling is what she gives birth to later. Looking mostly human save for a few odd features like mismatched eyes or pale skin (subtler than the tiefling, certainly), they’re abandoned on the doorsteps of human villages until their mother attempts to mystically call them back and have them undergo the ritual to change them into a full hag.
Needless to say, the gothic backstory for this character is built-in. Sooner or later, a changeling PC is going to come face-to-face with her hag mother, as the latter tries to make her daughter into a monster like herself. This brings up a lot of issues regarding family, particularly in contrast to the changelings adoptive family and the families of the other PCs. A changeling who lost her family to violence after the town sage discovered that their daughter was a larval monster, for example, would be conflicted between trying to live a peaceful life to honor her dead family, or giving in to her grief and rage to lash out at the world that took them from her. Guess which one her hag mother would encourage?
Dhampir: Introduced in the Bestiary 2, the dhampir is, like the tiefling and changeling, born to cursed parentage. In this case, the union of a mortal and a vampire, something that leaves the dhampir with a lifelong thirst for blood. They gain no nourishment nor powers from drinking it, however, and can no more easily become a vampire than anyone else, leaving them trapped between the world of the living and that of the walking dead.
While the dhampir is able to pass for human fairly easily, their monstrous nature becomes obvious in other ways. Their sensitivity to light and the fact that they react like an undead to positive and negative energy are clues, to be sure. The most striking part of their vampiric nature, however, has no mechanics associated with it: their lust for blood. A good player will emphasize this, as it adds a second layer of struggle beyond just their human vs. monster ancestry. A dhampir wants to drink blood, despite knowing it serves no purpose for him – he’s like an alcoholic, desperate for another sip, while everyone around him is carrying full glasses of liquor waiting to be imbibed.
If you use Liber Vampyr (see the Revenant Vampire section, below), consider giving a dhampir character the Sanguine Aspirant feat for free, or giving them an automatic blood pool of 1 and Gain Power as a bonus feat. Also, whenever their blood pool is at less than maximum, require a Will save (DC 10, +1 per subsequent day; maximum 20) to resist the urge to forcibly take blood from someone who comes within 5 ft. of them.
Obitu: The beginning of this article talked about how most of these races looked human, and had a connection to humanity, both of which only served to highlight their inhuman aspects. The obitu stretch this particular philosophy quite a bit…because they lack flesh or organs, being living skeletons.
Not undead, obitu are created when undead creatures are infected with a virus that consumes negative energy. It kills the undead creature, and actually causes a new life to spontaneously generate in their bodies (which become skeletal if they weren’t already). Take a few months for the new intellect to mature, and these are the obitu.
Needless to say, obitu PCs are different from all of the others here, both physically and in their genesis. An obitu has none of the memories of the person whose bones it wears – it’s smart enough to understand how it came to be, but its life began when the virus consumed the undead thing that it was, leaving it with no identity regarding the person its body previously belonged to. And of course, as a living skeleton, the obitu has virtually no chance of passing for human; even the most open-minded person would think it to be an undead skeleton (or worse) and attack instantly.
Given all of this, role-playing an obitu isn’t something to be undertaken lightly. Even figuring out how the character came to meet and become companions with the rest of the adventuring party is likely to be quite a back-story, and the character will have trouble with even the most basic interpersonal relationships.
All of this, however, is part of the challenge of role-playing, especially for an obitu character who desperately wants to figure out who their body used to be, and perhaps completing that person’s unfinished business, or even atoning for what they did after becoming undead. The obitu is the ultimate quest for identity, trying to piece together a past that spans life and undeath…a past which was never really theirs to begin with.
The obitu are found in Alluria Publishing’s Remarkable Races Pathway to Adventure: Compendium of Unusual PC Races.
Revenant Vampire: Presented in Necromancers of the Northwest’s Liber Vampyr, the revenant vampire is one that, alongside the other options presented in that book, is specifically designed for PC use in a Pathfinder game. While its worst weaknesses and greatest strengths are both nerfed, by and large it’s the vampire that you know: a creature that maintains a strong link to its past, since its connection to humanity is both obvious and null at the same time. It looks entirely human, and remembers its life as one, but alone among all of the creatures in this article, it is truly undead.
Unlike a dhampir, a revenant vampire must consume blood to survive, and so its human facade can never be perfectly maintained; even for other party members, it’s hard to trust a creature that might be weighing the options of feeding on you right now. A revenant vampire is isolated not only because its a predator, but also because other people can’t stand the thought of being prey. Worse, a revenant vampire that embraces its vampiric nature grows stronger…so long as they can maintain a deeper blood pool, requiring more and more feedings.
At what point does the PC vampire decide that feeding on innocent people is acceptable if it gives it the cruomantic (blood magic) power to defeat greater evils? At what point do potential allies become enemies and/or victims because of the revenant vampire’s growing need for blood to fuel its powers? And at what point do the other members of the party decide that their comrade’s blood lust has grown too great, and needs to be stopped?
Werewolf: We’ve all heard that with great power comes great responsibility, but for the werewolf, both the power and the responsibility may not even be realized for quite some time. A PC werewolf – something best played with A Necromancer’s Grimoire: Marchen der Daemonwulf, by Necromancers of the Northwest (as it’s written with the intent of making werewolf PCs) – might not even realize what’s happened at first, going off to hunt on the full moon and never realize the next morning that he took a life last night.
Of course, eventually they’ll figure it out, quite likely when a fight goes against them and they transform right there. However, it won’t be long before they figure out how to control it and remain (mostly) in control during a transformation. Even further, how will their friends feel when they deliberately avoid seeking out a cure because they begin to realize just how much power the transformation gives them?
Like a vampire, the rest of the party is likely to feel threatened, but whereas a vampire can control his urges, there’s always a threat that a werewolf will go berserk and devour the rest of the party. But this can be far worse depending on how the werewolf’s powers develops. What if he gains the ability to curse others with lycanthropy via a bite? Will he accidentally spread it around the next time he loses control? What if he empowers the party’s enemies when they escape a fight? What if the lycanthrope is drunk on his own sense of power and wants to infect the other party members to make them all stronger? Even if none of these happen, the lycanthrope’s monstrous nature will likely show through in other ways…who else can gain power by eating the corpses of his foes, for instance?
Werewolves gain great power from embracing the beast within, and the great responsibility that comes with this is likely to fall on their PC companions’ shoulders. What happens when they get tired of bearing the burden for the beast in their ranks?
Restless Soul: Sometimes death isn’t the end – it’s the beginning. For some characters, their very soul is too restless to lie easily in the afterlife, and so comes back not as an undead creature, nor brought back to life, but simply exist in the mortal world as a solid, incarnate spirit. These are the restless souls, featured in the Rite Publishing product of the same name.
Unlike the other creatures presented here, the restless soul needs most of its gothic nature mandated by the GM regarding exactly why it can’t rest easily in the afterlife. While its basic attributes – specifically the un-healable scar from the wound that killed it, and its amnesia regarding how it died – are helpful in this regard, they don’t provide a concrete answer to this. A back-story needs to be worked out here between the player and the GM. Did the character’s soul escape from the afterlife in order to perform some duty it simply couldn’t let go of? Was it exiled from Heaven and Hell both? Or is the character so slippery that even death itself wasn’t able to fully ensnare him?
These questions are necessary because they shape the character’s reaction when his afterlife catches up with him. Maybe the character won’t be hunted by angels or devils eager to return him to his proper place (though that’d certainly be dramatic), but the restless soul template makes the character an extraplanar entity in the mortal world; one dismissal and they’re sent back to where their soul was meant to go. Will they need to adventure to escape again (perhaps a solo adventure for the player, or a group adventure for the other PCs to retrieve him)? Or perhaps they’ll need to cut a deal to return again (if they didn’t before)? And of course, this same banishment also happens if they die in the mortal world…
Like the other characters here, restless souls have a great deal of gothic potential, but unlike them the GM needs to establish the precise nature of it ahead of time. How they died, and why they didn’t stay dead, are major questions that should have powerful answers…answers strong enough to make the character’s soul so restless.
Ultimately, the most important part of any role-playing game is the people playing it, and that’s especially true where a gothic game is concerned. If everyone invests in their characters, works out who they are, where they’ve come from, and what they want, then the GM will have a rich pool of material to draw upon and weave into a grand and horrific masterpiece. If done well, the campaign will be one that the entire group will remember for years…with shudders running down their spines.