Dark Fantasy and Gothic Horror

Hello all. I'm presently in the planning stages of a new ArM saga, and my players' suggestions all seem to involve words like "dark", "gritty",
"gothic" and "serious". I suspect they've all been reading too much Lovecraft. Or not getting enough daylight.

Whilst I've come up with a few ideas myself, I'm feeling a little short on inspiration, so if anyone has any interesting thoughts or experience of playing or running ArM as outright "horror", or anything in that vein, I'd be interested to hear them. Particularly appreciated would be suggestions of appropriate source material.


you really need to buy the new "Realms Of Power: The Infernal" book!

That I certainly shall do, and I expect to find myself making good use of it. I've already worked out some good story ideas for tempting, Faustian-type demons (anachronistic as they are).

That said, I don't wish to fall into the White Wolf-era pitfall of filling every darkened corner with cackling fiends from the netherworld. I was looking in particular for suggestions on how I should go about adjusting the ArM paradigm for a darker, grittier game.

My strongest, though most obvious, idea so far is to emphasise the worldliness and corruption of the church, throwing in, of course, a few genuinly pious churchmen by way of contrast. I'd also like to emphasise the corrosive effect of the Order's secrecy and isolation.

After that, however, my brain begins to run a little dry...


Set your saga near a town or towns that are in a state of decline. Perhaps the inhabitants are migrating toward the nearest city.

Play up elements like filth and grime everywhere. Buildings should be in a state of decay, partially burned, holes in walls, loose shutters, etc. Describe the fields dying off, unhealthy animals, excrement littering the roads.

Add in plenty of plague, occasional accidental deaths, and always describe the smells being fetid or foul.

Now that the set is dressed, populate it with some antagonists. A madman carrying some vile illness that keeps doing something to pollute the well so others will join in his suffering. An otherwise subtle demon of avarice pushing the few townsfolk with assests or power to covet all else that they survey, taking it from the already impoverished. A corrupt priest using his position to take advantage of the populace to expand his estate. A winter fairy that delights in bringing bitter frost early as it delights in the suffering of mortals in the cold.

Hopefully that will get you started, and you can come up with your own ideas. Borrow a copy of Warhammer Fantasy RPG for further inspiration, as the whole setting is dark and gothic.


Play through the Albegensian Crusade... on the recieving side, or just on the sideline, because the pervading theme of the Crusaders was "Kill them all, God will know his own."

Warfare often knows no bounds in the cruelty and horror it inflicts on both sides. And, of course, Hell will be there, offering deals. It shows the Church at it's worst, where the secular took precedence over the religious.

There's dark, gritty, demons present, the divine almost nowhere to be found, and Man's inhumanity to his fellow man running rampant. You've got about 40 years of historical material to draw from. The upshot is that there is a slim chance that they may survive. Just a slim one, mind. It it won't be a series of pleasant choices that get's them there.


Just wondering how the Horror background will foster players working together?
Standard Call of Cthulhu has the players as Investigators uncovering
"things man was not meant to know".
The whole world is not unrelentingly grim and oppressive ,
it is still the same normal world we know.
The players find out that this is all a facade to a backdrop of cosmic horror
and the realization that against all this , their actions are essentially meaningless.

Don't forget the purely mundane bits either... the noble who oppresses his peasants/villiens/slaves.

The bandits/robber-knights.

The gibbets outside the towns and the debtors stuck in the stocks.

To make the players/characters more unsettled, make sure that their home is not secure. Perhaps their covenant has a regio in it that they dont' know about - said regio connecting to the Unseelie Court...

Hmmmmm... there is a reason that the word byzantine is... well, byzantine! The remnants of a great empire, its formely magnificient walls, its palaces and churches still marred and burned from the christian crusaders invasion of the golden city... Beneath it lies centuries of ruins, catacombs and secrets best left undisturbed. Men squabling over wealth and religion and killing with sin in their fevered eyes...

That's where I'd set of a dark gothic Ars; Urban, ancient and byzantine...

edited - and I forgot to mention that Mythic Perspective has a splendid article on Constantinople from which to start your constructing of a gothic version

That's almost too obvious, though. It's been done a lot, and it's become such a common trope in historical fiction that (in my experience) it tends to evoke cynicism more than it evokes horror.

I think this is a great idea. Hermetic magic gives its practitioners well-night godlike power, and the Gift cuts them off from most human contact. When (not if) many Hermetic magi begin to feel vast ontological superiority to "the mundanes," the potential exists for them to adopt horrifyingly callous (or worse, whimsical) attitudes towards other people.

Of course, it can still be kind of hard to evoke horror this way. The realization that "it's only a game" often leads players into behavior that IRL would be considered sociopathic. (i.e. "Kill-them-and-take-their-stuff" type behavior, but not limited to that. In one saga, a quite-decent guy I know played a MuCo/An specialist whose goal was to become Dr. Moreau. I think The Island of Dr. Moreau was intended to be be horrifying, but "it's only a game.")

In our last saga, I ran a couple of adventures that the players did regard as creepy. (My success in replicating this since has been kind of hit or miss, though, so take what I say with a grain of salt.) Anyway, I've found that setting and tone matter a lot more than actual content. In particular, give your players enough clues to make them worry, but not enough to actually figure out what's going on. If you're lucky, they'll imagine all the horrible things you're about to spring on them and psych themselves out. Once a concrete threat appears, tension pretty much evaporates.

The hard part, of course, is keeping them in the dark enough to scare them, but not enough to frustrate them.

Why not indulge in some suitable cinema? The Seventh Seal, Macbeth, and The Hour Of The Pig spring to mind. This ought to inspire you to conjure fresh life into the cliches of Gothic (and other) horror, and raise them lurching from the grave:

  • Close-knit villages who mistrust strangers.
  • Dire prophecies.
  • Families passing down a legacy of notoriety and unwholesome habits.
  • Superstitious rituals to ward off obscure evils.
  • Stark, grim, oppressive architecture.
  • Vengeance from beyond the grave.
  • Ossified societies along the lines of Gormenghast.
  • Mysterious cults - Christian, pagan or something in between.
  • Ancient curses.
  • Local sayings, rhymes, etc. with hidden meanings.
  • And of course dark secrets.

It's also possible to take dark contemporary (or futuristic) stories and adapt them to medieval society.

I second that notion! Form is often more important than content - especially if your goal is a certain theme or feel. The succes of e.g. horror or similar moods are mostly acheived with the form of the session - the ways of telling the story and describing the world.

In my experience - or preference - the more you're able to downplay, yet stress, the horror, the better it works. This also goes to even try to keep the players uncertain of things like the integrety of the church. Uncertainty is frightening - clichés are not. So even if one uses clichés like a corrupt clergy - they are far better of if the players are keept wondering. Fully in line with nlc's post I think that people's own imagination, especially concerning fear, is by far better than even the most talented storyguides telling. This also where many modern thrillers fail - when halfway through the unknown is substituted with some neat CGI antigonist that leads to neat but often empty action scenes.

But then of course comes the task of finding a suitible setting for keeping the characters in this suspensed uncertainty... the word byzantine somehow keeps springing to my mind... :smiling_imp: - begone you fiendish muse - get thee back to Babylon... hmmm, Babylon - Byzantine... hmmm...

Attributation fixed

This pretty much covers it. The unknown is the most disturbing part of any story. No matter how bad the creature and horror that the players are up against, they will always fear it more when it is an unknown. The vague forms in the fog or night and the strange sounds and signs of the thing unseen may be a bit cliche, but they are still the most effective way to scare the players.

And remember, you have to scare the players and not the characters. The players can role play their characters being scared, but what they will enjoy and remember is the game where THEY were uneasy or scared.

Salve Corvidae,

Although I concur with nlc - the text you accredit me for in you post above is in fact by him and not by me. :unamused:

And by the way I agree with you that it's our task as SGs to influence the players if we really want to make memorable stories.

It can at times be rather difficult - also because a session might be sidetracked by cosy friendly chatter if you don't met often besides playing - but the effort to unease (or any other sentiment) them is a prime argument for setting the stage for the players as well as for the characters. Personally I'm a bit visceral when it comes to the imagination - and this is why I often make an effort out of things like lightning, handouts, props and background music. All this can surely be overdone - but in the right doses this is especially effecient if your aiming at certain themes - such as horror.

There was an old game called Fantasy Wargaming that, much like Ars Magica, had an excellent treatment of historical beliefs, with a strong emphasis on the darkness of the period. There was also an old computer game called Darklands that was based on the German historical period. Both captured the creepiness inherent to the beliefs of the time quite well.

Generally, the beliefs of the time lend themselves quite well to horror. The huge, dark forests are forbidding and frightening places. The thousand and one terrible things that happen to people and villages are readily blamed on supernatural causes. Demons and devils lurk in the shadows, attempting to trick people into sin.

The trick with horror is that it is difficult to fight head to head. It lurks in the shadows and cannot be readily come to grips with. Magi have many tools available to them that others do not, but it can be even more frightening when those tools fail.

A great example for how this may be approached is the devil in the core rulebook who poses as a charitable and religious businessman, giving great sums to the church and to the poor. His business advice, however, tends to involve working on holy days and giving money away for business reasons rather than as a true act of charity, robbing such acts of their virtuous nature. Creatures such as this are extremely difficult to detect via hermetic magic, but the effects of their actions can be seen in a growing wave of shadow.

Dark faeries are also another way to go. Inimical, powerful, and mysterious. Use shape shifting and mentem spells frequently. Is that your favorite shield grog, or a changeling? You have to play fair with the players, but you can give them the feeling of walking on quicksand with just one or two moments where someone or something was not what they assumed.

Diabolism is inherently spooky stuff. Witch's rituals of the time were thought to be truly terrible. Flying spells, for example, in the Germanies were based around using rendered fat from babies. I won't go into anything else on a public forum, but they are truly disturbing.

The introduction to The Infernal talks a bit about this, but it sounds like you've already got a handle on how to do a dark setting. You want to focus on building dread, the sense that something bad could happen and is about to happen at every moment. Startling the players is good, but I think making them afraid of what is still to come is even better.

I might suggest that you consider having your players make magi who have varying degrees of sympathy and association with the infernal realm from the very beginning. That might add to the suspense and fear, because it gives them fewer allies within the Order of Hermes-- they should feel like they're on their own, since the quaesitores will presumably prosecute them as fiercely as their enemies if it finds out what they're up to. There's all sorts of interesting levels of Hermetic diabolist that aren't even necessarily evil: tragic, misguided, fanatic, deluded, and the sort that fights hellfire with hellfire; these might help you design a more dangerous setting right from the start if the players are already on board.

Wonderful ideas so far, I shall definitely be playing-up the filth, ignorance and squalor of the mediaeval world; if I can make the players suspicious and fearful of their neighbours, even of the peasants, then I'll be doing well. Plague in particular strikes me as a good way to keep the players edgy.

Gormenghast and The Seventh Seal are both good reference points, of which I'll be making use. (Gormenghast is also one of my favourite novels.) I'd also like to emphasise the freakiness of magi and their associates; perhaps weird mental afflictions and physical deformities? Covenfolk should be criminals, heretics or other outcasts from mediaeval life, which should further decrease trust within the covenant. I'd like to avoid the cosy, comfortable covenant life that seems customary.

Rapacious nobles, though as obvious as corrupt priests, will, I think, also feature heavily, as should brutal mediaeval justice. Gibbets! Stocks! Ordeals! What fun!

Sadly, I've already used the Albigensian Crusade as background to a Provencal Tribunal game. (One which ended with most of Provence's covenants destroyed, the player magi dead or fleeing, and the future of the Order in doubt.) Byzantium might well be a good choice of setting, but is there anywhere else in Mythic Europe that anyone might recommend as particularly condusive to a grim and horrific game?

This is all good stuff so far, so my thanks to everybody, keep it coming...

Transylvania? :slight_smile:

Oh yeah...

Going against the trend of advice here:
Set it in an earlier period. The collapse of the Roman empire, the fall of the cult of hermes. Players are either cultists who have incrdible knowledge of high powered rituals, but the inability to use them as not enough trusted colleagues, or they are hedge mages from other traditions. The barbarians are invading, rampaging the europe with foreign mages looting every temple, burning every city, only Constantinople stands strong as the bastion of civilization and that is turning to a new religion (the divine) the hates and fears the old gods.

Basically the first part of the saga is about pure survival as all that the magi know falls apart around them, their mentors are murdered, their respected profession becomes outlawed and heresy. They have to hustle to put together any decent magic they can cast as less than a full group ritual.
Second part of the saga is about regathering power, europe has gained some stability as the tribes settle and start to found kingdoms in the dark ages. The threats here are the next stage of invasions, vikings and eventually islam. It should be about learning to cooperate with some of the other traditions, and defending themselves from more ruthless magi who are intent on stealing what power they have.
The last part of the saga would probably be after a few generations of magi. Who is this Bonisagus fellow we have been hearing of. Let the players set the stage for whether a new order comes into being or whether they slit his throat and steal his secrets.

I posted the idea for an ArM/Cthulhu cross-over on this foram a couple of months ago.

BAsically, Hermetic magic theory would need to be expanded for the Art "Dimension", to allow travel though non-Euclidean Space, and Auras would need to change. There would be no Divine or Infernal auras.

I am writing a set of rules to cover this now, the auras I am going to use will be "Cosmic", "Magical", "Primordial" and "Mundane" (I was thinking about adding "Dreamland").

Shame your not near London, I would love to work with you.