When is too much too much?

Our playtest sessions with D&D Next have been going along swimmingly so far, though the PCs have managed to remain relatively scratch free. It’s not from want of trying on my part, I hasten to add – last session they faced off against ten freakin; Zombies, and even the evil Cultists’ Unholy Maces (I do love describing them being encased in worm-like shadows as they hit) have so far only done single-digit damage.

I suck at rolling dice and my players are awesome. That’s the reason, I swear.

The next session is tonight, and I plan to ramp things up just a little. If you’re a part of the game group, there will be minor spoilers below.

Previously, our heroes had seen an ornate tapestry on the wall of a room which depicted a baby being held aloft above an altar with demonic hordes watching on. These cultists guys have a thing for babies and sacrifice, so I considered running with that theme.

The players already know they are going to face off against a large number of skeletons next session (they saw them leaving through a side door), but didn’t really get a good look at them. Rather than just being another battle against low-level undead (10 zombies was enough last session) I considered having each skeleton contain the another skeleton inside, that of a baby.

This inner skeleton could leap out and attack, giving each skeleton a Close Range single-use attack for, say,1d10 damage, DC13 DEX save to avoid. The baby skeleton is destroyed on impact.

Now, awesome as that sounds, we’re talking about our heroes fighting corpses of pregnant women whose unborn fetuses leap out to attack the PCs.

Is that a bit, y’know, too much for a D&D game, especially with a bunch of folks (many of whom are otherwise total strangers) on a Google Hangout?

What do you think? Is this fitting game material? Would you feel comfortable playing in a game where this occurs?

Dear reader, over to you.

UPDATE: We played, I used the skeletons, they were awesome and the players won through after a hard fought battle. Full write-up will be posted tomorrow. Thank you, all!

25 Comments on “When is too much too much?”

  1. It’s pretty grotesque but you are fighting the undead, so I think it’s appropriate as it adds to the horror and diabolicalness value of what you’re doing.

    1. As this is level 1, I wanted to keep demons themselves in the background rather than cheapen their impact by having them turn up in the game too early.

      That said, there’s definitely thematic elements in there which would make a nice presage to them appearing at a later date. Thanks for the idea. I’ll store that one up for later :)

  2. I didn’t see it in my head as pregnant women until that’s how you said you saw it. I imagineg humanoid skeletons (rather than human) with animated rat skeletons behind the rib cage created to give a ‘representation’ of babies rather than real babies. A bit like a wax image of a voodoo doll is only a representaion of a person to allow sympathetic magic. Where would they get that many pregnant women? That many kidnapped wives would have probably been noticed by the husbands after a while!

    1. The skeletons could be the corpses of women who died in (or more accurately, before) childbirth, or even willing female cultists who were impregnated then sacrificed to unknown false gods……

  3. Hey mate

    since I can’t be there tonight (#gutted) so I did read on. Personally until you said what they were (i.e. pregnant women), I’d seen them a bit as Benoit had said. I like the concept, but the idea of them bring pregnant women not so. However had you not mentioned it, I’d have filled in the blanks differently and still be just as freaked out – but for different reasons. By playing up what they see, not what they were etc, the vagueness lets the players read into it what they will. And in that way its understated and also less likely to give offensive. Moreover you’re still providing something scary and nasty without it leaving a bad taste in anyone’s mouth over what is acceptable. Sometimes less is more. That would be how I’d handle it anyway ;-), would love to hear how it goes in anycase. Iv’e yet to try a google hangout, let alone play over one, so colour me intrigued let alone gutted not to be playing tonight.

    1. We game most Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays if you want to join in.

      You’re right, the key is (as ever) for me to show the players, not tell. I’ll describe the skeletons but leave it entirely up to them how they interpret what they see. Some players will doubtless visualise undead babies while others will see them as skeletons of other things.

      In the thick of battle, conflicting witnesses are widely reported, and who am I to argue? :)

  4. Too much? Well, I suppose that’s pretty subjective. I think when you’re dealing with a potentially controversial topic (child sacrifice, cult inspired necrophilia, etc.) you’ll want to take the temperature of your group to make sure everyone’s cool with that. If anyone seems particularly squeamish on the subject matter, you might want to take a step back and work things in such a way as to not deliberately offend the squeamish player.

    Of course always when using potentially controversial subjects, make sure you ask yourself, “Is this thing really necessary?” Sometimes the shock value isn’t worth the squicky looks on the players’ faces.

    My two pence.

    1. The challenge is finding the right level where Evil is clearly evil because it’s doing evil acts. I’m not a huge fan of producing a villain and saying he’s the bad guy just because he’s the one wearing the black robe. That’s just a bit too cartoon for my tastes.

      Does this cross a line though? I know that for some folks, it will. Gauging that during an online session is going to be interesting.

  5. You’ll find out if it’s too much when you try it. It’s an interesting idea and tactic, and I don’t think you serve yourself or your players by preemptively censoring the material you develop for the game. It puts you into the position of deigning to know what’s best for other people, which is annoying at best and arrogant at worst. (Well at worst it’s probably worse than arrogant.)

    1. Entirely spot on.

      It would be wrong to presume anything or censor a session just because of some possible offence they might take. We see that too much with TV and media pressure groups who claim to “know what’s best”, imho.

  6. I agree with the other posts. I didn’t go to pregnant skeleton until you said it, and then it did seem a little extra. i don’t know why as the thought of baby undead, while disturbing, did not go too far for me. Hmmm, but as I keep typing “undead baby” in this post, it is giving me the heebie-jeebies.

    I considered it more like an animated undead baby that clawed its way into an adult sacrifice and animated it from the inside. Or just an undead mini skeleton that was placed inside an older one. Plus, I also see these smaller skeletions living in the ribcages, because otherwise they’d fall out.

    If you want to go an extra step further and use the clawed its way inside theory, have the “baby attack” act like a watered down stirge. Grapples and does damage until it’s pried off or hit, at which point it’s helpless. But if it kills a character like that, it animates the fresh kill and starts all over.

    1. Now I have the mental image of skeletal Russian Dolls, one inside the other with the smallest one in the centre controlling them all.

      Thanks for that. I’m totally stealing it for another session if this works out!

  7. Personally, I think undead babies or any sort are a little too much, let alone undead babies inside the undead skeletons of their mothers. Personally, I would be uncomfortable playing in such a game.

    If you want stronger skeletons, I suggest giving them auras or energy blasts that cause unholy/necrotic damage, which still fits the evil cult theme while remaining tasteful.

    1. I really want to move away from auras and energy blasts where possible (unless they explicitly fit the subject, that is) and go for a more theme-driven approach.

      As this is an old school dungeon using D&D Next, I’m trying to steer away from Fourth Edition concepts and solutions; not that there’s anything wrong with them, but it’s fun to try something fresh. Not that you could call undead “fresh”, of course :)

  8. So here are my thoughts, your mileage may vary.

    The skeletons are grotesque enough that I think it’s enough of a separation between real life people and the fantasy to not be a big problem for most people. Compare this to the struggle I had in Lost City where we had a pregnant statue in the bathhouse and wanted to show damage to it. The statue looked more like a real person and, thus, it had more of a squicky element to it. On the other hand, it was an important clue to the entire game, so I decided to advocate for it.

    Also, you’re talking about your home game, not a published adventure. I trust that you know yourself and your players far better than I do. :)

    For a home game:
    * Do what you did and make the tapestry with the child sacrifice. Try to make that happen a session or two before the main fight with the skeletons (if possible). Maybe also add a few more elements that suggest pregnancy and babies.
    * Tread carefully when adding pregnancy and babies to a game when some of the players are of the age and in relationships where they might be trying to have kids. Infertility problems are pretty common and it’s often taboo to talk about them. Being around story lines with pregnancy and babies in them might be a trigger to them, especially with the number of people out there who are intent on defining people by their reproduction systems. This doesn’t mean you can’t have it in a game ever, but just an argument that I think we should try to be sensitive to such issues.
    * When your players encounter these elements, listen closely to their reaction. If they start saying things that make it sound like they are uncomfortable with the idea, try to find ways to explore that.
    * Try to have a break after they interact with some of the more obvious elements. Talk about what’s happening in the game and judge comfort level. Not all signs of discomfort mean you shouldn’t go through with it.
    * Make yourself open and available after the session. Understand that if you did accidentally trigger some pain, the person might not react well. He or she might be angry, sad, confused.

    For published games:
    * Double check your intentions for having it in there.
    * Try to make it obvious, through the cover art and/or in the introduction to the adventure that it covers this topic area.

    I hope that’s all reasonable.

    1. Perfectly reasonable, thanks :)

      The tapestry scene will definitely come up in a later session, if we continue (as this is a playtest where we are intentionally focussing on the rules themselves, there are no guarantees this will happen). Suffice to say I do have an over-arching plot in mind just in case, and the tapestry scene is a key part of that.

      The skeletons will almost certainly happen in the session tonight, unless the PCs to something unpredictable such as flee the dungeon. After tonight, I expect there’s just two more session to go for them to clear out this part of the Caves and complete this part of the story. After that, if it continues, they will be off to a wedding at the Keep for Part Two.

      Triggers are difficult things to assess in any game. I remember one game where a player was in floods of tears because his Familiar died – little did we know his own cat in real life had been killed earlier that week, I’m sure many groups have had similar situations.

      With an online game its triply difficult. There’s no visual cues to work with, and players can go suddenly quiet for many reasons (not least technical issues). Those clues which we might pick up on at a game table just don’t exist online, or are massively dampened.

      Does this mean online games should avoid potentially prickly subjects, or only use them once you really know your players? I don’t know. Certainly different games have different expectation levels (I wouldn’t hesitate or bring this up if this was a modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenario, for example) as the players should know what to expect when they sign up.

      D&D is difficult though. It’s a very broad church with a wide range of play preferences. That’s a part of its appeal and strength, but it can also mean it can be hard to know where to draw the line.

      Thanks for your input.

  9. I like it and think you should roll with the idea, it’s different, and should have your players really creeped out.
    Is it too much? Nah, horror movies have played the infant card already. Plus your not promoting or glamorizing something that’s even possible, zombies and skeletons (bath salt sniffers not included).

    1. Good point. It’s not like I’m portraying live women flinging their baby fetuses at the PCs. Hey, even I’d draw the line at that. :D

  10. I’m not sure why some of the other commenters didn’t, but after reading the description of the tapestry, and then in the next paragraph reading “skeleton containing another skeleton inside,” I immediately thought “fetus.”

    Yes, that’s kind of nasty. But of course I don’t know what the squeamishness level of your players are. :)

    1. And therein lies the rub. Think I’ll poll my players before the session starts. I do have a backup plan, just in case.

      Thanks for the feedback, all!

  11. I like the idea of polling them beforehand. I think it would be a little evil to make somebody relive the pain of a miscarriage/abortion/birth defect/etc. without making an effort to avoid hurting somebody.

  12. yeah, a quick poll is in order i think. personally, i think it sounds like an awesome concept, but i know some of my players would be disturbed to the detriment of the game.

  13. I think with this, you are crossing the line a bit. The difference between horror and just being gross, filled with bad taste, can be a fine line.

    Having each skeleton contain the another skeleton inside, great idea. The skeleton inside being skeletons of babies? Its in bad taste. From another point of view, have you ever run screaming from a baby (aside from a stinky diaper)? Its just not really scary. They are best used as symbol of innocence.

    Here is another take you can go with it that might be more fitting, yet still have horror you seek. Skeleton remains of cannibals, those who were lost in the dungeon or otherwise had no way out and did the unthinkable, ate other people. The hunger was so much, that even in death, it was never sated – always seeking more flesh it cannot ever swallow being nothing more then bones.

    The skeleton of the victims, seeking to be closer to their own flesh that was stolen from them, curl up in misery in the stomachs or chest cavities of the one cannibal skeleton that had ate the most of them. When the host carrying them gets destroyed or attack, they victim skeletons jump out to defend their “homes.”

    Its a suggestion, but one I think is more fitting for the effect you were looking for and I think you would have more impact. Especially if you, as the DM, have writings on walls or penned in scrolls of the horrors that had happened of when the cannibalism originally taken place in the past to clue in what they are really facing and could become themselves should they fall victim to those skeletons.

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