Halloween or ‘Spooky Christmas’ is a fantastic time of year, and the perfect excuse to get watching horror movies and playing horror games.
There are plenty of great horror board games, but board games can only go so far. They can present the tropes and themes of horror, but if you want people to actually feel fear them here are some role-playing games to immerse and terrify your friends.
Dread, if you want to see the tension build, build, build and then come crashing down
Dread is amazing. If you want to see your players go about playing a game like they’re defusing a bomb, this is the right place to go.
Dread’s character creation is gloriously simple; it’s about nine questions per character on a questionnaire. That’s it. The GM side has a little more work but you’ve got three premade scenarios in the book and a few others on RPGgeek.
When a player tries to do something, they have to pull from The Tower. They can give up at any time but will know they’ve failed to go what they were aiming for. If they pull the block, place it on top of the tower and nothing falls then they’re good and do the thing. If the tower falls then that character is killed or otherwise removed from the game. Dread is short, so player elimination isn’t too bad. There’s also a kid version called Dread House which lets eliminated players take on the role of monsters (elimination in this case being the characters fleeing the spooky house rather than being killed).
The book itself goes into ‘the metaphor of the tower’ and what it means, but most people can already guess. The players start out confident and as they pull more blocks from the tower it gets shaky. It’s like the rising tension in a horror film and the moment when the tower falls is when everything goes to hell. Then the eliminated player rebuilds the tower (less a few blocks, to start things in a more tense position) and we continue.
Final Girl, if you want to watch several people getting picked off one-by-one
In Final Girl, you get to play both the monster and the characters it’s hunting. This game could reflect Scream, Friday the 13th, even Predator.
You get a rough premise and build a deck of characters who should be simple tropes, “Clyde, the creepy twin”, “Margo, the crazy cat lady” and “Gerry, the first-time cultist” are all good examples.
The characters go through a few scenes to see who’s got relationships with each other and then the murders begin. You all trade the killer around, picking off at least one person per scene. These could be near-slapstick style deaths like in my full review or a direct attack from a brutal John Carpenter monster like in my most recent game. Attacks are played using a simple card system, looking to get a high card with suits breaking ties. People might go back and forth with the monster, just about escaping or running out of cards to protect themselves.
This is a game where you are encouraged not to be precious with characters. Play their tropes hard and watch them get destroyed, all but the Final Girl. Whoever had the most characters die decide whether or not the Final Girl gets away. Like Dread there’s timing for the game and the narrative baked in, giving it a finite conclusion. This is where some games can perfectly represent a horror film experience.
Final Girl is a pay what you want game by Bret Gillan and can be bought here.
Chronicles of Darkness, in case you want to be the monster
American Horror Story is a great fun show, which often starts out with humans but focuses increasingly on monsters. They could be vampires, ghosts, witches… They’re all intrinsically human in their own ways, but they are still horrors often facing off against even greater horrors. Some wrestle with their humanity and some give in to their inner monster at the perfectly worst time.
The Chronicles of Darkness (formerly World of Darkness) line of books are all about personal horror. You can make a human using the core book, but Vampire: The Requiem and the other books all allow players to be the monsters from horror movies. The thing is, it’s always at a cost.
You’re a vampire; cool, disaffected, given all kinds of weird powers. But you’re also a person with a life, an aversion to sunlight, specific dietary requirements and some weird new local politics to contend with.
You’re a werewolf, but you’ve inherited the duty of protecting the spirit world and rival tribes of wolves are looking to destroy those who would keep their humanity.
You’re a mage filled with hubris, a ghost trying to live life to the full, a Frankenstein trying to become human.
Unlike a lot of the games here, Chronicles of Darkness works really well for campaigns.
Monsterhearts 2, if you want to experience the mad horrors of adolescence while also being a monster
I’m going to have to write about Monsterhearts in a longer article one day. It’s one of my favourite uses of the Powered by the Apocalypse rule systems and one of my favourite RPGs hands-down.
In Monsterhearts you play a monstrous teenager, in the style of trashy television shows & films, but there’s more to it than that. The influences are things like Buffy, Vampire Diaries, Moth Diaries, Ginger Snaps and even Twilight, to set the tone and give you an idea about what you’ll be getting into.
Like all that media, monsterhood is a metaphor for the teenage experience, a special kind of horror we’ve all been subject to. The Mortal is like Bella Swan or Xander Harris, co-dependent on things much bigger and stranger than them. The Ghoul is a walking dead person who binges on fear, power or human flesh. The Infernal has a devilish sugar daddy who’ll give them a fix for a cost. The Ghost sits in the back of the class, invisible to most, blaming anyone other than themselves for their lot. I was definitely a ghost.
Where D&D can be an RPG about resolving most things through fighting or stealing, Monsterhearts’ stats, moves and rules are all about what’s important to these kind of paranormal dramas. Characters’ stats measure how Hot, Cold, Volatile and Dark they are. You’re a kid so you ‘lash out physically’ instead of simply fighting. This means you’re likely to go too far, give away some weakness of your own or trigger your Darkest Self. The Darkest Self is permission to do terrible things in line with your particular kind of monster. A Witch starts cursing everyone, a Werewolf goes berserk, a Mortal betrays the supernatural.
The part which made this game a tricky sell initially for my group is something which other PbtA games also often have. Sex Moves. As you can probably guess, these are rules which trigger when characters have sex and they are important to the game. They will not happen all the time, but sex in these kinds of shows is important, it’s relevant to the characters and there are consequences. In Buffy season two she slept with Angel and he went evil. It was a massive change in the show and one their relationship never quite recovered from. In Monsterhearts there’s a lot of talk about embracing the queer narrative of this kind of media. It’s the first time I ever saw this in an RPG and has only enhanced the gleeful, horrendous angst we’ve all felt in our games.
I’ve only triggered a Sex Move one once so far, as a Vampire in a Google Hangout game. Cassius was incredibly vain, so of course the one person he could find true love with was a Cuckoo who looked exactly like him. It went from weird stalking (from both sides) to something kind of charming. Then when they went off to a private room in a house party, I realised the Sex Move of the Vampire was to deny a person, sexually. Of course, Vampires are cold and aloof, despite being hypnotic and drawing people in. I had to break that Cuckoo’s heart and it was a wrenching scene. I think we still all shipped the pair at the end and if the series carried on, I’m sure we would have all wanted Cassius to get over his fool self.
I ran Monsterhearts 2 at Free RPG Day and one player was completely new to role-playing games. She’d created a Queen and played her hard. There was one point where she got up from the table and looked like she was going to leave in disgust at her horrible manipulations of her minions and the other players. She’d touched a nerve and hadn’t even used any supernatural aspects in the scene. Then she returned to the table and I checked in to make sure she was okay. She was and channelled this self-induced horror to get a better handle on the character. The Queen was a brilliant, horrible part of the cast for the game.
Monsterhearts 2 is the current incarnation of the game. It’s able to be bought here. Avery Alder is possibly one of my favourite game designers of all time and even if you’re too scared to run MH2, I would recommend reading it as a way of learning how to present your books.
Lovecraftesque, if you want Lovecraft-style tales of a single person investigating horrors, probably leading to their own downfall
Lovecraftian fiction is almost always about an individual who discovers things aren’t as they seem and begins picking at clues like the skin of a horrific onion.
As the journey continues, things get weirder until everything goes to hell, often meaning a dark end for the protagonist.
There are Lovecraftian games like Call of Cthulhu, where groups of investigators can fight monsters or solve mysteries, but this game by Josh Fox and Becky Annison did a great job at distilling the fiction and what Lovecraftian characters do.
Players take turns being one character owned by everyone, the Narrator who challenges them and Watchers who add flavour to the story. You can make your own scenario or choose from tons of premade ones, setting up a mystery everyone will define as they play.
You’re encouraged to leap to wild conclusions about where the story’s going, especially as each player will only have knowledge of one aspect of the mystery. This helps direct things as you go through a couple of investigative acts and then a Journey into Darkness where everything escalates out of control. The final act whirls around from player to player, making things faster and darker as we get to the end and the horrors that wait.
As a final note, Lovecraft is difficult to talk about without bringing up his racism, sexism, issues with mental health and so on. Much like Fantasy Flight Games, Lovecraftesque’s presentation is brilliantly inclusive. Beyond that, there are essays about how to make Lovecraftian horror while being inclusive. In this game, you actually get to be better than Lovecraft was in his fiction, but also embrace the specific style of his horror stories more than Call or Trail of Cthulhu.
Lovecraftesque can be bought here.
Dead of Night, if you want a trope-fuelled story about surviving monsters
The Descent, Dog Soldiers and 28 Days Later are all games which come to mind when I’ve played Dead of Night. The latter especially, as a designer of the game has run, “28 Months Later” for me and some friends at the Dragonmeet convention.
There aren’t strange new mechanics like Dread or Final Girl, but instead they skew a little closer to traditional games. You have stats and you’re rolling a pair of d10s to beat a difficulty rating. The thing is, there are some mutations. There’s only one pair of dice and once you’ve rolled them, you can’t roll them again until someone else has. This creates a ‘talking stick’ style of giving control over scenes to other players. It’s difficult for more vociferous players to dominate conversations and an elegant way of living without initiative to keep track of when things happen.
The stats themselves are paired in combinations like Obscure/Identify, Assault/Protect. You split points between each of them, but you can use Survival Points to flip the stats when it’s dramatically relevant. You can also use Survival Points for moves like, “I’ve Got Just the Thing!” to locate a handy weapon or reveal that the keys were left in the glove compartment. Oh, but Survival Points also count as your health. You lose them and you’re dead, or a zombie, or a weird Cronenberg monster. You gain them by playing along with horror tropes; investigating mysterious noises alone or dropping a weapon immediately after hitting a monster with it.
Dead of Night focuses on monster-based horror, but the scope within that realm is huge. There are premade adventures, small pitches in the form of synopses of fictional horror movies and a lot of resources to hack the system.
These are honourable mentions, only because I haven’t played them yet. I’ve read each of them and they look fantastic.
Annalise – A Gothic horror in the style of Dracula, Carmilla and The Moth Diaries. Players are drawn into the web of some strange, enticing monster. Can you resist it, or will you become prey? You can make your own horror to face or use one of several playsets including a retelling of Dracula, compromised superheroes or a doomed voyage of the East India Company. You can buy the book here, and it’s recently launched a print on demand version.
Bluebeard’s Bride – An incredibly dark re-telling of the Bluebeard’s Bride fairytale. You all play The Bride, each taking on an aspect of her character, passing control back and forth or stealing it from each other. You were married to Bluebeard and left alone in his home, allowed to roam in all but one room. The exploration of the rooms and the horrors within test the bride. It feels reminiscent of Silent Hill and the works of Guillermo del Toro. I would definitely recommend listening to the Actual Play podcasts by The Jank Cast and the One Shot Podcast. The game itself can be bought here.
Cthulhu Dark – This is a micro-system which deals with Lovecraftian horror. The rules themselves can fit on a bookmark, they’re so small. It’s nice and simple, with rolls divided between ‘investigating’ and ‘not investigating’. If you fight a person it counts as the latter and if you fight a monster you just die because this is Lovecraftian horror and frankly what did you expect? You can risk your mental stability to get a better chance at success with your rolls. Like Lovecraftesque, this feels like something more thematically resonant with Lovecraft’s work than Call of Cthulhu. I love the simplicity of the game which can be found here. There is an expanded edition due out with ideas for hacking the system and settings to use. You can find out more here.
Ravenloft – Okay, this one I’ve played but it’s here because it’s not really horror. Ravenloft is a campaign setting (world) to use for Dungeons & Dragons. Originally this world was used for one fantastic adventure pitting players against Strahd von Zarovich (fantasy Dracula). More games used the world and it became a weird haven for horrors. Mists confine people to different domains ruled by different Deathlords, both rulers and the ultimate prisoners of Ravenloft. Every time I’ve run it, terrible things have happened to players. My favourite example is when werewolves captured them and gambled on the group pit-fighting a giant wolf. My brother’s old character became an evil god and was trapped there. People lost their health, their favourite items and their shadows to Ravenloft. It’s most recently been seen in the Curse of Strahd adventure for D&D 5th Edition which looks pretty awesome. D&D is a power fantasy though, and a tricky beast to make into a horror game.
Ten Candles – In an RPG, atmosphere can be everything. Ten Candles oozes with atmosphere; a tragedy where the world is going dark, lights are going out. You use ten candles in the centre of the table, some recording devices to create an opening journal entry for each character, then you play through their last days. As scenes close, you snuff out candles, getting further and further into darkness until all light is gone. This isn’t a horror story you survive, it’s a tragedy. No one is getting away, but there might be some beautiful, fascinating moments to be had in this world. You can find out more and look at photos of candles here.
Those are my suggestions about games to make for a fun, spooky experience. If you’ve had some fun times with horror games, throw some recommendations in the comments!