Michael Addison is the author of the indie RPG The Curse of the House of Rookwood. It’s a rules-lite system that conjures up family drama and supernatural adventure in true gothic style.
The game is coming to Kickstarter, but right now you can get the playtest version for free.
As Halloween is coming up, Michael very kindly offered to put together a list of some interesting horror RPGs, their strengths and weaknesses. Who better to review spooky tabletop action?
Supernatural 20s: 8 innovative horror RPGs you can play on Halloween
By Michael Addison.
With Halloween fast approaching, you may be looking for a way to get your spooky on and simultaneously enjoy the awesome, imagination-fueled hobby of roleplaying games.
The creepy old grandfather clock of Halloween is ticking, and who has time to read a bunch of new rulebooks on short notice? You could just fall back on an old standby like Call of Cthulhu, your mouldy old World of Darkness collection, or even an excursion into mist-shrouded Ravenloft. But the good news is, there are a lot of horror (and horror-adjacent) rpgs that have come out in the last few years, ranging from Goonies-esque adventures of children on bicycles to emo vampire journaling you can play by yourself.
Here are some gems I’ve had a chance to play recently, and hopefully you will find the perfect coffin-fit for your own spooktacular game night.
Lovecraftesque by Becky Annison and Josh Fox
Genre: Cosmic Horror
Premise: A gmless storytelling game where the players share control of a single protagonist in a Lovecraftian tale of dread. Instead of presenting the Cthulhu mythos in exacting detail, the game provides structured play that guides players to create their own cosmic horror story, leaving the details in the creative hands of the players. You’ll take turns in the roles of Witness, Narrator, and Watcher, which rotate each scene. The Witness plays the protagonist, making choices for them and describing their inner thoughts. The Narrator presents the scene and narrates the dangers and obstacles that menace the protagonist. Everyone else plays a Watcher, interjecting creepy embellishments into the scene. The story culminates with a final confrontation with the looming terror.
Who Will Like It: Fans of literary horror or art films like The VVitch or Midsommar will find the structured play a great fit for creating a tale of pending dread with an inevitable reveal at the end.
What I Thought of It: My group found our portrayal of the single protagonist to shift dramatically from player to player, which detracted somewhat from our experience. Where the game shines is in the opportunity to embellish the story with small details. Witness and Narrator players have a lot to shoulder for a scene, but being able to interject creepy sights, sounds, and smells — oh the smells! — as a Watcher was fantastic fun.
Where to Find It: blackarmada.com/lovecraftesque/
One Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings
Players: 1… or more!
Premise: You are an ancient vampire whose existence spans centuries. Through the use of simple journal entries, you create the life and unlife of your character. The book provides writing prompts that lead your vampire down a path of death, betrayal, and destruction. The catch is that each prompt that you answer creates a Memory, and as the decades and centuries pass, you can only hold on to so many memories. Time waits for no vampire, and you must choose which parts of your self to lose!
Who Will Like It: Fans of Anne Rice, Dracula, or What We Do In The Shadows are in for a treat here. Regardless what time and place you choose to start your tale, the writing prompts lead you to pitch-perfect vampire moments. Designed for solo play, but the game includes rules for playing concurrently with other players, allowing you to weave your vampires’ histories together.
What I Thought of It: I loved it! Immediately wanted to play again. The children of the night, what sweet music they make!
Where to Find It: tyov.backerkit.com/hosted_preorders
Tales From The Loop by Matt Forbeck et al.
Genre: Nostalgia, Kids Save The Day
Premise: You play as misfit kids in a strange past-that-never-was based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag. Hulking mechs, fog-covered particle accelerators, and eerie mystery-lights haunt a mundane, suburban landscape drawn straight from old Polaroid photographs. The book comes with two pre-made settings, adjudicated by a GM. Player are guided through some background choices for their characters in playbook style, and rate their characters in d6s, 1 to 10, based on their areas of talent. The rules are simple, any die that rolls a 6 is a success, and usually you need a single success to accomplish your goal. While not strictly horror, the game lends itself to mystery or creepy science fiction.
Who Will Like It: Fans of Goonies, Stranger Things, or the art of Simon Stålenhag may want to check it out.
What I Thought of It: The character archetypes are spot-on, and my group had a lot of fun making our characters. The combination of wildly varying dice pools and needing a 6 to succeed was a bit frustrating, and overshadowed the fun of the game a bit. That said, in the hands of good GM there could be a lot of fun to be had here.
Where to Find It: www.modiphius.net/collections/tales-from-the-loop
Kids on Bikes by Jonathan Gilmour and Doug Lewandowski
Genre: Nostalgic Horror, Kids Save The Day
Premise: You play kids in a small town where not everything is as it appears. The game puts the details of the setting into the hands of the players. Robust world-building tools guide you through town creation with a series of thoughtful questions, allowing you to breathe life into both your characters and the town they live in. Something strange is afoot, and you will soon become entangled with a mysterious Powered Character who is connected with the strangeness. Once revealed, the Powered Character becomes a story element that all players control together.
Who Will Like It: Fans of E.T., Stranger Things, or Stephen King novels are well-served here. While very similar in appeal to Tales From The Loop, Kids differs in its setting-first approach and its shared Powered Character.
What I Thought of It: The world-building is fantastic (though if you are in a hurry, the deluxe edition comes with a variety of pre-made towns written by a talented host of designers). The character archetypes are a bit shallow, but it’s a weakness that is overcome by the relationship questions asked at the beginning of a game.
Where to Find It: www.renegadegamestudios.com/kids-on-bikes
Murderous Ghosts by Meguey Baker and D. Vincent Baker
Genre: Haunted House
Players: 2, or 2 teams!
Premise: One player is an explorer that has become lost in a haunted, abandoned building. The other player portrays the murder-ghosts lying in waiting as the explorer tries to escape. After a few quick story decisions made by both players, procedural play guides both players through an exploration of the haunted house, like a combination of Choose Your Own Adventure and the world’s creepiest flowchart. Tension builds as the explorer gets closer and closer to the exit, hoping not to draw the attention of the ghosts that are trapped in the last horrific moments of their lives. The game can be played with just two players, or as a party game where several players share decision-making for the explorer.
Who Will Like It: Fans of The Haunting of Hill House, J-horror, and urban exploration blogs.
What I Thought of It: I played it with a friend in a darkened, candlelit room at night, and we had a blast. The procedural aspect takes a few beats to become familiar, but we were engaged with the story rather than the system by the end. If you plan to play the ghost role, it’s worthwhile to think up some creepy imagery beforehand in case you stall out of ideas.
Where to Find It: lumpley.itch.io/murderous-ghosts
Dread by Nathaniel Barmore and Epidiah Ravachol
Premise: Dread is a suspenseful horror game that uses a Jenga tower in place of dice. It’s simple and versatile, and can be used for just about any type of horror story. Whenever the outcome of a character’s actions are uncertain, the player must draw a block from the tower. If the tower falls, their character is dead, gone mad, or otherwise lost from the story. The rules include pre-made scenarios, and more can be found online. Character creation is done questionnaire-style, with an emphasis on the relationships, fears, and regrets a character brings into the scenario.
Who Will Like It: If you like horror films with lone survivors or live haunted house attractions, this might be your optimal horror game. The very real tension of drawing a tower block is superimposed over the fictional tension of your character. The “official” scenarios for the game are a little cookie-cutter — an axe murderer in the woods, a werewolf on a canoeing trip, or a derelict ship floating in space. However, it’s not hard to find great fan-made scenarios on itch.io and other platforms, and you can certainly create your own.
What I Thought of It: The questionnaire style character creation was quick and resulted in connected, nicely fleshed out characters. We played the werewolf scenario, and it felt a bit predictable, but gave us plenty to work with. One player found that the real-life stress of pulling blocks actually took her out of the story experience, rather than enhancing it. YMMV.
Where to Find It: www.tiltingatwindmills.net/games/dread/
Mothership by Sean McCoy
Genre: Sci-Fi Horror
Premise: You are the crew of a beleaguered space freighter in a dark and dangerous future. Space is inhospitable and full of unspeakable horrors, and you are soft, squishy, and prone to asphyxiation. Simple rules and a streamlined character creation system quickly put you into orbit then get out of the way of the terrible things that will befall you in the endless black void. You can play as Teamster, who is tough but not particularly skilled; a trigger-happy Marine that causes everyone else to panic when they panic; a creepy Scientist; or a creepier Android, who unnerves the non-Androids around them.
Who Will Like It: Fans of Alien/Aliens, Dead Space, and Event Horizon will LOVE this game.
What I Thought of It: The system is brutal and unforgiving, and the way that negative status effects cascade from character to character, making a bad situation worse, is brilliant. We started the Dead Planet scenario, and I can’t wait to finish it.
Where to Find It: www.tuesdayknightgames.com/mothership
Gentleman Bandit: Dark Highway by Allison Arth
Genre: Existential Horror
Players: 1 (or more)
Premise: You are a highway robber that has met their demise and returned as a ghoulish haunt. Following a series of prompts generated by drawing cards from a poker deck, you craft a 13-line poem extolling your ghoulish existence. It plays in about an hour, and includes rules for creating several poems together as a linked narrative, as well as rules for playing with a group. Dark Highway is an expansion for the original game, and requires a copy of the core rules.
Who Will Like It: Fans of The Decemberists, Adam Ant, or Johnny Cash that are feeling especially lyrical.
What I Thought of It: I took the time to write each line of my poem neatly on a nice sheet of fancy paper, and the end results were quite satisfying. Remember, this poem is just for you, so if you don’t feel that you are particularly gifted at poetry, don’t let that stop you from trying it out. My first poem didn’t come out as thematically consistent as I hoped, but I think future attempts will come out better.
Where to Find It: allisonarth.itch.io/gentleman-bandit-dark-highway
JiangShi by Banana Chan and Sen Foong Lim
Genre: Chinese Horror/Family Drama
Premise: This game is still in development, but I had a chance to play it last month. You play a family of Chinese immigrants that own a restaurant, and are struggling to maintain their family business when creatures from folklore, Jiang Shi, threaten their neighborhood. Each character is a member of the family, and your hopes and fears tie closely with other family members. As a group, you share the same pool of dice — 8-sided, because 8s are lucky. Roll a 4, and misfortune befalls you! The game is structured in Morning, Day, and Night. Morning is spent divvying chores to keep the restaurant running. Day will see you dealing with customers surly or strange as you do you best to earn a living. Night is when the Jiang-Shi come, “hopping vampires” from traditional lore. With each passing day, your dice pool shrinks and danger builds as you try to survive to the final night. The designers are currently looking for a publisher, so keep an eye out for this one in the future!
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