Nothing beats scary stories around the glow of Jack-O-Lanterns. But here’s the thing. . . you already know how most of the neighborhood stories go right? You can read your friend’s face and know when he will make the boogyman come out. What if there was a way to make them a bit more unexpected this Halloween night?
Well that’s where the dice come in . . . here are five RPGs that are good for tales that go bump in the night.
5. Vampire the masquerade
It might seem weird to place this as number 5 and not as number 1. Afterall, Vampire the Masquerade is the one RPG to ever outsell Dungeons and Dragons. It revolutionized tabletop RPGs by creating a system that placed more emphasis on politics and intrigue over combat and spawned a whole World of Darkness that moved RPG’s out of the PG/PG-13 realm and showed that tabletop could be used to tell deep, disturbing hard-R stories.
The reason why I place it at number 5 is that Vampire isn’t necessarily a good Halloween night game for all players. To really be appreciated it needs a longer campaign. That being said, if you want to start or end a campaign of this deep and brilliant game Halloween night is the way to do it.
Want to learn more? One of the most famous RPG streams is LA by Night, which is a great introduction to this World of Darkness . . .
I am hoping to play this one which my players in a week or two. Grin is very similar to another game on this list in that it mechanic works to create a sense of impending doom.
You have a deck of cards. Each risky action the players take costs 1-3 cards (GM discretion, based on difficulty). There is a joker in the deck that spells death for a character if its drawn. The dwindling deck symbolizes the cold and cruel forces closing in on the characters.
What’s great about this game is that its FREE and ONE PAGE. So if you have some people over for Halloween and need a quick game to play and teach, this is the great way to have some communal story telling without a lot of rules.
3. Monster of the Week
Monster of the Week is easy to teach because the play rules fit on one page, and in addition to this each player rules each player just gets one additional page of rules for their character type. They make their specific character by checking checkboxes on that additional page.
With character creation and rules being a breeze you can get to the monsters.
The games title comes from the TV trope of there being a new monster for the protagonists to battle, every week (think Scooby-Do, X-Files, Buffy, etc. etc.). When I think of Halloween I think of Spooky, but fun, not necessarily strait out horror. And that is what Monster of the Week is, campy, funny, goofy and proud of it. Perfect for a Halloween One-Shot!
2. Cthulhu or Cthulhu Dark
This is a 2 for one. Cthulhu has spawned numerous RPG adaptations the most famous being Call of Cthulhu. I am in a Cthulhu campaign now. Note that the newest edition switches to a D20 style system. The (slightly older) version we are playing is the D% version (built on the Basic Roleplaying System) which I think works very well.
If you want a rules-light Cthulhu game there is a very simple ruleset called Cthulhu Dark. The rules fit on 4 short pages (although a longer book is available). The game allowed you to include an insanity die on rolls where you are willing to risk your sanity to succeed. Your characters sanity is rated 1 (sane) to 6 (bat-shit crazy from seeing too many Cthulhus). If you add an insanity die to a roll and in rolls the highest of the dice you roll for that action, you have to do an insanity roll. Insanity rolls can also be triggered by witnessing horrific things (which in a Lovecraft story, is going to happen quite frequently). If you roll higher than your current sanity, your insanity moves up 1.
Remember, in a Lovecraft themed gain going insane from existential dread is half the fun.
Dread is a favorite amongst RPG fans. It is a diceless and cardless RPG. How does it resolve actions you ask?
With a Jenga Tower.
That’s right, each action the players take requires them to take 1-3 bricks out of the Jenga Tower and the looming, teetering tower comes to symbolize the existential dread the of the nightmares that surround them.
A friend of mine did a Scooby-Doo hack of Dread and IT WAS AWESOME.
What’s great about this one is that even non RPG-fans may be able to appreciate the Jenga mechanic and enjoy giving it a Halloween twist.
What about d20 Games?
Dungeons and Dragons and Starfinder can make good Halloween games as well, plenty of horrors fill The Monster Manual.
One way to make these games better for horror is to have the players make characters specifically for this one-shot, and for-warn them that it will be a high mortality game (if you are going for horror).
In high-fantasy, all the players can make it through if they play right. In horror . . . to keep the suspense sometimes the ax needs to fall, if the monster is to keep credibility.
If you are just going for spooky, and want the party to be alive and kickin’ for next week that can work too, as this episode of Relics and Rarities proves.
The key to making horror work in the D20 system is to really maximize the environment. The place the character’s are exploring should be a character in itself. One of my favorite adventures I wrote was about Starfinders exploring a ship that was half-destroyed just floating through space. As they went room to room different ghosts revealed more of the tragedy that lead to the ships destruction. The final boss was the undead captain whose bitterness had driven him to want to drag other spacefarers to the same end. A tragic backstory can give the narrative weight, even if the players are sure they will be able to make it out in one piece.
Wishing you a Happy Halloween!
Another article from our favorite alien publication, The Martian Muckraker will be coming soon.