Spook up your game!
Autumn has always been my favourite season. Some of it has to do with the turning of the foliage into amazing arrays of reds, oranges, yellows and greens, the early evenings with warm, golden sunsets, the mornings getting colder and everything in nature telling us change is in the air. I associate it with many things that probably have nothing to do with the season. Yet, my experiences, memories and feelings are what makes fall a special time of year for me.
One common association many of us make with autumn, however, is Halloween. For some, it becomes an opportunity to indulge in reading spooky stories, watching scary movies and, of course, trick or treating. For players of the tabletop, it’s an excuse to play some great horror themed boardgames or to add a frightful flavour to role playing adventures. This year, Halloween isn’t cancelled, it’s just going to be a little different. Instead of the usual, staying at home to play some games could prove to be just what you need!
Ready out of the box
If you’re looking for ready to play games and adventures, there is a lot out there: from quick simple ones such as Zombie Dice to big affairs like Mansions of Madness. Let us also not forget family favourites such as Clue. If you’re looking for a good little list of current boardgames that are well suited for a night of frights, check out this post by Dicebraker. To make it 13 on that list, I would definitely add Zombie Dice to it!
For role-players, there are even more options. Dungeons & Dragons DM’s can check out the very latest campaign published by Wizards of the Coast, Rime of the Frostmaiden or the Ravenloft classic, Curse of Strahd, for some long term adventures.
The Great Old Ones
When it comes to horror, many seasoned players like to consider Call of Cthulhu as the ultimate bone chilling tabletop role-playing experience. In stark contrast to D&D, it doesn’t let you play sword wielding, magic using, superhero-like characters. Instead, you get to play mundane, normal people with occupations such as antiquarian, author, doctor of medicine, librarian or pilot. The player-characters find themselves investigating weird and disturbing mysteries, which often leads them to unravel the darkest horrors imaginable, testing their beliefs and their sanity.
“Call of Cthulhu is a game full of secrets, mysteries and horror. Playing the role of a steadfast investigator, you will travel to strange and dangerous places, uncover foul plots and stand against the terrors of the night. You will encounter sanity-blasting entities, monsters and insane cultists. Within strange and forgotten tomes of lore you will find secrets that man was not meant to know. You and your companions may very well decide the fate of the world…”
Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook, 7th Edition
Based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the game does an amazing job at making peril feel omnipresent and does offer one of the best game mechanics around for this type of game. Now in its seventh edition, it can be found in many variations aside from its 1920s setting, including a pulp edition that throws in an Indiana Jones-ey flavour with a stronger focus on action and adventure. There’s also Cthulhu by Gaslight, which takes place in 1890s England or Cthulhu Dark Ages if you want to stay in the medieval ages. You can even find D&D 5th edition and Pathfinder Cthulhu Mythos guides, written by Sandy Petersen, creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG.
There are of course other games that fit the bill, one of the newest ones being the Alien RPG by Fria Ligan. Let’s also not forget the blockbuster RPG of the nineties: Vampire, The Masquerade or one of my all time favourites, a master class of game design: Ghostbusters: A Frightfully Cheerful Role Playing Game!
But Halloween is just one night
In the event you are looking to run a horror themed game just on Halloween night, a one-shot adventure would seem like the best way to do just that. You can download the Quick Start rules of many games for free. They usually include a short scenario, perfect for that very purpose. The big plus of opting for this is that players will be more relaxed, not having to worry about the fate of their character too much.
Inspiration and adaptation
Another approach is to create your own story for the players to risk their alter-egos’ lives in. This requires more work but can ultimately be super fun and very fulfilling. As a Game Master, I often find creating home brew content easier and less time consuming because creating it, or, in this case, conjuring it, lets you own it completely. That, ultimately, makes it easier (and more enjoyable) for me to run games.
So how would I go about adding a little pumpkin spice to our adventures and making them more seasonal? Being a bit of a film buff, I sometimes turn towards that form of storytelling to inspire my own. The trick is that one shouldn’t lift too much from the storyline of a movie. Remember that it’s your players that are in charge of the adventure and of how the tale unravels. Trying to stick too closely to what you might consider the cool and engrossing aspects of a movie will, in most cases, not translate well to tabletop adventures.
Premise is key
Many thrillers and horror movies take place in enclosed spaces, or in a location that makes it impossible to leave its vicinity. This will seem like a big limitation for a party that is used to travel outdoors. Make it work to your advantage as a Game Master and encourage your players to be even more creative and resourceful. Instead of creating multiple locations that act as the scenes of your story, think of events that take place and create a new dynamic for the players to evolve in. Once the stage is set and you have a vague idea of what the players are up against, just let the game unfold.
Some good examples
Here are a few movies that have such a premise and that could easily be used as starting points for suspenseful one shot adventures where the outcome could be just about anything. John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy”, consisting of The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994), offers three completely different stories where the protagonists are faced with a nameless and faceless enemy and are forced to find ways to defeat it and survive with no means of escape. Keep in mind that it isn't your job to annihilate the party but the players’ to find a way out.
There's always room for a creepy Alice Cooper NPC, especially if you lift him from one of his greatest cameos (Prince of Darkness, 1987)
Another good one is Pontypool, where the main characters work for a small town radio station during a snow storm. They soon discover, through listener call-ins, that a deadly virus outbreak is possibly underway. As a game premise, it works outstandingly well. Using outsiders calling in or making their way to the closed location is a great way of helping the players figure out what is happening while bringing in plot twists and always keeping other options open, such as leaving the security of the building to try their luck outside. Whether you use the storm as a means to bring them back to their starting point or discover another location that puts them in even more danger is up to you. Yet, with a set up like this one, you leave players in control instead of pushing them into a corner.
Finding a way to resolve the outbreak - or whatever threat you opted for - should be possible in such a scenario whether you use the movie's clever resolution or one of your own creation. It’s important that a chance of survival is there, regardless of this being a single session adventure. Peril is here to drive the story but it doesn’t mean everyone has to perish. It’s about having fun. And if you are averse to running the adventure with a potential TPK (Total Party Kill), use Tales from the Loop as your rule set. That could make for a cool and fun adventure in the style of Fright Night (1985) or The Lost Boys (1987). Vampire stories would actually work very well as a potentially non-lethal sandbox!
To ensure your game is manageable in terms of preparation and that everyone at the table is free and able to contribute to the story, my advice would be stick to creating a simple situation where the outcome doesn’t have to be anything specific. Using movies as a source of inspiration can be very powerful and entertaining, as long as your own imprint is predominant. The last thing you’d want is for your group to realize that they are playing out the exact scenario of a book or film they know. Find the seeds that encapsulate the essence of a story and apply it to yours. Another approach can of course be to make the source of your inspiration extremely obvious and then turn the whole thing on its head!
Playing horror role-playing games doesn’t just have to be a seasonal thing. You can give your regular game a spooky twist at any time. Dungeons & Dragons is chock full of werewolves, vampires, ghouls, and other undead creatures. All you need is a premise and then just grab that Monster Manual and pick your favourites! Call of Cthulhu is one of the best tabletop role-playing games in the history of the hobby and should be played on any occasion. If you are new to it, just grab the free Quick-Start Rules and run The Haunting, the scenario included within its pages!
Whichever game you prefer, I hope this has given you a few ideas and a little inspiration to make a different kind of Halloween still a memorable evening of scares and fun!
Be safe and take care!
Wouter F. Goedkoop is a multi-faceted designer, artist and storyteller who, after living across Europe decided to find his home in Nova Scotia where he lives with his wife and kids. He helps people and companies connect with their audience in meaningful ways by telling relevant and impactful stories. For commissions and freelance inquiries, please use the form on the contact page.