Night of the Living Gamer
By C. Demetrius Morgan
It has been said, by some, that Halloween is a fast dying holiday. While it may be true enough that some few communities in the past have sadly allowed the holiday to fade due to adult inaction, and a few communities have attempted to ban the holiday altogether - all for the sake of “keeping children safe” - the moldering corpse of this fun, fright-filled holiday lingers on. Good thing, says I, for children are merely pint-sized adults. You can’t hide the truth from them no matter how hard you try. So why bother? Eventually they will discover all the lies, and the longer you try to keep them from seeing the world as it really is, the more they will resent you for it later in life. So what’s the answer?
Adapt and reclaim Halloween on your own terms!
Typically, Halloween parties will have tried and true tricks, such as having guests bring pumpkins for pumpkin carving contests. And costumes, of course! Costume parties are arguably the best. Every dread ghostess knows that her guests have to come dressed for haunting good times, which is why she takes the time to get the decorations just right. There’s peeling grapes to create faux eyes, and making front yard scarecrows out of old clothes stuffed with newspaper. And let’s not forget adding food coloring to melted butter to create blood drenched popcorn, or spooking the Halloween punch with a giant ice cube made in a plastic glove. Beyond all these things there is one undying question...
Why not game? Role-playing, that is. It can be a real treat.
The decorations and munchies all set upon the table with uncare; no Halloween party would be complete without entertainment to stir despair. All of us have a tape or CD of Halloween sounds, the perfect background mood music to have playing while we cue up our favorite horror Amovies or tune into whichever channel is offering a Halloween movie marathon this year. All these things we know and enjoy. While a gothic Halloween party can be fun just think how much more fun Halloween might be with a quick one-shot horror game session! It can be humorous or in poor taste, tastefully done or based off some movie, just so long as everyone is having fun. If not this night of all nights, when props exist aplenty, and every one should find themselves with reasonable excuse to dress as wizards or witches, then when?
That’s right, there’s no reason why a Halloween get together can’t be planned around playing a role-playing game. Ah, but which role-playing game to choose? There are so many with great potential, games that seem custom-made for Halloween like C.J. Carella’s Witchcraft, or Call of Cthulhu. Indeed, the most important consideration after the game having a theme that ties into Halloween is simplicity. The game should be quick to pick up and have a premise that’s fun and easy to understand so everyone can join in, even the freshly risen vampire noobs!
So where to begin? First, begin with a plan. Set this up like any other get together. Just remember this should be a Halloween party. Make sure you have the space and the bodies to fill it. Of paramount importance are munchies. If you have the time, and inclination, prepare some Halloween themed munchies. The bloody popcorn is always a crowd pleasure, as are Halloween candies (just remember to balance out the sugary sweets with drinks). Second, choose a game with a suitable theme. Ghost stories are a staple of Halloween, as are many other cinematic-themed games involving vampires, werewolves, or zombies. Try to pick something that can be played as a one-shot. Third, set the mood. Music, costumes, and decorations should all be chosen well in advance. This is Halloween after all, so choosing a theme that compliments your horror game shouldn’t be difficult. Fourth, have fun. Don’t worry about rules or creating detailed characters.
The easiest, and perhaps potentially most enjoyable method is to adapt your favorite horror movie to the role-playing system most familiar to your gaming group. lternatively, using a system that you feel best recreates a style of play reflective of the movie is also possible, and in certain cases more appropriate. But wait! Not just any role-playing game will do. Oh no, for the denizens of Halloween are unique, thus you need a game with a good monster portfolio. True, Dungeons & Dragons has monsters aplenty, as do most fantasy role-playing games, but which monsters to choose?
Zombies, Vampires, or Werewolves?
Next to werewolves and vampires, the monster perhaps most associated with horror and Halloween is the zombie. Whether you’re thinking of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, or a spoof like Shaun of the Dead, everyone knows the genre clichés by heart. The hardest part will be choosing a set of game rules. True, some role-playing games are more suited to this genre than others, but only a few are custom designed for it.
For instance the obvious choices are All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Army of Darkness: The Role-Playing Game (assuming it gets released), GURPS Horror, or perhaps JAGS Horror. However D20 or D20 Modern may also be a feasible alternative given the existence of supplements such as Blood and Brains: The Zombie Hunter’s Guide, The Slayers Guide to Undead, Come for the Reaping, and Lords of the Night: Zombies.
Don’t like zombies? Then there’s always the tried and true warty-faced, cauldron-stirring witch with her black cat familiar, those vile and villainous crypt-dwelling vampires, the elusive-yet-seductive dark fairies, closet-dwelling skeletons, maliciously grinning dwarven goblins and their angry green hobgoblin kin, to name but a few of the spirits that wander the night on Halloween. And of course jack-o-lanterns and candy treats to ward against them all! (Not that they ever were of much use against the old headless horseman...)
All these frightful critters most fantasy role-playing games should support, as should the popular generic rule sets such as GURPS, JAGS, Risus, FUDGE, and of course D20. However, for genre-specific movies or movies set in specific periods of time you will probably want a game that best reflects the setting. Just keep in mind that Halloween themed game sessions can also be the perfect excuse to dust off those aged tomes sitting long disused and forgotten in your library of arcane delights. That’s right, this is the perfect time to reintroduce your gaming group to classic RPGs of yesteryear such as Ghostbusters, Chill, Call of Cthulhu, Bureau 13, Paranoia, or maybe a classic AD&D module like Ravenloft.
And what if you don’t have any of the old classics? Not to worry; there’s more than a few role-playing games and supplements currently on the market that might get the job done.
13 Delightfully Ghoulish Games
It’s true that adapting movies will require a lot of prep time and writing. Miracle workers that we game masters are, sometimes that harsh mistress called reality comes riding in on her broom stick of real life, and has a tendency to rudely intrude. If you’re worried about not having the time to properly set up such a game, or fear that things need to be set up weeks in advance, weeks you just don’t have time to dedicate to the task of adapting a favorite horror movie or show, then you may want to consider an alternative.
So what’s the best alternative should we find ourselves too busy or unable to set aside time to set up the perfect Halloween inspired game? Simple: find a rules light “beer and pretzels” game, something that can be easily set-up and played in a single evening. Don’t have time to run around like a zombie chicken with its head sewn on backwards? No worries. There are quite a few horror RPGs available online. Some are even free!
What follows is a synopsis of thirteen role-playing games whose themes should be suitable for Halloween. Read over each entry and decide for yourself if any of the games sound like something your players would find fun.
Blood and Brains: The Zombie Hunters Guide
67-page D20 Modern splatbook
Blood and Brains is a splatbook designed specifically for one
to recreate the atmosphere of the zombie movie horror sub-genre. The
author has done a superb job, as there are more zombies here than you can shake a chainsaw at. Sample shambling living dead critters include the dire "Zombie, Bloodsucking", dreadful "Zombie, Revenant", and rarefied beasties like the evil sounding "Zombie, Cryonoid" and menacing "Zombie, Kyoshi Spawn". Fifteen occupations are included, which range from Boy Scout, Cheerleader, Mental Patient, Nerd and Jock, to Scream Queen, Mad Scientist, Stoner, and that all-important Y-mart Employee. Overall, this is a very impressive supplement that covers just about everything zombie, from Astro Zombies to Zombie Lake.
Blood Games: Occult Horror Role-Playing
Flying Mice, LLC
This is a monster hunting “modern occult horror role-playing game” in
which religion plays a prominent role, as opposed to merely being part of the forgettable flavor text. Characters come in two basic varieties: those of the Path (supernaturally attuned), and Non-Path (mundane). Overall, the game setting occupies a fantastical realm somewhere between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Exorcist. Blood Games uses the same rule mechanics found in Starcluster 2.
Bump in the Night
59 pages (PDF)
A horror oriented RPG in which players choose from a myriad of monster races. Character races include Vampires, Demons, Were-Creatures, Soul-Less Ones, Constructs, Ghosts, and the Possessed. The game system is rather simple and uncluttered, but otherwise provides a decent framework to build upon. However, being a freebie, there is lack of detailed background, which means the GM will have to do a bit of legwork to create an appropriate milieu. Still, it is available online in both HTML format and as a freely downloadable PDF. It’s worth looking into.
Dead Inside: The Roleplaying Game of Loss and Redemption
128-page horror RPG
Atomic Sock Monkey Press
Price: $13.00 (PDF), $25.00 (POD)
Dead Inside presents a synthesis of ideas drawn from various schools of thought regarding the nature of spirit and the soul, presented within a conceptualized pseudo-cabalistic game environment in which players create characters that are soul-less or soul-lost. The concept is constructed around the idea that the characters, having discovered themselves to be missing part of their souls, must set out to heal their earthly vessels. Dead Inside is powered by the Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) system, a FUDGE like rules lite system, and has great potential to be run as a high concept philosophical game or as just a bit of silly fun. You have to love that.
41 page mini game
Politically Incorrect Games
Ghost Stories is a ready to run mini game that presents a simple, straightforward, and easy to learn minimalist system with four ready to play stock scenarios. All you need are two six sided dice to play. Scenarios include a haunted house mystery in the vein of House on Haunted Hill with shadings of Poltergeist. A scary teen adventure set at a masquerade ball on, appropriately enough, Halloween! This scenario is a tale of classic occult misdirection involving an object of power and a malevolent spirit ala The Legend of Hell House. Next up is a scenario involving an investigation into the supernatural that could have been based on an episode of Twilight Zone, Poltergeist: The Legacy, or maybe a movie like White Zombie. This scenario involves psychic visions and thus should pose an interesting challenge to both GM and players. The final scenario involves a cursed item. The perfect scenario for players who are fans of television series like Friday the 13th, Charmed, or Angel.
With a tagline line of: “Fighting the forces of darkness so you don’t have to,” you just know Inspectres is prime Halloween gaming material. A quick perusal of the free downloadable PDF “startup” shows that this game is centered on a business specializing in ghost hunting, vampire slaying, and research into occult phenomena. A more in-depth look at the full 80 page roleplaying manual and it immediately becomes obvious this RPG has potential to be either a enjoyable root beer and candy corn game, perfect for playing on Halloween, or a serial campaign. The player characters are agents of InSpectres; or rather they’re newly assigned agents to an InSpectres franchise. That’s right, it’s Ghostbusters meets McDonald’s. Problem is, any world that requires an InSpectres franchise on every corner is bound to be full of mystery and intrigue with supernatural horrors aplenty. Can your players handle that?
Before you answer, be aware that while Inspectres is a game of paranormal investigators battling with the preternatural in a world not unlike our own with a tongue-in-cheek hard-boiled slant, it’s also a game that makes use of multiple dice pools. Not everyone likes dice pools. Thus, while the premise is solid, if you feel your players might not enjoy the mechanics it may be best to hop on your broomstick and fly on by to the next entry.
Noche de Los Vampiros
Online HTML Document
Intended to be played in a single night, Noche de Los Vampiros essentially takes the premise of movies like From Dusk Till Dawn and John Carpenter’s Vampires and turns it into a fun beer-n-pretzels role-playing game of survival. This game also uses a dice pool.
Online HTML Document
Pumpkin Town is a cute little Halloween themed RPG in the vein of Nightmare Before Christmas that could be suitable for just about the whole family, depending on how the GM handles it. This pun-filled game centers around the sleepy little village of Pumpkin Town, a cubical world with sugar mines, a graveyard that is a “sprawling labyrinth of tombstones, mausoleums, forlorn crosses and creaking wrought iron gates”, an icky mucky swamp, and a sinister little place called Tentacle Hill where “various herbs and candies grow wild”. Characters include a hodge-podge of Halloween archetypes set apart by unique, and very individual, gimmicks. The game mechanic is fairly simply and boils down to: D10 + Traits + Skill = Result. A nice little game that needs to be converted to PDF.
HTML and PDF
A simple narrative game exploring themes of good and not so good. Characters are essentially versions of the players, with each character having a “Shadow” that literally follows them around trying to get them into trouble. The game use two dice, one assigned to be the “shadow” die, with resolution being roll vs. roll. A very simple system, overall.
Politically Incorrect Games
Unbidden establishes a distinctive style for a modern horror milieu, with a depth of psychological exploration that should appeal to fans of Stephen King novels. The setting presents a darker version of our own unsuspecting world, in which Agents of the Darkness roam. A world of Secret Stories and hidden truths that may or may not be Truth. It is a world sifted through a prism of individual perceptions, a reality shaped by the characters’ personal demons. It is demonic forces against which characters wage a Secret War. The knowledge of these secrets comes unasked for and unwanted, and that is precisely why the game world is Unbidden.
Vault Collection One
(The Whispering Vault)
There is far more to the world than what our mundane senses reveal to us. In this world there are the Unenlightened, mere mortals to whom the Unseen is never revealed, and the Enlightened, whose curiosity and desire to learn has directed them to explore the nature of the Unseen. Alas, and all too often, this leads them into conflict with the Unbidden, entities “from the other side” that at best exist as awkward shadows in our world, the Realm of Flesh. Think of the characters as cousins of the Reapers from Showtime’s Dead Like Me series, only detailed to kick ass and slay horrors rather than free souls to set them on their journey beyond when not sitting in a waffle house feeling sorry for themselves. Vault Collection One includes The Whispering Vault, Dangerous Prey, Smuggler’s Run, and The Book of Hunts.
20 page 24-Hour Game
This is a game about 19th century monster hunters where the setting is the America of the period. Contains the basics for setting up a game, including a number of stock monsters, and character sheets are also included. The game requires at least two players and a deck of cards.
Vs. Monsters Deluxe Edition
This is the “expanded, improved edition” of the game listed above, which presents a “revised and expanded” system including “many more options for characters, new monsters, a look at the world of vs. Monsters, and more”.
Each year, Halloween parties are planned, costumes are donned, and frightful fun times are had by all. Trick or treat? That's the question on every ghoul's mind as they walk down gloom-shrouded paths. Atmosphere and social interaction, friends gathering to make with the scariness, that's what this night should be all about: having fun. Whether you decide to
role-play or not, be safe and enjoy your Halloween.
Copyright © 2004 C. Demetrius Morgan