Horror Games Take Initiative in the Tabletop RPG Scene

Slice N’ Dice explores tabletop role playing games of all types, bringing you reviews and commentary from every corner of the tabletop-playing world.

My idea of a perfect Friday night transitioned from LAN Party to tabletop games right around the time my friend plunked a shiny new book down on the table, looked at me with the zealous fire of a convert in his eyes and declared, “This is Dungeons and Dragons. I think you’re going to like it.”

I was hooked. My friends and I spent hundreds of hours poring through rulebooks, drooling over miniatures, and screaming at die results. We hit every trope in the books. Ride a dragon? Check. Start a tavern fight? Double check. Randomly fall in love with this one minor character and completely derail the plot to save them? Every time. And there was more: Dungeons and Dragons was also my gateway drug to horror games.

To be fair, Dungeons and Dragons already had its fair share of horror built into it. Aside from your garden variety of ghosts, ghouls, and vampires, there were hyenas whose faces peeled back to the bone when they attacked and the gibbering mouther that was basically a mound of tentacle-flesh-muscle covered in teeth and eyeballs. Long before Stranger Things, we had stat-ed out custom monsters who lived in walls and were only corporeal enough to kill in total darkness. We didn’t consciously set out to tell horror stories (mostly); they came naturally as we sought to explore the darker side of our collectively built world.

Slice N' Dice
Tabletop roleplaying games, of which Dungeons and Dragons is the most famous, are an ideal but largely untapped medium for telling horror stories. For those unfamiliar with the games, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) are games about collaborative storytelling. They’re also sometimes referred to as pen-and-paper RPGs. Unlike their cousin, board games, the key component of a TTRPGs is that the fiction matters. In board games, you could strip away that gorgeous artwork, nix the flavor text, and boil the whole thing down to a series of numbers and the game would still be playable. Boring, but playable. TTRPGs often have similar fixings to board games such as dice, game tokens, stat blocks, and so forth, but in their case, without the story, there isn’t a game.

Story is the number one reason I show up at the table for a TTRPG. Building a story together is like the best parts of writing a book, theater, a video game, and a movie combined. You get to build an engaging world, create interesting characters, and tell compelling stories with real-time audience reactions. If you ever enjoyed telling ghost stories at sleepovers as a kid, this is your wheelhouse. Better yet, you don’t know how the story ends. Dice, cards, and other conflict resolution mechanics keep the narrative moving in unexpected ways. Also, everyone brings their own ideas to the table, so you have the pleasure of being both audience and actor within the tale.

Bluebeard's Bride

My first discovery that TTRPGs were a good way to have fun scaring each other was an accident. It was, quite fittingly, one Halloween early on in my tabletop gaming career. I was charged with running the game that night. While browsing through the monster manual, I came across the entry for “hag”: a monster which is basically the evil witch in the woods of every fairytale ever. Inspired, I decided to run a game that was a retelling of Hansel and Gretel, with the players sent in to rescue the missing youngsters. Because I was born an overachiever, I built a to-scale dungeon map of the witch’s house out of literal candy, using kitkat bars for walls, gummies impaled on toothpicks for swinging doors, and chocolate coins for loot. We killed the lights, lit some candles for ambiance, and got busy rolling dice to find out how the intrepid adventurers fared against the forces of evil (and candy).

The players did a pretty good job battling through the house and arrived at the final boss. They were already skittish from some surprise firebats roosting in the eaves and a couple undead that had put them in a tight spot before being returned to the dust from whence they came. The party rogue did the traditional search for traps and then cautiously eased open the door to the final boss room. His roll to remain undetected fell just shy of a success.

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“An old woman stoops by the fire,” I intoned. “She turns slowly towards you. Her hair is stringy and matted. Her teeth are crooked with large gaps between them and she looks ancient beyond natural human years. Her mouth opens in what must be meant as a smile. ‘Nibble, nibble little mouse,’ she moans. ‘Who is nibbling-’.”

“SHIT,” the player cut me off. His chair made a scraping sound as he physically backed away from the table. “NO. I slam the door and run.”

Elderly, cannibalistic dames with odd tastes in architecture didn’t become my go-to for horror stories, but it marked a discovery for me that being scared could be fun. Monsters with stat blocks eventually lost their appeal, but fortunately, like the horror genre itself, TTRPGs cover a huge range of settings, topics, and intensities.

Slice N' Dice

Thanks to game design innovations in the last twenty years or so, games now spans everything from monster-of-the-week-style play to intensive psychological thrillers. Like vampires? Try Vampire the Masquerade or Undying. The latter is great for vampire court intrigue, and the former is famous for its extensively built-out world-lore. More of a slashers fan? Final Girl (the RPG, not the movie) is a good starting place. In the mood for zombies? Check out World of Darkness, and make sure you take some time to enjoy the flavor text while you’re there. If you’re looking to dial up the intensity, Bluebeard’s Bride is an excellent gothic horror and psychological thriller. There are more titles being added to the ranks every year.

Dungeons and Dragons was only the beginning for me; many other games followed. TTRPGs cut out the middleman and let me enjoy horror stories without having to wait for someone else to make them. They’re an incredible way to experience horror afresh and have a hand in crafting the stories that haunt you.

What I’m saying is: These are tabletop rpgs. I think you’re going to like them.

Happy gaming, everyone.

Looking to expand your tabletop playing experience? Check out some Slice N’ Dice reviews and pick out a new game for yourself and your friends. If you’d like to read more of what I’ve written, you can visit my website at www.glitchlogs.com where I write about cyberpunk and keep readers updated on my book series, The Glitch Logs. Also, make sure to follow me on Twitter.



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