MURDEROUS GHOSTS Review: Choose Your Own Poltergeist
Written by Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker
Published by Trauma Games
Available in PDF for $10.00
The Major’s Inn is an abandoned Victorian hotel in a forgotten town in upstate New York. Like many resorts of its kind, it didn’t survive the Great Depression. Now it’s been closed and shuttered for decades, crumbling. Some kind of terrible violence happened here. Not just an accident — terrible human violence.
Ghost stories were a staple of the camping trips I took with friends in the backwoods growing up, so when I picked up a copy of Murderous Ghosts, I was already sold on the premise. It’s a one-shot, tabletop RPG. For those of you who haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole labeled “NERD” as far as I have, that means it’s a game that prompts you to tell a story together with the other players. Think Dungeons & Dragons but you can play a whole campaign start-to-finish in an hour. Also, there are no stat blocks.
You are 23, brave, athletic, and smart. You’re an urban explorer, and tonight you’ve been exploring the old abandoned Major’s Inn. You came in through a ground floor window and you’ve been working your way upward for a while. You just came up a grimy narrow staircase and you think this is finally the top. You’ve kept rough track of the turns and staircases, and you’re pretty sure you aren’t lost.
A stated objective of Murderous Ghosts is to creep yourself out, so I grabbed a couple friends and we killed the lights, lit some candles, and got busy playing. One of the features I liked immediately about the system is that the set-up took all of five minutes. The materials are basic: you need a copy of the rules, a deck of playing cards (bonus points if your deck is wreathed in skull artwork), and two or more people. You don’t have to read through the rules before you play, just turn to page one and do what it tells you to do. For long-time DMs who thrive on prep work before a game, you can always go binge-watch your favorite ghost movies ahead of time for ideas. It’ll be difficult, I know, but these are the sacrifices we make for our players.
The game is structured like a multiplayer version of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. You’re collectively telling the tale of an urban explorer whose already deep inside a definitely-haunted abandoned hotel. One player takes the role of the Master of Ceremonies (or MC), narrating the ghosts trying to kill the protagonist. The rest of the players serve as a panel to decide the actions of the protagonist.
The goal on the player’s side is to either survive the murderous ghosts and escape the hotel or help one of the spirits resolve its unfinished business and rest in peace. On the MC’s side of things, your objectives are to creep everyone out and leave troubling questions unanswered. These two win conditions aren’t mutually exclusive, but the rules and the MC are set in opposition to the players and, like all good horror stories, the odds are against them.
You come to a huge set of heavy, wooden double doors. The handles are shaped like soldiers at parade rest, with their rifles resting on their shoulders, their steely eyes fixed upon unseen horrors. Someone has bound the handles together with a belt to prevent the doors from opening. The belt is black, with a golden clasp. It looks strangely new in contrast to its dusty, decaying surroundings.
We named our protagonist Adrian and the story got underway. Trouble began promptly as we went to explore behind a pair of locked double doors. We found ourselves in a burned-out ballroom with a pair of fresh, clean footsteps through the ash across the floor. Adrian—poor, genre-ignorant fool that he was—let the ballroom doors swing shut behind him and went to investigate a dull, wet, thumping sound coming from the adjoining kitchen.
Unlike more mechanics-heavy games like D&D or Shadowrun, the conflict resolution mechanic of Murderous Ghosts is a simple one: you draw from a deck of cards. Aces are one, number cards are their printed value, and all face cards count as 11. If your hand totals 13 – 20, you achieve the best possible outcome of your intended action, 6 – 12 gives you a middling result, and anything lower than 1 – 5 or higher than 21 is a bust, meaning things are about to go horribly wrong for the main character. You can discard your hand at any time prior to a draw, so you’re not just screwed eternally with a bad hand.
Since failure is necessarily on its way, players have to pick their losses, fictionally positioning themselves so that their bust comes at a time when they’re doing something relatively mundane like sneaking past the howling widow of a dead traitor, and not dangling from the fifth story window by their fingertips. On the one hand, it’s a pretty easy system to learn. There’s something nice and dramatic about turning over a card to determine your fate. The downside is, the draw also tends to fall into a predictable pattern. When you know there’s a bust coming approximately every 3 – 4 actions, it takes the teeth out of the tension. In another genre, this flaw would be more forgivable but when suspense is the name of the game, predictability is a drawback of the system.
There’s a man in a disheveled suit on his knees, pounding weakly on the door, pleading as he coughs and chokes on smoke you can neither see nor smell. His hands have been worn raw by the unyielding door and every time his fist slaps weakly against the unforgiving oak, it leaves smears of blood across the paneling. Behind you, the panic of people who know they are about to die crescendos.
Adrian encountered his first ghost in the adjoining kitchen and decided to nope the fuck out of there in a hurry. Unfortunately, the ghosts were set on doing their best impression of “Hotel California” and, while they were cool with him checking out, it was pretty much decided that Adrian could never, ever leave.
A middling success prevented him from being trapped in the ballroom with the eternally-dying shades of a bygone mass-murder (thus burning to death and ending the game) but he still had his leg snapped in half by a vengeful mother slamming a door shut across it. Moms, amirite?
One of the things I really liked about the design of Murderous Ghosts is that the often-debated “meta-gaming” of tabletop RPGs is a non-issue. Since the system is prompting you to tell a story on the spot, it doesn’t matter if you know more than your character. You’re still compelled to say the most interesting outcome, regardless of whether or not it keeps the protagonist safe.
Analysis paralysis can be a problem though. Many of the entries you’re directed to as a player require you to make some choice before you draw your next card. For example, you might have to choose an answer to, “What do you most hope the ghost doesn’t do next?” or, “What do you most hope you don’t do next?” There’s a list each time to choose from, but when several options seem to fit the situation, it can be easy to stall out waffling between them.
If you’re playing in a larger group, this problem is easily resolved by putting it to a vote. In our game with only two character-side players, the discussion process could slow the game down and kill some of the tension. If I play again under those conditions, we’ll need to implement a “first idea goes” rule to keep things moving.
“I’m sorry, son.”
The ghost places his revolver in your hand and slowly raises his empty palm toward his head. Against your will, your own arm mimics the motion and you feel the cold steel of the barrel pressed against your temple. The general’s hand clenches into a fist.
In the end, Adrian never made it out of the Major’s Inn. He got to the garden gate before a bust—two face cards back to back—prompted a ghost general to force Adrian to shoot himself point blank in the head. Adrian roams that garden now, a ghost himself, trailing his broken leg and searching eternally for a way out.
That ending is representative of one of my favorite parts of the game. The system both motivates players to fight hard to survive, but still provides a satisfying conclusion when they don’t. It keeps you guessing right up until the end because, ultimately, neither the players nor the MC knows how this story goes.
Murderous Ghosts isn’t for everyone. It’s no Ghost Busters. If you’re more interested in playing a game that lets you come out on top and put evil in its place, search elsewhere. The player character is constantly on the back foot, staying one step ahead of their doom (if at all). On the other hand, the game provides a huge amount of flexibility in terms of its tone and intensity. There’s also a bailout option for players about to become terminally spooked, allowing the game to end at nearly any point with an, “and then you wake up,” style ending. It’s a handy safety mechanism to have in play, but I’ve never talked to anyone who’s implemented it. The stories the game prompts demand completion.
I’ll probably return to Murderous Ghosts again at some point. It’s a fun, easy-to-learn game and can be played in groups as well as one-on-one. It’s also short enough that it makes for a good Halloween party game and still leaves time to hang out afterward. I wish there’d been more artwork, but between budget constraints common to indie creations and the huge lateral for tone, I can understand why the creators stuck with a straight text-on-white-paper layout. That’s a pretty minor complaint for a game that can be played over and over again until you and all of Hollywood run out of ideas for homicidal ghosts with vendettas.
My larger gripe with the game, and the reason I’d give it a four out of five, is the issue with the predictability of the card draw. Horror is almost as hard to write as comedy, and a mechanic that prompts players to wonder if there might be something more pressing on their phones is an extra hurdle to overcome for the storytellers.
That being said, I’d still recommend the game. If you’ve even an inkling that you might want to branch out of traditional RPGs—or spend an evening competing with your friends to see who can tell the better ghost story—picking up a copy of Murderous Ghosts is a no-brainer.
Happy gaming, everyone.
Murderous Ghosts brings back the time-old tradition of telling ghost stories. Dim the lights, lean in, and enjoy scaring your friends (and yourself) with the best worst ghost stories you can come up with.