Welcome to Table Top Terrors! In this monthly series, we’ll help you recreate some of the terror, tension, and fun of scary stories by examining what the world of tabletop gaming has to offer horror fans. We’ll look at board games, card games, pen and paper RPGs, and miniature war games. We’ll offer reviews, insights, and tips on how to create an immersive and awesome game night.
Horror stories stem from a primal, powerful, and enduring emotion, fear. That means scary stories are malleable. They change with the times and with us, and just when we thought a terrifying tale was dormant it can return in a new more potent form. All this month at Nightmare on Film Street we’re celebrating that ability to return with looks at remakes, re-imaginings, and resurrections. So for this month’s Table Top Terrors we’re going to see what happens when a classic horror game gets dressed up in the tropes and conventions of the classic fantasy roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons. That game is Avalon Hill’s Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, a reimagining of Betrayal at House on the Hill. We’ll look at the new and classic facets of the game and how the fantasy and horror elements mesh together. Plus, we’ll have our usual suggestions of themed food, drink, and music to level up your game night.
If you’re a horror purist worried that adding a fantasy genre twist to Betrayal at House on the Hill would fundamentally change the game, opening the box to Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate should go a long way towards easing your fears. That’s because one of the first manuals you’ll see is the game’s instruction booklet, and on the front cover underneath the title it says, “A horror experience for 3-6 adventurers.” The overview of the game, on the manual’s first page, mentions that the city of Balder’s Gate has attracted the attention of an ancient malevolent god named Bhaal, whose purview is murder. That attention has lead a number of cultists, creatures, and other dark things to emerge from the shadows and sewers to lay siege to the city. So, yes this is a game of adventure, magic, and fantastical beings, but ultimately it’s still about some very primal fears; the monsters that lurk in the dark, and the metaphorical darkness that can transform a friend into a very dangerous foe.
Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is also still a game about exploration. Like Betrayal at House on the Hill the first part of the game is very much about moving around, uncovering tiles, and drawing Item, Omen, and Event cards. Instead of a house though you’re exploring the entire two level city of Baldur’s Gate. So the main floor, upper floor, and basement tiles have been replaced by building tiles, catacomb tiles, and street tiles. Each of those has exits marked with a different color on its edge and those exits determine what tile stack you draw from to uncover the next tile. The catacombs is of course an area of seemingly sinister tiles like the sacrificial chamber, and the shrine to Bhaal. The streets also offer some creepy locales too like murder row and haunted alley. Buildings SEEM a bit safer, but my emphasis on seem is because a number of them trigger some frightening and dangerous event cards.
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Horror fans will be delighted to deal with such atmospheric event cards as “Fireside “Horrors” and “Lost Ghost.” Fans of D&D’s classic gothic horror setting, Ravenloft will be happy to find it mentioned in one of the event cards. Items are mainly the things you’d expect to equip fantasy heroes with like a crossbow and chainmail armor. The Haunt triggering Omen cards are a collection of cursed and vile items and fantasy creatures that can serve as companions like a “Whispering Skull” and a “Homunculus.”
Just like in the original game, whenever an Omen card is drawn a Haunt roll is done, and the number of Omen cards in play determine the dice that are rolled. Whenever a six or higher is rolled on the dice the first part of the game is over and the second, The “Haunt” phase, begins. Players consult the first page of the “Traitor’s Tome” to determine which of the game’s 50 haunts they’re going to play and who is the traitor. Some haunts have secret traitors (which makes them even more suspenseful to players like myself) and a few are purely cooperative. I’m not going to get into the specifics of any of them because I don’t want to spoil them for you or myself. I will share a few of the promising and creepy titles though like “They Hide Among Us,” “Darkness Falls,” and “Ravenloft Awaits.”
If you’re familiar with Betrayal at House on the Hill you’ll be well acquainted with most of the game’s other rules like die rolls, combat, and movement. Even the player characters have the same four traits; might, speed, sanity, and knowledge. The fantasy elements are especially pronounced and fun here though because the characters all have races and classes straight out of Dungeons and Dragons. There are two human characters available, a Half-Orc, a Halfling, a Drow (Dark Elf), and a Dwarf. Each of those character tiles are double sided too with a different class, character name, and age. For instance, the Halfling can be a Druid or a Rogue and their starting trait scores reflect their class. So, each of D&D’s 12 character classes are represented. Best of all is that each of the classes has a special ability that they can use at certain times or throughout the game. The ability is reflective of their class too. So, the Half-Orc cleric can heal himself or others and the human wizard can attack foes from a different tile with his magic missile ability.
Ultimately, Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is a very nice balance of its fantasy and horror elements. So if you want to give your fantasy loving friend an appreciation for horror, or vice versa, this might be the game that could make that happen. And if you enjoy both genres or have just played all the Haunts in Betrayal at House on the Hill you’ll find a lot to love in this game.
“If you’re a horror purist worried that adding a fantasy genre twist […] would fundamentally change the game, opening the box to Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate should go a long way towards easing your fears.”
The town tavern is a stop off point in almost every fantasy adventure. In fact, it’s the starting location for player’s in Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate. If you want to give your kitchen a tavern feel we have two suggestions. The first is quench your player’s thirst for alcoholic beverages with this list of cocktails inspired by each of Dungeons and Dragons character classes courtesy of Noblecrumpet’s Dorkvision Blog. Of the 12 drinks on that list, we recommend the Monk themed “Flurry of Blows” and the Paladin inspired “Divine Smite.” If you’re looking for something easy to make from that list you can’t go wrong with the Ranger themed “Hunters Mark,” which is basically just a rebranded Whiskey Sour. Ambitious hosts can try to replicate this tavern style menu of snacks and drinks from the Geeky Hostess blog, but we think even one or two of these items would cause your guests to leave a four star review of your home tavern on a fantasy world version of Yelp.
Taverns are also famous as a place to hear music. Instead of the usual vocal and band backed performances your tavern should focus on immersive score music. It will help deepen the shadows of Baldur’s Gate, make your Haunts more harrowing, and your monster battles more epic. Regular readers of this column are probably familiar with Midnight Syndicate; the Ohio based band who specialize in gothic horror music that is frequently used at haunted attractions like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. In 2003 they released an official Dungeons & Dragons album that balances swashbuckling fantasy with spooky horror much in the same way that Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate does. Trevor Morris’ score to the video game DLCs Dragon Age Inquisition: The Descent/Trespasser leans more into fantasy, but it has a tense feel to it and some horror elements. Finally, when the Haunt portion of your game begins we suggest Ramin Djawadi’s creepy score for the 2014 medieval horror film Dracula Untold.
Let us know all about your own immersive game night setups, and your favorite horror-based board games. Who knows? Your recommendation might become our focus for next month’s installment of Table Top Terrors. Roll the dice and spill your guts over Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!