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.
We’re celebrating black-and-white films all this month at Nightmare on Film Street, which means we’re looking at movies that play with shadows and light. Black-and-white horror films do that both literally and often metaphorically, but so do the classic, monochrome crime films of the ’40s and ’50s. In fact, there’s a lot of crossover between horror and crime/noir. I’d argue that they’re sibling genres.
“Crime and horror have a lot in common and that means they go together like chocolate and peanut butter.”
Rampaging killers and the people trying to survive them abound in both crime and horror. Ghost stories in the horror genre often involve sinister specters rising from the grave to expose a wrong or claim vengeance. Ghosts of the past bedevil characters in crime fiction too. They’re just metaphorical. And, if I describe a story as being set in a world full of corruption and beings so powerful that the average man feels meaningless you’d think it was a cosmic horror tale, right? That same set up could also describe a classic noir tale though.
Crime and horror have a lot in common and that means they go together like chocolate and peanut butter. If you’re looking for a way to immerse yourself in the thrills and chills of that Recee’s Cup combination of genres you and your friends will want to grab some polyhedral dice and gather around a table to play a pen and paper style role-playing game.
We’ve got the perfect RPG for you and some suggestions to make your initial game session memorable, but since this is my first look at tabletop roleplaying games some readers might be thinking, “Tabletop RPGs? That’s just Dungeons and Dragons and the fantasy genre, right?” Wrong!
Tabletop RPGs are collaborative stories that work well with any genre, especially horror. If you’re the player think of it as walking through an elaborate haunted house in your mind. You never know what sort of terrors are lurking around the next bend, but you have all sorts of tools to fight back against these horrors . . . that is the game master and your dice let you! And if you’re a game master you put in the most work, but you get to reap the most rewards. You get to watch your players dig into and become immersed in the story you’re telling. You also get to see the fear in their eyes when something jumps out from the darkness and threatens to tear apart the character they’ve become so attached to.
Interested? Good! Then let’s get to this month’s game, Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Deadlands Noir by John Goff.
Deadlands Noir is a horror, noir, alternate history RPG with steampunk elements. It’s set in a world where sinister supernatural forces, known as The Reckoners, have been clandestinely meddling in America history for decades. Their interference caused the American Civil War to turn into a stalemate, and split the USA into two nations; the Northern United States and the Southern Confederate States. Part of the chaos they’ve caused has been due to a supernatural element they introduced during the Old West era. That mineral was dubbed “Ghost Rock” because when it burned it sounded like the wailing of a dead soul. It also allowed for a lot of high tech inventions to appear early on in American history.
The Deadlands: Reloaded Game takes a look back at the Reckoner’s original machinations in the Old West. Deadlands Noir picks things up in the 1930’s where the Reckoners are using their abilities to amplify the Great Depression and transform America into a horrific and hellish place. So the powerful and the corrupt are even more vicious, and now America’s cities are menaced by two very different kinds of underworlds: the organized crime one that ran rampant in the ’30s; and a sinister, secret, supernatural one of ghosts, vampires, monsters, and black magic cults.
“Tabletop RPGs? That’s just Dungeons and Dragons and the fantasy genre, right?” Wrong!
The player characters are heroes and scoundrels that have decided to battle the forces of darkness plaguing their cities. These characters can come from a variety of backgrounds; the down on his luck P.I, the crusading journalist or lawman, a jazz musician with a knack for getting into trouble, and all sorts of small-time crooks. There are also characters of a more supernatural bent like, grifters who literally try to con spirits into granting them supernatural powers. Patent Scientists create astounding devices by communing with supernatural beings. Voodooists use their faith to call on the spirits of the Loa to grant them miraculous abilities. And the Harrowed are a sort of undead Jekyll and Hyde. They’ve come back from the dead with fantastic abilities thanks to the malevolent spirit that animates their form, but sometimes that spirit wants to take their body out for a spin.
The default setting of Deadlands Noir is an alternate reality version of New Orleans. The city is part of the CSA and it’s run by a corrupt mayor, who’s the puppet of real-world senator Huey Long (AKA the Kingfish). It’s also home to other groups vying for power like the Black Hand of the East Coast Mafia and the Red Sect, a cult of evil voodoo bokors who use magic to turn their rivals against each other, and when that fails, they unleash supernatural monsters like zombies.
The book comes with detailed information about the neighborhoods and institutions of this version of New Orleans. It also has stats for all of the cities major power players. Plus, game masters have a variety of tools for devising stories. They can create their own adventures, use story hooks to launch player investigations into New Orleans’ many mysteries, and there’s even a plot point campaign called “Red Harvest” that functions like the overarching story arc for a season of serialized television. Once you get tired of New Orleans you can venture to other times and locales with The Deadlands Noir Companion. It’s a separate book that chronicles life in Chicago in the ’20s, Lost Angels (The Deadlands version of Los Angeles) in the ’40s, and The City of Gloom (Deadlands’ steampunk version of Salt Lake City) in the ’50s.
In order to play Deadlands Noir you’ll want to get a big set of polyhedral dice, a standard deck of poker cards (which is used in a number of ways), a copy of the main book, and the Savage Worlds rule book, which powers the game. Savage Worlds is designed to be a fast-paced rules system that streamlines RPG sessions. Some RPGs require multiple sessions to finish one adventure. You can easily finish a Savage Worlds adventure though in a single game session. Savage Worlds uses a player rewards system of poker chip style benefit or “bennies” to encourage role-playing. Player characters have “edges” and “hindrances” that define their personalities, and anytime a player role-plays these traits they’re given a “benny” they can spend to help them do things like re-roll a dice roll.
“Deadlands Noir is a horror, noir, alternate history RPG with steampunk elements. It’s set in a world where sinister supernatural forces […] have been clandestinely meddling in American history for decades.”
Roleplaying games are all about creating an immersive world, and one way you can do that is by setting a scene with appropriate background music. Pinnacle Entertainment Group has an official Deadlands Noir MP3 album titled, Music to Die For available as a download on their website. You can hear some music samples from that in the YouTube link I included earlier.
If you prefer to create you own mix/soundtrack we have a few suggestions. Both Spotify and Amazon Music have the soundtrack to Rockstar games excellent open world video game L.A.Noire, which is set in 1947. The album features music by Andrew and Simon Hale that will really help set the mood for crime, investigation, and social interaction scenes. For horror beats we suggest music by the bands Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana. Both groups specialize in creating original, atmospheric, horror movie style scores, and have a number of albums available for streaming.
Movies are another good tool to help you get into the spirit of things, and we’ve got a triple feature that will put you in the right mind set for Deadlands Noir. Our first is the classic 1947 film noir, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. The movie is about a former private eye who becomes ensnared in a world of murder and double crosses when he’s spotted by a shady figure from his past.
Our second feature, the Val Lewton produced The Seventh Vicim (1943) (starring Kim Hunter, Jean Brooks, and Isabel Jewell) is a mash up of classic noir and horror. It’s about a woman who goes looking for her missing sister in New York and finds a Satanic cult. It’s very eerie and a great look at how diverse people can come together to work a case. The main mystery is investigated by a group that includes a school teacher, a poet, and a lawyer.
Our third and final film, 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell (starring Fred Ward, Julianne Moore, and Clancy Brown), is not black-and-white, but it’s got the spirit of that bygone era. It’s a film set in a fantastical version of the ’40s where magic and monsters are a part of everyday life and a non magic using shamus must keep a mystical tome from falling into the wrong hands. The film mixes magic, monsters, and hardboiled crime really well, but It’s got a little more of a fantasy edge since magic is so out in the open. It’s more of a secret phenomenon in Deadlands Noir , but the film expertly captures the tone of the game.
Finally, an ordinary game session becomes something special if you offer a themed beverage and snack, and we’ve got some great ideas for your first session. Since January usually is a pretty cold month a warm beverage is the way to go. And what warm beverages has kept hardboiled shamuses going on a stakeout, and bent cops walking their beat? Why Irish Coffee, of course! Check out this recipe from Delish.
For my money, there’s no better snack to pair with coffee than donuts. They’re also pretty thematic since donuts are the signature food of cops. So why not grab a dozen from your local bakery? If you’re the baking type though and you really want to capture the monochromatic spirt of this month we’ve got this recipe for black & white glazed donuts from Will Cook for Smiles.
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!