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.
Gathering around a table to play a horror themed game with friends is a rewarding experience, but in this era of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic the risk of infecting yourself, your friends, or their families outweighs those rewards. So, many people are dreaming of the day they can safely reunite with friends and do a bit of gaming. If you’re one of those people, we have some good news; that day is now! Face to face meetings are still out of the question, but the same digital conferencing tools and hangouts that we use for work or checking in with friends and family can be repurposed to play some games. Immersive board and card games would be difficult to coordinate in that fashion, but playing table top RPGs, which are co-operative stories that require no board, is easy and something people were doing even before the Corona virus outbreak forced us to shelter in place.
“Face to face meetings are still out of the question, but the same digital conferencing tools and hangouts that we use for work or checking in with friends and family can be repurposed to play some games.”
In a previous column I talked about how, thanks to the success of Dungeons and Dragons, table top RPGs are still seen pretty much as something primarily for fans of the fantasy genre. That’s not the case though! There are a number of titles for a variety of genres, especially horror. This month we’ll look at one particular title, Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, which is a rules light game perfect horror RPG veterans and for fans looking for a new immersive experience that can be safely enjoyed with friends in the age of Covid-19. Plus, Savage Worlds is a very versatile and affordable system perfect for creating stories that fit Nightmare on Film Street’s current dual month theme of Enchantment Under the Sea. I’ll also offer some tips on how to set up and coordinate an online game based on my experience of game mastering a recent one, and some ideas on how to make a night of social distance gaming more immersive.
Role playing games are usually conducted as campaigns that unfold over the course of several sessions or even years. That kind of commitment can scare off both people with a passing interest in them and fans with a packed schedule. So, for a busy group or one composed of people who have never played an RPG before the best route is to do a one-off story; one designed to be started and completed in one session spanning several hours. That kind of story is especially good for horror RPGs because if a sequel is not guaranteed neither is the survival of any or all of the players characters. It allows the game master, the person running the story and in charge of officiating the rules and the actions of all the non-player characters, to create a tale with extra tension.
Social distancing means it might be hard for a game master to meet individually with players to help them come up with characters for their story. So, I recommend coming up with pre-generated characters. It’s a little bit of extra work for the game master, but it streamlines the process. The best route would be coming up with a “dramatis personae” style list of character concepts that you can send to your players a few days before the game. In it, you’ll outline the relationships between the characters, give a hint of the situation they’ll become embroiled in, and offer up some personality quirks.
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Don’t be afraid to steal from the familiar. It makes it easier for the game master to create a story and players to immerse themselves in their characters. I recently ran a Savage Worlds one-off that I described to my players as essentially, “Scooby-Doo meets an ’80s Slasher.” So my list of characters featured familiar archetypes with new twists. For example, I described one character who cultivated an image of being not as smart as they actually were as being a combination of Daphne from Scooby-Doo and Peter Falk’s immortal TV detective Lieutenant Columbo.
Once you have an idea of the story you want to tell, and the characters it will feature it’s time to for the game master go work out the details. For that, all you need is a copy of the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Core Rules and the Savage Worlds Horror Companion. Both are available digitally in PDF format.
“[…] Savage Worlds […] is a rules light game perfect horror RPG veterans and for fans looking for a new immersive experience […]”
The Core Rules is the book that will help you come up with the stats for a character that tells a player what they can do and how they’ll act. Remember the character concept list I had you draw up? If you use that much of the work of character creation is already done. All you’ve got to do is make some choices reflective of the character concept. The actual rules section of the book is relatively short and easy to understand since Savage Worlds is a generic role playing system designed to allow you tell stories with any kind of genre. So, it’s very easy for beginners to grasp the main mechanics.
The Horror Companion is specifically designed for running horror games. It contains game mastering tips on how to create the proper atmosphere, but more importantly it’s sort of an alphabetical bestiary that describes the rules and abilities of a whole host of killers and creatures. Many of them are perfect for NOFS’ Enchantment Under the Sea theme. Want to tell a story reminiscent of the original Prom Night (1980)? You’ll find rules and stats for a slasher movie style “Serial Killer.” More interested in the supernatural machinations of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II? There are stats for vengeful ghost. There are even original antagonists perfect for prom as well like the Danse Macabre; a legion of dancing undead lead by a pied piper style “Dance Master” whose music forces people to join his troupe. Looking for sea monsters? The Horror Companion has those too. In its pages you’ll find stats for everything from Were-Sharks to a version of Lovecraft’s Deep Ones called “Icthynites.”
Rolling dice is part of Savage Worlds, but it’s not necessary for players or even game masters to have a set of physical polyhedral dice. There are a number of virtual dice rolling apps you can download. Plus, Google has a dice rolling app that you don’t even need to download. Just search for “dice roller” and it will come right up.
The other important part of online gaming is of course the digital meet up space. There are a number of options available. If someone in your gaming group has a paid Zoom account it will be the best and most immersive way to go. You won’t have to worry about time limits. Plus, players and the GM can put up meeting backgrounds that create a sense of boogieing down at a high school formal or sailing the high seas. If nobody in you group has a paid Zoom account it’s no problem though. Google Hangouts is a free digital venue that does not have a time limit. I ran my Scooby-Doo Slasher game on Hangouts. There were six of us and the session ran about three hours. We had no problems hearing or seeing each other and no one got disconnected.
My usual installments of Table Top Terrors feature suggested musical playlists and themed food and drinks. The former might prove difficult to play and provide distracting feedback in a digital venue. So we’re going to forgo those this month. We’ve got you covered for food and drinks though! Since we’re dealing with a virtual meet up everyone will most likely be in charge of feeding themselves, which means you’re dealing with people with different levels of cooking and baking skills. So, for this month keep it simple with the classic snack staple of proms and cinema, popcorn! If you want to get a bit more fancy and thematic try this recipe for “Party Popcorn” with melted candy sprinkles courtesy of She Wears Many Hats.
For this month’s drink we’ve got something that will fit perfectly with our Enchantment Under the Sea theme. Nothing says classic prom hijinks like spiked punch, and rum of course is the perfect drink for adventure on the high seas. This easy to make Cephalopunch cocktail from Kraken brand spice rum is both of those things in one drink.
“Don’t be afraid to steal from the familiar. It makes it easier for the game master to create a story and players to immerse themselves in their characters.”
So, you may not be able meet in person with your friends to play an immersive horror game, but you can still gather digitally, face some monsters, roll some dice, and have some much needed thrills and laughs. In these uncertain times those things are priceless, and will leave your friends wanting more. It did with mine. They loved my Scooby-Doo Slasher so much that I’m running a new one-off Savage Worlds horror comedy for them this weekend, one I described with the elevator pitch of, “Josie and the Pussycats(2001) meets Footloose (1984) meets John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994).”
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!