While tabletop RPGs are often most associated with the fantasy genre, there’s a large subset of them that fall squarely in the realm of horror. A spooky RPG night is a perfect plan for Halloween, but it can be hard for people new to the tabletop world to find the right game.
Well-known games like Call of Cthulhu and Vampire: The Masquerade are more often used for long-running campaigns, but there are plenty that can be used for a one-shot.
If you’ve got a small player count for the evening and not much time to prep, this one might be the best choice. Designed for a Game Master and one or two players, this game of melancholy horror is inspired by movies and shows like The Babadook and Haunting of Hill House. Using a simplified version of the influential Blades in the Dark rules, Quietus allows you to drop right into the action and start building the tension.
Players and the GM work together to set the scene, quickly creating the setting and the characters collaboratively before the dice even hit the table. Actions are resolved by rolling a pool of D6s, with bonus dice being added if a player can narrate a quick, tragic flashback that shows why their character is proficient in their task. Once the action starts, it’s a race between two tracks that are filled up by the player’s successes and failures: hope and despair. If hope fills up first, the players get away, likely scarred by the situation. If despair fills up first, none of the players make it out alive. The game is intended to run about two hours, so it’s the perfect choice for a lean, mean thriller with a dark heart at the center.
Trophy Dark casts the players as a group of doomed treasure hunters on an expedition into a harsh forest that doesn’t want them intruding. It’s a game about what pride does to desperate and greedy characters as they push deeper and deeper into a harsh realm. There are plenty of Incursions, the name Trophy Dark gives to its premade scenarios, to be found online, but the core book also includes easy rules for GMs to create their own.
Characters are created by picking an occupation and a background, both of which add dice to their action rolls if they are applicable to what the character is attempting. An expelled apprentice will get an extra die when trying to decipher an occult text, while a ranger may get a bonus to rolls involving disarming traps. Characters can also add a “dark dice” to rolls at the risk of increasing their ruin, a stat that represents how close they are to being consumed by the evil forces of the forest. Players who aren’t afraid of leaning into more tragic horror stories will definitely enjoy this one.
If those first two sounded a bit heavy for you, the next two will provide a lighter mood for your spooky game night. In Brindlewood Bay, players are members of the Murder Mavens, a mystery book club for elderly ladies, who solve murders in a small town on the coast of Massachusetts. As time goes on, they realize their cases are connected by a dark supernatural force linked to a mysterious cult in the area. Think Murder, She Wrote meets Lovecraft and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the tone to expect when playing.
One thing that I love about the structure of Brindlewood Bay is that the GM isn’t supposed to create a solution for the mystery the players are trying to solve. Instead, they provide a series of clues to be discovered, and it’s up to the Mavens to figure out how they fit together. This really helps simulate a classic scene at the end of the murder mystery where the detectives list off all the clues and how they point exactly to only one person, and as long as the dice rolls go well, the players will be right. It’s a smart design choice that keeps everything from feeling to prescriptive, allowing for an open-ended experience for both players and the GM. If you’re interested, the game comes with several prewritten mysteries that can be run as one-shots to ease you into the game before setting you off to create your own.
Have you ever watched Ghost Hunters and said “wish that was me”? Then InSpectres might be the game for you. Players inhabit the roles of paranormal investigators who are tasked with hunting down ghosts for clients while trying to keep their business thriving. As players roll dice, they can pull from their own stats as well as resources from the company to help them gain more advantages on their actions.
Much like Brindlewood Bay, the GM doesn’t solve the case for the players. When players get successful rolls, they are put in charge of the narrative, giving them authorship in how the case progresses, while the GM narrates the consequences of failure. The game even has rules for “confessionals,” the part in the reality TV show where the person talks directly to the audience, that allow for players to interject and add elements to a scene, creating a truly collaborative atmosphere at the table. If you’re not afraid of your Halloween horror night getting a little goofy, check it out.
HEART: THE CITY BENEATH
While this final game is more designed for medium-length campaigns, you can very easily run this for a quick one-shot. Heart is a horror-fantasy hybrid that sends characters on a delve into a subterranean, ever-shifting landscape of darkness and insanity. Horrifying creatures and mad cultists roam the ruins as players make their way to the Heart itself, where reality itself seems to be breaking down.
As players fail rolls, they take stress on different tracks, representing things like health, mental state and just plain luck. This stress can lead to fallout, which codifies the stress as an actual condition. Taking blood stress may result in a broken leg, while taking mind stress may lead you to lose your grip on reality. Aside from the elegant mechanics. Instead of providing standard D&D classes, Heart has a unique set of classes that make it easy to build a character from. For example, the Vermissian Knight makes their equipment from remnants of a cursed and abandoned train network, and the Deep Apiarist is an occultist whose body has been filled with a swarm of glyph-covered bees. To complement the classes is an imaginative set of landmarks and adversaries for the players to visit and fight, making it easy for GMs to craft a terrifying adventure.
If it’s a success at the table, it’s easy to keep your one-shot rolling into a grand adventure into the depths of the Heart!