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Stray Thoughts

Tricks and Treats for a festive Halloween game

by Michael B. Erb
Oct 17,2002

 

Tricks and Treats for a festive Halloween game

Halloween and role-playing are a natural match.

Arguably, trick or treating was most gamers' first taste of role-playing. A change of clothes, some makeup or a mask, and suddenly, for an evening, you were someone else. A favorite comic book, cartoon or movie character, perhaps? Or one named by their career: Policeman, fireman, doctor or ninja.

Some of us were monsters, ghosts and psychopaths. We were the things that went bump in the night.

The taboo and the disturbing became holiday symbols. Skeletons, blood, demons and devils became commonplace. Witches, corpses and the walking dead, frightening though they were became exciting sideshows. The beautiful and the grotesque walked side by side, hero and villain held hands while crossing the street.

Which brings me to the other part of what makes Halloween so akin to role-playing and so special in its own right.

Three hundred sixty-four days a year your parents told you nothing lived in your closet, nothing lurked under your bed. All year long adults told you that ghosts and goblins weren't real.

But on October 31, they all admitted they might be wrong.

Oh, the possibilities

You can run a Halloween gaming session in almost any rpg, but several things first need to be determined to tailor the game to you and your audience. Pick a game system, pick a genre (horror, fantasy, sci-fi, cyberpunk, etc.). I won't go into all the specific games, because, again, I believe a Halloween session can be tailored to fit practically any of them. Even if the game world doesn't have such a holiday.

In my campaigns, Halloween was always the high-water mark. Players anticipated a unique, yet Halloweenish game. Some of the games were funny, some scary, some just bled a kind of creepy atmosphere. Almost all centered around Halloween actually taking place in the game, but that is by no means required.

I think it is best to figure out the length of the game before it begins. An all night session will require a different set of considerations than one limited to two or three hours. Though on the surface this may sound obvious, the length of the game can play a role in the mood you want to establish. It might be hard to keep a humor-based game going for five hours, but an epic adventure might not even hit its stride at the two-hour mark.

It is also a good idea to give players an idea of how long the adventure will last. This adds an element of finiteness to the session. For example, you run a one-shot session where the player characters are relatively normal people. They become trapped in the tunnels under New York City, hunted by a creature(s) that can only exist in our world for a limited period of time. Now the game has become a matter of survival, stay alive for three hours in game and you win by default. Hiding wont be an option, because the thing(s) can hunt, and there is little chance of help from the outside world, as one hell of a party is being thrown topside. Besides, even if you could make it topside, screaming that some-THING is hunting you probably wouldn't get much of a reaction. Not on Halloween, anyway.

On the flip side, a quest to prevent an evil god from entering the world might require an entire evening, simulating days of travel and preparation in the game. But, even in this case, allowing limited time gives the players a clear idea that failure is possible, and reminds them that there is urgency to their quest.

Below are some suggestions, some tips and tricks to running a memorable Halloween game. I am covering just a few of the major rpg genres to show how Halloween can be adapted into gameplay. The list is by no means all inclusive.

Medieval/Fantasy

All Hallows Eve is the day before All Saints Day. A common belief was that, since the saints were all busy getting ready for their day, there was no divine protection of humanity on Oct. 31. Humans were left to themselves to their own devices to avoid the forces of evil, which they often did by disguising themselves as goblins and demons.

In gameplay, Halloween becomes a time of fear, a night when no clerical magic works, charms of protection fail and prayers go unheard. Priests and religious leaders either attempt to bring their flock to safety or, for some of the less pious among the holy, secret themselves away within great monasteries and churches, vanishing for the duration of the day. People bar themselves indoors or hide themselves in an attempt to wait out the night. Cities shut their doors and double the watch, while nearby peasants flee to the great city walls, desperate to get in.

Undead and supernatural activity becomes almost frenzied. The more intelligent of creatures assemble groups of unseen things to raze and terrorize unprotected villages. Some form armies and assault the cities themselves.

The key to an adventure like this is to establish early on that certain superstitious beliefs are actually fact, at least for the duration of the day. The PCs may opt to wear costumes to make themselves blend in with the surrounding hoards. Though this grants them the freedom to move outside the cities, but such movement should be very tense, for if they are discovered .... Likewise, the day would last from the stroke of midnight Oct. 31 to the stroke of midnight Nov. 1. They only have to survive the night, but no true hero would hide themselves away while so many helpless people are left to the unholy monsters.

An alternative would be to make such events the stuff of legend. Halloween becomes a day and night of revelry, a time when people put on masks and leave their inhibitions at home. The next day will be spent in prayer and penance, best to dredge up some sin the night before.

Whatever truth to the superstitions there may have been, it has all been lost and buried, turned into fanciful stories and children's games. The church frowns upon such excess and the paganistic undertones of the costumes and traditions, but to quash it might stir up the unwashed masses, and it is only one night a year.

Super Heroes

A whole host of baddies can crawl out of the darkness to wreak havoc on super heroes and their turf on Halloween. Alignment of the planets, a full moon, a supernatural villain taking advantage of the strange energies of the night, any of these can lead to a rollicking comic-book adventure. Demons could roam the streets with impunity, feeding and terrorizing at will (I mean, its just some kid in a costume, right?) Or a group of sorcerers conjure up a Halloween spell that warps the world, making the otherwise harmless stage dressing of the holiday somehow malevolent and threatening.

A specific example would be an old movie theater running a horror-feature bonanza. Classic black and white monster movies, featuring Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein and the Creature from the Black Lagoon play across the worn movie screen. But nearby, a malevolent spell goes somehow wrong. Things summoned from the other side to raise some Halloween-inspired Hell take on the appearance of the classic monsters, colored in black and white. Reports filter in of the Mummy terrorizing trick or treater's downtown or of the Blob devouring a delicatessen in the market square. The heroes must somehow return them to the theater in order to break the spell, perhaps first battling the evil coven of witches and warlocks that brought them into existence in the first place.

Since costumes play such a classic role in costumes, why not have the heroes trade among themselves. For a night, Spiderman bursts into flames and flies, or The Flash flings Batarangs at his foes. Many a villain could be caught flat-footed when they suddenly realize they are fighting a hero they were unprepared for. Of course, it works in reverse as well - who would want to be wearing Superman's cape when Doomsday comes wandering through town.

An alternative would be to have someone else dress up as the heroes, either to commit crimes or as an attempt to emulate them. The would-be doppelganger could be a master villain, bent on tarnishing the heroes image, or even a deranged psychopath, believing s/he is the hero, gaining power through emulating them. Maybe the fake is an upstart hero who is trying to grasp prestige and fame without first earning it. Conversely, the would-be hero could simply be a smitten fanboy trying to gain the attention/affections of the hero by upholding their sterling name.

An interesting twist on this kind of game would be, as a one-shot adventure, a costume party where the players control "normals," people without powers who have chosen to look like the heroes simply to have fun. Throw in a case of mistaken identity, perhaps a hostage situation with no real heroes around, and suddenly the otherwise powerless characters find themselves drawn into heroic roles.

Investigative/Noire

This is an area in which Halloween shines. A more mundane world where the evils of the world are more sinister than any beast and the subtleness of the supernatural unnerves and disturbs more than harms. The mind becomes its own worst enemy and the shadows that follow aren't always your own.

This genre more than any other can deliver a fright without actually being horror. The game drips with atmosphere, every character has a secret and people dwell in the darkness of their soul.

Unlike other genres, the investigative/noir game is more centered around unmasking,, both those around you and yourself. Halloween becomes the backdrop of all sorts of nefarious doings, such as murder, treachery, deception and insanity. Humans become the monsters and are made all the more frightening by their normal appearance.

For example, a killer stalks the street wearing a whimsical mask and brandishing a variety of blades. The killer only surfaces on Halloween, his calling card is a bloody "Trick or Treat" scrawled on walls and sidewalks near his victim. The gumshoe investigator has only the one night to capture the fiend before he vanishes again into normal society.

Does the killer believe the night grants him some sort of power, a belief that his crimes will go unpunished that night? Is it a sick, childlike game that he has never outgrown or a deep psychological scar that boils over every Oct. 31? Or maybe, just maybe, it isn't the same killer at all. Throw in some psychological maladies for the heroes (say, a fear of clowns or dark places) and you have a very tense adventure.

Sci-fi/Space

If full-blown horror in outer space is what you are looking for, look to films like "Aliens," "Pitch Black" and "Event Horizon" for inspiration. Play up the isolation, the despair and the vulnerability of being so far away from home. Creatures can be supernatural, predatory, alien or even cybernetic. And again, don't forget the value in a few psycho humans. Being hunted by your companion is just as unnerving as an alien that wants your brain.

For a more tongue-in-cheek version, have an alien celebration be Halloween-like. Maybe it was a custom brought onto alien worlds by human colonists. Things should be familiar ("Hey, a Jack-O-Lantern ...) yet strangely different ("...carved out of some kind of meat ...") or even disturbing ("... that is still moving ...") Things that would be significant to humans might not have the same effect on alien races, which might consider skeletons and blood appetizing, or sugary treats to be akin to drugs. Things they would find frightening would be less so to a human ... or perhaps even lethal.

Future/Cyberpunk

In the future, the Halloween we know has lost its mystique, ultimately replaced by a much more visceral, dark celebration. Great pyres, alcohol and drug induced rioting, martial law declared every 31st of October.

The setting is already a dark one, and the supernatural has been replaced by a loss of humanity. Technology and greed are the true terrors of this genre. Halloween can be played as either a chance to cut loose and join the dangerous revelry or an even darker time for those already riding the razors edge. Think a cross between Blade Runner and the Crow.

The return of supernatural forces could add an interesting wrinkle to the game as technology's effect on demonic or shadowy forces could be minimal at best. The hunt for history ^ old knowledge of fairy tales and superstitions ^ could spur a frantic search for otherwise mundane or antique items, such as holy relics, garlic or silver bullets.

Tricks and tips

There are all sorts of ways to celebrate Halloween in the context of gaming, but for simplicities sake I will try and limit my suggestions to just a few.

Players in costume: May sound silly at first, but having the players come dressed up in costume may actually lend some flavor to your game. Costumes could range from random choices ("I think I look good as a Barbie Doll," he said.) to specific themes (favorite anime characters). Players could also try and recreate the look of their specific characters, though depending on the genre of the game and complexity of the costume, it could get tricky (ever tried to make a suit of full plate mail out of cardboard and tin foil?)

Gamesmasters seeking to add an extra layer of complexity to such a game, or those with a twisted sense of humor, could require each player to game "in-character" with their costume. In other words, Bobba Fett sits down to play an elven ranger or an axe-wielding psycho takes a turn at being Superman. Diabolical gamesmasters might not let players know about this stipulation until they actually sit down to play.

Characters in costume: Another situation that, though it may sound silly at first, can add a layer of depth and fun to a Halloween game. Medieval characters could be asked to attend a lord's costume ball. Futuristic or cyberpunk characters could attend a costumed rave, or simply seek to disguise themselves during a corporate raid.

One Halloween I ran a cyberpunk/superhero game in which the PCs had to meet a contact at a gigantic costumed party in the middle of the city, like a Times Square New Year's celebration with ghosts and goblins. Each player was asked to come up with an idea for a costume before the game. Of course, they didn't know about the party, or that their character would be wearing said outfit.

We ended up with a seven-foot-tall Elvis, a pink bunny that could shoot electricity and a gun-wielding mime running amok in the middle of the city. Good clean fun.

One-shot: These are almost always fun, if for no other reason than the novelty of the game. Sometimes having little to no emotional connection with a character frees the player to push their own limits, to risk themselves in situations that would have otherwise been played conservatively.

Games such as Chill, Call of Cthulhu and other horror-based games are often built on the premise of having characters with limited replay value. Success in such games is often based upon the "didn't go insane, didn't get eaten" concept. Perfect for a one-shot game.

Similarly, there are games on the market that are designed almost solely for the one-shot session. Some of these can be downloaded from independent game companies for relatively small fees, so check out some reviews and keep an open mind. Good things don't always cost a fortune.

Above all have fun and enjoy the holiday. Eat some candy, wear some orange and black, play spooky music and turn the lights down low. Watch a B-grade horror flick after gaming. Go crazy.

Halloween, just like role-playing, is what you make it.

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