Tabletop Review: Horror Show

Horror Show
Publisher: Avalon Game Company
Page Count: 118
Release Date: 01/04/2011
Cover Price: $9.99
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I’ve been avoiding doing a tabletop review for a while now. This is mostly due to my aversion to PDF files when it comes to reading. I prefer actual books for this kind of thing, because I can take them anywhere (I don’t have a Kindle.) and I like the feel of turning the pages. There’s nothing better than cracking open a good book. That, and being on a computer, I have too many distractions readily at my fingertips. I find myself checking a web page or turning on some music. I don’t do that when I read a book.

However, when I took a look at Horror Show, and saw what it was, my curiosity was peaked to the point where I gave in. This game sets out to emulate the feeling of a horror film, and I just found that idea really cool. I’ve played several campaigns with horror elements involved, but there were never any scares or tension. It was more like, “Oh no. Skeletons! And I just got rid of my bludgeoning weapon!” I was hoping this game could change that.

Let’s see if it does.

The first thing to look at is the character creation system. The first thing you do is chose a role. There are several to chose from, such as cop, athlete, leader, and bookworm. These give you a primary skill and an acquaintance. An acquaintance is an NPC your character can contact for help once per adventure. They can help in battle, open a pathway, or simply divulge information. If you play a cop, your acquaintance is your superior. If you play a bookworm, the acquaintance will perhaps be an expert colleague with vital information. After you’ve chosen your role, you can chose a career. While there are plenty to chose from in the book, the writers stress you can use anything. Each job comes with a bonus to one of your stats, either listed or decided upon by the player and DM. This part of the character creation system is painlessly simple. The next part, gets a bit trickier.

You have six different skill groups: defense, combat, physical, specialist, mental, and knowledge. You get one primary skill based off of your role, and you can chose any one other as well. The rest fall under secondary skills. The difference is in the number of points you get to spend for that category. Primary skill get twelve while secondary get nine. You can then place these points in a number of subcategories. For example, the combat skill group includes hand to hand, small arms, heavy arms, etc. Each skill has three slots that can be filled. Using up one slot costs one point, two slots costs two more points, and the third costs three more. So, if you wanted to master a skill, it would cost you six points. How these skills work is that you roll a number of d10s equal to your skill level. If you wanted to shoot a zombie with a shotgun, you’d roll dice equal to your medium arms skill. After rolling, you take the highest number as your roll, with a ten being an automatic hit while a one being an automatic miss. The same holds true for any applicable action. Trying to convince someone to open a door would require a manipulation check, making a jump would take an athletics check, etc. The exception is the defense skill set. These come with base numbers, and buying skill slots here boost your stat.

The bulk of character creation is in the skills. After that, everything is optional. You can take what’s called a “shortcoming” to give you a negative character quirk. An example is being unable to read. Why would you want to give yourself such a flaw? You get extra skill points for each one you take, with a maximum of two. I find this an interesting way to max your stats. You can also chose a motivation, which is a goal your character works toward. These help keep the story in focus and you’ll need to work toward them if possible. Finally, there is equipment. The game comes with a good sized list of various weapons, gadgets, and everyday items you might encounter, but in reality a campaign in this game might not include any or all of them. If you’re stuck in a barn with a madman running outside, I doubt you’ll be able to just pop out and buy a handgun.

An interesting aspect of character creation is the “octane level” that gets chosen. Instead of HP, characters have wound points. Every time you get injured, you take negatives to your rolls. If you take one too many shots, you’re down and out. A low octane character gets two hits before they’re down, while a regular has three and a high octane character gets five. This allows you to customize your game for the type of feel your want. After all, you can expect a high schooler to have the same staying power as a mercenary.

I’ve kind of touched on it a bit, but I should mention how the game’s mechanics work. The only dice you’ll need are d10s. That’s because the number of your skill check equals the number of dice you roll. You take the highest number and compare that to your target number. For example, if you wanted to shoot a crazed axe murderer with a pistol, you’d first need to look at your small arms skill. Let’s say you had a two in that. You’d roll two d10s, take the highest number, and compare that to the axe murderer’s evade skill. If you win, you hit. Simple as that. (Although, in order to do actual damage, you need to do another roll, but that’s neither here nor there.) The basic rule is that highest roll must be greater than target number or else whatever you’re doing fails. If you roll a natural ten, it is an automatic success, and there’s usually a bonus involved. Scoring a ten on a bully check has the opposition begging for mercy and handing over whatever information you needed, for example.

As far as the various monster, aliens, psychos, ghosts and what-have-yous that serve as enemies, the game gives you a pretty good creation tool to make up your own. However, it also gives you plenty of monsters if you don’t want to go that way. I like how they even accounted for the difference between a regular ghost and a j-horror one. If you don’t want to use them the pages are filled to the brim with various powers, spells, and abilities that can be used to create pretty much anything you can think of. The best part is that nothing is set in stone. For example, the game details rules for a spray attack, but lets you pick the damage and possible negative status effects it could cost. It’s a very flexible system designed for the DM to create the stuff of nightmares.

We’ve gotten the basics out of the way. So let’s talk about what this game does to create that horror atmosphere. In all honest, a great deal of the book is dedicated to just that. There are sections that cover setting the mood, various camp levels, and what how much information goes out. There are also large sections dedicated to giving you ideas that emulate various movies and character. For example, someone who wanted a villain akin to Michael Meyers would need to consult the mysterious subtype. Again, none of this set in stone. The game is merely giving you ideas of how to move forward with your planned adventure.

For those that don’t want to come up with the setup, there are several scenarios in the book as well. While not full campaigns, they lay the groundwork and give you an overall story to follow if you want. For example, the “Saved by the Bell” scenario is all about middle school students trying to survive a masked killer while getting no help from skeptical faculty members. If you’re struggling with ideas, these can certainly help you out.

From an overall perspective, this game feels less like a core rulebook and more like an idea machine. Sure, there is a decent character creation system, but the focus here is on creative freedom. You could very well use this setup to create a completely non-horror related game. That’s why the book includes so much information that doesn’t impact rules, but instead gives ideas on how to create a true horror film atmosphere. In that regard, the book is pretty darn nifty, although it will appeal to a niche audience. Thankfully, the game is only ten dollars, so the barrier to entry is very low. Horror Show ends up being a great find for those that have always wanted to roleplay through a Friday the 13th movie.

Which makes it totally awesome.

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