A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Christmas may bring its game books snugly wrapped beneath the tree, and Easter the famous bunny who scatters Napoleonic miniatures around the house for delighted children to find. Still, the gamer-friendliest holiday of all has to be Halloween. After you finish bobbing for d20s at a spooky gathering this October 31st, you might consider running a special holiday edition of your favorite Pelgrane game.
Our horror games scarcely need modification. All you have to do is to note that the Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself scenario you were already planning takes place on Halloween. Describe some kids in devil or ghost costumes, mention a few pumpkins in the background, and you have the perfect background of commercialized fake scares to contrast with whatever real terrors your mystery throws at the investigators. Trail’s 1930s setting allows you to depict the very beginnings of the trick or treating tradition. At that time people already think it’s a venerable custom, when it fact it started sometime in the middle of the 20s.
Thanks to sudden cultural diffusion into Europe you can bring Halloween into Night’s Black Agents. In a very fresh development, American TV shows and theme park scare attractions have spread the holiday and its iconography into some but not all European countries. So make sure the plot sends your burned, vampire-fleeing spies into Germany rather than France, for example. Or take them to tourist trap Transylvania for an extra dose of Halloween irony.
You needn’t confine Halloween scenarios to games with supernatural elements. Remember, even the original Star Trek did a Halloween episode.
In Ashen Stars, you could nod to that by confronting the crew with an anomaly, virus or psychic alien species that sends them into hallucinatory terrain in which their nightmares appear to gain tangible reality. The phenomenon reveals not only human fears but those of the game’s alien species. The mythological Kch-thk spirit of death prevents them from migrating to their reserve bodies after death. Their lore describes hunger vampires, who instead of sucking the blood out of you, suck the nutrients from your digestive systems. Tavak horror stories tell of tiny goblin-like beings who are too small to fight. Destroyers of nature, the monsters of balla mythology all take on a technological cast. What does your vas mal crew member encounter? They used to be mythological beings themselves, in a way. Do they fear an even more ancient entity, or has their ultimate terror already happened to them, in the form of the mortal flesh they’re now entrapped in?
Masquerades often figure in the science fiction tales of Jack Vance, so obviously the Halloween episode of a Gaean Reach game must revolve around rumors that Quandos Vorn himself plans to appear at a famously decadent costume party. This annual event floats between locations, none of them hospitable, and draws the galaxy’s most dangerous and degenerate criminals. First the vengeance-seekers must find it, then discover a way to gain admission, and finally see whether their quarry has in fact decided to grace the event with his sinister presence. If not, the rumor must surely be a trap.
In the near future of Mutant City Blues, dressing up as a genetically enhanced individual has become part of Halloween fun. Some mutant activists view this as tantamount to cultural appropriation. Their more moderate allies encourage the trend, saying that it helps people identify with those altered by the Sudden Mutation Event. Like all cops, members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit dread the extra trouble the color and confusion of Halloween can generate. When a murder takes place at a Halloween bash, the detectives can’t tell whether the individual described as the perpetrator actually sported fangs, or was wearing manufactured ones to go along with her Vampira costume. And what was the victim’s connection to the Knights of the Spiral Thelema, a group of self-described hermetic sorcerers who claim that the Sudden Mutation Event came about as the result of a magickal ritual ten years back?
TimeWatch agents might find themselves in Celtic Ireland on the 31st of October as druids perform fiery human sacrifices to the dread god Samhain. Apart from the obvious reason one finds such a thing unnerving, the time travelers have additional cause for brow-furrowing. Their resident scholar knows the tableau they’re witnessing to be completely ahistorical. Though believed for years, because it was too captivating to set aside in favor of mere facts, the Samhain as dread god business was the invention of a 19th century military surveyor and amateur scholar named Charles Vallancey. Though debunked even at the time, his vivid imaginings of a bloodthirsty Celtic origin to Halloween caught the public imagination. The agents realize that someone with the power to alter the timestream has turned Vallancey’s chilling nonsense into monstrous reality. It’s up to them to turn the new reality back into distorted myth.
If you haven’t specified the time of year in your ongoing DramaSystem series, and it takes place in a time that recognizes Halloween, players and GMs can agree that the current episode coincides with the holiday. Your Jane Austen characters could attend a costume ball, as could your crime family or family of futuristic art curators. When the literal holiday doesn’t fit, as it w0uldn’t into the Hillfolk setting, can still nod to it with a theme for the evening that evokes the horrific and supernatural.
Halloweening up your 13th Age session is even easier: simply concentrate on undead monsters as the opponents of the night, or perhaps demons and devils. Relationships to the Lich King and Diabolist take center stage. Alternately, the evening’s adventure requires the heroes to navigate a masquerade organized by the Prince of Shadows, or an eerie harvest procession overseen by the Elf Queen. Be warned in the latter instance: legend has it that some wake up the next morning to discover that the masks they wore the night previous have become their permanent faces.