Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 25 May 2024

House of Horrors

At the end of the street stands a house behind a crumbling wall. People who pass it, look at it askance, wondering why it stands empty after so long and why nobody has bought it. They only half remember it from their childhoods and if they did, they would realise that the building has been in the same state for decades. The children whisper that the house is haunted, that some kid went in there, and never came out. Even so, they dare each other to climb the wall and break in… just as their parents once did. They go in to see what treasures or secrets they can find. The one that has gone unlived in for years. Sometimes a few hearty souls creep in, it is said, Most find nothing—just an empty old house. Some return shaken. A few never come out at all. The house is thus a lurking presence, perhaps not in this town, but in the next, or the next one over? Or perhaps in all of them? And if the house has been lurking all that time, what happens to it when it sits alone for so many long years? What jealousies and hatreds does it quietly nurture? What secrets does it contain, waiting to be discovered within its dark walls, crouched within its dank and dreary rooms, hungering for the return of life?

This is The Darkest House. It is a horror scenario sent in a grand house, fallen to ruin, riven by madness, stained by trauma and emotional scars. Those it draws in, it torments out of hate and spite, and even as they discover some of the house’s secrets and its origins, perhaps the best outcome they can hope for, is to escape it confines, though not the same as they were when they crossed its threshold. Published by Monte Cook Games, The Darkest House is something different, a horror scenario originally designed to be played online and with any game system. As the former, it was originally designed and delivered as an app and a set of electronic documents, combining details of the ‘Darkest House’ itself, a set of handouts in terms of texts, images, and sound files, all richly detailed. As the latter, it comes with its own ‘House System’ which allows Player Characters to be adapted from any game system run The Darkest House using the ‘House System’, the simplified nature of its mechanics making it easier to run online. A Game Master—not calling the Game Master the House Master really is a missed opportunity—could even run The Darkest House with the different Player Characters from different systems and settings if she is ambitious enough.

The Darkest House is now available as a book, which presents all of this information in physical format, but marked with QR codes to link to handouts and downloads. It enables the artwork to shine and as the Game Master to see the motifs and flow of the scenario in one place.

A Player Character in The Darkest House is measured as a Rating on a ten-point scale. Between one and two, they will need to employ stealth and avoid direct confrontations with the dangers of the house; between three and six they will still be danger, but can still survive; and seven and up and they can survive with only minor difficulty. The aim though, is not to create Player Characters particular to The Darkest House, but rather draw them in from other game systems. This points to its intended universality and is underpinned by a conversion guide that adapt those Player Characters from other roleplaying games and fit them on the ten-point scale of the House System. This is whether a Player Character’s level or primary attributes are measured on a twenty-point, six-point, or percentile scale. Thus, it would work whether the Player Character comes from Monte Cook Games’ own Cypher System, Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, or Free League Publishing’s Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying. The process is more rough and ready then exact, and will very likely require the Game Master and the players to adjust as necessary to account for particular abilities, powers, spells, or skills. This is done by awarding Boons rather than adjusting a Player Character’s base Rating. Further, some spells and abilities and their effects can be applied narratively rather than mechanically. This is likely to be easier than working out the exact effects even on the limited scale of the House System and the overall effect of the House System is one that is rough and ready rather than exact or elegant.

Mechanically, the House System measures a Player Character’s Rating versus the Rating of the task involved. The Rating of the task is added to seven to give the target number for the player to role for his character to succeed. The player rolls three six-sided dice, one of which is called the House Die. The Rating of his character is added to the result of the two ordinary dice and not the House Dice, the aim being to roll equal to or higher than the target number. If the task Rating is six or higher than the Player Character’s Rating, the task is impossible to achieve, whilst if it is six or lower than the Player Character’s Rating, the task is impossible to fail. Under the House System, the player always rolls, which means that the player rolls for his character to act and rolls for his character to avoid actions against him. Boons and Banes make a task harder to achieve, respectively, and if a Player Character has one or more of both, they cancel each other out until either the Player Character has none, or a Bane or a Bane leftover. Whether the Player Character has a Bane or a Boon, his player rolls an extra die in addition to the two six-sided dice and the House Die. If a Boon, the player discards to die with the lowest result, and if a Bane, he discards the highest result.

What then does the House Die do? In general, nothing. Under special circumstances, it comes into play. This occurs when it is the highest result on any die rolled and when the player, in desperation, has his character ‘call upon the House’ for help. Neither of these are good. When the highest result on any die rolled is the House Die, the House Acts. This begins with creaking sounds, footsteps, or similar noises being heard by the Player Characters, a figure associated with the section of the House the Player Characters are in suddenly appearing, and so on, but that is only the beginning. It escalates each time the House Acts, step-by-step, up through ten steps, and starts again at one, recycling round and round as the Player Characters explore more of the house, and roll the highest result on the House Die again and again. When a player has his character ‘call upon the House’ for help, the House Acts just if the player had rolled the highest result on the House Die and the character gains a Doom. Doom affects a Player Character in a number of ways, such as if he is wounded and falls unconscious, the number of points acting as a penalty to the player’s roll to see if the character dies. However, what a player can do is ‘spend a Doom’, which gives the Game Master permission to do something terrible to his character. Whatever happens, though, it must be significant, be bad for the character, and at the time of the Game Master’s choosing—and the Doom points can be saved as well. Worse though, the Doom Effects can linger if the Player Characters leave the House…

Harm in The Darkest House is also kept simple. The Rating of the attack is added to a roll of a six-sided die, whilst the defender’s Rating is deducted. If the result is a positive number, that is wound that the defender suffers. The House Die is not rolled for damage, a Banes and Boons can be. Physical armour will reduce this damage. Mental damage is suffered in the same way. Wounds also mean that the rolls for all actions are made with Banes.

Effectively, what the House System is a meta-system, a set of rules and ultimately guidelines since it cannot cover every eventuality and every nuance from every system. It is that lack of nuance, at least mechanically, where The Darkest House is going to be lacking. What this means is that the Game Master is going to have to pick up the slack of the House System and shift what is nuance in another game system over to more narrative, even more storytelling resolution and outcome in The Darkest House.

The last thing to note about a Player Characters is that they enter the Darkest House with a truth or a lie. This essentially is weaponised as part of the play of The Darkest House, the House using it against the Player Character, attempting to shake his faith as part of the story rather than to victimise him. The Game Master should be building these truths and lies into arcs that will run throughout the Player Characters’ exploration of The Darkest House. In terms of advice, The Darkest House suggests reasons for the Player Characters to enter the house, stories that can be told in the House, and some of the objectives that the Player Characters might work towards, intentionally or not. It highlights how the house contains anachronisms even if fantasy characters venture inside, and there is magic to be found too within its walls. The House also isolates the Player Characters, making contact with the outside world technically impossible, though this will not be apparent to the Player Characters. The Game Master can instead use this against the Player Characters, deceiving them through the figures that they would otherwise trust. There is good advice on both running The Darkest House and on the challenges of running The Darkest House, all of which readies the Game Master for the campaign and the details of the House itself.

The House is described Room by Room in a lengthy series of two-page spreads that make up the bulk of the book. These come complete with a floorplan, description, overview, an illustration, and a QR code. The latter opens up a website with images and handouts that the players and their characters can view and peruse. It can include sounds too, their presence marked with an icon of its own. The commitment to the format even includes a darkened hallway, which follows the first location. Divided between areas of the House labelled father, mother, dining room, sister, lover, and ultimately, the Original House, voices whisper to intruders, a Mother figure lurks with her skeleton children in her arms ready to rebuke the Player Characters for their lack of love for her and ready to launch her children at them, a father figure looms over the Player Characters ready to deal out a beating, a door has been plastered over with notes telling the reader not to open the door, but someone keeps knocking from the other side, a clockwork child stalks the halls with a knife clutched in its hands, and so on. It veers from the little unerring uneasiness to grand theatre of the guignol and back again, always unsettling, weird, and worrying as the Player Characters edge their way from one Room to the next, picking at puzzles, poring over possible clues, and wondering what might happen next.

Lastly an appendix lists and details all of the handouts that the Player Characters might find in the House. The Game Master will still need to download these and again, they come with their own QR code. It means that even playing The Darkest House offline, the Game Master will still need Internet access and may want her players to have it to best access the scenario’s handouts and downloads.

In terms of play, The Darkest House can be played as a single big scenario, but it is really designed to be slotted into an ongoing campaign. Almost any campaign in which a ‘haunted house’ could appear. Nor is it necessarily designed to be played in one go. The Player Characters can leave and they can be pulled back in, plus there are ongoing consequences for leaving the House, especially if a Player Character has unspent Doom points. So, the Player Characters may enter the House explore some of it, escape, but re-enter the House at a later point in the campaign. Once the Player Characters have entered the House and come out, it is going to remain a lurking presence until they decide to return and deal with it.

Physically, The Darkest House is very well presented in rich dark colours, the text in red and white. The artwork is excellent, much of it seeming to lurk in the background with its repetition serving to enforce that sense of things and people lurking, ready to leap out and scare the Player Characters. It is well written and it is liberally littered with quotes from authors such as Stephen King and Shirly Jackson.

However, what must be stressed is what The Darkest House is not. It is not a traditional haunt house and it is not a traditional mystery. It means that there are not the ghosts to be found, their origins to be discovered, and their bones laid to rest, problem solved. There are ghosts, but neither ghosts nor the House are ever really going to go away until the Player Characters find a way to make the House go away and never come back. In terms of a mystery, this is a dark, haunted house, and whilst there are secrets to be revealed and aspects of the House’s history to be discovered, much like the ghosts there is no clear beginning, middle, and end, in which its origins can be discovered and the House completely dealt with as a threat. The author of The Darkest House even goes so far as to state that there are secrets to the House that he has not and will not reveal. What this means is that The Darkest House is pervaded with a sense of the ineffable and the unknowable, and whilst there is a mystery to The Darkest House, it is not a mystery to be solved and that may confound some players. This does not mean that The Darkest House cannot be played and cannot be completed. Rather it means that the expectations of what The Darkest House is and is not, are going to be different from the traditional haunted house.

The Darkest House is an audacious creation, a product designed in response to the Lockdown under COVID-19 and thus specifically designed to be played online and with any type of character from any game system. It is both grand and intimate, the great sweep of the House contrasting with the disturbing intimacy of the detail to be found in the individual Rooms, its horror lurking at the edge of the senses before cavorting at the Player Characters and then retreating… Like any big scenario or campaign. The Darkest House demands much of the Game Master, but The Darkest House demands more both mechanically because of the need for adjudication of its House System and because The Darkest House is campaign that is going to directly needle and work at the Player Characters. This also demands players mature enough to accept that this is part of the genre that v falls into.

Perhaps still best played online, The Darkest House is an ambitious design, a fantastic perturbation of puzzles and perils, torments and terrors, which combine to make a great roleplaying horror story


Monte Cook Games will be at UK Games Expo which takes place on Friday, May 31st to Sunday June 2nd, 2024.

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