Dead of Night is a brilliant horror game explicitly designed for genre emulation and pick-up-and-play short games, and though the mechanics won’t be to everyone’s tastes, there are definitely some really great ideas here. Plus the book is beautifully-produced and filled with inspiring posters and suggestions to get you in the mood for a truly horrifying experience. Even if you’re not interested in the mechanics, it’s a great read for anyone who wants to run horror games.
Dead of Night was recommended to me by a friend, and I promptly bought a pdf and then forgot about it for a year. Now that I’m actually reading through some of my backlog of rpgs, I’ve rediscovered Dead of Night and I’m quite taken with it.
Dead of Night by Andrew Kenrick is in fact the second edition of a horror roleplaying game from 2005. I haven’t read the first edition, so I don’t know how they’ve changed the content, but the original cover art is pretty dated by now, and this new version has fantastic graphic design. The mocked-up film posters are delightful (warning: if you don’t like sudden horrifying images, maybe don’t read this, but then, it is a horror RPG!) and the whole thing is very slick indeed. They keep the rules explanations fairly light and speedy, letting you get on to the business of running a game without weighing you down, and lots of the text is optional.
The rules are certainly a different take on a lot of familiar concepts, and very flavourful. I’m not entirely sure how well they would work in practice, but it seems like the kind of game that would benefit from a GM who knows what they’re doing to be fully appreciated. There are eight attributes in four pairs that must add up to 10, describing opposed things (e.g. Identify and Obscure). Characters may then have specialisations attached to one or more of these pairs of attributes which uses the highest of the attribute pair as the value but this reduces the attributes slightly. So, a vampire hunter could have Assault 8, Protect 2, but then takes a Specialisation in Vampire Hunting (at 8 because the higher of the two attributes is 8). This does lead to one of the attributes being lowered by 2, or both the attributes being lowered by 1, but when the character does anything involving Vampire Hunting, they can use their specialisation value instead. It’s definitely unlike any attribute system I’ve seen before, and it’s difficult to predict how it would work in play. The target difficulty of static rolls is 15, with the player rolling 2d10 + their attribute or specialisation value (if relevant).
Then we get on to the really interesting mechanics – Survival Points and Tension. Survival Points are a typical spendable resource like action points, plot points, FATE points, whatever. However, they are intended to cycle a lot more since the GM is encouraged to remove them fairly regularly and there are a lot of circumstances in which players will regain them. They are quite powerful, giving a lot of control over the narrative in a fairly intuitive way. Tension is very similar, giving the GM points they can spend in the same way. However, these also have a nuanced element that you don’t often see in spendable resources: their quantities shape the narrative. As the characters run out of Survival Points, they come closer to being written out of the narrative, as they essentially work as spendable hit points. As the Tension goes up, the world gets weirder and scarier, allowing the GM to put in more and more horrifying monsters, as well as being a really effective gauge of how intense the next scene will be. Gives me chills just thinking about how well that could work in the hands of a smart GM.
Dead of Night requires a minimum of planning from the GM before a game starts, and has some really excellent GM support sections. There are single-page breakdowns of every major horror film sub-genre with an example game that could be run in this style (all pitched as ‘forgotten classics’ of horror cinema), and there are also three example scenarios at the end that have variants of the rules (like replacing people’s Survival Points at random so they become more and more ‘infected’ as the game goes on).
If you’re interested in a horror game that does something new with genre emulation, I’d recommend checking this out. Even if you find that the system is not to your taste, mechanics like Survival Points and Tension could be useful as a way of injecting some genre fun into a more rounded ruleset, and the GM-ing sections are a must for anyone who wants to run horror.
Not perfect, but deliciously satisfying as a genre emulation.