Finding the Best System for Your Horror One-Shot

As I prepare my horror RPG one-shot for a local convention, I’ve been reflecting on the Halloween themed games I’ve run over the years and what I’ve learned from those experiences. Working with the Redacted Files, I’ve seen how much they are aligned with the genre. That in mind, I want to share some things I’ve learned running and writing games for the season and for the genre. Not about story but about the system you select.

When telling your story, it is critical not to let the system cause you to stumble. If you want to disrupt the player characters’ sense of comfort and build dread (the key ingredients to a horror story), stopping with any frequency to have to check a rule or have to consider how to cram the story into the scene kills the mood. You want to use a system that works with the type of story you’re going to tell. Thankfully, there are lots of RPG systems out now that, with a little searching, you’ll find a supports your story.

I break systems into three categories depending on how easily they help tell the story:

Genre – A system that is designed for the horror genre. The rules and flavor text are all about horror, and the splat books are about telling a more in depth story using mechanics that support it.
Examples: Call of Cthulhu, Don’t Rest Your Head, World of Darkness

Generic – This is a system that is streamlined and won’t get in your way when you try telling the story. It may not be designed to tell a horror story specifically, but it won’t force you to continuously reference the rulebook as you play.
Examples: Cypher System, FATE (Core or Accelerated), Powered by the Apocalypse

Forced – RPGs designed for other genres, like high fantasy or steampunk, where telling the story is against the grain, so a splat book needs to be written to make major modifications to the core system.
Examples: Dungeons and Dragons, Iron Kingdoms RPG, Pathfinder

All of these systems are great, but they all have limits. It’s finding the system that is least limiting for your story and have enough depth to be able to support you as well. I’ve tried lots of these and, with very little practice, you can tell a one-shot with any of them with limited prep work on the system.

What I would recommend is sitting down and writing your story outline. Don’t think about rules yet, just what you want the plot to be and how you would build it. Then, look at different systems, starting with what you’re most familiar with and branching out from there. Find the system that supports your story best and won’t require you to spend weeks adapting rules or, worse, force you to on the fly modify the game to fit the system.

Remember, this is a one-shot. You’re not making a lifelong commitment to the system, and a good story will let you gloss over the rough edges too.

Leave a Reply