Horror Cards core rules
Horror Cards is a light table-top role-playing game.
Because it is a role-playing game, story is more important than rules. This game is played with a GM, who has final say in both.
Because it is a table-top game, players note stats, skills and stress levels on one blank playing card, phone screen or similar surface. Stress can also be tracked using arbitrary tokens. All other technical information is tracked on cards that come with the game.
Because it is light, there are no dice or combat rounds, and no technical characteristics for weapons or NPCs. Entire scenes often pass without use of rules. Many important story elements have no rules, and are no less important for it.
In the interest of helping one another tell a good story, all cards are handled openly. They lay face down only in their original decks. Thus the participants of the game are not expected to keep any technical secrets from one another.
A card remains in a player's possession while it affects her character, and the effects should be shown to the other participants. Afterwards, it returns to its deck. When it returns, the deck is reshuffled.
Generally, having a duplicate of any card represents an especially robust or powerful form of the condition listed on it.
All cards in a given deck share and are named after a special property, explicitly stated on the front of each card and unique to that deck. For example, the Shock deck is marked by the Shock keyword. Some other terms in the game can also be found as keyword properties or “tags”. All such properties can be used in two ways:
- In reference to any individual card with that property: potentially a random card. This can, in practice, mean a reference to a deck. For example, “draw 1 Shock” means to take the topmost card in the Shock deck.
- As shorthand for a number: the sum of such cards in a player's possession. For example, “Physique minus Strain” means the difference between the value of the character's Physique stat and the number of cards she has that are tagged as Strain.
When a player character (PC) attempts an action that is challenging or risky for her, the player draws a number of cards from the Check deck. When drawing is complete, all drawn cards take effect and are reshuffled into the deck.
Here is the most important rule of the game: A check fails by default. It succeeds if cards say it succeeds.
The number of cards in a check
More able characters draw more cards. The number is partly based on technical characteristics. It is the sum of the following items:
- 1 card to start with.
- This applies to all checks, including the above example of “Physique minus Strain” as ordered on cards.
- If a stat is obviously relevant: the value of the stat, in cards.
- If the character has at least one obviously relevant skill: 1 card.
- If the character has especially appropriate equipment: 1 card.
- Finally, the GM codifies what the difficulty would be for a regular
- An especially difficult challenge subtracts cards.
- An especially modest challenge adds cards.
A check that would be made with 0 or more than 5 cards is cancelled. Such an action is not challenging to the character.
- A modification of the subject action, such as finishing faster.
- A by-product of the subject action, unrelated to its success or failure, such as triggering an alarm while trying to open a door.
- Consequences of an opposed action by an NPC. This is why Slings and Arrows calls on the player to draw a Wound in combat.
- New developments in the environment. These can be causally unrelated to the subject action.
Some examples are listed on the cards.
A paradox here is that only more able characters, drawing multiple cards, are at risk of multiple negative side effects. Here are some ways to respond.
- Diminish each card's impact in proportion to the number of cards
- For example, an unskilled PC drawing 1 card to build a bomb might blow herself up if she draws 1 copy of Slings and Arrows, whereas a skilled PC drawing 3 cards would have to draw 3 copies to screw up as badly.
- Use a new kind of detail for each card.
- For example, drawing 3 copies of Slings and Arrows in combat could produce 1 Wound, an empty magazine and police sirens, rather than 3 Wounds.
- For unskilled characters, interpret negative side effects as
personal mistakes. For skilled characters, prefer impersonal bad luck:
Incidental events which could have happened to anyone, which indeed
affect the whole group, and which illustrate the darkness of the
- For example, the roof of the old synagogue suddenly collapses under the weight of the snow while a nurse PC quietly administers first aid beneath it.
- Here, bad luck is an opportunity to reinforce horror, presented because the PC's competence would otherwise reduce horror.
Side effects should not reduce agency. All participants are invited to specify them.
When a player creates her character for the game, she may distribute up to 10 points among stats and skills.
A PC may not have less than 0 or more than 3 points in each stat:
- The base value, 0, means extraordinarily weak and vulnerable.
- 1 is normal.
- 2 is extraordinarily strong and robust.
- 3 is at or near peak human ability and resilience.
|Stat||Meaning||When reduced below zero|
|Charm||The ability to understand others and stay afloat in human society.||Isolation from the other PCs.|
|Cool||The ability to stay effective when frightened.||Permanent psychosis.|
|Dexterity||Timing and motor control. Swift and accurate use of tools.||Debilitating paralysis or palsy.|
|Perception||The ability to notice relevant details, with the exception of mental states.||Inability to discern relevance in anything.|
|Physique||Physical strength and health.||Terminal decrepitude.|
What is called a skill in this game represents a professional level of familiarity, the result of at least two years of full-time training or equivalent experience with a topic that is not common knowledge. More easily learned activities such as driving a car or swimming do not require a skill. One native language does not require a skill.
Having a skill costs 1 point. Skills do not have levels.
You make up your own skills. Here are just some examples:
- Old Norse
- First Aid
- Military Intelligence
- Law Enforcement
- Martial Arts
- et cetera
A single skill can represent what would normally be called a skill set. The example of Tradecraft may cover some basic cryptography as well as handling microdot cameras: abilities which, in reality, are acquired separately. When considering such vague skill sets over more narrow skills, be aware that ambiguity will slow down the game for everyone. Prepare by removing ambiguity before playing the game. Prefer narrow skills like Cryptography for specialties, choose names that other players will understand, and use the character's backstory to specify what the character knows.
To illustrate, a dedicated language skill like French unambiguously covers one non-native language at a near-fluent or higher level. An inferior knowledge of French would not itself be represented by a skill, though it may still be useful. A skill like French Literature would not obviously convey a knowledge of the language and would have to be specified. For example, one sentence in the character's backstory could state that she reads the French classics mainly in translation and would rate at ILR Level 2. A skill called Romance Languages with a specification for fluency in French would be inappropriate because the named topic is too broad for such a specification to be intuited or remembered.
In the interest of horror, the game tracks both physical and mental damage.
Problems with physical health are tracked on Wound cards. There are six decks of Wounds, all of different types. Some of these decks are more severe than others, but few individual Wounds are immediately fatal, and many won't even combine to be dangerous. Characters don't die from Wounds until the cards say so.
Players draw Wounds when violence is dealt to their characters. Sometimes, drawing is a consequence of failure in a PC's action to take cover, or to discover an environmental threat. More often, PCs draw Wounds in combat, as explicitly dictated by Check cards. In that case, the type of Wound will match the armament of a hostile NPC.
Wounds determine hit location
Several decks are used for common types of violence. All of these decks describe a hit location on each card.
- Ballistic Wounds are for getting shot with a bow or a gun, and for catching shrapnel from explosions.
- Blunt Wounds are for falls, collisions, beatings, and being mauled by animals. They're useful even in a combat-free scenario.
- Burn Wounds are for fires,
scalding liquids and gases, corrosive substances (chemical burns),
high-power electrical shocks, and desiccating or shrivelling magic.
- This deck separates naturally into second-, third- and fourth-degree burn cards, with fourth-degree burns reserved for the extremities. To simulate exposure on a hot alien planet, use just the second-degree burns, and to simulate plasma weapons in soft science fiction, use just the more severe ones, etc.
- Cut Wounds are for getting stabbed, and for being cut by long claws, fangs, fan blades etc.
Hit locations determine the effects of armor. Any armor that would be effective will allow the player to reject the drawn card altogether, without drawing another. In dubious cases the player avoids having to draw any extra Head or Torso Wound that may otherwise have been required.
When a PC succeeds in attacking an NPC, the GM may draw a Wound of one of these types to describe what happens to the NPC victim. For tempo, it is also common for NPC victims to die or be incapacitated when attacks against them succeed with lethal weapons.
Other types of Wounds
Players use the remaining three Wound decks as directed by the GM or by other cards.
Finally, Discretionary Wounds are handed out by the GM. For exotic types of violence, a character may gain one of these cards instead of a regular Wound, but not at random. There are Discretionary Wounds for blood loss and infection, which can make minor wounds fatal if left untreated.
Recovery from Wounds
Wound cards that specify a healing time do so with the assumption of appropriate modern hospital care, physical therapy, a normal adult healing rate and so on. Regaining 80% of former mobility in the story is the trigger condition for technical healing. At that point you discard the card and lose the technical side effects. Minor impacts on the story, such as weakness, pain and cosmetic effects, may linger.
The destruction of an extremity, limb or irreplaceable organ will typically not have permanent technical side effects after healing over, as the ability to walk etc. is not regulated. The character eventually learns to cope with her new body, overcoming any initial reduction of Dexterity or other stats.
The sanity mechanics of the game are built around Stress. Stress is a currency, and there is only one kind of it. Players use it to pay for interesting problems.
The GM hands out Stress in situations that would be seriously disturbing to a regular person. Examples:
- 1 Stress for witnessing a stranger threaten another with a knife at a distance.
- 2 Stress for losing control on the highway and crashing into a ditch, or being shot at.
- 3 Stress for causing the death of an innocent.
Stress pays for Shock and Insanity. Like Wounds, such conditions are embodied as, and take their effect from, cards.
Shock is an immediate and noticeable but shallow change in a character. Rarely dangerous, it represents an opportunity to illustrate the horror of a story.
A situation in the game is disturbing enough for a new Shock if it meets all of these conditions:
- The GM hands out Stress for it, or the player judges it to be disturbing to the PC.
- It is a sudden development. Reading a book is too gradual.
- The character can afford to pay 2 Stress, which is the cost of each Shock. This is checked after any addition for the current disturbance.
- The character has less than 2 Shock, which is the maximum.
As an immediate reaction to such a sudden disturbing situation, a player can peek at the top card in the Shock deck. She can pay to draw that card, and if she does not, she puts it at the bottom of the deck.
At the end of each scene with a shocked character, the player discards 1 Shock.
On the player's initiative
The following additional rules clarify the option to take Shock when the GM does not hand out Stress:
- A single scene won't cause Shock more than once unless it causes Stress more than once.
- As a corollary to the general rule that cards have demonstrated effects, Shock can only be taken for the parts of a character's life that are actively played in scenes.
For example: A player posits that her PC has a nightmare in her private hotel room, waking up with Shock and recovering before she meets anyone. It is the initiating player's responsibility to actively play through this event by describing the nightmare itself, the dramatic consequences of the Shock after waking, and the consequences of fatigue from interrupted sleep in later scenes. She may peek at Shock while considering the option. Here, peeking at Shock and not drawing it can be interpreted as a bad dream, not literally shocking but worthy of a mention in passing.
Insanity, unlike Shock, is slow, subtle and profound. Close friends may not notice the change for several weeks after the events that brought it on.
When she has at least 5 Stress, a player must spend 5 Stress to draw 1 Insanity at random, before considering spending Stress on Shock.
Eventually the dam bursts. A character with 3 or more Insanity has finally cracked. She loses all self-control and becomes permanently unplayable within moments. For purposes of agency, this is equivalent to death.
Some conditions affect stats for the duration. This can cause a character to reach a negative value, which makes her unsuited to typical role-playing scenarios, though not to all effective horror scenarios.
For example, a character who gets reduced to -1 Dexterity by lizard claws to her legs is physically crippled. If the character survives and stays playably sane, she can no longer walk. Recovery may require a level of care that is not available to her. She may need weeks of recuperation just to use a wheelchair. In this situation, several options present themselves:
- Scenes where the character is carried by her comrades until she goes mad with the pain or is left to die of exposure. This assumes no care is available. It can get so dark that players become unable to empathize and respond to it as farce.
- Dispensing with credibility and having the character walk by healing magic, hypertechnological prosthetics or cartoonish willpower. As a result, characters seem less at risk, reducing horror.
- Role-playing the character's occasional contributions to the story by hospital phone or other means. This is likely more dull and frustrating for the player than to have a healthy character on site.
- A second attempt on the character's life, in the hospital. This is complicated, perhaps productively, by the character's disability.
- Other types of scenes at the hospital. These are not likely to advance the plot.
- Fast-forwarding through recovery. This assumes the plot is not adversely affected by a lull or brief summary of some months.
- Retiring the character, making it an NPC. This is awkward when the character is integral and will continue to appear in the plot.
At the end of a scene wherein a character reaches a negative value in a stat, the player and GM must make a formal decision. By default, the character becomes an NPC. In this case the player's future participation in the game is limited in the same way as if the PC had died.