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.


Handling cards

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.

Card properties

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:


Loan Oft Loses Check If you drew this along with Slings and Arrows: You may discard 1 of each. If you take 1 Stress or remove this card from play this session: You achieve the main goal of your action. scrape by this time. bravado, you can By bluff, luck or Martial Stalk Check As many times as you like: Take 1 Stress or 1 Wound and draw another card. your dedication. Push hard to prove Slings and Arrows Check In combat: Draw 1 Wound. Something bad but unrelated to the main goal of your action. gasoline. lands in the pooled goes out. One spark grip. The flashlight boots lose their you expected. Your It takes longer than The Pale Cast of Thought Check No effect. The Triumph of His Pledge Check You achieve the main goal of your action. Yon High Eastward Hill Check If you drew this along with Slings and Arrows: Discard 1 of each. Something good but unrelated to the main goal of your action. break of dawn. fingernails. The your ragged killer's DNA beneath cracked open. The A secret stash

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:

A check that would be made with 0 or more than 5 cards is cancelled. Such an action is not challenging to the character.

Side effects

Two Check cards, Yon High Eastward Hill and Slings and Arrows, prompt the participants to make the scene more interesting through any of the following:

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.

Side effects should not reduce agency. All participants are invited to specify them.

Personal characteristics

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:

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:

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.

Physical health

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.

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.

Head Wounds and Torso Wounds are for side effects of injury to vital organs. These are drawn by players as dictated on more basic Wound 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.

Mental health

Hero Complex Insanity -1 Cool. make it. this. You're going to but you're right for You're not perfect, Poised Shock identify your target. have a chance to first, you may not If you don't shoot

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.