A light table-top RPG system
Horror Cards is a system of rules without a setting. It is intended mainly for narrative-heavy RPGs in the horror genre: games like Delta Green and Kult.
Horror Cards is free under CC BY-SA 4.0.1
Get the game
The rules of the game are available here:
To play, you also need special cards:
- If you’re playing online, get them at the Horror Cards graphics gallery. Services like Roll20 allow you to upload these in a glorious knee-deep simulacrum of analog and digital pleasure.
- If you’re playing offline, get a print-ready PDF here. That’s A4, not US letter. Print in duplex (double-sided) mode. To change the paper format or the printer margins, or anything you want about the cards, use my generator.2
In a role-playing game, agency is the ability to exert power over the shared narrative. Without player agency, the GM tells the players a story. With agency, striving players can mature into active participants, telling the story together. Agency can extend well beyond merely determining one character’s thoughts.
Agency is the central appeal of RPGs next to other media. Like any form of power, it is rarely turned down or thrown out. This is a problem in the case of the horror genre.
The emotion of horror is closely linked to the absence of control. In a horror game, PCs should be imperilled. The game should include sequences of genuine tension. It is in the interest of players to bring this peril—this tension—up to a peak and down again, not to minimize it. The central question that led to the development of Horror Cards is how to marry the benefits of player agency with horror.
As part of the system’s answer, player agency in Horror Cards does not extend to a buffer of physical safety. Continued fitness for participation in a planned scenario is not guaranteed after getting stabbed or shot. PCs have no special protection against being shot in the first place. This is by design. The familiar alternatives, a “health meter” ending in death, or the ability for players to buffer or buy off random chance, is too predictable: an unwanted form of safety.
The realistic threat of pain and disablement from injury is intended to raise more empathy than the threat of death. The downside is that fights and other action sequences can derail linear (low-agency) scenarios. To achieve a familiar dramaturgy, open with something less dangerous than a fight, or make it a set piece.
As another example of the management of player agency, Horror Cards allows players to choose a hard-boiled style, never being shocked in disturbing scenes. That comes at the cost of faster insanity, which eventually has the same effect on agency as death. Here the players choose the basic outline of their peril through minimal resource management. The system does the rest.
Freedom within these constraints is meant to enhance credible storytelling. It’s a compromise between agency and horror, not a perfect solution. In truth, any technical resource management in a game is inherently a distraction from the storytelling. Horror Cards reduces such interference by being brief and simple.
In the interest of simplicity, Horror Cards purposely fails to assist the most important aspects of character creation, including personal history, personality and sources of joy. Simple rules for such things are at least as damaging as they are helpful to competent players, in any scope as large and varied as a genre.
Also in the interest of simplicity, Horror Cards does not present an interesting economy with respect to the technical properties of the PCs. Such economies, and protections against powergaming, get in the way of people telling a story for its own sake. Players who enjoy technical optimization more than a good story will not be purposely obstructed by Horror Cards, but they will be bored.
For players who can dodge the bullet of wish fulfillment and do not enjoy rules, the GM should consider free choice of personal characteristics and free choice of cards for all drawing of Wounds, Shock and Insanity, turning Horror Cards into a system of note-taking and ideas, instead of a game.
The rules are otherwise written to encourage mutual creativity and ease of adaptation. Pre-modern settings require only very light customization by the GM, in the form of removing inappropriate mental disorders from the decks.
Version 0.6.3 (2016-09-25):
- Minor clarifications.
Version 0.6.2 (2016-06-25):
- Added the corollary that Shock is to be played, with an example on the proper use of Shock without GM involvement.
Version 0.6.1 (2016-05-26):
- Minor clarifications.
Version 0.6.0 (2016-05-17):
- Added the Burn deck.
- Fixed Exposure’s reference to the abolished concept of Life.
- Added advice on side effects of checks.
Version 0.5.0 (2016-05-05):
- Continuing from 0.4.0, the default allowance of 1 card was separated from the difficulty of checks, now applying even to card-mandated formulae.
- In another logical progression from 0.4.0, the Life deck was removed
- Removed the drawing of multiple Shocks from one stressor.
- Lowered the maximum amount of Shock from 3 to 2.
- Removed recovery from severe shock as a special case involving Life. 1 Shock is now lost per scene.
- Changed Loan Oft Loses so that drawing more for checks no longer
increases the probability of negative side effects (at first).
- The number of copies in the Check deck was reduced from 3 to 2.
- Added the effect that Loan Oft Loses optionally counteracts Slings and Arrows, as an alternative to its older effect.
Version 0.4.0 (2016-04-23):
- Change of the scale of stats. All values reduced by 1 point, hence a reduction of the points allocated at character creation from 15 to 10.
- Added an explicit base value of 1 card for checks to compensate for the reduced stat values and make statless checks more viable.
- Removed three types of Life cards by folding their contents into three others: Therapist into Mentor, Career into Recognition, and Home into Heritage. Several other changes to wording in this deck, mostly making prior assumptions explicit. Also a change of the number of copies of each card in this deck, which previously varied by card and is now universally 4.
- Further clarification of matters that had thus far been explained verbally in testing.
Version 0.3.2 (2016-04-09):
- Moved the more complex rules concerning Shock from the core rules to the optional ones.
- Minor clarifications.
Version 0.3.1 (2016-03-12):
- Minor clarifications only.
Version 0.3.0 (2016-03-05):
- Added a Dexterity stat.
- Added inspection of Shock before drawing.
- Added Agitated (Shock), Exposure (Insanity), PTSD (Insanity).
- Redesign of cards, flipping the ordering and formats of rule and fluff text for the benefit of new players. Changed much of the colouring to match new reverse-side artwork.