Both Dungeons and Dragons already have a bit of a horror element to them, but most D&D campaigns end up being fun romps like the upcoming Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, which brings the property back to the big screen this weekend.
If you’re looking for a tabletop RPG that will send your adventure down a bit darker road, however, you should check out any of these horror-themed fantasy tabletop RPGs that would make for great campaigns…
There are few fantasy RPGs that are more in-your-face grim than the doom metal inspired Mork Borg. The book is most notable for its extremely aggressive art and layout, basically screaming the details of its hopeless world directly in your face. No two consecutive pages share the same arrangement, keeping you constantly off balance in the best possible way. Much like its sci fi follow-up Cy_Borg, even if you don’t end up playing Mork Borg, it’s completely worth owning as a unique and bombastic art book.
Thankfully, the game contained in Mork Borg is a ton of fun for both people new to the hobby and seasoned veterans. The game boils all actions down to a D20 roll modified by one of four simple stats, making it easy to keep the action moving at an exciting pace. All characters are created with randomly rolled stats and abilities, making for some outrageously bizarre characters to face the harsh journey ahead of them. With class options like Gutterborn Scum, Wretched Royalty and Occult Herbmaster, the game makes it easy to embody your characters with a ton of personality and horrific charm. The brutal nature of the combat can make keeping your character alive an issue for long term campaigns, but even if you end up with a total party kill from any number of the twisted creatures included in the book’s bestiary, you’ll have a bloody good time being torn to shreds.
If you’ve got a party that’s obsessed with treasure hunting, there’s no better way to put their greed to the test than with Trophy Gold. Your doomed characters, driven by their hunger for greater riches, plumb the haunted and forgotten areas of the harsh world of Kalduhr, losing themselves to the ancient evils within. The book’s list of inspirations includes Dark Souls, Green Knight, and The Witcher, and it’s easy to see the fingerprints of all these when flipping through the tables and adventures included in the game.
What makes Trophy Gold, and its companion game Trophy Dark, fun at the table is its highly collaborative nature. Players are given free reign to introduce possible consequences or story ideas for the GM to weave into the tale, pushing the story in unexpected directions. Hunters are fragile, but players go in knowing their luck will run out at some point, so part of the fun is finding a memorable end to your tale. The game includes a wide range of incursions, Trophy’s name for one-off adventures, and if those aren’t enough for you there’s a companion book called Trophy Loom that’s filled to the brim with inventive lore, allowing you to craft your own doomed expeditions.
Band of Blades begins with defeat. The Cinder King’s army of the dead has overwhelmed the Legion, a storied band of soldiers, and sent them on the run. You take over the members of the Legion as they retreat to the hopeful safety of Skydagger Keep. The game is notable for having a very specific framing and structure, complete with a map of the area that you’ll traverse as you continue to confront the overwhelming forces at your heels. Since this is a military dark fantasy game, you can expect a lot of casualties before your final showdown.
The game uses the system of Blades in the Dark, but heavily modifies it into something all its own. Players each take on a specific role in the squad, such as quartermaster or marshal, each in charge of their own specific layer of the campaign. There’s a pool of characters that are created, so players don’t play as a specific character in every session, but rather choose ones based on the requirements of the mission, like in video games such as Darkest Dungeon or XCOM. At the start of each campaign, you’ll select a specific Chosen, god-like beings who give the players bonuses in mission, and a pair of Broken, twisted former Chosen who now serve the Cinder King, meaning each campaign will feel unique despite using the same map. It’s a mechanically dense game, but it creates an experience that’s wholly unique from other games based on Blades in the Dark.
If you want to see another way the Blades in the Dark system can play out, I’d recommend Teeth: Stranger and Stranger. Instead of making it crunchier like Band of Blades, Teeth strips down and simplifies the rules for its 18th century rural England setting. Built for a mini-campaign, the players embody mutated bumpkins trying to protect their small village, and their favorite pigs, from a rampaging Abomination. After a mysterious stranger visits, claiming to have a way to put a stop to the Abomination for good, you’re off on an adventure to collect bizarre artifacts from the surrounding area. The book provides you with tidbits about potential landmarks and ways for the story to go, but leaves plenty of blank space for the GM to make it their own.
If you find yourself hungry for more after completing the short campaign of Stranger and Stranger, there are two other one-shot RPGs in the Teeth universe. Night of the Hogmen is a more tightly focused game about hapless travelers on the run from a horde of the titular hogmen. You’ll pass through a series of locations on your way to a church where you’ll make your final stand against the horrible beasts. The other one-shot game, Blood Cotillion, takes place at a high-society ball where you play undercover assassins trying to root out the hidden occult forces that lurk in the manor. It’s a game of equal parts ballroom intrigue and monster hunting, making for a unique combination. There’s also a large-scale Teeth RPG in works, hopefully hitting Kickstarter later this year.
Imagine your standard “adventurers meet in an inn” scenario, a classic start to any fantasy campaign. In the strange and twisted world of Heart, those adventurers could include an occultist full of magic bees, a knight with armor made from cursed trains, and a priest to the Crimson God of Debt. Also, that inn is a predatory building that lures people in and slowly consumes them. The subterranean land of Heart is an ever-shifting nightmare that twists and transforms based on the desires of those that travel through its horrific ruins.
The game is beautifully built to keep you on the knife edge of danger while you delve deeper into the world. Whenever you roll, you have the possibility of taking stress, which can come in many different forms aside from physical, and has the potential to end up giving you a condition that has both narrative and mechanical consequences. For example, too much supply stress can leave you out of ammo, while too much fortune stress can result in you getting separated from the party. The only way to clear stress or fallout is by spending the treasures you’ve looted while exploring the various terrifying landmarks of Heart, so you’re encouraged to continue to risk life and limb for more currency to help heal you. Between the finely-tuned mechanics and the evocative yet open-ended lore, Heart: The City Beneath has all the tools to create a memorable and inventive campaign.