AS A GENRE, horror always works best when it applies pressure to our own sore spots. In the 1950s, horror did a sharp turn away from gothic monsters towards alien invasions and atomic monsters, a perfectly logical response to the dawn of the Cold War. While American audiences watched flying saucers destroy the US Capitol, what they were “seeing” were Soviets, not BEMs. When they saw alien seed pod convert friends and neighbours into soulless drones, it was the Red Scare (what Theodore Seuss would have called “the spreading pink stain”) in the back of their minds. Later, in the early 70s, when audiences flocked to watch a film about a sweet little girl who metamorphoses into a lewd, foul-mouthed monster whose mother can no longer recognize her, parents got it. Sure, The Exorcist was nominally about demonic possession, but every parent in the late 60s who had watched their cherubs grow into equally unrecognizable long-haired, bra-burning advocates of free-love and psychedelics identified with Chris MacNeil. And for those of us who came of age in the 80s, the sudden resurgence of vampire films that decade preyed on very real fears of the sexuality we were waking into. After all, everywhere we turned we got the message that hooking up and exchanging bodily fluids with the wrong stranger was the ticket to walking death.
Now, Monte Cook is not the first person to mine the current global pandemic for horror. In a way, the popularity of the zombie epic the last decade was fueled by fears of a coming disaster like this, and Rob Savage’s Host (2020)—with its use of isolation and the special kind of hell that is the Zoom Meeting—beat Cook and his team to the punch. But Cook’s The Darkest House is the first RPG response to our collective ordeal, and I daresay the pandemic haunts all of its glorious pages. Nearly all of us can now relate to the experience of being trapped in a house you cannot escape, cut off from the world, spiraling slowly into madness. The Darkest House is a nightmare we have either just lived or are currently living. Yet it isn’t just the story of The Darkest House that shows the mark of the pandemic, its mechanics and its presentation do as well. From the bottom up this game seems shaped by the ghosts currently haunting us.
There are three components of the product I want to look at here; the presentation, the mechanics, and the tale itself. In discussing each I will relate them back to the pandemic. Why? Roleplaying games do not exist in a vacuum any more than film does, and the really good ones speak to the world that produced them. You cannot look critically at 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons and not see a fantasy Vietnam, where sudden death was just a pit trap or an ambush away. Cyberpunk in the 80s reflected both our coming to terms with the emerging Information Age and the unfettered capitalism born of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. In the 90s, Millennialism haunted our thoughts, and an endless string of apocalyptic end times games appeared to tap into that. I suspect Cook and his team know this, at least instinctively, and have responded with a product that at any other time would have been superb, but now also has the virtue of being relevant. The Darkest Hour has the potential to do what both great horror and gaming excel at… helping us face our boogeymen.
PRESENTATION: A NEW WAY TO LOOK AT RPGs
The Darkest House is designed to be played online. Take a moment to let that sink in.
For nearly five decades the dominant tabletop RPG venue has been, well, the tabletop. Sure, over the last decade more and more of us have been moving to running out games online, and platforms have sprung up to facilitate that. But I suspect I am not alone in being a GM who has consistently turned his nose up at online games until the pandemic put a gun to my head and forced me to reconsider. For me, gaming is first and foremost a social experience. If I wanted the game itself I would play a video game. Yet the pandemic made me do it, and my frustration mounted at sifting through all the windows on my screen. All the relevant PDFs. My notes. Dice apps. The darling faces of players on my Zoom screen. For me, at least, the irritation of the format just added to my dislike of it.
The Darkest House is a single app, currently available for Windows or Mac OS. Click on it and it opens across your computer screen All you need to run the game is literally right there. No page-flipping. All the additional materials are embedded there in the main screen. The PDF GM and Player guides can be accessed with a click (read before play and not necessary while running the actual game). The fillable character sheets are there. Game aids. The main map (more on this later). To the right is the complete list of rooms in the house and you can move effortlessly to one by clicking there OR on the location on the aforementioned map. When you click on a room… it is all right there on one screen. A map, an image of the room, a brief description, and then a list of contents and entities in that location. Click on any entry in that list and it opens again with a description, sometimes another image, and yes… even audio clips. ALL of this are instantly shareable with your players by download or just copying and sending them the link. Intuitive. Painless. Fluid. Fast.
Speaking of images, it likely goes without saying at this stage given the track record of Monte Cook Games but the art is first rate. The room illustrations strike the right balance between dark enough to be unnerving and light enough to see and bring the locations to vivid life. The entities… it is always hard to illustrate the monsters in a horror RPG. Lovecraft barely described his terrors at all to leave them monstrous and unformed in the reader’s mind. The entity illustrations in The Darkest House show just enough to give you a firm impression of the being, but are vague enough and shadowy enough to leave much to the imagination.
MECHANICS: AND NOW, A BREAK IN YOUR USUALLY SCHEDULED CAMPAIGN
The presentation of The Darkest House makes it ideally suited for online play. The mechanics make it ideally suited for pandemic play.
Let’s say you were running a campaign before COVID-19 descended upon us. You and your friends gathered round the table for Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, 5E, Night’s Black Agents… whatever. Then the pandemic hit and not only was your life upended, the lives of the player characters in group were as well. Some groups made the transition to Roll20 or Discord or whatever. Many didn’t. Monte Cook seems to have designed the mechanics of The Darkest House with this in mind.
The titular house in The Darkest House is meant to show up in whatever campaign you are currently running. More on the story in the next section but the house is pan-dimensional. It hungers, bleeding through the multiverse looking for victims. It could show up just as easily on a street corner in Arkham, the outskirts of a fantasy metropolis, or as the deck of a space station that suddenly goes very wrong. The point is, conceptually The Darkest House is ready and waiting to take up the slack in your regularly scheduled campaign. It’s an easy-to-run-online interim your current player characters can step in to and—assuming they survive—back into their regular lives and campaign after.
The Darkest House uses the House System, a simple set of mechanics that model how reality functions inside of the house. The house is alive, it is its own separate pocket universe and once you cross the threshold you play by its rules. The game then provides a sort of “Rosetta Stone” (a term the game itself uses but which might be overreaching just a tad), a way to very quickly and easily guesstimate House system statistics for your favourite system and character. Technically, a character from Vampire 5E, Pathfinder, and Champions could all wander into the house from separate universes and find themselves together there.
Essentially everything in the House System is modelled on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the weakest and ten the strongest. Those familiar with Monte Cook’s recent works, especially the Cypher System, will recognize this immediately. A beaded curtain would constitute a Rating 1 door, nearly effortless to get through. A bank vault door, by contrast, might be Rating 10. Inside the house everything is modelled in this way, and that includes your characters.
If you are coming from a system that uses character levels (or Tiers) like the Cypher System, you start by finding the corresponding rating to your character’s level. For 5E, with 20 levels, you would just divide by two (always rounding down). Your 6th level Fighter would have a starting rating of 3. In a game with fewer levels, you just adjust to the scale of ten. In 13th Age, for example, with ten levels, your level would be your starting Darkest House rating. A level three Fighter is a Rating three character. For games like Call of Cthulhu, which uses skills and no levels, or similarly a World of Darkness game, take the rough average of the character’s skills and abilities and match them to the scale. Harvey Walters, the stalwart Call of Cthulhu example character for 40 years has a couple of skills in the low 80s (Cthulhu uses a percentile system), a couple in the 60s and 70s, and the bulk below 40, some as low as 0 or 5%. His “average skill” is probably about 30%. Using the House System then I would eyeball him around Rating 3. The Call of Cthulhu 1-100 scale fits easily in the House scale just by dividing it by ten. This is about right for a CoC character, because generally speaking, a character who is the equivalent of a “real life” human should never be higher than Rating 4.
Once you determine the base Rating, things the character is good at get +1 to the base. A base 3 Fighter would probably have Rating 4 in combat. Harvey Walters has 80% in Archaeology, so he would get a +1 in that. Things the character is poor at get a -1. The House System addresses ways to translate over special powers and equipment as well.
These Ratings, then, get used in the core system (which should be noted is entirely player-facing, the GM never rolls dice). When attempting to perform a task, roll 2D6 + your Rating. The target number is 7 + the Rating you are trying to overcome. Trying to force upon a locked Rating 3 door, the character would need to score 10 or higher with their own most appropriate Rating + 2D6. In lieu of hit or sanity points, characters can take mental and physical wounds. These have ratings as well, and each time the character receives a new one, they must roll against the wound with the highest rating (even if they beat it before) to resist falling unconscious and possibly dying or suffering mental damage and breakdown.
There are a few clever twists on dice rolling, however. There is for starters a mechanic for Boons and Banes, situational modifiers that help or hinder your character’s chances. A Boon allows you to roll a third die and discard the lowest roll. A Bane adds a third die but you are forced to discard the highest. By far the most interesting die, however, is the House Die, rolled every time a player makes a roll.
The house itself is malevolent, and the house—the book likes to remind us—hates you. This would be bad enough if not for the fact that in the house you are also subject to its rules, its reality. The house resents your success, your progress. Thus, every time you make a roll, you also roll the House Die. If you succeed, and the House Die is higher than your highest result, the house responds to your success and makes a move.
For example, you roll to batter open the locked door from the example above, rolling a pair of 4s. Your Rating was 3, so 3+8=11. A success. But wait. Your House Die was a 6. This means the house will respond to your success, lashing out in resentment. The way in which the house responds gets increasingly more severe the more times this happens. Maybe the first time the lights flicker, or a piercing cold fills the air. Later it might be violent shaking, blood dripping from the walls, objects hurtling at you, etc. It’s a system that neatly captures the escalating horror found in most haunted house tales.
You can, however, call upon the house. If you are desperate to succeed, you can actually add the House Die to your result. This produces an immediate response from the house, however, and inflicts a Doom upon your character.
Dooms are cumulative and they are very, very bad. When you make a survival roll to avoid death or madness, your Doom total is subtracted from your roll. If you leave the house, the Doom follows you into your regular campaign. Depending on how much you have, it acts like a curse… bad luck and misfortune at lower levels, sickness, wasting diseases, and tragedy at higher totals. The house hates you.
One mechanic that really needs to be spotlit is that of Lies and Truths.
In The Darkest House every player character gets an arc. As you confront the dark spaces in the house, so too do you confront the dark spaces in your heart. This is a lovely nod to Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. When you create your character, you need to give them either a Lie or a Truth. This is something that the character believes in. It it a Truth if the player also believes in it, but a Lie if the player knows it to not be true.
Let’s say the character believes “the universe is just,” or “my wife loves me.” The player decides whether or not this is true. The house will test these beliefs, eventually precipitating a crisis. This leads to five general results;
Escaping from the house is part of the story, and it is suggested the GM does not make escape an option until all or most of the player characters have had time to resolve their arcs. Think of this as the malevolence of the house. Killing its visitors is fun. Driving them mad even better. Nothing beats, however, an assault on their core beliefs, their souls.
THE TALE: THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS
Some of the following will read as mild spoilers. I assure you they are not, as the GM gets to decide what exactly is true about the house and what isn’t. In fact, when it comes to the house, their are multiple possible truths and layers of truth. One thing I will not discuss, however, is the specific contents of the house’s rooms. However if you want to enter the house knowing absolutely nothing, turn back now.
I was probably predisposed to like The Darkest House, so gentle reader bear that in mind. This blog has already seen, for example, articles on both The Haunting of Hill House and House of Leaves, two of the major influences on The Darkest House and two of my favourite pieces of haunted house fiction. I mention in both my preference for stories of a house that is aware and malevolent over one that is merely occupied by ghosts. It would appear Monte Cook shares the same tastes, because the house is in The Darkest House is a superb example of what Stephen King called “the Bad Place.”
It seems there was once a man named Phillip Harlock. It seems that he lived most of his entire life within the house, alone. Phillip might have grown up there… or he might have built it. He might have once had a family there. Phillip seems to have been an occultist. He seems to have been a severe agoraphobe. As he lived out his entire life there, he seems to have grown increasingly eccentric… increasingly mad.
We sometimes think that when two people spend extended periods of time together, one begins to take on qualities of the other. After years, they truly share everything, including a mental state, and perhaps even a mental space. We even begin to think that they physically resemble each other. It’s more than just finishing each others’ sentences; they share thoughts and dreams and emotions. …But what if one of those people isn’t a person at all? What if it is a place? A house…
And what if, gentle reader, neither was entirely stable?
Harlock vanished inside the house, and it has been ever since unliveable. It seems to miss Harlock and hate anyone inside it who is not him. We should also say that it seems Harlock dabbled in Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, that the house became part of something deeper, some darker, that bleeds and oozes through the multiverse.
The result is a house that might show up anywhere, a house that is alive and insane and twisted in hatred. It is “haunted” by all sorts of entities, including the family that Harlock either imagined he had, or that he created distorted caricatures of. Father, Mother, Brother, Sister, and Lover are some of the worst entities in the house, each representing some form of love gone wrong.
The house’s interior dimensions, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, have nothing to do with its external ones. It may well be infinite. The “map” of the house is actually a flowchart. Rooms relegate to each other emotionally and thematically rather than geographically.
Once inside, the house will not let you go… at least until it is done with you. There are ways to escape, but they are hard won and hard to come by.
Getting the players inside can be facilitated any number of ways. In standard Call of Cthulhu fashion they might be hired to investigate the paranormal there. In high fantasy they might go in seeking treasure or looking for a way to stop evil. Occultists and wizards might be drawn to it seeking power. Perhaps one or more of the player characters’ loved ones have vanished inside and they go after them to rescue them. The story however is essentially the same. Something draws you inside the house and once inside you realize you cannot easily escape. Inside, your wits, your will, your beliefs will all be tested.
Again, a bit like 2020 all over again.
The Darkest House is a masterpiece. It stands head and shoulders above any haunted house we have seen at the gaming table. While I think Cook and his team were trying a bit too hard to reinvent the wheel with their previous effort, Invisible Sun, here they absolutely have, changing how a role playing game can be conceived of and run. It’s a haunted house, it’s a mega-dungeon. Depending on the characters you bring inside it could be everything from crushing psychological horror (characters from Kult, Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies, etc) to a heroic struggle against evil (high-level Pathfinder, 5E, or 13th Age characters, or really any superhero characters). But really what The Darkest House is is a mirror, and the abyss we gaze into is the specter of our own pandemic experiences.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is art.