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I am looking for a game which explores the Horror genre, specifically by instilling Dread in my players, I also need the game to focus on religous horror and Magic Realism. I would like the mechanics of this game to be simple and more like guidelines and to support this feeling of dread.

As far as setting goes:

  • It should be set in the Dark Ages, should have an omnipresent church,
  • It should be able to provide a strong attachment towards friends and family to help support the creation of dread.
  • The Antagonists should threaten the PCs directly but the events that happen should have a greater meaning in the surrounding world.
  • My players should be able to half "win", meaning they should be able to defeat the antagonists but only at great personal loss.


  • The level of crunch should be that of soaked bread. Meaning the rules should be more like guidelines.
  • The Protagonists level of cooperation should be up to them but working together should be more profitable then working alone.

I know that I will have to evoke this feeling and setting myself but I am looking for a system that supports them.

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

Dogs in the Vineyard

You'll need to make some setting adjustments, but not as many as I first thought.

  • Location: You'll have to tweak this a bit, but not much. It's set in a fictional version of early Mormon Utah, meaning it's actually quite a bit like the European Dark Ages: towns are isolated, the space between is wild, and religion is the glue that binds the people together.

  • Premise: I'm not sure this is what you had in mind, but I think it's appropriate for your goals. Players are "Dogs," traveling representatives of the Church, which means they have full and total responsibility and power: their job is to maintain the peace and keep "demons" (it's up to the party whether demons are literal or metaphorical in their campaign) from turning people to sin. Because sin is contagious, prevention is crucial and if it takes hold, the situation must be dealt with swiftly. Dogs may use any means necessary to do this... and how they exercise this power is the crux of the game.

  • Horror: In their battle against demons, the Dogs find themselves faced with distasteful moral dilemmas which only they can resolve --and they have no moral guidance; the Church will support any decision a Dog makes in the field. It is the GM's role to present Dogs with problems to which no solution is entirely moral: players are forced to choose what they feel is the best of bad options. The game explores whether the ends justify the means, and what impact this kind of choice has on those who make it. When a player makes a decision ("In X situation, I'll kill a man if I have to"), the GM then raises the stakes with a future scenario ("What if it's a kid, not a man?" or "What if the entire town is watching?"). Because these are weighty moral problems, players can feel the burden as well as the PCs, and the tension escalates as the GM raises the stakes.

  • Cooperation, tension, and half-winning: Dogs frequently fight amongst themselves because of differing ideas about how to resolve an issue; again because these are weighty moral problems, tension can run high both in and out of character. Cooperating in a conflict can provide a great advantage, but a good Dogs GM will be looking for ways to make success more uncomfortable than failure (in failure, at least you know the horrific consequences aren't the direct result of your choices).


Characters are built with stats (Acuity, Body, Heart, Will) and short phrases describing items, skills, relationships, and so forth. Each stat and phrase is associated with a die expression: "Acuity 4d6," "I'm a good shot 2d8," "my older brother whom I worship 1d4."

In a conflict, you roll the dice associated with every stat or phrase appropriate for the scenario. The die results are individually used in a betting-style resolution mechanic: one player narrates a declaration and puts forward dice to support it, then each other player put forward dice of matching or greater value and narrate accordingly. If you're unable to put forth enough dice, you're out of the conflict. The more dice you need to use in order to match the original number, the worse off you are (narrate it accordingly, and at the end of the conflict you take damage based on how many extra dice you used) but you're staying in the fight.

You can escalate to get more dice: taking a swing at someone who was just talking lets you immediately roll any associated dice and add them to the pool you can bet from, but as you escalate the consequences for losing become increasingly dire. Drawing a gun easily results in somebody dying.

The mechanics take a little getting used to, but they're so narrative that you can get wibbly-wobbly with them if you like.

In conclusion

Dogs in the Vineyard doesn't fit your setting, but it easily could. Your PCs would have to be figures of authority, but that's actually good: authority make it a lot easier to be tempted and to explore the darker urges of their nature. The game's base premise is similar to yours, as it focuses on the internal turmoil arising from dealing with external forces of evil. Consequences of failure (and success) can be as personal or far-ranging as the GM and players can imagine, and the mechanics provide great narrative freedom while still encouraging that darkness by offering extra dice as a reward for escalation.

I should mention that the game's design leads to episodic plot: Dogs move from town to town solving problems, resulting in a monster-of-the-week feel to the stories. Consistency in the campaign comes from the Dogs themselves as they explore (with not-so-subtle prompting from the GM in the form of thematically appropriate problems to be solved in each town) their own moral boundaries in pursuit of their righteous tasks.

Don't forget "Say yes, or roll the dice". – Bobson Apr 8 '13 at 20:21

Ars Magica's supplements can actually do a fantastic job of this.

Counterintuitively, Ars Magica without the magi can support this feeling of desperate dread quite well.

When suggesting Ars, I must recommend against my academic-philosophical-mechanical playstyle. I treat the rules as a fascinating treatise on Aristotelian thought, and play accordingly. This, happily, is a choice. By removing the core "magic" component and using the Divine, Infernal, and Lords of Men suppliments, you have a world where magic certainly exists but is overshadowed by the Infernal and the blessings of the divine.

The benefit of using Mythic Europe is that a huge amount of setting information is available; look at the history section in any bookstore. At the same time, the myths and traditions of the various religions that have evolved from that era... have a lovely contradictory pastiche in modern minds. This makes predicting the capabilities and intentions of people in the game difficult.

From a pragmatic perspective, each of the books also includes fantastic research into that aspect of the setting. Devils are not merely mechanically defined, but explored. Their origins, motiviations, and reason for existing are all well discussed, with plenty of story hooks provided for the players.

By making players normal villagers (maybe with a hint of magical virtues or divine virtues... or infernal virtues) existing with a significant infernal presence nearby, families, and insufficient resources to just flee... it is quite possible to have a hierarchy of Devils opposing the players in ways that the modern paradigm just rejects: thereby increasing the disscoation and allowing fertile fields for Horror.

To amplify: "modern paradigm" vis a vis religion and beliefs, the faiths detailed in the Divine supplement are accurate to the 13th century. They provide a metaphysics and theology appropriate to their time period and concept-of-world. Unless one of your players is a scholar of historical theology, the concepts and world-experience of 13th century faiths, especially if played to the hilt, can be profoundly alienating and discomfiting.

The non-magic rules for Ars Magica are very simple and usable. And many of the supernatural powers can be handwaved, especially if the party has no one at a comparable power level. It is only through cunning, prayer, and sacrifice that the erstwhile heroes have a hope of succeeding, and there's nothing in the rules that presumes a "party" or even "roles."

Have the players roll up people at the "companion" level of power, don't worry about the magic system, and read up on the infernal, the divine, and the normal ways of life in Mythic Europe... Everything is set for a very very horrific game.

Does anyone know if there is a wiki form of Ars magica similar to what they have for FATE and dungeon world? – Antonio Apr 8 '13 at 14:44
@John There is not. However, the publishers have release the 4th edition PDF for free to promote the 5th edition. The last time I looked at their site they'd broken the link in a reorganisation, but you can find it somewhere online I'm sure. – SevenSidedDie Apr 8 '13 at 15:42

Try Vampire: The Dark Ages.

From the game's brief Wikipedia page (linked above):

The original game was set in dark medieval Europe in the year 1197, while the 2002 edition updated the setting to the year 1230.

The setting lives from both its differences to the historical facts and to the predecessor game Vampire: The Masquerade. In Dark Ages, vampires rule the night openly and some are even revered and worshipped, though the powers of the Inquisition and other mortal foes restrain their freedom. A large number of vampires, as the rest of the European population, are deeply religious. The Cainite Heresy tries to infiltrate the Church.

We ran a shorter campaign years ago using the first edition of the game. It was focused on the sinister events unfolding in a French monastery: internal strife, interpretations of various sacred (and not so sacred, apocryphal) passages... and a hellish, supposedly long dead dragon that haunted the forests below the fortress temple. :)

Also, your beginner vampires are barely more powerful than a human - yet they know (not just believe) that there are things that go bump in the night. Things like themselves, but way more frightening, with unknowable powers bestowed upon them by hellish agencies. – OpaCitiZen Apr 8 '13 at 14:58

It sounds as if you have a solid grasp of the atmosphere and background, so a generic system that supports horror well could be appropriate.

I strongly suggest you try Dread, which is a generic horror game and has very little crunch. The game uses a Jenga tower for resolving actions: if you want to do something or avoid something being done to you you make a pull from the tower. This generates a level of tension automatically, which combines with the material you present to create a creepy environment.

Alternatively you could run a horror playset in the ever-awesome Fiasco, which is almost crunch-free but probably more Cohen-brothers/gonzo than you wish.


Clockwork and Chivalry while set in the English civil war, contains enough strong religious strife, a (mostly) medieval society, and strong gothic horror elements that fit with most of your requirements. The religion conviction system is rather clever as well sometimes forcing your character to act according to his religion and not according to reason. Mostly, the system is simple and quick.

Note that Clockwork and Chivalry has a Lovecraft inspired supplement but that is not part of the main myth.


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