Classic 1930s and 1940s Horror Roleplaying Games

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series 1930s Horror Roleplaying Game

White-Zombie-Classic-Movie-PosterLast weekend I watched an old classic black-and-white schlock horror movie. It was called “White Zombie.” The central horrific revelation of this movie is that voodoo can affect white people too! Oh, the humanity! The change in sensibilities between that age and this has turned what was once a horrifying idea into something humorous. In fact there is a whole genre of films made in the late 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s which have a similar feel. Their understanding of science is so different to our own that their monsters are laughable. What used to scare from an occult standpoint now seems funny. I started to think “This genre would be fun to play in. Why hasn’t anyone written a game like this?”

Well, we don’t need anyone to write a game for us. Let’s do it ourselves.

Step 1. Project Goals and Aims.

Here’s where you flesh out how you want your game to feel and put down some ideas that might make that a reality.

So. Our game wants the players to feel like they’re characters in black-and-white movies. I stop short of the “silent movie” type – we could go for that as a variation, but it would mean a lot of black cards handed out to players with white pens, everyone forbidden to speak and a piano soundtrack. Now, we can keep some of these ideas – but we’ll talk about that later.

What typifies the horror genre in the ‘30s and ‘40s cinema?

  1. Strongly archetypal characters. The mad scientist, the friendly bumbling professor, the square jawed hero, the screaming waif of a love interest (and object of the Vampire/Mad Scientist/hyper-intelligent brain from outer space’s interest) who doesn’t seem to be able to walk 5 steps without slipping over and hurting their ankle. We’ll have to build this all into the character creation process and perhaps provide some mechanic where acting “in-type” rewards the player.
  2. Over the top plots, ridiculous pseudo-science, unbelievable plot lines. We’ll try to re-create this sort of thing in our scenario design. Players should be warned beforehand what to expect, setting expectations of how to act in the game.
  3. One dimensional villains. Yup. These days your vampire might need to act on some misguided sense of revenge, or be impelled against his better nature by the beast within. Not in black and white. He’s a monster. He does monstrous things. Hyper-intelligent brains from Planet Zargalon are here to take over the world because it’s his raison d’etre. That’s as complicated as it gets. Also to get considered in scenario design.
  4. Black and white cinematography. They continued to use black placards with white writing well into the era of the talkies – so the GM has the possibility of creating some sense of the same style by using similar props. Get some black paper or card and write in white pen when the scene changes. “Later, at the Castle.” Decorate the edges of the paper in white. When the scene changes, pull it out and wiggle it in front of your players. For that matter the GM might even go the whole hog and do themselves up grey-scale.

Step 2. Mechanics and Character Design.

So now it comes down to the nuts and bolts. How are we going to get our game to work. There’s a lot of choices available here – for our little knock-together game I’m going to shamelessly beg, borrow or steal from whatever system I think would work best.

We need to give our characters some descriptors and give values to these descriptors in such a way that we can test for success or failure of a given action. As we want to play this one fast and loose, perhaps a few action descriptors and broad categories will suffice. Lets go for something like this:

  • Beguiling
  • Persuasive
  • Strong
  • Acts of Daring
  • B movie Science
  • Occult knowledge
  • Profession…

We have a few choices for our numbers. Broadly speaking, there’s 3 different types of roll to choose from.

  1. We can throw one die for everything and our characteristics modify that roll against a difficulty number.
  2. We can throw a number of dice equal to our skill level – each dice that exceeds the difficulty number is considered a success. A number of successes might be required for an action to happen.
  3. Your level of skill in a characteristic determines what type of dice you throw.

Now, there’s a number of permutations on each system, but we don’t need to get complicated for our little thrown-together home-brew one-shot system. So let’s choose one for us.

I like d12s. They are a pleasing shape, require a certain size, and can’t be accused of being part of the d20 system. They’re not decimal system, you can divide the chances by 3 comfortably, and they are poorly represented in the gaming community. Poor d12. So let’s use them. Let’s use lots of them!

Let’s call our system the “D12 System.” Your level of skill is represented in the number of d12s you get to roll. Now we need to pick a difficulty. This is where it gets a little more tricky.

To choose an ordinary level of difficulty we need a few things:

  1. How difficult do we want things to be?
  2. What kind of skill level will people generally run around with?

So, say, if we want even ordinary actions to be tough, we’ll want rolls for everything and set the target numbers high. But even that is going to prove no challenge if people are habitually rolling 8 or 9 dice and only need 1 success.

Let’s go for something a little more approachable. Let’s say ordinary things don’t need rolls. Only when something challenging occurs will we need to test. At that point, someone with a low level of skill should only succeed around half the time. As an example, let’s take someone who’s just learned to drive. Driving around familiar territory with no surprises they seem to be coasting along. No problem. Then a cat runs right in front of the car… Do they hit it? Do they swerve and lose control? Can they avoid hitting the cat while still keeping control of the vehicle? Let’s give them a 50% chance. So an ordinary challenge will need 1 success and the difficulty roll will require a 7+. In fact, let’s make 1 success the standard for getting over the line. Perhaps a challenging encounter might need a 9+, and if it’s next to hopeless, an 11+.

Furthermore, let’s keep our skill levels simply. Your skills can be Bad, Normal or Good – 1 die, 2 dice, 3 dice respectively.

Now we can quickly look at character creation as well. We’ll want our characters to fit into the genre, so random generation is probably not the way we want to go. Instead we’ll let the players choose where they want their skills. But how many points will we give away? Let’s start with every aptitude at Low, then work it out from there. I’d say we want people to have a nice spread of aptitudes – perhaps 2 High, 2 Medium and 2 low, with the profession skill perhaps at High or Medium in general. Going on a 1-for-1 basis that’s around 7 or 8 points – let’s say 7. Perhaps we might allow a character to be totally inept at something, allowing them to have exactly 0 skill in the chosen area, failing any challenge based on that skill. Being inept at something gives you another point to put somewhere else.


Now – how about combat? Frequently in the movies the hero manages to bring force to bear in the penultimate scene, throwing the villain over a precipice, struggling over a firepit or vat of zombie liqueur. Designing a good crunchy combat system is too involved for our little throw-together game – plus lengthy battles aren’t part of the genre. These frequently end with a quick and daring fight – but the villain is hardly ever dispatched at the hands of the hero. More frequently they stumble, lose balance and fall into something unpleasant. They lose control over their henchmen who proceed to eat them. We don’t need a big combat system to cover that.

We do need to know, however, what happens when two people match against each other. At this stage it’s probably just easiest to say that both sides roll and the greatest number of successes wins.

Okay, let’s try it out so far.

Our hero is going to be James Dashington, square jawed, clean cut scientist.

  • He’s not beguiling. Leave it at 1.
  • He’s a little persuasive – let’s make that a 2.
  • He’s strong enough – 2.
  • When called upon James Dashington leaps into action. Acts of Daring can be a 3.
  • B Movie Science – James Dashington is a scientist, true. But he’s not the main scientist in the group – that’s a role for another player. So let’s leave this one at a 2.
  • Being the scientist type James has no time for the occult. 1. (Maybe even consider a 0.)
  • Profession: Biologist – He’s pretty good at what he does. 3.

Now let’s run him through his paces:

James Dashington is wandering through the dark woods. Suddenly he sees a great green gribbly monster! Oh, the tentacles! But can James make sense of the beast? He rolls 2 dice (B movie science) – a 4 and an 8! He succeeds! The GM informs him that it looks like a hideous experiment gone wrong – it looks like an unholy combination of a lobster, an octopus and an ape, but of incredible size!

James escapes from the beast. Now, where has he heard of these types of experiments again? He rolls Profession: Biology – a 2, a 4 and a 9! Another success! Yes, he did read a paper on experiments with trans-species mixing. He was asked to review it for publication – and he rejected it. It was by an eccentric professor – Professor Darkly.

James manages to find where the Professor’s lab is hidden. He creeps down to the basement, only to find his love, the fair Gwinny Smith, tied up above a vat of some horrible ooze! The Professor laughs as he presses an over-sized button and Gwinny starts to descend! James rushes at the professor. There is a desperate struggle atop the gangway (James rolls Acts of Daring getting a 4, a 7 and a 12 – the Professor rolls and gets a 2.) The Professor slips and falls into the ooze! He screams, then burbles, then dies. Gwinny is saved, they smooch, and the scene closes.

The end.

Finding Inspiration.

A large number of these classic horror movies are out of copyright and can be found on the internet or very cheaply on DVD. I’ve included a few below to give some inspiration for what the genre is all about.

White Zombie

The House on Haunted Hill

Yes, this is originally released in 1959, however it has all the same tropes we have been talking about.

Now, there’s lots more we can do with our new game system. But for a quick and dirty one-shot campaign that’s all you really need to get going. Designing a game that’s fun and exciting doesn’t have to a be long arduous project – at least if your audience is simply your own roleplaying gaming group. We do have scope for some more complexity and description in our game – and if we’re going to hand it over to other people to run we’ll need to put together some words of advice for the GM and perhaps a sample adventure to give the GM a leg up and more clearly define how a typical game might run. For now we can enjoy playtesting with our own little group!

Series NavigationCreating Characters for our Horror B-Movie Roleplaying Game

About Paul

Cuchulain (otherwise known as Paul) has been playing roleplaying games since he was 10 years old. Although he'll play any game under the sun, he prefers characterisation and plot over tactics and mechanics. He is never happier than when playing in or mastering a horror campaign - preferably with heavy Cthulhu Mythos overtones or theme.
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  • Marcus

    I think this is a great idea! Are you going to flesh the system out a little bit? Or is that going against the purpose of the one-shot?

    • Cuchulain

      Yes, I’m going to flesh it out a little. But not too much! We’ll see how the game develops with a bit more thought.