Fright Night Playtest: Widow's Bluff

For about a month now Ben, Melissa, and I have been working on our own role-playing game that for now we are referring to as Fright Night. In a nutshell it is intended to let you play through most if not all horror movie experiences, and it has finally gotten to a point where we actually want to talk about it.

The core mechanic is pretty simple: you have stats like Brawn, Brains, and Looks, each rated from 1-3. When you need to make a check you roll six-siders equal to your stat, with each 5-6 counting as a success. If circumstances are favorable or you have some asset then you succeed on a 4-6, but if they are not then you need a 6, and we have been tinkering with a simple skill system to make it even more likely that characters will be able to do the kind of stuff that they are supposed to.

The game is broken up into scenes. The Director gives each Actor some screen time in turn, combining them when necessary (because sometimes the characters do stick together). The general outcome of each is determined by rolling on a couple of tables, which means that even the Director will not be fully aware of what is going to happen next (which we felt added to the tension): you might discover a recently butchered body, hear a scream, discover a strange object, get startled by a jump scare, or, if you are really unlucky, get ambushed by whatever monster the Director has cooked up.

After each player has a scene, the Director makes a "climax" roll to see if the monster finally goes all out in an effort to do whatever it is that it is trying to do.

To me the game feels like a blending of FiascoApocalypse World, Arkham Horror, and Mansions of Madness: there was a lot of collaboration between the Director and Actors to make sure a scene played out well (even if it meant willfully adhering to a horror flick trope, like investigating sounds in the dark), things got pretty lethal when a monster popped up, there is a sense of an uncertain time limit, and things are pretty random, but in a good way.

To give you a better idea of how the game plays, Ben whipped up a play report of our most recent game sessions, complete with the rolls he made for each scene. If this sounds like a game that interests you, let us know; we would love to have other people look over the rules once we get a working draft and give it a playtest.

  • Woody Harrelson (me!)
  • Joanne (Melissa)

Joanne (Object/NPC Attack)
Fade in on an overhead shot of a large house on the side of a cliff. The waves crash up against the rocks far below the estate known to the locals as Widow’s Bluff. A moving van pulls up, followed by a car from which a woman emerges. This is JOANNE, a single mother who is moving her family into the west wing. The door to the main house opens to reveal WOODY, the rich eccentric who owns the estate. Dressed in a bathrobe, he greets the new arrivals as the family dog RUSTY bounds out of the car followed by ten-year-old ZANE. Joanne pays her first month’s rent before collecting GRANDMA and four-year-old SUZIE and headed into her new home.

While putting away clothes in her walk-in closet, Joanne spots something up on a shelf. She strains to reach it, but the shelf tips up, spilling her onto the floor followed by a jewelry box. Her children come to investigate the noise. Suzie runs off with the box, but not before Joanne looks inside and extracts an old ring with a “To my love” inscription. Finished with unpacking for the day, Joanne starts work on dinner. Her son rushes in, asking if she’s seen Rusty. She tells him that after they eat they’ll go have a look.

Woody (Environment/Jump Scare)
Joanne decides to start their search by checking in with Woody. She walks in to find a trail of ominous red footprints. She follows them to find her host sipping a drink, covered in what looks to be blood and holding a long thin blade. She is startled, until she learns that her host practices what he calls Katanart (painting with his sword). He has not seen the dog, but suggests looking in the woods behind the property.

After quite a while of tramping through the thicket and calling for their pet, it begins to get dark and they reluctantly turn back. As they round a tree a hulking figure steps out and barks a gruff “Hey!” It’s JOB, the hermit who lives in a cabin in these woods. He introduces himself and tells the unhappy boy that he’ll keep a lookout for the animal.

Upon returning, in the dim light Woody senses something amiss at the cliff’s edge. He investigates and discovers that a section of his rather sturdy railing has broken off and fallen to the rocks below. He finds this odd, but merely files it away as something to tell JOSE, his gardener, to fix.

Climax Roll: 5

Joanne (Information/Actor Attack)
After tucking in the children, Joanne settles in on the couch with a book while Grandma knits in her favorite chair. As the night wears on, the clacking of needles slows, then stops as the old lady falls off to sleep. Joanne realizes then how quiet the place is at night.

No sooner has she had the thought than a creaking begins to emanate from the dining room. She gets up to investigate and finds that the chandelier is swinging back and forth. She stops it with a broom, but as she turns the light off the fixture begins swinging again, faster this time. She stops it once more and turns to leave as the crystal chandelier drops to the floor on the spot she had been standing just seconds before!

Shaken up, she cleans up the remains of the fixture before going around to check on everyone who was woken by the crash. She then decides that she is too on edge to concentrate on her book and heads off to bed. On the way she notices that the corridor upstairs is lined with old photos, and stops in front of a yellowed photograph of a man in captain’s uniform smiling next to a woman in a simple dress. They are standing before the very railing that is now in pieces…

Woody (Body/Actor Attack)
The next morning, Woody wakes and heads out back to where he has left a bowl of drugged chow to see if the dog is back. There’s no sign the food has been touched, but when he returns to his painting room, he finds the animal lying in the middle of the floor, his fur stained with red. He runs out and returns with his renter, and they examine the body. Unfortunately, this time the stain is not paint. Joanne takes the body out to bury it and Woody sets about cleaning the mess left behind.

As he works, behind him the handle on his large sink slowly turns, releasing a stream of water into the basin. He turns and shuts the stream off. This sets off a rattling of pipes, and as he throws himself backwards a guyser of scalding hot water launches from the drain, filling the room with steam and drenching his artwork. As he finishes cleaning, he realizes that no one checked the dog’s body for clues.

Climax Roll: 7

Joanne (Information/Jump Scare)
Woody rushes outside to where Joanne is packing down the last of the dirt, grabs the shovel and starts to dig. The surprised woman begins to protest, then to yell, then to accuse her host of foul play. As he digs, Woody appeals to her sense of logic. Why would he kill her pet in his own home, then bring her back to show it off? He pulls the dog from the ground and they examine it. There are no wounds!

They decide they need more information before making any wild conclusions. Woody sets off to question the hermit Job while Joanne seeks out Jose, who has arrived to work the grounds. The gardener tells her that he has indeed noticed strange things on the property, and his tools disappear, only to show up in the strangest places. He also mentions that people who move into this house don’t stay very long. He leaves, and when he returns, they too have disappeared. This is too much for Joanne, who decides to run some errands. And while she’s out, she might just swing by city hall to see if she can’t ferret out some of the strange estate’s history. She goes to collect the children.

As she opens the door, there is a blood-curdling scream from the living room. She rushes in to find Grandma glued to the television set, lamenting that her soap stars long-lost evil twin has returned. Joanne composes herself, shakes her head, and leaves.

Woody (Object/Monster Presence)
Woody, after getting thoroughly lost in the woods, finally stumbles on the hermit’s cabin. He knocks on the door and is ushered in, where he questions Job about the property. The large man confirms that there is definitely a presence in that house, and it’s most likely supernatural. Woody concludes that they may be dealing with a ghost, and Job reveals that the only way to get rid of a ghost is to destroy that which represents what the person most desired. Slightly puzzled, Woody thanks him and leaves.

As he approaches the house, Woody spots a rustling curtain and what appears to be a figure in one of the second story windows. He hurries to the front of the house, where he discovers Jose’s hatchet buried in the wood of the front door. He wrenches it free and heads in to investigate.

Climax Roll: 15

Joanne (Omen/Jump Scare)
Joanne enters city hall and approaches the young man at the desk. She asks for any information he might have about the property she recently moved into.

“Oh, the old Prattle place?” he queries.

He reveals that the house was built by Jeremiah Prattle for his young wife Melinda. This piques Joanne’s interest, and she is directed to the town’s newspaper archives. She scans her way through many months’ worth of microfilm before she finds mention of the couple in question. She reads of the wealthy man’s crew breaking ground, of the town coming out for the estate’s unveiling. And when the reader jolts to a halt, she finds herself staring at the very same picture that hangs in her hallway.

As she reads on, happy times turn to tragedy as she finds a death announcement for Jeremiah Prattle. It tells of a terrible crash on the rocks on his return voyage home, and laments that he is survived by his only living relative, his lovely wife Melinda. Then, a few weeks later, Melinda’s own obituary. The woman, distraught over her loss, threw herself from the bluff into the icy waters below.

Remembering her original mission, Joanne fast-forwards to more recent times, as a budding journalist questions what is going on at this estate. People go up to the house but don’t come back down. An elderly couple, a trio of young roommates, a businessman come to remodel and turn it for a profit. All inhabit Widow’s Bluff and are never seen again.

As a shiver runs down her spine, a hand clamps down on Joanne’s shoulder. She whirls to find the desk clerk, come to check on her progress. She shakily thanks him, gathers the children and runs to the car. She must uncover the secrets of their new home.

Woody (Body Found/Actor Attack)
Back at the house, Woody pinpoints the room where he may have seen a ghost. Inside he instead finds the body of poor Jose, covered in blood just like the dog. This body is cleaner than the first, however, so upon closer examination Woody discovers that this body too is wound-free, and that the blood instead appears to have seeped from the man’s eyes and mouth. Before he died, the gardener pulled down the ladder to the house’s attic. Woody climbs up for a look.

The attic is filled with old, old junk the man had never had the time nor the inclination to clear out. A wardrobe here, a crib there, a headless dress dummy, several dusty boxes… Clutching his hatchet for comfort, Woody calls out for the ghost to show itself. He is met with only silence. Until he hears his tenant calling for him as she crests the stairs. He directs her to the ladder, and she joins him in the attic. Together they start pouring through the boxes until Woody opens one and finds an old journal inscribed with the initials M.P. This sparks Joanne’s memory, and she fills him in on all that she’s learned. He does the same as she begins to read.

Early entries confirm what she’s already uncovered. Flowing paragraphs of young love, of building a new home. Joanne flips through the pages until she finds an entry about Jeremiah leaving on another voyage. Melinda records her heartache as her husband sails off, and her expectation for his return so they can finally begin a family together. Then tear-stained pages as she speaks of his death. And finally, one last entry.

“I cannot bear this any longer. I hope that, since he cannot give me any more in life, my Jeremiah will offer me comfort in death.”

As she closes the book, Woody mentions destroying the symbol of the ghost’s desire. Her mind races to the ring she discovered. The widow awaited her husband’s return, the wedding ring must be what’s fueling her malevolent presence. They start toward the ladder, but without warning the dummy lunges out at Woody. Startled, he loses his balance and pitches through the hole and lands roughly onto the floor below. Joanne climbs down and picks him up and they race for the west wing.

As the pair rushes in, little Suzie thanks her mother for the jewelry box, wondering sweetly if it might belong to the woman she saw in Mommy’s room. She did seem nice. The adults look at each other, and double their pace for the bedroom. The ring is luckily still on Joanne’s nightstand, and they take it outside to the cliff. As they approach they spy something down on the rocks, lying on the remains of the railing. It is the battered body of Job. Without a second thought, Woody hurls the ring into the ocean. It arcs down, twisting and turning as it falls, and as it strikes the water the waves are momentarily still. Panting in relief, the two walk back to the house and cross the threshold of Woody’s home.

Joanne & Woody (Object/NPC Attack)
 …And the door slams shut behind them! Woody grabs his hatchet and begins to hack at the wood, but it seems impervious to blows. As do the windows, the two discover as they try any and all exits from the house. As Joanne tries a window on the side of the house, she gasps in horror. She watches as Suzie turns, holds her arms out as if reaching for something, or someone, and begins to slowly toddle toward the railing. 

She runs to Woody, and they head back to the attic as they realize that they might have missed something. Maybe the ring wasn’t the answer after all. Try as they might, though, they’re coming up with nothing. They tear the boxes apart again, looking for any clues, until Woody hacks the dummy apart in frustration. As he calms down, however, he begins to recall bits and pieces of what they had learned.

 “…survived only by his lovely wife…”
“…can’t wait to start our family…”
“…destroy that which represents what the ghost most desires…”

He looks around the room. His eyes settle on the one thing that doesn’t belong, and he pieces together why the widow Prattle is leading a little girl to her certain doom.

“The crib!” he shouts, and readies the hatchet. As the blade swings down and splinters the first bit of wood, an unearthly howl surrounds the pair and the bare light bulb shatters in a shower of sparks. But gallant Woody pays no heed, and soon the crib is nothing but splinters. The howl dies down, and once again all is silent.

Joanne nearly jumps down the hole and races down the stairs before throwing the front door open. She has never run as fast as she does this day, and scoops up her daughter just as she reaches the gap in the railing. 

The little girl smiles up at her. “I was following the nice lady, but she’s gone now.”

Mother showers daughter with kisses, and hoists her up to her chest as they begin the short walk back to what might turn out to be a very nice home after all.



  1. Hey David, long time no chat! Just wanted to stop in and compliment the new layout of the site, as well as the premise and write-up of Fright Night! It's a really tough thing to emulate a classic horror movie at the table -- it takes the right system, the right players and a talented GM -- but it sounds like you guys created something really awesome here.

    I've been playing in a horror game using the Tremulus system and we've had a lot of success with it, but mainly because we eschew the system for most of the session and are only rolling dice when something big is on the line. That experience really makes me think that the best horror games can only be accomplished when the system knows when to interject and when to get out of the way. It looks like Fright Night strikes a good balance in that way!

    Thanks for sharing! I look forward to hearing more about it!

    1. Nick! It has been awhile. Still running that Ravenloft game?

      The main goal is to allow you to easily evoke the feel of any horror flick, from Friday the 13th to The Ring to Cabin in the Woods. We have gone through a variety of dice mechanics and tables, but I think we are finally at a good point where the game is simple-yet-flexible enough to get things going quickly.

      We are going to be looking for playtesters, or at least people to look at the rules and let us know what they think: interested?

    2. I am! Things have gotten quite busy over the winter months but the Ravenloft campaign is running strong. I'm going to be posting some synopses over the next week to get up-to-date with what's been happening. There have been some changes to the group and in the scope of the game but it's going quite strong -- I want to get back in the habit of doing weekly updates on it. So keep an eye out next week, I guess!

      I'd definitely be willing to take a look at the rules for Fright Night, and I'm sure my gaming group would be willing to take a break from our regular stuff to try out your system for a session! Just let me know when and where I can get my hands on it and I'll pass it by the group!

    3. That's good to hear: I never seem to get more than a few sessions in before things peter out. :-P

      We are going to run another session or two to make sure that Widow's Bluff was not just a fluke, so in a week or two we will have things better hammered out and be ready for other groups to take a looksie. :-)

  2. It sounds allot like "betrayal at the house on the hill," only with more role playing. Have you played betrayal? I bet you have but if not check it out for more great pillageable mechanics and ideas.

    What you have shown here looks like a frighteningly well built system for horror movie recreation

  3. The house tiles from the board game "Betrayal at the house on the hill" might be a fun way to visualize the story as it progresses. Not building the house at random, but having a deliberate floor plan.


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