Title: Dead of Night Authors: Merwin Shanmugasundaram and Andrew Kenrick Publisher: Steampower Publishing Year: 2005 224 pages Product Rating: 4 (****) Game Play Rating: 3 (***)
Review by John H. Kim (Copyright 2006 John H. Kim)
cf. other reviews by John
This is an intriguing horror role-playing game, based on classic monster movies. It is published in a small, pocket book format (4.25" x 5.5") which can be easily carried around. As it describes itself: "Dead of Night is all about the monsters -- werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and ghouls -- but not in a deathly serious way, more in a Hammer Horror of B-Movie style." It uses a simple system where each character has only eight stats, and the abstract systems generally reduces to rolls for Survival Points.
Overall, I think the concept has a lot of potential, but -- particularly for a very short game -- it doesn't have a tight focus. The most basic game borders on simplistic, but there are a wide range of options both in mechanics and in genre.
The Dead of Night book is 224 pocket-sized (4.25" x 5.5") pages, with a color cover by Eric Lofgren of a werewolf bloodily mauling a corpse. The format is excellent in that you really can put it in a pocket -- much better than, say, the 64-page digest-sized pages typical of small RPGs. The book is very sturdy perfect-bound, and holds up well. There are 21 interior illustration, mostly by Michael Cunliffe with a few by cover artist Eric Lofgren. They are all full-page black-and-white, showing a mixture of different horror images. They are generally simple pictures emphasizing gloom and death, and provide some atmosphere but aren't particularly inspirational. There is only a ten-line table of contents (for some reason not on the facing page), but there is a detailed index.
On the down side, the table of contents isn't detailed and the page headers only show the book title -- not the chapter or section, so it takes a little extra flipping to find a given spot.
There is no setting per se in the book, although the five sample scenarios are nominally set in the generic American town of Chaddlestone. More important to the game is its vision of the classic monster-horror genre. Scattered throughout the book are 30 clichés of the horror genre, like "No one believes the crazy old guy" and "After injuring a monster with a weapon, said weapon should be dropped to hasten a character's escape."
There's a sarcastic air to all this, but the book isn't written as a parody. They cover a small range of genres, varying on two scales: nihilism and comedy. This leads to four variations, which they class as: "Grim Fatalism", "Traditional Horror", "Dark Comedy", and "Slapstick Horror". The creatures and scenarios are written up generally straight, though there is potential for running them comedically.
Characters are defined by four broad stat pairs: Identify/Obscure, Persuade/Dissuade, Pursue/Escape, and Assault/Protect. There are no separate skills, but a stat pair may optionally have a player-defined specialization (like "Gun Totin'" for Protect/Assault, or "Horseman" for Pursue/Escape). Characters also have Survival Points, which function both as hit points and hero points.
The stat pairs are bought using a limited point system. All characters have the same point total for stats, so more major characters are distinguished only by having more survival points. The system is that each stat pair must add up to 10 for all characters. So no character can be better at Assault/Protect than any other -- whether an ex-soldier bodyguard or a cheerleader. A specialization substitutes for both attributes of the pair, and is equal to the higher of the original pair plus two, but then two points must be removed from the original pair. So, for example, the specialization of "Driving" could substitute for Pursue and Escape. If the original pair was Pursue 6 / Escape 4, the result might be Driving 8 / Pursue 4 / Escape 4.
Technically, it allows you to take two points off from the attribute pair in different ways (i.e. one off from each, or two off from either). However, there's no mechanical reason to do so, since there is always one option which gives you the highest score. You're always better off to take 2 points off the highest, so the specialization is +4 from the higher of the pair afterwards. It's a minor annoyance that a number of the sample characters and monsters have lower specialties. i.e. They sometimes take stats like Pursue 4 / Escape 4 / Driving 6, when they could have Driving 8 at no additional cost.
All characters also begin the game with 5 Survival Points. These are the highliy abstract hit points of the game, representing how close you are in the story to being killed. They can also be spent for different effects (see below).
This is a very fast system with a reasonably wide range of characters. The main issue I had was that I found it difficult to think of character concepts which differentiated within a pair, but not between pairs. So, for example, the ex-soldier seems like he would be good at both Assault and Protect, but bad at Identify and Obscure. Or the bored secretary seemed like she would be good at both Persuade and Dissuade, but not at either of Assault or Protect.
Rules of Play
The mechanics of Dead of Night are distinctive in two ways. First, they have no situational modifiers. That is, regardless of whether you punch someone or throw a grenade at them, you roll your Assault against their Protect, with the same mechanical results. Second, every opposed roll is symmetric. That is, if you attack someone and fail, that is the same as them attacking you and succeeding. If you try to hide from someone, that is the same as them trying to perceive you.
More specifically, the core mechanic is to add 2d10 plus a single attribute, and compare the total to a target number -- 15 for standard rolls, or 10 + opponent's opposed attribute for contests. Combat is the case of Assault/Protect -- and specifies that if you succeed on Assault, your opponent loses 1 Survival Point, while if you fail, you lose 1 Survival Point. If you have no Survival Points left and fail, your character dies.
Note that since attacking is the same as being attacked, it doesn't help to gang up on a monster. Viewed another way, it is no worse to split up and have the monster attack you individually. This encourages players to split up, which fits horror movie behavior nicely.
In addition to being lost in combat, Survival Points can also be voluntarily spent for different effects: to reroll, to gain initiative, to flip a stat pair, to find a clue, have a previously unmentioned item, or to cancel another Survival Point expenditure. Characters earn survival points by succeeding on a roll with doubles (i.e. both d10s having the same number), advancing the plot, cool descriptions of your actions, resting for a full scene, and by acting out horror movie clichés. Also, if any 2d10 roll adds to 13, then the monster gains a Survival Point.
Unfortunately, voluntarily spending Survival Points rarely seems worth it in strategic terms. For example, if you fail a combat roll, you will lose a Survival Point. So spending a Survival Point for a reroll is almost certainly not going to help. The same applies for flipping an attribute pair.
The 40-page advanced rules includes optional Tension rules, advice on genre, and variations on the structure of play (including reversed, competitive, and GMless options). The Tension rules give the GM a pool of points to modify rolls with, which grows by one every time a player loses or spends a Survival Point.
The other variations are quite sweeping. There is "Tables Turned" where the players play the monsters, "No Single GM" where the players switch off who runs the scene, and "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" where one of the players is the monster. However, all of these only have cursory treatment at 2-3 pages each.
Things That Go Bump In The Dark
The 58-page creature section includes 13 advanced specializations, rules for vulnerabilities, and stats for 14 creature types: demon, ghost, golem, gremlin, mob, mummy, regal mummy, sorceror, swarm, unstoppable killer, vampire, werewolf, witch, and zombie.
Creatures are created exactly the same way as PCs, with the exception of special rules for some specializations. As with PCs, it seems strange that creatures that are good at Escape are always bad at Pursue. It produces an interesting game balance dynamic, but it strains on the imagination at times. One can come up with reasons why the enormous lumbering creature is good at escaping, but it can be a stretch.
Tales of Terror
There are five sample adventures in the core book. Each is divided into several sections: Background, Overview, Setting, and (Monster) cover the basic information and opposition. Then there are four sections: "Beginning", "Middle", "End", and "Ending the Scenario". Each include suggestions for events that could happen in that phase, but no specific plotline. These are all set in the generic American town of Chaddlestone -- and they generally call for a set of PCs specific to the scenario rather than a continuing party of monster-hunters.
Lover's Peak is a very basic haunted house tale based on PCs who are teenagers staying overnight in a spooky old hotel. The Shadow of the Pharoah is a tale starting around the unveiling of a new Egyptian museum exhibit -- which naturally involves a mummy but has a bit of a twist. Dead End is a straightforward monster story where the PCs are college grads on road trip through a deserted stretch of highway. Tar Pit Zombies! is based on a film crew shooting a horror film by the Chaddlestone tar pits, and has a lot of humorous potential from the film-within-a-film schtick. Uninvited Guests is a scenario at a fancy dress Halloween party at a college frat house, which also has plenty of room for parody and has a simple but still fun twist.
I think the last two are definitely the most grabby of the scenarios, though I haven't played them out yet.
As I mentioned, this is a short game with a lot of options. Under a vanilla scenario with a GM-controlled monster attacking human PCs, the contest rules can be a little dull. There are no maneuvers or positioning, and few (if any) modifiers. Essentially the same roll of Assault vs Protect can be repeated many times until the one side or the other is out of Survival Points. I think it is more interesting to use the various options -- like playing the monsters, hidden monsters, distributed GMing, and many others. However, most of these are only sketchily detailed. I think it is a promising system, but it needs more fleshing out of the options to be more than a one-shot system.
On the good side, I think the pocket format is excellent. Character creation is extremely quick, so it is easy to hand out cards, make characters, and jump into play. The symmetric rolls are fast and fit well with the horror genre.
On the bad side, the basic mechanic can be dull. Combat in this system doesn't have a lot of options, and over several rounds can be mechanically repetitive.