So, it’s been everywhere, a lot of buildup and teasers for a strange house. It’s almost like this house is invading our world somehow… Well, yesterday, Monte Cook Games came clean and announced their new product, the Darkest House, with the Kickstarter planned for March 16th and a product release date in May of this year. Angel’s Citadel, can now talk about it. WE GOT TO PLAY IT! *insert loud squeals of happiness* We sat in a private session with Charles Ryan, Chief Operating Officer of MCG who was our GM, Richard Jansen-Parkes from Winghorn Games, and Gabriel Hicks. The session was about three hours, with a brief introduction to the House system, about two hours of actual play, and then a period for questions and answers at the end. But what you’re really here for is the discussion about the Darkest House.
The Darkest House is a surrealist horror game that’s basically entirely online. It is designed to bring characters in from any system with guidelines on how to convert them into the “House system” and then how to convert them back should they escape. The product will be an Electron app that connects to one of MCG’s servers to deliver the content which includes, linked maps and images, text, and rules. It is designed to be extremely easy to use in online gaming which, in the present situation of the tabletop gaming world, is probably an incredibly good thing and will remain so in years to come. Even after “live” games begin again in earnest, a laptop with an internet connection should serve just fine for the GM of the Darkest House. Charles mentioned that there may be additional content in the future and, while mentioning stretch goals in the Kickstarter, did not rule out other ways of adding to the Darkest House, so it’s possible that the house may indeed change over time (which would actually be kind of a cool thing, honestly).
So without further ado, here are both of our first impressions of the Darkest House:
The session was fun, fast-paced and the rules were simple enough to pick up quickly. Charles was adorable when he was explaining it because you could see how excited he was to talk about it. The game itself involved us entering and exploring this strange house that appeared to feed on our nightmares and memories. There was more, but in the three hours we played we didn’t get to see as much as I hoped. I had a lot of fun with it however. Yes, Angel’s Citadel will most likely be backing it, and probably using it. I love a good horror.
Like most of Monte Cook’s stuff, this scene and set is very player-driven. The dice rolls are done exclusively by the player and we shifted from your standard d20 to d6’s. It had remnants of Fantasy Flight Games’ Genesys system because not only did you roll for your character, you roll for the House actions at the same time. If the house die rolled higher than any of yours, the House reacted in some way with escalating levels of creepiness. If it didn’t, then your action “went unnoticed” by the House. The House reactions came from a list that had to do with where you were in the geography of the house. We’re not sure if the list was static or if it changed from session to session to make the reaction of the house variable and the game more suspenseful. What it did do was make for a lot of shifts and crazy experiences. Now, according to Charles the games might start out differently (depending on where you enter the house from) but they should typically end in the same fashion, a very angry house trying to kill the players.
Richard and Gabriel brought a great deal of fun and different thoughts to the game with Josh and I. I wouldn’t mind playing with them again in the future.
The House system is based around a 2d6 roll while adding a rating reminiscent of the “level” of a Cypher NPC. Some skills can even be different than the overall level of your character. Typical levels top out at about six, so the maximum you could roll on 2 dice would be 18. A third dice of a different color is also rolled called the House die. Additionally, you could gain an extra die if you received a boon or a bane on your roll. If you receive a boon, you roll 3d6 and keep the two highest as your roll. If you receive a bane, you keep the two lowest.
To be fair, our time was limited and we had only the briefest description of the rules before starting in. One of the things that I struggled with during play was not having a good sense of where my character was at from a viability standpoint. The encounters in the house seemed tough and we were expending resources trying to defeat them. In a game like Numenera or Dungeons & Dragons, you have a measure of where your resources and state stands (ability pools/damage track or things like spell slots and hit points). I didn’t get the same sense here. Danger scales up pretty quickly if you take damage and you “go unconscious”, but I had no idea what exactly that meant mechanically. Additionally, you have the opportunity to make deals with the House itself but in doing so, you take a “Doom”. I’m not sure what the Doom is actually supposed to do or how it affects the character, so whether or not to pursue that route is something I couldn’t really evaluate as a “good idea/bad idea”. The other thing that seemed tough was the disparity between what could be achieved with a 2d6 roll + a static rating and some of the target numbers we had to hit to accomplish things. I’m not sure if all of the encounters in the game are going to be like this, but it seemed inordinately tough on the players. If there are indeed dozens and dozens of rooms in this House, I’m not sure how anyone gets through it. Once again, I presume the complete ruleset will clarify all of this.
The surreal horror that we found was quite impressive. I don’t know about the rest of the house, but the things we ran across, while creepy, were not “gore fest” but more “incredibly disturbing” (which to a horror lightweight like me was actually a welcome thing). The system played heavy to the narrative and the use of probing questions about our characters for things to make up on the spot was heavily reminiscent of my recent new experiences with games like Blades in the Dark and Scum and Villainy, where world and specifically narrative development is not strictly the domain of the GM but should involve the players, both in broad stroke guidance and specific detail generation.
The entire setting felt very much like a what if thought experiment. What if we took the weirdest house in Fartown in Satyrene from the Invisible Sun setting and dropped it into the Demiplane of Dread (Ravenloft) for the dark powers to corrupt and twist? And while we’re at it, we’ll tie it to a creepy family because who doesn’t love creepy families with dark secrets in their past? Not that this was a bad thing. It felt very much like I was in one of those point and click horror games like the old Phantasmagoria or something. The atmosphere was very foreboding, and Charles did a fantastic job conveying the “wrongness” of the place.
I too really enjoyed playing with Richard and Gabriel. They’re both incredible guys and I’d sit down at a table with either of them anytime.
There’s a ton more. According to Charles, the writing for most of it is done which will make for a nice turn-around time from Kickstarter completion to product delivery (something that we’ve grown to appreciate of late). In this first look, we went through a garden outside, an entryway, a hallway, and three rooms in roughly two hours. There are, according to Charles, dozens and dozens of rooms in the Darkest House. It has multiple ways to enter, multiple ways to leave, and much to discover about the family that lives there. Basically, lots of fodder for extended play as a break, an interlude, or the basis for a complete campaign centered on the House. We’re looking forward to seeing more detail and potentially using it in future games. You can check out the official announcement on Monte Cook Games’ website, HERE. Happy gaming!
- Josh & Joann Walles
Update (3/12/2021, Joann Walles):
So, we’re back, but this time we’re talking about it from behind the scenes. First we play-tested Darkest House, then the wonderful Charles Ryan offered to let us have a sneak peak at the preview of the product. At first I was skeptical, you know, it’s a preview of a preview. Isn’t that like Alpha testing? However, I can state that from what I’ve seen so far, the Darkest House is delivering just like the rest of the MCG items we’ve purchased. The interface is in a word, slick. No more desperately switching between tabs to figure out where you are. No frantic flicking pages, just click and boom, there’s what you need.
The interface itself when you see it can be a little confusing at first, but once you understand it, it’ll be the easiest thing you’ve ever used to run a game. (Hey Charles, can I borrow your coders? Just kidding… or am I?) The scene opens with choice, where do you enter the house, on the right is information, in the center is your map. Now, the best part, the locations listed in white on the map are HYPERLINKED to the index on the right. You click that location and boom, the information for you to read to your players or that you need for that area is right there. You don’t need it? Moving to a different spot? Well you can click the link on the right OR you can click the location again, and poof, it’s folded back up. This keeps that area tidy and clear for you to be focused on where they are going. Best of all, you can download the maps and images to share via VTT or even via dedicated URL link.
Now, as it’s hinted, it’s not meant to be Cypher-specific, so here’s what I did to give the game a little test check… I pulled out my D&D books and did some comparisons. This game can and will do what is claimed, it might take a little more effort to cross in characters from some systems, but it can be done, even with Paranoia (Actually, Paranoia would run great with this. How many clones does it take to get to the bottom of the house?)
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So far, I am very impressed and am really looking forward to seeing this Kickstarter come to life. I know Angel’s Citadel has it bookmarked and I think most of the people who read my blog and love horror, (looking at you my Ravenloft-loving, Strahd-fan people, friends) should definitely be doing the same. Happy gaming!
- Joann Walles
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