Today I have another review for Nerdburger Games but this one has nothing to do with CAPERS (much as I love that game and I’m looking forward to the CAPERS Noir Kickstarter). Instead, I’m looking at a horror-comedy game by Craig Campbell called Die Laughing. It’s an ambitious game with a lot to recommend it, so let’s see what’s between the covers!
Disclaimer: Nerdburger Games sent me a complementary copy of Die Laughing for review. I tried to look at the product objectively still but just so you all know…
The promise of Die Laughing is that it’s a “short-play, GM-less, horror-comedy story game.” That’s a lot to live up to but let’s see how it manages. The first part is understandable, at least. It draws inspiration from movies like Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and Gremlins. They are definitely horror films with folks trying to survive against some sort of evil monster(s) but it definitely isn’t meant to be taken too seriously.
Playing the Game
The game starts with setting up the scenario. You’ll need characters (recommended groups are 4-8 players and remember there’s no GM), a monster, and a setting. There’s a random table for settings on each monster sheet and a boatload of monsters to pick from (more on those later) and character creation is pretty simple. Craig claims you can be up and starting a game in minutes and from the look of things so far I think that’s true.
So what do you do when you’re actually playing? The game itself is split into Acts which are made up of a number of scenes, and each scene is a five stage process. One player acts as Director for that scene and they pick a character who is the Lead Player for the scene (somewhat similar to the approach of Noir World). First you have Phase 1: Set the Scene which is more than just describing and painting a picture for the group. The Lead Player is definitely in the scene and they pick any of the others (except the Director’s if they can help it) to be in with them. Then the Director rolls 2d6 and takes a look at the list of scenes for the Act that the characters are in.
The three Acts (referencing the common three-act structure) are split into Introduction, Escalation, and Resolution. In Act 1 you’ll be playing out scenes like “Discover Something Odd” or “Party!” while in the final Act you’ll have scenes like “Rousing Speech,” “Monster Attack,” or “Good Twist.” Anyways, once you’ve got your scene picked out you enter Phase 2: Play the Scene. Each scene has a stated conflict or destination so the players talk their way towards that, improvising dialogue and actions. This feels pretty true to the genre since the players all know where this is headed but the characters don’t, leaving everyone to laugh incredulously when they bumble their way towards something that the audience is powerless to stop.
Of course this is also a roleplaying game which is why we next have Phase 3: Make Trait Checks. Your character’s traits will be discussed in more detail below but suffice it to say that each scene description comes with a trait and target number that represents the sort of hurdle your characters will have to beat to come out of the scene alright. Your character’s quirks and stuff can help them with particularly sorts of scenes but after you know whether your character has passed or failed at the trait check you move to Phase 4: Resolve the Scene and narrate the results.
Resolving a failure may not necessarily mean that you are out of the game, even if it was a scene with the monster in it. You have a Life Pool (hit points but also some narrative license) that you’ll lose as things go poorly. When it gets to zero you move on to Phase 5: Deal With Death, which the game calls “Wrapped” as in “That’s a warp for Bob.” What Wrapping means in the story depends on the monster (cocooned, eaten, turned into a vampire, or whatever) but once your character is Wrapped you don’t just sit back or refill the Funyun bowl for the others. You get a pool of Producer points that you can spend on some different options such as forcing a character to use the trait you think they should, forcing a character out of a scene, bringing a character into a scene, etc. Plus, you can still be Director.
Once you’re through Phase 5 (which might be skipped if no one is Wrapped yet) you can head on to the Next Scene. This will be in the same Act unless you’ve achieved one of the requirements for that Act (a certain number of characters Wrapped or a certain loss of Life Pool points) and you keep going until the movie’s over. When that happens you high five and celebrate but there’s one final twist: you roll 2d6 and if you roll doubles there’s a cool Post-Credits Scene table to entertain the audience.
This is all pretty fun and seems fast-paced: each scene “should” take about a minute leading up to the trait check. I don’t know if I believe that estimate but it certainly seems like 3-5 minutes per scene is achievable. Assuming it takes five or so scenes per Act that means we’re looking at a game of Die Laughing that takes around an hour not counting some prep time and any post-credit hijinks. Sounds doable and it’s enough that you could fill out an evening with this game so it’s more than just a “filler” option.
Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of the system here a little bit. Making characters is a fairly straightforward affair. You choose your playbook-style character archetype from a list of twenty-four, split into three groups of eight (nothing mechanical, just something I noticed). First there are the teen characters: the Cheerleader, the Gearhead, the Jock, the Joker, the Loner, the Nerd, the Preppie, and the Stoner. Then there are eight adult characters: the Businessperson, the Cop, the Doctor, the Office Drone, the Parent, the Soldier, the Teacher, and the Techie. Lastly there are the… I don’t know… the weird ones? They’re the Bumbling Idiot, the Chatterbox, the Mad Scientist, the Monster’s Helper, the Nameless Extra, the Paranormal Investigator, the Person Who Knows They’re In a Movie, and the Skeptic.
Each of these characters has a character sheet charmingly designed to resemble an autopsy report. You fill in the name, age, height, weight, and distinguishing features then the character sheet gives you an array of four traits: Body (running, jumping, climbing trees), Brains (your smarts), Mouth (your social skill), and Spirit (how plucky you are). From there you pick a Quirk from the two listed on your sheet (each sheet has two) which gives you a constant bonus (bigger Life Pool, better Target Numbers) and a Trick which is useable twice and is a little better. You also pick two items from the sheet’s Stuff list of four options.
You start with a Life Pool of six d6s and this slowly degrades over the course of the game. When you have to make a trait check you roll your Life Pool and check individual dice against the listed Target Number (TN). Every die that equals or exceeds the TN is a Hit and if you have at least your trait’s value in Hits then you’re successful. This means that a lower trait is actually better which… I just don’t have as much patience for that sort of stuff anymore. Since the days of THAC0 I’ve been appreciating intuitive design so this actually stopped me short. Whatever, in context it works just fine.
This also means, however, that as your character is damaged and loses Life Pool dice then they get worse at doing stuff. This makes sense narratively and certainly matches the genre except that there are those turn-arounds at the end of the movie sometimes. This is the comedy part of the horror-comedy, though, since the characters here aren’t supposed to be Big Bad Heroes. They’re supposed to be in over their heads and barely staying ahead of the monster.
Speaking of monsters, there are twenty-four different monsters here which cover a lot of familiar threats in horror films. Each monster has six different settings (not to mention reskinning the monster) and they will interact very differently with different casts so you can potentially have quite a few uses for each monster. Let’s say you don’t want to repeat, though, and you’d prefer to make your own monsters for future play. No problem, the monster sheet is actually pretty straightforward. They have Target Numbers printed for Body, Brains, Mouth, and Spirit checks, a d6 table of settings, and a small mechanic for what happens when characters are Wrapped. After you’ve put a significant dent into the two-dozen printed monsters I’m pretty sure you can handle creating a few new ones.
The monsters included in the book are A.I. with Unlimited Drones, Bloodthirsty Bunnies, Brian (some normal guy you’d never expect), Crazy-Ass Hillbillies, Creepy Demon Pain Guy, Cute Possessed Girl, Dismemberment Goblins, Dolly (a demonic doll), Erudite Zombies (weird zombies that get smarter as they eat more brains), Fire-Breathing Aliens, Giant Irradiated Insect, Haunted Object, Killer Robots from Mars, Mad Slasher with Weird Weapons, No Effects Budget Ghost (super-silly but not too threatening), Pods!!! (exclamation points are non-optional), Possessive Ghost, Rabid Werewolf, Re-animated Melty Bug Blob Thing, Self-Aware Monkeys with Guns, Sexy Vampire, Sixty Sentient Spinning Sawblades, That F*cking Clown!!!, and Three Witches.
I should say that this section in particular has a lot of swearing. That doesn’t bother me so much and I think it’s funny to throw around strong language for absurd things. If that’s not your jam, though… well, you’re now forewarned.
Campaign Play and Alternate Rules
Unsurprisingly for an author who routinely writes micro-games and posts them with what I would respectfully call “wild abandon,” Craig Campbell has a lot of alternate rules for Die Laughing as well. First up is the Monster Showdown, pitting two monsters against each other like Alien vs. Predator or Godzilla vs. Mothra. Essentially you use one monster at a time during the first two Acts, then both of them face off in Act 3. There’s also rules for Three Player Rules if you don’t have a group of four to play.
There are rules for including Horror Tropes in a mechanical way, some tips for online play, guidelines for making custom characters and monsters, and some Alternate Post-Wrap Rules for players who’s characters bite it (essentially specialized roles to play in the aftermath instead of all having the same Producer points).
One of the more interesting items, though, is the rules for Sequels. As the author says, “Die Laughing is intended to be played as a one-shot [but]… If you want to carry a surviving character over to sequel, you can.” You take the same monster, likely pick a different setting, and pull in the survivors and any new characters you want. Some Sequel Quirks are provided (Doomed!, The Wild Card, and Recurring Survivor) to change up repeated characters and create the sorts of stories you’d expect from a horror series. I think it might be hard to maintain the sort of sequels that people expect long term (a character that survives again and again is tough when you’re at the mercy of the dice) but one sequel is certainly possible and a series with the same monster but a continually changing cast would definitely work.
This game is sleek and easy to run, living up to all the selling points that Craig Campbell set up for it: it’s easy to get started and run, zero prep is more than possible, it runs with no GM, and you can easily finish it in an evening. It also nails the horror-comedy subgenre, in that order (stories would certainly be horrific more than silly). It’s pretty adaptable in that you can tell whatever sort of monster story you want to run.
However, it’s not the most versatile game. If you want to tell a story that doesn’t involve monsters, you’re obviously in the wrong area. However, if you want to tell a story about competent soldiers fighting monsters or creeping doom with a lot of suggested horror before you see the threat, that’s also not this game. You can certainly stretch things a little and I have some ideas of what I’d like to try but the bottom line is that you get what you get here.
It bears repeating, though, that what you get is an amazing game that hits all the right notes. With such a narrow focus it’s maybe easier to create a game that’s amazingly balanced and imminently playable but Mr. Campbell has done exactly that. Check it out if any of this sounds good and I 100% guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.