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{Review} Plug and Play: The Horrific Appeal of the VHS RPG

I missed the VHS RPG – which stands for Very Horror Stories – on Kickstarter, but I snapped it up via BackerKit. Of course I did. Here is a VHS-themed tabletop roleplaying game exploring three different horror subgenres and boasting impressive production values, thereby crossing an almost shocking number of my various wheelhouses.

I posted to Instagram when the games first arrived, because there is maybe nothing – not even playing – that this set is better suited to. Which is to say that the three sub-games that make up VHS are wonderful artifacts, great to look at and a joy to have on your shelf. Each one is the size and dimensions of a VHS tape. Inside a sleeve with relatively standard artwork is a box with artwork designed to make it look like a tape, as well, complete with textures, “hand-written” labels, “cracked” plastic casings, and so on.

The outside of the boxes, though, is just the beginning. What’s inside is more than a mere rulebook. There are maps, pre-made (and heavily illustrated) character and monster sheets, tokens, etc. In fact, when you open one iteration of VHS and dump out its contents, you will get your first indication of what really sets this apart from many of the other RPGs on the market.

There are plenty of horror-themed roleplaying games, after all. Even D&D has its infamous gothic Curse of Strahd adventure. There are even several other roleplaying games that take movies as their jumping-off point, some of which do so better than VHS can manage. (Look, for example, to They Came from Beneath the Sea, with its B-movie inspired game mechanics.) No, it isn’t actually the aesthetics or themes of VHS that make it stand out. Instead, it’s the way the game is designed.

Sure, there are the usual rules for creating your own characters and monsters and scenarios in VHS. You might even be able to play the game that way, the way you would play most other RPGs. However, with its pre-made characters and monsters, its detailed maps and scenarios, its tokens and its odd way of interacting with the maps via monstrous appearances and hasty escapes, VHS feels like a hybrid of board games and roleplaying games.

Just look, for example, at how health and sanity, two common traits in horror-themed RPGs going back at least as far as Call of Cthulhu, are expressed on the character sheets. Not through numbers, but through icons. Indeed, the character sheets and, yes, the game itself, feel reminiscent of a more elaborate game of Betrayal at House on the Hill, which may honestly be the closest relative to VHS, in spite of their different formats.

Which makes a kind of sense. The lines between RPGs and board games are blurring every day. How far is a massive, immersive game like Gloomhaven from a game of D&D, after all? Similarly, many of the RPGs on the market, especially ones with more limited thematic resonances like VHS, are taking pages from the books of popular board games when it comes to how to handle certain game mechanics. Then, of course, there are games that cross from one to the other. Root may have begun as a popular asymmetric board game, but it now has its own RPG, as well.

As I said, you can probably play VHS much like you would a typical tabletop roleplaying game, but I don’t know that it would be particularly satisfying to do so. The game is clearly optimized for playing with the premade characters that come with each of the three installments, using the premade scenarios (here called Films) on the premade maps, going up against the premade monsters.

Unfortunately, playing VHS at all may prove a little challenging. Created by Italian company Aces Games, each iteration of VHS could probably have used another pass through localization. There are frequent typos and inconsistencies throughout the text, which is relatively common in quick translations like the kind that follow successful Kickstarter campaigns, but can be disastrous when trying to parse the rules to a relatively complicated thing like a tabletop RPG.

Some are merely funny, others potentially confusing, but none that I found were entirely debilitating. (My favorite was a typo citing the year that The Conjuring was released as 2106.) They merely mean that playing the game will require patience, cooperation, and some creative interpretation – all traits that are important to a successful roleplaying game under any circumstances.

While playing the game itself may be tricky, however, there’s no denying that, when you open up the packages, you will want to, and that may be the best thing that one can say about VHS. The design is so instantly appealing, and fires the imagination so totally, that many of the game’s other shortcomings can be easily overlooked, at least at first.

More than merely clever, the look of the game is immersive, and sells each of the three subgenres it explores nicely. Each sub-set of VHS has its own flavor. Unchained is demons and specters, Overplague aliens and sci-fi, and Bloodlust slashers. You don’t need the books to tell you this, it’s obvious from the art, which borrows liberally from popular horror in those subgenres, while also standing on its own legs.

Each one contains everything you need to play, even while each installment also uses the same overarching system. Meaning that you could, theoretically, mix-and-match, though they really aren’t optimized for that. Each one contains an equivalent of D&D’s classic “Appendix N,” a list of ten or so movies that the particular installment borrows from. These are predominantly the most likely suspects, things like Alien and The Thing, Friday the 13th and Halloween, Hellraiser and Evil Dead, but while you can often tell what specific movie is being lifted from for a particular element of the game, it generally adds enough of its own character to distinguish itself.

Unchained is a good example. While the creatures in the game are pretty emphatically more Hellraiser and Silent Hill than H. P. Lovecraft, the game’s default setting takes place in the 1930s, giving it a slight Call of Cthulhu vibe that helps add just the slightest additional dimension to its demonic weirdos. There’s a little bit of cross-pollination already happening in the different sets, too. Bloodlust features cannibal families, sure, but it also has a horrible composite monster called the Howling Host. Unchained may be filled with grisly inhuman specters, but there’s also the Workaholic, whose limbs are industrial tools.

The final results may be far from perfect, but the games are a joy to open up and paw through, even if you never play them. And honestly, given how seldom most of us actually manage to play the many RPGs we own, that may be all that really matters.