Find Horror Within The Shivering Circle
  • Find Horror Within The Shivering Circle


    A few months ago I saw a cover for a new role-playing game that was about to hit DriveThruRPG that really grabbed my attention. It was The Shivering Circle, a self-published game by Howard David Ingham delving into the folk horror genre popularized by such consummately British movies like the original Wicker Man or Witchfinder General. For me, however, the connection was more to a British children's show that I caught in American rebroadcast when I was younger called The Children of the Stones.


    Folk horror, as an indistinct film genre has existed for a while, and there is a good chance that, if you are a fan of horror movies, you have seen a movie or two in the genre. This genre of horror was only really named a few years ago when Mark Gatiss used the name in a documentary on horror movies that he did for British television. Be warned that the link above is not safe for work.

    Children of the Stones engrossed me, and I would make sure to catch it on Nickelodeon when I came home from school (I would have been in middle school at the time). It played up many of the themes of the genre: outsiders coming to a smaller town, historical traditions that stretch back into the mists of time, ancient magic and a general helping of "things man was not meant to understand." There was a surreality to show, because by stepping outside of the present (of the time when the show was made) the characters were pushed into something akin to an eternal "now" where past and present collide. It was really heady stuff for a children's show, and as someone who was just putting my toe into the waters of horror, it was an introduction that would propel me into the works of writers like M.R. James and Ambrose Bierce.

    So, this brings us back around to The Shivering Circle. The book is a slim volume, and not expensive for what you get. Art in the book is minimal, and taken from public domain sources it looks. The cover photo really captures the brooding tone of the genre. There is also a good list of movies and television shows that you can watch to pick up some of the basics of the genre.

    There is also a system reference document in the back of the book, released under a creative commons license, which allows designers to create their own games using the game's rules.

    These rules are not complicated and feature a blend of "old school" and "new school" approaches. Resolution is based on rolling 3d6 and adding the score of an attribute. Instead of having score of their own, non-player characters are rating with target numbers that have to be beaten, rather than the narrator making rolls for them. In an interesting turn, the attribute that you would use in conflicts to harm or help another is Compassion. This "you always hurt the one you love" concept rests well within the folk horror genre.

    Damage is taken by lowering attributes. This means that it becomes harder for your character to act within the game as they become damaged but it also means that you have to think about the long term safety of your character when you enter into a conflict in the short term. I like the approach of balancing long term decisions with short term ones for your characters. All too often there isn't a lot of long term thought that is put into the actions of characters, because players know that there will be a game mechanism that absolves their short term damages (such as the ever present healing Cleric in many fantasy games). This makes the overall well being of your character a resource that needs to be managed over the course of play. I don't think that this is something that designers of role-playing games, particularly games within the horror genre, think about often enough.

    After the attributes and mechanical bits, the character sheet is made up of things like "One or two people I love" and "One thing that drives me." These motivations not only round out the character, making them into something more than just a collection of attributes, but they can also be used to increase the stakes in a situation for a character, and give a bonus die to a roll. For example, if your character's father is one of the things they love, and cultists plan to sacrifice their father, that gives the character greater motivation to succeed and a bonus die to roll. There are no skills or, really, any special abilities. You can get supernatural powers, or a special skill, for your character by listing it in the "One or two things I know" section on the character sheet. However, unlike the mention of the extra die above, you do not receive any bonus dice to rolls dealing with supernatural abilities.

    Anyone in the game can attempt to read Tarot cards, or may undertake an occult ritual, but there is nothing supernatural about these things unless you have something supernatural on your character's sheet. This is a good way to balance out abilities in a world where there is going to be a great deal of magic floating through the air.

    The setting in the game is minimal, mostly because the game challenges you to create your own settings. The most topical and frightening horror is that which is personally relatable to the people experiencing the horror story, which means that a group of people playing this game are much more likely to unnerve themselves than would the creation of someone who doesn't know them. The Shivering Circle explores the genre basics: small, out of the way towns, misunderstood teen witches and mysterious ancient artifacts of antediluvian times.

    The game is not locked into a British sensibility, either. This game can just as easily be played and set in America as it can some lost corner of Britain. As a kid, growing up in Indiana, we had Indian burial mounds and serpent mounds to explore that could fill a similar role as the ancient British stone circles. I would imagine that a lot of the cultures around the world have something similar that could be used for localized games of The Shivering Circle. Horror is pretty universal and I think that every area around the world is going to have those ancient places with enough of a mythic resonance to them that they frighten "modern" people. The idea is that there is more to the world than the coziness of our cell phones and internet and cable news, and that what we do not know can definitely hurt us.

    As a fan of horror, I like The Shivering Circle. I think that it brings new ideas to horror role-playing, and opens up new worlds to explore. The Shivering Circle could even be used by fans of Lovecraftian horror who want a game with a lighter mechanical touch. If you're tired of the same old in horror role-playing and want to do something other than fight monsters, I would suggest checking out The Shivering Circle. I don't think that you will be disappointed in it.
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