A challenging but balanced survival-horror tabletop RPG
I first discovered Survive the Night last fall. The DMsCraft YouTube channel published a series of videos on crafting tabletop terrain for Survive the Night. I thought the game sounded great, and I made a mental note to check it out. This past June, my wife and I attended the Origins Game Fair, and we made sure to sign up for a session of Survive the Night. We had a blast in that session, and picked up a copy of the core rules. This past weekend, I had a chance to run a session with some friends, and my verdict is that Survive the Night is really fun.
The game is meant to be run like a horror movie, with high stakes and a low survival rate. That overall difficulty is balanced by simple mechanics that put an emphasis on storytelling over all else. This all comes together for a tabletop RPG that is a blast to play or run.
What is Survive the Night?
From the official website, Survive the Night is
“a horror RPG, an exercise in cooperative storytelling that throws its players against the stuff of nightmare. Each player plays a character that fits one of twelve archetypes, each one bringing a different skill set to the story to help the group make it to the end.”
In my experience, the system focuses on dramatic storytelling rather than lots of number-crunching and dice rolling. Players can use one of twelve pre-built characters, or build their own using the rather simple character creation rules. Characters have three main stats: Build, Perception, and Coordination. Each player then chooses from a variety of perks and gear to flesh out their abilities. When playing the game, all checks are resolved using six-sided dice. This simple system makes sure that the story takes priority and micromanagement takes a backseat.
The core rulebook for Survive the Night includes four pre-written scenarios, each leaning on different horror tropes. My wife and I have played through two of them. In June, we both played in a scenario called “The Unholy Trinity”. This past weekend, I ran the scenario called “Aqualung”. Each scenario is fairly open-ended, allowing for lots of improvisation by the DM. In the scenario I ran, I had plenty of options for traps and monster encounters to throw at my players. I know I keep coming back to this point, but Survive the Night does a great job of keeping things flexible in order to tell an engaging story. It was very easy for me to time encounters, scare the players enough, and still give them enough hope to keep the entire group interested for the whole session.
Playing Survive the Night: Our Session Summary
When preparing for our game, my first thought was the ambiance. “Aqualung” takes place largely in an old sewer complex, which can be hard to emulate in a modern townhouse. However, I did the best I could with what I had. I played a variety of sewer and dungeon ambient noise tracks throughout our session, and we played by candlelight in our living room. With it being so dark this time of year, our setting ended up being perfect for the session.
Once we started playing, I felt that the main challenge in my job was to maintain proper pacing. In my opinion, there’s nothing worse in tabletop gaming than sessions that drag on without much player engagement. I did my best here to start things slow, and then ramp up the danger once the players got cocky. For the first half of our session, I was pretty forgiving. Poor decisions or unlucky rolls rarely resulted in very severe consequences. At about the halfway point, there was a single monster encounter after numerous clues were given. I was able to raise the stakes without doing too much damage, but the players knew things were serious. At this point, I started punishing the players more for playing recklessly.
Shortly after the initial monster encounter, we had our first death. After a couple of hints were provided, one of our players walked headfirst into a deathtrap. Once the trap had been triggered, there was an opportunity for the others to save them, but they pushed on and triggered the second phase of the trap, killing the character instantly. The problem of what to do with characters who die early, and with their players, is one I’ll return to later. At this point, the game had taken a turn. The characters were not safe, and there was a real sense of necessity to escape and survive.
The players started to act with real urgency, and with more recklessness. While I certainly could have, I decided not to punish too much of this, and instead built up to a bigger finale. After another character was caught in a trap, the players decided to put it all on the line and just try to escape without dealing with the monster. In a final showdown, the monster killed another character, but the remaining two were finally able to defeat it. Those two characters, of the original five, were the only two to survive.
As you may be able to tell, there’s a lot that I like about Survive the Night. I think that it captures the feel of a campy horror movie really well. Like I mentioned above, ambiance helps with this a lot. I also think that the game offers a lot of freedom and flexibility, both to players and to the DM. Being able to tweak your character’s strengths and weaknesses is great for players. On the flip side, having plenty of options for ramping up tension or slowing things down is a powerful tool for the DM. I think the relative simplicity of the system is also a great strength for it. Players and DMs alike both benefit from only having one type of die and limited skills/abilities to keep track of.
I can really only think of one major sticking point I have with this game. In both games I played, there seemed to be an issue of what to do with characters who die early on. As in any other tabletop RPG, player engagement is an absolute must. However, I found it hard to reconcile this with a system that encourages killing off a character or two by around the halfway point of a session. You end up with most of the group still playing, while one or two people basically have to sit and watch.
In my game as a player, I was the first in our group to die. I have to admit, it did leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I died about an hour into a two-hour session, while the rest of the group played on. While I did have fun sitting with the group and listening in, there was no active role for me. When I talked to the DM afterwards, we thought of letting me make some rolls for the monsters. I think this would have gone a long way in keeping me more engaged in the game itself. Even though I didn’t have a character to play any more, it still would have allowed me to be a part of the game.
I ran into the same scenario this past weekend when I killed off the first character. The player still had fun, but they definitely were not as engaged as they were before. In the excitement of running my first session, I forgot about the idea of letting them roll for the monster. At the end of the session, I think we all agreed that this would’ve helped keep players engaged. However, I don’t think anyone felt like they weren’t involved. We all still sat together and talked, and still had a great time.
This may be my only dislike about the game, but I think it’s an important one. In future sessions, I will have players whose characters die early take over some DM rolls, and hopefully that will help. If anyone has any other thoughts on how to handle this, I’d love to hear them!
While I consider myself a rather avid tabletop RPG player, this is one of only a few games beyond Dungeons & Dragons that I’ve played. Using D&D as my major frame of reference, I think that Survive the Night holds up beautifully. It’s a game that is easy to learn, and that has plenty of freedom on both sides of the screen. I also thought that it was dripping with atmosphere, the writing was quite good. We helped this with the background noise and lighting in our home, and I think the effect turned out great.
While I don’t think this game would work for a long-term campaign like D&D, I think it’s perfect for a fall or winter night. Perhaps around a campfire, or played by candlelight, I think Survive the Night evokes the feeling of telling ghost stories in the dark. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, and if you like what you’ve read here, you can pick up the core rulebook here.
If anyone has played Survive the Night, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! Hopefully we have some other tabletop gamers here who have tried it, or who want to try it in the future.