31 October 2023
A Masterclass in Classic Horror
Review Written by Chris Lowry
The original Shiver was an RPG built specifically to let you act out your favourite horror movies and create some new ones. Shiver Gothic was a highly anticipated expansion, based on its promise to double down on the evocative genre of Gothic, particularly making homage to classics such as The Fall of the House of Usher and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It lets players experience a gritty world of Gothic Horror whilst building on the same solid core that make Shiver such a fantastic system for building tension and climatic horror scenes in your roleplaying sessions.
What's inside the book of Shiver Gothic?
Shiver Gothic: Secrets of Spireholm opens with an intriguing map of Spireholm, in bold blocky colours. The content comes in two parts: The Player’s Guide, with Gothic specific characters creation and playing tips, then Part Two: Secrets of Spireholm, with a full setting guide complete with lively society of NPCs, a campaign to play out chapter by chapter and an additional fully-featured one shot, all written for the Director running games.
Spireholm is a purpose-built Gothic setting for one shots and campaigns. Whilst I found some of the book’s introduction a little clunky and in need of another round of editing, this section is enticingly written; it grips you with layers of velvet and blood. Spireholm is a city on lies figuratively and, more literally, on top of a secret subterranean cursed castle.
There is a plentiful provision of factions and locations; the city is situated within the country of Karanthia, a nation viewed with suspicion by its neighbours, who have mostly eradicated the curse of monsters from their lands. Inside the city walls, the power is fought for between four ruling families, a multifaceted Divine Order and several key unaffiliated individuals.
What new mechanics are included in Shiver Gothic?
Built on the core archetype framework used in Shiver, I love the new monstrous archetypes. Allowing players to play as the horrible monsters wreathed in legend is a great idea and there’s some particularly well-thought-out guidance on how to balance these conflicting characters in play. The superb character development tree from the original game is used once more, demonstrating the rugged adaptability of the Shiver system. At each stage there are flavourful and substantive choices to choose from, with different branches within each archetype: Constructs, for example, split into Flesh, Machine or Stone, pulling Frankenstein's Monster into the same broad grouping as a golem without losing the ability to have totally unique paths and phenotypes.
As a counterpoint to the Immortals, Lucky Devils, Oddly Undead and others, the 7th Archetype was almost predetermined - surely it could only be “The Slayer,” the players’ opportunity to be Van Helsing or perhaps a more successful Ichabod Crane? Irrepressible monster hunters in a world crammed with the monstrous.
All the archetypes can be paired with backgrounds, either from the same theme, such as an Immortal who is also The Holy Knight, or interestingly incongruous combinations such as a Slayer who is secretly the stitched together Creation of a mad scientist. The mix-and-match here is moreish - I literally built a character, unplanned, during the writing of this review, just because the prompts so inspired me.
New in Gothic is the addition of the Doom Calendar - a slower, more literature-narrative or campaign approach to Shiver’s Doom Clock, where events build on each other to change and darken the world.
The campaign chapters in part two cover the unfolding story of a city unravelling, with the players caught in its death throes. The plot is loosely tied to events within the Doom Calendar - which is full of gaps for your own Doom Tolls too. Each chapter could be a one-shot, a series of sessions within a campaign, or the part of the full narrative arc of the book. There’s plenty of optional support here for the Director to read out dramatic quotes, trigger events and drop opponents in for players to encounter without being prescriptive. I like that the chapters are built to provide level 1 play on Chapter 1 and so on. Character progression is a highlight of Shiver’s design, so ensuring that players get to experiment within it is a solid decision.
I don’t generally have a lot of space for very specific railroaded adventures that require players to walk a certain path for the adventure to unfold. What I love, as you walk through the adventures in Secrets of Spireholm, is that everything is up for use, or disposal. The beauty of a well-developed map and setting is that you don’t need to fear the unknown. If players leave an area and wander, details are there aplenty to create an encounter, to tie it back to the story you are telling. That said, I’d love an index to make looking up this information easier - whilst the excellent map has labelled locations, such as “G1: Watering Hole Row,” it doesn’t use those references in the text to ease orientating yourself.
In addition to the campaign, Shiver Gothic also has a one-shot adventure called “It Lives!” at the very end of the book. Let’s be honest, most of us don’t manage ten-episode campaigns very often. Even though the chapters are non-specific enough that they could be adapted to standalone play on-the-fly by most competent GMs, it’s a welcome addition to have a short adventure readily available.
There’s a tiered success mechanic used to good effect in this adventure. For example, when players investigate the University courtyard, rolling with no success finds some basic information that ends with an ellipsis, with each additional success adding another paragraph; a seamless way to reveal information to the degree players have earned. I also rather enjoyed the Doom Event of “Heavy Rain,” where the rumbling sky and rain pouring down your face gives a minor disadvantage to all Wit Checks made outdoors.
Is Shiver Gothic worth buying?
Shiver Gothic: Secrets of Spireholm has crisp, readable layout with a hint of grotesque decay. I love Ben Alexander’s illustrations and most of all, I think Charlie and Barney Menzies bring something to Shiver that is rare in big hardback RPGs; an understanding that there is a huge range of ways that people play games. I like Call of Cthulhu, but it feels like there’s literally only one way to run the game. There’s no mandating of play style in Shiver at all - they give you the options, tips and tricks for a variety of approaches, then absolutely trust you to make what you want out of it. As I read through, I often thought “Hmm, I’d like to do X next in this session,” only to find it waiting for me on the next page. If you enjoy gothic horror, look no further: Shiver Gothic is the expansion for you.
Play it? MUST PLAY
What other RPGs are like Shiver: Gothic?
If the idea of a ever ticking down Doom Clock complete with a gothic tone that's dripping in atmosphere is your kind of RPG, Ten Candles delivers a similarly horrifying experience compacted into one night of terror