Tales in the Strange & Unknown
Have you ever dreamed of taking classic character archetypes, like those from your favorite horror films, and dropping them into a horror game that wants you to embrace the strange and even a good character death? If so, Shiver might be the game you have been dreaming of. Shiver is a roleplaying game about storytelling in various worlds of horror, mystery, and suspense. With its approach being setting agnostic but genre-specific, Shiver is anything but generic or stale. But do the game’s mechanics and premise hold up and provide a good gaming experience?
Shiver is equal parts game and narrative toolbox for the Director, the game’s term for Gamemaster. It is designed by brothers Charlie and Barney Menzies and lavishly illustrated by Ben Alexander. Spearheaded by Charlie, a film school graduate, it is pretty easy to see those influences throughout the book in both the theme and the language used. Shiver is clearly a labor of love for the Menzies brothers and has spawned a series of supplements.
Note: Parable Games provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. Please visit our Product Review Request page if you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review.
Shiver believes that “story is king,” and this belief should always be front and center. The game’s Skill Check resolution mechanics are vital to this core concept, staying in the background and often used when the outcome of a narrative decision is unclear. The result of any Skill Check should propel the story forward in some way, even if the impact on the story is unfavorable. Therefore, all roll results should be meaningful and impactful.
The Skill Check system uses a dice pool versus a challenge rating to resolve all checks. Shiver uses special dice with symbols instead of numeric values. Not having these dice is not a barrier to playing; standard d6s and d8s may be used, along with their web-based die roller. In a Titterpigs Podcast interview with Charlie Menzies, playtesting revealed that symbols corresponding to skills eliminated most of the math and made the resolution system more straightforward and accessible. The system is based on the number of successes versus a challenge rating, not arbitrary number values. The symbols also help promote better, more compelling narrative outcomes through the number of successes, not a singular number within a range that a player or Gamemaster must then interpret.
There are six steps to making a Skill Check, and like other games, the process becomes intuitive quickly. The dice pool is made up of Skill Dice (d6) and Talent Dice (d8) equal to the number of points in the skill and its associated talent being used. Special abilities may add dice, while situational advantages and disadvantages may further add or remove dice. Each player has a Luck bank they can tap into to add dice to a pool. However, use Luck cautiously. Once used, it is gone until replenished. This is the dice pool creation process; as you can see, it is simple and intuitive.
Without direct physical confrontations with the weird, strange, and supernatural, you cannot have a horror game. Shiver’s combat system uses the core Skill Check system to resolve actions but has some nuances worth highlighting.
- On their turn, players may take a Move action and physically move about the scene. They may physically strike with a weapon or use an ability classified as an Attack. They may also Interact, something that is neither classified as Moving or Attacking.
- Combat is turned-based and uses “Combat States” (First, Middle, and Last) to establish turn order. The overall scene, character intent, and speed influence turn order.
- While turn-based combat is good for regulating the scene, it can sometimes be too slow, such as in chase scenes. The optional “Free Flow Combat” system has the Director tossing out the Combat States and gives them the flexibility to dictate who’s going and when based on the action in the scene.
- Enemies may have reactions when they are successfully attacked. The Director randomly rolls enemy reactions on one of four charts, depending on the enemy and their “Deathcon Rating.”
- Character death is inevitable! Dying is not the end… players are given a variety of options to remain in the game, from creating a new character to playing a ghost to assuming the role of a townie and more.
Every time dice are rolled, there is a chance of failure; in Shiver, failure can have dark consequences—the Doom Clock regulates these. Doom Clocks resembles an analog clock that ticks away to the players’ inevitable ill fortune. This Clock is visually broken into four quarters, and each time it ticks up, something bad happens in the story, culminating at “midnight,” on the fourth increase, with the presence of a permanent threat being introduced in the story.
While the above is by no means a complete overview of the game’s mechanics, the takeaways here are that the Skill Check system is central, combats are exciting and potentially deadly, and enemy reactions keep players on their toes.
Characters are the heartbeat of Shiver. The designers want players to be invested in their characters, championing them and rooting for their survival while knowing that a great death is something to be celebrated. Character building consists of three parts: choosing an archetype, background, and a Fear.
There are seven character archetypes to choose from. Each embodies the tropes we encounter in all great horror stories. Although the archetypes are generalized, each has its own archetype tree for creating unique characters as they progress in levels (tiers). Each offers three distinct paths to follow, not unlike “tech trees” in civilization games. Available archetypes include:
- Warrior – from ham-fisted adventures to athletes, this archetype is all about feats of strength, doling out, and being able to take a walloping.
- Maverick – fast and nimble, this archetype is the most agile, focusing on moving quietly, acting swiftly, and avoiding harm.
- Scholar – the brains of the group; this archetype focuses on brains over brawn, thinking their way to survival.
- Socialite – the charismatic one, this archetype uses kindness and compassion and dominates in social settings.
- Fool – blessed with good luck, this archetype lacks a specific skill focus but has luck in spades.
- Weird – taps into the strange; this archetype draws on unnatural forces to fight fire with fire, but there are costs.
- Survivor – determined to stay alive, this archetype has a broad skill set but lacks the specialty of the others.
Once an archetype is selected, its Core Skills are transferred to the character sheet, and a small number of decisions are made regarding abilities along the archetype tree. Next, a Background is chosen. Backgrounds represent your past and present self, defining who you are. They add personality to the character while granting a unique ability and imparting a notable flaw. Any archetype can be combined with any background—thirty-five to choose from, five per archetype. Finally, a Fear is chosen. Fear is something that your character is afraid of. Fear Checks are made in two instances: when encountering your fear or facing an otherwise terrifying situation. The result determines if you steal your nerves or succumb to the terror. If succumbing, you become “afraid” or “terrified” if you are already afraid. These statuses impact your Skill Check dice pool.
As Shiver is very much a toolbox for the Director, nearly half of the book is dedicated to educating and empowering them. Like in a movie, the Director is the overarching creator working in concert with the cast; the players are the stars. However, to make the best and most compelling movie, the Director, needs to be trained and equipped. This section is broken into four parts: the setup, building a story, the rules, and the toolbox.
- Part Zero – The Setup – A series of tips for creating the perfect game for your playgroup. The central tenet is to “always know your audience.” Much of the game and its themes can be tailored to the group, but only if you know your audience.
- Part One – Build a Story – Advice and methods for creating stories. From players to setting, scenes to acts, Part One walks you through all the bases, ensuring you haven’t missed a beat.
- Part Two – The Rules – A deeper look at the game’s rules and practical advice. Part Two addresses topics such as “reading the knuckle bones,” or using the dice results to tell compelling stories, making combat more dynamic, designing and using Doom events, handling character death, and more.
- Part Three – The Toolbox – This is a trove of useful tools, trinkets, and horrors. It is part resource list and part bestiary. It also includes advice on creating new weapons and horrors to incorporate into your game.
Intro Scenario – Corporate Risers
The book includes one introductory scenario entitled “Corporate Risers.” It is a scenario for 2-6 players in which they find themselves in the bowels of a corporate hell hole, The Hollow, the megacorporation Cornwell Consolidated’s underground research facility. A situation has arisen deep within the facility. The players will need to traverse the facility’s six floors to escape encountering a host of horrors as they climb the corporate ladder. The average play length is 2-4 hours, and its themes include zombies and body horror comedy.
“Corporate Risers” is a fun twist on the zombie survival genre. The idea of climbing the corporate ladder to escape and thereby survive is an interesting play on the grind many find themselves in working for big tech, pharma, you name it.
This scenario screams, “play me to learn the game!” The beginner-friendly story and presentation begin with the Shiver Board of Classification on the title page. The Classification gives Directors a quick summary of a scenario’s details sans the plot. These provide the length of play, player count, genres, content warnings, and a watch list. Peppered throughout the scenario are “read aloud” text boxes to fully immerse players in the story. And the adversary stat blocks are well-designed and easy to read, allowing the Director to stay engaged in the story, not on the mechanics.
Shiver is available in digital and hardcover formats. It is a 224-page, beautiful full-color hardcover book measuring 12″ × 8.5″, so you might need to adjust your shelves to accommodate this slightly taller-than-average book. Shiver’s arrangement and stunning layout make it easy to read. When asked about the layout, Charlie commented that they opted for a slightly larger font size, a more spacious layout to make reading more accessible, and a color deficiency-friendly schema. Their choices are especially attuned to neurodivergent individuals and those diagnosed with dyslexia and color blindness.
Added to the stellar layout are a table of contents and an index. Both make navigating the book and finding information quick and easy. Each chapter head also includes a shortened table of contents specific to the chapter; this, too, makes finding information easy.
Ben Alexander’s artwork is awesome! It has a unique style that fits quite well with the game and its themes. While having a consistent style, some of the art is whimsical, while others are darker in tone.
Although the writing throughout is solid, my only gripe, albeit minor, is that it is a little verbose and maybe a tab overwritten for my tastes.
Will Shiver provide you with a good experience? For me, the answer is yes! With its symbols over numbers, Shiver’s Skill Check mechanic allows for some interesting storytelling prompts in response to the situation. More importantly, its central tenet of “story is king” is baked into the design, and everything, from the rules to the Director’s advice, drives this home.
The Menzies brothers have created a unique game engine that works as advertised. I know some readers may be apprehensive about using unique dice, but don’t let that stop you. They are readily available, or you can simply use their web APP.
If you like horror games but don’t want the usually Mythos-inspired variants, grab a copy of Shiver. I think you’ll like it.
We hope you enjoyed this article. Our mission is simple: to provide our readers with well-written articles and reviews that inform, promote, and improve the gaming community as a whole. We’re able to do this through the support of our patrons. If you’d like to become a patron and support our work, click the Patreon banner above to learn more.