This review is part of a series on thematic OSR games (as defined here). Also note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you).
Ghastly Affair is a romantic horror game. It is a genre variation that features all the classic elements of D&D (classes, levels, hit points, to-hit and damage rolls, etc.). Mechanically the game strives for simplicity first and foremost, and the genre emulation part comes from the content (classes, spells, and antagonists) and referee advice.
The Main Differences
- Virtually almost every action is resolved by a d20 roll under one of the six classic Abilities. Saves are treated as a kind of Ability Check. An extra characteristic, called Perversity, is added (similar to Perdition's Wickedness or Helvéczia's Virtue but inverted).
- Characters may have Assets and Afflictions (either permanent features of a character or temporary consequences of their actions). When relevant, they modify the Ability score by 3 (bonus in case of an Asset, a malus in case of an Affliction).
- Abilities are determined by either assigning a 9 to it or rolling 3d6 (in either case, the chosen class may slightly change these scores). Perversity may be determined freely (there are example values for historical and fictional characters). There are no ability modifiers, only ability scores.
- The available classes represent gothic archetypes: Bandit, Demon Hunter, Everyman, Grave Robber, Gypsy, Libertine, Mad Scientist, Magician, and True Innocent. Each class has 5 special abilities and 2 weaknesses.
- For each Asset the player chooses, they must also take an Affliction (each class has suggestions for both). No two characters may have the same Assets or Afflictions at the start of the game.
- Magicians are capable of using spells. They come in four different forms: Incantations (they require a magical implement and cause non-lethal damage to the caster), Ceremonies (they take a long time and require expensive components), Talismans (making one costs a lot, and only one may be active at a time), and Pacts (agreement with a Spirit is needed).
- 2 XP is earned per session (or 1 if the player wasn't present). XP requirements differ for each class. When a level is attained, the character gains extra hit points and increases an Ability (or decreases Perversity).
- Prices are given in pence, but local exchange rates are listed for major European countries. The equipment list is extensive, and it includes properties and services.
- The game uses group initiative (usually a coin flip). Attacks are Dexterity Checks (the target's AC is a penalty to this), and successful hits deal 1d6 damage (plus any damage bonus from class).
- Preternatural effects have one big alphabetical list that include all kinds of effects. They may be spells, mad inventions, or supernatural powers.
- Although the books are quite large in terms of pages (word count comparisons show otherwise, but more on that in a different post), the layout is optimised for screen viewing. Keywords and important rules are bolded, and different mechanical bits are described in separate bullet points. Excellent bookmarks in the PDF, too.
- The basic rules of the game are described before the character creation process.
- The special abilities are really well done, but I find the classes' weaknesses even more distinctive. Demon Hunters have a nemesis (supernatural evil, of course) and they are obsessed with hunting monsters. Magicians need a magical implement to cast incantations, and they also have an object of power (if destroyed, they lose their magic; even its absence decreases their casting level by one). True Innocents are prone to fainting, and they attract all kinds of misfortune (evil creatures always notice them first, and they always fail Ability Checks to detect danger, so they must rely on player skill to avoid it).
- Various common situations are addressed in the book relevant to the genre, such as love letters, fraud, debating, exploring a haunted mansion (i.e. typical dungeon crawl stuff), interactions with High Society, duels, true love, seduction, rituals, childbirth, and being buried alive! The rules are simple (Ability Checks and suggested modifiers), and the flavour texts are top notch.
- Each class has a list of suggested possessions, and they are really good. True Innocents have an unsent letter to their parents as a keepsake, Bandits carry a wanted poster of themselves, Mad Scientists have a letter in which a fellow scientist dismisses their grand discovery, while Libertines have a small book of erotica. The only downside is that there is only one such list for each class.
- Under a certain Perversity score, everyone may attempt to use Faith to hold evil creatures at bay.
- Optional Vampyre and Werewolf classes.
- There is an exhaustive glossary at the end of the Player's Manual.
- The Presenter's Manual has great advice that is relevant to running a romantic horror game. It also lists a lot of gameable tropes (locations, events, characters, objects, etc.). Invaluable help!
- A large number of human antagonists and other non-player characters are described (although stats aren't included, only advice, such as which class they might belong to, which one is their highest stat, etc.).
- Each year from 1765 to 1820 is broken down into a list of events that may inspire the Presenter (e.g. "A basement wall adjoining Les Innocents cemetery in Paris breaks from the weight of an overcrowded mass grave, and decomposing corpses spill in." or "The “Learned Pig” causes a sensation in London. The animal can apparently answer questions and do arithmetic by selecting letters from printed cards set in front of him.").
- Rules for various drugs and diseases (such as hashish, henbane, tobacco, food poisoning, scurvy, or syphilis).
- The first appendix (titled Gothic Tropes) in the Presenter's Manual is a crazy good resource for referees (I mean presenters). It has random tables, lists, and explanations for a variety of things, all tailored to the genre.
- There are alternate rules for using a Tarot deck instead of dice, drawing from the Major Arcana (sans, the Fool and the World) and using the Roman numerals instead of a d20, and drawing from the Minor Arcana (cards of 7 and above not included) instead d6s. A paragraph advises the referee to colour the description based on the drawn card's imagery.
- Rolling 3d6 for an Ability score puts way too much emphasis on luck; 4d4 has a more concentrated distribution (thanks, Arnold).
- Preternatural effects and mad inventions are not numbered (thus harder to randomise).
- Too many animal stats; I would have liked more fairies and interesting undead creatures, instead.
- It's a bit tricky to translate OSR monster stats to Ghastly Affair. HD can be used as is, AC can be handwaved (using the number by which it's better than unarmoured is a fairly good estimation, even if not a completely accurate conversion), damage is always 1d6 plus maybe some bonus, but because attack rolls are Dexterity or Strength checks, those need to be invented on the fly.
- In fact, normally Dexterity checks are used to resolve attacks, which makes Dexterity a bit too important as a stat (unless fights are even rarer than in your standard OSR game).
- The advice is really useful, but there are no real procedures to design haunted mansions, populate weird locations in the wilderness, or craft a conspiracy or mystery. Some of these are going to be addressed in upcoming supplements at least.
- XP is awarded for being present by default, which makes it less of a reward and more like natural progression. Trivial to house rule due to the OSR-compatible chassis, but I still don't like it.
- No random encounter tables. I sort of understand why there are no wandering monster tables, but a few nice tables of random events would've been welcome (at least the referee advice and lists make devising appropriate events fairly easy, and the monsters have a by-level listing, too).
- I am personally tired of the long-winded "please be careful this product contains sensitive material" sort of texts, although I totally understand the purpose of including such notices. If you include the word horror in the title (such as Ghastly Affair - The Gothic Game of Romantic Horror), though, I would think people naturally assume it contains such material and discusses such subjects. Anyhow, it's a minor issue.
Ghastly Affair is a wonderful game. The system itself is fairly generic, but the special abilities, weaknesses, and extensive referee advice make it a game truly evoking the gothic milieu. With the many upcoming supplements, it is going to have amazing support for running adventures. Not that it's not supported until then, but what Ghastly Affair does right should be the industry standard when it comes to thematic games.
Ghastly Affair was designed by Daniel James Hanley. The free PDFs (along with a handful of reference sheets and a lot of random tables) are available at his blog, while the illustrated versions can be purchased through Amazon, RPGNow, and DriveThruRPG.