By Oluwatayo Adewole
This series of articles is made possible through the generous sponsorship of Exalted Funeral. While Exalted Funeral puts us in touch with our subjects, they have no input or approval in the final story.
Created for the horror RPG Squishy!, Campfire Carnage is an adventure that takes you deep into the woods to face monstrosities, serial killers, radioactive waste, unruly campers and everything else you’d expect from an homage to one of horror’s creepiest settings.
Squishy! is a game that’s designed to be easy to pick up, with a clear layout, only six stats to worry about and no sprawling list of rules to follow. It’s also just a fun one to look at, with bold art throughout. This adventure follows the same philosophy – easy to pick up and flick through, providing a loose framework for GMs and players. The relative ease with which this can be picked up is something that’s key to its writer Valkyrie T. Loughcrewe and has been a part of Squishy since its inception.
“Squishy! was born out of a time I had to run a game of [Call of Cthulhu] and nine people showed up, so I just invented a quick way to make characters to save time on filling out those Cthulhu character sheets.”
You’ve got clearly laid out random tables, spooky but straightforward descriptions and plenty of room to add your own spin on things throughout – or as Loughcrew puts it: “It is a game that you can go from ‘you guys wanna play an RPG?’ to actually playing the game in a matter of minutes.”
While the structure of Campfire Carnage is fairly straightforward, Loughcrewe and company pack a lot into the bestiary, and the adventure ends up being a sprawling forest-horror pastiche which could make for some very different adventures depending on what you lean into. There’s room for some Blair Witch-style terror, or even some Predator-esque action, through to a more conventional slasher. Despite the range on offer in their adventure, Loughcrewe’s focus was “primarily a slasher template, where every location could tell a bit more of a story about the slasher, or offer a set piece right out of a Friday the 13th movie.”
The range of striking artwork here helps build the creepiness up here. The lines are scratchy and intense, the colors distorted, with some genuinely terrifying visuals from a range of artists. In many ways it feels like a collection of semi-haunted drawings you’d find in the wake of some paranormal activity. A lot of the work is cheeky, pulling on the tongue-in-cheek nature of the best slashers and turning camp signage/promotional material into something darkly funny. Holding playfulness and fear factor in concert is sort of key to the energy of the whole adventure. While there is certainly room for an entirely self-serious playing of this, I think there’s an inbuilt ridiculousness – like how you could theoretically end up fighting the junk-mech of the leader of a meth-dealing gang nestled away in the forest.
Creating fear in a tabletop context is no mean feat. There isn’t the benefit of Dutch angles or surround sound. Also, without railroading your players, you don’t have the capacity for a very singular authorial vision which marks horror novels and short stories. That lack of complete control and in-built randomness reconfigure what it means to make horror. For Loughcrewe, creating fear at the table is “highly contextual,” but the key for the games they run and design “is to create a setting that feels concrete, familiar and grounded, with a lot of potential for dynamic play and a lot of room for horrible things to hide.”
The randomness introduced by the dice roll means that there are new avenues of creating tension for both the referee and players. While you can be guided by prep, your fate ultimately lies in the dice roll – which produces a very unique dynamic. This constant interplay of risk and reward is key to how Loughcrewe wants to encourage players to delve into the horrors of Campfire Carnage, but also to encourage refs to really choose the moments where rolls happen to make them matter. “Dice rolls should be climaxes, only utilized when no other recourse is available but a risky gambit.”
Of course, the horrors can never really be contained to the table. We live in a world full of environmental disasters and the monstrosities they create. Horror is often a means by which those anxieties can be expressed, and pushed to heightened levels. It’s one thing to wax lyrical about the sins of humanity at large and another to recognize the specific failures that occur and the ideologies directly responsible. Between the standard forest horror fare there is a subtle political undercurrent throughout. The police and government security forces don’t have your best interests at heart, community spaces lie neglected, the forest is furious.
More specifically, there’s a clear parallel between the release of toxic material into public waters by privatized companies in the UK (where the adventure is loosely set), with the release of irradiated waste being key to the strange happenings in the setting. For Loughcrewe, this political ecology came naturally: “I live in Ireland, one of the most ecologically devastated places on earth . . . It’s difficult as a person who actually thinks about history and the real world from a realistic perspective, i.e., a leftist one, to not touch on elements of ecology and colonialism when it comes to forest horror.” Campfire Carnage isn’t exactly a manifesto, but it’s fun to see work that knows where the real horrors come from and where to point the finger.
Loughcrewe sees potential for “campsite as being for horror games what a dungeon is to fantasy”, an iterative space through which you can tell all sorts of stories, whether that’s making use of the randomizer table to create a different site every time, or building your own locations with the tools available. There’s something really fun in thinking about this adventure through that lens, the campsite and the forest as a creepy place to be returned to again and again without requiring huge amounts of complicated set-up. After all, what’s a slasher without endless sequels?
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