When the Vampire role-playing game first debuted, goth culture had a grim and gritty approach to role-playing. Horror was no longer defined by Call of Cthulhu's battle against the unknown and unknowable, but rather the corruption was within vampires, werewolves, wraiths, and every other supernatural creature that is now common fodder for "urban fantasy" authors. These games were struggling to gain a foothold and demanded to be taken seriously. But goth gaming has mellowed over time, led in no small part by Tim Burton, who always brings a playful if twisted approach to horror. And thus we have the ENnie-nominated Spookybeans. As Serena Valentino explains:
Spookybeans takes a cheeky jab at ‘90s Goth culture, and though you can play whomever your devious little minds dream up, I fancy the idea of various incarnations of goth stereotypes running around The Hollow’s landscape on their misadventures often leading them to a disastrous and hilarious effect. As the creators point out: success almost never comes without a price, and whatever your characters achieve will usually be tarnished by some undesirable effect that will usually come back to haunt you.
The mechanics are simple. The game moderator (GM) rolls Adversity dice, the player rolls his or her Stash dice. Even rolls are Bones, odd rolls are Skulls. Because this is a goth game, Skulls are good, Bones are bad. It also means that so long as you use some sort of even-numbered randomizing tool (coins, spinners, cards, etc.) you can play the game.
If you win a Conflict (die roll between the player and GM you get a point towards your Yo, the happy ending and if you lose a Conflict you get a point towards your Woe, the bad ending. That's right, Spookybeans actually has narrative conclusions for each session. Also, your Woe is defined by another player, not you, which makes for some interesting role-playing interaction amongst players. Thingies are self-defined abilities of your character that can gain the player a mechanical advantage during the game. Thingies can be left undefined to be used during role-play at an opportune moment.
Spookybeans isn't about winning outcomes so much as it is about narrating them. Your character's Thingies can actually be flaws – winning a Conflict means the player gets to narrate how the circumstances affect the character, even if he's having a really bad day.
Additionally, Spookybeans is mechanically geared towards cooperative storytelling. To gain dice for Thingies, players need to convince the other players to contribute dice from their own Stash. There's just one catch: whatever dice are used to help the player go to the GM in the next Conflict roll.
Spookybeans actually reminds me a lot of game I played in high school, Teenagers from Outer Space. Spookybeans has a "They Came From Outer Spaaaaaaaaaaaaace" setting variant so the parallel is apt. The spirit is the same, although Spookybeans has shed much of TFOS' mechanical design to focus on telling a good game.
Spookybeans isn't just a smart role-playing game, it's also charmingly illustrated with undeniably dark characters peppered throughout. There's better maps in this game than I've seen in the majority of most PDF products. The entire PDF is generously illustrated with big, colorful pictures that make you want to read more.
With its offbeat humor, quirky characters, great art, and tightly focused game design, Spookybeans does an excellent job at an important but modest goal of reproducing the feel of goth toons. Its nomination for Best Electronic Book ENnie is well-deserved. I voted for it.
[5 of 5 Stars!]