Our system-agnostic Giallo settings, are collections of characters and circumstances, adventure kits rather than out-and-out adventures. Here’s a bonus adventure by the author – Miguel Ribeiro. Buy our Giallo RPG books HERE. They are more directly useful with Actual Fucking Monsters, but easily adaptable to any system.
Orpheum Lofts is one of our system-agnostic Giallo settings, these books are collections of characters and circumstances, adventure kits rather than out-and-out adventures. Here’s a bonus adventure by the author – Miguel Ribeiro. Buy our Giallo RPG books HERE. They are more directly useful with Actual Fucking Monsters, but easily adaptable to any system.
HER HEART WAS A LOCKED ROOM AND NOBODY HAD THE KEY
This is a short scenario to be combined with Postmortem Giallo: Orpheum Lofts, or even played without it. It’s a clichéd giallo story, which features several of the tropes associated with the genre and starts with the murder of a Loft’s resident, the jazz singer Stephanie Armitage. The players can choose among a list of pre-generated characters or come up with their own. By default, the scenario uses Actual Fucking Monsters mechanics,but it’s easy to adapt it to any other contemporary horror role-playing game system.
The Orpheum Lofts were built in the 1920s and, long ago, they were upper-middle-class dwellings. Over time, there has been an enormous change in the surrounding area, which led to extreme property devaluation. Consequently, the building has decayed, the beautiful Art Déco façade is now in shambles, the lift rarely works, the sewage pipes, old-fashioned and rotten, taint the air with the foetid odour of waste and, in the basement, a deepening sinkhole will probably cause structural damage to the whole building. It’s not a nice place to live anymore.
The cast is divided among Playable and Non-Playable Characters. They all have attached giallo tropes. If you would like to connect the clichés to game mechanics, there are penalties which can be used attached to certain tropes. For instance, an Outsider character should have increased difficulty when dealing with authorities and in most social rolls. The Prime Suspects’ relation with the police should also be rather strained. The same holds true for other Suspects and Unreliable Witness; but, as Witness only, a failure shouldn’t get a character detained, more likely moved up to Suspect level. Possible Victims should have increased difficulties when dealing with tense situations, or when being pursued by aggressors. Lesbians may have a hard time dealing with male characters, especially if they are authority figures or conservatives. Unwilling Investigators may even get a downgraded difficulty when gathering clues, but this will lead them to become either Possible Victims or Suspects. Maybe even both. Weirdoes should have high penalties to all social rolls and are on their way to become Prime Suspects at the first failure. These trope mechanics could work also in a similar way as Consequences do in Actual Fucking Monsters (p. 63).
BILLY BRUBAKER: he’s a small-town boy recently arrived in New York. Young, handsome and athletic, at first he wanted to be a model, an actor, a singer or some other kind of star. Then he watched Midnight Cowboy, in a late night movie screening, got scarred, and found a job at the Stardust Café, waiting tables. He has worked there for little more than a month and he’s in lust with Stephanie Armitage, a jazz musician who plays at the Café every Friday night. She doesn’t give him the time of day but, luckily, he found a vacant apartment near her place. He watches her undress at night and dress in the morning. She doesn’t seem to care about being watched by the neighbours, her bedroom curtains are always open, so jerking-off to Stephie has become his nightly ritual. He’s an Outsider, a Voyeur and the Unreliable Crime Witness. He could become a Suspect too. He lives in the 8th floor of a building with a view over the Orpheum Lofts.
OLIVIA WATSON: a year ago, Olivia Watson was a name to be reckoned with, a shining star in New York’s journalistic milieu. An investigative reporter for the NY Times, she had a reputation for being absolutely ruthless and sharp. In other words, she’s the worst kind of bitch. For two years, Olivia managed to deliver the most sensationalist news articles. Amoral and ambitious, Olivia is capable of anything for a good story. A well-placed lover in the Mayor’s office passed her exclusive and confidential information about the city’s affairs, a mutually beneficial relation that did wonders for Watson’s career. However, she wasn’t content to publish only the dirt that suited the Mayor’s political agenda. Olivia wanted more. Everything! Perhaps she was blinded by ambition… Olivia began to dig deeper than she was allowed to and, when she tried to write about the web of corruption in New York City, all doors slammed in her face. Her blazing career crumbled in seconds. Now, she works for a sleazy tabloid and had to move to the decaying Orpheum Lofts building. That’s how she met Tracy Cates, an Anthropologist. Olivia was following up a story about sadomasochist nightclubs and had – what was expected to be – a one night affair with the Columbia University assistant professor. It turned up to be more than that; they are engaged in a relationship and Tracy almost moved to her flat. She’s an Outsider. At 30-something, she’s still beautiful enough to be a Victim, but probably too old to be the giallo star. She’s also a Lesbian Lover. Olivia lives in the 7th floor.
JOE DOBBS AND/ OR MURIEL DOBBS: the Dobbs couple owns the Stardust Café. Joe and Muriel’s dream is opening a bigger place, located in a better and busier part of town. For now, they have to make do with what they have and cater to their clientele, consisting mainly of students and intellectuals, who enjoy Tribeca’s nightlife. Joe is a sensible guy and most of his clients see him as a friend and a confidant. Muriel helps her husband managing the Stardust Café, and waits at tables. She isn’t as solicitous and charismatic as her husband, but the male clientele loves her. Joe and Muriel are very close to the first victim, so they are potential Unwilling Investigators and, most likely, Murder Suspects. Muriel could also be one of the next Victims, especially if she’s a non-player character. They live both in Tribeca, but not that close to the Lofts.
PETER STONE: though he hasn’t lived in Orpheum Lofts for several years, he occasionally calls Andy, the janitor, to talk about life in the old neighbourhood. That’s how he comes to know about Stephanie’s death. Peter, a retired NYPD detective, hasn’t seen her for more than three years, but still has a certain fondness for the girl. Not the kind of grandfatherly affection, but something carnal. He maintains a connection to the NYPD, but he’s too old to be of use and there are rumours that he’s lately becoming senile. He lives in Jersey now, and will stay at a fleabag hotel to help with the investigation, so he’s an Outsider. If Peter gets too involved in the story he may become a Murder Witness, and his old age and nosey attitude will turn Pete into an Unreliable Witness.
STEPHANIE ARMITAGE: red-haired, green eyed, dresses in an exceptionally elegant way, has a melodious voice and a seductive, hypnotising look. She is a gorgeous and alluring woman. She also dies right at the beginning of the scenario and all that will mean very little then. Stephanie was a jazz singer and acted frequently at the Stardust Café. The first victim lived on the 7th floor.
KARL HUGHES: an intellectual type, who studies at a local university and majors in Art History and Music. To pay for his studies he does bartender work and gigs with his jazz group in some bars, including the Stardust Café. He lives in the Orpheum Lofts and has a kind of relationship with a jobless actress, Julia Lowell. He doesn’t like her that much, though. In fact, he was in love with Stephanie, but the singer never cared for him, though they had a short affair in the past. Karl’s the Prime Suspect. The fact that he looks like Jeffrey Dahmer doesn’t help a bit. Karl lives on the 6th floor.
Mind: d8 Body: d8 Spirit: d8 Mask: University Student d4 Skill: Art History d8 Skill: Music Theory d8 Skill: Musician d8 Initiative: d8+d4
TRACY CATES: a 30-something Anthropologist who works at Columbia University, where she’s an Assistant Professor. Tracy is preparing her PhD thesis on the cultural relevance of alternative sexual practices, such as bondage and sadomasochism. She’s bisexual and fell in love with Olivia Watson a couple of months ago. The strange thing is Olivia moved to the same building where Tracy used to live with her former boyfriend, George, a weird fellow fascinated with Coney Island amusement parks, who mysteriously vanished a while ago. She’s a Lesbian Lover, too old and not attractive enough to be a giallo star. Perhaps not even a Victim. She lives in Chelsea, but spends a lot of time in Olivia’s apartment, on the 7th floor.
THE MYSTERY TENANT: Tall, slim, always wearing a black Mackintosh, a dark fedora and sunglasses. No one at the Lofts has seen his face yet. He appears from time to time in his flat and stays there for only a few days. No one knows his real name, how old he is or what’s his job. He rented the apartment almost three years ago, but he rarely goes there. The neighbours gossip about him and spread imagined stories about the man’s true identity. The local kids are also rather curious (and frightened) about the Mystery Tenant and call him The Living Vampire. They fantasize he’s a rare type of bloodsucker, who’s still alive, but has monstrous powers and can even walk in sunlight, but still has to take special precautions, like wearing a hat and sunglasses. He may become a Prime Suspect if the characters convince the detectives of that. Or else, later in the scenario, when Karl is arrested. He has rented an apartment on the 9th floor.
ANDY MCDUFF, THE JANITOR: Andy is bearded, out of shape, has short thinning hair, rarely talks to the tenants – just casual conversation –, and spends most of his time reading horror novels or staring at the lobby walls, sitting by his desk. He looks kind of creepy and he was known to have a fixation on Stephanie. The singer surely didn’t feed his interest; she avoided him like the plague. He’s a widower and some of the tenants suspect he murdered his late wife or that he has an unhealthy relationship with his teenage daughter, Charlie. He’s a Weirdo, not very likely to be a Prime Suspect. Andy lives in the ground floor, at the janitor’s flat.
Mind: d10 Body: d8 Spirit: d6 Mask: English Teacher d4 Skill: Teaching d6 Skill: English Lit d6 Skill: English Language d6 Mask: Janitor d4 Skill: Cleaning d8 Skill: Plumber d8 Skill: Electrician d8 Initiative: d10+d4
LOUIS BROWN: nobody knows where he works, or even if he works at all. Since the man is black, his neighbours assume he’s a drug dealer. The strange visitors who regularly come by his apartment seem to confirm everybody’s suspicions. His trope is the Weirdo. In another genre, he would be the Token Black Man, and that put him among the first victims, but that’s not giallish at all. Louis Lives on the 9th floor.
JOHN BURTON: tall, dark, rough looking, he looks about 40 years old and is in very good shape. John is an ex-military, who currently works as a security guard. He has no ties to the other tenants. Sometimes, when he’s drunk, he gets aggressive. John may become a Suspect and he lives on the 7th floor.
DETECTIVE ALBERT TORELLO: an old and rough Homicide detective, Torello is nearing the age of retirement. He thinks he’s wise and clever, but he was never a competent cop. The years on the force turned him into a bitter man, twice divorced, no kids, with just an ulcer and an old dog to keep him company. He makes up his mind about guilty parties rather quickly and, since he’s a veteran, partners usually indulge him. But that gets innocent people in trouble. He’s the Veteran Cop and the Incompetent Detective.
DETECTIVE TONY DELGADO: unlike Torello, Delgado is a family man. He likes his job, but would rather spend more time with his beautiful wife, Rosie, who is a very busy nurse in a Brooklyn Hospital, and their daughter, young Iris. Tony tends to be more careful about handling investigations, but Torello is the senior detective and, most of the times, Delgado just gives up. He’s a Family Man.
As it often happens, Billy Brubaker is by the window at 2.30 AM, with the lights off, waiting for the “show”, the time when Stephanie comes home and undresses in her bedroom. She’s late, though, and he peaks at another one of the 7th floor windows. He notices two women having rough sex, not close enough to the window for him to have a good peak, but still. He may as well watch them while he waits…
Things get quite wild and steamy in Olivia’s bedroom; there are whips, nipple clamps, huge dildos, among other fun toys. Twenty minutes later, at 2.50 AM, Olivia closes the curtains on that particular show. Billy will probably look back at Stephanie’s window. If not, have him do a perception related check. The lights go on the singer’s flat and Stephanie appears by the window, preparing to take off her blouse. Meanwhile, someone, apparently a man, wearing a dark hat, a black Mackintosh and sunglasses, is about to attack her with a knife, from behind. She suffers multiple stabbings and dies at 3.15 AM.
AND THE GIALLO KILLER IS…
Julia Lowell, the wannabe actress, madly in love with Karl Hughes – who mistreats her frequently –, went insane with jealousy and killed Stephanie, for whom Karl was obsessed. She had been planning the murder for long. Julia isn’t as vapid, nice and harmless as everybody thinks, there’s an evil streak in that small-town girl. And after starring in so many slasher flicks, gore fests and erotic thrillers, she has a few tricks up her sleeve.
A week ago, Julia found Stephanie’s apartment keys on the lobby and she knew it was her chance. She entered the apartment disguised in an old Mackintosh and fedora she stole from a neighbour’s closet (retired movie star Dorothy McLane). The leather gloves and the sunglasses are Karl’s. The knife is new; she bought it in a small store in Chinatown. Julia has heard the neighbourhood kids blabbering about the Living Vampire and the way he dresses, and she is trying to pin the guilt on that enigmatic figure who, allegedly, rents a flat on the Orpheum. Meanwhile, she also has noticed that several men on the opposite building – not just Billy Brubeck – have the habit of staring into 7th floor’s windows. When she murdered Stephanie, Julia made sure she would be seen in disguise through the bedroom window. And, indeed, she was.
What happens next?
No matter what Billy does, Stephanie dies.
If he just stares, he will see the killer calmly stabbing Stephanie, while holding her mouth shut with a gloved hand. He will stab her repeatedly and violently after the first cut.
The lift in the Orpheum Lofts is working tonight. The lobby and hallways lights are on, but they are flickering.
Billy will not see anyone on the building’s lobby or stairs. The killer may still be inside the Orpheum.
If he runs up to her flat, he will find her already dead, lying in a pool of blood, with a look of agony on her pale, dead face.
If he alerts the neighbours, some will come: Ben Harker, an old, retired History professor who lives on the same floor, will rush to help; John Burton may open the door, but will get right back inside; Ron Taylor, an handsome former athlete, runs up the stairs from the 6th floor; Karl, who is (apparently) entering the building at the time hears the noise and goes straight up to the 7th floor; Tracy Cates might come at the door, but unless Olivia is a player character, she won’t care about what’s happening; Alice White, the religious freak who lives on the 8th floor, comes outside to praise the Lord and sing some hymns when she learns the harlot was killed. If Olivia isn’t a player character, she will come to the hallway alone, Tracy will stay inside. Eventually the janitor will come up, but not for several minutes. Given time, most people in the building will be on alert.
In New Jersey, Peter Stone was sleeping and had a nightmare about a beautiful woman being murdered by a disguised person. It could be a premonition, or just a retired Homicide cop who still dreams about murder. If he decides to call Andy, have him be informed by the janitor that Stephanie was killed. He may drive to New York as soon as he wants. He is a widower and no one cares about what he does with his time.
While closing shop, Joe and Muriel notice that Stephanie forgot her wallet, or some jewellery. Anything relevant enough for them to call her. She will not answer, by that time she will already be dead. If they decide heading for the Orpheum Lofts, they may arrive before or after the cops, game master’s choice.
THE COPS ARRIVE
Either summoned by a character or an NPC, the cops will show up soon enough. First the boys in blue, then the two detectives, Delgado and Torello. Some of the clues the detectives will uncover the characters may also want to investigate. Almost all of them will be available for regular citizens, but Peter Stone can lend a hand with some of the more difficult clues to obtain.
No one in the building seems to have heard strange noises. Most people were sound asleep. Olivia and Tracy were wide awake, but they had been doing their own strange noises for some time. The reporter claims she fell asleep around 3 AM. Tracy says she was showering around that time.
No one saw a person in a fedora and a dark Mackintosh enter or leave the building that night. There were no strangers dressed in any other way spotted inside the building either.
Andy McDuff went to bed around 11 PM. The lobby was unattended for a long time, but the door was kept closed, and the lock is intact.
There were no fingerprints in Stephanie’s bedroom other than the victim’s and Ron Taylor’s. The man claims he was there two nights ago. They slept together once in a while, though they had no steady relationship.
When lab results show up later, there will be record of some fibres in the body. They are from the killer’s Mackintosh, but for now there are no other clues. The lab report will probably arrive too late to be of use, but the Mackintosh was a relic from the 1930s. It was worn by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Beijing Express (1930), a movie co-starred by Dorothy McLane, an ageing Silent Era star who lives in the Loft’s 4th floor. The Mackintosh and fedora had been hanging for decades inside her closet and were stolen by Julia days ago. Dorothy would never notice it; her house is like a movie museum. Stephanie wasn’t raped; all of the blood and other body fluids found were hers. The door lock wasn’t forced. No clues at all at the murder scene.
Stephanie Armitage lost her apartment keys a week before. She mentioned it to the janitor and other people in the building. It very likely the killer used them (and she did).
Everybody knows Karl Hughes was obsessed with Stephanie since their brief affair. The night of the murder, Karl was bartending in Greenwich Village. His alibi can be confirmed until around 2.30 PM. From then on, his word is all that’s left. Though he sometimes sleeps with his girlfriend, the wannabe actress Julia Lowell (who lives on the 4th floor, with roommate Monica Ashton Greene, a former socialite, turned into call girl), she dozed off in her own sofa while watching a Honeymooners marathon. Torello immediately identifies the prime suspect. Even though Delgado has reservations, Karl Hughes will be detained for further interrogation.
The killer’s description will bring to mind the tall tales of the Living Vampire, aka Mystery Tenant, who is supposed to show up at the Orpheum Lofts once in a while, carrying strange packages. The kids swear he carries parts of human bodies, maybe internal organs. Torello thinks it’s all a load of crap, but he will still contact Paul Abramowitz, the building’s owner. Abramowitz isn’t good at record keeping, but he has some documents signed by a certain M. Tenant. “M.” is for Michael, Abramowitz thinks. But it could also be for Murder. As Torello wants to frame Karl with homicide, he will simply connect the two things: Hughes has been planning this for long, rented the apartment on the 9th floor and sometimes carries around grocery bags, while disguised. The kids and the old gossips imagine there’s a spooky undead on the building and Karl can get away with murder, literally. No, he won’t! Torello is smarter than any musician.
If someone checks the apartment on the 9th floor, where the Living Vampire is supposed to live, he isn’t there. It’s just an empty flat.
The missing tenant’s story about sociopathic accountant George Wesley, can be introduced here as a red-herring. Perhaps George was, after all, the first victim? Or maybe he is hiding somewhere, even inside the Lofts, and he’s the real killer?
THE FOLLOWING DAY (SATURDAY)
Since there’s no incriminating evidence, the cops must let Karl go. Back in the Lofts people don’t trust him anymore. He was never loved, now he is despised. Tracy still believes his innocence, though, but she’s one of the few remaining. Julia, of course, knows he didn’t do it, and shows her support.
Any red-herrings should be introduced at this point, before Karl is incriminated. Louis Brown and Andy McDuff, the two Weirdoes, may become suspects. Someone will mention the Mystery Tenant, and the kids will tell their creepy stories. One of the neighbours may recall that John Burton was infatuated by Stephanie, or any other suspicious thing that happened in the past. You can use all that later, but for now the cops still need to listen to the characters; later, not so much.
This could be the end of the story, Julia feels relieved, now that her rival is gone, but while she is trying to cheer her boyfriend up, he slaps her and tells her it’s all over. This time, Julia really snaps. Now she will kill someone just to frame Karl and have her sweet revenge. There’s one easy and obvious target, Monica. Karl hates her, and the call girl hates him back. She’s Julia’s roommate, so it will be easy. Allow some time for the players to try following up on the clues and then…
THE SECOND MURDER (MONDAY)
Monica gets home by 2 AM, after attending to a client in a nearby hotel in Tribeca. While she is showering, Julia stabs her with a knife. It could be the same knife and she could be disguised, even if she isn’t expecting to be seen this time. She stashed the murder weapon and the disguise in the basement before the cops arrived on the scene, while everybody was still in shock. Nothing was found. She can stash it again in the same place, following the second murder.
After killing Monica (2.15 AM), Julia plants some compromising evidence: a piece of cloth ripped from one of Karl’s shirts and some of his hairs. Then she quietly goes to the basement, hides a bag with the murder weapon and the disguise, returns to her flat, bangs her head against the living room cupboard (to appear she was beaten), and calls the cops. Julia claims that someone entered the flat that night. She heard noises, Monica was in the shower, and she thought it might have been her. Suddenly, she was shoved against the cupboard and lay there, almost unconscious, for a while. She heard a muffled cry and someone left, in a hurry. She swears it was a man in a fedora and a Mackintosh, wearing sunglasses and black leather gloves.
THE COPS ARRIVE, AGAIN
This time there are no surprises; Torello and Delgado immediately detain Karl, as suspect of both homicides. If the characters have clues that point elsewhere, the detectives will give them a couple of minutes, but Torello’s mind is made up. Karl was home that night; he worked an early shift at a restaurant in Tribeca. He’s angry and shouts a lot when arrested. After all, he’s a creep, but still innocent of these crimes… The compromising evidence in the bathroom, though too obvious, is corroborative and that’s more than enough for Torello. Even Delgado is starting to agree with the older detective. Monica Ashton Green had a terrible relationship with Karl. She may have found out something about the Stephanie killing, or she was just pestering the Jeffrey Dahmer lookalike. Whatever it was, he killed her. For the cops, that’s final.
Again, no one saw the Mystery Tenant (who isn’t at home, by the way).
In fact, no one saw anything out of the ordinary, except for… Clayton Cox, a punk everybody in the building hates, thinks he saw a blonde woman going to the basement. He was coming home after a gig with his band, The Cunts, around 2.20 AM. He really saw Julia, but he will not say anything about it, unless questioned.
Julia’s version seems accurate.
Karl has no alibi; he was already sleeping when the murder occurred.
NEXT WEEK ON…
From this point on any unavoidable event will probably fail, appear silly or look a lot like railroading. So, let’s stick to optional events. If you’re in a hurry, just plant seeds of suspicion about someone else’s involvement in the crimes, and wait for the characters to dig up more clues, or find a fault in Julia’s plan.
If they get too close to the truth she may try to kill again, this time perhaps one of the player characters. Maybe the Janitor (or his daughter, Charlie) finds the stash in the basement. The Mackintosh, the fedora or the knife will certainly have some DNA material capable of identifying the real killer. Or perhaps Dorothy McLane decides to rearrange her closet and notices the Mackintosh and fedora of her beloved Doug are missing. Andy and Dorothy may come public with the clues, or they may be murdered by Julia before having the chance to talk about it.
If you want to prolong this, add another killer, the Mystery Tenant. There’s no reason for Julia to keep killing after Karl is arrested. She got rid of her rival and framed her unloving boyfriend. Even Monica was only collateral damage, they were friends. The only motive for the wannabe actress to kill again is to avoid being found. But the Mystery Tenant may have his own reasons. Among the possible victims of the deranged Giallo Killer are:
Julia Lowell herself, an obvious choice if the characters suspect she had something to do with the murders.
Have Andy and Louis Brown been prowling around the Lofts? Kill them now!
Olivia Watson, especially if the reporter is digging too deep into the murder investigation.
Peter Stone, for the exact same reason as Olivia. But it’s much less sexy to kill a retired detective, so keep him for later.
Muriel Dobbs, whatever she’s been doing, Joe’s wife is rather good looking and will turn into a beautiful corpse.
Joe Dobbs, the ex-military can be a dangerous man to cross, and the Giallo Killer may target him just to make sure he will not turn into a menace.
Tracy Cates, she is a sadomasochist, the Giallo Killer can make her killing a work of art.
The two detectives and the player characters may become victims, but not too soon.
If you own Postmortem Giallo: Orpheum Lofts you have a fuller cast of possible Victims for your Giallo Killer.
So you want to write or run a giallo scenario? Great, there’s never enough edgy and stylish role-playing material and, in this particular case, the scarcity is even more obvious. Apart from Postmortem Studio’s editions, there’s Profondo Giallo, a sourcebook for the Spanish horror RPG Fragmentos, but it lacks an English translation. And nothing else, at least not evidently marketed as such.
The first thing to think about when trying to run an Italian horror scenario is, obviously, choosing an adequate group of players. The themes are mature, and some descriptions may be unsettling for oversensitive people. If you want to avoid trouble, choosing the right players and the right place is the first and most important step.
Giallo movies are usually led by female protagonists, but it doesn’t have to be necessarily so in a role-playing game. Unless you are planning a one-shot and continuity isn’t an issue, having female non-player characters as victims of gruesome murders or savage attacks is the best course of action. I’ve set The Sisters of the Seven Sins in a convent, allowing for the players to take the roles of nuns, but there are other options, such as Vatican authorities investigating reports of demoniacal manifestations and reporters exploring the mysterious narrative unrolling in the convent. A mixed group will allow for the use of typical tropes from both female and male led gialli, thus easing the game master’s work.
The player characters, male or female, can be either investigators or witnesses to crimes. The accidental investigator trope is recurrent in giallo movies, and it adequately fits the transition to role-playing games. Orpheum Lofts, the first giallo scenario I wrote, takes advantage of that theme. The players are supposed to be all residents of the same building and there are already connections presented among the personas, which account for the interference in investigations when something unusual happens. Of course those prepared links between characters are entirely optional. The voyeur/ witness trope can justify implicating any character in a murder mystery.
The alienation and mental illness theme, another trope which punctuates the genre, was in my mind while writing The Memorial, which takes place in a rundown hospital where bizarre things are bound to happen. While there are several doctors and nurses available to choose from, the psychiatric ward was given greater detail than elsewhere in that medical facility. Impersonating medical professionals or patients, the players encounter situations where doubts will arise about if it is a supernatural manifestation or just delusions they are facing. The alienation trope, in which the witnesses’ testimony is considered unreliable by the authorities, comes into play in such cases.
You probably noticed that I’ve chosen enclosed spaces to set myscenarios: a residential building, a hospital and a convent. That’s partly a personal preference, but it is also related to the genre’s characteristics. Unless the characters are professional investigators, being close to the plot’s mysterious occurrences is the only way to maintain their interest while keeping up suspension of disbelief. Fear and suspicion are always solid motivations.
Another of my personal preferences, one that makes perfect sense in a giallo – most likely the reason I gravitated towards that kind of horror – is having an extensive cast of non-player characters. You don’t need to detail them all, but at least put a name tag to them. As the story unfolds you’ll need victims, suspects, hypothetical witnesses and other investigators. Nosy neighbours, work colleagues, close friends or members of the family, reporters, police detectives, doctors, these are all archetypal characters from horror stories who have their placehere. The spaghetti thriller has a defining whodunit narrative structure, with some plot twists that point suspicions to different characters along the plot. The identity of the killer is only discovered at the ending, and it is never the one who was expected to be the guilty party. The trench coats, sunglasses and leather gloves have become such usual clichés for killers, but they were not just an aesthetical formula, they were also the answer to conceal the murderer’s real identity, when they had already appeared onscreen. When I run giallo scenarios, sometimes I use a trick: I don’t decide who the killer is at the beginning. I select a few suspects and the player character’s actions determine which of those the real assassin is.
Even though the social commentary doesn’t need to be transposed from film to role-playing, it’s an interesting perspective, especially if you intend to set the game in the past. Gender roles, sexuality and mental illness were the most frequent controversial themes. I’ve touched on those subjects in my own scenarios, Orpheum Lofts and The Memorial, which feature homosexual, drug addicted and paraphiliac characters. Also women of ill-repute, rapists and other abusers, paedophiles… Quite an assortment of unsavoury characters. The Sisters of the Seven Sins has an added political layer, as it is set in post-revolutionary Portugal of the mid-1970s. And before you assume I’m a right-wing Incel, stewing over my own misogynistic rage in my parent’s basement, let me assure you that’s not the case: I’m a 45 year old southern-European leftist, and a few of the most insensitive ideas in my scenarios were suggest by the unofficial first editor, my “companion” (or whatever is the politically correct way to call them). Anyway, though these subjects are dangerous to pick up right now, they could pay off if your players react in a mature way. Since I’m not a specialist in handling “sensitivity issues”, there’s an academic thesis that expands on those and other themes in a way I certainly cannot. You can find it here: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/4730.
For obvious reasons, a contemporary role-playing game is the ideal for you to use in conjunction with a genre that takes place right now, or in the recent past. Since spaghetti thriller feels a bit dated, for my own scenarios I’ve opted for the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but that’s not a rule. Setting things in the past surely avoids the ubiquitous smartphones, laptops and tablets, which can easily ruin a horror story, but no one is stopping you from setting gialli in current days. Dario Argento revisited it in Giallo (2009), starring Adrien Brody and Emmanuelle Seigner. In spite of the name, the movie isn’t the perfect showcase, but the time period had nothing to do with that.
And while we’re addressing setting, let’s go into the game choice itself. Lovecraftian cosmic horror RPGs are probably the most common, but they aren’t really good at accommodating spaghetti thrillers. A rules-light, psychological horror game is the ideal, since the menaces are usually human in nature. Supernatural can and does appear in gialli, but it’s always discreet in nature. A psychological horror game with emphasis in drama is most likely the best option. Personally, I don’t like narrative story games, but I suppose they are a good match. For my scenarios I used Actual Fucking Monsters, since the editor and publisher, James Desborough, is also that game’s author. AFM would have been an excellent fit anyway, being rules-light and rather flexible.
Having a soundtrack playing in the background is not everybody’s cup of tea; but if it doesn’t disturb you gaming sessions you should definitely try it. The musical score and sound effects are quite relevant and they will be handy to create the right atmosphere. If you decide to play a soundtrack you may want to pick something by Goblin, an Italian progressive rock band – which has frequently collaborated with Dario Argento – or any of Ennio Morricone’s horror soundtracks. There are very interesting and complete playlists for giallo and other Italian horror subgenres in Spotify and YouTube.
Something that should be remembered is that while there are similarities to slasher movies, these films are much more stylish. The vivid colours and lush décors that are a trademark of gialli aren’t easily translated to something that plays entirely inside the theatre of the mind. Since you can’t have a cinematographer helping you do your job as “director”, you must use your own words to describe them. There’s no need to go into very gory and graphical descriptions, but you should try to set the scenes with an added level of detail. And I don’t mean only the violent sequences, but also the aftermath of crime. When the characters find defiled corpses in macabre murder scenes, take some time to describe the locations and all the elements. Dario Argento would probably do the same.
If you are a film buff or a horror aficionado chances are you’ve already come across several giallo movies. Otherwise, unless you’re Italian, it’s possible you haven’t even heard about them. Violent, sexy, stylish and deliciously kitsch, characterized by flashy décors, extreme close-ups, grandiose soundtracks and gruesome murder scenes, these are among the most “problematic” – to use an expression unfortunately associated with art and entertainment – productions in movie history. If you add black leather gloves, big knives, Mackintosh wearing killers and awful dubbing to the list of common tropes you’ll probably identify the genre, even if you do not recognize the name. Spaghetti thriller, as it is also know, hasn’t been that popular for a long time, but left its mark in mainstream horror.
The word “giallo” (plural “gialli)means “yellow” in Italian and, originally, it referred to a collection of cheap paperback crime novels, most of them translations of hardboiled and murder mystery classics – like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and Raymond Chandler – published by Mondadori Editore since the late 1920s, and which had garish yellow covers.
In the late 1960s the term was internationalized, thanks to its film iteration. Mario Bava, one of the most famous filmmakers who came to be associated with the genre, directed the first giallo movie, La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963). Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava, Ruggero Deodato, Enzo G. Castellari are some of the other well-known names connected to giallo. Luchino Visconti has also been added to the category by a few critics due to the film Obsession (1943) and, if you accept that, he’s certainly the most reputable director on record to this day.
To define giallo isn’t easy. More than a genre, in the usual sense of the word in movie theory, it is a concept defined only by common tropes that includes movies which are catalogued into different categories, such as thriller, crime drama, murder-mystery, slasher and horror. Depending on who does the classification, you may even find cannibal horror and spaghetti western among the classics. Sexuality, violence, voyeurism, hallucination, dream, delusion, alienation, paranoia are the most common themes and they appear, with different degrees of relevance, in most gialli.
There is an obvious connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). Hitchcock was also Brian De Palma’s main influence, and De Palma directed Dressed to Kill (1980). The famous thriller starring Michael Caine combines elements taken from the Master of Suspense himself with cues from Italian horror. Quite a lot of the stylistic elements and tropes in Dressed to Kill, from voyeurism to sexuality, including psychosis, art, music – and if that isn’t enough, razor blades and black leather gloves – gave rise to an American version of giallo. It’s still a relevant work and influenced other directors, but some of the traits were lost along the way.
Another thing you may have noticed about these movies is the title: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Blood and Black Lace, Five Dolls for an August Moon, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, The Perfume of the Lady in Black. Some of these sound like thriller titles, but none seems remotely kindred to American slasher flicks. There’s a certain lyricism about spaghetti thrillers, rather common in other Italian cinema, which seems a little odd when associated with such displays of violence. The passionate way of handling horror is amongst the finest details added to the genre by European filmmakers.
And since the clichés are what makes the giallo movie, let’s expand on that a bit. The first true gialli were produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time of social turmoil and change. Sexual liberation was still associated with feminism at the time, and the eroticization of film was hanging on a thread, trying to keep balance between the expression of male desires and fetishisms and what today would be named female empowerment. In other European countries where there was a movie industry (mainly France), certain controversial themes were already being explored but, considering these are mostly Italian productions, and that Italy still was – in part due to religious constraints –, a conservative society, there was a breakthrough behind the gialli. Naked female bodies and sex aren’t the only contentious features. Homosexuality, mental illness, drug abuse and criminality are part of the issues on which Italian horror presented social commentary.
The sexploitation trope shows up in two major variants: having a female or male protagonist usually defines how the sexualisation will work in the narrative. In spaghetti thrillers the protagonists are primarily female and, while that doesn’t mean there will be no violence directed at women, at least we know for sure that, until the very end, the star will not die. Since in a female led film there are much more opportunities for eroticism other than the violent murder scenes, nudity usually abounds. There are certainly further defining traits in movies with a woman protagonist other than nakedness. As an example, the male stars commonly have the role of witness or investigator, while women are often the targets of psychotic killers. That’s not always like that, though. Sometimes the villain is a woman, as is the case of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and The Killer Nun (1979).
When a man leads the cast – like in Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1975) – it is likely that he will be witness to one or more ghastly homicides. In male ledmovies, the protagonist is ordinarily a foreigner, and that’s another important trope, related to the outsider role. On the one hand, this was the chance to internationalize the genre, by hiring American, British and French movie stars, such as Karl Malden, David Hemmings, John Saxon, Donald Pleasance and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Even when the protagonist isn’t a foreigner, he is normally outside his milieu, as it happens with the journalist played by Tomas Milian in Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972). On the other hand, having a foreigner character helps solidify the alienation trope. There’s a cultural and linguistic barrier but, more than that, when the crime investigation starts, the authorities tend to distrust the outsider’s testimony. In female led movies, the doubts arise from their own traditionally related female weaknesses, like a tendency to overdramatize or having hysterical reactions to shocking events.
The voyeurism trope sometimes gets mixed up with the outsider one. That’s what happens in Deep Red – a seminal work by Dario Argento – in which David Hemmings plays jazz musician Marcus Dally, who witnesses a murder from afar. When the characters themselves aren’t witnesses to crimes we, the spectators, are. Every spaghetti thriller has at least a murder scene in which the audience is invited to watch a grisly homicide while it happens, from a first or third person view. The voyeuristic approach isn’t just fetishist; it is profoundly connected to the inner workings of the genre. Rarely are the characters police officers or detectives. That’s another sort of production, the poliziotteschi, influenced by gritty French and American action movies of the ‘70s (like the Dirty Harry and Death Wish series). In gialli the authorities are usually portrayed in a bad light, as corrupt, aggressive, contemptuous, incompetent and distrustful. The disdain for authority figures’ deductive ability is also part of the social commentary so frequent in Italian horror.
The already mentioned violence is ubiquitous in the genre. The crimes are commonly dreadful affairs and the murder scenes more graphic than contemporary American counterparts. Violence is increasingly sexualized, taking advantage of the social upheaval of the time. Unlike what happens in Psycho, the shower scenes in these films reveal more than they conceal. It’s quite possible gialli take the lead among the most disturbing horror and thriller productions of the same period. Perhaps it is not a disadvantage that this is a niche, or it would be more likely to be “cancelled” nowadays. Nonetheless, psychological horror is as important as violence. Unlike other Italian horror subgenres of the epoch, this one doesn’t thrive on gore.
Although special effects play a very small role, gialli rely heavily on visual impact. Lurid colours, bright neon, lush décors, impressive façades and plenty works of art, all have a part in creating the adequate mise-en-scène. The use of close-ups of objects and body parts, bizarre camera angles and disorienting framing and editing fuels the atmosphere of delirium and confusion. At the same time there’s also an obsession with luxury, present in other genres of the 1970s. Locales are carefully chosen, there’s a notorious prevalence of Art Déco architecture and house interiors are lavishly decorated. Some scenes take place in decaying buildings, but even those are rather stylish.
The musical score is also an important factor. It mixes several styles, from lounge music to progressive rock, there’s always great care in the soundtrack choice and the way it is intertwined with sound effects to breathe life into the whole ambiance. The esteemed Ennio Morricone authored several scores, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Cold Eyes of Fear (1971), Cat O’ Nine Tales (1971), What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) and Spasmo (1974) among them. The progressive rock band Goblin had a prolific collaboration with director Dario Argento that encompasses Deep Red, Suspiria (1977), Phenomena (1985), Sleepless (2001) and they also recorded musical scores for other Italian horror directors like Joe D’Amato (Beyond the Darkness, 1979).
Selected giallo filmography:
Ossessione/ Obsession (1943), La ragazza che sapeva troppo/ The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), 6 donne per l’assassino/ Blood and Black Lace (1964), Orgasmo (1969), L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo/ The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Il rosso segno della follia/ Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970), 5 bambole per la luna d’agosto/ Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)/ Il gatto a nove code/ The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971), 4 mosche di velluto grigio/ Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Una lucertola con la pelle di donna/ A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Cosa avete fatto a Solange?/ What Have you Done to Solange? (1972), Non si sevizia un paperino/ Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave/ Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972), Il profumo della signora in nero/ The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), Spasmo (1974), Profondo Rosso/ Deep Red (1975), Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro/ Eyeball (1975), Suor Homicidi/ Killer Nun (1979) Sette note in nero/ Seven Notes in Black (1977), Lo squartatore di New York/ New York Ripper (1982), Tenebrae (1982), Phenomena (1985), Morirai a mezzanotte/ You Die at Midnight (1986), Delirium (1987), Opera (1988), The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
A Giallo-themed horror RPG adventure context/scenario that can be used with any system, but which is presented with statistics for Actual F*cking Monsters. This scenario takes place in a run-down hospital where nothing is quite what it seems.
System agnostic, but with statistics for Actual Fucking Monsters.
A ‘Giallo’ (Italian pulp) style scenario/context for dramatic crime/supernatural adventures. A cast of strange characters, opportunities for conflict and suggestions for what may – or may not – be a supernatural threat.
System agnostic, but presented for Actual F*cking Monsters.