Welcome to the Habitrails
Written and Designed by AYolland
Can be purchased here
I don’t know if I ever lived in the suburbs. I lived in neighborhoods that resembled what I saw of the suburbs on television, but these were always relatively poor working-class places. They weren’t necessarily the artifice of the suburbs but the strange dark attempt to mimic them. So when I came across Welcome to the Habitrails, it immediately stood out as a theme I could sink my teeth into. I’ve always been a fan of modern existential horror, and there aren’t many ttrpgs in that vein. Because of Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy dominates, making Habitrails seem pretty unique.
You are someone who has woken up in a bizarre liminal space, a place that looks just like the suburbs, but they are off. Other people are here, too, and you’re all trying to make sense of each other and your current conditions. No one can remember how they ended up here, and the houses are close to being correct but strangely wrong. They are identical, and things inside them don’t work how they should. Objects will appear and disappear seemingly at random. Underneath it is some psychic distortion, an aura that worms its way into your mind and won’t stop agitating you. I immediately saw connections between this concept and things like The Back Rooms or the recent horror cult hit Skinamarink.
The game is played with a standard 78-card Tarot deck. You’ll need to shuffle to ensure some cards end up reversed, as that will change the structure of the prompts you’re given. Each in-game day the player draws two cards, reads the respective prompts and chooses which one they want to write in response to. If a card is upright, the prompt is usually trying to find a positive aspect in the situation, while reversed cards drag the player deeper into the nightmare of the world. Players are encouraged to use the card’s design to help them if they are struggling with the prompt, but if you have an idea go with it.
The suits are divided into different themed areas: Wands represent your sense of self, Coins are objects you find in this world, Cups stand in for your neighbors, Swords are the tasks you take on, and the Major Arcana is the neighborhood. Within the Minor Arcana, the royal cards represent overarching plots. The royal Wands involve a plot centered on “The Altered.” Royal coins take the player down a path exploring “The Device.” A roommate appears when you begin drawing royal cups. Finally, royal swords denote the passage of time over larger periods. These royal cards are not played based on their face value but instead on their suit and status as a royal card; the prompts are listed as “First Royal – Wands,” etc.
A game of Welcome to the Habitrails plays relatively slowly, so it’s great if you’re interested in writing an engaging story. You could “speedrun” it, but that would lose some of the magic that makes the whole thing work so well. The instructions state that games last an average of 25 days/card pulls, but you can pause at any time by keeping the cards separated as you’ve discarded them. You can end the story if you feel like you are at a place that makes sense to draw the curtains down. A shorter game can be played by removing several non-royal cards from the deck, increasing your chances of pulling those plot points.
I had a lot of fun with this one which was aided because I came in with what I think is a strong background in horror tropes and plot beats. I pulled liberally from visuals that have stayed with me from various sources (film, television, books), and the end result is essentially the potential rough draft of a short story. As I played, I had to keep elements I’d introduced in mind so they could be reincorporated and didn’t just sit there as random, pointless occurrences. It’s no surprise that Welcome to the Habitrails was inspired by The Wretched and Alone as well as Anamnesis (a game that will be played on this site in the very near future). Despite being inspired by those games, I found Habitrails to do a fantastic job of being its own thing.
I’ve only played it once, so I can’t speak to potential replayability, but there are so many prompts I either never drew or discarded (plus the upright/reversed variations) that I think you could mine this for many different stories out of the same scenario. The final product from my journaling was twenty-four pages (a little under 15k words). Instead of copying/pasting that here I have linked it as a PDF. If you give it a read, please let me know what you think. I know there are rough spots, but overall I was impressed with how this system helped me write something pretty good.