Timothy Brannan’s 7 of the Best: Horror Tabletop RPGs To Give You A Fright!
Written by Timothy Brannan
Halloween is over you say? Not in my house!
The long dark time between now and Spring is perfect for some horror gaming. So if you are like me and not ready for Halloween to be over I have something for you.
This is based on a conversation I was having on Facebook where we all discussing 7 of the Best. I had a number of people ask me what I felt were the 7 Best Horror RPGs.
For this I immediately thought I am not going to include any horror RPG I have either written or worked on, but as it turns out that is a non-issue since the ones chosen for this 7 of the Best article are all ones which were done by others. If this were a 10 of the Best then we might have other problems!
There is a chill in the air, gloomy clouds in the sky and leaves are all turning. It is early November and it’s the time of the season for horror games. I have been playing horror games for as long I have been playing RPGs. Even my fantasy and sci-fi RPGs take on a slightly darker tinge to them.
So without further ado, here they are 7 of my favorite Horror RPGs, arranged chronologically (with one honorable mention, for good measure.)
Call of Cthulhu (1981)
Call of Cthulhu might not be the exact first horror RPG, but it was one of the first and the most influential. It was certainly the first horror game that most of us have played or knew about. It perfectly blended the mythos stories of H.P. Lovecraft with RPG mechanics. Out of the gate the game did exactly what it was supposed to do, which is why the changes in the first six editions are relatively minor.
Call of Cthulhu was monster hunting, but it was so much more than that. “Monster hunting” covers D&D pretty well but there the similarities end. In CoC you had to investigate, you had to research and then maybe, just maybe, you found the clue you needed. If there was magic you used it only in the direst of circumstances and even then your victory or your sanity was never assured. For many in the 80s, CoC was their first introduction to the weird and alien worlds of the Cthulhu Mythos. Stories from 30-50 years prior were now in vogue again and influenced a generation of gamers and game designers.
The Basic Roleplay System from CoC also powered other games namely Stormbringer (1981), Superworld (1983) and RuneQuest (1978, 1980).
Chill (1984, 1992, 2015)
Chill has the distinction of being the second RPG I ever played (Dungeons & Dragons was first). Chill is a horror game in the vein of the Saturday night creature feature monster movies, or monster hunting TV shows of the 80s to today. Here our heroes are brave (mostly) but are expected to push back the dark for just another day. Chill First Edition came out of Wisconsin and Chill Second Edition came from the Chicago suburbs, so it had a strong Midwest flavor to it that drew me in immediately.
Like Call of Cthulhu’s investigators the characters of Chill are normal humans caught up in an abnormal world. There are monsters and they need to stop them. Not always because they are the best at what they do, but because they are the only ones that can. Unlike CoC, the characters of Chill are expected to survive, more or less. Call of Cthulhu has investigators, Chill has heroes. The definition is subtle in play, but you can feel it.
Chill introduced me to the idea of a meta-plot in RPGs. That there was more going on than just what your characters did. There was this worldwide organization, S.A.V.E., and they helped with the beasties and things that went bump in the night. As the books came out the S.A.V.E. plot expanded. But we ignored this for the most part with 1st Ed. In 2nd ed and later 3rd Edition, this became more of a central feature of the game.
Vampire: The Masquerade (1991)
Very, very few games have changed the business as much as Vampire. Up to this point, you fought the monsters. With Vampire you became the monster and the battle was with yourself.
Vampire asks the question, what would you do to stay alive? What price is your humanity to just exist for one more long night? There is personal horror here along with existential horror. There are also other horrors. Things worse than you, things less human than you are.
The mechanics of the Vampire game, later the Storyteller System, were nothing new; a dice pool with successes and botches, but combined with the story and the effects it became the system of choice for many in the 1990s. In fact it captured the fear and horror of the 90s so well that it can be better compared to the fear and horror seen in Dracula at the turn of the prior century (1890s). Though Vampire owes its largest debt to Anne Rice and embraced (pardon the pun) by those who grew up on “Interview with a Vampire” and “The Vampire Lestat”.
For better or for worse Vampire changed not only how we view games but how they were also marketed and sold.
Kult asks the question “What is reality?” and the answers are not ones that normal people want to hear. Characters can come from all walks of life and persuasion and the background can be any large modern city. But that is where most games stay, Kult goes beyond that and characters (and players) discover that reality is an illusion and the real reality is a battleground of supernatural forces vying for control.
If WitchCraft posits that “All Things are True”, Kult’s point of view is “Nothing is true”. In many ways, it presaged the ideas from the movies “That Dark City” and “The Matrix”. There are supernatural creatures that control various areas of human action and interaction behind the scene and some humans know about these creatures, Archons and Death Angels, and follow them in cults. The characters do what they can to discover these forces or keep them at bay.
The game had a great concept in Mental Balance that was the first real challenger I felt to Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity score in terms of gauging the mental health of the characters involved. More out of balance you are the stranger you become even to the point of not being altogether human yourself anymore.
With Kult, the horror is also of an existentialist variety, but in that way, only the Scandinavian seem to do well. If Call of Cthulhu is Lovecraft and Chill a Saturday Night Monster Movie then Kult is Søren Kierkegaard.
CJ Carella’s WitchCraft (1999)
WitchCraft is, hands down, my favorite game. Period. Picking up a copy of this book back in 1999 was just like picking up a copy of the Monster Manual in 1979. Everything I ever wanted in a game was right there. Everything.
WitchCraft had such a profound effect on my gaming that I can draw a rather clean line between what came before and what came after it.
The central idea behind WitchCraft is the same as most other Modern Supernatural Horror games. The world is like ours, but there are dark secrets, magic is real, monsters are real. You know the drill. But WitchCraft is different. There is a Reckoning coming, everyone feels it, but no one knows what it is. Characters then take on the roles of various magic using humans, supernaturals or even mundane humans and they fight the threats. Another conceit of the game (and one I use a lot) is that supernatural occurrences are greater now than ever before. Something’s coming.
You can play the same sort of games you played in Call of Cthulhu or Chill as well as Vampire.
WitchCraft assumed that all supernatural views of the world were equally likely. So vampires could rub elbows, metaphysically speaking, with elder horrors from beyond. Your characters can be there to stop them, study them or join them as the case may be.
Little Fears (2001)
When was the last time you were really, really afraid? Most people would say childhood. Little Fears is exactly about that. Little Fears is a game of childhood fears. The monsters are real, they hide in your closet and under your bed. The scary old lady down the street really is a hag. But don’t worry. You are protected by Belief and items that seem mundane or meaningless to grownups can help you. Little Fears is based on a simple system, as befitting its nature of school children fighting monsters adults can’t see.
Little Fears also has the notoriety of being one of three RPGs one of my FLGS will not sell in the open. You can order it, but they don’t stock it. I don’t agree, but I respect their choice.
While it is a game about children, it is not a game for children. The subject matter of abuse and death can be a bit much for some adults, let alone kids. It is also one of the most effective horror RPGs I own.
If Vampire is all about what will you do to remain human, Ron Edward’s Sorcerer is all about what price will you do for power? Created at the height of the creative output of The Forge, indeed the first RPG from and starting the independent RPG movement from The Forge.
Like Vampire your character struggles with their Humanity. But where Vampire can be described as the Beast Within, Sorcerer is the Beast Without or in this case a personal Demon. You make a pact with a Demon for power and the more power you need, use or take causes you to lose your humanity and become more and more enthralled to the demon. The game can do a lot of different types of play, but it is all centered around this central idea.
Honorable Mention: WITCH Fated Souls (2016)
I know I am only doing Seven games, but WITCH Fated Souls by Elizabeth Chaipraditkul combines a lot of what makes all these other games so much fun. You have the struggle with power vs. humanity vs. damnation you see in Vampire and Sorcerer. The hidden world of Little Fears, Chill, and Kult and the power struggle between faction you can see in WitchCraft and again in Vampire. All set against a backdrop that’s as unique as Call of Cthulhu and Kult.
I picked up WITCH Fated Souls in 2016 and have not done enough with it yet.
Afterword: Each of the above-mentioned tabletop RPGs are great and many of them have won numerous awards over the years. They’ve been enough that they cover most aspects of horror.