October is prime time to put that dungeon-delving 5th edition campaign on hold and temporarily put away that shiny new copy of Starfinder to dust off all the horror RPG manuals!
While there are plenty of the usual suspects everyone knows about — like Call Of Cthluhu or Vampire: The Masquerade — horror gaming has a lot more to offer than just those staple entries.
Those settings and adventures that are well known tend to get rehashed, again and again, to the point where they lose any purpose. I mean, how many times has Expedition To Castle Ravenloft been printed in new editions and formats at this point? How many editions of Call Of Cthulhu have re-tread that introductory Haunted House adventure?
Instead of giving you the same thing yet again, I’m going to take you on a tour of some more offbeat horror offerings ranging from toddlers facing the monster under the bed to geriatric cosmic horror and beyond!
Trail Of Cthulhu
Although very much in the same vein as Call Of Cthulhu, the Trail system goes in a different direction, simplifying the rules and focusing solidly on the investigative aspects.
The biggest change is that investigative skills never fail. The players always find the clue, the question is just how much info they really get from finding the clue.
The tone and descriptions change quite a bit here as well, with many varied (and in my opinion, much better) explanations as to what any given mythos entity might really be.
In 2014 I put together my own four episode, police task force campaign inspired by the first season of True Detective using this ruleset’s offbeat interpretation of Yig (complete with opening video / music sequence like a TV show). It was easily the best game our group ever played.
There aren’t a ton of print scenarios you’ll find in stores for Trail, but what its lacking in quantity is made up in quality with the nearly 400 page mega adventure Eternal Lies. If you don’t mind PDFs, there are a ton of digital scenarios for this system available through the publisher and at sites like DriveThruRPG or Paizo.
There have been a handful of different iterations of this particular tome throughout the years in different editions of GURPS, but I’m a fan of the 1990 release.
It’s kind of amazing to look back at this one and see what they list under recommended reading and viewing for books and horror movies, as its quite different from what you’ll see in similar sections of newer RPG manuals.
Despite the artwork being sort of silly throughout, there are some solid tips in here for running a horror campaign, and it features a really comprehensive overview of all things horror related.
From multiple iterations of the werewolf myth, to mad science, to non-horror hoax fakeouts, to 1920’s home brew hooch gone terribly wrong, and even onto cosmic Lovecraftian horror, really no stone is left unturned here. If you want a great idea spring board for a scary campaign, you can’t go wrong with GURPS Horror.
Little Fears / WOD Innocents
For all the horror games available out there, not many are willing to tread into territory focused on bad things happening directly to children, or of having players take on the role of vulnerable kids.
Although there have since been a few attempts at this same idea by various publishers, Little Fears is probably the original and most influential role playing game to have players take on the role of kids in a world where nightmare creatures are real.
Its a very, very different experience than your typical sword and sorcery game, or even a modern horror storytelling campaign.
Around the time that the World Of Darkness was being rebooted from its ’90s angsty goth roots and updated in the ’04 – ’09 era with games like Promethean or Vampire: The Requiem, there was another take on this same idea with World Of Darkness: Innocents. If you dig the White Wolf style, you should check that one out, as it doesn’t tend to go for such astronomical used prices as the original Little Fears.
This innovative World Of Darkness entry is really quite different in that it has YOU playing the slasher villains!
A scorned nurse angel of death, a calculating intelligent killer like Hannibal Lector, an unstoppable killing force bent on revenge, any slasher you can imagine can be built with these rules and put together into a coterie of malignant evil.
The cover and title are a little misleading though, because the description and front artwork give the impression this is a standalone World Of Darkness title like Vampire or Changeling. Its actually a (much larger than normal) source book for Hunter, and requires that base book to use.
Shadow of the Demon Lord
If you’ve done Warhammer to death or want something a little newer that is superbly dark and horror-focused without leaving fantasy behind, Shadow Of The Demon Lord should be on your must-have list.
This one is very much inspired by the fantasy post-apocalypse world of Grim Dawn, and it offers a killer combo of Warhammer, D&D, and Call Of Cthulhu.
Corruption and insanity are built directly into the rules, rather than being tacked on extras in a supplement, as its assumed your characters will have to do something awful or immoral at some point in order to survive.
I remember some years back picking up the Dragon Age tabletop RPG box set that billed itself as “dark fantasy roleplaying,” but being disappointed that it really didn’t fit the bill as advertised. Shadow Of The Demon Lord meanwhile brings the darkness, and in spades! I covered this one in a lot more detail earlier this summer right here.
Dark Heresy / Black Crusade
There’s a whole lot of horror in the Warhammer universe, with that franchise often given as the baseline example of what is meant by the term “grimdark.”
Although they no longer have the license, for several years Fantasy Flight put out a stellar line of Warhammer 40,000 games and accessories, and they didn’t skimp on the horror, either mundane or supernatural.
While in Dark Heresy you can play as agents of the Inquisition rooting out heretics and battling the forces of Chaos, the unexpected Black Crusade line of games had you playing as the bad guys.
There’s a ton of storytelling potential there for disgusting Chaos cultists who worship the lord of plague Nurgle, or time-warped Chaos Space Marines who want vengeance on the Emperor, to just regular old downtrodden citizens of the Imperium who are tired of being stepped on and are willing to make a deal with the devil to improve their lives.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer
My wife and her extended family are all big fans of the show (they hate the movie, obviously) but honestly I’m not too big on it, as I didn’t grow up with it and never got attached. Just to round all the bases of fandoms hating me, I should probably point out here that I don’t like Dr. Who either. Come at me, bro.
So what’s this game doing here? Simply put, the rules are fucking inspired. This has got to be, hands down, the absolute best RPG system for any modern day game I’ve ever come across.
It’s essentially the World Of Darkness d10 system, except that there are no dice pools. Absolutely every action is handled with one single d10 roll, and the target number is always the same, so you always know immediately whether you failed or succeeded, and to what degree you succeeded.
If you have a group of newbies, or a group that isn’t interested in a rules-heavy game, you should be using this system. When we play Call Of Cthulhu, we ditch that game’s clunky d100 system and use this rule set instead. Seriously, this is some elegant game design, even if you don’t care about the series its attached to. Who would have guessed you needed to head to Sunnydale to find the best RPG system?
There’s no question Ten Candles is one of the most interesting examples of style-meets-substance on the RPG front in years. The title is literal — you play by the light of ten tea light candles, and when then last one burns out, the game is over.
Even more deadly than a typical Call Of Cthulhu campaign, it is assumed there will be no survivors at all by the game’s end. The developers describe it as “a game about being pushed to the brink of madness and despair, searching for hope in a hopeless world, and trying to do something meaningful with your final few hours left.”
I’ve been following Pathfinder for a lot of years now, even before the end of Paizo’s run with the Dragon and Dungeon magazines.
I have very fond (and amused) memories of asking a game store owner if he had gotten the next issue of Rise Of The Runelords and being met with a blank stare and a “are you sure that’s a real game?” Now no game store in their right mind would even think of not carrying all things Paizo.
Along the way the game (and its fanbase) has changed quite a bit, and I’ll be honest here — it’s no longer my go-to system.
There was a time though, when Paizo was delivering surprise after surprise and constantly kept the fans always wanting to know what was coming next. Carrion Crown had to be one of the most unexpected adventure paths to arrive, covering a different horror trope in each volume, from a House On Haunted Hill scenario in the first adventure, to Frankenstein’s Monster (in full D&D golem glory) in the second, werewolves in the third, and so on.
Even more unexpected was the Cthulhu mythos scenario from fourth adventure Wake Of The Watcher, providing stats and backgrounds for various cosmic horror monsters. I read that issue over and over to get Paizo’s unique take on the darkness between the stars and all those things man was not meant to know.
That adventure would go on to inspire its own full Lovecraftian adventure path called Strange Aeons years later, which kicks off with the classic scenario of the investigators not knowing who they are or why they are in an asylum.
Although the Strange Aeons path is really more combat-focused than this sort of game should be, if you want a King In Yellow campaign for D&D rather than Call Of Cthulhu, do yourself a favor and pick up these adventures.
I grabbed this one on a whim while perusing cheap used RPG books on Amazon and I’m glad I did.
It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this is a fun little system for some one-shot horror games with a good dosage of comedy, utilizing some interesting and unique ideas. The art isn’t great, but it more than makes up for that with heart and some wink-wink, nudge-nudge action at the reader.
I think what most sticks with me is that the publisher is called Crucifiction Games. I still can’t figure out if that’s supposed to be a dig at Christianity (as in the crucifixion was fiction), or if this game is by a Christian company that didn’t realize the combination of words looks really bad for them. Either way, I sort of love it.
Tooniversal Tour Guide
Hold up now, what the heck is TOON doing here? Horror isn’t always candles in the dark or people going mad when they realize their existence is utterly pointless.
Sometimes, its hilarious comedy instead (you really wanna tell me Tucker And Dale Versus Evil or Dead And Breakfast aren’t horror movies?).
If you haven’t played the overlooked TOON, its literally Saturday morning cartoons — Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian, the whole bit — translated into a tabletop RPG, and it’s awesome.
The Tooniversal Tour Guide was a supplement meant to expand the game’s range out into unexpected places, letting you play different kinds of cartoon stories involving ’50s monsters, Mad Max style car battles, or supernatural themed toons like the Real Ghostbusters.
If you look carefully on the cover, in the left corner you may see a purple tentacled thing hailing from the Crawl of Catchoolu segment, which has your cartoon investigators facing off against the Elderly Ones. Yeah, you read that correctly. It’s a good time, and something to try out if you need a humorous roleplaying night that isn’t Paranoia
I’ve got a pretty extensive collection of RPGs (the word “vast” might not be uncalled for), from seriously old school unknown gems from the ’80s to the latest 2017 releases, but there are a few horror entries I haven’t had the pleasure of picking up yet.
Of those I haven’t played, there are probably three I’ve most had my eye on and want to pick up next.
First up is the hard-to-find Japanese horror game Kuro from Cubicle 7. This indie developer has put together some amazing tabletop RPGs like The One Ring (easily the best Lord Of The Rings roleplaying game ever) and World War Cthulhu, so I’m confident that one will be worth the buy eventually.
Going back further to the golden era of tabletop gaming, I sadly missed out both on Chill, and on the constantly praised Unknown Armies.
Anybody had any experience with those systems? Let me know what you thought and if it’s worthwhile to lay down the cash to pick ’em up used these days!