A Whirlwind Tour of Horror Roleplaying

From investigative mythos madness to hilarious cartoon parodies, there’s a whole lot of tabletop RPGs out there for the horror fan!

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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

trailAlthough 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.

GURPS Horror

gurps_horrorThere 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

littlefearFor 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.

Slasher

slasherThis 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

shadIf 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

blackcrusadeThere’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

buffyMy 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?

Ten Candles

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.”

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Pathfinder APs

path1I’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.

path2Even 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.

Horror Rules

horrorrulesI 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

tooniversalHold 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

Many More!

kuroI’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.

chillFirst 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!

unknown

Shadow Of The Demon Lord

Grimdark Roleplaying!

shadow1

This one’s been on my wishlist since I saw the Kickstarter back in 2015, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to get in on the crowd funding campaign at the time. Luckily for me, my fabulous brother in law knew about my secret demonic grimdark roleplaying lust and grabbed this one for me as a gift.

The idea here is to take traditional fantasy roleplaying and ramp up the deadliness and darkness, while changing the rules as well so its not just another Open Game License supplement.

That goal was accomplished to varying degrees, succeeding in being unique in some ways but definitely falling short in others.

Mechanics And Influences

 

shadowThe spell system is fabulous, with 28 different traditions covering all your various spellcasting types. Each of those traditions has to be learned separately to provide more differentiation between characters, with traditions ranging from Battle to Protection to Rune to Life to Teleportation, and everything in between.

There is a very noticeable downside here though — I really wish they had gone all out to be a bit more original on the magic front, rather than just transferring over the D&D standards by slightly different names. For instance, there’s a spell that is obviously magic missile, a spell that’s obviously mage armor, a spell that’s obviously shield, and so on, just with new names rather than new mechanics.

I get why the main developer might have wanted to do that though, since he worked on 5th edition D&D directly and Shadow Of The Demon Lord was his ability to make that style of gaming darker (Wizards Of The Coast isn’t exactly known for adult or R rated material), but I’d still have preferred to see something different.

There are plenty of unique fantasy settings that don’t do all the basic D&D tropes, and it feels like this should have been one of them. Earthdawn, Changeling, Exalted, Warhammer, The One Ring, and many others have all broken well away from those basic concepts and gone in totally different directions in terms of spell design and basic game mechanics.

shadow2Those spells — and much of the rest of the game design and world building — don’t disappoint on the grimdark front, however.

The Forbidden spell tradition in particular is just brutal and leaves the Book Of Vile Darkness in the dust. If you thought Seething Eyebane was a nasty spell, you haven’t seen anything yet. Just take a look at the spell effect to your left.

Yep, that one guy is vomiting his guts while decaying away into nothing, and that other guy is exploding all his insides out through his anus. There’s literally a spell called “Hateful Defecation.”

On that note, madness and corruption are built right into the rule set, adding a Call Of Cthulhu flavor to the typical D&D style. At some point your character will have to do something exceedingly immoral to survive, or he’ll see something mind-shattering, and it will have an affect on the character.

The class system offers unprecedented modularity for a D&D style fantasy game, with three tiers of classes available over time that let you retool your character focus. First you start with a classic novice path, which is incredibly broad (Magician, Rogue, Warrior, Priest) then you move onto one of 16 more specialized expert paths (Druid, Scout, Warlock, Artificer, Ranger, etc.) and then finally onto one of a whopping 64 hyper specialized master paths (Beastmaster, Chronomancer, Gunslinger, Exorcist, Duelist, Weapon Master, Pyromancer, and many, many more).

Beyond the number of class options, SotDL shines in the various options for each path, like the wildly divergent reasons for why a character could take the Oracle class (“you angered a supernatural power and caused it to haunt you” vs. “you are a mortal vessel for benevolent gods” vs. “the entity that possess you is a spirit that escaped the Underworld or Hell and takes control of your body when you use your abilities”).

shadow2Unlike prestige classes, there aren’t any pre-requisites for any of the three class tiers, beyond the player and DM figuring out how to make the class mashup fit within the context of the story. If you want to start as a thief, then become a paladin, and finish as a water mage, there’s nothing stopping you.

Granted, you won’t have as many (or as powerful) hydromancy spells as someone who was an arcane caster the whole way through the class progression, but you’ll still have some cool water spells so long as you can come up with a compelling story reason for why a character would have made those drastic changes.

The base ruleset is both simple (which I prefer) but also has the possibility to become unwieldy with too many modifiers. Most rolls involve a single d20 with a series of d6s either adding to the base roll (a boon) or subtracting from the base roll (a bane).

Wrapping it all together is very clear influence from classic games like Warhammer and Rolemaster with “Interesting Things” tables and “Professions” tables to randomly roll and add more flavor to your character.

World And Themes

First and foremost, the depictions of the various demons throughout the book are absolute works of art (with one very notable exception below) that could grace the walls of any roleplayer’s home.

 

shadow3The game presents different ways for employing the “Shadow” itself, echoing the various apocalyptic scenarios from the  Elder Evils supplement from 3.5 D&D.

There’s everything from a fading sun to a Warhammer style world overrun by chaotic beastmen to an undead uprising to dreams of a dead god driving the world mad.

The base assumption of the Shadow’s influence is “Fall Of Civilization,” which is the core game story, giving you a campaign along the lines of PC ARPG Grim Dawn. Essentially the Empire has fallen overnight after a coup by the orcs and now everything has descended into chaos. Traveling the roads is a pretty surefire way to get gobbled up by something unpleasant or robbed and murdered by those who are taking advantage of the lack of order.

While I love that style of setting, the annoying part of this modularity is that the game developers pretty much immediately discard that base idea and entirely forget about it. None of the descriptions of the various areas and cities reflect that sort of world that is crumbling as civilization has fallen. They all oddly read as though things are still business as usual, which is a shame.

The flavor of the game comes to life more in the race choices, which are varied and changed up quite a bit from D&D. A series of random tables for each races gives your character some life, and the goblins in particular have some crazy options (“you were orphaned and raised by giant rats,” “a hag made you her love slave,” or “you save all your secretions in small bottles and give them as gifts to people you like.”)

shadow4

Remember how I mentioned a notable exception on the artistry of the demons? There are a few places in the text where the grimdark attitude sort of goes off the rails into over-the-top silliness.

Yes, what’s happening in that image to your right is what you think is happening. If you haven’t figured it out yet, just take a good long, hard look and think about this guy swinging around his sword in frenzied bloodlust during battle. It’ll come to you.

I still can’t decide if that’s superbly grim or just silly and gross.

(Un)intended Grimness

That issue aside, there is a core concept to this world that’s exceedingly dark. This honestly may not even have not been intentional and perhaps is just my grimdark brain reading between the lines and seeing the worst in everything… but there seems to be an unspoken truth in the game’s cosmology that maybe the worshipers of the Demon Lord aren’t wrong, or perhaps aren’t even the bad guys at all.

Everyone in this particular universe goes to either Hell or the Underworld after they die and then are purified via torture (in Hell) or live a life of ascetic boredom while slowly giving up all their attachments to the physical world (in the Underworld), and then they return to life in a new body.

shadow3Those who are morally “good” stay in those places shorter times, while those who are exceptionally selfish or morally “bad” stay longer. But since life on Urth is getting worse and worse by the year as everything descends into chaos, neither the good nor the bad camp really have it any better than the other.

Think about it — you can be good and live a life of selflessness in a terrible world (which probably means poverty, sickness, hunger, and death) and get less torture in the afterlife, or you can improve your lot in life by being a backstabbing tyrant who is comfortable while alive and then spends longer getting tortured in the afterlife, but the end result is essentially the same amount of suffering.

The cultists of the Demon Lord maybe don’t have it wrong, and it could actually be better to bring about absolute oblivion rather than keep that awful cycle of suffering going forever.

shadow5