Call me crazy, but I’m one of those geeks who loves to play games related to approaching holidays. I’ve been known to break out a copy of 1776 or Tarleton’s Quarter around Independence Day. I’ve even written a couple of Christmas themed Savage Worlds adventures for my home game, but no holiday is more suited to gaming with friends than Halloween. The Halloween season is the perfect time to get together with friends for an evening filled with horror themed gaming.
When it comes to horror-themed tabletop gaming, Call of Cthulhu is the king of the mountain. It is the oldest and most well known horror-themed role-playing game, and it’s one of the best role-playing games ever designed. That doesn’t, however, mean it is the only horror game worth playing, or that it is the best game to use as a way to recruit new players into hobby gaming. I looked around my sizable game collection to see if I could scare up some frightening alternatives and came up with a list 15 that I offer for your Halloween gaming pleasure. Some are silly and some are grim, but not a single one is entitled Call of Cthulhu.
15) Meddling Kids
Knowing that Topless Robot readers are a hardcore group full of gamers who know their shit, I wanted to start this list with a small press game that never got the attention it deserved. If you’ve ever wanted to play a role-playing game inspired by Saturday morning cartoons of the mystery solving variety, there have never been that many options available. Historically, you could play Toon, the Rocky and Bullwinkle Role Playing Party Game game TSR published, R Talsorian’s Teenagers from Outer Space, or West End Games’ Ghostbusters. None of these titles quite pulls the mask off the metaphorical criminal as far as capturing the genre, and don’t even think about posting a comment about how your GURPS Speed Buggy sourcebook is the best thing since the Little Brown Books.
It wasn’t until 2004 when Pandahead Productions released Meddling Kids that a game specifically designed to capture Saturday morning mysteries was published.
Meddling Kids is a fun game that is still available on DriveThruRPG or the Kindle. Meddling Kids features an easy to learn rules set that makes it an ideal introductory role-playing game for those of you who have kids in the house. It is also a great game for a one-shot Halloween themed adventure. All you have to do is decide whether the monster is Dr. Winfield Cooper “evil mastermind,” or whether it’s a real haunt.
The publishers had originally intended for Meddling Kids to be the first in a series of “starter” role playing games. They advertise a game called Meddling Spies in the back of the rule book, but that game never saw the light of day. It’s really too bad they never published that sequel, as it would likely have been a lot of fun.
Before there was The Walking Dead, before there was World War Z, when zombies were just beginning to become a HUGE deal in popular culture, there was Twilight Creations’ quick-to-play Zombies!!! board game. A game that came with 100 zombie miniatures and a set of rules that was easy to learn, but which also included game play that could be frighteningly difficult to survive. The game was designed by Todd and Kerry Breitenstein and is one of a host of entertaining games published by their company. Sadly, Todd died last year, but he left behind a legacy of great fun.
Zombies!!! is a beer and pretzels zombie game. Which makes it a great game to play if you are looking to introduce newer players to hobby gaming, because they don’t tend want to spend time reading through a rule book instead of playing. It’s also a game that has resulted in 13 expansions and a number of off shoot games. And did I mention that the box includes 100 zombie miniatures…and that Twilight Creations sells glow in the dark zombie minis?
I have to admit that I feel like a bit of a cheater putting tremulus – yes that small t is on purpose – on this list of horror games that aren’t Call of Cthulhu. That’s because tremulus describes itself as “a storytelling RPG where you and your friends get together and create a haunting story in the vein of HP Lovecraft’s works.” If you read that sentence carefully though, you’ll notice the key phrase “story in the vein.” tremulus is not a game that attempts to recreate the fiction of HP Lovecraft, or to emulate HP’s narrative world, but is instead an attempt to facilitate game play that creates stories similar to those published by HP Lovecraft. Not all Lovecraftian tales featured elder gods and cultists. Some are about ghoulish strangers or rats in the walls. tremulus is based on the Apocalypse World game engine – an increasingly popular game engine in the indie game community that is itself influenced by earlier indie games – which only requires two six-sided dice for play, and all rolls are driven by the players in the game.
What separates tremulus from standard Lovecraftian play is that the game master, or Keeper, doesn’t fully script out the story that the group will play out. Instead player choice and the luck of the die will direct what shape the story takes. Sean Preston and crew describe this as “the Uncertainty Principle,” but I like to call it “the Players are Better at Scaring Themselves Principle.” If you’re playing with the right group of players, tremulus is a perfect game for one shot or campaign play.
12) Space Hulk
Space Hulk is one of the best board games ever published and a fantastic emulation of the terror faced by characters in movies like those in the “Alien-verse” or Event Horizon. The premise of the game is that a Chapter of Space Marines has come across a mass of drifting spaceships deep in the depths of known space. This mass of ships is often referred to as a Space Hulk. There may, or may not be, some sort of rescue beacon emanating from deep within the Hulk. A squad of Marines encased in their nigh-invulnerable suits of Terminator armor venture into the Hulk. Among their number is a skilled Sergeant and possibly a Librarian (a powerful psychic). Their mission? To survive.
Successfully completing a mission, particularly one of the later missions, while playing as the Space Marines in Space Hulk is one of the great joys in hobby gaming. The alien Genestealers that your Marines encounter are perfectly adapted to shred Terminator armor and Space Marine bolter guns are as likely to jam as they are to purge the unclean. Your tactics must be perfectly executed, and you’ll need a bit of luck. Very few board games manage to increase blood pressure in a way that simulates terror. Space Hulk is one of those few.
11) East Texas University
In 2003, 12 to Midnight began writing horror themed adventures that took place in the fictional town of Pinebox, TX for the Savage Worlds roleplaying game. 12 to Midnight eventually became an imprint of Pinnacle Entertainment Group and their Pinebox setting transformed into the East Texas University horror campaign setting.
There is just something about Texas that makes it a great location for horror movies. Films like Frailty, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, From Dusk til Dawn, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre take advantage of Texas’ unique cultural and geographic landscape. In the East Texas University setting, player characters are students at the eponymous university who must balance their time between getting good grades in their courses while investigating and fighting off horrors from the beyond. “Sorry Dave, I can’t head over to the Delta’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ party tonight, I’ve got to stop a vampire and turn in a research paper on Jane Austen’s use of Game Theory.”
East Texas University is a combination of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Veronica Mars, and the full catalog of quirky Texas films and TV shows…yes Friday Night Lights…with the added component that the players have to worry how their characters do on their midterm exams. This combination of tensions provides wonderful opportunities for storytelling, and the popularity of shows like Supernatural and the “Fast, Furious, and Fun!” nature of the Savage Worlds rules set makes this a game that you can teach to players on the fly. Thinking back to my college days, I wish that this setting had been around when we were playing RPGs at the fraternity. Then we would have been fraternity members playing characters worried about their research papers as we procrastinated writing our own research papers.
10) Beyond the Supernatural
Beyond the Supernatural was the first “action horror” game I had the opportunity to play. In most horror role-playing games, players take on the role of individuals who discover hidden terrors and in doing so learn how helpless they are in the face of the unknown. Games like Call of Cthulhu are about the journey of failure and despair. The authors of Beyond the Supernatural may have intended for the game to have these elements, but the combination of the Palladium game engine and the game’s action oriented interior art undermined that sense.
The way our group played Beyond the Supernatural was closer to the movie Blade – or Scanners – than it was to the writings of HP Lovecraft. Our characters were men and women of action who might fail in the face of existential horror, but they would do so with proton packs and rocket launchers. I get the sense that Beyond the Supernatural wasn’t supposed to be as gonzo as our game sessions, but played in the mindset of Rifts: Horror the game is a blast. The Palladium mechanics aren’t as beginner friendly as some of the earlier games on this list, but anyone familiar with a d20 mechanic is 80% of the way to understanding how the system works.
Have you ever wanted to play a game where you were monsters from the classic Universal films who were fighting on the side of Right and Justice against an army of even greater horrors? If so, then Accursed is for you. The Accursed setting for the Savage Worlds roleplaying game is a wonderfully high concept game setting that fulfills in entertaining game form the promise of adventure and excitement that films like Dracula Untold and I, Frankenstein hinted that they might provide.
In the world of Accursed, the players take on the role of monsters who were once the vanguard of a terrifying army that subjugated a peaceful fairy tale kingdom. The land of Morden is now ruled by a terrifying coven of witches like Baba Yaga and The Chimera and only the player’s characters – Golems, Werewolves, Vampires, Ghosts, and Mummies among them – can hope to free the oppressed people of a once bright and promising land. With the monstrous forms come great powers, but there also comes a price. The player characters are “Accursed” and must choose whether to embrace their curse or fight it. Embracing the curse brings great power, but it also brings temptation to rejoin the witches in their reign of terror. The setting has great art and it uses the Savage Worlds game system.
I know, I know, that’s the second Savage Worlds setting on the list. There will be more. You are lucky this isn’t a list of only Savage Worlds settings. We Pinnacle fans can be pretty obsessive.
8) All for One: Regime Diabolique
Imagine a world in which the Three Musketeers were members of an elite fighting force committed to the defense of France and dedicated to serving the King. Okay, that’s pretty much what Dumas described in his books. Now imagine that these same Musketeers had to battle demons and vampires and that La B?te du G?vaudan was really a werewolf murdering people up and down the countryside all under the control of Cardinal Richelieu.
Swashbuckling action, intrigue and horror in equal parts, and a simple rules set? Sign me up. All for One: Regime Diabolique is a role playing game designed by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams that is inspired by the novels of Alexandre Dumas, depicting the heroic acts of a small group of Musketeers during a 30 Years’ War filled with supernatural threats. Wade-Williams, who is one of the most prolific writers in the gaming industry, presents potential gamers with a rich background ripe for entertaining storytelling. What’s more is that All for One uses the Ubiquity game system. Ubiquity is an easy to learn system in which players can use any kind of even-numbered die in determining the success of actions. It’s also a system well suited to heroic action. All for One is more I, Frankenstein than The Asphyx, but it is a great time.
Let’s take a break from action horror for a minute and return to the realm of the pure horror game. One of the most difficult challenges in designing a horror game is coming up with a way of making the players experience some of the anxiety that their characters feel. I’ve mentioned that Space Hulk accomplishes this difficult task. It does this through a combination of probabilistic uncertainty and hidden information. That works well for a board game, but it doesn’t work as well for a role playing game. Call of Cthulhu simulates anxiety through the limited resource of Sanity. As your characters encounter more horrors, they become less stable. Both of these games are innovative, but they don’t come close to Dread.
Dread, like tremulus, is a horror game of interactive storytelling. It is also a “diceless” game. Unlike most diceless games, though, Dread has a tension-causing resolution system that is free from arbitrary game master decisions. Dread uses a standard Jenga set to determine whether characters accomplish difficult tasks. Players can choose to fail at a task and thus not pull a block from the tower, but they can only achieve success if they try. If the tower falls from the pull, the player’s character is removed from play. Jenga games are stressful in themselves, but when you add a layer of storytelling and horror the results are quite wonderful. The mechanics of Dread are as simple as deciding whether to draw a brick and then drawing that brick, so anyone can play. I do recommend reading the rule book, as it does provide context and advice for how best to use the tower and how to facilitate the balance between fear and hope that makes for the best tales.
Oh…and Jenga? That’s Auld Wyrmish for “Next Victim.”
6) The Weird War Series
If you haven’t guessed by this point in the list, I’m a big fan of Savage Worlds, but each of the settings I have presented play as if they were entirely different games. Accursed is much more about personal horror – and higher power levels – than the students of East Texas University tend to experience. The Weird War series of settings by Pinnacle Entertainment group include Weird War II, Weird War Rome, and Tour of Darkness. What makes these settings different from the games mentioned earlier is that the Weird War settings combine role playing with tactical wargaming in a very interesting way. In a Weird Wars setting, the players tend to play squads of characters in addition to their main protagonists. The players are part of a team, but they tend to bring lots of support. This is made possible by the “Fast, Furious, and Fun!” way that Savage Worlds deals with larger combats. Things move quickly and they can move very lethally as well.
The Weird Wars settings all take place during a time of major military conflict when participants are already subject to the very real terrors of war. They then add a layer of long-lasting conspiracy and supernatural evil on top of our own mundane terrors. These games can be very controversial to bring to the gaming table because of their subject matter.
And while I think that most groups wouldn’t find Weird Wars Rome controversial, I have yet to find a group that is comfortable with the concept of playing Tour of Darkness. Tour is a brilliant adaptation of the Vietnam War, but it’s still an adaptation of the Vietnam War, which is infamous for its horrific nature. The supernatural elements might pale before the very human horrors that occurred during the war, and some players may avoid the game due to sentiments regarding the justness/injustness of the conflict. That said, I am still eager to play in a game where a character can have “Fucking New Guy” as a drawback.
5) Colonial Gothic
If you are like me, you are a big fan of the Fox television show Sleepy Hollow and enjoy its high-concept mash-up of horror, time travel and the American Revolution. If you are the authors of the excellent Colonial Gothic role-playing game, you hate the show due to the many inaccuracies that leak into Sleepy Hollow‘s episodes and the almost wanton disdain the writers seem to show for real American history. Some might question the verisimilitude of a show that has Ichabod Crane fighting in New York in 1781. This late stage of the war is when much of the conflict occurred in the southern colonies. Given the importance of battles like Guilford Courthouse and Cowpens, North Carolina would make more sense…wait…the show is filmed in North Carolina? I don’t even want to wrap my head around a show that has events that should have taken place in North Carolina taking place in New York, but where the New York they took place in is being represented by the area of North Carolina where the actual events would have taken place. Catch all that?
Colonial Gothic is a game of historical horror set at the dawn of the American Revolution. It is a role playing game of secrets and supernatural terror. The Colonial Gothic rule book was written by Richard Iorio II Monica Valentinelli, Matt McElroy, and James Maliszewski who have gone to painstaking efforts to present a historically accurate setting where only the supernatural elements are invented and even then they are often inspired by actual stories. The game uses Rogue Games’ 12 degree system, which is relatively easy to learn, but isn’t tremendously introductory. While the original core rule book was a little light on the supernatural elements, adventures and supplements quickly filled that gaps. If you are looking to capture all the coolness of Sleepy Hollow while also learning about American History, then Colonial Gothic is for you.
Do you like zombies? Do you like toy factor? Do you have money to spend on a seemingly unlimited numbers of expansions? Zombicide is right up your alley. Zombicide is a cooperative game of action and survival horror. Where the game Zombies!!! delivers a quick and easy to learn gaming experience, Zombicide offers a rich, humorous, and action packed gaming experience. If I have an hour to play a zombie game, I’m playing Zombies!!!. If I have 10 minutes, I’m playing Zombie Dice. If I have an evening, I’m playing Zombicide.
In Zombicide, the players take the role of somewhere between 1 and 6 survivors. Each survivor has unique abilities and is a skilled zombie murderer. The goal of the game is to cooperate with other players and survive to the end of play. In Zombicide the game’s mechanics run the zombies giving everyone the opportunity to play a survivor. The zombies are slow and easy to kill, but there is one catch: there are a huge number of zombies that the players have to kill. It’s an almost endless stream of zombies. Where Zombies!!! tries to capture the feel of older zombie films, Zombicide captures the action, terror, and excitement of recent zombie related video games like Left 4 Dead. The game is very toy factor heavy and comes with 71 multi-colored miniatures. If you have 6 year old daughters, they might even think the miniatures are neat…until they get a close look at them and have horrible nightmares.
3) Night’s Black Agents
Pelgrane Press has a number of games that use their Gumshoe investigation role playing system. The games are quite good and a few of them – Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, and Fear Itself – are horror themed games. I thought about including all of these games with the exception of the Cthulhu-themed one on this list, but I chose the game I think best utilizes the Gumshoe system to create a combination of action and horror that is almost unrivaled in the RPG marketplace. Night’s Black Agents is a game of espionage, action and vampires. It is a mash up of Jason Bourne, James Bond, whatever the Hell Jason Statham’s characters’ names are, and every vampire film ever made from Dracula to Lifeforce.
In Night’s Black Agents players portray recently “retired” members of the intelligence community. Think Walter Matthau in Hopscotch and you are on the right track. The characters are soon betrayed on a final mission or a “are you coming back” job and in being betrayed they discover there is a large vampire conspiracy that threatens human civilization. They are the only people who can stop it, and no one will believe them if they try to convince people that “it’s all about the vampires.”
What makes Kenneth Hite’s take on vampires in Night’s Black Agents truly unique is that he allows the game master to determine the form, powers, and weaknesses of the vampires which keeps the players guessing. Are the vampires secretly alien lizardfolk? Are they sexy soul sucking vampires who have hired Patrick Stewart to capture prey for them? Are they more traditional vampires that players will know how to defeat? These choices are up to the game master, and the rules provide mechanics for almost any choice the game master might makes. Additionally, Night’s Black Agents introduces the “Vampyramid” or “Conspyramid” which is a conspiracy flow chart that starts with the top of the pyramid of conspiracy (vamspiracy?) all the way to the bottom. This pyramid provides an ideal framework for campaign game play as the characters work their way up the conspiracy.
This is the last Savage Worlds setting…I promise.
Rippers is the flip-side of Accursed; a game of monster hunters defending the world from classic Universal style monsters. The characters are hunters of vampires, werewolves, mummies and invisible people. They hunt the monsters down, rip out key monster organs, and implant those organs into their own bodies so they can more effectively hunt monsters.
You read that right. Rippers is like the movie Van Helsing – which I still think ripped off the Helsing claws from Rippers – if Hugh Jackman ripped out the hearts of vampires to have his own heart replaced by one of them so he could fight Dracula on more equal terms. This conceit is maybe one of my favorite conceits in all of role playing. The concept was clearly inspired by cyberpunk role-playing games where characters could replace body parts with metal at the risk of cyberpsychosis. In Rippers. the key organs of various monsters are the equivalents of various cybernetic enhancements and each comes with its own specific dangers. Those who hunt monsters must beware lest they become monsters themselves…just ask Jack…the Ripper.
The first edition of Chill, published by Pacesetter Games, is my favorite horror-themed role-playing game. It is also the only game on this list that is out of print, but it is well worth tracking down if you can find it. There is currently a Kickstarter campaign for a 3rd edition of the Chill game. The 3rd edition looks like a lot of fun, but it doesn’t look like it is aiming for the same style horror as the original game. Classic Chill is the best representation of what I consider to be a proper horror movie.
To me, horror movies don’t include things like Hostel or even You’re Next. I don’t have time to articulate what I consider these films to be…other than entertaining…but I’d be happy to talk about it at some other time. No, a great horror story has to have some element of what Lovecraft called the weird, and when it comes to weird I immediately think of Hammer Studios. It is the horror of the kind that Hammer Studios made, and now makes again, that I love. Give me stuffy Victorian/Edwardian era investigators encountering terrors from the unknown with a skepticism that is fueled by emerging scientific discoveries, and you have warmed my heart to no end. If you add to that a romantic element – which can either be of the courtship or familial variety – and I’m all in. Films like Horror of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and The Woman in Black are rich in mood and capture the imagination and are perfect for adaptation to role playing.
This is the stuff that the original Chill role playing game is made of. Heck, the rule book is even introduced by a talking Raven. That’s right; Poe’s Raven tells you how to play the game. Some might consider that silly, but I consider that “mood.” Chill also has a remarkably simple game system that can be picked up and played in minutes. Advanced rules can be added, but they don’t manage to make the game unwieldy at any point. Rick Swan called the game “horror for the easily frightened,” but I call it “horror from a more polite time.” Many Chill adventures were set in the “modern” day, but I have found that the game plays best when the set in Victorian/Edwardian times. The secret society and the battle against the Unknown make more sense in that context. Hunt down a copy, and hunt down a copy of Chill‘s Elvira supplement too.
There are many more non-Cthulhu horror themed games worth playing. There are games like It Came from the Late, Late, Show for those who have a preference for B-Movies. Games like Esoterrorists and Fear Itself who want player empowered systems like the one in Night’s Black Agents, but who want the characters to lack the Bond-esque abilities of those agents. Fans of ’80s horror movies like Friday the 13th and Fright Night who want a game that uses a system that is friendly to newer players will want to check out Cryptworld. There are board games like Monster Mayhem, Tannhauser, and Castle Ravenloft that provide entertainment without tentacled terrors.
If one is willing to open the door and let Cthulhu in, there are a host of other games to play that range from the lighthearted (Munchkin Cthulhu and Creatures and Cultists! to dark and serious (Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, When Darkness Comes). The list, and name drops, I’ve provided are only a glimpse of what awaits the dedicated horror loving gamer, but they are a glimpse into my own personal favorites.
What are some of your favorites?
Previously by Christian Lindke:
10 Geek Holidays and How to Celebrate Them
7 Reasons I, Frankenstein Is Like the Greatest RPG Campaign Ever GM’d
The 10 Best Superhero Role-Playing Games
From The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle to Dallas: 10 Strange Licensed RPGs
Ten Ways to Make a Dungeons & Dragons Movie Not Suck