It’s October, and everything has become dark and spooky, so why not your tabletop roleplaying games? There are a plethora of games written to bring and maximize the essence of horror, with many of these games touching on different aspects of the genre. Some of the RPGs on this list will be familiar, but hopefully, there will be something here to bring the scare for your Halloween game night. So prepare some candles, turn down the lights, and get ready to be spooky.
Call of Cthulhu
Lovecraftian horror deserves mention as a genre that truly gets under your skin and sometimes leaves you a little insane. Chaosium, Inc.’s 7th Edition of this iconic game expands on the Cthulhu mythos, implementing a system where investigators become exposed to eldritch horrors, ancient forbidden truths through the Necronomicon, and die horrifically against the Great Old Ones. Most Call of Cthulhu settings take place during the turn of the century of the Industrial Revolution, but there are additional variants such as Pulp Cthulhu that brings it close to the Atomic Age with secret organizations, spies, and other deadly dangers. Lovecraft’s atmosphere along with Chaosium’s expanded Cthulhu mythos resonates into this wonderful tale of suspense and horror.
If you’re interested in learning how to create your Call of Cthulhu character, we have you covered with some quick and easy tutorial videos.
Dread is an indie narrative survival-horror RPG that does not utilize any dice mechanics or stats, but instead, players resolve their actions through a tower of wooden blocks that entirely resemble a Jenga tower. Instead of character sheets, players have character questionnaires tailored by their game masters for the particular scenario. What I love and enjoy about this game comes from the physical and emotional sensation of dread that builds throughout the game, because if the tower falls, the last player to touch it has their character suffer a tragic and possibly horrible end. The book itself provides useful tips, advice, and strategies to create your own scenarios, player expectations, and how to formulate your questionnaires. Additionally, there are four scenarios provided with pre-generated questionnaires. This is a great game to introduce someone to roleplaying games without the learning curve of game mechanics.
If Dread is to be considered the epitome of survival-horror, then I would consider Ten Candles to be the epitome of tragic-horror. The game utilizes the simple setup of ten candles, some index cards to serve as character traits, several d6s with two different colors, a fireproof bowl, a tape recorder for your characters’ final thoughts before their imminent demise. Finally, it’s heavily suggested that this game is played in the dark with only the light of the candles to be the barrier against the setting’s dark apocalypse.
Unlike other games where players strive and hope to survive, in Ten Candles, the characters’ fate is inevitable and predetermined. Whenever a character fails a test, a candle is snuffed out, and the scene ends, but players can choose to “burn” away one of their character traits to prevent this failure. But ultimately, once there is only one candle remaining, the game enters its final end phase, and the players will all die. In other words, in this hopeless game, players will try to seek hope for their characters in this dark setting.
The game’s psychological degradation is appealing especially with other horror movies such as the Descent, the Final Destination series, Silent Hill, or even Friday the 13th. The desperation to keep these candles lit to delay this looming inevitability will undoubtedly have players feel the pressure after a few candles go out. The tape recorder mentioned previously? Whenever a character dies, their recording is replayed from the recorder as a final testament.
Don’t Rest Your Head
Evil Hat Productions’ Don’t Rest Your Head makes it to this list for the surreal and psychedelic atmosphere presented in its setting of the Mad City. The players are insomniacs who become aware of a metaphysical reality and entities are known merely as Nightmares. While awake, the players act like any normal human being, but their actions will eventually wear them down which runs the risk of the character drifting to sleep. While a character sleeps, the Nightmares stalk and attempt to kill your character. Survival requires another awakened character to assist, but alternatively, a character can choose to accrue madness in the face of their growing exhaustion.
The game employs a growing dice pool mechanic between its three attributes of Discipline, Exhaustion, and Madness. Players roll dice using their base Discipline plus any Exhaustion gained and any permanent Madness dice. For most mundane actions, a player character may roll their Discipline within a sense of control, but by incurring an Exhaustion die, the dice pool increases and grants a chance to succeed their rolled tests. But players can choose instead of using their Exhaustion pool, they can add a die to their Madness pool. Besides the onset of psychological strain and mental breakdowns, there are more devastating results such as the decrease in their Discipline trait followed by permanent Madness die.
Additionally, the game utilizes a meta-currency of Hope and Despair, with the former being a means for player characters to combat against the debilitating journey of living with insomnia. Despair is a currency for the GM to impose a significant challenge against a character, but between these two features, when one is spent, it is added into the coffers of the other which establishes the metaphor for give-and-take presentation of the harsh reality of life.
Fan of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales? This RPG focuses on two characters, Bluebeard and his Bride, with the players’ roles as aspects of the Bride’s psyche. Throughout the game, players explore Bluebeard’s house through the eyes of the Bride, each player takes turns to act as their aspect of her psyche to make decisions, speak as the Bride, and pushing the Bride forward to explore this mysterious house only to encounter new horrors along the way.
This game is another excellent tragic horror game that harkens back to such classics as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast if it had become a full-fledged horror movie. As the Bride explores the house, the psyches (players) are confronted with various revelations and horrors about their beloved Bluebeard. The game reminds and encourages discourse between players with their Bride actions to represent the conflicting internal mental struggles of this central figure.
Ultimately, by the end of the game, the Bride will face the final door that Bluebeard forbade this Bride to enter. Depending on the actions of the Bride throughout this haunting tale, the Gamemaster has a unique track to determine the Bride’s faithfulness, treachery, or defiance. Whichever becomes the dominating mentality at the end of the game, each psyche will have a chance to narrate the final scene. This RPG combines the hallmarks of a collaborative storytelling experience yet encourages discourse between the players while taking turns to control a central character to serve as a vehicle for the narrative.
Little Fears harkens back to those classic childhood fears but turns the dial to eleven as players play as everyday kids that face both real and imagined monsters. Players have character sheets like any other roleplaying game but also includes a questionnaire to help flesh out their fears and the various aspects of their troubles, which your gamemaster will employ and build your stories around. Additionally, the game utilizes other features that are iconic from one’s own childhood, such Belief and Rituals to dispel the monsters that haunt us. The game has a very “Monster of the Week” infrastructure for longer campaigns but definitely can work under a one-shot capacity. Unlike other roleplaying games, many of the character aspects are strictly narrative or abstract in nature, fans with familiar to games such as Fate Core will feel right at home with this sort of game.
As an honorable mention, if you wish to play a game set in childhood horror, Kids on Bikes follows the same archetypes, but while Little Fears is explicitly focused on childhood horrors and traumas, the former fits into a wider variety of genres. Though Kids on Bikes can be presented with horror elements and just like Little Fears, both are narrative-focused games.
This indie entry by Bully Pulpit Games, written by Jason Morningstar (creator of Fiasco) and Ode Peder, is more of a ghost story than a horror RPG but there plenty of avenues to expand on the genre. In the premise for this game, the players were once former ghost hunters who found a way to bridge the worlds of the living and the dead together to put the spirits to rest. Unfortunately, one of these ghost hunters died and never found rest. Your group has returned to the place of your former friends’ passing to finish the job once and for all. The game does not require a gamemaster, but does suggest at least one game organizer prepare materials and moderate the game, as the players must enact a secret ritual to summon spirits to possess them. A mask is heavily suggested and required as a prop for this game, to represent the possessed character. Most of the character creation is done through cards that can be printed out before gameplay that establish roles, relationships, and backstories. While a character becomes possessed by the ghost, they make direct instructions or commands to other characters and they must obey them. Possessions pass across the playgroup until the end of the game. The rules are loose and abstract to fit for every number of playstyles and groups.
The Happiest Apocalypse on Earth
Another game to bring some nightmare to your childhood memories, The Happiest Apocalypse on Earth brings you the magic and joys of your iconic theme parks and turns them into a carnival of despair and dread. Just as the title suggests, this is a hack using the Powered by the Apocalypse system, but the atmosphere and themes touch on a satirical outlook with a dark representation for a sinister children’s theme park called Mouse Park. The game adopts a monster-of-the-week structure for longer campaigns, but it is also suited for one-shots as well. Characters acquire talents and abilities that can be cut and pasted onto their sheets which reduces a whole lot of reference to the rulebook and more time to focus on the gameplay.
The satirical undertones feel like a George Romero horror movie, but within the setting of The Happiest Apocalypse on Earth, you have the added caveat of ancient evils, demonic circles, strange experiments, and rogue animatronics. Plus, who doesn’t love the idea of an evil theme park full of unknown terrors? For longer campaigns, the book does offer advice to bring the player characters back every time, with each visitation revealing a new dark facet of Mouse Park.
The Esoterrorists marries investigation and horror under the GUMSHOE system. Unlike most investigative driven RPGs, the GUMSHOE system focuses on the interpretation of the clues. This system inspired another Cthulhu RPG called Trail of Cthulhu which deserves an honorable mention here, but the real honor belongs to The Esoterrorists for being the progenitor. In The Esoterrorists, the players battle against fanatical occult terrorists who seek to shatter the fabric of reality to bring forth otherworldly monstrosities to our present realm.
This narrative-centric game utilizes a pool of points to perform investigative abilities, with other generic tests conducted with a six-sided die and its own point pool. As the players find clues, the story advances. To find the clues, the players will need to use their investigative abilities that correlate with it. All investigative skills always work, but again, the novelty from this system applies to the players’ and groups’ interpretation of these story clues. Spending their investigative points usually grants additional clues which are often additional information or benefits. Since the point pools can be adjusted and tailored for any scenario, a gamemaster can customize their tales to fit any kind of difficulty and length.
Fate Horror Toolkit
Fans of Evil Hat Production’s Fate Core and Fate Accelerated have a new toolkit for bringing horror to their games. While Fate provides a full breadth of narrative creativity with the interpretations of their aspects, this book offers advice and tips to maintain the tension often found in the horror genre without sacrifice the system’s ingenuity and freedom. There are mechanical elements such as the descent (very similar to mechanics found in the sanity mechanic from Call of Cthulhu) and methods for coping with trauma. Additionally, the supplement discusses the playgroup’s buy-in through impending doom and storytelling advice for crafting a survival horror scenario.
For the survival horror rules, there is a clock mechanic and a system for the gamemaster to establish finite resources that the players can freely utilize throughout the game. However, when those resources run out, there will most definitely be consequences which can range from reducing results to skill rolls and possibly even alterations to established aspects. As for the mechanics to define impending doom, there are some great tips and advice for setting this early buy-in with your players. Additionally, the toolkit adds a clock mechanic that is reminiscent in other games such as Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark. Overall, this book provides solid advice to incorporate horror into your Fate games, whether to an existing campaign, a new one or even as a one-shot. Fate’s adaptive storytelling system allows for a full breadth of actions, moments, and creativity but in the vein of horror, some exercised limitations and restrictions will draft the necessary atmosphere needed.
There are plenty of horror-inspired RPGs out there, and whether or not your favorites made this list, just remember the core elements of horror: limited resources and inevitability. Atmosphere and mood are essential whether it be darkening a room or having appropriate music as a backdrop. Of course, the last key ingredient to any good horror game comes from the players and their acceptance of their fate within the game. Have the players aware of the context of their game, set expectations, and provide a safe means to express their discomforts. These elements can be found in the roleplaying games listed above, as it’s essential that every be comfortable and safe to tell the best tales possible. Enjoy, and may your nights be full of terror.