What's Out There For Halloween Gaming?

When October comes around, many gamers turn their heads from their regularly scheduled explorations of dungeons to look at a genre within which they do not normally crawl around. We are of course talking about horror. Whether you are looking for a one shot game for your Halloween night, or an ongoing campaign, there are a lot of very good horror games out there in the wilds of your local gaming store (or preferred online retailer) to check out for your horror needs. Let's look at a few of them.

This article isn't going to be comprehensive, there is a good chance that your favorite game won't be talked about because there are a lot of horror role-playing games, and only so many words to go around. There is going to be a mix of currently available and out of print games discussed, so some of them might take a little hunting around to find.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room of horror role-playing games is of course Chaosium's flagship game Call of Cthulhu. Where Dungeons & Dragons is the foundation of tabletop RPGs, so is Call of Cthulhu the foundation of horror gaming. Would there have been horror gaming without the early success of Call of Cthulhu? Something would have come along, but the combination of rules (in the variant of the BRP rules published by Chaosium) and setting (in the fictional worlds spearheaded by H.P. Lovecraft) was lightning in a jar that had repercussions outside of just tabletop gaming. That original Call of Cthulhu game has impacted movies, comics and other media in ways that few other games have been able to do.

For me, the greatest impact of the Call of Cthulhu game was its mechanics for sanity. At the time these mechanics were particularly groundbreaking because, previous to this game, there was a clear line of demarcation in other role-playing games between the physical aspects of a character (which were the purview of the game's mechanics) and, for lack of a better term, the mind of a character (which would be under the control of the player). While this was needed for horror gaming, it does represent a fundamental break from the orthodoxy of how mechanics should work in role-playing games. It also started a school of design that you would see in games like Vampire: The Masquerade, Sorcerer and even Fate Core, where you not only see a growing impact of game's mechanics on the mental landscape of a character, but in a number of games you are seeing mechanics that impact the social landscape of characters as well.

I can't talk about Call of Cthulhu and its impact upon the streams of game design without talking about Trail of Cthulhu. This GUMSHOE powered role-playing game from Pelgrane Press is a direct response to the venerable Call of Cthulhu game. Trail of Cthulhu is a much more visceral game, from my play experiences with it, and the key part of that is the game's stability mechanics. Stability builds upon the ideas of sanity as espoused by Call of Cthulhu, the idea that exposure to strange things beyond the ken of mortals erodes and eventually destroys the mind of those who encounter it. In many ways, sanity is a measure of the empathy of the character, how deeply things outside of the character, particularly the horrific, will impact them internally. Stability then represents a characters ability to resist the erosion of that empathy/sanity. In a Trail of Cthulhu these two mechanics provide an engaging push me/pull you that cause the character to engage with the story and the world of the game.

There are plenty of other Lovecraftian inspired games out there, but these are for now the big games. Call of Cthulhu is still the big dog, by nature of being there first, and likely will be for a long while. Even Trail of Cthulhu licenses setting material from Chaosium. There are also a number of licensed settings that use the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu in different ways from World War Cthulhu to Achtung! Cthulhu to Harlem Unbound. Shaking the hold of Call of Cthulhu from Lovecraftian gaming won't be happening anytime soon.

The Chill role-playing game covers some of the same ground as Call of Cthulhu, you still play investigators living outside the normal world who track down the horrors that no one else acknowledges or understands. Chill takes a much broader eye, in that it isn't just about Lovecraftian horrors. You can draw a number of parallels between Chill and Call of Cthulhu, but one of the things that has always fascinated me about Chill and its setting is the underlying idea that the heroes of the story might also be the ones who are inadvertently responsible for the horrors unleashed upon the world. Not the player characters per se, but it could very well be that the same people who started the organization that works to SAVE the world are the same one who may have doomed it. Having an investigative organization as the game's framework also provides a framework and rationale for your games. Having to replace a dead player character with a hotel bellhop, in order to keep things rolling, is a problem that has plagued Call of Cthulhu and its imitators since the game came out. It was always an annoyance in games that I ran and played in over the years, but the organization of SAVE within Chill gives GMs and players a sensible work around for this speedbump.

This is such a great concept for horror role-playing games, and it is a shame that there aren't more games that utilize an approach like that. If you are looking for a game that transcends some of the more problematic elements of Lovecraftian fiction, Chill is a good game to go with.

If you don't want to wander too far from fantasy with your horror role-playing, Robert Schwalb's Shadow of the Demon Lord is the game that you want to check out. Shadow of the Demon Lord is the pinnacle of dark fantasy role-playing that is currently on the market, and it is the spiritual successor to the Warhammer Fantasy role-playing game. Most role-playing games fall into taking place before or after an apocalypse, but the horror of a Shadow of the Demon Lord game is the result of having your characters thrown directly into the middle of an apocalypse. Will the world live or survive? Will the characters live or survive? The odds are slim, but the characters will go down swinging. The idea of the game is that the Demon Lord of the game's title is encroaching upon the world in which the characters live, corrupting it and opening the way to more and more of its fell servants, eventually grinding it to dust. It isn't a happy game, but that is the essence of horror role-playing, the fact that no matter how valiant or heroic the player characters might be, there can still be an inevitability to a game's outcome.

The lone out of print book in this article is Target Games' phenomenal horror game Kult. This game has always been a bit of a white whale for me, because I have only been able to play it a few times, and nowhere near as much as I would like. Kult has always been a controversial game, in part because of its more mature approach to subject matter, and partially because it is likely one of the more overtly Judeo-Christian of role-playing settings that have been published. Based on Gnostic and apocryphal Biblical texts, the setting of Kult is unlike any other role-playing game, horror or otherwise. The basic idea of the premise of the setting is that the so-called Real World is only an illusion that hides the truths of reality, the truths that the human mind cannot process. Much like with the sanity of Call of Cthulhu, exposure to the truths of reality drive people insane. In the true reality God has abandoned his creation, leaving it in the hands of corrupted beings who are not really capable of doing the job left to them. It can be a pretty oppressive setting, and certainly not for everyone.

There is a new edition of Kult coming, launched by a successful Kickstarter project, but it is still coming soon.

You could argue that horror gaming has two 800 pound gorillas, and that the other one of those would be White Wolf's role-playing game of personal horror: Vampire: The Masquerade. Where Call of Cthulhu, and many other horror role-playing games are about humans working to save their world from inhuman horrors, Vampire is a game about being the monsters who are often in control of things. My exposure to the World of Darkness is unfortunately minimal. I have played in a few games of the anniversary edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and I want to play more. I also have the anniversary edition of Vampire: The Masquerade that was put out by Onyx Path Publishing. It is a great game, and I have some friends who are interested in play, so I might finally get to explore more of the White Wolf games and worlds.

There are plenty of options for those who are looking to spice up their Halloween gaming with some horror, or who are looking for something more long term. This is only the tip of the horror gaming iceberg, and there are a lot of games out there for people who want to try something different. It is a good thing to explore other streams of gaming from time to time, play games outside of your comfort zone and learn more about yourself, the people that you game with, and the world around you.


My old group used to do a Call of Cthulhu evening as part of Halloween. It always got a little out of hand, but was tremendous fun. I can't recommend the game enough for anyone wanting to branch out into the world of HP Lovecraft. I recall Vampire: the Masquerade taking off in popularity around the early 2000s in my town. The local game shop an entire day set aside for White Wolf games. It always seemed like fun, but I never quite got into it.

These days, the tradition is to play through the original Ravenloft module, updated to the fifth edition D & D rules. It's been a blast to face off against Strahd for the past decade, but this year, we're doing something a bit different: the Tomb of Horrors.


How did you leave out RAVENLOFT??? We used to return to a good Ravenloft horror adventure each October... If you want Vampires, Werewolves, Ghosts, and Zombies, you cannot go wrong by adding a little of this campaign setting into your Halloween!
Right ... I popped in to shout "RAVENLOFT!"

Especially the original I6.

Now, in non-RPG gaming, the Arkham Horror LCG is a great RPG-lite horror card game.


We actually do an annual Shadowrun horror game for Halloween, just a one shot, but the Altered-Reality and magical aspects of that setting just always makes for a good surprise horror genre.


I actually have a Raveloft game planned. It's a bit bigger than a one-shot, but I intend to start it Soon(TM).


I agree about the two 800lb gorillas being Call of Cthulhu and Vampire: The Masquerade, and I am glad that Kult was also mentioned as an almost arthouse horror RPG in terms of its world creation (and the associated magic systems).

Other games of note include:
Ghostbusters - comedy horror, but still can make good horror scenarios
Dread - if you like Jenga-tower slashers
All Flesh Must Be Eaten - easy to run zombie survival horror
Deadlands - for comedy horror westerns
Unknown Armies - fairly complex psychological weirdness meets Pulp Fiction
Delta Green - for a more modern/professional take on Lovecraftian adventures
My Life With Master - a bit different granted, but an interesting mediation on abusive relationships
Wraith: The Oblivion - like the personal horror of it's elder sister, Vampire, but even darker and deeper with it's innovative Shadowplay techniques
The Whispering Vault - easy to pick up from eBay, easy to set up and play and another really cool, but almost forgotten horror game
Puppetland - for puppets who want to play.

Plenty to choose from anyway.
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Greg K

Slasher Flick (Spectrum Games): Play the victims in a horror a movie

Cartoon Action Hour Season 3 (Spectrum Games): The rule book has a guidelines for running the Real Ghostbsuters cartoon with the serial numbers filed off. There is also a free adventure supplement.

Vs. Ghosts (Fat Goblin Games): Another option for a Ghostbusters game.

J.L. Duncan

We did a one shot the year before last, right before Halloween with TROPES Zombie Edition, a game I reviewed for KoDT. And because we had some knuckle head (non-gamers) in the group, was one of my favorite sessions of TPK. I had planned to run a truncated version of Feed (another game I reviewed) but it looks like my live gamer group is about to disassemble due to scheduling stuff. Links are to drivethru, and both titles are PWYW.
How did you leave out RAVENLOFT??? We used to return to a good Ravenloft horror adventure each October... If you want Vampires, Werewolves, Ghosts, and Zombies, you cannot go wrong by adding a little of this campaign setting into your Halloween!
There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than D&D.


How does 'Shadow of the Demon Lord' differ from 'Out of the Abyss?

Well, I say DM Peter Watts 'Blindsight' novel...and read it first. It's a free e-book on his website.