In theory, any system can be used for running horror if the GM is good enough. By the same token, Olympic sprinters are fast no matter what they wear on their feet, but you don’t see Usain Bolt crossing the finish line in bunny slippers. As I pointed out last week, running horror is hard. You need all the help you can get, and choosing the right system is vital. Anything that involves rolling a d20 is right out. Reflex saves and base attack progression do not good horror make. Fortunately, there are a number of systems that are either designed specifically to terrify your players, or can be adapted to the task.
Call of Cthulhu
This is the grandfather of horror roleplaying games, published in 1981* and still going strong. It has spawned several games that are successful in their own right. It’s so ubiquitous that “Sanity Loss” is a reference even non gamers will get. For many, this is the be-all and end-all of horror roleplaying, but does it still hold up after so many years?
There’s no question that CoC has a lot going for it. The Sanity system is a fun way to track a character’s slow decent into madness. This is important, as the party bears witness to that which should not be known. It codifies psychological damage in the same way hitpoints codify physical damage. When something’s recorded on the character sheet, it feels real. Players have a solid reference point instead of relying on the GM to tell them how their character feels.
Another point in CoC’s favor is the relative lethality of its combat system. While going insane is always a possibility, your character could also be crushed, shot, or stabbed to death. This is important for establishing a credible threat, even if it’s from mundane damage and not the unmaking of one’s mind. Players with fragile characters will pay far more attention when living colors begin leaking through the walls.
The Cthulhu Mythos itself is probably CoC’s most pronounced asset. This is a body of work that has been curated and added to for the better part of a century, and it resonates with many people. You don’t have to convince your players that The King in Yellow is bad news. They already know. Mythos magic also works great in this system, with spells capable of great power if only the practitioner is willing to sacrifice a small piece of themselves. It’s barely anything, really. Your PCs will hardly notice it’s gone.
A final advantage for Call of Cthulhu comes from all the systems that have spun off from it. Because games like Unknown Armies and The Laundry use the same basic rules as CoC, it’s easy to mix and match specific mechanics. Do you like the Hardened Points from Unknown Armies? Then put them in your game!
The flip side of a system that’s been around since 1981 is that its age shows. The d100 percentile system might have been revolutionary thirty years ago, but now it has obvious flaws. PCs with lower skill levels will often fail tasks which should be trivially easy. At the same time, it’s not difficult to get so good at a skill that failure’s almost impossible. Character creation is a wonky affair, with some stats clearly more valuable than others. Thank the heavens that the 7th edition seems to have consolidated the skill list, because previous versions expected players to spend their points on different skills that did effectively the same thing. I’m still trying to figure out how a character can be good at Sneaking and terrible at Hiding.
World of Darkness
More properly known as the Storytelling system, World of Darkness* is the setting for many of White Wolf’s most successful games, including the well known Vampire and Werewolf. However, for the purposes of horror, it’s best to focus on either base WoD* or Hunter: The Vigil. You might be able to get away with Changeling, but the other settings involve far too much character empowerment to be scary. It doesn’t matter how terrifying a monster is if your mage can reach back in time and stop it from ever existing.
WoD’s biggest selling point is how easy it is to learn. Character generation takes about twenty minutes, and can be done almost entirely from the character sheet. That’s a huge benefit, because new players won’t be stuck trying to understand their advantage list when something is stalking them from the shadows. The skills are both broad and generally easy to understand. Firearms is a skill for shooting firearms. Science is a skill for doing science. There’s no need to agonize between hunting rifles and assault rifles, or biology and zoology. It’s not super realistic, but it fits the dramatic nature of roleplaying games.
Because WoD is so easy to learn, it makes for great one-shots. Players can put their characters together in less than half an hour and get started without having to read through pages and pages of rules. The Morality mechanic is also really cool, because it offers a descent into madness motivated entirely by PC choice.
The problem with WoD is that it doesn’t have much else to offer. Even though the book is full of dark imagery and creepy description, the rules give very little support for longer horror games. The system is easy to break, especially if you decide to include any of the supernatural elements. Worst of all, PCs and their opponents are both very hard to kill. Not only does this make players feel safe in the face of dark horrors, but it also means the combats can drag on, as both sides chip away at each other’s health.
Night’s Black Agents
NBA is by far the strangest game on this list. It’s a variant of the investigation focused Gumshoe system, an honor it shares with the more Lovecraft focused Trail of Cthulhu. Since I haven’t been able to play Trail of Cthulhu, we’ll focus on Night’s Black Agents instead.
The built-in setting is one of super spies fighting vampires, which can be exactly as horrific as you want it to be. Pull out all the stops and it’s an action-trope-filled explosion fest, with James Bond punching Dracula right in the face.* On the other hand, it can just as easily be the gritty story of a desperate few fighting against humanity’s greatest threat: a threat no one else can see. If blood suckers aren’t your thing, the villains could be evil cultists or lizard aliens, so long as they are secretive and powerful.
The Gumshoe mechanics of Night’s Black Agents are unlike anything else. Instead of dice pools or static bonuses, players get a pool of points they can spend to increase their chances of success. Do you really need to make this shot? Better spend a lot of points from your Shooting pool. This builds resource management directly into the system. You can succeed now, but it’ll cost you later. Things can get desperate near a session’s end, as the PCs start to come up empty on their important skills. Putting the squeeze on players like this is a great way to make them empathize with their characters as the darkness closes in around them.
Another plus is that Investigation Skills always succeed. There’s no missing of a vital clue because someone failed to Spot Hidden. Instead, players can spend points to gain extra information. They will always find out about the vampire’s hidden compound in the state park, but spending a point of Cryptography will also let them track the guards through their cell phone GPS.
The downside of Night’s Black Agents is also in its spending mechanics. The rules are difficult for new players to understand, because they have a completely different dynamic than most systems. It’s easy to overspend and reach the session’s halfway point with few points left. At the same time, cautious players will often underspend, failing or passing up tasks to save their points for a future roll that never comes. While this will be part of the fun for some, others will see it as a frustrating distraction from what really matters.
Even more difficult is reconciling the narrative with the rules. A PC might start the game as a crack shot, but be no better than anyone else by the end. In some situations this can be passed off as fatigue, but often there’s no ingame way to explain it. The character just has to shrug when asked why they can no longer hit the broadside of a barn.
At first blush, Torchbearer seems an odd choice for horror. After all, it’s an homage to the dungeon crawls of old, and the only thing scary about those was rolling a 3 for your Constitution. However, Torchbearer has a lot more going on than mere hack-and-slash. It turns out there’s a good bit of horrific gold to be mined from this system.
One of Torchbearers major objectives is to make dungeon delving dangerous, and it succeeds. PCs are thrust into an alien environment where they must struggle to survive with the limited tools at their disposal. This scenario is everything a horror GM could want, and Torchbearer’s mechanics fully back them up. As adventurers go deeper, both their physical and mental health suffers. There is the looming danger of death to keep PCs on their toes, and that’s nothing compared to what happens when the lights go out. While many games use darkness as a metaphor, Torchbearer has rules for it that are both effective and easy to use. Let’s just say you don’t want to be half a mile underground without a torch.
Then there are the monsters. We’ve been conditioned not to to fear dragons, ogres, bugbears, and other D&D type monsters. Defeating them was always the assumed outcome. Torchbearer takes the opposite view. With some monsters, defeat is all too likely. With others, running away is the only possible option. It doesn’t matter how good someone is with a sword, there’s no way they can stab a fifty-foot flying lizard to death. Creatures like the beholder are terrifying once players understand that they are more than just a well-balanced encounter. If classic fantasy monsters don’t hold your group’s interest, reskinning them is easy. Torchbearer has very simple monster stats, so a black dragon can become a flying polyp with ease.
Despite all the praise, Torchbearer has problems that have been expounded on this site before. It requires an experienced GM ready to really sink their teeth into the mechanics, and players who don’t mind some logistical work. On the bright side, if your group is looking for something a little easier to handle, there’s a similar game which could be a much better fit…
Really, Mouse Guard? That can’t be right. How can a game about plucky mice on courageous adventures be considered horror? Doesn’t the cuteness alone preclude it? Nope! It turns out the life of a mouse isn’t easy, whether they have swords or not. They’re tiny, and things that we humans can easily shrug off are world shattering to them. Plus, everything is trying to eat them. That’s a pretty terrifying existence, if you think about it.
Mouse Guard’s an easy game to learn, allowing players to jump right into the thick of things rather than struggling with the rules. That’s when the GM can unleash all hell upon them. Because the PCs are mice, they come pre-bundled with the kind of disempowerment that’s vital for horror games. Even a highly skilled mouse is still a mouse. We all have some understanding of how weak a mouse is, and that translates into the game.
GMs have a near unending list of threats at their disposal. Do you want your story to be about a silent killer that appears just long enough to snatch its victims, then vanishes? The owl is perfect for you. It’s big enough to be deadly, and at the same time, stealthy enough to avoid notice. Something that powerful might get a few eye rolls in traditional games, but in Mouse Guard it’s accepted.
When the PCs are mice, many ordinary things become insanely dangerous. A herd of stampeding deer can wreak havoc on a mouse settlement without even knowing it’s there. Weasels tunnel up from beneath to snatch unsuspecting mice from their beds and devour them. There are plenty of non-monster threats as well. How would the toxoplasmosis parasite manifest in mice with human level intelligence? If that sounds like the recipe for a Lovecraftian Elder God cult, then congratulations, Mouse Guard is the game for you.
There are two main disadvantages when using Mouse Guard for horror. First, the characters are less fragile than in other games. PCs can die or lose their minds, but the game is set up to make that unlikely. GMs may need house rules to increase its lethality. Second, some players will never take playing mice seriously. Tiny rodents will always be cute or funny to them, and they’ll have a difficult time getting into the horror.
No matter how well put together a system is, or how intriguing its setting, the most important thing is to match games with groups. Before committing to a campaign, try a few one-shots to get a feel for different systems. Roleplaying games are hard to judge only from reading the rules,* and playing them at least once is invaluable. You may be surprised by which ones your group likes. This article is by no means an exhaustive list. There are dozens, at least, of horror-ready games out there. Go and try a few out.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.