Horror is difficult to do well, and that’s especially true in the context of tabletop roleplaying games. Many RPGs have horror elements in them, but the best horror RPGs are the ones that strike at the core of the player’s fears. It’s about more than just having haunted locations and horrible monsters — it’s about creating a terrifying atmosphere that sinks into the game and makes feelings of dread mount over time.
Given the season, many tabletop groups may be looking to create that feeling at their tables. With that in mind, here are five horror tabletop RPGs to play if you want to have a terrifying time this Halloween.
5. Kult: Divinity Lost
Originally released in 1991 as Kult, Kult: Divinity Lost is the fourth edition that came out in 2018. It smooths over many of the complex mechanics from the original and uses the popular Powered by the Apocalypse system as a foundation to create a compelling dive into a world that is unfathomably bleak.
In short, Kult is set in a world where humanity has been imprisoned by a pack of malevolent gods who keep us from seeing reality as it truly is. The player characters have just had their eyes opened to the true nature of things, and so must decide how they will navigate deeper into the darkness behind it all. Despite being occasionally overwhelming in its rules, Kult provides a variety of tools through which players can create an immersive roleplaying experience.
Fair warning: Kult has one of the darkest settings in tabletop RPGs, dealing with many uncomfortable topics that could be upsetting to both players and the game master. As the rulebook states, be sure to draw boundaries as a group before the game begins in order to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable experience.
Kult is also not a game for everyone. If you have newcomers to horror gaming at your table, it’s recommended that you play something else. But for experienced groups who are looking to be truly terrified, few RPGs match the unrelenting terror of Kult.
4. Alien: The Roleplaying Game
Alien is one of the greatest and most influential horror films ever made. So, is it any surprise that Alien: The Roleplaying Game is a fantastic horror experience as well?
Much like the original film, Alien is a slow but well-paced roleplaying experience that slowly ratchets up the tension instead. Players create characters that range from space marines to space truckers, each of whom are trying to eke out a life in the frontiers of space. Corporations dominate people’s lives as they fight for resources, uncaring about those who are caught in their way. Life is hard, and that’s before horrific creatures come out of the shadows and begin to tear people apart. Player characters are specialists who are experts in one area but struggle in most others, making them vulnerable to many challenges even outside of the xenomorph kind. What’s more, those who witness horrific events will have to roll stress die in the future that can both improve the chances of success but can cause debilitating side effects.
Alien offers two different styles of play: Campaign and Cinematic. Campaign is meant for longer, multi-session games, whereas Cinematic is perfect for those looking to play a one-shot within a three act structure. Whatever your taste is, Alien is perfect for those who want to experience great sci-fi horror.
3. Call of Cthulhu
As one of the oldest RPGs, and one of the first horror RPGs at that, Call of Cthulhu has a pedigree to its name that few other games can match. With the seventh edition having come out in 2016, this cosmic horror juggernaut still provides more than enough terror to spook tables the world over.
Inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the many authors who helped define the Cthulhu Mythos in his wake, Call of Cthulhu is about groups of investigators uncovering mysteries involving eldritch horrors and cultists. Characters are scientists, journalists, private detectives, and other ordinary people who are woefully underpowered compared to everything that they are facing. Using their skills and what natural wits players have, you must piece together pieces of information while trying to keep your characters alive and healthy. But, as anyone who has played Call of Cthulhu can tell you, every character is ‘retired’ sooner or later.
Though much of the game’s scenarios and backgrounds are set in the 1920s, Call of Cthulhu can be set in the modern day or whatever time period the game master fancies. And if you’re not sure that the game is right for your table, publisher Chaosium has a free Quickstart rulebook available on their website that includes the classic adventure The Haunting.
Dread is an indie roleplaying game that requires no dice to play. All you need is a Jenga tower.
That delightfully odd condition is the basis for one of the most tense RPGs around. Released in 2005, Dread takes the tension of a game of Jenga and applies it to roleplaying games. Instead of having a defined background, the game provides samples of various horror settings, such as a slasher flick or a spaceship. Each player takes on an archetype — in the case of the slasher setting, these archetypes include the jock, cheerleader, and nerd — and fills out a questionnaire that builds out their background and personalities.
As for how the game plays, it’s very straightforward. Every time the game master rules that a player is performing a complex action, that player must pull a block out from the Jenga tower. If the tower falls, then that player’s character dies. The tower is then reconstructed, and Dread goes on until the tower falls again.
The simple rules means that Dread is a game where storytelling is paramount, as no character has special abilities or statistics to rely upon. They are just normal people confronted who must do everything they can to survive. But that tower will always fall, and knowing your doom is slowly coming adds a creeping… dread to each game.
1. Ten Candles
Ten Candles begins with the end of the world and gets worse from there. The world has gone dark, with no sun or stars visible. This has caused They to appear, which are hungry and weak to light. Your job is to escape. You won’t, but you’ll try, nonetheless.
Ten Candles is a one-shot RPG where every character will die by the end of the game, with their goal being whether or not they can fulfill a personal motivation before their time comes. And much like Dread, it has a unique mechanic at its core. Before the game begins, ten candles must be lit and placed within reach of everyone at the table. Each candle represents a scene, and a candle must be blown out every time a scene ends. If a candle goes out by accident, the scene still ends no matter what is currently happening.
The creativity of the various settings, coupled with the utterly bleak atmosphere, make Ten Candles a haunting journey that allows for memorable stories to be told.