Look out behind you! What kind of monster is that!? Role-playing games are a fantastic medium for horror stories. The scares and dread are particularly potent when they’re happening to your character. Check out our favorite Halloween RPGs to play this season!
But why RPGs on Halloween? Usually we’re dressing up in costumes, going trick-or-treating or cutting up at a party. Well, the storytelling aspects of RPGs focus on a classic aspect of the season: horror stories. Many people have a list of scary movies they like to watch, and for the more nerdy among us, role-playing games slot into that list nicely.
Call of Cthulhu
For longtime RPG fans, this would be the quintessential Halloween RPG. (Some think it’s the best RPG ever.) Call of Cthulhu gives players all the pieces of a prototypical Lovecraftian Mythos story. Players take on the roles of investigators, average people, with no super powers or magical abilities (yet). Armed only with their suspicion that something is not right with the world, they set out to solve this mystery.
So mystery sounds great, but where does the scare factor come in? Well, get ready. Firstly, the foes that players encounter range from crazed human cultists to brain-twistingly insane abominations. Secondly, players find their characters’ own insanity slowly slipping away. The dread of watching your character slide into a shadowy, gibbering mental state is intense. Call of Cthulhu gets you coming and going, with assaults on the characters from within and without.
Everything about Call of Cthulhu makes a fantastic horror story to play on Halloween. The setting is creepy and scary, of course, but even the mechanics and game rules are set to terrify players. If you’re ready for an intense one, Call of Cthulhu is a fantastic Halloween RPG.
The original Alien movie from 1979 set a new standard for horror movies. In addition to excellent sci-fi worldbuilding, Alien is full of the dread and terror that a top-tier horror movie should have. Both of these elements, combined so seamlessly, are a perfect inspiration for an RPG. The setting comes through not just in a fully-realized backstory, but in the atmosphere and look-and-feel of individual scenes. Just as every shot in an Alien movie looks like an Alien movie, so too do the storyteller’s descriptions of scenes at the RPG table.
And then there’s the Xenomorphs. Menacing, bewildering, but familiar in all the wrong ways, the Xenomorphs are a fantastic RPG monster. From their hunting pack tactics, to the desperate cleverness of a cornered individual, a Xenomorph fight has its own narrative arc, full of surprises and scares.
Free League’s Alien RPG capitalizes on all of this. It expands on the already substantial setting to provide players with a galaxy full of worlds to explore. But the real reason we’re recommending Alien RPG for Halloween is the Cinematic Mode. This version of the game is tuned to run terrifying one-shot adventures. Players can experience a whole Alien RPG story in just a few hours - mostly because player characters aren’t expected to survive. The dread of watching your friends’ characters die one by one, and the panic of encountering a Xenomorph on your own, is a fantastic experience for a Halloween RPG adventure.
Vampire: The Masquerade
The other RPGs on this list focus a lot on monsters being a big source of scares. And for a Halloween RPG, that’s great, it’s one of the biggest overlaps between horror stories and role-playing games. Let’s turn that on its head, though. Let’s talk about a game in which the players are the monsters.
Obviously, in Vampire: The Masquerade, player characters are vampires. The game has been around since the 90s, and describes not just rules for using supernaturally powerful vampire abilities, but also details the intricate vampire society that exists beside human society. The Masquerade is a law that keeps vampires hidden from humans, while simultaneously letting vampires prey on humans and manipulate their politics and culture.
This relationship between vampires and humans is complex. Vampires regard humans as cattle, and human culture as a pawn in vampire political games. But Vampires must stay in the shadows, or humanity will revolt and hunt down every vampire everywhere. And the one thing that makes vampires truly monstrous is the fact that they were once human. Immortal vampires don’t age, and if they survive the jealousy of their kin, slowly watch their humanity and sympathy and even soul evaporate.
If your tastes in horror tend towards the dramatic and introspective, the stylish and sad, then Vampire: The Masquerade may be the Halloween RPG for you.
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Otherworldly, mind-twisting monsters have always been a big part of the RPG experience. For better or for worse, many memorable monsters in Dungeons & Dragons have become iconic, and their weirdness has worn off. But, in the early days of D&D, monsters like beholders, mind flayers, liches, and even gelatinous cubes were threatening, not because of their power level, but their mystery.
There’s a subset of RPG fans that are looking back on the young, bold early days of D&D for inspiration. Known as Old School Renaissance, this inspiration has a very different feel from the modern, streamlined Dungeons & Dragons. Our favorite OSR game is Dungeon Crawl Classics, and it takes the retro inspiration to heart.
Dungeon Crawl Classics is, even without any horror themes, a very lethal game. Characters die quickly, and rarely reach a high power level. Even the magic that holy clerics and arcane wizards wield is chaotic and unpredictable. Then, the storyteller is encouraged to make the monsters that players encounter custom, bespoke, and of course, weird. You don’t just fight an orc in DCC, you’re fighting some kind of weird mutant tribal demi-human that worships the god of destruction.
This sense of threatening weirdness is great for a Halloween RPG, especially with some of the more horrific pre-written adventures. The Croaking Fane, It That Watches From Below, and Sailors off the Starless Sea are great short-but-spooky adventures. The mood and tone of DCC and these adventures in particular are perfect for a Hallowen RPG session.