Horror roleplaying is intrinsically tied to what makes scary films, books and games so engaging. The audience gets to experience that intoxicating feeling of imagining something terrible happening - while remaining aware that they’re actually in no real danger at all. It’s why people ride roller coasters or do extreme sports; they live for the adrenaline and the possibility of danger. Which tension-filled activity you engage in really depends on how close you like being to the threshold of danger. If the answer to that question is ‘not very much at all’ then horror roleplaying games are the perfect compromise.
Some roleplaying games have horror elements within them, such as Dungeons & Dragons 5E adventure Curse of Strahd or the setting of Weird West RPG Deadlands, but a true horror TRPG will provide more than scary monsters to fight or haunted houses to explore. The best horror RPGs are the ones that set out to imbue their players with the feeling of terror - whether that’s terror over what’s happening to their character or what their character is doing to other people.
Best horror tabletop RPGs
- Call of Cthulhu: One of the very first horror roleplaying games translates the writings of HP Lovecraft into an RPG that continues to endure.
- Ten Candles: A one-shot style RPG that answers the question of ‘What do people actually do when the world is ending?’
- Vampire: The Masquerade: The latest edition of a classic roleplaying game featuring vampires that stalk the streets of LA.
- My Life with Master: An indie RPG that has players becoming minions to an evil overlord.
- Zombie World: Far from being another generic zombie game, this RPG mixes cards with storytelling.
- Kult: Divinity Lost: A revival of a ‘90s horror RPG that presents a hidden world of demons and immoral deities.
- Bluebeard’s Bride: This experimental roleplaying game twists a fairytale into an unsettling story of a twisted labyrinth and the man who controls it.
- Alien: The Roleplaying Game: Based on one of the most important horror films ever made, this is a surprisingly good game.
- The Machine: A solo RPG where the player writes about a machine they cannot stop building.
- Trail of Cthulhu: Become detectives on the search for clues surrounding the impending awakening of the Old Ones.
The horror RPGs featured on this list range from games about surviving the undead to experiments in writing disturbing fiction, but they’re all fundamentally about terror. Horror TRPGs have evolved a lot over the last 40 years or so, but we’ve made sure to cover a wide variety of games that date back to the very beginning of the genre, as well as some more recent examples. Regardless of which games on this list take your fancy, they’ll not disappoint when it comes to creating a suitably spooky atmosphere this Halloween.
1. Call of Cthulhu
A classic horror roleplaying game based on the Cthulhu mythos
The original version of Call of Cthulhu was one of the very first horror RPGs ever made, coming out just a few years after the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons made its debut. According to Mike Mason - current lead writer for Call of Cthulhu - the roleplaying game was designed to provide an alternative to the power fantasies that many RPGs like D&D were peddling at the time. Call of Cthulhu began its life as a portrait of both realism and surrealism, with player characters limited to ordinary researchers and doctors who happened to encounter cosmic horrors unlike anything they’d ever seen.
Inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft, Call of Cthulhu started as an incredibly influential RPG about a group of investigators uncovering plots in the Cthulhu mythos. It continues to evolve to this day, with the latest seventh edition releasing in 2016. Throughout the horror roleplaying game, players must use their wits to put the pieces of each terrifying puzzle together, all whilst attempting to keep their decidedly delicate characters alive and well. Being a Lovecraftian game, players can expect to come across all manner of strange and unsettling creatures and cults - whether players choose to fight or flee depends on whether they’re willing to risk the consequences.
2. Ten Candles
Get ready to face the end of the world in this tragically sombre horror RPG
A personal favourite of Dicebreaker’s own Wheels, 10 Candles starts its players off in a pretty bad place to begin with; welcome to the end of the world. 10 Candles is pretty unconventional as far as roleplaying games go because players aren’t ever expected to ‘win’. Instead, this is a rules-light RPG about accepting death and attempting to leave the world in a better place. All player characters in 10 Candles must die by the end of each game - which is why this is primarily for one-shots - and will have an ambition they are desperate to achieve before the end finally arrives.
In the vein of many modern roleplaying games, 10 Candles features an unusual gameplay mechanic in the form of exactly 10 candles that must be placed within reaching distance of each player. Every candle represents one of the scenes in the game and must be blown out one-by-one as each scene is brought to its conclusion. Should any of the candles be blown out accidentally, it still counts as a scene having ended - which adds a nice bit of tension to the proceedings. With the atmospheric lighting, bleak premise and potential for creative apocalyptic settings, 10 Candles is an excellent choice for players who are looking for something short and memorable.
Buy Ten Candles from publisher Cavalry Games.
3. Vampire: The Masquerade
Become the beautiful and the dead in this slick and sexy horror roleplaying game
Vampire: The Masquerade has continued to enthrall players since its release back in 1991. It was the first entry in the World of Darkness universe of RPGs - which has since expanded to include games like Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension - and remains the most popular one of the bunch. So popular, in fact, that it’s getting adapted into another video game - Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 - and continues to see board game spin-offs. At the time of VTM’s creation the fanged-fever of the ‘90s was yet to arrive, making this horror roleplaying game surprisingly ahead of the curve.
In VTM, players become creatures of the night involved in a terrority war between several warring clans hidden in the city of Los Angeles. Depending on which clan players decide to play as, they can end up making anything from a smooth-talking socialite to a hideous predator. Regardless of what kind of vampire players end up creating, they will all have to obey the ‘masquerade’ - meaning that humankind does not know they exist and players must not do anything to break that illusion. Maintaining this masquerade can get difficult when player characters thirst for blood. The longer they go without it, the more reckless they become, with players rolling blood dice to simultaneously improve their chances of success and loss of control. Sexy, dark and full of interesting lore, VTM is perfect for indulging one’s gothic side.
4. My Life with Master
Experience life as a downtrodden underling in this indie RPG about breaking free
Whilst most horror stories and settings remain interested in primary villains, My Life with Master shines a light on the experiences of the minion. Not necessarily the Despicable Me kind, but more in the vein of an Igor or Renfield - the type of minion that isn’t given a clear motivation as to why they choose to follow an immoral overlord. This horror RPG seeks to unravel this quandary by having players become a minion to a villainous character, doing their bidding whilst struggling with the feelings that continue to trap them in this situation.
In My Life with Master, players don’t just make their own character - they also construct the villain they are serving, deciding what the overlord desires from their minions, what aspect they have and what they require to survive. The villain’s sway over their minions and the townsfolk they order them to torment is determined by how much fear they can instill in both. The more reason the player can provide to their characters and the townsfolk, the more likely that they will be able to resist and overthrow the overlord. Players can attempt to do this by engaging in acts of love with the townsfolk - both platonic and otherwise - going against their master’s wishes and overcoming the sense of self-loathing that forces them into servitude. My Life with Master is terrifying in that it forces its players to consider the reality of what being on the side of evil does to a person.
Buy My Life with Master from publisher Half Meme Press.
5. Zombie World
Rediscover a love for zombies with an RPG that mixes board game elements with roleplaying
It’s easy to feel exhausted by zombies these days. From television series and films to video games, the undead have seemingly invaded every medium and sucked dry any interest in the classic horror monster. However, RPG Zombie World comes across as being a rather unique take on the overwrought undead apocalypse trope. A big reason for this is that Zombie World combines elements of a board game with a roleplaying game - creating this intriguing hybrid of the two that provides an incredibly accessible entry point into tabletop RPGs. The setting may be nothing new - players find themselves as survivors after the undead rise from their graves with murderous intent - but Zombie World offers an unusual gameplay style that streamlines sessions and keeps the pacing fast.
Creating player characters in Zombie World is as simple as drawing a hand of cards. Each character is made up of a past card explaining who they used to be before Z-Day, a present card detailing who they are now and a trauma card. Here’s where it gets really interesting, as a player’s trauma card remains facedown until an event triggers its reveal. Some trauma cards are benign enough to simply change a few mechanical aspects of a game. However, other trauma cards can have a significant impact on a session, changing characters from trustworthy allies into steadfast enemies. As players encounter new threats, they’ll have to draw cards in the hope that they will be able to survive, with zombies drawing cards in response. Zombie World enables players to experience a tight and intense horror RPG session in an easy-to-learn format.
Buy Zombie World on Zatu.
6. Kult: Divinity Lost
This revised horror RPG is a perfect tool for exploring darker themes and grim world-building
Originally released in 1991, Kult is a horror roleplaying game that posits a world where humankind is secretly being controlled by a pantheon of malicious deities. The RPG was brought back in 2018 with a fourth edition that revised many of Kult’s clunkier elements and turned it into a complex horror simulation. In the game, players are people who have awakened to the reality of their world: they are living under the shadow of selfish and manipulative gods who seek to remain hidden. Now that their eyes have been opened, these player characters must look for ways to expose these deities to the world at large.
Kult is easily one of the chunkier RPGs on this list and isn’t recommended for newer players for that reason. It also has one of the darker settings when compared with some of the other entries on this list - and that’s saying something - so should be approached with sensitivity in mind. The rulebook itself encourages the game master to establish any lines that players are uncomfortable crossing or any topics they don’t want sessions to touch on, which is good to see an RPG doing. For those people who enjoy psychological horror as well as the physical kind, Kult is an excellent example of a roleplaying game that provides the tools to explore this. For example, every player character must have their own dark secret that constitutes what they fear most, with a character’s past being something they struggle to escape. If you’re looking for a campaign-worthy horror RPG that leans into the darker side of things, Kult is a good choice.
7. Bluebeard’s Bride
Indulge in the sinister side of fairytales with an unconventional horror RPG where everyone plays the same person
Fairy tales can be a fantastic source of horror. Often morbid and disturbingly violent, considering they were intended to be told to children, fairytales have inspired some amazing examples of horror such as Angela Carter’s collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber. The title story from Carter’s collection is based on the classic French folktale of Bluebeard - in which a woman is forced into marriage with a wealthy man, only to discover that he has murdered all his previous wives. Based on the same story is the independent horror RPG Bluebeard’s Bride. According to the game’s Kickstarter, Bluebeard’s Bride is designed to produce “feminine horror fiction” and explores fear in both a physical and metaphysical way, with players encountering real and imaginary threats. For every room that the bride explores she may discover a path to freedom or a tragic end to her existence.
There is only one character in the RPG: the titular bride. Bluebeard’s Bride is unusual in that it has players controlling different parts of the same character’s psyche. There are five possible psyches for players to become, with each one guided by a different ethos. For example, whilst The Mother may provide a more confident force for the bride, The Virgin is gentler and thus less suspect to others. Therefore, the bride will react to situations differently and choose conflicting decisions depending upon which player psyche is leading her at the time. Bluebeard’s Bride is unique in that it enables players to experience a more introspective style of horror, one that views concepts like abuse and misogyny as equally as terrifying as any visceral horror.
Buy Bluebeard's Bride on Zatu.
8. Alien: The Roleplaying Game
An adaptation of one of the best horror films is a fitting homage that does the movie justice
Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the most influential horror films of all time. With its striking art style, masterful grasp of tension and subtle use of world-building, Alien set the precedent for horror stories for decades to come. Released in 2019, Alien: The Roleplaying Game is primarily inspired by the original 1979 film, with a slow-burn approach to tension favoured over high-intensity action sequences. Even if you’re familiar with the film, Alien: The RPG still provides a whole host of exciting tricks to build an effective horror atmosphere and immerse players in a world of claustrophobic corridors and shadowy engineering bays.
Players can choose from a number of different roles - including greasers, pilots and corporate representatives - with each one having some amount of expertise in a certain area. However, none of the roles are particularly strong in their own right and characters will be vulnerable when faced with any threats, especially those of the xenomorph kind. Whenever a character witnesses a traumatic event - say, the death of a crewmate via chestburster - they must take stress dice into their regular dice pool. This means that whenever that character rolls for a skill check they must also roll any stress dice, which can actually improve a player’s chances of success but also risks their character gaining a permanent status effect as well. These status effects range from mildly annoying to genuinely life-threatening and do wonders to enforce the harshness of the Alien universe. For an amazing adaptation of an amazing film, look no further than Alien: The Roleplaying Game.
9. The Machine
A solo roleplaying game that provides an evocative horror experience for one
Playing a solo RPG may seem like a daunting process - how do you interact with this medium without the guidance of a GM or some friends to bounce ideas off? But solo roleplaying is an excellent way of stretching some creative muscles in a more introspective way. The Machine is a RPG designed to be played by just one player at a time, but is not intended to be an entirely lonesome experience. In The Machine, the player becomes an inventor who has found themselves possessed by the idea of an amazing new invention. It doesn’t matter what the invention is - players are welcome to imagine what it might do - it only matters that the player’s character cannot stop thinking about its inception.
The only way the player character can relieve themselves of this obsession is by writing their thoughts regarding the contraption in a personal journal. The player interacts with the RPG by imagining that they are this inventor and writing down what they think this character might be thinking. As the game steadily progresses, players are encouraged to explore themes around failure, emotional defeat and mental illness - meaning The Machine might not be for everyone. Once the player has completed their inventor’s story, they have the option of delivering their journal to someone else, preferably in a suitably mysterious way. This next player is then invited to add to the journal with their own story and so the cycle continues. It’s certainly not the most conventional of RPGs, but The Machine provides an undeniably unique horror experience.
Buy The Machine from co-creator's Adira Slattery's itch.io.
10. Trail of Cthulhu
Investigate mysteries in a noir-soaked version of the Cthulhu mythos
Modern horror and the Cthulhu mythos are so intrinsically intertwined that there are multiple roleplaying games based on the works of HP Lovecraft. Trail of Cthulhu mixes classic Lovecraftian tropes with a noir setting to create more of a detective horror story, with players becoming hard-boiled investigators determined to discover the plot behind the return of the Old Ones. Partially inspired by Call of Cthulhu but based instead on the GUMSHOE roleplaying system - which is used in several other horror RPGs such as Fear Itself and, more recently, The Yellow King - Trail of Cthulhu encourages its players to take a subtle approach to interacting with the world. In traditional Lovecraftian fashion, player characters are vastly underpowered when compared to the kinds of foes they could be up against, so they must use their wits and clue-solving skills over brute force or direct combat.
Players may experience a different kind of horror experience depending upon which mode they decide to adopt. The purist style of Trial of Cthulhu embraces more of the slow-burning cosmic horror that the setting is known for, whereas the pulp style of gameplay turns the game into more of a globe-trotting adventure. Players wanting more of a concentrated horror experience are better off going for the purist mode over the pulp, especially if they want to retain tension around enemy encounters. Regardless of which one you choose, Trail of Cthulhu rewards players for thinking outside the box and embracing the investigatory elements of the RPG. If you’re after a horror roleplaying game to wrack your brains over, Trail of Cthulhu is a fine choice.