Horror is an unusual genre, because horror is only good when a part of you would rather be experiencing something else. It is that careful balance of distasteful elements that truly makes for good horror and no other genre creates quite the same response.
The horror genre is most common in movies and books, but also can be found in various games. While rare, the horror genre can even be found in tabletop role playing games. In a tabletop role playing game, the quality of a good horror story is dependent on both the game master running the game and the canon of the world depicted in the game. Of the horror genre role playing games that exist, the following five are truly the greatest.
5. Ravenloft Setting of D&D (Wizards of the Coast) – Dungeons & Dragons is usually associated with the fantasy genre. But, one campaign world in Dungeons & Dragons is actually set in a horror setting. The Ravenloft setting tells the story of a world in a plane that is almost entirely separated from every other plane of existence. Powerful Dreadlords rule various pockets of the world and corruption threatens even the most good-hearted at all times. The sinister themes and constant threat of corruption create an air of terror that is only slightly dimmed by the fantasy-style game rules. But, the real draw of this world is the greatest of all Dreadlords, the massively popular vampire Count Strahd.
4. Wraith: The Oblivion (White Wolf) – White Wolf primarily markets the majority of its games as horror genre. But, in truth, most White Wolf games are much more political intrigue than actual horror. Wraith is the one true exception to that. To start, all player characters in Wraith are already dead. These ghosts walk a very fine line karmic line between light and dark, never safe to fully embrace either. The purpose of Wraith is to tell a very intense and very personal story that revolves around regrets from life and the dangers of an unfinished afterlife. The personalization is what makes the stories so strong.
3. Dread (Rafael Chandler) – This independently published role playing game is a rare successful game that does not have the backing of a large corporation. Dread is a system designed to tell rather standard horror stories, the kinds filled with relentless killers or a powerful unseen monster. The twist of this game is that the challenge resolution mechanic is a game of Jenga. If the tower ever falls, a character dies. As the game progresses, the feeling of suspense grows with the increasingly shaky tower. The combination of physical and mental suspense is brilliant and makes for an impressive game.
2. Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) – Considered the granddaddy of horror role playing games, Call of Cthulhu is a game based on the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. The threats are commonly sanity-shattering, unspeakable evils while the player characters are usually very normal mortals with surprisingly mundane lives. Each story is inevitably a David vs. Goliath story, assuming Goliath were about 100 times as powerful. To add to the terror, as the characters explore the mythos, they are faced with truths that slowly tear away their sanity. Combat of any sort is basically instantly deadly for the characters, but the majority of the characters usually go completely insane well before some fell creature eats them. The intensity is driven by the fact that one wrong move almost assuredly spells certain doom, not only for the character, but for the entire world.
1. Deadlands (Pinnacle Entertainment Group) – At first glance, Deadlands looks like a wild western genre game, and to some degree, it is. But the wild western genre is basically a framework for what is actually powerful horror genre game. Combining elements of steampunk and horror, the game focuses on a world where just about every resource exists in a limited quantity. Guns, bullets, food, and water are all rare and hard to come by. Just about every action that can be taken costs a resource and rewards never match the cost to receive those rewards. The gradual decay of characters, including the necessity of spending experience points, leads to an inevitable whirlpool of decline. Every undead critter or dark magic wielder seems that much more terrifying when the last gun in the party only has 3 bullets left in it.