Trapped in a forest, the party walks in a single-file line, carefully stepping over giant roots and branches. Ahead, the ruins of an old castle, or a mansion, or a spaceship, long abandoned, but strangely alive and vibrant. You know you shouldn’t go in (the Game Master has been very clear—do not enter the low place, look at the dark spot, nor search for the lair of the Gravenbest) but at the same time, you know that the only way through is ahead, and death stalks not far behind.
Horror game history owes a debt to Lovecraftian themes, either bastardized beyond recognition or so heavily inspired by Cthulu mythos that it could be considered fanfiction. Call of Cthulu was published in 1981, and is generally considered the first horror-focused tabletop RPG. Paranoia was released in 1984, and it stands as one of the first games to incorporate scifi and horror. Next on our list of Big Bois of OSR is Vampire: The Masquerade, published in 1991, which focuses on night walkers. It has a particular focus on clans, sects, and internal struggles as well as the fight between blood suckers and the normal world. It’s these three horror themes; Lovecraftian, alien, and supernatural, that really established the foundation of horror gaming, and helped pave the way for other, more niche markets, like ecohorror and post-apocalyptic roleplaying.
There are so many fantastic horror games out there that I knew I would have to highlight three or four per book to show off the breadth of creativity in the indie scene. Nuances of horror have been excavated in indie games, from trauma to arousal to folklore, and creative ways to explore these themes and experiences. We’re going to dig in, but take heed, the games in the following article deal with darkness, and ask that you dive in too.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
When Noemí gets a letter from her distraught cousin, she immediately packs her chic tea dresses and makes for the Mexican countryside by way of the mysterious High Place. Mexican Gothic is lush, mysterious, edgy, and seductive; part mystery and part horror; the book is an incredibly bespoke cultural moment that will have fans of Gothic fiction begging for more. The first game I’m going to recommend is Bluebeard’s Bride, written by Whitney Beltrán, Sarah Doom, and Marissa Kelly. You play as facets of a single woman, trapped in a mansion, waiting for your husband to return. This game is in turns sexual and horrific, while deftly managing the intimate horror of being a woman, held by the whims of a man. If you want to explore Gothic fiction and tropes, really leaning into the social-climbing, navigating seductions, and unearthing the various mysteries of the rich and privileged, (along with some extra rules for the supernatural) pick up Gothic Society by Gene Astadan.
To engage with the dark and erotic, take an evening at home to play Your Body, An Altar. This is a game that gives you different experiences depending on how you engage with the narrative, either through an interactive Twine game or tabletop RPG. You play as a single member of your community who communes with monsters, and it’s your job to relate to them. To match Noemí Taboada’s style and the lush ‘50s details of Mexican Gothic, you’ll want to pick up When Glamour Dies, an intimate journaling RPG where you don your best outfit and attempt to survive the best, worst night of your life. Last, an obvious comparison, is You’re Trapped in a House with a Monster, an innovative game using Blackjack rules to imitate the skill, luck, and bluffing it takes to outwit the creeping, rotten hunger at the center of the house that has trapped you…maybe forever.
Providence by Max Barry
This book is set in the not-so-far future, after a war leaves humanity scattered among the stars, and the survivors unable to continue fighting. At least directly. Enter the Providence, an indestructible, anti-alien, AI-powered spaceship that will help humans reach ‘zero-casualty warfare’ within a year. After trials, of course. This gloomy, darkly horrific, alien escape story is perfect for a game of Mothership. A horror-driven D100-based RPG, Mothership is a game of survival in the worst sorts of situations, where to leave your ship is to die fast, and to stay inside is to die slow. This is not the first Ben Roswell game that I’ve recommended, but I can’t help featuring You Will Die Alone Out Here in the Dark, a game about the inevitability of dying in space. As you, the last researcher on a doomed expedition, find yourself alone and stranded, you must take the time to either come to terms with your death or lose yourself in your mission.
A game directly inspired by You Will Die Alone is Wretched, by Chris Bisette, about a sole survivor who had a moment of peace before the killer alien force manifested back on their ship. The horror or surviving an alien attack under mysterious circumstances ties perfectly in with Providence’s alien-war-driven plot. Last, as psudo-armymen standing aboard a warship, the game list for Providence wouldn’t be complete without Fist, by B. Everett Dutton. The ultimate misfit mashup, you create a ragtag team of fighters who operate on a will-call basis, a sci-fi Suicide Squad of idiots with big guns and psionic powers. It’s lightweight military OSR, and it’s perfect for our sad, doomed Providence crew.
The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli by M.R. Carey
The first two books in a planned trilogy from the same author who penned The Girl With All the Gifts, this series is a soft eco-horror future where genetic mutations have gone horribly, breathlessly wrong. Koli lives his life in a village, safe from the threats of the outside, a horribly disfigured landscape full of trees that would like to eat you. And then he is cast out. The most adaptable and widely-loved indie darling that fits Koli’s story is Trophy Dark by Jesse Ross. Extremely hackable, Trophy is a game of horror where you play to lose. Characters are ‘ruined’ by making deals for power, and as you move through different rings of the game, more and more parts of the world rise up and try to eat you alive. There are dozens, if not hundreds of fanmade ‘incursions,’ specific to a setting or storyline, and it does a fantastic job of ramping up tension slowly, in situations where you know that you’re underpowered and outclassed by the world around you.
Midnight Signal by Speak the Sky is a great game for exploring a strange and unusual world with distance and compassion. It’s perfect for the post-apocalyptic horror of Koli’s trilogy, and exploring the ruins of a world that you know is still standing makes Midnight Signal an eerie portend of things to come, one that may be hopeful, or may just end. Koli leaves his village, naive and wide-eyed, and in order to capture the eerie feeling of Mythen Road, a town out of time, built on mistruths and threats, I recommend Fear is Just a Lie by Kat Selesnya. Last, Hexed from J.K. Wish and Joshua Fox is a game about generational consequences and the effect that an ancestors’s decision can have on communities. Sometimes the curses can be very, very bad…but curses can always be broken. Right?
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
In order to create the world of Ring Shout you need to combine real-world hatred and slowly building terror with out-of-this-world alien horror. Writing an alternate history through the lens of a Black woman who fights the literal monsters of the Ku Klux Klan, Clark’s prose is sharp and deeply based in Southern Black culture, showcasing Gullah speech, gospel calls and chorus, and the Creole music scene. Starting out our list is Dread, a game that uses Jenga blocks to facilitate the very intimate fear of waiting for something you love to fall apart. Dread doesn’t have a set story or setting, which makes it a perfect port for Ring Shout, building up the stakes over and over again, only to watch all your hopes get knocked down.
Ring Shout has some roots in cosmic horror; interlacing time travel, alien forces, and legacies that echo throughout generations. From Julia Bond Ellingboe comes Steal Away Jordan, a deep psychological look at immediate and long term implications of living in a society where some people are property. It has an expanded ruleset for supernatural elements, to add to the spookiness of the game. Ten Candles is a game played with fire, where as the light goes out, so does your time in the world. It’s not about winning, it’s about what happens in between the edges of your life, between darkness and light, when you face Death and know there will be no escape.
In Ring Shout, Maryse owns a sword that sings to her, a weapon that allows her to fight the evils of her word, but also singles herself out as a chosen warrior. My last recommendation is not so much a reference but a warning. Reveal Yourself is a lyric game that is the perfect comp for the Sighted monster fighters, who see something wrong with the way the Ku Klux talk, or smile, or move through their fleshed-hive. It’s disjointed, disturbing, and without a doubt is a lesson in just how much you’re willing to emotionally bleed.
She Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
I was lucky enough to review this book earlier in the year for Tor.com, and it literally made me scream on my commute. A suburban woman takes on an ancient evil, attempting to protect her family, her southern neighborhood, and her book club, despite the fact that her husband belittles and undermines her at every turn. As she struggles to raise her family, she must also navigate the horror of knowing there is evil just down the road, and knowing that there’s nothing she can do to stop it…yet. Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings is one of the most beautifully produced TTRPG books out there, created like bound-up pages of an old diary, and currently in its second printing. This is a book about creating the life of a vampire, full of horror, selfishness, and the twisted morality of a vampire; perfect for recording the history of one James Harris, undead leech.
To explore the relationships between Vampires and humans, often horrific, sometimes sexy, always strange, I have two recommendations. Me and the Devil, by Christine Prevas, explores the inevitability of death at the hands of your mysterious, supernatural lover. From Anomalous Entertainment, we have a two-person LARP; It Darkens the Threshold. As you navigate boundaries, consent, and negotiation, the two players bargain, exchanging rumors and secrets as the monster claws at the gates, begging for entry.
The last game I want to recommend is Jiangshi; Blood in the Banquet Hall by Banana Chan and Sen-Foong Lim, (still in development, but available for preorder!). While it might seem like an odd pairing, one of the core tenets of Jiangshi is that at the end of the day, you’re still just a family trying to survive against a folkloric, ancient evil. And God bless you, Patricia, but you need every semblance of normal you can hold on to.
Originally published in October 2020
Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.