"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN: A Review of CHILL 3rd Edition

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

The Verdict

After twenty years out-of-print, Growling Door Games has resurrected the horror classic CHILL.  Keeping the best elements of the previous edition, CHILL 3e brings a streamlined version of the old percentile roll, a new "token" system to represent the struggle between the player characters and the Unknown, and character mechanics like Drives and Takeaways to flesh out the envoys of SAVE like never before.  Despite a few minor editing oversights, lacklustre creature art, and some missing iconic horrors, this is a game you are going to want and want to play.

Against the Unknown 

The Aspen Lodge had seen better days. It, and the entire town around it, had begun the slow and irrevocable slide into decay after the mines ran dry of silver. The three strangers--a journalist, a professional psychic, and a former park ranger--were the Aspen's only guests, and the only guests it was likely to see that winter. The trio had come to the Rockies to investigate a string of disappearances. Unknown to their friends, loved ones, or associates, they were members of the Societas Albae Viae Eternitata, or SAVE, a secret society dedicated to investigating and combating the global incursion of a hideous and terrifying force. The trio suspected those who had vanished here were its victims.

The investigators had dinner with Miss Colwether, the Aspen's spinster owner. So thrilled was she to have actual guests, she had gone all out to prepare a feast. After, full of venison and wine they retired for the evening, but the psychic couldn't sleep. Voices in her head kept pleading and whispering. Shadows moved over the walls of her room. She woke her fellow envoys and followed the voices downstairs.

There in he darkened kitchen, the whispers led them to the walk-in freezer. It was padlocked, and they ended up having to break it open. There in the dark, in the freezing cold, their flashlights scoured the icy walls in strobe like flashes, discovering horror. Bodies...dozens of bodies, dismembered, filleted, chopped up into meat.

Dawning horror spread across the faces of the players around the gaming table. In their preliminary research they had come across stories of the Black Tanamous, a creature that fed on the blood and flesh of cannibals. As their characters gaped in horror at this human butchery, the players suddenly wondered just what old Miss Colwether had actually served them...

In three and a half decades of gaming, that moment--and the look of horror on my players faces--stands out in my mind. ...The game in question was Mayfair's 2nd edition of CHILL, published back in 1990.

In three and a half decades of gaming, that moment--and the look of horror on my players faces--stands out in my mind. It was one of those times when a horror RPG worked, and worked extremely well. The game in question was Mayfair's 2nd edition of CHILL, published back in 1990. It was itself a remake of the 1984 Pacesetter game. Neither edition did as well as they deserved; the first came just after Call of Cthulhu, the second just before Vampire: The Masqerade. Overshadowed by these titans, CHILL 1 and 2 went out of print pretty quickly, though not before leaving behind some extraordinary supplements. The first edition's Venegance of Dracula was a brilliant campaign, easily on par with the far more famous Masks of Nyarlathotep. The second edition's Vampires, Lycanthropes, Apparitions, and Voodoo were some of the best monster guides a horror buff could ask for, and the CHILL Companion was a brilliant piece of work that allowed you to simulate all sorts of sub-genres. CHILL in either edition was probably the best horror game you never played.

Now fate, and Growling Door Games, is giving you the chance to remedy that.

The third time seems to be the charm. CHILL 3rd Edition is a slick, streamlined, updated version of the originals that manages to keep all the best elements of the game. It is not without its flaws, but it does an excellent job of capturing the original feel of the game and translating it for modern sensibilities. It still "feels" like old school CHILL, but it plays like a 21st century RPG should.

So what is CHILL? Since the game has been out of print of twenty years we probably should take some time to introduce the basics first.

The horror is not merely the vampire, but the fact that in the modern world vampires are not supposed to exist...


CHILL is a game of gothic horror. By "gothic" I don't necessarily mean crumbling castles, cursed bloodlines, and naive young governesses; I mean a sane and rational world under threat from the supernatural. Gothic, as a genre, emerged post Enlightenment (1764's The Castle of Otranto), when the medieval world of superstition had been banished by the modern world of science and reason. Whereas once the world was governed by fickle supernatural forces, it was now ruled by immutable laws. Whereas once the medieval peasant appealed to the supernatural with rites and rituals, the Intelligentsia of the 18th and 19th centuries strove to understand the laws of nature in order to better control them.
But gothic--a genre whose name is reference to medievalism--emerged to pose a horrifying question. What if, in the shadows outside the Enlightend world of logic and reason, the old world of supernatural shadows still existed... banished, but waiting to claw its way back in? The classic example, of course, is Bram Stoker's Dracula, in which the modern and rational world of Victorian England--with its telegrams and recordings, shorthand and solicitors--is invaded by a gothic nobleman, an undead relic of a medieval past. The horror is not merely the vampire, but the fact that in the modern world vampires are not supposed to exist.

In CHILL, the shadowy realm of the supernatural is called the Unknown. Variously described as a place, a force, or even a presence, the Unknown is separated from our world (the Known) by a Veil. That Veil is not as impermeable as we might wish it to be. Feeding on human misery, pain, and fear, the Unknown corrupts, infecting places, people, and objects and turning them into horrors. It bleeds through in places where the Veil is torn or thin...but its favored method of ingress is through the human soul. Humans who pay too much attention to the Unknown, or worse still welcome it in, are perhaps the greatest weapons the Unknown has. Once in our world the Unknown presents in any number of forms...a haunting, a lycanthrope, the Undead. But behind all of these lies an immense, inconceivable malevolence that shatters sanity and mocks the laws of nature.


SAVE--the Societas Albae Viae Eternitata--was founded in Dublin in 1844. Dr. Charles O'Boylan's investigations into anomalous phenomena had led him to suspect the existence of a world beyond the one known to science, a world he dubbed "the Unknown." He believed contact with this world was responsible for what humanity called the "supernatural," and gathered like minded scientists, mystics, and explorers to investigate it. Alongside co-founders Lord Henry Boulton and Richard Arthur (Lord Strange), O'Boylan circled the globe for trace of the Unknown. In its early years SAVE was an above-ground organization, and its mission was to understand the Unknown and convince the scientific world of its existence. But as the society's investigations depened, the mandate slowly changed. Encounters with the Unknown led SAVE to believe it posed a threat to humanity, and that the only way to fight fire was with fire. SAVE took up practicing the Art...a way of harnessing the power of the Unknown and turning it back against itself.

O'Boylan was a man obsessed. He became convinced that there was a struggle within the Unknown between two distinct forces; a light or "white" side and a dark or "black" one. The Art could be used to tap the light side, producing beneficial miracles and countering the Evil Way, the powers of the dark. But within two years of its founding, and explorations of the Unknown, Charles O'Boylan died a hideous death, and his co-founders decided to take SAVE underground. It's goal was no longer to prove the Unknown to the world, but to protect the world from it.

By relentlessly hunting the darkness, SAVE might in fact have only been feeding it.

By the last decade of the 20th century, SAVE had offices and envoys (its agents) all around the world, and yet, the Unknown was stronger than ever. Many began to fear that O'Boylan had opened a door; though it had always existed on fringes of human civilization, the more you studied the Unknown, the more you thought about it...the stronger it got. Like the old legends of the Fae, speaking its name let the Unknown in. By relentlessly hunting the darkness, SAVE might in fact have only been feeding it. As the millennium drew to its close, this revelation, coupled with several devastating attacks by the Unknown and the infiltration of SAVE by its servants, tore the entire society to pieces.

SAVE Saved

With the third edition of CHILL, SAVE is back, albeit in three parallel forms. When players sit down to create their characters, they must decide which one of these paths to take.  

...the biggest catylst in SAVE's resurrection has been a short, to-the-point manifesto, emailed out to all offices through whatever links remained. It's author, Hayat Nejem, is a Syrian freedom fighter waging war not only against the Unknown, but also Bashar al-Assad...

Some SAVE offices remain isolated, continuing the fight alone, with no contact with any other branch. Many of them erroneously believe they are all that is left of SAVE, that the rest of the society has been wiped out.  On the other end of the spectrum, some offices have started reaching out again to other branches, trying to reorganize the society under its old, traditional lines...with shared information and resources and regional directors coordinating the efforts of the offices beneath them.  These traditionalists believe SAVE merely lost its way, and by returning to its past it can face the future. 

Yet the biggest catylst in SAVE's resurrection has been a short, to-the-point manifesto, emailed out to all offices through whatever links remained. It's author, Hayat Nejem, is a Syrian freedom fighter waging war not only against the Unknown, but also Bashar al-Assad. The two, she believes, are connected. As a child sensitive to the Unknown she saw shadowy wraiths whispering in Hafez al-Assad's ear. When she spoke to her mother of it she was beaten.  Years later, as a woman, she saw these wraiths place on the head of his son and successor, Bashar, a shadowy, writhing crown. The Unknown, she believes, is manipulating human society on a scale never seen before, and the only way to fight such an overwhelmingly powerful enemy is to go underground, and strike like a terrorist.  Her manifesto advises adopting a cell-structure, each office in contact only with the link in the chain before and after it.  She outlines methods of striking from the shadows, a guerrilla crusade against an Unknown that secretly runs the world.

These three styles of SAVE are one of the innovations of the new edition.  The players can select a traditionalist campaign where their SAVE is not unlike the Watcher's Council from Buffy, a more "alone-against-the-world" office like Angel Investigations, or an underground cell fighting a massive conspiracy.  Campaigns run the spectrum then from being part of a large, well-funded secret society to a desperate, backs-against-the-wall cabal.

Staring Into the Abyss

With CHILL 3e, Growling Door brings several other innovations to the table.  The most noticeable one is the new "Token" system, an embodiment of the dark tango SAVE dances with the Unknown.  The game starts with several Tokens in play; one for each of the players (including the GM or Chill Master) plus one.  These can be anything; coins, marked playing cards, etc.  One side is designated "Light" and the other side "Dark."  Two of the Tokens start the game Dark, the rest Light.

Tokens can be "turned" by either the Chill Master or the players throughout the game to activate special bonuses and powers.  Players can use them to improve rolls, activate their characters supernatural powers (see below), or even save a comrade from death.  The problem is, of course, doing so turns a Token from Light to Dark.  In other words, calling upon the Unknown feeds it, giving the CM more Dark Tokens to fuel the adversaries.  In the same way, the CM uses Tokens to activate the sinister powers of the horrors, inconvenience the players, or make allied NPCs suffer.  This in turns shifts the balance back towards the players by making the Dark Tokens Light.

By engaging the Unknown, SAVE has fed it, creating an even greater threat that paradoxically must be fought.  This is grist for excellent dramatic stories.

This is an excellent system, and it works a bit like "Tension" in Dead of Night or "Horror Mode" in the Cypher System.  When the Tokens go Dark, there is a palpable dread in the air, and the players know bad things are about to happen.  As they go Light, the players start to get a much needed glimmer of hope.  More importantly, it enhances the background story with an actual mechanic.  Before SAVE, the Unknown preyed on the fringes of human societies and people superstitiously looked the other way.  All the old legends of devils and fairies advised not to speak their names, to ignore them, to look away.  By engaging the Unknown, SAVE has fed it, creating an even greater threat that paradoxically must be fought.  This is grist for excellent dramatic stories.    

Agents of SAVE: The Envoys

CHILL 3e takes the old levelled percentile system of the previous edition and streamlines it.  d00 rolls are made to resolve all character actions, rolling against Attributes, Skills, and Specialties.  There are General and Specific checks.  General checks are simple pass/fails; roll under your score on a d00 and you succeed.  Specific checks, which account for most rolls in the game, are more detailed.  Rolling over your score is a Failure, rolling under your score is a Low Success, and rolling under half your score is a High Success.  Rolling doubles and failing is a Botch, a particularly nasty failure.  Rolling doubles and succeeding is a Colossal success.  Turning Light tokens Dark gives you bonuses.

Like the 2nd edition, character stats are all percentile.  The old "basic abilities" are now Attributes; Agility, Strength, Stamina, Focus, Personality, Willpower, Dexterity, Perception, and Reflexes.  Focus and Reflexes are new to this edition, and Luck has been dropped.  In case you are wondering (I was), Agility is full body control, Dexterity is fine motor skills, and Reflexes is pure reaction time.

The skill list has been pared down from about 40 non-combat skills and about 25 combat ones to just nine...one for each of the Attributes.  These extremely broad skills--Movement, Prowess, Close Quarters Combat, Research, Communication, Interview, Fieldcraft, Investigation, and Ranged Weapons (corresponding to the Attributes in the same order as those listed above)--are not meant to cover everything, but to represent what envoys of SAVE are trained to do.  These skills are either trained or untrained.  Training in a skill means you can use it at the same value as its linked Attribute.  Untrained means you use it at half that.  For example, Katrina Davenport has a Willpower score of 48.  If she is trained in Interview, its linked skill, she would have a score of 48.  If her Interview was untrained, the skill would be 24.

Each of these skills has additional Specialties.  Specialities are rated Beginner, Expert, and Master, adding +15, +30, or +50 to the base skill score respectively.  You can be untrained in a skill and still take a specialty. 

All this makes character creation far more streamlined than 2nd edition CHILL, in which each and every skill was figured by averaging two or more Attributes and adding Beginner, Expert, or Master to it.

In addition to Attributes and Skills characters can take Edges and Drawbacks, things that give their characters various advantages and disadvantages.  These cost (Edges) or return (Drawbacks) "Character Points," the currency CHILL uses in character creation and as experience.  Depending on how ambitious you are, you can start play by modifying one of several ready-made characters, selecting a mostly complete professional template and adding 10 CPs of your own choosing, or start from scratch with 80 CPs and build exactly the character you want.

Drives and Takeaways

Like the Token system, Drives and Takeaways are new to the 3rd edition.  A Drive is the psychological impetus the character has to fight the Unknown.  It explains why he or she is an envoy of SAVE.  "Protect Humanity," "Learn the Truth," and "Avenge a Loved One" are examples.  The character's Drive comes with a Light and Dark box next to it. Once per case (the story or scenario) the player may check the Light box, calling on the positive aspect of the Drive to gain a bonus similar to turning a token Dark (without actually darkening a token).  Likewise, the player may chose to check the Dark box once per case, turning a Dark token to Light but suffering a setback or complication from the Drive.

Example: Cedric MacAlister's Drive is "Protect Humanity."  Struggling to save an innocent bystander from a werewolf attack, he checks his Light box to gave a bonus from his Drive...it inspires him to fight harder.  Later in the game, he is successfully hidden from a pack of lycanthropes but sees another person in danger.  Checking the Dark box, he steps out and exposes himself to lure the creatures away.  The CM turns a Dark token to Light for his heroism.

Takeaways are things the character has learned from previous cases.  A Takeaway might be something like "Fought a Carpathian Vampire," "Saw a Child Killed," or "Exorcised a Ghost."  They come in two flavours, Personal and Arcane.  You can add a new Takeway at the end of every case, but you can never have more than three (discarding old ones in favour of new).  Like Drives they have Light and Dark boxes, and can be used in a similar fashion, either for or against your character.

The Art

Akin to magic or psychic powers is the Art, techniques used by SAVE to tap the supernatural power of the Unknown to use against it.  SAVE strictly codifies and regulates these powers to prevent the risk of being infected by the Unknown while using them.  To employ the Art, the character must first attune to one or more of its "schools;" Communicative, Incorporeal, Kinetic, Protective, Restorative, and Sensing.  This allows the character to then learn specific Disciplines associated with that school.  A character attuned to the Communicative School might learn disciplines like Calm, Telepathic Empathy, or Telepathic Sending.  A character attuned to Incorporeal could learn Leave the Body or Astral Attack.  Disciplines are rated like skills, Beginner, Expert, and Master.  Activating them requires turning a Light token Dark, a skill roll against the Discipline, and (except in cases of a Colossal Success) the expenditure of Willpower.  

Fear Itself

CHILL 3e handles physical and mental damage in much the same ways.  Injury measures physical damage and comes in six levels (the last being Lethal).  Each level inflicts an increasing penalty on the character's Stamina score.  Trauma is the mental equivalent, and is rated in five levels that inflict increasing penalties on Willpower.  Reducing Stamina to 0 exhausts a character.  Reducing Willpower to 0 overwhelms her.  In both cases, rest and recuperation--as well as medical treatment or use of the Art--is required to replenish them.  Healing Trauma is called Integration, the slow acceptance and reconciliation with the horrors or shocks the character has suffered.  In CHILL, Trauma comes in three types; Horror, Terror, and Revulsion depending on the stressor.  Terror comes from threat to the character's life and limb.  Horror comes from shaking his faith in the world or humanity.  Revulsion is being exposed to rot, gore, or filth.  though they come from different sources, they affect the same Trauma scale.  When confronted with the stressor, the character makes a Resolve check, which depending on the level of success can reduce previous Trauma or inflict new.  Whenever Trauma is suffered, the character temporarily loses control, attempting to flee, panicking, or retching violently.

Devices of the Enemy

One of CHILL's best features has always been the Disciplines of the Evil Way.  These are a group of around 70 supernatural powers, ranging from the atmospheric and disturbing to downright lethal, that creatures of the Unknown possess.  A vampire might have Change Form (Bat), Erase Memory, and Influence.  A haunted house might have Blackout, Haywire, and Change Temperature.  Using these sometimes turns a Dark token Light, and occasionally a roll is required, especially in the case of attacks.  These powers codify the weird and scary phenomena we have seen in horror movies and novels, and combined with the new system of Aspects (see below), allow CMs to create all sorts of new horrors with ease.

Aspects are divided into four categories; Survivability, Combat, Movement, and Special.  They represent the special characteristics of supernatural beings that are not, strictly speaking, powers.  A ghost's Incorporeal form, a vampire's dependence on blood and aversion to crosses, even a cobra's poison are all aspects.  

Aside from Evil Way disciplines and Aspects, monsters possess only an Evil Way, Reflexes, and Stamina scores.  They might also have their own Injury scale.  The Evil Way score measures its general power and its ability to use disciplines.  Reflexes and Stamina are used much as they are for characters.  This simplicity is a refreshing change from the previous edition, where monsters had full stats just like player characters, and is in line with the general design trend of games today.  It lets the CM focus on pacing and horror rather than detailed statistics.

Last Words

While Call of Cthulhu captures the alien, materialistic horror of Lovecraft's writings, CHILL offers a slightly more traditional form of supernatural terror.  A great deal is left up to the Chill Master and players.  What sort of organization is SAVE?  What is the true nature of the Unknown?  Is it an alien elder god?  Another dimension?  Satan?  The game also pits players against more familiar terrors...ghosts and hauntings, vampires and werewolves, animated dolls and masked serial killers.  And yet, the way horrors are designed makes each of them unique.  This vampire may feed on blood and shun sunlight, but that one might drain youth by touch and be unable to cross a line of salt.  This ghost might create horrific illusions and needs to be destroyed by laying its remains to rest, while that one can assume corporeal form and can only be destroyed by exorcism.  Even with relatively familiar monsters the fun in CHILL come from investigating what you are dealing with.

3e delivers where it counts, bringing back a superb horror game and making it faster to play and easier to run...

There are flaws in the third edition.  Some iconic monsters are missing, like the Bat Lord and the Black Tanamous I mentioned in the story above.  There are several little editing mistakes (two of the sample characters have exactly the same Drives and Takeaways, with the second female character being referred to as "he").  And the art is, frankly, uneven.  But 3e delivers where it counts, bringing back a superb horror game and making it faster to play and easier to run.  Brimming with backstory and a detailed history of SAVE and the world it exists in, CHILL 3e serves up a compelling reason to go out and fight horrors each week, something many other games struggle to do.  Whatever the future holds in store for this edition--and fingers crossed we will see revised versions of classics like the Vampires, Lycanthropes, and Voodoo supplements--CHILL is back and deserves to be played. 

1 comment:

  1. Hey, thanks for the awesome review! We've got a Kickstarter running presently for a sourcebook on SAVE; check it out if you get a chance!