Classic Games: Chill

Halloween week is a good time to take a fond look back at one of my favorite RPGs. Chill isn’t perfect, but it’s a good, straightforward look at a world being encroached upon by the supernatural.

I guess these days you fall in love the werewolf or have the vampire’s baby or something, but in the early 90s, when I got into Chill, humans hunted down supernatural creatures and destroyed them. Hell, we had government agencies who did that stuff night and day. So Chill isn’t packed with the moral ambiguity of the Neo World of Darkness. The players don’t get to play the monsters. None of the monsters are good guys. They’re horrible, freakish entities that want to dement and destroy humanity, so you hunt them down and destroy them.

I have a funny memory of Chill that’s a little weird, because the dates don’t quite match up: when my friend and I started playing, I figured I’d GM and run an NPC to partner with his PC. I came up with the idea that we were both CIA agents, part of a special task force that investigated all the weird, unexplainable cases the regular agents couldn’t handle. Sound familiar?

Well, I swear that about three months later, X-Files came out. The problem is, the show started airing the year before the Mayfair edition of Chill was published, so maybe all that happened in the Twilight Zone. Anyway, Chris Carter totally stole the X-Files from me. The only thing he changed was making Mulder a semi-disgraced joke of an agent — you know, the part of the story that set up all the long-term conflict and actually made it a good show? Yeah, all Carter.

There are two editions of Chill. The original was published by a now defunct company called Pacesetter. Ten years later, Mayfair bought the rights and put out their own edition. I’ve only seen the Mayfair version, and I treasure my copy of the core rules highly, but some people swear by the Pacesetter version. Every RPG ever made has edition wars. Anyway, Mayfair eventually pulled the plug on all their RPG lines to focus on board games (a decision that’s hard to argue with, considering their track record in the last decade). As a result, Chill is out of print. Mayfair put out a ton of sourcebooks and adventures before the end, though — I once saw a shrinkwrapped set of every single Mayfair Chill book selling for about $125, which isn’t too bad.

Chill is based on a percentile system, which I like, and skills have mathematical formulas that incorporate at least two of the eight basic abilities, which I also like. If you want to specialize in Filching, you can add points to either your Dexterity, Luck or Perception. To really max it out, add points to all three. I enjoyed the mathy character creation method and somewhat overcomplicated rules when I was 15, but these days I find it a bit of a chore. That’s old age for you.

The best parts of Chill aren’t really the crunchy rules anyway — I really like the flavor of the game. The core book spends a ton of time talking about different kinds of horror, how to make a gaming session scary, what makes horror stories scary, various philosophies of storytelling and horror, and other really interesting material. The art is all pen and ink, and has a slightly abstracted style that I grew to love. It’s distinctive, striking, and adds a weird panache to what could otherwise be a bit of a dreary subject, what with all the angry spirits seeking vengeance on the living, etc.

There are some secret societies in the Chill world that exist to fight the good fight against supernatural weirdness, which would come in handy if your CIA task force is defunded. There are lots of fun powers for characters and monsters to use against each other, and a monster manual section filled out with odd twists on common critters (instead of just ghosts and zombies, it gives you the Spectral Lover and the Theater Remnant, for example).

It occurs to me that Chill is ideally suited for a Hammer Horror campaign — fairly gritty and realistic, but decidedly not post-modern. The monsters are bad. The blood flows freely. Weird things lurk in the dark. Happy Halloween!

One Response to Classic Games: Chill

  1. I got into Chill with the original Pacesetter edition, which I greatly preferred; I think its Hammer Horror roots were pretty clear. Although the Mayfair version did streamline the rules a bit, discarding the previously crucial “Action Table” (a chart that was used for all skill rolls) for a systematic approach and expand out the world, it also lost the flavor of the original with its unfortunate art and greatly expanded (and sometimes baffling) monster list (Phoenix? Sphinx? Really?). Though to be fair it was in many ways an improvement over the original game’s limited bestiary of ten monsters.

    Funny that you should say that “The players don’t get to play the monsters.” Pacesetter had a supplement called “Creature Feature” in which players *did* get to do exactly that. But unlike certain later games in which players take on the role of tortured “children of the night,” the monsters were still, well, monstrous – that is to say, not morally ambiguous at all. The mechanics were all about terrorizing and killing people and although the gameplay was intended to be humorously macabre, it instead tended to quickly devolve into something genuinely disturbing and my gaming group, at least, quickly abandoned it.

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