Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Retrospective: Chill

For a great many gamers, horror roleplaying begins and ends with Call of Cthulhu and it's not difficult to see why. CoC established itself early as the leader within its genre and, while the game's focus is the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, since its initial release in 1981, the game has included plenty of support for more "traditional" horror adventures and campaigns featuring werewolves, mummies, and zombies.

At the same time, there have always been gamers who didn't like Call of Cthulhu for whatever reason -- too "literary," too bleak, too deadly -- which left room in the RPG marketplace for other takes on horror. One such take was Chill: Adventures into the Unknown. Its first edition was published in 1984 by Pacesetter, a gaming company founded and staffed primarily by ex-TSR staffers and whose brief existence (1984-1986) was, in my opinion, a glorious misadventure. Pacesetter's RPGs all possessed a certain zest to them, the kind of enthusiasm that can only be found in the young and naive who truly believe that their ideas can change the world. Nevertheless, they're very hit or miss, both mechanically and esthetically and Chill was no different.

Whereas Call of Cthulhu took its main inspirations from the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his disciples and imitators, Chill was, for good and for ill, inspired by monster movies, particularly those produced by Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Player characters were assumed to be professional monster hunters called "envoys" in the service of a secret society known by the faintly ridiculous acronym of S.A.V.E., which stood for Societas Albae Viae Eternitata -- "Eternal Society of the White Way" -- and whose purpose was to protect mankind from the dark forces that lurked in the shadows. As a framing device for an episodic monster hunting game, S.A.V.E. worked well enough, although, even as a younger person, I found it a mite unsophisticated.

The game's rules were unremarkable, being a serviceable, but not inspired, variation on the mid-80s fad for chart-based action resolution pioneered by Marvel Super Heroes. Character generation was a mix of weighted random rolls (for basic abilities) and choice (for skills). Skills all had a chance to succeed based on an average of two to three relevant abilities, with bonuses and penalties assessed to the roll. Combat involved comparing one character's "attack margin" versus another character's defense on the action table to determine both success and damage. Like most of Chill, it worked well enough, but was neither particularly innovative nor flavorful. Characters could also learn disciplines of "the Art," which was a kind of low-level magic appropriate the style of horror the game emulated.

What really made Chill work, though, was its attitude and approach. The game was not a doom-laden meditation on man's insignificance. Neither was it filled with angsty melodrama. Chill was unapologetically -- even gleefully -- a game about kicking monster butt in the name of goodness, just like Peter Cushing did back in the day. To call it a "horror" game is, in many ways, a mistake, because it was "scary" only in the same way that Halloween is scary. Chill was never intended to be soul-shatteringly frightening, a fact many reviewers missed when the game was first released. Its horrors weren't intended to shock or terrify; rather they were meant to be opposed and, ultimately, beaten.

Pacesetter released a slew of modules and supplements for Chill, many of which were quite good, assuming what one wanted was to run a campaign about professional monster hunters. This earned the game a "lightweight" reputation in many circles, which is probably why, when Mayfair produced a second edition in the mid-90s, they -- foolishly in my opinion -- made the game darker and grittier, turning it into a faux Call of Cthulhu by way of White Wolf. It's a shame, because I had a lot of fun with the original Chill and I'd hoped that Mayfair's revival of the game might provide the same kind of fun, "beer and pretzels" monster bashing I remembered so fondly. Alas, it was not to be.

34 comments:

  1. Um... "Eternal Society of the White Way"?

    An interesting concept, but I think if I ever ran this game I'd have to change that to a name which sounds a bit less like a neo-Nazi cult...

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  2. Mayfair's version of the game changed the A in S.A.V.E. to "argenti," meaning "silver," probably because they were also uncomfortable with the name. Me, I don't see a problem but I am notoriously clueless about such things.

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  3. (Apologies for double posting, but it does occur to me that a neo-Nazi cult called the Eternal Society of the White Way would make excellent adversaries in a modern-day Call of Cthulhu game...)

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  4. Oh, looks like we cross-posted...

    "Silver Way" works a lot better for me. It makes sense too, given how many traditional monsters have a weakness for silver...

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  5. WE played this rarely but I recall a group made up of a Scotland Yard Investigator, A journalism student from the States, a knife-throwing snake taming circus lady, and one other character that escapes recall.

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  6. I think the points you raise in this review highlight the difficulty of doing horror in an RPG context. There's a certain nihilism in horror that tends to be offset by the fact that in a game situation your actions can and do have an effect. Monsters just aren't as scary if you can do something about them.

    I think Call of Cthulu embraces this nihilism by structuring itself such that the characters' actions are merely prolonging the inevitable, which is why it's maintained its position as the king of horror games.

    Otherwise, it's just gothic flavor applied to traditional RPG action, which is actually just fine by me. Preferred, in fact, because I find horror in its pure form kinda depressing.

    Vampires need to be punched in the face, repeatedly, with silver plated brass knuckles inscribed with crosses if you can get 'em...

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  7. My only memory of this was that they had an Elvira campaign book. I seem to remember horror rpgs being a bit hard to play, as sitting in a well lit livingroom seldom gives me the creeps :-D

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  8. This looks like a blast, I was never introduced to this game and it took me ages to convince people to play a horror game with me. I actually really enjoyed the Ravenloft setting, will I now be ostracized?

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  9. To call it a "horror" game is, in many ways, a mistake, because it was "scary" only in the same way that Halloween is scary. Chill was never intended to be soul-shatteringly frightening, a fact many reviewers missed when the game was first released. Its horrors weren't intended to shock or terrify; rather they were meant to be opposed and, ultimately, beaten.

    I beg to differ. Chill was my introduction to horror gaming, and I always found it to be rich with horrific atmosphere. I think it evoked "gothic horror" as much as CoC evoked cosmic horror. And even though one could attribute its inspiration to Hammer films, I think it went deeper than that to the literary style that inspired Hammer: that of Poe, Stoker, Bierce, De Maupassant, early King, etc. I believe these were the true driving forces behind the game. As such, I always found the game to have a spooky, haunted-house vibe (never a campy, "I vant to suck your bloooddd" Hammer-esque vibe). (In fact, if you look at the game's "Appendix N" - as brief as it is - it never once mentions films; only "suggested reading.")

    As for it being a monster-bashing game, I also beg to differ. These rules were deadly! Even a low-level vampire could do horrible things to an entire group of characters in straight combat, if they were crazy or dumb enough to confront him, even if they were prepared. Add to that a creature's Evil Way powers, and the adversaries in the game were truly powerful and frightening creatures. Throw in the fright check rules, and you've got a bunch of underpowered meat-sacks taking on enemies that not only overpower them but have the potential of reducing them to quivering masses of terrified flesh just by being present.

    I don't personally find the enemies - which, by the way, were as cohesive a bunch in Chill as in CoC, all being pawns of "the Unknown" - any more easily defeated than the Lovecraftian horrors of CoC. (The game's referee section doesn't seem to encourage monster bashing, either. Oh, and to my previous point, it refers the potential game master to gothic horror literature for inspiration.)

    Sure, a CM ("Chill Master") could conceivably run the game as a monster-bashing exercise, but I don't believe that either the game's rules nor its presentation lends to this style of play. I think that the intent is for the PC's to be just as overwhelmed and up against it as those in any CoC game - the only difference being the atmosphere and the nature of their enemies. (If you examine the illustrations in the core rulebook, you'll find that few depict humans in positive situations - nor does much of the book's "fluff.")

    All in all, I think the game is far better - despite its agreeably clunky table-based rules - than most give it credit for being. If you're a fan of gothic horror literature, I'd wholeheartedly recommend the game.

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  10. Christopher,

    An interesting perspective -- and a unique one. I can't claim that the way I played the game as a young person is the right one, but it's the one that seemed most natural to me and my friends and nearly everyone else I ever met who played the game. Until now, that is :)

    What I do recall vividly was that reviewers of the game frequently knocked it for being less "serious" than CoC. You've obviously read the game more deeply than I ever did, so, if your take on it is closer to its actual intentions, what was it about the game that gave so many people, myself included, a false impression about it?

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  11. I loved Chill so much. I'd have to agree with Christopher B for the most part. Chill could be pretty brutal if you didn't plan a head. That said I did see a few humorous games back in the game.

    A few years back Otherworlds games announced they were working on a third edition, which I was very excited about. Unfortunately they decided to let fundraiser "see if there was enough interest in a new edition," if they didn't hit their goal they wouldn't release the game. I can't remember what their goal was but it seemed rather high, especially given the minimum donation was $40. As excited as I was I couldn't justify paying $40 to get a chance to maybe pay another $40 some time down the line to get a hard copy of a game I hadn't seen yet. I guess i wasn't the only one, because the drive failed.

    They did release a Quick release which looked serviceable, however.It's a shame we'll never see the final product.

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  12. ...what was it about the game that gave so many people, myself included, a false impression about it?

    That's a good question - one I've asked myself many times. (Your post here is not the first time I've encountered this perspective.) From the moment I laid eyes on Chill I never considered it to be a "less serious" or light-hearted game. Reading the core books only cemented my belief that it was a game of (gothic) horror, the way I'd always known it. (You can see my previous blog post on the game to see what I mean by that statement.)

    Perhaps the Victorian nature of the game's presentation predisposed players to a Hammer gaming style. Perhaps I'm just hard-wired to take my horror seriously. (No, I don't think that's it. I really do believe the game was intended to evoke the same feeling one gets while sitting and reading a good gothic horror yarn in a darkened house at night.)

    I suppose people see any game they approach with their own eyes. For instance, I've encountered many gamers who see CoC as an excuse to have their PC's running around with tommy guns and dynamite, blowing up everything in sight. Can't say as I'd ever considered playing the game that way...

    What makes those players play CoC that way? Who can say?

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  13. Well you know this, because every time we talk I sing the praises of this game. CHILL, hit the right tone, and it is one of the inspirations I turned to when working on Colonial Gothic.

    I never cared for the Mayfair version, but there was one good book, the Companion. A very good book.

    Pacesetter, for me, had great games. I played them all.

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  14. Played in it once. Two of my regular D&D players in the 80's decided to co-run some games.

    I came up with a teenage, rocker decendant of Van Helsing (I called her Crissy Van Helsing or some shit).

    The first adventure pretty much consisted of the PC's staying at a run down manor inhabited by creepy people. They served a dinner, and it turned out to be man-flesh so we were therefor now cannibals. The two douche bag GM's laughed and hi-fived at how they made us cannibals. My protests that I considered my PC a vegetarian fell on dead ears. They were so proud at getting our characters to eat human flesh. Weeeeeeee - what fun.

    I remember nothing else about that session, and indeed, I don't think much else happened. Their big plan was that we would be cannibals.

    We never played again. It's a shame, cause I feel I was cheated out of experiencing Chill as it was meant to be played.

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  15. Oh, and somebody tell me if I'm wrong, but I seem to remember the rulesbook including information for some agency, govt or otherwise, that PC's should be a part of. Something spelled with letter like "A.I.M." or "H.E.L.P." or something like that. Is that true? Cause having to belong to an organization that fights evil is optimal cheese at best.

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  16. Brunomac,

    It's S.A.V.E., which is mentioned in the retrospective. :)

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  17. It sounds like it might work well with the 'Buffy' / 'Angel' setting.

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  18. @anarchist I was thinking Hellboy.

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  19. I always liked the name of the association. First, a Latin name seemed so flavourful and right. second, the "White Path" is a perfectly good, 19th century occultism name for a group. There was a lot of talk of "Great White Brotherhood" and "White Confraternity". It was a racial reference--it was a moral reference in opposition to necromancy i.e. black magic.

    OTOH, the Silver Path wouldn't mean anything much. Although I suppose Crowley did have the Silver Star. Hmn, that woudl kind fo cool to have Aleister Crowley founding a monster-hunting society.

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  20. Oh I don't know, Arthur makes a good point about the supernatural significance of silver. I quite like the idea of meshing the two, and having the society start out full of Gothic pomp, but surviving into the modern day, and changing the "White" to "Silver" in a reflection of the real-life change. "Yes, we're a secret society, but we're a sensitive secret society!"

    The real question is, however, if Crowley's funding the monster hunters, why is he doing it? Is he wanting the creatures brought back alive? And if so, why?

    Campaign! Go!

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  21. Because he is the Great beast and will broke no opposition!

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  22. Ah Chill. My love for this game is as deep as it is irrational.

    So many things wrong with it as a system and I love each and every one.

    Chill was my first horror game. It was more fun than CoC (characters got to live!) and scratched that Hammer Horror itch of mine like no other game.

    Even today my WitchCraft RPG game is still a continuation of my Chill games back in the early 80's. Same world, just the weirdness factor dialed way up.

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  23. "Brunomac,
    It's S.A.V.E., which is mentioned in the retrospective. :)"

    Oops, so it is. Sorry, sometimes I kind of just speed read posts on busy mornings at work and don't always absorb all the deets...

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  24. I always liked the name of the association... it was a moral reference in opposition to necromancy i.e. black magic.

    I never liked the name "SAVE" - but not because I had a problem with the "White Way" bit. (I understood that "way" here is used like "path," and as Matthew said, it's in opposition to "black" magic. I see nothing racist in the name, and I really think those who do are looking too hard.) No, I disliked it because I thought the acronym was a bit on the silly side.

    I think for this year's resurrection of my Chill campaign, I'm going to call it "Societas Via Manus Dextra" (forgive me if I butchered the Latin): Society of the Right Hand Path. It's much more in line with the spiritual society names of the time, IMHO, being a reflection of real-world occultism. The acronym ("SVMD") may not be as spiffy as SAVE, but at least it's not as silly.

    (Sorry if the name offends any lefties out there... :P)

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  25. I tried or read most of the Pacesetter games back in the day. CHIll, Star Ace and Time Masters were all pretty pedestrian RPGs.

    The Sandman, however, was a very surreal and interesting experience. It was unique until the "indie rpg" experimentation of the later 90s.

    Black Morn Manor, the CHIll Boardgame, was innovative for it's time. It had a build-as-you-go tile board and it was semi-cooperative. There was the potential for one or more of the good-guy team players to "go over to the dark side" and become the antagonists.

    The main thing wrong with Mayfair's 2ed Chill was the graphic design of the book. Many pages featured eye-sores like purple text over backgrounds with gray half tone water marks. It was barely readable.

    At least before OGL we had some choice and competition between game systems. For me the last decade of 3Ed/OGL has been 10 lost years.

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  26. Chill was what everyone expected Call of Cthulhu RPG to be when they had never read any Lovecraft or other serious horror writer. So kudos for the second edition being darker (which I had only played in the first).

    I remember Chill fondly as the game that you would play before Blood Brothers came out. Then we liked the ease of the BRP and still played Cthulhu but in more a farscial manner that Blood Brothers play often engenders.

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  27. You can add me to the list of people who played Chill with a serious tone. I set my Chill adventures in the 1930s and they were all Investigative in nature with the PCs as detectives. SAVE existed but worked in the background the PCs were never aware of it.

    One thing, in my opinion, that led to the light-hearted view of Chill was the original Holloway artwork which was fun but less than serious.

    As an aside imagine my shock when I turned a corner on a backstreet in Cordoba, Spain and saw a sign over a shop with a huge Indalo on it. Secret headquarters of SAVE ?

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  28. Chill was actually a surprisingly powerful horror game if run in the horror tradition. If it was played like D&D though, you just had funny monsters with powers that weren't all that effective.

    IMNSHO, it was probably the best traditional gothic horror game until the Orrosh supplement for Torg came out.

    [Although that being said, we also did have fun with the Creature Feature game. Who knows, if they had of added a bit more pathos, rather than humour, they might have prempted Vampire the Masquerade by quite a few years...]

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  29. I just picked up almost the whole run of those old pacesetter Chill books at the used bookstore the other day for $2 each and in perfect condition - score! Reading through them was a throwback and a blast - simple monster-bashing fun, just as you described it. I can't wait to try them out! I was also a huge fan of Adventure back in the day (a post late, I know), and just downloaded the iphone version of that and Zork the other day. I hope I don't overdose on all this dorky goodness.

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  30. We played Chill for a while.
    My GM didn't use S.A.V.E. nor "white magic" for the pcs. It was a pretty serious game, and deadly too.
    Probably one of the best horror games I had.

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  31. I didn't get to play nearly as much Chill as I would have liked (CoC was our horror game of choice), there's a very easy change you can make to the rules which will speed up play. When resolving actions on the table, the rules tell you to subtract your roll from your score and use the difference to find the degree of success. You want to roll as low as possible, but double-digit subtraction always slows things down. Instead, we rolled the dice and if the roll succeeded, skipped the subtraction and just used the number showing. It didn't change the probabilities at all, it just flipped things so that you wanted to roll as high as possible without going over your score. This speeded up play tremendously.

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  32. @BigFella, @Darius: Yeah, you've both hit on something I tired to get to in much more long winded way.

    With a few exceptions, horror games are action horror games. Among the exceptions many are played for camp instead of dark and serious. I don't think basics of roleplaying as a hobby mix well with the kind of hopelessness that much great horror from Lovecraft to King embodies.

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  33. @Christopher: (In fact, if you look at the game's "Appendix N" - as brief as it is - it never once mentions films; only "suggested reading."

    Great, now you've cost me $40 at Amazon buying it. RPGs should be about reading first (says the man writing a blog post extolling a movie as D&D inspiration).

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  34. Chill is a strange beast. It was my first horror game, and might actually have been one of my first rpgs played, ever.

    That first edition always managed to evoke a mood within me. I could hear the howl of the wind and the feeling of isolation and vulnerability against the malevolence of The Unknown. I love that. While I've read many times how people played Chill as "camp", I am not sure why.

    That traditional gothic horror is in so many venues of popular culture is handled like it is no longer relevant. It's only usable as campy and jocular tropes. It's like "real" horror should be more graphic, surreal or whatnot. For me it's even more split, since I see why that is so, and still can't shake the feeling that gothic traditional horror is "real" horror!

    Compare this with some of my impressions of CoC. I've gotten the impression that CoC often is played more as 1920/1930 re-enactment. It's historical roleplaying in the swinging and roaring twenties. That, or a very mystery oriented game where investigation is more important that the fact that you investigate the activities of monsters and alien malevolent creatures. In contrast to that, Chill always seemed to focus on the horrific, campy or just (if I may say so) "old school" horror tropes.

    When those guys who said they were publishing a 3rd ed told me thay wanted feedback on the playtest manuscript and the playtest text for the quickstart I jumped at the opportunity. But after one individual repeatedly saying that "we will print it next month" or "I have an announcement in two weeks!" I decided they had no idea how to publish a game and lost interest. It pains me to realize a game I think deserve some love would not get a third edition. At least not from those guys.

    Chill still have nailed the traditional horror niche for me. I think I will grab my box and soak in its mood a while...

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