RPGs are a crowded marketplace. Particularly in the traditional mode: there’s only so many ways to differentiate the idea of simulated avatars moving through an imagined environment. And the thing we do in them almost as much as kill monsters in fantasy dungeons is kill monsters in modern day horror. Which is to say, it’s not enough for the modern-day monster killing RPG Chill to be decent, or even good. It also needs to bring something new to the table. Chill tries hard to rise to this challenge, but its successes are never quite without qualifications.
Of course, Chill is something old, not new. Chill was first released by Pacesetter Games in 1984 – an eternity ago in gaming. I never played the original so I’m not sure how much new stuff they’ve added and how much is a relic of the past. The sense I get is they’ve tried to keep as much as possible, and sometimes I fear that might have led to some preservations which might have been better culled or at least cleaned and polished. On the other hand, not all changes are improvements…
To pick an emblematic example, let’s talk the core system. Chill was one of the last of the great dividers: nowadays, it’s considered taboo but in the 80s it was commonly expected for players of roleplaying games to be able to do division and multiplication on the fly. Chill is in fact an acronym for how the system works: there are three levels of success – Colossal, High and Low – ChilL (not to be confused with California Highway Patrol, which is completely different). A Low success is rolling under your (usually above 50%) stat on a d%, a High was rolling under stat halved, and a Colossal was rolling under it quartered. New minty fresh Chill keeps the High and Low, but replaces the Colossal with rolling doubles on your percentile dice and getting a success (doubles while failing is a Botch). That means a few things, such as critical successes and failure now happen 10% of the time, which is much more common. There’s now less reason to have stats above 100%, except in the case of modifiers, (although I don’t see why you need modifiers if you have success levels), and now there are five levels of outcome to deal with rather than four. But it does mean you don’t have to divide by four. Better? Maybe. To me it feels like not much really gained and still fiddly anyway.
And there’s some more of that around. There’s a gorgeous mechanic where the game has a number of two-sided tokens on the table and the GM turns them to the good side to power up the bad guys and players turn them to the bad side to power up themselves. This allows a visual, visceral sense of how much trouble you’re in and how the tide is turning. But there are six different things that can cause or arise from token turning and they’re not written on the character sheet. Another example is every stat is linked to exactly one skill, which is rated at half your stat. A lovely idea that really helps establish setting: this is your general skill with Perception, whereas Investigation is using it specifically in genre, ie to solve mysteries and hunt monsters. The problem is they couldn’t think of specific examples narrow enough for Strength, Agility or charisma (here called Personality) so those skills (Prowess, Movement and Communication) start at your full stat. Maybe I’m a stickler for symmetry but that just feels messy. It’s the opposite of elegant.
Parts of the design and layout of the book also feel messy. Now, RPGs aren’t like normal books. RPGs are toolkits, which is to say when you open them they need to unfold like a toolbox to reveal all the useful tools close at hand, but being books they have to be lined up in a linear order. You can’t understand chargen until you know the rules but the rules don’t mean anything without knowing what the characters are and none of that means anything without a setting. Over the decades different games have solved this in different ways and none are perfect, but Chill’s approach seems particularly off-kilter. To stop you from having to learn the complexities of chargen at the start, the pregens come first, but that means you have the examples before the process (and I’ve never met anyone who likes pregens). Then after chargen we have a huge chapter on setting and the chapter of cool powers before we get to the main rules, and parts of those end up in the GM’s chapter. And because the setting chapter is entirely focussed on the organisation the PCs work for, it’s difficult to get a full sense of the game’s direction until you reach the antagonist chapter at the very end – you get a who’s who before you get what they do. The game is complete (and expansive) but you have to read the whole thing to get that, and at times it almost feels like work to unravel it.
But once you get passed the messiness, there is an interesting, well developed and at times beautiful game in here. So let’s talk about the good stuff.
Chill takes its lead from many, if not most, twentieth century horror films: evil is a real, potent force, it takes the form of ghosts, vampires, werewolves, monsters, black-eyed children, creepy old ladies and evil dolls, and all they want to do is kill people and cause pain. The players are members, or “envoys”, of SAVE, a Latin acronym for the Eternal Society of the Silver Way, although Eternal is big talk for a society invented in 1844. But that big talk is part of SAVE’s nature: it feels realistic and human. It’s not a society that somehow magically lasted all of time and whose members are almost always entirely loyal and whose goal always good. SAVE is in fact riven by internal politics disputes, frustrated by its inadequacies and limitations, and possibly entirely betrayed from within. Indeed, in 1989 their world clubhouse in Dublin was attacked in an inside job and still nobody knows how (and nobody trusts anyone either). They’re not the Watchers or the Templars or even the CIA; they’re more akin to the National Geographic Society, only without funding coming in from sales of the magazine. They’re big enough to have people all over the world and keep a mailing list going, but they rely on members to bring their own guns, cars, computers and sometimes even office buildings. And given that every time they gather information and resources in one place it gets blown up, smallness appears to be on their side.
This approach has become explicit since 2012 when a new leader emerged in Hayat Nejem, a Syrian woman who discovered the Unknown (capital U, as SAVE calls the force of evil) when she saw demonic spirits surrounding Assad. Her response was to kickstart SAVE back from the torpor of confusion and suspicion since Dublin, but with the caveat that from now on, everyone was going to use a cell structure to stay connected but anonymous. Meanwhile old schoolers want to pretend they’re still an academic gentleman’s club and are resisting the new methods, and some parts of SAVE are still off the grid and don’t know anything about leaders, new or old. Players get to build their own SAVE base and choose which group they fall into, although only brainstorming guidelines are provided, not actual mechanics.
It’s a good setting not just because it feels realistically broken and organic; SAVE is designed to be just big enough to get envoys in trouble while small enough to be completely unable to get them out of it. However, the exhaustive chapter on SAVE goes into enormous detail about some things that feel irrelevant and skims over stuff I would have loved to have seen more about. For example, there’s endless information on the first three missions and surrounding life and times of the folks who set up SAVE, and a breakdown of every central office, director and local hotspots for every continent on earth. Having a historical and global view is important to get a sense of things but unless you’re planning on setting your game outside modern day USA, most of the detail is superfluous. Especially since those sections are much much longer than stuff about the modern day and the local, comparatively, and the every day functioning also has a short shrift. I’m fascinated with the idea of a society trying to exist in a post-9/11 world while requiring its members to remain in clandestine contact with military agents inside Syria. I’d love to play either side of that equation. Instead I’m reading about haunted houses in Outer Mongolia and lengthy journal entries of some long-dead Oxford don about whom I could not care less.
Nothing is actually absent in this book, it’s just sometimes disproportionate; others hard to find. The real meat is in the rump, in the last and second last chapters. Yes, players need to know what dice to roll but the nature of an RPG is in its structure and tone. To its enormous credit, Chill knows this and devotes much to the art of crafting these elements. And I don’t just mean a long discussion on the relevant sources and the methods of emulating them using the rules. The damage rules are in this section, because it’s in those rules that GMs have the main ability to affect the characters, and drive home the horror. Chill’s setting is one where the characters are really normal people, getting the absolute crap beaten out of them by a dark force they cannot really match, but choosing to fight on anyway, and representing that is all about damage, physical AND mental. The horror checks are more complicated than Cthulhu but not as complicated as Unknown Armies, but either way are meaty and realistic. This is a game where trauma counselling is vital, and the feat giving training in it is as sought after as Great Cleave in D&D.
That sets up tone. Structure comes from the investigation model: finding the horror and learning what might be its weakness before it beats the crap out of you. Chill is a high-prep game where GMs develop a series of bread-crumbs which players can find in different avenues to get the important information. The monsters aren’t generally unbeatable without their silver bullet, thankfully, and the structure takes its key from the lesson of GUMSHOE – key clues are available even on botches, although sometimes with extraneous information. Do I want to come up with five outcomes for every investigation avenue? No, but that’s what pre-written adventures are for. The one we’ve seen (in the quickstart) is excellent at this; I hope we’ll see more of them announced soon. Even if not, there’s nothing wrong with this approach to the investigation genre, and by taking you through the process inch by inch, Chill does every bit of heavy lifting it can to help you.
They also give some help in the last chapter, the extensive bestiary, with most listings have some guidance on tell-tale signs and weaknesses, and a taxonomy that you can see SAVE actually applying in setting. Lest your players crack the code and become bored, many monsters are adjustable and the game also comes with sixty monster powers allowing you to mix and match your monsters to keep players guessing. The powers also allow you to emulate important horror tropes like descending silence, slamming doors and phones breaking, without having to give everyone complicated telekinesis. If the player character sheets look a bit fussy, the opposite is true with the opposition – the stats are streamlined down and the use of the flipping tokens also thins down what each beasty can do and when.
The tone of this review has ramped up towards positivity as it’s gone along, and that’s because the RPG works the same way. When I’d finished it, I finally got the sense of all the tools and how to use them to tell a story, but actively trying to learn that from the game proved difficult. It’s certainly not a product to give to your players to teach them. There’s no handy summary tables and back references and chargen doesn’t feel like a step-by-step guide so much as a list of information. There isn’t even a character sheet – or maybe they just took it out of the PDF?
Yet at the same time this game goes above and beyond with what detail and support it does provide. The information on the background and antagonists is exhaustive to the point of actual exhaustion. The tools for building investigative structure and intense horror are purposeful and cleverly designed. This is a game built with care, but it is also not very user-friendly or easily grasped, because there are still plenty of rough edges. It’s a claymore of a game: certainly potent but also unwieldy. And like a claymore I respect it and I think it will really suit some people’s style, but it also requires some work to master, and if I was backed into a corner, I’d pick a slicker, more convenient weapon.
In the end, the first question was around the wrong way: Chill clearly some nice new things to the table, but it also has to be good. And it is quite good, but in a crowded marketplace, you have to be great to be good, and quite good is only decent.