The Gauntlett

The Return of Chill, A Horror RPG Classic


Chill is one of those games you may have heard about, if you’ve any interest in horror gaming, but seldom seen. It’s had a pretty tumultuous publishing history, and been officially out of print in English for over two decades. Now, thanks to some horror fans in Ohio, it may be about to get a new lease on life.

First published by ex-TSR veterans who formed their own company, its publisher Pacesetter came out with the main Chill box set, over a dozen scenarios, and a fun German-style board game, Black Morn Manor. The concept was simple enough: the player characters are members of an organization called SAVE, aka Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata or The Eternal Society of the Silver Way. You’ve volunteered to defend the world against supernatural peril, and put your life on the line to keep Dracula and a host of other ghouls at bay.

Chill in its 1st Edition was one of those games that sounded interesting, but wasn’t a must-have; the central idea was fun, but its monster list was the same old vampires-ghosts-werewolves that everyone had seen before. Some of the scenarios were interesting, but the 1984 box set didn’t fire imaginations, and it didn’t help that Call of Cthulhu had cornered the horror market several years prior. That hoary old Games Workshop elder, White Dwarf Magazine, said of Chill in its issue 61 review: “A few years back this would have shaken the RPG community, now it’s second rate.” Pacesetter went out of business in 1986, and Chill went down with the ship.

Chill languished in darkness until Mayfair resurrected it, gave it a 2nd Edition and a host of new supplements. This is the version that most people remember, the scary one, with a host of interesting ideas and a world very much in peril. The monster list got a much-needed makeover, SAVE started crumbling, and the characters became the last line of defense in a hostile, frightening world.

Unfortunately, in 1993 Mayfair decided it didn’t want to be in the RPG business and Chill got put on the back burner, though Mayfair did keep the game alive in .pdf format. Then in 2012 Mayfair sold Chill to Martin Caron, who made a deal with the folks behind Growling Door Games to bring this old fear factory back to the market. It’s just finished a successful Kickstarter, raising $40,375 on a $25,000 ask.

I took some time out to talk with Matthew McFarland, one of the two brains behind Growling Door, the other being his wife Michelle. If you recognize those names, that’s because you’re a White Wolf, Dungeons and Dragons or Shadowrun fan; Matthew’s been heavily involved in the World of Darkness since 1998, and Michelle’s an industry veteran who’s worked on Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun and Battletech, among other properties, for over a decade.

Adam Gauntlett: What do you feel is the essence of Chill?

Matthew McFarland: I think it’s people coming together to face the Unknown. Characters in Chill aren’t superhuman, they’re not necessarily highly trained. What they have in common is the willingness to stand up. That kind of everyday heroism is appealing to me personally, but I think where it becomes essential to Chill is the intersection of that heroism and the presence of a malevolent supernatural force. It’s different than a Cthulhu based game, because in that kind of game, you aren’t ever really going to make a difference – the Great Old Ones will eat us one day and the best you can do is hold on to your sanity. But in Chill, the little victories mean more, because the end is still in question. Maybe SAVE can defeat the Unknown, but even if they can’t, they’re damn well going to fight it.

AG: Chill, first published by Pacesetter back in 1984, went out of print when Pacesetter collapsed. Had its publisher not gone out of business, what do you think would have happened to Chill? Does it have the staying power of a Call of Cthulhu, or Vampire the Masquerade?

MM: Given how well Mayfair did with the property in the 90s, and the response we’ve gotten from the many enthusiastic players of Chill 1st and 2nd Editions, I’d say it probably would have stuck around. Chill didn’t have Lovecraft to hang its hat on, true, and it didn’t have some of the more innovative hooks that Vampire did, but it cast a pretty wide net, and that gave it a lot of potential material as a horror game. I think that had Pacesetter not folded, we might already have seen a third and perhaps a fourth edition of the game, but as the saying goes, how could things be other than they are?

AG: Mechanically your Kickstarted version of Chill is likely to be different from its predecessors; can you talk a little bit about those differences?

MM: Chill 2nd Edition feels very much like a 90s game in terms of its design. It uses a percentile system, which on its face is simple enough, but calculating success levels from rolls requires a calculator, a chart (I always used the one in the screen), or a more mathematical mind than mine. It also had a lot of subsystems (NPC reactions, hypnotism, etc.) that weren’t really necessary and so tended to get ignore, at least in my experience.

Chill 3rd Edition strives to keep the feel of that kind of game, but to make the mechanics more transparent, and more user-friendly. We’re also jettisoning the unnecessary sub-systems, making the skill system a lot less granular (in 2nd Edition, you could buy Farming, Accounting, and Semaphore as skills – not that I ever saw anyone do that). We’ve focused skills on what the player is likely to roll in the context of an investigation. That means focus on gathering clues and fighting the Unknown. Your accountant character is assumed to know how to do his job, but it probably isn’t going to come up in play (if it does, however, we’ve got a way to simulate that).

AG: You were introduced to the game by the 1990 Mayfair 2nd Edition, which is still available in .pdf form via Mayfair. What caught your imagination, when you first picked up that game? Is your version likely to be significantly different from it, whether mechanically or in narrative?

MM: Honestly, the cover hooked me. I had never run a horror game before – this would have been 1992 or so. I’d been running TSR’s Marvel Superheroes game for a few years, but I’d just graduated high school and I was looking for something new. The cover looked slick, clean, and cool. I started reading the handy little insert that explained the game and provided new Chill Masters with a quick adventure to run, and I found myself introduced to a whole new style of play – instead of trying to simulate comics, I was trying to scare my players.
I’d never really been a fan of horror before that; I liked it well enough and I’d read Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe and so on, but Chill opened that genre up for me in a big way. It became a big part of my taste in media, from literature to cinema to RPGs, and I branched out from Chill to the World of Darkness (via Wraith: The Oblivion).
Narratively, our edition of Chill hews closer to 2nd Edition than to 1st (which tended more toward camp horror than “straight” horror), but we’re putting a greater focus on the humanist aspect of the game. Specifically, we’re playing up the presence and mission of SAVE in the game, asking players to consider their characters’ roles in the organization, and their motivation for staying involved even when it’s likely to get them killed. That will mean, of course, delving into the darker aspects of SAVE’s history…and the last couple of decades haven’t been kind to the Eternal Society of the Silver Way.

AG: This isn’t your first Kickstarter, but I think I’m right in saying it’s the first in which the product wasn’t yours from the start; has it made any difference to the process, that Chill began life as someone else’s work?

MM: You are correct; the first two Kickstarters that we ran (for curse the darkness and A Tragedy in Five Acts) were for original properties that my wife Michelle and I developed. In developing Chill, I approached it more like I do when developing properties for Onyx Path Publishing. It’s a bigger book, with a more traditional mechanic base, so I want more eyes on the rules and more voices figuring out how the game is going to work. I assembled my team of writers and got everyone brainstorming about what we liked about the game, what we didn’t like, what we wanted to change, and what we wanted to add.
That team, by the way, consisted of people with a lot of experience playing and running Chill, as well as newer writers that I brought over from the World of Darkness. I wanted some new perspectives, because I know that when you’re developing a product with a lot of history, it’s tempting to keep something in that doesn’t belong just because you remember it fondly. I like having multiple perspectives on a property like this – it reminds me to kill my darlings.

AG: You obtained the English language Chill publishing rights from Martin Caron, the current owner. What was that process like? How did you go about tracking Caron down and making the pitch?

MM: I mused aloud to my wife (Michelle Lyons-McFarland) one night that I would really love to know who owned the rights to Chill, because I’d love to do a new edition. She promptly did some research, found Martin, and contacted him to ask him his plans for the property. We corresponded for a few months, came to an agreement, and drew up a contract allowing us to produce a new edition of Chill. It was actually all very painless; Martin’s a huge fan of the game and he’s been very supportive all through the process.

AG: Publishing’s changed a lot over the last few years, particularly with the introduction of .pdf format. Growling Door offers a .pdf edition of its work to its customers; where do you see dead tree editions, in the next five to ten years? Will people still want them, or will electronic editions have taken over the market?

MM: I don’t think the “dead tree” version of books is ever really going to go away, at least not anytime soon. I think, though, that a lot of gamers are coming to realize that the convenience of having a pdf far outweighs having a physical book – pdfs are portable in ways that books aren’t, and they’re searchable. Also, especially with regards to Kickstarters, pdfs don’t cost shipping, and shipping remains the number one headache I’ve encountered in running Kickstarter campaigns.

But for all that, there is nothing like opening up a new book and flipping through real pages. So, again, I don’t think books are going away quite yet.

AG: The Pacesetter edition of Chill had some pretty fun supplements, including adventures against Dracula, and a collection of scenarios hosted by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Is it at all likely Growling Door will try to reprint or recreate some of those old resources, after the Kickstarter?

MM: I don’t think it’s likely. For one thing, I’m not entirely sure where our rights begin and end with regards to 1st Edition material (I know we can use pretty much everything in 2nd Edition). But also, I’m less interested in reprinting older material than I am making new material. I loved the old Chill books; that’s why I was so excited to get this license. But I want to bring some new ideas and approaches to it, I want to bring our company’s voice to the property, and I want to develop and keep a consistent tone and mood.

With all of that said, one thing my time at White Wolf taught me was never to say, “We’ll never do this book.” Always safer to say, “We have no plans at this time.” So, at this time, we have no plans to reprint or reuse the older resources.

AG: Favorite Chill monster? Why?

MM: Oh, tough call. I used a lot of those monsters in my Chill games – I probably ran upwards of 200 games of Chill in college over a two-year period. I always like the infective werewolves from Lycanthropes. They were superb for injecting real tension into a game, because if they bite your character once, that’s it, you’re done.
The other one I enjoyed was called the Black Tamanous. It was this horrible creature that fed on the flesh of cannibals, so it would trick people into eating other people so it could kill and eat them. Because its endgame required some setup, it had to be tricky and patient, and so it lent itself to the kinds of games I like to run – lots of leads and clues, all pointing to something but requiring interpretation and analysis. Also, the scene where the characters realize what’s in the stew they’ve been eating is a fun one to run.

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