The name’s Davenport. I review games.
So the other day I’m sittin’ at my desk catchin’ up on the funny pages, when all of a sudden the temperature drops about 40 degrees. I’m just about to get on the horn with the landlady to complain about the A/C goin’ on the fritz — again — when a message in blood appears on the wall.
GREETINGS, FOOLISH MORTAL, it says. ARE YOU PREPARED TO FACE THE HORRORS OF CHILL?
“I won’t have much choice until the landlady fixes the damn A/C,” I says. “And by the way, I hope you’re gonna clean that up…”
I hear what sounds like a dead guy sighin’.
NO, FOOLISH MORTAL, the writin’ says. CHILL THIRD EDITION.
And from outta nowhere, a floatin’ rotted hand plops the core rules on my desk and disappears.
“Oh, right!” I says. “I heard about this. The horror game. I hear they really cleaned up the rules this time around, too. Sure, I’ll be glad to give it a look.”
I figured I’d better get to reviewin’ it right away, too.
After all, the writin’ was on the wall.
Chill presents a world in which pretty much everything supernatural exists in one form or another — collectively referred to as the Unknown — and none of it seems to be benign.
Standing against these horrors are the envoys of SAVE, an organization of out-manned and out-gunned but dedicated monster busters. The book follows this organization from its origins in Spain in 1789 through its global incarnation in the modern day, detailing its earliest encounters with the Unknown and its efforts to adapt to the threats it faces.
The game cleverly weaves the backstory of SAVE into several different styles of play. SAVE has faced catastrophic setbacks in recent history, including disastrous infiltration by the Unknown, that have led many to question its traditional hierarchical organization and that have left some local branches cut off and believing that they are all that remains. New leadership has arisen that believes a web of semi-isolated cells, each with connections to only a handful of other offices, is the way forward.
In game terms, this means that PC groups can range from lone wolves like the Winchesters of Supernatural, to members of an organization that can offer some information and resources but leaves them mostly to their own devices, to cogs in a vast bureaucracy.
The book covers SAVE operations on every continent — yes, including Antarctica! — along with supernatural hotspots to be found in each region. It also does an excellent job of answering questions about life as a SAVE envoy, right down to mundane matters like health coverage.
For the most part, envoys are normal humans who happen to have encountered the Unknown in some fashion. However, many possess a supernatural power known as the Art, which seems to occupy a kind of middle ground between magic and psychic powers. As befits a horror setting, none of these abilities are particularly potent, but they’re certainly useful — some more useful than in previous editions, in which the rules jumped through some rather silly hoops to ensure that some obviously combat-worthy powers couldn’t be used in such a way.
The monsters of Chill tend to follow folkloric rules when it comes to their destruction. As a result, this is definitely a setting in which it pays for the heroes to do their homework.
- Animal Ghosts
- Doll Master
- Ghost (Common)
- Spectral Remnants
- Uninvited Guest
- Digital Entity
- Brain Worms
- Cursed Doll
- Puppet People
- The Undead
- Animated Corpses
- Lesser Zombie Master
- Stone Baby
- Carpathian Vampire
- East Asian Vampire
- North American Vampire
- West African Vampire
- Unique Beings
- The Deceiver
- Pied Piper
- Greater Zombie Master
The monsters have access to a dark counterpart to the Art known as the Evil Way. Unfortunately for the envoys, this is where you find the really nasty powers, as well as powers that simply invoke creepy special effects.
One noteworthy omission: demons. It seems the authors wanted to avoid dealing with theological matters. I can understand that impulse, but man… No demons in a game of classic horror smarts a bit to me.
Chill uses a simple percentile system with a degree-of-success mechanic:
- Rolling the target number is a Failure.
- Rolling equal to or under the target number but over half the target number is a Low Success.
- Rolling lower than half the target number is a High Success.
- Rolling a Failure with doubles (e.g., 44, 55, 66) is a Botch.
- Rolling a Low or High Success with doubles is a Colossal Success.
I definitely prefer this to systems that require more figuring of percentiles.
Chill offers an unusual take on the Drama/Fate/Hero Point mechanic. At the start of an adventure, the GM sets out a number of 2-sided physical tokens of some sort — one side “dark” and one side “light” — equal to the number of players. These tokens represent the ebb and flow between good and evil during an investigation. All but two of these will start out as light. (Yes, this would seem to mean that a 2-person team starts out with a big problem.)
Players can flip tokens from light to dark to give the envoys some advantage, ranging from raising a target number to reducing damage to saving the life of an envoy. GMs can flip tokens from dark to light to help the bad guys, from raising a target number to making the envoy’s lives miserable in various creative ways. In addition, all Art powers require tokens to be flipped dark, and many Evil Way powers require tokens to be flipped light.
I get the thinking behind this mechanic, and in general, I like it; however, the bit about tokens governing the use of the Art annoys me a bit, mainly because I’m having a hard time figuring out how this should manifest in the setting. I mean, does using the Art really make evil more powerful? And is it really the case that a situation can be “too evil” (e.g., all tokens dark) for the Art to work at all? That would seem to make using the Art more of a dubious proposition than the rules suggests.
Chill offers three methods of creating envoys.
The first and easiest simply involves picking one of a generous 20 ready-made envoys. The second requires players to put some finishing touches on one of 10 templates.
The third, and most time consuming, is, unsurprisingly, creating an envoy from scratch. This involves spending an allotment of Character Points — 80, 90, or 100, for new, experienced, and seasoned envoys, respectively — on attributes, skills, the Art (optional) and Edges (optional), with optional Drawbacks providing additional Character Points.
The attributes are Agility, Dexterity, Focus, Perception, Personality, and Strength, all ranging from 20-80, with 40-50 being average. In addition, envoys have four derived traits: Willpower ((Focus + Personality)/2), Stamina ((Agility + Strength)/2), Reflexes ((Dexterity + Perception)/2), and Sense the Unknown (Perception/5).
Unlike any other attribute + skill system I’ve encountered, Chill applies only a single skill to each attribute or derived trait (other than Sense the Unknown). In each case, if the skill is untrained, the envoy uses 1/2 of the governing attribute, and a trained envoy uses the full stat. Players may purchase specializations in these skills at Beginner (+15), Expert (+30), and Master (+50) levels. This method speeds up character creation quite a bit, and the skills — Close Quarters Combat (Stamina), Communication (Personality), Fieldcraft (Dexterity), Interview (Willpower), Investigation (Perception), Movement (Agility), Prowess (Strength), Ranged Weapons (Reflexes), and Research (Focus) — cover pretty much everything likely to come up during an investigation. I also like the fact that both Strength and Agility (in the form of Stamina) matter in Close Quarters Combat and that both Dexterity and Perception (in the form of Reflexes) matter in Ranged Weapons.
Players can then decide if they wish their characters to have any ability in one of the six Schools of the Art: Communicative, Incorporeal, Kinetic, Protective, Restorative, and Sensing. This first involves attuning to a given School, and attuning to additional Schools after the first grows increasingly pricey. Clearly, the intent is for most practitioners to focus on one School.
Attunement grants a single power that works automatically with the flip of a token. Then, the player chooses whether to purchase one or more of the four disciples associated with each School. These do require a roll as well as a token flip to work. Again, the player may choose to purchase disciplines at Beginner, Expert, or Master levels, but here, the level of expertise determines how the power works. For example, the Restorative discipline Feat of Strength adds +30 to a Prowess or Close Quarters Combat roll at all levels. The difference is that at the Expert level, the envoy gets an additional success level, and at the Master level, the use of the discipline no longer risks damaging the envoy from the stress on the body.
Players next have the option of choosing Edges and Drawbacks. This is your typical advantage/disadvantage setup.
The final system-related decisions relate to Drive and Envoy History. Drive is the reason the envoy battles the Unknown. Envoy History is the envoy’s past cases — beginning with a single previous case by default — and each chase provides either an arcane or personal takeaway. Drives and takeaways have both light and dark boxes associated with them that can be checked to make life easier or harder in various ways, once each per adventure. In the case of drives, the player chooses when to check either box, and checking the dark box allows him to flip a dark token light. In the case of takeaways, the GM decides when to check the dark box and gives various advantages to the monsters without a corresponding boon. I love the fact that the system gives the character’s backstory an actual game system effect.
Attacks use a standard skill roll, with higher success levels resulting in higher wound levels. Those wound levels have a steep death spiral of wound penalties, but victims do get a Resistance check to mitigate damage…. if the damage isn’t rated Catastrophic, in which case, no Resistance check is possible. The latter includes fire, falls, and high-caliber gunfire, so shootouts are particularly nasty. Actually, any combat is pretty nasty, which seems fitting for a horror game. However, if it’s a more action-oriented brand of horror you’re after, the book does offer an alternate rule allowing the flipping of tokens from light to dark to reduce damage levels. I like the flexibility in play styles that provides.
A horror game wouldn’t be much of a horror game without dealing with the effects of fear. Chill handles this in a similar manner to Resistance checks to damage, except that there is no level of Trauma (fear damage) equivalent to Lethal damage. Unlike Call of Cthulhu investigators, Chill envoys will never be removed from play due to permanent insanity. They can, however, be severely crippled by penalties to rolls using psychological traits.
Trauma heals slowly on its own, or more quickly with psychological aid; however, envoys can clear Trauma levels more quickly by accepting temporary appropriate Drawbacks, which seems fitting.
I guess I’m okay with the “no permanent insanity” thing. This isn’t mind-scrambling cosmic horror, after all. In any case, it’s one less reason to have to come up with a new character in the middle of things.
The writing manages to be both informative and entertaining, especially in the history sections. The book is in lovely full color, and although I didn’t see any totally stunning examples of art, it does range from “good” to “very good”. The book makes effective use of photography in places as well. The layout is top-notch and the index is thorough, making the book extremely reader-friendly.
This is one of those games that does what it sets out to do. I can’t give much higher praise than that. I’m not altogether certain if this brand of horror is my thing or not, but if I were going to give it a go, Chill would be my game for it.