Monday, December 31, 2012

My Knee vs. Drama(System): A Guest Post


I fear drama.

I don't mean the extra-exclamation-points-to-make-my-life-seem-more-interesting-than-it-is drama that floods the social media landscape. That'd be like being afraid of professional wrestling or book clubs.

No, apparently I fear drama as a game concept, specifically as a game concept finally possessed of cohesive and workable mechanics thanks to Robin Laws and his DramaSystem. I can't get any more specific about this fear—I just know the fear is there because I keep trying to come up with reasons that the DramaSystem won't work at the table.

I know the signs of a knee-jerk reaction—the dismissal, the sneer, the desire to gather together the “everyone else” who must certainly agree, the ever-so-convenient definition of a “real” game that just happens to fit one's own safe place. And the number one sign that some part of me is panicking: I simply have an incredibly difficult time getting the nuances of how it works. I keep returning to the familiar models, trying to shove DramaSystem onto them and saying, “See? See?! It's not working.”

I'm smarter than that. I mean, clearly I'm not BRAVER than that—but I'm smarter than that. My brainy brains, however, are not half so good at pinning down why I vacillate between fight and flight as they keep me just aware enough of my knee-jerkiness to feel great shame.

This might not be a huge dilemma if I lived in uncontested territory.  I could ignore the scary idea that’s out there, cling to the familiar and, if so inclined, shout out passive-aggressively engineered insults to those who refuse to chain themselves to the same rock.  But the thing is, I’ve already tramped off into the lands of narrative gaming, ignoring the shouts echoing from the valleys and mountaintops “I’m only an expert on what I like, but that seems like gamism,” “Player control is coddling!,” “Real gamers love TPKs,” “I own guns and that’s not how they workkkkkkkkkkkkkk!”

I understand the shouts.  I was there once and sometimes I circle back.  Some days I’ll give credibility to the idea that what is familiar and habitual is ‘natural’—but I have learned and relearned that other systems and mechanics quickly become just as familiar and habitual.  I like dice and complex mechanics and randomness deciding the outcomes—it is fair, right?  But I’ve played with newbies and realized that my expertise gave me a huge advantage, and that the mechanics themselves shaped the type and pace of the game. And simulationist thinking….gods, it creeps back up on me all the freaking time.  My brain knows all of that is self-protective thinking—designed to maintain my sense of expertise and my comfort and to enforce the level of trust I feel inclined to offer.  I KNOW this. Still, my knee gets a word in edgewise on occasion.

At least self-protective thinking doesn’t slide by for long; I’m not alone in choosing my game path.  My husband is there too—and he’s thinking about games a lot harder than I am most of the time.  That’s good.  He’s one of my GMs.  I like brilliant GMs.  They can keep up with me and my brainy brains and my speedy knee of ultimate jerkitude.   And my husband, he is not about to let me count myself out of the fun.  I could pretend there’s some tough love routine that goes on– but actually, he can pull me along pretty easily just by dangling a game planning discussion in front of me.  

In fact, it was a brainstorming lunch that revealed to me the sheer bulk and dangerous nature of this invisible new foe called DramaSystem.  My husband was trying to come up with a playable idea for a Christmas-themed DramaSystem Series Pitch.  We met with the agenda of just tossing some ideas out there.  Brainstorming can be a difficult dance—it’s about generating ideas with the critic turned off, certainly, but there has to be at least a germ of a functional idea in there.  He started out with an ancient struggle to define the rituals that would shape modern Christmas—my eyes glazed over; I recognized it was a BIG idea but I couldn’t see the hook.  That’s standard with brainstorming—lots of themes with still-unarticulated handles for the PCs.  I’m cool with it. 

We went back and forth a while—he’d shake his head at my ideas: “Too procedural.  There needs to be drama between the player roles.”  What?  But I don’t get what’s going to happen in any of his.  They all sound concept-y but…not sure what you’d be doing.  Ok.  Ok.  Ummm.   How about there’s a time-travelling organization—but they can only insert themselves into a time-frame on Christmas Eve and have to return before the end of Christmas Day?  I like this one.  I’m expecting at least a nod.  And again, he says, "Too procedural.  The game would center on the goals of the time-travel, not on the drama between the players." 

“So a Christmas soap opera?”  I wince when I hear the tone of voice that comes out in.

“Yes.  No.  Each player has an agenda, things are happening—but the system is not focused on competencies for completing those activities, it’s about negotiating advantage from the outcome of those activities and negotiating which things are even undertaken. It’s…”

“So…the player is not doing …things?”  My brain reeled—and that’s when the knee was free to grow in power, in this instance like the Grinch’s heart expanding three sizes.

Now, the rest of the lunch I remember primarily as a struggle to smile and somehow keep the knee under control.  I remember my husband realizing where I’d missed the point and backtracking.  He carefully spelled out the difference between resolution systems (what I mistook DramaSystem for—just another narrative resolution system) and a campaign framework. Essentially, while DramaSystem could be bolted on to a procedural framework for the purposes of resolving negotiations, it actually was designed specifically to allow campaigns that were about power struggles and, well, drama—but character-driven drama as opposed to situational drama.  Instead of tension mounting as we fought wave after wave of goblins and we finally feared for our lives as the last hit points were reached, the tension would be about how we faced the goblins, what we chose to defend most diligently from the goblins and how we negotiated with the goblins if we couldn’t slaughter them -- all hard decisions made in order to preserve what was important to us.  It was Game of Thrones as opposed to a monster-of-the-week show.  And the resolution system within Drama System could be used for social dynamics AND the success of procedural actions as well.

My husband believes.  He really does.  He’s ready to get started.

And I find that I tell myself I want to preserve that procedural nature of the games.  But really, deep down, what I want to keep is my comfort level and my expertise and, most of all, the cherished notion that I can deliver a win-win solution to any problem presented in game if only I am clever enough.

With DramaSystem, I’d have to choose. 

Maybe that’s it. 

Or maybe it’s that, with DramaSystem, I’d have to give up the last vestiges of my Mary Sue leanings. 

Or maybe it’s that Drama like that is my enemy at work—that I work constantly to defuse the emotional responses and territorial behavior in order to define the actual project needs requirements.   Maybe Drama generated by what I perceive as selfishness just happens to be the Enemy in so many parts of my life.  I like this explanation—it sounds semi-heroic.
Maybe it’s that the game table is the one place where I can wrangle an illusion of consensus.

Maybe DramaSystem is a threat to those all these things that I hold dear. 

My knee thinks so. 

My husband disagrees.

My brain is not helpful.

I predict an epic battle.

Everything is Dolphins: RPGs I Like

Every rpg is, to some extent, a labor of love. With some big ticket and highly polished products that can be hard. The slick production values conceal the energy and enthusiasm of the goofballs who actually spend their time developing structures for make-believe stories that other people get to play out. On the other hand, sometimes a game wears its crazed goober enthusiasm on its sleeve. For me, this has been the year of the performance-art level tonedeaf trolling heartbreaker game, Vampire: Undeath. Watching that creator fail around about his originality and how only fools would draw a connection between it and any World of Darkness. It’s the equivalent of my creating a fantasy game with Materia, Black Mages, Limit Breaks, Summons, and massive swords and claiming that it bears no resemblance to Final Fantasy. Every game like this is the product of effort- of someone who put together something they cared about. You can hope that energy gets channeled into something interesting and original someday. And some people embrace the goofiness of their game, how it borrows, and how crazed it is.

Which brings us to Everything is Dolphins.

Where you play a Dolphin. Sometimes with guns.

In a year where we’ve talked about the massive Kickstarter success of products like Hillfolk and FATE Core, we also have to recognize Everything is Dolphins. The combination RPG/Artbook had a simple gola of $1000, and managed to end up with $4,480. I think the Kickstarter pitch sums it up best:

“Everything is Dolphins is a role playing game hovering somewhere between side scroller video game, talking animal fairy tale, and triptastic fun. It's a pen and paper RPG that you play at a table, not a computer RPG - don't be confused. It's also an art book with work by a selection of high and low and elsewhere artists.”
It is a crazed book that doesn’t really take into account developments in rpgs yet is probably playable. It is also a reflection on place of games and make believe in our childhood. It also pretty clearly could also be called the Ecco the Dolphin RPG rpg (as written by kids).

Everything is Dolphins is an 80-page perfect-bound book with full-color glossy interiors. The layout is perfunctory- deliberately Spartan, scattered, and fragmented. A text page will often have only a single paragraph of text on it. In other products, I’d write that off as amateurish, but here’s it serves a purpose. Everything is Dolphins offers a kind of rpg art/archival project. The project curator, Tim Hutchings, wants to showcase gaming ephemera- projects scribbled in notebooks that might otherwise have been simply thrown away or lost in a move. So this comes from the sketches and original concepts of author Ray Weiss. If you’ve been a gamer for any length of time you undoubtedly have these kinds of pieces and documents laying around. So the actual text design and presentation reflects this. There’s little in the way of explanatory text- it assumes you know games and provides the basic rules. There’s a universality to these kinds of hacked games- and read in that spirit, it becomes fun.

On the other hand, to complement the written material, the authors have commissioned a number of artists with varying approaches and medium. None of this is classic rpg art material- so it is pretty avant-garde. Dolphins in bowler hats, rainbow scraps, etched black-and-white seascapes, leather-clad porpoises with shivs. Surreal might be a good way to put this- a different form of surrealism from Itras By, but blowing up meaning all the same. It you like goofiness and discordant wonder, you’ll dig this.

I usually approach my reviews in order of material, but here I have to start at the end. The last 36 pages of Everything is Dolphins reproduce Ray Weiss' original notebook. Pencil sketched details, wild ramblings, pictures of dolphins, ideas for how you might map an rpg as a side-scroller. They’re smudged, the text goes around holes in the paper, and- of course- they’re written on graph paper.

I have magazine boxes of gaming material on my shelves. I went through a few years ago and organized everything. Some bits and pieces from high school exist, but most everything else from before that is gone. Our group wrote a couple of tournament modules for our local gaming conventions in the mid1980s- The Death Frolics. I have one or two pages from them, and one page of the pre-made characters.

Which is to say, if you’re given to reminiscing on gaming nostalgia, you’ll enjoy this section. It made me laugh. The actual character sheets from play just as funny, hand-made scraps and sketches, complete with maps and notes.

Everything is Dolphins is, strangely enough, a post-apocalypse game. Humanity has fallen and now the dolphins rule a watery-world pepper with the ruins and relics of our civilization. These are not ordinary dolphins, not an ordinary world- a Gamma World-tinged flippered rpg. Players roll 1d8 for each of six attributes, with a 1 becoming a 2. Tests are made by rolling under the appropriate attribute. Secondary attributes are based directly on these results (with Constitution used the most). Players choose between one of three dolphin races:
  • Bottlenose: begins with an extra feat
  • Atlantic Spotted: starts with an artifact
  • False Killer Whale: gains an extra success in combat
PCs have levels which increase as they gain experience. All start with one feat at level one and gain another every other level. The feat list of 48 items is broken into three tiers; some feats on higher tiers require owning one from a lower level. Every third pick resets the choices back to tier one. Picks include Improved Charge, Extra Breath, Bubble Shot, ocean Ally and so on. Character creation, complete with an example takes up the first 28 pages of the rules.

Combat and conflicts work via a dice pool. Each side rolls a number of dice equal to a pool value- Ranged Attack, Melee Attack or Defense. Each roll of 6+ is a success; the side with the higher # of successes wins. That’s a weird switch from the attribute test rules- flipping from needing low to needing high. There’s a weird gap here in the attribute contested rules. It gives an example of a Dex vs. Dex contest but doesn’t explain how that actually works- a pool based on value or instead using the standard resolution mechanic. The loser of a combat contest takes the difference in damage. There are also rules for breath and a couple of other concepts, but these are incredibly minimal. Artifacts, experience, and so only are barely sketched. A few example monsters and adversaries are presented. Any GM wanting to run this will have to do some serious filling in of the gaps.

If you’re looking for a serious dolphin-simulation game, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a fully playable rpg, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for a full-on parody rpg, look elsewhere.

Instead Everything is Dolphins offers a piece of crystalized gaming nostalgia. Like the classic video-game it tries to emulated, EiD plays really old-school: the crappy made-up concept game that you played with your friends. You would have come up with more details and crunch, but you didn’t have enough time so you ran with what you had- filling in gaps as you played. For me that was a riff on Zelanzy’s Amber done in a post-Apocalypse America. Or the Pulp version of GURPS I tried to pull together in 1986. Or the G.I. Joe reskin of Danger International I did. It is a fun book, gentle and amusing, enhanced by crazy and amusing artwork. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is mine.

Thanks to my sister Cat Rambo for this awesome Xmas gift. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Year in Horror RPGs 2012: Part Two Kuro to Zed Zero

The Second Half of My Overview of the Horror RPGs of 2012. Part One Here.

13. Kuro
I'm a sucker for an awesome cover- and this one grabbed my attention right away. The hook that this would be a weird J-Horror/Cyberpunk mash up only confirmed my excitement. However, while Kuro is a complete game, it is also only the first volume in a series. I'm a little leery of that; Cubicle7 don't have the best track record of speedy translations. Consider Qin. My other caveat is that the French authors of the game are part of the group which had picked up the Kult license several years ago who then alienated and screwed over many people in the fan community. 

But word of mouth on this near-future weird horror setting has been pretty positive. Two blogs I follow- Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer and Shorty Monster- both looked at the pdf and responded positively. I might not run the setting as is, but I do want to read it.

It has been interesting to see games move to fill specific niches- like the two person play of Murderous Ghosts. Lovecraftian Shorts is a game for exactly three people, with narrative control shifting between them. This is a narrativist, story-driven game. One player sets the scene and then the riffing starts, with players making a simple check to see if the overcome obstacles set up. There's a super-structure of nine scenes to any game, giving everyone an equal opportunity. All of this is overlaid with a vision of Lovecraft's cosmic horror represented by high difficulties. It is an intriguing concepts. I'm looking forward to reading the rules to see how much the Lovecraftian elements are trappings and how much they're integral to the play.

Another trend this year has been the growth of adaptable systems. Pelgrane's GUMSHOE has seen yet another iteration; BRP continues to evolve and be reborn; the Hillfolk DramaSystem and FATE Core Kickstarters demonstrated gamers desires for a toolboxes they could use to make new games and campaigns. And then there's the fact that three games on this list are hacks from Apocalypse World. One of the hottest new products this year has been another AW-powered game, Dungeon World.

Monster of the Week is a hunter-horror game in the mode of Buffy. The initial game comes with nine playbook options ranging from Expert to Spooky, Chosen to Wronged. The company hasn't yet followed the track of other AW hacks by releasing additional character playbooks. There's an excellent and thorough review by Vestige here: Hunting vampires, Mongolian death worms, and terrors from the beyond – Powered by the Apocalypse! . I haven't yet made it through Apocalypse World, but seeing all of the versions has made that a priority for 2013.

While MotW focuses on lighter fun and horror, Monsterhearts blends teen angst, drama, and monsters. It also uses Apocalypse World as its engine. Both MH and MotW move away from the dark, gritty and abrasive tone of the original AW rules. They still deal with horror, but avoid some of the issues that made AW such a trigger for some readers. However Monsterhearts does deal with sex quite a bit- given the topic, you'd expect it would have to.

Unlike MotW most of the characters and playbooks in this game offer monster types from fae to werewolves to witches. Of course you can also play as mortals or "chosen ones." There's a focus on emergent story in this game, with the GM setting up scenes and letting the relationships and stories develop from those. Vestige again supplies an excellent review of this game, well worth reading: Catty, bratty, and codependent. Plus, they drink blood and bargain with devils . I'm not sure which one of these two parallel games I want to pick up yet.

This is the first of three complete new zombie games released this year. Some people have suggested that the genre's played out. Instead I simply think that each new zombie game raises the bar higher. We have a right to ask what new concept are you bringing to the table? Why is your game better than others already out there? What's the hook? And if you can't tell me- then move on. Your promotional materials, your blurbs, your ad copy-- all of that needs to do that supremely well. You'd better be able to elevator pitch me on that. And don't pretend a zombie game's a new concept- acknowledge your predecessors and talk about how you're built on the shoulders of undead giants.

Because I'm a little tired of "Look, we're a zombie game with cool graphics, isn't that enough?". Please note that the above rant applies equally to movies, TV, comic books, video games, and tabletop rpgs.

All of that being said, Outlive Undead does have a hook. It positions itself as a game and a training tool- teaching people how to survive the coming zombie apocalypse. So it lifts from Max Brook's The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead and the dozens of books which imitated that. It isn't a bad approach for an rpg- the conceit of using a game as a teaching instrument works. It also gives the GM an excuse for being particularly awful and unyielding. After all, if their character's can't survive, what chance to the the players have?

On the other hand, Rotworld positions itself as an OSR zombie game. It has everything you need in a compact and dense 64-page rulebook. It uses the classic Pacesetter Chill system mechanics (with a color-coded resolution table). That's a smart move- appealing to several different kinds of nostalgia. The game itself sticks with the most basic zombie-world set up. It isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it is nice to see a game with a strong sense of audience.

An OSR-style horror game, generally set in a medieval or early modern frame. The players take the role of hunters going out into the wilderness to track ala bad things (ala Conspiracy of Shadows and vs. Monsters). It has a definite Hammer-horror vibe to it. It borrows from the mechanics of original D&D. Old-school gamers looking to add a little horror to their campaigns may want to check this out (or the weirder and more over the top horror of Lamentations of the Flame Princess).

We've seen quite a few sci-fi horror products this year, but we've also had a few mash-ups of classic fantasy and horror. Shadows of Esteren I've heard about for a while, but wasn't entirely certain what it was. Another Kickstarted project, it describes itself as "A Medieval Role-Playing Game with Horrific and Gothic Influence." It offers both a setting and a complete new system. The materials split into Book 0- a Prologue and Book 1- the Universe. The former appears to be a quick-start, while the later seems to have the full rules. The setting looks to be low fantasy with mixed gothic elements. I look forward to reviews to see how this distinguishes itself from other fantasy games and other fantasy horror settings. It looks super-pretty and cool, but the differences didn't come across in the publisher material.

I reviewed this a little while ago (The Doom Which Came to Ravenloft?). Shadows Over Vathak offers a Lovecraft-inspired high fantasy setting for Pathfinder. It has a lot of really cool stuff- neat ideas, interesting classes, random adventure tables. But it splits the difference with the Lovecraftian influence- it develops some of its own Elder Gods while at the same time keeping some of the specific Cthulhu Mythos names for other things. That's a tough call- but I'm surprised they didn't dial the Lovecraft up to 11 and go with it. If I were to run something like this, I'd go totally new, go totally new but have them turn out to be new names for the classic Mythos gods, or else rewrite everything to make it straight Mythos. If you're looking for a fantasy horror sourcebook, this is a good resource.

22. Stalker
Boris Strugatsky died this year. Together with his brother Arkady he wrote the novel Roadside Picnic. They also wrote my second-favorite sci-fi novel, Monday Begins on Saturday. Roadside Picnic was loosely adapted for the screen as Stalker by the magnificent Andrei Tarkovsky. You really ought to see that film if you haven't yet; Criterion desperately needs to produce a blue-ray of it. We've also seen recent video game versions with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and its sequels. This year saw the release of an English translation a Finnish rpg based on the premise. In the game, players take the role of outlaws and wanderers at the margin of society going into the strange zones left behind by alien visitors. These are places of weird events, horrors, and deadly radiation. I haven't yet seen the game, but it is substantial at 240 pages. It is a diceless system, replying on the GM to assess the players very specific and explicit statements about their actions. I have also heard, though I haven't confirmed it, that the game's done almost entirely in Comic Sans, a font which (along with Papyrus) makes me throw up a little when I have to read it.

The third of the Apocalypse World hacks on this list. It seems like in recent years every system has to do a Lovecraftian hack (GUMSHOE, Savage Worlds, True20, etc). tremulus is another highly regarded and very successful Kickstarter project. The playbooks here cover the traditional CoC character types: author  doctor, journalist, etc. Vestige also reviewed this AW hack- How does Cthulhu stack up in the pantheon of apocalypse worlds?. It is worth noting that the responses I saw to his review split pretty evenly between "that's the same problem I saw" and "no, he's completely wrong about the game." tremulus is still in the developmental stage, as I understand it- with only a preliminary pdf released. The final print edition should come out in early 2013. 

I don't know exactly what to make of this- I'll be looking for further reviews of the final product. As with the zombie games I mentioned earlier, I'm not sold on what makes this a better take on Cthulhu or Lovecratian gaming. It is different, with the AW focus on player narrative control and emergent stories. But is that a better approach to Mythos gaming- and if so, why? As gamers we have a vast number of games to chose from, and a still vast number of Lovecraft systems to play with. We all know the question which has to be answered by these games- why this and why not Call of Cthulhu?

The old World of Darkness is not dead (despite what some people believed). This year saw a continuation of WW's push to Kickstarter and release a number of interesting oWoD products to bring those lines up to date. as important has been the switch of the company from White Wolf to Onyx Path Publishing. Exactly what that means for the line remains unclear, but we will be seeing at least another edition of Exalted and some new additions to the nWoD lines. This year saw the release of horror products: Children of the Revolution, Convention Book: N.W.O. (Revised Edition), Imperial Mysteries, Victorian Lost, Falling Scales, Left-Hand Path, and Blood Sorcery: Sacraments & Blasphemies. That's a pretty light release schedule for a company which once pushed out multiple products every month. It will be interesting to see where 2013 takes them.

The last of the zombie games on this list, and one I'm very nearly convinced is vaporware. The pitch for the game is so generic- essentially "Hey Zombies!". But I also haven't been able to track down any concrete information on the game or the company publishing it. On the other hand, there's a fairly complete entry for it on RPG Geek, with details of the authors and an ISBN. But a search on that ISBN only leads back to the Geek. The publisher Gypsy Rain Studios doesn't work through RPGNow. On the other hand, a couple of people have listed themselves as owning copies and have commented on it, "Percentile based system. Feeling of game is slow, constant building tension. Invokes thoughts of original Resident Evil and Walking Dead comic."

So does it exist? I don't know, but if it does, the developers need to do something about their social media presence (and SAY WHY THIS ZOMBIE GAME IS BETTER THAN OTHER ZOMBIE GAMES).

Champions of Mystara: The Gazetteers' Heir?

Earlier this year I wrapped up my series reviewing the Gazetteers of Mystara. It ended on a somewhat down note, with the fairly weak entry, GAZ14: AtruaghinClans. But another supplement exists which could be considered a GAZ, if you look at it right. I’m not talking about Red Steel or the other AD&D Mystara products, but Champions of Mystara: Heroes of the Princess Ark, a boxed set which appeared in 1993, two years after the last GAZ. This supplement was oddly slotted into the Basic Dungeons & Dragons “Challenger” series. My impression had always been that those were intended for quick play and easy access. This (and the earlier Wrath of the Immortals) feels like a sore thumb.

Champions of Mystara comes out of a fiction series Bruce Heard published in DRAGON Magazine at the time. That brings up three problems for me as a reviewer: I don’t run D&D, I didn’t read DRAGON after 1983, and I’m not a big fan of game fiction. It just isn’t my thing- though I know many people really dig it. Usually I’ll read it if it appears in moderation in a supplement or rulebook, but more often than not, I’ll skip it. I’ve read some solid game novels, but I’ve also been burned by some. So my review will approach this primarily from the perspective of a GM looking for Mystara material for their campaign and secondarily of a GM looking for general material.

Champions of Mystara is half world background and half fleshing out the story of the Princess Ark and their adventures in Mystara. This comes in one of those classic boxed sets that makes you oh and ah when you open it up. There’s a lot of chrome on offer here. You get two single-sided poster maps in the hex-style of the earlier gazetteers and the Trail Maps series. These cover the Serpent Peninsula and The Great Waste. There’s also a massive two part diagram of the Princess Ark ship- with a playable grid. This is an awesome resource- and one I used for a great sky-ship boarding action in a game. Finally there are eight cardboard full-page reference cards. Each has an illustration of a sky-ship on one side with vital stats and layout and extended information on the other. Artist David Miller does a great job here.

The gaming material arrives in three saddle stapled booklets, each with a color cardstock cover. The cover art’s solid and evocative. The layout inside is clean but a little dense. It uses the tight three-column design of TSR products of the period. The design is consistent throughout, with simple page ornamentations that don’t distract. The writing’s clear, but has a lot of material to get through. I found myself putting it down from chapter to chapter because it has so much to take in. Bruce Heard provides the Princess Arc narrative, but everything else is credited to Ann Dupuis. All of that’s skillfully executed, which makes the interior art the more disappointing. Terry Dykstra provides all of the many interior illustrations. They don’t really work for me- looking too cartoony and inconsistent. That simplicity may be the intent of this series, aimed at getting new players in. But when I look at the great art in the earlier GAZ volumes and parallel releases, it bugs me. Dykstra’s one of those artists- like Dan Smith, Larry Elmore, and James Holloway- that just feel off to me.

The largest of the three books, HotPA clocks in at 96 pages. This focuses on the game fiction of the Princess Ark- expanding it and offering game materials drawn from the text. As noted here, those stories appeared in DRAGON Magazine #153-168. The book opens with a complicated and dense two page summary of those tales. It follows that with 64 pages of other reprinted adventures from Issues 169-188, mostly in the form of various logbook entries. That’s an odd split and I’m not sure why the handled it that way. The story generally follows the adventures of the crew of the Princess Ark, led by Prince Haldemar of Haaken, a member of the Alphatian Nobility. They crisscross the lands meeting exciting new people and often killing or being killed by them. It is epic, confusing, and full tilt.

It is also not my favorite way of conveying game information. I appreciate the occasional first person journal and perspective. That format has a long and rich history- Dracula’s a great read and it uses that pattern. I like tools like Runequest's “What My Father Told Me”- which really help get inside the setting. However the material here is caught between being a narrative and explicating the setting. I think it would be better for my purposes if it went further to one side or another. Heard’s trapped a little in his writing by those needs and the established details. As a an example we have Haldemar of Haaken. He has hostilities with Herr Rolf of the Heldannic League. That repetition of initial sounds, especially in the summary lost me. I read game materials fast, which makes this a problem. But if you like game fiction or enjoyed the original Princess Ark stories, then you’ll love the material here.

A side note- I’m a big fan of the Red Steel and Savage Baronies supplements which came out a year after. They’re some of the few AD&D Mystara products I actually like. I love the society set up there and the races presented. We can see the first bits and details of that in the stories presented here.

Pages 69-75 provide a look at the details of the ship itself, beginning with design statistics. While supplement offers rules for ship building the PA doesn’t necessarily adhere to those. In that way it makes an excellent model for a unique PC skyship. There’s a great and highly detailed key to the ship deck plans. Seven pages follow this with the stats for the various characters from the stories. A solid section comes next talking about daily life on the ship and ideas for campaigns involving it: paralleling or taking completely different courses. The book wraps with some adversary stat blocks and details.

This 64-page volume has my favorite cover of the three, a stately skyship with the magical flying effect creating a wake on the sea below. The Designer’s Manual covers many of the mechanical elements of the setting- introducing a number of wild and interesting concepts. It begins with 18 pages on designing and building Skyships of all kinds. This system doesn’t use point values but rather gp costs and engineering rolls. Choices of hull and frame affect other decisions down the line. This isn’t a light system. Putting together a skyship will take some serious calculation- and the book offers some record and worksheets at the end. Another nine pages cover the mechanics of sailing such ships and doing battle with them. The mechanics here echo earlier systems presented in Dawnof the Emperors and Rules Cyclopedia. This expands and extends those.

For GMs looking for setting material and ideas rather than mechanics, the book finally gets to some of the good stuff. There’s a nice section on the perils and challenges of far travels, especially close to the Skyshield of Mystara. There’s all manner of weirdness here- almost Spelljammer in its nature. Next the book switches gears from the idea of the skies and beyond. Pages 36-50 offer a World Maker’s Guide to Mystara. This includes ideas on how to develop new lands, come up with new cultures, craft societies, and develop campaigns which come into contact with these. It is pretty awesome and useful stuff- the kinds of thing you want in a Mystara “summation.” Five pages of Skyship magic follow, a two-page spread on migrations across the world, and then a half dozen pages of sheets and appendices (including conversion notes for use with Spelljammer).

The third booklet comes closest to the classic Gazetteer model. It breaks into three major sections: The Great Waste; The Serpent Peninsula; and other miscellaneous materials. There’s an interesting introduction which tries to reconcile this material with that from earlier publications. Part of the problem comes from the timing of the events of the Princess Ark. In the Gazetteer series, we have a classic present age. However, the events of Wrath of the Immortals act as a meta-story event moving things forward and changing some things drastically. Add to the time travel of the PA’s stories which launches the ship and crew 30+ years into the future. The book mentions several supplements as in error- including the Poor Wizard’s Almanac and X6 Quagmire!. It also addresses the problem of the Desert Nomad series and continuity. Oddly after going through that it also notes that all of these products are out of print.

The Great Waste offers a vast and dangerous expanse- a mixture of arid plains, mountains, and deserts. After establishing the geography and general history, it covers the two major empires, Sind and Graakhalia. Pages 7-24 cover Sind, an analogue for Ancient India which includes mystic monks and martial arts. I like the Sind material here- but it feels super-compacted. There’s a focus on the expected stuff- timeline, geography, laws, etc. It touches on a few oddities like the caste system and the orders. But none of it has any time to breathe. I wondered what a full 64 or 96 page Sind GAZ would look like. It echoes some of my disappointment with Dawn of the Emperors- trying to do too much too quickly and ignoring what made the earlier parts of this series awesome. I love the material here and want to see more. Graakhalia, on the other hand, is a gnoll-elvish hybrid kingdom. The idea could work, but once again because we only get eight pages, it falls short.

The Serpent Peninsula offers more juggles and savannah bordering the Sea of Dread. This section covers two Empires as well. The first, The Most Serene Divinarchy of Yavdlom, seems to mix African ancient kingdoms with elvish heritage. There are a couple of interesting details, but mostly it comes off colorless. On the other hand, Ulimwengu: The Land of the Marimari mixed Aboriginal and African themes. An empire of short, dark-skinned people with dinosaurs. These might come off less clichéd with a longer treatment, but I’m not sure.

The last part of this book covers many topics, including relations between these lands and their neighbors- some presented in the earlier books and some not. There’s a two-page future history, trying to bring this in line with the other layers of Mystara presented elsewhere. Monsters and army details follow. Allow me to say that the Mugumba Mud-Dwellers, humanoid beaver-people, don’t work for me. (Shakes head). A few important people get a brief write-up on two pages. That’s seems a little too little and oddly placed. NPCs are the lifeblood of a setting and they appear here as an afterthought. So what’s missing? The Heldannic Freeholds which appear as a major adversary in the stories barely gets any treatment. For what appear to be a major and interesting Teutonic Knights-analogue, they’re written off. Other places and adversaries such as Myoshima are also absent.

Champions of Mystara mixes great and cool stuff with other bits that merely show potential. Several pieces fell half-baked and just goofy. In the hands of a skilled writer with enough page space, they could work. But here the page count works against Dupuis’ talent. There’s good stuff, but volume wins out over quality. If you’re an OSR follower, play Mystara using another system (like AGE), or run with a retro-clone like Dark Dungeon, you’ll find some interesting mechanical bits. If you like game fiction or are simply a fan of the Princess Ark from DRAGON Magazine, this is worth hunting down.

If you’re not a big fan of the tone and approach of earlier Gazetteer products, you probably won’t care for this. It has some of the worst of those excesses and indulgences. Here that isn’t mitigated by depth and wealth of rich ideas. Instead everything feels more than a little glossed over.

But I still like it. I like Mystara and I like seeing other pieces and bits, even if they don’t fully fit with my conception. Both empires of the Great Waste feel like opportunities...wasted. They could have been full books. I love the ship plans and all of the bits about sky-ships. The sections on world design are pretty awesome. So there’s real treasure to be found here. So a thumbs up for the Mystaran GM, but much less so for the general GM.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again. Please WotC, republish legally available pdfs of this material. SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY*.

More than anything else, this material points to why we’re lucky that Bruce Heard has returned to development of the setting. Anyone interested in the setting should be following his blog.

For more on Mystara see Gazetteers of Mystara: The Review List and Cracking Mystara: Ten Last Thoughts.

*P.S. I would like to be reimbursed or offered replacements for all of the TSR pdfs I bought during the year that you sold them through drivethrurpg. I'm just saying.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Changeling Lost Vegas: Orientation (Part Two)

The second half of my interlude post for the players of our G+ Changeling the Lost Campaign. First Half Here. 

“Me, I just lucked into being a part of the Winter Court. Each one has a few people considered Courtiers- who handle the business and ritual parts of the Court. In my case, that’s primarily business shit. Simon, Questions-So-Loud, and sometimes Mrs. Pang wrangle weird things. We only have six Courtiers in Winter, but the two bigger ones have something like a dozen, plus various hanger-ons. But they have to handle a lot more and they take on more responsibility keeping things together. They have influence but they also spend more energy and resources making sure this whole place doesn’t burn down around us.

But most people aren’t Courtiers, though they may be associated with a Court. If you get through your probationary period without killing anyone, or turning out to be a plant, or doing something monumentally stupid, then you’re accepted into the Freehold. You take a modest pledge and the Freehold offers you protection. That means if you need help, you can ask for it. You can get protection and generally if you’re in, you have people watching your back. You can go one step further after you’ve done tasks for the Courts. You can request the patronage of one of the Courts. In this case, they’ll help you out more. They’ll make sure you have a roof over your head, they’ll help you get settled into the life you want, and they’ll give you a modest stipend to keep you afloat. In return, they might ask for seasonal tasks, glamour gathering, or just helping out with things. That’s why Terrible Job’s here. He’s clearing a debt.

Plus when they come looking for new people to bring up, they usually go look at their clients first. At least that’s how it is supposed to work.

If you don’t pledge to the freehold? Well in that case, people take a hands-off approach. Changelings of the freehold won’t help you- in fact they aren’t supposed to speak to you. There are a few of those around in Las Vegas- weirdoes, people with bad reputations, exiles who crossed one of the Courts and couldn’t find help elsewhere. Simon tries to help those people move on to another city if he can. But some people are just Broken.

Part of the problem is that unlike other places, it can be harder to make a living in Vegas. The Courts make pacts and create ties with businesses as a means of generating money. But in Vegas, money, wealth, luck, and fate are all tied up together. When you start mucking with one, you tug on the others. The Courts generally switch through businesses and people, because if they run them too long there’s a backlash of fate, where that reverses and burns you back twice as hot. A gamble, it is always a gamble here. But even more dangerous…mucking with money and chance, well let’s just say that can be like ringing a dinner bell for the Others. The ones in Vegas, they can smell that, especially when glamour, Wyrd or contracts come into play.

Some pass-through Changelings will somehow make it over the In-Betweens and into Vegas. And they won’t listen or we won’t spot them in time. And they’ll go to one of the casinos and put a chain on luck, and they’ll keep tugging and tugging. And they’ll win big…but they won’t be able to find their way out. Something will come for them.”

“When they took you…well there’s a chance they left something in your place. Maybe they showed it to you, made you watch. Mine did.

It looks like you, sounds like you, and even when it fucks up your life your friends and family won’t know it isn’t you.

You’ll have to decide how you want to deal with that. It’s a personal decision. Some avoid it, some destroy them. Some people try to go home after that. No one can talk you out of that, but I’ll tell you it is a bad idea. But you’ll have to find out why yourself.

And the fetches, well some of them know they’re bad. Some of them don’t. Some of them bear some of their maker’s power- making them extra dangerous. The nature of fate is this- even if you weren’t taken from Vegas…your Fetch will end up here if it is still around. That’s just the way these things work.

And if you kill you fetch…you have to be prepared for the consequences. Things happen when you do that- bad, good, in-between. It can break you if you’re not careful, killing your doppelgänger.”

“No, that’s not a joke. There’s other stuff besides us around.

Well, mostly werewolves and wizards.

Stop laughing. Seriously. The Autumn Court knows the most about that kind of stuff. I used to think that they were just broken Changelings, but Hopscotch Takebacks told me that wasn’t it- or at least that wasn’t all of it. I’ve only crossed paths with the werewolves once. They’ve got their own ways and grouping and they don’t seem exactly like Beasts. I don’t know. They’re…well…they’re kind of boring. Take a second and picture for yourself the most clichéd form of werewolf, like from a movie or TV show. That’s pretty much how they act. Most of them, anyway. There are a few exceptions.

The Wizards- and again this is second and third hand for the most part- have some weird division. I’m not even sure they’re the same thing. There are apparently a few serious dudes with some real power who have a kind of magic company. Hopscotch says to steer well clear of them. But then there’s the scattershot street mages. Supposedly. Crazy people- ladies and guys- picture homeless Big Lebowski’s. They can do some stuff based on their craziness. I don’t know if they’re really wizards or just somebody who managed to activate a token or ate a glamour fruit and didn’t die.

Other stuff? Yes, there’s other stuff. Ghosts, demons, poltergiests, Frankensteins, voodoo priests, crazed god-touched, and Wayne Newton. I mean, it is Vegas, you’d expect all of that here, right? No vampires, though. But again, rumors and gossip so who knows what’s true, what’s coming from broken people, and what’s someone’s plot.

Newton? That’s a whole ‘nother story.”

Terrible Job
“There are plenty of dangers out there…but keep in mind you can also do real damage to yourself if you’re not careful. That’s especially true around the holidays. The holidays are bad.
Sorry, yeah. So you’ve been in a place where you had to do things to survive. I’m not going to make you talk about that. Hell, no one wants to talk about that. But you know it changed you, made you different and I’m not just talking about how we look now. We have pieces missing- memories, feelings, bits of our soul stuff- and where that got torn out they poured glamour and wyrd in. Who you are now has to figure out how to balance and contain all of that.

I’m not putting this well…

Sometimes Changelings break. It can happen when you do something that one part of you rebels against. It can happen when your Changeling instincts kick in and someone gets hurt. It can happen when self-preservation or fear make you into someone you don’t want to be. And it can happen when you see something of your Keeper in yourself…

They call it clarity, your vision of the world. As you have…problems, conflicts…you can lose some of that clarity. When you do you have a harder time keeping straight what’s real and what’s imagined, what’s right there and what’s magic. You might get flashbacks to your life before or to your durance. You might develop problems. I knew someone who had to stop and count beans when he saw them. Run his hands through them and count them. That was a problem. We couldn’t go a bunch of places…

Why beans? I don’t know. Something in his past, in his life that had to do with that. He could never explain it. Good guy too, always decent so I don’t know what he did that pushed him. It might not have been something he did- sometimes weirdness, the Hedge, and other things can hit against your clarity. I’ve heard it is worst for the Fairest, but I couldn’t say.

The key is balance, at least that’s how I see it. Others are different I know Simon and his Winter folk believe in talking about it. Changelings who avoid other changelings and just spend time with people and those who only spend time with us- they’re most vulnerable.

Oh, by broken I mean there’s something seriously wrong with them. Sometimes it drives them back into the Hedge, sometimes it makes them do awful things, sometimes they start seeing things. You can’t always tell who has the madness on them- it isn’t exactly like other madness, the kind you play with Contracts for. The real danger is that the broken ones get inured to the bad stuff, they start to not care about their actions and what those mean to themselves and the people they call friends.

He shot himself. Last Christmas. Dumbass beancounter…”

“So apparently the Hobs around here are a little different from those elsewhere- at least that’s what some of the travelers have said. They’re better organized, more ready to put pressure on Changelings, and less…feral…

They’re also highly divided which is a good thing. The most together of them live in the Close Hedge, in one of several spots near the major Trods…especially in the hedge by the Strip. They used to be up by Fremont, so they say, but they all scattered down to the Neon at some point. If you go a little deeper into the Hedge then you get rougher and nastier Hobs- creatures and awful things hunting around.

But our Hobs, the real Vegas Hob, they run Casinos…Goblin Markets of a kind where Hobs and Changelings go to pick things up- sometimes that means gambling, sometimes bargains. You can find all kinds of things there tokens, contracts, pets, fates, identities, hedge fruit, and other modest weirdnesses. You want to be really careful though- some of those places are better than others, some have special rules they want to catch you in. Like every other place in Vegas, the house always wins in the end. But if you play your cards right you can come away with some things you want- just at a price.

Some Hobs leave the Hedge. They’re usually oddballs with a weird fate or fancy to them. Last year we had to clear out a batch of them with a dirty linen fetish from a rundown hospital. That was weird. Oh, and of course there’s the Taxi service. We haven’t talked much about the hedge and the Trods. You’ll want to get really settled before you go back into the thorns, but it can be a useful means of escape or travel. But it takes some know-how and skill to do it successfully. On the other hand, one of the Hob groups operates, I guess you could call them vehicles. If you absolutely have to get somewhere quickly or there’s some kind of traffic jam, you can use them.

Settle the price before you get in. Always.”

“So here’s the bad news. Keepers sniff around Las Vegas. To be specific they say there are twenty-one Keepers- a Blackjack hit of nastiness. They take people, play games, feed on dreams, gamble, and fight with one another. All of that keeps them caught up and distracted. From time to time one of them does catch a scent- someone runs the tables too long. A Courtier plays with something they shouldn’t. A questing one ends up entangled. Slavers pop up. It doesn’t matter. Bad stuff can go down then. But Vegas is a big city and there’s plenty of room to run and hide. And occasionally someone manages to eke out a victory. But unless you’re in a Motley, joined together, people generally won’t help when that kind of thing goes down.

There’s lots of fine talk about help and support and that’s great for the day-to-day. But when the big noise comes down you can expect the first thing they’ll try to do is find a reason why this is happening to you. What you did to bring this on yourself? You’ll figure out who your friends are based on the price they charge. And there’s nothing wrong with that, I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to get up on stage with the tigers. There’s bright lights and big city here, but we all carry just as much fear as anywhere else. The big Courts will downplay that- that’s in their interest. They each have a philosophy of that.

We know some of the twenty-one, not all. No, I don’t know how they know that number. That’s just what I’ve always heard. Some of the big ones we can spot and see the signs of The Friendly One, First Fire, The Director. They have turf battles of a kind, which works to our advantage- they’re competitive. Some of them have spots and they even have a few shared places, like Circus, Circus. Don’t ever go there. Don’t ever cross off the sidewalks and lines near there. That’s a bad place. A very bad place.

Very bad.”

Kappachani Mask
They provide you with a smart phone. It’s a monthly generally anonymous phone with all the frills 
and utility of something you’d give your grandparents. But given the advances in technology in 8 years, it actually has some utility.

They also give you a basic fake state-issued ID. That will allow you to pass basic checks, rent, open a bank account etc. However it will not withstand much scrutiny. Imagine it as a fragile version of the New Identity merit. Kappachani suggests not getting arrested with it.

Everyone also gets an additional free Specialty from the following list. Specialties give you +1 die when attempting a related action. The specialties represent something that struck your interest while you were listening.

  • Courts of Las Vegas
  • Fitting Into Mundanity
  • Freehold Do’s and Don’ts
  • Getting Around Las Vegas
  • Hob Factions
  • Keeping Off the Radar
  • Modern Fashions
  • Other Magic Folk of Vegas
  • Rules of the Games
  • The Keepers of Vegas
  • Vegas on Zero Bucks a Day
  • (Neighborhood) Specialty

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Year in Horror RPGs 2012: Part One 43AD to ImagiNation

Here at the end of a year in which we miraculously evaded the apocalypse, I look back at the Horror RPGs and RPG Supplements of 2012. This was certainly the year of the crowd-sourced project with many successfully funded by Indie GoGo and Kickstarter. We also saw many games arrive in the last quarter; I’m surprised how many popped up in December. There’s a strong trend in sci-fi this year, but also shorter story-driven games influenced by Fiasco, and some quite narrow settings.

This is only the first half of the list; I’ll put the second half up on Friday. I’ve arranged these alphabetically. I also put in a few “collected” entries on this list to cover families of games and types. I’m sure I missed some, so let me know if there’s anything from A to I which I’ve overlooked.

You can find Part Two here. 

1. 43AD
There's a happy coincidence in that the game highest on my wishlist comes first. I love games about the Roman Empire (and I've reviewed many of them). I still haven't picked this one up. It echoes some recent dark historical movies Centurion, Valhalla Rising, Ironclad, Black Death, The Eagle, and The Last Legion. In it you play Roman soldiers in a grim and hostile Britain, with crawling magics and horrors moving at the edge of camps and settlements. There's more than a little Cthulhu Invictus vibe to it, but in a narrower vein. I like the idea of Roman soldiers inadvertently forced to become hunters. I'd read a series of novels set in that period and place, like Ruth Downie's novels crossed with Brian Lumley (or a better horror writer).

The old favorite Call of Cthulhu announced a 7th edition, hinting at some significant changes- to the chagrin of some. It remains to be seen what that will actually look like. A yet to be released project, the Kickstarted Horror on the Orient Express grabbed a good deal of attention. But CoC itself saw a number of interesting supplements released Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, Terrors from the Skies, , Cthulhu by Gaslight 3rd Edition from Chaosium. Companies produced striking CoC materials like Age of Cthulhu's Age of Cthulhu VII: The Timeless Sands of India; Pagan's Bumps in the Night; the first of the upcoming Achtung! Cthulhu products Three Kings (CoC); Cthulhu Britannica: Folklore; and Pegasus Spiele's German-language supplements like PDF4: China: Cthulhu im Reich der Mitte.

3. The Call of Cthulhu Family
It's worth considering the many supplemental products put out for non-CoC Cthulhu-based games this year. Trail of Cthulhu added Flying Coffins, RMS Titanic, Sisters of Sorrow and forthcoming compilation Out of Space. The Laundry published The Mythos Dossiers and License to Summon. CthulhuTech returned with Burning Horizon. Macabre Tales spawned A Translation of Evil and The Secret of the Dead Man's Satchel. The ever-awesome Cakebread and Walton published Clockwork & Cthulhu and Dark Streets, a setting of Lovecratian horror in 18th-century London. The Void Quick-Start which seems to be a Mongoose Traveller Cthulhu setting. 

I'm sure I missed some others produced for games like these.

So this breaks my rule about second editions, but I have a couple of excuses. First, I left this off of my previous lists. Second, this revision and republication comes hot on the heels of the original version so there's not that big a gap. Clockwork & Chivalry offers a setting with several possible directions. For me it feels like a post-apocalyptic historical setting with a hint of the fantastic thrown in. This is a world turned upside down, with order at all levels overthrown. This opens the door for other awfulness to enter and corrupt. Add to that the ongoing conflicts between factions and man's general inhumanity to man. It feels like an updating of the best parts of The Enemy Within Campaign, early modern mixed with conspiracy and corruption. Two additional related products cement C&C's horror resume: Dark Streets and Clockwork & Cthulhu.

Another game I just spotted as I was putting this list together. It presents another take on space-horror, this one centuries in the future. It looks to have a little bit of everything strange races, distant worlds, corruption of the Void, and lots of grit and chrome. It arrived just after Halloween, so I haven't seen much in the way of discussion or reviews for it. There's an rpgnet review, but it doesn't provide a great picture of what the game's about or what makes it unique. There's a free 65-page quick guide available on RPGNow.

Here's another supernatural post-apocalypse horror setting, but different from any I've seen before. A figure with a strange philosophy of absolute altruism wreaks havoc on the world demanding everyone aid one another with no compensation- spiritual or otherwise. Those who refused were taken by creatures from The Between. The game itself takes place ten years later with the players forced to choose between acceptance and submission or struggling to take back the world. I have yet read this, just synopses and read-throughs. Written by Matthew McFarland it uses a playing-card based resolution system. The system takes into consideration the loss of PCs and how that can act as a spur for the rest of the group. curse the darkness has many interesting ideas.

This one popped up on my radar a few months ago. It offers a pulp-sci fi meets Lovecraft setting using Eden's Cinematic Unisystem. Mankind has ventured to the stars and found the various eldritch beasts of the Mythos. In this alt history, our ability to travel beyond our planet is tied to discoveries from these creatures (stolen from the Mi-Go and other fellow travelers). I like the concept of a background radition of weirdness affecting people (and I start thinking about Event Horizon at that point). We have several Lovecraftian sci-fi settings now: CthulhuTech, Yellow Dawn: The Age of Hastur, Chthonian Stars). I'll be curious to see how the system operates- Cinematic Unisystem, while fun never struck me as a game for handling tense and dramatic horror. But if the intent is something lighter, it might well fit. One of my favorite bloggers, The Armchair Gamer wrote a review up of Eldritch Skies.

A new horror rpg which has been actively promoted and supported by author Marco Leon. This has been a year in which I've seen several small press and horror publishers come off really badly in their social communications: rants, excessive defensiveness, insulting people who say anything remotely bad about their work, sock-puppeting, and so on. On the other hand, Leon seems to be an example of someone who knows how to present himself. He's set up a decent community on Reddit, and seems to strike the right balance between advocacy and listening to input. Mind you that's a superficial impression on my part, but it is worth remembering. This game has risen to the top of my next purchase list at least in part because of that positive impression. Leon's quite open about new users adding to the canon, improving audience buy-in. 

Enter the Shadowside is a game of occult conspiracies, with an element of "rent veil." The players have become aware of a reality known as the Shadowside. The characters bind and partner with spirits from these realms for power. Several different secret societies exist. I will say I had to hunt around to get a clear synopsis of this from a couple of reviews. The publisher blurb on RPGNow is evocative, but doesn't do a great job of telling the reader what they'll actually be doing. The resolution system is unique, using a table and a ruler to determine difficulty. There's a really excellent and thorough write up of the game by the designer for the RPGGeek "Share a Game" Series: Share a Game - Enter The Shadowside.

9. Epoch
I'm always interested in games which use new mechanics to add atmosphere. Dread's obviously the poster child for this, but something like the Chance cards in the surrealist rpg Itras By is an attempt to add a unique mechanic to support the genre. Epoch offers a broad survival horror rpg system, with a focus on one-shots. The subtitle "Experimental Paradigm of Cinematic Horror" doesn't do the greatest job of selling the system*. I'm still working through the rulebook trying to wrap my head around the game.

Epoch reverses the general approach of rpg rules, putting the GM discussion first. This focuses on player involvement, comfort, and buy-in. Epoch's mechanics revolve around players being dealt resolution cards at the start of the game and then playing them during challenges. Players who have exhausted their hand go out due to death or insanity. The rules include a couple of scenarios, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it actually plays. The game's narrative focused- with players given the chance to declare and control some things about the situation. Horror thrives on player uncertainty and lack of control, but Epoch seems to substitute the randomness of the draw and genre acceptance instead.

*It was politely and gently pointed out to oblivious me that the name of the game is an acronym for this "subtitle". 

A horror-movie rpg, aimed at relatively quick one-shot play. The GM role shifts, with multiple characters being picked off over the course of a session. It also uses playing cards for resolution. The game focuses on the inevitability of the tropes for these kinds of films. Author Bret Gilan also wrote and published the brief horror rpg Cold Soldier this year. That's a two-player game in which you essentially play a reanimated husk.

11. Horror Round Up
In my lists, I've tried to focus on new games and products. I've also primarily stuck to 'professionally' published- but that definition has changed significantly in recent years. Here are a few extra supplements and games which came out this year that I haven't given an individual entry:
Several new horror-themed playsets and supplements arrived for Fiasco: Rise of the Walking Dead: Night; Back to the Old House; Romero, TX; Living Dead

Having played a horror-themed one this year, Camp Death, I will say they seem aimed at advanced players. I'd been warned about this when I first played Fiasco, that the most ordinary set-ups offered the most consistently interesting play. I didn't get that until I actually tried an offbeat one. In that the focus shifted from characters and motivations to genre trappings and tropes. We played out a story, rather than playing out the people. Still I think Fiasco has legs for horror- especially with a group who have played it multiple times.

A free rpg created by James Desborough and Andrew Peregrine. The subtitle is "Roleplaying in a world of art and madness." The layout and design is nicely done. I've read some older Postmortem Studio products which were read to read. ImagiNation's text design is cleaner and clearer. The artwork's more of a mixed bag and your reaction will depend on how much you like "found artifact" illustrations and text. There's also some real clever bits (like the CYOA section). In the setting, the worlds of imagination and reality have begun to collide. In particular the British Isles have been subject to the manifestation and manipulation of dreams and nightmares. These lands have been isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. The PCs play scouts heading into these lands for knowledge, rescue, or other reasons. There's a focus on madness, and I can imagine this being run as a darker Silent Hill style game or perhaps something more ambiguous, like early Grant Morrison.