Tuesday, August 28, 2012

History of Horror RPGs (Part Three: 1996-2000)

END TIMES
The second half of the 1990's presents an odd mix of horror rpgs. A handful of games which would last, some odd choices/licenses big ticket games, and a few smaller press oddballs. X-Files shows its influence in this period, but there's also the impact of the millennium. So we see more end-times gaming as well as more conspiracy themes. Some of that isn't exactly horror, like GURPS Y2K so I've left that out. Others either seemed like thin spin offs (Kindred of the East) or had some horror elements but others dominated (Abyss and Revelation). 

This is an odd period for horror outside of games. In cinema, we get from Dusk til Dawn, an arguably more action-oriented film, opening the period. Blair Witch Project shows up at the tail end in 1999 to re-energize the form. In between there are a few interesting movies, but the vast majority are weak and/or running the gas out of various franchises (Scream, Hellraiser, Poltergeist, Children of the Corn). In comics we saw some horror manga and Hellblazer, but not much else. Sandman ended in 1996. On television, X-Files picked up speed, to be followed by Millennium and copycat Dark Skies. Importantly Buffy the Vampire Slayer begins on the WB, with Angel a little after. A few blink and they're done shows arrived as well: American Gothic, Fear, Brimstone, and Poltergeist: the Legacy. Perhaps more importantly are the non-tabletop horror games of the period: Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2, Silent Hill, Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, and System Shock 2 for example. 

I've been trying to think of a way to describe certain kinds of horror games without being dismissive. These games use horror elements- monsters, "horrors," corruption- but they can be fought against with fists and guns. Mankind may not triumph, but they'll go down swinging. It could be called Pulp, but I actually think it is a little more cartoony. Certainly there a liberal dose of humor and self-awareness of the conventions. I have to wonder how much of this comes in reaction to the tropes and standards established by Vampire and the World of Darkness. There's a seriousness to some of that material (and fans) that makes it an easy target. Given how strongly VtM held sway over horror for the first half of the decade, games like these could show the swing in the other direction.


1. Deadlands (1996)
Deadlands represents a couple of important trends in horror gaming. First, it's among the best and most successful examples of "cartoony horror" out there. It sustains a tone of crazy, 'laughing as they bury you' energy. GMs (or Marshals* as they're called here) can run the game tongue-in-cheek or more seriously. Read closely and you'll see Deadlands manages some truly awful horror; over the course of the line they roped in many awesome writers. They crafted some bits worthy of Lovecraft and Le Fanu. But most groups I knew ran campaigns on the other end of the spectrum- puttin' bullets in the brainpans of zombies.

Deadlands also represents the first really successful horror genre mash up. There had been a couple of previous attempts (Dark Conspiracy, Dark Space, Cthulhupunk) but they never sold themselves particularly well. Deadlands wears its gaming DNA on its sleeve. It is unabashedly a Western and a Horror game. It engages and entangles those elements at every conceivable opportunity. The genre conventions lend themselves to small groups of adventurers at the margins of society fighting back on their own terms against convention and evil.

Deadlands has also had a longer lifespan than most games- going through several editions, inspiring Savage Worlds, and starting spin-off lines. Rather than give them their own entries, I include Deadlands: Hell on Earth (post-apocalyptic) and Deadlands: Lost Colony (space) in this entry.

*I need to do a list of the goofy terms used instead of 'GM' in various games.

If Deadlands is an example of cartooony horror that works and sells itself well, the Tales from the Crypt rpg isn't. It's another horror game and licenses where I go "really? that's what you wanted to put your creative energy into?". Here's the thing, TftC may have the most amazing campaign set-up and premise, but just based on the source-material and marketing copy, I can't tell. Even hunting across the internet for some discussion of that, I still don't know if they had much more than we've got gotcha horror stories you can throw your players into. I've only been able to look at Cryptic Campaigns, a GM's Cryptkeeper's supplement for it. The remarkably ugly book opens by making an argument about why TftC is a better horror game than others, claiming to truly be about the human condition. The material which follows is interesting but generic discussion of horror games, and gives little insight into what the rpg brings to the table.

3. Delta Green (1996)
I believe Delta Green helped to reset and propel Call of Cthulhu forward in the 1990's. For years Chaosium had been turning out decent product, but nothing that grabbed sales or attention. The work of Pagan Publishing helped change that in our area- rekindling interest. Delta Green seized the zeitgeist and created a new way of seeing modern Lovecraftian horror, bringing truly modern sensibilities and conspiracy themes into the game. You can see similar ideas appearing in shows like Dark Skies and the X-Files. That's not to say that CoC had ignored modern settings, but the results had been mixed- from goofy stuff (Blood Brothers) to lame (1990's Handbook) to actually compelling (The Stars Are Right). But Delta Green took a campaign framework approach, really spending time doing the kind of world-building necessary to make the stories feel fresh and new. For my reviews of the first two books see The New Delta Green: A Scanner Not-So-Darkly and Delta Green Countdown: Minutes to Midnight.

Vampire: the Masquerade really reveled in world-building- history, themes, metaplot. From the beginning it wove a rich trapestry to create the illusion of a long-lived society. Each of the lines following did the same- resulting in a creaky construct with discordant continuity. Vampire: the Dark Ages reached into that past to illuminate that history. But I think the project had other goals: allowing for more classic "fantasy" material, giving a more brutal and open world, and escaping the metaplot. Of course a number of Ars Magica creators also worked on VtM, so I wonder if that had anything to do with it. Vampire: tDA did well enough to spawn a couple dozen books, up until 2002 when White Wolf rebooted the line as Dark Ages. This new set up had core books for each lines (Vampire, Werewolf, Inquisitor) and aimed at an even earlier period. This iteration had fewer supplements and faded out.

I enjoyed VtDA's evocation of the late medieval and early modern period. It produced interesting material, especially the location and city books. Of course several other historical horror versions would be produced in the following years: Werewolf: The Wild West in '97, Wraith: The Great War in '99, and Victorian Age: Vampire in '02. Additional historical sourcebooks were produced for various lines, highlighting periods (Sunset Empires) or non-horror lines (Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade).

5. WitchCraft (1996)
One of several horror rpgs created by C.J. Carella, WitchCraft originally came out from Myrmidon Press before being picked up by Eden Studios.It follows the patterns of Carella's other games- the PCs as powerful magic users, a shadow or open supernatural war, and a number of unique rival factions. WitchCraft draws inspiration from the World of Darkness, but keeps its own unique atmosphere. It cobbles together a mythology out of many different sources and manages to make it feel sustainable. Eden published a handful of supplements, but the line never sold as well as their other core products. It is currently OOP (though available as pdf).

The year after Witchcraft came out from Myrmidon Press, they published C.J. Carella's other horror rpg Armageddon. This one feels like Twilight 2000 meets World of Darkness. Again players can have characters drawn from various mythologies, including scions of the old gods, Nephilim, and Atlantaens. The set-up is an unholy future war with demonic armies on the rise and characters fighting back against those plots- either in conventional "monster of the week" scenarios or more military-oriented battlefield games. The game has a more crunchy, gun-love sense to it- for players who like details, equipment, and heavy ordinance. The magic and supernatural power system is more piecemeal. Eden picked the game up and published it, though they never formally released any supplements to it.

7. Principia Malefex (1997)
Another horror rpg I haven't heard much about, despite being published as large hardcover. The publisher Ragged Angel appears to be British and there's an webpage for the game, featuring other supplements; the latest date I could find listed there is 2004. PM is a modern urban horror game and suggests that it is for mature readers only. Players seem to be normal people fighting back against horrific things. It claims to be different in that there are fewer monsters to face, instead the PCs dealing with vague and awful incidents. The intended tone seems to be hopeless, bleak despair.

8. Shades of Darkness (1997)
Another strange setting book from ICE for Rolemaster, this one offering a post-apocalyptic horror premise. Things like this always seemed like the strange pet projects of in-house writers who wanted their personal campaigns published. Most other RM books of the period expanded the rules or offered genre books (Pulp, Black Ops, etc). ICE clearly hoped that the revised Rolemaster Standard System (aka RMSS or RM 3rd) could become a salable generic system. And then there's this product which I honestly picked up only because I was running RMSS at the time and hoped there would be something useful in it. Instead Shades of Darkness offered a grab-bag of rules, professions, add-ons, and a sketchy version of a campaign frame. That's a consistent problem with RM setting books. Shades of Darkness has a feeling survival horror, but can't quite decide how much it wants to be science-fantasy, straight fantasy, horror, or post-apocalypse.

9. Conspiracy X (1997)
While ConX leans towards gunning down enemy threats, I've usually seen it run with a healthy dose of horror. It could have been a modern sci-fi thriller game, but instead ConX combined elements of aliens, historical threats, and the supernatural together. It doesn't always gel, but I like the overwhelming vibe. While ConX shares some concepts with Delta Green it has some key differences. The nature and reach of the patron organization, AEGIS, gives players support and access to resources. The foes, while still potent and wide-reaching, offer a more understandable and accessible targets than the Lovecraft Mythos. It makes a great modern horror-hunter campaign where your aiming less for dread and more for shocks-on-the-job. Some might describe that as horror-light, but different groups want different experiences from games. ConX has gone through a couple of versions, including GURPS Conspiracy X. The more recent release of Conspiracy X 2.0 suggest that Eden may be doing more with this line.

10. Unknown Armies (1998)
"A Roleplaying Game of Transcendental Horror and Furious Action"
Unknown Armies remains one of the best horror rpgs I've read. It came out of the blue and presented a fully-fleshed and bizarre modern backdrop unlike anything else out there. it is a precursor for the kinds of indie rpgs we'd start to see after 2005- fresh, unique, and playing out the creators' vision. Players can take many different and broadly defined roles in an world with occult undergrounds. That world is a swirling mess of uncertain entities, bad stuff going down, and people just trying to get by. There isn't a 'big bad' per se, but rather a world that eats away at people. Unknown Armies brings to the table some of the creepiest elements I've seen in an rpg- subtle stuff with horrifying implications. The magic systems feel completely different from anything else out there and manage to balance playability with horrific costs and requirements for the players. UA takes on the idea of sanity developed by CoC and expands it- allowing players to track their own decay across several axes. This game is recommended reading for anyone running modern horror.

11. Zombi (1998)
It must be a little disappointing to be the zombie apocalypse rpg that came out the year before All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Zombi was a small rpg put out by Crucible Design. It presents a simple set of rules and a basic campaign frame built around survivors. I like the idea that skill rolls can be modified by a 'panic stat' if zombies are around. That's a simple mechanic that helps emulate the genre well.

And then there's the grandaddy of zombie rpgs. All Flesh Must Be Eaten is a kind of messy game, as fits the genre. It pulls together various elements to create a pseudo-universal system, eventually called Unisystem. AFMBE gave players the right mix of light mechanics for general resolution and high crunch for things like weapons and combat. It also offered a laundry list approach to building characters- with plenty of merits and flaws to tweak them out. AFMBE smartly recognized the zombie game as an effective horror sub-genre. The core book includes rules for many different kinds of campaigns run at many different levels or even historical periods. The system remains strong today with many different genre books (Wrestling, Martial Arts, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Western) and general supplements. Not everything from those fit together- rules, mechanics, and pricing don't necessarily remain consistent across the line. But it offers everything a GM running these kinds of games could possibly want.

Another small-press horror game with a unique vision. Some of these feel like personal campaigns where the author hadn't been able to bottle what made their own play work. Obsidian, on the other hand, had a fairly strong following of players who enjoyed its bleak and weird setting. It reminds me most of SLA Industries, but less tongue-in-cheek. Players live in the last remaining human metroplex, waging a war against the demon forces who have overrun the earth. It combines horror, sci-fi, occult, cyberpunk, weird fantasy, and post-apocalypse. It feels like Judge Dredd meets the Legions of Hell.

Horror's a popular genre in anime, manga and Japanese cinema. Demon City Shinjuku's based the anime film, though the source material is a novel (and it was also a manga). Guardians of Order put this together as a complete rpg, allowing players to experience the gothic-horror of the setting. It was among the first wave of anime-influenced games which came out in the 1990's.

Hunter: The Reckoning stands out among the many World of Darkness lines. It took risks which paid off, but did end up alienating some players. I know many rejected Hunters with "powers" and disliked the framework given. Many players had cut their teeth on The Hunters Hunted and hoped to see more of that. Hunter: The Vigil seems to come from that reaction. On the other hand I think HtR brings out some really awesome and often unexplored horror themes.

The characters are called to their path, they really don't have a choice. They find themselves flung into this world and cannot ignore it. Doing so destroys their sanity as much as facing the horrors. Beyond that the game shows that being a hunter is an alienating and destructive pursuit. Others cannot see what you see, loved ones will be in danger and there's little you can do to protect them but leave, your foes are often beyond your power, you will be judged mad, and perhaps worst of all you will doubt your own sanity. Hunter can be played as a game of uncertainty and misdirection. There's an element of PTSD to the fellow hunters you meet. The supporting materials for the HtR line play this up- information is incomplete, contradictory, and bizarre. The various monster splat books don't sync up with the other WoD material- are they right? what's going on? is this what the monsters look like? Hunter the Reckoning clearly did fairly well for WW, spawning many books in the series and a couple of video games. I'll be curious if the company decides to do an anniversary product of this one.

TSR tried to branch out into genres beyond fantasy with limited success. By the end of the 1990's they'd decided to create a kind of generic engine to power these new attempts. In some ways that felt like at sequel to their work with the Amazing Engine line. The Alternity line presented some general rules modules (like Beyond Science: A Guide to FX), but also created specific campaign worlds- Star*Drive and Dark•Matter. Dark•Matter has the PCs as members of the private Hoffman Institute pulling back layers of conspiracy and mystery on the world. It looks like Conspiracy X, but actually functions more like Chill. It offers a generic world of PCs hunting monsters- supernatural, aliens, or otherwise.

17. Heaven & Earth (1999)
A game with significant religious themes; I've often heard it described as Eerie, Indiana the rpg. The game is set in the little town of Potter's Lake where weird things are happening. There's a struggle between strange magical forces and bizarre happenings all of the time. Robert McCammon's Boy's Life, Peter Straub's Shadowland, and some of the more domestic small-town stories of King make a good parallel as well. I'm also reminded of Philip K. Dick's The Cosmic Puppets. I like that there's room for low-key horror and strangeness in rpgs. I've only read about this game, I've never tracked down a copy. It has gone through at least three different editions, each with a different set of mechanics.

18. Purgatory (2000)
It’s very hard to find out much about some of these small-press horror games, especially those with publishers who have folded up shop or in the case of Atomic Hyrax left a message in 2004 on their website about going on "extended hiatus." This games seems much like Armageddon, another rpg perhaps tapping into the feelings about the countdown to the end of the millennium. The PCs apparently play Children of Purgatory, special chosen caught in the war between heaven and hell. Also known as Penitents, the PCs are apparently being pursued by terrestrial forces with their own agenda.