Wednesday, August 22, 2012

History of Horror RPGs: Part Two (1991-1995)

In keeping with an accelerating rpg industry, the first half of the 90's saw an explosion in horror games. Most importantly White Wolf broke on to the scene. Beginning with Vampire, they created a new approach to horror gaming. In this list, I've left out several of the key and secondary WW products. While Mage: The Ascension and Changeling: The Dreaming can have horror themes, those seem secondary to the game's premise. Likewise, The World of Bloodshadows has monsters and undead but focuses on pulp adventure and fantasy. TORG's Orrorsh was a harder call- that's a horror realm, built on fear. But ultimately TORG focuses on reality wars and warriors, so I left it out. 

This period saw the arrival of many smaller and one-shot publishers. It also saw many more licensed games, universal rulesets with add-ons, and the use of horror as an add-on element. One interesting item absent from this list is TSR's announced but unupublished horror game R.I.P.. The company released a set of comic-book modules which expanded Top Secret/S.I. into horror. However despite being mocked up and listed, the actual boxed set of R.I.P. never emerged.

As Call of Cthulhu kicked off horror gaming a decade before, Vampire the Masquerade launched new directions in gaming by starting from a horror premise. At least in our area, Vampire brought many new people into the gaming community and helped shape new goals in play. VtM might not be the start of story games, but it brought a greater emphasis on the idea of narrative over mechanics.

Vampire's notable because it shifts the protagonist role. Most earlier horror games focused on normal main characters, with some exceptional ones having minor powers or support from organizations. Vampire makes the PCs potent in a world split into the more potent and the sheep. It focuses on existential horror and the horror of moral choices. More often than not, especially with the early material, I saw gamers focusing on either "style & indulgence" or "supers with fangs" campaigns. Later editions would do a better job of bringing out the question of humanity and monstrosity. Vampire would spin off several other versions, including the various World of Darkness general books, Kindred of the East, and Kindred of the Ebony Kingdom.

2. Dark Conspiracy (1991)
Dark Conspiracy always seemed like it wanted to ride be a little like Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Twilight 2000, or even TORG (which came out the same year). It never caught on around our area in part because the pitch line and premise weren't particularly clear. I didn't even realize that it was a near-future pseudo-cyberpunk game until years after it had gone out of print. MOst of the people I know who played this had a love for mechanical crunch and other GDW games. The company tried to keep it going for a couple of years, and used the same house system for their various games (allowing sourcebooks like the Heavy Weapons Handbook. To be fair, Dark Conspiracy was among the earliest mash-up games- attempting to bring together two dominant gaming genres into one concept.

3. Kult (1991)
Technically, the first English edition of Kult came out in 1993, but original Swedish version was published in 1991. This game had a surprisingly strong following in our area, despite being a kind of niche game. Few ran Kult as is- but many (inlcuding myself) borrowed concepts from it to use in other games like Champions, Cyberpunk, and Vampire. Kult's a distinctive game borrowing many occult and religious themes, but reworking them in a completely new way. It was the first time I'd seen the gnostic concepts worked into an rpg. Kult used sanity as a mechanic for attachment to reality- a kind of strange W.S. Burroughs or P.K. Dick way of seeing things. It’s interesting to see how different horror games worked with these abstract concepts (stability, sanity, humanity, etc).

I never bought into Werewolf as a stand-alone rpg. It wasn't exactly fright-based horror- but more about potent characters fighting against monsters which owe more than a little to Lovecraft. I think all of the WoD sub-lines can be measured as to how much the set up focuses on horror. Werewolf, to my mind, stands right on the edge- a little further and it is just an action game. Certainly I saw that in many local campaigns. Even more than Vampire, WtA could ignore the moral questions and existential horror. Werewolf's interesting in that it definitively establishes a linked "World of Darkness" universe- for better or worse. The immediate reaction by many was to figure out how to work both types together in campaigns despite their enmity.

I don't know much about this game- nor the comic series it was based on. Those comics started in 1896 1986, resulting in this Italian RPG in '91. It has an action oriented bent, though apparently with some borrowing from traditional horror. Considering that Italy gave us Dario Argento, I imagine this game and comic isn't exactly what it appears. I know there was an American movie version a couple of years ago which vanished quickly.

The module was the first of Ianus Publications "alternate reality" books for use with Cyberpunk 2020. These brought horror and supernatural themes to the setting (vampires, voodoo, etc). Later books Grimm's Cybertales, Dark Metropolis, and Night's Edge would expand and refine these concepts. It was the first time we'd seen a company "horror-up" an existing setting. It also fit into the shift in game publication, begun by Vampire of having recommendations and warnings for "Mature Readers."

7. Lost Souls (1992)
Another blip on the horror radar, though one which seems to have been well reviewed at the time. The character play the spirits of the dead trying to accumulate karma. The game describes itself as horror, but I'm not sure if that means that it has elements of the supernatural or it actually tries to establish a scary atmosphere. The blurbs for the game suggest there's a strong does of black humor in it, rather than a serious take on the concept (like the later and quite dark Wraith: The Oblivion (1st Edition)).

Sometimes a game arrives and then vanishes without a sound. Dracula was among those, sitting on the shelves at local stores for years. Leading Edge Games had a strange run of licensed products- none of which really took off. They also did the ALIENS Adventure Game and The Lawnmower Man rpgs plus the Army of Darkness board game. Leading Edge was never a big player and had already established itself with Living Steel as a company of crunch and detail over fun. The review's I've read suggest that while there's some interesting ideas and nice images from the movie, it fails in many other ways. For example the mysteries solving and clue hunting sections seem to be entirely mechanical- with players accumulating solution points. It seems to be simulating vampire hunting like a board game, rather than trying to be a frightening game.

9. SLA Industries (1993)
A Scottish game, SLA had many enthusiastic supporters in our neck of the woods. However I rarely saw it actually run. It presents a far-future dystopia of murder, corporate power, monsters, conspiracy, drugs, and backstabbing. Again, this game leans more heavily to action and black humor over frights for the players. The horror here is visceral and splatterpunk. It is another notable genre mash up with cyberpunk, perhaps suggesting either that the nature of that genre lent itself to that or that gamers who liked CP-style also liked nihilistic violent monsters.

10. Whispering Vault (1993)
This originally came out as a small booklet before being published in a more elaborate form by Pariah Press. It was among a group of marginal, surreal, or weird rpgs which came out in the mid-1990's. I'd include SLA Industries, Everway, HōL, Underground, Nexus, Psychosis: Ship of Fools, and so on. Few of them lasted, but some are remembered fondly. They seemed to reflect changes in the greater geek culture (music videos, Vertigo comics, shifts in mores). In Whispering Vault you play humans recruit to battle against supernatural forces in 'hunts" through a weird landscape- one part Dark Tower, one part Dreamlands, and one part Silent Hill. It had an interesting twist in that characters and adversaries could come from any time. It also had a distinctive art style.

I have a hard time looking at this without snickering. HERO system is among the last games I can imagine actually running a horror scenario with. The slower combat and highly detailed mechanics would get in the way for me as a GM. I'd have to handwave a lot of rules, and at that point why bother using the system. Still HERO made a brave attempt to put together genre books for all of the popular game types out there. I could see perhaps using this as a source for Pulp HERO adventures, but again there the emphasis is on action.

A generic set of rules for modern horror gaming. Players can take any kinds of roles from the clueless to the informed. The focus seems to be on offering a simple set of rules rather than establishing a unique horror gaming world. Has gone through two editions, and there were rumors of a third.

13. Shattered Dreams (1994)
Here players have to enter the dreams of others and battle the nightmares within those. The movie Dreamscape's the most obvious reference point for this. But here some of the dreams and nightmares seem tied to supernatural sources and beings. While it had a couple of supplements, it was another fringe game from a small company which came and went quickly. When I see products like this, I have to wonder how they would have done today. With Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, IPR, and RPGNow allowing different kinds of access and feedback, the authors might have access to more information or lower production costs. We have the term "Heartbreaker Fantasy" to describe fantasy rpgs which hit epic fail in their vision. Is there a term for these kinds of flash-in-the-pan fringe rpg projects?

An ambitious game, and White Wolf's first attempt to offer a ghost-based niche for their World of Darkness (see also Orpheus, Mummy: The Resurrection, and Geist: The Sin Eaters). In some ways, Wraith ends up being a kind of fantasy horror setting given the world-building of the afterlife and the lack of connection with the real world. WW makes the existential horror more confrontational here as players also assume the role of other players' "Shadows." These act against the interests of their original PC.

West End Games is another company which took on odd licensed properties in the 1990's. Like Leading Edge and Steve Jackson, some of these made sense but others covered an incredibly niche line or setting. WG had both Star Wars and Tank Girl. Necroscope is based on the book series by Brian Lumley, a horror author who built his career on Lovecraft pastiche and lifts before finally finding a series that got him more serious attention. When this came out, about nine books of the series had been published. Necroscope has modern horror investigators with psychic powers battling ancient conspiracies. Like the books, the rpg has a heavy dose of espionage. Using the Masterbook system, Necroscope generated four supplements over the three years of publication.

16. GURPS CthulhuPunk (1995)
Going back to look at this, it isn't nearly as bad as I remember it being. Like some of the other games from this period, Cthulhupunk mashes up horror with cyberpunk, but in this case the highly specific Lovecraftian variant. It definitely lifts concepts from the CoC system (Mythos tomes for example) and tries to codify and mechanize the unspeakable. There's always a challenge to bringing a high details system in contact with a setting or genre with significant abstractions. There's something of the problem which comes from giving deities hit points. Still the book spend more time on world set up, ideas of the mythos, and how the creatures of the Mythos could run rampanent in a chrome future. despite being the product of the mid-90's, it feels less dated than many other CP books. There's interesting background and plot hooks which makes this valuable for GMs working in this territory. We've seen more recent takes on these concepts, notably CthulhuTech, so the concept still has tentacles.

17. Nightbane (1995)
Another dark modern setting where the PCs play fantastic monsters battling other fantastic and nightmarish monsters. Originally titled Nightspawn, Palladium had to change the name after Todd MacFarlane threatened a lawsuit. But it isn't Spawn that this borrows from, instead it feels more like it lifts from Clive Barker's Nightbreed. The game is more action-oriented, as are many of the Megaversal rpgs. It feels a little like all of the WoD ideas tumbled together and turned up to 11. The creator, C.J. Carella, would go on to create a number of other significant horror rpgs.

18. GURPS Voodoo (1995)
Besides GURPS Horror, Steve Jackson produced a number of other GURPS supplements with a horror bent- GURPS Monsters, GURPS Blood Types, and GURPS Creatures of the Night. I won't single out all of these in my history, just the few that stand out. GURPS Voodoo is subtitled "The Shadow War" because it isn't like other standard topic sourcebooks. Instead it presents a campaign frame of modern Voudunistas battling it out in a supernatural war. It isn't a book for how to bring Voodoo into other settings and games. The mechanics and details here focus on supporting the narrow campaign presented. It feels like a stand-alone rpg which happened to get published with the GURPS system. Again, C.J. Carella pops up here with a game which feels like a dry-run for Witchcraft.


  1. I think you mean Dylan Dog started in 1986?

    Good series so far. GURPS Voodoo has always been a supplement I really liked--and it introduces the much more real worldy ritual magic that GURPS gets more use out of in later supplements.

    1. Fixed! I ended up using G: Voodoo a couple of times. Once as a variant for the magic system, but then also as the framework for magical organizations in a superheroes campaign. The details in that remain useful for GMs.

  2. This is a great feature you're doing. I've played nearly every RPG ever made it feels like but the one area I do come up short is horror RPGs. I don't think I've even heard of a quarter of the titles you've mentioned so far.

    I've long had this idea for a horror game that, well, isn't really a horror game at all. It does what I wish Wraith: The Oblivion and other similar games would've done and has you playing a ghost as it attempts to interact with the world it left behind.

    So many ghost-oriented RPGs are about the bizarre next world or how ghosts are in danger from other spirits and such. Is that what we collectively think of when we think of ghosts?

    1. When I first picked up Wraith, I assumed that would be the approach of it- with fetters and shadows being something to overcome from one's life by interacting with it in some ways. Instead, as you say, we get a number of versions of Hell and Purgatory- which have some built-in conflict but end up being more about fantastic horror rather than a kind of redemptive or interesting exploration of character.

  3. Mmm, I remember being really interested in Dark Conspiracy when it was first appearing in ads in Dragon Magazine. Gosh I must have been, I dunno, 11 or 12 at the time. I had parents who considered me mature enough not to balk at buying me the original Shadowrun game, but I wonder if even they would've looked askance if I'd asked for *those* books.

  4. I didn't even realize that it was a near-future pseudo-cyberpunk game until years after it had gone out of print.

    My original gaming group played through a short Dark Conspiracy campaign in which the GM used the rules to run an X-Files pastiche, so I was also surprised to discover years later that we were Playing It Wrong™ and it was supposed to be a horror/cyberpunk hybrid; the title suggests something more like what we played than what we were supposed to play, after all! I was not disappointed though, as the game we played was a great deal of fun.

    1. As a long-time fan of Dark Conapiracy I don't think you were playing it wrong! The "X Files" approach is one of the most-used methods of getting a DC campaign off the ground, the equivalent of AD&D's "you meet in a tavern". The game supports every style, from a dark unremitting gloom all the way to 1950s flying saucer B-movie play.

      Latterly I have become involved in a reworking of Dark Conspiracy, and we are beefing up the "shadowy organisation" aspect...pushing the conspiracy aspect a bit more this time.

    2. Mmm, I get that. Part of the problem with all RPGs that take place in the modern age is that most people have to work for a living and, hence, can't be chasing vampires, etc. around full-time. Contrast this with fantasy, where one can chase vampires while *also* being able to happen upon piles of treasure, thus making battling evil a self-funding proposition.

      There are a few ways around this--the characters (or at least one or two of them) can be independently wealthy. Or they can be 'occult academics' and then their expeditions can be just 'taking a sabbatical' or something. Lovecraft used both of these tropes a lot.

      But absent either of those plot lines, the 'shadowy organization' is almost the only way to go. That or, maybe during an early campaign, the PCs find a briefcase of cash in the cult's wall safe . . .

  5. I'm glad you mentioned Kult. That was certainly a good one and, just as you said, I've melded it into other games (namely World of Darkness) rather than played it straight. Didn't know about a lot of these other games though.

  6. Well done Lowell for this series of articles. You know what you're talking about all right!

  7. Ugh, I remember owning Nightbane (earlier, Nightspawn). And it was so. Very. Bad.

    Part of the problem is that Palladium Books gargantuan Rifts games mashes up so many genres (scifi, fantasy, horror, adventure, action, space: it's ALL in there) that anything else they try to brand and sell just comes across as pretty pale. Like, with Rifts covering as much ground as it does now, they might as well just title everything else they're trying to sell as "Not Quite as Awesome as Rifts".

    Heck, since everything in PB uses the same rules system and the world of Rifts specifically deals with portals between many dimensions, they might as well just turn all other product lines into Rifts Dimension Books.

    About the only thing that can said about Nightspawn was that it at least didn't use unbalanceable horror that is the Mega-Damage System.