Wednesday, September 26, 2012

History of Horror RPGs (Part Seven: 2008-2009)

END TIMES DRAW NEAR
It makes a strange sense that as we draw closer to the present, I hit more and more games I wasn't aware of. Some of these games sparked briefly and went out, but some sustained themselves- I just hadn't heard of them. I could be wrong, but it feels like as the RPG industry has increased in volume, it has splintered. RPGs are already a niche and we have niches within niches. That's not a bad thing, but the tyranny of choice means I'll never have a chance to play or read many of these cool games. 

Once again, I've left some interesting titles off this list. For example, New Wave Requiem is one of the coolest ideas I've heard of. I don't think I could actually get that to the table, but I love the idea. WW's created more in that spirit, Mage Noir and Victorian Lost. Just as a concept I like those a little better than the straight historicals. I bent my rule on pdf-only products because it becomes increasingly harder to draw that line in this era. On the other hand, I left off the worthy Horror20 and Dead Reign- for reasons which made sense at the time. There's also my favorite, Adventures into Darkness, which has Lovecraft writing superhero comics. Fiasco also appears in this era and I wonder if I'm wrong to leave it off. It isn't exactly a horror game, except in the sense of personal horror. But really smart players have developed horror-based playsets like The Bookhounds, Objective Zebra, and Camp Death.


1. Trail of Cthulhu (2008)
Trail of Cthulhu takes the GUMSHOE concept and applies it to classic Lovecraftian gaming. If it just did that, I would be pretty pleased. That system for handling clues and investigations fits well with this kgenre. I've even heard rumors that CoC 7 will borrow a little from that. 

But ToC doesn't stop there. The ever excellent Ken Hite gives us his spin on Call of Cthulhu here. His approach is both erudite and playable. the monsters are handled more abstractly- for example, with an emphasis on atmospherics and suggestions on how they can be presented. The rules explicit address and build for the "Purist" and "Pulp" divide in these games. That's a refreshing change from glossing over the split. Hite also moves the timeline and history forward into the 1930's- to my mind a welcome change. I know some people love the 1920's, but the next decade offers so many darker elements and opportunities for secret and alternate history. Trail of Cthulhu sets the standard for presentation and layout as well.

If you love Call of Cthulhu, what's not to love about more lines and settings available for it? Nearly all of the material can be easily interchanged between the two. ToC has a remarkable track record of amazing sourcebooks and modules, including Hite's Bookhounds of London and Laws' The Armitage Files. For my review of ToC, see New Paths to Madness. For more, see Trail of Cthulhu: System Guide for New Gamers.

2. Zombie Cinema (2008)
This is a strange little game I hadn't heard of before researching this list. Nominated for a couple of Indie Game awards in 2008, Zombie Cinema came in a VHS box. This is a story game which might also be seen more as a board game by some. The game box contains short rules, cards, and some tokens. Players create characters and collaboratively design the story for the zombie movie. It takes its cues from the films, with players arguing over authority and the lead cutting from scene to scene. It looks interesting- a story game not unlike Fiasco- which also means that it requires the right group to play out.

A line for the new World of Darkness which splits opinion. On the one hand many hate the discarding of the supernatural elements and overarching metastory from Hunter: The Reckoning; on the other hand players like the open-ended approach of this form of Hunter. The families and archetypes for this game line are examples, rather than set and determined by the backstory. That gives it a flexibility missing from some of the other line. In some ways it fits more closely to the old VTM product- The Hunters Hunted which many expected HtR be. Hunter the Vigil has many ideas (group teamwork benefits for example) useful for other modern horror games. It is a limited series game, like Changeling the Lost and Promethean the Created.

This game has perhaps my favorite vague publisher blurb, "Ghost Stories is predicated on tales of horror and the supernatural as found in movies, comics, and books from the last several decades." Thanks for narrowing that down. This uses the genreDiversion rules to cover horror games- from classic to modern. Now if they'd said that were targeting ghost stories as a limited sub-genre, that might be interesting. But this aims to provide the bolt-on systems to run horror games in this system. That includes psychic powers, simple archetypes, and adversaries.

On my last list, I mentioned my frustration with many of these "strange new reality" horror games. These had the players observe some secret of our world and become caught up in something. Some games presented and sold their premise clearly (like Don't Rest Your Head). Others essentially said "Look, Spoooooky!" and didn't bother to clarify their hook (if they had one). Exquisite Replicas falls into the former camp. An alien reality has begun to invade and corrupt our world- replacing people, places, and things with imposters from that reality. The PCs can see these 'replicas' for what they really are. That's a simple and clear pitch- and one that invites multiple interpretations and right away suggests stories for the players. It is creepy- and I really like the cover art for the book.

Apparently Dread was originally released in 2002, but had its big publishing push in 2008. It is a modern horror game with lots of demons, black magic, and crazy occult symbology. It looks pretty metal. The back cover of the book has lots of colorful blurbs, but it isn't easy to say what the game's about (besides demons). I think you might actually be playing demon-worshippers or at least servants to demons, based on the flavor text there- but the review suggest the opposite, that you're actually hunters against those demons. Most of the reviews invoke phrases like ass-kicking, gritty, stylish, demons. It has a number of supplements out for it, Pent: The First Gospel of Pandemonium, Dire: The First Creed of Pandemonium, and Crux: The Pandemonium Scriptures Volume 1.

Also, demons. 

7. Brain Soda 2 (2008)
A French horror rpg I had to include because of the awesome name. It seems to be a tongue-in-cheek look at cinematic worlds, especially including those of horror. Supplements include a history book (for doing what looks like Clash of the Titans) and a "redneck" book (which seems to cover everything from Deliverance to Children of the Corn to Tucker and Dale Versus Evil). I don't expect an English edition of this.

8. Ghosts of Albion (2008)
This took some time to actually see print, but it has received a warm reception. It uses Unisystem to emulate Ghosts of Albion, a property created for the BBC. It offers a Victorian setting with magical intrigue and battles. Adversaries include demons, faeries, and cult members. Players can chose to be mundane or more magically connected.

9. Demon Hunters (2008)
Like Ghosts of Albion above, this is another adaptation from a licensed property. Also like GoA above, I'm not familiar with the source material. This game's based on a pair of "cult-hit" movies from Dead Gentlemen (better known around these parts for The Gamers movies). Apparently the game itself came with a special 30-minute DVD. I have to say, from the cover and blurb it is hard to tell how serious or how tongue-in-cheek this game is meant to be.

10. Cannibal Contagion (2008)
That's a great name- or at least one which makes me look twice at the game. It has survival horror with a slight twist, with cannibal lunatics instead of zombies. There are been a number of films (The Crazies) which take this premise. The recent dark and supper gory Crossed comics from Avatar also use this. Cannibal Contagion focuses on the mental & social stress and breakdown among survivors. It uses a competitive card game mechanic to play that out. That's based on a simple trump mechanic from a playing-card deck. Trumping another player's card allows someone to add narrative to the scene. That's a clever idea and establishes some flow. The longer an exchange goes on, the more damage which must be distributed. The game includes a couple of campaign set ups, including handling it as a traditional zombie game.

11. Realms of Cthulhu (2009)
Savage Worlds finally meets the Cthulhu Mythos (unless you count the various Lovecraftian lifts in Deadlands). The earlier Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu d20 demonstrated a market for the material adapted to other systems. Of course Savage Worlds showcases itself as Fast! Furious! Fun! so does that fit with nihilistic horror? It does for a certain pulpy approach to the genre- pretty popular in many circles. Realms of Cthulhu adds sanity and corruption to the rules. It keeps the 1920's setting and generally sticks to the CoC playbook rather than mixing things up too much.

12. Shadows of Cthulhu (2009)
While I knew about Realms of Cthulhu, Shadows of Cthulhu using True20 somehow passed me by. Our group tried True20 for a couple of campaigns. Some quite liked it, but it never hooked the majority. It again sticks with the base 1920's setting and essentially aims at two audiences: True20 die-hards and those who perhaps want to gently bring over hardcore d20 players over to Call of Cthulhu through a gateway system. As with RoC above, Shadows of Cthulhu is not a complete game, but requires the True20 core.

And then there's this, which calls itself Lovecraftian, but it isn't clear how much they're actually using the Mythos and how much that's become a weak adjective for horror. Dark Aeons is a diceless game which uses a substitute randomizer- cards. The threat seems to descend from old Atlantis- and the world has sorcerers, psychics, and faithful- but the blurb doesn't make clear where the PCs fit into this conflict. There seem to be conspiracy elements to the setting, but I had a hard time pulling out the premise from the publisher material. There's a weird near-future alt-history high-tech vibe to some of the material which isn't suggested elsewhere. It feels like a homebrew campaign setting people played and wanted to sell to a larger audience. However, as sometimes happens, the authors haven't figured out how to pitch what was cool about that to a larger audience.

When I see John Wick's name on something, I know I have to check it out. He always manages to add something I hadn't considered when I read through his designs- from the bizarre detail of something like Thirty to the excellent advice of Blood & Honor. Shotgun Diaries is Wick's rules-lite zombie apocalypse game. You get a simple, fast, and frantic game here. When you roll- you're killing zombies. Everything else is unimportant or the path to get to killing those zombies. Players try to accumulate dice to roll. If they fail to get a success, then the Zombie Master gets to say what happens. It is simple and effective. The game is brief but has a number of innovations, including a zombie clock which ticks by building up the next horde to face the group.

I find it interesting when we get thematic coincidences in rpgs. Exquisite Replicas presents a broad horror setting with a world being replaced by another reality (perhaps thematically borrowing from Grant Morrison's work like The Invisibles). On the other hand 44: A Game of Automatic Fear takes a narrower approach. You discover someone you know has been replaced by a robotic doppelgänger leading you into the heart of a conspiracy. It is more Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Invaders from Mars. This is a short, story-focused game. The players collaboratively build the story, with each having a set number of scenes. There's a resolution mechanic- where players can use their characters' bonds and anxieties to affect their rolls. A very cool game and freely available online. It was nominated for a couple of Indie RPG awards.

16. Vox (2009)
There are a lot of games about madness and questioning sanity in this decade. In Vox you play a character who hears voices, voices which tell you things- all kinds of things. At the table you control your own character as well as one of the voices in the head of other PCs. There's a weird meta-sense to that. One detail I appreciate is the game's flip-book design- splitting up player and GM material. Vox comes with four settings, including sci-fi horror and Lovecraftian mad science. It feels like an interesting story sandbox for more cerebral horror games.

I think one of best developments for rpgs, and horror gaming in particular, has been the rise of smaller, independently-developed games. These usually have a striking concept, simple rules, and the ability to easily pick up and play. So we've gotten ashcan, pdf-only, Lulu published, and other approaches. Rather than putting out a Big! book with detailed background, these games invite you to experience something in a short period of time. Some, like Fiasco, have taken off. The advent of 24 Hour RPG contests, Game Chef, and free rpg advocates like 1KM1KT means that we'll see more. 

Escape from Tentacle City is an independently crafted comedy-horror game nominated for an Ennie and Indie RPG award. It is a survival horror game with a focus on the bottom rungs of society. Players choose a disenfranchised group to come from; the wealthy and privileged have the resources to fly away. The game plays out as comedic social critique with the horrors of the End of Days as a backdrop. It is a collaborative, GM-less storytelling game. The Hopeless Gamer has a good review of it which you can find here.

18. Ghost/Echo (2009)
There's another interesting movement in small game development where complete games are also scenarios- like The Mountain Witch and Lady Blackbird. The game establishes a clear premise, characters (or simple creation system), and a basic resolution mechanic. Ghost/Echo begins with this idea, "While hunting for loot in the ghost world, your crew was sold out. You've walked right into an ambush, with hungry Wraiths on your heels." You have to figure everything else out from there.

19. Ocean (2009)
Another set-premise, GM-less complete system and story rpg. You could easily put together a very cool game-con built on these kinds of games. In Ocean, players take the role of amnesiac survivors on an abandoned undersea research station. A classic set up, echoing Grace Under Pressure and the films Leviathan & Deep Star Six.

I also have to point out how smart some of these indie publications are. They have a handle on graphic design, presentation, and layout. They value economy over endless detail. They trust players and GMs to make fun with relatively modest tools. They offer a clear hook they show right away to potential readers. They also have some amazing covers- knowing how important that is to getting attention. As a result you get some of the coolest cover images in this period.

20. Slasher Flick (2009)
You also get some of the worst cover images in this period. The game may be great, but I'm likely to pass it by just based on that image. Most of the reviews I've read of it have been positive- suggesting that it does what it sets out to do. Slash Flicker is just that, a game where you play the victims in a Slasher film. The system increases the body count by allowing players to control more than one character. For a quite positive review of this game, see Review: impressive and fun horror movie genre emulation.

21. Roaring Twilight (2009)
Ok, I think I owe Slasher Flick an apology- this may be a worse cover. I'm not sure what to make of this game. Roaring Twilight is set in an alternate 1920's populated by supernatural beings: vampires, werewolves, naga, demons, etc. You can play a supernaturals or just a human. Exactly what the game's about isn't clear from the blurbs- is it a hunter game? monster game? slice-of-life in a weird world game? I so strongly associate the 1920's with Lovecraftian gaming that I have a hard time picturing the point of this. Is it embracing that period for a reason? I'm imagining a mash-up of The Great Gatsby and Twilight. But I suppose that if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sells, then that's not too far a leap. Still, wow, that cover.

22. Terror Thirteen (2009)
Ok, I owe Roaring Twilight an apology- this is a worse cover. Terror Thirteen is another broad-ranging generic horror rpg intended to emulate all periods. The publisher suggests, "...While other games have focused on adventure horror, this game focuses on supernatural and cosmic horror as imagined by masters like Shelley, Stoker, Hawthorne, Poe and Stevenson as well as those stories told by modern masters in film and literature." I'm not sure that actually narrows anything down. It uses a basic system with an emphasis on relationships- bonds- as a means of defining character.

23. Zombacalypse (2009)
In a smart move companies have begun to publish RPGs in multiple editions across several systems. Easy DTP, POD and pdf technology have made this process easier. It still requires experts in each system, but it significantly increases the potential audience. So we get great products like Ken Hite's Adventures into Darkness & The Day After Ragnarok, the new edition of Earthdawn, and The Kerberos Club appearing in multiple forms. Zombacalypse shows up first in a version for the Aether system, and later for Savage Worlds. It offers a zombie sourcebook with advice for how to introduce the concept into any setting. It has the drawback of being the game name I'm most likely to mangle while pronouncing.

So...yeah...Geist. I read the publicity materials when it came out, and it sounded like a version of the older Mummy: The Resurrection premise with Voudon names. I could be wrong. All I knew was that it didn't hook me when I read the blurbs for it. Let me go and check Wikipedia...hold on. 

OK, so it still looks a little like Mummy, with a different cosmology. The characters have died and been given a chance to return but bound to spirits of death, the 'Sin-Eaters' of the subtitle. The grid here for the PCs is based on Thresholds, relating to manner of death, and Archetypes, based on the spirits views on their experience. It doesn't seem to have too much voodoo connection, except perhaps for the term krewes as a group of Sin-Eaters. While there are some other adversaries, the central PC purpose seems to be finding and putting to rest lost souls. There's a lot of new terminology flying around in this setting and system, symptomatic to the new World of Darkness' approach. I'd hate to run a cross-system game and try to keep things straight.

I really wish I liked the Cortex system more- I own Smallville, Serenity, and Leverage. I'm not sure what doesn't hook me: presentation, multiple die types, or something else. What I really need to do is play or watch a well-run session of one of these games. Perhaps then I'll appreciate how it works; many smart people love the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying system using Cortex. Supernatural uses these to simulate the ongoing TV show. That suggests one of the difficulties facing licensed games. On the one hand, if the show is over and complete, you have access to everything that's been done (Babylon-5, Army of Darkness). But you also have an audience which may have moved on to other series. On the other hand, if the show/product's ongoing then you potentially have material which can change things slightly and require updating (Buffy, Angel) or completely invalidate what you've done (DC Adventures). Several seasons have broadcast since this book appeared. As with most of the Weis licensed products, the publishers have produced a couple of support books, enough to run a solid campaign. But I'm not sure if they still have the license or if they plan to publish a "yearbook" covering more recent developments.