Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Behold the Beast: Last Thoughts on Horror RPGs for October

On this, the last day of October, I return to horrors. Over the past couple of months, I’ve cataloged a couple hundred horror rpgs and supplements- some described and others merely mentioned in passing. When I was growing up my favorite gaming books were essentially just lists of the various wargames and rpgs available (Dunnigan’s Complete Wargames Handbook for example). So I’ve always had a fondness for that kind of cataloging. But I didn’t just want a list- because you can find most of that basic info online with a cursory search. Instead I tried to provide “value-added” entries with some discussion and review of the games. I also tried to offer some historical context. Below I present a few last thoughts on horror rpgs- things which struck me as I assembled the lists. I have a couple of questions for readers as well. Some things I still haven’t gotten to- for example, it would be worth really looking at the evolution of sanity and other breakdown mechanics in these games. Call of Cthulhu began with that innovation and other horror systems have been working variants on it ever since. I do have to thank the podcast Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff for spurring me to do this. They made a comment about how many “firsts” CoC had brought to gaming and that got me to look and assemble that first list.

These History of Horror RPG lists generated decent response, I suspect in part because I started with a popular genre. I ended up almost overwhelmed by the volume of material available. I’d like to do another set of rpg histories, and I’d like some feedback on which genre I should do next: Espionage, Mecha, Post-Apocalypse, Steampunk/Victoriana, Superhero, or Western. I’ve set up a poll to the side for voting, and I’ll take that into consideration.

The Problem of Post-Apocalypse
A major problem in assembling the lists of horror rpgs arose from labeling games as horror or not. For example, I hadn’t pictured Mage as a horror game, but at least one commenter said they’d seen and played it that way. The same for Changeling the Lost, where I found the opposite response. Some games advertise themselves as horror but really seem to be combat or tactical military games. Does the inclusion of supernatural elements or monsters automatically make something a horror game? Is it a useful distinction to say that something’s a horror game? Ken Hite has suggested that horror might be better seen as an aspect, like Steampunk- an aesthetic or set of elements which can be dropped into a genre. That’s interesting- and helps with the other problem that these games have two distinct forms: as written and as played. I’ve seen plenty of games which looked like horror, but the rules didn’t focus or really support the horror idea. And, of course, there’s the case of Vampires being played as superheroes.

I had to think hardest about the various post-apocalypse games on the list. Some of them obviously fit- with demonic or zombie invasions. But even some of those cases really just focused on blowing things up- even though the set up itself offered truly terrifying implications. It may be that when I think about Post Apocalypse games, my imagination naturally stresses the horrific elements of them. When it comes down to it, any post-apocalypse game can descend into those tropes. Even something as dry and procedural as Twilight 2000 deals in a dark world of the struggle for survival. It is effectively The Walking Dead without zombies (or Revolution, I guess, which I hear is a terrible show). Is Apocalypse World horror- or is it just horrifying? It isn’t supernatural horror- but rather an existential horror, depending on how the GM dials up the nihilism. I suspect that’s based on how the GM frames it- a slice of unpleasant life drama, a building game, a forced march towards oblivion…

The Hunting Continuum
Many games are about hunters- people thrust directly into a role of pursuing or investigating evil. This isn’t about survival, but active pursuit of scary stuff. Call of Cthulhu starts this and establishes one end of the spectrum- the Weak Hunters. These are characters who aren’t even close in power to their enemies. They’re normal humans who can, on occasion through luck, manage to find a way to defeat a more powerful adversary. They lack special powers and won’t truly advance through the course of the game. Even the most powerful weapons they can muster- spells and grimoires- will destroy them in the process. One step up from these might be the Prepared or Supported Hunter. They have access to a patron or group (Chill) and/or to specialized equipment (Ghostbusters or Rippers). Alternately, these could simply be normal characters but they actually get significantly better as the game goes on, unlike CoC. One step further and we get to Hunters with innate powers and abilities- magic, psionic, heightened talents (Buffy, Hunter). What’s interesting is that this end of the spectrum then starts to bleed into Monsters. Vampire and other games like it often have a frame in which the characters are effectively hunters battling even worse threats.

It would be interesting to map hunter games on a graph, with “power” on one axis and “willingness” on the other. In Call of Cthulhu, investigators are often thrust into the situation without choice. They eventually may come to see this as a duty, but based on self-preservation or fatalism. The “Drives” system of Trail of Cthulhu reflects this. The protagonists of Changeling the Lost are truly reluctant hunters, torn between their instinct for self-preservation and need to fight back against those who did this to them. Some games have hunters who stumble into the world or who are recruited by a more potent force or group (Delta Green and Witch Hunter: The Invisible World). Some have the fight simply as a matter of existence (Vampire, Little Fears), while others live for that battle (Werewolf the Apocalypse).

Rent Veils
I was surprised to see how many horror games used the “Rent Veil” approach. Essentially ordinary people get a peek behind the curtain and the horrors therein. In some ways, Call of Cthulhu is the prototype of this. But many of these games are more psychological or surreal: Kingdom of Nothing, Don’t Rest Your Head, .44: The Game of Automatic Fear. These games split pretty evenly between the characters put under threat by the revelation and the characters becoming hunters. The “Secret World” idea’s a cool one- especially as it allows the GM to slowly build up the situation. At least part of the play comes from exploring and learning the rules of the world. In many ways Harry Potter’s another version of this. In horror games, however, the world revealed isn’t a nice one- it is terrifying and awful. It can offer the existential dilemma of something like The Matrix or They Live. Often the hidden secrets presented are supremely creepy and cool.

But cool isn’t enough. I hit a number of these games which presented a freaky world of high weirdness, but fail to explain what the players actually do. Sometimes that’s a problem in the blurb, cover material, or publisher website. I hunted through those trying to get a sense to no avail. I had to track down the game or read multiple reviews to figure out what the play was actually about. In a couple of cases, even that didn’t help. The rules would present the strange world but offer no sense of what a campaign looked like. That’s not a great approach- it may be intriguing, but ultimately what it says to me is that your idea isn’t fully formed or that it is too weak to actually be presented as tabletop play. A few games went even further- simply suggesting the set-up was Scary!, but not explaining any further- just a couple of cryptic comments and enigmatic first-person quotes. That’s a huge turn off for me. There are so many great games out there- you need to sell me on the fun of your game. Tell me straight up; if you can’t do that then there might be something wrong with the structure of the game.

Two horror sub-genres surprised me with their sheer volume. First, the prevalence of Horror Comedy felt weird because I find comedy rpgs difficult to pull off. I think Ghostbusters works, but many other games which want to be funny seem to push things too far and descend into the goofy or crude. Many horror comedy games are simply parody of other games (Vampire Hunter$, Bloodsucker the Angst). Others parody genre films (Brain Soda, Scared Stiff) and some go for tongue-in-cheek gaming (Tales from the Crypt, Cannibal Contagion). The most interesting of these may be the games that add horror lightly to a more serious game set up (SLA Industries, The Shab al-Hibri Roach, Escape from Tentacle City). The difficulty with humor in rpgs is that breaking into humor already operates as a release valve in these games. Players instinctively move to jokes and comedy as a means to escape tension. When you start out from the funny, you usually have to stay funny or go absurdist. It is more difficult to move to horror from there. A counter example might be Shawn of the Dead which uses light comedy to set up and underscore the horror which follows. Hmmm…

Second, I was surprised at the number of “Perilous Children” games- a horror game with children as protagonists (either pursued or as hunters). I’d known about most of the games of this type, but I hadn’t really seen that as distinct set of games. The ever-excellent blog Shorty Monster has a great post on this topic- Playing as Children. To his list of games, I’d add a couple of others- KidWorld and The Creep Chronicle. But I’d also offer another game which follows the same pattern, John Wick's Cat. In that game you play ordinary housecats trying to protect your owners from threats and monsters they cannot see. There’s a parallel here- playing the weakest or most underestimated heroes in the face of terrors. That’s a real challenge and worth playing every once in a while to mirror and play against standard rpg approaches.

Questions for Readers
  1. I’m amazed at the diversity of sci-fi horror. From cyberpunk to transhumanist to deep space, it was a particular combination of genres I hadn’t expected. Interestingly the tropes of what I consider a classic horror sci-fi series- Alien- appear less as horror rpgs and more as combat-heavy games (Aliens, Bughunters). Two thoughts/questions: First, Are there some other classic sci-fi series which haven’t yet been subject to a horror treatment and could be done in an interesting way? In my mind I’m picturing the Foundation series, Dune, or Lord of Light done more darkly. Second, what’s the best sci-fi horror game- and why?
  2. History gaming can be hard- certainly with a few exceptions, historical games haven't gained ground like others. But there’s a number of historical (or pseudo-historical) periods which have several horror games associated with them: Roman Empire, Middle Ages, and Victoriana/Steampunk, for example. Are there untapped historical periods, cultures, and settings which lend themselves to horror?
  3. Do we need all of these Zombie RPGs? Discuss.

Final Thoughts
That’s it- Happy Halloween everyone! Vote up top if there’s a particular genre you think is worth looking at further. I’ll continue this series at the end of December when I survey all of the Horror RPGs published in 2012. 

See also: History of Horror RPGs (Part One: 1981-1990)
History of Horror RPGs (Part Two: 1991-1995)
History of Horror RPGs (Part Three: 1996-2000)
History of Horror RPGs (Part Four: 2001-2003)
History of Horror RPGs (Part Five: 2004-2005)

History of Horror RPGs (Part Six: 2006-2007) 
History of Horror RPGs (Part Seven: 2008-2009)
History of Horror RPGs (Part Eight: 2010-2011)
List of the Missing: Bits Left off My History of Horror RPGs
The Best in Horror RPGs: Unfair Verdicts
Behold the Beast: Last Thoughts on Horror RPGs for October

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Starros are Right! Superheroes: Year One Ends

Last Wednesday saw the final session of my G+ Mutants & Masterminds campaign. It went out with an epic finish. Here are the AARs of the final two sessions. 

Session Twelve: The Starros are Right!:
Firstwave pulled back from the dockyard battle, leaving behind a cloak of cold to conceal their retreat. Back at Stark Labs, they launched into repairs and medical treatment to recover from the overwhelming fight. While they had managed to disable the Devilfish’s production facility, it had been operating for days- meaning that the tainted beverages had spread out across the city. Reports began to come in from multiple locations- as power, emergency services, traffic, and communications began to go haywire. Could the packages which the Devilfish had been unloading from the vessel and sending out been Starros? Perhaps fully formed and not requiring the energy burst.

Mr. Freeze assembled the group and after some discussion divided tasks among them. Most importantly, he and iron Man worked on figuring out a means of disrupting or disabling the activation signal, a burst would they believed would come from a STAR Labs satellite in geosynchronous orbit over New York. They worked feverishly on the project, enlisting any staff members still present at the late hour. The collapsing communications network made the research even more difficult. However both master scientists finally made a breakthrough. They created a multi-part shield which would interfere with the incoming energy wave. They assembled this and set it up on the highest points of the city. While Starro and the Devilfish might have other operations in the works, the two experts had managed to put a complete stop to the most insidious plot.

Mister Miracle, working as best he could with the collapsing news and broadcast systems prepared a warning statement from Firstwave, telling people to stay indoors and avoid bottled beverages. However, Miracle’s gift for hyperbole got away from him. His reputation as a showman and stunt artist uncercut his message. Meanwhile Nightcrawler travelled to The Raft Superhuman Containment Facility. The group had been attacked by several supervillains who should have been incarcerated there. Nightcrawler found a breach in the outer wall and several Starro’d guards patrolling the nearly empty site. He located Mysterio who had seen the Warden distributing Starro’s and had hidden himself. Nightcrawler released him after obtaining a pledge that he would assist the group. Heading back to Stark Enterprises, Nightcrawler tried to bring some order to the streets- as chaos began to spread across the city. Miracle called in his favors and contacted both the Black Knight’s group and Team Fury. Both said they would attempt to make their way to the Stark Facility.

Thor, meanwhile, tracked down Dr. Werner, the man who had originally asked Stretch Jackson to locate the Magus Gem. Werner, an older and scarred scientist, reluctantly told Thor the story of the Gem. It had been taken by LexCorp from a vessel they had recovered. The Magus Gem had been affixed to the outside of the veseel. Inside, they found many other crystals, though these were translucent. They also found a child inside, a young man with extraordinary powers. LexCorp, under Luthor’s direction, had begun to study the boy, the ship, and the crystals. The young man grew into his powers- appearing human but for the tiny wings on the sides of his feet. Then, less than a decade ago, the now grown test subject had escaped- displaying amazing strength, flight, and toughness. Shortly after, the vessel was sabotaged and destroyed. The crystals from the vessel vanished, along with the chief researcher working on the project, Dr. Reed Richards.

The group reassembled and tried to plan their next move. They needed to find a way to deal with the mind control and make their way to the heart of the enemy’s stronghold. However the front windows of the lab suddenly exploded inward as a team of Starro’d villains and heroes blasted their way inside- Thunderball, Lashina, Mad Harriet and Granny Goodness lead the charge- accompanied by Firstwave’s own teammates, Sarge Steel and Stretch Jackson. Miracle engaged with the Furies and their leader- with Mr. Freeze coordinating efforts to take down the bad guys one at a time. Nightcrawler handled crowd control, moving Thunderball off the scene to give the group some breathing room. Though Lashina went down quickly, the team found themselves locked up- as Stretch grabbed and secured Iron Man for some time and Sarge Steel went toe-to-toe with Nightcrawler. Eventually they managed to even up the numbers and finally took all of them down- Miracle using Granny’s own weapons against her and Thor playing clean up. Three members of the Furies arrived to assist them- the Medic, Spy, and Pyro- but the Black Knight seemed to have his hands full.

They quickly secured the villains. After some consideration they began testing the Starro’s- confirming their thermal vision and that attempting removal physically caused damage to their hosts. Iron Man hit on a possible solution- rigging up a close range device which projected the same energy Fenton had used on them earlier. This worked- causing the Starro to release which the group immediately captured. Granny Goodness awoke and eyed them suspiciously. The others treated were also released, but lacking Granny’s New God stamina, remained unconscious. Granny told them that they had little time to spare- the stars would be right soon enough. She could aid them- her price being release- which Miracle agreed to if she immediately returned to Apokolips. She told them that Miracle’s Mother Box could open a Boom Tube to the heart of Starro’s realm, Atlantis itself. They had no time to dawdle, no time to delay and prepare. The group readied themselves as best they could- with some life support, rigged up underwater precautions, a rickety touch-range version of Fenton’s device, and the six untested and unproved protection torcs Iron Man had built when they fought Fenton. With only minutes to spare, they opened the Boom Tube and stormed Atlantis, stronghold of Starro and the Last Son of Lemuria, Nam-Or.

Session Thirteen: The Final Hour
Firstwave, accompanied by Granny Goodness and three members of Team Fury, entered the Boom Tube. Immediately Miracle could feel that something was wrong- as the energies of Atlantis crackled and disrupted their exit. The group found themselves in a massive temple- underwater, for they could see the dark ocean in the distance. But something held that back leaving them free to breath and they could set aside those precautions. They barely had time to register the scenery before they had to leap into action- taking advantage of their surprise. The room held a dozen Atlantaens and Deep One Agents and a host of Starro’d superbeings: Manchester Black, Sonny Sumo, MODOK, Ms. Marvel, The Engineer, NoMan, Yes Man, Diablo, and Moon Knight. Scattered across the massive area, the team tried to coordinate as best they could.

Iron Man reacted first, using the makeshift anti-Starro device on NoMan. The star came free and the villain collapsed. Iron man followed up with a rapid shot to the Starro to keep if from leaping on anyone else. Meanwhile the others engaged the biggest threat, Ms. Marvel. They teamed up to bring her down, but she shrugged off many of their hits before finally being stunned. However the group found themselves ganged up on- with the Engineer taking advantage of the opening to let loose with autofire volleys at Mr. Freeze and Thor. Granny Goodness followed her own agenda- striking down Miracles possessed friend Sonny Sumo and then battering him into unconsciousness. She then vanished out a side door. Team Fury, on the other hand, stood their ground, backing up Firstwave and using their abilities to assist them.

Iron Man took a pounding, as Manchester Black let loose on him with a mental blast. Stark pressed on- freeing Daiblo from the Starro influence. Unlike others released, he did not collapse but instead joined in the fight. Nightcrawler, seeing an opportunity teleported across the field and took the Anti-Starro device. His mobility, combined with Iron Man’s resilience might be the key to victory. Miracle, Freeze, and Thor, however found themselves tied up in a battle with half a dozen troops, Yes Man, the Engineer, and Ms. Marvel. All of the heroes took hits- with Team Fury’s Medic saving them from collapse several times. Nightcrawler and Iron Man continued to take out bad guy after bad guy, even as more villains arrived- including a possessed Enchantress and the Executioner. Despite the beating Kurt and Shellhead took, they dispatched Manchester Black, MODOK, and the Enchantress. However the device shorted out on this last release- and the team lost their key advantage. Everyone continued to be battered, bruised, and stunned by their opponents- Moon Knight gaining the upper hand on Iron Man and Freeze taking more fire from the Engineer.

The situation grew even more perilous when a streak shot into the room- shattering the room next to Nightcrawler. The figure stood and cried out “Imperious Rex.” This, then, was the Last Son of Lemuria, the Mighty Nam-Or. He was accompanied by a Naga Priest wearing the Serpent Crown and his lover Mera, wearing an ancient magical belt. Undaunted, the team coordinated and with a series of mighty blows finally knocked Ms. Marvel unconscious. But two of Team Fury dropped from attacks, leaving only the Spy conscious. Then Nam-Or leapt across the field and drove his trident through Diablo, impaling and killing him. Miracle felt the release of energy which signaled the death of a New God. That puzzle would have to wait.

Freeze held the line- keeping back many opponents and skirting between consciousness and collapse. Iron Man switched up their tactics- grabbing the Serpent Crown from the Naga Priest. Immediately he realized that his conventional powers would not be equal to the task of destroying the relic. It would require potent magical forces. Nightcrawler grabbed the other two relics, the Trident and Belt and moved away to the side. Mister Miracle threw himself into the fray- keeping the titanic villains at bay- until a blow staggered him. At the same time, Granny Goodness reappeared and moved to the temple doors behind the throne. She fell back, her arms across her face- shouting that it was too late. From the doorway poured forth Starro the Conquerer- crushing Granny beneath his bulk.

Nightcrawler put the three relics into the hands of a beaten and battered Thor even as staggered Freeze and Miracle kept the enemies away. Thor raised his hammer, recognizing what would happen if he struck the three items, each a powerful nexus of Eldritch force. He screamed for the others to escape. Miracle grabbed up the Spy and the Medic, while Nightcrawler teleported Iron Man and Mr. Freeze. Thor brought his might Uru Hammer, Mjolner down and shattered the relic. The wave blasted out into those connected with the items. The explosion tore the complex apart- destroying the temple, releasing the forces of the held back ocean, and burying the stunned Starro, Namor and the others under the debris.

Firstwave activated their survival gear and shot to the surface, they then immediately launched back under the waves, searching for survivors. Some of the possessed villains had survived and were arrested- including Manchester Black and NoMan. However the Asgardians Executioner and Enchantress vanished- along with the body of Granny Goodness. Ms. Marvel, the Engineer, Sonny Sumo, and Yes Man survived; Moon Knight’s body remained mysteriously absent. The heroes counted their own cost: Pyro from Team Fury died in the collapse. And, even closer to home, the Mighty Thor had been destroyed- sacrificing himself to bring defeat to the Otherworldly Invader.

I was nervous about this campaign at first- unsure about the tools and running a higher crunch system than I usually do. But I like M&M quite a bit and once I got my feet under me I figured out ways to make it move more quickly. I liked the players and the game so much I agreed to run another arc in a couple of months. I originally had planned this as a one off thing, but i had a blast. I don't think I can overstate how great the play group was- their enthusiasm, interest, and planning convinced me to do another story. 

Previous Superhero: Year One Posts

Monday, October 29, 2012

Rippers: RPG Settings I Like

Last week in my survey of my favorite horror RPGs I’d read and those I wanted to read I mentioned Rippers. By happy coincidence that game appeared as a freebie for RPG Now’s Halloween Giveaway. I downloaded the pdf and read through it pretty quickly.

There had been a few Victoriana Horror sourcebooks before Rippers- GURPS Screampunk, Victorian Age Vampire, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Dracula, and even Ravenloft’s Gothic Horror sub-setting Masque of Red Death. Rippers came out at a time when Steampunk and Victoriana themes and aesthetics had picked up speed in rpgs. It was also before the heat of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had been tempered by the wet rag that was the movie.

Rippers presents a world of pulp-gothic monster-hunters, under siege but also armed with a variety of weird weapons and technology. They’ve come to be called the Rippers because they use “Ripper-tech” organic implants and extracts used to borrow powers and strengths from the monsters they fight. They need those to even the odds against their more powerful foes, The Cabal. This group, formed by a renegade member of the Rippers, is dedicated to organizing dark forces and exterminating the monster hunters. It’s a world-spanning concept, aiming at investigation and action. It has a dark-side too- with as the use of Rippertech corrupts. In that way, it’s a little like Cyberpunk- with a trade-off of humanity for power.

Rippers is a setting sourcebook for Savage Worlds- though an earlier edition of that system. I assume converting it to the most recent version wouldn’t be hard. I’ve read a couple of SW setting books before- Sundered Skies and the original version of Necessary Evil. As someone who usually adapts these concepts over to homebrew systems, I appreciate the simplicity of SW. It gets out of the way pretty quickly and offers few weird corner case systems. I can eyeball most conversions. It also means that less of any particular book is given over to mechanics. There’s more room for cool ideas.

Rippers is a 146 page-pdf, with color interiors and backgrounds. The pdf file comes with a printer-friendly version as well. Currently Rippers is out of print and only available electronically. I’m a little surprised that they haven’t done a “Reloaded” version, but perhaps sales weren’t strong enough. The lines support by a Rippers Companion, several adventures, and a GM screen. There’s also Rippers: the Horror Wars, a miniatures game I missed- it may have come first. (I’ll have to see if I can find any of those figures. The text design for Rippers is pretty much classic mid-00’s Pinnacle; simple two-column layout, with plenty of white space, and some odd font choices. The color texture background on the pages can be obtrusive reading on a tablet- so you might want to use the printer-friendly version. The art’s decent in most places, but nothing really grabs me. The writing’s generally good- simple and straight to the point. There’s some repetition, but the book aims for clarity. It offers an alternative to dense, elaborate, and/or ‘sophisticated’ approaches to rules writing. At times it feels a little dummied down, but never enough to annoy. It avoids the cardinal sin of too much game fiction.

Rippers begins by offering some suggestions for archetypes. These are just brief paragraphs ideas in case players might be stuck. There’s a certain amount of that in this character- helping hands for people who might not know the genre or might not know role-playing. More of the section is given over to the mechanics, especially what makes these characters different from the usual SW build. Rippers has a few new hindrances and many new edges related to the setting. Characters can come from different factions within the Ripper community (Rosicrucian, Masked Crusader, Slayers, etc). Each offers a unique faction edge the player may take. There’s a decent section on possessions with costs adapted to an abstract decimal pound system. Rippers has some fun and wierd equipment.

The changes from standard SW comes with the new Reason Trait, Status, Lodges, and the availability of Rippertech. Reason is a kind of sanity/stability score, which can go negative. It modifies Spirit checks as well as rolls on the Fright Table, which the book offers an expanded version of. Incidents and use of Rippertech can negatively impact Reason. The Status system is simple- a value which can be wagered to gain an advantage in social interactions. Doing unseemly things can lower one’s status as well- and even among the fraternity of the Rippers, status is all-important. There’s a well done and easy to manage system for tracking Lodges for the Rippers. These are measured on Influence, Resources, Membership, and Facilities. When PCs travel to new locales, they may be faced with inadequate local support- or be able to call on better assistance than back home. The rules include options for the party starting and developing their own lodges. That’s a useful, simple, and adaptable set of rules for SW and other games in general

The most alluring aspect for the players will be Rippertech- allowing the players to emulate or borrow the powers of monsters. So they can gain Retinal Grants, Talons, Gills or the like. These can be implants or extracts. The former requires a test to see if they can be implanted successfully. Even a successful implant can cause Reason loss, inflict damage, and curse the character with side effects. Raises on skill rolls can mitigate that. Players may press their luck- the rules make it easy to go overboard and have your character lose it. Those wishing a less dangerous and less permanent benefit can use extracts- with more modest risks (especially when compounding benefits). Characters can also research new Rippertech, an interesting and difficult process. At first it appears there aren’t that many options available for the players- they may be disappointed. However the GM section contains many other options, which they can dole out to the group later.

The first part of the GM’s section (30-58) lays out the world and how to run in it. It begins by describing the real history behind the Ripper orders and the threats facing it. The material's quick and broadly sketched. Likewise the longer section following, describing all the sections of the world, only features highlights. There’s an odd focus which the political figures in charge in each nation- suggesting that the authors see that as a key detail. Countries get a micro-political history, accompanied by some strange sites of interest. Most have a tag which indicates an adventure seed in the last half of the book. The world background’s lightly done and what’s there is a hodge-podge. GM’s interested in the period will probably want to fleshing it out with rpg sources- The Imperial Age, The Kereberos Club, Victoriana, and even Castle Falkenstein.

The GM section also has an decent discussion of period travel- and how to make interludes between destinations interesting and colorful. Players rushing into foreign Ripper Lodges may have to negotiate and become accepted, a nice detail as well. The section includes many pages of new Rippertech and further discussion of the challenges and perils of developing new forms. There’s even a macabre section of Cabal-developed Rippertech, using the Rippers themselves as a resource.

Finally the adventures and opposition section takes up the rest of the book (59- 137). Fourteen pages cover a detailed and rich adventure generator system. I really like this. I’ve seen these things done half-assed in other books- just a couple of pages of tables. Rippers offers many options, well-detailed, allowing the GM to craft distinct story types. It helps model the kinds of tales and sessions this setting involves. That’s followed by 42 pages of Savage Tales- adventure seeds well sketched out, but with wiggle room for the GM. Some of these are stronger than others. A few of them feel like dummied-down versions of horrors and concepts from other games and stories. For example, the Rippers' take on The King in Yellow is pretty pedestrian. There’s also the desire to throw in every period reference and detail they can. Still there’s enough here for the GM to run many, many sessions of cool stories- many linked to the earlier geography section.

As with most Savage Worlds setting books, there’s also a “Plot Point” campaign, linked Savage Tales which form a campaign backbone telling a sweeping and complete tale of the Rippers. The book wraps up with many pages of enemies and allies. Each has simple and clear details, stat blocks which don’t feel like stat blocks. There’s a nice mix of general adversaries (werewolves, ghosts) and unique named baddies. A few offer new ideas and takes on classic monsters, but most stay pretty conventional.

I generally enjoyed this book- despite it feel a little simplistic. GMs who have read other games covering the period or who know the history/literature of it may be disappointed by the detail. Newer gamers may actually find one of the more accessible approaches to Victoriana gaming- relying of basic tropes and focusing on only a couple key details of the period (status and travel). But more importantly, the key idea- of an ancient society of monster hunters tempted by the lure of monstrous bio-tech is a great one. That’s a new spin worth playing out. It works especially well for a fast, action-oriented, and pulpy campaign. The dilemma of the Rippertech is clear and graspable by a group. I can easily imagine adapting this to another light system. You could also take that central concept and use it in a modern or other horror setting (dungeon delvers who steal parts from monsters?). A clever GM moving the timeline forward might make a connection between this Cabal and the one present in GURPS Cabal. A fun book and one worth tracking down.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Shadows Over Vathak: The Doom That Came to Ravenloft?

Fantasy Horror’s tough. In classic fantasy games you’ve got people with magic swords and fiery magic descending into underground lairs to kick monster ass. How do you actually scare a player besides threatening to take their stuff away? Shadows Over Vathak presents “A Campaign Setting Book of Lovecraftian Survival Horror.” If you’re doing fantasy and horror there will be inevitable comparisons to Ravenloft. Shadows Over Vathak invites that comparison- presenting elements like vampires, gothic attire, and pseudo-gypsies. But it wants to be darker than that- does it succeed?

I should note that while SoV is a Pathfinder product, I’m not a PF gamer- not really a d20 or 4e person either. So in my review I’m not looking at the system mechanics, feats, balance, add-ons, or rules. Instead I’m focusing on Shadows Over Vathak as a sourcebook and setting for playing a fantasy horror game. What does it offer? Is it interesting? Is it consistent?

Shadows Over Vathak is 258 pages in pdf form. The book uses the classic two-column layout with decent text design. The body text font’s a little small- but it never feels dense. It has several different fonts but the application is consistent and doesn’t go overboard. The pages have an elaborate grey-scale background which gets in the way in the corners from time to time. It looks cool and atmospheric, but also busy. I haven’t tried to print the pages so I’m not sure how that would impact. SoV is generally readable on PC screen and tablet. There’s original artwork throughout the book- some of it quite nice. The art’s uncredited in the book, but the publisher told me it ought to be listed as “Rick Hershey and Team Fat Goblin.” I’d be curious about some of the individual credits for the art here. The character art’s quite good and the monsters are especially disturbing as befits the genre. The writing’s solid, but there are some typos and clunky sentences throughout. Some of that’s rulespeak and some of that could be solved by editing for tightness. The book lacks an index, which is too bad, though the front one-page index should steer users.

The page and a half preliminary material for Shadows Over Vathak is titled “Never Explain Anything.” That’s an odd statement- but one the authors hold to in a couple of ways. SoV began as a 24 hour rpg challenge- combining Lovecraftian/Eldritch horror and Survival horror. The material apparently takes place in the same world as Steampunk Musha (which will apparently be coming out in PF form). That takes place on an isolated island on the world of Vathak, one apparently not riven by the same forces as the one described in the book. The basic premise is that the rapid expansion of an Empire caused the release of “Old Ones” who have corrupted the land. The problem I have here is that the book doesn’t do a great job of setting the context- when did this happen? how long ago are we talking? Some of the tone seems to suggest these events are recent, while others that it took place generations ago. What’s the speed of this threat? Even as you read further it isn’t clear. There’s a suggestion early on that this will be a survival horror setting, but it looks much more conventional. The Old Ones look more like Big Bad with corruption as its forte. These seem to be forces and creatures which have been operating for many, many generations, rather than a recent and critical event. I think that needs to be made clearer at the beginning along with a sense of what the players will actually be doing in the setting: typical adventuring or something else? Having that information before plunging into 100+ pages of character creation options would help put that material in context.

The first chapter covers the unique races/ethnicities of Vathak. SoV chooses not to capitalize the names of the different ‘races’- which I assume is a style guideline from Pathfinder. It took me a bit to get used to. The book presents six races- breaking down the basics, in about a page and then moving to practical matters. These include alternative racial traits, the race as different classes, and favored class options. I’d have liked a little more background on the groups- especially for the more marginal and evil tendering ones. How do those fit within a group? What might drive such people to become PC types? The six are:

Bhriota: A darker skinned, tribal group who practice ritual scarification. They worship the Old Ones. The race seems to lift from some of the more unpleasant aspects of Lovecraft- his association with dark or swarthy skinned folk with evil and bestial natures. That might be problematic for some groups. I would like to see some ideas on the challenges of playing a bhriota character against that type.
Cambion: In classic D&D, cambions are half-human/half-demon. Here they’re a race of people mutated by the taint of ancient evil. Physical deformity accepted as a sign of corruption. Cambions have a huge set of social disadvantages against them- essentially being seen by all races as monsters. I’d like to see some discussion of how that works in the context of an adventuring party.
Dhampir: Child of a vampire father and human mother (and not apparently the other way around ever). They have some disadvantages associated with that, but some of that can be bought off with alternative traits. These aim for more gothic horror than Lovecraftian.
Romni: The gypsy race of the Vathak setting. They have some negative social limitations, but nothing as severe as the cambion. Romni who interact with outsiders are seen as unclean for the rest of their lives- putting some real obstacles to plots in their way.
Svirfneblin: Sinister gnomes, depicted in the illustrations with a generally oriental appearance. They live deep underground close to the horrors invading the world.
Vindari: The most wide-spread and imperious of the human races. Their invasion seems to have triggered off the bad stuff--they are closest to the typical human of other fantasy games.

The book also has some notes on using the standard fantasy races- with a twist. Most dwarves, elves, gnomes, and haflings, have been exterminated or enslaved- usually by the Vindari. It adds another layer of complexity to the question: how can these characters get along without killing each other?

As with any sourcebook of this kind, soV offers some new classes:
Apostle: Lawful good servants of The One True God. Looks like a compromise between cleric and paladin.
Blade Slinger: Speedy throwing experts.
Eldritch Conjuror: Spell user messing with the dark arts and slowly being corrupted and driven insane by them. Yet another way to make your party divisive. Some interesting NPC ideas here, moreso than PC. I like that they get “Idols” to worship and invoke.
Rifleer: A gunslinger, but with a rifle.
Sword Dancer: Speedy sword experts.

The section which follows looks at all of the standard classes as well as the new ones presented. It talks about how those fit within the setting. It also offers a new archetype for each on, with various mechanical differences and additions. Some of these sound pretty cool- and there’s a useful amount of non-system discussion here. The game throws a lot of scattered ideas, requiring the reader to assemble their own sense of the world. If you’re looking to adapt the material, that presents something of an obstacle. New feats, equipment, weapons, armor, wondrous items, and spells follow. This mechanical and character material takes up roughly the first half of the book- up through page 135.

SoV next moves on to present the lands of Vathak- following the conventional gazetteer approach. It begins with a page on the days of the week and some holidays, and then launches into a few pages on each of the lands of the continent. Each land begins with a brief history, again with no specific dates or sense of when these histories occurred. Is this generations ago or yesterday? There are some scattered date references in the other material of the section, but confuses the set up. The nation entry has two major parts. First it goes through all of the cities- with mechanical and demographic notes, followed by a paragraph or two of background. Then it offers a paragraph or two about the land in general and the important locations within it (like forests or rivers). Each region has a set of regional traits, offering benefits for having come from there. There’s also a smallish map and usually a sidebar with a unique trait for the land. The material here focuses on volume over depth- going through the six lands in about thirty pages. That sets up the sandbox, but makes it hard to see the whole of the setting.

Next, fourteen pages present the religions of Vathak. This breaks significantly from most classic fantasy rpg backgrounds. On the one hand, you have the Church of the One True God. That’s a wealthy, rigid, and organized group with influence across the continent. It has sub-orders and divisions, but for the most part looks like the classic pre-Reformation Catholic Church. They have inquisitors, of course, and present an interesting contradiction. Most players I know dislike large-scale authority, but the alternative in this case is even less palatable: the cults of the Old Ones. Several gods and cults are presented, ranging from Chaotic neutral or Chaotic Evil. Those who follow these paths are insane- the classic bad guys from a CoC campaign. This offers some interesting and relatively well-drawn ideas for opposition in a Vathak campaign.

One of the most potentially interesting sections follows, where the authors lay out how to actually GM a horror fantasy campaign. They begin by setting out themes- elements to put into play and particular genres. In each case, I wanted a little more discussion- especially some analysis, hooks, suggestions for how to make these abstract suggestions work in this setting. From that brief discussion of horror, it suggests typical fantasy adventure themes (trade, disaster, journey) and provides a decent random adventure generator. This actually takes up several pages, building up the starting plot and then randomizing parts for the acts of the story.

From the general GMing discussion, the book moves to some system tools the GM can use to manipulate the players and story. Trust is introduced as a concept- with the players gaining and losing reputation and acceptance. Thankfully the mechanics are fairly loose for that. Next, as to be expected in a game of Lovecraftian horror, there’s a discussion of fear and insanity. The latter works pretty much like Call of Cthulhu, with PCs having sanity points and losing them for encountering the weird. It doesn’t do a great job of considering the players’ backgrounds or even the fact that adventurers might have a higher resistance to such shocks. There’s mention of treatment in asylums- a concept that would have been worth exploring. What do those look like in a fantasy world? What do they look like in Vathak? Is there a different stigma attached to madness given the presence and influence of the Old Ones? Sanity can also be lost through forbidden tomes, like the handful presented in the text. Seven pages cover weather and five cover diseases- two natural phenomenon useful to creating a sense of dread. The section finishes up with six pages on creating villages- this feels incomplete, as if they had a bigger section and cut it down.

The book finishes up with a large section on monsters and encounters (pages 216-253). After talking about common creatures and how they might appear in the setting, SoV launches into some super-creepy stuff. The seventeen monsters offered here look particularly unnatural- with evocative illustrations for each one. There’s a weird mismatch here though. Some of them are classic corrupt and icky beasts. Others are clearly pastiches and adaptations of Cthulhoid creatures- essentially Mythos beasts with the serial numbers filed off. But then the book also includes the explicitly Lovecraftian Mi-Go. Why would you do that? If you’re going to include one direct Mythos beastie, why not include all of them? Why not have Old Ones and cults refer to Nyarlethotep and Yog-Sothoth? Or you could tell the GM that’s what’s going on, but conceal it from the players. Regardless I now know what it takes to craft a Mi-Go Brain Cylinder (Craft Wondrous Item, gentle repose, magic jar, 7 ranks in Heal; and 2,500 gp).

I’m of two minds about Shadows Over Vathak. On the one hand, I enjoyed reading it. It has some clunky bits and I skipped through a lot of the mechanics. But the cool details, interesting ideas, and useful material kept me moving along. I like the Ravenloft-done-darker vibe from it. Some of the ideas for archetypes and groups were especially rich and could be lifted out for other games. On the other hand, I’m not sure the book as a whole holds together. It wants to be Lovecraftian, but doesn’t go all the way. It would like to be a useful for running fantasy horror, but the actual discussion of what that means- and how that fits in a dungeon-crawling world- only takes up a couple of pages. There’s clearly an attempt to keep the history open- lacking dates- but I think you need to have some better context. At the very least, talk about the implications of setting the coming of the Old Ones ten years ago versus a century. It may be that’s not the intent of the authors- they may have a specific sense of the chronology. If so, then they need to go back and make that more explicit for the readers. I’d like to see more about what a Vathak campaign looks like- some advice and guidance on kinds of arcs. More importantly, how should you deal with a party likely be at each other’s throats given the class and race choices. There’s a lot of untapped potential here- ideas thrown out without connection or rich development.

BUT again, that’s coming from someone who wouldn’t use this for Pathfinder. So any judgment I’m making has to be taken in that context. It may well be that the PF mechanics and ideas turn the supplement up to 11- I’ll be curious to read a review by someone coming from that direction. I also have to say that the phrase “survival horror” has a pretty distinct meaning to me- implying post-apocalypse or death world scenarios- civilization has collapsed or been driven to the brink. Obviously zombie games fit into this. Shadows Over Vathak doesn’t feel like survival horror.

I spoke recent to someone who ported their Pathfinder game over to Strands of Fate. Nick said that had been pretty easy for them. I suspect if I were to run SoV I would use something like that. I would keep the nature of the game somewhat away from the players. The names of the Old Ones presented would be a cover- each would actually be one of the Mythos Gods and discovering that would be a meta-game moment for the players. I’d also probably emphasize the survival horror elements. Either the coming of the Old Ones would be more recent or something would be happening now that suggests there’s about to be an apocalypse.

Note: I received a free copy of this product from the publisher.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Best in Horror RPGs: Unfair Verdicts

When I started researching my lists of horror rpgs, I thought I had a solid grasp on the genre. I figured I knew most of the games, by reading or reputation. That may have held true for the first twenty years or so- but once we hit the explosion of the last decade I found more and more games I’d never heard of. Many of them clearly didn’t appeal to me- I’m not interested in B-Horror movies or slasher stuff at the game table. Some games didn’t explain themselves at all. And my group’s not really into sci-fi gaming, so material with those elements wouldn’t work. Still I discovered many, many games I need to track down now. Below I work through each list- identifying two things. First, my favorite game I’ve actually read or played on the list. Second, the game I haven’t read which I most want to read or play. I’ve tried to narrow that down to one game in each case, but as you’d expect, I cheat in a couple of places.

I’m curious about your thoughts- agree/disagree? Hidden gems I should have chosen instead? Masterpieces I unfairly dismiss?

FAVORITE: Ghostbusters/Call of Cthulhu: This is the hardest choice on this list. Right out of the gate I stumble. On the one hand, I love Call of Cthulhu. It was the first of my older sister’s games that I got to play in seriously. It opened up a range of reading and literature I hadn’t tried before. From Lovecraft I moved to his imitators, and from there to horror stories and novels in general. I’ve had amazing sessions and experiences with CoC. Plus, while D&D has changed and splintered- the closest we have to a universal lingo among gamers may be Cthulhu.

On the other hand, Ghostbusters undercut much of the mechanics and rule-heavy gaming I was doing in the early days. I was convinced that more systems, more stats, more classes, more details made for a richer and better game. At the same time, I wanted to recapture the simple fun and speed which Ghostbusters had allowed. I think my experience with GB led to me simply stripping out and simplifying rules in every game I played. I never played Rolemaster, GURPS, or even Storyteller strictly according to the rules. If rules looked complicated or involved and didn’t add anything, I ditched them. I knew I could do that because I’d played Ghostbusters. Mind you it took me years to realize that- after decades of coming up with elaborate classes and options at the start that didn’t mean much once play began.

NEED TO READ: Chill: Many people talk about Chill fondly, as a formative experience. I never picked it up for several reasons. First, I’d read other Pacesetter Games and wasn’t impressed. Second, the goofy Holloway cover. Third, it seemed like a weak sauce rip-off of Cthulhu. So at some point I need to sit down and read this game and figure out what appeal it has. Is it purely nostalgia or does it offer some novel ideas?

FAVORITE: Vampire the Masquerade/Kult: And again, two important games make the choice of a favorite really difficult. VtM helped push a whole new direction of horror gaming- for better or worse. It opened up the market at the very least and should get credit for that. On the other hand, the ideas and imagery of Kult has stuck with me. I wouldn’t say it is a great game- I have trouble even remembering the actual mechanics of the system. But it is a deeply unnerving and scary setting. It did Silent Hill before there was a Silent Hill. The concept of Metropolis has popped up in a half dozen campaigns I’ve played in or run. It’s a horror backdrop with legs. Creepy, elongated legs which scuttle across the floor.

NEED TO READ: SLA Industries: During the mid to late ‘90’s we had a strange group around here who advocated for SLA heavily. One was a Scottish Chemistry Graduate student who pretty much thought anything not Scottish was crap. He also hated the direction SLA was going and wanted some kind of strange purity to the game—which seemed to me to simply be about gruesomely killing people. I’ve had a skipped many  games over the years simply because of their advocates. That’s not fair to the game itself- but does reflect the importance of being careful when you’re pushing something you like. We’re a cultural segment with strong passions and absolute opinions (like any fandom). Given that I didn’t offer this game a fair shake, it goes on my list of things to check out in the future.

FAVORITE: Unknown Armies: At first I was going to go with Delta Green. My favorite CoC campaign used that as a frame- but before the main sourcebook came out. It was based only on the fragments presented in The Unspeakable Oath. So I have to go with Unknown Armies. I’ve never played that system straight, but many people have a fondness for it. It offers one of the most interesting approaches to breakdown and stability of any game out there. I’ve read all of the books and used the set up and framework of Magick and the Statosphere in several different campaigns. In each, the occult underground described in the UA setting has been an NPC culture the players come into contact with. The material’s rich- and describing it from that direction gives you an appreciation for the lunacy of it.

NEED TO READ: Heaven & Earth: That’s such a strange concept- and it has gone through three editions. But I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has played it and I haven’t seen it discussed in the blogosphere. I like the idea of focusing a game setting down to a singular and strange location. I want to see how H&E puts the ideas into play: once again the key question being, what do the players actually do? There a divine battle, but it seems indirect and low-key- nothing like or even Legion, The Prophecy, or even Vertigo’s Lucifer.

FAVORITE: Grimm: The hardcover version of this is one of my prized possessions- it is well-written and beautifully done. The slim original d20 version hinted at more secrets. The expanded version presents those and opens the world up to even more questions. What must the original campaigns have looked like in this setting? I ran a couple sessions of it to great effect, but I’m not that interested in running a children PC campaign for the long term. Still Grimm offers great inspiration for anyone running modern fantasy, especially games like Changeling.

NEED TO READ: Little Fears: The odd flip side to this is that I haven’t actually read the other major “Perilous Children” horror rpg from this period. I had a couple of friends who spoke up for it when it came out and even played it at Origins with the designer IIRC. But I never tracked down a copy. Of course now the question is which version to track down: the original with some of the darker suggestions about the sources for the fears or the revised edition which downplays those questions?

FAVORITE: Dread: A good horror GM can make a game involving, tense, and scary regardless of the system. They know how to steer and manage those rules and especially how to jettison them in favor of technique and atmosphere. But some games actually work and serve the purpose of horror. Call of Cthulhu with its relative lack of progression and player poverty of power simulates the ethos of a Lovecraftian universe. Dread, on the other hand, offers a mechanic in the form of the Tower that continually creates fear and horror throughout the game. I wasn’t sold when I first heard about it- I’m not a fan of gimmicks and fiddling with things at the table (stupid dice tricks, etc). But Dread works- and it doesn’t take you out of the rpg session. It feels natural. Add to that the innovation of the questionnaire as character sheet and you have a winner.

NEED TO READ: Rippers: I like Victoriana and Steampunk, so I’m not sure why I haven’t yet picked up this setting book. The idea of monster hunters grafting the powers of monsters onto themselves is an awesome one. It has some of the appeal of humanity loss from Cyberpunk.

FAVORITE: Changeling the Lost: Wow- Don’t Rest Your Head, The Shab Al-Hibri Roach, The Esoterrorists…many great horror rpgs appear in this period. But I have to go with the game that’s generated many, many hours of awesome play, Changeling the Lost. I really believe this is the masterpiece of the new World of Darkness line. It offers a unique take on urban horror, with a compelling backstory. The tension between wanting to be a member of the society (for protection from the Keepers) and being in close proximity with really broken people drives great stories. GMs can choose how much they embrace the fae aspects and how much they use an unconventional and uncertain approach. The game encompasses and encourages that. I’m wrapping up my campaign of this soon and thinking about how I want to run it differently next time.

NEED TO READ: Cthulhutech or Cold City: I’ve heard really good things about both of these games. Both showcase genres and settings I wouldn’t normally consider. As much as anything, I’m curious about how they approach those and what new mechanics they bring to the table. Both garnered attention, strong reviews and awards. I can’t decide which I want to track down first.

FAVORITE: Trail of Cthulhu: This wins at least in part because of the amazing support and secondary materials for the game. But I appreciate ToC because it offers a flexible and useful approach to Cthulhu gaming using the Gumshoe system. It doesn’t overelaborate the rules. The materials help set up a vivid game world and the use of a 1930’s setting makes it even more interesting to me. I know some people like the transition state and authenticity of the 1920’s for CoC. But for historical shifts, as opposed to cultural, I think the later years offers an even more ominous feel and historical connection for players. Then you have great resources like Shadows Over Filmland, The Armitage Files, and Bookhounds of London. There have been other takes on Cthulhu gaming, with other systems, but I really think only ToC can stand next to the original.

NEED TO READ: Exquisite Replicas or Shotgun Diaries: I want to read both of these, but for different reasons. Exquisite Replicas offers a take on the “Rent Veil” horror genre I can get behind. I like that uncertainty of reality- PK Dick taken into terror. I wonder how close it is to .44 The Game of Automatic Fear. Could you use one to cross-pollinate the other? On the other hand, I want to read Shotgun Diaries because I’m intrigued by how the system emulates the feel of a zombie film or story. I like mechanics that increase pressure without getting in the way.

FAVORITE: Night’s Black Agents: This wins primarily because it is something I want to run and I think I can get it to the table. I like the toolbox it offers- for chases, vampire construction, conspiracy-building, and thriller-mystery development. Years ago I ran spy games heavily- James Bond and original Top Secret. I’m not sure what made me move away from those kinds of campaigns. But until I read NBA I hadn’t yet found anything in modern espionage that grabbed me. I like that the super-spies, potent and powerful as they are, come into contact with an opposition they can’t simply overwhelm. They have to play smart- a lesson any horror game ought to impart.

NEED TO READ: Murderous Ghosts: Weirdly, I discovered that I actually bought this pdf last year in a charity bundle- but I haven’t gotten around to reading it. I like the idea of a two player rpg, and I want to see how that’s actually executed. So again I’m attracted by the idea of the mechanics as much as the setting conceit.

FAVORITE: Over the Edge: I’ve never actually run OTE straight, but I have used elements from it in other games. I’ve borrowed a number of the surreal, alien, and horrific elements for steampunk, fantasy, superhero and modern urban horror campaigns. Really read through the setting- there are more original and interesting ideas in one section or chapter than many full rpg supplements. You could build a whole campaign around just one piece- like the Throckmortons. The setting’s even more interesting when you explore the secondary sourcebooks and look through the CCG concepts. A game worth tracking down if you like weird gaming tinged with horror.