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.