Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Year in Horror RPGs 2015 (Part One: インセイン to Outbreak: Undead)

Suddenly I turned around and Halloween loomed close at hand! Unspeakable! So I thought I really ought to put up something horror-related. Each year I put together rpg release lists from the previous year for genres I’ve done histories of. So once again I bring you a look at 2015’s major Horror rpgs. It’s one of the largest lists so this time I’ve had to split it even further. Last year I split off Cthulhu Horror into its own installment. Even doing that, I’ve ended up having to split this into two parts. This first one clocks in at over 4k words.

There’s some additional timeliness for this. As of this writing, the Bundle of Holding is offering three horror collections. Several of the games on both halves of this list appear there (Demon Hunters, Ten Candles, Shadows Over Sol, I AM Zombie, Outbreak Undead). The three offers include:

  1. Bundle of Nerves +4 provides many excellent general horror games, including EPOCH. This ends Monday October 24th.
  2. All Flesh Must Be Eaten collects together many of the essential volumes for this long-running Z-Horror rpg. That includes the core book, Atlas, and both Books of Archetypes. This ends Sunday, October 23rd.
  3. Bundle of Zombies assembles and releases many alternate takes on the Zombie genre, including the weirdpunk Unhallowed Metropolis and the World of the Dead campaign for Savage Worlds. This ends Monday October 31st.

I have a Patreon for this project. If you like it, consider becoming a backer or resharing these lists to spread the word.

For this list I’ve focused on major releases as arbitrarily determined. I’ve usually added it if it has a hard-copy version. I’ve judged pdfs on size and utility. For the list items I include core rules, significant sourcebooks, and large campaigns. I’ve split this list into two parts, at the end of the second part you’ll find grouped entries for some other sourcebooks and modules. You’ll also notice an absence of Cthulhu horror on this list- those will get their own post. If you see something major from 2015 I’ve missed in this half of the alphabet, give me a heads up.

Loosely translated via Google this Japanese game bills itself "Multi-genre horror RPG Insein," or Insane. It originally came out in 2013, but I'm taking advantage of its 2015 releases to rectify my earlier oversight. Insane seems to be a narrativist rpg using both cards and d6's. RPGGeek translates the back cover blurb as, "The 7th installment in the "Saikoro Fiction" series where anyone easily creates stories just by rolling dice!! In addition to a replay making it easy to understand how the game is actually played, the book contains the basic rules. Become Oumagabito - people with the fate of attracting the grotesque, and ascertain the truth of the strange incidents. However, when you make fearsome experiences, your heart is encroached by insanity. Can you protect your heart to the end !?"

OK, I’m in.

The pitch line for After Zombies doesn't show what sets this apart from other undead outbreak rpgs. It mentions the percentile system, no character classes, and that it’s the brainchild of an industry veteran, Charles Rice. The game itself is a done-in-one rpg clocking in at 144 pages. They've released a couple of modules for it as well. Characters have eight stats, three derived attributes, complimented by backgrounds, traits, and optional disadvantages. Each character also has at least two skills. The base system uses random rolls to determine these, but you can simply take an average instead. The art's quite good, but I'm not sure what the killer app is here. There's mention of Unity as a group stat in the preview, and that's an interesting concept. But this year in particular saw a ton of zombie games, so I fear AZ got lost in the shuffle.

An action-horror monster fighting rpg. API has been around since 2008, with a Savage Worlds version released a couple of years ago. This second edition revises and refines the original mechanics into "Dynamic Gaming System 2.0 (DGS2.0)." The key idea here is that API is a corporation, like an advanced version of Ghostbusters with machine-guns. It has a sense of humor, but isn't as goofy as GB or its spiritual successor, INSpectres. Your team battles against darkness but also deals with corporate hierarchy and bureaucracy. I dig that backdrop, something we seen in a few other games like Time & Temp. There’s a richer setting than you’d expect. Just to give you a taste of things, an API agent can be one of fifteen recognized races.
  • Humans: Creative and stubborn rulers of Earth
  • Burners: Fire demons, refugees from another world
  • Changelings: Shapeshifting demons
  • Draconi: Emotion-feeding dragon-people
  • Harpies: Children of the gods with wings to soar
  • Hunchbacks: Deformed, but powerful demons who hate Tark
  • Inciters: World-faring race of beautiful demons
  • Lochs: Giant fish-demons, dethroned from their kingdom
  • Mucks: Puddles of sentient ooze… kinda gross
  • Patterns: Clones of humanity, born to serve
  • Spectrals: Ghosts who did not enter the afterlife
  • Taylari: Living vampires, able to walk in the sun
  • Vermen: Humanoid rats and expert tinkerers
  • Wolf People: Werewolves of unknown origins
  • Wraps: Mummies returned to the plane of the living

So there's something for everyone. API 2e has a 24-page quickstart available, complete with adventure and sample characters.

4. Bloom
I'm not saying it’s a bad idea, but I'm always surprised when I see new media companies put out movies, novels, radio plays, or comics with a parallel role-playing game. RPGs, by their nature, give players agency and control. Movies, especially horror films, take away that agency as you watch characters do stupid shit and die. But still we continue to get collaborative transmedia storytelling experiences.

To quote the publisher, "Bloom is a feature film in which Lily (Deann Baker) wakes up in a bloody motel bathroom with fuzzy memories of the previous night. As she copes with her trauma and struggles to figure out what happened, she begins changing into something inhuman." Bloom (film) had an IndieGoGo campaign which reached less than 50% funding. Despite that, it went forward according to the IMDb page.

As to the game itself? It looks like a d20 derivative, based on the OGL license at the front. But that license also cites tons of World of Darkness books, which I don't think are OGL. Bloom walks like a d20 duck with attributes, modifiers, occupations, skills, feats, etc. But the book itself doesn't say anything as to what the game's about in the first section. Instead we jump straight to character creation and mechanics. There's no explanation of who we'll be playing or what we'll be doing at the table. You'd think you'd have some discussion of that, some way to grab readers. How do we move from an Indie intimate body horror film to an rpg setting? It's weird and unfriendly.

Chill remains one of the great also-rans of gaming. Both previous editions garnered devoted fans, but not the sales to back that up. I see Chill spoken of fondly and cited by many as their entry into horror. Rather than Call of Cthulhu it brought them into the genre. This new edition of Chill returns to its roots and puts the SAVE organization (Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata) once again at the center of things. It’s a secret group fighting against the supernatural and a much beloved element among fans.

The new game rocks a modern style- not the cartoony look of 1e or the Sienkiewicz-ian presentation of 2e. It does a good job setting up the conflict: agents of SAVE versus the Unknown, a label suggesting a unified force behind these horrors. Chill uses a percentile system, with rolls made against a task number. Checks end in one of five results determined by margin. PCs have nine attributes in three areas, with six skills total associated with them. It's a good clean system. The supernatural horror elements come via trauma, access to strange edges, and the drives which define why the character fights against the Unknown. There's a solid and well done quickstart worth checking out. So far Growling Door games has released the just the core book and a sourcebook for SAVE itself.

An overlap with my steampunk list, Clockwork: Dominion promises gaslit adventures with a gothic horror twist*. Here's the cool bit from the back cover: "however bright the light of human accomplishment can shine, the shadow it casts still hides what most refuse to see: this Clockwork, so diligently created by God and man, was constructed from chaos … and the chaos wants it back." OK, I like that implication. We've seen steam-tech as dehumanizing, used for nefarious purposes, or as ornamentation in a horror tale. I don't think we've seen it as inherently and magically connected to a supernatural darkness. It reminds me a little of the otherwise underwhelming novel Whitechapel Gods. Clockwork: Dominion’s intro fiction has demons and witch hunters so it horror feels front and center.

Clockwork' Dominion has a novel system, one of three on this list driven by a unique card deck. Each card has a test value, a tie-breaker number, and a condition it could be used to generate. Tests use Attribute + Skill - Difficulty + Card Value to determine success. Additional Fate and Doom cards mix up the shared deck. In conflicts- physical, social, or otherwise- players flip a card and apply a condition with a solid hit. The game spends time discussing social conflicts, offering some neat systems you might adapt for other games.

I'm curious about Clockwork: Dominion. I suspect I'd have to run it face to face because of the cards. Though perhaps someone has already created a deck for this in Roll20. There's a quickstart available for it if you're at all interested. That showcases the system and gives a little more taste of the background.

*Not gaslighting adventures with a gothic horror twist. That would be "The Yellow Wallpaper" rpg.

This new edition of Demon Hunters builds on Fate Accelerated, rather than Cortex. It's based on a pair of "cult-hit" movies from Dead Gentlemen (better known around these parts for The Gamers movies). The original game came with a special 30-minute DVD. Like InSpectres or Apocalypse Prevention, Inc, Demon Hunters offers corporate-esque monster fighters against darkness. In this case you're agents of Brotherhood of the Celestial Torch. Demon Hunters lies somewhere between those two games in tone: buying into comedy but not being entirely cartoony.

The core book emulates a worn manual, complete with a check out plate at the front. It has marginal notes and mark ups in places. We open with a couple dozen breezy background pages. It sets the scene without offering a hurdle for the reader. Demon Hunters’ art’s consistently good which helps move you through. The system may be powered by Fate, but it makes major changes. We dispense with Fate dice, instead using stepped polyhedrals (ala Savage Worlds or Cortex) to show competency. Rather than Fate Points we have Faith Dice (spent before a roll) and Demon Dice (spent after). I dig it a lot- it offers a nice alternative for those who hate 4dF.

Demon Hunters is complete: full rules; sections on stunts; systems for magic, mad science, & mentalism. There's an excellent section on building missions and threats (influenced heavily by Apocalypse World). Over half the 450+ page book's given over to GM advice, monsters, secret background, and time travel. I'm only surprised we don't get a sample adventure or two. I came into Demon Hunters not expecting much and I came away excited and considering buying a hard copy. It's a great resource for modern monster-hunting games with a lighter tone. I highly recommend this. I'm surprised it hasn't gotten more attention.

Subtitle: A Narrative Roleplaying Game of Supernatural Mystery. A game of haunted houses, with a Lulu print run. The only notes on the mechanics I can find are that it uses d20s. The designer, William Bargo, also wrote Fantasy Heartbreaker (1st and 2nd edition). Sections I’ve seen of the game show a lot of just general discussion about hauntings and supernatural events, rather than a focused approach to structuring these kinds of stories. Domicile seems to be mostly shared storytelling. Actual resolution mechanics- attributes for characters and rolling for tasks- appears as an optional section at the end.

Pelgrane set aside Esoterrorists and Fear Itself in 2015 to concentrate on Night's Black Agents, resulting in an amazing product: The Dracula Dossier. DD set out to create a campaign parallel to The Armitage Files. That Trail of Cthulhu supplement provided a toolkit for linked improvisational play built around a series of letter props. Armitage had ambition and succeeded.

The Dracula Dossier leaves that in the dust. It offers a flexible, modular, globe & time spanning campaign built on a marked up copy of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Originally a field report from a semi-failed operation, an edited version of that novel saw the light of day. The players obtain a complete copy, annotated with commentary from several different eras and operatives. That's Dracula Unredacted, a version of the real world novel with additional material. Dracula Unredacted's an amazing object, a meaty resource for everyone. I love player-facing materials.

Add to that the unreasonably heavy Director's Dossier. Solid glossy paper, dense text, a wealth of resources, gorgeous artwork. It opens with an intense overview of the shape of things, explaining the sources and talking about how you'd actually get this to the table. That's followed by a 100+ pages of people, 150+ pages on the story nodes & locations, and a little under a hundred on items, scenario spines, and campaign frames. There's significantly less discussion of handling an improv campaign than we saw in Armitage, but there's so much else here. The Dossier points the GM to citations from Dracula Unredacted throughout, tightly linking the two products.

The Dossier came out of a strong Kickstarter and Pelgrane has supplemented it with several other products: EDOM Field Manual, a vampire-hunting guide from the agency central to the DD plot; The EDOM Files, a set of related scenarios; The Hawkins Papers, containing handouts and props; and The Van Helsing Letter & The Harker Intrusion Free RPG Day adventures. They've even released The Draculas Dossier, a small Esoterrorists supplement for bringing the concept over to that game.

I didn't back the Dracula Dossier KS, I have to admit that. Despite loving Night’s Black Agents I'd never gotten it to the table. Gumshoe didn't fit for any of my f2f groups and I can't imagine running this online. But eventually I broke down and bought it. I'm glad I did: it's an audacious product. Massive and sprawling describes it well. I've read pieces and parts only because every time I go through it, I'm overwhelmed. I'm in awe of gamemasters who've actually run and put in the work to pull the concepts together. I want to do that, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to. Despite that I'm not disappointed I picked it up. There's an unbelievable amount of ideas here well worth going through for any modern monster-hunting agency GM.

Fantasy Flight has a well-deserved reputation for slick products and smart packaging. Edge of the Empire and Warhammer FRP 3e illustrate how they've been able to elevate rpgs into a hybrid project. They don't stick with the conventional. The End of the World series doesn't head off into pseudo-board game land. It takes another unusual direction, still a more conventional rpg than other recent FFG releases. Some of that may come from TEotW's origin as a Spanish language rpg series, El Fin Del Mundo from 2013.

Each volume of The End of the World offers a complete game with a complete apocalypse. I debated about putting these on the post-apocalyptic lists instead, but the use of classic horror tropes slots them here as well. In 2015 we got Alien Invasion, Zombie Apocalypse, and Wrath of the Gods.. The final volume, Revolt of the Machines, dropped in 2016. All share a simple basic system: six stats in three categories rated from one to five. Features expand the details (i.e. flaws/assets). Players roll a pool of positive and negative d6s. Matching negatives cancel out positives and every remaining die under the relevant stat counts as a success. Those rules take up 30+ pages of a 144 page book.

Each volume then each offers a set of sketchy scenarios, each with a slightly different twist on the events. In some cases they're given clear bridges between, but in others the elements feel like they exclude one another. If you're expecting a toolbox for developing the themes, you might be disappointed. As well if you buy multiple volumes, you're repeating much of the basic material (about 25%). You might be better served by a sourcebook or dedicated game.

However The End of the World has one big hook: you play yourselves. Scenarios have flexible starting locations so you can tailor events to your own hometown or city. There's even a mechanic for painfully deciding your own stats. That works with TEotW’s fairly simple system, both easy to pick up and get running. But a large part of your enjoyment will rely on how much you like playing yourself getting murderized. I burned out on that long ago. If you remove that element, then you're left with a fairly standard set of light rules with a bog standard Armageddon.

A horror game where you play the monsters and have to reconcile your past with your present. So very much in the vein of World of Darkness. But it human(ish) has a secret weapon, it's built on the FASERIP system (from Marvel Superheroes). It’s kind of a retroclone to create a faster spiritual successor to semi-Old School WoD. Players can play vampires, Werewolves, Fey, Warlocks, Ghosts, Ghouls, Psychics, and Immortals. I think we're only missing Mummies there. It has a simple system and wears its sources on its cloak collar. You have to admire that. It does what it sets out to do. human(ish) funded via a Kickstarter (which ran and delivered product remarkably quickly). Designer Graham Bottley's worked on a number of other games, most notably Advanced Fighting Fantasy and Malestrom Domesday.

There's a surprising number of Z-Horror rpgs in 2015, though ironically no new All Flesh Must Be Eaten releases. I AM ZOMBIE is Mark Rein*Hagen's latest project and it's a striking one. In it you play one of the Toxic, a still conscious zombie. The Toxic live in fear, an underground group within society shunned by Breathers and hunted by the organization, Bleach. You have to balance controlling your rot, keeping from causing an outbreak, and living a life. It has a strong WoD vibe combined with a much stronger punk aesthetic. The corebook is a crazy, psychedelic, found-object from the world, a manual for the Toxic. Those familiar with Hunter the Reckoning will recognize the approach, but here it blasts off to the stratosphere. I don't even know how you'd begin to process this. There's some mechanical material here, but it’s buried in the avalanche of ideas and images.

The rules for I AM ZOMBIE come in their own smaller book, presenting the Axiom Null System. The intent of the game is to have people up and playing quickly. So character creation is "Just Pick Five Cards." These are unique ID cards created for the game, each featuring an image, blurb, and some mechanical indicators. How you arrange those cards and how they connect indicates your character. While that's a simple call, there's still a lot of information to pull together. To make a test players roll three dice, plus one for each associated trait they have in hand. 1-4's on the dice are totaled and compared against a target number. A 5 is Chaw and a 6 is Brainz, creating different effects and also tracked with tokens.

It's dense. It may be easy, but it’s a little hard to grok on first read. The pdfs have strong background elements and at least in the version I looked at, you can't do anything with the layers. But it's cool and I'd love to see it in play. If you love radical WoD ideas, dig reading new graphical approaches to game presentation, or just really want something totally new for Zombie gaming, check I AM ZOMBIE out. It's intense.

I mentioned this on the 2014 list, but it really came out in 2015. That gives me an excuse to post about it again. I dig a lot of stuff about this MotW and I've written about how I could use it to do a Lucha Libre or X-Com campaign.

A great revised edition of an already great game. Monster of the Week is a supernatural-hunter rpg aimed at episodic play. It uses a Powered by the Apocalypse engine, nicely tuned to the genre. Players pick from many cool playbooks (Divine, Flake, Spooky, etc). They customize these and then build relationships with the team. The mystery structure allows the GM to quickly sketch a story and throw players into the mix. The move and advance system creates works and offers cool player choices. It has just the right heft for what it wants to do.

I love a lot about this game, not least the amazing artwork. The playbooks maintain a solid theme while allowing for personalization. There's also a body of fan-made archetypes online. While MotW aims for episodes, it can easily be serialized with a connecting larger story. It's the GM advice and guidelines for building sessions that stands out for me. Powered by the Apocalypse games have GM Moves, responses and reactions they can take in play. MotW makes them concrete and easy to grok. The game asks GMs to keep play focus on the “doing.” Action should push the game towards figuring out the "mystery" quickly. From there it needs to push to getting to the conflict and figuring out how to fight the big bad. That emphasis fits the genre and keeps the energy up. I dig it and think it’s worth reading for any horror GM doing these kinds of games (Buffy, Conspiracy X, Hunter the Reckoning, etc).

14. Onyx Path
Onyx Path Publishing steered shifting tides as the IP for World of Darkness sailed over to computer game publisher Paradox. From this chaos emerged second edition of World of Darkness, rebranded as Chronicles of Darkness. Despite the changes OPP continued with their two-track approach: rebuilding the new WoD even as the resurrected the old.

Classic WoD received a nearly equal set of releases:
  • Vampire: The Dark Ages (20th Anniversary Edition) brought back this historical take on Vampires. (As an aside: I always get confused about the difference between Vampire: The Dark Ages and Dark Ages: Vampire). A Storyteller Screen proved to be the only parallel release for the setting.
  • Mage: The Ascension (20th Anniversary Edition) brought this awesome game into the modern era with a nearly 700 page core book. Of course that required a 140 page pdf called How Do You DO That? explaining the magic in practical terms.
  • Vampire: the Masquerade got two major supplements: Lore of the Clans (V20), a 300+ hardcover expanding all of the delicious options complete with new disciplines and more, and Dread Names,Red List (V20), the Big Book of Badassery.
  • Finally the Book of the Wyrm for Werewolf 20 got its own screen.

Outbreak: Undead returns to classic zombies from the company's foray into the generic sci-fi horror of Outbreak: Space. It’s the third game on this list with a card-based component. There's aren't integral to play but come in three flavors: encounters, character traits, and injury reference cards. The encounter cards include survivors so you can pick one of those and start play right away. Optionally you can take an online quiz, the SPEW AI, and generate a version of yourself. Outbreak: Undead uses abilities and skills to form a dice pool. While it looks simple, there's lots of graphic icons and color coding in the rules, as well as the use of d5's. It definitely focuses on the survivor and survival side of things. You need to track your resources and handle encumbrance. In this regard it leans to the Walking Dead side of things, living in the aftermath. It doesn't focus on backstory, instead Outbreak: Undef’ assumes you have that in mind. ("Zombies are here. What's next?").

While I didn't like the messy, collage graphic approach of OB:UD first edition, this new version cleans that up. The 2e pocket edition is much easier to read. While you can't turn off the layers in the pdf, the page backgrounds aren't too intrusive. Overall it feels like a much stronger game with significant changes to the mechanics.

No comments:

Post a Comment