Wednesday, September 5, 2012

History of Horror RPGs (Part Four: 2001-2003)

The rate of game publication increases significantly after 2000, at least for horror. As a result to keep these lists manageable, I've had to switch to smaller time spans. After this, I actually have to go year by year in some cases to keep the number of items on any list below 25 or so. Some of that can be attributed to the general growth of the game industry. More comes from easier access to simple desktop publishing software and short-run printing. You see indie games begin to look more professional as people develop skills to complement that access. Add to that alternate distribution methods and the growth of online discussion communities. In the past, small press games had to work through gatekeeper channels: attention at conventions, advertising, and distributors pushing stores to pick product up. The first might attract word of mouth, but I rarely saw gamers asking for small product based on ads from gaming magazines. When I worked in the shop we would often pick up one copy of a new small game, but that trailed off as more product sat on the shelf. The internet allowed easier direct purchases and buzz-generation.

I'd also assumed that the d20 revolution would have significantly increased product numbers. However, there were fewer d20 items than I expected and only three on this list. I've left out some supplements that add particular monsters to d20 games (like vampires), since those seem more like add-ons to fantasy. It may be that in this period there weren't as many people eager to adapt d20 to horror (Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game for d20 may prove me wrong OOH). I wonder if that lower expansion's function of timing or the system itself. Certainly we'd see some in '04 and '05, but not the flood which hit other genres.

Also worth noting that this is the last heyday of old World of Darkness before WW makes the big shift the following year. Several new lines appear, only to be snuffed out.

I left off a number of lines and products which seemed marginal or not fully horror oriented. Deathstalkers, Dreamwalker: Diceless Roleplaying in the Land of Dreams, The Seventh Seal, and Mummy: The Resurrection. I also ldropped Splatter, a Swedish generic horror rpg. Info on this is scarce, except for a note that the company folded after a catastrophic computer crash. Fates Worse Than Death was a harder call. Its a post-Apocalypse game with some elements of horror. The sourcebook Behind the Eyes of Madness for that line would seem to be horror-oriented, but the aim of the game itself is post-apocalypse survival.

I'm sure I've left something off, feel free to suggest a line I missed (if published up from 2001-2003). I've arranged these in chronological order by year. I've also skipped editions and republications, sticking solely with first appearances.

1. De Profundis (2001)
A Polish "role-playing game" which emulates epistolary- a series of documents, often letters- form of Lovecraft stories (and many other authors including Stoker). This truly narrative game does away with a GM or method of resolution. For many it falls outside what they consider an rpg. De Profundis stands out among the increasing number of indie horror rpgs and indie rpgs in general. I'm not sure that you can put a solid date on the breakout of these games, but consider that Little Fears and Sorceror show up the same year. These games break boundaries in many ways- resulting in rpgs that at once seem to be horror but also defy classification. De Profundis is also interesting for approaching the more subtle aspects for horror, the dread arising from a slow accumulation of details. For a review of the second edition, see Review Foundin an Attic.

2. Little Fears (2001)
Little Fears establishes the horror rpg sub-genre of "Children in Peril." I'm always surprised at the number of these games. Beyond the Supernatural seems to be the first rpg to offer this set-up (in a core book adventure). But you also have at least Grimm, Innocents, Schauermärchen, and Monsters and Other Childish Things. There's also the closely related genre of kid-only post-apocalypse with KidWorld and George's Children.

In some ways, Little Fears is the most classic- with the players as children fighting against "things." They face terrors real or imagined, everything which goes bump in the night. Little Fears is the logical consequence of a certain strain of horror rpg. There's a split between games which aim for character competency and those which focus on player helplessness. The former usually has a significant action component- with special talents, combat training, and/or a supporting group. The latter throws the PCs in the deep end and plays up uncertainty and death. Call of Cthulhu, in the purist approach, aims for weaker and more vulnerable PCs. Some players don't care for that, hence the move to a more pulp approach in many campaigns. Having the players play as children is the nadir of helplessness (until the horror rpg where you play as a baby).

3. Sorcerer (2001)
I'm still not sure if this belongs on this list. Sorcerer's a game about those who make bargains and deals with other forces to gain power- and the consequences of those deals. Importantly it represents the first major indie game from Ron Edwards, and helped set some of the stage for latter discussion of new game design and approaches. Ultimately I decided to add it to this list because so much of what appears here lends itself to horror. It can also be seen as something of a reaction to the premises of the various World of Darkness lines. I see it as horror more in the vein of the uncanny (like Thomas Ligotti or Borges). Some of the supplements/expansions focus on those horrific or weird elements: Dictionary of Mu, Urge, The Sorcerer's Soul.

Is it horror? Is it action? Is it historical? Like Deadlands, Weird War II offers a set-up which can be run with a number of different spins. It's interesting as well in that Pinnacle opted to publish this as a d20 setting. The premise owes something of a debt to the Weird War Tales and Creature Commandoes comics from DC. The campaign pits PCs against supernatural threats, making this a kind of historical hunter game, rather than a full alternative Earth setting. However, you have to examine the product to realize that. The books make it look like it might be a world where where werewolves openly fought for the Nazis. Pinnacle later expanded this set up with Tour of Darkness, the Vietnam-era version. It also adapted this over to Savage Worlds with a new edition- Weird Wars: Weird War II- in 2009. Weird War II should not be confused with GURPS WWII: Weird War II.

5. GURPS Cabal (2001)
GURPS took an interesting approach in adapting over the most successful World of Darkness lines to their system, resulting in GURPS Vampire: The Masquerade, GURPS Werewolf: the Apocalypse, and the mess that is GURPS Mage: The Ascension. They also worked to bring some of their own horror properties into focus, creating some striking and unique setting books (GURPS Technomancer, GURPS Reign of Steel and GURPS IOU). Those original creations would probably be done as their own stand-alone rpgs today- or perhaps in a "powered by version." GURPS Cabal creates a modern setting of occult horror, with the monsters at the top of the conspiracy food chain. They manage the secret world behind the scenes. The premise allows for diverse campaigns, full-on horror or merely horror tinged. Being written by Ken Hite, it has a rich and consistent set-up allowing for monster or hunter play.

6. GURPS Screampunk (2001)
An odd little format that SJG never followed up on in print- short, trade-sized products covering a narrow idea. Later for GURPS 4e they would produce smaller, electronic-only supplements, but at the time this was unique. GURPS Screampunk brings together steampunk and horror in a way which makes sense- given the sources of much gothic horror parallel the Victorian-era. Several games had already focused on Victoriana horror (Masque of the Red Death, Cthulhu by Gaslight) but this was the first that explicitly married steampunk to it. Of course earlier works had elements of mad scientists and created abominations. Despite its brevity, Screampunk remains a worthwhile supplement for ideas on dropping more horror into this genre.

Another one of the surprisingly few d20-based horror products from this era. The Hunt offers a dark fantasy world called Gothos (which only makes me think of a Star Trek episode...). This setting draws and reworks the dreams of our world, creating a nightmarish place. There's something of Ravenloft meets Dreamlands. The Hunt wants to be dark and suggest elements of horror, but it looks like more conventional fantasy. There's an interesting concept in the players being able to shape Gothos through the dreams of their characters in the real world. A few products in the line delve into the nightmares, but most look like your usual d20 fantasy sourcebooks (character classes, bad guys, etc). The Hunt received two Ennie nominations, one for best setting.

A quick setting for Jeff Dee's Pocket Universe game line. He smartly catches on the popularity of Buffy, with enough small detail switches to avoid legal problems. The idea of hunting demons in a more classic sense (as opposed to them just being monster races as they are in Buffy) has a certain appeal. There's some awful potential to having teenage protagonists battle creatures of sin and corruption.

The arrival of Buffy's arguably one of the most important developments in popular horror. It added new tropes and refined others. It also managed to balance humor, drama, and horror pretty well. Buffy offered a contrast to Vampire which wasn't solely parody or snark. Instead it presented a way you could have horror combined with real concerns about life, struggles for identity, and questions of existence- without what many saw as the self-indulgence and posing of some VtM games and gamers. Eden smartly went with a lighter set of rules, Cinematic Unisystem. BtVS plays pretty well and the sourcebooks do an excellent job of offering game material and fan reference. Unfortunately the line ended before we could see products in the pipeline like Welcome to Sunnydale and The Initiative sourcebook. Eden followed up this success with the Angel Roleplaying Game in 2003.

10. Demon: The Fallen (2002)
The oWoD line I'm least familiar with. The concept itself seemed both a little obvious and potentially more indulgent than I was comfortable with at the time. Demon: The Fallen would end up being among what I considered second tier lines (along with Changeling, Mummy, Kindred of the East, and Wraith). The set-up has players taking the roles of newly-escaped demons, with some seeking revenge and others redemption. As with other WoD games, several houses and factions exist to customize your character. I've never been sure what kind of campaign would arise out of this- or what kind of tension you could create. Demons can rarely be destroyed, they simply have to find new hosts. As with a couple of other WW rpgs (Promethean: The Created, Geist: The Sin-Eaters) I've never spoken with anyone who has run or played this game, and met only a handful who actually bought the books.

11. InSpectres (2002)
A modern updating of the Ghostbusters concept with a focus on a light and flexible system. Players hunt monsters and ghosts, but a significant focus is placed on building and maintaining the agency and franchise. InSpectres has some limitations in that while clearly built as an homage to an existing property, it also wants to develop its own mythology and setting.

Comedy horror represents another sub-genre of horror, and one I think faces obstacles. Comedy at the game table is difficult- it has to arise organically. Some games can seem like they're trying too hard at times Toon, the worst of Paranoia, 'funny' dungeons. Explaining a joke kills that joke, so when you try to put humor into a set of rules you can end up with a dead game. Or a game which simply tries to go over the top and keep going (Macho Women with Guns (1st Edition). Several games and supplements borrow from B-Movie horror (Blood Brothers, It Came from the Late, Late, Late Show, GURPS Atomic Horror. I wonder how well games like Scared Stiff will stand up in the future- and whether that's what people will want to play. Keep in mind we now have generations of players without many of these films as reference points. For them, something like Full Moon Entertainment and The Asylum might be better touchstones.

13. Horror Rules (2003)
Horror Rules offers a generic system useful for playing out a variety of horror game styles. For an older small-press horror rpg, this system has a surprisingly large and wide-ranging number of supplements- both adventures and sourcebooks. One later product adds a twist to standard sanity rules with random cards for maladies when characters lose mental health. The tone of the game is casual and tongue-in-cheek. Horror Rules is also unusual in that it tried an alternate method of electronic delivery early on. Subscribers to the game would receive a CD with the rules and access to downloads for a year.

14. Unbidden (2003)
An interesting game in which the characters end up slowly sucked into and transformed by a battle against darkness in the world. Unbidden focuses on the psychological elements of that struggle, with players being worn down and eventually becoming outsiders. It brings that inner conflict to the forefront and embeds it in the game mechanics. The closest precursor I can think of would be some of the sanity systems in Unknown Armies. Unbidden takes and embraces one strain of the horror which Vampire and the World of Darkness suggested. Interestingly, you can this game's focus echoed in WW's later lines Promethean: The Created and Changeling: The Lost. Unbidden uses a modern backdrop; it a runner up for the 2003 Indie Game of the Year.

Another game aimed at internal horror, My Life with Master has the characters playing the minions of a fiendish master. The horror comes from self-loathing and the tension between the orders of the master and your character's desires for love and acceptance. MLwM might not have started the trend, but it certainly is the model for short-run rpgs. These games usually have narrow elements, premises, or scripted functions. They aim to have the players tell a complete story in a session or handful of sessions. The author cites John Tynes' borderline horror game Puppetland and D. Vincent Baker's Hungry Desperate and Alone as inspirations among others. My Life with Master won several Indie Gaming awards in 2003 as well as the Diana Jones Award in 2004. Worth examining to consider how relationships and ties can be used as levers in horror gaming.

16. Orpheus (2003)
This definitely goes on my top five of games I really like, but don't think I'll ever get to the table. Orpheus is a strange beast- the last "line" game from White Wolf before the new World of Darkness, a game ambiguously placed in the old World of Darkness, a rethinking of the concepts behind Wraith, and a limited series of products offering a complete campaign arc. There's a ton of interesting material in the set up here. The players can become "ghosts" and use that ability in the employ of a company. Of course there's more to it than that, and the story plot of the whole series is compelling. It offers some striking new concepts for gaming, like the idea of synergetic powers: different abilities of two classes can combine to create a new effect. On the other hand, some of the character archetypes seem problematic- especially if you play the campaign through and split from the resources of the original company. I actually think the concept works best as an NPC faction and plotline in a standard hunter or straight horror campaign. Really worth reading if you can track down a copy of at least the core book.

17. Grimm (2003)
Fairy tales have always been a rich source of awful events and images. Angela Carter and Tanith Lee's work are good examples of modern takes on this. Both wrote 'adult' versions of fairy tales, with Lee's Red as Blood as an outstanding example. The film In the Company of Wolves drew from Carter's stories. We've seen a series of recent film adaptations as well- Red Riding Hood, The Brothers Grimm, Snow White and the Huntsmen; as well as TV Grimm and Once Upon a Time. I suspect as important to the creation of the Grimm rpg would be the success of Bill Willingham's Fables for Vertigo.

Grimm began as a d20 sourcebook- the most notable of the Horizon series from Fantasy Flight. In it children from our world end up sucked into a twisted land where dark versions of all of these tales lay in wait to ambush them. The original booklet hinted at rich world-building. It was a dark and disturbing with a new take on the children in peril genre. Later Fantasy Flight published a stand-alone version of the game- expanding and developing the concepts with the Grimm hardcover. This ditched d20 in favor of a simple system. That's a pretty amazing and uncanny game. I recommend it highly for those interested in the scary fairy tale, those running Changeling games, or any GM of modern horror.

18. Shriek (2003)
A short (13 pages in pdf) product using the light 1PG system. Shriek aims to emulate modern film and TV horror, especially movies like Scream, but also general slasher films and, of course, Buffy. One thing I want to consider as this history moves forward is the rise of "torture porn" films as a horror genre: Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), House of Wax (2005), Human Centipede (2009). I like horror cinema, but dislike these kinds of films. Will they influence horror gaming as much as slasher films have?

What is up with that cover image? I'd assumed at first it was some kind of bishonen kneeling, but on close examination, I see that it's simply a really bad picture. As one might expect from Guardians of Order, Cold Hands, Dark Hearts is not a generic sourcebook on anime horror. GOO generally tried to provide specific material to complement their generic system, Big Eyes, Small Mouth. In this same period they produced two Hellsing sourcebooks. I left those off the list because they feel more like action than horror, and because the books themselves are more fan guide. Players take the roles of monsters in this setting, most with an Asian-tint. There's a meta-plot about sealing away the seven demon lords. But mostly it’s an anime take on monsters as characters. It could be seen as a cartoony, lighter version of the kinds of games White Wolf put out at the time.


  1. In response to Little Fears, here's a videogame (trailer) where you play as a baby.

    Thanks for making such an exhaustive list.

  2. I have to give props the Little Fears. It really did seem to step out as something very different when it came out. Picked up a copy when it was released at Origins and played in one of the demo's there. Ended up running it nonstop for months after that, at one point I had three different campaigns going on at the same time. Had people on a waiting list to play. Good memories.

    1. I remember Sharon talking about it as something pretty amazing, but I never picked it up. There's a 10th Anniversary edition of it, which is strangely not compatible with the recent "Nightmare" Edition of the game.

  3. Given the number of CoC players who appeared to have dismissed CoC d20 out-of-hand as powergamey and dumbed-down despite not actually reading the alterations made to the rules, the d20 brand image might have had too many previous associations to get companies other than WotC.

    Which leads me to... no d20 Modern? The sample settings 'Shadow Chasers' and 'Agents of PSI' were presented as definitely horror-centric versions of the game.

    1. That's a good point- I'd overlooked those because they were sample settings from a core book. They're a corner case, but definitely represent WotC trying to breaking into this area. I'm a little surprised they never followed up on any of that- instead letting others other build in that direction.

  4. I actually played in a Demon: the Fallen Campaign. It has post apocalyptic elements (it is supposed to occur during/after the apocalypse, rise of the antidiluvians, etc) and for us the ruination was the horror that was played up. Like many OWoD titles it could be supers skinned like monsters if the group approached it like that. Personally, I did not opt to go into the pact making options instead seeking redemption. It was too easy with the mechanics in place to not be a terrible shit making pacts and generally a menace. Which undercut some of the personal horror aspects that could have been in play there.

    1. Were the pacts like contracts- where you make a deal and get power? I'm wondering how much those were like the Changeling the Lost systems.

  5. Found this post a little late. I've always been fascinated by "Scared Stiff", though I could never quite figure it out or get anybody to play it. I still have it, though. Man, was that 2002? I feel like I've had that game forever.

  6. With Toon, it's some GMs and players who are trying too hard, not the game. The game just gives a framework. If you're not funny, neither is Toon.

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