Wednesday, September 19, 2012

History of Horror RPGs (Part Six: 2006-2007)

Boom. The number of horror rpgs keeps growing. They're all over the map- from big ticket to indie, new themes to old classics. Several lines continue to roll on solidly- Deadlands, Call of Cthulhu, and the new World of Darkness. But we're also hitting the end of the d20 period, with fewer supplements and adaptations. Looking though other media, there's little that pops out at me, especially in movies released during this time. Perhaps Paranormal Activity? Most video game horror lines released during this period are simply sequels.

I've had to pick and choose to fit everything on this list without having it go overboard. I drew the line arbitrarily at 25. So the
Horror GM's Toolkit and Horror Bestiary Toolkit for Savage Worlds get left off- though an interesting expansion of the line. 2006's Noumenon and Covenant don't appear here because while they have some horror elements, they seem to have another project in mind. I've tried to go with games sold by publishers so that means I left off such indie cool freebies as Gnostigmata, Last Man Standing, and Kumquat Tattoo. Games from 2007 not on the list include Patient 13, Blood Games II, and Vampyre: Dark Genesis. Monte Cook's World of Darkness, though an amazingly cool project, falls under other items I've already placed on the list. So does Requiem for Rome.

I'm sure I've left something off; feel free to add a line I missed (if published from 2006-2007). I've arranged these in by year and then by a nonsensical pattern within that year. I've also mostly skipped editions and republications, trying to stick solely with first appearances.

I struggle trying to describe this game. Sometimes I think of it as the early Grant Morrison rpg (Doom Patrol, The Invisibles, etc). You play a desperately sleepless person who finds themselves in the Mad City. You've fallen from the carefully constructed safety of our world into a place of madness and danger. This strange and surreal realm offers bizarre sights and adversaries. Your characters have powers here, but using them exhausts you. Fleeing exhausts you. Doing most things exhausts you. You're caught in a cycle of action and fear of action- represented by the game's die and token system. Like Dread, Don't Rest Your Head builds a tactile fear and wear down into the mechanics. It's a brilliantly designed game- and one I recommend horror GM's at least read for ideas. I'll admit I was thrown off by the dice system at first, but rereading it made things click for me. I suspect DRYH remains one of the most successful early indie rpgs. It has been expanded by the supplement Don't Lose Your Mind and the fiction anthology Don't Read This Book.

2. Abeo (2006)
Secret World. Veil Rent Back. You Get Powers. In some ways that's become its own genre in gaming and fiction- Persona and The Secret World in video games; Percy Jackson in film and book; Grimm and Heroes on TV; and many of the rpgs on these horror lists. So making only that your pitch doesn't tell me much. It is like saying, "My game has you playing in a fantasy world." OK, and...? Don't Rest Your Head follows the same pattern, but makes quickly makes clear the game's hook. Abeo has some detail in the blurb, but not enough to show what makes the game cool, different, or interesting. I can't immediately spot the hook. Beyond that, I can't tell what I'm actually going to be doing in the game. That's an important question- one I picked up from the podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Simon Rogers, publisher of Pelgrane Press, always asks: what do the characters do in this setting? That's what's going to happen at the table, so as a potential GM I want to know. 

Digging a little deeper and tracking down the free pdf version of this, I can see that Abeo subtitles itself as "A modern game of dark wonder." There's suggestions about corruption, reality breakdown, and an introduction written so abstractly that I'm still not sure what the premise is. It throws around terms phenomenal world, ethos, fade, noumenal, pathos, etc. There's a style I associate with White Wolf clones- appealing to players who like a mannered and highly elaborated approach. Abeo certainly has that. In the 'lite version' we don't get a clear discussion of the game world until page 84. The game misses the opportunity to self itself.

3. In Dark Alleys (2006)
Here again you have player characters who see something and can no longer escape that vision of a new reality. The pitch suggests the original vision creates an obsession in the characters, leading them to pursue that and investigate. That establishes a drive and a focus right for the game. The game's structure concentrates on the mental and emotional state of the characters. Beyond that In Dark Alleys offers a strong background setting and cosmology for the supernatural horrors the PCs will be investigating and fighting.

4. Contagion (2006)
And another modern-era, secret war campaign setting, but this time with a religious spin the art and blurb text put up front. Contagion suggests you have to pick a side between the devils and angels, but I can't really tell. It has a number of supplements out, but piecing together the information is tough. I hunted around trying to locate more details. I get the hook from the publisher description, but beyond that I haven't found more info. It apparently uses the d20 system.

A complete post-apocalypse horror game, with an emphasis on horror. It showcases a near-future world which has suffered collapse, offering an emphasis on tech and occult. I like it because Yellow Dawn seems to actually play with and apply some of the concepts suggested messily by GURPS Cthulhupunk. Hastur's one of my favorite creations within the greater Cthulhu Mythos (and one with several divergent interpretations, see Delta Green:Countdown). The virus which set off the collapse not only devastated the population, it changed many into travesties. This created tribes of monsters in the wilderness outside cities. I appreciate the weird mix of tropes in the setting. More recent revisions of this setting have emphasized the Mythos aspects further.

The first GUMSHOE game, which means that it often gets lost in discussion/debate over the system mechanics. What that misses is the pretty awesome modern horror setting. Players belong to an agency fighting against The Esoterrorists, a group working to rend the fabric of reality through attacks which generate fear, terror, and supernatural energy. The set-up is rough for the PCs- they have an agency and backing, but it isn't all that powerful. Characters are still human agents armed with standard equipment. The idea of the supernatural incursion working through fear contamination offers a great paradigm, and a reason why adversaries wouldn't be particularly subtle. More importantly, there's the structuring of the enemy as a terror network in a literal and figurative sense, with fanatics and cells. That twists the usual secret order paradigm and offers real world resonance.

Pelgrane has indicated that they will be doing a revised edition of The Esoterrorists in the future. They've put together several sharp sourcebooks for it, including the The Esoterror Fact Book. There's also the The Book of Unremitting Horror, which comes in a d20 version as well. That's a solid and horrific supplement for any horror game; you can see my review here: RPGS That Scare: The Book of Unremitting Horror (Gumshoe). For an overview of GUMSHOE see this list: GUMSHOE:System Guide for New Players. For my review of The Esoterrorists, see RPGs I Like: The Esoterrorists.

A game which takes horrors and makes them absurd through the banality of humanity. Like a Burroughs novel, there's mind-blowing otherworldly otherness at the heart of The Shab Al-Hiri Roach, but that's lost in the desperate struggle of elites scrambling for small stakes. This is a GM-less, one-shot horror comedy game. You play competing faculty at a small 1919 New England University. The telepathic soul-eating roach promises you much, if you swallow it (and help it destroy the world). But if that will gain you a leg up on your competition...

I own and have read through it this book, but I have trouble conceptualizing it as a campaign. You play a Promethean, essentially a creature created through foul magics, curses, or weird science of some sort. Your very nature is an anathema- if you remain in a place for a significant amount of time you will bring hardship, decay, darkness, and trouble. You also don't work well with others of your kind- more of you means more trouble for an area, and all of you seek the means to overcome your own condition. Promethean's premise offers amazing color and lots of cool ideas. But it doesn't mesh for me- almost as if the system and game work in a contrary direction to the game fiction and described conventions. Maybe White Wolf wanted a game of existential horror, but tried to figure out a way to make it like everything else in their lines. I have used the concept of Prometheans as an NPC group in a campaign, and it has worked there.

At first I assumed this was just another 'children in peril' rpg, based on the name and the simple cover. However this book establishes a detailed and specific setting- a world where the waking and nightmare realms have collided. Adults have vanished and monsters and myths emerged. Players take the role of children who survived in this new and dreamlike realm. The Creep Chronicle is a complete game, with system mechanics included.

Agents of the Vatican battle against supernatural horrors. That's interesting- usually the Roman-Catholic Church becomes just another element in the supernatural conspiracy. I don't recall another rpg putting it front and center like this. Against the Darkness uses the classic set up: trained agents with support of a potent secret society travel the modern world fighting against the darkness. It offers several campaign frames, but leans to the serious approach, with all players tied to religion in some way. It combines modern hunter horror with some conspiracy elements.

11. The Nightmare War (2006)
This period offers a number of action-horror rpgs, infused with near-future sci-fi, post-apocalypse, or both. The Nightmare War is a d20 campaign book, set in a dystopian future. The PCs have begun to have visions and change- gaining powers. It has a White Wolf feel to it, with persons having to come to terms with a new state of being. The sci-fi aspects of it seem like an attempt to make it stand out from that. Shadow Project on the other hand, calls itself a modern horror game. But it has mecha, high-tech monster-fighting equipment, and zombie infestations. The publisher's blurb has the phrase "Welcome to New Prometheus . . . Welcome to Hell"- so what is it? Sci-fi? A world destroyed by a virus? An alien colony? I ought to be able to look at the basic materials presented by the publisher and have an idea of what the game's about. The cover of Shadow Project has a guy in tech armor shooting a giant zombie bristling with cybernetics. Finally, Necropolis for Savage Worlds is a supernatural horror apocalypse setting. It reminds me of Obsidian: The Age of Judgement and SLA Industries. The last habitable world must fight against the forces of the undead. This particular game has been revised in a new edition Necropolis 2350. All of these games- at least to my eye seem to be more about the battling than the horror. Gore serves as a nice stage prop so that things blow up prettily.

12. Roanoke (2006)
In the previous list, there was the strange little explosion of horror games with a medieval setting. This period has a parallel in the appearance of several games reflecting "colonial gothic" tropes. These most obviously borrow from Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane series. Those stories gained more attention with the 2004 reprint compilation from Del Rey. Several films such as Sleepy Hollow and Brotherhood of the Wolf also set up this genre. Some of these tropes had been touched in in earlier horror rpgs, and Roanoke takes its name from the most famous legend. It uses Wushu, a very rules and mechanics light system. The focused game has your characters playing out the story of the doomed colony and the threat which ravaged it.

Then there's the actual licensed game based on the Robert E. Howard property. Going back and rereading the Solomon Kane stories, it is hard not to notice how many truly are products of their time- with all the associated racism and cultural superiority. Some of that's a product of the Kane character's nature and some of that comes from the author's era. It isn't bad, especially not compared to the works of some other pulp writers (I have a hard time getting through Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu series or H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain books). Kane is a kind of witch-hunter prowling the far corners of the late 16th century. As a game setting, his world offers more action than horror, but could be played more or less darkly. We've certainly seen pirates & swashbuckling mashed up with horror (On Stranger Tides). This volume for Savage Worlds offers a useful sourcebook for gamers interested in the setting.

This games shifts to a time slightly later than Solomon Kane, the late 17th Century. Players take the role of Witch Hunters in a world filled with magic and darkness. They must travel and root out that evil. The designers try to balance the potential problems of that by providing the Inquisition as a rival group and downplaying the idea of non-Christians as inherently evil. The Witch Hunters belong to different orders with access to various different rituals and powers. There's a strong World of Darkness template vibe to WH:tIW. It is definitely an alt history setting, with magic practiced more openly in some places and changes to events of the day. Again it offers a game which could easily shift in the direction of horror or action. It appears to favor the latter, with plenty of access to cool stuff and abilities for the PCs.

15. Colonial Gothic (2007)
On the other hand, Colonial Gothic sets itself to be definitely more horror than action. It is a dark supernatural conspiracy game set on the eve of the American Revolution. Various forces work behind the scenes to manipulate events and control the destiny of this new land. The PCs are not characters trained to fight against the darkness, but instead have crossed paths with it and now understand the dangers facing them: American Revolutionary Hunters. Colonial Gothic's more recent revised edition has expanded the material. The line has a surprising number of supplements now. It has a strong historical focus, putting that more to the forefront than the supernatural aspects. It bears some similarities to 2005’s Northern Crown, a d20 supplement of a mythic and legendary North America. Colonial Gothic’s approach, however, seems to put more emphasis on the horror aspects.

I think Changeling the Lost is the best of the new World of Darkness lines. It successfully comes at the core idea in a completely new direction. That direction is compelling and more open than the original (Changeling the Dreaming). It balances personal horror and discovery with a dark world of looming threats. The horror present feels organic to the premise, rather than a tagged-on concept. It can be as "faerie tale" or as "weird" as the GM wants. I think its one of the best set ups I've read in the last decade.

As Changelings, characters have been stolen away from this world for a time and taken into the Hedge by Keepers. The keepers can be classic mythic of a Fae Queen or a most twisted modern nightmare like an alien experimenters. The characters have escaped and returned to the real world, changed by that experience. What happened to them there makes the Changelings what they are now- the seemings and kiths PCs choose from. Changelings may have seen years pass or only days, and many have been replaced by 'fetches' who look like them, but are twisted things made of magic. The players desperately try to make lives for themselves in the real world, while dealing with how much they have changed. They essentially suffer a kind of PTSD, recovering memories of what they did only in bits and snippets. There's guilt and paranoia worked into the set up. The keepers could return hunting for their pets at any time- and only by bonding together can Changelings survive. Yet in doing so, they risk alienating themselves from the human world. For more on this, see Changeling the Lost: A Guide for New Players.

17. Legacy of the Rose (2007)
Until last year I'd never heard of this d20-based setting. It goes a little earlier than Call of Cthulhu, set in the 1900's-1910's, but also offers more alt history details. In some ways it seems like it wants to be a compromise between Victoriana and the Roaring 20's. It offers pulp detail, but definitely combined with an ongoing battle against the supernatural. It seems like a classic set up, with the PCs as members of an order devoted to that fight. Interestingly there's definitely a plan in place from the publishers. They have many modules out for the line (you can see the list here- nine pages worth). They're also slowly moving the timeline up through those modules, building towards a climax set in 1914. They've gone through four years so far and have been crafting a parallel timeline. That's an ambitious and interesting project.

18. Code:Black (2007)
A modern horror setting for EABA. PCs belong to a secret group fighting a secret war against secret horrors. So it echoes Delta Green, Conspiracy X, and other 'Agency' games. Characters are members of the ages old Brotherhood of Gilgamesh. The supplement's written to be easily adaptable to other systems. For example, you could bring this group over into a Call of Cthulhu campaign. It's difficult to say what makes this game stand out from others- the pitch and blurbs don't make that clear.

19. CthulhuTech (2007)
You got your transhumanist cyberpunk anime in my Lovecraftian mythos! It tastes like burning. This stand-alone horror game brings together elements I originally thought wouldn't fit. Then I reconsidered it- many of the mecha anima films have as adversaries inhuman and elder creatures (Evangelion, Blue Gender, RahXephon). As I understand it, CthulhuTech has gone through a couple of different publishers. I like seeing horror hacked into tabletop genres I wouldn't have expected. The actual game is open-ended enough to be used for several different kinds of campaigns (just as their are different anime foci)- horror, hard military, espionage, etc. Cthulhutech won an Ennie for best cover in 2009 and had several other nominations.

20. Cold City (2007)
A brilliant little idea for horror- with the PCs taking the role of hunters in post-war Berlin, trying to deal with the various monsters and leftover horrors still roaming the streets. The game has a relatively simple set of mechanics. Characters in Cold City have to come from different nationalities, meaning that they can't be entirely certain about one another. So we get elements of paranoia, spy fiction (ala early LaCarre), and Clive Barker-esque terrors which must be put down by the unified authority the players belong to. Importantly, the system builds 'trust' into the mechanics. There's a sense that the tensions between players can be just as dangerous as the monsters they hunt.

d20 Hentai Horror.

I really don't know what else I can say beyond that. Except I'm not sure I'd want to be at a table where that's the game everyone wants to play. No, actually I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to be at that table. It isn't my cup of tea. I will give the publisher credit for restraint in the lack of tentacles on the front cover of the product.

22. Fear Itself (2007)
An interesting experiment where the players take the role of characters in slasher and horror films. But it actually covers the narrower genre of films in which the PCs attempt to understand their situation, uncover the mystery, and find a way out of it...rather than simply being stabbed to death. So movies like The Cabin in the Woods, Phantoms, and even Mimic. The PCs are weaker, and the game includes an interesting concept in the form of Drives- essentially the character flaw that continues to push the PCs further into danger. I'm still not sure what to make of Fear Itself- it seems to me to have a fairly major oversight in not exploring J-Horror and other Asian Horror cinema which relies on this particular formula of a mystery tied to the events of a horror film. The game feels decent for a one-shot, but less so as an ongoing campaign. For my full review of Fear Itself, see RPGs I Like: Fear Itself written several years ago.

I imagine a trinity of 'children in peril' games- Little Fears, Grimm, and Monsters and Other Childish Things. Others exist, but I think those three have had the greatest reach. What's interesting is, despite the apparently narrowness of the sub-genre, how diverse the actual games are. Here monsters exist, but they are friends and allies to the children they have bonded to. Play is about the usual trials and traumas of growing up- complicated by the presence of these devoted but not necessarily obedient creatures. Several intriguing sourcebooks exist for the game- Bigger Bads, Curriculum of Conspiracy, Road Trip, and Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor. MaOCT borrows aesthetics from many sources- A Series of Unfortunate Events, Bellairs, and even Jhonen Vasquez's work.

24. Acts of Evil (2007)
Players take the role of occultists who can only really gain power by sacrificing their fellow occultists. OK, that's a premise that rings. It might not be my cup of tea, but I can see how it would play out. I picture Acts of Evil as a dark occult version of Paranoia.

"Apocalyptic Neo-Victorian dystopia" about sums it up. I originally picked this up because I thought it was an alt-history Victorian horror game. But much like Etherscope, this game would like to have all the cool of the steampunk aesthetic but set it in the future. Both of those frustrate me because they feel like double mumbo-jumbo. Why not just keep the classic timetable, perhaps work the history more carefully? While it isn't a good book by any means, Whitechapel Gods at least keeps the timeline close with its supernatural post-apocalypse. Unhallowed Metropolis looks good, but I didn't find it compelling otherwise. I suspect because I couldn't get past that design choice. It has a supernatural zombie plague, decaying technology, vampires, and mad science. I think a GM who wants to do Steam-horror could find some good ideas here, but they'd have to work through some dross.


  1. Esoterrorists has always struck me -- from discussions of it, as I've not read the book itself -- as being quite similar to The Invisibles; is that an accurate impression?

    Cold City is a wonderful game. The first time I played it, I got the same thrill I got from my first game of Call of Cthulhu, and given that the latter is my favourite rpg, that's high praise.

    1. I will have to pick up Cold City- as I understand it, the 1.1 version of the game adds in the material from the Companion.

      I wouldn't make that comparison necessarily. The PCs in the Esoterrorists certainly aren't anything like the protagonists in The Invisibles- they're mundane. Trained operatives but just with the agenda of stopping the horrors. The Esoterrorists themselves differ from the "Control" threat of The Invisibles in that they represent chaos. So I guess maybe there's a way to read the Eso's as a bad and twisted version of the Invisibles- but I don't think that analogy holds that well.

    2. I'm not sure a campaign is viable in Cold City but it's great for a one shot or two. I'm told that it has similar mechanics to The Mountain Witch, although I've not played the latter.

      Thanks for the clarification on Esoterrorists; I don't know where I got the impression that it was like The Invisibles!

  2. I've played and run campaigns of Cold City, and can vouch that it works for short runs. In each case, we played for eight weeks, which gave plenty of time to push everyone's agendas to their conclusions.

    The 1.1 rules do indeed contain the material from the companion. The mechanics are also fine-tuned, borrowing a fair bit from Hot War. Personally, when I run Cold City, I use the agenda mechanics from Hot War, as they give a mechanical pay-off rather than being open-ended.