Thursday, October 4, 2012

History of Horror RPGs (Part Eight: 2010-2011)

And finally these lists reach as close to the modern day as I'm going. I believe we're living in a golden age of rpgs- as evidenced by the number of solid and interesting games available. This list sees some of the first crowdsourced games- with special editions based on pre-orders, ransom approaches, Kickstarter, and IndieGoGo all in the mix. Horror rpgs get their share of those. In general media, certain flavors of horror have managed to cement themselves and I wonder if that has any impact on the kinds of games we're getting. On the one hand you have accessible, pop-horror in the form of The Walking Dead, Fringe, Supernatural, and others. These aren't marginal shows with modest production values- but instead higher budget productions aimed at a wider audience. On the other hand, torture-porn horror hasn't gone away (Saw, Human Centipede). I'm not a fan, but that's my opinion. Another development that hasn't gotten as much consideration is the impact of streaming services on available horror. Between Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime, audiences have gained easy and ready access to a massive backlog of horror- Hammer Films, Full Moon Productions, obscure foreign horror, anthology series, and so on. 

Cthulhu continues to reign supreme in horror rpg. Last list had several non-Call of Cthulhu Cthulhu products. This list has four more- all working in different genres and forms. Because they're supplements to a line, I left four amazing products off this list. The Armitage Files presents a mind-blowing approach to a Lovecratian campaign with an improvisational approach. Bookhounds of London then manages to go in a completely different direction and offer another complete and compelling campaign frame for Trail of Cthulhu. The Book of the Smoke presents a striking set of player-facing resources for that Bookhounds set-up. Finally there's the new Age of Cthulhu series of publications providing awesome new ideas and adventures for CoC. 

As always I've left many worthy games off this list, trying to keep the number to 25 or less. Dread House, for example, a variation on the earlier Dread game now aimed at younger audiences. Hounds of G.O.D. and Devil's Gulch can be horror, but seem to be aimed elsewhere- blowing stuff up and the Western respectively. I left off a few self-published/pdf horror games- The Horror Game, Snuff: Downloads of Death, After Sundown, and Archetype. There's also Classic Horrors Revisited and Horror Companion Explorer's Edition, supplements for core systems. Finally, I left off John Wick's worthy Twilight-emulator Byron Falls because it is part of his forthcoming Big Book of Little Games.

This period also sees a significant shift at horror leader White Wolf. First, there's a distinct move to electronic publishing and print on demand work. Second, there's the appearance of Vampire: The Masquerade (20th Anniversary Edition), the first of what seems to have become a series of classic World of Darkness revised reprints and new material.

This is the last in this series, but I plan to do a couple more posts- one listing some of the games I left off earlier lists and another trying to do some analysis on trends and genres. I also plan to do a "horror rpg" round up in late December, to cover this year's releases. I'm sure I've left something off without adequate reason; feel free to add a line I missed (if published from 2010-2011). 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 have to begin by acknowledging a mistake from my previous list: leaving off Eclipse Phase. I noted it as a 2010 pub date, but that's actually the year it won four Ennies and took home the Origins award for best rpg. Bizarrely the RPG Geek database doesn't mention anything about horror- instead focusing on sci-fi genre labels. The back cover text doesn't make a straight appeal to horror either. But one of the strengths of the EP's setting has been hooking gamers in diverse ways. Some see it as classic sci-fi, some as transhumanist fun-time, some as post-apocalypse. And others read it as a particularly dark sci-fi horror game- one brimming with awful implications for the fate of humanity.

In the future, humanity has lost the Earth. They have spread out through wormhole gates into the greater universe. Some fragmentary structure remains- through a patchwork of authorities and links, strongly corporate. Most people, including the PCs, are disassociated intelligences, sleeved into bodies based on need and wealth. It may seem like a kind of immortality, but there are costs and dangers. Threats exist everywhere from viruses, to fanatics, to monstrous AIs stalking the stars. Eclipse Phase does a great job of setting up what the players could be doing- serving with a group called Firewall fighting threats to the humanity's existence. But everything I've read and heard suggests that the game set up, despite being detailed and dense, is also open. You can run many different kinds of campaigns, genres, and styles within the framework. The system provides you with high crunch tools to carry that out. 

There's also a lucky happenstance in my pushing EP back to this list. 2010/2011 has a run of sci-fi horror games. You can read this game as the tip of the iceberg. It again opens the debate- is it two genres mashed up or rather is horror a stylistic choice, layered on another genre? Each of the sci-fi horror games manages a distinct premise even within those limits.

For more on Eclipse Phase, I recommend the Across a Table Madly podcast, episode one "What's so Great About Eclipse Phase?".

2. Maschine Zeit (2010)
I don't have a real answer why we get this weird run of sci-fi horror rpgs in 2010. I don't see anything in pop media that suggests a spark for it. Instead I think it is more a accretion of ideas and the need to hack genres. Maschine Zeit, for example, has the subtitle "Ghost Stories on Space Stations." The cover's striking and the game looks good from the outside. It has a stylish presentation within, but one that gets in the way of clarity. Up to about page 90 of the 140-page booklet offers only color text, fragments, stories, and bits of found print outs. The game sets up a timeline, but it doesn't click. It seems an odd way to approach things- especially when the horror premise and rules given later are so open-ended. The rules themselves have a weird mix of crunch and narrative- almost as if the authors wanted to be story-focused but couldn't resist adding points and ratings. There's some neat stuff on putting together and running this kind of campaign. But part of the problem is Maschine Zeit suggests ghosts, but offers monsters. When I think of ghost stories I think of Solaris, Sunshine, Defying Gravity, or even Haunting of Hill House. Instead MZ wants to include Pandorum, Event Horizon, and Alien. I think the rules could have been more successful by focusing on how you tell ghost stories in space. The opening 80 pages of fluff could have been discarded in favor of a few interesting frames, maybe some campaign ideas, and some solid and detailed examples for exploration.

3. Abandon All Hope (2010)
On the other hand, Abandon All Hope screams out what it wants to be. It doesn't offer any subtlety. The PCs are aboard a massive penitentiary spacehulk. However, something has gone terribly wrong- and an encounter with a dimensional rift has let "things" into our reality and...ok, let's just cut to the chase- they take Event Horizon premise, marry it to Pandorum and stick aboard a prison ship. This is the not-so-bastard product of that wedding. AAH looks dark- and right from the start there's a real question of survival. Can the players find an escape or will they try to seize power? You have a lot of unpleasant irons you can throw on the fire with this set up.

4. Chthonian Stars (2010)
I'm old-school enough that I have trouble picturing Traveller as a generic system. When I see it used for other games (like Judge Dredd or Cowboys vs Xenomorphs) it weirds me out. Cthonian Stars isn't set in the Imperium- which was may first assumption. I pictured Aslani vs. Mi-Go. Instead it presents the future of our solar system, with mankind spread to our neighboring planets. The stars have come right and a object has entered our system, awakening ancient evils. The PCs play teams investigating and dealing with these threats. 

The premise is interesting, a twist on Delta Green in some ways. It comes from the same team which created CthulhuTech. If you want your hard sci-fi mixed up with your Cthulhu, this is probably the place to go. I do still wonder if you could put together an interstellar game with the Mythos at its heart. Perhaps we could begin exploring and discover burned-out worlds left behind by servitor races- or systems dedicated to Hasturian chaos cults. That could be an interesting twist on something like Cascade Failure or Ashen Stars.

5. The Laundry (2010)
From one Lovecraft inspired setting to another. Charlie Stross' Laundry series is a dark comedy bureaucratic version of Delta Green aimed a IT professionals. And very British. Or at least that how it reads to me. It has a distinct tone of distance combined with serious technobabble. Or rather technobabble to my level of getting it- I suspect it's actually coherent. I also suspect pulling that off consistently at the table would be a challenge. I do like the idea of bringing mundanity to idea of government services aimed at fighting otherworldly horror (like DG or AEGIS from Conspiracy X). The Laundry offers an interestingly stand-alone approach or as source material for a modern CoC or other horror game. Several really excellent supplements have been published for the line. The adventure collection Black Bag Jobs, for example, showed me that the writing could remain consistent with the source material.

6. Outbreak: Undead (2010)
A zombie renaissance? Marvel Zombies, Resident Evil films and games, World War Z, zombie skins for video games like Red Dead Redemption & Call of Duty, The Zombie Survival Guide, The Walking Dead, REC, and that's barely scratching the rotting skin of this genre given new life, so to speak. 

But we have a number of rpgs in the zombie horror genre already, including the cornerstone game All Flesh Must Be Eaten. So any new z-survival game has to make clear what new ideas and approaches it brings to the table. How is it better? How is it different? What aspects of the genre does it focus on? Reading the publisher's description, Outbreak: Undead seems to position itself as both an rpg and a survival guide. That at least makes it stand out from the crowd. However usually I'm looking for gameable material. It has a number of flaws which make it not the kind of game I like. I'm not fond of systems which have you make a character based on yourself. I know exactly how long I'll survive in that environment. The layout and graphic design- done as survivor notebooks- feels forced. It is also irritating to read. Others may embrace the verisimilitude of this approach.

7. Against the Dead (2010)
Another way to stand out as a ZRPG is to use a popular system, in this case d20 modern. However, Against the Dead does come to that a little after that game's run its course. The publisher material suggests that it aims for a fast version of those rules. One interesting concept suggested by the material is the concept that the zombie campaign arc breaks into three eras: Emergence, Ascendance, and Apocalypse. The goals and available mechanics vary between those. Also, though the cover and company blurbs suggest a conventional and realistic survival, apparently you can also play magic users in Against the Dead. That seems a significant split from the game's general presentation.

8. War of the Dead (2010)
War of the Dead offers a series of chronological zombie survival scenarios, tracing the outbreak and collapse of civilization. It uses Savage Worlds, but could be easily adapted to other ZRPG systems. Three collections bring together the individual weeks together into a three act structure (so far).

Though an earlier version of Annalise came out in 2009, I chose to place it on this list to match the publication of the "Final Edition" (which would also be the name of a haunted newspaper TV show). Annalise puts a new spin on the vampire genre. You play persons connected to a vampire and the game explores your relationship to it and each other. In some ways, it reminds me of My Life With Master. Essentially you're more victim than hunter. This is a story-driven game, with participants sharing the role of the GM. Characters develop through scenes, hopefully making themselves ready for a final confrontation with the vampire. It is a clever idea and a nice turnaround for players who enjoy the flavor of Vampire the Masquerade or Anne Rice.

10. Nightmare Worlds (2010)
A complete generic horror rpg, Nightmare World claims to be something new based on using its own set of cards for resolution. In this case it is still a set of 52 cards, but ten cards in each of five suits (axe, moon, pentagram, mask, and skull) plus two others- Wheel of Fortune and The Tower. This means the GM has to craft their own deck. The system feels unnecessarily obtuse and finicky. Reading through, I'm not sure NW brings anything new to the table except oddball complex systems and rules. 

Also, let me say this loudly and clearly for all potential horror game designers: yes, White Wolf revolutionized having images, textures, and watermarks on their pages. And for many years people joked about it because it rendered several products unreadable. That rarely happens now- they have skilled layout people who check the print and pdf versions of their books. So for everyone else...STOP PUTTING DARK TEXTURES ON YOUR PAGES. FOR GOD'S SAKE DON'T MAKE EVERY PAGE LOOK LIKE DARK GREY CRUMPLED PAPER AND THEN EXPECT ME TO BE ABLE TO ACTUALLY READ ANYTHING. 


Also, Papyrus is not an acceptable font.

Another card-based game, this time using a standard playing deck. This storytelling GM-less game sets up a basic situation and offers rules to allowing players to adjudicate and develop the narrative. Here the set-up echoes The Masque of Ded Death or the frame of the Decameron. The characters have taken refuge in a castle to escape a plague ravaging the countryside. There's a competitive element to the game as players pass cards onto one another. Suits allow for different results and twists.

A modern game where you play a paranormal investigator. It feels a little like a bog-standard modern hunter game, with any kind of weird or supernatural story on the table. The Unexplained's selling point is a little like that of Outbreak: Undead; half the book is dedicated to a "fully researched non-fiction book about the paranormal and paranormal investigation." It is powered by Fudge, which make make it useful to fans of that system.

13. Hoodoo Blues (2010)
I love games that offer a unique and unusual take on horror. At the same time, as cool as they are, I'm not sure I'd be able to get many of them to the table. Hoodoo Blues is a game of the haunted American South. I imagine the atmosphere of Manley Wade Wellman's Silver John, the movie Crossroads, and Michael McDowell's Blackwater, perhaps with zombies and Faulkner thrown in. That'd be a hard sell to any of my groups. Apparently in the game you play as immortals, having lived through many generations in the setting. Players can tweak their experience during each decades of their existence. Hoodoo also provides for flashback play, allowing the GM to run in any era. In some ways in reminds me of Nephilim. The rules offer a lot of historical detail and background, making it a useful resource for anyone using the South as a backdrop for horror or fantasy.

14. Kingdom of Nothing (2011)
A striking game, where emotional horror manifests as a monstrous force. You play persons who have been "Forgotten" in our modern world. Something traumatic has happened to them and they've dropped out. A force called the Nothing has eaten away the memories of their past lives. Now they must battle back against that force to reclaim their selves. A collaborative story game, it has some very cool mechanics. I like the idea of a built-in redemptive arc through facing horrors. Some other games have used this, Little Fears IIRC, but the set-up and mythology here feels fresh.

15. Agents of Oblivion (2011)
A modern espionage game where characters fight the forces of darkness. This stand-alone version uses Savage Worlds, but an earlier take for appeared in True20 Worlds of Adventure. Agents of Oblivion apparently offers a toolkit for mixing spies with horror- from X-Files style paranoia, crunchy hunter games, or more superspy Bondian 60's stories. The actual campaign idea takes up a modest portion of the sourcebook. The majority is given over to system mechanics and details. Review-wise, you can see two contrasting opinions in Spythulhu! - IR #57 and An Excellent Toolkit for Any Flavor of Espionage.

Night's Black Agents takes the concept of agents vs. the supernatural and twists it. Several simple but sharp changes- PCs as burned spies, adversaries are vampires of one form or another, heavy euro focus- make it distinct from previous games. It shows the power of the GUMSHOE system, dissecting the basics of the thriller genre and recognizing how mysteries work in those stories. Protagonists claw their way up the food chain, figuring out who they have to punch next. There's also the rhythm of attacking and being attacked (also seen in the excellent Hollowpoint). Its worth mentioning that NBA's one of the best laid-out and presented rpg books I've ever seen. 

NBA extends a horror story approach that I love. The idea that through the story and investigation, you figure out what you're actually fighting. You begin as a blank slate- knowing perhaps that you've crossed paths with something weird. Now you have to resolve what it is- what can it do, who does it hunt, what are the restrictions it suffers under, where does it live, what are its weaknesses? Rather than a monster of the week, this draws out over the course of a campaign: you have to figure out the rules governing your adversary or you will fail. Night's Black Agents offers a toolkit so the GM can develop a logical and consistent new kind of vampire. There's no falling back to a Mythos skill or rw knowledge of Lovecraft- you fight against uncertainty and ignorance. And if you haven't done your job well enough, you're going to die at the end. For more on this see my review, The Hite Supremacy.

17. Murderous Ghosts (2011)
A two-player rpg, with one player pitted against the MC (aka GM) for survival. Players make choices CYOA style, but then fill in the narrative blanks. Resolution is handled with cards. It's a remarkable concept and the reviews I've read make it sound amazing.

You'd be forgiven for mistaking Dark Harvest for the earlier game Rippers. Both have a Victorian-era setting, alt-history trappings, and the idea of grafted body parts as a key element. In DH those parts are what keeps the elite in power in an alternate Romania (called Promethea) ruled by Victor Frankenstein. The publisher's blurbs and materials focus on setting description (and the fact that the book includes an anthology of stories set there). But it doesn't make clear where the fun is- who are the PCs? what are they doing? It took going through several reviews to figure out that the default campaign frame has the players acting as a resistance to Frankenstein's rule- internally or sponsored by foreign governments. The timeline's interesting in that it sets itself in 1910, a little after classic Victorian era and just before the Pulp. The rules are also compatible with Victoriana (2nd Edition).

So the Day of Rapture comes, but in 2644. The Earth burns, but of course much of humanity's off planet. The apocalypse cuts them off from the homeworld and from each other. Now the survivors not taken up by God's grace have to survive as Satan's Legions fly out into the cosmos in search of them. I have to admit I didn't see that coming. I've surveyed several theological horror games, but Rapture has a new spin, though one that doesn't exactly make sense to me (the creator's literalism seems odd). The game makes some pretty wide-ranging claims about what it does- a simple system with space combat, mass warfare, politics, minions, etc. The reviews I've seen have been generally positive. Another space-horror game from this period, but one with a distinct twist.

I'm not sure what's going on with the cover to this one. There's a Buffy-like girl with guns sliding into an open grave, a couple of surprised people with shovels, and Frankenstein carrying a gas can- all looking in different directions. The strikingly titled Argh! offers a generic set of rules for playing horror games, using the SFX! system. The title makes sense of the line's other games: Zap! for sci-fi, Kapow! for supers, and Zounds! for fantasy. Like many other ambitious horror rpgs it wants to cover everything.

21. Horror Show (2011)
Another set of generic horror rules which includes the following highly specific claim, "...perfect for one-shot adventures, and great for full length campaigns." There's nothing like copy that doesn't really say anything. Horror Show uses something called the Network System. Honestly, when a game says that it can emulate any kind of horror, I get skeptical. Yes, you could run any kind of horror game using the rules- but doesn't that apply to any generic system? Does it do something well? It discounts the idea that different kinds of games might benefit from different mechanics. When we homebrew our games, I'm always trying to tweak things to better represent the genre. Some games do a really good job of this- the various iterations of GUMSHOE spend time thinking about the central conceit of the narrative, and build rules to help enhance and support that.

22. DIRGE (2011)
In hunting around and researching this game, I kept hitting the same limited publisher blurb, even on their website. "Dirge is a gritty horror game that allows you to play as a flesh-rending Ghûl, a celestial Child of Light, or an elemental Mystic! Travel the from one plane to another in search of enlightenment and power, and save the world from the horrific Hierates, Children of Darkness, and Elder Beasts." There's a lot of color there, but not much actually telling me about the game. The website offers a free pdf of the game- but a little work could make it more appealing to a potential audience (that and perhaps not watermarking every page of the free copy with 'Playtest Draft' across the full page). I'm going to admit, even reading through the whole game, I'm unsure exactly what DIRGE is about. You play empowered characters in a weird world- which the book suggests at some points is the real world and others that it is a shadowy bizarre fantasy world. There may be a central premise here but the author buries it.

23. Carcosa (2011)
Carcosa offers a weird horror-fantasy realm which makes Ravenloft look like the Teddy Bears' Picnic. Super dark, super creepy, and filled with Lovecratian ideas & creatures, it presents a fantasy sandbox filled with awfulness. It generated controversy for the adult themes and references presented within. I've seen it most suggested as a sourcebook to add horror to an OSR fantasy game.

24. Stealing Cthulhu (2011)
Lovecraft gets tossed around a lot- as a direct source and as an adjective to describe horror games. Has that worn out the power of those ideas? Ceretainly I've seen it as a sales points for games only tangentially related- for example they have dark forces outside. So something like Event Horizon or In the Mouth of Madness is Lovecraftian but not of Lovecraft. Graham Walmsley's Stealing Cthulhu takes gamers back to the original sources and reexamines them. He suggests ways GMs can approach those stories to unpack old ideas or fashion new ones. But the book takes that one step further which makes it a pleasure to pick through and read. Gareth Hanrahan, Kenneth Hite, and Jason Morningstar provide marginalia and annotations on the ideas. It opens the concepts up and invites readers to engage with the text in a new way. The book also includes Cthulhu Dark, a brief rules-light rpg for handling investigations.

It goes a little against my plan for the list, but i wanted to mention this since the new edition radically reworks the earlier GURPS Horror (First Edition) (seen on the very first list). GURPS Horror adapts and reworks an earlier OOP Hite supplement, Nightmares of Mine a system independent volume for ICE which I managed to overlook on my earlier list covering '99. So you have a major sourcebook for horror gaming ideas, penned by Ken Hite, which won an ENnie for best writing. It expands the GURPS rules but also offers plenty of information and resources for any horror GM. For even more you can also consult Hite's extensive bibliography in the book or his GURPS Infinite Worlds: Worlds of Horror.


  1. Good end to a good series. I have trouble seeing how Carcosa might be a horror supplement for OSR games unless "adding horror" just mechanics for monsters and rituals--which really only create horror by implication. GURPS Horror would be much better for this as it gives GM advice on using tools to get horror right in a gaming context.

    1. Agreed. I debated about putting that on there. But I keep seeing it positioned as weird fantasy horror, and it got significant attention so I finally settled on adding it. It does beg the question of what horror means- especially in a fantasy rpg where players regularly fight monsters for money. I think Carcosa wants to be a horror supplement, but perhaps for people who need concrete details and numbers. I agree that something like GURPS Horror offers a more well-rounded toolkit to developing and running horror games.

  2. I agree - this has been a great series, thanks for compiling all these titles.

  3. Hey, I'm wondering if you're going to give a shout out to Enter the Shadowside.

    We can give you a free critic copy if you are interested.

    1. That's definitely going on my 2012 wrap up- I read you excellent Share-a-Game for it on RPGGeek.

    2. Cool cool cool. I've sort of been Fableforge's cheerleader lately. So cool. He'll be stoked to see his game get a shoutout.

  4. You're on the right track about the run of sci-fi horror games, I think. Horror has been mixed into fantasy, supers, and various historical eras -- the only way to go is forward in time.

    I completely forgot about Cthonian Stars. That looks very interesting.