Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Best in Horror RPGs: Unfair Verdicts

When I started researching my lists of horror rpgs, I thought I had a solid grasp on the genre. I figured I knew most of the games, by reading or reputation. That may have held true for the first twenty years or so- but once we hit the explosion of the last decade I found more and more games I’d never heard of. Many of them clearly didn’t appeal to me- I’m not interested in B-Horror movies or slasher stuff at the game table. Some games didn’t explain themselves at all. And my group’s not really into sci-fi gaming, so material with those elements wouldn’t work. Still I discovered many, many games I need to track down now. Below I work through each list- identifying two things. First, my favorite game I’ve actually read or played on the list. Second, the game I haven’t read which I most want to read or play. I’ve tried to narrow that down to one game in each case, but as you’d expect, I cheat in a couple of places.

I’m curious about your thoughts- agree/disagree? Hidden gems I should have chosen instead? Masterpieces I unfairly dismiss?

FAVORITE: Ghostbusters/Call of Cthulhu: This is the hardest choice on this list. Right out of the gate I stumble. On the one hand, I love Call of Cthulhu. It was the first of my older sister’s games that I got to play in seriously. It opened up a range of reading and literature I hadn’t tried before. From Lovecraft I moved to his imitators, and from there to horror stories and novels in general. I’ve had amazing sessions and experiences with CoC. Plus, while D&D has changed and splintered- the closest we have to a universal lingo among gamers may be Cthulhu.

On the other hand, Ghostbusters undercut much of the mechanics and rule-heavy gaming I was doing in the early days. I was convinced that more systems, more stats, more classes, more details made for a richer and better game. At the same time, I wanted to recapture the simple fun and speed which Ghostbusters had allowed. I think my experience with GB led to me simply stripping out and simplifying rules in every game I played. I never played Rolemaster, GURPS, or even Storyteller strictly according to the rules. If rules looked complicated or involved and didn’t add anything, I ditched them. I knew I could do that because I’d played Ghostbusters. Mind you it took me years to realize that- after decades of coming up with elaborate classes and options at the start that didn’t mean much once play began.

NEED TO READ: Chill: Many people talk about Chill fondly, as a formative experience. I never picked it up for several reasons. First, I’d read other Pacesetter Games and wasn’t impressed. Second, the goofy Holloway cover. Third, it seemed like a weak sauce rip-off of Cthulhu. So at some point I need to sit down and read this game and figure out what appeal it has. Is it purely nostalgia or does it offer some novel ideas?

FAVORITE: Vampire the Masquerade/Kult: And again, two important games make the choice of a favorite really difficult. VtM helped push a whole new direction of horror gaming- for better or worse. It opened up the market at the very least and should get credit for that. On the other hand, the ideas and imagery of Kult has stuck with me. I wouldn’t say it is a great game- I have trouble even remembering the actual mechanics of the system. But it is a deeply unnerving and scary setting. It did Silent Hill before there was a Silent Hill. The concept of Metropolis has popped up in a half dozen campaigns I’ve played in or run. It’s a horror backdrop with legs. Creepy, elongated legs which scuttle across the floor.

NEED TO READ: SLA Industries: During the mid to late ‘90’s we had a strange group around here who advocated for SLA heavily. One was a Scottish Chemistry Graduate student who pretty much thought anything not Scottish was crap. He also hated the direction SLA was going and wanted some kind of strange purity to the game—which seemed to me to simply be about gruesomely killing people. I’ve had a skipped many  games over the years simply because of their advocates. That’s not fair to the game itself- but does reflect the importance of being careful when you’re pushing something you like. We’re a cultural segment with strong passions and absolute opinions (like any fandom). Given that I didn’t offer this game a fair shake, it goes on my list of things to check out in the future.

FAVORITE: Unknown Armies: At first I was going to go with Delta Green. My favorite CoC campaign used that as a frame- but before the main sourcebook came out. It was based only on the fragments presented in The Unspeakable Oath. So I have to go with Unknown Armies. I’ve never played that system straight, but many people have a fondness for it. It offers one of the most interesting approaches to breakdown and stability of any game out there. I’ve read all of the books and used the set up and framework of Magick and the Statosphere in several different campaigns. In each, the occult underground described in the UA setting has been an NPC culture the players come into contact with. The material’s rich- and describing it from that direction gives you an appreciation for the lunacy of it.

NEED TO READ: Heaven & Earth: That’s such a strange concept- and it has gone through three editions. But I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has played it and I haven’t seen it discussed in the blogosphere. I like the idea of focusing a game setting down to a singular and strange location. I want to see how H&E puts the ideas into play: once again the key question being, what do the players actually do? There a divine battle, but it seems indirect and low-key- nothing like or even Legion, The Prophecy, or even Vertigo’s Lucifer.

FAVORITE: Grimm: The hardcover version of this is one of my prized possessions- it is well-written and beautifully done. The slim original d20 version hinted at more secrets. The expanded version presents those and opens the world up to even more questions. What must the original campaigns have looked like in this setting? I ran a couple sessions of it to great effect, but I’m not that interested in running a children PC campaign for the long term. Still Grimm offers great inspiration for anyone running modern fantasy, especially games like Changeling.

NEED TO READ: Little Fears: The odd flip side to this is that I haven’t actually read the other major “Perilous Children” horror rpg from this period. I had a couple of friends who spoke up for it when it came out and even played it at Origins with the designer IIRC. But I never tracked down a copy. Of course now the question is which version to track down: the original with some of the darker suggestions about the sources for the fears or the revised edition which downplays those questions?

FAVORITE: Dread: A good horror GM can make a game involving, tense, and scary regardless of the system. They know how to steer and manage those rules and especially how to jettison them in favor of technique and atmosphere. But some games actually work and serve the purpose of horror. Call of Cthulhu with its relative lack of progression and player poverty of power simulates the ethos of a Lovecraftian universe. Dread, on the other hand, offers a mechanic in the form of the Tower that continually creates fear and horror throughout the game. I wasn’t sold when I first heard about it- I’m not a fan of gimmicks and fiddling with things at the table (stupid dice tricks, etc). But Dread works- and it doesn’t take you out of the rpg session. It feels natural. Add to that the innovation of the questionnaire as character sheet and you have a winner.

NEED TO READ: Rippers: I like Victoriana and Steampunk, so I’m not sure why I haven’t yet picked up this setting book. The idea of monster hunters grafting the powers of monsters onto themselves is an awesome one. It has some of the appeal of humanity loss from Cyberpunk.

FAVORITE: Changeling the Lost: Wow- Don’t Rest Your Head, The Shab Al-Hibri Roach, The Esoterrorists…many great horror rpgs appear in this period. But I have to go with the game that’s generated many, many hours of awesome play, Changeling the Lost. I really believe this is the masterpiece of the new World of Darkness line. It offers a unique take on urban horror, with a compelling backstory. The tension between wanting to be a member of the society (for protection from the Keepers) and being in close proximity with really broken people drives great stories. GMs can choose how much they embrace the fae aspects and how much they use an unconventional and uncertain approach. The game encompasses and encourages that. I’m wrapping up my campaign of this soon and thinking about how I want to run it differently next time.

NEED TO READ: Cthulhutech or Cold City: I’ve heard really good things about both of these games. Both showcase genres and settings I wouldn’t normally consider. As much as anything, I’m curious about how they approach those and what new mechanics they bring to the table. Both garnered attention, strong reviews and awards. I can’t decide which I want to track down first.

FAVORITE: Trail of Cthulhu: This wins at least in part because of the amazing support and secondary materials for the game. But I appreciate ToC because it offers a flexible and useful approach to Cthulhu gaming using the Gumshoe system. It doesn’t overelaborate the rules. The materials help set up a vivid game world and the use of a 1930’s setting makes it even more interesting to me. I know some people like the transition state and authenticity of the 1920’s for CoC. But for historical shifts, as opposed to cultural, I think the later years offers an even more ominous feel and historical connection for players. Then you have great resources like Shadows Over Filmland, The Armitage Files, and Bookhounds of London. There have been other takes on Cthulhu gaming, with other systems, but I really think only ToC can stand next to the original.

NEED TO READ: Exquisite Replicas or Shotgun Diaries: I want to read both of these, but for different reasons. Exquisite Replicas offers a take on the “Rent Veil” horror genre I can get behind. I like that uncertainty of reality- PK Dick taken into terror. I wonder how close it is to .44 The Game of Automatic Fear. Could you use one to cross-pollinate the other? On the other hand, I want to read Shotgun Diaries because I’m intrigued by how the system emulates the feel of a zombie film or story. I like mechanics that increase pressure without getting in the way.

FAVORITE: Night’s Black Agents: This wins primarily because it is something I want to run and I think I can get it to the table. I like the toolbox it offers- for chases, vampire construction, conspiracy-building, and thriller-mystery development. Years ago I ran spy games heavily- James Bond and original Top Secret. I’m not sure what made me move away from those kinds of campaigns. But until I read NBA I hadn’t yet found anything in modern espionage that grabbed me. I like that the super-spies, potent and powerful as they are, come into contact with an opposition they can’t simply overwhelm. They have to play smart- a lesson any horror game ought to impart.

NEED TO READ: Murderous Ghosts: Weirdly, I discovered that I actually bought this pdf last year in a charity bundle- but I haven’t gotten around to reading it. I like the idea of a two player rpg, and I want to see how that’s actually executed. So again I’m attracted by the idea of the mechanics as much as the setting conceit.

FAVORITE: Over the Edge: I’ve never actually run OTE straight, but I have used elements from it in other games. I’ve borrowed a number of the surreal, alien, and horrific elements for steampunk, fantasy, superhero and modern urban horror campaigns. Really read through the setting- there are more original and interesting ideas in one section or chapter than many full rpg supplements. You could build a whole campaign around just one piece- like the Throckmortons. The setting’s even more interesting when you explore the secondary sourcebooks and look through the CCG concepts. A game worth tracking down if you like weird gaming tinged with horror.


  1. I couldn't tell you the year it came out off the top of my head, but if Rippers sparks your interest, you could do worse than check out Unhallowed Metropolis. Little fears is amazing, even though I didn't have the best group. Playing kids in general always strikes me as a great thing for horror games.

    1. I didn't care for Unhallowed Metropolis as much as I wanted to. I came in expecting classic Victoriana with a twist and instead got a future setting with Steampunk trappings. I had the same problem with Etherscope. I'm glad to hear your backing on Little Fears. Your post on children in gaming is part of what got me thinking about the whole "Perilous Children" sub-genre (LF, M&OT, Grimm, Kidsworld, Innocents, Creep Chronicle).

  2. Have to agree with you on Unknown Armies, Kult (although I could almost tell you the system mechanics from memory) and Over the Edge. Three absolutely great games. All three of which really affected the way I run games and see other settings.

    Sla Industries is a must read. Although the book is somewhat of a mess in places it does offer up a lot of neat ideas. It was huge in this area where for a while you could almost find a group running it on any night of the week.

    1. I remember SLA being a hit, which always seemed weird to me. I think you can buy pdfs of the early editions- but Derek might also have a copy.

    2. I think they have everything available in pdf format. Also there isn't really a new edition yet. There was a reprint with a different cover, they changed out a story and a few typoes were corrected. I think that was about it.

      Hitting up D to loan you a copy would probably be the best idea before dropping cash. I really like the game but it's not everybodies cup of tea.

  3. Very interesting selection.

    My all time favorite 'horror' RPG is InSpecters, more because InSpecters is awesome and less because its horror. As such, in the first category, Ghostbusters wins hands down.

    I am not really a horror fan. Those who know me personally totally get this. Those who only know me through gaming are often surprised to here this as I run a pretty mean horror game and seem to own a good number of them for someone who isn't big on the genre.

    I also have to say, as a long time faerie aficionado, I really preferred The Dreaming over The Lost. While CtD may not have truly qualified as horror, CtL feels way too mutant-superhero for me to take it seriously as horror either.

    OK, maaaybe mutants by way of Vertigo but only just.

    1. It doesn't entirely surprise me that you're not a horror fan; you have distinct and strong likes & dislikes comes through on your blog. I'd say that sentiments shared by a core element of my group- especially those who enjoy fantasy and high fantasy. That particular take on CtL hadn't occurred to me. It doesn't feel that way at all to me- but I've had discussions with other players who have read the game in a very different way than I have. I like what it does and I like the stories it generates, but then I wasn't ever a particular fan of CtD- but that's a matter of taste.

  4. Great list, and clear examples of the important works of the genre. I have not yet read Ghostbusters, Chill, or Grimm, so I'll need to rectify that.

  5. Fascinating list but if Cthulhutech makes the cut for need to read and Eclipse Phase doesn't you may want to add the latter or, if it is intentionally left off due to dislike of sci-fi, remove the former. As for me I'll be checking out several of the titles you mention which are as yet unknown to me, so thanks!

    1. A couple of people have said that now to me. I will have to talk to my friend Derek who picked up EP and has run it. I will have to check it out. I'll admit that perhaps some of my hesitation come from hearing that it is a fairly high-crunch system.

  6. One that you might consider adding -- if only for a truly lovely take on the world, even if it never gained popular traction, was Whispering Vault. It managed to take Cthulhu-like alienness of "outsiders" without truly ripping off Lovecraft, as other non-branded source material has done before. Creepy, Disturbing, and with protagonists who also would be as creepy or disturbing as those they hunted, a world that I have used as a mythos to bleed into other games.

    I also would like to give a shout-out to Wraith, the red-headed stepchild of White Wolf. While to some degree V:tM, Werewolf, and Mage followed some terribly similar patterns, Wraith took this familiar system and completely upended it. Unlike the other games, Wraith was fatalistic and the concept of your shadow being controlled by other players was a creepy mechanic. The world of Darkness might be, indeed, dark and Gothic, but Wraith was downright MORBID -- to realize every cobblestone or item you touched of "obuli" was a shredded, lost soul made any item in your possession truly a two-edged sword.

    Thank you for a lovely list!

  7. Ages ago, I allowed for CtD characters in my mashup WoD games. I treated them more like spirits than changelings, due to my inexperience with fae. I also treated their world as a horrific one, with the mundane taking over more and more...watching those they cared about become soul-less automatons.

    I have hard copies of SLA Industries and Rippers (I think) that you can borrow anytime you like. I also have all of the .pdfs for SLA and must say that the current material is much more horrific than the original material, as presented. I think if I were to ever run a futuristic procedurals game, I have more than enough material to keep it dark and nasty. (mmmm...Judge Dredd meets Eclipse Phase)

    Eclipse Phase has darker elements in it, for sure. The scenario I ran at South Bend Games Day was lacking in horror. I want to find something with more horror elements, before I run it for our test group. I'm comfortable enough with it, now that I've run it once, that I can do that.

    Did you mention Shadow Nations, while discussing Obsidian?

    1. Not sure what Shadow Nations is- another game or a sourcebook? I finished reading Rippers and enjoyed it. It is light, but I could easily see running a campaign using it. I do need to read Eclipse Phase- smart people like it, and I'm curious what's attracting them to it.

  8. It's the European portion of the setting. In all honesty, it is a completely different game. I was in on early playtests. They went in a direction I didn't care for at the time, so I pulled out of the playtest. The rules are similar and it's its own corebook.

    I found it during my travels through the middle of the state of Illinois for cheap and picked it up for completion. I had completely forgotten about it.

  9. Very late comment, but an overlooked gem in the parted veil category is JAGS: Wonderland. Mechanically forgettable, but brilliant in its handling of the parallels between seeing horrors and genuine illness.

    1. That's one I have on the list that I haven't yet tracked down to read. It's interesting that we have so many games that use that fairly narrow setting (Wonderland No More: Adventures in a Wonderland Gone Wrong, Passages, Adventures in Wonderland, and and references in Grimm). I will have to hunt that down.