Friday, December 28, 2012

The Year in Horror RPGs 2012: Part Two Kuro to Zed Zero

The Second Half of My Overview of the Horror RPGs of 2012. Part One Here.

13. Kuro
I'm a sucker for an awesome cover- and this one grabbed my attention right away. The hook that this would be a weird J-Horror/Cyberpunk mash up only confirmed my excitement. However, while Kuro is a complete game, it is also only the first volume in a series. I'm a little leery of that; Cubicle7 don't have the best track record of speedy translations. Consider Qin. My other caveat is that the French authors of the game are part of the group which had picked up the Kult license several years ago who then alienated and screwed over many people in the fan community. 

But word of mouth on this near-future weird horror setting has been pretty positive. Two blogs I follow- Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer and Shorty Monster- both looked at the pdf and responded positively. I might not run the setting as is, but I do want to read it.

It has been interesting to see games move to fill specific niches- like the two person play of Murderous Ghosts. Lovecraftian Shorts is a game for exactly three people, with narrative control shifting between them. This is a narrativist, story-driven game. One player sets the scene and then the riffing starts, with players making a simple check to see if the overcome obstacles set up. There's a super-structure of nine scenes to any game, giving everyone an equal opportunity. All of this is overlaid with a vision of Lovecraft's cosmic horror represented by high difficulties. It is an intriguing concepts. I'm looking forward to reading the rules to see how much the Lovecraftian elements are trappings and how much they're integral to the play.

Another trend this year has been the growth of adaptable systems. Pelgrane's GUMSHOE has seen yet another iteration; BRP continues to evolve and be reborn; the Hillfolk DramaSystem and FATE Core Kickstarters demonstrated gamers desires for a toolboxes they could use to make new games and campaigns. And then there's the fact that three games on this list are hacks from Apocalypse World. One of the hottest new products this year has been another AW-powered game, Dungeon World.

Monster of the Week is a hunter-horror game in the mode of Buffy. The initial game comes with nine playbook options ranging from Expert to Spooky, Chosen to Wronged. The company hasn't yet followed the track of other AW hacks by releasing additional character playbooks. There's an excellent and thorough review by Vestige here: Hunting vampires, Mongolian death worms, and terrors from the beyond – Powered by the Apocalypse! . I haven't yet made it through Apocalypse World, but seeing all of the versions has made that a priority for 2013.

While MotW focuses on lighter fun and horror, Monsterhearts blends teen angst, drama, and monsters. It also uses Apocalypse World as its engine. Both MH and MotW move away from the dark, gritty and abrasive tone of the original AW rules. They still deal with horror, but avoid some of the issues that made AW such a trigger for some readers. However Monsterhearts does deal with sex quite a bit- given the topic, you'd expect it would have to.

Unlike MotW most of the characters and playbooks in this game offer monster types from fae to werewolves to witches. Of course you can also play as mortals or "chosen ones." There's a focus on emergent story in this game, with the GM setting up scenes and letting the relationships and stories develop from those. Vestige again supplies an excellent review of this game, well worth reading: Catty, bratty, and codependent. Plus, they drink blood and bargain with devils . I'm not sure which one of these two parallel games I want to pick up yet.

This is the first of three complete new zombie games released this year. Some people have suggested that the genre's played out. Instead I simply think that each new zombie game raises the bar higher. We have a right to ask what new concept are you bringing to the table? Why is your game better than others already out there? What's the hook? And if you can't tell me- then move on. Your promotional materials, your blurbs, your ad copy-- all of that needs to do that supremely well. You'd better be able to elevator pitch me on that. And don't pretend a zombie game's a new concept- acknowledge your predecessors and talk about how you're built on the shoulders of undead giants.

Because I'm a little tired of "Look, we're a zombie game with cool graphics, isn't that enough?". Please note that the above rant applies equally to movies, TV, comic books, video games, and tabletop rpgs.

All of that being said, Outlive Undead does have a hook. It positions itself as a game and a training tool- teaching people how to survive the coming zombie apocalypse. So it lifts from Max Brook's The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead and the dozens of books which imitated that. It isn't a bad approach for an rpg- the conceit of using a game as a teaching instrument works. It also gives the GM an excuse for being particularly awful and unyielding. After all, if their character's can't survive, what chance to the the players have?

On the other hand, Rotworld positions itself as an OSR zombie game. It has everything you need in a compact and dense 64-page rulebook. It uses the classic Pacesetter Chill system mechanics (with a color-coded resolution table). That's a smart move- appealing to several different kinds of nostalgia. The game itself sticks with the most basic zombie-world set up. It isn't exactly my cup of tea, but it is nice to see a game with a strong sense of audience.

An OSR-style horror game, generally set in a medieval or early modern frame. The players take the role of hunters going out into the wilderness to track ala bad things (ala Conspiracy of Shadows and vs. Monsters). It has a definite Hammer-horror vibe to it. It borrows from the mechanics of original D&D. Old-school gamers looking to add a little horror to their campaigns may want to check this out (or the weirder and more over the top horror of Lamentations of the Flame Princess).

We've seen quite a few sci-fi horror products this year, but we've also had a few mash-ups of classic fantasy and horror. Shadows of Esteren I've heard about for a while, but wasn't entirely certain what it was. Another Kickstarted project, it describes itself as "A Medieval Role-Playing Game with Horrific and Gothic Influence." It offers both a setting and a complete new system. The materials split into Book 0- a Prologue and Book 1- the Universe. The former appears to be a quick-start, while the later seems to have the full rules. The setting looks to be low fantasy with mixed gothic elements. I look forward to reviews to see how this distinguishes itself from other fantasy games and other fantasy horror settings. It looks super-pretty and cool, but the differences didn't come across in the publisher material.

I reviewed this a little while ago (The Doom Which Came to Ravenloft?). Shadows Over Vathak offers a Lovecraft-inspired high fantasy setting for Pathfinder. It has a lot of really cool stuff- neat ideas, interesting classes, random adventure tables. But it splits the difference with the Lovecraftian influence- it develops some of its own Elder Gods while at the same time keeping some of the specific Cthulhu Mythos names for other things. That's a tough call- but I'm surprised they didn't dial the Lovecraft up to 11 and go with it. If I were to run something like this, I'd go totally new, go totally new but have them turn out to be new names for the classic Mythos gods, or else rewrite everything to make it straight Mythos. If you're looking for a fantasy horror sourcebook, this is a good resource.

22. Stalker
Boris Strugatsky died this year. Together with his brother Arkady he wrote the novel Roadside Picnic. They also wrote my second-favorite sci-fi novel, Monday Begins on Saturday. Roadside Picnic was loosely adapted for the screen as Stalker by the magnificent Andrei Tarkovsky. You really ought to see that film if you haven't yet; Criterion desperately needs to produce a blue-ray of it. We've also seen recent video game versions with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and its sequels. This year saw the release of an English translation a Finnish rpg based on the premise. In the game, players take the role of outlaws and wanderers at the margin of society going into the strange zones left behind by alien visitors. These are places of weird events, horrors, and deadly radiation. I haven't yet seen the game, but it is substantial at 240 pages. It is a diceless system, replying on the GM to assess the players very specific and explicit statements about their actions. I have also heard, though I haven't confirmed it, that the game's done almost entirely in Comic Sans, a font which (along with Papyrus) makes me throw up a little when I have to read it.

The third of the Apocalypse World hacks on this list. It seems like in recent years every system has to do a Lovecraftian hack (GUMSHOE, Savage Worlds, True20, etc). tremulus is another highly regarded and very successful Kickstarter project. The playbooks here cover the traditional CoC character types: author  doctor, journalist, etc. Vestige also reviewed this AW hack- How does Cthulhu stack up in the pantheon of apocalypse worlds?. It is worth noting that the responses I saw to his review split pretty evenly between "that's the same problem I saw" and "no, he's completely wrong about the game." tremulus is still in the developmental stage, as I understand it- with only a preliminary pdf released. The final print edition should come out in early 2013. 

I don't know exactly what to make of this- I'll be looking for further reviews of the final product. As with the zombie games I mentioned earlier, I'm not sold on what makes this a better take on Cthulhu or Lovecratian gaming. It is different, with the AW focus on player narrative control and emergent stories. But is that a better approach to Mythos gaming- and if so, why? As gamers we have a vast number of games to chose from, and a still vast number of Lovecraft systems to play with. We all know the question which has to be answered by these games- why this and why not Call of Cthulhu?

The old World of Darkness is not dead (despite what some people believed). This year saw a continuation of WW's push to Kickstarter and release a number of interesting oWoD products to bring those lines up to date. as important has been the switch of the company from White Wolf to Onyx Path Publishing. Exactly what that means for the line remains unclear, but we will be seeing at least another edition of Exalted and some new additions to the nWoD lines. This year saw the release of horror products: Children of the Revolution, Convention Book: N.W.O. (Revised Edition), Imperial Mysteries, Victorian Lost, Falling Scales, Left-Hand Path, and Blood Sorcery: Sacraments & Blasphemies. That's a pretty light release schedule for a company which once pushed out multiple products every month. It will be interesting to see where 2013 takes them.

The last of the zombie games on this list, and one I'm very nearly convinced is vaporware. The pitch for the game is so generic- essentially "Hey Zombies!". But I also haven't been able to track down any concrete information on the game or the company publishing it. On the other hand, there's a fairly complete entry for it on RPG Geek, with details of the authors and an ISBN. But a search on that ISBN only leads back to the Geek. The publisher Gypsy Rain Studios doesn't work through RPGNow. On the other hand, a couple of people have listed themselves as owning copies and have commented on it, "Percentile based system. Feeling of game is slow, constant building tension. Invokes thoughts of original Resident Evil and Walking Dead comic."

So does it exist? I don't know, but if it does, the developers need to do something about their social media presence (and SAY WHY THIS ZOMBIE GAME IS BETTER THAN OTHER ZOMBIE GAMES).


  1. I now have to go track down Outlive Undead. That sounds brilliant.

  2. Zed Zero:
    It exists, though in a quasi limbic state, the most cartoonish and unrelated set of circumstances set the company and game back considerably, Editors copies were made available for Gen Con 2012 and a few hundred were sold, but the balance of inventory was incinerated and the staff of Gypsy Raine Studios was ... detained, at the border leaving the united states, followed, nearly immediately, by a complete system hack. The Attack destroyed their website and all online information on the game and company, and was followed directly by a chain of deaths (4 in all) of the staff and members of immediate families, which more or less brought an end to commercial business for the start up. Though they never officially closed. Weather it will be reforged, and released again is unknown, but I certainly hope so.
    you can get the cover art here if your a completionist like me :)