Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Year in Horror RPGs 2013: Part One: Abandoned to Infinite Shadows

This list complements my chronology of Horror RPGs, offering a look at games released in 2013. This is part of my Patreon project (which you can see more about here- please share if you find it interesting or useful). 

This year continues several key trends in Horror gaming. First, Kickstarter (and other crowdfunding) remains strong. I’d like to track the % of publications by genre using these sources. Are there differences? Second, we’re down to two “big” horror rpg publishers, maybe three. Chaosium and its associated CoC lines remains strong by preparing a new edition and doubling down on Kickstarter. Onyx Path/White Wolf shifted primarily to Kickstarter projects and revising older products. It is notable that OP has moved almost entirely to direct to consumer and Chaosium has a similar model with their monograph line. These are the big two because no other horror rpg publisher has volume of releases and line support (though an argument might be made for Pelgrane). Third, the continuing new explosion of smaller, indie horror rpgs. The genre remains inviting for designers wanting to experiment with rules, rather than adapting existing big systems (OGL, etc). Fourth, more Zombies. We saw two completely new zombie rpgs plus a major zombie sourcebook for a generic system.

With a list like this, I’ve made some choices about what to cut and what to keep. Some of these choices are practical. Smaller pdf-only supplements I’ve generally avoided. I’ve also focused on professionally (or pseudo-professionally) published books. That means I often skip free/online or purely self-published products. I've consolidated products under an umbrella if a publisher has released 3+ items in that year.

Some of these choices are more subjective. For example, I’ve left off anthology items, primarily because the list is already packed. But books like Fate Worlds, Volume Two: Worlds in Shadow, Hillfolk, and Blood on the Snow all have interesting horror frames. I’ve also left off a number of “weird fantasy” products. They blur the line between fantasy and horror and I’ve talked about these in the past. The growth of games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Numenera, and others has resulted in supplements and adventures which in some hands can be truly horrific. Skipping these here may reflect my own biases. I love horror games- and the best I CoC game I played embraced nihilism. But I’m not attracted to the idea of the “Negadungeon.” But I've left these off because I believe these products put the fantasy front and center, with the horror elements as trappings and color. In many cases they're fantasy supplements which add horror as only one ingredient of a creative explosion. There’s room for reasonable debate on that.

As always, if I’ve missed something important, please give me a heads up. I may have it on the other list, or perhaps I’ve glossed over it.

In Dark Alleys came out in 2006. In that game PCs see 'something' and can no longer escape visions of a new reality. That original sighting creates an obsession, leading them to hunt that down. Seven years later Vajra Enterprises returns with the first major sourcebook for IDA (beside a couple of smaller adventures/backdrops). Abandoned looks at the concept of haunted places in that game world. It presents a general discussion of the concept plus some new mechanics. As well it reveals seven fully-fleshed abandoned sites, plus several dozen new monsters. In a unique approach, the mechanics in Abandoned can be used as a the basis of a complete and slightly different game. That's a neat approach and smart given the gap between publications.

We'd seen some consideration of World War 2 and Call of Cthulhu before this recent explosion of interest in the genre. Games with a more pulpish bent often added Nazis, Trail of Cthulhu touches on the start of the war with its shift to the 1930s, and Pagan's excellent The Realm of Shadows uses the war as a significant backdrop. But nothing has quite matched the recent level of interest. Achtung! Cthulhu (one of two competing WW2 Lovecraftian lines for the year), release preliminary products in 2012 and ramped up in 2013, releasing the core products for their line. Investigator's Guide to the Secret War and Keeper's Guideto the Secret War set up the hidden history of the war. Modiphius offers these as dual-statted books, covering both CoC 6th and Savage Worlds. They also released The Trellborg Monstrosities adventure, in distinct versions. The mix of WW2 and COC doesn't really appeal to me- but Modiphuis has done and outstanding job with these. The Guides won the Silver ENnies for Best Writing and Best Cover Art. They've doubled down on the line with several key products in 2014 deepening the setting, as well as a Fate Core version of the main rules.

OK I had to call this one out from the collected Call of Cthulhu materials below. At first I assumed it was a complete new reskinning (ala Cthulhu by Gaslight) with a drive-in sensibility. But alas it is instead simply a collection of adventures set in the 1950's (with some tongue in cheek elements). There's a weird distortion here for me. When I was growing up, I watched the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies Sundays on WGN out of Chicago. I loved those- and they formed my sense of the character. So I was thrown when I went to actually read the stories and found out that they were set in the Victorian era, rather than WW2 with German spies as a threat. In the same way, for the longest time I pictured the whole Lovecraftian mythos as set in the 1950s. That's in part because I began with Derleth's Trail of Cthulhu, and it has an atomic bomb being dropped on R'leyh. So there's that.

We've seen couple of other horror games approach World War Two- Weird War II and GURPS WWII: Weird War II, but 2013 seems to be the year of revisiting the concept between this and two distinct CoC WW2 games. Band of Zombies is the first new All Flesh Must Be Eaten sourcebook in several years. BoZ gives an alternate WW2 with the undead at the beck and call of every major national force, albeit each with a slightly different approach. Rather than offering a set of distinct "deadworlds" this sourcebook breaks up chapters into different sections of this setting. The book includes most of the mechanics necessary for running a military campaign- some elements reprinted from other AEMBE books and some new.

d20 Hentai Horror. That's what I said about the 2007 edition. Now revised. 

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 certain I wouldn't want to be at that table. It isn't my cup of tea. I'll give the publisher credit for restraint in the lack of tentacles on the front cover. There's a significant number of supporting supplements for this game including Black Tokyo Unlimited: The Races of Black Japan and *ugh* Busty Extreme! released the same year.

This might be a corner case, but IIRC I've already presented one or two feline-centered horror games on earlier lists. This slim volume has secret cat investigators battling against Mythos forces with names like Mutt’thra the Monster Dog and Hastpurr of Catcosa. This game manages to be one I simultaneously absolutely admire and don't see the appeal of. I actually feel even more humorless than usual saying that. While it doesn't click for me, I love that someone's dug the concept enough to produce a beautiful book and garner a significant audience. This line has been well supported. Perhaps the weirdest moment of synchronicity about this is the release of Katzulhu in 2013 as well. That German CoC supplement reworked and expanded the authors' Cathulhu (Worlds of Cthulhu (Issue 4)). So there's a richer vein of animal-centered, Lovecraftian horror than I would have expected.

7. Call of Cthulhu: Chaosium
What counted as big news for Chaosium's fans depended on how much they anticipated/feared the new edition. 2013 saw the release of the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quickstart which previewed changes to the game. They also released Missed Dues and Other Adventures, originally to backers of the Kickstarter and then as a special item at Gen Con. On the other hand fans of existing editions had a Kickstarter for the legendary Horror on the Orient Express campaign, as well as the massive Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. The latter's a crazy huge book. It gives additional information for running all six chapters of the original campaign, two extra scenarios, as well as 28 pre-gen characters. It's a template for revisiting older and beloved products I hope we might see repeated elsewhere.

Chaosium published several other striking CoC books. The House of R'lyeh ties itself closely to original Lovecraftian stories, rather than simply modelling ideas. Presented loosely, these could be placed easily into existing campaign cycles. Canis Mysterium offers a shorter scenario set near Arkham. Horror Stories from the Red Room collects several short scenarios with the shared theme of All Hallows Eve from vastly different times and places. Dark Crusades supports Cthulhu Dark Ages and gives a tour of the Holly Land in the setting. Secrets of Tibet follows the pattern of earlier "Secrets" books, exploring this remote land in the context of the Mythos and especially the Dreamlands.

8. Call of Cthulhu: Other Publishers
I haven't caught everything in my net, but I can point to a number of interesting non-Chaosium Call of Cthulhu. Delta Green: PX Poker Night is a d20 short scenario. Tales of the Sleepless City has six independent scenarios, set in classic New York. Golden Goblin Press released Island of Ignorance, which it describes as the third CoC companion. That includes a diverse range of artifacts, items, and scenarios. Legs is for Cthulhu Now, giving a short scenario for Keepers. Lost in the Lights, also for Cthulhu Now, gives a longer adventure, set in Las Vegas, and intended as the start of a sequence.

It's amazing the solid and independent products developed for CoC in other countries. Pegasus Spiele's German products cover a wide-range of topics and areas not addressed by Chaosium. (I assume they're an official licensee). For example, Die Janus-Gesellschaft is a huge Renaissance era sourcebook (1690). Regionalia Cthuliana - Deutsche Städte, Regionalia Cthuliana - Deutsche Regionen, Regionalia Cthuliana - Mexiko gather together previously published city guides into handy volumes. Der Sänger von Dhol und andere Abenteuer reprints earlier adventures as does Abwärts und andere Abenteuer, but for Cthulhu Now. Todbringende Artefakte assembles winners from a scenario contest, based on an earlier Egypt product. Die Bestie1: Präludium is part of an American campaign, building and expanding on earlier material. Reisen: Passagen in den Tod considers travel as a pivotal element of the period. On the lighter side, Stirb aufrecht, Kultist! gives a German take on Cthulhu meets the Wild West. Outside of Germany, I should also mention Sciences Forensiques & Psychologies Criminelles. This massive (400+ page) tome from French publisher Éditions Sans-Détour covers everything you'd want to know about criminal science and forensics from the classic to modern periods.

Eden has been slowly supporting Conspiracy X 2.0, and there's a surprisingly small gap between this sourcebook and the last (only a year). And this one is huge- a massive and comprehensive book covering the histories of major players, rules and systems for working with conspiracies, and suggestions of new developments in the world of ConX. This remains one of my favorite modern games. It's perhaps more action thriller than horror, but I love the mish-mash backdrop and the way they embrace players' connections to government agencies and their experience.

10.  Cryptworld
It isn't Chill, but it is? Cryptworld uses the classic Pacesetter system and has players investigating the strange and horrific. But it lacks elements of classic Chill, especially the S.A.V.E. agency. There's no specific setting built in this time. Instead this is a generic horror game. I'm not sure that's a great thing. On the one hand it allows it to be used for many more things, but on the other it puts it in direct competition with many, many modern generic horror games. And entering that battle with a fairly old-school system. Ditching S.A.V.E. also means cutting out a major element players remember fondly. We haven't seen anything else for this line yet, so whether it will survive and thrive remains an open question.

11. Daemoni
Vampire: Undeath is an rpg line with a controversial and troubled history. It reads like either a love-letter to of a rip-off of Vampire the Masquerade. However the designers have distanced themselves from any comparison- to the point of parody (through sock-puppets and the like). I don't want to go down that rabbit hole too far- instead I recommend Google'ng the system and checking out reviews (and if you can bear it the forum threads). It illustrate my own bias, I've followed this situation primarily via the lens of Wil Hutton's articles on Aggregate Cognizance.

My wife describes the atmosphere of games like Diablo III as "Dudebro Horror": over the top trappings, deep-voiced rantings from bad guys, blood & guts sprayed on with a hose, and skulls everywhere. Over-the-top becomes wallpaper. But more importantly the horror's undercut by the game's nature itself: personal power and big weapons kicking ass. That's still a distance from Dark Hersey, but it reminds me of the how much some games straddle the line between Action/Adventure and Horror. Sometimes, as in the case of Diablo, they realize they've leaned too far on the action side and desperately compensate with more "oooooh scary" gore. I've read some descriptions of 40K RPG campaigns that sound suitably threatening and dangerous- full of mystery and corruption. But others sound more like Duke Nukem. That aside Dark Heresy has done well enough for Fantasy Flight to begin work on a new edition, resulting in this beta product for it. By all rights, DH ought to be the scariest, with the PCs coming face to face with the darkest things threatening the Imperium. 2013 also saw FFG release a major sourcebook for the parallel Black Crusade line: The Tome of Excess. This one covers the chaos god Slaanesh, probably the most M for Mature of the baddies.

I'm seriously tempted by Deadlands Noir. More than the other Deadlands genre reskin (Deadlands: Hell on Earth for example) this has the fun and playful feel of the original game. DL: Noir's set in a version of New Orleans. This companion adds new rules, roles, and mechanics. But more importantly it expands the setting by detailing Chicago, Shan Fan, Lost Angels, and the City of Gloom. There's a lot to love there for Deadlands fans. Beyond that Pinnacle has supported the line with smaller supplements including maps, character flats, Kickstarter rewards, and an adventure, The Case of the Jumbo Shrimp.

Core Deadlands: Reloaded product slowed and finally ran out from Pinnacle. The largest release Trail Guides: Volume 1 simply repackaged the first three guides in the series into a single volume. On the other hand Grim Prairie Trails appears to be a new volume. It collects adversaries, scenarios to accompany them, and some new mechanics. The final new product, The Inheritors, is a short adventure. Pinnacle hasn't released anything for Deadlands Reloaded yet in 2014, so they may have wound down the line. Or they may simply be focusing on the above-mentioned Deadlands Noir.

Night's Black Agents remains #1 on my list of rpgs I've read through, talked about, and love but still haven't played. It has enough crunch that I want to see it in action from someone who has a handle on the moving parts. Despite not getting it to the table, I picked up Double Tap as soon as I heard about it. It brings a ton more material to the 'Spies vs. Vampiric Conspiracy' game. One third considers the game's abilities (investigative and general), expanding them and offering refinements. Another third gives more space to ideas of tradecraft and how to model that at the table. The final third gives more monster types and solid advice to GMs. This is a must-buy for NBA fans. While the original game is useful to both horror and spy GMs in, this supplement's more focused. Its less useful for generic horror games, but offers more ideas for anyone running 'monster-hunting' games like Hunter: The Vigil or Monster of the Week.

This wins, hands down for the best new premise for a horror game. To quote the publisher, "Prove nothing, be awesome, and inflate your ego all in the name of pseudo-science! Dude, Run! is a competitive storytelling game of reality TV paranormal investigation." Holy cow is that amazeballs. I like the concept of a desperate scramble to offer pseudo-paranormal explanations while not getting tangled up in your own BS. I don't know how the game plays, but I have to buy a copy now.

EPOCH's a striking and unique horror rpg system which uses scenario-tailored cards to steer the game. I'm a fan of card-driven games (since we use them for our 10+ year old house system). It's a smart design move as well, given the accessibility of easy to print full-color cards. EPOCH released four supplements in 2013. One of these, War Stories, took home an ENnie nomination for best adventure as well as runner up for Indie supplement of the year. That thematic collection offers five survival-horror tales, all set during wartime- from the Russian Invasion of Finland to massacres in the Congo. A separate one-shot, Shadows of Yesterday, also covers WWI survivor experiences. Frontier of Fear collect four new adventures, all with a sci-fi theme. Finally The Cold Shore and Road Trip are both scenarios with quick start rules for the system, making them great entry points for anyone curious about it.

The original Esoterrorists offered an interesting setting premise, but one often lost in the focus on the new Gumshoe mechanics. I glossed over it the first couple of times I read through. The concept isn't a simple group fighting the supernatural (ala Delta Green or S.A.V.E.). Instead it takes the title concept seriously: these enemy forces are terrorists. Fear, panic, and misinformation empower them and allow them to weaken the membrane between this world and the other side. Then bad, bad things come through. It's a dark set up- and allowed Pelgrane to create really challenging adventures and supplements. The 2nd Edition of Esoterroists dramatically increases the page count, brings the setting front and center, integrates previous material, and expands it with a host of new stuff. If you're looking for a dark & dangerous, truly modern, investigators vs. supernatural conspiracy game, consider this book.

GURPS has a solid track record with horror supplements. GURPS Zombies is a massive sourcebook on the concept. It isn't a survival horror sourcebook, though it does touch on that. Instead it covers all the Zombie bases (fast to slow, infectious to supernatural, dumb to hive mind). While it obviously has the GURPS penchant for mechanics and numbers, the book's solid enough to be useful to any horror GM.

A companion volume to last year's curse the darkness. To paraphrase my original summary, it's supernatural post-apocalypse horror setting. A figure of absolute altruism demands everyone aid one another with no compensation- spiritual or otherwise. Those who refuse are taken by creatures from The Between. The game takes place ten years later with players forced to choose between submission or struggling to retake the world. Infinite Shadows is even larger than the original book. It offers some new rules and ideas for the base game. But strikingly it gives complete setting versions for Savage Worlds, Storytelling, Apocalypse World, Fate Accelerated, and even a playset for Last Best Hope. And that, my friends, is why I love gaming. Some might resent the proliferation of different game systems, but I think that's great. There's the opportunity here to consider how system shapes play- and look at what different games bring to the table. Very cool.

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