Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Year in Horror RPGs 2013: Part Two: It Came from the Stars to World War Cthulhu

Here are the rest of the horror rpgs published in 2013, a pretty huge number. The genre remains strong and compelling, paling next to fantasy but beating out many others. It’s worth comparing that success to its presentation in other kinds of gaming.

Board Games
For this I looked through the BGG rankings of games published in '13. I skipped a couple of foreign-language games and some “kids” games with cartoonish horror elements. And I’ll admit I got exhausted after about the tenth page of game listings and stopped. I’ve included base games and major expansions. As you can see, there’s a definite trend I had to break out. Zombie games rule the roost in quantity. However, I suspect the average rating of those games is significantly lower than that of the other group.

Video Games
Here I focused on games which have significant and playable horror elements. I left off those which just had you playing a monster in a side-scroller, for example. I also skipped many little games and apps, instead focusing on those which garnered review attention (positive or negative). Zombies appear again strongly, but don’t dominate. I suspect if I included shovelware, that might be different.

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). The first half of this 2013 round up is here.

As I mentioned on the previous list, 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.

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.

A sourcebook of Lovecraftian space horror for Pathfinder Fantasy. It shares some ambitions with Shadows over Vathak, but instead of building a new fantasy world with those horror elements it brings the weird to an existing setting. This might be a corner case for the horror list- the frights and Mythos come filtered through a Spelljammer sensibility. The book's split into three parts: new mechanics including races & classes, GM material including new foes, and a couple of adventures. The nod to horror comes via the weird creatures and some potent "star beasts" which can have unearthly abilities. These are Lovecraftian horrors written small and with clear hit points. While the game claims that "Mystery, wonder, and terror from the starry vastness await you," I suspect that depends on your GMs willingness to tweak and turn the material up to eleven. Still, if you're looking to add something of Numenera's tone to a Pathfinder game, this might be worth tracking down.
It Came from the Stars on RPGNow

I‘ll be a little coy about this one. I just received a copy and I want to do a full review. Basically King for a Day lays out a massive campaign sourcebook for a low-fantasy/horror sandbox. It is systemless, but seems tuned for use with something like BRP, Harnmaster, or the like. It has a distinct Anglo-Saxon feel, and specifically cites Harn as an inspiration. King for a Day is about 300 pages, trade-sized. The first thirty+ pages set things up and talk about the social interactions involved, the next 100+ lay out the land and key places of the setting, and the last half of the book goes through the dozens and dozens of NPCs and the storylines running through the book. Rather than a sequence of events, KfaD builds on event triggers leading to many different plots and results.

Author jim pinto worked on several of my favorite L5R products. He has a deft hand and strong voice which carries through the work. This has a cool set up and distinct sense of place. Pinto mentions that it arose from his reworking of an earlier module, Night Below. GMs wanting to run King for a Day in an existing world may have to do some shifting to make it fit, but the book works to make that easier. The central horrors and challenges are striking, but they're also subtle. I think what's most fascinating is how rich the material is, which could go to a GM's head. KfaD relies heavily on social interactions with NPCs and careful tuning of those conversations. GMs have to manage and maintain the tone. Recommended for anyone doing a low fantasy game tinged with or fully embracing horror.
King for a Day on RPGNow

I'm pleased that The Laundry rpg has done well for Cubicle 7 and they've continued to expand the line. I enjoyed Charlie Stross’ original books, and I love how the setting presents a mirror to games like Delta Green and Conspiracy X. The focus on bureaucracy and paradigms for understanding magic make it disquietingly realistic. Cubicle 7 released two Laundry products for 2013. God Game Black adds a number of elements drawn from The Apocalypse Codex novel, including more details on the Black Chamber and External Assets. It also has two new adventures. Cultists Under the Bed considers the how and why of cultists and conspirators in this setting. It includes write-ups of many foes, large and small. I like the focus on the human agents involved in these matters- rather than just another monster book. Modern horror or conspiracy GM might want to pick it up. Both books are substantial 128-page supplements, which is also awesome.
God Game Black and Cultists Under the Bed on RPGNow

Based on a series of novels I'm unfamiliar with, Monster Hunter International is the last thing to come out from Hero Games in some time. As I commented on the earlier Horror Hero: Endless Nightmares, this would not be my go-to system for horror games. The crunch, numbers, and tactical approach don't mesh well with what I want when I run this genre. But I have to revise my opinion a little with this product. For one thing, it uses Hero 6th which files down many of game’s pointy corners. For another, the set up's action-adventure horror, with trained forces battling the supernatural. It may work well in that context. Certainly the game's solid showing on Kickstarter indicate people believed it would work (or at least offer a good sourcebook).

MHI follows the trend of recent Hero one-off games, with a complete and condensed version of the system alongside the setting material. Everything has a paramilitary look to it- reminding me of the old Recon and Merc games. It seems exclusively aimed at fans of the books- there's little explaining the premise in the blurbs. I'm guessing you're part of a company that hunts down monsters? Maybe InSpectres but more hardcore? I'm not sure. Reviews are mixed, and I had a hard time finding any beyond Amazon and RPGNow. Novices expecting an easy system to run the game seem put off by the rules presentation and incompleteness. I suspect your love for this will depend entirely on your fondness for the source books and/or Hero system.

Monster Hunter Intl on RPGNow

Onyx Path has done a striking job of moving attention and excitement over to Kickstarter. They've been able to grab fans and make them online advocates. They’ve had to in order to survive in a purely direct sale/no retailer environment. We've seen these kinds of shifts in the rpg industry before. Shannon Appelcline's Designers & Dragons is filled with many such experiments. What's striking about reading that book is how crystal clear their results seem in retrospect. It was obvious that the Masterbook series wouldn't stand up or that the switch to Megatraveller would alienate allied companies. But at the time, as a consumer, these moves seemed legitimate. So I don't know if the new KS publishing economy will sustain itself. I don't think, as I did a few years ago, that a series of collapsing projects will bring things down. Instead I think if there's a sea change it will come in five years once these companies have had a chance to absorb and process the economies of these approaches.

Mummy the Curse funded at over $100K of its original $30K request. I've written about WW's earlier Mummy game which I quite liked. This version takes a very different approach- more esoteric and meta. Designer C. A. Suleiman, among others, has produced quite a different sensibility. While it offers the first new core book for World of Darkness in some years, the game's approach is more contained than Werewolf or Vampire. It reminds me more of something like Nephilim or Amaranthine. Players run potent and powerful creatures, but a good deal of the game is given over to figuring out exactly who you are. It looks very cool, but I'd recommend reading a few reviews before picking this up. DieHard Game Fan and Tor.com both present solid overviews.

Mummy the Curse on RPGNow

A collection of generic horror scenarios set during the Great Depression. The seemingly niche product did quite well in Kickstarter, raising 4+ times the requested amount. It could easily be adapted for Call of Cthulhu, another general horror rpg, or the period-appropriate Trail of Cthulhu. The stated intent is to offer quick and complete horror scenarios GMs can easily run for fill in. Reviews suggest all five are quite good. And while they're all set in the same period, they don't repeat one another too thematically. One review suggests that there's six in the collection, counting Lover in the Ice as one. But the publisher blurb only mentions five. The bundled edition is only available as a $20 PoD version. That's nice and has a really striking cover. But if you’re not interested in that, each of the five included scenarios can be purchased as pdfs "Pay What You Want" via RPGNow. Try one out and see if it fits your style.
No Security on RPGNow

A zombie rpg where you play the elderly attempting to quietly shuffle along with the undead and keep themselves from being eaten. This is a one-shot game with the players working to clear the facility or manage to get the keys to escape. While that could be done as a scenario with a number of existing zombie games, One Foot in the Grave adds a unique element: Bingo. The game uses d6 resolution. When players roll only sixes, they then have to generate a 2d6 cross-check number marked on everyone's cards. If anyone gets Bingo during play, they survive and everyone else is gunned down by the military invading the facility. An easy prep game, with mixed rpg and board game elements.
One Foot in the Grave on RPGNow

I wasn't sold on the zombie-survival rpg Outbreak when I first saw it. But I'm pleased to see a company regularly supporting a line with new material, even if it is only a few pages of weekly material like Hunters Books' Free Content Friday. They smartly gather those into annual collections as well. Outbreak: Deep Space, as you might guess, is a space survival horror game. However I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with the actual publication history. It seems like they published a 150 page version in 2013, but then they ran a Kickstarter in 2014 for it, which seems to be for a second 240 page edition released in September. The earlier edition seems to be a set of modules to add to the original game, while the newer version is stand-alone. I’ll hold off comment since it seems like the actual final game’s really a 2014 publication.
Outbreak: Deep Space on RPGNow

The original Outlive Outdead had a hook- modelling itself on a zombie survival guide. That's smart, given the popularity of Max Brooks' work. That helped distinguish Outlive a little from the horde of zombie games shuffling through the market. The Outlive Outdead Companion makes a couple of odd moves. For one, it isn't really a "companion." I have certain expectations when publishers describe that kind of book: new classes, rules, GM advice, and a general expansion of the original. OOC is actually an adventure collection, each one set in a different time period: Stone Age, Arthurian, ECW, WWI, and near-future. So effectively it is closer to a Deadworlds book from AFMBE. That's not a bad concept, but it needs a more accurate title. But that approach negates the central conceit of the original game: rpg as training tool for zombie survival. It means the question still remains: what makes this game more compelling or interesting than the dozen other Z-Games?
Outlive Undead Companion on RPGNow

This is a revision of the earlier RPGs, Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium ('02,'07) and Spite: The Second Book of Pandemonium ('09). As I said in my original listing, "...a modern horror game with lots of demons, black magic, and crazy occult symbology. It looks pretty metal. The back cover of the book has lots of colorful blurbs, but it isn't easy to say what the game's about (besides demons). I think you might actually be playing demon-worshippers or at least servants to demons, based on the flavor text there- but the review suggest the opposite, that you're actually hunters against those demons. Most of the reviews invoke phrases like ass-kicking, gritty, stylish, demons." This book's blurb makes it a little clearer that you're fighting against the forces of darkness- but that you're terribly and deeply flawed. It mentions abilities like Sexpletive, Death Panel, Photobomb, and Gunfetti. Keywords from reviews and blurbs include: gorehound, transgression, vomiting, primal, Sodom, splatterpunk. You have to admire a game which truly knows itself. I came in skeptical, but I'm more than a little sold on this. It isn't a game I want to play, but it is a game that takes aim at what it wants to be and embraces that- without resorting to covering statements or defensive elements.
Pandemonio on RPGNow

Rifts has always embraced certain horror elements, reworking many of them into monstrous foes to be exploded without mercy. Like many, I admire the variety and sheer gonzo craziness of the Rifts books, though I've never embraced the game itself. Several world books are pretty cool; many could as easily been complete stand-alone games based on the volume of fertile ideas. Rifts Vampires expands the material of Rifts:Vampire Kingdoms, the section of Chaos Earth held by the undead (New Mexico, Central America, portions of South America). It develops the internal struggles of the vamps, offers a new dark god, and adds new magics and monsters for those areas. But on the flip side it presents a wealth of new material for those fighting against the vampires. New equipment & gifts, heroic necromancers, a city devoted to hunting the undead, strategies & tactics, and human strongholds still standing in these dark lands. If you're looking for a sourcebook filled with crazy ideas about techno-cyber-arcane Nosferatu destruction, then this is up your alley.

Also covered on my supers list, zombie survival meets superheroes pretty much sums this up. Rotted Capes offers a stand-alone system and setting. We've seen several versions of the “zombies meet supers” story (Marvel Zombies for example), but Rotted Capes seems closest to the ideas of Peter Clines' Ex-Heroes series. The game has interesting concepts like the focus on scavenging and maintaining tension by having the PCs play ‘B-List’ heroes. Rotted Capes' mechanics feel pretty straightforward. Characters begin by choosing a power source and an archetype. These modify the player point spends for attributes, skills, advantages, and powers. The game has a lot of calculations and exceptions (requirements for purchases, calculated stats, modifications from archetypes). The power list's a mix of specific and effect types. Combat uses an initiative clock for each character with different actions having different time costs. It isn't exactly the same as Scion, so I'd be curious if it has the same limitation. In Scion speed kills. Anything which reduces your action time cost makes you significantly more effective. I've read through Rotted Capes and I'm not sure how to judge it. It feels more complex than Mutants & Masterminds. I really need to watch or read about an actual play. The mechanics make up a little more than half of the core book, the rest covers the world, history, and GMing. Gamers looking at doing a superhero zombie game will find a wealth of ideas here. Beyond that it is a pretty awesome looking book- with gruesome and evocative art.
Rotted Capes on RPGNow

What Pelgrane lacked in number of publications for Trail of Cthulhu, it made up for in quality. Eternal Lies offers a massive campaign for ToC- international, brilliantly presented, massive, and open to different paths of approach. Combine that with several unusual twists and you have a Cthulhu campaign on par with Masks of Nyarlathotep or Walker in the Wastes. For good reason it took home the ENnie Gold for Best Adventure. The fewer words I say about this twisty and awesome product, the better. Cthulhu GMs should pick it up. The other major ToC product is more tangential. Ken Hite's Ken Writes About Stuff alternates between general topics and explorations of Lovecraftian monsters. The other two big products The Final Revelation and Out of Space both collect earlier related adventures into single volumes.
Eternal Lies, The Final Revelation, and Out of Space on RPGNow

Every rpg designer should be thinking about how their games will be played online. Yes, online gaming represents a fraction of the gaming going on, but it also encompasses an active and savvy group. They're potential advocates for new systems in social media and offer a new arena for demonstrating and pushing new games. They can run game demos without having to coordinate with shops or shlup to conventions. Rafael Chandler has done that thinking and the result is ViewScream, a horror game taking advantage of the technology, which he calls a varp or video-augmented roleplaying game. Players are crew on a damaged spaceship, cut off from one another and only able to communicate via viewscreens throughout the ship. And then the horrors begin. It can be played via G+ Hangouts or any other video messaging system. That’s pretty brilliant and the game includes a number of scenarios. You can also find many actual play videos for this online. Highly recommended.
ViewScream on RPGNow

Cthonian Stars came out in 2010 using the Mongoose Traveler system. The same team behind that and CthulhuTech created the The Void. It seems to rework of the former with a new system. The Void also follows Eclipse Phase in offering its material as a Creative Commons license. It aims to be a hard sci-fi setting, with little of the Manga/Weirdness of Cthulhutech. Instead The Void wants to embrace the most recent strains of space horror (Pandorum and Dead Space) mingled with Lovecraftian elements. I could give a review of the relative success of that endeavor, but you can check it out yourself. Wildfire offers the complete pdf of the product “Pay Want You Want” at RPGNow. You can pay nothing, check it out, and then if it proves interesting to you, buy it and support the company. If you're at all interested in science fiction and space travel in your horror games, you ought to pick this up.
The Void on RPGNow

I've mentioned my someday dream game of an Ancient Rome League of Extraordinary Gentlemen/Hellboy hybrid with players chasing yellow-masked agents of Hastur through the aqueducts. That's one I'll likely never get to run. Weird Wars Rome joins two other Roman horror games, Cthulhu Invictus and 43AD. It bears a closer resemblance to the latter, though it doesn't share the eerie atmospherics and focus on uncertainty. As with that game, you create a Roman solider but in a world with a lot of monsters. If you're looking for a Savage Worlds setting book dealing with this period, then WWR has what you want. It offers a good deal of background info and history of Rome. If, however, you've already invested in several other Rome rpgs, you many find a good deal of this repetitious. It does include a plot point campaign and some unique background. Savage Worlds is a good choice for combat and unit-fighting heavy campaigns, but perhaps less so for those aiming at tense horror.
Weird Wars Rome on RPGNow

I'm impressed at how Onyx Path balanced attention between the Old and New World of Darkness. When I first heard they'd be releasing new Classic WoD material, I assumed that would be a complete about-face. But the kind and quality of material they published across the settings (for lack of a better term) made it clear both could be sustained. It means cool things afoot for old and new fans- and anyone who likes this particular flavor of horror gaming. It demonstrates that WW/OP, despite shifts in approaches and distribution, remains one of the tentpole publishers for horror rpgs.

That being said, I've never been a big fan of Werewolf, though I know many who adore it. The 20th Anniversary (W20) edition is huge. It pulls together and synthesizes the key ideas and elements of Werewolf the Apocalypse into a new coherent whole. This is a stand-alone book any gamer could run from. The material makes changes to the base system and fine tunes the Storyteller systems to bring everything in line. OP released several other products to complement this new edition. Skinner is a fan-service adventure for long-time WtA players. It, of course, revolves loosely around Sam Haight, a polarizing figure in the community. Rage Across the World is a travelogue look at the world of W20. It includes a mix of mechanics, setting material, and game fiction. Changing Breeds (W20) is a massive book looking at the game's non-Garou shapechangers. Many love these character types and while some were covered in the main book, this expands that material. If you're a fan of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, then this was a good year.

WtW 20th Anniversary, Skinner, Rage Across the World, and Changing Breeds on RPGNow. 

38. World of Darkness (Classic)
Werewolf was not alone in getting retro-WoD love from Onyx Path in 2013. The Hunters Hunted II revisited one of the earliest and most beloved of the Vampire books. This 180+ page supplement once again considers what it means to be lowly humans in the WoD. It offers character creation rules, strategies & tactics, specialized magic & gifts, GM advice, organizations, and NPCs. Rather than a straight sequel to the original Hunters Hunted, feels like a second edition, given the same care as V20 or W20. V20 Storyteller's Screen offers the obligatory GM screen. If you like those and like Vampire, then you're in luck. From another corner of the WoD we also got Mage the Ascension enemy books Convention Book: Progenitors, Syndicate, and Void Engineers- bringing these three groups fully into the new century. Some may argue that MtA isn't a horror game and I tend to agree with them. But the grotesques on offer from the Technocracy could be easily added into any modern horror game. It’s also worth mentioning the Mage Translation Guide. This offers a bridge between the two Mages, Ascension and Awakening. That opens up new material to gamers on both sides of that divide.
Hunters Hunted II, Progenitors, Syndicate, Void Engineers, and Mage Translation Guide on RPGNow

Onyx Path dialed back releases for World of Darkness (nWoD), but what they did publish had significant impact. I've already mentioned Mummy: The Curse above, but The God-Machine Chronicle is arguably a bigger literal and figurative game-changer. Half of that volume details rules options, major changes to mechanics (including damage), and new sub-systems. These can be added piece-meal, but they're really intended to work as a whole. The conditions system in particular offers a weirdly crunchy and detailed element that reminds me of aspects from Fate. The other half of the book is a complete meta-campaign or framework. It introduces the eponymous concept and offers about adventures to go with that. The GMC brings an element of Kult or Hellraiser to the WoD setting. They've taken some time figuring out how these elements work in the generic horror of the main book and in conjunction with the different sub-lines. GMC's been better received than the mechanical portion of the book. Non-storytellers can download just the new rules as a free pdf.

Reap the Whirlwind is Onyx Path's offering for free RPG Day. It gives a simplified introduction to Vampire: The Requiem and includes a full adventure by Chuck Wendig. Anyone curious about VtR can download the pdf for free from RPGNow. Blood and Smoke: The Strix Chronicle once again turns and twists elements of the World of Darkness. We've seen that done a little bit before with Mirrors and Monte Cook's World of Darkness. This presents a ‘done in one’ book for playing vampires in WoD, no others needed. It notably integrates the rules advancements presented in GMC. In a sense Blood & Smoke offers a new edition for VtR, with significant changes to mechanisms of unlife, clarifications of roles, and continuity with earlier elements (such as the clans). I'm weirdly reminded of DC's work with the New 52. B&S:TSC shakes off the cobwebs and aims to offer a jumping on point for new gamers- a way to play Vampire without the continuity or having to buy a chunk of other sourcebooks. What remains to be seen is if this also serves as a jumping off point for older players…

God-Machine Chronicle and Blood and Smoke on RPGNow

We end with another WW2 Cthulhu gam, as we (almost) began with a different one. World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour offers a period setting book for Call of Cthulhu. Unlike Achtung Cthulhu!, WWC is intended as the first of a series of sourcebooks- each one using a different war or period of conflict as a framework for CoC setting material and scenarios. That's an interesting and ambitious project. I'll be curious what front they move to next. 

Rather than covering the whole of the conflict WWC: DH focuses on Europe and establishes a central group for PCs, the Special Operations Executive. They're essentially spies. Within that organization, a select few have been chosen to battle against forces of the Mythos. The game includes rules and adjustments for character creation, leading to strong starting PCs. WWC:DH includes historical background, details on intelligence operations, and the usual GM support for the setting. It has a full campaign to allow Keepers to get up to speed quickly. Overall the book's lovely and well put together. In 2014 Cubicle7 released an additional set of six missions, World War Cthulhu: Europe Ablaze. They also published a fiction anthology to complement the rpg supplement. Interestingly there's a collection of short stories with the same name which funded this year via IndieGoGo. If I were C7, I'd be a little annoyed. Overall this is very cool. I suspect rather than competing, AC! & WWC: DH will play together nicely.

World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour

History of Horror RPGs (Part One: 1981-1990)

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