Thursday, February 25, 2016

Seven Wonders Story Games Anthology: Two Readings

I picked up Seven Wonders from Pelgrane last week. That hadn’t been what I was shopping for. Instead I went to the site to get the new 13th Age battle scenes book. But the cover caught my eye and so I pre-ordered both of them (it’s my birthday month, so I figured a splurge would be OK). I downloaded the pre-order pdf and began to skim through it.

At that point I pretty much forgot about 13th Age.

Pelgrane’s Seven Wonders offers an anthology of seven distinct Story Games. Each has a different author, different theme, and different mechanics. They’ll all relatively light and focused on shared narrative. So they’re closer to something like The Warren or Breaking the Ice. I generally like those kinds of games, but there’s also a lot of trad in my DNA. Seven Wonders is kind of amazing. I skimmed it and then went back for a full read. I’m one of those people who picks up gaming pdfs and then forgets about them for months (the "Bundle of Holding" effect). But Seven Wonders pushed me on and I had a great time working through it.

So I wanted to do a quick “reading review” of the collection. The long and short of it is that I think it’s solid and if you like Story Games you ought to pick it up. But I wanted to give my impressions and then get Sherri’s impressions on the games. She was equally taken with the volume and tore through it. For this review I’ve opted to order the games by how likely I think it is that I’ll get them to the table. That measures more my group and my interest than the relatively quality of the game. I’ve ranked them from least to most likely.

Sherri: You are going to hear ‘tight’ used over and over in these descriptions.  All seven of the games are cleanly written and offer useful session structure and resolution methods to guide GM & players through the experience.  They all feel complete and succinct.  Examples of play and suggestions for variations are useful and interesting.  And remarkably, they each pull out and highlight different tools from the Story Game repertoire for thoughtful discussion: ways to structure play, ways to resolve conflict, ways to collaborate, ways to define preferences and boundaries.

Each game is doing something very different from the others, but they feel like a set precisely because they are each presented with great care and none repeats or talks over the others. 

Acceptable Losses by Tova Näslund
This is probably the most structured of the games. Designed for a GM and four players, each takes a pre-generated character. All four are members of a family on the brink of disaster in a dystopian future. They live in a massive apartment skyscraper where your status (and living accommodations) depend on your ability to work and generate revenue. The recent deaths of the family’s parents and calling in of their debts sets the main story.

Each character has a distinct role and set of connections. For example one sibling has the opportunity to marry and secure a position. The youngest hasn’t been able to do the common dangerous labor and so works another job that gives access to secrets. The game begins by setting up the premise and doing some loose location and detail building. Then characters are distributed and a relationship map created.

The GM has a set of pre-generated characters, tied tightly into the pre-gens’ story. Players frame scenes either “on the wall” (the dangerous workplace) or on the maintenance floor. Acceptable Losses uses the resolution cards from Itras By for any challenges. Overall the game offers a dystopia with a focus on the struggles of poverty. In some ways it might be the easiest to pick up and play, given how structured and pre-made the game is. It’s well-written and evocative enough it had me cringing as I read.

Sherri: Acceptable Losses is the fourth game in the book--it calls out its playstyle as freeform and carefully structures the experience with four pre-gens to play, enough collaborative detailing to get everyone on the same page, an untenable situation to negotiate and purposeful definitions of the two types of scenes that may be called. 

The themes and hazards are explicitly about family bonds, poverty and oppression.  The game is both personal and dark.  Each character’s self-interest is pitted against the one institution that gives them shelter, and martyrdom provides no guarantees.

The three games previous in the collection leavened the darkness with either possibility of hope or distance from the plights of the characters.  And what comes after? The next game that follows Acceptable Losses is light and cozy.  The next weird.  The last heroic. 

So in some ways, Acceptable Losses is the midnight of the soul of this book--that hardest moment that tests the mettle of a player.  And there’s good game in this moment. 

Online, I imagine we might get this game played.  There’s a big pool of folks playing all styles of games to pull from.

For our tabletop groups, this one pushes a number of political hot buttons, stoppers up the release valve of rebellion and stymies classic trad-game political problem-solving.  I completely get Lowell’s inclination to withhold this from the table.  On the other hand, I will definitely be pitching this scenario to the groups to get their reactions--I’m curious which players would be intrigued. 

Rise and Fall by Elizabeth Lovegrove
Another dystopia game, but with a broad and freeform approach. In it 2-5 players collaboratively create a dystopia. They then play through three phases: Rise, Established Order, and Fall. That’s followed by an Aftermath which serves as a kind of debrief and wind down. The world-building’s light and directed. It generates a few ideas players will explore during scenes. For characters, players design an “archetype,” a kind of character they’ll return to in each of the three parts: soldier, poet, scholar, tradesperson. As they name a particular instance of that archetype, they’ll write that on their sheet.

Play in each stage revolves around questions. A player, the questioner, sets a question, usually connected to some of the aspects set at the beginning or later established details. They also pick the players who will be in a scene. That scene closes when the questioner believes the question has been answered, and then writes down anything newly revealed. In most games, each play will get one question in each of the three phases.

Rise and Fall is well written, with extensive use of facilitator script presentations for the mechanics. I also appreciate that given the subject matter there’s a presentation of Lines and Veils. I also like that it makes specific allowance for two-player games. It also has an extensive example of play. The frame can be applied to all kinds of dystopias: sci-fi, historical, fantasy. It reminds me of a directed version of Kingdom or even a slimmed down Questlandia with easier resolution.

Sherri: Rise and Fall is the second game in the book.  It is Story Game as story engine--in this case, play and dialogue around a theme--with a simple framework and constraints to guide the play for a satisfying experience.  These games I know and love.  As much intellectual play as roleplay, your characters in Rise and Fall are the voices of an Idea.  In play, the scenes and characters are all deployed to answer questions about the dystopia--and the resulting web of discoveries looks for all the world like a writer’s mapping of a story.  The structure guarantees a beginning, conflicts and an ending--the rules act as a story machine, essentially.

Whereas the dystopian world of Acceptable Losses is personal and dark, Rise and Fall maintains distance.  You are playing variations on an archetype and illuminating the nature of the dystopia rather than the extent of your character’s suffering.  Even if the character is going through hell, it is an illustrative hell; appreciating the pathos of the situation is entirely voluntary.

Rise and Fall is a great story machine.  It’s familiar, but definitely it’s own thing. My inclination is to compare it to Caroline Hobb’s Downfall--and upon doing so, I am struck that the two games are going to deliver a very different experience.  Like any story engine, you will end up playing a game that looks and feels as much like a short story or television show as role playing can--but each one of these games feels guided by a different author.  The best of these games balance the meta-gaming (posing a question, framing a scene, resolving the outcome) with the meat of the roleplay--giving good signposts for what’s to be accomplished and freedom to throw in curveballs.  Rise and Fall is one of the best I’ve seen.

Nemesis 382 by Alex Helm
Like Acceptable Losses, Nemesis 382 offers a specific framed scenario. In this case players take the role of crew members on a spaceship headed for a black hole. All volunteered for this potentially lethal mission. The game plays out the rising tension as the ship approaches the event horizon. Ship crises and strange phenomena plague the crew, leading to a final decision about whether to continue on or turn back.

The game begins with some basic character definition, including a secret vote on whether each wants to finish the mission or turn back. That’s complemented by defining secretly the rest of the crews’ opinions. Play breaks into four acts: awakening, crises, strange phenomena, and time of decision. Each player frames a scene in each act. As the game moves one players draw cards from a Crisis and Phenomena deck. There’s some strategic choice in how and when you want to play those cards. You can even add cards to an ongoing problem. Once the cards enter play, the scene framing revolves around these. Can the crises be dealt with? What are the repercussions? After the fourth act, players vote to see whether they want to flee or complete the mission objective.

Nemesis 382 reminds me a little of Last Best Hope, a game I’ve tried to get through several times. It feels sharper and more focused than that. There is a little strangeness in that the game positions itself as hard sci-fi at the outset, but when we get to the phenomena cards, that gets a little more…fringey. I mean I think you have to do some serious hand-waving if your players are still expecting hard sci-fi. I’ll also be curious how long play actually takes. The book says 3-4 hours for 3-5 people. But each player frames a scene in each of four acts, plus the character creation and the epilogue. I suspect first plays will last longer than four hours or have to be split, but I may be terribly wrong.

I really, really hope that Helm and Pelgrane consider putting together these decks for purchase via something like Drivethru cards. A really nice set of these would make the game a go-to for convention and one-shot play.

I found Nemesis 382 interesting but with a specific focus I’d have to sell to players. Then I read the last part which blew things open for me. Helm suggests the game could be adapted for any long, potentially lethal journey into the unknown. The rules point to using it for “A trip into the Antarctic Wastes (HP Lovecraft-style)” and “The last voyage of Zheng He” among others. It would take some work, with the heavy lifting in retooling the event (and possibly phenomenon) cards. I could imagine using it as an interlude in campaign, to show a significant event elsewhere.

Sherri: Nemesis 382 made me think, “I want to play this with Alan.”  He’s the guy that I can trust to test the limits of a situation for its weirdness, its humor and its pathos.  That seems like a fruitful triangle for this scenario.  Mind you, Nemesis 382 is not silly, but there is both a serious mission and strangeness that will interfere; I treasure the humanity revealed when characters face uncertainty and the threat of failure with less than stellar professionalism.  I doubt my own comic timing--but Alan’s is spot on. 

Of course, the game smartly points out that setting the tone of a playthrough is important.  While I’m imagining the game with some humor, I’m definitely not picturing it gonzo or slapstick.  So Helm is on the money when she counsels that the players should discuss the tone and help each other strike the right notes.

Nemesis 382 is the sixth game in the collection. I could go on about its merits, but I want to play it.  I think that says all I need to say.

When the Dark is Gone by Becky Annison
The children from the Chronicles of Narnia go through therapy as adults.

I put off reading this game until last. We’ve just started our Crowsmantle campaign which has something of the same premise (inspired by NeST, The Talisman, Return to Oz, and others). I wanted to come to it after we’d started so it didn’t overwhelm my thinking.

This game plays out the PCs therapy. Each has serious problems, likely connected to shared vacations as children. They’ve repressed or changed their memories of those events. Smartly When the Dark is Gone begins with a discussion of limits, safe space, and conflict resolution. It points to one of the best things about that anthology. Each game that approaches difficult material takes a tailored approach to handling and informing players. At first I was a little surprised that this game, with some tough subject matter opened the collection. But the more I think about it, the way it presents trust & comfort and discusses structure-less gaming sets the stage for the other games.

When the Dark is Gone has a GM, called Organizer at the beginning and then Therapist later. I think they’re referring to the same role. Each player fills out a Client File Notes sheet. This includes basic details as well as defining a psychological disorder. Again the game takes time to talk about how to handle that respectfully. Clients then build two relationships with other characters. They connect these to a moment where that other person betrayed or hurt them. A few other details, a secret, a memory, something that makes you worth redemption, round that out.

Play then moves to the therapy. This is fully immersive, with little move back to system. The rules spend some time discussing improvisation and how that fits here. In play the Therapist keeps things moving. That’s mostly done through a questioning process. There’s lot of advice here- for a short game this is incredibly rich with assistance. To help the Therapist further, game includes 101 Story Seeds and a “British” & more brutal “Criminal” playset. These include sample characters and a therapist reference sheet. That’s great support for anyone wanting to run this at a con.

Sherri: At first, the premise sounded amusing to me.  Post-Narnia-Stress-Disorder? Heh. 

But that isn’t what’s going on here at all.  It’s a lot darker than that. The characters have real and destructive problems, and they’re all still mixed up in each others lives and making things worse for each other.  So you start out with a circle of dysfunctional friends and collaboratively build a forgotten dark fantastical past that shaped their relations with one another and feeds (if not exactly caused) their problems.  And maybe, just maybe, some of the characters learn enough about themselves to move forward.

It’s a cool way to reshape collaborative world-building--a framework filled in and covered over with the scraps of memories recalled by broken exiles. It puts the characters and their relationships front and center, but everything feeds back to and from ‘the place’. When the Dark is Gone is unwaveringly smart.

All the good things Lowell says about it stand for me.  A perfect first Wonder.

Small Things by Lynne Hardy
A Borrowers rpg has always been on Sherri’s grail-game list. It’s a series I never read as a kid (I watched the animated rip-off The Littles). The idea came up again when we saw Arrietty in the theaters and when Moe Tousignant submitted his Diminutive RPG for the 24 Hour RPG contest. The concept really sings for Sherri, especially as it has a kind of “Swiss Family Robinson” survival aspect to it. I’ll admit the idea of tiny persons and the colossal dangers they face makes me more anxious than excited.

Lynne Hardy’s Small Things, though, clears away my anxiety. It offers a cozy game, with tiny things doing great deeds and keeping things tidy. She has one of my favorite lines from any rpg, “If games had a smell, this one’s would be like hot buttered toast, newly baked bread and cakes, freshly cut grass and clean laundry.” Though it could be transplanted to somewhere/when else, Small Things sits in a somewhat mythical sedate England between the 1930s and 1950s (without the bother of the war, of course).

In Small Things, you play Small Things. They’re fantastical household caretakers who want to keep everything orderly for the Big Things. They thrive on work, and don’t want a house too chaotic nor too sterile. The GM, called a Caretaker, begins by collaboratively creating the House (type and family). Small Things themselves are relatively easily created, defined by several traits (core concept, special abilities, personality, look, and moniker). The rules do an excellent job of providing examples. Players can pick from those or design their own. There’s a nice and quick process of using questions to further define each Small Thing. Those can have implications later (like a Small Thing with a hero complex about another character may have trouble working with them). The process looks complicated when you read through the quick list, but I don’t think it will be in practice.

Play itself begins with the Caretaker setting a story, usually a problem or incident that begins everything. They then call on a player to set the theme of a scene, which is then played out. Then another player picks a theme. When three scenes have passed, an act has finished. Stories are broken into three acts, with the game giving advice about when certain things should fall (like resolving the problem in scene two, act three so you have one more to do a wrap up scene). Small Things offers a diceless, abstract method for resolving success which fits with the tale-telling feel of the game.

I like Small Things. Characters have a clear task and the story has a clear structure, but it doesn’t feel limited. Advanced players and GMs can add in additional elements like stranger kinds of Big Things and Things from the Outside. There’s a nice example of play, followed by several nice appendices (including scenario seeds).

Sherri: Small Things is the fifth game in the collection.  It follows Acceptable Losses, and the tone of the setting could not be more different. (Although I do like the idea that Small Things episodes are always playing on the TVs in the world of Acceptable Losses.)   Small Things is cuddly and sweet and what I expected Story Games would be before I had played any Story Games, except better.

The game makes every part of the set-up work toward establishing the ethos of the setting and defining the genre--in this case, a very particular sort of British children’s programming. I’m unfamiliar with most of the source material Hardy recommends, but every step in introducing the game to the players clearly underscores a set of conventions. Resolution is simple--and clearly the genre’s criteria for success: have exactly the right ability (each character only gets two) or use teamwork.  Some character relationships mean that teamwork adds amusing complications.

My old self might have dismissed this with a sniff and ‘no challenge!’.  But of course, I wasn’t really paying attention to what the actual challenge these games are built around.  The difficulty has little to do with the in-game problems and everything to do with creating scenes and characterizations that are both satisfying and in-genre.  It is a authorial challenge shared by the players and GMs, and when everyone’s up to the challenge, it is a delightful experience.  When genre and tone are off, these games are far less enjoyable--and often seem pointless. 

Lynne Hardy’s writing for this game has a light touch throughout. Every choice the players make, every question put to the group, every Amusing Capitalization serves the purpose of demonstrating the genre. Small Things is full of Whimsy, Earnest Endeavour and Teamwork.

Also, I am going to hack her format for the Borrowers game of my dreams.    (Thank you, Lynne Hardy!)

Heroes of the Hearth by Stiainín Jackson
I like games about places and communities; Kingdom’s among my favorite rpgs. Heroes of the Hearth does something similar, but in narrowing the premise it adds depth. And as much as I dig Kingdom, HotH looks much easier to pick up and play. When the heroes and soldiers march off to deal with The Great Threat, what happens to those who remain? Here the players take the roles of those left behind.

Like many of the other games in the volume, HotH begins with world creation. That’s kept simple and tight: five questions which can be answered with a few words and then elaborated in conversation. Then the game takes an interesting step. Rather than go through character creation, it offers gender-neutral pre-gens to choose. Players then customize these by selecting from a list of bonds. Bonds affect mechanically and narratively, revolving around strength and weakness.

Play then moves into scenes, broken into three acts. The first looks at the village a month after the departure of their loved ones. Each player frames a scene showing how they’re compensating for that absence. Afterwards players assess the strength or weakness of their character, marking that down. Then to close out the act, players narrate writing a letter to their loved one. Act Two takes up another month down the road, with rumors of the expedition’s fate trickling back. The arrival of letters from those who left caps this act. Act Three shows that the threat has not been defeated and now approaches the village. Finally the Climax looks at each character’s strength and weakness, allowing for narration of fates based on those. The game ends with an epilogue.

I really dig the simplicity of this game. It has just enough structure to make it hum. I love the idea of letters and how it reinforces the movement between acts. The game also has several pages of advice on play, elemental and useful. But then it adds a little bit more. Jackson includes an alternate scenario, complete with new questions and pre-gens. Here you play out events in a town in Occupied France, with many having departed to join the Resistance. It’s smart and quickly shows how the game could be adapted to many different settings.

Sherri: Heroes of the Hearth is an engine to tell stories about a community during wartime--a community whose heroes have left to join a battle far away.  Heros of the Hearth is the third story in the collection. It is has a good discussion about ‘playing to fail’--a necessary introduction for new players where tragedy makes so much sense in the game.  In acknowledging the nature of life during wartime, Jackson suggests the use of the X-card as a tag-out for subject matter that may be too raw for a player. The structure has a quick bit of metagaming between each scene to decide whether a character was acting from strength or weakness--and an end-game tallying of those scores to determine the overall fate of the community.  Other than that, it is about as lightweight as an Story Engine can be. Most of the energy in game is directed into playing out the scenes, within each of the Acts, the Climax and the Epilogue.

I think Lowell is upstairs right now toodling with a version to serve as an interlude in one of our campaigns.  

Before the Storm by Joanna Piancastelli
So this is the last game in the book and also the one that immediately grabbed me and made me want to play. This is the role-playing version of the intro scene from Final Fantasy X. A group of heroes has gathered. They rest around a fire. Tomorrow they will go forward to face what must be the final battle. This rpg is about that evening and the stories that come from there.

See, the whole thing gives me chills. I love the concept which never, ever occurred to me. I’ve seen it in stories, movies, and games but it never occurred to me you could play it out, or use that as a lens to explore the stories and relationships leading up to those times.

And do that in a single session.

3-5 players, 4-5 hours, GMless (with a player facilitator to lead), it uses a standard playing card deck to structure play.

And that’s all I’m going to say. You should read it and we should play it.

Sherri: You actually meant to say, ‘...we should play it NOW.’  Right?

It’s worth mentioning the strong art throughout the book. It does a great job of conveying each game’s flavor and helps makes each one distinct. The layout and text design’s the kind of clean and clear I love. I’m never overwhelmed and never feel like space is being wasted. But there’s an even more striking thing I noticed on a second read-through. Each game touches on common aspects of Story Gaming (like scene calling and methods for safe spaces). But we never get exactly the same approach or presentation. Some of that comes from having seven different authors, but it also feels like incredibly smart editing. I never once feel like I’m treading through the same material and discussion. Each game has a unique sound and the anthology works together so that any repetition hits a new note to create harmony.

Sherri: Exactly.  The editing is the eighth Wonder in this book.  What a pleasure to read!

This is a great collection of Story Games. If you like or have any curiosity about those, it’s worth buying. You can pre-order the physical copy from Pelgrane and get the pdf now

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Year in Horror RPGs 2014

Maybe I’m wrong about Horror.

I started these lists with the best of intentions. Trying to figure out how the genre had evolved, trace patterns, and figure out when certain approaches had evolved. Horror came first because of Call of Cthulhu, the first horror game and the first licensed property. At first I had little trouble figuring out what fell into this box. But over time those lines blurred. More and more things looked less and less like Horror with a capital H.

That came back to me as I read another round of system-dismissal posts and this piece on horror cinema. (h/t to Eric Duncan). Am I breaking things down too far in my head? For example, I tend to value “Action Horror” less, especially Big Guns against the Darkness style games. I’m afraid that tone may come across in my assessments. To make a parallel to cinema, let’s imagine the "Horror to Action" continuum of genres. Start with extraterrestrials, The Fourth Kind--> Alien--> Aliens--> Starship Troopers. Or consider zombies, REC--> The Walking Dead--> Dawn of the Dead--> Resident Evil: Apocalypse. I imagine I could put various rpgs into the same kinds of lists. I’m not going to, I’ll leave the “that’s not really horror” to your judgement.

It’s more interesting to look at how nebulous horror themes have become in games. I recent years we’ve seen more subtle genre blending in games. That’s why I wouldn’t try to sub-divide horror further. Even my extraction of Cthulhu had some questionable bits, since some games sort-of use the Mythos (Shadows over Vathak). In the last couple of decades we’ve seen more kinds of horror adapted to new frames. Like the political horror of Urban Shadows, the PTSD themes of Changeling the Lost, or the cosmic horror sub-theme in the OSR-y Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

So that’s why this list is so freaking long. 

If you’re a podcaster or blogger and want to talk with me about these series, drop me a line. I got nominated for an ENnie last year, so that’s something…maybe. If you’re a designer for games I’ve mentioned on any of these lists and want to talk about your work and thoughts about the genre in general, I’d love to have a chance to do that.

HEY! I have a Patreon for these lists. If you like them, consider contributing or resharing to spread the word.

I’ve group entries by individual new core books or oddities, then major publishers, followed by category roundups. I’ve considered something “Horror” if it explicitly references calls itself that and/or has been tagged horror by gamers. Some of that’s subjective. I include Kickstarter projects if they actually released in 2014. I give pdf-only releases their own entry if they’re notable, of significant size, or come from a major publisher. I consolidated some material into” Category” items at the end. I’m certain I missed some releases. If you spot them, leave me a note in the comments.

A "rent-veil" horror setting featuring Angels vs. Demons. Publisher Aegis Studios supported the line strongly in 2014. The Contagion Survival Guide offers tons of weapons and options for killing things. War Is Hell and VonAnstee's Library both contain a grab bags of new rules, including rituals, combat maneuvers, and skills. Practical Magic and Magic in the New Age each enhance the magic rules. Contagion Second Edition Errata & NPC Folio does exactly what it says. Old Faces For A New World converts NPCs and scenario seeds from the previous edition to this one. Falling Stars offers new adversaries and adventures related to them. Finally Found Footage, Seventy and Sevenfold, A Little Adventure, and Big Trouble in Little Haiti are all modules. Impressive for a small publisher and rpg.

The first of two alternate history medieval horror games on this list. This Darkest Age offers a hefty core book (350+ pages). Set in Europe circa 1350, the bubonic plague has created various kinds of zombies. The game uses the d20 OGL. It's interesting to see games carrying on that tradition. Will some of these now upconvert to D&D 5e? Unlike other historical horror games I've seen, The Darkest Age downplays the magic. Others still have mages and D&D style magic. Instead it offers "Rituals," involved practices for classes like the Mystic, Skald, and Priest (I believe). There's also a focus on the social dimension of the horror. It reminds of Clockwork & Chivalry. An interesting idea, leaning towards the crunchy.

There's a title that pretty much spells the premise out. In it you play the teenage victims of a faceless slasher. It looks to be a short game intended for one-shots, almost like a party rpg. Dead Teenager includes mechanics for setting the "rating" the group wants to play out (PG, PG13, R). Characters struggle against their instinct to do stupid things which get them killed in a movie (split up, take a shower, go down in the dark basement without a light). It uses cards for resolution and to move the action. Overall Dead Teenager looks decent and more coherent than many other "slasher" rpgs. I'd be curious as to how it stacks up against the now elusive The Final Girl rpg. If you like having a pool of convention one-shot games, Dead Teenager is probably up your alley. Note: I feel creepy typing that title out repeatedly.

Pinebox, TX is an ongoing modern horror setting across several systems. The East Texas University series narrows that focus to a particular campus and related goings-on. At heart is a setting core book which presents a school-based campaign for Savage Worlds. It includes all the usual new character bits and bobs. That's complemented by location backgrounds, an adventure generator, and new supernatural foes. Several additional products expanded the line in 2014: maps, figure flats, adventures like Class Ring and Horror for the Holidays, a full campaign Degrees of Horror, smaller pdf-only supplements, and more. jim pinto even added to the setting with a Protocol Game set there, A Body Was Found. It's nice to see a company focusing in on a setting like this. A solid horror resource, perhaps adaptable to other games like Monster of the Week.

I'm listing this outside of the Miscellaneous: Sourcebooks entry because Imaginary Empire deserves attention for their unique and creative horror rpg, Epoch. The Experiment Continues contains both a sourcebook and set of scenarios. The first 20+ pages talk about GM tricks, how to manage Epoch's card-driven structure, and new ways to mix up games. That's followed by four scenarios and their associated cards. If you want a generic horror game, capable of emulating genres with a tactile resolution mechanic, check out Epoch. Imaginary Empire released one other product for the line in 2014, White Wedding a horror scenario with a holiday theme. Epoch has a large library of one-shot horror adventures. If you're looking for something to adapt to Dread or Dead of Night, check them out. Each has a set of unique PCs, a clean structure, and ideas on how to change things up.

A "rend the veil, reveal the truth" modern horror rpg. This one uses Fate Core. Fate sometimes gets a bad rap regarding horror, but the more I've seen it in action, the more I think it works. Modernity seems more action-adventure against the occult than classic horror. Maybe cut-rate Delta Green with super agents? The substantial core book reproduces most of the Fate Core rules, which may or may not be a way of filling out page count. Since I always call it out, Modernity falls back on my least favorite art, CG images and character models. There's a weird thing where they label everything as "Fate Edition" but there's no other edition. I've seen mixed review; it feels like an rpg which has dropped through the cracks. Despite the lack of attention, the company has supported the line with several sourcebooks, so that's a plus.

A great revised edition of an already great game. Monster of the Week is a supernatural-hunter rpg aimed at episodic play. It uses a Powered by the Apocalypse engine, nicely tuned to the genre.. Players pick from many cool playbooks (Divine, Flake, Spooky, etc). They customize these and then build quick relationships with the rest of the team. The mystery structure allows the GM to quickly build a story and throw players into the mix. The move and advance system creates an easy structure combined with cool player choices. It has just the right heft for what it wants to do.

I love a lot about this game, not least the amazing artwork. The playbooks maintain a solid theme while allowing for personalization. There's also a body of fan-made archetypes online. While MotW aims for episodes, it can easily be serialized with a connecting larger story. It's the GM advice and guidelines for building sessions that stands out for me. Powered by the Apocalypse games have GM Moves, responses and reactions they can take in play. MotW makes them concrete and easy to grok. The game asks GMs to keep play focus on the “doing.” Action should push the game towards figuring out the "mystery" quickly. From there it needs to push to getting to the conflict and figuring out how to fight the big bad. That emphasis fits the genre and keeps the energy up. I dig it and think it’s worth reading for any horror GM doing these kinds of games (Buffy, ConX, Hunter the Reckoning, etc).

In 2013 Hunters Books released Outbreak: Deep Space as a supplement for their zombie game, Outbreak. The following year they reworked that as a stand-alone core book, Outbreak: Deep Space Core Rulebook. While it keeps Outbreak’s big gimmick, playing as yourself, OB: DS offers character templates as well. The sci-fi game focuses on three types of horror: "Infestation, Invasion, and Trans Dimensional." This moves the game away from zombie centered to broader, Aliens or Event Horizon stories. Overall the game looks good and has the kind of crunch some folks love in survival horror. There's a really excellent and through review of it on Gnome Stew you can read here. The company also released several Free Content Friday pdfs for the original game as well as this.

OK, perhaps I spoke too soon when I said d20 systems were unusual. Qalidar is a multiversal game, with "a crumbling cosmos full of nightmares and conspiracies." I've read through the pitch on the game's webpage, and I'm not entirely sure I get it- it has a lot of terminology and high-level concepts. While I’ve kept it on the list, I suspect it's on the fringes horror games. As I get it, tears in reality have allowed bad stuff in. As "storm walkers," the PCs can move between worlds to fix these issues. I'm doing a disservice to the material here- I recommend checking out the publisher page if you like games which move across dimensions. Originally released in '08 as a True20 setting, you can find a free quick start pack for it on RPGNow.

Spooks! feels like Wraith: the Oblivion with a significantly lighter tone. Players become one of several kinds of recently deceased. They enter into and travel through the Great Beyond on a mission of self-enlightenment. Of course the Beyond has its own dangers. That much I got from the publisher blurb. But when I went through the book, I got much less sense of that. RPGNow has an enormous pdf preview of the game (119 pages). But there's no explanation of the setting, the premise, or what you're actually going to be doing in all of that. You get rules, character creation, skills, spell cards and much more. You can tease some of the framework from that, but it seriously buries the lede. Again, the here’s publisher's blurb: "Explore the dreams of the living and dead, survive the inferno of the Hellfire Lands, uncover hidden treasure troves in the Salts, rise the height of spook society, meet historical figures from Earth's past and learn the secrets that unlock the way to the hidden afterlives of old. How will you spend eternity?" That all sounds cool, but if that's what's happening, why does the core book take so long to spell that out?

An Italian Medieval/Renaissance rpg, released in English in 2015. I'm impressed at how Savage Worlds has continued to thrive in the Action Horror genre. While it isn't my system of choice, the enthusiasm shown for the system has generated a ton of content: fan and professional. In Ultima Forsan, the Black Death again brought with it supernatural horrors. Humanity has battled against those forces for two centuries. Science and natural philosophy changed course to support this struggle. Now after centuries of work, the kingdoms and nations of Europe have begun to battle back in earnest, acting to retake the reins of civilization and history.

I like the concept- it's a little post-apocalyptic. It offers a bleak setting, but one with hope of victory. Of course the the complex politics of the era shapes the actual progress of these. The game uses some of the grittier Savage World options, so it feels less like fantasy horror. Like The Darkest Age above, Ultima Forsan downplays magic. Instead there's a focus on clockwork and Di Vinci-esque machinery to augment warriors. The book itself looks great- with a solid combination of original art and period etchings. Definitely worth looking at if you like historical horror.

12.  Wyrd
I mentioned this earlier on my Steampunk lists. To repeat: I don't know if I can do justice to this setting’s crazy complexity. I first assumed this was the Malifaux RPG, since that comes from Wyrd Miniatures. But no, this is a completely different thing. It can best be described as a kitchen-sink fantasy setting: pseudo-Lovecraftian elements, steam machines, battle armor, British mythos, multiple new races, strange names for everything. Reading the rules requires slogging through a massive history. It feels like an extended campaign world run by a GM in love with their backstory. Wyrd also uses its own unique mechanics, the Elderune Multidice System. There’s a free pdf version of the setting and systembook. That’s worth reading (and looking at the character sheet) if you’re interested in the genre or elaborate setting designs.

13. Horror: Onyx Path
This publisher remains the beast at the top of the heap in horror. Even if you consider Cthulhu products, the number and scale of their projects buries the others. Onyx Path has managed to tap into a vein of crowdfunding- balancing new and nostalgia projects. We'll see how that continues with 2015's shift in ownership of the WoD IP.

Classic World of Darkness: OP built on gamers’ hunger for the old setting and lovingly produced gaming books. The Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition - Introductory Quickstart Rules offered the biggest tease of the year. Released as part of Free RPG Day 2014, it hinted at their plans for modernizing the setting. Another one off product, Darkening Sky, looks like an old-school WW "event" book with scenarios for all the different Dark Ages rpg branches. Established lines received deeper support throughout the year. Vampire20 updated one of its most popular supplements with Anarchs Unbound. People love Anarchs and now they have access to the internet. Rites of the Blood expanded the rules for rituals, not just those of the Tremere. On the Werewolf20 front, OP surprisingly released the Wyld West Expansion Pack. I hadn't thought that setting had enough fans to warrant this, even in a slimmed down form. More expected was Book of the Wyrm the blow-out tome of the Garou's adversaries. One I forgot on the first draft was the White Howlers Tribebook, hitting a group not covered before. Finally Umbra: the Velvet Shadow is another biggie, covering the realms of this supernatural veil. 

Chronicles of Darkness: I'll call nWoD this, though that name doesn’t hit until 2015. Demon: the Descent came out the biggest winner. Confession: I hadn't understood its espionage premise until this year. It got the obligatory Demon: the Descent Storyteller's Screen. Likewise Flowers of Hell presents the expected Players Guide. Splintered City: Seattle establishes the core location for the line. Heirs to Hell and The Demon Seed Collection presented pdf hook and foe materials. The new Mummy line also got support with their own city book all the way across the US, Cursed Necropolis: D.C.. The then Book of the Deceived added more foes and organizations to the Mummy Storyteller toolkit for this line. The single release for Hunter: the Vigil, Mortal Remains, offered another foe book, this time looking at fringe WoD beasties like Changelings, Prometheans, Demons, & Sin-Easters and how they appear to Hunters. Other lines got smallish support, like the Geist: the Sin-Eaters Ready Made Characters. But we saw nothing serious released for new Werewolf, Vampire or Mage. (edit: though I should point out if you look back at the last list, you'll see 2013 heralded the change in VTR to 2e, a siginificant change for the line in 2014). 

14. Horror: Pelgrane
I pulled Pelgrane out on the Cthulhu Horror list for individual treatment. However in 2014 they offered few non-Lovecraftian products. The Seventh Circle is a stand-alone adventure for Fear Itself. I'm glad to see that, as this Gumshoe game gets less love than its siblings. The scenario revolves around a paranormal investigation TV show and a remote locale. What could be wrong with that? Surprisingly the other big horror game from Pelgrane, The Esoterrorists, saw no new releases this year. Some parts of the "Ken Writes about Stuff" series made up for that, like 1-12: Lilith and 2-09: Vendetta Run.

15. Miscellaneous: Smaller Publisher RPGs
These are new complete games from smaller, pdf-only, or PoD publishers.
  • Crawlspace: Deluxe revises a small 2010 game. Here's the publisher blurb, which I'll leave you to untangle, " Bridging the gap between the basement and the main floor, the crawlspace is the space where light never intrudes and where lost things like to remain hidden. And now you can play a starling or starlet, trapped in that realm between the self-aware audience and the cast on the silver screen. You are in The Crawlspace. Will you ever see "everyday" ever again?"
  • Eldritch Victory looks like a "rent veil" setting with outsider horrors trying to rip their way into the world. It comes from the Hot Chicks publisher and appears to be a campaign frame for their generic system. It has one of the most awful covers I've seen, and not in a good way.
  • Monster Hunters comes from the prolific Avalon Games. It offers gothic horror (ala Ravenloft) in Edwardian Europe. Like Shadows over Vathak, it uses Pathfinder as its base for horror gaming. Dark Europe expands the setting and Samhain provides a short monster & plot hook pack.
  • Steam & Fog is an Italian gothic-steampunk game set in alternate 19th Century Europe. It looks like a fog-covered, Poe-inspired world.
  • The Chamber seems to be a four-player "emotional manipulation game." It's a competitive story rpg using cards.
  • The Misery Index collects "eight tabletop games about human suffering." Some feel grounded in awful reality, while others embrace more fantastic tropes (like vampires, cyberpunk). If you're looking for Misery Pr0n, look no further.
16. Miscellaneous: Zombies
I've mentioned a couple of zombie games above. Here I cover Z-Horror supplements, small games, and modules.
  • CHOMP! A Survival Horror Roleplaying Game is a pdf-only small press release. The game's pitch focuses on quick pick up and play. But it suggests it can be used for longer campaigns. It looks a little basic (in rules and presentation) but if you're looking for something to hit the table quickly, it might be worth checking out.
  • Corpseslayers: Un Suplemento Para Zombieslayers offers more zombie types for this Italian rpg.
  • Deadlands Tall Tales 1: Broken Hearts and Zombieskin both use jim pinto’s Protocol Game system. The former’s a series using the Deadlands setting. The latter’s a post-apocalyptic zombie game .
  • Dead Reign Sourcebook 5: Graveyard Earth expands this rpg which seems to be doing well for Palladium.
  • Diaries of the Rum Coast and Axis of Blood & Iron offer two new regional sourcebooks for the Dystopia Rising Tabletop rpg. The former the swampy southern coast of the US. The latter presents an iron citadel city surrounding the Great Lakes. Both sourcebooks detail their respective locations, those in control, and new kinds of threats. If you're running a fully post-apocalyptic zombie game, these look like decent resources.
  • Related, the Dystopia Rising Live Action RPG Survivor's Guide is a hefty resource guide for the Dystopia Rising LARP. Despite it size, it isn't a complete set of rules.
  • Mind Games is a scenario for the awesome Rotted Capes supers vs zombies game.
  • Outbreak! (2nd Edition) a 6d6 rpg one-shot zombie module. It’s supposed to be a good intro to the system.
17. Miscellaneous: Supplements
18. Miscellaneous: Modules
There's a ton of these. Next year I'm going to establish a minimum page count to add products to this list. In the meantime, you get to benefit(?) from my overly-ambitious approach.