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. 

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