Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Year in Horror RPGs 2015 (Part Two: Outbreak: Undead to Witch: Fated Souls)

If I’m feeling especially brave I try to do an assessment of genre trends with these lists. But 2015 proves strikingly resistant to that. Sure we had several zombie games, but it didn’t feel like a shovelware flood. We had some strong small press or indie titles (Ten Candles, Urban Shadows, Witch). But we also had some veterans return (Chill, Apocalypse Prevention, Inc). We even had FFG dip its toes into the horror rpg waters (The End of the World series). There’s a ton of good stuff, but nothing that I can point to and go “That was the year of X.”

But even when I go to my default horror barometer, horror films, I don’t see a trend. We had big studio horror (Crimson Peaks, Poltergist, The Visit); comedy horror (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Final Girls), found-footage (Vatican Tapes, Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension), sequels (Sinister 2, Insidious: Chapter 3), anthologies (Christmas Horror Story, Tales of Halloween). But a stand-out film? I’m not sure. Perhaps The Witch, and even that seemed to split reviewers as to how strong it was. Even television seems to have managed to cater to a variety of horror tastes (Scream Queens, The Strain, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful).

Your sense of 2015 in horror? Good? Bad? Indifferent?

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For this list I’ve focused on major releases, arbitrarily determined. I’ve usually added it if it has a hard-copy version. I’ve judged pdfs on size and utility. For the list items I include core rules, significant sourcebooks, and large campaigns. I’ve split this list into two parts, at the end of the second part you’ll find grouped entries for some other sourcebooks and modules. You’ll also notice an absence of Cthulhu horror on this list- those will get their own post. If you see something major from 2015 I’ve missed in this half of the alphabet, give me a heads up. 

Outbreak: Undead moves back to classic zombies from the company's foray into generic sci-fi horror (Outbreak: Space). If you’ve read the first half of the list, you’ll note this is the third game using cards. These aren't integral to play and come in three flavors: encounters, character trait, and injury reference cards. The encounter cards also include survivors so you can pick one of those and play right away. Optionally you can take an online quiz, the “SPEW AI,” and generate a version of yourself It focuses on the survivor and survival side of things. You need to track your resources and handle encumbrance. In this regard it leans more to the Walking Dead side: life in the aftermath. OB:UD doesn't focus on backstory, instead it assumes you have that in mind. ("Zombies are here. What's next?"). It uses abilities and skills to form dice pools. While Outbreak: Undead looks simple, there's an array graphic icons and color coding in the rules, as well as the use of d5's.

I didn't like the messy, collage-filled graphic approach of OB:UD first edition, but this new version cleans that up. The 2e pocket edition is much easier to read. While you can't turn off the layers in the pdf, the page backgrounds aren't too intrusive. Overall it feels like a much stronger game with significant changes to the mechanics.

An Italian horror rpg which translates as "Toyland." It's written by the designers of Sine Requie: Anno XIII, a weird World War II zombie horror game. In fact this seems to be a weird creepy doll side setting within that world. Here's the loosely translated blurb: "On June 6, 1944, the world sank into the darkest of hells. On Judgment Day the Dead began hunting mankind ... but in another place, where imagination reigns, those who are puppets in the world dominated by Dead, live their lives and their adventures. Here you will find heroic knights, bears with funny hats on his head, powerful witches and graceful ladies with their parasols of lace."

RPGGeek lists it as zombie horror. But it looks more like a kids' perspective horror game- like Grimm or Monsters & Other Childish Things.

GURPS may have ruined us for generic system names. P.E.R.K. (written with all those periods throughout) stands for "Pretty Easy Roleplaying Kit." It's a universal corebook released with their urban horror setting as the default. P.E.R.K.’s a dice pool game with options for tactical tracking. So far they've only released these two books plus a microsetting: Hollywood Ninja. Oddly you can't buy the UH book separately right now on DriveThru, you can only get it in a bundle with the core book.

PERK Urban Horror follows the Monster PC path ala World of Darkness. It has a mature content warning on the back, a blurb, and some goth poetry. There's about eight pages of setting material, with the rest being mechanical material (perks, skills, gear, abilities), GM advice (six pages), and antagonists (16 pages). While it wears a sense of WoD on its sleeve, it doesn't reference those in its inspirations section.

So apparently there's a long-running comic called Phineus: Magician for Hire. Currently it's a webcomic, though the header says the company's been providing "Pittsburgh's Best Paranormal Comics" for 25 years. This game's written by the creator. Originally titled Backwaters of Mysticism (2010), this new edition increases the size fourfold. There's a nice quote from the author on his website, "Ironically John and my own RPG doesn’t have a world. We created it so that it would fit into any world you wanted it to...Many of my Phineus stories came from those games. Rugnar and Maynard are both characters I played in Backwaters. The Kali Saga was based on a campaign run by John, in which I played Brother Maynard. And yes, he did get squished in that one, too."

The game itself is OGL based (or as the book says "Requires the use of a Roleplaying Game Core Book published by Wizards of the Coast, Inc.") Oddly DriveThru lists it as using BRP from Chaosium. The rules themselves feel very rough, like a home campaign resource document assembled for players. There’s no table of contents, it jumps in without ref to the source rules, and has no page numbers. Phineus assumes a good deal of gaming knowledge. The layout's pretty basic a bar boxing in the single-column text and a greyscale background.

A new edition of Rippers, revised for Savage Worlds: Reloaded. The highly successful Kickstarter allowed them several additional releases. I've reviewed the original Rippers and summed that up this way: "A solid and unique take on Victoriana horror, Rippers manages to smartly combine the Gothic horror tradition with the trappings and worries of steampunk. Here science offers new ways to combat the darkness facing the world, but at a horrible cost to mind and body. Biotech and implants of a cyberpunk style game become limbs and organs harvested from monsters and implanted into hunters. The whole thing is well developed and presented. It has some material on the Victorian world, but mostly sets up the campaign ideas and concepts."

The new edition keeps that up, but with a new look, new art, and a more graphically intense page design (I hope you can turn off layers...). It looks very cool. It makes me both regret not backing the KS and not digging Savage Worlds more. The main material's broken into a Player's Guide and Game Master's Handbook. They've released several supplements: Frightful Expeditions (more on the setting), Lord of the Underworld (module), and various pdf incidental pieces. You can also buy a bundle of original Rippers for a quite nice price.

A sci-fi horror rpg, Shadows Over Sol embraces both the old and the new in theming and design. On the one hand we have issues of transhumanism, networking, and constructed cultures on the table. On the other we have a dense thirteen pages of setting history as a roadblock for new players. Shadows Over Sol threw me off right away. The introduction seems to set up a very specific and concrete backdrop for the game. A colony ship travelling from Mars to Ceres has problems. The crew’s divided politically and fighting breaks out. That failed mutiny damages the ship, but it limps to its destination. But it finds only dead comms at the landing site. The survivors stagger out into an empty station, perhaps to discover alien horrors lurking there.

OK, cool. I like the tight framing. We’re going to be crewmembers trying to survive and figure out what happened.

But that’s not what we get. Instead the game’s much broader. We switch gears to grand scale themes of space-faring, discussions of the solar system history, and a presentation of all the conflicting cultures. It’s a weird shift. Shadows Over Sol resembles Eclispe Phase, a broad sci-fi game which can be used to tell horror stories. SoS puts horror on the cover, but it doesn’t feel like that needs to be the case. It’s a general sci-fi setting and system. Despite citing notable sci-fi horror sources (The Thing, Europa Report, The Void) , the book only provides a handful of pages actually addressing how to use the game for those kinds of stories.

Also, it’s the fourth game on these lists to use cards.

Shane Hensley, creator of Deadlands, returns to Wild West horror with his rpg adaptation of the Oni Press comic, The Sixth Gun. Built for Savage Worlds, the Kickstarter pitch stressed the compatibility of this material with Deadlands.

I’d never heard of The Sixth Gun series. If you haven’t either, here’s the wikipedia synopsis, “The Sixth Gun takes place in the old west, shortly after the end of the Civil War. The story centers around a set of six pistols, each imbued with dark powers. The wielder of each pistol gains an ability unique to that weapon, and is tied to the pistol until his or her death.” The comic itself ran fifty issues, supplemented by a bunch of spin-off mini-series. Clocking in at about a hundred pages, The Sixth Gun rpg offers new edges, hindrances, artifacts, and optional rules. We’ve seen some licensed rpgs lean into the mechanics and others acting more as sourcebooks. The Sixth Gun falls somewhere in the middle.

Originally I'd placed this on my forthcoming "Year in Cthulhu" list. But when I referenced it in an online conversation, someone corrected me. They said Silent Legions wasn't a Cthulhu game, but instead literally Lovecraft-esque. A quick read-though of the preview got me to order a hard copy. As with the other Kevin Crawford rpg I hit this year, Godbound, Silent Legions hit a sweet spot for me: a toolkit for generating sweeping rpg adventures, backed up by interesting detail and a fully-fleshed system.

Silent Legions has several distinct but interlocking parts. It begins with an OSR-style ruleset for horror investigations. It's clean and simple, offering four classes (Investigator, Scholar, Socialite, Tough). These rules take up the first couple dozen pages. That even includes tight equipment lists, encumbrance, and madness systems. Crawford's distilled down what you need to play at this level of detail. As a plus, the OSR's tissue-paper characters fit here, overmatched by the horrors they face.

After the basic rules, we get a classic PC-destructive magic and psychics system. Here Silent Legions unveils its big trick: plentiful resources to help GMs tune those elements. The "Creating Dark Sorcery" section has random tables to create mind-blasting arcana. It's useful for any modern supernatural investigation game.

The same holds true for the tools on offer in the rest of the book. In the chapter on Creating Your Mythos, you build your cosmic horror-- from elder gods to alien races to cults. You can generate something echoing Lovecraft but unfamiliar to the player and characters. The tables hold together. I've seen table books that lack coherency. Crawford connects the material and offers rich examples for each section. You see the same skill in the Building Your World, Cults, and Bestiary sections.

The book's capped with a GM grab-bag optional rules and re-frames. That includes my favorite: “Luchadores Against Cthulhu.” It also has notes on Freemasonry, a tables for secret adepts, school settings, and more. It discusses how to use Silent Legions with other games. If you like OSR then this game will work for you. But even if you don't it's worth picking up. Anyone running Call of Cthulhu, Fear Itself, Hunter, Monster of the Week, or similar games will find useful resources here. Highly recommended.

The world's ending. You're survivors trying to eke out a last few minutes, hours, days. You're going to fail. Your candle will be snuffed out. That’s the game.

Yikes may be the understatement of the blog.

What kinds of horror can you evoke at the table? Dread, as in the eponymous Dread with its terrible anticipation at the table? Cosmic horror, perhaps? A nihilistic reaction to things more massive and uncaring? Shock horror done with blood and gut?. Its sibling body horror or revulsion ? Jump Scares? Perhaps even the subtle horror of the uncanny as seen in some fantastic stories?

And then there's Ten Candles’ existential horror. You're not monsters dealing with your inhumanity. You're people. I don't know if I could handle this game. I don't know what kind of bleed I'd have, especially given the current climate.

My description doesn’t do it justice. If you want to read an excellent explanation and review, check out this post at Bluestocking's Organic Gaming.

A horror/slasher film-esque rpg; it’s generic but with a particular gory tone. Trick or Treat has a basic layout and look, complete with blood splatter page elements (at the top and bottom, not under the text...mostly). It opens with game fiction you have to wade through. The system’s percentile-based using skill and point buy. The blurb touts quick character generation as a feature. Sometimes I let a game’s ad copy do the tlaking, "While watching a horror movie it occurs to some that they could do better. Trick or treat is the game that puts you in that seat and gives you the chance to live up to those words. Can you really make better decisions or is it all talk? Can you play the ROLE and still trick the classic monsters or will you become their treat?" Publisher Trooper X has released a couple of other rpgs: Space Cadet Alpha, Ancient Steel, and Ancient Steel Horror. If you know one of those, you may have better insight into this game.

While we had a horde of zombies on the first half of this list, only this one shambles into view here. TROPES is intended to be a new basic system, and it launches with this Z-themed product. It's a light, d6-driven game. Characters have three stats (muscle, agility, wits), a background/ profession, and a descriptive sentence. A character's background gives a die bonus for related tasks. Those mechanics only take up the first 16 pages. It's pretty conventional, though I like the concept of exceptional rolls giving you the equivalent of fate points. TROPES: ZE does have good simple toolkit for building an outbreak. That's a decent resource and I'd like to see more of that. That's followed by NPCs, some zombie listings, and inspirational sources. TROPES: Zombies offers a quick, simple zombie game. If you like Z-horror and want something you can get to the table quickly, it fits. If you're curious about it, there's an artless PWYW version available. Small Niche Games has also released a companion and a scenario.

27. Tupilak
Sometimes I include things because I have no idea what they are. This is a Finnish rpg. RPGGeek has this translation for the back cover:

"Tupilak - The game of arctic death
Place: Greenland island in the North some hundreds of years ago
Players: Inuit shamans with strong sorcerous knowledge
Goal: Eliminate others as conveniently and surely as possible
Difficulty: Long distance, difficulty to move out of sight, everyone knows everyone.
Solution: Tupilak

Create Tupilak. Summon a spirit into it. Strengthen it with spells. Say the name of the target. Send it on it's way...

Tupilak is extremely easy, quick and exciting "party game", in which you only need this rule book, couple of regular dice, pen and paper."

The cover is properly weird.

My work's vanilla, so I rarely get angry commentators. One of the few objected to my inclusion of Mage: the Ascension on my Horror rpg lists. They had a point- while Mage existed in the World of Darkness, it didn't necessarily live in that darkness. My Mage did, but YWODMV. It's one of the problems I hit with horror in particular. At what point does a "supernatural" game become horror? If you're of a certain age you've probably seen someone's Vampires as superbeings campaign. Let's say monsters don't mean horror, then what are they?

Which brings me to Urban Shadows: Political Urban Fantasy. Is it horror? Well, YUSMV. I first heard it pitched as “World of Darkness done with PbtA.” And they're right, but a very particular kind of WoD. There beings of multiple fantastic origins struggle for control, authority, or survival in a dark city. Urban Shadows does that campaign well. Everything supports that. Debts and relationships create network between players. The urban backdrop emerges through play. A vast and spidery web of NPCs expands session after session. It clicks. Even in the one shot I played it worked and felt compelling.

Each player chooses a playbook belonging to one of the four factions (Mortality, Night, Power, and Wild). You have several choices within each one (Hunter, Wolf, Oracle, Fae). Character creation involves defining a circle and develop an agenda. While the players connect, they're not on the same side. Call in debt from a fellow PC and they might use that to shiv you. The PvP's strong here, something many PbtA games steer away from. But you don't necessarily want to destroy your fellow PCs. You only advance by interacting with each of the factions, and they’re often your access to those worlds.

Urban Shadows has some horror trappings: the monstrous nature of the players, the kinds of threats facing the city, and most importantly the slow spiral into corruption. It shares WoD’s focus on personal horror. It comes from overstepping the bounds you've set for yourself. Urban Shadows delivers those opportunities to fall. It's a good game and worth picking up for anyone who digs urban fantasy or horror. Even if PbtA isn't your bag, you may find interesting tools for politics within other games.

I've seen lots of love-letters to World of Darkness on these lists. It's always a pleasure when those demonstrate an appreciation for the source, but then create striking elements & head in new directions. Witch is one of those good rpgs. It stands solidly on its own, but echoes older games. It’s not imitative, but works in the same play-space to create a new experience.

In Witch you play a user of magic. Like Mage: The Awakening or Ars Magica it focuses on the trials, tribulations, and development of your character's interaction with the mystic. But here you gain power by making a deal with a demon. These demons come in many forms, drawn to different kinds of recipients. The powers they grant vary- giving us archetypes, called "Fates": Heks, Druid, Djinn, Yokai, Sosye, Lich, and Seer. Each has access to unique spells and (in a nice touch) have variations on the basic talents. Characters can develop more powerful spells and rituals. But of course all of this has a cost. Using and pushing your magic can eventually drive you over the edge. Such failures give rise to horrible results in the real world, terrors reaching well beyond the witch.

I dig Witch. It has a clean design and I love the Fate illustrations. It offers solid world and support material for GMs (interesting artifacts, cool adversaries, additional options). I also like that it works with a simple 2d10+Stat+Skill vs. target, rather than a dice pool. That makes it easier to deal with the complexities of the magic system. Witch is worth picking up if you like modern fantasy/horror. Designer Elizabeth Chiapraditkul has also released a companion Devil's Deck, a lovely tarot-like card collection. These can be used with the rpg, but they're cool on their own. Chiapraditkul is listed as designer, developer, and layout person. It’s an amazing product, more so for having been done by one person.

28. Miscellaneous: Modules
I’m not going to detail every horror module released. Instead I’ve cherry-picked a few longer and more significant releases.
  • Chaos Earth Resurrection: An adventure collection and setting supplement detailing shattered Wisconsin in Rifts Chaos Earth. Lots of zombies.
  • Kuro Tensei: The final volume in the Kuro rpg saga. Moves the meta-plot forward, adds new locales, expands PC powers, and wraps things up. Features neo-Japanese occult scenarios to play all that out.
  • No Soul Left Behind: A massive campaign for the Better Angels demonic superbeings rpg. It follows the goings on in a parahuman academy. NSLB is deeply embedded in the setting, making hard to adapt for other games. A fun read.
  • Penny Dreadful: In Defense of Innocence: Four adventures for Through the Breach linked by the backdrop town of Innocence.
  • Portsmouth 1745: A full campaign for Colonial Gothic set in Portsmouth. Has new rules and connected adventures for PCs of all levels.
  • Savage Tales of Horror: The year saw three volumes of these scenario collections for Savage Worlds. Some adventures focus on particular SW flavors like Solomon Kane, Deadlands Noir, or The Last Parsec.
  • Stone and a Hard Place: Both a sourcebook and a plot point campaign for Deadlands. Details new foes, critters, and locales of the Southwest. Includes new character options.

29. Miscellaneous: Sourcebooks
As with modules, I’m not hitting everything. But the supplements here expand rules, settings, or challenges. Some include adventures and could fit on the entry above.
  • Dark Osprey series: Osprey’s specialized guidebook line series details different horror settings. While they include no rules, you get a ton of background materials and ideas. The 2015 releases are: Werewolves: A Hunter’s Guide; The Wars of Atlantis; The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow; Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace; and War of the Worlds: The Anglo-Martian War of 1895.
  • Dystopia Rising LARP Survivors Guide 2.0: Not the standalone system for this LARP, but a massive resource book for players and organizers.
  • Grand Tome of Adversaries (Second Edition): A big, big bestiary for Witch Hunter: The invisible World.
  • Into the Steam: A player and location sourcebook for Through the Breach. Explores the lands of the Arcanists and adds many character options.
  • Judgment Day: A fantasy horror setting for the Entropic Gaming System. Covers three eras: Crusades, Victorian, and Modern. Also in Savage Worlds flavor. 
  • Lords of the Night: Vampires for Pathfinder.
  • Monsters Macabre: Enemy guide for Cryptworld. Includes monster design rules and PC-Monster options.
  • Nemezis: Galaxy: Expanded setting details for the Horizion system in this Savage Worlds sci-fi horror setting.
  • Occultism: A Shadows of Esteren sourcebook on magic. Looks at occultists’ powers and organizations. Finishes with an adventure to showcase these ideas.
  • The Paranet Papers: Expanded setting material for The Dresden Files RPG. Brings the Dresdenverse up to date with the novels. Adds new locations, spirit realm mechanics, magical options, supernatural creatures, and more.
  • Post-Apocalyptic Vampire Wars: Starbright Illustrations never met an open-license rpg they didn’t like. A vampiric post-collapse setting using the WaRP rules from Atlas Games. Caveat Emptor.
  • Rise of the Ilu: Rules for gods and playing gods. “…includes everything you need to take your Contagion Second Edition campaign to a celestial level!”
  • Slip: A Fate World of Adventure. Strange dimensional invaders have begun to infiltrate and attack our world. Only PCs equipped with bizarre powers can face them.
  • The Thin Blue Line: A Detroit Police Story: A new modern horror setting for Savage Worlds. Details a Detroit police precinct and the supernatural horrors facing its officers.

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