Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Horror RPGs Other Than CoC

A little Wednesday morning food for thought.

Call of Cthulhu is considered by most to be the ultimate horror RPG. Granted, it's a great game - many consider BRP to be an excellent system (myself included) and CoC to be one of the top RPGs of all time, period. But as much of a "classic horror RPG" as it is, when it comes right down to it, CoC isn't so much a horror RPG as it is a very faithful RPG adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos fiction, which is steeped in horror and the bizarre. I know it's not exactly a clear distinction, but I think it's an important one. I know you can pull CoC apart and use it as a "generic" horror RPG if you really, really wanted to, but the amount of effort it would take to get something that's still a horror RPG and not just BRP seems more effort than it's worth. And, at the end of the day, the Cthulhu mythos (especially with such expansions as Delta Green and Cthulhu Dark Ages) is so broad and flexible that you can run a game "in" the Mythos with plenty of horror, and still only touch the Mythos in the shallowest sense (if at all).

Anyhow, with Call of Cthulhu and horror in general on the brain these last few days, I started thinking of other horror RPGs out there that either don't get discussed much, have been somewhat forgotten, or don't really seem at first to be a "horror RPG" but are perfect for such a game. In no particular order...

- Vampire: the Masquerade. I think the great tragedy of V:tM is that it's a victim of its own success. It tried so hard to breathe new life into the world of RPGs and create something dark and edgy and mysterious and just a little bit dangerous, that rather than draw "normal" gamers who had cut their teeth on D&D and GURPS and similar systems into something new and interesting, it attracted, know...

V:tM has the capacity for creating truly horrific gaming. The concept of waking up to discover you're a monster, and that there is a whole, far more dangerous world living (and un-living) just below the surface of the "real world" that you now have to survive in, is a fascinating one, and very fertile ground for great horror campaigns. Unfortunately, the game seemed more attractive to people that LIKED the idea of being an undead blood-drinking blight on the face of the world, who thought it was cool, and played the game essentially as one big goth mental masturbation fantasy. And, in the end, White Wolf succumbed to that fan base, and started cranking out splat books with Kewl New Powerz, only to eventually blow up the world and reboot the game in some bland, milquetoast fashion that no one seems to really care about any more.

(It is at this point where I could potentially shoot myself in the foot and draw some half-arsed parallels between the evolution of the World of Darkness and how White Wolf responded to its fan base, and Dungeons & Dragons and how TSR/WotC responded to its fan base...but I'll avoid that...for now.)

- Paranoia. I only played this game once, but I'm still a big fan. Granted, this game is a "humor" RPG, but...not really. A dystopian future where everyone's lives are controlled by an insane all-powerful computer that pries into every facet of your lives to make sure you're "happy", and has you executed for the most minor of infractions, real or imagined? A good, clever GM could take Paranoia, strip it quite easily of it's "dark humor" overtones, and run it as a pretty creepy-serious horror game of mankind against an omniscient homicidal machine.

- Sorcerer, by Ron Edwards. A fairly little-known game if you're not a frequenter of The Forge, Sorcerer is a game about PCs and their relationships with their Demons, which provide them with their power but at the same time, put the PC's humanity and their souls in jeopardy. If you can pry away all the indie-gamer fan-wankery, it's actually a pretty interesting and thought provoking RPG, especially when combined with Sorcerer & Sword, the pulp fantasy supplement that Edwards put out (a product that I still maintain, years after it was released, is one of the best pulp sword & sorcery gaming products out there). Note that there is a website for the game, but huge chunks seem to be missing from it, so I just linked to the first half-decently sized review I could find.

- Dark Heresy. While Games Workshop's Warhammer 40K universe was originally created to give their sci-fi miniatures wargame a place to live, it has grown to become so much more. GW's fiction publishing house, the Black Library, actually puts out some really great fiction, and two of the best trilogies in it's catalog are the Eisenhorn and Ravenor novels by British author Dan Abnett (Abnett's blog, and the Black Library's blog, can be found in my blog-roll). Both these series follow Imperial Inquisitors in their violent, horrific struggles against the main threats to Mankind - the alien, the mutant, and the heretic. The 40K-verse is a setting rife with horror and evil, and carries with it much of the "Good may win the battles, but Evil will win the war" vibe that Lovecraft was able to pull off so very well, and that CoC mimics masterfully. Playing an Inquisitor and their retinue in Dark Heresy, stalking chaos-tainted horrors in the depths of hive cities and inscrutable aliens out in the vast reaches of space, a good GM can create some really visceral and shocking horror scenarios. I haven't purchased this game yet, but it is on my short list, and I hope to pick it up sooner rather than later.

All right - that's it for now. Gentle readers, please contribute any RPGs you would like to discuss that you feel make for great horror gaming, but are either very "under the radar" or have fallen by the wayside. Also, aside from something like Ken Hite's Nightmares of Mine (which is more of a generic guide to horror gaming) or GURPS Horror, are there really any "generic horror" RPG's out there? Or do you feel that, in order for a horror RPG to really "click", it has to be intertwined with a horror setting?


Christopher B said...

You could consider Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic, Beyond the Supernatural, and Chill to be "generic" horror RPG's - and they're all excellent and fun games, IMHO. The interesting thing about RPG's - horror RPG's especially - is that even among generic RPG's the system provides a lot of flavor to the game. The differing approaches to human powers (magic and/or psychic abilities) in the games I mentioned make for a different style of play in each system. (Powers in B13 tend to be very utilitarian and sometimes a bit goofy, in BtS the PC's are often minor superheroes, and in Chill PC powers are generally very weak in comparison to those of their supernatural enemies, making for a bit more unease in the players.)

Like most good supernatural horror fiction, I believe a good game (at least one that's going to continue over multiple sessions) needs to have a good "mythos" to back it up, but this can just as easily be of the GM's creation as something that is a built-in part of the game.

Timeshadows said...

* CarWars: The Dream's corpse has been run-over so much that even the flies know better than to swarm its corpse -- "Live Fast. Die Young. Leave Them in a Burning Wreck." "It's More Than Just Soy! :D" "Crazies. Yup, I heard of dem. Wot thm that's been runnin' this here valley wot since DC went tits over ass back when I was just knee-high-to-a-locust, it did." "Let's show the world what it means to Buy American! once again! :D"

* Cyberpunk: "We have met the enemy, and they are us." -- The 'Real' is so...UnReal. "My lover may deserve more. I demand it." Society is only a corpse maintained by machines; humanity cedes to the machine through willing self-sacrifice and excisement of flesh and brain; isolated personality, as 'ghosts', exist within the artificial otherworld of the Net; we have made the Demiurge, and he has spawned the Aeons within the Net, and is reaching out to kill the flesh in the 'real world'. Is love real? Who cares? etc.

* Underground: "War is Hell." "...and makes for a great stocking stuffer, too!" "But wait! There's more!" "Weak? Puny? Get into shape with the TorqeMaster 5000, guaranteed to transform your body into a hardened fighting machine in just 30 days* or a refund** to your next of kin or life partner." "You wanted revolution? Take your pick! :)" "So the Corps are using us to kill ourselves so they can plunder us. So? Gimmie' that StimDose and my Pocket Howitzer, those frakken kids won't get off my front lawn."

* TorqeMaster 5000 is only to be used by those healthy enough to meet its full-on hardcore fighting training. Death, internal bleeding, psychological trauma, and chemical poisoning may all result from misuse. TorqueMaster 5000 is a product of Mitsibushi Health in conjunction with CiscoMetrix and KellogBattleCreek GmbH.

** Only Shipping and Handling shall be Refunded, and only within the first 29 days from date of credit purchase.

'nuff said?

Atom Kid said...

Chill has always been my favorite horror RPG! Espeicially the first edition, you can't beat it. It's basically like Hammer House of Horror and Universal Monster movies. There's no real on going story other than the occult investigations society that the characters belong too. But if your in the mood for werewolves, vampires, mummies, zombies, ghosts, etc... this is a good place to start!

The Badger King said...

I think you could probably include Atlas Games' UNKNOWN ARMIES in the horror caegory, although "weird" might be a little more descripive. A very adult themed take on how all the modern weirdness of the world draws together (pornomancers, anyone?). I love this system, because it has one of the coolest ways of describing skills I've seen, but the mechanics are a little tough to grasp. Also, I have yet to find a "mature" enough group to play this with.

Anonymous said...

How about Savage Worlds: Rippers / Deadlands reloaded?

Curious what people make of them as I'm thinking of purchasing them! ;o)

Mark Hughes said...

The best horror game, possibly the *only* serious horror game ever made, is Kult. If you can find it, 1st Edition was mind-shattering to read and play. 2nd/3rd Edition has a somewhat tidier universe, and provides fewer incentives to really push yourself into a dark and terrible place.

You have to have a taste for Clive Barker, and no problem playing sexually mature and disturbing situations, and the GM needs a good grounding in Gnosticism.

But once you've played Kult, Call of Cthulhu, Chill, Unknown Armies, and everything else look like a trip to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion with the kids.

kelvingreen said...

There's that weird Kultesque one for Burning Wheel, based on an At the Gates album, where you win by committing suicide. Under a Serpent Sun, I think.

rainswept said...

@Timeshadows: I agree that CyberPunk would make a great horror game... just inject a big proboscis full of Videodrome and your almost there... Heck, dial up the squirm factor and call it CronenPunk!

@The Badger King: Unknown Armies was going to be my pick, but again I would play up the biological rebellion angle.

PatrickWR said...

I will second the inclusion of Kult at the top of the list. I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the 1st edition rules a while back. Since then, my imagination has run wild every time I skim through that book. I've never run an actual Kult game, but the book itself has given rise to dozens of campaign ideas and concepts. Very, very awesome.

Dwayanu said...

Wonderland and The Book of Knots involve an unraveling of reality that might be a bit grimmer than Kult (judging from my superficial impression of the latter).

Although published as a two-part supplement for JAGS, the situation should be easily adaptable to other rules-sets.

Lili Des Ghoules said...

I have to disagree that "Kult" is the only serious horror RPG. I live and breathe the horror genre and I can tell you from personal experience that the only way the games you mentioned in comparison Mark, would be trips to Disney Land is if you have only had crappy GM's running your games. IMHO a game is only as good as it's GM. Not trying to piss in anyone's cornflakes just stating my opinion. I love BTS and Bureau 13,and Ravenloft (which hasn't been mentioned yet) and have been led through quite a few creepy and nasty adventures by our GM.

Joshua said...

Usually do to the relationship between gamers at a table, horror RPG forays are frequently doomed to turn silly rather than be horrific.

The only game I know of that ensures this won't happen is Dread. It's got very unusual mechanics which force a strange, immersive atmosphere and ongoing rising tension. It's really nothing short of brilliant, how the author was able to come up with a mechanic that enforced the correct mood into the game, no matter where you play it.

One guy I know claims to have run a great session of Call of Cthulhu, in a great setting (an old Boston university building, full of books, mooseheads and other weirdness, at night, by candlelight during a storm) and run a game of Dread at a Con in a loud, brightly lit room, and found Dread to be by far the more engaging game in terms of evoking and keeping a sense of suspense and fear in the players.

Badelaire said...

Thank you everyone for a ton of great comments - I'm going to have to start working towards acquiring some of these over the next few months.

Sigh...going to need more shelves, I think.

Any other suggestions?