5 Influential Horror RPGs
I love horror RPGs—in fact, I love them more than horror movies or novels. There’s something about the communal aspects of telling or feeling a horror story that hits me at the core. This Halloween, instead of talking about running or making horror games, I’ll tell you about some of my favorite influential horror games.
Spoiler: This could almost be called “Kenneth Hite: the blog post.”
I have talked quite a bit about how much I love Unknown Armies. I’ve written about it quite a bit on my blog. I made a fillable character sheet for it that’s linked to on Atlas Games’ site. I’ve spoken about my love for it on podcasts. And some of you know I’m a writer on the upcoming third edition of Unknown Armies.
The atmospheric treatment in the text, the way the mechanics of magick and the unnatural, all of it is a master class of presentation. The inherent paradox nature of magick and the way the various schools are laid out—mixing the narrating and mechanics together with brilliant trigger rules—is inspired. The utter humanocentrism in the horror sets it apart from run-of-the-mill settings.
The book is front-to-back the postmodern occult game bible. If you’ve seen my many mentions of UA and haven’t checked out it, I assume it’s only because horror games aren’t for you.
GURPS Horror Fourth Edition (and the third edition before it) is a master class on horror themes and tropes. It’s a Kenneth Hite buffet—plenty of GURPS stats, if that’s your bag (as it was once mine), but it’s also one of the few GURPS books I’ve kept after selling most of them over the course of a half-dozen moves. This book covers in brief the history (folklore and fiction) of many horror topics, as well as approaches for them in games.
The third edition also gave birth to the fascinating GURPS Madness Dossier, a setting briefly mentioned in GURPS Horror Third Edition fleshed out into a 65-page setting. Ken talks about it on episode 102 of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. (And if I had more time this week, I was pondering writing conversion notes for running it in Fate, including a memetics stress track subsystem.)
Here’s the one game on the list that isn’t somehow touched or ultra-trumpeted by Ken. I love Dread, as do many of my co-workers at Paizo. This game gets played with some regularity, and each person who runs it uses different tricks or hacks with it. (Some of which I wrote about recently.)
I like talking about systems of tactile resonance and how they connect the higher-order parts of the brain thinking about story and language with the visceral, “lizard” brain to create a powerful personal narrative. Of course, I bring up Mythender’s core mechanic when I talk about that, but let’s be honest: Dread is a far more potent (and simpler) example.
Dread “cheats” by using Jenga as its resolution mechanic for everything, and it’s such a vast canvas for GMing that you can’t necessarily rely on any two Dread GMs running it even remotely the same way. That accounts for the book’s size: since the rules are (more or less) “pull from the tower when the GM calls for it, and if it falls then you die,” the rest of the book talks about how to craft and run a horror scenario.
Maybe Dread is the Primetime Adventures of horror: a tool that is also meta-exemplar of a genre, rather than the culture of the game being the exemplar. In any case, it’s a brilliant game and book. Epidiah Ravachol did something amazing with Dread, and he continues to do amazing stuff with his sword and sorcery e-zine Worlds Without Master.
Another GURPS book, another Kenneth Hite treat. GURPS Cabal is possibly my favorite GURPS book, and the one I bought my wife years ago because of how it’s infected my mind. It’s in a sense the closest thing GURPS has to Unknown Armies. The Cabal is the horror setting that takes the idea of a millennia-old secret organization of monsters, and embeds the protagonists in it—as one of many options, of course.
What I love about Cabal is its cosmology, and the way it plays with GURPS’s baroque magic system. It’s a witch’s brew of classical occult ingredients: astrology and the mystical effects of the planets, conspiracies ahold, kabbalism, an otherrealms cosmology that explains elements like serpent-people, Masonic undertones, and so much more.
Now, most people who would throw all those things together would have, at best, a neat collection of microsettings that barely mesh (and a megasetting that breaks under its weight at worst). But this is a classic Hite powerhouse, and I think is a text worth studying to see how it takes all those individual parts and blends them into a whole.
And yes, before you ask, I would probably do some Fate hack notes on this as well in my copious free time.
Call of Cthulhu
Beyond a personal note I have with Call of Cthulhu—the first time I flew up to see my now-wife, it was for her birthday wherein she ran a CoC game. I was a surprise, and it was a delight.
While working on Achtung! Cthulhu Fate edition, I went back to the seminal classic. I gotta say, the magic system in it is very, utterly frightening. It’s powerful and raw: when you want to do magic, you just do the ritual, expend the magic powers, and do it. Maybe a target resists, but there’s no skill roll to see if it happens. I mean, I appreciate the unpredictability built into more metaphysics systems, and that’s great for PC-empowering concepts, but having the sanity-draining magic work perfectly is genuinely unsettling to me.
Also, Call of Cthulhu brought forth Delta Green, so hell yeah. :) As an aside, did you know that the new Delta Green is in playtest?
Also, I’m pretty sure that if I don’t mention Call of Cthulhu, it’ll be one more thing that Ken brings up during our yearly conversation.
Of course, that doesn’t touch upon games that aren’t strictly horror that can dive into those themes, like my well-known love for Mage: the Ascension—and the joy I had at adding to the horrific elements in the Technocracy line (especially the Void Engineer bits).
Take some time as the nights get longer and darker, grab these books, and remember what it means to be afraid.