RPGs Off My Shelf – February

Its been a little bit. Life has a habit of getting in the way of my internet life. I know I am not the only one, but it still annoys the hell out of me. So, time to get back into the swing of things. This month, I am working on one of the other major roleplaying game genres – horror. Let me be up front, I normally really dislike horror rpgs. I have yet to see horror treated in the same manner in rpgs as novels or movies – those two mediums pick up the feelings that horror creates so much better than most roleplaying games. While I think rpgs are the ideal medium for Sci-fi and fantasy, not so for horror. For my money, there are very few quality horror rpgs out there, but here are few that I’ve found that are worth your time.

However, the good horror rpgs' I mean the really good ones, knock my socks off and rank as some of the best rpgs ever produced. The key to being one of the great rpgs is twofold: 1) the rpg has to have a great setting, and 2) the rpg has to lend itself to some great gamemastering. Now, as a setting junkie, we’ll address this first. The best horror rpgs are going to be the ones with the great settings. The second part of my criteria is much harder for me to articulate since the game needs to lend itself to a good gamemaster using the rpg and forming it into something creepy' something scary. Rules, setting, mood, and, most importantly, a good gamemaster are the things that make an rpg lend itself to good gamemastering (a bit circular, I admit).

So, with a concentration on my first criteria, but with an eye towards my second let’s get to the meat-and-potatoes of this article:
My Top Five Horror rpg settings
Honorable mention:

Nightmares of Mine (I.C.E)- not actually a setting, and just barely an rpg supplement, this book is absolutely invaluable to a horror gamemaster. Ken Hite hits a homerun in his analysis of the horror genre and advice on how to treat it with respect in horror rpgs. Buy this book if you run (or want to run) a horror rpg.

Kult 3rd ed. (Paradox Entertainment)- Three incarnations and still going strong. It takes a heavy dose of Gnosticism and the creepy parts of Christianity to create a nifty dystopic otherworld. Think Hellraiser and you are not far off.

Wraith (White Wolf): Someone else said it better than I ever could: Wraith I the greatest game no one plays. While it has some wonderfully creepy ideas, the mechanics and weird setting hurt the playabilty of the game.

Obsidian (Apophis Consortium): So close, yet so very far.

5. All Flesh Must be Eaten (Eden Studios). The zombie survival rpg. Anytime you think of a game that will feature zombies heavily, this is the game that should be at the top of most lists. AFMBE is a toolbox game, everything you want or need to run the game is in the core book. Right from the start AFMBE presents a lot of options for creating zombies and the book is that much stronger for all those options. I am a fan of zombie flicks, and it took me a while to finally admit AFMBE is the game for zombies- but it really is. Eden did a great job with the game.

The Unisystem engine for AFMBE is quite solid and there are a lot of people who think the Unisystem engine is second-to-none. Part of the reason AFMBE is such a good game is how seamlessly it works with the Eden engine. From tense escape sequences to full fledged firefights, Unisystem handles the possibilities of AFMBE well.

The art in AFMBE is great. I am under the understanding that AFMBE was co-imagined with Christopher Shy, and his stellar artwork is all over AFMBE (including the cover). Interspersed with some solid pencil work, the feel that AFMBE conveys is quite appropriate for the genre. The writing is pretty mechanical, with the occasional additions for color. All-in-all, AFMBE does a fine job in creating the basics for games with zombies.

My problem with AFMBE is that it is too general. There are options for settings (some of which are great, others are uninspiring) but nothing that reallt defines AFMBE as a great horror game. The addition of some really off-the wall options (while useful), and some really kitsch settings hurt the ability to really create a creepy atmosphere. As a toolbox AFMBE has no equal, as a horror rpg it has potential, but is left behind.

The current in-print version of AFMBE is the 2nd edition. Either edition is okay though- the tweaks to 2nd edition are nice but not a deal-breaker. The supplements are all solid with one exception. I would avoid the Book of Archetypes 2 (it is too repetitive and uncreative when compared to the 1st).

4. Orpheus (White Wolf). I really, really like Orpheus. It was developed by one of most favorite personalities in the rpg industry, Lucien Soulban. Mr Soulban has been the creative force behind some of the best rpg supplements in existence (Vimary for Tribe 8 and Montreal by Night to name two). When I heard he was going to be at the helm of the 6-book limited run of the Orpheus line, I could not have thought of anyone better for the job. Much to my delight, Mr. Soulban did an excellent job with Orpheus.

Orpheus is a full game line, setting, and epic adventure wrapped up in a tidy 6-book set (the core book and five supplements). The game’s setting almost begs for some great games to be run. Basically, you play operatives for a private company (the Orpheus Group) that hunt ghosts. The thing that makes Orpheus stay in business is the fact that its operatives can project their souls into the spirit world- ensuring their “ghostbusting” lends results. Of course, this is a White Wolf game, so you as PCs you get all sorts of nifty powers to go along with projecting your soul.

The successor to the Wraith line (see above), Orpheus was, in my opinion, a successful way of making Wraith playable. Much of the backstory and metaplot of the Wraith line carry over into Orpheus, slowly bleeding over into a truly marvelous campaign. As the campaign unfolds over the five supplements, new powers, new character options, new enemies, and new revelations are revealed- making the Orpheus line fit together seamlessly. Because the supplements work so well together and help create a full campaign that progresses over time, Orpheus is arguably the best use of metaplot used in an rpg. Quite useful, especially for a horror rpg.

Orpheus is at times Creepy, mysterious, and tense. The art is largely quite good, some of the best art in a White Wolf line, ever. More importantly, the art reflects the text quite closely (something I really appreciate)- helping create an idea of what the horrors of Orpheus look like. A nice touch, really. The text is filled with lots of color entries, balancing the art to help add even more description to the world.

The place where Orpheus trips up as a horror rpg is in the non-horror elements that creep in to most of the supplements. Some of the creatures that are introduced are patently not scary or creepy- but simply silly. Also, as the plot progresses Orpheus moves away from its horror roots to be a bit more of an action-adventure game- which hurts the mood set by earlier books. Understand, this is the goal of the Orpheus line- to grow and change with the metaplot. However, taken as a whole, Orpheus loses too much of its horror roots to be ranked as one of the top three horror prgs.

3. Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium and various publishers). The father of all horror rpgs. HP Lovecraft was as much surrealist as horror writer, and the two aspects of his writing work remarkably well together- not only in his rendition of the Dreamlands, but in creating creatures that man was not supposed to know. Many of the tropes and core assumptions found in subsequent horror rpgs first started with Call of Cthulhu. There are reams and reams of discussion on Call of Cthulhu and HP Lovecraft’s work, so I will refrain from going to deep into the relative merits of the game. Rest assured, it is a nifty setting that works exceptionally well with the BRP (Basic Roleplaying) system.

Call of Cthulhu is a great setting that, unfortunately, has not aged well. Cthulhu is no longer scary in my mind. Unfortunately, through no real fault of Call of Cthulhu, the Mythos just isn’t mysterious anymore. Part of what makes the mythos great as antagonists is the mystery that surrounds them- they are supposed to be unknowable- beyond the understanding of normal men. However, to get the feeling of mystery and awe that Call of Cthulhu elicited over a decade ago, you have to start moving beyond the mythos as defined by Lovecraft or start anew with a new setting (as we will see below). CoC is a victim of its own success.

Don’t get me wrong, CoC can still be run as a scary rpg, but it takes a lot of work on the part of the GM and a savvy group to help move beyond what they already know and assume about the mythos to get really scared by a game. The key is having a really good gamemaster that understands the themes behind Lovecraft’s work- however; a gamemaster of that skill could make any horror game scary. In CoC’s case a good gameaster is more necessary than most other games- and so it gets the third spot.

2. Delta Green (Pagan Publishing). Delta Green is Call of Cthulhu, updated and made sexy (“sexy” like in the smoldering eyes of a goth chick who you know is nothing but trouble). Delta Green is widely regarded as one of the best rpgs on the market, and deservedly so. DG takes the tropes and themes of CoC and uses them to take the mythos into new and exciting (and mysterious) directions. The end result is a new game that brings the tense and terrifying atmosphere of Call of Cthulhu back. Still based on the standard (if uninspiring) BRP system, the real gem of this game is the setting.

In Delta Green you play a government agent (or other suitably well established PC) that is slowly confronting the mythos. Delta Green is a disgraced secret branch of the U.S, government that is now part of a grand conspiracy that fights the mythos. Delta Green is a loose alliance of likeminded individuals (of which the PCs form a cell) that have seen things that should not be and whose lives have changed as a result. Delta Green is about mystery and discovery, and the ultimate costs for those discoveries. There are malevolent intelligences at work against Earth, and the PCs are the unwitting vanguard that fights against those intelligences.

The genius behind Delta Green is that it gives the characters the mundane tools to defeat the mythos- and it falls to the PCs to discover that those tools are still inadequate. Minor aspects of the mythos are emphasized in DG, giving the mythos a bit of a different feel' different enough to make it new and cryptic. Moreover, there are new aspects to the mythos that are introduced, and are done in such a way as to blend with the existing mythos wonderfully. The key is that the writers (some of the best in the business) understand the background to the Lovecraftian mythos and can extrapolate the horror inherent in that background.

Delta Green’s setting is spectacular. If it is the setting that really makes a horror rpg scary, you simply cannot go wrong with Delta Green. The only reason this is not number one is that I think my number one choice holds to the horror genre a bit more firmly- not straying into possible action/adventure as can potentially happen with Delta Green.

1. Little Fears (Key 2). This is my favorite horror rpg, bar none. Jason Blair, the man behind Key 2 is one of my favorite writers/developers along with Lucien Soulban- and part of the reason I like both of them is my unending respect for how they handle the horror genre. With Little Fears Mr. Blair created the definitive horror rpg, staying firmly within the genre while creating a wonderfully evocative setting and suitably colorful system to complement the setting. Little Fears is amazing stuff.

In LF you are a child no older than 12. You face a frightening world, literally. The fears f your childhood are real, and they have a very malevolent reason for wanting your child PC dead (or tortured, or whatever). Shadows are things to be avoided. Under the bed the breathing you thought was the wind is actually the creature’s breath your mom told you does not exist. The closet is' well, lets not even talk about the closet. As a child, you stand alone. In LF your PC is under-equipped, under-trained (obviously), and with none of the resources of society to help you in your desperate fight. Now that is a horror setting.

One of the big things that makes Little Fears my favorite horror rpg is the gaming system. Basically, it is a rules light system that relies more on description and imagination to help drive task resolution. The character sheet is suitably simple but also help create the right atmosphere of isolation and helplessness (honestly, I can’t think of another character sheet that helps promote the feel of the game better than the little two page character sheet in the back of LF).

The writing in LF is suitably creepy and disturbing. The art is overall pretty good, and again, follows the text pretty closely. Little Fears is one of the few games I really consider a product that should only be used by mature gamers- simply for the disturbing themes it promotes. Little fears has all the elements of a great horror rpg- good art, great and descriptive writing, a suitable system, and an amazingly horrific setting.

Get a good GM, turn off the lights, and play a game or two for Little Fears. You will be part of those rare games that you end up bragging about at conventions.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to pop over to the forums and voice your opinion.

Thanks, and see you in a bit.

Chris Gunning

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