Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Horror

I think of Halloween as the holiday when I traditionally run a horror game.

This is wishful thinking, though. I don't know if I actually ever managed to do this as any kind of tradition in the past; I know I always wanted to, and I have run a horror game once or twice on Halloween for friends in the past, but it was a long time ago, and certainly never often enough to qualify as a "tradition".

When I was younger, I avoided the horror genre. I had a lot of nightmares growing up, and had no desire to be scared further by frightening images or unpleasant thoughts. I scorned horror movies and ignored horror novels. But this all changed the first time I played a horror RPG.

I can't recall, exactly, what the first horror RPG I played was, but the first one I can remember GMing was Call of Cthulhu. Beyond the Supernatural was another early one. Something about the use of atmospheric elements like the flickering light of candles, spooky music on a stereo, and the occasional assistance of nature herself, with howling wind or chilling fog setting in, made the horror game different. I found the ability to scare others while remaining in control of the situation - I knew the adventure plot, I knew what was coming and had some idea of how to deliver it in order to cause tension and apprehension in my player(s). And yet, I was not immune from that sense of fear, either, as I was to discover after walking back to my car alone in the pitch dark after a late horror game session... Through that experience, I came to understand that the horror genre is an art, requiring a certain skill to pull off well; I suddenly found that I could watch horror movies and scrutinize them. I could judge whether they were actually creating horror, or just relying upon gore or "startles" to creep out their audiences. I bought Ken Hite's must-have book Nightmares of Mine (and, later, his edition of GURPS Horror) and began to really take a close look at horror.

Now, here I am years later, with a desire to continue playing my copy of Silent Hill 3, but being a little apprehensive about turning the lights off and immersing myself in that world again.

I haven't been able to run or play a horror adventure in many years. In fact, I think it was just before the Slussers had children - or was it when Slusser got married? - that I ran a horror game. Since horror is so dependent upon building atmosphere, having any kind of distraction is a big problem, much moreso than with any other genre of RPG I can think of.

I miss it quite a bit. There's something that horror games give you that no other game can. And it's one of the very few RPG genres where it's okay if your character dies. In fact, it's almost expected.

Here's a quick look at the horror games I own (and would love to run tonight, if I could):

Call of Cthulhu - The granddaddy of cosmic horror, this game still appeals to me. I think it's more to do with its default historical setting of 1920s New England than its nihilistic cosmology, but I can't claim to be completely immune to its charms. I have long desired to run an entire campaign, beginning with the World War I scenario No Man's Land, and following those PCs (those that survive, anyway) through their subsequent brushes with the Cthulhu Mythos across the 1920s (I've got a few). I would love to do this someday. Maybe when I'm in the nursing home.

D20 Call of Cthulhu - I don't know how well this handles running CoC adventures; the D20 system can get cumbersome at times, and if you have to stop the game to look up rules, you may as well kiss that precious creepy atmosphere goodbye. Few systems seem to lend themselves to rules lawyers (and their pet arguments) as well as Dungeons & Dragons, and D20 carries on that tradition. Having said that, this book is amazingly well-written, offering not only a decent conversion of the game to D20, but also providing some priceless advice on running horror games - indeed, running games of any genre. This one is oriented on playing in the modern day, rather than CoC's other traditional settings of the Roaring 20s or the Victorian 1890s. Speaking of modern day Cthulhu...

Delta Green - Call of Cthulhu meets The X-Files. After the Innsmouth Raid of 1927, the American government begins to pick up on the fact that there's Something Going On... In DG, you play a government employee who becomes a member of an illegal government conspiracy group, the aforementioned Delta Green. Emphasis on the illegal: this involves not only horror, but also heavy doses of paranoia. This is notable for being one of the most well-written and researched campaign settings I've ever seen, and I'd love to run some of the scenarios presented in these books.

The (New) World of Darkness - White Wolf's game of generic horror. While you can use it as the basis for a world that includes Vampires, Werewolves, Mages, and all of the other White Wolf traditional game lines, nWoD is nice in that you don't have to. With this edition, you can run any kind of modern horror game. I think it's a perfect fit for Silent Hill, myself, and I have at least two adventures I'd like to run that take place in that quiet mountain town...

GURPS Horror - Duh. The third edition is written by Ken Hite, and is much different than the previous editions of the book. This one unfortunately cuts out the description of Victorian London, but in its place gives you one of the best in-depth examinations of horror tropes and themes to be found outside Nightmares of Mine. This book is gold for its explanations of where the tropes came from, and thus, how to best capitalize on them.

Chill - This was the classic go-to for horror with the Campaign folks, and after reading the gamebooks I can see what the draw is. The secret horror-fighting society SAVE is a simple and brilliant excuse to bring "average Joe" PCs together to face the supernatural on a semi-regular basis. I, however, prefer the notion of the Society as a beleaguered, scattered, cryptic and more-or-less impoverished organization than the centralized, well-funded group that the game book seems to describe. More Rosicrucians than CIA, thanks. If you're looking for this game, make sure to look up the Mayfair edition, as the original Pacesetter edition was more humor-oriented.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel RPGs - These are more recent purchases, and they utilize the excellent Cinematic Unisystem roleplaying game...uh...system. Written in a chatty, humorous, but not annoying (unless you don't like Joss Whedon-style dialog) style, these games not only capture the feel of the television shows perfectly, they also provide a rules framework for a wide variety of games. One could just as easily run a Hellboy campaign, a superhero game, or a straight-up modern action game with these rules. Check out what people are doing with it on Eden Studios' forums... I have eight seasons (no joke) of an Angel RPG campaign completely outlined. It's called Spooks (no, not this one); it begins in Buffy/Angelverse Los Angeles circa 1938 and follows the formation and early years of The Initiative, the shadowy organization that would show up as a semi-antagonist in "Buffy" Season Four. I'd love to run this, but I question whether I've got the chops to run such a long campaign set in the World War II era. I can handle fantasy games and Shadowrun for that long, perhaps, but would I be able to stay in the mood for film noir and pulp-horror adventure with a sense of humor but unexpected depth, darkness, and character development for such an extended period? Well, it's worth a try... C'mon, it's got Nazis! Who doesn't like beating up Nazis?

Hellboy - While GURPS Lite 3rd Edition is an okay fit for this one, I think that Angel's Cinematic Unisystem would do a better job. Nonetheless, this is the sourcebook on Hellboy, chock full of awesome Mignola illustrations. If you haven't read the comic... Well, here. Read it. The gist of this is that you work for a government agency that deals with the paranormal (and often part of someone's mythology, like Baba Yaga). Hellboy is one of their primary agents. He usually deals with said paranormal by beating it senseless while issuing longsuffering one-liners. Notable in that your agent could be a normal person, but it's also quite likely that your agent is something supernatural. Characters in Hellboy have included a fishman, a pyrokinetic, a homonculus, and an ectoplasmic spirit. One of Hellboy's primary villains is Rasputin. THE Rasputin. And, you know, Nazis. Dang, this would make for a fun campaign.

Dark*Matter - Going deeper into X-Files territory than the television show ever did, this is one of the best modern conspiracy-horror books I've ever seen. It presents data on a wide range of popular and obscure conspiracies, monsters, and paranormal topics that we hear about in the real world, and presents multiple options on how to run them in a campaign. It also presents a loose cosmological explanation for what's going on, and offers an organization for PCs to work for, the Hoffmann Institute. It's a little more potent an organization than I would normally like for such a game, but it can still work; in fact, watching "Fringe" gives me a pretty solid idea of how it could be an intriguing, mysterious, and paranoia-inducing employer for characters (imagine being an employee of Massive Dynamic...). All this in a nicely-illustrated hardbound book!

Ghostories - A generic engine for running horror adventures. I love simple rules systems. I love cheap, easily-affordable games. PIG's Ghostories gives me both of those things. When you're running a horror game, you really want to have a game system that doesn't interfere with the narrative or slow things down as people start looking up rules - that's an atmosphere-killer, and building atmosphere is absolutely crucial to running a horror game. It's also compatible with their other genre Diversion i games, meaning I can use it in conjunction with their western game Coyote Trail as my system conversion for Deadlands. Speaking of...

Deadlands: The Weird West - This Old West Horror game has a lot of potential, and I own most of the books published for this game, which is quite a few. Deadlands is all over the map - it incorporates not only horror, but also pulp action and steampunk; it describes itself as "Spaghetti Western with Meat". The result is a game that can be played in a variety of styles...but personally, I'd like to run it dark and atmospheric.

Over the Edge - Not exclusively a horror game, but certainly heavy on those elements. This is a rules-light, surrealism-heavy game reminiscent of "Twin Peaks", "Lost", Cat's Cradle, and Burroughs novels. It comes with a thoroughly detailed modern-day setting, the Mediterranean island of al-Amarja, and a catalog of all the weird stuff going on there. I have a campaign-starter in mind already - that of CIA agents investigating possible al-Qaeda cell activity - but this manages to be such a wide-open game that any type of character and any type of background could conceivably work. All you need is a reason to come to the obscure island. All the rest is done for you, really. This is an excellent example of the "sandbox" setting presented for a modern day game.

Ghostbusters - Old and out of print but still pretty brilliant, from a game rules standpoint (Fear not, though - click on that link and be reconnected with that spirit from the past). West End Games made this, arguably one of the best entry-level RPGs on the market. While the adventures I've seen for it are pretty goofy (a little more than I would like for what is admittedly a comedy game), this game is wonderful in that it parodies the structure and feel of Call of Cthulhu scenarios so well. Made by many of the same people who brought you Paranoia... As fun as the original system is, were I to run it today, I'd use the even easier-to-learn-and-run Risus system by S. John Ross...who admits that the Ghostbusters RPG was a major influence. Oh, and that's free, too.

Well, that's all I can think of at the moment, though I've got the nagging suspicion that I've forgotten something. Anyway, I look forward to the day when I can run a spooky game once more.

Happy Halloween!

EDIT: I did remember something. I don't actually own the Palladium game, and I wouldn't use the system, but I liked the idea, with some modification: Nightbane. The premise is that while you think you're a normal person, you are in actuality a monstrous, extra-dimensional being who just happens to be walking around in a human body most of the time. Or are you just its vessel? Are you going crazy, or is this what you really are?

I also just remembered Hunter: The Reckoning. You become endowed by the mysterious Messengers with mystic powers with which to fight the supernatural. I have rather a lot of adventure ideas for this one, too.

Okay, enough for now - I'm starving!


Easy E said...

Why don't you combine your last three posts into 1 game? So the setting is alternate Earth Rome, where "Super" are essentially like the heroes of Myth. They exist, and they be either harnessed and controlled by the state, or killed. Hence regular PC's are tasked witht he job of tracking down the demi-gods and either converting them, killing them, or something else.

Easy E said...

I also wanted to share this RPG related link with you:

S. John Ross said...

It's important to remember that the Ghostbusters RPG was really made primarily by Chaosium (designed by the folks who gave us Call of Cthulhu, NOT by the folks who gave us Paranoia), and then produced, published and distributed by West End Games.

It's also very VERY important to remember that if you're going to hunt it down (and everyone should, since it's the Greatest RPG Ever Made), get the first edition only, because the 2nd Ed is charmless crap devoid of everything that made the original game a work of genius. The 2nd edition is a steaming pile, pure and (not nearly as) simple.

My own traditional Halloween RPG session is called Ravenloft 1988 (I never have changed the title and now it's 20 years old - I feel ancient) ... an adaptation of the original I6, to Ghostbusters (1st Edition, of course).

Devin said...

easy e - Wow. I need to chew on that concept for a little while. That's really interesting...

And that link...oh, man, that was funny.

s. john - Thank you for clarifying! Credit where credit is due. Suddenly the CoC connection becomes that much more apparent.

Running I6: Ravenloft as a Ghostbusters adventure...that's just awesome. I think I have to add that to my list of "Things I Need To Try Running"...

Michael Slusser said...

Oh, man, that was a funny link.

Easy E, I've never met you, but I wish I had. Don't count on Devin getting us together, either—he still hasn't seen half of his life-long friends in California since he returned...

Devin said...

Given that it would require a trip to Minnesota, I wouldn't hold my breath.

It's too bad - I think you guys would get along well.