Day 20 – Favorite Horror RPG
I end up running so much pulp-infused stuff (Adventure!, Star Wars, post-apocalyptic, anime-cyberpunk, Dungeon World, et al), I assume most of my current group don’t know that horror is one of my favorite RPG genres, if not my favorite. (Hence, the backlog of “Supernatural Horror in Gaming” posts I’ve made over the years.) Yet so many of those horror games were run in something that wasn’t a horror RPG—usually we were using Torg, or Fate, or otherwise were applying a game that wasn’t specifically horror to more terrifying purposes.
So, what to pick?
I’m indebted to Ravenloft and Deadlands, which both had many excellent ideas and techniques for infusing horror into RPGs. The Ravenloft boxed set is a bit antiquated now—it’s 2e AD&D after all, both the rules and the advice come from a time before “game philosophy” and games-theory were applied to RPGs. But it introduces many key concepts of horror: the sense of creeping, looming horror, perverse and pervading its way through everything, offering power in lopsided deals that delivered naught but corruption. Deadlands was a bit more forceful, wedged in among the Horse Opera trappings, but it likewise has good stuff on how to do horror RPGs right.
Oddly enough, most White Wolf games I’ve never seen as “horror” even though I try to run them as such—the characters are so powerful, and the focus is often (like in your average RPG) on beating up bad guys rather than introspection and terror. Cthulhutech I’m loath to admit I liked… at least the idea of it, before it was clearly more about rape and bad design than I wanted it to be. Call of Cthulhu doesn’t even hit my radar; it’s not a horror game, it’s a TPK simulator, and it’s never really appealed to anyone I know beyond the occasional one-shot.
Shadows of Esteren would probably be my favorite horror RPG that I’ve never played—the setting is a luscious blend of Dark Ages decay, a Celtic-infused low magic setting where strange occurrences and deadly monsters lurk just outside of human civilization. The system is smooth and fast, with a nasty and brutish combat system, with a heavy focus on exploration and investigation (but also recommends you avoid monsters, else TPK). Dread ranks a close second with its Jenga-based resolution system.
The bottom line? For setting and flavor alone, Deadlands hands-down; based purely on book learnin’ but not any real-world experience it’s Esteren; overall, I’d have to go with Achtung! Cthulhu (er, the Fate edition). The latter in particular is a direct rebuttal to the old “Fate doesn’t handle horror” argument, even introducing several great ideas for how to handle monsters and obstacles in a Fate horror game.
But at the end of the day, remember that any game can become a horror game if the GM plays the atmosphere and mystery just right (and throws on a soundtrack that screams “unnerving industrial hellcore“).