Monday, September 19, 2011

A Real Horror Show

You might think I'm talking about the absolute beatdown the Seahawks sustained at the hands of Pittsburgh this week...yeah, I watched it till the bitter kneel-downs at the end and then numbed my pain by watching excellent football the rest of the day (dammit, why can't Seattle play like New England or San Diego or Philadelphia or Atlanta or even Detroit? Oh, yeah...because we decided to sign Tavaris Jackson instead of Matthew Hasselbeck. Congrats, Tennessee...nice having a pr-bowl QB, huh?).

No, that wasn't was both disgusting and expected. Instead, I'm talking about the Horror Rules RPG by Chris Weedin. Finished reading it today, and wow, color me impressed.

I should probably preface this post with a bit of my personal background with "horror RPGs:" not much. Mainly because I'm not very good at it. Or not very comfortable. Or both.

I own Call of Cthulhu (I don't remember the edition...3rd? 4th?) but I've never had the players that really wanted to play it. And honestly, the system never worked that well for me...folks I know who run CoC regularly have always played it fast-and-loose, and chargen seems a little long for a game where character deterioration is an inevitable given. Don't get me wrong, I love HPL and own several books compiling his stories...but I'd rather read about it then play it.

I also own Pelgrane's Trail of Cthulhu, which I think is a better game (for its theme) than CoC but I've never found anyone willing to play it. It sits gathering dust on my shelf.

I own the indie game InSpectres, a terror-comedy game that combines Ghostbusters slapstick with reality TV sensibilities, and have played quite a bit of it, but only with kids/teens. We've had some "scary" games, but mostly they've been weird-silly rather than horror. It's a nice beer & pretzels game, but the rules don't really lend themselves to serious stories.

I've attempted to run Vampire the Masquerade (1st and 2nd edition) in a "horror-style," especially with the 1st Hunters Hunted supplement (waaaay before "Hunter the Reckoning" was its own superhero-esque game), but again, my players at the time really weren't into it. Specifically, I only ever had one player willing to try a hunter session (and afterward he said he wanted to "play a vampire the next time" instead. No, I did not kill his character off in some gruesome fashion). The other players, well...they were pansies, what can I say?

[to be fair, these latter fellows had some challenges playing blood-suckers in general, not just blood-suckers being menaced by even worse demons]

And anyway, VtM isn't much of a horror game, no matter how spooky of music you play (following the mood setting directions of the game authors).

So, yeah...not a great track record with horror games. Part of it may be that I'm not a huge horror fan myself. Oh, I've seen a few of the classic films: the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a couple each of the Jason's and Michael's and Freddy's, Carpenter's Thing and Ridley's Alien, several zombie/mutant movies. Heck, I've even watched the first couple Rob Zombie flicks and two or three of the better terror offerings from the last decade.

But I wouldn't call myself a "fan." I'm not really into being scared...I like interesting stories, and films like 48 Hours Later and The Ring and The Descent have interesting premises in my opinion. Films like the Saw series (of which I've seen not a single installment) do NOT. But that's just me.

And because I'm not a huge fan (and because my wife is REALLY not into scary movies, having been subjected to nightmarish features like The Exorcist as a small child) I don't really hang out with other people who are into horror films; i.e. other non-horror fans. And if you're not hanging with like-minded folks, it's hard to get a game going where people are on the same page.

Horror Rules makes me wish I did know a few horror fans.

This is a great game, and really goes to show why unique games, designed with a specific objective in mind, is so much better than generic RPGs like "GURPS Horror" or well, whatever. Weedin has written a game that captures the tropes and conceits and (dare I say?) the humor inherent in the monster/slasher genre.

Because horror movies are often ridiculous, filled with crazy premises and glaring plot holes, as well as obtuse characterizations. That doesn't stop 'em from being scary and suspenseful or just is what it is. A vehicle designed to give the viewer an adrenaline high through fright and clever pacing. Humor is often purposefully present in these films to offset the terror or rope-a-dope the audience or just because the filmmakers are, well, whimsical folks with a playful sense of humor (yes, it takes a playful imagination to find unique methods of killing characters in a movie). Horror Rules captures this through a variety of rule mechanics designed to both emulate the genre AND entertain the players of the game. It's pretty darn cool.

This RPG has the goods to do cinematic horror better than any other RPG I've seen, including AFMBE and more recent zombie apocalypse games. It has character classifications (not classes) which direct character concept and provide (one-time) bonus abilities true to their archetype without using "suites" of powers or levels/experience systems. It has a minimal skill system and a finite method of task resolution in direct opposition to the "open-ended" dice systems found in similar skill-centric games (like World of Darkness, Shadowrun, D20, etc.). It has metagame mechanics (like 2nd Thought, Luck, and Stupid Thing Points) that can be used in multiple ways depending on the chosen style of play (the book outlines several) and that really help emulate the genre. And I think Horror Rules' "sanity loss" mechanics are both better and more interesting than those found in Call of Cthulhu. Really.

While the game is roughly 100 pages in length, much of this is full page illustrations, or the sample adventure script; there's about 70 pages of actual rules and almost a quarter of those pages are devoted to actual GM instruction (real, practical information, not "mood setting" suggestions) and adventure creation (two separate chapters, nice!).

From my perspective, that's awesome...I want information on how to run this type of game. Not every RPG needs to be (or should be!) run the same way. And while killing off player characters in an adversarial way is kind of my raison d'etre (at least in B/X play), there's a way to do it in the horror genre that, all kidding aside, has the potential to sink the game if not done right. After all, if your players are going to buy off on the "fun" of horror gaming (including the high probability of being killed in an agonizing, traumatic fashion), then they deserve to be treated to the expected tropes of the genre.

This game tells you how to do that.

Anyway, it's very impressive, and I'd love to try it out (especially with Halloween coming up soon), if only to see if it works as well in practice as it looks on paper. Turns out Gary's Games does stock Horror Rules, though I don't think they plan on doing an "annual tournament" like in Yakima. Too bad, though...playing Horror Rules on Halloween would be just as fun as renting scary movies for the occasion (something I've been known to do).
; )

1 comment:

  1. I've had a lot of good experiences with Call of Cthulhu, but fast and loose is definitely the right word for how we run it. We usually run one-shots with pre-generated characters. It helps get right to the action and gives us an evening of fun.

    There are two sets of adventures that we've had great luck with, and can easily be converted to whichever system you prefer.

    The first set is the "Curse of the Yellow Sign" trilogy by John Wick. The middle one is our favorite, but all three were fun to play.

    Second is "Red Eye of Azathoth" from Open Design. It's an anthology of five adventures, each one about a single nights worth of play.

    Both sets have adventures in different time periods, and so you don't need to have played the earlier ones to enjoy the later ones. Although the Azathoth ones are more closely related than the Yellow Sign ones. But I highly recommend them if you want to experience the joys of Call of Cthulhu.