OUT OF THE BOX
It sounds better with the bass line behind it, trust me. Once again, All Hallow’s Eve is upon us, when the walls between the worlds grow thin and the dead wander the streets. Here is Samhain, ancient festival of fire and sacrifice, of evil skulls and the Hunt of Death. Here is big bags of candy for special sale prices at your local grocery, and all four “House” movies on the Sci-Fi Channel. Here, finally, is John Carpenter’s Vampires, based on John Steakley’s Vampire$, a heckuva good book, if you read it fast enough. As one who loves Halloween for all these reasons, then, I offer unto you, my loyalest goblin readers, a tribute to this season of black-and-orange crepe paper and being told that no, you can’t go buy big bags of candy with a gaping fake shotgun wound in your forehead, no matter how much you think it’d be cool.
Last year, I took the liberty of using my Halloween column to elaborate a bit on some of the many fine horror games out there for you, the gaming audience, to consider. This year, I’ll narrow it down a bit; this year is my pick of ten fine horror supplements suitable for well-nigh any horror game you care to think of. The ground rules for this list began very solid, and like unto a ghost, began to melt away upon further inspection with scientific devices (especially ones with that cool backlit magenta screen). At first, I thought, “why not just my favorite ten horror supplements?” Upon realizing that my list basically consisted of ten Call of Cthulhu supplements, though, I paused. Obviously, I’d have to think of the ten best horror supplements. Whoops, still about half Call of Cthulhu, sure to cause howls of “favoritism” from people who don’t understand what the word “reviewer” means. So, I resolved to make it the ten best horror supplements currently in print, which resolution lasted just long enough to see how desuetudinous the in-print lists have become over the last year or so. By restricting all the companies to one book apiece, however, and allowing some out of print stuff in reason (I’ll mention the out-of-print ones), a decently usable list emerges. Clinging to shards of honor, however, I am restricting this list to supplements, rather than complete games, for two reasons. First, I did complete games last year, and second of all, my big hobby horse of interchangeability is nicely suited by emphasizing the essential multiple utility of these books. No matter what you play, there is something in all of them to steal. And having decided that, I made my list, confident that I would only have to violate my rule once. And so I have….
The Top Ten Best Horror Supplements Currently Mostly Available If You Look Around, Or Nine If You Want To Be A Real Hardass About The Rules
This domain book by C. J. Carella for Palladium’s Nightbane (also by C.J.) has a bare minimum of rules slowing it down (although some of the demonic powers are worth a look or two), and a grandiose maximum of interesting notions. The Nightlands are the world behind the darkness, home of the Nightlords (boo, hiss), who invaded the world and took over the government in a 24-hour Day of Darkness. Since this shows where they came from, you don’t need to pay attention to the slightly giddy Nightbane gameverse if you don’t want to. There’s a Nightland version of New York and one of L.A., both useful for running Neverwhere style games of “hidden cities,” and the standard decent Palladium value-for-money ethic throughout. Kevin Hassall’s Through a Glass Darkly, also for Nightbane, is also worth an honorable mention or two, if only for its vilely original notions of mirror-realm demonic magics and living spells.
9. Dangerous Prey
Basically a “villain book” for that superb “beer and pretzels and meathooks” horror game Whispering Vault, it is still available from the Vault’s new home at Ronin Press. Nigel Findley, William Spencer-Hale, Kevin Hassall and Chris Pramas are only a few of the names synonymous with RPG creative originality who contributed to this 1995 collection of Grody Stuff for Vault GMs. Mostly focusing on the Unbidden (boo, hiss) — how to play them, how to write them, some awful examples of them, some neat powers for them and some ways for them to sneak back into the game when nobody’s looking — plus scenario seeds and a full Hunt. It’s a real amphigorey, and so not everything works as well as everything else, but it all throbs with original thinking, which is half the battle in horror games. Any multidimensional, dream-type horror game, or one with demons in it (narrow it down much?) will benefit from a dollop of Dangerous Prey.
Okay, time for everyone who thinks TORG was just too silly to live to leave the room. Sure, it had its problems, but who among us doesn’t? What that lovable, clumpy West End game had that lifts it above the other “why did we do that” ideas of the pre-Vampire era was a pretty intriguing card mechanic, a delightfully daft premise (one of those love it or hate it things, I admit), and Orrorsh. Chris Kubasik spent a lot of time thinking about what makes things archetypically “horror” in the sense of the genre and in the sense of tiny poisonous insects crawling down your shirt, and he came up with the Gaunt Man’s “horror reality” of Orrorsh, which somehow combined that most hoary of cliches, Victorian horror (which, by the way, I love) with the horrors of — Indonesia? Yes, Indonesia. And horror, and Victoriana, and TORG. And until you’ve faced the Order of the Purple Eyes in the jungles and the scoop-fingered Ladoc (from the also quite good, and also quite out of print Creatures of Orrorsh supplement) in the alleys, well, keep it to yourself. Or I’ll send the Knot Man after you.
7. Metropolis Sourcebook
Another “secret city,” this one the one behind all bad, dangerous cities — and in Target Games’ Kult, they’re all bad and dangerous. Sure, this Metropolis has powerful guardians from another world, too. They’re the archons, fallen (or worse) angels from the Gnostic bad side of the theological tracks. This book (by Andre Gottfridsson, among others) shows you how to reveal the Metropolis, how to creep everyone out even further, and gives lots of evil locations (with illo handouts!), story hooks, etc. for the quintessential Bad Place To Be — and wouldn’t you know it, we’re already here?
This is an interesting work; it’s almost sui generis. The nature of horror, usually, is helplessness; you can’t stop Dracula from killing Lucy, or Jason from filleting cheerleaders, or Cthulhu from munching down on Oahu. But in Jeff Koke and S. John Ross’ GURPS Black Ops from Steve Jackson Games, you’re the least helpless person on the planet — you’re an elite Black Op, with weapons that don’t officially exist and carte blanche to level the block if you have to. You’re Truly Badass, the avenging figure in the fireball, flung free of the blast by the blast. And you’re fighting things even tougher than you. It’s hard, damned hard, to mix testosterone and horror successfully (adrenaline is the easy part), and GURPS Black Ops can easily turn into action-movie — but it’s a hugely exciting, truly interesting look at Lovecraftian horror the way that Tom Clancy might write it. Too bad it’s out of print, but check your game store shelves anyway. (Honorable mention, here, to Scott Haring and J.M. Caparula’s GURPS Horror, a surprisingly useful, and surprisingly out-of-print, sourcebook for the genre as a whole.)
5. Masque of the Red Death
This boxed set, which was nigh-excellent, is actually something of a placeholder for the Ravenloft line as a whole; it’s a truly interesting attempt, even more than GURPS Black Ops, to turn a fundamentally not-horrific game (AD&D) from musclebound exercise in dragon-bopping into a game of horror. Rather than go the GURPS Black Ops route, the Ravenloft designers (prominent among them William W. Connors, who designed Masque of the Red Death) attempted to create a world where combat prowess mattered less than emotion; a Gothic sensibility sometimes forced but often surprisingly well evoked. Masque of the Red Death moved AD&D into the 1890s and a milieu called “Gothic Earth,” where surprisingly-deadly firearms rules actually enforced the game’s intention, although the adventures in the box didn’t quite live up to that potential — a “flinch factor” which no doubt played a role in the setting’s cancellation (and thus, the box set is out of print). Ravenloft soldiers on, though, and although its recent stuff isn’t as good as the Planescape releases have been, it’s still a noble experiment.
Those of you who remember my glowing review of Rob Hatch’s Oriental horror campaign sourcebook for Vampire: the Masquerade will be monumentally unstunned by its presence on this list. It accomplished a number of feats — it presented a solid world with some real depth to it, it created a truly interesting space for roleplaying possibilities, it had a whole raft of cool ideas and creepy concepts, and it almost got me to think about running a Vampire game. (And that, mind you, before the vast improvements of Vampire 3rd Edition.) At this exalted level of the list, Kindred of the East can hold its own with anyone.
3. Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep
Larry diTillio’s classic globetrotting, demon-punching, character-mangling Call of Cthulhu campaign is universally hailed as the greatest RPG campaign ever published. Its “expanded and completed” version won the 1996 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Campaign, and richly deserved it, although the presentation of the original 1984 boxed set was worthy of high honors then as well. For all that, I still think that Keith Herber’s Return to Dunwich is superior horror, in its closely personal look at a decaying town and destroyed families — but there’s no denying the mighty sweep and full-force arterial power of Masks. Both of them are out of print, leaving Kevin A. Ross’ newly expanded and brilliantly handled Escape From Innsmouth as the best Chaosium horror supplement in print — for now.
This may be cheating: it’s a game, not a supplement. But, still, it’s free, so I don’t feel bad about putting it on the list. It’s number two because, of all the roleplaying books and games and whatnot I’ve read over the years, this is one of the few that ever actually made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Literally, the world of the dead Puppetmaker, and the tyrannical Mister Punch, is horripilating. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen or read, and it may be one of the best arguments I’ve heard for considering roleplaying games as art. It’s certainly one of the best arguments I’ve heard for considering John Tynes a genius.
1. Delta Green
And here’s another one. Although Adam Scott Glancy and Dennis Detwiller did the lion’s share of the work on this brilliant melding of the Cthulhu mythos and the UFO mythology, the original vision was Tynes’ — and it came a year before the words “Mulder, it’s me,” were a gleam in anybody’s eye. (For more Tynesian goodness, I implore you to examine The Golden Dawn, another Victorian horror setting, putting Call of Cthulhu squarely in the realm of High Magick and a myth even more powerful than Lovecraft’s.) Delta Green rocked my world. Modern horror, modern conspiracy, bureaucracy and tying the great insights of Lovecraft firmly into the modern horrors of powerlessness — this is pure evil, this is the Apocalypse, and this is the finest horror supplement in print anywhere — and the finest RPG supplement of the last decade, bar none.
Kenneth Hite is the author or coauthor of roleplaying game books from GURPS
Alternate Earths to Mage: the Sorcerers Crusade and the Star Trek: The Next Generation RPG; line developer for Chaosium’s Nephilim RPG; and editor or assistant developer for companies including Chaosium, Steve Jackson Games, and Last Unicorn Games. His column of general weirdness, “Suppressed Transmission,” now appears weekly in Pyramid Magazine. He deserves some credit for writing this entire blurb without once using the word “brilliant.”