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Phobia: Horror in gaming

Don't Mind the Dark

Matt Cowger
June 13, 2001  
Hello, come on inside, don't mind the dark. Storm knocked the power out..

Welcome to Phobia, my column about the horror genre, horror RPGs and adding elements of terror to just about any other RPG out there. To begin with, I'd like to give a bit of a micro-historical overview of the horror RPG. Admittedly this is biased according to my taste and perceptions and the reader's mileage, as always, may vary.

Back in the 1980's horror role-play gaming was a barely acknowledge sub-set of the RPG hobby as a whole. Only a few such games existed; Call of Cthulhu, Chill, Stalking the Night Fantastic (now Bureau 13).a few others, were even available. During those paranoid `Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons' days, playing games that so obviously courted the dark side of human nature was just asking for trouble.

I feel nothing but pity for those poor spiky haired, members only jacket wearing youths that tried to explain exactly what `a cthulhu' was to their parents. It is an interesting note that the decade that brought us `splatter punk' in horror fiction brought the RPG industry serious amounts of self censure and apologetic behavior.

Not knowing the meaning of the word censorship, one game back then really picked up the horror banner and ran with it. Creating quality content and raising the standard not only for horror, but the RPG industry in general, Call of Cthulhu certainly wasn't for everyone. The earliest editions of the game were set only in the 1920's, a time not very familiar to most RPG fans, and featured a setting created by a relatively obscure horror writer (this of course has changed and old H.P. has become much better known).

Nonetheless, the game drew an impassioned group of followers and Chaosium was a vital and quality RPG manufacturer. By the close of the 80's Call of Cthulhu had lain the groundwork for the horror RPG.

As we all know the 1990's was a renaissance for the genre. Horror games of various stripes abounded, even the normally slow to action TSR put out its Ravenloft setting.. The clear leader of the pack (pun only slightly intended) was White Wolf. Not only did they re-invent several old chestnuts (vampires, werewolves and witches.oh my!) but also did the gaming world a tremendous boon by attracting non-gamers of various stripes into the fold.

Additionally, they were innovative in the organization of live action events. While LARPs were going on loooooong before White Wolf started adapting their games to the style, the Wolf did it well and they did it large scale.

Other companies tried different takes on the genre, SJ Games had `In Nomine', Palladium game it a shot with 'Nightbane' and GDW produced the ill fated `Dark Conspiracy' line. Things were hopping and as the collectible card game money flowed in a lot of companies seemed ready to try new things.

But by the end of the 90's, when the CCG market finally hit the ceiling and then shrank, the industry as a whole seemed to beat a retreat. Many good (and thankfully, not-so-good) games and companies died off due to attrition. Even the pace of the bastion of the Outer Gods, Chaosium seemed to be faltering. Things seemed a bit bleak for the horror RPG.

Fortunately, Pagan Publishing had different ideas and out of a mix of governmental paranoia and extra dimensional horror, Delta Green was born. This seemed to tie in with the particular zeitgeist, as shortly there after other games and game supplements with themes of conspiracy and horror appeared all over the place. Pagan got there first though and did so with style and substance. Once again it looked like Mighty Cthulhu had plans for the horror RPG.

The 2000's once again look like an exciting time for the RPG industry. Things like increased ease of self-publication and distribution, the open gaming license and a wealth of new systems and ideas have really seemed to energize the community. Naturally what is good for the group as a whole is good for the sub-sets of the group as well.

It's a good time for the horror RPG, some of the `old school' publishers are trying new things and the innovators are still at it. The Internet is a hotbed of ideas, scenarios, homebrew rule sets and plain old good advice. Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror are all over the various and sundry entertainment media. I suggest you grab your dice, your pen, your cross and your gun because something big might be coming.

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What do you think?

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All Phobia columns

  • Timing, Placement and Horror by Matt Cowger, 02jul02
  • Horror in Fantasy August 28, 2001
  • Don't Mind the Dark June 13, 2001
  • A Definition of Terror July 11, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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