The history of Horror RPG’s and Some Great Horror Pen and Paper Role-Playing Games for you to enjoy on Halloween. Part One

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This post is for all our pen and paper RPG readers out there who have been waiting for a gaming post from me for some time. I know that Halloween is fast approaching and a lot of you gamers are looking for something new and exciting to spruce up your Halloween. So put away the eggs, toilet paper and shaving cream (you know who you are) and grab your bag of lucky dice, and your Cosplay or LARP outfit and get ready to roll up a player character something new and different.

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Now for those of you who are about to read the article and are getting ready to throw a lot of really sharp and pointy D4 dice at me afterwards, “this is a disclaimer”. I am sorry that I didn’t include your favourite game but there are far to many horror games out there to list them all in a single Halloween special. I also want you to know that this is not a best of horror pen and paper games, this is just an alternative list of newer games “and some older” to set the mood for Halloween. These games were chosen due to popularity and research of my own doing. The opinions herein are my own based on some of the research that I have done as well as ease of play set up and what not. Some of these games are really easy to play one-shots, which take no time set up on All Hallows Eve. They are a great way to introduce new players and old players alike to role-playing and to spruce up that Halloween party that seems to be going stagnant. So stop bobbing for apples or chasing camp councillors around in a hockey mask and let me tell you a bit about the history of pen and paper horror roleplaying games.

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I would also recommend you to try any of the horror games in the history section as well. They might take a bit longer to set up, and have a bit more of a learning curve, but these games will more than make up for that in play value. These were the games that set the benchmark for horror games in general, and as you will see changed the course of role play gaming in a lot of ways.

The year was 1981 and The god of Roleplaying Games Gary Gygax was at the head of his newly formed company TSR had just released to the masses the second edit of Basic Dungeons and Dragons which in two years time would turn into the infamous 1e “red box” which a lot of us old Grognards cut our teeth on and still remember fondly and set the course for Dungeons and Dragons to be the greatest roleplaying game of all time. There wasn’t a lot of other players on the market creating games like today, and TSR pretty much owned the market. Pretty much everybody who was creating  role playing games were really creating nothing more than a Dungeons and Dragons clone.The game company Chaosium who created RuneQuest another Dungeons and Dragons variant, wanted to do something different than the average fantasy quest and they were looking for new ideas.

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The original conception of Call of Cthulhu was Dark Worlds, a game commissioned by the publisher Chaosium but never published. Sandy Petersen, now best known for his work on the Doom computer game, contacted them regarding writing a supplement for their popular fantasy game RuneQuest set in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. He took over the writing of Call of Cthulhu, and the game was released in 1981, using a version of the Basic Role-Playing system used in RuneQuest

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The setting of Call of Cthulhu is a darker version of our world, based on H. P. Lovecraft’s observation (from his essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature) that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The original game, first published in 1981, uses mechanics from Basic Role-Playing, and is set in the 1920s, the setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories. Additional settings were developed in the 1890s Cthulhu by Gaslight supplement, a blend of occult and Holmesian mystery and mostly set in England, and modern/1980s conspiracy with Cthulhu Now. More recent additions include 1000 AD (Cthulhu: Dark Ages), 23rd century (Cthulhu Rising) and Ancient Roman times (Cthulhu Invictus). The protagonists may also travel to places that are not of this earth, represented in the Dreamlands (which can be accessed through dreams as well as being physically connected to the earth), to other planets, or into the voids of space.

Call of Cthulhu uses the Basic Role-Playing system used by other Chaosium games (first seen in RuneQuest). For as long as they stay functionally healthy and sane, characters grow and develop. Call of Cthulhu does not use levels, but is completely skill-based, with player characters getting better with their skills by succeeding at them. They do not, however, gain “hit points” and do not become significantly harder to kill.

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The players take the roles of ordinary people drawn into the realm of the mysterious: detectives, criminals, scholars, artists, war veterans, etc. Often, happenings begin innocently enough, until more and more of the workings behind the scenes are revealed. As the characters learn more of the true horrors of the world and the irrelevance of humanity, their sanity (represented by “Sanity Points”, abbreviated SAN) inevitably withers away. The game includes a mechanism for determining how damaged a character’s sanity is at any given point; encountering the horrific beings usually triggers a loss of SAN points. To gain the tools they need to defeat the horrors – mystic knowledge and magic – the characters may end up losing some of their sanity, though other means such as pure firepower or simply outsmarting one’s opponents also exist. Call of Cthulhu has a reputation as a game in which it is quite common for a player character to die in gruesome circumstances or end up in a mental institution. Unlike most other role-playing games, eventual triumph of the players is not assumed.

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For those grounded in the RPG tradition, the very first release of Call of Cthulhu created a brand new framework for table-top gaming. Rather than the traditional format established by Dungeons & Dragons, which often involved the characters wandering through caves or tunnels and fighting different types of monsters, Sandy Petersen introduced the concept of the Onion Skin: Interlocking layers of information and nested clues that lead the Player Characters from seemingly minor investigations into a missing person to discovering mind-numbingly awful, global conspiracies to destroy the world. Unlike its predecessor games, CoC assumed that most investigators would not survive, alive or sane, and that the only safe way to deal with the vast majority of nasty things described in the rule books was to run away. A well-run CoC campaign should engender a sense of foreboding and inevitable doom in its players. The style and setting of the game, in a relatively modern time period, created an emphasis on real-life settings, character research, and thinking one’s way around trouble. If you are interested in trying out Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium has a quick start PDF for free on their site http://www.chaosium.com/the-call-of-cthulhu-quick-start-pdf/

Because of the new game mechanics and different concept that Call of Cthulhu gave its players and GM’s alike, It set a new benchmark in the world of Roleplaying. TSR and Gygax now had some real competition and were losing a major share of the market and they needed to do something fast. Enter Tracy and Laura Hickman and TSR’s answer to Call of Cthuluh with a little campaign module advertised in TSR catalogue as module I-6 Ravenloft.

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The Hickmans began work on Ravenloft in the late 1970s, intent on creating a frightening portrait of a vampire in a setting that combined Gothic horror with the D&D game system. They play-tested the adventure with a group of players each Halloween for five years before it was published. When they began work on Ravenloft, they felt the vampire archetype had become overused, trite, and mundane, and decided to create a frightening version of the creature for the module. When TSR was struggling to win back the market share Tracy and Laura were asked to update the rules and get it ready for release in 1983.

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The story involves a party of player characters (PCs) who travel to the land of Barovia, a small nation surrounded by a deadly magical fog. The master of nearby Castle Ravenloft, Count Strahd von Zarovich, tyrannically rules the country, and a prologue explains that the residents must barricade their doors each night to avoid attacks by Strahd and his minions. The Burgomaster‘s mansion is the focus of these attacks, and, for reasons that are not initially explained, Strahd is after the Burgomaster’s adopted daughter, Ireena Kolyana.

Before play begins, the Dungeon Master (or DM, the player who organizes and directs the game play) randomly draws five cards from a deck of six. Two of these cards determine the locations of two magical weapons useful in defeating Strahd: the Holy Symbol and the Sunsword. The next two cards determine the locations of Strahd and the Tome of Strahd, a book that details Strahd’s long-ago unrequited love. In this work, it is revealed that Strahd had fallen in love with a young girl, who in turn loved his younger brother. Strahd blamed his age for the rejection, and made a pact with evil powers to live forever. He then slew his brother, but the young girl killed herself in response, and Strahd found that he had become a vampire. All six possible locations are inside Castle Ravenloft.

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The fifth and final card selected determines Strahd’s motivation. There are four possible motivations for Strahd. He may want to replace one of the PCs and attempt to turn the character into a vampire and take on that character’s form. He may desire the love of Ireena, whose appearance matches that of his lost love, Tatyana. Using mind control, Strahd will try to force a PC to attack Ireena and gain her love by “saving” her from the situation he created. Strahd may also want to create an evil magic item, or destroy the Sunsword. If, during play, the party’s fortune is told at the gypsy camp in Barovia, the random elements are altered to match the cards drawn by the gypsy.

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As the party journeys through Barovia and the castle, the game play is guided using 12 maps with corresponding sections in the book’s body guide. Example maps and sections include the Lands of Barovia, the Court of the Count, five entries for each level of the Spires of Ravenloft, and the Dungeons and Catacombs. Each location contains treasure and adversaries, including zombies, wolves, ghouls, ghosts, and other creatures. The main objective of the game is to destroy Count Strahd. The DM is instructed to play the vampire intelligently, and to keep him alive as long as possible, making him flee when necessary. In an optional epilogue, Ireena is reunited with her lover. They leave the “mortal world” as Ireena says, “Through these many centuries we have played out the tragedy of our lives.

Ravenloft has won one award, been included on two “best of” lists, and was generally well received by critics of its era. In 1984, it won the Strategists’ Club Award for Outstanding Play Aid, and it appeared second in Dungeon magazine’s list of the top 30 D&D adventures. Several reviewers liked the included maps, and White Dwarf magazine gave it 8 out of 10 overall. A Dragon magazine review praised the module, but felt that the D&D elements detracted from the Gothic horror atmosphere. According to a Wizards of the Coast article, Strahd has become one of the most infamous and well-known villains in the Dungeons & Dragons game, and he has appeared in a number of novels and rulebooks since his debut in Ravenloft. In an introduction to an online edition of Ravenloft II, author John D. Rateliff described Strahd as a then-unusual fusion of a monster with the abilities of a player character class; that is, a vampire magic-user.[9] This design enables him to combine his own powers with the surrounding environment, making him a difficult opponent to defeat.

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Tracy Hickman once ran the adventure as a Dungeon Master. According to him, the experience was like an old scary movie, with “the obligatory castle high on the craggy cliff with the wolves howling in the woods. Sure enough, the vampire was up there in the castle. To most of the players it seemed like a straight forward task: find the vampire and kill him.” One player discovered Strahd’s backstory and was so affected by it that when it came time to kill the vampire at the end of the adventure, despite having a sword capable of dispatching Strahd, he refused, and his companions were forced to complete the task. Afterwards, Hickman asked him why. “He deserved to die better than that,” his friend said, to which Hickman replied “Yes […] But that is how it is with people who fall from greatness. He chose his end when he first chose to kill his brother. How could it be any different?”

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Today Ravenloft is mostly a print on demand and pdf for the classic Dungeons and Dragons 1e as well as a updated version for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5. What is a little sad is that Ravenloft was dropped when Dungeon and Dragons released its 4th edition in 2008. Now with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, there are rumours circulating that Wizards of the Coast is going to be returning to the land of Barovia and the infamous count Sthrad. Best place to pick up the older editions of Ravenloft are at http://www.dndclassics.com/ 

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After the release of Ravenloft the market started to change, more game companies were coming up with new and innovative ideas. Some systems were now touting themselves as Universal game systems catering to more than one genre. One of these systems was GURPS which stands for Generic Universal Roleplaying System.

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Created by Steve Jackson GURPS was first published in 1986 with it’s two basic core books. By 1987 it had several supplements one of them was a horror themed supplement aptly named GURPS Horror. GURPS Horror was written by Scott Haring, and features a cover by Michael Whelan, and was published by Steve Jackson Games in 1987 as a 96-page book. It is a supplement of horror rules, including fright effects, character creation guidelines, monster descriptions, campaign backgrounds and scenarios, psionic powers, and magical items. Ken Rolston reviewed the first edition of GURPS Horror for Dragon magazine #138 (October 1988). Rolston wrote in his conclusion: “The GURPS system works better than Call of Cthulhu’s basic role-playing system for tactical role-playing, and those already playing GURPS games will find the GURPS Horror game’s mechanics useful. For a heroic supernatural campaign similar in tone to most fantasy role-playing campaigns (with the PCs as fearless crusaders against evil occult horrors), this supplement is a suitable system.” GURPS Horror is now in its fourth iteration and shows no sign of stopping. It is constantly among the top three to five lists of all time horror pen and paper games. I personally have owned and own all editions from 2e to 4e and enjoy playing them. 4th edition, I find has a bit of a learning curve. I recommend for new players to download the GURPS Lite (which is free, just clink the link to the left) that gives players a more streamlined rule set. you can pick up the GURPS Horror PDF here at http://www.warehouse23.com/products/gurps-horror-1 

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And that takes us to the end of Part One stay tuned for Part 2 of the History of horror Role-Playing games, where I continue on with the history of horror role-playing games as well as I give you a list of some new and not so new, great Horror roleplaying games to try out during Halloween in my two part  Halloween Special The history of Horror roleplaying games.

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Posted on October 27, 2014, in Articles, Role Playing Games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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