Thursday, March 13, 2014

March Madness Non-D&D Blog Challenge: Day Thirteen

What horror RPG have you enjoyed most? Why?

Back in college, my buddy Alex painted a mural of this cover on our game room wall. Even though he never finished the whole thing, it's a pity we didn't think to take a picture before it got painted over...
For some reason, 1991 was the year that I bought a bunch of gaming books based on licensed or intellectual properties I had no prior experience of. I bought the Robotech RPG before I'd ever seen a single episode. After I bought GURPS Riverworld (and devoured the contents) it took me another 15 years to finally read the eponymous novels. Apart from the pop-cultural gestalt imagery, I was completely unfamiliar with either of the (then) two Aliens movies, but I got the Aliens Adventure Game nonetheless. And I'd never even heard of H. P. Lovecraft, but you can bet I was all over an RPG based on the fictional universe he and a passel of admirers had created. (I was 13 at the time; just qualified for that "Ages 12 and Up" endorsement on the cover! Oh Chaosium, you so subversive...)

Actually, the Lovecraft connection was even more tenuous in my mind than one might otherwise think. I looked at Call of Cthulhu primarily as a "must-have" on its own merits. Thanks to Dragon magazine and the Wargames West catalog, I had received the common knowledge that this was the premier horror RPG on the market. I'd owned GURPS Horror for about a year at that point, I think, and very much wanted to run some horror games, and this seemed like the best way to go about it.

So here we are twenty-plus years later. Out of all those games (or indeed, pretty much any other game I was digging at the time), Call of Cthulhu remains. It's actually only in the last three years or so that I've had the opportunity to run CoC for anything more than the occasional one-shot or short-form game. (Efforts were made during high school and college to run classic mega-adventures like Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express, but they didn't pan out.) And I've found that, contrary to what most people seem to think and indeed contrary to my own earlier suspicions, in my opinion CoC works even better in an extended campaign format.

(My own standards of what constitutes an "extended" campaign are somewhere in the dozen-or-more sessions neighborhood, but I know folks who have run CoC campaigns that lasted years.)

I think this is because, if you're running one-shots with CoC, you're going to be going all out, both as player and Keeper (the game's term for GM). That is to say, you're going to be going for the punchy, gory scare, the "oh shit!" moments, and sort of playing a mini-game of which person can die or go insane in the most memorable fashion. Which is tons of fun, don't get me wrong. Whereas with a campaign, the players are going to start building emotional connections to their characters, and the Keeper can take time to build a sense of creeping dread more effectively. And as I've run more of these sorts of games, I've found that the moments that pay off do so to a much greater degree.

But here's the reason why CoC is such a great game, and why it's held such a lasting place in my heart: it works brilliantly either as one-shot or campaign game. Lots of games, D&D in particular, really only start to shine after extended play. Hell, one of my other all-time favorite games, King Arthur Pendragon, practically requires extended campaigning to really get to the heart of the game. Other games, meanwhile, do best as one-shots or in very short campaigns, either by design (as is the case with many indie games), or because game play gets too repetitive or mechanically cumbersome over time. But with Call of Cthulhu, the play experiences may be different, but they're equally satisfying and memorable.

There's a lot to be said for CoC's old school mechanical brilliance, but I don't want to ramble on too much longer than I already have. I'll just say that, for me, another element of CoC that's kept me coming back is one it has in keeping with all horror genres, and is the reason that it's my favorite genre: horror gaming is probably the toughest genre of gaming to get "right" and requires investment and focus from everyone at the table. It usually doesn't work, frankly. But when it does? Those moments stay with you the rest of your life. You get back dividends many hundredfold over what you put in.

For folks wondering about how to run horror games, I'd heartily suggest GURPS Horror (the current 4th edition, in particular) or the Keeper's advice section in Call of Cthulhu d20 (yes, you read that right). Read some fantastic advice from two of the all-time greatest horror gaming authors (Ken Hite and John Tynes, respectively). Then get some friends together, dim the lights, and scare the crap out of each other.
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