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Tabula Rasa

Die Role

Horror in Roleplaying Games

by Damian Lund

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#5, 1995

...If this be madness, there is method in't.
In the last few years horror role-playing has come into its own, led by early games such as Call of Cthulhu and D&D's Ravenloft, paralleled by the Bladerunner/ Neuromancer-inspired CyberPunk and Shadowrun. But it's full bloom of popularity came in the 90's with Vampire and Werewolf. This article is meant to describe those games I know about that use concepts from the horror genre, and try to pick what aspects attract players to these games.

(For those of you who don't know what role-playing is: put this article down, go check a university or game shop notice board, find a group playing one of the games mentioned in the above paragraph. Play. Then come back. Go on! Go!)

I have played the original Dungeons & Dragons in a couple of it's incarnations. The whole class and experience system got up my nose as it tied characters to rigid roles and actions. The original left little room for role-playing, beyond lots of motives for killing monsters and other sentients for gold and glory. But I believe in any game the system is secondary. A good Games Master and player group can role-play despite the system, and if crawling through dark caves filled with evil, filthy creatures is not an invitation to horror I don't know what is...

D&D: Ravenloft

Indeed, an invitation to horror role-playing. Vampires do live in castles and prey on nearby peasant towns -- and that is just the beginning of the classic horror.

Call of Cthulhu

was arguably the first horror role-playing game, in which the Things of which Lovecraft wrote are real, and you are one of those poor unfortunates common to the horror genre who have more curiosity than prudence. Perhaps you will achieve something against the Things from Beyond before the inevitable. Confronting the unnatural, you are destined to die and/or go insane.

Vampire: The Masquerade

You are dead, and quite possibly insane. You probably didn't ask to be a vampire, but you do what you must to survive, because if you don't your undead body will berserk and do it for you without control or regard for consequences. And the consolation that you are not alone in your plight is a mixed blessing indeed: do you serve the rigid elder vampires to save your own neck, or do you rebel at their cruel misuse of mortals and fledgling vampires? Or do you join the Sabbat, vampires who see mortals as food to be taken or played with at their whim?

Vampire is arguably the source of the recent resurgence in horror role playing. Mark Rein•Hagen, the creator, admits that it is loosely based on Anne Rice's novels. Although these were written in the 70's and early 80's, they too have become popular in the 90's. Other influences are various versions of Dracula, the movie Near Dark, and The Hunger, both the book and movie.

The above three games all have built into them a system where the character you play may slowly lose her identity. In Ravenloft you slowly change from human to monster, the type based on what evil deeds you may do. In Call of Cthulhu you slowly go insane as you confront more creatures or magic writings. In Vampire, if you don't try to be nice, or if your blood lust forces you into evil actions, you slowly lose your humanity and become a mad beast. Perhaps that is what makes them popular: somehow they embody a sense of loss. Is this sense of loss caused by a maturing population brought up on the promises of a perfect world through Science, only to see that promise broken and forgotten? Werewolf and Mage seem to illustrate this idea better, where Vampire might more readily be seen as reflecting broken and lost expectations of personal relationships.

Mage

In Mage you have begun to understand the basic patterns that are the basis of so-called Reality -- more, you can even exert some control. You have Awakened. As a Mage you probably belong to a group of mages who understand reality in a similar way, and you work towards Enlightening the whole world. Once your kind would have baulked at sharing your sacred secrets, but that was before Technomancers spread a soul-destroying magic called Science to all and sundry with the false promise of Power to the People. Instead of controlling Science, people are controlled by it and the dispensers of it. Your task is give sight to the soul-blinded, Awaken the Sleepers. The Technocracy have other ideas... and seem to be winning.

Werewolf

is a game I own but have not played. Werewolves were once so arrogant in prehistory that they controlled human populations by preying on them. This led to humans evolving a fear reaction which prevents them believing in a werewolf's true form. This makes it impossible to convince people of the inimical influence of the Wyrm, the essence of Pollution.

There are other dark games either inspired by the same sources or designed to catch the tide of darkness rolling through the gaming community and fantasy in general. I have only read other reviews of these and cannot truly give an informed opinion on how good they are:

Dark Conspiracy

Aliens from other dimensions with organic technology are surreptitiously warring over an increasingly depressing near-future world. I think this is an attempt to cater for the Shadowrun/CyberPunk crowd. Not too successful, as the designers don't seem to have a feel for what makes horror enjoyable.

Kult

Truly disturbing world underpinned by an urban gothic City which permeates and links all cities. Many shocking beings live on this under-level and influence the world "above". Now this is the uncut stuff of which nightmares are made. Perhaps too intense for some. I find it intriguing in the manner of a koala road kill.

Over the Edge

An island where all the urban myths come true. And you can never leave. There are also conspiracies everywhere. This has interesting possibilities but the fact you can never leave the island has turned me off.

But why are these games popular? Isn't role playing escapist, doing things and going places only possible in your imagination? Why escape from grim reality only to venture into a gothic World of Darkness?

Aside from the usual explanations that are trotted out whenever the pleasure of horror is questioned, I'd propose another answer. As the hobby of role playing has grown, so has the average age of its players and designers. With that growth has come experience of the real world, and the understanding that life has its darker moments, and so do people. So to maintain the suspension of disbelief that all forms of fiction require, role playing has had to infuse itself with the darker elements of life. It has stylised and organised these things to suit the medium.

What players seek in the darker role playing games is what readers seek in more mature fiction: room for tragedy and challenges to settled ways of thought, rather than superficial action/adventure yarns. Horror and strangeness widen the emotional spectrum and give role playing more depth than it has had until now.

So if you did not take my advice at the top of the page, I suggest you do so soon. By all means be selective of the people you play with, as the maturity of the game is going to be based on the maturity of the Games Master and players. If you can't find a group you feel comfortable with, take the plunge: buy a game and invite your own friends. But you may be pleasantly surprised by what you have thought was a kid's game. Many games now have fictional worlds as good as many novels, and are a pleasure just to read.

And we all know horror is supposed to be just for teenagers and weirdos. Just like role playing.

 

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