What makes a good horror RPG?

FearJeremy Kostiew asked on Google+:

What makes a good horror RPG? Rather, what has made a good horror RPG?

Was it atmosphere? Something about the mechanics? Hammer Horror soundtrack? Creepy GM? Haunted playspace? […]

I posted my answer there but it go so long, I realized I should turn it into a blog post! This also gives me a chance to provide links.

I’m not a fan of horror in general because it rarely reaches me. In movies in particular, it usually pairs violence and gore with repetition and cliche. For me, well-done horror is something like Identity (2003) or even some of the better X Files episodes: a lot of atmosphere, and threats that are not just about brutality and death.

Atmosphere: I’ve been in a few successful horror role-playing games, and many unsuccessful ones. The best I played was a campaign based on Clint Krause’s Roanoke game (Clint Krause Games 2006, out of print). My husband Edmund was the game-master and ran it at our local game club; we had a large ensemble cast that could change from week to week based on attendance, and a group of players known for their banter and kibitzing (including me), so horror was a challenge. Edmund payed a lot of attention to atmosphere. He talked to us beforehand about the genre, and asked us to play only if we were willing to get in the spirit, not goof around; the mood of the game was described as Brotherhood of the Wolf meets Lost. He had a soundtrack, sound effects, props, low lighting, etc. I posted detailed actual play reports on RPG.net, where you can get a better sense of how the game felt.

Tension, Transparency, and Temptation: It’s useful to have some sort of mechanic to keep track of and ratchet up the suspense. Examples include the Humanity/Taint/Corruption tracks in a number of horror games, which generally apply to individual characters; or the countdown clocks in Apocalypse World (lumpley games 2010). It’s most effective if the players see their fate coming incrementally closer, and if they have an incentive to court danger.  Roanoke uses the Doom pool, which allows players to gain a maximum success on a die roll at the cost of adding one Doom point to the pool that will determine the endgame phase of the campaign: Heroic Escape, Tragic Escape, Heroic Death, or Terrible Death.

Threats: Successful threats may vary from person to person. If you’re not familiar with the “passions” as used in Unknown Armies (Atlas Games, any edition), you should go take a look, I think they provide a good model. Basically, every character’s personality in UA is defined by three passions: a rage passion (what will unfailingly get under their skin); a noble passion (even a monster may love animals); and a fear passion, which is codified into five categories (violence, helplessness, isolation, the Unnatural, and the Self.) Reading about the types of fears can help a GM think of more varied threats, and identify ones more likely to get a response from the characters and players at the table. In Roanoke, each player has to pick a fear as one of their character’s traits, so they’re directly telling the GM how to draw them in.

Misinformation: A lot of the mood and tension rely on the characters’ imperfect understanding of what is going on. In our Roanoke game, the GM used the Bag o’ Rumours: he wrote little snippets of rumours and had us draw them in secret at the beginning of a game session, as something only that player’s character would know. Some were true, some were false, but most were a little bit of each. They worked very well to sow doubt, provide foreshadowing, and serve as bargaining chips (“I know a secret!”)

Clickable relationship map, Roanoke
Clickable relationship map, Roanoke

Tangled Relationships: A lot of the player buy-in, the spread of uncertainty, and the ratcheting up of suspense comes from or is greatly enhanced by a web of relationships — positive and negative — between the cast of characters. Even if the game is planned as a one-off, I recommend taking the time to establish some allies and antagonists among player characters as well as with primary NPCs.

Boundaries: Because horror gaming relies so much on (A) playing with our darkest fears and (B) shared mood, it’s prudent to have some way of controlling content so that the players will have fun even as the characters are being put through the wringer. In Roanoke we used what we called a Veto card (that was before we had heard the expression “X Card“). Each player got a card they could flash when they felt someone was bringing in elements inappropriate to the setting or the group. It didn’t matter whether it was for mood, story, or personal reasons, it was non-negotiable (although it was okay to ask questions to clarify the scope of the veto.)

My Day at CelestiCon

On Labour Day weekend at CelestiCon, Edmund and I had a great time playing in two of our friend Alan’s hacks, both Powered by the Apocalypse: Just Sentinels (an adaptation of another hack by James Mullen, Just Heroes, to the setting of Greater Than Games’ Sentinels of the Multiverse cooperative card game); and Mass Effect (a hack emulating BioWare’s critically acclaimed video game series.)

You need to check those out, they’re great. I love the way Alan tweaked the Apocalypse World engine to fit two different settings; it feels like he’s put a lot of thought in the various moves. It  was my second time playing Just Sentinels and both times we produced fiction that went spectacularly well with the original Sentinels of the Multiverse game and comics. The first time we had Legacy, Absolute Zero and Tachyon as player characters (I played Tachyon); this time it was just Edmund and I playing The Wraith and Nightmist respectively.

It was our first time playing Mass Effect but the third instalment since Alan runs it every year at CelestiCon (we attended a different convention on previous years.) We got to meet with three returning players, Nic, Renee and Xander, and they were fantastic.  Everyone was so good at riffing off other players’ ideas!  I had an absolutely wonderful time.



Post-Apocalypse Gaming

As a follow-up to my review of Mad Max: Fury Road, let me point to previous posts about a few role-playing games that are excellent matches for the genre, Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games), octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks), Motobushido (Alliterated Games), and my hack of Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions):

Apocalyse World (Lumpley Games) octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks) Motobushido (Alliterated  Games) Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions)

As a bonus, check out the various games based on Car Wars (Steve Jackson Games), and Dream Pod 9’s Tribe 8.
Car Wars (Steve Jackson Games) Tribe 8 (Dream Pod 9)

Playtest Report: Monster of the Week

Monster of the Week coverI’ve talked a few times about the role-playing game Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010), especially here and here. This month, I get to playtest Generic Games’ hack of the AW system, Monster of the Week, in its most recent version. It’s a short turnaround playtest effort organized by Generic Games’ partner in the U.S., Evil Hat Productions; my understanding is that this new edition will be a chance to release a high-quality print version in the U.S. at reasonable cost, rather than have the choice between good printing but expensive shipping costs from New Zealand, or more affordable but lower quality print-on-demand copies from Lulu.It’s also a chance for author Michael Sands to fine-tune his game.

Like the popular AW hack Monsterhearts, Monster of the Week is meant to emulate urban horror series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Supernatural, The X Files, The Dresden Files, or Twenty Palaces. However, where Monsterhearts focuses on the teen angst aspects, MotW places the emphasis on action drama. This is much more to my taste, I like Scooby-Doo stuff for grown-ups.

The game provides a re-write and re-skin of the AW moves, completely different playbooks, a richer History phase that solidly ties the player characters (“Hunters”), and a new stat called Luck that provides resilience but also moves Hunters gradually towards the ultimate fate. Experience is changed from the first edition; while it originally followed the AW model with experience gained for using stats highlighted by other players each episode, it’s now earned for every failed roll instead like in Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions, 2012), an approach I like much better. Instead of your character growing for acting out other people’s choices, you now have an incentive to accept failure, which is very true to genre and easier to track.

Another change is that the GM (“Keeper”) uses “mysteries” instead of fronts to create the opposition. They’re mysteries in the most basic sense that they start with something unknown with an agenda, not in the sense of necessitating involved investigative skills like an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Each mystery includes at least one monster, one or more minions, some bystanders, and some locations. A starter mystery is provided, and Generic Games & Evil Hat Productions requested it be playtested, along with the Keeper advice for how to set up a first session. The mystery is called “Dream Away the Time” and is set in the cute New England town of Handfast. This review will contain spoilers, so I’ll place the rest after the cut.

[SPOILERS BELOW.] Continue reading “Playtest Report: Monster of the Week”

Apocalypse World and Fate: Flavours

Following my earlier post comparing Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games) and Fate (Evil Hat Productions): expanded observations on how the two games feel at the game table, both as player and as gamemaster.

Cover: Apocalyse WorldThe Apocalypse Tastes Funny

The biggest difference between the two is that Apocalypse World comes with a default setting. I suspect that it would be very difficult to grasp the game’s value if it had started as a pure system, because you need to experience it to see how the parts come together. So yeah, it was a good choice to release it attached to a setting.

But I don’t like the flavour of this setting.  That’s a strange thing to say, I know, because most of it gets created in play, and also because I absolutely love some very similar settings in other games, most obviously Jared Sorensen’s octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks).  But the seeds of setting contained in AW, in the character playbooks and in what the rules reward, produce a world that is unpleasant to me and more importantly, characters I don’t want to play.

It’s a subtle effect, and I can’t very well describe it except as “the wrong flavour,” like some people love Coke but hate Pepsi, love regular coffee but hate chicory coffee.  The flavour is obviously pleasing to some people, and equally obviously unpleasant to me.

I believe this dislike is largely due to the feeling that the characters are invited, mechanically-speaking, to exploit, manipulate, dominate, and generally use others (PCs or NPCs).  That’s not what I like to play.  And yes, you can play someone who doesn’t do that, but there is no built-in reward for it — on the contrary; that means you will pass up on opportunities not only for success in play, and not only for advancement, but also for getting involved in the action.

  • For example, characters gain experience for seducing or manipulating others (pp. 87, 179, 186, 197).
  • Several moves involve using others or bending them to your will: pack alpha, seduce or manipulate, most sex moves, most brainer moves, etc.

I guess my disconnect starts with the play agendas (pp. 96 and 108). I appreciate that the agendas are clearly expressed; the players’ agenda is listed as:

  • Play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves—cool, competent, dangerous people, but real.

The gamemaster’s agendas are:

  • Make Apocalypse World seem real.
  • Make the player characters’ lives not boring.
  • Play to find out what happens.

But those are not my objectives.  They don’t work for me, or at least they don’t suffice. I take “real” here to mean vivid and believable, which is nice, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of my gaming either as player or as gamemaster.  “Not boring” is also uninspiring; we all have “not boring” hectic or frustrating days that still don’t provide any drama or entertainment, so I hold my gaming to a higher standard. And finding out what happens only matters if something in the game captured my heart.

Finally, a pet peeve: each session one player and the GM each highlight one stat on your character sheet, and these are the ones for which you’ll mark advancement or experience this session, each time you use these stats. Thus, each player’s path to reward for a given character is shaped entirely by two other people’s choices every episode. I prefer to choose for myself in which direction I want my character to evolve.

In Play

So my play experience with AW, even with sterling GMs and players, was not bad, but it didn’t tell me why people were in love with this game. From the player’s side, the mechanics work fine and have the advantage of offering a known mechanical result for every move and die roll, greatly limiting the GM’s power to be arbitrary; but I didn’t care because I’m used to high-trust games and great GMs.

To make things more of an uphill battle for me, the two most popular published hacks of the system are Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions) and Monsterhearts (Buried Without Ceremony)—and I like neither dungeon-crawling nor teenage angst stories, despite my interest for the innovations that both bring to the system.

Cartoon version of the TardisIt’s only when I played in Jeremy Tidwell’s own Companions hack that I finally started appreciating the AW system. Jeremy did a lovely job of using the AW tools to match the flavour of the better Doctor Who moments. In his hack, you play the former Companions of the Doctor after his death.  The TARDIS has started acting on its own, and mysteriously fulfilling his agenda, forcing the companions back into their old lives as its agents.

Companions replaced the exploitive and manipulating elements of the original setting and their mechanical implementation with beautiful, simple little rules bits that instead promote self-sacrifice, suspense, and sometimes giving up a confrontation when the stakes are wrong (“Run!”) It provided excellent Whovian flavour to every game.

I had a great time playing Companions and the action did start getting greater than the sum of the parts; I eventually decided I needed to try running it myself to get a different perspective.  And indeed I started to understand the attraction of the AW system: it’s a book for GMs.  It’s essentially a system of recipes to make the GM’s life easier in prepping for and running games, a codified book of GMing advice, most of which I agree with (with the exceptions above).

The big AW challenges for me as GM were linked to proper use of the moves:

  • Getting used to thinking in terms of moves felt constricting, although I think with practice they just become building blocks. If you constantly lack the right moves for a setting, maybe you need to re-examine the list, see if any have been misunderstood, poorly expressed, or need tailoring.
  • Fairness and disclosure are necessary of course, but also mean giving all the necessary information at the right time for players to pick their moves. In other words, sometimes you need to sacrifice part of a “big reveal” or suspense moment in order to paint a very clear picture for the players before they can act.
  • Moves funnel the action, so it’s possible to get into a sort of domino effect where because move A was used then the next most logical choice will be B, then C… A skilled GM could probably use this like a quasi-rail for a plot, an unskilled one could paint herself in a corner. If no moves readily presents itself, you’re essentially in a video game cut scene, waiting for the game to load to the next decision point. The GM needs to immediately present something that will generate move options.

A down-to-earth problem: Getting around in the AW book, finding the info you need when you’re on the spot, can be a bother. It’s perfectly well organized as reading material or while you’re prepping, but it’s not as smooth when you’re looking for a specific reference in the middle of the game because each element is discussed in several different places in the book.

Chewing Bits of Fate

The Cunning Cat CaperMy original experience with Fate, like a lot of gamers’, was with Spirit of the Century, which in turn was based on an earlier version of the system.  The structure reminded me of Theatrix (Backstage Press), a game I had dearly loved, though the resolution mechanics were of course different. I liked Spirit of the Century well enough, but my experience was not more “pulpy” than it had been with Adventure! (White Wolf), Hollow Earth Expedition (Exile Game Studio), or Feng Shui (Atlas Games).  I tried playing, I tried running, and it still was just “nice.”

I felt that there were too many character aspects to use them all, let alone want to try creating temporary aspects in play. I kept feeling I never had the right skill or it never was high enough. I described the game at the time as “The most complicated simple system I’d ever played.” A few years later came The Dresden Files RPG, and we played that too because both my husband and I kept thinking we were missing something with these two games, we weren’t “doing it right.”

And we weren’t.

Everything changed with Fate Accelerated! I’ve described in a previous post what the changes were in Fate Core and Fate Accelerated, so I don’t want to repeat it here; suffice it to say that my concern regarding the number of aspects and the clarity of why you’d want to create temporary aspects in play were completely addressed.  The new system’s choice of four clearly explained actions types with a gradation of success, and FAE’s approaches instead of a list of skills, made all the difference.

As soon as we tried to play it, the light bulb came on. The very first time I used the action “create an advantage”, everything became clear. And newcomers to role-playing picked this up effortlessly! Those who are still struggling with Fate, especially Fate Core, are almost always long-time gamers like me. We have gamer cobwebs in our brains, we keep thinking in terms of having the right skill for the specific test, but that’s not how Fate works. Fate is powered by what we imagine and provides the scaffolding and tools to build it.

Then I went back to play Fate Core with its longer list of skills and finer dials, and now it really works! I was doing it wrong all along. Armed with the experience I gained with Fate Accelerated, I now feel comfortable with the level of detail in Core and it no longer bogs me down.

In the particular game where I realized this, we had only two players, a smart and really nice young woman and myself; we picked from a collection of pre-generated characters (it was at a convention) and we deliberately picked two characters that in many ways were alike—thus making sure that certain skills were not, in fact, covered by the party. Instead of worrying about whether we had a certain skill, we used or created circumstances to our advantage, we made use of our strengths and worked around our weaknesses. It was a flawless game. It was the kind of evening when you think, “The authors of this game wrote it just for this.”


  • Very often, one needs a little practice with a new system before its qualities really shine; this is why I no longer write game reviews based only on reading the system, but only “actual play” reviews.
  • Sometimes the system only comes into its own once you’ve tried it from the GM’s perspective; a lot of its virtues may be hidden to the players.
  • You also need a setting, characters, and plot you’re interested in, plus half-way decent GM and players, if you’re going to appreciate a game.
  • It’s possible to play a game for years without really “getting” it.
  • However, while some gamers who feel they do “get” it are quick to yell “You’re doing it wrong!”, sometimes there are barriers to play right there in the book.
  • Sometimes these barriers can be removed by trial and error, by playing with different people, by a rules revision, etc.
  • And by the way, sometimes, a game is just not going to be for you no matter how much other people like it.  That’s OK, it means neither that it’s a bad game nor that your a bad player, just that it’s not a good fit. Maybe some day someone will make a hack that changes everything, but until then, you have your choice of other great games.

Gamemaster Toolkits: Apocalypse World and Fate

This will be a little contrast-and-compare exercise to look at two recent roleplaying games that have been very popular in the story game community (also known as hippie games, indie games, etc.) The games are Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010) and Fate Core System/Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions, 2013). I will note the very few places where the two builds of Fate differ as far as this analysis goes.

The two feel very different in action, whether you are player or gamemaster. But I’d like to start by telling you what they share.


Even physically, the books have similarities: they are both small format books of 300 pages each which present self-contained games; everything you need to play is in the books, you need not plan on buying any supplements.

Both have strong roots in the gaming community, the two publishers having had the good fortune, taste, or sense to involve in development and playtest of their games an impressive number of people who are super-connectors in the story/indie/hippie game community.  Looking at the list, there were so many people I’ve played with and many more I regularly exchange with online.  That alone goes a long way to explain the interest the games have received.

Both provide best play experience with groups of 2 to 5 players and a GM in multi-episode story arcs, although both can also be used for one-shot games.

Both put story forward, with the objective to provide the players and their characters with exciting adventures; both get this process started with cooperative world and character creation, characters that are created by “filling in the blanks”, and encouraging GMs to say “yes” to the players’ and build on them. Players are also encouraged to build on their own actions and on one another’s, through the use of “take +X forward” in Apocalypse World and through the “Create an Advantage” action in Fate.

Both roleplaying games put a lot of work into make the GM’s life easier. If you do your homework, learn how the systems work and use the players as a source of ideas, you can keep your game preparation time astonishingly short after the first episode. In addition, both systems are “hackable” and gamers are encouraged to share their own “hacks” for different settings. Both provide a wealth of useful advice for the gamemaster.

Both are fractal in the mathematical sense, with complexity arising from simple, open systems with scalable rules. In practical terms, it means you can change the scale of play, of adversaries, of the world, etc. by treating them in the same manner at every level, for example, using Aspects, stress boxes, and skills or approaches in Fate, and using countdown clocks, stats, and moves in Apocalypse World. It also means the resolution mechanics for all types of challenges and conflicts, be they physical, social, mental, etc., are essentially the same.

There are other roleplaying systems that use a fractal approach; for example, one could make a case for the Mouse Guard RPG, but AW and FC are the only two I can think of right now that have intentionally built this as a universal GM tool and hackable feature.


OK, let’s contrast these two a bit.

Apocalypse World


Fate Core System

Goal: Tell stories that seem real, make the characters’ lives not boring, find out what happens. Goal: Tell stories about people who are proactive, competent and dramatic.
Characters are customized: by picking from a menu of options. Characters are customized: by giving them unique and descriptive Aspects.
Resolution mechanic: Roll two six-sided dice and add one of five stats with a typical value of -1 to +3. Result below 7 is a miss, 7-9 is a weak hit, 10+ is a strong hit. Produces a normal curve with shifted average with constant variance. Resolution mechanic: Roll four fate dice with possible values of -1, 0 and +1, and add an applicable Skill (Approach for FAE) with a typical value of +0 to +4. Results includes fail, tie, succeed, and succeed with style. Produces a normal curve with shifted average and constant but narrower variance than AW.
Action adjudication: Each character gets a choice of “moves” with specific mechanical benefits for success, picked by the player if the move is a hit. Action adjudication: Rules contain ample examples of skill adjudication based on success level.
Players can improve a roll by: Helping one another at the cost of an action and the risk of suffering failure together; adding a forward modifier (usually +1 or +2) earned in a previous action. Players can improve a roll by: Helping one another at the cost of an action and the risk of suffering failure together; spending a fate point to call on an applicable Aspect; adding a free use of a temporary Aspect earned in a previous action.
It’s fun for players because: of the Chinese menu approach; you know exactly what you should get when you make a move; the system is quick and simple to learn; the system provides tactical options. It’s fun for players because: The use of temporary Aspects gives your imagination unrestricted possibilities; the system is quick and simple to learn; the system almost disappears from view in play; the system provides tactical options.
It’s disappointing for players when: you don’t “get” or don’t like the flavour of the setting; you can’t fold what you want to do into one of the moves available to you; the template or move you picked doesn’t do what you thought it would; you feel limited by the menu options. It’s disappointing for players when: you get hypnotized by whether you have a certain skill or not rather than focusing on creating advantages; you’re having an off night and don’t feel creative enough to take advantage of Aspects.
It’s fun for GMs because: It limits game preparation to an opening situation for the players and lets you build on their reactions; it makes it easy to create new critters, characters, gear, moves, and episodes; you never have to roll dice. It’s fun for GMs because: it makes game preparation easy; it allows you to stat or convert anything on the fly; it allows you to treat the adventure or plot as a character, making you feel more like you’re on the same level as the players; it makes it easy to handle surprises from players.
It’s disappointing for GMs when: you have trouble chaining the moves together to make the action flow; you have trouble finding information in the book during play; you want to hack the system for a new setting but have a lot of work to do in order to convert the moves and create templates. It’s disappointing for GMs when: you’re not comfortable improvising using Aspects; your players come from a more “traditional” RPG mind set and don’t “get” the use of Aspects.

Tomorrow Three weeks later I add some comments about my experience in play, how the two games “feel” to me. In the mean time, I welcome your observations on the two games!

Apocalypse World: Exodus

Over on his blog, Edmund posted the game summary from last night Apocalypse Word game.  He came up with this fantastic premise: a slower-than-light colony ship sent from Earth generations ago, where something went wrong.  He also posted some lingo, and short bios of the player characters.

I wanted to add the characters’ pictures:

Raven Raksha
Raven Raksha the Battlebabe
(played by Sophie)

Jackson (played by Alan)
Jackson the Hardholder
(played by Alan)

Jay the Angel (played by Christine)
Jay the Angel
(played by Christine)