Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Horror (Blog-or-Treat)

The skeleton looks nice.
A big book. Hubba hubba, this is a surprisingly good book, I'm sure I've said that more than once. I'm sure I've also said Horror isn't my thing, but because we are trying to collaborate on a spooky theme, I decided to review one of the few books I have yet to put up a review for. I've had this book for almost a year now, but here we go~


This is a book of 176 pages, where chapter 1 starts on page 5, and the last chapter before the (cool) bibliography ends on page 161, giving us about 157 pages of stuff, a lot of stuff.
Page one of the table of contents
The book is split up into 5 chapters. Chapter 1, 49 pages long speaks to building the party and characters, and has the grist and spare lumber to make that all work. Chapter 2, 44 pages long, is a thematic breaking down of several of the major themes of horror fiction, the tropes surrounding them, and some typical encounters a GM might find useful. Chapter 3, 23 pages, is about the bigger meta and universal details of preparing a successful horror campaign. Chapter 4 tries to pull the abstract of chapter 3 together with more concrete, but still, broad strokes. The final chapter, 15 pages are two elaborated examples of horror adventures; something to either work with wholesale, or to crib together notes from. Besides that, there's a pretty cool bibliography, the table of contents, the index, credits page, and a one page introduction.
The book does a good balance of providing data in terms of numerous monsters, guidance in building a thematic moody campaign, lore in terms of historical myths and popular culture, and some detailed mechanics in terms of corruption and fear. It metes out all in ample measure.
Spooky second page!
As for the window dressing, the organization overall didn't present me any big problems, and I feel like the book went into exactly the right amount of detail to be interesting without getting boring or caught up on insignificant details. I like the art even though I am to understand a lot of it is recycled from old 3e books, but hey, if it was good then, why wouldn't it be good again? Every chapter starts with a setup anecdote story, but they don't have the continuity that I prefer. Pull-quotes are somewhat sparse. I guess on one hand, that means the page counts aren't inflated, on the other, I still like reading them. Small detail, oh well! The one thing that I am slightly miffed about is the book's insides are entirely black and white. No color illustrations or even the simple small color changes between chapters like some previous books. It was apparently a money saving experiment, and it's not the end of the world really, but I think I would have paid more for a colored version. Besides this one blemish, I think it is a great book overall, but now we let's take a more detailed look at the content, chapter by chapter.

The Rag and Bone Shop

This is the "player facing" chapter, so to speak, the one that talks to building characters, orchestrating a team, and gives lots of ideas for elements for building a character. The first section on Character Design, I'm not sure if I accidentally emulated it's process by osmosis, or if I were just channeling the author Kenneth Hite unknowingly, but it very closely mimics what I recommend for my players in terms of building characters for any campaign, but does give a lot of horror specific writing prompts to help write a character for a horror game. The next part speaks to planning for success by tuning a party sufficiently to the demands of the horror genre, and how players and the GM can work together to enhance the atmosphere. The next section is about all the typical advantages, disadvantages, and other traits, but even though there aren't a lot of brand new introduced traits here, there are a lot of cool enhancements and limitations for existing traits, and for people that like collecting bunches of afflictions and innate attacks, there's a lot here useful in and out of the genre. The listed powers are also pretty interesting though not exactly novel.
The book then goes into several character templates, and while alphabetical order makes as much sense as any other order, I can't help but feel it is a bit disorganized as relatively expensive 160 point templates mingle with 30 point templates. Then again, for horror, it might be appropriate to have characters of all different levels of competency in one group.
After this there is a bit of a guide to the routinely useful abilities and skills in a typical horror game to give players an idea on what abilities might be particularly useful and how. After that, an interesting collection of both mundane and exotic gear that could be useful in a horror campaign, with interesting anecdotes on the almost historically accurate members of the latter. Especially useful even outside the horror genre is a long list of improvised weapons, a staple in horror movies to be sure. The chapter ends with a few pages on exotic classical monster weaknesses like silver bullets and wooden stakes.
Solid chapter and a good start to a good book, with lots of interesting material that's recyclable even outside of the genre.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

This is the chapter I never realized I wanted, an awesome analysis of several horror monster encounters by different types of allegorical fears. Each of the fears (check the table of contents screenshot for a list) comes with a short overview of relevant themes and closely related famous monsters. For example, the fear of taint, the first one described speaks to what taint means, gives a short history of vampires, a few lenses for different facets of the vampire and similar monsters with detailed reasoning for the differences between each type, and then gives a similar treatment to the ghoul. This goes over 14 different major fears (and those are just the big headliners, some of those 14 are broken down further, eg, Fear of Nature contains the subsections The Unnatural Natural, Fear of Sex, and Fear of the Natives.) and has tens of monsters (I hurriedly counted 39, add lenses to that and you probably have at least double that number.) if that is what you are looking for. This entire chapter is basically the exact pace I want when leisure reading GURPS material. A good mix of lore and background with hearty mechanics discussion.

Dark Theatres

This is the campaign preparation chapter that you usually get in the GURPS genre books. This chapter is guidance for a GM and a discussion of setting the parameters for a campaign. If you want a long running campaign or a short adventure, or a high powered game of purpose built investigators versus a party of Jon Everymans. It gives thoughts on different kinds of narrative structure that can be used - is it clawing the way out of some spooky h*ck hole, or being stalked by an insurmountable terror? What are the impacts of these kinds of decisions on planning? The next section focuses on antagonists, whether the party is fighting against one powerful monster or an infestation. Should monsters follow the player growth curve? How do you keep the game scary for high point level characters?
After that section is a talk on Design Parameters focusing on some of the meta aspects of scale, scope, austerity, and boundaries. I especially liked the talk on austerity because it is a funny problem I run into in any setting.
Then we have a discussion on powers, magic, psionics, technology etc. and their place and impact on a game. How different is a horror game where everything is mundane? Where only the horror has magic? What kind of powers are appropriate and how do they tint the atmosphere?
The final section focuses on genres and ways to augment several classic or popular ones with horror elements. It speaks to fantasy, historical drama, and contemporary settings, while of course also mentioning appropriate supplemental material for making a believable campaign with such a genre.
My description of this chapter looking over it again feels like a babbling, meandering mess to me, but I have nothing but positive things to say about this chapter. Like the rest of the book it is entertaining, thought provoking, helpful, and useful. Like I mentioned, I don't even regularly use horror elements, but I found a lot of advice helps to prod me into asking better questions which leads to better planning on all sorts of adventures.

Ominous Feelings, Gathering Shadows

It's hard to summarize this chapter in a short phrase. It starts off with a thoughtful system agnostic overview of the horror genre (history, maturation, sub-genres, etc.) and then slowly drills down into GURPS territory from there. It talks about important elements of horror and how to try to maintain them in a system that can let players do anything, and then it picks through sub-genres explaining what types of tropes make them work and how to apply that to playing a game.
The next section is advice on Running Horror and how to keep up the atmosphere. These include plot devices and meta-elements, or how to twist a current game into the horror genre even temporarily.
After that is a really short section on framing a scenario that explains the typical development of a horror plot in an RPG, and how to exploit that pattern.
The next section speaks to Victims, an important type of NPC for a horror game. It gives a few archetypes, and explains how to use these characters as props to engage your players in the game further.
The next section is about building up antagonist NPCs. How to build a monster or psycho, and explain how they are motivated and operate.
After that, we hit a big mechanical chunk of text focusing on adjudicating concepts like fright checks and corruption, a new mechanic in this book. This is a small augmentation of the already existing serviceable fright check mechanic in the Basic Set, but it includes some helpful advice on how to manage fright checks without it turning into a suspension breaking routine of "you see a monster, let's see what the table tells me happens to you." Along with that are a bunch of modifiers to use against the fright check.
As an aside, it's easy to believe that if these modifiers are written down somewhere, it is gospel truth that needs to be memorized. I like to think of them as helpful barometers that I can try to absorb by osmosis so I can kinda guess, "If a slightly ugly monster gets a -1 and an absolutely horrifyingly ugly monster gets -5, then this one that is pretty ugly is maybe a -3," and of course that inner monologue happens at the speed of thought. Of course I will forget a few/a lot of these modifiers, or just think they don't sound right for my game, so don't worry if they don't work for you or if you can't remember entire pages of minutiae and plusses or minuses. It is there as a barometer, not the gospel.
With that brief editorial out of the way, the section has a lot of useful asides for turning some mechanics, which are fine for simulating the typical battle of trained combatants, into something more fitting for Jane Everywoman dealing with mind breakingly preposterous things, like stun allowing gibbering moaning or uselessly dropping a gun in fright to give a more cinematic mood to frightful encounters. This is followed up with a slightly modified version of the fright system for madness, as well as several suggestions for tuning it depending on the appropriateness in a specific campaign. I find the aside on p.145 an especially amusing read, but I think scary corrupt mental institutions are one of my favorite horror fixtures as well.
After this, we are introduced to a corruption system and mechanic, which reminds me a lot of the tally based magic system from Thaumatology but a few important differences. I think it looks like a bit of an improvement over said system, and might be my go-to if I were ever to run a dark fantasy game.

Tales to Terrify

This chapter contains two different example campaigns with enough detail to demonstrate planning and kickstart an adventure, but then requiring the GM to develop the story from there. The first, Seas of Dread is a Swashbuckling/Voodoo crossover in TL4 full of supernatural nautical monsters and magic. The other is a situation akin to War of the Worlds called Blood in the Craters with aliens invading a turn of the 20th century Great Britain. Besides having some interesting seeds for original adventures, there is a lot of interesting recyclable content in the way of large bestiaries and equipment lists. The biggest important thing though is the thoughtful explanation of decisions made demonstrating the exercising of the planning guidelines throughout the book. I think this is one of the best implementations of an example campaign chapter I have seen in any GURPS book.

Other Thoughts and Closing

This is a really good- this is an awesome book. Horror is a good genre for cross-pollination, even if you don't run straight Horror. Most games in GURPS are probably in the adventure and/or action genres, so how can some amped up paranoia, supernatural terror, or disturbing monstrosities not enhance the experience? I don't ever run straight forward Horror, for example, but I like to set a creepy, uncomfortable mood sometimes to help give players the right motivation to role play, and in that regard, speaking even as a non-fan of the genre, this book is h*cka useful, and probably for fans, indispensable. 

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