A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Since investigative roleplaying first burst from its sunken atoll and called itself Call of Cthulhu, mystery solving and horror have always been linked in the gamer mind.
As a result, when Simon first asked me to design a system for investigative play, it made sense to debut GUMSHOE in the horror genre, with The Esoterrorists.
Since then many of our other GUMSHOE games have also essayed variations of the horror genre. It’s what we like, what many of you like, and a natural fit.
Each time we’ve returned to this well, we’ve explored a different ethos, or variety, of horror.
The Esoterrorists might be termed topical horror. It posits that the true terrors we face today aren’t hiding in graveyards or haunted houses, but in the headlines and our social media feeds. The game’s occult conspiracy gains power by leveraging the cognitive dissonance and collective dread we experience when something terrible is transmitted to us by the global media. It taps into, and mediates, the feeling that our broader world has spun out of control. In my bid to create an original setting, I devised a type of horror without a huge corpus of preexisting examples. Satirical horror sometimes has a topical horror vibe, so you might point to the works of Larry Cohen or Joe Dante’s “Masters of Horror” episodes as existing in the same territory. The Purge franchise delves deeper into topical horror with each installment.
Fear Itself, in which ordinary people try to survive horror situations, is pitched as personal horror. Players define the worst thing their characters ever did, and the running and shrieking and losing Stability invoke the human flaws those backstory events suggest.
Trail of Cthulhu follows two traditions established by Call of Cthulhu, which it adapts to the GUMSHOE system.
In its purist mode, Trail confronts players with cosmic horror: the psychic and moral devastation accompanying the full realization of humanity’s insignificance in a vast and indifferent universe. Whether you’re beholding the incarnation of an ancient god-beast or discovering that history stretches back through inhuman eons, Lovecraft’s creations all speak to the collapse of humanocentric worldviews in response to 20th century science.
In Trail’s pulp mode you play in an adventure horror universe. Characters may pay lip service to the philosophical implications of cosmic materialism, but in the meantime there’s ghouls and Deep Ones and cultists in need of a good machine-gunning.
Night’s Black Agents fuses two genres, for a heady mix you might call gothic spy thriller. It takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its many 19th century cousins and mixes them with Bourne-movie urgency, not to mention munitions. NBA takes the baseline paranoia of the spy genre and links it to a hidden demimonde of gothic menace and predation. In the spy genre, any of your so-called allies might be a mole; here, that mole might also mesmerize you and drain your blood. You can walk into a honeypot operation and come out not only compromised, but undead.
Cthulhu Confidential likewise finds the commonalities between horror and another genre to arrive at what you might call cosmic noir. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and the hardboiled detective tale evolved at about the same time. The existential alienation of the noir genre thus easily slots into the alien existentialism of the Mythos. Cthulhu Confidential pairs the psychic disintegration of Mythos awakening with the moral disintegration discovered by hardboiled detectives as they uncover the social rot the city’s high and mighty wish to conceal. Terrible truths lie behind the surfaces of history and the local power structure.
The Yellow King Roleplaying Game explores reality horror. Taking its cue from the original cycle of stories by Robert W. Chambers, it locates its fright in the idea that both our minds, and reality itself, can be altered, upended and ultimately destroyed by a work of art. Or a symbol, even. You can try not to see, then discover you’ve read the play all the same.
YKRPG takes this a step further by encouraging you to play similar or connected characters across four distinct realities, not all of them in the same timeline. To give a sense of contrast to the reality-hopping, each of its four settings provides a distinctive genre sub-flavor.
Paris, set in the original 1895 of a couple of the Chambers stories, evokes a variant pulp horror, one where the sources of inspiration are not the magazine pot-boilers of the 30s and 40s but the thriller fiction of the 19th century. This starts the series off on a note of derring-do, as you confront vampires, Frankensteins, magicians and gargoyles, all given a Carcosan spin.
The Wars takes a journey into the rare but redolent weird war horror subgenre. Although it can take on a pulpy flavor, especially with the setting’s bizarre war machines, references to the true horrors of war remain below the surface.
Aftermath, set in an alternate America just after the repressive Castaigne regime has been overthrown by insurgents like your player characters, combines political machinations with reality horror. You might call it topical horror from an imaginary history.
And This is Normal Now, set in what initially looks like our own world and time, plays with a growing and contagious perception. The characters learn that the underpinnings of our lives are swirling away in favor of a new and sinister set of possibilities. Though not far from the feeling of Fear Itself, this sequence encourages the GM to find horror in contemporary trends, from the latest app to the nightclub that’s all over Instagram. And if you bump into some Cronenbergian science horror along the way, well, don’t say you weren’t warned.
That gives you, the GUMSHOE GM looking for a new horror game, a wide variety of sinister spices and styles to choose from.
And us a challenge the next time we get the itch to unleash another horror game.