A Whirlwind Tour of Horror Roleplaying

From investigative mythos madness to hilarious cartoon parodies, there’s a whole lot of tabletop RPGs out there for the horror fan!

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October is prime time to put that dungeon-delving 5th edition campaign on hold and temporarily put away that shiny new copy of Starfinder to dust off all the horror RPG manuals!

While there are plenty of the usual suspects everyone knows about — like Call Of Cthluhu or Vampire: The Masquerade — horror gaming has a lot more to offer than just those staple entries.

Those settings and adventures that are well known tend to get rehashed, again and again, to the point where they lose any purpose. I mean, how many times has Expedition To Castle Ravenloft been printed in new editions and formats at this point? How many editions of Call Of Cthulhu have re-tread that introductory Haunted House adventure?

Instead of giving you the same thing yet again, I’m going to take you on a tour of some more offbeat horror offerings ranging from toddlers facing the monster under the bed to geriatric cosmic horror and beyond!

Trail Of Cthulhu

trailAlthough very much in the same vein as Call Of Cthulhu, the Trail system goes in a different direction, simplifying the rules and focusing solidly on the investigative aspects.

The biggest change is that investigative skills never fail. The players always find the clue, the question is just how much info they really get from finding the clue.

The tone and descriptions change quite a bit here as well, with many varied (and in my opinion, much better) explanations as to what any given mythos entity might really be.

In 2014 I put together my own four episode, police task force campaign inspired by the first season of True Detective using this ruleset’s offbeat interpretation of Yig (complete with opening video / music sequence like a TV show). It was easily the best game our group ever played.

There aren’t a ton of print scenarios you’ll find in stores for Trail, but what its lacking in quantity is made up in quality with the nearly 400 page mega adventure Eternal Lies. If you don’t mind PDFs, there are a ton of digital scenarios for this system available through the publisher and at sites like DriveThruRPG or Paizo.

GURPS Horror

gurps_horrorThere have been a handful of different iterations of this particular tome throughout the years in different editions of GURPS, but I’m a fan of the 1990 release.

It’s kind of amazing to look back at this one and see what they list under recommended reading and viewing for books and horror movies, as its quite different from what you’ll see in similar sections of newer RPG manuals.

Despite the artwork being sort of silly throughout, there are some solid tips in here for running a horror campaign, and it features a really comprehensive overview of all things horror related.

From multiple iterations of the werewolf myth, to mad science, to non-horror hoax fakeouts, to 1920’s home brew hooch gone terribly wrong, and even onto cosmic Lovecraftian horror, really no stone is left unturned here. If you want a great idea spring board for a scary campaign, you can’t go wrong with GURPS Horror.

Little Fears / WOD Innocents

littlefearFor all the horror games available out there, not many are willing to tread into territory focused on bad things happening directly to children, or of having players take on the role of vulnerable kids.

Although there have since been a few attempts at this same idea by various publishers, Little Fears is probably the original and most influential role playing game to have players take on the role of kids in a world where nightmare creatures are real.

Its a very, very different experience than your typical sword and sorcery game, or even a modern horror storytelling campaign.

Around the time that the World Of Darkness was being rebooted from its ’90s angsty goth roots and updated in the ’04 – ’09 era with games like Promethean or Vampire: The Requiem, there was another take on this same idea with World Of Darkness: Innocents. If you dig the White Wolf style, you should check that one out, as it doesn’t tend to go for such astronomical used prices as the original Little Fears.

Slasher

slasherThis innovative World Of Darkness entry is really quite different in that it has YOU playing the slasher villains!

A scorned nurse angel of death, a calculating intelligent killer like Hannibal Lector, an unstoppable killing force bent on revenge, any slasher you can imagine can be built with these rules and put together into a coterie of malignant evil.

The cover and title are a little misleading though, because the description and front artwork give the impression this is a standalone World Of Darkness title like Vampire or Changeling. Its actually a (much larger than normal) source book for Hunter, and requires that base book to use.

Shadow of the Demon Lord

shadIf you’ve done Warhammer to death or want something a little newer that is superbly dark and horror-focused without leaving fantasy behind, Shadow Of The Demon Lord should be on your must-have list.

This one is very much inspired by the fantasy post-apocalypse world of Grim Dawn, and it offers a killer combo of Warhammer, D&D, and Call Of Cthulhu.

Corruption and insanity are built directly into the rules, rather than being tacked on extras in a supplement, as its assumed your characters will have to do something awful or immoral at some point in order to survive.

I remember some years back picking up the Dragon Age tabletop RPG box set that billed itself as “dark fantasy roleplaying,” but being disappointed that it really didn’t fit the bill as advertised. Shadow Of The Demon Lord meanwhile brings the darkness, and in spades! I covered this one in a lot more detail earlier this summer right here.

Dark Heresy / Black Crusade

blackcrusadeThere’s a whole lot of horror in the Warhammer universe, with that franchise often given as the baseline example of what is meant by the term “grimdark.”

Although they no longer have the license, for several years Fantasy Flight put out a stellar line of Warhammer 40,000 games and accessories, and they didn’t skimp on the horror, either mundane or supernatural.

While in Dark Heresy you can play as agents of the Inquisition rooting out heretics and battling the forces of Chaos, the unexpected Black Crusade line of games had you playing as the bad guys.

There’s a ton of storytelling potential there for disgusting Chaos cultists who worship the lord of plague Nurgle, or time-warped Chaos Space Marines who want vengeance on the Emperor, to just regular old downtrodden citizens of the Imperium who are tired of being stepped on and are willing to make a deal with the devil to improve their lives.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer

buffyMy wife and her extended family are all big fans of the show (they hate the movie, obviously) but honestly I’m not too big on it, as I didn’t grow up with it and never got attached. Just to round all the bases of fandoms hating me, I should probably point out here that I don’t like Dr. Who either. Come at me, bro.

So what’s this game doing here? Simply put, the rules are fucking inspired. This has got to be, hands down, the absolute best RPG system for any modern day game I’ve ever come across.

It’s essentially the World Of Darkness d10 system, except that there are no dice pools. Absolutely every action is handled with one single d10 roll, and the target number is always the same, so you always know immediately whether you failed or succeeded, and to what degree you succeeded.

If you have a group of newbies, or a group that isn’t interested in a rules-heavy game, you should be using this system. When we play Call Of Cthulhu, we ditch that game’s clunky d100 system and use this rule set instead. Seriously, this is some elegant game design, even if you don’t care about the series its attached to. Who would have guessed you needed to head to Sunnydale to find the best RPG system?

Ten Candles

There’s no question Ten Candles is one of the most interesting examples of style-meets-substance on the RPG front in years. The title is literal — you play by the light of ten tea light candles, and when then last one burns out, the game is over.

Even more deadly than a typical Call Of Cthulhu campaign, it is assumed there will be no survivors at all by the game’s end. The developers describe it as “a game about being pushed to the brink of madness and despair, searching for hope in a hopeless world, and trying to do something meaningful with your final few hours left.”

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Pathfinder APs

path1I’ve been following Pathfinder for a lot of years now, even before the end of Paizo’s run with the Dragon and Dungeon magazines.

I have very fond (and amused) memories of asking a game store owner if he had gotten the next issue of Rise Of The Runelords and being met with a blank stare and a “are you sure that’s a real game?” Now no game store in their right mind would even think of not carrying all things Paizo.

Along the way the game (and its fanbase) has changed quite a bit, and I’ll be honest here — it’s no longer my go-to system.

There was a time though, when Paizo was delivering surprise after surprise and constantly kept the fans always wanting to know what was coming next. Carrion Crown had to be one of the most unexpected adventure paths to arrive, covering a different horror trope in each volume, from a House On Haunted Hill scenario in the first adventure,  to Frankenstein’s Monster (in full D&D golem glory) in the second, werewolves in the third, and so on.

path2Even more unexpected was the Cthulhu mythos scenario from fourth adventure Wake Of The Watcher, providing stats and backgrounds for various cosmic horror monsters. I read that issue over and over to get Paizo’s unique take on the darkness between the stars and all those things man was not meant to know.

That adventure would go on to inspire its own full Lovecraftian adventure path called Strange Aeons years later, which kicks off with the classic scenario of the investigators not knowing who they are or why they are in an asylum.

Although the Strange Aeons path is really more combat-focused than this sort of game should be, if you want a King In Yellow campaign for D&D rather than Call Of Cthulhu, do yourself a favor and pick up these adventures.

Horror Rules

horrorrulesI grabbed this one on a whim while perusing cheap used RPG books on Amazon and I’m glad I did.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this is a fun little system for some one-shot horror games with a good dosage of comedy, utilizing some interesting and unique ideas. The art isn’t great, but it more than makes up for that with heart and some wink-wink, nudge-nudge action at the reader.

I think what most sticks with me is that the publisher is called Crucifiction Games. I still can’t figure out if that’s supposed to be a dig at Christianity (as in the crucifixion was fiction), or if this game is by a Christian company that didn’t realize the combination of words looks really bad for them. Either way, I sort of love it.

Tooniversal Tour Guide

tooniversalHold up now, what the heck is TOON doing here? Horror isn’t always candles in the dark or people going mad when they realize their existence is utterly pointless.

Sometimes, its hilarious comedy instead (you really wanna tell me Tucker And Dale Versus Evil or Dead And Breakfast aren’t horror movies?).

If you haven’t played the overlooked TOON, its literally Saturday morning cartoons — Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Marvin the Martian, the whole bit — translated into a tabletop RPG, and it’s awesome.

The Tooniversal Tour Guide was a supplement meant to expand the game’s range out into unexpected places, letting you play different kinds of cartoon stories involving ’50s monsters, Mad Max style car battles, or supernatural themed toons like the Real Ghostbusters.

If you look carefully on the cover, in the left corner you may see a purple tentacled thing hailing from the Crawl of Catchoolu segment, which has your cartoon investigators facing off against the Elderly Ones. Yeah, you read that correctly. It’s a good time, and something to try out if you need a humorous roleplaying night that isn’t Paranoia

Many More!

kuroI’ve got a pretty extensive collection of RPGs (the word “vast” might not be uncalled for), from seriously old school unknown gems from the ’80s to the latest 2017 releases, but there are a few horror entries I haven’t had the pleasure of picking up yet.

Of those I haven’t played, there are probably three I’ve most had my eye on and want to pick up next.

chillFirst up is the hard-to-find Japanese horror game Kuro from Cubicle 7. This indie developer has put together some amazing tabletop RPGs like The One Ring (easily the best Lord Of The Rings roleplaying game ever) and World War Cthulhu, so I’m confident that one will be worth the buy eventually.

Going back further to the golden era of tabletop gaming, I sadly missed out both on Chill, and on the constantly praised Unknown Armies.

Anybody had any experience with those systems? Let me know what you thought and if it’s worthwhile to lay down the cash to pick ’em up used these days!

unknown

Fantastic Albums With Ridiculously Bad Covers, Part 1

How did music this awesome get artwork this awful?

For those who don’t know, I recently made a massive change in my life, parting ways with my primary freelance job of 10 years at Metalunderground. I honestly thought I’d be the content manager over there until the day I die, but life got in the way of that plan.

Obviously my love for all things metal hasn’t diminished just because I’ve switched jobs however, so I’m been spending some time falling back in love with my genre of choice as a fan, rather than as someone who has to listen as part of the daily grind for a paycheck.

If you’ve been into metal for any appreciable length of time, you’ve likely noticed that its a genre marked by distinctive and striking cover artwork, both good and bad.

ccProbably the first thing that comes to mind would have to be the infamous covers of Cannibal Corpse albums — but if you erroneously think those are extreme, then you clearly haven’t bothered looking past the surface into the insane realm of underground goregrind or pornogrind bands. Seriously, I’ve seen some things in my years as a metal news journalist that would make your eyes explode and your soul fade away.

Thankfully, its not all gore and gaping anal cavities, as there’s plenty of significantly more elevated and esoteric covers, and on the whole heavy metal has some insanely talented artists.

Spawn-of-Possession_2-480x480Pär Olofsson, Travis Smith, Seth Siro Anton, Claudio Bergamin… these artists and many more have left their mark on the metal world with absolutely killer art.

Over the last few years I had the honor of rounding up the best artwork for each year and covering it in December at Metalunderground during our yearly best-of articles.

Looking back through all my favorite albums over the decades, I noticed something curious however… sometimes amazing albums have some truly abysmal artwork!

Therion – Theli

My older brother got me into Therion with the Vovin album a long, long, long time ago (somewhere in the neighborhood of ’97 as a middle schooler not too long after Final Fantasy VII came out).

While I haven’t been crazy about every album released from this legendary Swedish symphonic metal unit in the more modern era, there is a lot to explore in the band’s discography, from the early death metal of ’93 album Symphony Masses to the (no I’m not kidding) 2012 French pop covers album Les Fleurs du Mal.

Therion has always covered a lot of ground musically and lyrically. I first learned about the religious rites and rituals of the Yezidis from a Therion track decades before the extremist terrorist group ISIS would try to exterminate that group of people.

teliOne of those wide ranging albums is Theli, a summer ’96 release through Nuclear Blast, which was a very different label then than it is today.

In comparison to Vovin and the band’s more recent releases, Theli is a little rough around the edges, but this is still a gem of the symphonic sub-genre.

What’s even less polished, however, is the truly godawful cover artwork. It looks like one of those Windows 95 maze screen savers.

Someone put together a really awful flat “3D” style Anubis head in a program like Spatch or Bryce and then threw it on… what is that even? Is it a body, or just a random collection of vaguely flesh toned pixels? Also, what the hell is going on with the highlighting behind the text? This is occult symphonic metal, not The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. Good fuck.

The image above can’t really do justice to how awful the cover looks, which is even worse in real life (remember when people bought albums for the whole package, including looking through the art/lyrics insert?).

On the music side though, To Mega Therion is a fucking classic song, and the fact that its never graced a fantasy or sci-fi movie score is sort of absurd. If there was a gun to my  head and I had to choose though, I’d probably say though that my personal favorite song here would either be Nightside of Eden or Invocation Of Naamah.

Freedom Call – Master Of Light

OK, so this is a totally different sub-genre and musical focus than the previous album, massively shifting gears from ’90s symphonic metal to modern epic power metal.

While Therion is pretty high minded and occult-focused, Freedom Call is way more on-the-nose… and way more fun. Picture Alestorm or Steel Panther, but they aren’t kidding, and are just saying what they mean.

freedomecallThe first song on the Master Of Light album is literally called Metal Is For Everyone, and these guys aren’t being ironic assholes about it — they are literally saying that metal is for everyone, so fuck off with that elitist shit already (except Freedom Call is too happy and positive to ever tell anyone to fuck off with that elitist shit already).

I almost feel bad about including this cover here, since it seems a good bet someone from the band did the drawing, and probably put a lot of effort into it. I mean, I’ve got no artistic skill when it comes to drawing / painting at all, but still, this looks awful. It’s like some bad fan art of an ’80s cartoon, and even for that its pretty bad, with all the proportions and musculature way, way off. Also… why am I looking at that dude’s nipples at all?

But we haven’t got to the best part yet… which are the band promo pics from this album cycle. I introduce you to Manowar meets Styper, but in “bubbly positive metal” edition! Should I be head banging? Should I be aroused and questioning my sexuality? Should I be preparing to invade Mordor?

I dunno, just listen to the album and have fun. For those wondering, no that isn’t Photoshop — that dude’s beard is pink. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why.

freeband

Subterranean Masquerade – Vagabond

I was absolutely blown away by 2015 full-length The Great Bazaar from international crew Subterranean Masquerade, which was probably the best prog metal release of that entire year. From Middle Eastern-themed prog to full-force death metal, that album had it all, and it wrapped everything together into a cohesive package.

subtNeedless to say, I couldn’t wait for this year’s follow-up album Vagabond, which is even more experimental and multi-cultural in its presentation of diverging musical styles. From sax to ’80s synth, there’s a little of everything here.

The only thing I wasn’t stoked about? The weird art, as seen to your left.

Yeah, I get that this was almost certainly done on purpose to make a point connecting to the music, but you can’t ignore the fact that this is still essentially a little kid’s pen drawing in a notebook. I mean… what the hell?

Even if we see it as some sort of message about unity and having a sense of child-like wonder, I still never would have looked at the cover in a CD store and thought to myself “hot damn, I’ve got to pick up this album right away!”

That may be all for now, but these were just three out of many, many albums that are worth hearing while having oddly bad artwork. What’s the worst art you’ve seen on an album that otherwise kicks all kinds of ass?

Coming of age… and killing demonic clowns

Finally saw IT! Sadly, it will be my last theater movie for a long time…

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The smash success of fall blockbuster It was the last movie I’m going to get to see at the theater for quite some time (so please, please don’t spoil Star Wars for me before it comes to VOD). After a year and a half of sitting at movies with us without complaint, our little angel Gannicus decided to finally trade in his halo and become a monster.

He adorably tried to sing along to Beauty And The Beast, stared in slack-jawed wonder while shrieking “woah!” at Rogue One, and even quietly watched all the action in Logan, but sadly with It we got a dose of terrible toddler syndrome, and the age of getting to sit peacefully in the auditorium to catch a flick are over.

This change in behavior with the onset of age was a surprisingly on-point metaphor for the movie itself, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

So what did I like about it? Pretty much everything, and even some things I didn’t think would work. Normally I’m not a fan of comic relief in movies, but It is surprisingly hilarious with the quips the kids from the Loser’s Club would throw out at each other. These interactions frequently felt like what a group of kids out of earshot of any adults would say or do.

My favorite movie line now is probably “You punched me in the face, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me to a crackhouse, and now I’ve got to kill this fucking clown.”

What didn’t I like? Really only two things: the decidedly un-scary Pennywise (Skarsgard was just a high pitched, whiny dancing clown… not a menacing evil from beyond time and space), and his teethCGI teeth.

When he was standing still in the sewer the teeth had a killer look, but as soon as they chomped down, the illusion was shattered. CGI gets used heavily in the ending sequence as well, and it just didn’t need to be.

I just can’t stress this enough… if you are making a horror movie, then the only words that should even be in your lexicon should be “practical effects.” If you’re thinking of using a computer to whip up something scary, you’ve already failed.

Here’s the thing though, and this wasn’t apparent right of the bat… It isn’t actually a horror movie. It belongs solidly in the same category as Goonies, Super 8, or Stranger Things, and not in the same category as Baskin or The Void.

No one was more surprised by this fact than me, but trust me, the movie is still completely worth seeing, and actually works better for focusing on the coming-of-age kid adventure aspects than on the killer clown aspects.

It’s been a lot of years since I saw the Tim Curry TV mini-series or read the book, so I can’t recall if its actually more prevalent here or if I’ve just noticed it more now, but this version of the story seems to be making the point that Pennywise was just a metaphor. I don’t actually think there was meant to be a literal monster at all.

it_2017_2_758_426_81_s_c1“It” was the kid’s transitioning into adulthood while learning to overcome their “demons,” whether it was a rapey dad, an overbearing mom, a brother gone missing who will never be found, the prejudice of a town that doesn’t tolerate your skin color or your parent’s education decisions, and so on.

This really comes into focus in the ending fight scene. Unknowable evil entities from the angles between realities (“Todash Space” in King’s mythos) aren’t defeated by failing to be afraid of them. That’s nonsense. They wouldn’t care in the slightest about how children feel about them, and they wouldn’t utterly fail to kill a small group of children after wiping out large portions of the town in every previous cycle of waking.

It seems more likely that the kids just concocted this idea about bad things happening due to one particular evil entity at specific intervals to handle the sad reality of life. It was their way of coping with the realization that missing children will be forgotten about – literally postered over in one scene of the movie – after enough time passes and another child goes missing.

stephen-kings-it-sink-scene-2017-987362Another dead giveaway is the blood soaked bathroom scene (which was harrowing, by the way), arriving after they took the time to show Beverly secretly buying tampons earlier in the film. This one really struck a chord with me because we’d recently seen some really unpleasant (and not particularly well done) bloody period “horror” in the abysmal Excision.

Rather than a killer clown trying to scare a little girl, this scene was clearly about Beverly going through puberty and experiencing menstruation for the first time. Her pedo dad, who only saw her for what she could offer him, didn’t see the blood at all, but her close friends immediately recognized the problem.

I’m wondering how much of that was left over from first director Cary Fukunaga’s original vision for the film, which reportedly diverged from the source material and focused on the plight of the kids as they grew up more than on the clown.

Either way, whether you choose to see the movie as a straightforward telling of a monster that wakes up every 27 years or a metaphor for something else, It was a surprisingly strong flick, especially for a King adaptation. Can’t wait to see what’s done with the second one coming in 2019, and hopefully by then little Gannicus will be able to sit still at the movies again!

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Rendered mute by the terror of… a baby?

People are dumb.

So this is a rarity, but this post has nothing to do with writing, heavy metal, video games, or horror movies. You might get a kick out if it though if you enjoy any of those things…

I had the most bizarre experience walking with my 1 year old son Gannicus Picard down to the gas station. We’re in line and I’m holding him on one arm and my reusable bag full of drinks in the other, when I notice he’s started spitting up some rather foul smelling something or other. It’s some gross white gunk that’s unpleasant, but not exactly The Exorcist level crazy, either. Not all that unusual for a baby, though, right?

I look at the lady at the register and ask “Hey, you got any napkins or paper towels or something?” and she stares at me, slack jawed, apparently unable to speak. She’s looking at me as though I’ve sprouted a second head. I ask again, and she remains open mouthed and utterly silent.

There’s a woman behind me who looks very mom-ish with a huge purse, so I turn and say “You got any wipes or something I can use?” and she’s staring at me, again utterly silent, as though I’ve not only sprouted a second head, but both of them are prophesying in tongues about the end times.

At this point I’m getting pretty pissed off, because both of these people can clearly see and hear me, but they are both just refusing to respond in any way, so I leave my spot in line and storm off to the counter to find some napkins… but there aren’t any.

There is a kid wiping down the counter with a rag though, who is somehow also fucking staring slack jawed and silent at me, as though I’ve sprouted two heads, one of them is prophesying in tongues, and the other one is shouting the contents of his browser history to his parents. Seriously, this kid looks TERRIFIED. I literally grab the rag out of his hand with a disgusted snort, wipe Gannicus and I off, and then hand it back to him. He says NOTHING during this encounter.

I go back up to the woman at the register, who finally finds her voice to ask about Gannicus as she rings me up… and the total for my soda and three beers somehow ends up $6.66, which makes her eyes go wide as saucers and renders her silent again, as I’m certain she now believes either my son or I are the Antichrist. All I can do is roll my eyes and toss a wad of bills at her before walking out.

Somehow a baby spitting up managed to render three separate human beings deaf, mute, and utterly terrified. I don’t think any of my horror stories have even managed that feat yet!

UPDATE: Someone made this comment on Facebook:

I feel like you’re leaving the part out where you were wearing a promo shirt from some black metal band from Norway that had an upside down burning cross on it or something.
So I just thought I’d address that, since yeah, me wearing a metal or video game band shirt would be within the realm of possibilities. In this case, it was a Great America Eclipse shirt.

 

The subject matter itself of course is harmless (unless you ascribe nefarious events to solar eclipses, which I suppose people who are afraid of the number 666 probably do…) although the shirt had a giant black image of the sun being blotted out that kind of looked like the logo to the Ring horror movies, so maybe that added to the Antichrist vibe for the horrified checker 🙂
A solar eclipse is seen from the beach of Ternate island

Shadow Of The Demon Lord

Grimdark Roleplaying!

shadow1

This one’s been on my wishlist since I saw the Kickstarter back in 2015, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to get in on the crowd funding campaign at the time. Luckily for me, my fabulous brother in law knew about my secret demonic grimdark roleplaying lust and grabbed this one for me as a gift.

The idea here is to take traditional fantasy roleplaying and ramp up the deadliness and darkness, while changing the rules as well so its not just another Open Game License supplement.

That goal was accomplished to varying degrees, succeeding in being unique in some ways but definitely falling short in others.

Mechanics And Influences

 

shadowThe spell system is fabulous, with 28 different traditions covering all your various spellcasting types. Each of those traditions has to be learned separately to provide more differentiation between characters, with traditions ranging from Battle to Protection to Rune to Life to Teleportation, and everything in between.

There is a very noticeable downside here though — I really wish they had gone all out to be a bit more original on the magic front, rather than just transferring over the D&D standards by slightly different names. For instance, there’s a spell that is obviously magic missile, a spell that’s obviously mage armor, a spell that’s obviously shield, and so on, just with new names rather than new mechanics.

I get why the main developer might have wanted to do that though, since he worked on 5th edition D&D directly and Shadow Of The Demon Lord was his ability to make that style of gaming darker (Wizards Of The Coast isn’t exactly known for adult or R rated material), but I’d still have preferred to see something different.

There are plenty of unique fantasy settings that don’t do all the basic D&D tropes, and it feels like this should have been one of them. Earthdawn, Changeling, Exalted, Warhammer, The One Ring, and many others have all broken well away from those basic concepts and gone in totally different directions in terms of spell design and basic game mechanics.

shadow2Those spells — and much of the rest of the game design and world building — don’t disappoint on the grimdark front, however.

The Forbidden spell tradition in particular is just brutal and leaves the Book Of Vile Darkness in the dust. If you thought Seething Eyebane was a nasty spell, you haven’t seen anything yet. Just take a look at the spell effect to your left.

Yep, that one guy is vomiting his guts while decaying away into nothing, and that other guy is exploding all his insides out through his anus. There’s literally a spell called “Hateful Defecation.”

On that note, madness and corruption are built right into the rule set, adding a Call Of Cthulhu flavor to the typical D&D style. At some point your character will have to do something exceedingly immoral to survive, or he’ll see something mind-shattering, and it will have an affect on the character.

The class system offers unprecedented modularity for a D&D style fantasy game, with three tiers of classes available over time that let you retool your character focus. First you start with a classic novice path, which is incredibly broad (Magician, Rogue, Warrior, Priest) then you move onto one of 16 more specialized expert paths (Druid, Scout, Warlock, Artificer, Ranger, etc.) and then finally onto one of a whopping 64 hyper specialized master paths (Beastmaster, Chronomancer, Gunslinger, Exorcist, Duelist, Weapon Master, Pyromancer, and many, many more).

Beyond the number of class options, SotDL shines in the various options for each path, like the wildly divergent reasons for why a character could take the Oracle class (“you angered a supernatural power and caused it to haunt you” vs. “you are a mortal vessel for benevolent gods” vs. “the entity that possess you is a spirit that escaped the Underworld or Hell and takes control of your body when you use your abilities”).

shadow2Unlike prestige classes, there aren’t any pre-requisites for any of the three class tiers, beyond the player and DM figuring out how to make the class mashup fit within the context of the story. If you want to start as a thief, then become a paladin, and finish as a water mage, there’s nothing stopping you.

Granted, you won’t have as many (or as powerful) hydromancy spells as someone who was an arcane caster the whole way through the class progression, but you’ll still have some cool water spells so long as you can come up with a compelling story reason for why a character would have made those drastic changes.

The base ruleset is both simple (which I prefer) but also has the possibility to become unwieldy with too many modifiers. Most rolls involve a single d20 with a series of d6s either adding to the base roll (a boon) or subtracting from the base roll (a bane).

Wrapping it all together is very clear influence from classic games like Warhammer and Rolemaster with “Interesting Things” tables and “Professions” tables to randomly roll and add more flavor to your character.

World And Themes

First and foremost, the depictions of the various demons throughout the book are absolute works of art (with one very notable exception below) that could grace the walls of any roleplayer’s home.

 

shadow3The game presents different ways for employing the “Shadow” itself, echoing the various apocalyptic scenarios from the  Elder Evils supplement from 3.5 D&D.

There’s everything from a fading sun to a Warhammer style world overrun by chaotic beastmen to an undead uprising to dreams of a dead god driving the world mad.

The base assumption of the Shadow’s influence is “Fall Of Civilization,” which is the core game story, giving you a campaign along the lines of PC ARPG Grim Dawn. Essentially the Empire has fallen overnight after a coup by the orcs and now everything has descended into chaos. Traveling the roads is a pretty surefire way to get gobbled up by something unpleasant or robbed and murdered by those who are taking advantage of the lack of order.

While I love that style of setting, the annoying part of this modularity is that the game developers pretty much immediately discard that base idea and entirely forget about it. None of the descriptions of the various areas and cities reflect that sort of world that is crumbling as civilization has fallen. They all oddly read as though things are still business as usual, which is a shame.

The flavor of the game comes to life more in the race choices, which are varied and changed up quite a bit from D&D. A series of random tables for each races gives your character some life, and the goblins in particular have some crazy options (“you were orphaned and raised by giant rats,” “a hag made you her love slave,” or “you save all your secretions in small bottles and give them as gifts to people you like.”)

shadow4

Remember how I mentioned a notable exception on the artistry of the demons? There are a few places in the text where the grimdark attitude sort of goes off the rails into over-the-top silliness.

Yes, what’s happening in that image to your right is what you think is happening. If you haven’t figured it out yet, just take a good long, hard look and think about this guy swinging around his sword in frenzied bloodlust during battle. It’ll come to you.

I still can’t decide if that’s superbly grim or just silly and gross.

(Un)intended Grimness

That issue aside, there is a core concept to this world that’s exceedingly dark. This honestly may not even have not been intentional and perhaps is just my grimdark brain reading between the lines and seeing the worst in everything… but there seems to be an unspoken truth in the game’s cosmology that maybe the worshipers of the Demon Lord aren’t wrong, or perhaps aren’t even the bad guys at all.

Everyone in this particular universe goes to either Hell or the Underworld after they die and then are purified via torture (in Hell) or live a life of ascetic boredom while slowly giving up all their attachments to the physical world (in the Underworld), and then they return to life in a new body.

shadow3Those who are morally “good” stay in those places shorter times, while those who are exceptionally selfish or morally “bad” stay longer. But since life on Urth is getting worse and worse by the year as everything descends into chaos, neither the good nor the bad camp really have it any better than the other.

Think about it — you can be good and live a life of selflessness in a terrible world (which probably means poverty, sickness, hunger, and death) and get less torture in the afterlife, or you can improve your lot in life by being a backstabbing tyrant who is comfortable while alive and then spends longer getting tortured in the afterlife, but the end result is essentially the same amount of suffering.

The cultists of the Demon Lord maybe don’t have it wrong, and it could actually be better to bring about absolute oblivion rather than keep that awful cycle of suffering going forever.

shadow5

2017 Books You Should Be Checking Out

From horror to romance and sci-fi!

Now that Light Dawning fervor is dying down and work is underway on new material (stay tuned for info coming soon), let’s take a look at books from other authors you should be reading this year!

Grimdark Fantasy

darklandsM.L. Spencer’s Rhenwars series is getting a ton of praise lately, and the third and final book Darklands just came out earlier this summer.

Going a bit different direction is the highly-praised Kings Of The Wyld by Nicolas Eames, which interjects rock ‘n roll into the dark fantasy genre as a band of old mercenaries come back together for one last job.

If you like your fantasy to feature an orc invasion, don’t miss out on The Eighth God by Paul S. Lavender either!

 

Grimdark Sci-Fi

lucGrimdark is definitely focused on the fantasy lately, but don’t forget that it very much has roots in sci-fi, with the grand daddy of the genre of course being Warhammer 40,000.

Offering up a futuristic rendition of the dark fantasy style is C.T. Phipps and his space opera Lucifer’s Star.

 

 

 

Sci-Fi Romance

1861379684Now hold on a sec… romance you say? Yeah, it’s not my normal thing, but Wendie Nordgren’s Space Merchants series is actually some pretty legit action sci-fi that happens to have a lot of heavy breathing, beefcake princes, and will-they won’t-they going on.

Teagan starts from humble beginnings on earth but goes on to rule a galaxy-spanning empire. The Space Merchants series is now in its fifth iteration with the recently-released Spider Queen. The whole series just got some killer new covers as well.

 

How About Some Horror?

metalmagicBrian Barr has been pumping out some bizarre and wonderfully weird horror shorts this year, including the Three H trilogy (The Head, The House, and The Hell) along with some music themed stories, which of course always piques my interest.

This prolific author’s heavy metal / horror extravaganza Metal Magic is out now, with a punk themed follow-up also in the works and due out soon.

 

 

Speculative Fiction… With Dinosaur Races!

5120Vk0ivnLWe’ll cap this off with a fun anthology feature Stant Litore, a Facebook friend of mine since I read his biblical zombie epic Strangers In The Land a few years back.

The Jurassic Chronicles features 13 different authors all giving their take on everybody’s favorite extinct creatures brought to life!

A Call Of Cthulhu scenario in movie form

“The Void” delivers a big budget experience on a shoestring IndieGogo budget

topSome years back, Guillermo Del Toro – the man behind visually stunning movies like “Pan’s Labyrinth” – revealed he was gearing up to create a big budget adaptation of Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains Of Madness.”

It seemed like it was time for “Dagon” to lose its placed as the best Lovecraft film adaptation. Fans were split on the casting however, with many upset about Hollywood heartthrob Tom Cruise taking the role of doomed researcher Danforth.

Personally, I think the casting was spot on because A) Cruise is already insane so it wouldn’t be acting and B) his beliefs as a high level Scientologist about humanity’s origins actually aren’t significantly different from what Danforth discovers about how the species started in “At The Mountains Of Madness.”

Sadly it wasn’t meant to be, because some moron studio executive decided putting money into a hard-R horror flick wasn’t going to net a return (although now that hard-R super hero flicks are a thing, maybe that decision will change). For now, the indie film makers will have to tackle the more disturbing elements of horror, and perhaps that’s how it should be.

That leads us to “The Void,” which is now taking the place of the best, most effects-laden Lovecraftian movie of the age, even thought it doesn’t draw from a specific Lovecraft tale and instead is simply suffused with Cthulhu Mythos elements.

A crowd funding success story, “The Void” is brought to us by a small team of film makers with a passion for practical effects over computer generated ones, and it really shows. They manage to do a whole lot with so little in mostly one location.

sideI’d been following the movie’s progress for years now, since before even the crowd funding campaign, so as we got closer to VOD release a certain unease started to grow as I wondered if perhaps I’d overhyped this for myself. Were we about to witness a gigantic flop that just had a good trailer?

Thankfully no, this is the real deal, and of particular note is the level of acting for such a small budget flick. For the most part, the leads are on par with or even exceeding what you get with indie classics like “Grave Encounters,” “Willow Creek,” “Creep,” “Absentia,” etc.

There are a ton of Mythos references throughout the movie (the main character’s name is Carter for instance), including some that are going to delight tabletop RPG fans who dig the Call Of Cthulu roleplaying game. During the movies opening moments there’s a curious lack of sound quality as some odd events occur. The sound evens out shortly after, but then later as the main characters are all gathered in a hospital fleeing cultists, suddenly the sound becomes grainy, static-laden, and distorted yet again.

At first I thought this was just a side effect of the movie’s low-budget nature, but then it dawned on me: we were literally hearing when the investigators are losing sanity. When a stabilizing force comes in, like when an officer takes control of the situation or a horrible thing from beyond is defeated, sound returns to normal as sanity is regained. My interest in the movie immediately shot up even more as I realized we were watching a Call Of Cthulhu scenario in film form.

side2From there you’ll notice a lot of CoC scenario staples, like stumbling upon Polaroids of terrible things and a cache of eldritch tomes filled with unspeakable knowledge when the investigators figure out the identity of the real antagonist. The crew behind the movie clearly has a love for all things horror though, as it’s not just cosmic horror of the Lovecraftian variety on hand.

The last third of the film takes a hard left turn into “Hellraiser,” complete with a skinless man and walls recessing to access the abyss. Those familiar with Italian horror will note the final frame of the movie is 100% homage to Lucio Fulci’s “The Beyond,” another harrowing tale of hell unleashed on earth.

Simply put: “The Void” delivers on the effects, the story, the scares, and the acting. It’s one of the best horror flicks I’ve seen in recent memory, and its blessedly not a remake, reboot, prequel, or sequel. It easily beats out the low budget competition and even manages to create a better experience than most of the big budget schlock coming out of the horror genre these days.

This team needs to be given access to bigger budgets and more stories, and hopefully we’ll see another IndieGogo campaign in the not-too-distant future!