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.

Carnivals have always exuded a faint fetor of menace. Itinerant strangers come to town, some of them dressed as clowns, and try to trick you or exploit the basest depths of your curiosity. They exist to break down boundaries, give you permission to indulge, and then move on, leaving you, the seemingly innocent townsfolk, to reckon with what you got up to under the garish light of the midway.

When you set a scene in a Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, or Esoterrorists scenario at a sideshow or circus, the players know to expect creepiness.

You know what the real story is. But what are the rumors the investigators encounter before parting the wrong curtain and finally beholding that terrible truth?

Here are 7 rumors for townsfolk and carnies to spout at the PCs before the real horror surfaces.

  1. “They did a test on the corn dogs and found that 1% of the contents were human flesh.”
  2. “Last year when the carnival came by Mamie Jones just up and vanished. The sheriffs caught up with them down in Dixville but they said they’d never laid eyes on her.”
  3. “Before the authorities clamped down on the freak show, they had an alligator man who was a little too real, if you know what I mean.”
  4. “Some of the most prominent people in our town worship the devil. And their high priest and priestess are the owners of this carnival, who travel from place to place renewing the vows of apparently ordinary folk to Satan himself.”
  5. “They stopped using their old Ferris wheel. Ten years one of the cars came loose and a girl fell to her death. That old ride was haunted. People who rode by themselves would sometimes look over and see her, weeping gluey tears from her faceless head. I don’t suppose a ghost could transfer from an old Ferris wheel to a new one, could it?”
  6. “Last year one of the roustabouts lost an eye in a bar fight. Guys from the local mill started it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some bloody revenge broke out later tonight.”
  7. “A friend of my cousin’s went into that hall of mirrors back in the 90s. He stepped outside and he coulda sworn he was in the 1890s! He turned around and ran back in and says he can’t even look at a mirror nowadays.”

And as always, if the players care more about a tall tale than they do about the main plot line, why maybe it’s not so untrue after all…

Mario Bava’s final film, 1977’s Shock, offers up exactly the dreamlike take on the psi-horror cycle of the period you’d hope for from him. Ultimately it goes in a more supernatural direction than more pseudoscience-oriented titles like Carrie, The Fury, Firestarter, or Scanners. That’s just one of the ways in which it prefigures Kubrick’s The Shining. Seven years after her first husband’s death, a woman moves her son and current husband into the old house. It doesn’t take long for the kid to turn into both a psychokinetic and psychosexual menace.

Psi-horror picked up in the 70s as the demon horror cycle initiated off by The Exorcist trailed off. The Omen can be seen as a transitional title, with a definitively demonic kid killing from a distance in a decidedly psionic way.

Our current demonic horror cycle, which has merged with the haunted house movie and is typified by the Paranormal Activity series, has now gone on longer than the original 70s wave. I keep wondering if a psi revival will follow it. Certainly attempts have been made, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, but so far they’ve been more about evoking retro influences than tapping into the current zeitgeist.

The most popular property to draw on this imagery lately has been “Orphan Black”, though it’s more on the thriller side of the fence than an example of pure horror.

For a psi-horror one-shot or limited series, I’d use Fear Itself, dropping the supernatural trappings of the Outer Dark for weird pseudoscience. The straight up version would have the group of ordinary people at first menaced by the TK or firestarting powers of a pint-sized GMC relative or charge. Then they have to get the kid to safety as the evil corporation or government research agency responsible for the forgotten experiment. You could steal some Night’s Black Agents mechanics for the ensuing chase scenes, especially if you then bring in elements of the spy genre, the way “Orphan Black” does.

Or you could start out that way, going for Bourne-meets-Scanners, with adult experimental subjects waking up to their new powers (borrowed from Mutant City Blues), then having to figure out who did this to them before they get captured and packed off to the vivisection lab.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.