The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 


A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Mixing and Matching With GUMSHOE

In addition to its primary goal of rethinking the way we run investigative scenarios, GUMSHOE is also an ongoing experiment in rules modularity. Along with whatever plain, ordinary rules are needed to evoke a particular setting or sub-genre, each new iteration of the game introduces new tools and techniques which can be mixed and matched to create your own investigative games. Many can also be applied to other roleplaying games and genres.

The Esoterrorists presents a simple, introductory version of the core GUMSHOE rules. It sets forth a simple, accessible setting, along with the very basic components you need to run occult investigation: Stability rules, a stripped-down approach to weapons, and so on.

Fear Itself reproduces horror stories in which ordinary people come face to face with things that go bump in the night. It removes a few of the complexities of The Esoterrorists, which assumes that all of the players are professional investigators. For example, the many technical abilities of the first game are collapsed into a catch-all, as are many of its academic skills. To preserve the ordinariness of the characters, it encourages a maximum of one PC from any sort of law enforcement or military background.

These are rare examples of modular adjustments to GUMSHOE rules that can’t be fed back into an Esoterrorists game. It is not so much a rules addition as a necessary rules subtraction, again to evoke a specific sub-genre. These changes can, however, suit another game concept featuring non-specialist investigators.

Other new facets of Fear Itself can be added to The Esoterrorists, or used in elements in other investigative settings. To start with a small example, Fear Itself introduces a new general ability, Fleeing. This is a necessary component of any undiluted horror game, reflecting that genre’s many characters who are not all-around athletes but nonetheless turn out to be highly capable at screaming and running away. This narrow ability can be imported to The Esoterrorists or other settings.

When you depart from the horror genre, Fleeing remains useful when giving game statistics to supporting characters that the PCs might be trying to either chase or rescue. They may not be able to perform feats of strength or put up a struggle when caught, but they can get away from pursuers, at least for a while.

Fear Itself includes a number of psychic abilities, including Aura Reading, Remote Viewing, and Premonitions, granting PCs access to minor occult powers. These could easily be made available to Esoterrorists characters. Most GMs will want to do as Fear Itself does, and allow only one character per group to have a psychic ability. Add too many psychics into the mix, and you start to drift from the realm of horror into contemporary fantasy.

On the other hand, you could embrace this tendency, creating an all-psychic detachment of the Ordo Veritatis to which the PCs belong. This might be a sort of suicide squad within the organization, sent in to tackle tough, psi-oriented assignments that ordinary agents can’t handle. If so, they’re probably followed by a monitoring team composed entirely of supporting characters, who keep them under surveillance and watch for signs that they’ve lost their already-tentative hold on sanity. As the psychic Ordo members go crazy, their minders swoop in, spiriting them off to permanent incarceration in a Veritatis-approved mental institution. In extreme cases, they may need to efficiently take out freshly-crazed psychic operatives with well-placed sniper bullets.

Be cautious when populating your world with psychics. Superhuman powers which work in unpredictable or undocumented ways throw a wrench into players’ efforts to reconstruct the events they’re investigating. They have to be able to incorporate the existence of such abilities into their theories of the case. Let’s say they find out that a supporting character lets slip a fact she could only know if she was present at the crime scene. If she is capable of Remote Viewing, that’s a second possibility, which the investigators must now be able to take into account. This difficulty is in large part the subject matter of Mutant City Blues, the upcoming GUMSHOE game of police procedural investigation in a world of widespread super-powers. There, the operations of the various superhuman powers are well-known and incorporated into forensic science. The investigators must take them into account, but unquestionably know how they work, and what their various limitations are.

Also appearing in Fear Itself are a number of techniques to flesh out characterization. They belong in a pure horror version of the game because, by enabling us to relate more acutely to these ordinary people before they’re plunged into deadly jeopardy, they intensify the terror. They include the directed scenes, in which the players are given personal goals for their characters, as they would be in a scene of improvised theater. Directed scenes prove especially useful to play out flashbacks. These scenes from the past bring the character’s backstory, which usually languishes unrevealed in each player’s personal notes, vividly onstage, for the entire group to see. They also enable the players to sharpen their character-portrayal skills, as they’re called on to act out minor roles in each others’ directed scenes and flashbacks.

Though initially designed for horror, these techniques work in any genre. You could employ them to introduce dramatic elements to the otherwise highly mission-focused Esoterrorists structure. For that matter, as they’re unconnected to GUMSHOE’s other rules structures, you could just as easily insert them in nearly any other RPG, from D&D to Vampire. With the exception of certain rigidly constructed indie-style games, or comedy games that require relatively facile characters, like Dying Earth or Og, they fit almost any gaming experience.

Mutant City Blues offers a different, but related, mechanism. It creates a structure resembling many police procedural TV shows, giving the players partial control of it. Players are encouraged to submit possible Sub-Plots, story threads of personal drama involving their characters when they’re not solving the main cases. This technique could equally well be added to any ongoing Esoterrorists or Fear Itself series, or any other GUMSHOE game of your own devising, so long as it features continuing characters and cares about their personal development. Like directed scenes and flashbacks, this element can be completely uncoupled from GUMSHOE and welded onto most other normative RPG games.

Another feature of Fear Itself requires players to select Risk Factors for their characters, explaining why they head toward trouble when other ordinary people would flee from it. This is a necessary component of any horror game, answering the question: why do they go down into that basement? Given the risk-aversion characteristic of some players, it’s also one requiring some reinforcement in play. Risk Factors include Gung Ho, Skeptical, Horny, and Oblivious. Though the descriptions of the various factors are keyed to horror, they could easily be adapted to any other genre requiring selfless, proactive protagonists.

We’ll continue to search for similarly useful modular elements for future GUMSHOE products. If we’re really lucky, we’ll start to see GUMSHOE gamers designing their own add-ons, and sharing them with the rest of us, via their blogs or on the Pelgrane forums.


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article of Unremitting Horror originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in December 2004.

Jormungandr – lost genius or just crap?
Jason Ardill tells all..
Anus Dei cover artBlair Witch Project of shock rock video is Anus Dei by the mercifully obscure Scandinavian black metal band JORMUNGANDR. The song is the usual shrill torrent of incomprehensible gibberish with a lot of umlauts in it, punctuated by guitar torture. But it’s not the song that’s memorable; it’s the visuals.

The video has clearly been ineptly shot and edited. No attempt has been made to synchronize what’s happening on the soundtrack with the action on the screen. Most of it is a languorous art-house rolling shot of subway tunnels, trash piled up against walls and sleeping tramps. This is interspersed with images from occult books, mostly woodcuts of Satan and his witches, as if someone had held a video camera directly above an open book. At various points, heavily made-up male faces leer into the camera from a few inches away.

After several watchings, the obvious conclusion is that the video is half JORMUNGANDR pratting about in their bedroom, and half someone else’s film project footage, which JORMUNGANDR just happened to come across and edit into their video.

Although – perhaps that’s what we’re meant to think? Maybe this film looks so cheap because someone spent a lot of money to make it look that way? One thing is certain. By the time the monster appears, you know damn well you’re looking at a sky-high special effects budget.

It’s enough to give Aphex Twin nightmares. There’s no face, just a peeled back skull and something like a huge set of dentures in the middle. Industrial limbs extrude from its shoulders, tipped with whirring claws – remember, this was made before Trent Reznor grossed us all out with Happiness in Slavery – which must have taken months to build.

When you first see it, the thing has its back to us and is tearing up dummies filled with offal, made to look like homeless people. This part looks a little fake, because of the over-the-top blood sprays and flying body parts, and it’s hard not to laugh. Then it stops, like a dog sniffing the air, and turns round. It starts to stride towards the camera.

At that point, it’s not funny any more. It moves with a horrible lurching gait, like Sadako from Ringu, as if it were broken on the inside. I’ve heard it said that they shot it running backwards, then played the tape forwards, to give it that disturbing stop-start lurch. Of course, from that point on it’s all shaky-cam running, then there’s the Blair Witch ending with the camera lying on the floor. Game over, man, game over.

As rock video monsters go, it’s an unsung classic. If the camera would only hold still, we would get a better idea of how it was done. It’s clearly not CGI, because that kind of technology wasn’t available in 1992, when the video first surfaced. Fangoria did a special feature on the Anus Dei monster and came to the conclusion that one of the JORMUNGANDR members must be a genius with latex.

The film has been the source of rabid debate among those who have seen it, because it just does not make sense. Nobody has ever heard of JORMUNGANDR. Other than that one infamous track, they do not appear to have recorded any music. So, why spend tens of thousands on a video to promote a band that does not seem to exist any more?

There’s more to tell. Contrary to popular belief, the video was never screened on MTV, nor was it sent to any other stations. The first person to broadcast it was Billy Two-Four (sic) an nineteen-year-old media student, who put it out on his public access show, Billy’s Horrorday . He claims an anonymous donor sent it to him, which has, of course, led to speculation that he made the video himself, at college. Whatever the truth behind the Anus Dei monster, we know this much.

No one ever hired Billie Two-Four to make any more videos.

And, the track sucks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Are you a new GM looking to dip your toes into the horror genre? Are you hoping to nudge someone into running a scary game for you? As part of their Adventure Goddess program, which encourages women to take the GM’s chair, Carolyn Noe of Superheroines Etc organized this virtual panel featuring Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, and Ruth Tillman. Join them as they share their most chillingly useful Game Moderating tips.

GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Next time you need an ordinary fear to escalate into horror territory, check out the Twitter account @bestofnextdoor. It highlights the oddest and funniest posts from the Next Door social media platform. Frequented mostly by older homeowners, it provides a forum for people to talk to their neighbors. Often this talk concerns yet other neighbors they’re worried about or wish to air beefs with. One thing most of us humans fear is other humans—generally with good reason. But what happens when the malign, unknown persons who share our quiet street with us band together with the animal kingdom, as seen here?

All you need to venture into horror territory is to take one of these neighborhood fears and give them a terrifying reality.

In Fear Itself, some sinister force could be marshalling area felines as spies or killers. They could have gained a collective sentience, perhaps putting humans back on the menu. They could be controlled by aliens, their old friends the witches, or demons of the Outer Dark. A nasty creature could be mistaken for a cat when seen fleetingly—or when observers’ minds reject the weirdness of what they did see, in favor of the comfort of what they must have seen.

In Trail of Cthulhu, weird cat behavior could suggest Dreamlands activity. Dreamland residents entering our world could bring cats of Ulthar in their wake. The appearance of strangely stealthy and intelligent cats could appear as an early symptom of a rift between waking and sleeping realms. Maybe they’ve come to find Randolph Carter to confront a dread manifestation back in Ulthar, but instead have to settle for the player characters.

Obsessive thoughts about cats in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game might likewise be a symptom of a shift in subjective reality, or a rupture in the objective one, particularly in the “This is Normal Now” sequence. Carcosa might make you think the cats are at fault, as a cover for its own actions in the neighborhood. But who’s to say that the alien realm of the Tattered King isn’t crawling with evil, sentient tabbies?

A pair of new Shock cards might help you develop that further:

AILUROPHOBIA

Shock

-1 to Focus tests.
No more than once per scene, confide your fear that cats are up to something to a witness, suspect or authority figure. Even: discard.

CAT HARASSMENT

Shock

Before taking any Presence test, roll a die. Odd: you see a cat or an image of a cat, and lose 1 Composure.

If that test succeeds, trade for “Ailurophobia.”

A column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

When the original Fear Itself came out in 2007, horror was in the depths of its torture phase, typified by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Always the most reliable indicator of the zeitgeist, horror cinema reflected America’s anxieties about its place in the world under the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The early Obama years saw a retrenchment into Hollywood’s recycling ethos, with a spate of remakes recapitulating the shock cinema of the 70s and 80s. Both of these horror cycles predominantly featured casts of young friends and peers facing the hideous fates that await most scare-flick protagonists—the default assumption of the game. One current horror wave, post-dating Fear Itself, places the family unit in the crosshairs of supernatural or monstrous danger. A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Sinister, Bird Box, Us, and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House all evoke fears of family dissolution in the face of threats from without. The more ghostly variants often show the influence of Kubrick’s The Shining. Political in a different way than the previous torture cycle, they touch on domestic economic unease, depicting families fighting to survive, and remain intact, under crushing external pressure. (Although they’re still going strong, I’d categorize these as products of the inward-looking late Obama period. Cultural waves take a while to show up on screens, so Trumpian horror may mark another imminent shift, with The Purge and its follow-ups as leading indicators.) To tweak Fear Itself for family horror, revisit character generation to create a cast of close relatives who will face a terrifying situation together. Start by dropping Drives. The implicit need to protect one another, literally and metaphorically keeping the family together, motivates the characters. Drives ensure that PCs act like horror characters, often giving them a positive reason to head into danger. In a family game, the characters generally seek to escape a situation which continues to ensnare them.

  • They’re socked in for the winter at the creepy hotel.
  • The ghost manifestation follows them even when they abandon the creepy house.
  • Monsters are everywhere and no place stays safe for long.
  • The source of horror is coming from inside the family.

Here, characters investigate to escape the problem, not to burrow deeper into it. The GM must actuate that by keeping the pressure on, driving them toward the information that might just allow them to get through this. During character generation, ask each player in turn to specify their role in the family. You might specify that at least one player must take on a parental role. Or, if no one wants to be Mom or Dad, most characters wind up as siblings—presumably orphaned in an earlier manifestation of the scenario or campaign’s central menace. Some players may try to wriggle free of emotional obligation by creating distant relatives. Redirect the urge to play third cousins or distant uncles. A recently arrived newcomer to the family, such as a new spouse or a biological half-sibling who showed up waving a genetic test, still works. Specify that they’ve had enough time to commit themselves to the family unit. They might have an outside perspective but still need desperately to preserve their connection to the others. In a DramaSystem game you’d then devise a map of blocked emotional agendas that each seeks from the others. Although conflict may exist or arise between PCs, in this case the focus is on coming together against an outside danger. Characters might be distant from another at first; if they survive, it’s because they bond in pursuit of survival. This theme appears in some familial horrors, like The Haunting of Hill House, but isn’t so much a factor in A Quiet Place. Instead start off the collective thinking by asking the group to come up with an answer to the following question: What blow has the family recently endured? Groups who like to dig in and find their own way can take it from there. Ones who prefer to choose from supplied prompts can pick one of these choices, perhaps riffing a variation:

  • We all mourn our missing family member, who was killed either recently, by known means, or many years ago, in an incident we still struggle to understand.
  • We underwent a bankruptcy or are on the verge of one.
  • The head of the family has been suffering professionally.
  • One of us committed a crime that made life hard for everyone.
  • One of us underwent a medical crisis and yearns for tranquility and quiet.
  • One of us was victimized or traumatized.
  • We survived a terrible accident, perhaps of mysterious origin.
  • A weird destiny encircles us.
  • Our family has been cursed for generations.
  • We have just moved house, and we have to make it work.

As GM, you might instead specify a collective blow tied into the premise. That last item on the list fits a classic haunted house outing. A crime within the family might trigger supernatural vengeance. The head of the family in professional crisis could be headed for the psychic break that escalates the horror, because as we all know, ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY. Skip the step where players choose Sources of Stability. Instead, each family member treats all the others as sources, suffering the ill results when one of the PCs fatally succumbs to the horror. Family-based horror works well for convention scenarios, providing an immediate premise and stakes for the players. Save time by handing out pregens with family roles already specified, allowing participants to pick which ones that appeal to them. Some players prefer to avoid the emotional intensity of familial interaction, often for strong personal reasons you don’t want to blunder into. They may have already experienced family dissolution, or regard relatives as people to escape from. In horror, this impulse might be called “Mummies? Yes! Mommy? No!” Be sure to secure buy-in, either by talking to your players at home or clearly signaling the premise of your con game on the sign-in sheet.


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.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Pity the poor monsters. With Halloween over, they’re nursing hangovers and anticipating fallow months of scant employment over the holiday season.

Here at Pelgrane we love our monsters twelve months a year.

But what happens when you love a monster too much to want your GUMSHOE characters to fight it?

We think of horror stories as featuring monsters as antagonists. Right from the start though, with Frankenstein, the genre has called into question the nature of monstrousness. For every out-and-out fiend, like Dracula, we get a beleaguered beast, like King Kong, we should merely have left alone.

Recapitulating horror tales where we empathize for the Other requires some translation to work in the GUMSHOE format. Investigative horror assumes that the protagonists learn about, and then vanquish, monstrous beings. For this to work the players have to want to see the creatures defeated.

Our key horror games handle this issue by keeping the creatures clearly predatory. The Lovecraftian beasties bedeviling Trail of Cthulhu investigators want to stick our heads in jars or drag us down into the watery depths. The Outer Dark Entities of The Esoterrorists revel in their planned destruction of our world. If they’re misunderstood, it’s by the poor human saps who think they can gain power by letting them through the membrane.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t evoke the more creature-friendly strand of the horror tradition. We do have to exercise some care, ensuring that players can continue to sympathize with their own characters when the monsters they confront turn out to be misunderstood.

Plenty of horror tales have us root for the Other as an instrument of just vengeance. They don’t feature investigators attempting to thwart them. Freaks wouldn’t make a lick of emotional sense if it centered around a team of cops or private eyes trying to protect the cruel Cleopatra and Hercules from terrible comeuppance at the hands of the sideshow performers.

If you’re structuring a GUMSHOE scenario so that the targets of the creatures deserve an awful fate, your players will eventually ask why they’re trying to stop them, instead of helping them.

For example, you might want to explore a social issue through the vengeful ghost trope. At first it might seem appealing to show ghosts of workers killed in 1911’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire fatally haunting sweatshop operators. But if you depict the vengeance as righteous, players won’t feel particularly motivated to protect their victims. If you depict the ghosts choosing the wrong targets, you’re making villains out of the people whose tragedy you meant to highlight.

You can answer that question by making your vengeance-seekers unsympathetic from the jump. Sure, Freddie Krueger wants to get back at the children of the people who burned him to death, but they did that to him because he was a serial killer. This, of course, solves the issue by entirely sidestepping it.

A monster can evoke sympathy even as it nonetheless has to be stopped. It might be justifiably enraged after being dislodged from its lair, or transported to the Broadway stage in chains. Still, its inevitable rampage threatens innocent lives, and the investigators have to discover the means to either pacify or destroy the creature before many more are killed. This allows the investigators to feel a sense of pathos when the beast meets its destruction.

Alternately though, you could design the mystery so that they’re trying to find a way to save both the creature and its potential innocent victims. Maybe they need to find the amulet allowing them to pacify the fish-man, luring it safely back to its lagoon. Or the scenario occurs in the creature’s island, grotto or isolated valley, with the heroes figuring out a way to stop the real antagonists, the showmen who want to capture the so-called monster.

A sapient monster might serve as an unwilling antagonist. A lycanthropy victim might be the one who contacts the investigators, begging them to find a way to cure her condition before the full moon next rises. She’s been through the whole routine of chaining herself up at night, but somehow that always fails, leaving her roaming the moors again. So far she’s only devoured cattle but she’s sure that eventually she’ll stumble across the wrong hiker and tear him apart. The real antagonists might turn out to be the sorcerers who cursed her, man-eating werewolves who don’t want the cure getting out, or the sinister researcher intent on using her blood as a pharmaceutical ingredient.

Your tragic monster might have already gone down the path of murder and destruction, while retaining enough self-awareness to regret it. The cannibal clone of a researcher’s dead husband has enough conscience to regret his flesh-eating compulsion. But then, only human meat grants him sustenance, and he isn’t up for suicide. Again, your scenario could give the players a moral choice between finding a cure or simply killing him.

You could twist this into your take on the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. The heroes discover that the killer they’ve been tracking is one of two personalities occupying the same body. Killing or imprisoning the monster means that the affable, helpful and entirely innocent alter ego suffers punishment too. Do the investigators prevail on the good half to make the ultimate sacrifice? Again, solving the mystery by finding a cure provides a less fraught conclusion for players who rebel when presented with no-win situations.

The easiest version of the sympathetic monster is one in which evil humans know of the creature’s existence and are framing it for their own crimes. The snake folk mind their own business in the remote mountains, until meth cookers familiar with his legend start dropping corpses covered in fake fang marks. When the investigators find out that the real monsters are people, they might take care of them on their own. Or, if they’ve established good relations with the reptile people, they might invite them to help clean up the nest of killers threatening their quiet, isolated lives.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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.