Posted on July 26, 2011 by Nix
Available at SJGames.com
GURPS Horror 4th edition
Written by Kenneth Hite
Luckily, I have had the pleasure of meeting Kenneth Hite, albeit briefly and in passing, at a convention only a short time ago. He was engaging, intelligent, and knowledgeable about things most people find horrific with a particularly keen interest in Lovecraft. I could think of few other game designers and authors better suited to write a game of horror. Even though I found myself quite daunted at the thought of reviewing a Steve Jackson Games product, I was not disappointed and from the first few lines my attention was transfixed while my mind whirled with the possibilities of my own fear-filled campaigns.
GURPS Horror, which I will simply shorten to G:H, begins with a history of the game, a small dose of the authors quite note-worthy credentials, and a short piece on what exactly ‘horror’ and horror role-playing is. After a brief explanation on why players need to remain mindful of their fears, G:H jumps into character creation. Going beyond simple numbers or hastily jotted notes, Hite actually seems to endorse players giving quite a bit of thought about their characters backgrounds. He continues on and lists major character concepts and hooks, breaking those down further into specific ideas. With each idea, a corresponding page is given so that the player can find the proper advantage or disadvantage. After a short description on character development, G:H then brings up the subject of motivation. I was delighted to see this subject covered so that players and GMs will have a focus on ‘why’ their characters are creeping into the abandoned mansion, graveyard, or other location filled with nasty icky creatures that thrill in the destruction of the unwary. Hite also suggests an extremely close collaboration between the game master and the players during the character creation process and in regards to a horror campaign I would agree with him.
Like most GURPS products, G:H is based around customizing your character to your desires for a particular game or genre. In this case it is, of course, horror, in all its many forms. One of the main perks of GURPS is the near complete control a player has over his characters over-all build. A character can be basically anything the player is able imagine, and the gm allows. Character creation is covered in Chapter 1 of the book, though the core book will be needed. The list of examples that Hite included in G:H was exemplary and ranged from the average nobody, to the psychic, to the paranormal investigator, and on. Leaving very little, if anything, not covered as a playable aspect. The archetypes can then be built up, modified, or otherwise formatted even further to the desires of an individual player. It should be noted that each type of player-character has its benefits and hindrances, and will process the monstrous events around them differently. This is one of the many reasons why the book suggests that the game master and player work closely at the beginning of the game so that the correct characters are built and will prove both useful and exciting to use.
In the second chapter, Hite does a supreme job of covering every imaginable aspect of horror, revealing the depth of his knowledge on the subject. As with any game of horror, fear is the main component that a game master will use to weave a story to immerse his or her players in. Fear of a government, a zombie horde, a hell-spawned demon, an ancient and cursed house, or simply ‘others’. Building the overwhelming dread that is pervasive in all the various dark novels, movies, and myths that exist is left up the game master. Yet, he or she is not alone or left wandering blind as they set out to either annihilate or scare the bejeebers out of the players at the table before them. Again, just as with character creation, Hite does a resounding job of including examples for each fright filled plot possibility.
With the third chapter, Hite explains how to build the structure of a story. Here, is where I quickly became bogged down in my reading of this book. Not because it was poorly written or ill-conceived, but because it was outstanding. He includes a short list of common themes, even mentioning one of my personal favorites.. Kolchak: the Night Stalker as a premiere example of the Picaresque campaign style. This is followed by a section on how to build a proper antagonist, the arch-fiend that shall battle a game masters players, and how to make a campaign as difficult (yet still conquerable) as a game master believes viable.
As I mentioned, there are a few books you will need and several that would be handy. To properly run GURPS: Horror, you will need GURPS: Basic Set- Characters and GURPS: Basic Set- Campaigns. In addition to those titles, there is a smattering of books that are suggested (but not mandatory) which include: GURPS- Imperial Rome, Greece, Egypt, Middle Ages 1, Arabian Nights, Old West, and Steam-punk if a gm wishes to run a historically themed horror game. There are several other suggested titles to supplement GURPS: Horror, such as GURPS: Cabal, but each suggestion is just that, a suggestion. Including them will not make or break a game, and although the bulk of these books are still only available in the 3rd edition format they are easily crossed with 4th edition G:H.
The fourth chapter covers how a game master can stoke the feelings of fright a player should feel and how to include elements of horror into other games. When a player hears, “I’ll be running a horror game..” he or she has certain expectations. Yet if they hear, “I’ll be running a medieval game..” they might not foresee the drooling abominations gleefully waiting to rend the party members asunder. It is also in this chapter that the victim is described, and how to make them sympathetic enough for a cadre of players to save and care about. Evil game masters, and honestly.. are all game masters not evil by nature, should pay close attention to the ‘Fiendish Long-Term Plots’ section, while players should not pay any heed to this area at all.. nope..none.. they should just move on. Its not very long, but properly used, it will tug at those heart-strings of the players. Also, in this chapter, the “Fright Check” tables are listed. While I read these I could not help but cackle to myself with sadistic glee as the various possibilities ran through my head for their use.
Chapter five is a listing of campaign ideas to spark the imaginations of the game master. Need I say it again? I suppose I should, it was another chapter of delight for the reader. The premises listed were varied enough to keep a party busy for many many months. From werewolves to martians, and all that lies between them, Hite firmly plants dozens of concepts for use. I understand I might sound as if I am gushing, but GURPS: Horror was simply an outstandingly written piece of role-playing material with broader implications than just GURPS. Kudos to the writer and editor.
Playability: 5 out of 5- G:H includes so many examples and possible twists that a crafty GM can run for years
Writing: 5 out of 5- Hite did a wondrous job, could not ask for a better product
Artwork: 4.5 out 5- Artwork was rather plentiful, creepy, and excellently done
Review by Sean “Nix” McConkey