Reflecting on a Month of Horror

No, I’m not talking about politics. Or the pandemic. Or climate change, or my mental health, or any of the other 3,462 horrible, horrible things happening at the moment. Although I’m not generally a big horror fan, I did decide to go on a bit of a horror gaming binge this month, if only to clear some of the older titles from my backlog.

A forlorn scene from the horror game Call of Cthulhu.Alan Wake:

I was a bit underwhelmed with Alan Wake. If it hadn’t been such a short game, I might not have finished it. The “fight with light” mechanic is one of those things that seems super cool and innovative when you’re first introduced to it, but which quickly becomes an obnoxious chore when you have to deal with it every fight.

The story was lackluster, too. The concept is interesting, but weak writing, cringy dialogue, and mediocre voice acting sucked most of the fun out of it. It doesn’t help that the game is superficially similar enough to The Secret World that I kept comparing the two, and very few games can emerge from that comparison unscathed. TSW set the bar so very high.

I also played the even shorter semi-sequel, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, and I actually enjoyed that much better, despite it being kind of a hot mess.

I feel like most horror franchises follow this trajectory where they start out deadly serious, but then slowly escalate until they transform into campy self-parodies that are as much comedy as they are horror (intentionally or not). What I find amazing about Alan Wake is how rapidly and thoroughly it underwent that change.

The first game is a super serious horror story, or at least it tries to be. American Nightmare, on the other hand, is an arcade style action game with a ridiculous story that at no point even pretends to take itself seriously. The difference between the two is whiplash-inducing.

Battling the Taken in Alan Wake's American NightmareBut you know what? I like American Nightmare so much better. The cheesy dialogue and campy voice acting stop being a hindrance and become an asset. Instead of being a mediocre attempt at a serious horror story, it’s a successful attempt at a goofy action adventure.

Call of Cthulhu:

This was a pretty by the numbers eldritch horror game — if you know anything about Lovecraft, little that happens in this game will come as a surprise — but it was well-executed. They did a very good job of setting the mood, which is something I really like about Lovecraft-inspired works.

Something I appreciate about this genre of horror is how, when done well, it escalates over time. You start out in a relatively ordinary setting doing mostly normal things, with perhaps just vague hints that something is off, and by the end reality and sanity are coming undone all around you. The progression from normalcy to utmost horror is a great journey. I suppose other horror genres do similar things, but eldritch horror seems especially good at it.

My main problem with Call of Cthulhu is more a problem with me than the game. That is, I’m a scaredy cat. There’s a reason I don’t usually play many horror games. Most of the time Call of Cthulhu isn’t that bad, but there’s one or two sequences that had me seriously shook. Even though it’s a good game, I had to struggle to keep going sometimes.

Conarium:

Another Lovecraft-inspired game, this one based upon At the Mountains of Madness.

As I write this, I’m a little over an hour into Conarium (which according to Google is about a quarter of the game), and I don’t think I’m going to go any further. It’s a weird mix of very scary and yet also kind of boring.

Antarctic ruins in the eldritch horror game Conarium.The bits I’ve played so far do a good job of keeping you constantly on edge through isolating environments and superbly spooky environmental sounds. A proper horror aficionado might not be impressed, but for a lightweight like me it’s nerve-wracking, especially while I’m still recovering from Call of Cthulhu.

At the same time, though, it still manages to be pretty uninteresting. The writing and voice-acting are very inelegant and don’t bring the kind of immersion or mystery I’m looking for in a game like this.

As I said above, good eldritch horror delivers a slow escalation from the mundane to the unthinkable, but Conarium pretty much throws you straight into the weirdness. It feels very ham-fisted.

If it were less scary or more intellectually stimulating, I might stick it out, but as it is I think I’ve had my fill of horror video games for the time being.

Curse of Strahd:

That said, I’ve also been binging horror when it comes to tabletop gaming this month. I recently joined a group playing through the Curse of Strahd campaign for Dungeons and Dragons. That started before October and will continue after, but we’ve been playing extra sessions this month to celebrate the Halloween season.

It’s been a good time. Our DM sets the mood very well, and I’m enjoying the grim and twisted nature of the Ravenloft setting. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the more traditional fantasy of Forgotten Realms, which never quite grabbed me as a setting.

My party finds themselves in a sticky situation in our Curse of Strahd D&D campaign.We got a pretty good introduction to the terror of Ravenloft right off the bat. We had an okay time exploring the first dungeon, with only occasional close calls, until we got to the final boss. That thing mopped the floor with us. One party member was away that week, and of the remaining three, two died and were eaten, and my poor traumatized sorceress escaped with a mere two hit points left.

Since then we’ve been coping a bit better — with the other two people rolling new characters — but I remain keenly aware of the danger that could await us as we continue to explore Barovia.

I’m playing a slightly modified version of Dorotea, my demonic Drow sorlock. She seems a good fit for the setting. My goal is to at least keep her alive until Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything comes out, so I can at least try one of the new subclasses with any potential replacement character. Dorotea is remarkably hardy for a sorcerer, especially now that I have a Cloak of Protection, but considering the nature of the campaign, I’m not super optimistic about poor Dorotea remaining alive and sane all the way to the end.

I enjoy horror a lot more in a tabletop setting, I think. Tabletop can’t really do jump scares or other cheap tricks. It’s more about the ambiance, which is the style of horror I prefer. Creepy and immersive rather than terrifying.

Now on Dungeon Masters Guild: The Arrow Knight

Continuing my foray into the world of tabletop RPG design, I’ve recently published my first rules supplement on the Dungeon Masters Guild.

The Arrow Knight is a bundle of new content intended to make archery a valid playstyle for paladins in Fifth Edition. It includes a set of variant rules for the base paladin class, a new subclass suitable for play with both Arrow Knights and traditional paladins, and three new magic items themed around paladins and archery.

This is loosely based on my own paladin, whom I’ve been playing almost every week since I started playing D&D. I tweaked the paladin rules to make her work as an archer, and this is an expanded and polished version of the homebrew I made for her. One of the magic items in this bundle, Crowsight, is her bow. The campaign she’s a part of is finally winding down, so putting together this bundle was in part a way of saying goodbye to her.