I’m not going to talk about my favorite horror RPG—besides, I’m pretty sure that’s Dread, and that would be too close to self-aggrandizement.
Instead, I’m going to tell you about the horror RPG i’ve always wanted to play, and probably the best traditional-style horror RPG out there.
Back in the ‘90s, if you played an in-print horror RPG it was probably either Call of Cthulhu or one of the World of Darkness games. I love the World of Darkness games, but with the possible exceptions of Werewolf and Wraith I never really felt like they scratched my “horror” itch.
Then I heard about this new game, recently translated from Swedish: Kult. The initial ad campaign (and art for the first English edition) really missed the point of the game, IMHO, by emphasizing the splatter-gore element. Yes, Kult includes the sort of horror of Hellraiser and its ilk, but that’s not the part that I love about it.
When Call of Cthulhu came out, it was groundbreaking for the sanity mechanic. It took the idea of gradual bodily harm and applied it to the realm of personality and roleplaying. That was great, and, along with Pendragon, one of the very first RPGs to have personality mechanics. But it’s a good news/bad news sort of thing: on the upside, that’s a pretty good match for the source material (particularly Lovecraft’s writings), where the only way to win the Mythos game is not to play—at least then you’ll be oblivious until you die. On the downside, it creates an insanity spiral, so characters move from normal to increasingly debilitated, and it’s generally a one-way trip.
Kult improved on this concept by trying to model a different reality. Instead of a nihilistic world where exposure to reality will destroy us, it builds upon the more fantastical elements of gnostic beliefs. In that belief system, we are the gods, trapped in an illusion to deny us our own power. All it takes to reclaim that power is to see through the illusion. In this worldview, madness is deviation from normal, but it’s not monotonic—you can become more depraved or more enlightened, but either removes you from the normal world. Kult’s “Mental Balance” trait started at zero and could go positive or negative. You can break through the veils and see truth in either way. For a horror game, equating the delusional serial killer and the dalai lama, and saying that both might be prophets, is a disturbing, powerful thing. Kult builds it into the game in an excellent way.
(For those keeping score, there’s another step in the evolution of this specific class of mechanic in Unknown Armies. Call of Cthulhu has a monotonic measure of sanity and therefore connection to reality. Kult has a bidirectional measure of sanity and therefore two ways one might be disconnected from reality. Unknown Armies has a handful of measures of insanity, and shares with Kult the idea of specific markers of how you have deviated from the norm. Mechanically, it’s even more appealing to me than Kult, but Kult has the setting I’m more interested in.)