"A twisting cluster of spectyrs dived at her, their skulls screaming for vengeance, ready to burrow into her body and take it for their own. Sorcha dropped onto her back, raised her Gauntlets; one lit with the blue fire of Aydien, holding off the larger mass of spectyrs, while she concentrated Shayst on the immediate attackers."
— Philippa Ballantine, Spectyr
Is it possible to make a real horror RPG? Some people say it isn't, as some RPG hallmarks like character growth and frequent combat seem antithetical to a horror premise. Thus far, most attempts to create horror RPGs have involved zombies, a rather overplayed monster race at the moment, probably because zombies allow for plenty of combat scenarios. As a definite non-fan of zombies, I'd like to propose a different direction for horror RPGs, and fantasy/steampunk author Philippa Ballantine's Books of the Order provide the perfect setting for a truly spine-tingling RPG.
The Books of the Order, of which Geist and Spectyr have come out thus far, are set in a world in which the veil between the living world and the undead Otherworld is very thin. The strict, militant Order is the organization charged with cleansing the land of the undead, which range from mindless horrors to devilishly intelligent beings possessing enough power to be mistaken for gods. Ballantine pulls no punches when it comes to the damage that these creatures can do when they manage to possess the living or otherwise manifest themselves in the living world, and even the Order is vulnerable to the influence of the Otherworld. It's a great setting for a horror RPG in which creepy crawlies can come from anywhere and the player can never be completely certain who is friend and who is foe.
Ballantine's books provide the foundation for an unusual and interesting combat system. Order soldiers work in pairs of Sensitives, who can see into the Otherworld, and Actives, who have the power to fight the undead using enchanted Gauntlets. The Gauntlets contain runic powers that must be carefully summoned and controlled. There are interesting possibilities here with the player taking the role of the Active, needing to rely on the Sensitive partner's powers as well as make sure that the Sensitive doesn't come to harm in battle (in my dream game, of course, the Sensitive would have excellent AI and would only do something really stupid if it were a planned part of the plot). As the Books of the Order take place on a continent that is still being tamed after having been overrun by the undead, frequent combat is a possibility, but I think the game would work best as a bit of an RPG-Adventure hybrid, with social interaction, puzzle solving, and careful preparation/trap laying before infrequent battle being a major part of gameplay. Combat itself would be real-time, tricky, and brutal, with the player needing to think quickly and strategically in order to succeed.
As for keeping the horror in the horror-RPG, there are plenty of examples of both psychological horror and straight-up gory terror in Ballantine's books. There's a definite Lovecraftian influence behind the world, as the exact nature of the Otherworld and many of its inhabitants is mysterious, and those who have been possessed by the undead tend not to escape with their sanity intact, if they escape at all. In a game based on this world, there would be plenty of room for straight up "monster out of nowhere" scares as well as the more subtle horror of knowing that nobody and nothing is guaranteed to be as it seems. You can trust your Partner due to your unique bond, but there's no telling whether any other characters are working under Otherworld influence or are simply double-crossing rat bastards.
Ballantine isn't a prude, and her books include some of the better sex scenes I've read in fantasy novels. Romance sub-plots would work well in a game based on the setting, especially if Ballantine were able to lend her talents towards making sex scenes that are actually sexy rather than embarrassingly awkward. I could see a game based on this series feeling a bit like The Witcher games, but with stronger female characters, more of a focus on the horror elements of dark fantasy, and a very different combat system. As a strong proponent of games that are actually mature rather than pandering towards the lowest common denominator, I would be delighted to see a company take on a project like this. In fact, Ballantine is an active podcaster and is otherwise quite plugged into the digital world, so I wouldn't be surprised at all if she'd be willing to write for a game based upon one of her worlds. Sure, a Books of the Order RPG is just wishful thinking on my part, but it's not entirely outside the realm of possibilty.
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