A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Thirteen)
By Mark Wegierski
Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) (which has now gone bankrupt) had published an occult-horror module, Shades of Darkness, for their RPG system. They had also issued Nightmares of Mine, a horror-RPG sourcebook. ICE had carried the rights for RPGs, CCGs, boardgames, and maps based on Tolkien's writings for over eighteen years, but the managers of the Tolkien franchise pulled the plug on the relationship in September 1999. A boardgame based on Lord of the Rings has now appeared from Hasbro. A CCG game was released from Decipher when the new massive Lord of the Rings movie project debuted, in December 2001. Decipher had also acquired the rights to produce an RPG based on Lord of the Rings – and they heavily utilized the former staff of Last Unicorn Games for this. Games Workshop received the right to produce a tabletop miniatures game based on the background. ICE's MERP (or Middle Earth Role Playing game) was probably the second best-selling fantasy RPG. MERP very cleverly integrated Tolkien's vast background material with the possibilities of meaningful roleplaying – for example, by setting scenarios only on the fringes of the main written plots of Tolkien.
Although it is a comparatively little known roleplaying system, the TORG mythos is based on the premise of several so-called Cosms (or alternative realities), invading and taking over portions of the reality of our current-day Earth. Among these Cosms are ones of occult-horror, technological horror, and a technological parody of Catholic and Renaissance Europe, known as "the Cyberpapacy."
Another RPG which leans towards an imaginatively lurid background is Palladium's RIFTS. Its premise is that of a future world overwhelmed by a surge of occult and magical energies (resulting in an invasion of hordes of inhuman creatures, including multifarious demons). RIFTS combines super-magic with super-technology. The super-technology ranges from suits of power-armor, which vastly enhance the capabilities of human soldiers, to various half-human, half-mechanical battle constructs, and finally, entirely electro-mechanical battle robots. A Palladium product with a bit of interesting political subtext is Free Quebec: Rifts World Book 22 – which presents the Quebecois of the far-future, still fighting for independence from a North American Coalition. The book has a warning on its first page (part of which is cited below), which may not be exactly reassuring: "The fictional world of Rifts is violent, deadly and filled with supernatural monsters. Other-dimensional beings often referred to as ‘demons,' torment, stalk and prey on humans. Other alien life forms, monsters, gods and demigods, as well as magic, insanity, and war are all elements in this book." RIFTS is considered, even by many role-players, as an "over-the-top" background, where the abilities and super-powers are simply overdone. It is said to especially appeal to "munchkins" – the term used in roleplaying circles for those players who are especially keen on spectacularly killing as many creatures as possible and accumulating ever-increasing levels of power within the game.
In August 2001, there appeared a rather ugly RPG called Little Fears, which billed itself as "the roleplaying game of childhood horror."
In December 2001, Hogshead Publishing, a company known for its "cutting-edge" games brought out De Profundis, a "New Style" RPG, inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This "free-form" game suggested, as the main vehicle for roleplaying, carrying out an extensive back-and-forth correspondence with those engaged in the game. It also made the fairly bizarre suggestion of solo roleplaying, calling it "solo psychodrama." It is difficult to envision how this might actually work. Some could pointedly say that it might consist of something like slowly being driven into a fractured psychological state, perhaps beginning to perceive the fictional malevolent entities of the Cthulhu mythos (and their impact on the player) as real.
The extent to which some gamers desire an "immersive" gaming experience is attested to by the catch-phrase of the Majestic online thriller/conspiracy game, "Play the game that plays you." Players who had registered online would – as part of the game -- sometimes receive threatening and cryptic phone-messages as well as e-mails, relating to the activities they were pursuing in the game setting. Some might take a dim view of this -- that people with small imaginations, lacking all excitement in their lives, and with too much time and money on their hands, were trying to effectively drive themselves into a state of simulated paranoia, to heighten the sense that, after all, they "were important" – that "they mattered."
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.