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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Stone Prophet and Strahd's Possession: It's time for a return of the horror RPG

Writing the retrospective piece on Wake of the Ravager brought back fond memories of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Masterpiece Collection – a set of games that I lost much of my youth to.

Thinking more about those games, I realised something – two of them, Strahd’s Possession and Stone Prophet, would have to be the only two genuine videogame horror RPGs. Sure there are other RPGs that contain dark or horror elements (such as Demon’s Souls); and other horror games that are based on RPG franchises (Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, for instance), but SSI’s two little horror RPGs still belong to an intriguing little niche – statistics-based, slow-paced horror games.

Stone Prophet: Remember this game?


What are these two games?

Both games are part of a Dungeons and Dragons setting called ‘Ravenloft’ – a gothic horror setting that cribs most of its content from famous horror tales – everything from Frankenstein and Dracula through to Jack the Ripper. Strahd’s Possession starred the vampire Strahd (Ravenloft’s Dracula). Stone Prophet was set in a horrific ancient Egyptian setting of mummys, thirst and snake infested tombs.

Both games played as slow-paced first person action RPGs, but were distinctly Dungeons and Dragons, with plenty of stat crunching and equipment min/ maxing to be done. Through the course of each game, you’ll accumulate a typical RPG party mix of fighters, magic users and sneaky thieves, and explore vast dungeons, just like a traditional RPG. And, like Wake of the Ravager, the games were based on the 2nd edition rulesets, which is a bit archaic by modern standards, but still eminently fun. And like Wake of the Ravager, the horror setting of both games meant mere survival was as much of the goal as killing the end boss.

To help illustrate both games, I point you to a couple of Let's Play (not mine) - one from each game:


Of course, by modern standards these games are a little too primitive to be horrific, but at the time the atmosphere these games created were palpable. I still remember the haunting midi tunes of both games and the claustrophobic worlds I was stuck in. See, Ravenloft was an interesting setting in that it was a large prison; try and leave its boundaries and the invisibile veil that circles the land causes you damage until you turn back or die. It was a psychological trick that in Ravenloft meant you always felt like you were backed into a corner.

It was an addictive formula, but like Dark Sun, Ravenloft fell out of favour with Wizards of the Coast after it acquired the Dungeons and Dragons IP. And so the horror RPG has become a largely neglected genre.




Could it work?

But even if the Ravenloft setting isn’t resurrected to in the world of videogames, is there room for a horror RPG? I’d like to think so. While the horror genre has slowly but surely moved towards the realm of action, that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for the genre. And likewise, the traditional RPG approach to game design hasn’t disappeared completely yet. So it’s easy to think that someone, somewhere might decide to bring the two genres together again.

Indeed, this hybrid genre would benefit greatly from modern technology. High definition polygons and stereo sound would make it that much easier to build some atmosphere. Moral choices and branching story paths could be used to good effect to alter the hell that the players end up in. For developers, a horror RPG wouldn’t need to be a 40+ hour epic, and could be a more self contained, and therefore cheaper production.

Doesn't look like much now, but it used to creep me out big time


Mind you, making a horror game is not just about making a game ‘hard’ or ‘difficult to survive.’ A horror game needs to build a sense of hopelessness and entrapment. It’s what Strahd’s Possession and Stone Prophet did so well, and games like Resident Evil 5 have all but forgotten.

Demon’s Souls and the upcoming Dark Souls are a hint at how incredible a horror RPG could be, but it would be good to see a more “true” RPG experience also take a horror turn.

A Call of Cthulhu RPG would be an instant-buy for me


What do you think? Can the RPG and horror genres mix in a modern game, or have the two genres split too far to work together? Would you even like to see a HD remake of Strahd’s Possession or Stone Prophet, or a new Ravenloft game?

What about Call of Cthulhu? The few attempts at bringing that RPG to videogames has resulted in straight horror games. Would you like to see a Call of Cthulhu computer RPG? Let us know in the comments below, or start up a conversation on our forums!
Stone Prophet and Strahd's Possession: It's time for a return of the horror RPG
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