Humans love to be scared, at least appropriately. Monte Cook described this as the ‘Good Uncomfortable’ in the Cypher System Rulebook. The world is rife with horror, from thrillers and slashers, to zombies, to fear-filled storm drains bearing the visage of a clown. We’re not afraid of the dark, or of being alone in the dark. What we’re afraid of, is not being alone – being hunted in the dark. Now you can see it in books, movies, and TV shows, but how do you bring it to the table?
Sean K. Reynolds answered this cry with a toolbox in the form of a book named Stay Alive!, a source book for the horror genre for use with the Revised Cypher System. The book itself is beautiful, with clear legible text. Well printed and nicely bound, the illustrations are both creepy and gorgeous, fitting for the topic at hand. With two hundred and twenty four pages of instruction, advice and building blocks for you to bring horror to your game, there is something in Stay Alive! for most everyone. From child-appropriate horror like ‘R.L. Stine’, to the dark, twisted horror of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, he covers the bulk of the genre, and includes plentiful advice on tweaking it with your own flavorings.
Chapter one starts out like you might expect, an introduction, with a broad overview of how to use the book and how to find horror in your everyday life. The flavor of horror, as you can guess, is separated into sub-genres and he gives some detail on those with some examples of each, and how to delve further down into that choice.
Chapter two is where the topic of world building starts, with your setting, because you can’t have a good horror if you don’t have a good backdrop. Setting is key and can often make or break a good game, just as quickly or even more so than a player with a BFG (any DOOM fans?) Without a good setting in mind for the players, you’re just making a mishmash of scream fests or jump scares that get boring really quickly. Who? What? When? Where? Why? Are the questions Sean discusses in this chapter. He also includes a wonderful table to help you with developing it on page 15 if you like the idea of randomizing for it, or you can just pick and choose.
Chapter three, covers one of the more important topics in the gaming community right now: Consent in Gaming. Now, consent is very important, because as Monte Cook says in the Cypher System Rulebook we don’t want a ‘“bad uncomfortable,” which is something that actually makes you feel nauseated, unsafe, or offended.’ No means no just as much in a game as it does in real life. Respect each other, it’s really not that hard. At the end of the book is a sheet you can print out that offers a horror-centric checklist, or you can get their Consent in Gaming form.
The rest of section one goes over, creating the plot in detail: who is doing it, why are they doing it and what the characters can or will be able to do about it. It also offers a bunch of advice on running the game, which is a very valuable commodity when it comes to keeping things from going off the rails. Then, there is an encyclopedia of Horror Mechanics, which is essentially a Lego box of mechanics for you to power your horror setting with (This was Josh’s favorite part of the book). Next up are three, location-based cypher shorts, a chapter full of horrific creatures and NPCs, and finally a chapter each of horror-based cyphers and artifacts.
I’m not going to go into as much detail on section two, mostly because of fan use policy. However, it contains a setting, and a horror campaign you can run with your players including an “endgame” scenario for finishing things off. The setting involves vampires, which I’ll freely admit aren’t my favorite (I haven’t liked vampires since the Sparklepire became popular), and makes use of a new mechanic called Blood Shifts which is a modification of the Power Shift mechanic from the Revised Cypher System Rulebook (pages 292 – 293). However, it actually looks to be an engaging setting and I might actually play it one day. Probably not with Josh, though – he doesn’t like horror as much as I do. The book also includes a page of special cards that allow for secret plot twists, and cheat sheets with the vampire special abilities.
I hope that anyone that’s been on the fence about purchasing Stay Alive! finds this review somewhat helpful. I find the supplement extremely useful and it’s given me some ideas for building horror into my games that I hadn’t thought of otherwise. I’ve also got a big thumbs up for anyone who’s already bought it – more good horror games is always good in my opinion. If you want even more information than this about the subject, the gang over at Cypher Unlimited did an interview with the man himself, Sean K. Reynolds and discussed all things horror and Stay Alive! that you can find HERE as well as a separate walk-through of the book and the genre HERE. Go check them out, and happy gaming!
- Joann Walles