A glimpse behind the curtain into the mysterious world of a DrivethruRPG Feature Reviewer. We get a ton of material. We download the stuff that we think we may review. We read it carefully and if it warrants it due to our own personal idiosyncrasies, we review it. Otherwise we discard it. Some of us (me) discard practically everything, others review much more. I really only keep material if it does something interesting, or relates to a game I'm immediately playing or about to play, or a topic that I'm currently thinking about.
So when In Dark Alleys came across a while back, I glanced at it, because I'm doing a horror game right now and I'm thinking a lot about horror games and what makes a good one, and honestly I didn't really think that much about it. Abandoned appeared a little later, and for some reason I decided to check it out and oh my gosh. I am very glad that I did. This is a horror supplement that shows a real understanding of what horror is all about, so much so that I'm definitely going back to In Dark Alleys to see what I clearly missed the first time around!
Abandoned is a supplement centered around seven abandoned places: a mysterious small town evacuated by the government, a bypassed subway station, a cursed asylum, a haunted house, apartments, a cannery occupied by a monstrous liquid, and an evil tower that does not exist on Earth. What elevates it above most other horror supplements that I often see is that the monsters and awful places it presents are inextricably connected to real-world traumas, anxieties and fears.
Why is Carrie such a good novel and movie? Because of anxieties men and our society have about women and the porous borderline between helpless girl and effective woman which imposes those anxieties on us. The character of Carrie amplifies those anxieties, makes them concrete and real. Why is Alien such a good horror movie? It posits that the unknown is insanely, unrelentingly hostile, can hide anywhere - including inside us - and that the authorities are on the side of the bad guy. These are all anxieties and fears that we can still have about the unknown in our lives. We don't specifically fear an alien will kill us or that a girl's telekinetic powers will tear us to pieces even if we've been nice to her, but these horror scenarios work because they relate to fears that the real-world reader can connect with. Abandoned does the same thing.
For example, Tranquil Lake is the small town, evacuated by the government due to an alleged chemical spill. To a certain extent it's a Silent Hill stand-in, but unlike some other Silent Hill-a-likes, it recognizes that the best Silent Hill games express the psychological disconnection of the protagonists - they stumble into Silent Hill, unsure of why they're there, but the situations and creatures they face echo problems or traumas they have had outside the town. Similarly, a type of player character introduced in the game is someone who lived in Tranquil Lake and was evacuated as a child. Their strange memories and compulsions mirror to some extent those that suffered child abuse may have...and it compels them to look into Tranquil Lake's situation, giving them an intense personal stake in the matter. When we hear about child abuse we imagine ourselves as children, our helplessness, how formative those experiences are to ourselves. Even if we didn't suffer abuse ourselves, we feel anxiety about the possibility of it. We connect with characters who are compelled to find out the truth about their childhood, even if it's awful to discover.
Lots of horror games put "warnings" on the first few pages, but Abandoned absolutely needs it. These are games that call to mind childhood traumas, sexual traumas, fears about our bodies, fears about what we eat, fears of getting lost, fears of getting trapped in an enclosed space, fears of drowning...I love horror books, movies and games and I don't have a lot of actual stomach-turning moments, normally I feel glee when watching or playing through a character's horrible situations, but Abandoned had more than one time when I stopped reading, thinking "that's really scary". So I can pretty much promise you that this supplement is going to push your buttons in some way and if you don't want that, don't buy it.
The one abandoned location that doesn't have the same kind of well-directed psychological reality is the Grey Tower. This is more of a Lovecraftian Dreamlands situation, and has the problem that random exploration is punished with horrible results, so random exploration within the Tower (as opposed to trying to find out what happened in Tranquil Lake or at the cannery) is not likely to persist after a couple of attepmts, thus bypassing the rest of the material in the tower. It's the only location that's not really as well-turned psychologically as the rest.
There's also a simplified version of the In Dark Alleys system provided to make it a standalone game. Honestly, the advantage of playing a "Tranquilite" in experiencing Tranquil Lake is so significant I almost would make it mandatory. Stephen King's protagonists don't just stumble across situations - it's always related to something that happened to them in the past. More horror games should take advantage of connecting the past of the characters to the horror they're currently experiencing.
Finally, there's an introductory section detailing how to create your own horrific abandoned place, describing the mechanics of abandoned buildings and locations in the modern world, and how terrible situations may come about.
If you want a horror supplement that really understands the role that psychology plays in horror fiction, get Abandoned. At the current price (only $5), it's absolutely a steal. It surprised the hell out of me with its detail and wide variety of fears and anxieties. Now I've got to go back and check out In Dark Alleys to see if it's as good!