Tuesday, October 6, 2009

RPGs I Like: Fear Itself

RPG Items I Like: Fear Itself

I already talked about the core system (Gumshoe) for Fear Itself in a previous here-- that's worth reading before hitting this which talks about a particular execution of that system. Fear Itself uses Gumshoe for the "bystanders in peril" type of horror game. Here the untrained, innocent or just plain broken end up caught up in terrifying situations. The choice to follow up The Esoterrorists with another horror focused game for the Gumshoe system is an interesting one. Here we have relatively weaker characters with no support or recourse-- a set up explicitly focused on the the game theme discussion, as opposed to the trained agents of The Esoterrorists. I found myself comparing Fear Itself a little to the previous game- which I reviewed here.

I'll focus on the core book for Fear Itself here. That clocks in at a slim 90 pages, soft bound. I have a first printing copy which has fairly stiff paper and card-stock cover. That's bent pretty quickly, with the odd warping that kind of volume can get. The lamination also peeled back quickly on my cover the back cover. I suspect that Pelgrane's likely fixed this in later printings (they certainly did so for other products). The color cover art's pretty creepy-- to the point where my wife habitually turns it over to the back when she sees it laying out. The interior has generally good black and white illustrations, fitting with the mood.

The game jumps in right away with a discussion of character types- focusing on the archetypes of characters who fit into these kinds of scenarios: the Good Girl, Jock, Brain, Burn Out etc. The system suggests that certain kinds of characters be restricted to a a single instance: the combat/investigator type and the psychic. These are more mechanical definition than the archetypes present but the game rightly points out that players tend to gravitate to these kinds of characters (or at least some players do). The other limiting factor here is that taking either of these types requires taking on a lot of extra baggage-- the combat/investigator type is cut off from any usual resources (a disgraced detective no one trusts, a bumbling novice no one listens to, a weirdo who has alienated everyone) and probably has some other problems that call his skills into question. The psychic's even more at risk, in that such powers are by their nature unreliable and may open the character up to the machinations of the supernatural.

I like this set up- we have a brief discussion of the premise and then get to the point-- that the characters will be at the center of the story and will have to be designed within the limits of the genre. It does a good job of reinforcing the atmosphere and establish how different this will be than your usual horror game.

The character creation discussion also adds a few other new elements for the Gumshoe system. Risk Factors for characters serve as the motivations that keep the characters running into danger. If the audience is screaming "Just Get Out of There!" these are why the characters don't listen. They include things like Greedy, Oblivious, Vengeful and of course the ever popular Horny. The game also asks players to define "the worst thing they ever did" for their characters-- a tool for the GM to play on themes of guilt and fear. Both of these elements provide a nice structure for reinforcing the genre with the system.

If keeping with that feeling characters end up built on a fairly small pool of points. fear Itself presents a much smaller set of Investigative Abilities than The Esoterrorists. Most of the highly specialized or academic ones get bundled together into a more general ability. The game also 'caps' some abilities. For example, the player who has taken the combat person for the game sets the bar for things like Shooting. If they have it at X, any other player can only buy it up to ½ X. The game adds about five pages of discussion for Psychic Powers (of six flavors). Some work like General Abilities which means players have a limited pool of points to spend to bump rolls. Other have their own mechanics. I'm generally in favor of having some symmetry in rules within a rules group, but given the small number of powers available this doesn't really bother me.

Fear Itself includes some further discussion of the concept of Stability, which functions as a General ability. Think of this as Sanity in Call of Cthulhu (or Humanity or the like in other systems). Characters tie their Stability into ideas or things which keep them sane. They complement this with a "personal goal". While presented in the section with the Stability rules, these goals function more as a general motivation for the character in play. Lastly, Fear Itself has some optional rules on Affinities and Enmities, where the character talks to the other players about how that character is likely to be seen by others.

Character creation and general discussion takes up about the first thirty pages of the volume. The rules, mechanics and structure of play take up the next eighteen pages. The rules remain fairly light and general. Weapons, for example, pretty much range in damage modifier from -2 to +1-- that's it. That's appropriate for the genre-- where physical confrontation and action can be risky and often ineffective. The rules present the ideas well, with plenty of examples and sidebars to help flesh things out.

The GM section which follows again focuses on what makes this game fit with this genre. It begins with a fairly lengthy sidebar comparing the horror presented here to that of the previous game, The Esoterrorists. If I keep referencing that distinction, in part that comes from the game doing that as well. You get about four pages of monsters/adversaries with less in the way of mechanics of stats. Again that's deliberate. There's a suggestion that another Pelgrane product The Book of Unremitting Horror would serve as a good companion book for the GM. About six pages of GM advice talk about how to keep the authorities away from the players, the idea of floating core clues which can be picked up in any scene and how to make the horror personal for the characters.

After an oddly placed section of tips for players (coming after the GM section), we get a pretty lengthy scenario for Fear Itself (23 pages). While this could be played in a single session, it still feels like it would more comfortably fit over two or three game nights, depending on the group. The length and detail of the scenario is pretty deliberate. Laws takes to time to provide pretty concrete answers and advice to how a GM might handle problem situations. It contains a great example of how one might structure these kinds of games.

Overall, I like Fear Itself-- but it is for a group willing to play the relatively powerless which may not fit for some players. One of the posters on rpggeek made a point to me that this game by its nature has less combat and other incidents which means that it relies on the General Ability resolution mechanic less than The Esoterrorists does. That's a point in the favor of this game, given (as I said in my Gumshoe system review) the weakness of that part of the game system.

I guess one of the important questions for gamers would be, if you want to see the Gumshoe system, which book should you pick up. If you want to run a mystery horror game-- I'd suggest Fear Itself as it does have more discussion of character-centered problems and stability. However if you're just looking to use Gumshoe to simulate general mysteries, I'd say The Esoterrorists is a cleaner presentation of the base system.

Small Sidebar Point: One of the small things that bothers me in the presentation of the material is that it does seem to focus on certain Western tropes. It states that it echoes slasher films and other straight horror where there's some mystery to be solved (for example some of the 1970's Satanic conspiracy films, The Unborn, Witchboard). However what I think this game would be great for simulatingome of the more interesting Asian horror films (Ju-On, Uzamaki, Ringu, The Eye, One Missed Call, Audition and the like). I'd have like to have seen some reference to those movies and ideas.

Portability: How portable are the ideas here for other games? The Gumshoe investigative system is probably the best and most easily ported system from this game. The other materials are interesting and might give a GM of horror some good general ideas, but less in the way of specific plot hooks or stories. In other words, it isn't a sourcebook. The adventure at the end is strong and could be adapted over to other systems.


  1. I haven't read this game in a while, but I was struck by how explicitly expendable the PCs are. Once things go to hell, PCs will drop like flies.

    I can't remember if there's a replacement system after your PC dies.

    I like the idea that being psychic makes you MORE vulnerable to psychic attacks. It builds in game balance.

    Again, glad you're back to blogging!

  2. I'd say that's one of the problems with the game actually-- it mentions that it can emulate slasher films or the like, but it doesn't talk about the implications of a high body count. It could benefit from that as well as perhaps some discussion of the structural requirements of a one-shot versus and ongoing series in a setting like that.

    There's a weird contradiction between the idea of the terminal hero and the general focus and premise of rpgs (at least as we've been playing them over the last several years).