“…the only thing that we have to fear is Fear Itself
-- Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933)
is the second horror themed RPG published by Pelgrane Press utilising its Gumshoe
investigative rules. There are therefore not surprisingly similarities, between this game and its predecessor The Esoterrorists
, also penned by Robin D. Laws. Fear Itself
can be played entirely without the use of The Esoterrorists
but they both contain rules and advice that may be of use to each other. Both games make use of the mythology of the “Outer Black,” first explored in Pelgrane Press’ excellent Book of Unremitting Horror
for the d20 System
and use the innovative Gumshoe
rules to aid investigative role-playing.
There are however also significant differences. Whereas The Esoterrorists dealt with player characters that were ultra-competent members of a well-resourced and well-connected secret organisation, the player characters in Fear Itself are just ordinary individuals catapulted through no fault of their own (sometimes) into a world of horror -- be it the “slasher” movie tradition of films like Scream and Friday the 13th and their myriad sequels to the ghost stories of M. R. James.
First off, the artwork is fantastic -- it perfectly evokes the mood of the game from the colour cover to the black and white (and various shades of grey in between) interior art by French artist Jérôme Huguenin. The book’s interior layout features spiral bound notebooks, glass phials and saws in the margins -- all nicely suggestive of disturbing paraphernalia.
If you are familiar with the Gumshoe system, perhaps you might want to skip the next couple of paragraphs.
If on the other hand you are not familiar with The Esoterrorists and the Gumshoe rules, they are very simple and easy to pick up. There are no traditional attributes per se to describe your strength, dexterity, intelligence, etc. Characters are described by two sets of Abilities -- Investigative and General. The Investigative Abilities are used to find clues be it by examining scenes, interviewing people, or researching background information in a local library. To actually investigate something, a player character spends a point from an appropriate Investigative Ability to discover a clue. The more points he spends, the more information he gets. The judgement comes both in the players deciding how much of their Investigative Ability points to spend in a given situation and in interpreting the results afterwards… (This is a great mechanic for running more mundane criminal investigation role-playing games if your tastes run to the Crime genre instead.)
The more players there are, the fewer points they will have to allocate to Investigative Abilities. It is important that all the players during character generation co-operate so that together they have all the different Investigative Abilities covered between them or else they may find themselves handicapped during the course of their inquires. This is the same as in The Esoterrorists, but unlike that game the number of technical investigative skills has been shrunk to just three to reflect the mundane untrained nature of the player characters.
There are however, new rules to allow PCs to possess psychic powers, which are classed as part of the Investigative Abilities. Seven different psychic abilities are described: Aura Reading (sadly left off the character sheet), Medium (“…is anybody there?”), Messenger (a spirit guide communicates with the psychic via automatic writing or drawing during a trance or through whispers on a tape recording), Premonition (suffer mystical, but vague visions of the what is yet to come), Remote Viewing (or clairvoyance), Sensitivity (sensing psychic residue of emotions imprinted on an object or place in the recent past) and Synchronicity (observing random events that seem to produce meaningful coincidences). Whilst the rules advise you to only have one in a group due to the psychic’s vulnerability to mental attacks, one of the more intriguing campaign ideas is for a group composed entirely of psychics.
There are 14 different General Abilities, which include everything from the ubiquitous Fleeing ability (running away), Health (being able to take damage) and Stability (mental health). Sometimes the survivors are the ones with the fastest legs or at the very least faster than the slowest person in the group, as any player of Munchkin Cthulhu will tell you… All player characters get 60 build points to allocate to their player character amongst these skills. However a player can’t just assign all 60 points to say his character’s Fleeing ability. The player must assign sufficient points to another skill at half the rating of the highest ability. So if you wanted a character with a General Ability rating of 30, you could have say, Fleeing 30, Health 15 and Stability 15! Not the most rounded of individuals to play though…
The game mechanic for General Abilities is very simple -- 1d6 is rolled to beat a Difficulty Number set by the GM, the roll modified by points spent from the General Ability being used. To accentuate the players’ discomfort, the GM never reveals exactly what the Difficulty Number was, which may range from anywhere between 2 (easy) and 8 (very difficult).
When a character runs out of points to spend for that ability, he must wait until he can rest safely before he can regain his lost ability points. The recovery of Health and Stability points operates differently however, and are harder to recover from losses inflicted by wounds and sanity blasting encounters.
In the original Star Wars RPG by West End Games, players created characters based on the template of stereotypical characters to help re-enforce the genre, and in Fear Itself players are similarly encouraged. Players can choose from the jock/stud, good girl/guy, brain, sexy girl, etc. This is an idea that appears to a lesser extent in the original D20 version of the Book of Unremitting Horror, but here there are more templates to choose from. Psychics and combat/ investigation experts are generally restricted to one per group. (But if you wanted to recreate Aliens or Dog Soldiers you could always bend the rules…)
There are excellent notes for players on how to play the game and not exactly survive, but get the most out of it. There are also plenty of staging hints for the GM and some interesting observations about the horror genre (like how we have all gotten all too used to the Cthulhu Mythos). There are a lot of tips for running the game in a very cinematic style -- staging flashbacks in the game based on player character Enmities and Affinities with other player characters and Risk Factors to ensure that player characters really do all those really stupid things in movies that players would never dream of doing ever, like opening that box, entering the woods late at night, or descending those steps into the cellar... (Like some players need an excuse to do daft stuff!)
To help keep track of all the player character details (or hooks), like the Risk Factors, Enmities, and Affinities, there is the Matrix of Misery -- a GM aide at the back of the book. Except it is too small -- blow it up to A3 size on a photocopier if you want one a half decent size to write on.
If you have bought a copy of The Esoterrorists you may find some repetition of material from that book. Another niggle is the lack of monsters - there are only two! (Both from the Book of Unremitting Horror and only one of them has stats -- but it is so awesomely powerful it really can have any stats it likes really...) But with the recent publication by Pelgrane of the Gumshoe version of the Book of Unremitting Horror this has been sorted. (And if anything, the new version seems to have made a previously good RPG supplement even better!)
This is very much a game of personal horror -- so be prepared to be even more creeped out than usual here. Whereas Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu and the White Wolf’s World of Darkness horror RPGs are written with a PG sensibility in mind, Fear Itself positively encourages an 18-certificate style here. NPCs in the featured scenario in the book “Ocean in the Forest” (or “Ocean in the Fores” according to the contents page) include victims of rape, alcoholism, a child murder, drug addicts, and animal cruelty. It’s also a rather elaborate and engaging scenario where the PCs are LARPers attending a “professional” tournament. So you have the clever conceit of the players playing player characters playing a game, which in turn has another sinister game being played out in turn with the player characters during the course of the scenario. All the horrors of modern life are here… Plus in its one shot format, players will be in suspense as to whether their characters are destined to live or die by the end of the scenario, rather than the GM being held hostage to the demands of longer term play keeping the PCs alive to reach the very end of the campaign. The problem with the scenario is like the film Psycho it doesn’t end where you expect it too and after the opening intense moments of the scenario, it slowly give way to a meandering investigation that eventually leads to further actions being required to end the menace before it ends the PCs…
If you want to go off the well-beaten path (being aficionados of the horror genre -- you’ll wander…) and want to try something different, then this game is for you. It emulates the cinematic horrors of everything from Scream to Twenty Eight Days Later. You could even recreate the classic ghost stories of literature or the J-Horror of The Ring or horror Manga like the Lovecraft-esque Uzamaki if you so wished. But the main thrust of the writing is that of an indy-style RPG of cinematic horror, emphasising one-off play and in this respect it succeeds admirably – most of the time. A bit like this review really… Has it ended yet? No? Well, maybe it will soon or maybe it wo-