Carnivals have always exuded a faint fetor of menace. Itinerant strangers come to town, some of them dressed as clowns, and try to trick you or exploit the basest depths of your curiosity. They exist to break down boundaries, give you permission to indulge, and then move on, leaving you, the seemingly innocent townsfolk, to reckon with what you got up to under the garish light of the midway.

When you set a scene in a Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, or Esoterrorists scenario at a sideshow or circus, the players know to expect creepiness.

You know what the real story is. But what are the rumors the investigators encounter before parting the wrong curtain and finally beholding that terrible truth?

Here are 7 rumors for townsfolk and carnies to spout at the PCs before the real horror surfaces.

  1. “They did a test on the corn dogs and found that 1% of the contents were human flesh.”
  2. “Last year when the carnival came by Mamie Jones just up and vanished. The sheriffs caught up with them down in Dixville but they said they’d never laid eyes on her.”
  3. “Before the authorities clamped down on the freak show, they had an alligator man who was a little too real, if you know what I mean.”
  4. “Some of the most prominent people in our town worship the devil. And their high priest and priestess are the owners of this carnival, who travel from place to place renewing the vows of apparently ordinary folk to Satan himself.”
  5. “They stopped using their old Ferris wheel. Ten years one of the cars came loose and a girl fell to her death. That old ride was haunted. People who rode by themselves would sometimes look over and see her, weeping gluey tears from her faceless head. I don’t suppose a ghost could transfer from an old Ferris wheel to a new one, could it?”
  6. “Last year one of the roustabouts lost an eye in a bar fight. Guys from the local mill started it. I wouldn’t be surprised if some bloody revenge broke out later tonight.”
  7. “A friend of my cousin’s went into that hall of mirrors back in the 90s. He stepped outside and he coulda sworn he was in the 1890s! He turned around and ran back in and says he can’t even look at a mirror nowadays.”

And as always, if the players care more about a tall tale than they do about the main plot line, why maybe it’s not so untrue after all…

One day, the mystery of the Ocean Game will be revealed. Until then, hints and fragments skitter at the edge of perception in articles like this. Art and setting text by Dave Allsop. 

 The Phantom Birds bear a strong resemblance to Earth’s Marabou Storks – spindly, ugly, carrion creatures with bald, scab-encrusted heads. Phantom Birds tend to be much larger though, possessing all too human eyes, and the ability to talk. When found in Briny Heaven they are crowned with rusty metal halos.

The appearance or arrival of Phantom Birds is regarded as prophetic; it can mean that the Mystery Man is nearby, or that characters are approaching a region that has a strong Outer Dark influence (like the Outskirts).

The purpose of the Phantom Birds as yet remains unclear. In Trenker’s diary he refers them as the ‘angels of Briny Heaven’, but he also refers to other nonhuman entities as angels too. It is possible that these avian monsters are mutated Ocean Game players. Perhaps they failed the Mystery Man in some way, or are have simply morphed into these forms after too much exposure to the Outer Dark.

Phantom Birds are most commonly associated with ‘Monkey’ players as they are attracted to horror, extreme violence, and bloodshed; when their scalps bleed profusely it is an indication of their arousal. Phantom Birds often gather on the verges of murder scenes to copulate. Phantom Birds are rarely, if ever witnessed by ordinary people, even when they gather in large flocks.

Verbally, Phantom Birds are mostly unresponsive. They tend to dislike humans but will exchange information, and trade spells and secrets for carrion, or the gory details of a crime scene they’re attending. Deals with Phantom Birds usually come to grief.

Abilities: Aberrance 3, Athletics 6, Fleeing 12, Health 12, Scuffling 7

Hit Threshold: 4

Armor: +1 vs Shooting

Awareness Modifier: -1

Stealth Modifier: -1

Damage Modifier: +2 (beak) or +1 (claws)

Death-Memory Beak: By plunging its spectral beak into the heart of a living human and spending 2 Aberrance, the Phantom Bird forces its victim to experience the death of another living creature that died nearby. The victim must make a Stability test immediately, the magnitude of which depends on the type of death. If it’s just, say, the death of a rat from natural causes, then it might be only a 2-point test. If someone got murdered by a Creature of Unremitting Horror, then it’s a 6-point test or more. And if the Stability tested is failed, the victim takes extra damage equal to the magnitude of the Stability test, and the wounds resemble the cause of death. Experience the death of a poisoned rat, and you might take 2 extra points of damage from phantasmal strychnine. This is in addition to the usual +2 damage modifier from a beak attack.

Gory Details: Birds gain 2 Aberrance at a murder scene or in the presence of a suitably gory carcass or sacrifice. If the investigators share or uncover more details about the killing, the birds gain 1 Aberrance per significant detail shared.

Birds with Aberrance scores of 6 or more are amiable to Interpersonal abilities like Negotiation.

Thin The Membrane: Phantom Birds may spend Aberrance to temporarily thin the local Membrane. It costs 5 points of Aberrance to do so, which reduces all Aberrance and Psychic Power point spend costs by 1 for a few minutes, and makes it easier to travel between Earth and the Outer Dark. The birds may even be willing to carry a passenger across the threshold, or (if they have enough Aberrance to thin the Membrane twice) carry a passenger from one place on Earth to another, taking a short-cut through the Outer Dark.

A rules option for GUMSHOE horror games

In situations where a Sense Trouble test might reveal the presence of danger from an otherworldly or eerie source, offer the players a chance to pay a price later in exchange for a benefit now.

One player gets an automatic success at a Sense Trouble test by agreeing to take on a Stability penalty that lasts for the rest of the scenario. Let’s call this a Stability Handicap.

In the typical situation in which Sense Trouble merely allows the element of surprise in a fight already guaranteed to happen, that penalty is -1.

If the test lets them entirely avoid a significant hazard or skip a fight with something nasty they don’t want or need to tangle with, the penalty rises to -2.

In the story, the moment represents a sudden flash of eerie awareness, attuning the recipient to eldritch energies. Depending on the situation, you might narrate:

  • a jackhammering heart
  • the nearly overwhelming urge to vomit
  • a jolt of rootless anxiety
  • an epiphany of cosmic dread
  • the appearance of a rash, welts, or other psychic injuries
  • an overpowering smell unsensed by anyone else present
  • an awful vision of monstrous violence that surfaces in the mind for a split-second and is then immediately suppressed

Make this a rare option, keyed to specific story events. You may decide that it only makes sense for characters already exposed to the supernatural, or those who have succumbed in some way to its influence.

Offer it only when the rest of the scenario holds out the possibility of at least 2 Stability tests.

The more physical symptoms for the Sense Trouble success might instead call for an Athletics or Scuffling Disadvantage. Instead of increasing your mental vulnerability, that rash that came out of nowhere makes it harder to throw punches.

For an additional fraught choice, you could even let the player choose which of the three abilities to Disadvantage. In that case you can allow the Disadvantage even if you aren’t sure that 2 or more tests of each ability still remain in the scenario. Correctly predicting which Disadvantage will hurt the least becomes part of the player’s challenge. Here the cost lies in the anxiety of decision making as much as in any actual penalties dished out in later scenes. If players always guess right, and Handicaps start to feel like a free gift, make sure they pay the piper next time around. See to that a penalty happens, in a situation with truly harrowing stakes.

fearcovercloseupFear Itself 2nd Edition introduces the concept of an Escape Pool (p. 70), a set of rules for fleeing a horrific situation instead of following the trail of clues into the darkness. It’s a simple idea – the player characters build up a pool of points by discovering clues, spending investigative ability points, and passing general ability tests. When they’ve got enough points in their collective pool, they can try to leave by spending points from their Escape Pool to make one final collective Escape test. Succeed at that, and the characters escape the scenario. Fail, and the Escape points spent are lost, plus the Gamemaster is obliged to hit them with a nasty hazard.

Let’s unpack the Escape Pool concept a little more.

Escaping Doesn’t Mean It’s Over

Just because the player characters have escaped the current bad situation doesn’t mean the danger’s over. Escaping is always a temporary solution compared to actual dealing with the supernatural threat. For example, you set up an adventure where the player characters visit an isolated holiday camp in the woods, only to discover it’s crawling with vampires. Rather than descend into the dark caves beneath the woods to slay the King Vampire, the players flee across country, pursued by vampires, until they finally reach the nearest town just as dawn breaks and the undead flee. They’ve escaped! They survive! Game over…

… only the vampires are still out there. You can run a sequel to that adventure where the vampires pursue the characters to their home town, and the only way to put an end to the undead menace is to go back to Vamp Camp and slay that King Vampire. (Of course, this time the players have a chance to tool up with stakes and holy water.)

Escape Doesn’t Mean Getting Away Clean

It’s perfectly sporting and entirely in-genre to throw in one final threat, even if the players succeed at their Escape test. Look at Alien for example – the Nostromo crew try to escape as soon as they discover the Company deliberately sent them to LV-426. They build an Escape Pool, but only Ripley survives to make the Escape test… and even when she succeeds, there’s still that last battle with the Alien in the lifepod. (For that matter, half of Aliens is about another group of player characters assembling an Escape Pool, but then Ripley’s Risk Factor gets triggered when Newt is dragged into the depths.)

So, the player characters stagger out of the woods and into the town just as dawn breaks – but the clerk in that 24-hour convenience store is a vampire too! Shock twist!

Escape Doesn’t Mean Leaving

Really, an Escape Pool is just a plot stress mechanic, ala various Fate incarnations. It’s a progress bar that ends the scenario once it fills up. The basic version of the Escape Pool is “we are trapped in an isolated place with no obvious way to leave”, but you can generalise it to “bad things are happening to us and we want them to stop”. You could allow the characters “escape” the psychic serial killer who’s preying on their dreams if they build an Escape Pool out of Interpersonal spends and discovering clues about Ojibwe dream-catchers and making Shrink tests, instead of following the clues that would lead them to uncover the serial killer’s real identity as a coma patient. Escape Pools don’t have to involve isolation and physical barriers.

Let The Players Build The Pool

As a Gamemaster, you don’t need to include Escape Pool options in your adventure in advance. Escape Pools don’t need to be planned as carefully as chains of Core Clues; instead, let the players come up with inventive uses for the investigative abilities (can I use Photography to have a weird filter on my digital camera that lets us see the alien hyperdimensional web filaments so we can navigate around them?).

Failed Escapes Can Give Clues

Give a big clue every time the players fail an Escape test. This cushions the blow of the failed test, and also means the players aren’t frustrated when they spend half the session building their pool, only to blow it by rolling a 1.  At the same time, failing an escape roll puts the player characters’ fate in the Gamemaster’s hands, and there’s no guarantee they’ll survive. For example, if the player characters try to escape a haunted mansion by building a bomb that can blast open the mysterious failed front door, and fail their roll, then maybe the explosion sends them plummeting into the basement where they find that the house was built atop a Satanic temple – and that Bob landed heart-first on that altar with a nasty big sacrificial spike…

Give clues even if only some of the player characters attempt Escape. The survivors can benefit from their comrade’s unheroic sacrifice.

If the failed attempt depleted the Escape Pool, then the players will often seize on that clue to lead them back into the mystery. (“Well, the boat’s sunk and there’s no way off the island. I guess we’d better go correlate the contents of human knowledge and face the primordial terrors.”)

Make It A Bloody Race

There’s a reason that the Escape test’s target number is based on the number of player characters trying to escape – it’s designed to rewards survivors and traitors. If some of the player characters get killed before the group attempts to escape, they’ve got extra points to spend. Similarly, if one player decides to abandon the rest and tries to escape, that one player can use the Escape Pool points accrued by the entire group. Escape Pools work best in fast-paced, violent horror games, not moody slow-burn investigations.

Similarly, you can offer nasty bargains where the players get to spend points from the Escape Pool on other tests (“Ok, Bob, you just failed your Hiding test, so the monster knows where you are… but I’ll let you spend points from the group’s Escape Pool to make up the difference if you want. So, do you want to drain six Escape Points from the pool in order to stay hidden?”), or even have clues become available in exchange for Escape Point spends. (“Does anyone want to spend a point of Notice, or three points from the Escape Pool?”)

Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Dwellers break through the membrane separating us from the Outer Dark as solitary predators. They live in lakes and ponds in underpopulated areas. Dwellers find their most fruitful hunting grounds in or near parks and camp sites. They often select spots connected to a murder, tragic accident, or other dark urban legend. When such legends do not exist prior to the dweller’s appearance, its activities soon generate them.

Dwellers can’t be observed directly, though the water they displace as they move toward a shoreline is certainly visible. Their movements may be mistaken for those of a large fish, tortoise, or semi-aquatic mammal.

They attack when people approach the shore alone. The dweller surges onto a leg or arm, using an invisible tubule to inject a parasitic pseudo-larva into the bloodstream. This migrates into the victim’s brain, turning him into a serial killer—often with a theatrical flair for killing, each brutal slaying more elaborate than the last. Outside of the homicidal fugue states caused by the parasite, the subject retains normal consciousness and motivations. When the parasite activates and the red fog descends, the killer often affects a rudimentary mask meant as much to terrify as to conceal identity. This might be a rubber Halloween mask, a hockey mask, or the flayed, cured skin of an early victim.

Safely in a nearby body of water, the dweller receives fearful psychic energy generated by the killer’s attacks, using them to further pierce the membrane. It may go dormant for a period after authorities capture or shoot down the murderer. After a while, it injects another subject, commencing a new cycle of murders. Such recurrences may inspire rumors that the original killer has returned, somehow rendered immortal, perhaps as an eternal physical manifestation of man’s urge to slay man. Like all sources of cognitive alarm these tales also thin the membrane.

The dweller itself offers little physical threat if caught: an Ordo Veritatis agent once bludgeoned one to death with a canoe paddle. In another instance a grenade tossed into a pond did the trick. But if the parasite victim has yet to be apprehended, the murders will continue.


Use dwellers in The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself.

The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Mario Bava’s final film, 1977’s Shock, offers up exactly the dreamlike take on the psi-horror cycle of the period you’d hope for from him. Ultimately it goes in a more supernatural direction than more pseudoscience-oriented titles like Carrie, The Fury, Firestarter, or Scanners. That’s just one of the ways in which it prefigures Kubrick’s The Shining. Seven years after her first husband’s death, a woman moves her son and current husband into the old house. It doesn’t take long for the kid to turn into both a psychokinetic and psychosexual menace.

Psi-horror picked up in the 70s as the demon horror cycle initiated off by The Exorcist trailed off. The Omen can be seen as a transitional title, with a definitively demonic kid killing from a distance in a decidedly psionic way.

Our current demonic horror cycle, which has merged with the haunted house movie and is typified by the Paranormal Activity series, has now gone on longer than the original 70s wave. I keep wondering if a psi revival will follow it. Certainly attempts have been made, like Beyond the Black Rainbow, but so far they’ve been more about evoking retro influences than tapping into the current zeitgeist.

The most popular property to draw on this imagery lately has been “Orphan Black”, though it’s more on the thriller side of the fence than an example of pure horror.

For a psi-horror one-shot or limited series, I’d use Fear Itself, dropping the supernatural trappings of the Outer Dark for weird pseudoscience. The straight up version would have the group of ordinary people at first menaced by the TK or firestarting powers of a pint-sized GMC relative or charge. Then they have to get the kid to safety as the evil corporation or government research agency responsible for the forgotten experiment. You could steal some Night’s Black Agents mechanics for the ensuing chase scenes, especially if you then bring in elements of the spy genre, the way “Orphan Black” does.

Or you could start out that way, going for Bourne-meets-Scanners, with adult experimental subjects waking up to their new powers (borrowed from Mutant City Blues), then having to figure out who did this to them before they get captured and packed off to the vivisection lab.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Blood CorpseThe revised edition of Fear Itself offers a toolkit approach to building campaigns. Let’s use that toolkit to build that hoary staple of the horror roleplaying genre – a zombie apocalypse. One-shot zombie games tend to be extended exercises combat-and-running (brainless, or braaaaiiins-full fun, so to speak), so let’s tackle the more interesting question of running a multi-session zombie campaign.

Investigative Abilities

The first step is to think about what the players are going to be doing in the average session, and – since this is GUMSHOE – what sort of clues they’ll be looking for. In a zombie apocalypse game, the two key mysteries to be solved are “how do we survive” and “what caused the zombies?”, so we’ll need abilities to give clues related to those two questions.

Next, start with the default Fear Itself ability list, and check each ability to see if it fits a zombie game.

Academic

History: Gone – the old world’s been washed away.

Humanities: Overly formal for a post-apocalyptic game. We’ll slot in that perennial GUMSHOE favourite of Architecture in here instead, as buildings and the securing of entrances is key.

Medicine: Definitely staying. In fact, if we’re going with disease-based zombies, let’s add Diagnosis as a separate ability (aka Spot Bite Marks).

Languages: Staying.

Law: Gone.

Occult Studies: Gone.  

Research: Still useful enough to justify its presence.

Social Sciences: The title’s a little formal, so we’ll change it to Sociology – having an ability that covers power structure in groups, ad hoc governments and the like is useful in a game that’s going to be about small, desperate communities.

Trivia: Stays.

We’ll also add Military Science to the list, as poking around abandoned military bases and looting civil defense shelters (not to mention securing buildings against hordes of zombies) is definitely going to be a thing.

Interpersonal

Bullshit Detector: Stays.

Bureaucracy: Gone with the bureaucrats.

Cop Talk: Gone. No cops anymore.

Flattery, Flirting, Impersonate, Interrogation, Intimidation, Negotiation, Reassurance can all stay.

Streetwise: Can stay.

We’ll add Leadership as an ability, so characters can inspire their allies and awaken the better natures of people they meet.

Technical

Computer Use: Let’s rephrase this as Engineering, and have it cover a wider range of technical topics – electrical engineering, security systems, and so on.

Investigative Procedure: Really, this ability should go – there’s no need for forensics in this genre – but it comes up enough in actual play that it’s still useful. While genre emulation is one goal to design towards, it’s not the only one. Still, this one’s on the borderline compared to its importance in regular Fear Itself, so we’ll keep an eye on it in play and see if it’s still worth having as a separate ability.

Notice: Spotting things out of place. Always useful.

Outdoor Survival: Knowledge of natural history; wilderness survival skills. Definitely useful after the end of civilisation.

Photography: Zombie selfies? Zelfies? No, Photography’s gone.

Science: A catch-all for physics, chemistry and related fields. Still useful – doubly so in a post-apocalyptic game, where you’ve got few experts remaining and scientific hyper-specialisation is no longer an issue.

To this list we’ll add Scavenging, covering the ability to spot and retrieve useful treasures from the zombie-infested cities and shopping malls. It’ll partner with Preparedness in the same way Medicine partners with First Aid.

General Abilities

All the regular Fear Itself General Abilities suit a zombie apocalypse game. The one we’ll tweak is Shrink – we’ll downplay the psychological treatment aspect and make it more about inspiration and defiance, and we’ll call it Hope. That means you can have a grizzled survivor who doesn’t flinch in the face of zombie attacks (high Stability) but doesn’t give a damn about you or anyone else (low Hope), or a kid who’s terrified of zombies (low Stability) but inspires you to get yourself together to protect them (spends Hope to bolster your Stability).

So, the final ability list:

Academic

Architecture: Knowledge of building layouts, designs, construction and urban survival.

Humanities: Philosophy, theology, archaeology. A solid Classical education.

Medicine: Covers anatomy, pharmacy, biology and so forth.

Military Science: Knowledge of military tactics and equipment

Languages: You don’t need to pick the Languages you know in advance; you can retroactively choose to know some obscure language if needed.

Research: Digging up information in a library or online.

Sociology: Knowledge of beliefs, power structures and factions.

Trivia: A random assortment of obscure facts that might come in oddly useful.

Interpersonal

Bullshit Detector: Knowing when someone is lying.

Flattery: Getting clues by charming people.

Flirting: Obtaining clues by seducing people.

Impersonate: Pretending to be someone else.

Interrogation: Getting information from someone in a semi-formal debriefing or interview.

Intimidation: Forcing someone to tell you what you want to hear.

Leadership: Taking charge in a situation, co-ordinating effort.

Negotiation: Making deals and trading for information.

Reassurance: Calming people down, coming across as trustworthy and kind to someone suffering from trauma.

Streetwise: Dealing with criminals and the downtrodden.

Technical

Engineering: Building and maintaining complex mechanical or electrical systems

Investigative Procedure*: Forensic investigation.

Notice: Spotting things out of place.

Outdoor Survival: Knowledge of natural history; wilderness survival skills.

Scavenging: Finding useful items in the ruins

Science: A catch-all for physics, chemistry and related fields.

General

Athletics: Running, climbing, acrobatics, dodging. Having Athletics 8+ makes it harder for bad guys to hit you.

Driving: Operating a vehicle.

Filch: Sleight of hand and pick-pocketing.

Fleeing: Running away.

Health: Your physical resilience and fortitude.

Hope: Your belief (or the belief you inspire in others) that this isn’t the end. Restores Stability.

Hiding: Concealing yourself from enemies.

Infiltration: Sneaking, hiding, opening locks.

Mechanics: Repairing or building devices.

Medic: First aid (restores Health)

Preparedness: Having equipment to hand.

Scuffling*: Fighting at close range.

Sense Trouble: Spotting danger before it strikes.

Shooting*: Using a firearm.

Stability: Your mental resilience and sanity.

The Infection Map

One of the suggested group setups in Fear Itself 2 is the Spiral of Misery, where each player character is linked to another, so one by one they’re all dragged into the horror. The tightly bound spiral works in a setting where the ‘normal’ world is still out there – the aim is to isolate the player characters, pulling them out of their ordinary lives and support networks. Here, we’ve the opposite problem – we’re going to destroy the normal world, so we want to give the players something to salvage.

So, as part of campaign setup, we get a big sheet of paper and write the names of the player characters on it. Each player comes up with two or three NPCs who are close to their character – close friends and family members – who get added to the map. Call these NPCs Loved Ones. Next, we add another NPC for each loved one, more or less – call these ones Civilians. These are people who aren’t necessarily important to the player characters, but are close to their Loved Ones. Two or more Loved Ones can share the same Civilian (for example, if two PCs have kids as Loved Ones, they might have the same school teacher).

Draw any other connections on the map that suggest themselves – maybe two Civilians are married, or work in the same place, or are connected to a player character. At the end of the process, you should have a nice spider-web of relationships tracing the social structure of the community that’s about to get overrun by zombies.

Next, add zombies.

The Infection Begins

The GM picks any one Civilian and turns that Civilian into a zombie. The players then take it in turns to pick any Civilian, Loved One or Player Character connected to a zombie to be the target of the next attack (alternatively, the player can choose to Bug Out – see below). Roll a d6 when a Zombie attacks a Loved One or Civilian.

1-2: The target survives and escapes, and is now Safe.

3: The target’s injured in some way – maybe bitten, maybe hurt, or maybe they’ve left something important behind (life-saving medication, for example). They’re Safe – for the moment.

4+: The target’s killed and becomes a zombie.

If a zombie attacks a player character, then run a brief vignette where the player character escapes the zombie horde that’s overrunning the town.

If, by good fortune, there aren’t any valid targets for the zombies (there’s no-one who isn’t Safe or already a zombie for them to chew on), then each player may make one Loved One automatically Safe, and then the GM picks another Civilian to get zombified in a different part of the relationship map.

Bugging Out

At any point, a player can choose to Bug Out and flee town. The player character escapes, along with any Safe characters (Civilians or Loved Ones) connected to them. Any Loved Ones they leave behind that aren’t already Safe or zombified are considered Missing – they’re removed from the relationship map, but aren’t necessarily dead. Finding out their fates is a mystery to be solved in actual play.

Once all the player characters have Bugged Out, the game itself begins.

Shattered Survivors

Player characters lose 4 Stability for each Loved One turned into a zombie, and 2 Stability for each Missing Loved One. They gain 2 Stability for each Safe Loved One.

Redraw the relationship map, removing any zombies or missing characters. What you’re left with is a tattered group of survivors who look to the player characters for protection…

FI2_350Many years ago – the fabled year of 2003, or so – I wrote a largely forgotten book called OGL Horror for Mongoose Publishing. It was designed to be a toolkit for running modern-day horror games, using (somewhat awkwardly) the d20 system. As it was based on the Open Gaming Licence, Pelgrane was able to release a supplement that drew on rules I wrote – the original Book of Unremitting Horror, conceived and illustrated by horror maestro Dave Allsop and developed by fellow ex-Mongoose writer and all-round good chap Adrian Bott.

It was one of those unusual cases where the supplement utterly eclipsed the original book. That d20 Unremitting Horror was reworked as a monster book for the first GUMSHOE game, The Esoterrorists. Shortly afterwards, there followed a second GUMSHOE game that was even more suited to the sort of sordid, ghastly, oppressive – one might  say unremitting horror of the BOUH – Fear Itself. In many ways, it covered the same ground as OGL Horror, only in fewer pages and with greater effect.

I redeveloped Fear Itself for GUMSHOE’s tenth anniversary. A lot of the new material is just applying the accumulated knowledge of those ten years to the text – FE2 discusses how to build mysteries, how to use different types of clues, how to handle investigative spends, and has lots of nuts-and-bolts advice on running GUMSHOE. (It also takes pointers from other horror games – there’s some Dread spliced in, for example). It takes a toolkit approach to horror, encouraging the GM to build the rules and setting around the player characters. (Ken’s Vendetta Run gives an idea of how the game can be stretched to settings other than the modern day, while still retaining its core theme of ‘ordinary people pitted against unremitting horrors.)

As part of that toolkit approach, the book splits into four distinct sections – one covering One-Shots, one for limited-duration Miniseries, and one for open-ended Campaigns (the fourth section covers rules and concepts common to all three styles of play). Most Fear Itself games are one-shots or short series, so I doubled down on this and made changes that support shorter games.

Each section also contains a sample adventure, demonstrating how to adapt the rules to that style of play. So, the one-shot adventure The Circle is designed to be played in a single game session and comes with a set of pregenerated player characters. The Glass Beach Summer miniseries has a built-in finale. The Dispatchers campaign frame attempts to answer the question “why would ordinary people go chasing monsters?”

And oh, there are monsters. A few came visiting from the Book of Unremitting Horror, like the Ovasshi and the Mystery Man, but there are also delightful new monsters like the Cuckoo Mother, the Fat Golem, or the Bystander. Just to balance things, player characters get new abilities like, er, Hiding (it works the same way as Fleeing; it’s a lot cheaper to build a Fear Itself character who’s good at hiding and running away than it is to make one who’s good at sneaking around and any other sort of athletic display.)

Fear Itself 2nd Edition is one more trip around the spiral, circling every closer to that platonic ideal of modern horror. If OGL Horror helped inspire something as beautifully hideous as the original Book of Unremitting Horror, I simultaneously shudder and thrill when I contemplate what Fear Itself 2nd Edition might inspire others to create.

If your town is anything like mine, escape rooms are springing up all over. This new fad gives us a ready-made reason for a group of ordinary people to be thrown together into a horror situation. Here are five Fear Itself scenario hooks that all start with the characters working their way out of an escape room. You can either spend a little time having the group solve the puzzles of the escape room, or start at the moment they open the door and find something awful waiting on the other side.

  1. Trap horror. To start with the obvious, the trap the group paid for could turn out to be deadlier, bigger and more sadistic than the brochure said. When the door opens, it leads to a lethal labyrinth laid out for the pleasure of sicko customers watching via closed circuit TV.
  2. Zombie apocalypse. The group gets out of the room only to find the attendant being feasted upon by a ravenous reanimated corpse. While they were locked in, the outbreak spread to the doorstep of the escape mystery parlor. Cue the survival horror.
  3. Goop / contagion horror. To get one of the keys that unlocks the room door, the group must open a can full of slime. Usually this is just a colored gelatin of some sort but here the unlucky vector character cuts her hand on the can and gets some of it in her bloodstream. It then starts to infect her. As the group tries to find out what was in the can and how it can be countered, they discover that cans of the goop have been placed in escape rooms throughout the area, in a bid to trigger a weird outbreak.
  4. Slasher. The door opens to reveal that the attendant has been brutally murdered. The killer leaves a message warning them that they’re next. This could be the work of a non-paranormal killer doing the most dangerous sport thing, or a sorcerer completing a death ritual to summon the devil / Outer Dark Entity.
  5. Door to hell. The door opens and the group isn’t where they went in. They’ve been transported to a demon dimension. The real escape game has only begun.

We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer,
we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. [We] will control all that you see and hear.

old-small-window-dirty-painted-peeled-paint-black-and-white-Ukraine-army-Soviet-military-building-four-glasses-huge-closeup-wooden-frame-texture-1024x682

Trust is a fundamental but largely unnoticed requirement of the tabletop roleplaying game medium, which makes it ripe for exploitation in a horror game like Fear Itself. Players are effectively blindfolded when playing the game, relying on the Gamemaster to tell them everything they see and hear.

Player: I look around the room. What’s there?

Gamemaster: There’s a table and some chairs. There are letters scattered all over the table, and what looks like blood spilled on the floor. Old, dry blood.

In the usual course of play, all those things that the Gamemaster described are true facts in some platonic in-character reality. By saying “there’s a table there”, both Gamemaster and players agree that there’s a thing in the game that behaves just like a table in the real world. The players may each have a different mental image of what the table looks like – one player imagines it as a little coffee table, another as a great big dinner table, a third as a battered round table salvaged from a bar – but everyone agrees that the table is a table.

The Gamemaster is like a clear pane of glass, diligently conveying the fictional reality to the players.

Obviously, if the Gamemaster flagrantly betrays this trust, the players are going to (entirely justifiably) be annoyed.

Player: I look around the room. What’s there?

Gamemaster: There’s a table and some chairs. There are letters scattered all over the table, and what looks like blood spilled on the floor. Old, dry blood.

Player: I pick up the letters and examine –

Gamemaster: The crocodile eats you.

Player: What crocodile?

Gamemaster: Did I say table? I meant crocodile.

If you undermine that trust a little, though, it can be a devilishly effective tool for subtle horror. You can draw the players’ attention to the strangest details, or subtly corrode the character’s sense of reality. Instead of a clear pane of glass, the Gamemaster is filthy, smudged, warped or cracked(1).

Player 1: I look around the room. What’s there?

Gamemaster: There’s a table and some chairs. There are letters scattered all over the table, and what looks like blood spilled on the floor. Old, dry blood.

Player 1: I pick up the letters and examine –

Gamemaster: As you cross the floor, you notice this pattern in the blood, this shape. It’s like a face looking back at you. For a moment, you swear you recognise it.

Player 1: I examine it more closely.

Gamemaster: It’s hard to find again. You’re walking back and forth, bobbing your head around, trying to get the angle right.

Player 2: Can I look?

Gamemaster: You never saw anything in the blood. It’s just a splatter on the floor.

Or

Player 1: I pick up the letters and examine them.

Gamemaster: Most are in plain brown envelopes, but there’s one in a green envelope.

Player 2: I’ll take a look at that one.

Gamemaster: Which one?

Player 2: The green-envelope one.

Gamemaster: They’re all in brown envelopes. You haven’t seen a green one at all.

You can lend significance to an item, much in the same way that a movie camera might linger on a particular prop or part of the set to fix it in the viewer’s mind as being worth noticing.

Player: I look through the letters.

Gamemaster: They’re all just bank statements, bills, junk mail, that sort of thing. One of them catches your eye – it’s a flyer for a local church. It looks unwholesome to you – the illustration shows this sickly yellow light falling out of a cloud to shine on this skeletal cross. You get the impression that the flyer’s slightly worn around the edges, like someone took it out many times to look at it.

You can play with the emotions and desires of the character, tugging at the usually inviolate connection between the player and the fictional avatar.

Gamemaster: You feel strangely drawn to the bloodstains. Looking at them is pleasurable and weirdly satisfying. It’s like they’re written in a language you don’t quite know, but something in you is learning it.

Or

Gamemaster: Looking at the bloodstains, a feeling of tremendous anger wells up inside you. Your heart’s pounding. Your mouth goes dry. Suddenly, it feels like it’s your blood there on the floor.

The Gamemaster isn’t overriding the player. It’s an unexpected and foreign emotion, not an forced action. It’s still entirely up to the player to decide how to react. Some players will just work this unexpected emotional cast into whatever they going to go anyway.

Player: I try to ignore it. I examine the letters. I’ll spread the letter out on the table to read it, because my hands are shaking so badly.

Others embrace this sort of direction.

Player: I’ll get down on my knees and start licking the blood off the floor.

You can even recruit the other players in your nefarious schemes.

Gamemaster: Ok, guys. Bob’s character lost a lot of Stability last week, and is having trouble connecting to people. So, in this session, whenever Bob starts talking to you in-character, I want you to smoothly rotate your heads to look at him, and give this big fixed leering grin, like this? And then play normally. Pretend that you didn’t do anything weird.

Again, be wary of overusing tricks like this. The aim is to disconcert the players, not make the game frustrating to play – but for a horror game, it’s hard to resist the temptation to exploit the Gamemaster’s position in the medium. You’re perched between the character’s eyes and the character’s brain, like some monstrous parasite. You control everything they see and hear, everything they feel and experience…

Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

[1] This description also works for many GMs even if you drop the metaphor.

Previous Entries