The Plain People of Gaming: Diving Into Escape Pools

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.

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