Fear Itself 2nd Ed front cover_350

The Roleplaying Game of Personal Horror

Fear Itself 2nd Edition plunges ordinary people into a disturbing contemporary world of madness and violence —and inexorably draws them into confrontation with creatures of the Outer Dark, a realm of alien menace. GMs can re-create all the shudders and shocks of the horror genre at their table, whether they use the game’s distinctive mythology or one of their own choosing.

Powered by the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, Fear Itself 2nd Edition is ideal for one-shot horror games (where few, if any, of the protagonists are expected to survive), or ongoing campaigns in which the characters gradually discover more about the disturbing supernatural reality that hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the darkness? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death?

This edition features:

  • Support for multiple different types of play, from bloody one-shots to mini-series and extended investigative campaigns
  • Extensive advice for GMs on designing and running mystery games
  • Revised psychic powers
  • More monsters, plus detailed monster design rules
  • Updated rules that draw from more than ten years of GUMSHOE development and play experience, to deliver the ultimate in personal horror roleplaying.

Fear Itself 2nd Edition also includes three sample scenarios—a one-night adventure, a mini-series, and a full campaign:

  • The Circle: An experimental drug trial goes horribly wrong when one of your fellow participants disappears. Figure out what happened to him, or you’re next.
  • Glass Beach Summer: The storm changed everything. We went home, one by one. And then we started to see them. We saw the monsters. At first, we thought the storm had brought them. It was only later that we learned the truth. The storm changed only us. The monsters were always there.
  • The Dispatchers: No backup. No assistance. Just a voice on the radio in the night, asking you for help. In this campaign, unlikely monster hunters are drawn together by the mysterious signal. Can they survive their missions long enough to save themselves?

Read Gareth’s designer’s notes here.

Stock #: PELGF01 Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artist: Dave Allsop, Jérôme Huguenin, Anna Kryczkowska, Ken Miller, Faye Sutherland, Type: 176 page, perfect bound book

Price: $29.95

Buy now

 

They were a chance assembly of people who all happened to have some curious story current in their own family or neighbourhood which had puzzled them, and deserved (as they conceived) further investigation. Each had supposed that his own particular problem was a unique one, and was surprised when he found someone else with a similar or parallel story. It was the discovery that there were so many such tales abroad, far more than anyone had expected, which induced the original founders of the society to form themselves into a club for the investigation and testing of alleged manifestations of the supernatural.

— Sir Charles Oman, “The Old Oxford Phasmatological Society,” JSoc.Psych.Res. 33:622-23 (March-April, 1946)

In his ghost story “The Mezzotint,” M.R. James mentions “the Phasmatological Society” in passing. Often dismissed by Jamesian scholars as another of the master’s fertile inventions, this real ghost-investigating group was founded at Oxford University around 1874 (Oman recalls the date as October 29, 1879, but other sources differ). It continued operating at least until 1886, at some point establishing a chapter in London. The Society appeared in the London Truth as late as 1894; its members included the military historian Sir Charles Oman, Lord Haldane, the Bishop of Gloucester, and other eventually eminent personages.

The phasmatologist at work

They were less eminent as Oxford undergraduates, of course, though still quite well connected. The player characters might be such dilettante investigators, following up on the kind of tales James’ narrators recount as having safely occurred in earlier days or on queer stories that happen to their own peers or dons. The real Phasmatological Society took testimony from ghost witnesses and other paranormal experiencers, and then investigated the reports. Player character Society members might even investigate earlier James stories themselves, letting the GM invent sequels to the various horrors, or follow up on clues left by their great forefather the clergyman, philosopher, and ghost-breaker Joseph Glanvil (1636-1680). Like James’ protagonists, they encounter treasure hunts, cryptograms, mazes, and other puzzles with the clues hidden in church architecture or manor house bookshelves.

Jamesian adventures can take place entirely in the Victorian milieu of the original Phasmatological Society, of course, or in James’ own Edwardian era. A revived (or covertly continued) Society might investigate ghosts in the Trail of Cthulhu 1930s; its antiquarian membership makes ideal foils, marks, or clients for the Bookhounds of London. A swinging ’60s mod-occultist scene follows the guru and impresario “Chorazin” in London and San Francisco (FoDG, p. 304), and a modernized Society could emerge in Soho, Chelsea, or Berkeley to investigate the phasmatic wreckage in his wake. (Use the Activist or Scholar backgrounds; FoDG, p. 044.) The modern-day Phasmatological Society makes an ideal framing device for Fear Itself adventures or a cover group for an Ordo Veritatis “station-watch” squad hunting Esoterrorists.

A Pleasingly Random Ghost

Jamesian ghosts, while nicely tailored to their individual stories, don’t have any determinable order or logic to their abilities. In GUMSHOE mechanical terms, they have one to three Abilities: Aberrance (for all ghosts), Health, and and Scuffling (the last two for material, materialized, and possessing ghosts). All ghosts can spend Aberrance for minor effects such as cold spots, poltergeist activity, weird noises, and so forth; such effects cause damage or other mechanical effects, if any, equal to the spend.

Their ratings depend on their power, which is measured in dice. Most Jamesian entities have two dice in each Ability; minor ghosts have only one die in each Ability; major specters such as Count Magnus have three or even four dice in each. Each time the ghost appears, roll its dice in each Ability; the total is the pool it has available for that night. All Abilities fully refresh each sunset unless the ghost is exorcised or otherwise destroyed (usually by burning its remains).

Roll the ghost’s highest dice pool, take the highest two dice rolled, and divide the total result among its Alertness, Stealth, and Stability Loss bonuses. (Jamesian ghosts deal heavy Stability Loss penalties, as a rule.) For one-die ghosts, roll one die, add +1, and divide the result as above.

Roll one die on one Power table for each die in the ghost’s abilities. The number after the Power name is its Aberrance cost to use. A one-die entirely immaterial (Aberrance-only) ghost probably only rolls on the Oppressive Powers table, but the GM might pick a suitable power from one of the other tables if desired. Ghosts with any dice in Health or Scuffling can automatically materialize once in a scene for 2 points of Aberrance, even without the Materialize power. Those ghosts also roll one die and split the result between attack damage bonus (default is +0) and defense bonuses while material (expressed as minuses to damage). Materialized ghosts almost always have the Corpse quality (damage halved, shotguns do 2 pts, firearms do 1 pt).

Combat Powers

1  Disgusting Touch (2): foe must make a 6-point Stability (Difficulty 5) test to touch or when touched by the being during the scene

2  Disquieting Touch (1): attack using Scuffling, damage (+0) comes off Stability

3  Foetor (0): Forces a 5-point Health test (Difficulty 5) in close combat

4  Freezing Terror (1): attack using Aberrance, damage (d+0) comes off Stability

5  Grapple (2): forces test of its Aberrance or Scuffling vs. foe’s Athletics or Scuffling; if foe fails, foe cannot escape for a number of rounds equal to margin of success and their Hit Threshold drops to 2

6  Materialize (2): may materialize to make physical attacks (damage comes off Health) with Scuffling, spend 2 again to dematerialize into foul vapor immune to material attacks

Movement Powers

1  Abduction (2): may carry (or Apport, if it also has that power) an unconscious or Grappled victim to one pre-ordained place (usually its grave)

2  Apportation (1): may teleport to its own death site, gravesite, image, and/or name

3  Familiar (1): may appear as, or operate through, a rough beast such as a cat, owl, rat, spider, or similar creature

4  Follow Victim (1): automatically follows target; spend only required when victim changes conveyance or significant direction

5  Inhabit Matter (2): may possess and animate organic matter such as linen sheets, wood carvings, trees and vines, corpses, etc. with a Health pool either equal to the ghost’s Health or to 1d per point of Aberrance spent

6  Spider Climb (1): can climb up walls (if ghost is immaterial, applies to inhabited matter, familiars, or ghost in materialized form)

Oppressive Powers

1  Confusion (2): on a failed Stability test, target is dazed or struck forgetful

2  Create Darkness (1-3): increases Difficulty of visual tests (including Hit Thresholds) in the area by amount spent; spend of 3 further increases Difficulty of all Stability tests by +1

3  Desolate Cry (1): triggers 3-point Stability test in hearers

4  Oppression (1): lowers victim’s Stability pool by 1, cannot be refreshed by normal rest, usable once per week

5  Send Nightmare (1): triggers 4-point Stability test in one victim

6  Terrifying (2): +2 to Difficulty of Stability tests

 

(No spoilers for Season 2 in here.)

Even if this column appeared somewhere other than a website for tabletop roleplayers, it’d be impossible to write about Stranger Things without talking about gaming. Gaming is the metaphor the series uses to talk about monsters and dimensions, but it’s also how the kids see themselves, and how the show-runners and writers structure the plot – which makes it insanely ripe for conversion and dissection here. The show has three distinct tiers of ‘player character’ – the kids, the teens and parents, and the combat experts (Hoppers and Eleven). They’re clearly using the skill cap rules, but one character in each tier can be an exception and buy a few points in a combat ability normally reserved for the next tier. So, Dustin’s wrist rocket lets him Scuffle with an adult, and Nancy has that 4-point Shooting pool. (Presumably, the kids have all invested in Hiding and Fleeing, or just given a pile of build points each over to Eleven’s character so she can keep buying new Psychic Powers.)

In Fear Itself terms, the show nicely illustrates the concept of the Spiral of Misery setup. In the first season, you’ve got Will Byers at the centre of the spiral; he’s connected to the other kids, to his mother Joyce, and to his brother Jonathan; Joyce connects to Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan and Mike connect to Nancy, and the whole cast gets pulled in through those connections.

The show’s monsters are also perfectly set up for gaming. The Demogorgon pops in and out of our dimension, showing up to threaten the player characters before vanishing, leaving behind only clues that will get ignored by the authorities and picked up by the player character using their Investigative Abilities. It can move quickly enough to threaten the player characters wherever they are, but it’s also got plenty of tells (the flickering lights, the ‘scar tissue’ in the dimensional breaches) to give the players a chance to detect and prepare for its emergence.

 

Demogorgon

Abilities: Aberrance 9, Athletics 10, Health 12, Scuffling 16

Hit Threshold: 4

Armour: None, but firearms attacks only deal one point of damage.

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: +1 (claw), or +3 (‘bite’). It can only bite downed or stunned foes.

Dimensional Tear: By spending 3 Aberrance, the Demogorgon can open a portal connecting the parallel reality of the Upside Down with our reality. These portals appear like wounds or breaches on a surface like a wall, floor or the bole of a tree. Once created, a breach remains active for some time (usually a few minutes, but it’s proportional to the size of the breach). The Demogorgon can pass through an active breach for free; other creatures can also wriggle through breaches, but it requires an Athletics test (Difficulty 4). Even after a breach reseals itself, reality is still wounded in that spot; the Demogorgon can reopen an old breach with a 1-point Aberrance spend.

Feed: The Demogorgon regains Aberrance when it eats.

Its hunger means the creature’s drawn to the smell of blood or the presence of meat.

Regeneration: When in the Upside Down, the Demogorgon may heal using Aberrance. 1 Aberrance point restores 2 Health.

Telekinesis: The Demogorgon may spend Aberrance as Telekinesis.

Unnatural Speed: For 2 Aberrance, the Demogorgon may:

  • Make another claw attack
  • Cover a short distance instantly
  • Automatically dodge a Shooting attack.

 

All That Remains

  • Investigative Procedure: The victim was mauled and partially eaten – but the bite marks look more like the mess that would be left by a shark.
  • Mechanics: Hey, those electric lights are flickering. Someone should check the circuit.
  • Notice: Hey, what’s this weird slime on the tree. It’s like a scab on reality. What happens when I pick at it?
  • Outdoor Survival: It’s hunting us by scent. It can smell our blood.
  • Science: But what if this gate already existed? Well, if it did, I I think we’d know. It would disrupt gravity, the magnetic field, our environment. It would deflect compass needles, cause electrical surges…
  • Trivia: It’s in the Monster Manual!

SaveSave

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.

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.

We might get Gar to write about the GUMSHOE and Fear Itself implications of the great Netflix series "Stranger Things" soon. Before that happens I’d like to sneak in to highlight one particular moment.  Without delving too far into spoilers for those who have yet to binge, a point comes where rumpled police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) needs to get information on the other side of a guarded door.  As seasoned GUMSHOE hands know, if you have the Locksmith ability and a locked door stands between the PC and that info, the PC gets the info, no spend required. Here we have a classic example of that setup, except that it’s a uniformed stooge of the evil conspiracy and not a lock. What does our hero do? He knocks the guy out with a surprise shot to the jaw, opens the door, and heads on in.

This brings us to an obvious extrapolation: in GUMSHOE, you ought to be able to do the same.

I’d restrict this to characters the tactic feels right for. If your investigator has the investigative ability Intimidation and at least 4 points in Scuffling (or the equivalent, depending on which GUMSHOE iteration you’re using), you can KO a guard to get a core clue. In certain GUMSHOE games you could describe this in different ways: using a stun pistol in Ashen Stars, a Concussion blast in Mutant City Blues.

Hopper suffers no direct repercussions for knocking out the guard. It never gets mentioned again, in fact. We must assume then that he spent a point of Intimidation to ensure that he not only got the clue but did not suffer any blowback for resorting to the rough stuff.

When building or improvising scenarios where punching your way to information, you might include the opportunity to stave off later consequences with a spend of Intimidation, Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Credit Rating or whatever else seems appropriate to the setting. This might cost 1 point or even 2, if it would otherwise seem unlikely for the investigator to get away with this entirely.

Since you can’t count on a player to think of this fun but extreme solution, or for the punch-enthusiast among the party to be the one that shows up at the door, also allow a more typical alternate way of getting past the guard.

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.

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