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: Robin D. Laws, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artists: Dave Allsop, Jérôme Huguenin, Anna Kryczkowska, Ken Miller, Faye Sutherland Type: 176 page, perfect bound book

 

Buy now

 

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

by Graham Walmsley

At first sight, Gumshoe would make a perfect LARP. There’s little die-rolling, so it suits a game played standing up; and, as an investigative game, it’s about talking to people. It sounds ideal. Would it work?

In this article, I’ll attempt to create a Gumshoe LARP. For the setting, I’ll use an English murder mystery: a staple of investigative LARPs.

For the ruleset, I’ll use Fear Itself. So it’ll be a horrific murder mystery: think Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

This LARP will have little combat and much talking. There’ll be about 20 players, in costume, and pregenerated characters. The game will last about four hours, at the end of which the players will find, amongst themselves, a murderer.

The Characters

As with all Fear Itself characters, the PCs will have a Worst Thing They Ever Did and Sources Of Stability. These are superb roleplaying tools, especially for a LARP.

The characters will also have a Risk Factor: the reason they don’t just call the police and lock themselves in the bathroom.

In addition, there’ll be Affinities and Enmities. These will create alliances and factions, which are golden in LARPs: they instantly let players know who they’re with and who they’re against; who to talk to and who to avoid.

Finally, each character will have something They Want. Let’s take this a step further: we’ll fix the pregenerated characters so that every character’s want could be granted by another character. That gives everyone a goal: something to work for, which they might achieve.

Let’s call this new characteristic “What I Can Give”. It might, for example, be Money, Forgiveness, Property or Healing. For game purposes, each character has an infinite amount of this quality to give: if a character can give Money, they have an infinite amount of money to give, to whom they choose.

Investigative Skills

When you’re walking around, playing your character, complex character sheets get in the way. Instead, let’s put the skills on cards: instead of having two Streetwise points, you’ll have two Streetwise cards. Rather than spending a point, you discard a card.

We’ll let players choose skills as follows: there’s a central pile of cards, from which each player takes 10. This also means skills will be distributed between the players: if there are only three Architecture cards, a maximum of three people may have that skill.

Clues

Some clues will work exactly as in Fear Itself: the GM holds them and players spend points – or, rather, discard cards – to get them.

For example, you’d discard an Investigative Procedure card to get the following clue:

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There are scratches surrounding the lock, as if it has been picked.

If a player told the GM he was closely examining the lock, he’d also get that clue.

There will be Core Clues, too.

Core Clue: Streetwise

A street kid tells you that Father Morgan was attempting to wash blood from his hands in the gutter.

And some clues might have time limits.

Core Clue: Architecture

There is a false wall behind this bookcase. (Do not reveal until after the second murder).

But we can be cleverer. LARPS work best when players talk to each other, not the GM. So let’s put clues in the hands of the players.

Player Clues

Each player will hold a number of clues: say, three or four. These will be allocated to each pregenerated character before the game.

Clue: Flirting or Intimidation

You know Dr Brown intended to change his will.

If you hold this clue, and someone uses Flirting or Intimidation on you, you must reveal it.

Players will hold Core Clues, too. Again, some of these might have time limits attached.

Core Clue: Cop Talk

You know damn well Father Morgan killed Sir Ralph and you’ve got photographs to prove it. Do not reveal this until after the second murder.

Murders

Best of all, the murders themselves will be Core Clues. Here’s an example:

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die.

Also, each murder will have associated Clues, some of which would be Core Clues, and some not:

Core Clue: Medicine or Investigative Ability

From a blue tinge to the lips, you can tell the victim has been poisoned with cyanide, ingested in the last ten minutes.

Clue: Investigative Ability

The glass from which the victim was drinking has been wiped clean of prints, save for the victim’s fingerprints.

The murder victim would hold these clues and, after they die (giving the “Murder” clue), they’d give out other clues to players who used an appropriate ability.

Stability

How can we work Stability into this?

Since we’re using cards already, let’s have Stability Cards instead of Stability Points. However, you can’t hold negative cards, so we’ll have to tweak the rules.

Let’s move the scale upwards: on 5 Stability Cards or less, you’re shaken; on 2 or less, you’re mentally ill; when you’ve no cards, you’re incurable. You start with around 10 cards.

Note that we’ve halved the length of the scale, so we must halve the Stability Losses:

  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to do serious harm: 1 Stability Card
  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to kill: 2 Stability Cards
  • Witnessing a grisly murder: 2 Stability Cards
  • Discovering the corpse of a friend or loved one: 3 Stability Cards
  • Seeing a friend or loved one killed: 4 Cards

However, in Gumshoe, you roll dice to check Stability. Dice work badly in LARPs: because everyone’s walking around, it’s hard to roll them.

Instead, let’s try this. On the wall, we’ll have a clock. Then, on each Stability card, we’ll print 6 random numbers, from 1 to 12.

To do a Stability check, look at the clock and note the number the minute hand points to (if there’s doubt, ask someone else and agree). Then draw one of your Stability cards, at random. If that number is on the card, you’re fine; if not, discard an appropriate number of Stability cards.

As in the original Gumshoe rules, you may spend Stability to increase the chance of succeeding. Simply draw any number of extra Stability Cards. You must discard these extra cards whether or not you succeed: but, if the number is on them, you succeed the Stability check.

The chances of succeeding, using this system, are slightly different from those in the original rules. In the original rules, the probabilities of succeeding would be:

  • With no points: 50%
  • With one point: 66%
  • With two points: 83%
  • With three points: 100%

In our revised LARP rules, the probabilities are:

  • With no cards: 50%
  • With one card: 75%
  • With two cards: 87%
  • With three cards: 93%

and, with more cards, the probability of success increases gradually towards 100%. Nevertheless, it’s a good approximation to the original rules.

I’ve chosen a clock because it seems appropriate to a murder mystery: I imagine grandfather clocks and meals served at specific times. However, there are various options: we might use occult symbols instead of clock numbers. The symbol to match against could be on another Stability card.

Mental Illness

If you get a mental illness, how do you communicate that to the other players? In a tabletop, it’s easy; but, in a LARP, you don’t want to stop the game to accommodate it.

Instead, let’s use sticky notes. When you get a mental illness, you collect a sticky note from the GM, and place it on your forehead.

You won’t know what it says, but other players will read it and react: “Talk about me behind my back”, perhaps, or “I am talking at twice the normal speed” or “I am covered in blood”.

What Would Cause a Stability Check?

Firstly, the GM might have pre-arranged Stability checks written into clues.

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There is an ancient skeleton lying under the floorboards (Stability Check: 1 Card).

Then, prospective murder victims would have stability checks written into their Murder Clues. The gorier the murder, the greater the Stability check.

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die. (Stability Check: 1 Card fpr witnessing the murder )

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the third murder victim. You die by being mauled, by an unseen assailant, perhaps a huge dog. (Stability Check: 2 Cards fpr witnessing the murder )

Of course, you lose more Stability Cards if the victim is a friend or loved one.

Finally, of course, a player can cause another character to check their Stability, by attacking them.

Health

How should we handle combat and Health levels? We could do it in a similar way to Stability: have Health cards, perhaps, with clock numbers printed on them.

However, combat plays little part in murder mysteries. Sure, there are murders, but they’ll be pre-planned. Also, in a short LARP, it seems unfair to allow players to remove each other from the game by killing each other.

So let’s make a bold decision: there won’t be Health levels. You can attack someone and force them to make a Stability check. You can even decide, together, that the attack caused a wound. But you can’t kill anyone.

To me, this makes for a more interesting game. Attacking someone won’t hurt them: but it might send them mad.

Denouement

So, that’s the backbone of Gumshoe as a murder mystery LARP. Taking a step back, how does it seem?

There are issues. What happens if a player wants to imprison another? What if they want to break through a door?

Also note that, because there’s only one location, there’s effectively only one scene in the game. This is a problem: Gumshoe games use scenes as a pacing device: for example, the final clue will rarely be available in the first scene, only in a later scene. This game needs a similar pacing mechanism: perhaps the clue giving the identity of the murderer is unavailable until after the final murder.

Despite these, I like the idea. It seems playable and fun. I’d happily wander round, investigating murders, and, if I needed a change, attack someone to drive them mad.

So, that done, the only thing left to do is play it and see if it works.

Sample Characters

Lord Bristol
Concept: Vain landowner
Risk Factor: Dismissive
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Disinherit my son, Alfred when I found out he was about to marry Sarah, the maid
What I Want: Absolution for my part in the war
What I Can Give: Property
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Mrs Warpole
Enmities: Alfred Bristol, Jack Brass

Jack Brass
Concept: Cunning Master of the Stables
Risk Factor: Thrill-seeking
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Shoot Lord Bristol’s best stallion in a drunken rage
What I Want: A small townhouse
What I Can Give: My hand in marriage
Affinities: Sarah Devizes, Alfred Bristol
Enmities: Lord Bristol, Father Nigel

Sarah Devizes
Concept: Religious maid
Risk Factor: Horny
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Throw a pan of boiling water over Emma, my sister
What I Want: A good husband
What I Can Give: Forgiveness
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Father Nigel
Enmities: Jack Brass, Lord Bristol

Sample clues

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Lord Bristol
After one hour, you are trampled to death by a horse in the stables.

Core Clue: Natural History
Held by: GM
Found in: Stables
The horses have been drugged with extreme doses of a stimulant.

Clue: Reassurance
Held by: Sarah Devizes
Alfred used to beat you. You were glad when he called the engagement off.

Clue: Streetwise
Held by: Jack Brass
You’ve seen Bristol drinking very, very heavily. He has a secret whisky bottle concealed under the study floorboards.

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Sir James Degby
The first time you are served food or drink after the first murder, you are poisoned.

Clue: Investigative Procedure or declared search
Held by: GM
Found in: Study
Under the study floorboards is a whisky bottle, half empty.

Core Clue: Intimidation or Reassurance
Held by: Father Nigel
After three hours, reveal that Sarah confessed to you that she was planning to kill her father-in-law.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the Community Content Spotlight, each month I write up a short review of a community content title available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!


Stick around after the review for news about our Community Content Contest.

THE PHANTOM OF THE BASTILLE

The following review contains spoilers for Phantom of the Bastille.

Rick Dakan’s Phantom of the Bastille is a lavishly researched, imaginative scenario for Fear Itself that takes players to Paris in 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. Planned as the first in a series of French Revolution scenarios, we get a glimpse into the chaos of, and the different groups jostling for dominance in, late-1780s France.

Like many historical scenarios, Phantom of the Bastille latches onto a major historical event and then deep dives into an unusual idiosyncrasy. And that is part of the joy of historically situated gaming: major events (like the fall of the Bastille) always have strange surprises, particularities, coincidences, and falsehoods told about them. What Dakan has done is take a pseudo-legendary figure, the Comte De Lorges (who was supposedly a prisoner in the Bastille), and asked “Why do people report the existence of the Comte, when no such person ever existed?” Rick’s answer creates all kinds of new Fear Itself fodder: a new creature of Unremitting Horror; the unnatural, putrescent death of King Louis XV; the tragic painting of a family destroyed by the scenario’s inciting action. It was this last which I was personally most drawn to. I wanted to see how my players would respond to a fallen family of the French aristocracy — how would the characters be swayed, and what schemes would they devise in order to protect this pitiable family?

Interestingly, the scenario’s villain is also a sympathetic GMC (although I did find myself, after seeing the results of the villain’s actions, thinking that were I playing the scenario, I would probably have advocated for the character’s demise — it is the French Revolution, after all).

The pre-generated investigators are all Freemasons (or members of their sister organizations), which provides an easy “in” to the scenario and provides fodder both for more characters (should one of the PCs die — unthinkable!) and for information-holding allies. It was easy to see, even in the structure of this first scenario, how a whole campaign could be strung out from this framework ( “Headhounds of Paris,” anyone? Because of the guillotine… get it?… nevermind). Rick also employs a clever “counterespionage spend” mechanic by grouping three of the Investigative abilities, which spends of can “distract or counter the spies” of one of the scenario’s factions, and are increasingly costly. They got me thinking about other ways that abilities could be grouped and spent toward particular ends in new scenarios.

(As a sidenote, maybe my favorite thing about the scenario, as an eighteenth-century literary theorist, is tha

t there’s an opportunity for some very memorable roleplaying with the Marquis de Sade — yes, that Marquis de Sade, for whom the practice of “sadism” is named, although it’s probably notwhat you expect.)

The scenario is lavishly illustrated with period-sourced paintings and engravings, and was laid out by our very own Will Hindmarch. Rick has some great additional resources on his website whether you’re planning on running Phantom of the Bastille, Fear Itself, or another game set at the dawn of the French Revolution. Also consider giving him a follow on Twitter.

Title: Phantom of the Bastille
Author: Rick Dakan
System: Fear Itself, 2nd Edition
Price: $4.95 PDF

Community Content Contest

Last week I announced the GUMSHOE Community Content Contest, where one winning product will receive professional layout and a custom cover provided by Pelgrane Press. I’m happy to announce that the final deadline will be Monday, September 7th, 2020. (I’ve also updated the original posting to reflect this.)

For more information about the contest, please see the original posting, or get a hold of me either on our Discord or by leaving a comment.

Good luck with your entries!


The Pelgrane Press Community Program brings you into the fold with other GUMSHOE game designers, affording creators (whatever that means to you!) the opportunity to post and sell their own products on DriveThruRPG. We currently accept material for Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch. Have a kooky idea you’d like to write up and get out there? A flushed out scenario you think others would enjoy? The Community Program is the place to showcase these ideas. If you’re interested in creating something for the Community Program, read more about it here.


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article of Unremitting Horror originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in December 2004.

Jormungandr – lost genius or just crap?
Jason Ardill tells all..
Anus Dei cover artBlair Witch Project of shock rock video is Anus Dei by the mercifully obscure Scandinavian black metal band JORMUNGANDR. The song is the usual shrill torrent of incomprehensible gibberish with a lot of umlauts in it, punctuated by guitar torture. But it’s not the song that’s memorable; it’s the visuals.

The video has clearly been ineptly shot and edited. No attempt has been made to synchronize what’s happening on the soundtrack with the action on the screen. Most of it is a languorous art-house rolling shot of subway tunnels, trash piled up against walls and sleeping tramps. This is interspersed with images from occult books, mostly woodcuts of Satan and his witches, as if someone had held a video camera directly above an open book. At various points, heavily made-up male faces leer into the camera from a few inches away.

After several watchings, the obvious conclusion is that the video is half JORMUNGANDR pratting about in their bedroom, and half someone else’s film project footage, which JORMUNGANDR just happened to come across and edit into their video.

Although – perhaps that’s what we’re meant to think? Maybe this film looks so cheap because someone spent a lot of money to make it look that way? One thing is certain. By the time the monster appears, you know damn well you’re looking at a sky-high special effects budget.

It’s enough to give Aphex Twin nightmares. There’s no face, just a peeled back skull and something like a huge set of dentures in the middle. Industrial limbs extrude from its shoulders, tipped with whirring claws – remember, this was made before Trent Reznor grossed us all out with Happiness in Slavery – which must have taken months to build.

When you first see it, the thing has its back to us and is tearing up dummies filled with offal, made to look like homeless people. This part looks a little fake, because of the over-the-top blood sprays and flying body parts, and it’s hard not to laugh. Then it stops, like a dog sniffing the air, and turns round. It starts to stride towards the camera.

At that point, it’s not funny any more. It moves with a horrible lurching gait, like Sadako from Ringu, as if it were broken on the inside. I’ve heard it said that they shot it running backwards, then played the tape forwards, to give it that disturbing stop-start lurch. Of course, from that point on it’s all shaky-cam running, then there’s the Blair Witch ending with the camera lying on the floor. Game over, man, game over.

As rock video monsters go, it’s an unsung classic. If the camera would only hold still, we would get a better idea of how it was done. It’s clearly not CGI, because that kind of technology wasn’t available in 1992, when the video first surfaced. Fangoria did a special feature on the Anus Dei monster and came to the conclusion that one of the JORMUNGANDR members must be a genius with latex.

The film has been the source of rabid debate among those who have seen it, because it just does not make sense. Nobody has ever heard of JORMUNGANDR. Other than that one infamous track, they do not appear to have recorded any music. So, why spend tens of thousands on a video to promote a band that does not seem to exist any more?

There’s more to tell. Contrary to popular belief, the video was never screened on MTV, nor was it sent to any other stations. The first person to broadcast it was Billy Two-Four (sic) an nineteen-year-old media student, who put it out on his public access show, Billy’s Horrorday . He claims an anonymous donor sent it to him, which has, of course, led to speculation that he made the video himself, at college. Whatever the truth behind the Anus Dei monster, we know this much.

No one ever hired Billie Two-Four to make any more videos.

And, the track sucks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article for Fear Itself originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in November 2004.

 

AP Morton-Blunkett (1899-1921)

“A man, mortal, looks to the world to come…”

A little-known poet who may have become a great talent.. He was born in Forrest Court, Berwick, Scotland in 1899, the son of the Lochbridge Toll watchman. He was educated in the Public School, and frequented the library, where I fondly imagine he read the romantics and composed his first clumsy stanzas.

His best early work was a series of short love poems to Naomi, possibly Naomi Hay, daughter of the local policeman, although there is no record of an engagement or marriage.

In September 1921 he received a commission from a local landowner, possibly Sir Walter Hamilton-Dalrymple? to write a laudatory ode in praise of the Burgh Golf Club, to be engraved on the clubhouse plaque. He was offered the princely sum of one guinea, which must have been a cause of great excitement to him.

He took himself to the Isle of Islay, perhaps to seek inspiration, where he was found hanged in his room, having penned the poem below – a strange verse, greatly out of character. We know of no motive for his suicide. Perhaps Naomi rejected him, or perhaps there was a more sinister reason. The local waters are said to be infested with strange grey creatures, named after a dialect term for Satan – the Clooties.

The Sea Speaks Not and Yet…

I cannot sleep.  I hide my face
From surf and swell and blow
Since I have seen the queer grey men
That nightly come and go.

The village squats in sodden dusk
With sea-mist draped, and drear.
And aye the waves, and aye the waves
Come rushing far and near.

When every door is locked and barred
And every curtain drawn
‘Tis then they come, unseen, but heard.
Forsook.  Forgot.  Forlorn.

The old know better than to look.
The young are fast abed.
But I, with lonely cynic’s pride
And science in my head,

I looked.  I shall not look again.
For yet I see them pass,
The hollow faces of the drowned
In mist beyond the glass.

 


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

When the original Fear Itself came out in 2007, horror was in the depths of its torture phase, typified by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Always the most reliable indicator of the zeitgeist, horror cinema reflected America’s anxieties about its place in the world under the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The early Obama years saw a retrenchment into Hollywood’s recycling ethos, with a spate of remakes recapitulating the shock cinema of the 70s and 80s. Both of these horror cycles predominantly featured casts of young friends and peers facing the hideous fates that await most scare-flick protagonists—the default assumption of the game. One current horror wave, post-dating Fear Itself, places the family unit in the crosshairs of supernatural or monstrous danger. A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Sinister, Bird Box, Us, and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House all evoke fears of family dissolution in the face of threats from without. The more ghostly variants often show the influence of Kubrick’s The Shining. Political in a different way than the previous torture cycle, they touch on domestic economic unease, depicting families fighting to survive, and remain intact, under crushing external pressure. (Although they’re still going strong, I’d categorize these as products of the inward-looking late Obama period. Cultural waves take a while to show up on screens, so Trumpian horror may mark another imminent shift, with The Purge and its follow-ups as leading indicators.) To tweak Fear Itself for family horror, revisit character generation to create a cast of close relatives who will face a terrifying situation together. Start by dropping Drives. The implicit need to protect one another, literally and metaphorically keeping the family together, motivates the characters. Drives ensure that PCs act like horror characters, often giving them a positive reason to head into danger. In a family game, the characters generally seek to escape a situation which continues to ensnare them.

  • They’re socked in for the winter at the creepy hotel.
  • The ghost manifestation follows them even when they abandon the creepy house.
  • Monsters are everywhere and no place stays safe for long.
  • The source of horror is coming from inside the family.

Here, characters investigate to escape the problem, not to burrow deeper into it. The GM must actuate that by keeping the pressure on, driving them toward the information that might just allow them to get through this. During character generation, ask each player in turn to specify their role in the family. You might specify that at least one player must take on a parental role. Or, if no one wants to be Mom or Dad, most characters wind up as siblings—presumably orphaned in an earlier manifestation of the scenario or campaign’s central menace. Some players may try to wriggle free of emotional obligation by creating distant relatives. Redirect the urge to play third cousins or distant uncles. A recently arrived newcomer to the family, such as a new spouse or a biological half-sibling who showed up waving a genetic test, still works. Specify that they’ve had enough time to commit themselves to the family unit. They might have an outside perspective but still need desperately to preserve their connection to the others. In a DramaSystem game you’d then devise a map of blocked emotional agendas that each seeks from the others. Although conflict may exist or arise between PCs, in this case the focus is on coming together against an outside danger. Characters might be distant from another at first; if they survive, it’s because they bond in pursuit of survival. This theme appears in some familial horrors, like The Haunting of Hill House, but isn’t so much a factor in A Quiet Place. Instead start off the collective thinking by asking the group to come up with an answer to the following question: What blow has the family recently endured? Groups who like to dig in and find their own way can take it from there. Ones who prefer to choose from supplied prompts can pick one of these choices, perhaps riffing a variation:

  • We all mourn our missing family member, who was killed either recently, by known means, or many years ago, in an incident we still struggle to understand.
  • We underwent a bankruptcy or are on the verge of one.
  • The head of the family has been suffering professionally.
  • One of us committed a crime that made life hard for everyone.
  • One of us underwent a medical crisis and yearns for tranquility and quiet.
  • One of us was victimized or traumatized.
  • We survived a terrible accident, perhaps of mysterious origin.
  • A weird destiny encircles us.
  • Our family has been cursed for generations.
  • We have just moved house, and we have to make it work.

As GM, you might instead specify a collective blow tied into the premise. That last item on the list fits a classic haunted house outing. A crime within the family might trigger supernatural vengeance. The head of the family in professional crisis could be headed for the psychic break that escalates the horror, because as we all know, ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY. Skip the step where players choose Sources of Stability. Instead, each family member treats all the others as sources, suffering the ill results when one of the PCs fatally succumbs to the horror. Family-based horror works well for convention scenarios, providing an immediate premise and stakes for the players. Save time by handing out pregens with family roles already specified, allowing participants to pick which ones that appeal to them. Some players prefer to avoid the emotional intensity of familial interaction, often for strong personal reasons you don’t want to blunder into. They may have already experienced family dissolution, or regard relatives as people to escape from. In horror, this impulse might be called “Mummies? Yes! Mommy? No!” Be sure to secure buy-in, either by talking to your players at home or clearly signaling the premise of your con game on the sign-in sheet.


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.

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.

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