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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player: I pick up the letters and examine –

Gamemaster: The crocodile eats you.

Player: What crocodile?

Gamemaster: Did I say table? I meant crocodile.

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

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

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

Player 1: I pick up the letters and examine –

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

Player 1: I examine it more closely.

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

Player 2: Can I look?

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

Or

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

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

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

Gamemaster: Which one?

Player 2: The green-envelope one.

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

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

Player: I look through the letters.

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

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

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

Or

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

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

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

Others embrace this sort of direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Fear Itself Scenario Premise

Start by designing high school age characters. Confine the Worst Thing You Ever Did to the sorts of transgressions ordinary teenagers might get up to. You all hang out together, regarding yourselves as semi-outsiders. You aren’t bullied, nor are you bullies. But neither are you the insider kids.

A random PC notices one of her class’ high achieving students, a withdrawn, New Age-y kid named Lauren Andrews, staring at graffiti scrawled with a marker on the mirror of a school washroom. Lauren turns pale, staggers back into a stall door, then rushes for the exit. The PC catches the inscription even as it begins to inexplicably fade away:

Over the next few days Lauren visibly falls apart. Each PC has an interaction with her in which she seems faded, drawn, and increasingly listless. The last encounter sees her wandering, eyes glassy, into a busy street. The PCs can maybe rescue her, but the Difficulty of the Athletics test is pitched high, so they’re more likely to see her splattered gruesomely across the roadway.

Her death makes surprisingly modest waves among teachers and other students. The group realizes that her detachment from the world has spread to others. One member catches another student looking at a piece of graffiti declaring the futility of his own personal concerns. It too fades moments later. Each inscription tailors itself to the individual target:

You are a failure and will never be anything else.

Like your father’s, your future holds only the stink of alcohol.

You won’t make it in the big leagues. You will be injured and wind up working in an Arby’s.

Who is writing the graffiti? The weird new transfer student who never talks to anyone, but seems forever accompanied by the cries of unseen gulls? The ghost of the honors student who killed herself after an online bullying incident last year?

The mystery complicates itself when those infected by the apathy plague don’t die like Lauren probably did. Instead, one by one at first but later in small groups, you see them herded onto unmarked trucks by men in white jumpsuits, their gaits peculiar and faces oddly impassive.

And then one of the PCs sees her own grim notice scrawled on a mirror…


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.

Sometimes the difference between an urban legend and a hoax can come down to the cluefulness of those propagating it. Take for example the ineradicable 21st century viral urban legend claiming that Mars will on an August night loom as large in the sky as the moon. This comes up every August, thanks to a correct but widely misunderstood email sent in 2003. In an attempt to drum up a little interest in astronomy, it said Mars would get as close as it ever does to Earth, an event called the perihelic opposition. It would be the second-brightest (not biggest) object in the sky, and, when seen at 75-power magnification, would look as big as the moon. Every August since then, messages circulate warning people that the two bodies will look about the same size to the naked eye. In fact the next perihelic opposition will take place 60,000 years from now. For a sense of historical scale, that’s 7,500 editions of D&D in the future.

Including the Dungeons and Dragons joke, that’s the banter the teenage characters in a game of Fear Itself might be having as they hike deep into the woods—or for variety, a desert or canyon. Though they all know it’s a hoax, that night one or more of them sees Mars as big as the moon. The others don’t. At first. Finally half the group sees it and the other half thinks they’re crazy. And from this weird perceptual anomaly, distrust and then violence sparks. When they fail Stability tests, the characters must distance themselves from, flee, and ultimately attack those who didn’t see the sky the way they did. Then unseen Others seem to be stalking them. The two sides can reconcile, but only if they all agree that Mars is as big as the moon. That allows them to team up against the marauders—who turn out to be homicidal, better-armed versions of themselves. Those who escape finally drag themselves back to civilization…only to find the entire world in the grips of a burgeoning civil war between the Mars seers and skeptics. A war stoked by doppelgangers, seemingly created by the celestial phenomenon. Is this an attack from Mars? Mass madness?

More to the point, is it the dark coda of a one-shot session, or the opening salvo in a series of post-collapse survival horror?


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.

A One Sheet GUMSHOE scenario

Download a PDF of this adventure, and enter the One Sheet GUMSHOE competition here.

Spine: The player characters, all college-age young men and women from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds, arrive for the first time at the exclusive university that has granted them scholarships. Weird events escalate as they are subliminally groomed to become enthralled servitors for the school’s legacies. These supernatural beings, from society’s top 1%, survive and prosper by draining human life essence.

Character Backstories

Instead of the worst things they ever did, players specify for their characters the grounds for their scholarships. Disallow sports scholarships: servitors (or Renfields as their predators call them) grow physically debilitated during the transitions, and athletes receive too much media attention. Players also specify the source of their isolation. The school hands these scholarships out to applicants lacking significant social networks. If they sicken, die or drift away from their former lives, no one will notice or care.

Antagonists

Although their powers and relationship to prey individuals somewhat parallel vampire mythology, the Uppers, as they call themselves, are not undead. Instead they belong to a mutant variant of the human species. Since the Dark Ages the Uppers have ruled mankind from within, perpetuating wealth and power over generations. Uppers founded this prestigious university (pick a real one of your choice, or thinly fictionalize) and use it not only to establish the mundane connections that will propel their offspring through life, but to provide them with Renfields who will feed them life energy and serve their perverse needs.

Match one of the following new Upper students to a player character they will attempt to enthrall:

Terry Leverett: piercing eyes, speaks in business jargon

Nick Mills: sybarite, always organizing the next party

Emily Caine: obsessive A-type, shoo-in at her sorority

Brandon Gawthorne: pretentious future film director

Jessica Shepley: presents herself as an activist, but has to be the one in charge

Set this outside the US by changing cultural details to fit elite universities of your locale.

Other GMCs

Samantha Gawthorne, Brandon’s older sister, an initiated Upper in charge of matching this year’s incoming Uppers to their scholarship program Renfields

Mareeka Stevens, orientation liaison to new scholarship students. A Renfield enthralled to Samantha. Grew up poor in inner city Baltimore, now a mouthpiece for the economic contributions of the ultra-rich. She introduces the PCs to their new situation, checks in on them as needed, and generally stage manages their transformations.

Gideon Bench, dean of scholarship affairs and the highest-level university administrator the PCs can hope to meet with. Also an Upper.

Rafael Martinez, head of the campus police. Gideon’s Renfield.

Paw Chang, another scholarship student. First member of her Hmong family to go to university.

Events

  • Orientation mixer, at which each scholarship student is paired with an incoming legacy in a program supposedly designed to break down social barriers between haves and have nots as the school. Actually designed to pair Uppers and Renfields. Nick focuses intently on Paw Chang before switching attention to a PC.
  • Distant sighting of woman being hustled into truck. When they come of age, Uppers get rid of the nannies who serve as their childhood Renfields. This is Julia Paredes, formerly Emily’s nanny.
  • Paw grows increasingly sick as the Renfield process fails to take (as it does in a percentage of cases) and instead starts to eat her up.
  • PCs suffer blackouts and evidence of having done weird or sinister things.
  • One wakes up with a severed hand under her bed. It’s Julia’s. She was ordered to get rid of her and shit went sideways.
  • Paw dies in horrific fashion.
  • Even as they learn enough to know better, PCs find themselves falling under the thrall of their Uppers.
  • Do they fight back and find a way out before their personalities fade out?
  • When they do, the Uppers train their burgeoning supernatural abilities to push back against them. They’re too enticing to kill outright unless they’re on the verge of discovering all, but have to be frightened into good behavior until the effect completes itself.

Clues and Investigations

Medic: Track the group’s fevers, bursts of missing time and other subtle physiological symptoms and bodily changes.

History: Hit the library to learn how far back all the Upper families go, and how their old, old money connects to slave-trading, atrocities, and bursts of insane good fortune.

Photography: Notice how Uppers appear even sharper, clearer and better looking in photographs than face to face.

Occult Studies: Find parallels between Uppers and vampire mythology.

Social Science: Note the ease with which the Uppers use subliminal dominance techniques to gain cooperation even from strangers.

Social Science: Realize that all of the scholarship group have one thing in common: extreme disconnection from others.

Bureaucracy: Confirm that there’s something funny about the scholarship selection process. They were actively vetted to make sure they had no external connections to fall back on.

Architecture: Spot the way angles are constructed throughout the university’s architecture to impose on individual identity and encourage obedience to authority.

Computer Science: Discover the government-level encryption and security the Uppers maintain on their laptops and tablets—far from the casual disregard of most students.

Research: Uncover the suppressed truth of a campus shooting a few years ago. Portrayed as a lone gunman rampage by a mentally ill former student, it actually wiped out a crew of scholarship students. They figured out that they were being groomed as Renfields and were close to revealing the truth. Find Linh Tran, terrified lone survivor of that incident, who fears that the Uppers will track him down and finish the job.

Reassurance: Once they find her, get Tranh to open up.

Fleeing/Scuffling: Survive the anti-terror tac team that bursts onto the scene as soon as Tranh talks. The Uppers have been using the PCs to find her! You don’t need to be told that she dies in Stability-shredding fashion.

Impersonate: Gain info from totally enthralled Renfields by pretending to also be completely controlled.

Science: Get a DNA sample from an Upper, find that it isn’t quite human. Compare samples to tell Uppers from ordinary members of the ruling class.

Final Confrontation

In the big showdown, low-Stability PCs succumb and switch sides. Does it end with Uppers splattered all over, or a chilling downbeat epilogue in which all the main characters have lapsed utterly into eternal subservience?


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.

In the latest episode of their well-laid podcast, Ken and Robin talk Crate Man, secret maps, prepping Cthulhu and the raid on Powell’s.

New creature for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself

A hole opens up in the road outside your house. You pay no attention to this. Guarded by construction fence, it shows every sign of being regular repair work. Maybe they’re fixing the water mains. Or resurfacing the pavement. But then it gradually dawns that you never see anyone working on it during the day. It couldn’t possibly have opened up during the night, could it? You’d have heard them, and been disturbed by the noise. What construction projects get done in the darkness?

Projects by the workmen do. These beings from the Outer Dark materialize beneath busy urban areas. Drawn to neighborhoods in flux, they absorb and reflect anxieties of homeowners and renters alike. The nature of the change matters not. They show up where foreclosures are rampant, and where rising rents threaten to price out longterm residents. Anyone who gazes down into their holes becomes a psychic power battery. Once empowered they sneak from their tunnels, unlock your doors, and to stand over your bed at night, drinking your essence. As you start to die, your symptoms mimic those of hazardous chemical exposure. Doctors may try to find the source of the contamination, but no matter how many soil tests they perform they never turn up the real truth.

To end an infestation you have to descend into their tunnels. Once underground one finds a labyrinthine dig defying ordinary geometry. Stopping them means finding the original gateway to the Outer Dark. The workmen, with their helmet-like heads, glowing eyes and skulking bodies, individually pose no greater threat than an ordinary person. But there are so, so many of them. And if they take you out in their subterranean home ground, you join their ranks, slaving eternally for more scraps of emotional residue…

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Weapon: +1 (pick-axe or shovel)

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +2


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.’

The Seventh Circle_cover_400l“Whereas the hand of God crafted this fine world, there are places, like that damned rock, that were not touched by His hand, but by those of another. Whatever it is that calls to those who walk its on shores, it waits in the darkness, within the rock, waiting to be let out. If you’re planning on going over there, may God protect you…”

You are the presenters and crew of a paranormal investigation television show. The show is building up to the end of its current season and has been presented with the opportunity to record an investigation on the remote Scottish island of Eilean Mòr. The island has a history of strange disappearances that stretches back over the last hundred years, but more recently a house was built there by a famous architect, Nathan Glaas, who went missing immediately after its completion. Even though no-one has entered the building in the last seven years, it is far from empty…

The Seventh Circle is a Fear Itself adventure for 4-6 players by Matthew Sanderson, author of The Love of Money. It is designed as a stand-alone adventure with pre-generated characters provided, but it can be tweaked to accommodate characters in a pre-existing group.

Stock #: PELG014 Author: Matthew Sanderson
Artist: David Lewis Johnson, Jethro Lentle, Martin Pikkaart Pages: 88 page perfect bound

Buy

bookA while back, Sune Nødskou designed a character sheet for Fear Itself. Spencer Sanders has taken Sune’s original sheet and made it fillable, as well as including spaces for the stereotype and a few languages. You can download Spencer’s new sheet as a PDF here.

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