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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are controlling 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.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Lovecraft specialized in tales of cosmic horror, in which the insignificance of mere personality pales when confronted with the utter indifference of a materialistic universe. His heroes go mad or are destroyed by monstrous stand-ins for a reality that takes no note of human concerns. Our motivations and choices don’t just mean nothing when viewed against the Mythos’ geological time scale and the mindlessly biological nature of its entities. They lie entirely beside the point.

The school of personal horror, as found in Fear Itself, instead explores the horror within. The heroes, or perhaps anti-heroes, of personal horror tales meet destruction when taken to the cruelly logical endpoints of their own inner struggles.

Many modern horror writers, in keeping with our era’s focus on characterization, prefer to meld the Mythos with tales of personal horror.

If classic Lovecraftian protagonists can be said to be destroyed by a personal flaw, that would be a particularly scholarly or scientific variety of hubris. Their need to look where all the omens tell them they should not leads to mind-shattering truths they wish they had never sought. In this they follow the template of the venerable granddad of science horror anti-heroes, Mary Shelley’s Victor von Frankenstein. He in turn traces his mythic antecedents to the Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, and also to Daedalus. Both lofty, symbolic figures far from the sources of literary psychological realism.

Trail of Cthulhu pulls its protagonists toward horrific revelation with Drives. These allow players to choose why their characters read books of madness, go off on jaunts seeking suppressed cults, and descend into Antarctic tunnels.

Fear Itself has you personalize your character by specifying The Worst Thing You Ever Did. This not only gets you to think of your PC as an anti-hero and not a problem-solving ass-kicker, but gives you, the inner corruption that may lead to your undoing. To help you and the GM turn it into narrative, it asks you to express this in the form of an event.

The upcoming GUMSHOE One-2-One doesn’t use either mechanic. However the political and individual corruption of its introductory setting, 1937 Los Angeles, filters into scenarios that fuse the personal and the cosmic. And while I’m not the boss of Ken, I wouldn’t be surprised to see personal horror also infuse its way into The Fall of Delta Green, set in the era when hubris spiraled into a shattering of collective norms and the flying of any number of freak flags.

You can add horror to standard Trail games set in any era by adding an inverse quality to the Drives. Ask players to specify not only a Drive, but a Worst Thing You Ever Did. Suggest that they tie one into the other. This creates a unity of character—even a DramaSystem style pair of dramatic poles, from the sympathetic intentions of the Drive to the dark side of the WTYED.

Invite stumped players to steal from the following list of example Worst Things. For those who prefer to create their own personal nightmares, I’ve left some of the Drives as exercises for the reader.

Adventure: “I left my wife and children at home while I went off on a journey to the South Seas. The opportunity to fight pirates thrilled my blood. A year spend marooned on a tiny atoll taught me strength. When I returned, it was to their graves—they had died, alone and afraid, taken like so many others by an influenza epidemic.”

Bad Luck: “While helping my young brother string Christmas lights, I fell from a ladder. I landed on him, killing him. I didn’t do it on purpose. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel responsible for his death. Because even then I knew of my curse, and should never have exposed him to the danger of my presence.”

Curiosity: “They say curiosity killed the cat. It certainly killed the cat I performed a live vivisection on, when I was seven.”

Duty: “I officiated at an exorcism. Sanctioned by the church, though they will never confirm that. I did not listen to the others who cried out that the girl could not breathe, so intent was I to drive the demon out. They defrocked me, said the girl had epilepsy. Maybe she did, but at least the devil inside her no longer walks the earth.”

Ennui: “I grew so bored once that I toyed with a young man’s heart, merely to see it break. Perhaps I thought his naivete and freshness would once again open up something alive in me. But I tired of him before the experiment had ended, and discarded him. One night I came home to find him in my bed—a gun still entwined between his dead fingers, a fatal self-inflicted wound marring that handsome face.”

In the Blood: “My mother said she wanted me to kill her, before a terrible transformation turned her into something I would not recognize. I laughed. I always told her she was prone to drama. Then one night she disappeared, leaving behind the corpses of our chambermaid, the chauffeur, and the village doctor. I should have listened. When it starts to happen to me, will anyone believe me?”

Revenge: “In my haste to avenge myself against the marauders who slew my parents, I captured the mad wanderer who sometimes trespassed on our estate. Certain he knew more than he would admit, I tortured a confession from him. A confession that led me nowhere. The poor devil would have said anything to escape my misplaced wrath.”

Sudden Shock: “I don’t know what the worst thing I did. I just remember that after they found me in the park, there was something in my mouth—a fingertip, severed by my teeth.”

Thirst for Knowledge: “I stole a forbidden book from the Ashmolean Museum Library. As soon as I knew of its existence, I had to plunder its ancient Aramaic and fully comprehend its demonic lore. Other minds could not stand the strain, would be implacably drawn to do evil with its secrets. But I knew better. I could keep them, safely. What I did not predict is that, while in my possession, the book would be stolen. And those others, whoever they were, slew innocents and summoned a terrible being to stalk the land. Had I not been rash, that dread tome would still be in the Ashmolean today.”

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.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

When we think of doing a haunted house horror scenario, we tend to look to The Haunting (1963, Robert Wise) and its cousin The Legend of Hell House (1973, John Hough.) This plot template pits a seasoned group of paranormal investigators against a home infested by supernatural menace.

You can follow it in The Esoterrorists or Trail of Cthulhu.

In the first case, prior urban legends surround the house. A famous hoax, like the one really at the core of the Amityville franchise, might have been staged there. An Esoterror cell now elects to use the ambient anxiety townsfolk feel about the place to summon Outer Dark Entities. The extra-planar monsters generate actual manifestations, attacking the Stability of the house’s current residents.

Maybe the original structure was razed years ago. So long as people remember where it was, the cell has enough psychic energy to work with to attract some suitable ODEs.

If the building still exists but lies abandoned, the entities go after occasional visitors, from meter readers to thrill-seeking amateur ghost hunters.

Believers in literal ghosts, unaware that something much nastier is behind the knocks, door closings, and apparitions, don’t stand a chance in there. The ODEs toy with them, as they do with all mortals, breaking them over time. The agents must find the cell, learn what ritual element binds the entities to the house, and destroy it. The item most likely consists of a box containing artifacts associated with the original case, or the family presently occupying the house.

In Trail of Cthulhu, non-Euclidean space has intruded into the house, eating away at anyone unfortunate enough to come into contact with it. The planar disturbance might have been conjured by witchcraft, as in “Dreams of the Witch House”, or “From Beyond”-style scientific inquiry into Things That Must Not Be Known. Either way, the investigation probes the same question: what do we need to know to sever the connection between the house and this unfathomable other dimension?

If a witch caused this and is still present, investigators have to to figure out how to find her and how to banish her. Along the way they must avoid countermeasures taken by scuttling rat-being familiars—or some other less canonical secondary threat the players aren’t expecting.

If the gate to non-Euclidean space lingers as the remnant of an old summoning, the group must discover that, identify the nature of the entities now taking opportunistic advantage of it, and find a way to close the portal. Step three may require fighting the beings mentioned in step two.

When weird science has opened the portal, the team must reconstruct the mad experiment so they can then work out how to reverse it. The scientist, now transformed and probably running about waggling his pineal gland at any who dare enter, serves as main antagonist. Or maybe the victims of the manifestations all become possessed by Lovecraftian aliens.

A third option has the malleable reality of the Dreamlands bleeding into the house. For example, your Dreamhounds of Paris surrealists could discover that a rich patron’s chateau has been infected by their nocturnal activity. Now, it might be useful to have an easy way of entering the Dreamlands while awake, especially if you’ve annoyed Nicolas Flamel and his ghouls of the Paris Catacombs. Still, you also don’t want one of your few financial supporters to become forever lost in the vale of sleep. Your task then becomes to journey into the Dreamlands and use your shaping powers to erect a wall barring its denizens from entering the chateau. Your opposition consists of dream beings who enjoy entering our world and want to keep on doing it, no matter how many people of the Wakelands they drive insane.

Fear Itself suggests another possibility: you play the family in the house. Way more haunted house movies, in keeping with their themes of the family under threat and the anxieties of property, focus on a mom, dad and kids. Paranormal experts may show up to provide exposition and perhaps exorcism, but our attention stays with the distressed family unit. Examples include Poltergeist (1982, Tobe Hooper), Sinister (2012, Scott Derrickson), Insidious (2010, James Wan), and the alien variant Dark Skies (2013, Scott Stewart.)

Here you create new characters, all closely related: father, mother, and one to three kids. You can also throw in a live-in extended family member to fill out the group: a grandmother, uncle, or a nanny who has been with the family so long she’s treated like a blood relative. In place of the Worst Things the characters ever did, one random character gets designated as the Mistake Maker. The Mistake is the decision that started the family’s collision with the supernatural. The most common Mistake is buying the haunted house. If you go with this, both the mom and the dad can be the Mistake Maker. Or the one who pushed for the purchase over the objections of the other bears that burden alone. Other Mistakes:

  • finding that weird stuff in the attic
  • opening that tunnel under the house
  • messing around in the cemetery next door
  • playing with an Ouija board (or otherwise messing with the occult)
  • arousing the ire of someone with the power to bestow curses
  • (for a disturbed kid character) torturing those animals

The GM hands out Mistake cards, some of them blank, the others including red herring Mistakes. The Mistake Maker gets the card with the real answer on it. To end the haunting, the family must determine what the real Mistake was and then somehow undo it. As ever, simply leaving the house never works—the dark forces have awakened and will now infest whatever place you run to.

Admitting your Mistake to everyone else might cost Stability points, or require you to do something in the story to gain permission to reveal it. GMC paranormal investigators can help, but might also push you further into insanity when the entities destroy their minds or bodies. The GM might further pare the Fear Itself ability roster, making sure that those left to the group are the only ones needed to answer the scenario’s questions.

To take the most obvious choice, run the family-based haunted house scenario as a one-shot. It could on the other hand make an interesting way into an ongoing Fear Itself series where the family uses what it learns in this first scenario to go out and fight other occult dangers. Think “Supernatural” with an entire family unit instead of two brothers.

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.

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