Fear Itself clocks in at 91 pages, 1 page front cover, 3 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, leaving us with 86 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
This book was moved forward on my review-queue due to me receiving a physical copy in exchange for an unbiased and critical review.
We begin this variant of the GUMSHOE system with a disclaimer that kind of makes me sad for its necessity: Fear Itself is, more so than ToC, Esoterrorists or Night’s Black Agents a hardcore horror-game. PCs will die. Uncomfortable topics will be mentioned and explored. The fact that players and GMs buying a horror game have to be notified that horror can be horrific…well, I get why, but still am kind of shocked that we’ve become this cuddled and unaccustomed to hardship and failure. For those out there that are sensitive to such topics – you have been warned.
Fear Itself takes places in the same world as Esoterrorists, which means that the AWESOME creatures of the Outer Dark, the superb, disturbing aesthetics of the creatures and their themes, remains intact – but the focus is a different one: Where Esoterrorists centered on professionals bringing the fight to the adversaries, Fear Itself’s inspiration is clearly the vast plethora of horror movies out there: From slasher movies to psychological dramas to current movies like “It Follows” – and it revels in this inspiration: You see, the premise centers on the PCs playing characters associated with archetypes of the genre – “The Jock,” “The Nerd,” “The Authority Figure,” “The Sexy Girl” – you get the idea.
Now if you’ve been to any amount of horror movies, you will have noticed certain traits being used to guarantee a character’s downfall: This is the best component of this book from a rules-perspective and something that all GUMSHOE games I run feature. I’m talking about Risk factors. Risk factors are traits that may be deemed character flaws – whether it’s an unbridled libido, greed, a desire for vengeance or curiosity: Each character has a risk factor, but is, surprisingly, not required to heed it’s dictates. There are hard and soft risk factors – and not heeding them incurs a stability loss. This system is VERY smart and works exceedingly well in game – it rewards players for not meta-gaming and still maintains control over the character’s urges as opposed to the player trying to ensure that the PC survives. On a nitpicky side: Risk factors are presented at the very beginning, when the respective rules-repercussions of them can be found on page 48 – 4 pages after the begin of the stability rules, so why not directly point towards that rules-information?
PCs also are supposed to have a dark secret – basically, the worst thing the character did…which is kind of realistic. After all, the longer we live, the more likely it is that we fail our own moral compasses. As always, we get points depending on the number of players to invest in investigative abilities. The interesting thing here is that the abilities may be capped: The combat/investigative expert of the group pretty much determined how good other players can be – precisely half as good. If e.g. the police cadet has 8 in shooting, the rest of the PCs can only have a shooting value of 4. If the combat/investigative expert increases the shooting value, the other PCs may increase the value until they reach the half-way point. And yes, rounded down, though explicitly mentioning this wouldn’t have hurt. Your second highest rating must be at least half your highest rating. There is another special type of restricted character of which there can only be one per group: The psychic. These characters have special skills like aura reading, being a medium or having strange messengers or premonitions – these abilities, unanimously, are narrative gold and I strongly advise the GM to properly make use of psychic’s cool powers. Take Synchronicity: Happy circumstances, unlikely happenstances – this can be used to massive effect. However, psychic powers leave the psychic open to the influence of the outer dark – each time you use a psychic power per session, you increase the difficulty numbers of stability rolls by the number of times you have drawn on your psychic powers. The character also suffers from a flat-out +1 increase to stability difficulty numbers, though I believe that explicitly mentioning whether this stacks or not would have made the rules here more concise.
If you’re coming to Fear Itself from another GUMSHOE-game, you’ll note something: The severely limited selection of investigative abilities. With characters being flawed everyday guys and gals, it should come as no surprise that even on this basic level, they will have a harder time dealing with the horrible threats they face. This is also emphasized by perhaps the single most important ability in the arsenal of Fear Itself characters: Fleeing. Fleeing can be used to substitute for Athletics when escaping, but not when pursuing…and it is the balancing mechanism for the combat/investigative expert and psychic’s additional tricks: All characters but those two get 2 rating points per point invested. Yes, much like in horror movies, the capable characters will have a harder time escaping the horrors.
Now, if the prior emphasis on stability was not ample clue: Yes, Fear Itself does sport “Sources of Stability”-rules and a personal goal you should determine – both not only tie your character to others and places in the world and the guidance for affinities and enmities between PCs helps establish hierarchies and social dynamics: We e.g. all know the following set-up: The jock is together with the sexy girl, but is in love with the good girl. The nerd is in love with the sexy girl, who, however, dislikes the nerd. The good girl, though, has a secret crush on the nerd… Yeah, this may sound simple and is entirely optional, but it does work and can be seen as a fluffy precursor and less complex version of Night’s Black Agents betrayal mechanics. The other rules regarding abilities pretty much follow the system you’re already familiar with – however, dealing damage in scuffling is pretty hard: Sans proper weaponry, the PCs will be pretty ill-equipped to deal with the horrors they face.
As always in GUMSHOE books, the special requirements on handling clues and structuring the story are well-explained for the GM, alongside simple rules for combat, death, injury – you know the deal by know. More interesting for the GM would be the creatures introduced in this book. For one, we once again get absolutely stunning b/w-artworks for them. Secondly, if you’ve read my review of Esoterrorists, you’ll have an inkling of how friggin’ awesome these beings can be. All right, the first creature herein already shows a significant difference in comparison to the adversaries faced in Esoterrorist-games: The Mystery Man. What does this guy do? Well, think Phantasm’s Tall Man…or Q with a personality that would make Pinhead blush with indignation: This godlike adversary has practically infinite powers and one grand motivation: Ocean Game, i.e. driving mortals insane for his own sickening pleasure (and the thinning of the membrane)… The second creature featured herein, the Ovvashi, is no less disturbing, but better suited as a short-term adversary than the BBEG-mystery man: The Ovvashi would be a deadly, unpleasant demon that has a face of all mouth – no eyes, no nose, just a thing clad in rags…and the thing is recruiting beggars, making the unfortunate into its beholden minions and servitors. And it smokes your soul. Literally. It can SMOKE YOUR SOUL. That’s so disturbing… This creature is awesome and, if this and Esoterrorists are any indicator of the monster quality, the adversary book must indeed be superb.
As in other GUMSHOE-books, we do get advice for players and GMs, but it is provided after the monsters – which is something I noticed here: Compared to the other GUMSHOE-games I’ve been playing, Fear Itself’s organization feels less intuitive and, sometimes, a tad bit confusing. For example, shouldn’t the stability rules and explanations of the mechanics be found sooner? A concept is fine, sure, but as presented, you begin with fluff, then choose mechanics, then the next chapter explains the rules of the system like damage, stability, etc. – over all, this makes the presentation feel more fragmented and less intuitive than in similar GUMSHOE titles. And yes, I understand that this is in line with other GUMSHOE-game rules presentations, but in this book, I had the distinct feeling that, if you’re not familiar with the rules yes, you may end up being somewhat confused. The general GUMSHOE-rules chapter also blends rules for PCs and GMs – again, understandable; but the advice for clue structure etc. imho belongs to the GM chapter, not in the player-section. Then, the awesome monsters come and THEN, we get GM and player-advice? Structure-wise, this is extremely unfortunate, since players should NOT read the entries of the monsters and their interesting weaknesses. So yes, presentation-wise, this one does feel a bit more confused than its brethren.
However, there is one point wherein Fear Itself manages to reach the perfect level of drool-worthy awesomeness of Esoterrorists: The sample scenario. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I’m saying that the sample scenario is by far the best I’ve ever read in a given campaign setting. No, really. It is not the perfect sandbox-set-up of Esoterrorist’s Station Duty, but the module is brilliant in many ways.
You do NOT want to spoil this scenario, so if you ever want to participate in it, PLEASE jump to the conclusion.
Only GMs left? Sure you want to SPOIL yourself? Really sure? All right.
So, the sample module provided herein begins with the PCs in a van, en route to a game-changer of an event. You see, CEO-wunderkind Cory Sluman, brilliant financial wizard and eccentric nerd, has established an array of interconnected setups to make his latest vision come true: He wants to establish LARP as a competitive sport and the PCs have an invitation to the inaugural event – for one reason or another, they need the money prize – they need to win. The set-up is as smart as you can possibly be: The PCs are all nerds, played by nerds: All those roleplaying jokes, Monty Python references…they make sense in game. This also immediately generates a connection between players and PCs as they banter, establish character-relations etc. – and then, suddenly, a van comes careening towards them, almost crashing into them. In the aftermath of the accident, the crew of the other van perishes and, as the PCs try to save them and the aftermath with the authorities is resolved, they may note a strange figure in the distance, cat-like fluorescing eyes staring.
But the game must go on – and the PCs arrive late, are almost disqualified…and meet a group that contains all the people you and your players love to hate in real world contexts. These rivals add a further human dimension to the happenstances that are about to unfold: For the LARP escalates horribly: As the PCs try to roleplay their characters (LOVE this meta-level!) in the context of Sluman’s fantasy world, psyches start breaking apart and violence continuously escalates. Worse, all but the PCs seem to be oblivious to any results of the violence they participate in. Oh, and the PCs have foam swords. And LARP-pew-pew spells. Congratulations, this will be truly nasty… But whether the PCs blow the whistle or not, the event will end at some point…and if you’re playing at a convention, this is where the adventure ends.
If not, though, then insanity has just started. You see, the strange occurrences do not end and the mysterious figure is still haunting them…and things become more sinister: The people that perished en route to the event? Well, investigation into their backgrounds reveals no easy connection: Different characters, social circles, no shared hobbies – only by researching those left behind in lavishly-detailed sections, the PCs can determine the unifying factors: For one, a change in personality and growing paranoia; and, more subtly, a theme of dogs…which leads towards the “Kozy Kennel”, property of one Alex Ibragimbekov – while he tries to bullshit the PCs, he confesses soon: The practically unstoppable entity that goes by the moniker Hungerwood which has plaguing the PC’s predecessors and now them, has been tormenting the poor man ever since he was a child.
The entity only changes targets when it can find a sufficiently dark spot on the souls of his victims to be (remember the dark secret?)… Oh, and he thinks he has found a way with the help of the deceased to stop Hungerwood or at least drive him away – for this insane purpose, he is torturing dogs to create the “Silent Howl,” a ritual supported by a sound file of high-frequency howls that may at least temporarily stop Hungerwood – but are the PCs willing and desperate enough to capitalize on something so undoubtedly vile and disturbing? Probably, at this point – and so, the ritual commences in an unique, intriguing climax…that comes with a nasty aftertaste, as Alex is found dead…and Hungerwood’s defeat proves to be short-lived or just another part of his macabre game…
The book concludes with a character sheet, a handy sheet called matrix of misery that lets the GM keep tabs on PCs and a detailed index.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column b/w-standard and the book sports numerous, gorgeous b/w-artworks of the highest caliber. The book’s print edition is a nice softcover with glossy covers and high-quality paper. The pdf-version is something I would recommend only to a lesser extent: The lack of bookmarks the electronic version sports constitutes a significant comfort detriment, particularly considering the more spread-out presentation of the rules.
Robin D. Laws’ Fear Itself is, and let me state that loud and clear, an EXCELLENT game. At the same time, the GUMSHOE system as depicted herein also represents the most disjointed of the presentations when compared to the other books I’ve covered and minor rules-ambiguities can be found here and there. While this does not cripple the book, it does detract a bit from its user-friendliness for novices to the system – which is a pity. Why? Because the Fear Itself, as a system, lends itself, like the horror movies it emulates, works best for brief campaigns and one-shots: The lethality of this iteration of GUMSHOE and the scope of the system is geared towards this…or towards prologue/first chapter-style gameplay.
The perfect way to use this book, at least in my opinion, is to lead into a longer campaign: The hapless PCs witness the horrible things about to happen and there we go: After several encounters, they are recruited into the OV, properly trained and now use Esoterrorist-rules, supplemented by some from this book. (And yes, in this instance, I’d slowly unlock the more action-packed spy-rules from Night’s Black Agents as the PCs become more and more professional threats to the creatures of the Outer Dark and the vampiric conspiracy…)
Beyond even this use, one can also look at Fear Itself as the ultra-gritty version of GUMSHOE: Want to play a truly low-powered Esoterrorists-game or a Dustier-than-dust-mode Night’s Black Agents-game? Scavenge the fleeing rules and the power-level. Even beyond such a model, the psychic powers may be a great addition to your game and the sources of stability/risk factor-mechanics offer A LOT of inspiring material that works just as well in more pulpy contexts. So while the presentation of the rules may not be as refined, the actual rules themselves are inspired in all the right ways.
The 2 monsters, the implied and extremely compelling Esoterrorists-world and the SUPERB scenario included herein also constitute excellent reasons to get this book. Fear Itself is a thoroughly compelling, excellent book, though one that is slightly more flawed than its brethren. Still, I wouldn’t ever want to miss this book and its contents among my library and can whole-heartedly recommend it. While incapable of being able to rate this the full 5 stars due to the slightly confused presentation and the electronic version’s lack of bookmarks, I can still rate this 4.5 stars + seal of approval, rounded up…However, only for the print version. The electronic version’s lack of bookmarks exacerbates the aforementioned issues and should be considered only 4 stars and loses the seal of approval.
You can get this nice GUMSHOE-game/modification here on OBS!
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