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Reviews - Fear Itself
by Lee Valentine

Fear ItselfFear Itself
Game Published by Pelgrane Press
Game Authored by Robin Laws
$19.95 (print) / $8.95 (PDF)

Fear Itself is a new mystery horror roleplaying game published by Pelgrane Press and written by Robin Laws. The game is based on Pelgrane's new house RPG system, GUMSHOE. GUMSHOE is specifically designed to be the core engine of RPGs in which solving mysteries is one of the principle activities of the players' characters in the game. The first GUMSHOE game was called Esoterrorists, and focused on characters with highly specialized investigative abilities so that players could design characters in the vein of the FBI agents from X-Files. In the Esoterrorists the players are members of a society called the Ordo Veritatis fighting against "a sinister international conspiracy", the Esoterrorists, that constantly meddles in things man was not meant to know and summons up dark beasties from "the Outer Black".

In Fear Itself, the players are not pitted against the Esoterrorists (or are otherwise completely oblivious to its presence), and instead fight directly against the forces of darkness (a.k.a., "The Outer Black"). Unlike Esoterrorists, the characters' investigative abilities in Fear Itself are painted in broader strokes. Fear Itself characters are not the competent agents of Esoterrorists, but are instead overly inquisitive "normal" people who have unwittingly attracted the attention of the forces of darkness. While it is possible to have someone with combat skills or psychic abilities in Fear Itself, there's generally only one such character per group, and even that character is far from expert at what he does. Fear Itself is thus designed to run mystery horror adventures of the kind one might expect from a movie like Silent Hill, or the exploits of meddling kids in a terrifying version of Scooby Doo, gone gruesomely, horribly wrong.

Mysteries in Fear Itself Games
During character creation characters are allotted a certain number of points to allocate to Investigative Abilities. These are nominally skills like "Interrogation" and "Bullshit Detector". The number of points each player gets toward Investigative Abilities varies with the number of players who are in the campaign regularly. The goal of this method is to make sure that players have just enough points so that, collectively, the group of PCs has some kind of rating in the vast majority of Investigative Abilities. Players are discouraged from all spending their points on exactly the same Investigative Abilities.

The GUMSHOE system has one key rule concerning mysteries: players just about always find all the core clues required to lead the players from one scene in the adventure to the next and finally onto unraveling the mystery at hand. The analogy made by Robin Laws is that in a dungeon crawl fantasy game when you overcome the challenge you get treasure. Laws goes on to say that historically, RPGs have made the acquisition of core clues to a mystery dependent on die rolls or overcoming some physical challenge. In a typical RPG one bad roll, and poof, the entire mystery adventure goes up in smoke and the players are derailed. Not so in a GUMSHOE system game.

To get a core clue you get a player with an appropriate skill, rated at 1 rank or higher, onto the scene and the core clue is handed over to that player. The plot moves forward. The mystery slowly unravels. Players have a number of "Pool" points in each Investigative Ability equal to their rating. A player can trade in points from a given Ability's Pool in order to have the GM award the player with secondary clues. Secondary clues will either embellish core clues revealing something cool about the play, will point out something going on in a secondary mystery tangential to the main plot, or which will move the players toward solving the mystery even faster. Spending from an Ability's Pool does not decrease a player's rating, so that a player who has no points left in his "Bullshit Detector" Pool can still use that Ability to find core clues, but can no longer find secondary clues with that Ability until his Pool refreshes.

Skills and Combat
Characters have skills unrelated to their Investigative Abilities as well, like "Athletics", "Scuffling", "Shooting", and the ever popular "Fleeing". These General Abilities have ratings and pools, but expenditures from these skills work differently. For General Abilities, the GM sets a difficulty for a given task (normally around 4), and a player spends points from the appropriate Pool (like "Athletics" for jumping a fence). The expenditure is added to the roll of a six-sided die, and if the result is equal to or greater than the chosen difficulty, then the character succeeds at the chosen action.

Combat is handled using "Scuffling" and "Shooting" skills, but whenever a success is rolled, it's time to roll a damage die, another six-sided die. The damage roll is modified by the type of weapon used, and the resulting damage is subtracted from the target's Health score, trying to drive him toward 0 and eventual unconsciousness or death.

As is typical of many horror games, Fear Itself has a Sanity score, and many things threaten to reduce a character's Sanity, driving him toward eventual post-traumatic stress or full blown insanity. The GM is offered some really interesting advice for playing out certain types of madness, like paranoia -- the affected player is asked to leave the room, and then when he comes back he finds everyone else passing notes, staring at him, and whispering to each other.

Character Embellishments
In Fear Itself, player characters are not just a collection of attribute scores. First, a character has a stereotypical role: the geek, the sexy girl, the jock, the drug addict, etc. Next, players are encouraged to describe "the worst thing their character has ever done". Characters also have sources of stability (which help keep them sane, or which can cost them sanity if they are threatened by monsters from the Outer Black).

Most importantly, they have certain motivations that explain why they do the crazy things they do. Why does your character go searching through the creepy house on the hill? Looking for a drug fix? A good place for a cuddle with a cute gal? Do you take on every dare just for an adrenaline rush? In short, these are the reasons that the player characters don't try to immediately jet and flee for the horizon at the first sign of trouble.

As a finishing touch there are Attractions and Enmities. After each player provides the group with a quick description of his character to the other players, each player decides who his character likes the best and who really grates on his nerves. This is a useful roleplaying hook, however, it seems primarily useful for dealing with the relationships between high school kids, the most common types of victims in the modern horror genre, and is less useful for other casts of characters.

I really think that the way Laws encourages players and GMs to collaborate and detail characters is laudable. Not only does this allow for more role-playing springboards, but it creates a greater emotional attachment to the characters, helping to bolster the sense of fear a player will feel when his character is threatened. I wish more horror games really paid attention to these details the way Laws does in Fear Itself.

Game Appearance
Fear Itself features a great layout and fairly attractive art. The cover of the product features a startling rendering of a frightened eye looking through a hole in a padlocked door. The cover is striking enough that it could result in an impulse buy immediately. The internal art is mostly black and white line art with some grayscale photorealistic looking images. The image selection is appropriate for the genre and helps sets the tone for the game, but the style of the images varies substantially throughout the book, which some readers may find mildly distracting (I didn't).

Running Fear Itself
Fear Itself is best run by an advanced GM. Rather than a purely linear adventure style, Fear Itself includes advanced techniques like running your adventures as a web of possible scenes which can often be visited in any order. The game also features role-playing out character flashbacks as means of character development.

If you cut out psychic powers (which require substantial additional familiarity with the game), then Fear Itself can be easily run as a convention game. And theoretically it can be run as a long campaign (although it is doubtful whether the characters would survive and remain sane through a prolonged campaign). The game, however, seems to really shine at short campaigns or longer multi-session adventures. Using that style of play, players have enough time to explore some of the background of their characters, and to make an emotional attachment to those characters, both of which are really required for players to fully experience the horror genre. While Fear Itself can theoretically be used to run a "slasher film" game filled with immediately disposable heroes, the character detailing process is involved enough that you'd really want to leave a lot of the high points of Fear Itself out when running that genre.

Problem Points
The game does have some downsides, though. First, the editing is quite problematic. There were some glaring rules contradictions, such as stating twice on the same page that you could not have more Objects or Activities as "Sources of Stability" than you had People as "Sources of Stability"; the provided example then immediately contradicts this rule. More than any RPG I've seen in the last 10 years or so, this game has its share of editing glitches, but for the most part the errors are not too distracting.

My other complaint is that there really weren't many monsters or villains presented in the rulebook; only two. And one of those had no game statistics described for it, which, when coupled with a reference to the fact that the creature can "refresh one Pool of his choice per Round", was cryptic indeed. In fairness, Pelgrane has a supplement for $29.95 called The Book of Unremitting Horror (BOUH) featuring 30 detailed critters. This version is not to be confused with the earlier d20 release Pelgrane Press did with the same name. However, as a stand alone product, I found that because Fear Itself has only two detailed monsters only one of which has any game statistics associated with it, some GMs may not have enough benchmarks to easily extrapolate how tough they need to make other monsters they wish to introduce. No advice is given to the GM on designing monsters based on the size of the party. The space given to the sample adventure would have, in my opinion, been far better spent on presenting example threats, and given more advice to the GMs on how to invent their own beasties.

Overall, though, Fear Itself is a good read. The GUMSHOE line also has some mechanics which are fairly unique to this system. As presented, the game is great for running a mystery horror game, particularly as a one shot or a short campaign.. If you're like me, you immediately thought about the possibility of running a modern era Call of Cthulhu-style game with Fear Itself. If you are a purist and prefer your Cthulhu in the 1930s, in December 2007, Pelgrane Press will be releasing its next feature entry into the GUMSHOE line by Kenneth Hite, Trail of Cthulhu. I can't wait. For now, in spite of a few reservations, I think fans of the horror genre, and particularly the mystery horror genre, will enjoy Fear Itself. It's a good RPG buy at $19.95. For fans of PDFs, it's also available as an $8.95 PDF product from your favorite PDF vendor. If nothing else, consider picking this up for Robin Laws' commentary on how to emulate the modern teen horror film genre, as they are portable to many gaming systems.

Lee's ratings:

Overall Score: B
Rulebook Clarity: B
Ease of Learning: B+
Retailer Salability: B
Rules Complexity Low to Medium

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