Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Gumshoe Deep Dive, Part 2--Fear Itself

The Fear Itself core book, in its 2nd Edition form by Robin Laws and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, is 176 pages.  That's basically the whole game--I've nicked monsters from The Esoterrorists (which is encouraged, as the two games are  considered to be existing in the same "shared universe"), but other than that it is complete.  Of those 176 pages, maybe 30 of them consist of game rules.  The rest is scenario design and GMing notes (more on that in a bit), along with three complete scenarios, or at least scenario outlines.  In a world where RPG books get longer and longer, Fear Itself is a masterpiece of economy--complete and comprehensive without being excessive and overwhelming.

Part of that economy comes from the fact that Fear Itself is a very tightly focused game.  Fear Itself is a game that is about emulating horror movies, including notables like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, The Exorcist, and even more self-aware and self-referential fare like the Scream franchise.  PCs are ordinary people without significant training or preparation for facing the horrors they will encounter (if you want more competent PCs fighting back against the horrors, then you want The Esoterrorists).  Many, perhaps most, of the PCs are going to die in the course of a story, as is the case with horror movies.  Running away is a viable, wise strategy for PCs, just like in horror movies.

This tight focus of Fear Itself brings with it two interesting consequences for game play.  First, Fear Itself is very intentional on relocating the default mode of play away from a "campaign" style model.  Most tabletop RPGs have a built-in, but often unspoken, assumption that the game will consist of a series of sessions, involving the same PCs and set in the same narrative space, that build on one another in a linear fashion.  Now, of course, there are other ways to play RPGs, but most games assume that you are playing, or are trying to play, in a campaign, and the rules and GM advice are built around the notion of a campaign.

Fear Itself, by contrasts, explicitly discusses both one-shot play and a short "mini-series" of a couple of game sessions, and provides dedicated sections of GM advice for each mode of play.  The idea that these modes of play exist is nothing new, but explicitly talking about them and discussing how they change the way the game is played and what unique considerations they bring to the table is unusual, and welcome.  It's particularly welcome in a horror movie context, which is defined by self-contained stories and a lack of character consistency.  After all, it is hard to have an extended campaign with persistent PCs while killing off those PCs right and left (a core conceptual problem with the classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns like Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express).  But if you commit ahead of time to a short duration story, you head off the problem at the pass, while staying within genre conventions.

Before I get to genre conventions, I want to say something about the GM sections, which, again, are most of the book.  As I am writing this post, the big discussion going on in tabletop RPG Twitter is whether or not the 5th Edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide is any good/is useful for new DMs.  From my point of view, the problem with the 5e DMG, and it is a problem with 95% of all similar materials, is that it understands its task as providing advice for DMs about various tasks that are part of being a DM.  But the new DM does not need or want advice, but instead concrete instructions on what it is they are supposed to do as a DM.  The advice found in books like the 5e DMG is really only comprehensible and useful once you have already figured out on a base level how to be a DM.  And, once you have done that, much of the advice is pitched at such a basic level that it really doesn't help, because the DM who has figured out how to DM by hook or by crook has figured out the elements found in the basic advice.  This is why Dungeon World is the absolute best book for new DMs/GMs running any system, because it tells them what to do to run the game, and why GM advice materials pitched at experienced DMs/GMs are far more useful than those pitched at new ones (because their hyper-specific focus actually brings something to the table for even experienced GMs).

The GM sections of Fear Itself are not as specific on the absolute basics of running any tabletop RPG as Dungeon World is, but they are very specific about how to run the kinds of scenarios Fear Itself is about.  This is why dividing the game up into three different modes is so brilliant--it allows the Laws and Ryder-Hanrahan to be very concrete about how a GM should structure a one-shot or miniseries.  If you are a GM who is new to horror stories and/or investigative stories and/or GUMSHOE games, Fear Itself is a great place to start, because it gives you a clear road map to get through your first couple of GM sessions.  It is a great entry point.

The other thing Fear Itself brings to the table is the genre focus and the way it is clear about what it is doing.  There is a tabletop RPG design principle that a game should clearly communicate what it is that the game is about and trying to accomplish.  This principle is particularly important with horror games, as there is disagreement as to what these games are trying to do conceptually.  Adam Koebel (who I love, for the record) takes the position beginning at the 34 minute mark in this video that horror RPGs don't work because the goal of horror games is to scare the players (not the PCs, mind you, but the players), and it is very hard to scare the players at the table as a result of a number of factors, most notably the fact that you are experiencing the potential horror at several levels of remove (i.e. the fictional character you have created in your mind, mediated through the fictional scene you are also creating in your mind as a result of the GM's description).

He's right that it is really hard to consistently scare your players in a tabletop RPG session.  But this framing just takes as a given that the goal of horror games is to scare the players.  But why have that as a goal?  Rather than scaring the players, it seems to me the goal of horror RPGs is to create sessions that emulate horror fiction, just as the goal of fantasy RPGs is, at least in part, to emulate fantasy stories and fiction.  It's true that horror RPGs have in general done a poor job of communicating that goal, but that's true of most other kinds of tabletop RPGs as well.  And, to be fair, the recent 7th Edition of the grand-daddy of horror RPGs, Call of Cthulhu, lays down a clear marker that the goal of playing CoC is to tell Lovecraftian stories.  In the course of telling those horror or Lovecraftian stories, you may end up scaring your players, but the game session can still be fun and be a success if that doesn't happen. 

Fear Itself is equally clear about the goal of playing the game--the GM and the players are going to create a horror movie, or maybe a series of horror movies, together.  The PCs are going to go into the dark and solve a mystery and confront some slasher or horrible monster, and many of them are going to die.  My experience is that the fun is found in digging into those tropes and that structure.  In the course of doing that, most of the players (and sometimes even the GM) are going to come out the other side at least a little bit scared or creeped out, but as a GM I don't see it as my job to ensure that the players are scared.  My job as a Fear Itself GM is to lay out a horror movie story, and let the chips fall where they may.

You may have noticed that I haven't talked much about game mechanics so far.  That's because there isn't much there beyond the base GUMSHOE system, which I talked about in the last post.  Really, other than a brief section on psychic powers (which I have never used, only glanced at), the only mechanical elements added from base GUMSHOE are risk factors and sources of stability--drivers that push a PC toward dumb horror movie actions and sources of comfort, respectively.  Because it is so lean, Fear Itself is a good way to learn the basics of GUMSHOE here and the rhythm of play, before moving on to the more complicated implementations of the system.

That's not to say that Fear Itself is anything like a "starter set" for GUMSHOE--it's a complete game on its own.  But it is an accessible "on ramp" to the broader world of GUMSHOE, providing a game compelling experience.  If the idea of playing a character in a horror movie, or writing/directing a horror movie, is at all interesting, then Fear Itself is the vehicle for making that happen.  Fear Itself can easily slip under the radar, but it is definitely worth a look.

Monday, July 1, 2019

A Humble Request

For those not aware, every year there is an awards show at Gencon called "the ENnies," which tries to capture the best games and products of the previous 12 months.  The process is that a group of judges nominate a list of about a half-dozen products in various categories, and then there is a online vote for the winner and runner-up.  You can see the 2018 nominees and winners here.

Well, I've applied to be a judge for the 2020 ENnies, and so I am writing to ask for your vote.  If you have read my reviews, I think you will have a sense of how I approach games and game design.  I am looking for innovation, for a clearly defined focus and an execution of that focus, and for accessibility to players and GMs, especially new ones.  If you have enjoyed my content in the past, I would appreciate you voting for me.  

The voting period is from July 10 to July 21, and can be found here.  Thank you for your consideration.