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.


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.


  • 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.

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


See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

With Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch RPG blasting through Kickstarter as only a chronoton can, you may be asking yourself if you can put time travel in other GUMSHOE games. We at Pelgrane are not in the business of telling you not what not to do with GUMSHOE. (Unless you want to use it to light your Hibachi indoors. In which case, don’t do that.)

That caveated, here’s how you might do it in the various existing GUMSHOE settings.

The Esoterrorists/Fear Itself/Trail of Cthulhu

One of my favorite treatments of time travel comes, of all places, from an old Batman comic. And not during a cool Batman phase, but from the kooky silver age. In that story, the details of which my memory is doubtless mangling, Batman and Robin go back in time hypnotically. (In fact, now Googling “Batman time travel”, I find that I like this idea because I’m remembering it wrong.) In my memory’s mistaken version of how this works, they possess the bodies of their ancestors, who happen to be conveniently located and remarkably similar in appearance in ancient Rome, the old west, the Viking era and so on.

Lovecraft likewise treats time travel as a mental journey, making it the specialty of the Great Race of Yith. In a Trail game you need go no further than to have a series of weird murders committed by a victim of Yithian possession. When the investigators capture the first suspect, the Yithian simply jumps to someone else—perhaps a PC whose player is absent that session—and forges ahead with the mayhem. To really shut down the Yithian menace, the group must figure out what the entity is trying to accomplish, and then take action to ensure that it is no longer possible. Otherwise the body-hopping from the ancient past continues.

Scrubbing the Mythos detail from this idea for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself allows you to reverse the direction of travel. Outer Dark Entities come from the future, when they have already breached the membrane, to create the conditions that will later allow them to breach the membrane. They can’t travel directly into this time, but possess those emotionally destabilized by Esoterror provocations. Again the problem is that stopping one meat-form merely slows them down, requiring them to find a suitably vulnerable replacement. The definitive solution depends on rendering what changes they’re trying to wreak in the timestream impossible. After the Veil-Out, the Ordo Veritatis might take temporary relief in the thought that they’ve prevented a future in which their demonic foes win. But plenty of additional ways for them to do it remain, as a fresh manifestation quickly demonstrates.

Mutant City Blues

The conceit in this mutant-powered police procedural is that all weird abilities are already well explicated by science. If you do want to invent a mutant time travel ability you have to find a spot for on the Quade Diagram. Somewhere out near sector F00, where the weirdo dream manipulation appears, might fit the bill. You also want to establish the effects of time manipulation as already measurable, if not fully understood. So perhaps a time distortion field might emit some sort of radiation that enters the bloodstream, or induce over-production of a particular preexisting hormone. As members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit you can perform tests on tissue samples to determine whether victims, alive or on a morgue examination table, were exposed to time altering energies. Finding out who committed the time crime would then be a matter of finding out which local mutant miscreant has the mutation in question. That said, given the down-and-gritty reality level of Mutant City Blues superheroics I would be inclined to make time travel something that tantalizingly almost seems to exist, until the detectives get to the real truth of the matter. Perhaps false rumors of time travel could be connected to the alien beings some people in the world credit with the Sudden Mutant Event that created all weird powers.

Ashen Stars

The space opera setting of Ashen Stars seems tailor-made for timey-wimey activities. Like several sources of its inspiration, it includes godlike aliens. Or at least there used to be godlike aliens, the Vas Kra, who have devolved into the all-too-moral vas mal. And with those in the mix, even if only in the setting’s past, anything can happen. That allows you to nod to this key genre element without introducing brain-cracking paradoxes that rightly belong in TimeWatch territory. Needless to say the shift from universe with time travel to universe without would be an outcome of the Mohilar War. We might take a cue here from the current, degraded morphologies of the Vas Mal, the former godlike aliens. Now they look like classic UFO grays, which hook up to the motif of missing time. Perhaps in the Ashen Stars universe, missing time derives not from hypnosis or erased memories but from proximity to time travel and its contradictions in minds not capable of handling it. Back in the 20th century, when the Vas Kra came to earth to meddle with the human mind, those taken up into their vessels suffered gaps in understanding because they brushed too close with their transtemporal natures. This leads to the theory, oft-mooted by residents of the Bleed, that the Vas Kra ended the Mohilar War by interfering massively in the past of those forgotten beings. It explains how the war ended, how the Vas Kra lost so much energy that they had to devolve, and why no one remembers that this happened. The fear that this is so leads at least one powerful movement to oppose all efforts by the vas mal to reconstitute themselves, lest time travel come back, unleashing chaos throughout the cosmos—maybe bringing back the Mohilar, too.

Night’s Black Agents

What if the vampires are time travelers? They’re humans who, sometime in the future, discovered how to move through time. Problem: doing so warped their bodies. They became vulnerable to sunlight and had to drink the blood of humans uncontaminated by chrono-energy to survive. Their added strength and resistance to damage (except to the brain or heart) hardly counts as a fair trade. So they send agents back to the past, to prevent the chain of events that leads to their own development of time technology. Stopping those events requires a grand upsetting of the geopolitical power structure. To achieve this they must penetrate and destroy the world’s intelligence agencies. The PCs know too much about this, even if they don’t believe the truth, and hence find themselves on the run from somewhat sympathetic vampires from the future. Who still want to pulp them and take nourishment from their juices.

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.

The GUMSHOE system by Robin D. Laws revolutionized the investigative roleplaying game, and is the basis for RPGs that will appeal to fans of many genres: space opera, spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror and two-fisted pulp adventure — with more to come.

Its central premise, though, can be challenging for newcomers to wrap their heads around. What do you mean investigative skills automatically work? If we don’t roll dice to find clues, what do we do?

One of the best ways to introduce new players to GUMSHOE is to run one of our 20-minute GUMSHOE demo adventures for them. These scenarios have been tested through convention play, and provide a solid intro to the rules as well as to individual games based on the system. If you are running something else with your game group, 20 minutes isn’t a hard sell to run at the beginning of a session.

Currently you can download three short GUMSHOE demos:

20-minute demos for Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Mutant City Blues will be up next. Give these scenarios a try, and let us know how your session went in the forum.


Best Adventure Nominee  in the 2012 ENnie awards

Welcome to Ward Three.

You are a patient in Our Lady’s Hospital. The equipment is out of date, the staff unmotivated, and the whole place stinks of death and despair. You’re sick, and at the mercy of the doctors and staff.

Then one night, they come for you. That’s when the real nightmare begins.

Something terrible is happening in Ward Three. You can’t stop it. All you can do is try to get out alive.

Invasive Procedures is a Fear Itself adventure from Gareth Hanrahan, co-author of the Dracula Dossier and author of Arkham Detective Tales, three Skulduggery settings and Brief Cases: Three Adventures for Mutant City Blues. Invasive Procedures includes an extract from The Book of Unremitting Horror.

Includes conversion information for Trail of Cthulhu.

Download a layout map of Our Lady’s Hospital in the Resources section.

Stock #:PELG09 Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Artist:Pascal Quidault Pages: 52 page Perfect Bound


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