A column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws
When the original Fear Itself came out in 2007, horror was in the depths of its torture phase, typified by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Always the most reliable indicator of the zeitgeist, horror cinema reflected America’s anxieties about its place in the world under the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The early Obama years saw a retrenchment into Hollywood’s recycling ethos, with a spate of remakes recapitulating the shock cinema of the 70s and 80s. Both of these horror cycles predominantly featured casts of young friends and peers facing the hideous fates that await most scare-flick protagonists—the default assumption of the game. One current horror wave, post-dating Fear Itself, places the family unit in the crosshairs of supernatural or monstrous danger. A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Sinister, Bird Box, Us, and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House all evoke fears of family dissolution in the face of threats from without. The more ghostly variants often show the influence of Kubrick’s The Shining. Political in a different way than the previous torture cycle, they touch on domestic economic unease, depicting families fighting to survive, and remain intact, under crushing external pressure. (Although they’re still going strong, I’d categorize these as products of the inward-looking late Obama period. Cultural waves take a while to show up on screens, so Trumpian horror may mark another imminent shift, with The Purge and its follow-ups as leading indicators.) To tweak Fear Itself for family horror, revisit character generation to create a cast of close relatives who will face a terrifying situation together. Start by dropping Drives. The implicit need to protect one another, literally and metaphorically keeping the family together, motivates the characters. Drives ensure that PCs act like horror characters, often giving them a positive reason to head into danger. In a family game, the characters generally seek to escape a situation which continues to ensnare them.
- They’re socked in for the winter at the creepy hotel.
- The ghost manifestation follows them even when they abandon the creepy house.
- Monsters are everywhere and no place stays safe for long.
- The source of horror is coming from inside the family.
Here, characters investigate to escape the problem, not to burrow deeper into it. The GM must actuate that by keeping the pressure on, driving them toward the information that might just allow them to get through this. During character generation, ask each player in turn to specify their role in the family. You might specify that at least one player must take on a parental role. Or, if no one wants to be Mom or Dad, most characters wind up as siblings—presumably orphaned in an earlier manifestation of the scenario or campaign’s central menace. Some players may try to wriggle free of emotional obligation by creating distant relatives. Redirect the urge to play third cousins or distant uncles. A recently arrived newcomer to the family, such as a new spouse or a biological half-sibling who showed up waving a genetic test, still works. Specify that they’ve had enough time to commit themselves to the family unit. They might have an outside perspective but still need desperately to preserve their connection to the others. In a DramaSystem game you’d then devise a map of blocked emotional agendas that each seeks from the others. Although conflict may exist or arise between PCs, in this case the focus is on coming together against an outside danger. Characters might be distant from another at first; if they survive, it’s because they bond in pursuit of survival. This theme appears in some familial horrors, like The Haunting of Hill House, but isn’t so much a factor in A Quiet Place. Instead start off the collective thinking by asking the group to come up with an answer to the following question: What blow has the family recently endured? Groups who like to dig in and find their own way can take it from there. Ones who prefer to choose from supplied prompts can pick one of these choices, perhaps riffing a variation:
- We all mourn our missing family member, who was killed either recently, by known means, or many years ago, in an incident we still struggle to understand.
- We underwent a bankruptcy or are on the verge of one.
- The head of the family has been suffering professionally.
- One of us committed a crime that made life hard for everyone.
- One of us underwent a medical crisis and yearns for tranquility and quiet.
- One of us was victimized or traumatized.
- We survived a terrible accident, perhaps of mysterious origin.
- A weird destiny encircles us.
- Our family has been cursed for generations.
- We have just moved house, and we have to make it work.
As GM, you might instead specify a collective blow tied into the premise. That last item on the list fits a classic haunted house outing. A crime within the family might trigger supernatural vengeance. The head of the family in professional crisis could be headed for the psychic break that escalates the horror, because as we all know, ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY. Skip the step where players choose Sources of Stability. Instead, each family member treats all the others as sources, suffering the ill results when one of the PCs fatally succumbs to the horror. Family-based horror works well for convention scenarios, providing an immediate premise and stakes for the players. Save time by handing out pregens with family roles already specified, allowing participants to pick which ones that appeal to them. Some players prefer to avoid the emotional intensity of familial interaction, often for strong personal reasons you don’t want to blunder into. They may have already experienced family dissolution, or regard relatives as people to escape from. In horror, this impulse might be called “Mummies? Yes! Mommy? No!” Be sure to secure buy-in, either by talking to your players at home or clearly signaling the premise of your con game on the sign-in sheet.
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.