RPG First Impression: Fear Itself 2nd Edition (GUMSHOE system)


When I first started playing RPGs via forums, I was still hesitant to run them. I didn’t have much experience as a player or GM. Most of my experience was in watching games on Twitch and Youtube. I had started my Warhammer campaign in October 2018 because I love the setting and wanted to play but no one was running it. Shortly after getting my feet wet, I wanted to try something different. I asked for recommendations on horror games, especially if they can accommodate a modern setting. I wanted to run a story inspired by Japanese horror. So in December 2018, I started Fear Itself.

What is Fear Itself?

The core system of Fear Itself is known as GUMSHOE. It’s an investigative system where the design philosophy is that important clues shouldn’t be behind a roll like in most RPGs. If players fail the roll, they don’t get the clue, and it makes it harder for the GM to keep the story moving. Instead, the system gives PCs a variety of Investigative Abilities, broken down into categories. Players then have points to distribute around these Abilities to create a pool of points. During the investigation, a PC can find any clue using an Ability if they have at least 1 point in it. Points aren’t spent, they just get the clue. But often, these points can be spent by the player to gain additional benefits. The important part is that if you have an Ability, you can collect any clue associated with that Ability. No rolling.

In addition to the Investigative Abilities which are intended to find clues and gain benefits, there are General Abilities. These are your typical characteristics, and using these does require rolling. Typically, you roll 1d6 and succeed on a 4. General Abilities also have pools, and spending from them adds to your total. So spending 2 points gives you a roll of 1d6+2. You also have Health and Stability pools that deplete in combat or when facing otherworldly horrors. The horror comes from this particular rule-set. Gumshoe is normally just centered on investigations.

The Adventure

Since none of us had any experience with the system and for the story I had in mind, we played without the psychic powers and combat characters. This kept everything simple and easy to learn. And for the story, I wanted more down-to-earth, everyday characters who get swept up into the paranormal.

The complete campaign (a “miniseries” as the game calls it, a short-form campaign) can be seen here: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/2105943/fox-sketch-ic/page/1

The adventure was loosely based on a short story I wrote called The Fox Sketch. We begin at a restaurant where a professor at Tokyo University, Kawaguchi Hideyoshi, is with colleagues and favored students. The professor is getting married soon, and so they all gather to celebrate at dinner. The dinner helps introduce the characters and the setting. I’m not too strict about how well everyone knows Japanese culture; it’s a game, not an exam. But I give some pointers. After the dinner, they head out into the night where one of the teachers, Sakurazaki Kenko, screams and claims there was a samurai in dark armor atop a black horse. The PCs only see a vague shape vanish in the fog.

The PCs meet up at the university library to look for clues about this samurai figure and why the professor saw an image of them in the dead of night. After pouring through several books, they come upon a picture of a painting called The Samurai of Death. For added realism, I went and found a suitable artist to use. Real-world artist Soueki Kanou became the mysterious artist, and the painting in question hangs in Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art. It’s a real place, and I even used an image of the building in the game. Works by the real Kanou even hang in the museum.

After Kenko meets up with them, they leave the university library only to witness another attack. A strange ghostly figure appears in the mist before vanishing. Kenko, who had shrugged it off as a drunken hallucination, now pleads for them to find out what’s happening to him. Their next lead takes them to Ishikawa Prefecture.

One of the neat aspects of Fear Itself, something that other RPGs use, is intermission scenes meant to explore the PCs. So before continuing in Ishikawa, everyone gets a scene. Exchange student Jake Brimstone has a memory of his Japanese grandmother who gives him sage advice. Science student Matsui Takatsu meets with Kawaguchi-sensei to go over a dark matter experiment the two have been working on. Working student Naomi Kasan is approached by a neighbor about strange sightings and a smell afflicting their apartment building, and the two discover a creature lurking nearby. Professor Soichi Endo meets a quiet girl at his local Go Club. She’s been avoiding going home because of a dark shape haunting the stairs.

When they reconvene at the museum, they go to have a look at Kanou’s paintings. This is the first time one of them glimpses a fox that then vanishes from the painting. Naomi takes a picture of the paintings only to see a dark shadow blurring the paintings. They then meet with assistant director Juro Mitsue, a former student of Tokyo University. Thanks to an Ability spend by the professor, Mitsue agrees to take them into the vault to look at some of Kanou’s other works not on display. After a few painted scrolls, they discover a hidden one featuring a strange fox. This one is unfinished, only a sketch.

The lights suddenly go out and “smoke” begins pouring from under one of the doors. Matsui takes this opportunity to filch the fox sketch. The assistant director thinks there’s a fire, but there’s no alarm or extinguishers running. They then hear a pounding on the door. Mitsue goes to open it but a clawed hand reaches from underneath the door. Then a full-bodied creature like a twisted geisha crawls into the room. It’s a woman they saw in one of the paintings, but clawed and hungry for blood. After a brief skirmish, they flee from the geisha into the lobby. After collecting themselves, they go back down with security to look for clues. One of the paintings has been completely replaced with an unknown one depicting a village and two anthropomorphized animals, a rabbit and fox. They recall that Soueki was from the village of Hirata, now part of modern Izumo City. When they review the security footage, they spot a fox creature in the mist, staring at them.

The group makes plans to visit Izumo City and meet with a contact of Jake’s, Shizu Nishimura, a manga artist studying folklore and mythology in the area. I give the players another short interlude. Jake calls Shizu to fill her in and get some information before calling his grandmother. Naomi visits her grandmother to get some advice. Soichi tries to get the police involved to no avail, then gets a serendipitous call from his estranged daughter, Mei. Matsui has tea with his sister, Soma. These interludes help them reconnect with family and recover 2 Stability.

In Izumo, they meet with Shizu who drives them to a small museum dedicated to Soueki. It’s a less formal museum put together in Soueki’s former residence by a man that lives there. They get a brief tour of the few paintings on display, but one display is empty. After pressing the man, they learn it had previously housed the fox stretch, but the man took it down after the scroll went blank. The fox returned to the scroll a few days ago, but he’s been too scared to return it. They share the information they have and learn that the man started the museum after being compelled by Soueki Kanou’s spirit. It seems Soueki is a kitsune who long ago had been hunted by a folklorist, an ancestor of Sakurazaki Kenko. Soueki vowed revenge and has plotted these past several months to create a den where he could gather power and influence his own paintings to help hunt Kenko.

Soueki, who had returned to his home in Izumo, senses the group has discovered too much and could threaten his revenge. The house seems to come alive and grows cold. The group heads outside and decides to seek help at a Shinto shrine they passed on the way.

At the Umi Shrine (another real location), they gain the help of kannushi (priest) Yaichiro Nagata. They take him back to the house to conduct a cleansing ritual that will hopefully dispel the energy Soueki Kanou has collected, perhaps banishing him for good. While Nagata conducts his ritual, the others must go around the house and place sacred ofuda (talismans) above the windows and doorways.

Since these are non-combat characters and I didn’t want guns blazing in this story, I came up with ofuda as a mechanic. Each character gets 5 at a time. They have to use them to seal up the house, but having ofuda on-hand also provides resistance to Soueki’s powers (bonus for Stability tests) and it can be used as a weapon against the creatures Soueki summons. Outside, darkness has enveloped the house, and wind batters the windows. While sealing the house, they are beset by the creatures they’d previously met; the clawed geisha and the samurai. Banding together and using the ofuda, they fend off the spirits and join with Nagata in the upstairs bedroom to finish the ritual.

The house goes quiet and then a hulking kitsune, Soueki Kanou, enters the room. The party enters combat with the creature while trying to figure out how to banish it. They realize the scroll with the sketch is the creature’s link to this world. Unable to destroy the scroll, Matsui sticks an ofuda onto the back and the front goes black. The kitsune vanishes.

The story closes with some of them in the hospital, the others visiting. Hideyoshi and Kenko are also there. A note arrives addressed to the party, from Nagata. It’s a call to action to continue to fight the spirits of the dark.

Thoughts

The rules are a bit of a mess and need editing. Especially concerning terminology. A session is sometimes called a story, sometimes called a game. But rules refer to different terminology at different times, forcing me to puzzle out how some mechanics worked. There were other minor organizational problems. Some of the monster rules might be more convoluted than is necessary, especially since it’s not a combat-centric game. But otherwise, it’s a solid system and I really enjoyed Fear Itself‘s take on it. It took some getting used to, it’s not your typical style of RPG. Players had to slowly learn how Investigative Abilities worked and what benefits they can buy by spending points. But once everyone got the hang of it, it’s a system that encourages assertive play.

This was only the second game I had started, just a couple of months after my first, so there were a lot of areas of improvement for my GMing. In particular, there were too many times waiting for players to respond when I could have just moved on. The way I run PBF games now is much smoother.

I intend to return to this system and maybe try out the psychic powers and offer more combat-centric characters. It’s an excellent system if you want to run some Japanese-style horror and mystery.

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