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Little Fears
Author: Key20 Publishing (Jason L. Blair)
Cost: $20.00
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2001-12-05

Here's another triumph of creator-owned role-playing publishing, in terms of creating within the context of the grassroots community and then moving to book-and-store level publishing. Little Fears' history is a poster child for how RPGs should be done if they go to book. I also stress that its content, and consistent faithfulness to that content, could never have been done except as an indie.

Morals, Appropriateness, and Game Sales
I might as well begin with the whole morality issue. Some retailers have stated their distaste for the game's content. One told me personally that he would never sell it, and that if the distributor would not accept his return of two copies, he would destroy them.

Well, I'm a old gamer and well remember the D&D outcry in the late 1970s, as well as the industry's shameless retreat into placation and pablum. Times have not changed: if retailers and distributors can find a scapegoat, periodically, for an "immoral" game, then they lose no opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the moral health of the body politic. This year, it's Little Fears - entirely undeservedly. Dispel all uninformed gossip from your mind; Little Fears is not "about" child abuse and in fact treats the topic very seriously and with great moral strength.

That said, I do think pp. 4-11 are unsuited to the game, although for different reasons from retailers' pious mouthings. The first is simply marketing tactics: any "little girl's diary" material is simply Bad Business, in my opinion, because it opens one up to the annoying behavior described above. The other is that articulate, descriptive diaries don't match the age group of Little Fears and the state of semi-permanent fantasy that (say) a seven-year-old inhabits in general. By way of contrast, I think the pages immediately prior to and following this section are excellent and would have been, by themselves, an amazing opener.

So much for morality; let's talk role-playing.

How the Game Works
Putting it up-front, the game is perhaps the most powerful example I know of a vision finding its expression in the content, mechanics, and events of play. Even where it stumbles (or more honestly, where Blair's choices and my preferences diverge), it stands as an original, compelling testament to what an RPG can be as an artistic achievement.

Blair has carefully stated that Little Fears is about Terror as opposed to Horror. This distinction makes sense, because the latter requires comprehension, reflection, and even identification. Terror arises in the child, when he or she tries to orient and make sense of what is happening, and cannot, constructing any number of rituals or explanations in an attempt to cope. Horror, on the other hand, arises as we see the adults' obtuseness or individual evils, as well as experiencing "horrified pity" at the kids' take on things.

My favorite example of how these interact is the dead girl in The Sixth Sense, with her line "I think I'm feeling better" - she is reassuring herself, acting strictly out of terror. Watching this, I react with horror as I realize, later, that she is also trying to reassure the very person who is killing her. Little Fears puts its emphasis on the first, generating and exploring the terror such that kid-effort to make sense of it emerges during play. I think it is a horror game as well, but strictly as an "outer layer" of metagame rather than anything that an in-game character realizes or experiences.

Making characters is based mainly on answering a serious of excellent questions, all of which nail the kid-concept squarely ("How old are you?" "What's your most favorite toy?"). Later, during play, most of these questions lead directly to the most important mechanics of play, Spirit, which are Spirit, Innocence, and Belief. They also provide the GM with the most, if not all, of the game's NPCs.

Some aspects of character creation puzzle the hell out of me. Why provide points to distribute to determine the attributes? It seems perfectly appropriate to assign them based on age, which avoids any potential of mini-maxing (which is potentially a problem given aspects of the system described below). Less importantly, the value of the Muscle attribute is mainly in setting the child's hit-point levels, which seems to me something that might as well have been left universal for player-characters.

Similarly, characters' qualities (advantages and disadvantages) are required to balance one another, which also puzzles the hell out of me. Why not just permit the player to choose 1-3 for each?

Fortunately, the resolution system returns to the promise of the question list. Actions are resolved by rolling 1d6 in reference to attributes. The target is EITHER equal to or under the character's attribute's value OR over the opponent's value, called respectively a Quiz or a Test. This is an excellent, sensible, and easily-understood, easily-played mechanic. I have not seen as good a target-value system since The Whispering Vault. The qualities (positive and negative) play in as added dice, one per quality; positive and negative totals cancel out; take the most advantageous or disadvantageous die for the result.

Thus if my character, little Donald, tries to wriggle through a narrow opening to escape something, I use my Feets attribute (3), so rolling 3 or under on 1d6 is the goal. However, Donald is also Fleet of Foot, so I may roll 2d6 and take the lowest. If some other quality militated against him in this situation, it would have canceled one of the positives and I would roll 1d6 after all. (The rules unfortunately do not state whether a negative attribute can sometimes be used as a positive or vice versa.)

One really nice aspect of this is that horrible monsters are combated using Quizzes, not Tests. If Donald had been chased by a person, he would have had to roll over the person's attribute; if he is being chased by a monster, the above example works as written.

One needs to be aware that the probabilities are highly in the children's favor if positive qualities are involved. The point-system allows quite a few attributes at 4 and potentially one or more at 5. Given a quality or two to help, that's over 80% to succeed. In other words, in their sphere of competence, the kids are pretty good at what they do, too damn good frankly. We spend a certain amount of time during play cursing successful Fear checks (Donald has Spirit 4, plus Brave, and it's just too much).

The most important scores are those for Soul, Innocence (half of which is the score for Belief), and Fear. They operate as almost-completely independent scalars, which is somewhat inelegant; our whole group would have preferred could use a more integrated or result-based approach similar to the system in Wuthering Heights. They're pretty extreme. Losing Soul is a result of monstrous attacks or possession; low Soul ("Darkening") means a pale, feeble, decaying child. Gaining Fear is the result of failing Spirit checks and furthermore rolling 6 on a response chart; high Fear means an insanely paranoid child. Losing Innocence essentially means accelerating the "natural" loss of Innocence (timed to hit 0 at age 13, unless one loses extra through play), which results in being Tainted, a combination of denial, insensitivity, and joylessness. More on all of these follows later.

There is no experience or improvement mechanic, which I applaud. It has no meaning for the game's topic and therefore its absence is appropriate. I do question the consequences for changes in Soul, Innocence, and Fear, but again, that's discussed below.

There is no metagame mechanic, which is fine regarding the physical stuff, but Soul, outcomes of Belief magic, or Innocence in some form of application practically cry out to be applied as metagame some way. As it stands, player authorship is verbally encouraged but mechanically unsupported, relying on Drama alone with no override power.

You Gotta Drift
Warning: GNS jargon follows. Squint if necessary.

Little Fears is a perfect example of what I am now calling "abashed Narrativism," in that the role-player is simultaneously urged to be in character with no reference to player-viewpoint, and yet also urged to be a co-author of the developing story. I consider this to be contradictory. More specifically in terms of the point of it all, the system lacks an understandable outcome of the events in play.
My point is here rests on the idea that the term "child" takes its emotional impact (i.e. we care) from the fact that the kid grows up and turns out to be an adult of some sort. But as written in Little Fears, this outcome isn't a playable issue. Per adventure, all you get is whether the kid is or isn't killed, or is or isn't looney, or whatever.

The long-term goal regarding how Innocence and Soul "turn out" in a character is not really playable. Are we expected to play continuously from (say) age 8 through age 13? Impossible; they'll be raving loonies or worse, especially since there's nowhere to go but down. And even if so, how much Soul lost is OK? As it stands you can afford to lose 3 as a buffer and after that the character is a disaster; thus you functionally have 3, not 10. Similarly, what happens if even one point of Innocence is lost, which guarantees that the kid reaches 0 Innocence before he or she is "supposed to" on the kid's 13th birthday? As it stands, you're ipso facto Tainted - thus losing 1 Innocence screws the person forever, game over.

Therefore my conclusion is that actual play of Little Fears has no choice but to drift either into more focused Narrativism or more focused character-based, situation-based Exploration (Simulationism). No more jargon; I shall explain.
  • The players may wholly submerge themselves in the experience of "being" little Bobby or whoever, and that's their entire goal. In this case, the content of the scenario is all taken on by the GM. This approach is completely counter to the stated goals in the text, and the GM would be required to develop an external world in some detail, but the rules permit this approach without much trouble. In my opinion, it's distastefully grim, as pretty much the only possible outcome is that the fictional kids will eventually be insanely paranoid, Darkened, or Tainted as an adult. (One person has put it well to me, that succeeding in playing in this fashion is not to play at all.)
  • Our solution was the opposite, to add a thematic Metagame context. We did this by taking the existing text about co-authorship seriously, and beefing the Soul/Innocence mechanics from what are essentially hit points up to the basis for a story. Here's how it works: the GM wrote a "future life" for the character, up to and including how they die. These stories are horrid - the characters are miserable lowlifes and losers. Now, during play, the whole point is that following each session, we may eliminate aspects of this written future based on what has happened to the character's Innocence and Soul during play. Basically, we can "fix" the characters' futures to a great extent. We did this fairly informally, but a method relating to specific losses of Innocence and Soul could be worked out.
Playing the Game
Playing the kids is easy and immediately absorbing. It's fun to get into kid-logic, and the questions from character creation provide great material to work with. The corresponding hard part is to stay there, because we as adults begin understanding the scenario in ways the kids do not. The biggest trap for us was for them become Disney kids with adult-level understanding and reasoning processes, and it takes some effort to avoid that. Little Fears loses all of its content, in my opinion, if it becomes Call of Cthulhu with unusually short investigators.

As I said, we try to avoid that. In our most recent session, two characters mused about finding and helping a friend who might have been in trouble. Their conclusion? "Wanna play Hotwheels?" "Sure."

During play, an interesting out-of-character discussion occurred as a general accompaniment to in-game events and play, about ourselves as kids of that age. Since none of the player-characters were autobiographical, this discussion served as a kind of ongoing reinforcement for one another about using kid-logic, in a very personal way.

Playing the adults, for the GM, is much harder for many reasons. For one thing, they have to be fairly obtuse regarding "the monsters" and whatever nastiness is occurring, or else the child characters are not going to be under-the-gun to deal with it. It gets old fast for the bogeyman to keep ducking around a corner just before the adult turns his or her head, for instance. For another, the GM is responsible for all the complexities of all the adult interactions in the game-world, which is a pretty big burden without player-characters to add their input.

The GM also has the difficult task of coordinating the various actions and events such that a coherent scenario/story emerges, even as the player-characters are legitimately prone to come up with activities like playing Hotwheels. This ties into the Drift issue described above: if the solution is simply to hand it to the GM for railroading, play moves in the Simulationist direction; if it arrives at other solutions at the metagame level, then players have to emerge from their characters at times, and it moves in the Narrativist direction.

Dav tells me that he'd prefer that Fear checks were easier to fail, that the consequences of gaining Fear were more interesting and long-term at the point-by-point level; also, that Innocence needs to be far more coherent (such that losing one point does not Taint the person forever); and finally, that the loss of Soul is disproportionately dangerous, because if it's introduced into the story at all, everything else has to take an immediate back seat. He also says that it's confusing to call something the Darkening if it means the child is growing more white and pale.

The Background and Setting
So the basics and issues of play are tremendous, in that they bring up all the right questions about children and their fears. However, I'm not so happy with the provided answers.

We have a realm called Closetland, which is cool. Then we have a hierarchy of Bad Demon Beings, ranging from the boss called the Demagogue, to a group of beings much like the Endless in Sandman, except based on the Seven Sins, and finally to a set of lesser beings. I have some problems with the whole concept of an external, objective horror-world in Little Fears, as I do not think it works well as a Hidden-World game.

What our play has shown us is that such a background is totally unnecessary. Dav, the GM of our group is big on letting ALL the nasties arise out of Belief magic during play or during the back-story, rather than using any form of "structure" or demonic hierarchy of Closetland. The Belief system, Closetland itself, and the Closet Monster rules work perfectly to generate Awful Things, such that the games flies entirely on its own. We call this the boomerang effect: the kids experience something they cannot understand that scares them (and it may be a very human thing, ranging from atrocity to sorrowful to actually pretty normal), and then the Terrors appear.

A Couple of Details
The text of the game itself varies widely, from tremendously clear and inspiring to over-purple, vague, and even garbled. Phrases like "sharp alabaster" to describe a color move away from evocation and into silliness. Weird setting details like "diabolists," otherwise unmentioned in the book, show up in the middle of passages about entirely different things. The worst part is when these passages have an impact on the actual setting or mechanics of the game. For instance, a King becomes more powerful insofar as people perform acts corresponding to the King's sphere of influence, and the King may, at will and without limit, force people to perform such acts, entirely independently of the people's inclinations. In other words, the Kings are perpetual-motion Evil Machines. Aside from any metaphysics version of the conservation of energy, this is thematic nonsense; it removes the source of evil acts from the human realm to the external/fantasy realm, rendering them meaningless.

These passages also provide an annoying undertext throughout. In them, adulthood, science, rationality, and maturation in general get a very bad rap, being equated overtly with narrow-mindedness, lack of wonder, blindness to kids' concerns, and generally gray, horridly insensitive behavior. The stated viewpoint is so extreme, and so aggravates the general confusion in Little Fears about whether losing Innocence is good or bad, that it detracts from the game as a whole.

On the more positive side, Little Fears is a great-looking book, with a to-the-point writing style throughout most of it. It is one of the very few game-books that makes good use of grays and cloudy-stuff on text pages. I usually hate that stuff but here it contributes significantly to the atmosphere and doesn't interfere with reading. Most if not all of the art is good, and the photographic material and the illustrations by Veronica V. Jones are both outstanding.

All Done
It's a fine, original, impressive role-playing game. It's a great example of what could only be an indie game, and Jason Blair deserves high praise.

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