The role-playing game of childhood terror
Copyright 2001, Key20 Publishing
Donated to the museum by Spike Y Jones.
Little Fears is a game about children and childhood fears: the bogeyman, the thing that lurks in the closet or under the bed. In fact, most of the horrors come from an alternate dimension called Closetland. While a game on this topic might be light or played straight, Little Fears is notably dark. First, the terrors of Closetland are not kid fears, but horrors more at home in adult games. Second, the kids in this game are all too often beset by another adult horror, that of child neglect and abuse.
For all of this grim tone, Little Fears plays from the child's viewpoint, reinforced by the game terminology and mechanics.
Little Fears takes place in our world as seen through a fearful child's eyes. Monsters do lurk in the closet, and under the right circumstances one can cross over into their realm. You can sometimes keep the dark away by hiding under the covers, or by rituals such as not touching the floor when you cross your room at night. Teddy bears and other toys have miraculous powers against evil. Magic sometimes works, if you believe in it enough. And grownups don't understand any of it.
While most of the action takes place in our world, children might have to enter Closetland to effect a rescue. They get there through the proper magical ritual. Getting back is much, much harder. Closetland bears a strong resemblance to Hell, with an evil spirit overlord (The Demagogue) riding herd over seven Kings, corresponding to the seven deadly sins. The Kings seek to entrap children, and the lost souls of their victims flit across the dark nightmarish landscape.
Meeting one of the kings would be a climactic encounter. It is far more likely that the PCs will meet lesser monsters, and Little Fears has many of them. These range from the familiar monsters (mummies, zombies, werewolves), bogies of childhood (the Closet Monster, The Thing in the Walls), and new horrors (body thieves of various types that duplicate children and then replace them).
Character generation begins with players answering sixteen questions and filling out the answers on a character sheet designed to look like a crumpled piece of notebook paper. These cover basic information (name, appearance, age), resources and connections (friends, an adult who'll believe you no matter what), and some powers ("what do you do when you get scared? What do you do to protect yourself from monsters?")
Players used a point-buy system to stat out their character with three sets of characteristics: Stats, Virtues, and Qualities. Stats were Smarts, Muscles, Hands, Feet, and Spirit. These ranged from one to five, and began with a value of two in each. Virtues were Soul (just what it says), which began at ten; Innocence (the quality that makes you a child) was set by your character's age, ranging from eight at six years old and declining to two at twelve years old, and Fear, which was a measure of mental stability, started at a score of zero and climbed as the character was stressed in play. Qualities were like skills in other games, and could be positive or negative: athletic, compassionate, popular, bully, bed wetter, needs glasses, and so on. Players got a pool of six points to spend among stats and qualities. (One stat could be lowered to gain an additional point, and negative qualities provided additional points as well.)
Ability tests were called "Tests" and "Quizzes." Quizzes were unopposed tasks. The player rolled a d6, trying to roll under the relevant character stat. A Test was an opposed task, where the player rolled a d6 and tried to roll over the opponent's stat. If both sides succeeded in a Test, the higher die roll won. Every relevant Quality gave the player an additional d6 to roll. Positive qualities permitted you to select the higher die, while negative qualities required the player to keep the lower die. (If there were both positive and negative qualities, the dice cancelled each other out before rolling.) With the average character Stat at two, characters would fail at many tasks.
The combat mechanic was simply a Test, with damage being the amount by which the winner beat their target number. Weapons simply provided a damage bonus. Damage was scored by checking off boxes on the character sheet. There were five levels of damage, each with five boxes: I Feel Fine, I Feel Sore, I Feel Bad, I Feel Dizzy, and I Feel Nothing. When the character was at the Bad level, their Stats were all at -1; when they were at the Dizzy level, their Stats were at -2. The character died when all twenty five boxes were checked off.
If a character was damaged to Dizzy or worse, they healed one box a day without help. If a character was at Bad or less, they healed two boxes a day. For medical treatment, the GM rolled a Quiz against the healer's Stat, and each point below the target value healed two boxes. Note that children seeking medical help for severe wounds would raise difficult questions.
Many beings in Closetland sought to capture children's souls, as this is how they gained followers, power, and prestige. As a child lost Soul, they became Darkened. As Darkening increased, the child grew visibly ill and unable to function. Should Soul drop to three, it began to drop on its own, at one point every two days unil the Soul reached zero. At this point, the child was dead, the body began to decay, and the soul entered Closetland. Automatic soul loss, once began, required heroic efforts to reverse. Friends had to enter Closetland and either kill or trick the responsible monster into releasing the soul. Alternatively, if the loosed soul could be caught by friends in Closetland and somehow returned to her body before it was captured by a horror, the child might recover.
This is the quality that makes children special. Once a character lost all of his innocence, they became Grown Ups, no longer able to perceive Closetland. Innocence was lost by aging (generally disappearing at age thirteen), and by trauma or abuse in the real world.
Fear was the psychological quantity most targeted by game mechanics. When facing supernatural terror, the player rolled a Fear Check, which was a Spirit Quiz. If the player failed, he rolled a d6 on a table for the effect. Low rolls had lesser consequences, such as termbling or screaming; higher rolls were worse, such as pants-wetting and passing out. Of course, the worst roll was a six, where the character was paralyzed with fear and gained a point on their Fear score. Fear was a measure of the child's sanity. As the score increased, the character gradually became socially isolated and paranoid, and gained negative Qualities on all die rolls. When Fear reached ten, the child was insane, becoming either schizophrenic, manic-depressive, or gaining multiple personalities.
The psychological Virtues were recovered by Belief. This could be religious (the Faithful Quality permitted characters to use religious rituals and beliefs for protection) or magical. The questions about how your character protected herself from monsters or the ritual she did when afraid had a mechanical effect. Typically, each of these permitted a Belief check, with the character's Innocence score divided by two serving as the appropriate Stat to check.
Belief protected the child in a number of ways. A Material belief was a child's toy that protected them. In this case, a successful Belief check had the toy animate to fight monsters. An Incidental belief was a ritual, and if the Belief check succeeded, the monster could only attack by making its own Spirit test. (So hiding under the blankets might succeed at blocking the monster.) But if Belief failed, the player marked one of ten boxes by the Innocence score. Ten failures, and the character's Innocence was reduced by one.
The book concluded with a scenario and three sketches. They were based on the sorts of stories twelve year olds tell each other at night for scares. The scenario "Believing is Seeing," was about a ghost boy seeking vengeance for his murder. The three sketches all involved children's disappearances under various circumstances.
Jason Blair wrote that Little Fears was a game about children as heroes, overcoming obstacles. Perhaps it was part of his vision that those obstacles should be hard. The familiar, mainstream monsters were relatively easy to beat in this game. But the horrors of closetland were fully as vicious as anything you'd find in White Wolf's World of Darkness or Evil Hat's Don't Rest Your Head, and if played as written, would be almost impossible for children to survive, let alone defeat. But Blair's true demons lurk even deeper in this book, and sadly, they are quite real and all but impossible to defeat: child neglect, abuse, and molestation. Some children gained Fear and lost Innocence in this game as the result of abuse in the "real" world. Those reminders make this a difficult book to read, and probably equally difficult to play. Blair may agree: apparently, the current Nightmare Edition of the game has toned Closetland down. See http://www.littlefears.com/ for current information.