Categorized | RPGs

Little Fears Nightmare Edition Review

Posted on January 18, 2010 by spikexan

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    Lots of guys have little black books, but mine is a mite bit different than most. The little black book on my shelf is full of monsters rather than phone numbers. It was intimidating because the majority of my friends prefer to play something superhuman than simply human. The idea of playing children is a tough sell to them when there are monster hunters, space pirates, and even anthropomorphic mice to choose from; nevertheless, the world of Little Fears has always intrigued me. In fact, the author’s own comments about playing children (play something you actually know) rings true to me. Well, the little book about children fighting the forces of Closetland has grown all up and I’m here to tell you about it.

    When I look at the new edition (the Nightmare Edition) of Little Fears, I see some true growth. The artwork has improved, the material has expanded, and the direction seems a bit clearer.

    Jason Blair has taken one of the more captivating RPGs in the past decade and made a worthwhile follow-up. There are things that didn’t make it to the new edition, things that changed somewhat, and huge heapings of all-around newness. I find it difficult to review this book and not talk about the original 2001 version, so bear with me when I do.

    This 194 page PDF looks a great deal like the original except that the two-column format has been discarded in favor of a single-column format. At first, I didn’t like this; however, the end result looks less crammed together than it did the first time around. The bordering along the top and bottom look smart as do the font choices, although the font may make you think your eyes are getting blurry by the night’s end. Sidebars look great as well by flipping to the negative (white font against a black background). Blair handled his own layout and the final result makes for an engaging read.

    The moody artwork of the original edition always appealed to me. When I first saw the new cover, I worried that this version would have a comic-booky tone to it. After seeing the full book and comparing it to the original, I believed I understood the new direction. Little Fears 2001 often reminded readers of the terrors children across the world face. For some, this is a taboo subject and runs dark for many tables. I personally hold to one of John Wick’s tenants and wish more people would “get a helmet.” Little Fears 2009 backed off of the real world horror a wee bit and reminded readers of a few inspirations to make this game fun:

    1. Kids have a great deal of imagination. Try to let go of your bills, jobs, and other responsibilities for a couple of hours and remember what that was like.
    2. Kids make great heroes. If you don’t believe me, take it up with the Goonies or Monster Squad

    The point is that the change in flavor not only suits the new edition, it enhances it. The art throughout the book comes from a talented group of artists. I found Veronica Jones cover art and the chapter lead-in art to catch the book’s revamped mood. The only downside to the artwork in this edition is that it is much rarer. The first edition had artwork on every fourth page (usually every other page). This version can go for as many as thirteen pages without artwork (it usually has something on every fifth page or so). The artwork in the original was good, so I won’t make a quality versus quantity argument here. My guess is that the extra writing filled in the space once used for the artwork.

    This book is wrapped around six chapters and some extras at the end. Chapter One–It’s All Just a Game–details the rules, Chapter Two–To Be Young Again–gives character creation rules, Chapter Three–Someone To Watch Over Me–offers the first round of GM advice, Chapter Four–It’s a Big World Out There–looks at the world on the “normal” side, Chapter Five–Behind the Door–goes (you guessed it) into Closetland, and Chapter Six–Spooky Stories–gives Game Masters some material to run for those spur-of-the-moment games. Let’s take a breather before moving back a step and peering a little more at some of these chapters.

    The rules to Little Fears: Nightmare Edition are different even though they possess similar elements. I won’t go into the older rules here for simplicity’s sake. The core rules of the game are this:

    1. Everyone (GM included) explains what their character will do.
    2. Checks are made.
    2a. If the Check is a success, the roller narrates the aftermath.
    2b. If the Check is a failure, the GM narrates the aftermath.

    This is the beating heart to the new system and, in itself, isn’t breaking any new ground. One bit to point out here are steps 2a and 2b. If the player wins, they narrate their stuff. If they lose, the GM does. Should the GM win or lose it appears they narrate the outcome. Some players may call foul to this. The model is very old school (and I’m actually a fan of the old model). Some groups may wish to “new wave” their game by letting the players narrate the Game Master’s failures. I see no major problem with that if that is what the group wants.

    There are three times players roll:
    Quizzes (Unopposed rolls)
    Tests (Opposed rolls)
    Exams (Sustained rolls)

    In all of these, players will take a Quality and Ability and roll a number of six-sided dice equal to that total. Sixes explode. Rolling high is King. Rolls are sometimes a pass/fail situation. Most of the time, though, there are degrees of success and failure, which is covered by Passing Grades and Failing Grades. Belief is another component in the game. Characters have a ranking between one and seven.

    These work like Drama Points, Karma, Bennies, and a slew of other familiar concepts. What is wicked cool about this (and something not all of the beforementioned mechanics do) is something Blair calls “believing in another.” Let me create an example.

    Three kids who I’ll call Moe, Larry, and Curly are cornered by a vicious something-or-another from Closetland. Moe and Larry know Curly can take them out with a well-time Curly Shuffle, so they put their Belief tokens in front of Curly so that he has two additional dice. Curly believes in himself, so he puts a belief token in front of him too. Those three extra dice make for a healthy boost and a solid chance that these three stoo, er, rascals may get away.

    Also, Belief may not cost you. If you risk the token for an action that proves successful, the token goes back to you. You don’t lose belief in something you see work. It strengthens. If the roll fails, the token is gone for the session. If the roll fails with failing grades, you lose the token and another. You’ll probably be crying like a little kid with a skinned knee too.

    To back up a little though, I love collaborative efforts in gaming. I think the idea has been there since gamers started creeping into dungeons back in the seventies; however, many good mechanics are now in play to enhance this behavior.

    Chapter Two’s character creation hasn’t changed a great deal from the original. There are still several “I am” statements to detail your character. Also, there is still the Mad Libs portion of character creation. As long as you’re not one of those people who put dirty words I all the blanks, this makes for some cool characters.

    Blair offers some dos and do nots on being a good player. These are good notes for new gamers (and this may be many players first game). These notes wrap up the second chapter.

    Chapter Three deals with the Game Master’s role in the game. A key part of this rests with the Episode sheet, a handy tool used to figure out where a session will most likely go. It’s highly doubtful players will surprise a game master by choosing some alternate path. Other points of interest in this chapter (to me) are Playaround Points (XP), Belief (another note on it), and customizing your game for various difficulties. I’ll touch on Belief again because Blair has made it the most useful part of this new edition.

    As you age, you have birthdays. These birthdays have two effects on your character. One, they take a point of belief and, two, they add an ability point. When your belief gets down to one, you don’t lose the final point. You get to hang onto it BUT can only use it to believe in someone else. You can always have faith in a kid.

    As with the player’s chapter, this chapter ends with some advice. The GM advice is every bit as sound as what you’ll find in the player’s chapter. There is a lot of focus on collaborative gaming though.

    Chapter Four introduces a great many new elements to the game. We see some familiar concepts like Hand-Me-Downs alongside fully new ideas like the Nicks. The waking world has many allies for children to use in their fight against the Closetland’s monsters. You find the majority of them here.

    Chapter Five is the new Closetland. Blair ditched the Kings and Demagogue in favor of more traditional monsters. Only Titania and the Boogeyman made it to this book with a minimal degree of change. The Boogeyman actually runs the show in this edition. I find myself missing the Kings.

    Closetland is a darker place, nightmarish even. Monsters have a bit of distinction to them. There are regular, scary, and Big Bad monsters. Since I hate to give away too much about settings in my reviews.

    Their little two-page introductions (and sketches) in the first edition seemed inspired to me. It’s not to say there are interesting characters in this book. Keep an eye out for Bunsworth von Hoppington should you chose to visit this world.

    The final chapter offers some finely-crafted stories to try out for your first few sessions. I’ll leave this chapter alone at that point, but allow me to mention the extras as the book’s end. These play sheets cover rule cheat sheets, belief cheat sheets, episode sheets, and pages for characters, NPCs, and monsters. I like having all this information laid out so well.

    Finally, any game that references an old sitcom like The Facts of Life wins points with me.

    There are lots of inside jokes and not-so-inside jokes throughout this book. Good stuff to have smiles plastered on your face when your RPG makes a funny. There are some typos in the book, but mostly word-switches rather than misspellings (one error is on the description of Queen Titania).

    My scores for Little Fears Nightmare Edition are:

    Layout: Five out of Five Dice (Eye-Catching)
    Artwork: Four out of Fice Dice (a little thin for some readers, but great artwork when used)
    Writing: Five out of Five Dice (a welcome enhancement to an old favorite).
    Overall: Five out of Five Dice (Passing Grades all around)

    Review by Todd Cash

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