Actual Play – Invasive Procedures (10/22/2011)

GM: Matthulhu Steele
Players: Ezar Denny, Monika Hortnagl, Ezra Denney, Karen Twelves, Xander Matthews, and Sean Nittner
System: Fear Itself

This was my first time playing Fear Itself, and only second experience with the Gumshoe system. I have to say, I’m still not sold on the system. While I really like the “if you have the skill you find the clue” system, I find it extremely cumbersome to conceive of how more than a dozen skills would apply to every particular scene, and I find it equally offensive to say “just pick a clue and whenever some uses a skill that seems okay, give it to them” because I think that completely robs the importance out of the specific skills the point where I wonder why even have them. So the game seems to either need to be very exhaustive or very sloppy and I like neither.

When Kevan Forbes ran Mutant City blues, it was more focused on the character drama than the procedural, which I really liked, but that was because Kevan was a good GM with good players. In this game Matt presented really horrific things, and disturbing NPCs, which I really liked, but again, that didn’t have anything to do with the core mechanics of the system.

The one time I did feel concretely like I used a particular skill, and even spent a point from my pool to get an extra useful detail (won’t give any spoilers, but it was a medical examination and my character had been sick all his life and in hospitals long enough that he could practically be a doctor himself), I thought the same information could have easily just been given to me because I could make some observations that anyone could have made.

So, though this isn’t a game system review, I am still waiting to seem Gumshoe shine. I love it in theory, and own a couple of the books, but unless you’re Kenneth Hite and have an absolute library of Cthonic obscurity in your mind ready to drop at the hat, I can’t see how this game works without WAY too much front loaded effort.

The game was a prefab adventure from Pelgrane Press (, which comes with a lot of its own baggage. One the one side, all those prep issues I talked about are presumably moot as the author should have done them for you. On the other, you’ve got boxed text phenomenon. Matt did a great job of making the game come to life for us, but there was still a very “scripted” feel to certain events.

Also, the game pushed buttons for me I don’t like. I think the author strongly needs to put in his boxed text “This games contains themes of powerlessness and transgression.” I won’t say more about it (both because it is upsetting to me and because I don’t want to give away spoilers), but while I’d gladly play in any other Matt Steele production, this game had content that wasn’t for me.

Our characters were patients in a dilapidated hospital. We weren’t in arkham asylum (we weren’t even in a psychiatric ward) but it felt like it just the same, down to the nurses that were completely dispassionate to our suffering. I played a chronically ill character who wanted to know what was wrong with him, but I found myself falling back (often) on my knowledge of nursing (from my wife who is a nurse) and thinking this a just “wrong”. Now, considering this was a horror game, that isn’t a bad reaction to have.

Thoughts after this game.

As a I mentioned I still WANT to be sold on Gumshoe, but haven’t gotten there yet. Even with a published adventure (where you would think the author would have gone to great lengths to provide information based on every relevant skill) I found few opportunities to use my investigative skill and rarely felt like they offered more that the GM couldn’t have just told me after I said “l check this out”

One thing I really like is the stability system. You have to make stability checks throughout the game and you can spend stability to add to your roll (as you can with any roll) but that means losing your stability in the process. Of course if you miss the roll, you lose it as well. This puts some nice meta tension on the players themselves to fret over the rolls. “And of course, it created the best quote of the night. This one goes go negative 11.”

One of the first “encounters” in the game was messed up and right up my alley. If the rest of the game had proceeded like that I would have loved it. Gareth Hanrahan, I’m looking at YOU!

Several of us walked away from the game with mixed feelings and we’ve continued a discussion after the game about them. Matt and I have shared a few email and I know he’s done the same with other players. I wish all games did this. I think taking a game apart after the fact, figuring out what worked and what didn’t is like one of the best things you can ever do to improving your game (as both a player and a GM). I’ve really enjoyed hashing it out with Matt and I’m really happy he’s be receptive to my thoughts.

Finally. Mike Bogan,, The Ultimate Superfly TNT Dolemite GM Ninja of All Time, this is a game that SCREAMS Four-Eyed Demon. Even if you don’t run it you should check it out. It elicited many of the same reactions from me as your In Nomine game years ago. And I wasn’t the only one.