In ancient shadows and
Where childhood had strayed,
The world’s great sorrows were born
And its heroes were made.
In the lost boyhood of Judas
Christ was betrayed
George William Russell
Little Fears describes itself as ‘The role-playing game of childhood horror’
If this were one of those reviews that I used to write for Arcane I would say:
‘Little Fears is a horror based role-playing game in which the player-characters are pre-teen children. It is based on the idea that all the things which children are afraid of are literally real: there really are monsters under the bed and bogeymen in the cupboard under the stairs; it’s just that the grown-ups can’t see them. The game puts a fresh and clever spin on the well-worn horror genre; and provides rules and background material that cover it adequately. If your gaming group can cope with the idea of playing little kids (as opposed to big ones) and don’t mind games which touch on edgy themes and maybe veer towards psychodrama, then give this game a look: it could be the kind of change-of-pace that you are looking for. 8/10.’
But it’s not.
While Little Fears may appear to be a horror RPG--Call of Cthulhu with pint-sized protagonists--if you scratch beneath the surface you will find something that it is a good deal more scary.
Although the game pays lip-service to ‘bogey men’ and ‘closet monsters’, it is not in fact very interested in summonsing up memories of what a child’s night-fears are actually like. Instead, it falls back on fairly standard tropes from adult horror stories; Clive Barker out of Neil Gaiman. The ‘monsters under the bed’ turn out to be supernatural beings from an alien dimension known as ‘closetland’ which was ‘born from the screams of the first child’. (There is a lot of that kind of writing in the book.) It is described as a ‘child’s hell’ and ruled by someone called the ‘demagogue’. The demagogue is served by Seven Kings, demonic beings personifying the Seven Deadly sins. The motivation of these ‘kings’ is a bit nebulous. Children have a quality called ‘innocence’, which the Kings hate because they cannot control it. Or perhaps the innocence hurts them; or maybe they feed on it. It doesn’t make any difference, really; they are Very Scary and do Very Horrible Things because that is the Kind of Thing They Do.
Agents of the Kings sometimes come out of the closet (er…) and abduct children back to their realms. But they also have a large number of full time agents in our world: ‘Most are monstrosities, much like the kings themselves, twisted and blistered caricatures. But some…some of them we see every day. At the bus stop, on the subway, in the stores. Our co-workers and bosses. Even those we gladly let into our homes…All of them are at the beck and call of their wicked master. All of them thrive and burn with a single goal: the elimination of the Demagogue’s only thorn: innocence’
So scenarios could involve the children going though the closet doors to try to rescue a friend who has been taken to a Kings realm (sort of Narnia from hell); or struggling in the normal world against people who appear to be normal adults, but are actually the Kings nefarious agents in disguise.
‘Innocence’ is an important concept throughout the game. The book says that it is too subtle a concept to reduce to a set of game mechanics and then proceeds to do just that. Roughly speaking, seeing monsters increases your ‘fear’ score, and having a high ‘fear’ score reduces your ‘Innocence’, and when your ‘Innocence’ gets too high you can’t see the monsters any more and are a Grown Up. (Anyone wishing to compare this with the ‘sanity’ system in Call of Cthulhu is at liberty to do so.) Children who have lost innocence can regain it by acts of faith, but the book is at pains to point out that, despite its quasi-religious language, this doesn’t have to be Christian faith. Indeed, children can have faith in silly little rituals and ceremonies they invent for themselves, and if they believe in them, they work for them. Man.
To summarize: childhood is a time of ‘innocence’ related to, but not quite the same as, religious grace. Children have access to a world which adults know nothing of. Childhood would be a blessed time if not for the fact that children are in permanent danger of abduction: they might, at any moment, disappear and never be seen again; or they might be killed or violated by ‘ordinary’ looking humans who are really alien monsters in disguise. The more innocent they are, the greater danger they are in.
Is this sounding at all familiar yet?
Little Fears is telling a bit of a fib when it says that it is about the fears of children. Monsters under the bed and blood sucking demagogues have got the same relationship to a real child’s fear of the dark as Hogwarts does to a boarding school. The real subject of the game is the fears of adults about children.
More specifically, it takes the paranoid world view presented by tabloid newspapers and some politicians and pretends that that is literally true. Children really are innocent and perfect. They really are in constant and terrible danger from molesters, abusers and pedophiles. These pedophiles really are ‘fiends’, ‘beasts’ and ‘monsters’ – evil aliens from another dimension, whose motives are obscure and incomprehensible to real humans
All of which is almost exactly as sensible as believing that there really are monsters under the bed: that’s the genius of the game.
If I thought the game was intended as satire – a sort of RPG Brasseyes, pretending to believe a paranoid theory in order to show just how silly it really is--I’d be cheering it as a great triumph of role-playing as art. But I am terribly afraid that Jason Blair, the author of the game, really believes it. I don’t mean that he believes in alien monsters, but he does show every sign of taking the ‘innocence besieged by unspeakable evil’ view of childhood seriously.
Consider, for example the section of the game dealing with child-sexual abuse.
I give the game points for tackling this touchy subject in the first place. The question of whether pedophilia is a fit subject for an RPG is, to me, a dead-end. So far as I am concerned, anything which can be the subject of a story can be the subject of an RPG. Only fools and Labour MPs find the distinction between ‘depicting’, ‘condoning’ and ‘actually doing’ at all complicated. The question of whether a given group of players would feel comfortable talking about this subject matter over the dice and beer is another matter. (I have to confess, I personally felt more uncomfortable with Little Fears frequent references to bed-wetting…go figure.)
As we’ve seen the main ‘villains’ of the game are alien personifications of the seven deadly sins. Quite a large chunk of the book is spent in describing, in loving and gory detail, each of them; their realms in closetland, and what they do to the children they capture. These descriptions are, it must be said, rather well done, pervaded by a sort of post-gothic ‘terrible beauty’. We have Baba-Yaga, the King of Gluttony, who eats children. He lives in his wood in which you will find a kitchen where ‘hanging from hooks, stuffed into jars, or boiling on the stove you will find the remains of the bodies of countless children…’ He has agents in the real world who eat children, too and you can always spot them. ‘The skin of those that indulge in the cannibalism of children for a long time will grow pale…’ Or there’s Rael Schol, king of envy, who cuts off children’s faces and hangs them on the wall of his lair. We see him ‘Musing over them as his destroys the child, peeling their skin mask from the bone.’ And finally there is The Defiler who is the personification of Lust and thus runs the child molestation department of Closetland. His ‘realm’ is simply a bleak concrete school-yard, full of joyless, dull-eyed children. Most of his agents are human puppets; who have been ‘co-erced’ into joining pedophile networks and internet chat rooms. Apparently ‘The Defiler loves nothing more than turning a quiet, reserved and good person into the epitome of earthly perversion…’ However, there is a way of spotting potential abusers: ‘These shells always have one tell tale sign that the Defiler is pulling the persons strings: the persons eyes turn stone grey.’
The idea of ‘pedophiles’ in general being possessed by alien beings, hanging out in mysterious secret societies, and having weird grey eyes is uncomfortably close to the standard tabloid view of these sub-human fiends. (I seem to recall being told in my sex education class at school that, as a fourteen year old boy, there was a class of alien being who might prey on me; and that you could often spot them because there was something ‘not quite right’ in their eyes. This particular fiend was not called a pedophile back then, of course: it was called a Homosexual.) I don’t imagine that Jason Blair, or even the editor of the Sun, believe in a real Defiler: but a lot of people do believe that pedophiles – or terrorists, or queers, or commies or whoever these weeks ‘bogeyman’ is – are ‘just evil’ or ‘not human’ and that no other explanation need be given. This is, of course, a dangerous untruth because it means that we will concentrate on organizing lynch mobs and running pediatricians out of town rather than actually trying to protect children and help offenders reform.
The ‘Defiler’ may simply be a product of the game’s mythos and not the writers own beliefs: pedophiles have to be controlled by the Demagogue, because this is fantasy and pretty much all the Bad Shit in the world comes from Closetland. But the comments on using the character in your game is presumably not part of the setting. We are told that: ‘he is the most disgusting of the kings’ and he is ‘easily the most controversial and disturbing of all the kings’. The author suggests caution before incorporating him into your game, because the players might not be able to handle it.
If this had come out of the blue, it would pass without us noticing: molesting kids obviously is a bad, disgusting and disturbing subject. (I wouldn’t call it controversial, myself: I can’t think off hand of anyone who supports it.) But in fact it comes after passages that describe people who eat children, boil them, cut off their faces, steal their souls. The bleak schoolyard comes after the volcanoes full of burning kids. And yet the Defiler, the one who has sex with them, is the very worst, the one that requires an advisory warning.
Please believe me when I say that I wholly agree that child molestation is a Very Bad Thing. I merely question whether it is the Worst Thing Possible: whether a child who has been sodomized by an abusive uncle is in a worse state than Anna Climbié.
This is satire—isn’t it?
This rather mixed up attitude to sex sticks its tentacles into other parts of the book. Like all RPGs since Vampire, the book kicks off with a short story which sets the scene. To its credit, I was actually able to finish it, more than can be said for most gamebook fiction. It is quite engaging and moving in a manipulative, Little House on the Prairie kind of way. It’s the diary of an ickle girl whose mummy has died and whose nasty daddy forgets her birthday… When the bad monsters come they even tear up her teddy bear. The bad daddy is, of course, having an affair with a fancy lady, which the narrator describes thus:
‘He started yelling at me about how all he wanted was just to get laid (whatever that means) and he couldn’t now because I was there.’
‘Then I saw Daddy and the woman on the sofa. It was pretty yucky. They didn’t have any clothes on and were touching each other and stuff. Yuck.’
Apart from the fact that children don’t write like this, I think that this is very much an adult perception about what a child’s reaction to sexuality would be. I think pre-teen children are indifferent, surprised or confused by copulating adults; most likely they would just giggle. They might even be afraid because they sense that they have seen something that they are not supposed to. I think that disgust with sex comes in at puberty. Be that as it may, it is hard to avoid the sense that the author is conflating ‘innocence’ with ‘lack of knowledge of sex’. Of course, if this was true – if sex and innocence are ‘opposite’, then sexual violation would obviously be the worst thing you could do to an innocent, in much the same way that any decent woman would rather die by torture than consent to sex before marriage…
(It’s significant that the nasty father comes home drunk with his lover, AND forgets the kid’s birthday AND hits her AND leaves her to fend for herself… This seems to be of a piece with the theory that pedophiles are grey eyed monsters: it’s a special kind of bad person who ill-treats his children. It’s like we’re dealing in shorthand – drunk father slapping girl is a convenient signifier for ‘cruelty’ but gets us off the hook from thinking about how and in what ways good, well meaning loving mums and dads manage to fuck you up. They may not mean to, but they do.)
Does the writer believe any of this stuff? Obviously the game is “fantasy”, but a lot of the rule book keeps referring back to the Real World. Before we even start, we are told that
‘every day real children experience horrors as terrible as what are depicted in this game’
and warned to
‘treasure your children and keep them safe; there are worse bogeymen to be found down your street than on these pages’
One page of the book contains one of those arty photomontages of a crushed flower on a tarmac background with the words ‘I just turned my back for a second, just one second, and when I turned around…he was gone’ superimposed on it: tabloid paranoia in sentence. (Kids are not in imminent danger of abduction, not in the real world. It hits the headlines when it happens because it is very rare.) The introduction is full of facts and figures about child abduction and disappearance. Again, it’s hard not to suppose some level of ironic intent. Presumably, if 2,000 children are really reported missing every day (!) then an awful lot of them haven’t been abducted by evil aliens – they’ve wandered away from home for a few minutes and been reported to the police by terrified parents who have been convinced by the tabloids that your children are in mortal danger the moment they are out of your sight.
Finally, there are some very honest writers notes which explain how the game came to be written. The writer, we hear, set out to write a game about children fighting werewolves. But then he did some research, and found, to his surprise, that there is quite a lot of child abuse and abduction happening in America, and decided that this real horror was more interesting than his fantasy horror.
‘My whole world became absorbed in the evils that we – yes we inflict upon the young…My god…I read more articles more statistics. Saw more photos, more tortured faces. Watched more documentaries. More and more. Little Fears became very, very serious. And very dark. So dark and depressing and dropping with very real, very human evil…it was utter unplayable.’
This reads a lot like a description of a personal obsession or a phobia. It seems to me that the very genuine horror he felt at reading about particularly ghastly crimes fooled him into thinking that these things were very common. This obsession seems to have coloured all his writing and flipped him, to some extent, into the tabloid-paranoid world view.
So, he says, he combined the two ideas—the supernatural, fantasy horror and the real life horror that he had read about. The “closetland” monsters really are a symbol for the ubiquitous horrors which he has convinced himself are being daily inflicted on little kids. (There are worse monsters than the Kings on every street, kids: worse monsters than the ones who tear your hearts out, whisk you off to an alien dimension and keep your souls in a birdcage…)
The trouble is, the two sides do not really sit very well together, and we end up with a game that promises far more than it can possibly deliver. It purports to have serious things to say about childhood and child abuse, but all it ends up delivering is a familiar collection of RPG horror tropes -- globually aliens, magic items, mysterious symbols scrawled on the walls, alien dimensions…
There’s nothing actually wrong with any of this stuff, but if you think it has anything to do with the real fears of childhood, I'm going to take you across my knee for a good smack and then duff you up behind the cycle sheds.
But still: If your gaming group can cope with the idea of playing little kids (as opposed to big ones) and don’t mind games which touch on edgy themes and maybe veer towards psychodrama, then give this game a look: it could be the kind of change-of-pace that you are looking for. 8/10.