RPG Review - Scared Stiff: The B-Movie Horror RPG
Scared Stiff: The B-Movie Horror RPG
by Gene Stanley Pritchard, Guildhall Press, 2002, 140pp.
TLDR: 2.5 out of 5 for being an interesting game presented in a confusing and cloying manner.
Scared Stiff is a light, campy rpg designed to emulate light, campy movies. And by 'light' I mean that the system is light (not the book itself, which at 140 8.5x11 pages feels rather dense), and by 'campy' I mean that the writing is campy, and the illustrations are campy, but the underlying subtext is, well, not so much. Intrigued? Then read on.
EPISODE 1 B-ASICS (3 pages)
In this book, chapters are called 'Episodes'. And here I think we mean 'scene', because episodes are TV, right? What, they show a lot of B Movies on TV! Shut up already! Episode 1 covers 'how to get in the mood' and a general introduction to the game. Well, to gaming B-Movies. Don't take it too seriously.
EPISODES 2 (TERROR 101) and 3 (PLAYING WITH PANACHE) (9 pages)
These next two chapters are full of GM advice on how to run the game. They reference rules that haven't been introduced yet. Confusing? Yep! They largely amount to the author laying out his GMing style. At one point the author says "Games too often make for dull reading", and I can't argue, but most games need to be both books you can read and books you can reference. One of these needs has the reader wanting to be caressed, and the other wants the author to get to the point. The writing in Sacred Stiff relies heavily on style as means to caress the reader - only here it's more of a rough wooing, to borrow a term from Scottish history. There's so much style it becomes cloying, and the explaining of the game suffers. Behind all the text and campy jargon is a game that seems straight forward and easy to play. It could have been presented in a much smaller and more focused book, were it not for all the style.
EPISODE 4 (PLAYING THE GAME) (30 pages)
This section introduces two ways of playing the game - with or without dice. The core die mechanic seems pretty straight forward - roll two 6-sided dice and try to roll higher than one of your 'flaws'. Mechanically simple, but from a design standpoint pretty interesting because your abilities are presented as things that hold you back, and must be overcome. Characters don't have attributes, they have flaws - Weakness, clumsiness, ignorance, cowardice, imbalance, superstition. The lower your flaw, the better, because you need to roll over your flaw - you overcome it. Conversely, the GM, or Evil Mastermind as she is called, must roll under your flaw to exploit it. In a diceless game, you trade points between flaws and misfortune. Which seems logical, but at this point in the book, misfortune hasn't been defined yet, so who knows. What follows next are a bunch of spot rules for things like chases. So we've skipped most of the core concepts of the game, going straight from 'dice' to 'spot rules' without really understanding how to play the game. Confusing!
EPISODE 5 (MASTERFUL MASTERMINDS) (16 pages)
This section is a mixed bag of more GM advice, opening with how to deal with idiot players (yes!) and pacing (play fast paced music to help with this, according to the author) to plotting, suspension of disbelief, and laughs - some good and bad advice here, IMO. Then we talk about Innocent Bystanders and Chumps, which are really two of the three kinds of NPC, and should have been defined much earlier. Chumps are allies that mean well but that PCs use for cannon fodder. Innocent Bystanders are as they seem. Then we have some optional rules that let a GM up the ante (i.e. make a game '3D'), and for climaxes, and gloating on the part of the Creeps (these are antagonist NPCs, or so we gather - they haven't been defined yet). Deathtraps, swarms, and stats for animals round out this disjointed section.
EPISODE 6 (VICTIMS OF CIRCUMSTANCE) (22 pages)
This chapter is all about how to make a character. At last, we get to learn what most of the terms used in the first five chapters mean, and the picture of how to play finally starts coming together. This chapter should have been much further forward. If you made it this far in reading the book, though, you'll get some payoff at last. Character creation is simple, and characters look pretty interesting. Each character is based on a 'stereotype' of behavior, You figure out and define your flaws. Add some 'goodies' (basically anything that's useful as a weapon) and 'trinkets' (useless but descriptive trappings). And finally round out the description of your character. This chapter also gives the GM some tools to punish those players who aren't really into the game. Wait, what? Yep. <---as it says back there. If players don't fully flesh out their characters or come up with interesting names, the GM is encouraged to punish you. An example of how to make Grace Fuller, the sample character, round out this chapter.
EPISODE 7 (GENRE RULES) (10 pages)
More GM advice, now properly located, on how to apply modifiers, on being taken seriously by NPCS when revealing the B-threat, on kissing (ew!), insanity (ah!), and gadgets (oh!).
EPISODE 8 (THE EVIL MASTERMINDS) (14 pages)
Here's where the rest of the basic rules are hidden. Creeps are finally described, and there are tips on how to run them. There's a menagerie here - mostly 1-2 lines of stats per enemy or creature. Honestly this is the first game i've ever seen with Brain in a Jar, Evil Dessert, Electrical Man, Crawling Hand, Gill Creature, Invisible Doctor, Mad Opera Star, Midget Madman, Somnambulist, and Telekinetic Girl statted up as opponents for the PCs. Slow Clap. Finally there's a section on magic and spells, in case the bad guys use them.
EPISODE 9 (A CLOCKWORK DUCK) (10 pages)
This section has more GM advice about bringing a setting alive. First a time frame giving the particular of various time periods. Then something about illustrating horror (mostly using a short story to illustrate), themes, hooks, playing a creep, and a list of buildings to plop into your setting.
EPISODES 10-13 (22 pages)
Ostensibly a bunch of skins, but these chapters are a weird mixed bag. The first, TRADITIONAL TERROR, gives a detailed statistical type description of a town in Maine - reads like an encyclopedia entry for a town, but doesn't really tell you how to run it, or even give plot hooks. The second, ALIEN INVADERS describes an alien species and why they're on earth. A lot of thought went into this, but it's still short on plot hooks or any advice on how to run it. SUPERNATURAL CONSPIRACY is basically a brief on the FBI, without ever really explaining why you should be briefed on the FBI, or how to build a scenario around it. Lastly, MEGA MONSTERS lists a number of Kaiju type beings and describes New York. You can put 2 and 2 together, I think, to figure out how those two things relate to one another.
END PAPERS (14 pages)
Here we have a glossary, index, and character sheet (a toe tag! kinda neat!) to round out the book.
Scared Stiff seems like a pretty fun game for one-shot scenarios of campy horror - exactly what it presents itself as. It's rule's light (if reading heavy). It tries and (and largely fails) to give advice on settings and how to run the game, but there's definitely enough here for an experienced GM to use without difficulty. I think the strength of the book is the system - I'd definitely consider playing the game, and may even borrow things from the system in making my own games. The writing is campy and flavorful, as it should be. It flows well enough and is easy to understand. But it hits you over the head with style, leaving you feeling like you've just been filmed in one of those telescoping scenes.
There big weakness of the book is in the organization - the author presents details of how to use the system before the basics, and the GM advice is all over the place. Some sections (the various skins) give only half of what you'd really want to run it. Most experienced GMs can use this stuff, but will need to flesh it all out.
Also annoying is the GM advice, which varies from sound and useful (the psychology of a creep) to questionable (play fast-paced music when you play to hep keep the pace up) to downright bad (punish players who aren't that into it, and force people to pick male or female as a gender - though frankly this is more oversight than malicious).
I give this one 2.5 out of 5. There's what seems like quite a good gaming experience buried in here, but you'll have to sort through a bunch of weirdly intense text to get to it.