The game is well-known among older fa/tg/(uys/als) due to the fact it was widely distributed early in the history of the board.
Inspired by a silly roleplaying session about four children fighting a werewolf which was later remembered by a stumped game designer who got together with friends and co-workers and created an entire system. The second draft was about children fighting against a nightmare world, the third was based on research and about children struggling against real world enemies like serial killers and pedophiles. The first two ideas combined (as #3 was WAAAAAY too fucking depressing/FATAL) became Little Fears.
Little Fears features player characters age six to twelve who visit a nightmare realm called Closetland at night. Closetland is an ethereal realm where the mind dictates the rules through the power of Belief. As a result a teddy bear a child goes to sleep with can become a powerful Familiar, flashlights disintegrate monsters, and the spirits of dead grandparents or pets can guide lost children back to their beds. Belief also causes things to be harmful, such as stepping on a crack causing injuries to the mothers of protagonists the next day or cootie-catchers predicting actual future events.
The population of Closetland is as follows;
- Demagogue - Closetland is ruled by a being called the Demagogue, the oldest monster. Most beings are unaware it exists, and most of Closetland is an extension of its consciousness. It knows Closetland was created by the first fear, and is the reason the monsters seek to destroy all innocence forever.
- Branxis the Enslaver - Branxis is the being the Demagogue acts through. He runs the Labor Camp, which constructs and expands Closetland using child slaves. Those who cannot do the work are broken and left to wander the greater Closetland, those who rise to the challenge are promoted to monsters called Enforcers.
The Kings are the seven beings who act in the real world on behalf of the Demagogue. Each is equal in power overall as they wax and wane one by one. Each is based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins, which they call "Aspects". They gain the biggest boost in power not from something that happens in Closetland (like a child being stolen) but events that are widespread in the real world (like a widely reported on search for a missing child resulting in finding a mass grave) so the bigger campaigns will occur more in the real world. Kings can control any being with enough effort, and each time they do that individual becomes easier to puppet until they act with obedience on their own accord, bringing a King power without further investment.
- The Bogeyman (Greed) - The "star" of Closetland, who most mistakenly believe rules over it. He is a masked being with two personalities. One is manic and bragging, talking at length about torture and miseries he doesn't actually commit which children see, the other calculating which other spirits see. He captures more children than the rest combined, even stealing children from them. He also is able to move, without even the Demagogue seeing, anywhere in either world. His minions are living shadows called Bogeys which are the souls of his captives, and his realm is Black Bird castle, which is covered in cages containing the bodies of said children transformed into said birds; reuniting a Bogey with its bird saves the child, and if released from the cage they ascend as doves to their deserved final resting place in death. He rarely puppets mortals, and those he does simply become like him.
- Titania (Pride) - Once a fairy queen of a wondrous magical land called Arcadia who taught humans magic and philosophy. But then
the Bad End of Neverending Story happenedArcadia was swallowed by a darkness called the Null. Branxis was sent to collect her as a possible lover for the Demagogue and offered the dying and ageing Titania what she once had. She accepted, although she found Arcadia reborn to be a wasteland with her fairies turned into vicious monsters and her having to bathe in the blood of the innocent if she wanted to survive. Titania was an inherently good being, and having to abduct and kill the children of her beloved humans in order to survive drained her of Innocence and her Soul like it would any child. She became catatonic for the last 4000 years, neither moving nor speaking, forcing her servants to abduct and kill on her behalf, bathing her in order to stay alive. Her servants are Goblyns, which are exactly what you expect them to be, and Redcaps which are gnome-like beings who dress in red and do the bulk of the killing for her. Both use clocks to enter the world. Her realm is the Hall Of Mirrors, where her servants put the souls of the children whose bodies they drained of blood. Titania's own soul may even inhabit one. Smashing the mirrors could free the children, but the rulebook also suggests it brings oblivion to them. Titania doesn't puppet any mortals, but instead her unknowing influence causes them to listen to the negative and detrimental voices in their heads, causing things like eating disorders and other insecurities.
- Rael-schol (Envy) - A rare creation of the Demagogue who originally worked for Branxis, "born" fully formed. On a whim he snuck into the mortal world, and came to hate children for having a childhood and to loathe himself and his creator. He covered himself in scars and symbols like children's games and when in the presence of a child initially becomes a pitiable and curious being interested in hearing all about them until his jealousy rears its head and he tries to make them into permanent adults like himself. Following this he would try to act like they did and feel what they felt. He steals the face of captives with their soul inside and hangs them on the wall behind his throne when not wearing them. His domain is a run-down building mirroring the real world, his servants any wandering monsters who happen to be living in his realm when he calls.
- Lamashtu (Wrath) - After finding Titania to be less than exciting, Branxis was sent to find another companion for the Demagogue. He found Lamashtu, a Babylonian demon who eats children. Branxis was promoted from King to second in command, Lamashtu taking his place. The Demagogue tamed her feral nature and turned her into a queen and his favorite King, a charming manipulator who keeps chained children everywhere she goes in order to always be able to cause pain for its own sake. Anything she does, even killing the original Defiler, is forgiven. Her domain is a Babylonian church full of riches. Lamashtu causes those who face her to both fear her as death itself and love her more than their mother. She
is Rule 63 Babadookloves possessing children's favorite people to dote on them, abuse them, then leave them in tears not knowing why they did what they did.
- Kabaelza (Sloth) - The son of the Demagogue and Lamashtu. He grew up fat, but kept the mind of an infant. He mainly fights other denizens of Closetland, and only during the short time between being given a child and utterly destroying them is the peace between Kings and the safety of the monsters assured. His domain is the bottom of an inescapable volcanic pit designed to jail him rather than the children, like a giant crib. Children with broken minds discarded by other Kings are given from father to son and chained to the throne of the pit, where they attempt to enact his incomprehensibly babbled and simple desires. His unconscious machinations on the outside world cause neglect to children, in the first world abandoning children to raise themselves and causing sweatshops and child labor in the third world. He's too stupid to actually cause anything though, but is powerful and sadistic like his mother and she is quick to defend him if slighted.
- Baba Yaga (Gluttony) - Once a mortal woman driven to the outskirts of civilization in her youth, Baba Yaga one day invited a lost little girl into her home and, after feigning friendliness, killed the girl then skinned her and made tools from her bones. She took a liking to human meat, stealing one child every night until she needed two and later three. When caught, the villagers burned her alive inside her hut. She was drawn straight into Closetland, where her domain is an eerily silent woodland called Butcher's Forest. Her hut now sits on giant bird legs where inside her kitchen contains the half-butchered remains of too many children to count. She seeks to fulfill her dying wish of turning all humans into cannibals and seeing all children as food. Those mortals under her sway are called Gluttons who eat other humans, feed people to animals, or simply poison others; they have pale skin and red eyes from her influence. She has no other minions. She is preferred for short games since after an hour or two she eats any child she catches, with no concern for matters of Souls or Innocence.
- The Defiler (Lust) - This one is pretty much what you expect. The only minions of the Defiler are humans who he once preyed on as children but did not take. He is the ultimate manipulator, and seeks out challenges to mold rather than easy targets to take. For his possessed, who's eyes become grey and lifeless, he takes as much time as needed to change them and are as much his victims as his prey (those who do not end up in his domain often become the same with time), choosing both to be the most innocent he can get his hands on. His domain is the Playground, a school falling into decay with chains on the doors where he transports both of his victims during the "act" to watch from his throne, with a massive park full of rides and play equipment where lost children go through the motions of play. The current Defiler is not the first, who the first was and what he did to earn Lamashtu's, well, wrath isn't clear (possibly something to Kabaelza?).
The "Children Of Pain And Suffering" are lost souls turned into monsters who act like lesser Kings but have no authority given by the Demagogue.
- Oliver - A scary clown. Despite implications (both real and fictional), Oliver is pretty toothless for a Closetland baddie. Oliver turns what is good and happy into a scare, preferring to torment rather than take or kill. He'll possess a regular clown and laugh a little too loud, or a camp counselor and tell a story a little too scary. Enough to ruin a child's day and cause Fear points, not enough to qualify as a danger.
- Helter and Skelter - Twins, who love twins. Skelter tempts and convinces children they want what he does, Helter threatens and bullies. Both torture and eat their victims.
- Patchwork - A child who loved to take things apart and put them back together fell very ill and was put into a hospital. He received skin grafts, and at some point he died and was taken to Closetland. When he "got better" after "doctors" kept replacing his skin, he met Baba Yaga who gave him his new name. The "doctors" bring him children, or parts of them anyway, and he uses these "spare parts" to make dolls that he gives to the "doctors" who love and praise him for it (these dolls are traded and used as servants in Closetland). He misses his parents though...
Monsters wander Closetland, each made from a fear. Like a fear they exist in the mind of children seeing them; a mummy monster for example cannot actually touch a child, but if a child believes that a Closetland mummy's swipe hit him because it looked like it did, he suffers a bruise like he got punched. Likewise if the child thinks he has mummy repellent and his belief manifests, said mummy may
limp flee away in terror, the powers of suggestion and illusion having a great deal of sway on Belief.
- Closet Monsters - Servants of Branxis who capture more children than The Bogeyman. Each has a trick to draw a child into their realm, and if it fails the monster dies.
- Body Thieves - Patchwork's Living Dolls, Bogeyman's Shades, Dopplegangers (intelligent Shoggoths basically), and Worms (literal masses of worms that need the eyes of a child to transform into them).
- Lost Children - Weaponized stolen souls and soulless bodies. Ghosts, mummies (long-dried child corpses), Poltergeists (Lamashtu's personal Ghosts),
- Monster Under The Bed - Similar to the Closet monsters, but their only trick is to grab the child.
- The Thing In The Walls - Things are masses of tendrils that spread through a house like fungus roots until they can grab a child and drag them to the space between spaces leading to Closetland where the Great Thing, a mass of flesh and bodies (like Legion from Castlevania, or transformed Tetsuo from Akira) turns them into Things as well.
- Vampires - Nosferatu style. Woe to the atheist child, who could deal with these without preparation otherwise.
- Werewolves - Stereotypical. Have low Spirit, and thus are bullied by other monsters into doing their bidding.
- Yeti - Isolationist monsters at the fringe of Closetland. More likely to help a child by attacking other monsters than hurt one.
- Zombies - Stereotypical Romero-style. They wander rooms like attics and basements that are rarely used. They will ignore children unless provoked and leave (slowly) if discovered.
Most "citizens" of Closetland are children. Some bodies without souls, some souls without bodies. Most unaware where they are, acting as if in ordinary life or nearly catatonic, a rare few entirely awake and able to guide players.
The path to Closetland is up to the DM. Children may be drug there by Closet Monsters through their namesake, suddenly be there without knowing that they entered as if reality suddenly shifted from real to a Closetland equivalent, through darkness or just shadows, or through a ritual of some kind such as the Bloody Mary game or a Ouija Board. Belief can cause things normally only found in Closetland to become real, especially when a lot of children believe it, such as around a campfire with scary stories. Exiting Closetland is harder than getting in. Out of an infinite number of doors, only one leads back to the real world. All Closetland mirrors other than ones belonging to Titania are exits. By killing a monster the child can use its essence to escape before the Demagogue claims it; children still inside when this happens are claimed as well. Friendly spirits and lost souls can also send children home. Whether the child exits out their own closet seconds after they left or in a Bangkok street forty years later is up to the DM.
Helpful beings exist, only known as the Divine Host. They send visions to and influence the real world, but directly aid children. They oppose the monsters of Closetland but can't do so directly. They represent the deus ex machina that allows the DM to bend the game towards a positive for the players. Good dogs and other pets may be aligned with the Divine Host, although they can also be impersonated or controlled by monsters.
Players are encouraged to have their characters think and act like children. Instead of being poor woobies in need of saving, the children are their own heroes. The rulebook states that missing children worldwide are often the victims of the Kings, who influence real world events such as pedophiles or just outright spirit the children away into Closetland where they are never seen again. Adults are of little to no help, sometimes being outright causes of danger or at best the provider of useful items like toys or simple advice. "I am rubber, you are glue-" if passed from a concerned older sibling curious why a character is crying a lot and missing sleep can be a magic spell protecting the PCs from danger in Closetland for example.
Players are encouraged to do research before playing a game by watching movies about children, or made for children, to relearn mannerisms their characters can emulate. To watch children's educational shows, as well as daytime television they perhaps shouldn't have been watching, to get an idea for the knowledge their character could have; an example given as a child who watches crime shows instead of Sesame Street knowing the basics or forensics which could advance the plot if one of their friends disappears.
Character creation involves specifics on height, eye and hair color, nicknames, friends, trusted adults, hopes and dreams, favorite belonging, what makes them feel safe if scared, and so on. Most of these are either DM fodder or help players really get a feel for their character before actual crunch begins.
Players invest points into their attributes with "Playground Points". They begin with six.
Stats are the actual numerical abilities of characters. They come at a minimum of 1, and a maximum of 5. All start at 2, but can be lowered to 1 to gain extra Playground Points to spend elsewhere. They consist of:
- Smarts - Book learning and creativity. This represents potential, not existing qualities as a child held back for poor school performance may just not have a home life that allows them to study rather than them being actually stupid. The higher the Smarts, the more a child can get out of the same book as others or find the book in the first place.
- Muscle - General health and physical abilities, possessed by kids who play outside a lot generally. Huck Finn characters have high Muscle, kids who spent a lot of time in the hospital with something like leukemia would have low Muscle.
- Hands - Hand dexterity. High Hands means great hand/eye coordination, aim, and the ability to perform difficult or delicate tasks. Low would be a klutz.
- Feet - Feet dexterity. Same rule as Hands, characters with high Feet can run and dodge, low will trip on their feet and move more slowly.
- Spirit - Willpower, awareness, and soul powers. Its opposite effect is Fear. Characters who are well-loved and feel safe have high Spirit, characters who feel alone in the world or are dealing with traumatic events have low Spirit. Belief, religious or in things like magic and parallel universes, also provide higher Spirit.
Virtues are the next set of attributes, representing qualities of their current psychological and spiritual state.
- Soul - The literal immortal soul of the character. This can be hurt, damaged, splintered, and even entirely stolen. Generally speaking only things from Closetland or affected by Closetland can affect this. It begins at 10. Attacks by magical things, mostly Closetland beings, damage the Soul. Characters can heal their Soul with faith, but characters who no longer believe in higher beings (God, Spider-man, grandpa Joe, etc) can no longer restore their Soul. Darkening occurs when Soul reaches 6, causing unhealthiness and insanity. By 3 Soul the character comes down with severe fever, losing one Soul every 48 hours until 0 when they lapse into a coma, mental and spiritual stats drop to 0 while physical stats decay at one point per hour. At that point the soul cannot leave Closetland, and a silver cord that children can see connects the body and soul to any creature that caused it. Killing attached creatures and returning the Soul saves the child.
- Innocence - Inner purity, which is also naivety and ignorance. This is the result of upbringing. A character who is sheltered and unaware of any of the issues of growing up would have high Innocence, characters who watch a lot of crime shows and news on television, come from troubles homes, or have had to take responsibility early in life will have lower scores. The Innocence of the character directly correlates to their age starting the game, and may be raised for two Playground Points each or lowered to gain one Playground Point each. Six year olds begin with 8 Innocence, and it decreases by one for every year of age (theoretically a fifteen year old has no Innocence left). The higher the Innocence the easier children are to find for evil spirits but harder to hurt. The lower the Innocence the more invisible and less appealing to drain the soul of, but easier to harm. For every three points of Fear gained, one point of Innocence is lost.
- Fear - Fear is a direct result of Closetland, a kind of corruption. It affects their mental state primarily. Characters start the game with 0 Fear. Anytime a character gains a point of Fear, they gain one Playground Point. Characters can lose Fear (and keep Playground Points) using their faith, but can only be awarded by the DM rather than a dice roll. Unpleasant quirks are gained by reaching Fear 3, and by Fear 8 actual mental illness begins. At Fear 10 the character is insane. Fear always results in either Schizophrenia, Manic Depression, or Multiple Personality Disorder.
Qualities are rules pertaining to the character that affect them, similar to Feats and Skills in Dungeons & Dragons. The Qualities taken are suggested by the rulebook to emphasize personality rather than to Munchkin, an example being a character who acts tough having low Spirit and/or the Scaredy Cat Quality making them an overcompensating bully or braggart. Positive Qualities cost one Playground Point, and negative ones give you one Playground point each but can only be spent on other Qualities.
Belief is the magic by which impossible or magic things occur, and is more likely the higher the Innocence. Material Belief is caused by an object (a stuffed toy becoming a protector) and Incidental Belief is a ritual behavior (like praying resulting in protection). Incidental Belief can also bend reality, for example making X-ray glasses actually work although once this fails it can never be attempted again unless the child gains reason to believe it will (for example being told that the glasses just don't work on rainy days by another child). Belief can also work in reverse, causing a detrimental effect if the DM wills it such as accidentally looking into a mirror in the dark damaging the Soul. Every ten times the child tries to make a Belief work and it fails, they lose one Innocence.
Blindness is the state where characters no longer believe in Closetland and lose awareness of it. It is associated with loss of the Innocence stat, but can happen early if a child accepts the world as a bad place or believes abuse and misery are normal; these characters are called Tainted. This results in a character with Innocence left who is unable to perceive what wants to hurt them, although since abuse lowers Innocence characters who are Blind but Innocent may find themselves being helped by more Fey than evil beings. Blind characters are NOT immune to spirits, and can be hurt or manipulated by them. Simple and Vestal characters are immune to Blindness. Simple characters are the insane and mentally handicapped who's minds cannot be closed. Vestals cannot lose Innocence. Tainted, Simple, and Vestals can all be manipulated into doing the bidding of spiritual beings.
Hand-me-downs are magical items, sometimes corrupted, the player has access to. Family heirlooms or lucky trinkets, these are purely awarded by the DM.
The core rulebook suggests a multi-genre approach to Little Fears games. By selecting a second genre, the theme of the non-Closetland AKA non-horror element takes shape.
- Fairy Tale - The short session genre. Villain pretends to be a friend or hides the danger, then shit gets real. These can be grounded, even not using Closetland except in the abstract. Solutions are more obvious and simpler. Adults are helpful. Characters can reach adulthood unscathed by being clever or obeying cultural norms.
- Scary Story - Enemies are more inhuman. Paranoia, unease, suspension, and tension are prolonged. There should be a way out, but it isn't as obvious. Adults aren't usually directly helpful and can be hindrances, stakes, or the danger itself.
- True Horror - Player feels uncomfortable, solutions are not simple and require ample luck or skill to avoid harm or misfortune. Adults are active obstacles, enemies, or people the child has to save.
- Urban Legends - An entire section of the book is dedicated to example scenarios, which are the concept of children finding out their scary stories are (partially) true. The Belief of those who hear the stories causes Closetland to get involved.