The Homebrew Review, #4: Squeam
It's anything but a well-kept secret that most GMs have a mean streak a mile wide (though they may pretend otherwise to lull their players into a false sense of security). There's a certain sick thrill that comes from outsmarting your players, and an even sicker one from killing off a PC with a well-placed trap or a monster that's a little smarter than they originally thought.
It's anything but a well-kept secret that most GMs have a mean streak a mile wide (though they may pretend otherwise to lull their players into a false sense of security). There's a certain sick thrill that comes from outsmarting your players, and an even sicker one from killing off a PC with a well-placed trap or a monster that's a little smarter than they originally thought. However, the problem with indulging this "dark side" is that GMs who can't keep it under control will soon find themselves without players to torment every week. What's a GM to do when she wants to get some bloodlust out of her system while reassuring her players that it's all in good fun? That's where games like Paranoia, The Call Of Cthulhu, and the subject of this installment of the Homebrew Review, Squeam, come in. Brought to you by game designer Jared A. Sorenson, Squeam is a streamlined, tongue-in-cheek game that aims to make sessions with a high body count as much fun for the players as they are for the GM.
Sorenson describes his own game as "a shameless rip-off of the Scream films," which is perhaps selling this setting a little bit short. The goal of the Squeam system is to create an RPG "based upon the conceits and cliches of bad horror films." The average character comes from a number of suggested "Dead Teenager" archetypes: the Nerd, the Freak, the Jock, the Bimbo, the Prep, the Punk, the Slut, and the Princess. Each "character class" comes with built-in advantages and disadvantages, and are briefly described in rather amusing ways. (The Squeam people have obviously done their research...) The writers are also kind enough to include some examples of "authority figures to mock and/or dismember." Games are also limited to 90 minutes in length "as an homage to the mercifully short running time of the average gore flick."
It's when you start assigning your characters' attributes that things get really interesting: "In most role playing games, the Attributes represent your characters positive aspects - strength, intelligence, agility. In this game, they represent your character's negative aspects." Four Attributes define Squeam characters - Fright (how easily you startle), Squeam (how easily you get grossed out), Curiosity (how likely you are to go into the dark basement alone or read passages from the Necronomicon out loud), and Naivete (how gullible you are). Ratings run from 0 to 9, and players have 20 points to distribute between the Attributes. Low ratings are desirable, since "characters with ratings of 0 are like Ash or Buffy. Characters with ratings of 9 are dog-meat." One word describes this idea: Inspired.
If the GM (or "Camp Counselor" in Squeam parlance) thinks a character's attributes might come into play, he asks the player to roll a d10. If the result is greater than the attribute score, you're in the clear. If not, something bad happens. If the two numbers match up, the player has two choices: fail the roll or complete a challenge in order to succeed. Fright challenges involve trust games, Squeam challenges involve sticking your hand into something disgusting like peeled grapes, Curiosity challenges "resemble a game of Let's Make A Deal," and Naivete challenges require the player to spout horror-movie cliches. These challenges are, in my opinion, Squeam's one major misstep. With the exception of the Naivete challenge, I can't imagine stopping a game to do this stuff, or that any players I've ever met would be willing to do so. If I were running this game, I would probably forgo the challenges entirely, make them all more like Naivete, or think up an alternate way of dealing with ties.
The Squeam rules finish up with a "Fate Points" system that allows characters to cheat death from time to time (and thus prolong what has the potential to become an astonishingly lethal game) and a few sample "bad guys" to pit your players against. These are also quite amusing and include the Deformed Psycho With An Axe, the Plain Old Vanilla Late-Night Movie Monster, and (no kidding) Possessed Farm Equipment. There's also a section of GM tips, about which little can be said other than that it begins with the words, "I've already spent way too much time on this. Now it's your turn." That's all there is. In fact, I'd better cut this review short, now, or I risk it becoming longer than the rules themselves!
Like so many of the games I've already reviewed for Gamegrene, Squeam is not something you'd want to return to week after week. But for the brief amount of time it takes to master this system and the negligible effort you have to put into planning an adventure, it's worth a look (if only to experience the writer's wonderful sense of humor firsthand). If you do, not only may your players not twitch uncontrollably every time you mention it, they may even ask you to run it again even after you've satisfied the impulses of your itchy trigger finger.
(One more thing: This is specifically a review of Squeam 3, the most recent edition of the game. If you check out http://www.memento-mori.com/squeam/, you'll find two earlier versions of Squeam, as well as rules adapting the system to The Call Of Cthulhu and Scooby-Doo. God help us all.)
How Squeam Measures Up:
- Playability: B
- Presentation: A-
- Setting: A-
- Overall: B+
Interested in Squeam? Check it out for free at
The Homebrew Review Game Supplement
You probably remember "The Blair Witch Project." It was hyped to death a few summers ago, spawned a terrible sequel, and (depending on who you ask) was either the best or the worst horror movie ever made. Either way, it's ripe for parody in your Squeam game. Here's how to do it.
The Basic Plot:
"The Blair Witch Project" is supposedly a documentary about three college students who go to the woods outside Burkittsville, Maryland. Supposedly, they're making a documentary about a being called the Blair Witch who is said to haunt that area, though they spend a lot more time drinking and videotaping random crap than doing anything artsy-fartsy. They get lost, hear noises, and run into weird rocks and twigs, all the while videotaping everything for posterity. The ending, in which they find the Blair Witch's house and are systematically slaughtered by an unseen force, is either a masterpiece of minimalist horror filmmaking or the stupidest and most anticlimactic piece of crap ever (once again, depending on who you ask). The sequel, on the other hand, dealt with a bunch of even stupider characters who see the original "documentary" and decide they'll try to succeed where their predecessors failed. Of course, their fate is equally messy. It was a much worse movie, so your game is much more likely to resemble it.
The cast of the original movie was a Freak (Heather), a Nerd (Mike), and a Punk (Josh). The sequel had mostly Freaks, with a Princess and a Jock thrown in for good measure. These character types are probably the most likely to be running around in the woods like morons with video cameras, and thus are the best suited to this story. However, most of the Dead Teenager archetypes can be shoehorned in if someone has their heart set on a different character (this is a horror movie, after all, and any idiot can wander into the woods late at night).
This is the tough part. You never actually get a look at the Blair Witch herself, or whatever monster is menacing (and some would argue there was no monster at all). Here's where it helps to see the movie(s), develop your own interpretation of what happened (however silly), and impose it on your players. If that's not feasible, here are a few "clues" to incorporate to creep your players out:
- A map that proves to be inaccurate and
leads the characters around in circles
- Weird noises at night (screaming, cackling,
children laughing, you get the picture...)
- Something pounding on the outside of the tent
- Oddly placed piles of rocks in clearings
- Lots of stick men hanging from the trees
- Pulled-out teeth and other minor body parts
- If anyone is stupid enough to run out into the woods after the monster, you can have them be "kidnapped" the way Josh was in the first movie. The next night, let the characters hear their comrade screaming from far away. They'll almost certainly run after him and give you a nice segue into the next bloodbath... I mean, encounter.
Put all of these things together, and ideally, the PCs will be so paranoid they might even start killing one another under suspicion of the others being "allied with the Blair Witch." (That's essentially what happens in the sequel...)
By the way: if, at any point, someone sticks a camera in their face despite the snot smeared all over their upper lip and gives a protracted and hysterical speech that begins, "I'm so scared...", give them extra Fate points or let them live or something, because they're just cool.