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Remember when you were young and you were afraid of all those things that went bump in the night?

Ever wonder where they went?

These days Jason L. Blair is best known for his work on the Saint’s Row franchise, but once upon a time he was lead designer and writer of a chilling RPG called Little Fears. Back in 2001 this tabletop game took kids to Closetland, a nightmare realm ruled and run by every terror they can think of, and more besides. Would they get lost in the darkness, becoming prey to the monsters, and crazed monarchs, that stalk Closetland? Would they triumph over impossible odds, and beat Closetland’s creatures?

The 2001 version featured a darker Closetland, ruled by the Demagogue and his Kings. It won RPGNet’s Most Disturbing or Controversial Game Award, and was a nominee for two Origins awards. Later, when Blair decided to reissue Little Fears in 2009, the content was toned down a bit. The Demagogue and his Kings went out the door, the ruleset changed significantly, and the nightmarish content became slightly more fantastical. ‘The world is a scary place, especially for children,’ says the 2009 Nightmare Edition, ‘The world they live in is full of rules, but the rules are not their own.’ That’s the version you’re most likely to find, if you go looking for it online or in one of the few shops to stock it.

Then in 2011 Little Fears crept out of the dark again, this time as a Tenth Anniversary edition. This version is a faithful recreation of the 2001 original, complete with all the supplemental material for the 2001 edition plus some commentary and rules errata. This one-off is still available, but the print edition can only be had direct from the publisher; the PDF is available via DriveThruRPG.

I was fortunate enough to be able to talk with Jason Blair, and ask him about his sinister RPG past.

Adam Gauntlett: Describe Little Fears to someone who’s never heard of it before.

Jason Blair: Little Fears is a tabletop game about kids fighting monsters in a land called Closetland. They have the power of belief on their side, which is the power to have that baseball bat hit with fire, or have the teddy bear come alive and protect you, or, by walking around your bed three times, seal and protect it from monsters.

AG: Little Fears is how you got your start back in 2001, as Editor in Chief of Key 20. Who was Jason Blair before that? How did you get to that point?

JB: Well, Key 20 was my own publishing house, so I was everything. Before that I was just a young twentysomething who knew he didn’t want to spend his life doing something he didn’t love. So, with a lot of support, I put together some money – this is before print on demand really became a thing, and before PDFs were as convenient as they are – I had to do a full print run, get that up and going. I commissioned my own art, learned layout, learned Photoshop, Pagemaker – which is what was available then – learned how to talk to printers, to sell at conventions … it was a very busy year and a half, getting Little Fears up and going! That got me started in tabletop, and then I transitioned from there to video games, which is where I am now.

AG: You mentioned PDF in passing a second ago, and I wonder if you wouldn’t mind expanding on that, bearing in mind that the original Little Fears never got an official PDF release.

JB: Right! This is back in 2001, before the advent of DriveThru RPG and other sources, Paizo and whatnot. PDFs then had to be set up either set up on a website for someone to download, or you send me money and I mail you the PDF. Which I did for one of the supplements, When the Monsters Came, but that was the only one. It wasn’t nearly as convenient as it is now, when you can get it up and running on a service that handles all of that for you. It’s much easier for the customer and the publisher!

AG: Little Fears is an Origins nominee for best RPG and Game of the Year (2002), as well as a winner of RPGNet’s Most Disturbing/Controversial Game award. How controversial or disturbing were you hoping it was going to be?

JB: [laughs] I wasn’t hoping! It’s funny … Little Fears started off as the game of children fighting werewolves. That was the first session I ever ran, and then I started building the cosmology of the world, of Closetland, where all the childhood fears take form. I gave a mechanism for creating any monster you cared to cook up, a framework to do that. Then I started to do the research on childhood trauma, things like that, and that kind of steered the game towards being really dark. I had to take a step back … you know, it wasn’t really graphic, it was never an abuse simulator or anything like that, but it did deal with some of the horrible things that people do to kids. I actually dialed it back a lot, before the release of the first edition. But the research led me to develop a lot of empathy towards people who had less than ideal childhoods. Mine was a typical Middle America childhood, no trauma to speak of, but not everyone’s that lucky. I tried to honor them, in a way: not excuse the things that happened to them by saying ‘oh, it was monsters,’ but being very real about some of the things that kids are exposed to, either directly or indirectly, and kind of speak to that.

At the time nobody was really talking about that sort of stuff in the RPG space. Teenagers from Outer Space [R. Talsorian 1997] and, I think, Alma Mater {Oracle games 1982] came out before Little Fears, but that was it, and nobody had written a game about being little kids. That was the number one obstacle. People were like, ‘I can’t get my group to play kids.’ Part of it was the darker aspect, that’s where all the controversy came from; which was really only two pages about one of the Kings. That’s it! Closetland has seven Kings, each modelled after one of the seven deadly sins, and of course, one of them is Lust. The Defiler was the King of Lust. Obviously that’s one of the most horrible aspects of the game; there were a lot of slights against my character, but also I heard from a lot of people, child psychologists, Andrew Vachss the author and child advocate, and they all supported Little Fears. That was mind-blowing, to have all these people who, in their professional lives, dealt with the very real aspect of child trauma, saying ‘yeah, you’re doing the right thing.’ There was lots of controversy, but the support outweighed it greatly!

AG: Things have changed since then, with the 2009 version missing several important characters. What were you trying to achieve with the 2009 edition?

JB: I feel like Little Fears, the original, was very early on in my game experience. In eight years I learned a lot about game design, so I wanted to do something new with Little Fears and give it some new life. I also wanted to take a different approach with the core concept, kids fighting monsters. Little Fears was already out there, and it did what it did really well, but I figured if I wanted a new edition I didn’t just want to polish the corners of the original. I wanted to do something different, so I dropped the Demagogue, who’s the ruler of Closetland, I dropped Branxis the Enslaver who ran the sweatshops, made the Boogeyman the head of it all, made some of the Kings, like Baba Yaga, just part of the world rather than rulers, and added new characters. I wanted it to have more of that adventure feel, more like Are You Afraid of the Dark? or R.L. Stein. I wanted something different. The original uses language like innocence; the children have it, and the monsters want it. In the 2009 Nightmare Edition, it’s not about innocence. It’s about belief, the belief that children have, that gives them the edge over the terror that monsters have. Yeah, it was a conscious decision to do something new rather than a revamp of an old idea.

AG: You once said ‘my particular creative path has been nothing if not interesting.’ What’s the job you least expected to get, and did it work out the way you thought it would?
JB: I spent a year and a half as a copy editor as a legal publishing house. I was in charge of checking law citations and notifications for environmental law books. I mean … Yeah … I never really saw myself ever doing that. I was just out of college with an English degree and a love of writing, but I’d fallen into IT work, which is what I was doing when I was working on the first edition of Little Fears, and then I got the editing job. It just came about because I needed a new job, and that was it, but man … I knew I couldn’t do it, that it couldn’t be my life, editing law books. Then I got back into IT, and from there went into video games.

AG: I can imagine that working for a law firm must be like banging your head against a particularly dense wall.

JB: Yeah! It wasn’t just the law firm; books would come in from outside lawyers too. I’m sure there are some lawyers out there that are Hemingway, but most are not. They seem to be incredibly dry, possibly to demonstrate their accuracy, you know, because their work is used in law. It must be perfect!

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AG: You were an Amusement Park ride operator once; how did you find yourself there?

JB: That was fun! That was my very first job I was a teenager, I needed work, and I was applying everywhere. I knew I didn’t want to work in food, and thankfully I never have; never been a busboy, shot order cook or anything like that. I did not ever want to work in food! I grew up in North East Ohio, in a town called Geneva, and just north of Geneva is Geneva on the Lake, which is a resort destination for that area. It has small amusement parks, like five ride parks, biker bars, arcades. I applied to a place called Woody’s World, and ran the bumper cars. That was for two weekends, before I got a call from Kmart and took a job there!

AG: In an article titled Passion and Design you talk about my office, my mess, my disaster area. ‘But I need this mess. This is my creative zone.’ What makes it a creative zone?

JB: I’ve become more organized since then! That was back in 2000, and I was a much less orderly creative thinker. I relied more on accident and inspiration, so I wanted a lot of stuff around me. You never know what might spark off something, or lead down a cool path. I liked having easy access to something, so I had a stack of books rather than file them away. They were right there within easy reach, didn’t have to get up off of a chair or anything. That was a much more ‘mad thinker’ period; I’ve become more orderly since then! I remember it well … my office was a mess, let me tell you!

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AG: So what spurred the change?

JB: Back in 2008, 2009 probably, while I was working on Little Fears Nightmare Edition, I realized I wasn’t as strong a creative as I hoped to be. I wasn’t as strong as a writer, in my concepts, in my execution, just in getting stuff done. I dallied too much! So I started what I called Operation Awesome, my attempt to recreate myself, to become more of a machine. That term has a negative connotation in the creative field; it sounds a little too much like a hack, churning the same stuff out over and over again. But I wanted to get stuff done, and hold myself to a standard. So I started reading up on a lot of different writing theories, everything from Save the Cat to the Hollywood formula. I started to understand how stories work, and spent a lot of time examining game mechanics, how do they work, what do they do or say. I think it was Jared Sorensen who said that game design is mind control; I love that quote! It just brought about a more orderly way of thinking, not relying so much on that fluffy ‘muse’ talk. I’m not a fan of the term muse! I started putting in the 90% perspiration over the 10% inspiration, and getting my act together, after far too long.

AG: In that same piece you also wrote, as advice to aspiring designers, ‘you must learn a little something about business.’ What in your opinion is the most important something?

JB: Hoo boy! Protecting yourself, your work. That’s the most important thing. Law, at least in the US, does not favor the creator unless you are Disney, someone that creates the law and the trends that govern everyone else. There are a lot of people who think that the things that are created should be free, that we’re all just doing this out of passion and not because we want to feed a family or put a roof over our heads. Learn basic law for your region, or whatever region you plan to deal with. Even if it’s just learning copyright law, or how to read a contract, getting a lawyer on your side. People fall in love with that artist dream of just being this mad genius in a loft, but if you want to be serious and get your stuff out there, you have to protect yourself.

AG: I couldn’t help but notice your 2014 Plan on your site, which I’m guessing isn’t complete yet. Were you able to achieve everything you hoped to?

JB: No. I like having that out there; I like failing in public. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t, and I think it’s important just to put that stuff out there. It’s funny … I sometimes think that the online identity of authors, their brands … for me, I’m just a guy trying to make it happen. I’ve been very fortunate in that I get paid to do what I love, but I still fail, you know; I like just showing, ‘hey, I wanted to write this book, and I did. And this other stuff, I didn’t, but here’s how close I got.’ I was hoping to write more novels in 2014, I’ve written three in my life so far, but I had some stuff that came up, some writing for friends in tabletop, which was nice. My day job keeps me really busy! I didn’t accomplish everything, but every single thing that got finished is something that wasn’t finished before.

AG: To end on a fun note: speaking as if you were the Demagogue, what would you think of a game like Little Fears?

JB: I’d think I created it! The Demagogue thought he was in control of everything, and in my head the Kings were always vying against each other and the Demagogue, especially the Boogeyman. The Demagogue was always the delusional monarch who thought he ruled everything, uncontested. He had nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, so he probably would think Little Fears is all part of a plan that he’d devised.

AG: Even the colossal failures, I assume!

JB: All part of the plan! All part of the plan! [laughs]

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