Jason L Blair is currently a writer at Volition Inc, the developers of the Saints Row series. But his career as a game writer and designer began over ten years ago, when Blair created the award-nominated tabletop roleplaying game Little Fears. In the world of Little Fears, players take on the roles of pre-adolescent children struggling against terrible monsters they know are real. Through their imagination and belief, these young children stand center in a story of surviving unimaginable horror, while exploring a world adults left behind with their own childhoods. The heart breaking and sometimes terrifying experiences of children are not glossed over by the game line. Among the Missing, a supplement about the missing children in the world of Little Fears, had a portion of the pre-order sales donated to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
On September 21st, the Kickstarter campaign for the newest Little Fears book, Blessed are the Children, finished at $9,071—604% funded. To understand the love and drive of the Little Fears fanbase, you have to step backward, following the world of Little Fears through it’s growth and changes for over a decade.
Little Fears was published more than ten years ago, when the climate for author-publishers was much different. How did that experience of writing and publishing a project differ from your later releases, like Streets of Bedlam?
Not only was the original Little Fears published before a lot of technology was made available to author-publishers but it was my first ever published game and second ever published book. So I was still fumbling in the dark. Not to say the tech available to the everyday publisher was lacking—I had a lot more to work with in 2001 than people who had made a go of it in the 90s, 80s, 70s, and beyond. But for a guy with a lot of vision and no experience, it was all walking amongst landmines. I had to learn everything—from art direction to page layout to working with printers to setting up a retail backbone—so I’m glad my brain was still soft and absorbent back then.
The biggest difference, and the largest boon to author-publishers today, is the ability for me to get my stuff right into customers’ hands. I’m very fortunate to work with some great retailers—and by all means support your local stores—but I no longer have to work through distributors. I make a product, I let folks know it’s out there, and people find it. And retailers find it.
And that’s just physical goods. PDFs existed in 2001 but I used them as printer files. I didn’t send them to customers. Not full books. But now with outlets like DriveThruRPG, they handle the whole headache of dealing in digital which is a godsend.
Little Fears was also done on my own dime. Streets of Bedlam, on the other hand, was funded through Kickstarter. I had the opportunity to test the waters, to see if anyone was actually interested in this ultraviolent crime game I had been cooking up. Not only did the Kickstarter cover all the production funds, such as art and printing, but paid for the first supplement, a custom dice set, and a soundtrack.
It worked so well that I decided to use Kickstarter to launch the third Little Fears Nightmare Edition book, Blessed are the Children, as well.
How did people originally respond to Little Fears, when it was first released?
Little Fears became a bit of a phenomenon. Plenty of horror games existed prior but this was the first horror game—maybe the first game period—that put preadolescent children at the fore. That was huge. And that the game also dealt with such real world issues as neglect, abuse, cannibalism, and even called out pederasty and pedophilia for the terrible, terrible things they are garnered a lot of attention. And almost all of it was overwhelmingly positive.
The game certainly had its detractors, some of which had even read the book, and it generated a fair bit of online controversy. But I heard from psychologists and abuse survivors—and even from Andrew Vachss himself—who felt that Little Fears handled its more controversial topics very well. Which is a huge relief even now because I had no idea how much I was playing with fire at the time. I had good intentions but a whole lot of inexperience. Imagine waking up one day and deciding you’re going to spin plates. You’d never done it before but, boy, it sure seemed like a good idea. You practice for like a day and then book a venue for an audience of 3000. You take the stage and set up your plates—and holy crap they spin. And most of them don’t fall down and break! You don’t realize at the time just how fortunate you were. But you were. Oh man, you were. That’s me looking back at Little Fears.
How have the initial reactions to Little Fears’ release shaped how you’ve approached the later books?
Even though the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, I did hear from a lot of people that the game wasn’t at all what they thought it would be. That was interesting. I’d been head down in the Little Fears space for so long, it didn’t occur to me that folks would want something other than I had made.
The Nightmare Edition establishes a break from the original edition, particularly in regards to the Kings of Closetland and the original mood of serious horror. Why did you make that departure with the Nightmare Edition?
The original Little Fears had a distinct voice and purpose, which I had no interest in restating. I wasn’t going to do another version of Little Fears unless I found something else to say within the same world. With Nightmare Edition, I made the decision to focus more on adventure and Middle Grade-style horror.
That decision impacted the fiction greatly. The Demagogue, the Seven Kings, and such were tools used to portray the grim world of Closetland as found in the original game. With the new edition, and its focus on child empowerment and a grander sense of adventure and heroism, a lot of those old tropes didn’t have a place.
Probably the biggest change, when it comes to the game’s cosmology, was placing the Bogeyman at the center of Closetland. He’s the big bad in Nightmare Edition where he was one of many big bads in the original game. That’s probably a station he should have had from the beginning anyway. He’s a much stronger adversary than anything wholly my own creation.
What led to you developing the Little Fears: Among the Missing supplement?
Among the Missing emerged from an idea I had for a line of super-short character options. The idea was to make 4-5 page PDFs that would talk about a different type of kid and the packs would be named “One of the [blank].” So there’d be “One of the Faithful” and “One of the Runaways” and so on. As I developed them, it hit me that, really, most of them were different takes on the same core concept: missing children. I realized that putting them together into a single book would give me the opportunity to also talk about their world, Missing-specific monsters, etc.
The ones that didn’t make it into Among the Missing are in the new book, Blessed are the Children.
As a parent, does working on the Little Fears line ever get emotionally difficult for you?
Well, the thought of missing children affects me deep, deep to my core. Hearing about child abductions flips a primal switch in me that I just can’t turn off. I don’t know if that stems from me being a parent or just being a person who is very concerned with how we treat and raise our children.
In what ways did the success of Little Fears change your life?
Without the risks I took—and that others took along with me—to get Little Fears off the ground, I have no idea where I’d be in life. I can plot a direct course from being a kid with a dream to a late-30s guy who writes for a living—with a day job working in video games no less! I can draw the exact line. It’s wavy and jagged and kinda loops back on itself but it’s there. And that’s because of people reacting to Little Fears and having my back all those years ago. That book changed my life.
Where do you see the Little Fears line going in the future?
Fiction! The Book 3 Kickstarter just wrapped up and it made the stretch goal to launch a fiction line. So once Book 3′s out the door, I’ll start on The Wolf Pact, a 30k-word novel set in the Little Fears universe. We’ll see how that does, of course, but I’d like to do more Little Fears novels. And I’ll keep supporting the line with Campfire Tales (standalone adventures) and Goodie Bags (mini-supplements). I can’t stay away from the world of Little Fears. I love it too much. I’d also like to do a board game. I’ve thought for a while now that if I did a new edition, I’d make it a board game.