The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Panic

An adventure for GURPS IOU

by Karl Gallagher

"Gladiola Hopkins!"

Gladdie took a deep breath and walked onto the stage for her turn. She was a little nervous -- flubbing the final could mean a flunk even with her average. Not nervous enough, maybe.

A trapdoor opened releasing an adorable gopher snake. It swung its head about in obvious confusion. Gladdie stared at it and took a deep breath --

An icy hand grabbed the back of her neck and her body shivered. The scream burst out, shaped by trained reflexes, and filled the auditorium. Three of the calibrated wineglasses on the judges' table shattered. The snake tried to get back into the trap door. Everyone's ears rang for a few more seconds after the scream ended.

"You've been practicing, Miss Hopkins" said the Hysteria Department Chairthing. "That's the best we've had all day."

Gladdie smiled weakly and staggered off the stage. Down the main hall to the maintenance stairs, down to the basement service corridor, and back to the door marked DANGER: HAZARDOUS MATERIAL STORAGE. "If the photon capacitors didn't burn out we're ready to -- " Pete turned away from the other students as she burst in.

"It worked! I was perfect! They loved me!" Gladdie noticed their eyes moving up and down to her breathing and calmed herself.

"So you're registering for the summer project then?" asked Peter, putting down the oscilloscope.

"Well, sure -- a deal's a deal" she replied. "But, gosh, it works so well, why do you need our help?"

"That's a long story," said Peter, smiling widely enough to reveal everything caught in his teeth. "Maybe I can tell you over dinner?"

"Um, that's okay, we'll have plenty of time in New Hampshire." She fled.

* * *

This is a GURPS IOU adventure for any number of players. It's centered on WUSE or COUP upperclass or graduate students, with opportunities for one-shot or new characters.

The Set-Up

The Army has realized that tanks and bombs frighten away more enemy soldiers then they kill, so it's decided to skip to the end and avoid all those expensive, wasteful explosions. Now they've hired Prof. Marty Phobos of the Dept. of Military Science and Cost Overruns to build a "Fear Projector" (FP). Being brilliant at procurement, not physics, he said "No problem. Cash in advance" and dumped the details on his students. To make sure they focused on the problem, he arranged for it to count as credit for MSCO 414: Cost-Plus Prototypes, DT 501: Winning Through Intimidation, Ph 330: Focused Waves, and MSCO 550: Energy Weaponry. That leaves all the cash for him and a colleague from COUP (the College of Obscure and Unhealthy Professions considers scaring people to be under the Department of Dirty Tricks, so a compromise was in order).

The students used a combination of strobe lights and ultrasonic vibration to make a working cannon-sized beamer that causes a Will+2 Fright Check for everyone in the target area. Impressive, but not as good as Phobos' reports to the Army described. Now the Army wants a field test. On July 25th Army observers will be watching the town of Hardcheese, New Hampshire (pop. 1,000). If the whole town flees screaming, Phobos gets a bonus and a contract for a mass production version of the FP. If not, he has to pay the money back. All of it. With interest.

Not that Phobos doesn't know where the money is. He does -- it's in Vegas.

So Phobos has called the team together to explain the new grading policy. If the Hardcheese test succeeds everyone gets A's and a share of the bonus. If it fails, they flunk all four classes and get expelled for poor academic performance. The good news is he got his chairthing at the College of Weird and Unnatural Science and Engineering to provide additional funding for a summer field class, so there's money available to support test preparation.

A little research will show why Hardcheese was chosen for the test. Over 10% of the town has the Imperturbable advantage. They're famous for 12 years ago calmly fighting a forest fire even as it reached the edge of town. Any research will find the fire story. Asking THE Computer, Genetic Engineering faculty, or a library search will turn up the concentration of Imperturbable from an old GE study.


Anyone suggesting they make the FP work better will be reminded that they'd tried that already. Using real bullets or explosives would be cheating so badly that the Army would notice. If the players don't think of this, have an NPC suggest planting ringers among the townsfolk to start the stampede. At that point they notice a sign across the street: "Dept. of Hysteria Summer Job Fair Tomorrow."

Hysterical Ringers

The Department of Hysteria specializes in all forms of emotional overreaction -- not just screaming in fear and gibbering in terror but also shrieking at rock stars, fervent denunciations, and passionate pleas. Its classrooms are heavily soundproofed but the best students still make passers -- by flinch at their screams. Graduates go on to careers as movie starlets, rock groupies, political activists, or evangelical preachers.

Hysteria majors are in hot demand even as undergraduates. The job fair is crowded, with bidding wars breaking out over the top students. The FP team is competing with:

Phobos has a budget for the tests but WUSE can't throw around that kind of money. The team can only afford one to three hysterics at the going rate, probably not enough to pull the whole town along. (This is the perfect moment to introduce a non-WUSE character, as non-Hysteria majors will be looking for summer jobs, too.) The hiring process should check what kind of hysteric they're getting -- sulkers and fainters won't meet the Army's specs.

Note: Roleplaying WUSE nerds trying to chat up the Hysteria sorority girls could be good for hours of fun -- or it could bring up enough bad memories to provoke a GM lynching. Know Your Players.

If cash won't get them hysterics, they can offer credit, letting Hysteria majors enroll in their summer class (MSCO 599: Special Projects-Applied Fear Demonstration). For it to count toward their major a Hysteria professor has to be one of the faculty for the class. The logical choice is Abby Meeks, the Mass Hysteria professor. Prof. Meeks is willing, if there's something in it for her. Any Lothario PCs can try direct persuasion of the shy and lonely spinster, or a study of her career can find a better lever. Meeks is so shy that she can only release her inhibitions for full screams in a crowd. This inability to do solo work has trapped her in the MH niche without tenure. The extra boost of the FP might enable her to overcome that.

The same trick can be used to help recruit Hysteria majors worried about their grades. How to sneak the FP into the room for finals without driving up the class average is left as an exercise for the PCs. Note that Hysteria grades on a pitch -- like a curve, but shriller.

Into the Hills

Once a suitable group of hysterics has signed up and finals are over, the infiltration into Hardcheese can begin. There's some tourism for the lakeside resort and forest hiking paths so all the usual seasonal jobs are available. The GM can place a children's summer camp by the lake to create more job openings and tap into horror movie cliches if desired.

Phobos has rented an old farmhouse on a hill overlooking the town to hide the FP in. It also provides housing for the team. Phobos will usually be in the town bar except on bingo nights, when he has his own table.

Once everything is in place, the GM can skip straight to the day of the test, or allow the PCs to start a campaign of tricks to get everyone in town on edge (see any Scooby-Doo episode for suggestions). Depending on how successful they are the GM may give the townsfolk -1 to -3 on Fright Checks. Getting the summer campers into town for the day is left to the team's ingenuity. Convincing the town's most stubborn residents to be on vacation that day could also make the test more likely to succeed.

General Mayhem and his aides will arrive at the farmhouse at noon. The PCs have until midnight to empty the town. Good luck!

The Fear Projector

The FP weights 2000 lbs and draws 10kW of power. When fired it affects a 30° cone up to four miles away. Anyone in line of sight or able to see and hear reflections of the beam must immediately make a Fright Check at Will+2 with any other modifiers applicable. If they fail the fright check they will flee the area by the easiest route, follow anyone else panicking, or hide if no escape route is available. Continuous exposure has no additional effect and targets can't be affected again until at least 30 minutes have passed.

Every time the FP is used roll for malfunction on 2d:



major malfunction, no effect, 2d hours to repair.



malfunction, no effect, 1-3 hours to repair



malfunction, has normal effects but then breaks down, 1-3 hours to repair



normal operation

Completing repairs requires a skill roll in Electronics or other appropriate skills and availability of spare parts. A critical success halves the repair time. If parts aren't available an Electronics-4 roll may be made to make a workaround, but if this fails the FP can't be repaired without the necessary part.

If the GM wants to allow improvements to the FP's performance, options are:

Simple Mass Panic Rules

Once everything is in place the GM can roll to see the outcome. Modifiers to this roll are:

1 hysteric in town:



2-12 hysteric in town:



13-40 hysteric in town:



41+ hysteric in town:



each 100 outsiders in town:



each 10 Imperturbables out of town:



climate of fear (from pranks):


+1 to +3

tricksters unmasked:



improvements in FP:


+1 for each -1 to Fright Check

Roll 3d and check table:



Complete failure. Phobos arrested, students expelled.



Failure. Phobos indicted, students get hearing before ArchDean



Partial failure. Army cancels follow-on project but takes no other action. C-'s all around.



Inconclusive. Army schedules retest in one month.



Partial success. Army gives contract for improved prototype. B's.



Success. Production contract awarded. A's for all.



Complete success. Huge 10-year contract awarded. All students receive A+ grades.

The GM should provide a vivid description of the hysterics leading the whole town out into the hills . . . or of them running off while everyone watches them with a puzzled look and then goes about their business.

Detailed Mass Panic Rules.

If you want a more detailed breakdown of how the town would panic, and particularly if players want to apply assorted subtle tricks for increasing panic, the actual Fright Checks can be done for the townsfolk. This involves a lot of dice rolling, but the townsfolk and other NPCs can have their rolls done for groups of 10 or 20 to reduce that.

The population breaks down as 200 Will 9, 300 Will 10, 300, Will 11, 100 Will 12, 50 Will 11 + Imperturbable, 50 Will 12 + Imperturbable. If summer campers are present they'll be 40% Will 8, 40% Will 9, 20% Will 10.

The Hysterics will have to pass a Fright Check to do any special maneuvers. They can make Acting rolls to fake panic -- for each 3 points they make the roll by they count as an extra panicking person for Fright Check modifiers. (i.e., a hysteric rolling 9 below her skill would count as four people).

Table of modifiers

Being surrounded by people who've panicked makes it harder to pass your own Fright Check. Conversely, people who've kept their nerve have a steadying influence. Anyone who's not taken the Fright Check yet has no effect. When a character has to make a Fright Check, add the modifiers from the table below to his Will.

Number of People


Panicked People


Unpanicked People






















































































Mechanics of Mass Panic

When a group of people is forced to take a Fright Check at once, sort them in order of effective Will and test those with the lowest Will first. Anyone intending to panic is treated as having a Will of zero. If more than one Fright Check occurs at the same time, combine them as one Fright Check with a Will modifier of (total modifiers)-3. If the total Will modifiers reach a point where anyone has an adjusted Will of 2 or below they automatically fail (no chance for a critical success).

If someone not forced to take a Fright Check sees a crowd panicked enough to give a modifier of -5 or below, he must take a Fright Check at +5 to the crowd modifier.

Optional Subplots

Deus Ex Machinas

If the dice betray your players after all their hard work, you can still give them a happy ending.

Or, heck, just expel them. There's a whole world of adventure and opportunity out there. Bill Gates is a college drop-out, too.

Alternate Scenarios

If your current campaign doesn't center on WUSE students (or isn't even at IOU) you can still use some or all of this scenario.

Hysteria-Centered: The Fear Projector plot can be removed entirely, leaving a group of Hysteria-major PCs trying to start a panic for extra credit. This should be set in a different town with less stubborn residents.

Mystery: The current IOU characters can pick up clues about the FP test and work to avert the test, or at least get a cut of the pie for not ruining it. A member of the party could infiltrate the FP team and work both sides.

Inverted: In a non-IOU campaign the FP test could be aimed at their home town. They'd have to see through the various tricks to figure out the connection between all these new summer workers and the mysterious professor renting a house for the summer. This could be either an IOU project or just the workings of your current campaign's villain or mad scientist.

Aftermath: The PCs can come in after or during the panic and have to figure out what happened by tracking down the hysterics and using them to find the FP team and their employer.

Other Genres: Prof. Phobos can work as-is for a modern-day or Cliffhangers campaign. For Supers he should have more personal prowess and a gadgeteering ability to customize the FP to work on the PCs. In a Black Ops campaign Phobos is the cover for a Grey experiment to measure human mental resistance. In a Cyberpunk campaign the FP can target implants or even work in cyberspace.


Silly: Make the Hysteria Majors as ditzy as possible and Phobos incompetent at any technical issue. Encourage cartoon-based fear tactics. Panic has no lasting effect, don't use the Fright Check Table. There are no injuries or damage even if the whole town stampedes.

Weird: Eliminate the more humorous aspects and look puzzled when the PCs laugh at anything. Anyone failing their Fright Checks must roll on the FC Table to see if they have any severe impacts.

Darkly Illuminated: Instead of the Army, the FP is being procured by an "unnamed government agency" which may be a front for someone else. Mafia? Mad scientist? THEM? The companies at the Hysteria Job Fair are all fronts. Mass panics will have sprained ankles, tramplings, car accidents, and houses burned down by abandoned stoves. If the test fails Phobos will simply disappear, with a replacement explaining what they really did this summer.

Notes on Hysteria Majors

Majors will have high HT, average ST and IQ, and average or low DX (they're exceedingly likely to trip when running). The main skills taught are Acting, Performance, Bard, Singing, and Sex Appeal, with appropriate maneuvers. Many have an Attractive or better appearance. Phobias are common. Unfazable and Imperturbable students get washed out quickly. Danger Sense is useful for getting in three deep breaths before your cue. Known majors have the Reputation "noisy and useless in emergencies" among IOU members (-3, large group, 10-, 4 pts) but may buy it off by demonstrating that they only panic deliberately.

New Maneuvers

Scream (Average)


Defaults to Acting, Bard, or Singing, no prereq

This maneuver allows the character to utter a convincing scream.

Piercing Scream (Hard)


Defaults to Bard or Singing, no prereq

This produces a clear, very loud scream that can be heard at twice the distance of a normal shout.

Terrified Scream (Hard)


Defaults to Acting or Singing, no prereq

This maneuver tries to convince witnesses that the screamer is truly terrified of something. A critical success will force everyone in earshot to make a Fright Check. This must be taken with a specialization in Fleeing, Cowering, or Fainting (which default to each other at -2).

Delighted Scream (Hard)


Defaults to Acting, Singing, or Sex Appeal, no prereq

Gives an impression of pure ecstasy at the arrival of the target. A successful roll gives +2 to any Sex Appeal rolls made against the target by the screamer during the next 24 hours.

Synchronized Screaming (Hard)


No default

This must have a specialization in a specific scream maneuver. A group of screamers with this maneuver may do a synchronized scream whose effect is multiplied by the square of the number of screamers. Roll against the lowest maneuver level of the group.

Angry Rant (Average)


Defaults to Intimidation, Acting, or Bard, no prereq

Emotional outburst intended to force target to yield on conflict or acknowledge guilt. Can be used in Contest of Skill against target's Will, or bonus to reaction roll (+1 for each 2 pts. roll is made by).

Angry Sermon (Hard)


Prereq: Angry Rant (must use same base skill)

As Angry Rant, but targeted at a group.

Pleading (Average)


Defaults to Acting or Bard, no prereq.

Persuading target to provide concessions through pity or sympathy. Can be used in Contest of Skill against target's Will, or bonus to reaction roll (+1 for each 2 pts. roll is made by).

GM Notes: Use of any of these maneuvers to influence someone is dependent on the relationship between the characters and the emotional content of the speech. Inappropriate usage should have negative effects. Roleplay all attempts.

New Skill

Weird Engineering (M/VH)


No default.

Allows the creation, repair, or use of strange devices without necessarily understanding the principles of how they work. Game effects are as Weird Science, except that critical successes will fix a bug in the design or add a new feature. Weird Engineering can also be used as a substitute for any other Engineering, Mechanic, or Armory skill at -3 (Unlike a Weird Scientist, a Weird Engineer can fix a flat tire. Your car may have legs, but it will work). A successful Weird Engineering roll will reveal if and how a device is about to fail (Aragorn knowing how the collapsing brick bridge would tilt? Weird Engineering roll.). Weird Science and Weird Engineering default to each other at -3.


Martin Phobos, Professor, Dept. of Military Science and Cost Overruns (WUSE)

Prof. Phobos has found his niche in the military-industrial complex -- supplying complicated prototypes for state-of-the-art military systems. He doesn't like doing engineering but he doesn't have to. Schmoozing with generals and deputy assistant undersecretaries of defense brings the money in while his students actually deliver on his promises. That leaves him plenty of time for card games.

ST: 11 DX: 11 IQ: 14 HT: 12

Advantages: Academic Status +3 (tenured professor), Ally Group (Unwilling) (students and advisees), Tenure.

Disadvantages: Compulsive Gambling, Greed, Overconfidence, Duty (to IOU, -10).

Quirks: Avoids doing engineering work if he can. If it's not a class day he's at a casino or military base. Will always promise the government what it wants, even if it violates the laws of physics.

Skills: Area Knowledge (IOU)-21, Survival (IOU)-22, Administration-20, Research-18, Savoir-Faire (academic)-17, Savoir-Faire (military)-21, Cryptology/TL7-18, Science!-18, Weird Engineering-18, Intelligence Analysis-19, Gambling-17, Electronics/TL7-22, Engineer (Guns)/TL7-20, Engineer (Vehicles)/TL7-21, Engineer (Artillery)/TL7-19.

Typical Dialogue: "You do realize, General, that pushing the state of the art like that will drive up the development costs considerably." "All right, class, take a copy of the XLR-35 performance specs on your way out. Have a full design for it by the 17th. This will be 25% of your grade."

John Smith, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Dirty Tricks (COUP)

Of all the strange and bizarre personalities in COUP, the least so is John Smith. His looks are as boring as his name, and that's his real name. In fact he's continually annoyed with people assuming it must be an alias. His blandness has brought him the most boring teaching duties in the department. Smith will leap at a chance to have some excitement.

ST: 9 DX: 13 IQ: 13 HT: 11

Advantages: Academic Status +2, Danger Sense

Disadvantages: Duty (to IOU, -10), Compulsive Spending (bribes too much), Lives On Campus (dorm master in Murphy Hall), Secret (fnord).

Quirks: Gets angry when people won't believe that's his real name. Sits on tables and desks to compensate for his shortness. Carries a very tiny switchblade.

Skills: Area Knowledge (IOU) - 19, Survival (IOU) - 20, Administration - 19, Research - 16, Intimidation - 17, Computer Hacking -15, Electronics/TL-7 - 15 (specialty sabotage), Mechanic/TL-7 - 15 (specialty sabotage), Bard - 16, Writing - 22, Performance - 20, Disguise - 20, Psychology - 22, Detect Lies - 21, Electronics Operations (communications) - 22, Photography - 21, Knife - 18, Diplomacy - 18, Fast-Talk - 19.

Typical Dialogue: "John Smith. And no quotation marks." "Itching powder is a highly effective method for distracting the target."

Abby Meeks, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Hysteria

Prof. Meeks is happiest as "one of the crowd." She can scream and holler with the best of them if she's not the center of attention, but freezes up if people are staring at her. This has made her a good teacher-her students take turns practicing new techniques and coaching each other while Meeks guides them from the rear of the room. Good teaching isn't enough to advance at IOU, however, and Meeks seems doomed to remain untenured forever.

ST: 9 DX: 13 IQ: 12 HT: 13

Advantages: Ally Group (students, -15), Academic Status +1, Attractive (+1), Voice.

Disadvantages: Duty (to IOU), Shyness (-2 on any skill roll under observation), Low Self Image (-3 on rolls under stress)

Quirks: Totally silent when scared or nervous. Autophobia (wants to be with people, even strangers).

Skills: Area Knowledge (IOU) - 18, Survival (IOU) - 17, Administration - 14, Savoir-Faire (academic) - 16, Bard - 21, Singing - 22, Acting - 22, Fast-Talk - 18, Leadership - 15, Performance - 22, Teaching - 20, Detect Lies - 19, Stealth - 17, Streetwise - 15, Directing - 20.

Maneuvers: Scream - 25, Piercing Scream - 22, Terrified Scream (Fleeing) - 24, Delighted Scream - 23, Synchronized Screaming (Terrified Scream/Fleeing) - 24, Angry Rant - 22, Angry Sermon - 20, Pleading - 24. Typical Dialogue: "Um . . . Gladiola, why don't you start off with today's reading?"

Gladiola Hopkins, Junior, Dept. of Hysteria

Gladdie majored in Hysteria on a whim--nothing else appealed to her and she liked horror movies. Her grades are good but that's due to hard work rather than aptitude. She'll probably stick with it unless something else grabs her attention.

ST: 9 DX: 10 IQ: 13 HT: 13

Advantages: Academic Status (-1), Honor Student, Empathy, Rapier Wit.

Disadvantages: Duty (Prof. Meeks), Lives On Campus, Impulsiveness, Workaholic.

Quirks: Nosy. Doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up. Fond of snakes.

Skills: Area Knowledge (IOU) - 13, Survival (IOU) - 11, Bard - 12, Singing - 14, Physiology - 10, Psychology - 13 (16 if Empathy can be applied), Acting - 14, Carousing - 11, Detect Lies - 12, Ventriloquism - 11, Driving (car) - 10. Maneuvers: Scream - 16, Piercing Scream - 15, Terrified Scream (Fleeing) - 14, Delighted Scream - 15, Synchronized Screaming (Terrified Scream/Fleeing) - 14.

Typical Dialogue: "What's that? Oh, cool-can I try?"

Peter Kurbisfressen, 1st year grad student, Dept. of Military Science and Cost Overruns

Peter loves building fancy gadgets, the more complicated the better. Getting him to pay attention to anything other than the latest toy can be tough, especially personal maintenance. This is also bad for his grades, but Prof. Phobos has covered for him as long as the new machines get built.

ST: 11 DX: 12 IQ: 15 HT: 9

Advantages: Academic Status (-1), Intuitive (limitation-repair or debugging only), Patron (Prof. Phobos), Machine Empathy (from GURPS Steampunk)

Disadvantages: Nerd, Odious Personal Habit (poor hygiene, -1), Compulsive Tinkerer (must make a Will roll to go a day without trying to modify/improve completed devices), Duty (Prof. Phobos).

Quirks: Talking Shop (but not at OPH level). Hates letting the customers take his devices away.

Skills: Area Knowledge (IOU) - 14, Driving (car) - 10, Mathematics - 16, Research - 14, Strategy - 12, Tactics - 12, Writing - 14, Weird Engineering - 12.

The following skills are all TL7:

Armory (artillery) - 14, Engineer (vehicles) - 15, Engineer (machinery) - 16, Engineer (weapons) - 13, Electronics - 15, Nuclear Physics - 12, Physics - 13, Photonics - 15, Computer Programming - 16

Article publication date: December 10, 2004

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