by richard bellingham
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
It’s a challenge to sustain dread in a roleplaying game. Playing a game with friends isn’t inherently scary, and players are easily distracted by snacks, character sheets, and other gaming paraphernalia. On top of that, Fate undermines the powerlessness that is typically the root of horror by increasing player agency with game mechanics like declaring a story detail and success at a cost.
“The Horror Paradox” in The Fate System Toolkit provides some excellent advice on the subject of running horror games in Fate (pages 176-178): regular, brutal compels; claustrophobic zone maps; difficult choices; and significant passive and active opposition to the players’ actions. This article is a companion to that piece, providing some extra thoughts on how to build a sense of horror and oppression in your Fate games. I’m going to focus on three broad techniques:
- Building the right Mood with your players
- Finding your players the right Motivation to immerse themselves in unfolding events
- Using Mechanics that reinforce the horror themes of your game
People prefer to avoid feeling dread or horror in real life, but fictional experiences that evoke these emotions are perennially popular. It’s easy to get a scare in a horror movie or a Halloween haunted house by using creepy music and jump scares, but the art of evoking and sustaining dread in a roleplaying game is a lot more difficult.
You can’t scare your players if they don’t want to be scared. Roleplaying is a collaborative activity and you can only sustain dread if your players actively help you create a mood.
In the game and setting creation session, discuss the mood and themes you’re aiming at and the mechanical and narrative changes you’re making to support them. This is also a good time to talk about what scares the players and ask if there are any topics or situations that they want to be off-limits: Sure, you can get an easy scare by subjecting an arachnophobe to a scene involving spiders, but you should never do so without the player’s permission.
The group’s willingness to be scared will vary from session to session. If you start playing and it’s obvious they aren’t in the right mood, ease them into the horror gently or give them a session of respite. If you left off in the middle of a tense and scary scene, you can use a flashback or something similar to cleanse the group’s palate and get them back into the right frame of mind to continue with the horror scene once they’ve settled down.
When you transition a scene to start building a feeling of threat and sustained horror, I recommend using some kind of cue to let the players know what’s about to happen. You could play a particular piece of music (I’ve always used John Carpenter’s theme from The Thing for this), turn the lights down, switch the color of your dice, use a different tone of voice in your narration, grab your bowl of evil points (see below) and start fingering them, or do anything else that clearly signifies that horror is now on the table.
An advantage of this technique is that you can use your horror cue in the middle of a normal, unthreatening scene and your players will feel a gradually building sense of tension as they wait for the horror to appear. However, you are responsible for making sure they get that payoff; if you use the horror cue without delivering the horror, you’ll weaken the cue’s effectiveness.
Foreshadowing and Cutscenes
You can encourage the right mood in your players by using foreshadowing and cutscenes. You can do this subtly by using evocative situation aspects that hint at potential nastiness—for example, you might describe a Claustrophobic Blind Alley instead of a Dark Alley. You can also use foreshadowing in your narration and descriptions, a technique often used by horror authors to let you know that something horrible is about to happen to a character, leaving you waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Outside, Richie Pellow paces nervously as he smokes. He checks the pack again, reassured that he still has another ten after this one. Too bad he won’t be alive to smoke them.
The most direct approach to this is the cutscene. Used at the beginning of most modern police procedurals and horror shows, the cutscene shows us one or more of the monster’s victims in the moments immediately leading up to their fate. Rather than just describing the scene, give a brief description framing this as the last minutes of the victims’ lives and then have the players take the role of the victims or people around them and play it out. Make sure not to reveal too many details during this scene; use short snatches of description to build suspense and give some clues as to the nature of the threat without giving it away entirely.
You start the session off by having Valentina and Rod play two frat boys who are walking home dead drunk from a kegger at another frat house. You spend a few minutes describing how they sense someone stalking them in the darkness, and hear a swish-drag-thump sort of sound from an alleyway. The frat boys decide someone’s playing a prank on them and decide to duck into the next alleyway and wait for the pranksters to appear. They hear the swish-drag-thump sound getting closer and closer, before a clawed, scaly hand appears at the corner of the alleyway. Then something rushes them and they get an impression of shining eyes and many, many razor-sharp teeth before arterial blood starts to fly and the pair are ripped to pieces.
Why should your players get involved in the horrific events that will unfold throughout your game? And why should they invest themselves in your story to the extent that they find it genuinely scary? Here are some techniques for giving your players reasons to care, and reasons to be scared.
Empathy Breeds Fear
Effective horror movies take the time to get you acquainted with their characters, making you feel empathy for them before plunging them into horrific situations. It’s human nature to feel more afraid for characters with whom you identify or empathize, and this is a powerful tool in sustaining dread. Targeting NPCs with whom the players share positive relationships—codified in one or more aspects—is one way to use this to your advantage in a Fate horror game. This gives you a method of involving the players through the use of compels on those aspects.
A few weeks ago you established a character named Alex, who the group sees as a Friendly Neighborhood Hacker. When you’re looking for a victim to drag into a horror plot you decide Alex is a good target, because you can compel this aspect to encourage the players to get involved.
Giving NPC victims aspects that you know will resonate with your players is also a useful tool, but like using a player’s own fears and phobias, this is a technique that requires caution.
You know that several of your players are geeks for a popular science fiction show, so when you’re crafting your next victim you give them the aspect World’s Biggest Browncoat.
Fear of the Unknown
The unknown is scary. Possibly the best proof of this I can offer is the movie Jeepers Creepers. The first half is one of the most effective horror movies I’ve ever seen, and the reason for that is that you hardly see any details of the Creeper. He is shown only at a distance as a hulking, hunched over guy in a trenchcoat or as an unseen driver pursuing the protagonists in his battered old truck.
In the second half of the movie the Creeper is fully revealed, and the scare factor hits rock bottom as a result.
Use fear of the unknown to your advantage by being circumspect in your descriptions of the horrific threats faced by your players. Let their imaginations fill in the blanks and they’ll do half the work of scaring themselves. Specifically, try not to give everything away in the aspects you assign to your horror NPCs, hinting at important details rather than stating them outright.
Subverting expectations and violating reality as your players know it is also a valuable tool for inciting fear and discomfort, and follows from similar principles as fear of the unknown. People expect the universe to work a certain way and it really throws them off when things happen that they can’t explain. Blood drips from a puddle up onto the ceiling. A door that has just been smashed flies back together again as if it were never touched. A child speaks like an adult. A great example of the last is in The Prophecy, when a girl who is possessed by a war criminal says, in her own voice, “Ever cut off a Chinaman’s head? They don’t bleed. Not like we do. Or maybe it was the cold.”
You can codify anomalies such as these in the aspects you write for horror scenes, using their passive narrative effects to affect the story, using them to compel the PCs, or invoking them to bring a healthy dose of weird scariness into the scene.
Fear of the Familiar
While the unknown is scary, so is the familiar. Sometimes a good person (or thing) doing horrifying, terrible things for sympathetic reasons is far more disturbing and scary than an inhuman monster that’s bad just because it is.
When you’re designing your horror villains, you can use some of the same tricks I suggested in “Empathy Breeds Fear” to make them more sympathetic. Maybe an aspect reveals that they share a relationship or a history with one of the player characters. Perhaps they obviously regret whatever they’re doing, but feel as if they have no choice.
There’s a reason so many horror films use the trope of the weird child to unsettle and freak people out. The child is acting in a terrifyingly inhuman way but it’s still a child. You can’t just go around killing children, no matter how horrifyingly they’re acting!
Creating fear from the familiar is a neat trick, and it relies on the same psychological techniques as subverting expectations. The family pet starts acting weirdly, or attacks the baby of the family without provocation. A character’s reflection smiles at her even as it draws its finger across its throat in a threatening gesture. You can use aspects to help you with this, too; apply an aspect like Unsettling Stare to the family pet and the awareness that something has changed will begin to prey on the players’ minds.
The great horror villains are implacable. You can’t kill them (until you find their weakness) and you can’t stop them. They just keep coming after you, and only if you’re lucky can you earn a brief respite. The recent movie It Follows is an excellent example of this: The follower is barely explained and just keeps coming and coming, walking at a steady pace towards you and your inevitable death. Sadako from Ringu is another great example of this type of threat.
You can use setting aspects to help you portray this implacability. If the implacable horror is taken out before the players find its true weakness, give everyone a fate point to compel a relevant aspect and say that when they turn around the body is gone! Before your villain gets taken out, consider offering the players a concession to say that the enemy gives up the chase (for now) and they gain a brief respite.
Mood and motivation go a long way to getting the feel of an effective horror movie in your game, but you can also use game mechanics to reinforce your horror themes and more effectively scare your players.
When you’re discussing story and setting aspects with the group, discuss the type of horror that will be featured in the game and decide on some appropriate horror aspects. If the game is set to capture the feel of the teen slasher genre, you could choose aspects like The Killer Is Never Dead the First Time or No Door Can Stop Him. If you’re aiming for dread more in keeping with a Cthulhu tale, you could instead choose Madness Follows or That Is Not Dead Which May Eternal Lie.
Declarations, invokes, and compels on these aspects are a great way to reinforce the horror themes of your game and to put the players in the dangerous, desperate situations that will make them feel genuine fear for their characters or the people they care for.
This optional system gives success at a cost more teeth and thematically reinforces the game’s horror aspects and thematically-aligned villains.
You gain evil points during a horror scene in two ways:
- If a player pays a minor cost, you can choose to gain an evil point as that cost
- If a player pays a serious cost, you gain an evil point in addition to the serious cost
Once you have evil points in your pool, they stay around until you spend them or until the group achieves a significant milestone. Have a bowl (perhaps in the shape of a skull or something equally macabre) to put them in, and represent them with something different from your normal fate point stash.
Using Evil Points
Each evil point is a free invoke on one of the game’s horror aspects or the aspects of a main horror-themed NPC. Because they are free invokes, you can spend more than one evil point to invoke the same aspect.
The horror aspect Evil Will always Find You applies to the game. Valentina is trying to sneak past the serial killer, who is sharpening a knife with his back turned. Valentina rolls Great (+4) while the killer just gets Average (+1). You grin and spend two evil points to invoke Evil Will Always Find You. The serial killer doesn’t seem to notice Valentina, who makes it past the door, thinking she’s home clear…and that’s when a meaty hand clamps down on her shoulder.
The Price of Declarations
The ability to spend a fate point and declare something to be true in the game world is a powerful tool for the players. From conveniently having a flashlight to finding a hidden escape tunnel in the dungeons, declaring a story detail can make it more difficult to maintain a threatening atmosphere.
To help with this, you can charge an additional cost for every declaration made during a horror scene. A declaration that provides a minor convenience like a flashlight requires a minor cost, a declaration that helps with a major problem or significantly lowers the tension requires a serious cost.
The “Yes, but” improvisation tool is useful when you’re coming up with narrative costs for declarations.
Blake is trapped in a stone-lined pit with no apparent exits and the big bad evil monster waiting for him at the top. He has the aspect Experienced Spelunker so he spends a fate point to declare that his knowledge and experience of underground caverns means that he knows what to look for; he discovers an old escape tunnel leading out of the pit that was concealed behind some loose earth. You nod and say, “Yes, but the tunnel is cramped and narrow—barely wide enough for your shoulders. You cram yourself into the tunnel, scraping up your back, and start to make your escape. But you’ve only made it a few feet when you see luminescent green tentacles questing along the tunnel in front of you in search of food...”
Horrific Consequences and Costs
You don’t have to give your players fewer consequences, or ones that can absorb less stress, for injuries to feel significant.
First, give consequences more narrative significance. In a pulpy heroic game, a character with a Broken Leg might limp a bit and have it invoked against him, but he can probably just splint it up and be on his way. In a horror game the same consequence has much more lasting significance. He can’t walk or run while the leg’s broken and even crawling or dragging himself on his arms is torturous. He can’t automatically move between zones, sprinting is out of the question, and if he succeeds at a cost on a movement action he’ll probably take additional stress.
Second, make it more difficult to treat consequences. Minor consequences can still be patched up in the field by anyone with the appropriate skill, but consequences of moderate or higher require someone with the proper training (represented by a Medic or Psychotherapist stunt) and proper facilities. Increase the opposition by two or more when a medic is trying to treat a consequence without proper facilities or equipment.
Thirdly, consider allowing the players access to one or more collateral consequences in each horror scene (Fate System Toolkit, page 61) but don’t allow them to be treated. The collateral consequences you inflict should be suitably horrific and a direct result of the players’ action or inaction. Rather than the players having a set pool of collateral consequences that are with them at all times, allocate them on a scene by scene basis.
The players are about to interfere with the cultists who are trying to draw forth a tentacular beast from a hellish nether-dimension. They have a group of five bound hostages at the scene who are awaiting sacrifice to begin the summoning. You assign the scene a single moderate collateral consequence of The Hostages Are Slain, Beginning the Summoning.
When you create a situation aspect against the players, be brutal when you’re describing its narrative effects. Someone who has been Tangled in Tentacles can’t do much of anything until he gets them off, and he can feel them slithering over and around him, up his trouser legs and under his shirt…
You can also reinforce the horror themes of the game with the price you exact when your players succeed at a cost during a horror scene:
- Add one or more zones to the map, stretching out dis- tances—this is a great way to represent the “telescoping hallway” effect we see so often in horror movies.
- A bystander suffers significant injury or becomes seriously threatened—and it’s the PC’s fault. If you’re using collateral consequences, this may mean checking off a mild or moderate one.
- Have something weird and creepy happen to evoke the horror theme, complicating the PC’s life in some way. This may involve twisting an existing situation aspect towards horror. For example, a mutilated body crashes to the ground in front of them, turning the Cobbled Streets to Blood-slick Cobbles.
- Close off one or more zones due to a hazard (loose electrical cables, a yawning chasm) or by raising a significant barrier that blocks entry into that zone. This is a good way to hem in the players and make the situation feel more claustrophobic, or to separate them from each other.
- One or more bystanders is brutally killed—and it’s the PC’s fault. If you’re using collateral consequences, this may mean checking off a moderate or severe one.
- Afflict the PC with a mental aspect (or consequence) relating to fear, self-doubt, or another negative emotion.
Drawing out the action slows the pace and builds tension, and that can be ideal in a horror game. Instead of resolving an attempt to sneak past the serial killer as a simple overcome action, consider resolving it as a contest between the killer and the PC.
Fate provides some relatively unique challenges to running a horror game and sustaining an atmosphere of threat and horror with your players. However, when everyone is on board with the horror theme, making just a few tweaks to the way you use aspects, consequences, and costs can turn those challenges into advantages.
Have fun scaring each other!
Major thanks for this article go to Fred Hicks, who wrote the Fate System Toolkit article “The Horror Paradox” and who took the time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about some of the ideas discussed in this article. Thanks are due especially for the idea that turned into evil points.