Fate Horror Toolkit
Chapter 1: Gazing Into The Abyss
Chapter 1: Gazing Into The Abyss
Many roleplaying games are lightly spiced with disturbing or scary elements intended to thrill and entertain their players.
Others draw on the rich tradition of horror fiction to pose awful moral dilemmas, offer existential threats at every turn, and tell stories saturated with tension and dread.
Such games gaze into the abyss and challenge it to gaze back—if it dares.
Horror Doesn’t Excuse Being Horrible
The horror genre has been used to great effect in exploring and validating the consequences of systemic bigotry and, unfortunately, sometimes endorsing it. In horror fiction, women and members of minority groups are often depicted as perpetual victims or as “getting what’s coming to them.” The purpose of this book is not to legitimize or enable this kind of exploitative horror—“We’re playing horror” is not a license to behave horribly. The tools we provide here are for exploring scary stories where characters of every kind must deal with horrific events, terrifying threats, violation, betrayal, and emotional and physical vulnerability.
The Anatomy of a Horror Game
The goal of the Fate Horror Toolkit is to give you the tools to run effective horror games in Fate Core. However, before we don our leather aprons and open our stained roll of sharp and terrifying instruments, let’s review the vital parts of a successful horror game.
Horror Requires Player Investment
All horror requires investment from the audience. Movies and TV can get a head start on this by using music, lighting, jump-scares, and other cues as shortcuts to the viewer’s fight-or-flight response, while books have the luxury of a one-on-one relationship with the reader and plenty of time to get into their head.
Roleplaying games don’t have it so easy. They’re an inherently social activity, making it much more difficult to achieve an atmosphere fully conducive to horror. You can use music and props to help you build the mood, but without the enthusiastic cooperation and investment of the players, your efforts are doomed to failure.
A successful horror game provides tools and advice that facilitate player investment in the horror themes of the game, and minimizes distractions that make this harder to achieve.
Horror Is Transgressive
The beating heart of horror is violation. Nothing and no one is safe, and the more important something is to the characters, the more likely it is to be corrupted, mutilated, or destroyed. Morals are tarnished and buckle under the weight of unspeakable dilemmas. People and things the characters love betray them, or are twisted, broken, and torn apart. Horror is a crucible from which nothing emerges unscathed.
Horror Is Isolating
Horror fiction systematically isolates its protagonists from anyone or anything that can help them, leaving them nobody to rely on but themselves. Sometimes it goes even further, eliminating the protagonists one at a time until the last survivor faces a desperate struggle to survive against insurmountable odds.
In a horror game, the player characters find it difficult to persuade anyone to help them, or their helpers meet grisly fates. The existence of their adversaries is difficult to prove. At best the authorities view the characters as confused or dishonest, at worst they’re seen as menaces to be handled accordingly.
Presuming, of course, that the authorities aren’t already owned by the adversary.
A game can be isolating without employing a high player character mortality rate, but if characters are expected to die regularly—such as when evoking a Halloween-style slasher movie—the game needs to provide options for keeping the players of dead characters involved and engaged in the game.
Horror Is Disempowering
Horror is closely associated with feelings of hopelessness and despair. Without conflict there would be no drama, but the conflicts of horror fiction are unfair and overwhelming. If the characters are adequately prepared and equipped to cope, it takes us away from horror and into thriller territory.
Characters don’t have to be incompetent, but they do have to be outmatched by horrendous adversaries, disempowered due to their circumstances or a lack of appropriate knowledge, or have their coping tools stripped from them over the course of the game.
Failure is always a possibility, and sometimes doom is inevitable. In other cases the characters are able to rally before the end of the story, gaining the tools and support they need to fight back and, perhaps, win the day.
Horror Thrives on Uncertainty and Suspense
Ignorance may be bliss, but its cousin uncertainty is surely not. While ignorance reflects absence of knowledge, uncertainty derives from partial knowledge and is the root of suspense—a state of anxious uncertainty about past, present, or future events.
We’re all familiar with the corrosive effects of everyday suspense. Will I be a victim of the current round of job layoffs? Is my partner having an affair? Is the shadow on my chest X-ray a tumor or a benign cyst?
Horror turns suspense up to eleven, often in a way that exaggeratedly reflects real-life fears. Why have my work colleagues been disappearing after they go to their “performance reviews”? Is my partner really my partner, or is he an identical replacement that’s subtly wrong? Is the shadow on my chest X-ray a tumor or a horrifying thing that’s slowly gnawing its way out of my body?
Effective horror games give enough information to the players for them to be anxious without giving everything away at once, because suspense relies heavily on ambiguity and partial information.
Player Consent and Safety
We’ve stated that horror games require player investment and are transgressive, isolating, and disempowering. They ask players to make themselves vulnerable and then actively work to make them feel anxious and uncomfortable while exploring dark and troubling themes.
All of this makes horror gaming a potentially harmful experience. The intensity of a scene might be too much for some players; one of you might experience a panic attack due to game events stirring up the past, or you might accidentally invoke a player’s phobia with one of your descriptions. In a worst-case scenario, someone might use your horror game to legitimize or conceal deliberate abuse of another player.
It’s your responsibility as the GM to work with the group to create an enjoyable horror experience with the players’ enthusiastic consent, and to ensure they have the tools to manage their own safety.
Before You Begin the Game
- Be certain that your group is comfortable with horror themes in general and specifically the ones you plan to use in your game. Some players will want to establish hard rules about scenes they won’t accept—such as portrayals of violence against children or animals—while others will accept the possibility of troubling content in the game but will ask you to draw a veil or fade to black rather than employing full and gruesome detail.
- To ensure there are no objections, discuss the specific rules you intend to adopt to evoke horror.
- Discuss and explore a framework that can be used during the game by players to control their experience and protect themselves. Some players won’t know in advance what they can and cannot tolerate, or might change their minds during play. It’s also easy to get carried away during the game and overstep boundaries set by some of your players, so you need a mechanism to allow the group to get back on track.
- If you’re playing a convention game with strangers, the X-Card system by John Stavropoulos is a good option as it allows players to call a halt to a situation or description without explanation. If you’re gaming with a group of people who know and trust each other a bit better, the Script Change system by Beau Jager Sheldon allows for more nuanced control over scenes and for a degree of conversation about what is problematic and why.
- Don’t deliberately exploit the players’ genuine fears to get an easy scare unless you’ve discussed it with them first and received their explicit and enthusiastic consent.
- Consent given once does not imply blanket consent for the same thing forever. Even if a player has previously been okay with an element in the game, listen to them if they ask you to stop using it from now on. If you use a tool like intensity aspects from the beginning of the game but a player becomes uncomfortable with them, stop using that tool.
- Ensure you listen when players use the X-Card or call for a Script Change or otherwise express their desire to bypass or address something they are finding too uncomfortable.
- While the X-Card or Script Change tools allow players to take control over their own safety and to call for content changes, it is still your responsibility as the GM to ensure that everyone is having a good time. If a player is visibly getting very uncomfortable but hasn’t said anything, don’t assume they are okay just because they haven’t used a tool; call a brief break and check in with them privately to be sure.
Our Bloody Instruments: How to Use This Book
Each of the following chapters of this book provides horror tools grouped around a specific theme:
- Chapter 2: The Raveled Sleeve of Care—Tools for encouraging players to invest in the game and care about what happens to their characters and the NPCs.
- Chapter 3: Some Scars Are Invisible—Tools for sensitively portraying the long-term psychological effects of horrific situations in your games.
- Chapter 4: Who’s Who of the Damned—Tools for making scary, effective, horror adversaries from monsters to more abstract threats.
- Chapter 5: We Are All Going to Die—Tools for running games where doom is inevitable.
- Chapter 6: The High Cost of Living—A campaign framework for stories where the group’s survival—and the price they pay for it—is the focus of the horror.
- Chapter 7: Horror Is the New Pink—A campaign framework for exploring the subversion of supposedly safe spaces and other forms of horror that primarily pertain to the feminine experience.
- Chapter 8: Spooky Fun—A campaign framework for running horror stories for younger audiences that encourages the players to work as a team. Show kids that monsters can be defeated!
There are tools in each chapter that are relevant to any horror game, not just the specific frameworks we present here. You can also build on the common themes of the tools we’ve developed to create your own tools:
- Themed or modified fate points: Communal fate point pool, monster pool
- Modified or thematic compels: Enhanced self-compels, visceral compels, climactic dilemmas
- Declaring story details: Reconstruction
- Themed aspects: Legacy aspects, intensity aspects, feminine horror aspects, haven aspects, theme and purpose aspects
- Modified concessions: Heroic sacrifice
- Modified skills and approaches: Who’s Who of the Damned, Spooky Fun
- Conditions: Who’s Who of the Damned, coping conditions, Spooky Fun, hardened hearts, and confronting the other.
- Modified stress and consequences: The High Cost of Living, the doom clock, mutilation, the book of scars
- Using the bronze rule: The Other, attacks on havens, rogue body parts, physical transformations
- New and altered outcomes: Failure with style
- Manipulating obstacles and zones: Re-zoning
- Themed stunts: body horror
- Modified milestones: The Other
Conditions in the Fate Horror Toolkit
In several places in this book, we use conditions as defined on page 116 of Dresden Files Accelerated. If you don’t have access to Dresden Files Accelerated, you can refer to the rules for conditions on page 18 of the Fate System Toolkit or at https://fate-srd.com/fate-system-toolkit/conditions. The main difference is that a Dresden Files Accelerated condition is not an aspect unless the text specifically says it is.
Resources for Horror in Fate Core
The following books and articles are useful companions to the tools we present here:
- The Fate Accessibility Toolkit—Discusses X-Cards and veils in greater detail.
- “The Horror Paradox” in the Fate System Toolkit—Explores changes you can make to the base Fate system to make it a better fit for horror-themed games.
- “Sustaining Dread” and “Feminine Horror” in the Fate Codex (Volume 2, issue 6).
- Dresden Files Accelerated because of its treatment of monsters, scale, mantles, and conditions.