Fate Horror Toolkit
Chapter 2: The Raveled Sleeve of Care
Chapter 2: The Raveled Sleeve of Care
For your players to get the most out of your horror game, it’s critical that they fully invest themselves in their characters and assist you in building and sustaining the necessary mood. The tools provided in this chapter are designed to help you achieve this.
A failing of many horror stories is that their characters are so poorly drawn or so unlikable that the audience doesn’t care what happens to them. Much of the advice we provide here is dedicated to ensuring that the characters and NPCs in your game are sympathetic and fully realized, helping you create an effective horror experience.
The following books, movies, and TV shows were useful sources of inspiration when we were compiling the advice in this chapter:
- The main characters in the film Insidious are smart and likable and the tension of their situation is built expertly to make you really care for them.
- Revival, Doctor Sleep, and many other Stephen King books rely on building your sympathy for the protagonists to make the tension more effective. Many of King’s protagonists are flawed but likable characters as a result.
- If you didn’t care what happened to the survivors in The Walking Dead, there would be no drama. Also a great inspiration for The High Cost of Living.
- The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan—Lovecraft via a feminist lens—and Monstress by Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda are great inspiration for the Sensual Horror material.
- Saw, Drag Me to Hell, and The Purge are all modern movies that pose interesting moral dilemmas amid the carnage.
- Button, Button by Richard Matheson was made into a movie called The Box and provides an interesting moral dilemma to chew over.
- Sophie’s Choice by William Styron features one of the most terrible and heart-wrenching moral dilemmas in all of fiction. It was adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.
- Ringu (The Ring in the English language remake) features a sympathetic protagonist trying to survive against a terrifying supernatural threat which is, itself, a victim.
- Let the Right One In is unusual in that it builds and maintains sympathy for a monster even when the extent of their monstrousness is revealed.
- The Cabin in the Woods gleefully lampshades and inverts common horror tropes but still manages to build sympathy for the characters as they try to survive the events of the movie.
The first step of game creation is to talk to your players about the issues we discuss in “Player Consent and Safety”. Knowing that there are boundaries to what can and cannot be expressed in the game gives players a base level of comfort and allows them to really throw themselves into the game.
Next, discuss the style, genre, and major themes of horror you intend to evoke and ensure that all the players are enthusiastically on board. If one of your players is bored with zombie stories, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fully engage them in a Walking Dead style survival horror game and you’ll be better off finding something else that interests the entire group.
Creating the game’s setting and issue aspects together is a good way to get everyone on the same page about the broad strokes of the horror that’s to come. This a good opportunity for players to discuss where their current limits for disturbing content lie.
Take the time to discuss the altered rules you’ll be using for your game. This is another good opportunity to obtain enthusiastic consent and buy-in from the players for the various tools that reinforce horror conventions, giving you the comfort to employ them without worrying that players may react badly to them in play. If a player objects to any of the tools you intend to use, discuss whether it can be amended to relieve their discomfort with it... but ultimately no horror tool is worth more than the comfort of your players. If you can’t reach agreement, drop the tool or switch to a different type of horror game that doesn’t rely on the contentious tool.
Players usually become attached to their own character during the process of character creation, so your goal is to ensure that they also invest in and become attached to the other PCs. That means making them interesting and sympathetic.
You can learn a lot about what makes a character sympathetic—and the opposite—from books, movies, and TV. Certain character traits can make a likable character into a beloved favorite or make even an unpleasant character enjoyable—that’s how we get magnificent bastards, antiheroes, and lovable rogues. You can blend game mechanics and storytelling techniques to showcase and reinforce these traits.
Fate Core is designed to create characters who are competent and proactive and somewhat larger than life, whereas horror fiction usually features characters who are more grounded. You don’t have to make any significant changes to the character creation process to reflect this, but consider the characters through a horror lens and ensure the aspects, skills, and stunts each player takes are appropriate to the type of game you’re running and the nature of the characters they’re playing.
Ask players to come up with grounded high concepts and other aspects. If a player suggests the high concept aspect Elite Soldier for their character, you might propose Grizzled Veteran or Experienced Infantryman as alternatives.
Vulnerabilities and Flaws
We often identify strongly with characters who have made mistakes, who have overwhelming or destructive needs, or who are flawed or vulnerable in some way, but who are doing their best to get on with life regardless.
These things aren’t just for trouble aspects. The best aspects are double-edged, and introducing a flaw or a darker twist into an otherwise beneficial aspect is a good way to encourage compels while also making it easier to sympathize with the affected character.
Nick’s character Rufio isn’t just skeptical, he’s Skeptical to a Fault.
People can also be vulnerable because of their physical limitations. The elderly and children are typical examples of this in horror fiction, as are people with a reduced ability to see, hear, or move about under their own power. If you use this approach, it is important to treat the subject with respect. For more about playing characters with physical limitations, see the Fate Accessibility Toolkit.
Aspects that link to other player characters or NPCs (such as the ones chosen during the traditional Phase Trio, Fate Core System, page 38) are extremely useful for building a bond between the characters that you can later leverage to evoke horror themes.
When reviewing each character, ensure that their Good (+3) and Great (+4) skills are adequately justified by their aspects. It makes sense for a Grizzled Veteran to have Shoot at Great (+4), but a Jaded English Teacher shouldn’t unless he has another aspect, like Weekend Hunter and Outdoorsman.
It’s more difficult to isolate characters with high Resources or Contacts skills from sources of support (whether that’s allies or expensive equipment) so consider deleting these skills from the list for your game or applying higher opposition than usual when the players use them—but make sure you tell your players in advance if you’re doing this.
Don’t allow stunts that undermine the horror themes of your game. For example, the stunt Always Making Useful Things (Fate Core System, page 103) makes it much more difficult to isolate a character from their tools and other useful items.
Instead, encourage players to take stunts for their characters that have a darker or more cynical tint to them in keeping with horror themes. A good example is Lies Upon Lies (Fate Core System, page 104), which makes it easier to lie to someone who has already believed one of your lies in the current session.
These tools will help you to sustain and increase the players’ investment in the game and in the characters and NPCs that inhabit it during play.
Creating Uncertainty and Suspense
To build suspense, avoid giving everything away to the players from the beginning of a scenario. Choose aspects that hint at the truth rather than reveal it, and adapt them during play as the characters uncover more information about the situation.
You begin your game with a series of grisly killings, and the players’ investigations lead them to believe that an Outsized Dog is responsible. Of course, the perpetrator is actually a Cursed Lycanthrope.
You can turn the availability of information in Fate Core to your advantage in scaring your players. As Alfred Hitchcock pointed out, there is a big difference between surprise and suspense, and the latter is a more effective way to scare your players. If two players are at a scene in a restaurant when a bomb suddenly explodes, they are surprised and probably horrified, but there has been no suspense. If instead you describe the bomb under the table as they sit down and occasionally mention as an aside that the number on its timer is ticking ever closer to zero, you build tension and suspense that keeps them on the edge of their seat.
Ed’s GMing his horror game Morts and he says, “There’s something about this building that gives you a bad feeling, but you can’t really say why. Oh, by the way, I’m just going to put this situation aspect here, Hiding in the Shadows with two free invokes. It’s nothing to do with any of you. It’s probably nothing, don’t worry about it. Anyway, what do you do next?”
Incomplete information is a great way to generate tension. In Aliens, the Marines know exactly how far away the xenomorphs are and how fast they’re moving, but can’t track them in three-dimensional space, allowing for an amazingly tense scene where they realize that the aliens are in the ductwork immediately above them.
Managing the Game’s Tension Level—The Heartbeat of Horror
Horror fiction is often constructed with a recognizable pattern that would look a bit like a heartbeat if you plotted it on a graph. Each moment of intense threat is followed by a lull in which the tension stays at a baseline or builds slowly, letting the audience catch their breath and anticipate the next moment of tension.
This is also vital to your horror game. If you keep the tension level high all the time, you’ll burn players out and they’ll start to disconnect from the game. Keep the heartbeat in mind while you’re planning or running the game and ensure that each scene of high tension is followed by a more relaxed scene in which the players and their characters can take a breather or perhaps even have a laugh or two. They will continue to anticipate the horror during the lull and it will make the impact of the next high tension scene much more effective.
As your scenario builds towards its climax, make the lulls shorter and increase the intensity of the threat in each tense scene so the heartbeat of your game gets faster and faster. Then, at the climax, go wild with a long scene with an extended and highly exaggerated threat and your players will be sitting on the edges of their seats.
The first Paranormal Activity movie is a masterful example of the heartbeat of horror in action. The daytime scenes start out being quite calm and unthreatening because we know the “ghost” only manifests at night, but the things the characters witness on the video build a low level of unsettling tension and anticipation. The night scenes start out with relatively low-intensity spikes of horror at the start of the movie, growing longer and more intense as the situation escalates, until the long and extremely tense scene at the end of the movie.
Overwhelming the Player Characters
The players will invest more in the horror themes of your game if they feel as though their characters are genuinely threatened by whatever dangers they face. Your object is generally not to kill the PCs, but to ensure that their adversaries feel overwhelmingly vast and dangerous—at least, until they find or develop the tools to have a chance at standing against them.
Sometimes the PCs are unable to even challenge a horrific menace on its own terms. If they’re hounded by a demonic apparition, the first few times they encounter it they won’t have any tools they can use against it; the very best they can hope to expect is to get away with their lives, health, and sanity.
Be sure to challenge the PCs with robust opposition. In any high tension scene, use opposition from +0 to +3 over the current apex skill to increase the costs of victory and make a concession or defeat more likely.
Making Player Character Death Count
As we say in Gazing Into the Abyss, a horror game doesn’t have to be more lethal to player characters than any other. However, player character death is more likely than in many other genres, and some types of horror are predicated upon the morbid reality that everyone dies eventually. You can use the following two systems to make character deaths a significant moment in your game and to give fallen characters a legacy that continues to affect the game.
The heroic sacrifice is a special form of concession. Like any other concession, a player can only choose to do this while they haven’t been taken out and before the dice hit the table on a current action. When they heroically sacrifice their character, they will die and there is no way for this to be prevented. The player gets to describe the circumstances of their PC’s death in as much detail as they like, adding reasonable story details as necessary, and can achieve one of the following results in addition to their glorious demise:
- Take out a mob of nameless NPCs
- Take out a supporting NPC
- Force a named NPC to take a severe consequence. If the NPC has already taken a severe consequence, make them take an extreme one instead. If they have already taken an extreme consequence, take them out.
- If the group agrees, immediately end an ongoing conflict. This is a form of group concession and means the PCs don’t fulfill their objectives for the conflict. The sacrifice allows them to escape without any further ill effects, letting them lick their wounds and try again later. The PCs receive fate points for the concession as normal.
- If the group agrees it makes sense, the dying PC immediately overcomes a single obstacle without a roll, regardless of the opposition against them.
When a player chooses to heroically sacrifice their character, they can’t create a new one until the end of the scenario. However, their character can live on through a legacy aspect (see the next section) and/or as a ghost as suggested.
You can use this system whether a PC makes a heroic sacrifice or dies through any other circumstance in the game. Once the remaining player characters have had a chance to take a breather and commiserate over the character’s death, they can take a legacy aspect to represent the lasting impact of the fallen on their lives.
This is a group aspect that embodies the lasting example set by the fallen. If the player of the fallen character has not been able to create a new character, give them two free invokes on their fallen aspect each session that they can use to aid their living companions.
Only allow one legacy aspect for each player. If a player loses two characters, the group can have a legacy aspect relating to either character, but not both.
Rufio heroically sacrifices himself to permanently blind the werewolf who was stalking the group. Later that night, the remaining characters share a drink in his honor and reflect on what he taught them. The group creates a legacy aspect for Rufio of Fortune Favors the Bold. As Rufio heroically sacrificed himself, Nick can’t make a new character until the end of the scenario...but he does get two free invokes on Rufio’s legacy aspect to aid his fellow players and he can play Rufio as a ghost if he wants to.
A player can bring back their departed character as a ghost. Ghosts can appear even in games that don’t have any active supernatural elements. There’s a rich tradition in drama where the ghosts are the living characters’ subconscious trying to communicate to their conscious selves, allegorical representations, or manifestations of guilt and internal struggle. Ghosts of this sort can’t manifest tangibly in ways that affect NPCs or the world at large—nor can they be attacked—but they can interact with living PCs.
Before the game begins, discuss what ghosts are and what they’re capable of. Can they walk through walls? Read emotions? Manipulate electronics? Do they even exist except as guilt-ridden hallucinations?
Ghosts are always less flexible and adaptable than the living, more focused on matters related to their death and unfinished business. Convert them to a Fate Core supporting NPC, choosing from the character’s prior skills. Change their high concept to represent their ghostly state, and give them a new trouble that relates to their unfinished business.
A character who dies and returns to haunt their friends through text messages and other electronic ephemera is a Ghost in the Machine. Another character returns as a more physical specter that’s Back from Hell for Revenge.
Ghosts have the default number of stress boxes and can’t gain more with Physique or Will, and they have a single mild consequence slot. If a ghost is taken out, it must leave the lands of the living in impending bliss or misery, based on the circumstances.
Ghosts are usually invisible, intangible, inaudible, and otherwise separated from physical reality. Their senses work just fine, and they can communicate freely with their still-living associates, albeit in limited ways consistent with their new high concept. They can whisper, write messages in the dust or on a computer terminal, manifest a scent survivors will associate with them, and so on.
Make them roll against Fair (+2) opposition when delivering complicated messages or trying to communicate in stressful situations; ghostly messages are often at risk of misinterpretation or confusion!
More tangible effort—louder, more physically forceful, more lasting in impact—requires crossing the gap between worlds. To do this, the ghost rolls to create an advantage with Will or another skill consistent with their high concept to create an aspect like Manifested.
The Ghost in the Machine rolls Crafts to get the aspect Repossessed Car, giving them physical control over the vehicle for as long as the aspect lasts.
While Manifested, the ghost can take actions to directly affect the material world at +2 to whatever opposition applies.
Given their frailty, ghosts make better observers and informers than active participants much of the time. Nothing is innately impossible for them, though, and they are free to attempt whatever seems dramatic and interesting. Creating haunting effects like ectoplasmic manifestations and eerie apparitions is a matter of creating an advantage.
Making Sympathetic NPCs
The advice in “Character Creation” also applies when you’re building NPCs. The following tools will also help you make sympathetic NPCs.
We’re A Lot Alike
In fiction, it often turns out that a character isn’t so different from the protagonist, and that they share habits, goals, or personality traits. Such similarities can cause the protagonists to identify with an antagonist and hesitate to work against them, making this a favorite technique of monologuing supervillains.
You can employ this technique by designing NPCs who have aspects or stunts that echo ones possessed by the PCs, albeit with sufficient tweaks that they don’t feel like carbon copies or inversions. Any character with an aspect representing their business, hometown, school, or passionate interests has a ready-made option for this.
Marissa’s character Kelly has a stunt that makes her an expert at recognizing and translating foreign languages. Elsa builds an NPC with a passion for creation myths and a stunt that gives him an almost inexhaustible library of books in many languages that contain such stories from around the world.
The Ben Franklin Effect
This counterintuitive psychological principle was observed by Ben Franklin, who said, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
In other words, getting someone to do you a favor tends to make them like you more and improves the odds that they will help you again in future.
You can use this technique in your games by having a significant NPC request a favor from one or more of the group. It doesn’t need to be anything huge; the example cited by Franklin in his autobiography was the temporary loan of a rare book. For your purposes, something that takes a scene or less to resolve and doesn’t involve too much risk is ideal.
The group is about to go out into the city to scavenge food when they’re approached by a survivor they don’t know very well. He tells them they’re heading into the area of the city where he used to live and he’d be ever so grateful if they could keep an eye out for his pet cat and bring her back to him if possible. When the group is searching a mini-mart for supplies, they find the traumatized cat and spend a scene outwitting and capturing her for return to her exceedingly grateful owner. Sessions later, when the cat owner is in dire trouble (or worse, killed), the group will feel it more keenly because of the earlier favor. If you use this specific example, the result might be that the players care more for the cat than the survivor, but that could work just as well for your purposes...
We come to care about people who show evidence of caring about us, and you can make this happen in your games as well. If an NPC has regular friendly chats with the PCs and asks them how they’re doing, or gifts them a candy bar from their stash or a nip of vodka from their hip flask, it makes the NPC more real to the players and gives them a reason to care.
This dynamic can become creepy if taken to excess, however, or if the NPC’s solicitousness comes across as being fake or part of a hidden agenda. Watch how your players react to the NPC’s interest in them. If they start to suspect the NPC’s motives or are creeped out by the attention, you have two choices.
- You can dial back the NPC’s attention to a level where the players are comfortable. Don’t spotlight that NPC for a few scenes, and if they appear in the game anyway make sure they treat the PCs neutrally.
- Alternatively, you can dial up the creepiness factor and use the NPC as a horror element in your game. It may not have been your original intention, but if it works then use it! What started out as a friendly guy just trying to pass the time socially with the group can easily turn into a devious villain with a hidden agenda.
Every horror story needs victims, and it’s vital that the audience cares about them. The following are some techniques you can use to encourage your players to care about the victims of your vile plots.
I Know Him from Somewhere
Your players will care more about the victim if they aren’t a stranger. You don’t have to subject a major NPC to a grisly fate every week, but you can have one or more players unknowingly interact with a prospective victim some time before they meet their doom. If you’re sneaky, you’ll use this retroactively on an NPC that the players met in passing and ended up liking.
Doing this too often will strain the players’ suspension of disbelief due to the feeling of coincidences piling up, so only use this technique once or twice a scenario.
Flashbacks & Reconstruction
You can use flashback scenes to give the players a visceral sense of what happened to a victim by having them portray the victim(s) in the moments immediately before they met their fate. This is a method typically used by shows like Supernatural to build sympathy for the victims in the cold-open at the start of the episode.
When you want to employ a flashback, pause the action and say something like, “A few hours earlier...” then frame the scene as the last minutes of the victims’ lives. Give each player very brief details of a victim or character around them (an aspect and apex skill for each will do) and then play out the scene. Don’t reveal too many details during this scene; use short snatches of description to build suspense and give some clues to the threat without giving it away entirely.
Another option is to provide clues and allow the players to reconstruct what happened for themselves.
When the group encounters a scene where something awful happened, come up with at least one detail about the scene per member of the group. These details can relate to what the victim was doing immediately before the incident, what happened, or the event’s repercussions for others.
Give each player one detail and ask them to elaborate on it to help build a picture of the incident and its aftermath. Encourage them to add as much detail as they like about the victim’s thought processes and the circumstances revealed by your facts. If you’re using a communal fate pool add a point to the pool for each detail they add that will complicate things for them.
Elsa has five people in her group. They’re going hiking in the wilderness and she plans to have them stumble across the remains of a hunter eaten by werewolves. She chooses the following details:
Richard narrates how the footprints are evidence of intelligence. Whatever did this clearly paced around the perimeter of the camp as the hunter grew more and more terrified, until finally the animals attacked. Elsa gives her predators a Highly Intelligent aspect and puts a fate point in the communal fate pool. Nick describes the horrible scene when the hunter was finally taken down and eaten, putting lots of gruesome detail into the savaging and gnawing and tearing apart. This adds to the group’s visceral appreciation of the scene, but it doesn’t introduce any new complications so Elsa doesn’t add a fate point to the communal pool.
- Large wolf footprints paced around the perimeter of the camp
- The remains of a meal, barely touched, lie congealing on a plate next to the burned-down fire
- A rifle that is splattered with blood and smells of gunsmoke
- The hunter’s satellite phone is still in his tent, and it has 18 missed messages from “Lisa”
- The hunter is now little but scattered bones, gnawed almost clean
The players may declare details that fit the facts but are incompatible with your plans—for example, Elsa’s players might decide that the attack was carried out by intelligent wolves rather than a werewolf. If this happens you can change your story to fit the players’ interpretation of the facts or keep to your original plan—but if you do this, award each player a fate point when you dramatically reveal the truth.
Using a Communal Fate Point Pool
Communal fate points are a pool of additional fate points that can be used by any player, but only on behalf of another PC or an allied NPC. When a player uses a communal fate point to invoke or compel an aspect, they must explain how their character is directly involved in the action.
Rufio is a Brash Swashbuckler. When he and Marissa’s character Kelly are fighting a pustulous abomination in the sewer, Kelly’s warding amulet is ripped off and starts to sink into the corrosive bile that’s flooding the sewer channel. Nick narrates how Rufio uses the tip of his weapon—a fencing foil—to pick up the amulet and return it to Kelly with a flick of his blade. This is an action to help another character and his character is directly involved, so he can use a communal fate point to invoke his aspect.
The communal pool resets to zero at every significant milestone and can hold as many fate points as there are players in the group—but don’t take points away from the pool if it’s full and some of the players can’t make it to a session.
When a compel complicates matters for the group and not just a single character, give the fate point to the communal pool. Some of the other systems in this chapter also add fate points to the pool.
The use of communal fate points is designed to encourage the group to work together, to think about each other’s characters, and to reduce the number of fate points gained by the group when a complication affects more than one player. Don’t use this system if distrust and group in-fighting are core elements of the horror in your story.
Making communal fate points the only ones available to the players makes teamwork an absolute necessity. Decide with your group during game creation if you’ll use communal fate points, and whether they’ll supplement or replace each character’s usual pool of fate points.
The following two systems use the communal pool to encourage players to self-compel and to declare story details that complicate matters for the group.
Using a Group Aspect
If you’re using communal fate points, it’s a good idea to give the whole group an aspect that represents its nature and provides opportunities for communal invokes and compels. This is essentially a high concept aspect that describes the whole group rather than an individual character.
- Example: Rufio’s group are Occult Urban Explorers.
A character with visible flaws tends to be more sympathetic than one who is perfect. Giving players a small incentive to self-compel makes it more likely that they will remember to do so and therefore encourages them to take control over their own character’s failings.
When a player self-compels in a way that highlights one of their character’s flaws, they get a fate point as normal and add a fate point to the communal pool. If the communal pool is full, they instead gain a free invoke on a setting or situation aspect of their choice. If the compel causes a complication for the group rather than for the character as an individual, add two fate points to the communal pool instead.
Rufio is Skeptical to a Fault. A sinister old man gives him some alleged “magic words” that will protect him from danger when he enters a haunted tomb. Rufio dismisses this out of hand because it’s clearly a bunch of hokum. Later, when they’re in the tomb and their weapons prove to be useless against the eldritch threat bearing down on them, Rufio decides to use the spell just in case it works after all. Nick suggests that Rufio didn’t try to remember it properly and ends up garbling the words. Instead of protecting the group from the wight, the spell makes it angry! This is a complication for the whole group, so the compel adds two fate points to the communal pool.
Encouraging Players to Declare Story Details
You can help players engage with their own characters and the NPCs they encounter by encouraging them to declare story details that humanize the character for everyone. Once per scene, when a player declares an appropriate story detail, they add a fate point to the communal pool instead of paying a fate point.
To get this benefit, the story detail that they add must be inconvenient or at least neutral rather than helpful in the current circumstances, and must directly pertain to a character or their activities.
The group is investigating the death of a Lonely Insurance Executive who was found next to his parked car with severe acid burns all over him. Bruce says, “He was sitting in his car after work looking at a dating app on his phone. He’d decided earlier that day that he wasn’t going to find anyone unless he started looking more actively.” Because this story detail isn’t immediately useful but helps to humanize the victim, Bruce adds a fate point to the communal pool.
Exploring Strange and Dangerous Desires
Helping the players empathize with their characters’ conflicted desires can build their investment in the game. Desire is wonderful and terrible. It pushes and pulls us in directions we never expected to go, in ways we may find unimaginable until we’re actually doing them. Desire isn’t just about sex—it’s about all the things we do for and because of our objects of desire, the things we give up for their sake, and the ways we change our whole lives for them. Sometimes these changes are marvelous, often they’ve got a funny side, and sometimes they’re downright horrific. This tool will help you represent that last kind of desire in your game, focusing on strange desires, on the clash of desire-driven wants with other values, and on the question of what’s really monstrous when all’s said and done.
Even if you focus on desire, your game need not make a turn for the erotic. Our goal is to emphasize the sensations of desire—wanting what someone feels they shouldn’t want, the hardships (and rewards) of pursuing the subject of ambiguous desire, the feelings of satisfaction and regret at a desire fulfilled, and so on. This book doesn’t have any advice on playing out actual sexual acts; you’re on your own for that.
The key to horror from desire is the conflict between desire and repulsion for the same object. If you only wanted people of a sort you typically found attractive and had reason to believe wouldn’t be harmful for you, there’d be little room for horror. If you only felt fear, anger, and repulsion toward a person, then your horror would have little room for desire. When both combine, any conviction in sensible rules of desire fall apart and things seem terribly, horribly, wonderfully possible.
Before the Game
During game creation, discuss whether the group wants the sensual horror of desire to be a notable factor in the game. Making it so has a significant impact on the feel of the game—characters will spend more time agonizing over their conflicted desires and their mental and emotional state than some groups are comfortable with. It’s the difference between Day of the Dead and Life After Beth or Warm Bodies.
During the Game: Intensity Aspects
A character who forms a bond of intense emotional engagement with someone or something else in the game can change one of their character aspects at a minor milestone to an intensity aspect like Captivated by Her Mysterious Charms, Always Thinking of What It Hints At, or Repelled by Him, But Unable to Leave Him that represents their desire.
Characters can also gain intensity aspects due to accepting an extreme consequence or when they’re taken out in an appropriate conflict.
Unlike normal aspects, intensity aspects have a numerical rating to reflect the magnitude and direction of the engagement. A persistent but controllable attraction starts at +1, up to +3 for all-consuming desire that’s leading the character to neglect the rest of their life for the sake of the attraction. Persistent but controllable repulsion starts at -1, down to -3 for all-consuming hatred and fear. One of the keys to the horror of desire is that engagement can change its nature as well as its intensity in an instant.
The key to good intensity aspects is ambiguity. Is it a thing the character is proud of, ashamed of, or both at once? Does it suggest both promise and peril? Does it sound like the setup for all kinds of trouble? Then it’s a good intensity aspect.
The bonus or penalty comes into play as the character acts. When the intensity rating is positive, the character gets a bonus when they’re trying to help the object of fascination and increased opposition when acting against the object’s interests. When the rating is negative, the character gets a bonus to hinder the object and faces increased opposition if they try to help them.
- If a character takes an action that works with their intensity aspect, they can use the aspect’s absolute intensity rating instead of a skill or use a skill at +1.
- If a character takes an action that works against their intensity aspect, they face minimum opposition of the aspect’s absolute intensity rating. If the opposition was already higher than this, it gets +1.
Someone with Average (+1) Shoot trying to gun down a target for whom they have a -3 intensity aspect would roll at Good (+3) because they are attacking the object of their loathing. Someone with Average (+1) Athletics trying to dodge a punch from someone with a +3 intensity aspect towards them would roll at Good (+3) because their opponent is working against their own desire.
Changing Intensity Aspects
Characters can voluntarily move the rating of an intensity aspect up or down a level instead of swapping a skill at a milestone. If they reduce an intensity aspect to 0 they can immediately swap it out for another aspect at the same time. This is the only way to get rid of an intensity aspect.
Once per scenario, the character’s object of desire may also try to change the intensity aspect’s rating by initiating a contest. The object of desire plays on the character’s various hopes and fears, whether revealed naturally without extra mechanical effort or by creating advantages to expose more of the character’s vulnerabilities. The character may make appeals of their own, or engage in defensive efforts to reinforce their sense of themselves and the relationship. If the object of desire wins, it can choose one of two options:
- Raise or lower the rating by a level.
- Invert the rating, turning attraction into repulsion or vice versa.
Addison, once a perfectly normal database manager for a regional phone company, has been obsessed with the thing calling itself Doctor Finale for a year now. A minor trouble ticket revealed strange things, and inquiry escalated into curiosity, then repelled fascination. Addison has the aspect Everything Is About Doctor Finale, Sooner or Later at -2. Doctor Finale likes the attention but not the trouble-making, and in the wake of Addison reaching a significant milestone, makes its move.
This is the second time the two have met face-to-face. Doctor Finale lures Addison to a cafeteria in the persona of a colleague with stories about similar monsters elsewhere. As they share lunch, Doctor Finale slides smoothly from flattery to the temptation of full knowledge of entities like itself. Addison gradually realizes what’s sitting across the table, but all efforts to disengage somehow fail. Doctor Finale wins the contest, and flips the rating’s direction. Now Addison has the aspect at +2.
Posing Moral Dilemmas
A moral dilemma means making a difficult choice between two or more alternatives, each of which is similarly undesirable. We use dilemma here in its popular sense, rather than its strict meaning of a moral conundrum with explicitly two alternatives.
Moral dilemmas are a staple of horror fiction and you can use them to great effect in your games. However, they require careful handling to ensure that your players experience them as dramatic and enjoyable scenes rather than artificially constrained situations that take away their agency.
Everyday Moral Dilemmas
Not all dilemmas are matters of life or death. Everyday dilemmas are a great way of creating drama through internal conflict as the characters wrestle with what to do. Several of the tools in this book rely on this technique, for example the rules for rationing and starvation in The High Cost of Living.
You can also use aspects that are in tension with each other to spotlight these sorts of dilemmas. If the character’s choice ultimately makes things more difficult for them, this is a compel.
Here are some examples:
Principle vs. Need: If a character believes that a certain behavior is wrong but they need something they can obtain by engaging in that behavior, will they stick to their principles or will they do it, just this once?
A character who’s Always Faithful but has a Big Debt to Pay is offered a waiver of their debt in exchange for a “harmless secret” about another member of the group.
Deferred Gratification vs. Instant Gratification: When a character has an opportunity to get what they want right now but with a cost of some kind, or must otherwise wait until much later, what will they choose?
A character sees a Hated Enemy through her rifle scope and has a brief window to shoot before they disappear to safety...but if she fires it will make a loud noise and draw the Ravenous Horde.
Divided Loyalties: If a character is loyal to two different characters, but those characters are in a conflict with each other, what do they do?
A character’s Reliable Friend wants to go out into the wilderness to look for more survivors so they can rescue as many people as possible while their Pragmatic Strategist lover wants to consolidate their resources and secure their position. When put in the middle of these two perspectives, how do they resolve the argument and prevent either character from being upset with them?
When a story is in its final act, the characters sometimes face a terrible dilemma with high stakes and no ideal or even satisfactory options in sight. In this case, the best they can usually do is choose the least of the available evils.
The following system walks you through how to frame a scene as a climactic dilemma so that your players will agonize over their choices rather than begrudge their lack of options.
First, some ground rules:
- It’s called a climactic dilemma for a reason: A dilemma like this is a moment of great narrative significance, when the outcome of an entire scenario hangs in the balance. Only use this technique once a scenario or you’ll burn your players out.
- Options, not outcomes: When you frame a climactic dilemma, give the group a limited range of options and give them some idea of the ramifications of each. The outcomes are not yet determined, though, and will change depending on how the resolution scene plays out.
- There’s always another way: Your PCs can ignore the options in front of them and try to chart their own course through the dilemma. This path is extremely difficult and can exact a terrible price on the PCs, but the option is there.
- Dilemmas are rewarding: Because framing a scene as a dilemma constrains the players’ options unless they fight terrible odds to go their own way, this is a form of compel. Give each player involved in the scene a fate point when you initiate the resolution of a climactic dilemma.
Planning and Presentation
Dilemmas work best if the players have a chance to anticipate—or dread—them, especially if they can discuss and agonize over their limited options well before they act.
You will eventually explicitly state the dilemma to your players and then pressure them to act on a decision before something horrible happens because of their inaction. By the time you trigger this climactic scene, they should already be aware of the looming dilemma and the options available to them.
Sometimes an effective dilemma develops naturally from the PCs’ aspects, interactions, and behavior during the game. If a situation arises where the players are already agonizing over what course to take out of several conflicting options, that’s an ideal opportunity for you to trigger a climactic scene with the choices they’ve already identified.
Alternatively, you might think up a really dramatic dilemma and use it to inspire an entire scenario. In this case, you can gradually introduce the options available to the PCs as the scenario unfolds so that the dilemma feels natural to the players when you trigger the resolution scene.
Elsa comes up with a dilemma that she plans her next scenario around. A malevolent spirit is possessing a young firefighter and using them as a vessel to commit unspeakable acts of evil. Elsa decides there are two equally unpalatable ways the group can deal with the spirit. They can exorcise the spirit at risk to the firefighter, temporarily resolving the problem of the possessed victim’s evil acts, but the spirit will be able to cross back over and possess another host next Hallowe’en. Alternatively, they can use a magical ritual to permanently bind the spirit into the firefighter’s body. This will also make the firefighter immortal, so the PCs can lock them in chains and bury them deep underground to keep the spirit out of the mortal world forever. Unfortunately, trapped in their mind with only the evil spirit for company, the firefighter will suffer an eternity of torment...but the spirit won’t trouble the mortal world ever again.
Choosing Not to Act
The players always have the option of doing nothing, but when you’re planning your dilemma make sure that the consequences of inaction are as bad—or worse—than the other available choices.
Elsa decides that if the group takes no action against the spirit possessing the firefighter, it will lock the doors during a matinee performance at a major local theatre and then burn the place to the ground, incinerating everyone inside.
Making Things More Complicated
You can begin with a simple dilemma and then introduce complications to make it a more difficult decision for the PCs. As a simple example, if they must choose between saving one person or three, they’ll find the decision much harder to make if the choice is between one young child and three adults. But there’s no need to stop there; what if the child is possessed by a vicious ghost and the adults are police officers trying to arrest her?
The best complications are ones that align with aspects belonging to the PCs or to your game, because you already know that these are important to the group. The Holy Grail of dilemmas is one with complications relevant to two or more conflicting aspects, as this will encourage a great deal of soul searching and debate among the PCs.
Elsa looks at the PCs’ aspects and sees that Marissa’s character Kelly has the aspect No Woman Left Behind. Elsa decides that the firefighter will be a woman so Kelly is more likely to argue for saving her instead of trapping the spirit. Meanwhile, Sarah’s character has the aspect A Stitch in Time Saves Nine, meaning that she’s more likely to argue for causing a known amount of suffering to one person in order to prevent an unknowable amount of suffering to others in the future on the spirit’s return.
If a PC ends up strongly conflicting with others in the group due to the way one of their aspects pertains to a moral dilemma, give them a fate point as if this were a self-compel.
Time pressure is essential to making a dilemma play out with the drama it deserves, so the first part of triggering a resolution scene is to show the players why they need to act in the imminent future.
During a scene, Elsa’s players investigate the possessed firefighter and observe her reconnoitering the theatre and sabotaging one of the fire exit doors, allowing them to deduce the spirit’s plan. The players know they must make a decision on what to do and put their plan in motion soon if they are to prevent a tragedy.
Declaration: Next, formally frame the situation as a dilemma so the players know what they’re up against. Hand everyone a fate point and say something like:
“You have a dilemma on your hands. If you don’t act now, [bad result of inaction] will happen. But will you [option 1], in which case [a rough idea of the consequences] or will you [option 2], in which case [a rough idea of the consequences]?”
Elsa says, “You have a dilemma on your hands. If you don’t act now, hundreds of people could be burned alive. But will you hunt down the firefighter and perform a dangerous exorcism, at best freeing the spirit to return next Hallowe’en, or will you use the spell you discovered in the Codex Infernus to trap the spirit forever in the body of the firefighter, condemning her to a personal hell but preventing the spirit from harming anyone else?”
Next the group discusses the situation and decides how to proceed, choosing between the options presented in the dilemma or one of their own devising. If the characters can’t come to a unanimous decision that’s fine—anyone who voted against the choice made can refuse to get involved or actively oppose the other characters during the following scene.
Climax: Whatever option the players choose sets the stakes of the climactic scene, which you then resolve as a conflict, challenge, or contest—whichever fits the situation best.
Elsa’s group discusses the dilemma extensively and ultimately comes down to a split decision to imprison the spirit in the firefighter’s body. Three of them will proceed on this basis while the other two plan to get in their way and exorcise the spirit instead. When Marissa and Phil act later to defy the group, they each get a fate point. Because there’s a lot going on, Elsa decides to run the climactic scene as a conflict between the players and the possessed firefighter. If the three who want to trap the spirit win, they get to proceed with their plan. If the firefighter wins, then the spirit gets to proceed with its attack (or escape). If the two who want to try to exorcise the spirit win—against all the odds—they can save the firefighter and free the spirit.
Going Their Own Way: If the group chooses an option not presented in the dilemma, they must contend with opposition that’s three or four points higher. In addition, the results of being taken out will be much more severe—at minimum players should expect to receive an extreme consequence if they are taken out.
If Elsa’s group had decided to take their own option of using untested magic to remove the spirit from the firefighter’s body and immediately trap it in a doll, they would have gone into the climactic scene facing Legendary (+8) rather than Superb (+5) opposition and knowing that if they were taken out they would suffer at least an extreme consequence. It’s a happier ending, but a lot more difficult to achieve.
Changes of Heart: If the group, or anyone in it, changes their mind and decides to work towards a different option in the climactic scene, that’s fine—in fact, it’s a great source of drama. If they switch to work on an option not declared in the dilemma, they face increased opposition and greater risk as previously described in “Going Their Own Way”.
Conclusion: Be Adaptable and, if It Works, Keep Doing It
The tools and advice we’ve provided in this chapter will help you present compelling NPCs and situations to the players that will help them buy into the game and invest in its horror themes. The rest of this book provides specific advice related to various types and themes of horror, but we have one last piece of general advice.
Rather than relying on preconceived notions of what will make your players invest in your horror game, be prepared to adapt according to their reactions.
Look for patterns in how they respond and, once you’ve found something that works, do more of that thing. Be careful not to wear it out, though; familiarity really does breed contempt. For example, if the group starts to become blasé about NPCs with too many finger joints and shadows that move all by themselves, find something else to scare them with.