Fate Horror Toolkit

Chapter 5: We Are All Going to Die

Chapter 5: We Are All Going to Die

Tools for running games where doom is inevitable.

Not every story has a happy ending. Horror fiction is often tragic; even if it looks like things have ended well for the characters, there’s often a final twist or sting in the tail that casts the finale in a different light.

In a horror game, the PCs won’t always win. Hell, they may not even survive. Risk and uncertainty are vital parts of the horror experience, and the odds of emerging at the end of a story unscathed are vanishingly small.

But some horror stories take things further than that: the protagonists are doomed from the start, and nobody is under any illusions that there might be a happy ending.

This chapter provides tools for evoking doomed horror in your games in a way that your players will enjoy rather than resent.

Media Inspiration

These are a few of the sources that inspired us when we were writing this chapter:

  • Swift to Chase by Laird Barron has several interweaving stories about a supernatural serial killer in Alaska, and the ways those who escape are twisted by the experience.
  • Spider by Patrick McGrath: Distrust the ending as Spider should.
  • Devil’s Pass is one of the few really good found-footage films, about American film students investigating a historical mountaineering disaster and falling into the remains of Soviet military research and holes in time.
  • The Nightmare Factory by Thomas Ligotti has the most doomed artists and scholars since Lovecraft.
  • The Bridge by John Skipp & Craig Spector. Like every horror/disaster novel, but we all lose.
  • The Mist by Stephen King, though it’s the film adaptation that has an ending like a punch in the gut.

Why Play if We Know How the Story Ends?

Genres exist because people like certain combinations of story ingredients and want to enjoy fresh stories that contain them. Genre authors become famous for their ability take familiar ingredients and make them into something exciting.

The same is true of your game. When players come seeking a zombie story, it’s a safe bet that they want to interact with a collapsed or collapsing society, struggles within and between groups of survivors, lots of zombies, and real danger for the characters—including some or all of them dying along the way. That’s the recipe, and as GM, you aren’t insulting the players’ intelligence by using a good recipe for zombie drama and adventure when that’s exactly what they want.

Even knowing the ending in advance—or at least the general kind of ending—doesn’t spoil the fun. After all, Titanic was the world’s highest grossing film for ten years after its release despite audiences knowing the ending.

Stories about characters doomed to die appear in many genres, from entirely naturalistic tales of criminals fighting the law and each other to supernatural stories of the whole world crumbling into a metaphysical abyss.

Whatever doom may be waiting, the story’s not done until all of the characters are.

The Journey, Not the Destination

Knowing the broad strokes of your game’s ending lets the players focus on their journey through the game. What surprises happen and what can they achieve along the way? What unexpected complications arise that may even threaten the overall recipe—and how can the characters get back on track? There’s plenty of room for you to bring creativity to bear in a game about characters with known fates.

But why bother? What can doomed characters achieve that’s worth playing out?

  • Survive as long as they can: People in general prefer to live, and PCs are no exception. This is their last chance to use all of the resources at their disposal and show the world (and themselves) just how good they are. See Chapter 6: The High Cost of Living for a campaign framework focused on the trials and costs of survival.
  • Understand their doom: Intimations of doom often arrive with a lot of mystery. Why is the driver they can’t even see trying to run them down? Who is the masked person that’s trying to chop them up, and why are they doing it? Who unleashed the zombie plague, and can anyone survive it?
  • Achieve goals that will outlast their doom: Can they save their children so something of them will live on? Can they secure this archeological discovery before the plague gets them? Can they make one recording-worthy performance of a symphony before the meteor hits? Can they secure this valley with a holy aura so their animals will be safe from the demon armies?

Game Creation: Building the Doom

In addition to the current and impending issues in your game about doomed characters, formalize the doom itself as the doom issue aspect. You can do this during game creation or, if you plan for your game to last for multiple sessions, after a prelude session featuring the PCs’ regular lives. That way you can tailor the doom issue to the strengths and weaknesses the players revealed in play.

Here are some things to consider when creating the doom issue for your game.

Scale and Context

Decide the overall scale of the doom. Are the PCs Trapped by a Wildfire, trying to rescue as many others as they can before being cut off? Are they part of an international network of scientists, politicians, and others working to preserve something of humanity from an Incoming Asteroid? Small and large scale dooms can both be emotionally engaging.

Context is also important when considering the doom’s impact. The wildfire peril is a less overwhelming threat if the characters can communicate rapidly and reliably with regional and national authorities, and the asteroid’s threat lessens if there’s any kind of space travel that might be scaled up for mass evacuation.

Timeline and Complications

At some point, the PCs know their doom is coming—unless everyone in the group is enough into irony to play a few sessions of mundane life followed by the GM announcing, “And now you’re all dead.” But some dooms come with more warning than others. How much normal life do the characters get to experience, and how quickly does the doom develop once it appears?

Doom usually comes gradually. Natural and supernatural disasters leave people free to choose to cooperate or compete, to share information or hoard it, to plan or panic.

Create group aspects, issues, or setting aspects with the doom issue to focus the game on things the PCs want to use, prevent, or achieve as things go from bad to worse during the game. The tsunami created by a supervolcano’s eruption doesn’t stop the evil cultists from Trying to Unleash Elder Gods until it drowns them; field scientists who know they’re doomed continue to gather data To Prepare Future Scientists.

Is the doom already upon the PCs at the start of the game? Coming in one session, or a few? The quicker doom comes, the less room there is for issues that aren’t part of it. The longer the game, the more opportunity there is for play to wander into a tangle of complications.

You’ll use the doom clock to keep track of the PCs’ progress toward their doom, so decide together how many hours there are to midnight when the game begins, and what circumstances will make it tick forwards and backwards.

Internal vs. External Doom

How much does the PCs’ doom depend on who they are and what they do? Could they avoid their fate if they changed themselves, or is it an external power beyond their control?

Some dooms are entirely internal: a gang of criminals who fall out with each other and drive themselves into a confrontation that destroys them all; obsessed magicians who reject all warnings to give up their current pursuit until the thing they’ve summoned eats them all; rival chieftains of small tribes who refuse to cooperate in a defensive alliance and are slaughtered by invading Romans. Even when there’s an external threat, the real doom comes from the PCs’ choices—if they chose differently, they would escape their fate.

Other dooms are entirely external: the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts; a plague with no cure sweeps the land; the Earth’s poles shift just like the crank psychics said they would. None of these depends on who the characters are, and their responses may not ultimately matter to anyone else.

Many dooms combine internal and external elements: the zombie apocalypse isn’t the characters’ fault, but their greed and paranoia are; the wildfires engulfing the mountains around the characters’ campground aren’t their fault, but the hostility that disrupts efforts to fight the fires is; World War II isn’t the characters’ fault, but their xenophobia that makes their espionage attempts easy to discover is.

Doom During the Game

The doom issue goes a long way toward setting up the PCs’ inevitable fate in your game, but these rules help you to reinforce the themes of doomed horror during play.

The Doom Clock

The doom clock is like a stress track, but arranged like a clock to really drive home the metaphor of a countdown to the end. As the characters make things worse, or fail to stop antagonists from making it worse, the clock ticks closer to midnight; on the occasions when they manage to make things significantly better, the players push the hands back as doomsday temporarily recedes.

Each tick of the doom clock moves it one hour closer to midnight. The game’s overall pace depends on how close to midnight it already is when play begins. Starting at 10 o’clock, so two ticks will initiate the endgame, is a good pace for a single-session game. Starting at 6 o’clock, it will take a few sessions to tick to midnight, particularly if the characters earn a few opportunities to move it back an hour along the way.

When the doom clock runs out, the game begins to wind down. This is the point where it’s clear that nothing the characters can do will make any material difference: their doom is upon them. The characters get a final scene—or more, up to a whole final session in longer-running games—to take their final actions and explore their final feelings. Do they go out with hope, despair, resignation, useless resolve to go down fighting? This is when you all find out, and then the curtain rings down on the show.

For more open-ended play, don’t initiate the endgame the first time the doom clock strikes midnight. Instead, significantly worsen the characters’ situation—manifest a major new threat or issue, have something dreadful happen to a place or person important to the characters, remove or corrupt an important NPC or aspect—and then start counting down again.

The doom clock can only be set back every so often. The default is once per scene, no matter how many times in that scene various characters do things that justify moving it back. Allow moving it back more often for a more heroic flavor, or less often—down to only once per session or not at all—for play that emphasizes doom whose pace is as certain as its outcome.

Scheduled Events

You can use the doom clock to build tension by scheduling dramatic complications to occur when the doom clock strikes specific hours; this works most effectively if the players have a rough idea of what’s going to happen.

Bruce’s group is trying to defend their village from silent zombies. Each time the doom clock ticks, Bruce tells the group that the foul, obscuring fog blowing in from the sea is getting closer...and it will arrive when the doom clock strikes eleven.

Making the Doom Clock Tick

The circumstances that make the doom clock tick forwards and backwards are vital to the feel of the game. Choosing them calls attention to which changes matter most in the group’s struggle to survive.

Decide as a group what makes the doom clock tick:

  • A PC is taken out
  • A PC chooses to concede
  • All of the PCs are out of fate points
  • A significant NPC ally is taken out

Then decide what (if anything) makes the doom clock tick backwards:

  • A character succeeds with style (once per scene only)
  • The PCs resolve a setting issue
  • The PCs make a lasting change for the better
  • The PCs reach a major milestone

Or come up with your own circumstances for each. For a shorter or more heavily planned game, it works very well if you tie ticks of the doom clock to specific in-game events—for example, “Tick the doom clock backwards if the PCs rescue Mark from the mine shaft. If they leave him to die, tick forwards.”

The only hard rule is that it must be much harder to make the clock tick backwards than forwards, unless you want the potential for the doom to be indefinitely delayed!

The Fifth Outcome: Failure With Style

Failure is an important ingredient of doomed horror, and adding this outcome emphasizes the role of heroic self-sacrifice and the rewards of difficult choices. When you really want to ramp up the tone of desperate struggle, you can even remove success with style as an option and add this in its place, so the four outcomes are weighted toward failure with or without some mitigation.

If a character rolls at least 2 shifts less than their opposition, they fail with style. They may also choose to fail with style on any failure. Whenever a character fails with style, their opponent succeeds with style.

If a character fails with style, they have no option for success at a cost—failure is guaranteed.

Narrate the character’s failure at the intended task, and also the stroke of luck, the unexpected reward on the margins for heroic effort, or whatever else it is that gives the benefit. Depending on the tone of your game, this can be anything from sensible but dramatic to ludicrously over-the-top implausible. Enrich your game in ways that suit what you’re all trying to do.

At the beginning of the next scene, the player who failed with style gains a special token that lets them do one of the following:

  • Gain a free invoke on an aspect of their choice
  • Remove a single free invoke of their choice
  • Step the doom clock back one hour—this can only happen once per session, no matter how often players fail with style

The benefit gained from the token must follow logically from the narration of their failure.

Marissa’s character Kelly is trying to stay hidden from the threat that’s stalking the group. She fails her Stealth roll with style and narrates how the monster drags her out from her hiding place by the ankle, gloating about how powerful and perceptive it is. Later, Marissa uses her failure with style token to gain a free invoke on the threat’s Egotistical Warlock aspect.

A player can only hold one failure with style token. If they already have a failure with style token at the start of a new scene and are supposed to earn another, they can instead pass it to another character as long as they can narrate how this occurs.

The Book of Scars

In a game of doomed horror, injuries—mental and physical—leave permanent scars. Every PC gains an additional aspect, The Book of Scars. Whenever the PC recovers from a moderate, severe, or extreme consequence (or a sticky or lasting condition), their player writes down a suitable scar on their sheet that is counted as a sub-part of The Book of Scars.

Rufio had his eye gouged out by evil cultists and wrote down Gaping Socket next to his The Book of Scars aspect.

Each PC can have five scars in The Book of Scars. Once the book is full, the character can’t ever clear out their moderate, severe, or extreme consequence slots (or recover from sticky or lasting conditions).

Medical treatment renames the consequence as normal (e.g., Broken Leg becomes Splinted Leg) but the consequence will never fully recover.

Now That You’ve Lost

Death is always on the table if a PC is taken out in a game of doomed horror.

However, unless you’re playing with a GM and a single player, it’s not likely that all the PCs will be taken out in the same scene—at least until the doom clock ticks its last. Some are likely to survive quite a bit longer than others. Should players pay a penalty for their characters’ inability to survive? Of course not. They can continue to play their character as a ghost with the rules, or they can turn against their fellow players and work to hasten their downfall...

If a player’s ghost is taken out, or they’d rather turn to the dark side straight away, they can say goodbye to their character and help you bring doom to the survivors by playing part of the opposition. If there’s a supporting NPC handy, you can ask them to take over playing it, with suitable private briefings about what they should know to do their doom-ward part. Alternatively, you can work together, applying the principles of the Fate fractal, to make an NPC out of some part of the doom: bad weather, a mob of strangers all subject to the same hateful frenzy, a band of zombies roaming together. If the threat is defeated, that part of the doom is lessened, and the survivors earn a step back on the doom clock. Then the player can pick up and play another portion of the doom: survivors are limited but there’s plenty of doom for everyone...