Fate Horror Toolkit

Chapter 6: The High Cost of Living

Chapter 6: The High Cost of Living

Campaign framework for survival games

The framework provided in this chapter is to help you run games where the PCs face danger from an overwhelming threat and their continued survival is a result of caution, preparation, resource management, and cleverness rather than the repeated application of physical violence. This framework combines well with the doom mechanics from Chapter 5: We Are All Going to Die, but works equally well if you leave the PCs’ fate entirely in their own hands.

At the beginning of the game, the PCs are accompanied by NPC survivors. Some are close friends and family members created by the players, and the rest are less significant NPCs.

The PCs have to manage the resources needed by the survivors and handle conflicts arising as a result of prejudice, incompatible moral codes, and differences of opinion on what’s best for the group.

Can they maintain their humanity as the group of survivors is whittled down one by one, until only they remain? And when they’re all that’s left, is there anything they won’t do to survive?

Media Inspiration

The following books, movies, and TV give an idea of the style of game this framework is designed to evoke:

  • Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead are the grandfathers of the zombie survival genre.
  • The Stand by Stephen King is a story about survivors in the aftermath of an apocalyptic flu epidemic, though there’s also a more supernatural antagonist involved...
  • 28 Days Later is a great reference for “fast zombies”—the infected are alive, but reduced to animalistic, predatory behavior.
  • Alien and Aliens are both stories about surviving against an overwhelmingly superior foe, using whatever resources are available.
  • The Mist: Based on a short story by Stephen King, the movie is a chilling example of how your fellow survivors are the real crux of drama in a survival horror story.
  • World War Z by Max Brooks is much better than the film adaptation. It’s presented as a series of interviews, found footage, and other documentary evidence of the global war against zombies.
  • The Fireman by Joe Hill would also fit well in the section about the Other, as it features an us vs. them narrative between the infected and baseline humanity. In the aftermath of an infection that causes people to spontaneously combust, survivors who are infected but don’t burn try to survive in a world that fears them.
  • The Girl with all the Gifts, a novel by M. R. Carey that was recently adapted as a film. It’s unusual in that its protagonist is one of the infected, and it’s not just the baseline humans who want or deserve to survive the events of the story.
  • Arachnophobia, a movie about a small town trying to survive an onslaught of deadly spiders.

General Notes and Major Rules Changes

The PCs and the group of NPCs they have fallen in with are collectively referred to as survivors in this framework.

PCs have no stress and must absorb any hits with consequences...but can kill or maim an NPC instead.

Survivors can’t recover from consequences (or sticky and lasting conditions) without invoking Medical Supplies or a similar consumable or situation aspect.

Game Creation

Choose the consumables your group will be tracking and decide how many free invokes on each consumable the group has as the game begins.

As a group, decide how many supporting and nameless NPC survivors are with you. A larger group requires more consumables, but provides more characters to sacrifice on the altar of your own survival. A good starting point is to use three times the number of players as your pool of supporting and nameless survivors.

A third of these are supporting NPCs (Fate Core System page 218). As a group, give each of them a high concept and a trouble.

The remaining survivors are nameless NPCs. They act as background color and cannon fodder, so for now just write down how many there are.

If your game has five players, there are fifteen supporting and nameless NPC survivors, of which five are supporting NPCs and ten are nameless NPCs.

The systems for doomed horror work particularly well with this framework. As a group, decide whether you’re using the doom issue, doom clock, failure with style, and/or the book of scars.

Character Creation

In addition to their PC, each player makes a main NPC survivor (Fate Core System page 220) with a positive relationship to their character. The player initially chooses the NPC’s high concept and trouble and their peak skill or approach; the rest of their traits can be filled out during play. One of each PC’s aspects must include their relationship with the main NPC they created.

At least two of each PC’s aspects must create tension between them and other PCs or main NPCs.

Nick’s character has Natural Born Leader while Sarah’s has Nobody Bosses Me Around.

During Play

We present here three systems that neatly fit together to evoke the tropes of survival horror. The characters must manage survival resources, watch NPC survivors die one by one around them, and build and maintain safe havens to protect themselves from the threat that assails them.

Not Enough Resources to Go Around: Consumables

Consumables are aspects that define the resources your group needs to survive. During game creation, pick three to five to keep track of according to the scenario. A zombie story might use Food Supplies, Ammunition, and Medical Supplies while a Mad Max style story might focus on Water, Ammunition, and Fuel. Consumables can be invoked normally during the game, for example by bartering Ammunition for favors from other survivors.

One or more of the consumables is a necessity for survival, for example Food Supplies in a zombie story.

Each survivor—including NPCs—must periodically burn a free invoke on each necessity just to stay healthy. Survivors can’t invoke necessities with fate points to survive.

The rate at which necessities are consumed depends on the game’s pace. If your zombie scenario plays out over a few days, survivors must invoke Food Supplies at the main mealtime every day. If the scenario spans months, survivors might have to invoke every Sunday instead.

You can also have two necessities with different consumption rates—for example, Food Supplies must be invoked monthly but Water Supplies weekly.

Decide how many free invokes each consumable has when the game begins. The players can add more invokes during the game. Fewer invokes, especially on a necessity, increases the pressure on the survivors:

  • If you want the game to have a desperate feel from the start, give them free invokes on necessities equal to the number of survivors or fewer.
  • If you want the game to start a bit more relaxed and get tenser over time, give them invokes on necessities equal to twice the number of survivors.

Using physical objects to represent necessities (for example, pretend plastic food to serve as food or band-aids to represent medical supplies) is a great way of giving players a constant reminder of how few resources they have.

Consumables Rules Summary

Consumables are aspects used to track resources needed by the survivors. Each game has three to five, one or more of which is a necessity like food or water. Free invokes on consumables can be used to help the survivors, and can be gained by scavenging, trade, etc.

Every survivor must spend a free invoke on each necessity periodically. Water might be once a day, food once a week, and so on.

If a survivor is called on to invoke a necessity and can’t, they must decrease an appropriate skill (usually Physique) by one or take a consequence.

If two survivors are on half-rations, they use one invoke on the rationed necessity between them, but gain a situation aspect representing their privation.

A survivor who has reduced skills or taken consequences from going without a necessity can use an extra free invoke on the consumable to recover a point of the skill or, if the skill is back to normal, to begin recovering a consequence taken from privation.

Consumables in Shorter Games

If your game is designed to take place over a single night of in-game time or less, such as when you’re telling a story about a serial killer stalking college kids one fateful evening, tracking three consumables is unnecessary. Just pick one like Medical Supplies that is sure to become relevant in a short amount of in-game time.

Going Without

When a survivor goes without using a free invoke on a necessity they can either:

  • Reduce their Physique (or Forceful, if using approaches) by one to a minimum of Terrible (-2). To save the player from having to rearrange their skill pyramid, the skill stays where it is on their character sheet, but is treated as its lower value for all purposes.
  • Take a consequence.

If they can’t do either, they are taken out.

Reducing Different Skills or Approaches

You might decide that it makes more sense to reduce a different skill or approach when the survivors run short of a necessity. For example, if they run short of Scent-Blocking Cream in a zombie game, it reduces their Stealth (or Sneaky) as their enticing smell becomes easier for zombies to notice.


Some or all of the survivors can go on half-rations to eke out a necessity. Every two survivors on half-rations use one free invoke between them. However, anyone on half-rations gains a negative situation aspect.

The group’s Food Supplies necessity has 11 free invokes. They need 14 to feed all the survivors, so they’re short by three. The group puts the six nameless NPCs on half-rations, meaning they only use three free invokes and there’s now enough food to go around. The nameless NPCs get a Desperately Hungry aspect that Elsa writes down, planning to compel it later to inspire a revolt of the starving against the well fed.

Recovering from Lack of Necessities

When a survivor is called upon to invoke a necessity, they can use a second free invoke to recover their Physique or Forceful by one.

If their Physique is at its normal rating, they can instead use a second free invoke to immediately begin the recovery of a consequence taken due to a lack of the necessity.

Survivors can’t use more than one additional free invoke on a necessity in this way.

Using Consumables

Consumables are normal situation aspects and can be invoked on any appropriate roll. If you have a surplus of food, you can stock up to help you with a feat of physical endurance, or you can trade supplies of ammunition or water with a rival faction to aid you in a negotiation. You can also spend a fate point to invoke a consumable if you narrate how you use it to your advantage without consuming it; for example, using food to lure some rivals into a trap.

Gaining Free Invokes on Consumables

PCs can create an advantage to add free invokes to a consumable as long as they can justify how. Be strict on this; it will kill the tension if the survivors can easily add to their resources. You can award any number of free invokes on one or more consumables because of the PCs discovering supplies through exploration or making deals with other factions during the course of the game.

If you don’t want to spend a lot of time on finding supplies, you can instead use a special type of contest to quickly resolve a scavenging expedition.

First, determine the threat faced by the players on their mission. The usual rules for playing the opposition on page 222 of Fate Core System apply.

In each exchange of the contest, the threat attacks one or more of the PCs rather than competing for victories, and the players roll against passive opposition guided by how far they’re going and how many consumables are available in the target area. Opposition increases on successive scavenging expeditions as the PCs deplete nearby resources and must go farther afield.

PCs can stop at any time, or keep going to accrue more victories. Without three victories the scavenging expedition fails, and they can’t take any consumables back. Otherwise, they can distribute two free invokes among appropriate consumables for each victory achieved.

Sending NPCs to Scavenge

The PCs can order a group of NPCs to go and scavenge resources on their behalf, but at a cost. Roll a single attack against the NPCs while one of the players rolls to defend. Each shift the GM gets kills a nameless NPC or deals a consequence to a supporting or main NPC. If there are any NPCs left alive, they return home with one free invoke for each NPC sent on the mission to be put on a consumable of the players’ choice.

Desperate Measures

Players can take desperate measures to get free invokes on some consumables. For example, you can sacrifice an NPC to gain a number of free invokes on your Food Supplies equal to their Physique.

Whittling Down the Survivors

In a typical survival horror story, at best only a few people survive. The following system is designed to evoke this experience by:

  • Ensuring that the PCs are the last survivors.
  • Generating tension and drama through the death and maiming of the PCs’ allies.

Because your character has no stress boxes, the only way to avoid being taken out is to take consequences or to sacrifice an NPC survivor to take the hit for you.

The NPC doesn’t have to be in the same scene. For example, if you’re out scavenging for supplies and would be bitten by a zombie, your boyfriend back at the mall can still take the hit for you—when you get back, you discover he’s been bitten by an undead infant that managed to crawl into the base.

An NPC’s ability to absorb harm on your behalf depends on their significance and your relationship to them.

NPC Survivor Consequence Summary

Instead of their PC taking a mild consequence, a player can:

  • Severely maim a nameless NPC (effectively an extreme consequence from which they’ll never heal).
  • Have a supporting NPC take an extreme consequence.
  • Have a main NPC with whom the PC shares a positive relationship aspect take a moderate consequence.

Instead of their PC taking a moderate consequence a player can:

  • Have a nameless NPC die horribly.
  • Have a supporting NPC with whom the PC shares a positive relationship take an extreme consequence.
  • Have a main NPC with whom the PC shares a positive relationship aspect take a severe consequence.

Instead of their PC taking a severe consequence a player can:

  • Have a supporting NPC with whom the PC shares a positive relationship aspect die horribly.
  • Have a main NPC with whom the PC shares a positive relationship aspect take an extreme consequence.

Instead of their PC taking an extreme consequence a player can:

  • Have a main NPC with whom the PC shares a positive relationship die horribly or permanently become an enemy to the group.

Nameless NPCs

These folks are doomed to a short lifespan once the horror begins. Their purpose is to demonstrate the danger of the situation and to be a drain on consumables, while adding a bit of drama to the game.

You can have a nameless NPC suffer a nigh mortal wound, severe maiming, zombie infection, or catastrophe of similar magnitude—effectively an extreme consequence from which they can never recover—to avoid a mild consequence.

Having a nameless NPC die gruesomely lets you avoid taking a moderate consequence.

Supporting NPCs

These characters are given enough characterization that it will cause a minor downbeat in the story if one of them is killed or maimed.

You can have a supporting NPC take an extreme consequence (Fate Core System page 162) to avoid a mild consequence.

If you or the NPC have an aspect describing a positive relationship, you can have them take an extreme consequence to avoid a moderate consequence, or have them die or otherwise be permanently removed from the game to avoid a severe consequence.

When a supporting NPC dies, at the next minor milestone promote a nameless NPC to a supporting NPC.

Main NPCs

Each main NPC is created exactly like a player character. They are important secondary protagonists, and it will cause a major downbeat in the story if one of them is killed or maimed.

A main NPC can only take consequences for you if you have a significant, important relationship with the NPC as described by one or more character aspects.

A main NPC can take a consequence for you to avoid a consequence one less severe. That is, you can have a main NPC take an extreme consequence so that you avoid a severe consequence, and so on.

You also can have a main NPC die horribly or become a permanent enemy (through descending into violent insanity, becoming a zombie, etc.) to avoid an extreme consequence.

If another PC has a character aspect relating them to the main NPC that you are sacrificing, they may reject your sacrifice by giving you a fate point. If they do this you must find another way to absorb the damage.

When a main NPC dies or permanently becomes an enemy, at the next minor milestone promote a supporting NPC to a main NPC, and a nameless NPC to a supporting NPC.

Managing “Safe” Havens

We described in Chapter 2: The Raveled Sleeve of Care how the tension in a horror story follows a pattern like a heartbeat, with peaks and lulls. In a survival horror game, when danger is all around, there needs to be somewhere reasonably safe in which these lulls can occur...but it mustn’t ever be too safe.

Designing a Safe Haven

The PCs might start out with a haven when the game begins, or you might have to find one in play. Designing one is the same either way:

Choose a double-edged aspect that defines the haven.

The mall is well-stocked, and thus a target for desperate, potentially violent survivors. It’s also a juicy target for the zombie horde, so the group chooses The Smart Brains Shop at the Mall.

Choose an aspect that describes the haven’s biggest drawback or vulnerability.

Once a safe drive along the highway from the city, it’s now difficult to get from the mall to the city and vice versa. In the Middle of Nowhere works well to reflect its isolated nature.

Give the haven a Defend skill, which reflects how well protected it is against external threats. A military barracks with razorwire fences and trenches around the perimeter has Superb (+5) Defend while a trailer park has Average (+1) Defend.

The mall has toughened glass doors and frontages with security grilles. It’s out of the way and has good sight lines on the surroundings, so the group decides its Defend is Good (+3).

The haven has no stress but has mild, moderate, and severe consequence slots. If it’s taken out, the haven is destroyed or becomes overrun and the group must flee to find another haven.

Draw up a quick map of the haven and divide it into zones. This will come in handy when the haven is threatened.

Attacks on a Haven

The survivors’ haven can be attacked at any time. Often this will be during a calm moment, but it can also ratchet up the tension if an attack comes right in the middle of another crisis.

Use a full conflict scene to resolve the attack if:

  • The survivors notice the attack coming and mobilize to intercept the attackers outside the haven.
  • Someone (or something) lets the attackers into the haven.
  • The haven has an unrepaired consequence, giving the attackers a point of ingress.
  • The haven is breached in the initial attack (optional, see below).

Otherwise, attacks are resolved with the following abstract system:

  • Come up with a single aspect to describe the attacking force and give it an Attack skill. An Attack equal to or lower than the haven’s Defend should be easily rebuffed, while an Attack that’s two or more higher may result in a consequence or two.
A school bus on its way to safety at the mall hits a zombie that busts through the windshield. Soon all the passengers are turned. The resulting Undead Football Team starts shambling towards the mall in search of food. The GM, Elsa, decides they have Fair (+2) Attack.
  • Roll the Attack skill of the threat. You can invoke any relevant aspects with free invokes or your fate points for the scene.
  • The players pick someone to roll Defend for the haven. As a group they can use free invokes from consumables such as Ammunition to help fend off the attack. Each PC can also use a fate point or free invoke to invoke ONE other aspect to aid the defense of the haven.
    • If they succeed with style, the haven is unharmed and they gain a free invoke on an aspect of their choice. This can be a consumable, if they can justify it.
    • If they succeed, the haven is unharmed.
    • If they tie, the haven is unharmed but you add an additional fate point to the GM’s pool for the next scene.
    • If they fail, the haven takes a hit equal to the attack’s shifts. The survivors must absorb this with the haven’s consequences or by sacrificing NPCs using the rules. The haven’s defensive perimeter has been breached and it’s time to zoom into the action as the survivors deal with the situation—run the rest of the scene as a conflict or contest. If zombies breached the perimeter, they need to find and kill them; or maybe some of their consumables are destroyed, leading to a need for a scavenging trip.
When the Undead Football Team attacks the mall, Elsa rolls +++- for a total Attack of Great (+4). The players nominate Nick to roll for them and he gets --00 for a total Defend of Average (+1). Jennifer recently established Regular Security Patrols, so she uses her free invoke on that to get the group up to Good (+3). Phil’s character is A Cop One Day Away from Retirement which he explains means he’s spent hours at the target range, making it easy to pick zombies off with his service revolver. He invokes his aspect with a fate point, taking the group’s result up to Superb (+5). That beats Elsa’s result by a shift, so the zombie jocks are defeated without the haven being harmed.

Haven consequences can’t be fully repaired. PCs can make an overcome roll to change one into something slightly less bad for defense (e.g., a Gaping Hole becomes a Boarded Up Hole), but there’s no fighting off the inevitable slide into entropy. Eventually the group will run out of survivors or their haven will fall.

Example Survival Campaigns

Here are three example survival campaigns that you can adapt for your own purposes or use for inspiration when you’re going through game creation with your group.

Zombie Apocalypse

Current Issue: The Dead Walk the Earth

Pending Issue: The Living Are More Dangerous Than the Dead

Consumables: Food (necessity, daily invokes required), Medical Supplies, Ammunition

Wilderness Slasher

Current Issue: The Appalachian Stalker Is Picking Us Off One by One

Pending Issue: The Middle of Nowhere

Consumables: Warmth (necessity, hourly invokes required; represents firewood, hand warmers, gasoline, and other material that can be used to generate heat and fend off frostbite and other effects of the cold), Phone Charge (can be used for light, play music for morale, call for help if they reach a cell phone mast high on a peak), First Aid Kit

Radioactive Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland

Current Issue: Drier Than Dry Land

Pending issue: Mutants Are Getting Ornery

Consumables: Juice (Water! Necessity, daily invokes required), Medz, Bang Bang Stuff, Gazz