Fate Horror Toolkit
The Flesh Is Weak—Your Own Body as an Adversary
The Flesh Is Weak—Your Own Body as an Adversary
What if your adversary isn’t an external threat, but rather your own betraying flesh? This is the premise of body horror, defined by The Collins English Dictionary as: “a horror film genre in which the main feature is the graphically depicted destruction or degeneration of a human body or bodies.” For the purposes of this section, we are broadening the definition slightly to include non-consensual bodily alteration, transformation, or loss of control.
We are also concentrating on the expression of body horror as pertaining to one’s own body. We provide tools for dealing with the reaction to body horror that happens to someone else in The Horror of Viscera and Gore.
The following books and movies are useful sources of inspiration to help you explore body horror themes:
- Many Clive Barker books, including Cabal, The Books of Blood, and The Hellbound Heart all fit the bill. “Everybody is a book of blood. Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.”
- David Cronenberg’s The Fly, in which the protagonist is the victim of a matter transportation experiment that goes horribly wrong when he starts transforming into a humanoid fly.
- Scott Sigler’s Infected, which focuses on a man’s battle with an intelligent disease that’s infecting his body and that has its own agenda.
- Idle Hands and Evil Dead 2 both feature rogue body parts.
- The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey explores both the fear of being transformed and the fear of already being a monster, in a few different ways.
- Ritual by Graham Masterton. Ritual autophagy and murder as a holy sacrament feature heavily in this grisly novel.
- The Thing, John Carpenter’s 1983 original is the best, though the 2011 remake is also decent.
- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka is a seminal example of a non-lethal transformation.
Permanently changing a character’s body is of great narrative and emotional significance and you must obtain enthusiastic consent from your players before you use the techniques presented here. Don’t assume that your players are comfortable with their characters being mutilated or tortured just because they signed up for a horror game.
Physical injury or mutilation is a quick and dirty option for scaring a movie audience, because most of us automatically feel revulsion and discomfort when we see someone sustain a serious, permanent injury. This is even more potent when it happens to a player character in a roleplaying game, due to the depth of identification a player has with their character.
When using this trope, consider that depictions of mutilation are ultimately exploitative, in that they leverage the kinds of injuries sustained by real people every day—whether by deliberate acts or in accidents—for their shock value. It’s fine to focus on the horrible experience a character has on sustaining a permanent injury and in dealing with the aftermath—especially in a tense survival situation—but treat the subject with respect and never imply that sustaining an injury makes someone less of a person.
On a similar note, don’t use bodily mutilations or disabilities as signifiers of villainy in your NPCs. This is a lazy cliché that does nobody any good.
Extreme consequences already represent the very long-term repercussions of serious injuries, but if the group agrees it’s appropriate for your game, other physical consequences can also reflect mutilation. In this case, having an Eye Gouged Out could be a moderate consequence while a Severed Leg would be a severe consequence. If the character has an opportunity to recover from such a consequence, it fades into being part of the character rather than an aspect to be regularly invoked or compelled. However, if a player wants to continue to focus on the effects of a mutilating injury, they can incorporate it into one of their aspects at a minor milestone in addition to the usual benefits of the milestone.
Rufio has his Eye Gouged Out by a cultist who needs the body part for a ritual. Rufio has the injury treated and the consequence recovers at the end of the next session, but Nick decides to keep a memento of the injury. He has Rufio don a rakish eye patch and changes his high concept to Brash One-Eyed Swashbuckler at the next minor milestone.
If your game is really going all-out on the mutilation and bodily violence, you can also propose that a character suffers mutilation when they succeed at a major cost along with taking an appropriate consequence.
“Well, the good news is you’re not infected with the zombie virus anymore. The bad news is, the doctor couldn’t purge it any other way, so he had to tie a rubber tube around your arm and saw it off just above the elbow.”
Another option is to let players buy the following stunt or, if you’re going to the farthest extreme of splatter horror, give it to everyone in the group for free:
The Flesh Is Weak: You can have your character suffer a mutilating injury—requiring you to fill a moderate, severe, or extreme consequence slot—to automatically and without a roll:
- Take out a single supporting NPC
- Take out a mob of nameless NPCs, or
- Score two victories in an ongoing contest.
Finally, see “The Book of Scars” for a system that makes all consequences leave scars, even after the injuries that caused them have healed.
Progressive Alterations—Transformation and Degeneration
The total or partial transformation of a protagonist into something unpleasant or disgusting is a staple of the body horror genre. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a man gradually metamorphoses into a human-fly hybrid. In H.P. Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the protagonist realizes that he too is a descendent of Dagon and will become a Deep One in time. And in a plethora of zombie movies, we witness victims struggling with infected bites until they ultimately succumb and become undead monsters.
We present here two slightly different systems you can use to tell stories like these about the progressive permanent alteration of characters. The first is ideal for alterations that completely destroy the character, either by making them unplayable as a PC—such as turning them into a shambling zombie incapable of anything but groaning and hunting for fresh meat—or by killing them outright. The second is better suited for alterations which are permanent and unpleasant, but which don’t prevent the character from being played at least somewhat normally—for example, being turned into a vampire or a Deep One.
Use physical consequences to progress the transformation. Once a consequence slot is filled with a transformation consequence, it can’t be healed without extraordinary circumstances. To help the player enjoy their gruesome transformation, give them the free invoke on their new “feature.” See “Progressing Transformations” for guidance on when this happens.
This system evokes the genre by making it a relatively fast process from beginning the transformation into a monster or puddle of molten flesh to being taken out. Marking the first transformation consequence is the beginning of the end for the character.
If you take out a character with transformation consequences in a conflict and their player agrees, you can have them complete the transformation.
For slower-paced transformations, especially where the character will remain playable at the end, use a set of custom conditions (Dresden Files Accelerated, page 116) in addition to the character’s standard stress, consequences, or conditions.
Transformation conditions are all Lasting and can’t be cured without extraordinary circumstances. For example, in Dracula Mina Harker’s Thrice-Bitten condition that dooms her to become a vampire if she dies is only cured at Dracula’s final death.
When the character marks a transformation condition, they gain an aspect of the same name and a free invoke on that aspect.
If the character is called upon to mark a transformation condition and can’t, they complete their transformation and change their high concept aspect to reflect their new nature. All of their transformation conditions are removed and incorporated into their new high concept.
In Cronenberg’s The Fly, when Brundle is turning into Brundlefly he has the following transformation conditions:
Hairs Where They Don’t Belong, Teeth and Fingernails Falling Out, Liquid Diet, Compound Eyes, and Emerging Fly Limbs.
When Brundle needs to mark another transformation condition and can’t, he changes his high concept from Shy Physicist to Brundlefly. He loses all of his transformation conditions because they are encompassed by his new high concept.
Whether you use consequences or conditions, there are a couple of options for determining when the character must take another step towards their transformation.
- You can build the transformation as an extra (Fate Core System, page 271) and have it attack the character periodically (e.g. once a scene or session) or when a trigger is met (e.g. when the character becomes significantly stressed).
Elsa decides the Z-Virus has a single skill of Zombify at Superb (+5) and it attacks an infected character once every scene, defended by Physique.
- This technique is useful in other ways: if the transformation is curable, you can give it a Resistance skill that lets it fight back against attempts to cure it. You can also give it skills or stunts that the infected player can access once they reach a certain stage of infection.
Elsa gives her Z-Virus a stunt called Corpse Flesh that an infectee gains once they’ve taken a moderate or worse consequence from the virus. The stunt reflects that their body is becoming numb and it makes them immune to invokes on their physical consequences.
- You can have them mark off a consequence or condition without any kind of defense either periodically or when a trigger is met.
The Mental Consequences of Body Horror
Physical consequences work well for representing many types of body horror. When your body is changed involuntarily, a large part of the trauma is psychological, however, and you can use mental consequences—or situation aspects relating to your state of mind—to highlight this.
Worried About Losing More Teeth: You lost a tooth last week. It was a bit wobbly, then when you brushed your teeth and spat, it just flew out with a click into the sink. Your other teeth are starting to feel loose, and you’re paranoid about losing more of them.
Everyone Keeps Staring at Me: Since you started to grow scales and your skin turned a blotchy gray-green, you’re convinced everyone is looking at you all the time. It’s really beginning to play on your nerves.
Rogue Body Parts
Alien Hand Syndrome is a real-life condition where a person’s hand sometimes moves without their conscious control, and in its best documented cases resulted from separation of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In horror stories such as Clive Barker’s “The Body Politic” or the movies Idle Hands and Evil Dead 2, the syndrome is exaggerated to a horrific conclusion, in which the hand is not just out of the person’s control but rather malevolent and destructive.
To evoke this trope, you can create a character representing the victim’s disobedient hand and use it to torment the character. But why should hands get all the fun? There are plenty of other body parts that can go rogue and cause grief for their owners.
In the following examples of rogue body parts, we’ve used conditions (Dresden Files Accelerated, page 116) to represent each part’s ability to resist attempts to control them. While a PC has a checked condition on a rogue body part, they have an aspect of the same name (but it doesn’t get free invokes). If the character manages to take out their rogue body part during a conflict, they regain control over it until a later compel sets it off again.
If the rogue body part manages to take out the character, it means the character has been forced to cut it off (or out), or it has freed itself, and it can now pursue its unholy agenda separate from its original body.
Permanently curing a rogue body part means finding the cause of the issue and dealing with it, such as vanquishing the demon possessing it.
Pins & Needles (fleeting), Dead Arm (sticky, lasts until you have a chance to shake some blood into it and have a brief rest), Broken Arm (lasting, until splinted and cast)
Good (+3): Deceive (can oppose the character’s Rapport, Provoke, or Deceive rolls), Provoke
Average (+1): Bite me!
Swollen Tongue (fleeting), Half Chewed-Off Tongue (lasting, requires medical attention and rest to recover)
Great (+4): Heart Attack
Good (+3): Arrhythmia, Palpitations
Chest Pains (sticky, cured by a few hours of sleep), Fractured Ribs (lasting, cured by avoiding strenuous activity for a few days)
Good (+3): Blind, Disorient
Sore Eye (fleeting), Badly Bloodshot Eye (sticky, cured by an eye bath), Weeping Blood (lasting, requires rest and bandaging until healed)