Fate Horror Toolkit
The Other—Ideas, Regimes, and Wholly Alien Adversaries
The Other—Ideas, Regimes, and Wholly Alien Adversaries
The Other is any opponent with the ability and will to change the characters’ natures. Horror scenarios with the Other as antagonist throw the characters into a struggle to define their very selves. This type of horror is innately personal and internal, and therefore calls for an extra round of care before, during, and after the game for the wellbeing of the real people playing.
Our focus here is on the Other as a force of repression to be overcome or, conversely, initially unwanted but ultimately liberating change. These are a few of the works that inspired us:
- Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson is a collection of short stories based on the theme of facades and the real people inside our skins.
- Suffered From the Night: Queering Stoker’s Dracula, edited by Steve Berman, is an anthology of short stories that shows just how many directions open up when authors revisit old, familiar material without narrow assumptions. This volume contains an exuberant variety of reinterpreted histories, relationships, and outcomes.
- The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan, is a harrowing tale narrated by a schizophrenic woman trying to make sense of experiences that may be hauntings or may just be symptoms. The trans woman she’s in love with plays a crucial part in separating true life and imagination, while the mysterious woman who sometimes stalks her gains power in part from the social norms that push the narrator and her girlfriend to the margins. It’s an intense novel, sometimes grueling to read (as it was to write), but the rewards are great.
- Occultation and Other Stories, by Laird Barron, includes the novella “Mysterium Tremendous”. Barron tells the story of two gay couples whose camping vacation turns into utter ruin, and shows the difference between writing about characters being gay and writing about characters who are gay.
- Gothika has a protagonist who’s opposed by people who should be helping her because they believe she’s mentally ill.
- Cabal by Clive Barker, filmed as Nightbreed, features someone in a confrontation with a supernatural Other who comes to realize that the Other is not the enemy.
- Get Out is a modern classic exploring themes of racism and racial fetishism in a terrifying and claustrophobic way.
- 1984 by George Orwell is the seminal example of a dystopian, all-controlling, all-seeing government. It’s also a great example of something that wasn’t written or marketed as horror, but which works great for horror anyway.
What Is the Other?
The concept of an enemy that wants to shape its victims in its own image is one we see again and again. We humans fear threats to our sense of self and to what we consider acceptable society. We find it easy to personify a whole group or set of groups that threaten these things as one entity: the Other.
The Other in your game may be a purely mundane force of political tyranny that wants its subjects not just to submit, but to embrace their submission.
George Orwell’s Big Brother from 1984 is the archetypal modern example of a political Other, and Winston Smith’s final submission is a classic example of what losing to the Other means. He comes to find his own actual life less interesting and trustworthy than the day’s lies about industrial production and warfare. Everything that made Winston an individual ultimately yields to the Party’s idea of what he ought to be.
Alternatively, the Other may be a supernatural, alien, or otherwise exotic threat to life as the characters wish to lead it. Possibilities include literal aliens, viral/sentient ideas, elder gods or other Cthulhu Mythos-ish ancient evils, and artificial intelligences.
In They Live, the Other is an alien race that hides in plain sight and rules humanity with subliminal messages so they’re unaware of their subjugation.
Our identities are fragile in many ways, and can be threatened from almost any direction, with some emotional and experiential similarities regardless of the threat’s origin. Whatever people find strange, hard to comprehend, and threatening can become the Other, and the Other is a monster to be defeated.
On Othering People
Horror fiction often has a conservative, even reactionary, streak. People who dare to have sex out of wedlock are punished. Gay characters are presented as creepy and unnatural because of their sexuality. The Black character often dies first. As part of this trend, the Other has historically been used to embody the forces of change and diversity perceived to threaten an idealized, old-fashioned, small-town community.
Othering the “weirdos” who believed in racial equality, the worth of women, and the naturalness of non-straight relationships was rarely part of a calculated agenda, but the things that everyone involved with a project took for granted show where an era’s fears lay.
Instead of looking to the conservative roots of horror, we have chosen here to focus on the example set by horror writers who belong to various marginalized, oppressed groups. They have taken the notion of the Other and subverted it in two different directions:
Redefining the Other: It turns out that the threat is not the outsiders, but the mainstream that won’t engage with them as equals. Whether the outsiders win or lose a battle against the Other, they’re the ones championing values of personal freedom, civilization, and community.
In Gothika, the institutional forces that the protagonist would normally turn to for help immediately flip against her once she’s got the stigmatizing label of being mentally ill following her experiences with ghosts. After that, everything she sees and learns becomes only evidence of her mental illness, and confirmation that she needs to be locked up.
Embracing the Other: It turns out that the outsiders have qualities that make them fundamentally unlike the mainstream force fighting them...and that’s just fine. The outsiders’ Otherness isn’t harmful, although it threatens the comfort and security of those who shun Otherness.
Clive Barker’s works including Cabal and The Hellbound Heart are prominent examples of this. He evokes the gay experience of accepting one’s difference from others—and one’s similarity to others who’ve been excluded and shunned—in his characters who discover that what the world sees as monstrous has its own wonder and even beauty.
Creating the Other
In a Fate game, the Other is a fractal NPC consisting of one or more of:
- An Other-as-entity NPC representing the totality of the Other
- Sub-groups of entities within the Other, each with a specific purpose and created as NPCs
- The individual entities that together comprise the Other
Creating the Other-as-entity is a very similar process to making a monster. Give the Other:
- A high concept aspect and theme
- A purpose aspect
- One or two other aspects that define it. Use these to flesh out its nature and the threat it poses. If it has vulnerability aspects, they reflect institutional blind spots and other large-scale flaws rather than physical weaknesses.
- A few custom skills that reflect its strengths and method of operation. Its apex skills should be at least one or two steps higher on the Fate ladder than the group’s current skill cap; it is an overwhelming threat.
- At least one custom skill at Poor (-1) or Terrible (-2) to exemplify something it is not very good at
- Two or three stunts that reinforce the Other’s areas of competence or ability to achieve feats that others can’t
Repeat these steps as necessary to create smaller sub-groups of the Other, such as departments of a government or corporation or special-purpose teams. Sub-groups can share skills and stunts with the Other-as-entity or have completely different traits.
Finally, create individual entities that make up the Other, either as monsters or regular nameless, supporting, or main NPCs depending on their role in the story.
How far you need to drill down when you’re creating the Other and/or its constituent parts depends on the Other’s role in your story and the scale of the conflicts you’re planning. If the PCs are part of a coherent organization that can rally significant resources, then you can resolve conflicts at the Other-as-entity level. If, however, the characters are a group of rough sleepers fighting a shadowy organization that’s kidnapping and brainwashing them, they can’t—initially at least—meaningfully affect the Other-as-entity and must instead interact with its individual members or small sub-groups.
Bruce’s game is based on 1984, so he writes up Party mastermind O’Brien and a few low-ranking officials the characters frequently encounter, then creates the rest of the Party as a single entity whose aspects, skills, approaches, and stunts cover its vast human and physical resources, its psychological penetration of culture and language, and so on.
Giving the Other Scale
The PCs face overwhelmingly difficult opposition if they try to confront the Other-as-entity without having resources of a similar scale at their disposal. Using the scale rules from Dresden Files Accelerated (page 182) is a good way to handle a disparity of power between the Other and the group without having to give the Other-as-entity very high skills ratings. There are five levels of scale from Mundane to Godlike. Each level of scale over an adversary gives the acting character +1 to their roll, +2 shifts if their roll is successful, or an extra free invoke on a create advantage roll opposed by their adversary.
Means of Resistance
There’s a fundamental choice to discuss when setting up a game featuring the Other: what kinds of resistance are effective?
The straightforward answer is “any means necessary.” Society at large may come to think of the characters as terrorists, but their violence can be very effective and justified by the nature of the threat posed by the Other. In a game with an action-movie level of depth, it may not even be an issue—of course the characters are justified, they’re the heroes. In games with more depth, there will either be enough people in authority to recognize the necessity of the character’s actions for a heroic outcome, or there won’t, and the characters will face condemnation and maybe worse.
Where the Other is providing a social critique by its very nature, often haphazard violence won’t work, on the principle that using the enemy’s tools brings the characters halfway toward being the enemy themselves. The characters must find other ways to strike back: peaceful sabotage against brutal violence, careful planning and/or surreal chaos-making against physically overwhelming force, magic against materialistic tyranny that denies the spiritual.
If violence against the Other is truly not the best strategy, change the rules of the game to reinforce this fact. Either flat-out say that attacks against the Other don’t work, or impose a cost every time someone attacks the Other, regardless of whether their roll is successful.
Confronting the Other
Confrontations with the Other move through three stages: initial conflict, a threshold moment of critical vulnerability, and transformation—whether that means becoming the Other, changing the Other so it’s no longer a threat to the self, or changing oneself into something capable of resisting the Other.
You don’t need to complete all three steps or cover each of them in detail, especially not in games intended to be short or where you just want to focus on part of the process.
During this phase of the game, the characters and the Other discover each other as threats and begin to clash with increasing intensity. The Other isn’t deliberately hunting for the characters, and initially brushes up against them as typical interference in its business from the not-yet-subjugated world. The characters likely aren’t hunting the Other either, and experience its presence as apparently random difficulties in going about their business, violence or chaos in their environment, or increasingly suspicious patterns of recurring hardship for people like them.
After a few such encounters, play out a pivotal scene in which the characters and the Other finally come to recognize the threat they each pose to one another. This is a contest, challenge, or minor conflict in which the PCs are directly opposed by agents of the Other and finally come to realize its existence as a coherent foe rather than a series of coincidental problems.
Discovering the Other’s existence and responding to it challenges the characters’ worldview, even when it’s essentially a natural force at work. The Other confirms every paranoid fear—the kind we usually try to talk each other out of—and adds that, yes, it’s all very much planned, not just improvised by fumbling would-be authorities who share our frailties. The individual or group at the top has a purity of vision, a capacity for disregarding normal human impulses; they are unlike most people, including the characters.
Feeling Out the Opposition
Once they notice each other’s existence, over subsequent scenes each side acts to discover more about the opposition. The PCs can investigate the Other by taking create an advantage or overcome actions, completing challenges, or engaging in contests with the Other to obtain intelligence or material evidence. Meanwhile, the Other probes them in return. The way actions are carried out on both sides brings the nature of the Other into tangible experience.
An institutional, bureaucratic Other can flood the characters with weird but not entirely unjustifiable demands for disclosure of paperwork, registration forms, and duplicate documents. A viral idea or parasitical Other can “borrow” a separate person’s body for each encounter, wrapping the characters in an endless procession of strangers who seem to all share a certain set of quirks reflecting their unseen masters at work. An eldritch Other can prey on the characters in non-physical ways, haunting them with ghosts or visions using the rules. Others can be very inventive, stealthy, and unsettling in their methods, and part of your job as GM is to convey the sense of a power playing by its own rules.
Isolation is a crucial element of the strategy used by every Other. It tries to cut off characters from their allies, friends, and families, from their sources of income, from places that have been secure and safe. The characters’ response to these threats exposes more of the Other’s scope of influence and shows them the fate of others who resisted and lost.
Soon the Other understands the characters well enough—or thinks it does—and begins to attack their essential selves. There’s a moment where this phase of the struggle begins. In movies, it’s often an instant of unexpected violence or other tragedy framed by silence as the characters face their changed situation in stunned surprise. In books and comics, it’s the cliffhanger ending of a story arc and the beginning of a new one.
Discuss the threshold criteria for your game with the players during game creation. Examples of good thresholds include:
- A character suffers a severe consequence from the Other’s actions (or the second time a character suffers a severe consequence, if you want the conflict to last a bit longer)
- A character concedes (or is taken out) in a struggle against the Other
- One or more characters lose something vitally important, like a spouse or home
Regardless of the length of your game, the moment of threshold is a major milestone.
This is where the characters themselves become the front line of the struggle. The Other has a target list of personality traits it wants to suppress, and others it wants to mandate. Since every human thought is a very complex product of very complex inputs, the Other can’t just decree that all its subjects will hold a specific list of ideas. What it can do is set attitudes and priorities.
Transforming a PC in this way requires the Other to inflict mental or physical harm on them in a conflict.
First, the Other must establish narrative permission to transform the PC by engineering a situation that allows them to do so. The exact preparations required depend on the Other’s nature, aspects, and skills.
The cockroaches of the post-human age—here in the present to steer our apocalypse—need to prepare a special brainwashing larva in advance, grapple a target during a conflict, and then successfully attack them to insert the larva into their ear.
Big Brother’s Party uses incarceration, beatings, and brainwashing in secure facilities to transform their opponents, requiring a PC to be taken out and transported before the process—a mental conflict—can begin.
Once the Other has established the conditions required for transformation, it can attach a sticky checked condition (Dresden Files Accelerated, page 116) to a single moderate, severe, or extreme consequence taken by the PC during the conflict. While checked, the condition has a rules effect—about equivalent to a stunt—that furthers the Other’s agenda.
Big Brother inflicts a moderate consequence on a meddling reporter and gives her the condition Nothing to See Here . While this is checked, the reporter gets +2 opposition on rolls to investigate the Party.
The cockroaches inflict a severe consequence and a brain larva on a World Health Organization doctor and give them the condition They Had It Coming . While this is checked, when the doctor treats a consequence on an enemy of the roaches, the consequence goes into recovery as normal but heals as if it were one step worse.
The transformation condition is unchecked when the consequence it’s attached to is cleared. If the Other successfully transforms the PC again later, it can re-check the same condition or replace it with a new one as it prefers.
In the very long term, the Other’s goal is to inflict extreme consequences on the PCs to establish character aspects like Enemies Aren’t News, by Definition and The Only Good Human Is a Devoured Human.
How the PC feels about an imposed condition or aspect is up to the player, within the boundaries of the Other’s agenda. It may seem completely normal to the character, or it may feel weird and inappropriate.
It is quite likely that the characters will lose their struggle. They often do in horror stories with this kind of conflict. But sometimes getting lost in the Other’s grasp isn’t the end of the story. There’s a tradition of characters being partly or entirely consumed and yet returning to themselves (even if scarred and traumatized) and being able to help others escape the Other’s clutches.
Once a character has an extreme consequence due to the Other’s efforts at transformation, the Other can turn them into a fully willing pawn the next time it takes them out. This turns them into a main NPC, immediately recovers all their consequence slots, and permanently checks their current set of transformation conditions.
For the PCs to liberate a pawn of the Other—regardless of whether they were ever a PC—the circumstances must be created to justify a deprogramming attempt. The liberation then proceeds as a mirror image of the original transformation process: once in each conflict, the liberators can inflict a consequence on the pawn and uncheck one of their transformation conditions. Once all of the pawn’s transformation conditions are unchecked, they are removed from the Other’s control.
Characters emerge from such rescue operations with only dim, fuzzy memories of what it was like to be subjugated by the Other. If they spend time in self-analysis and seeking others’ help to understand their experiences, players can choose to use the next milestone to recover those memories instead of spending it on the usual options. Characters with recovered memories now know what happened to them while the Other was in control, and come out with useful insights; they gain a stunt specifically to be used against the Other.
The Other as a whole becomes aware of liberation attempts only when the characters fail, or when they succeed and the newly liberated target disappears from the Other’s awareness altogether. This makes it possible to assemble a force capable of resistance using of some of the Other’s own assets. Finally, there can be an epic showdown, with the smoke of conflict clearing to reveal whether the Other is still standing or not.
Here are two variations on the theme.
The Other as Liberator
This option draws on the tradition of Others who are symbols of desirable alternatives to mundane existence: living without fear or compromise as a person of an ethnicity, or sexual orientation, or gender identity, or disability, or some other quality that the mainstream hates and fears. Some people find it unsuitably campy or trivializing. Others find it an important part of the Other’s symbolic power: it turns out that normality is far short of human potential, and that liberated humanity is much more than anyone still in subjugation knows.
The first stage of confrontation unfolds as usual, because the Other is at this point still a largely unknown menace, an unsettling possibility almost entirely obscured.
Things change when characters hit the threshold. Now they see the Other for what it is—a possible future for themselves set free of the constraints that have made their lives miserable (or worse). At each significant milestone, they can make improvements reflecting their better understanding. This is a kind of mystical enlightenment, and can unlock powers beyond normal human boundaries.
- Raising a skill or approach beyond normal human limits, and without the usual skill pyramid limits
- Allowing the purchase of stunts or extras reflecting physical transformation or outright psychic, supernatural, or other powers. Powers like those in Venture City and Psychedemia can appear in horror play as eerie, world-transforming abilities that are threatening to those still in the old way of understanding.
Tristan is already one of the best verbal aggro generators in the world, with Provoke at Superb (+5). After a series of clashes with the memetic parasite that is the Other, Tristan also has fresh insights into how human minds deal with conceptual assault. Tristan takes advantage of the next significant milestone to raise Provoke to Fantastic (+6), and doesn’t have to advance two other skills to Superb (and the cascading requirements down the pyramid) before being able to do so. Now, when Tristan needles and unsettles, targets really don’t know what hit them.
Rosario has always tried to flee violence. After a confrontation with the homophobic and racist pre-human entity that is the Other, mental barriers peel back, and the next significant milestone goes to acquiring another stunt. It buys Super Speed from Venture City (page 63), with the Speed Demon collateral damage effect and a horror-oriented drawback. Any time Rosario uses Super Speed two or more turns in a row, first her clothing and then her skin burns away, trailing away as ash and cinders; when Rosario slows down to normal speed again, observers see a person burned from head to foot. This doesn’t harm Rosario, but it requires cleanup and fresh clothes to shed the raw-meat look.
Future minor and significant milestones can give Rosario additional stunts for developing this power. There’s also potential for consequences and dangerous aspects—Rosario might come to feel My Body Is My Own, the Hell With Anyone With a Problem About It or If Norms Mattered that Much, I’d Just Stand Still.
This sort of transformation always comes at some cost, even when it’s a cost the character pays gladly. Stepping outside the normal range of human possibility opens up new prospects, including the prospect of regarding humanity as inferior to one’s new self. In horror, every great gift has the potential to become a great weapon, which might end up aimed at its own wielder or at others. Empowered characters inevitably face temptations to use their new powers in ways that turn other people into mere objects, and what they do in response will drive much of the ensuing story.
The characters’ transformation may or may not be visible to the outside world. There’s a tradition of it being very visible indeed, the characters gaining wings, scales, hair, eyes, and skin in unique colors, and more fantastic, grotesque options like skin and bones folded and bent to make harps, knives, or lenses. Exterior exuberance expresses inward delight.
Once the characters have embraced the Other and their transformation by it, a second Other, the embodiment of the Old Order, now comes into play as the real enemy of the characters and their kind. Create this new Other using the rules with a focus on regaining the old status quo.
When the Old Order manages to transform characters who’ve become part of the original Other, it focuses on restoring the traits the characters replaced during transformation. Its threat begins by forcing the characters back into their old selves and lives; whether they retain any clear memories of what they were becoming is up to the Old Order.
The Other as Chaos
The Other can serve as a mechanical representation of world-breaking chaos, rather than a force with a clear agenda. At the beginning of play, each player writes one of their character’s aspects on a card or slip of paper. The GM shuffles them together. When the Other inflicts an extreme consequence and thus has the opportunity to impose its agenda, draw an aspect at random. It replaces one of the character’s existing aspects, chosen either at random or by the player.
For even deeper chaos, also do one or both of these:
- Include at least one of each character’s skills, approaches, or stunts as well. Targeted characters may end up with traits that aren’t even the same kind of trait that they lost.
- Include traits from example NPCs written for other settings. They don’t have to be possible within the parameters of the game’s world as established so far, since this represents reality falling over. Characters could end up partially embodying characters they regard as fictional, as well as possibilities they’d never considered.