Fate System Toolkit

The Horror Paradox

At face value, Fate is a bad fit for the horror genre. It’s right there in the opener of Fate Core: “…works best with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives.” Horror does its dark work by placing characters in deadly, inescapable circumstances beyond their control. In horror, characters are often forced to react, rather than act. Despite their capabilities, characters face threats that outclass them; their competence isn’t enough to win. Defeat seems inevitable, and success comes at a high cost. Rather than charge in and win the day, characters focus more on surviving the next few minutes and making good on an escape.

How do we reconcile these two realities? How do we take a system built for proactive, capable characters and make it serve the needs of the horror genre?

That’s the Fate-plus-horror paradox. This is how we solve it.

The Elements of Horror

Horror is really all about the visceral, emotional response the players have to the game. System is absolutely able to drive this, with your help. For our toolkit purposes, horror is a combination of oppressive atmosphere, impossible circumstances, and stark desperation.

Oppressive Atmosphere

Compels Aplenty: While compels aren’t tools for forcing outcomes, they are tools for making things go wrong. So make them abundant. Place aspects on the scene, the story, the campaign—and compel them to make things go wrong for everyone. Simply dropping Death Comes for Everyone onto the story and compelling it at the exact worst time (for the players) to make things that much worse will get lots of traction. Yeah, the players affected will walk away with some fate points—which they’ll need in order to survive—but they’ll also feel the emotional gut-punch of the moment—and will wonder when the next compel is going to land. Make them hurt. Make them worry.

Every Path a Dark One: Aspects aren’t the only way to evoke atmosphere. You can deliver, too, with obstacles and zones. It’s never easy to run away from horror, so clutter the path to salvation with obstacles. (Read more on obstacles, below.) And when you’re drawing your zone maps, make it all more claustrophobic than usual: more zones covering less space. While the physical distances aren’t any different, it’s just plain harder to get away from the dangerous places in horror—in a regular house, the front door might just be a zone away. In a haunted house? Try more like five or ten… and never let them sprint the full length.

Impossible Circumstances

Just because the characters are empowered protagonists doesn’t mean things have to be easy for them.

Any obstacle’s difficulty set at two higher than the skill to overcome it is likely to need an invoke. With players’ best skills topping out at Good or Great, that means your starting level for difficulties should be in the same range, and go up from there. Don’t skimp on this. Really turn the screws!

With high difficulties come higher chances of failure. Rather than turn this into player paralysis and apathy, make heavy use of “succeed, but at a cost” as an alternative—and give the potential costs some real teeth. Make the price uncomfortable. When paying you your due, the players will feel horror’s bite. Every step forward spills just a little more blood. It’s death by degrees.

In fights against impossibly tough foes, the players will be inclined to concede, to try to wrest some control of the situation. There’s no reason not to accept these concessions, but you should always advocate, hard, for concessions that truly hurt. Here, too, is where they will pay a price, and feel the teeth bite down.

All of this drives towards a feeling of desperation. And so…

Stark Desperation

Desperation arises from threatened, sparse resources and hard choices made under pressure. A player character’s finite resources include fate points, stress, and consequences. Limit these without making them absent. Consider:

  • Low refresh: If the players only have a few fate points, those fate points will feel precious. They’ll need to spend them if they want to succeed cleanly—or at all. The tension in this choice heightens anxiety.
  • Minimal stress tracks: Don’t give them more than a box or two, if you give them any. In horror, characters shouldn’t have much of a buffer before they start to break and bleed. Additionally, if you use a mental or sanity stress track, lasting trauma, terror, and madness are just moments away.
  • Weaker consequences: Consider making consequences soak less damage. The default dial is -2/-4/-6 for mild, moderate, and severe, which is pretty hefty. For horror, think about halving all those numbers, or trying -1/-2/-4. It won’t take much of a hit to really hurt the characters, making any kind of conflict all the more dangerous.

Pair your system design with hard choices for the characters that they’ll have to make under pressure. This will take away clean, easy victories. After all, the PCs themselves are finite resources: they can’t be in two places at once. And pressure arises from a lack of time. Time is the final finite resource that you as the GM can control. In horror, there should never be enough time.

So give your players too much to do and not enough time to do it. The people and things characters care about are also finite resources—and for a GM, they’re often easier to threaten than the character himself. Save your husband or your child: but never both—there’s only one of you, and two bombs at opposite ends of the house.

Your players will hate you for it. And if they came to all this to really revel in the horror—they’ll love you for it, too, screaming all the way.