Fate System Toolkit
As with Storm Summoners, this is nominally tied to the larger Five Storms magic system, and similarly, it’s designed to easily stand alone. Although in this case, it may stand somewhat further afield. This is the magic of the dark and terrible things that lie outside the boundaries of reality. Classically, it’s the space for unimaginable yet clearly tentacled horrors, but the hope here is to ground it a little bit more. Drawing on sources like Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces novels, the idea is that one does not need to lean so heavily on the crutch of the “unknowable” to come up with disturbing stuff.
It would be easy to say that this is magic for villains, but that would be doing you and yours a disservice—to say nothing of the disservice to the villains. This is magic that comes at a horrible, nigh-inhuman cost, but nigh-inhuman is not quite the same thing as inhuman. The cultists who summon dark things are not simple nutjobs looking to destroy everything. They want something, and there’s a price they’re willing to pay.
What they want and the price they pay can make them very hard to distinguish from some heroes.
No one is sure what the Void is. There’s some literature that suggests that it’s everything that’s not the universe, while other works suggest that it’s the end of the universe at the scale where time and place are indistinguishable. To some it’s simply hell. Whatever it is, it’s a bad place. Dark in every sense of the word. Sometimes someone trips into the edges of it, and if it doesn’t kill them outright, it marks them terribly.
Thankfully, this is rare. The Void doesn’t interact with the world unless one really goes seeking it out, and even then it’s pretty hard to find. In fact, it would probably be utterly impossible to find except for one dangerous truth: there are things there that want to get out.
There is no one description of what these things are and what they want. Some are little more than animals, albeit animals possessed of horrific powers. Others are clearly possessed of some level of intellect, from sub- to trans-human.
The smart ones are an obvious threat—they seek means to make it easier for humans to find the Void, offering bargains and seeking to spread knowledge best left hidden. Their endgames differ. Some clearly move toward crossing the threshold into our world, others seem to seek to draw others into their own dark courts. Others are simply a mystery.
Still, the threat of the animals is not to be underestimated—the threat they present is often ecological. A single creature may be no great threat, but given time to breed and spread, they could represent an extinction-level event.
But they’re just so darn useful.
Power from the Void takes a number of shapes. Most commonly, it is in the form of summoning and binding some useful creature. So long as proper precautions are taken, these creatures can usually be kept quite safely, but precautions often have limits. This is doubly true for very powerful creatures. They are no harder to summon—though binding them is another matter—and they will actively seek to circumvent whatever restrictions are put upon them.
Sometimes actual power can also be gained from dealings with the Void. This can take the form of knowledge, such as a spell or trick, or more direct power, usually through the form of some sort of infection. That latter can be just as bad as it sounds—there is no guarantee that the power you received today is not the thing that makes you explode in a flurry of flesh-eating worms tomorrow.
The 30-Second Version
- Find the instructions for performing a dark summoning.
- Roll Lore against the difficulty of the summoning. After the fact, you add whatever bonus you need to the roll to make it a success. The GM gets 1 Doom Point for each +1 so granted.
- You use the horrible thing you have summoned to your own benefit and the detriment of the world.
- GM spends Doom Points to make your bad idea even worse.
There are two different mechanical considerations for dealing with the powers of the Void. The first is the question of how contact is made, how things are summoned, and so on. The second is how the effects of those things are expressed.
It sounds mundane, but summoning something from the Void is roughly comparable to assembling a big piece of furniture. You have extensive directions, and if you follow them exactly and have all the right tools, they should produce the result promised. Unfortunately, in even the best of circumstances, this stuff can be confusing. The author is rarely a skilled technical writer and, let us not forget, is the kind of guy who writes a book about how to summon unholy monstrosities.
This is actually why anyone who knows anything is skeptical of “spellbooks.” Anyone who is trying to make a book out of this stuff has got pretty suspect priorities, and there’s no real guarantee that any of it is going to work. There are a handful of known spellbooks that are floating around in numbers enough to be recognizable, and it’s a useful survival skill to know which ones are bogus. And even then caution is called for—it’s far from uncommon for practitioners to seed their books with known bad rituals.
The real treasures are notebooks. The reality is that sloppy practitioners are dead practitioners, and the ones who survive for any period of time document the hell out of everything—success, failure, and otherwise. Unfortunately, notebooks tend to be personal chicken scratch at best and enciphered at worst, so nothing is ever easy.
All of which is to say that in many cases, the difficulty in figuring out how to summon something is less about the actual difficulty of the task, which is usually fairly easy, and much more about getting a good, reliable set of instructions. This limitation is the big reason that even successful practitioners usually only have a few tricks up their sleeve. Each new summoning they learn requires a period of basically playing Russian roulette, with escalating stakes.
So, the actual act of summoning is a Lore roll to see how well you follow instructions, as well as how well you take precautions, apply your judgment to the proceedings, and generally proceed with caution. Assuming the ritual that you’re using is correct—and there’s no guarantee of that—then there are two difficulties in play: the difficulty of the actual ritual, and the difficulty of parsing the ritual from the text. For tracking purposes, these are the summoning difficulty and the parsing difficulty.
As a rule of thumb, the summoning difficulty is usually fairly low, even for powerful creatures. Remember, they want to come here, and the only real challenge is doing so safely. The much higher difficulty is parsing the directions.
Summoning difficulties tend to be consistent, but parsing difficulties totally depend upon the source material. The lowest parsing difficulty can be equal to the summoning difficulty. In either case, both difficulties are unknown to the player.
To actually perform a summoning, the character must make all appropriate steps as laid out in the ritual, and then make a single Lore roll against both difficulties.
After the roll:
- If the player beats neither difficulty, the spell either doesn’t work, or it works without proper safeguards, and whatever you summoned is now on the loose. This is totally the GM’s judgment call, depending upon how much fun she would have with that.
- If the player beats the summoning difficulty but doesn’t beat the parsing difficulty, the spell works! Just like it’s supposed to! More or less.
Make a note of how much the player missed beating the parsing difficulty by. That value is converted into the GM’s Doom Points. Note that this is explicitly beat the difficulty—a tie will still accrue one Point. Doom Points are the currency of things that went wrong. They might be small or subtle, they might be big and painful, but they’re not immediately evident, and they can be revealed at the GM’s leisure.
For example: Dave attempts a ritual with a summoning difficulty of Fair (+2) and a parsing difficulty of Fantastic (+6). He rolls a Great (+4) so the spell works, but the GM accrues 3 Doom Points, because Dave would have needed to roll 3 higher to beat the difficulty.
If you succeed with style on a ritual, you succeed without Doom and the parsing difficulty drops by one point for subsequent efforts at the same ritual. This cannot reduce the parsing difficulty below the summoning difficulty, and it only applies to you. Anyone else must still use the parsing difficulty of the original notes—or your notes, if appropriate.
So why is summoning so “safe” for PCs? Basic game design. Don’t make a magic system where the spells might kill you, but are useful if you succeed. That’s a totally reasonable control from the perspective of “realism,” but it’s terrible from a play perspective. Magic is Chekov’s gun—if you introduce it, someone will use it, and then it’s on you to try to make it work, either way. In this specific case, it is much more interesting to have players deal with the consequences of success. That can be worse than dying, and no one needs to roll up a new character. At least, not right away.
The rules so far presuppose summoning small- to medium-scale beings from the Void. There are bigger creatures, and they can also be summoned and bound. The actual rules and difficulties do not change, but the requirements for the ritual are usually far more extravagant. Isolated mountaintops, circles of gold chain, a thousand paper cranes with their wings dipped in the menstrual blood of a killer, stuff like that. As with normal summons, the roll is not the essential part of the process—and, in fact, the rules are the same—it’s all the stuff getting to that point that matters.
This may seem counterintuitive—if bigger things are trying to come through, why do their rituals take more componentry? It’s just a practical consideration—think of the ritual as scaffolding. The bigger the thing you want to bring across is, the stronger the scaffolding needs to be—and that’s before you start considering the binding element.
Of course, many of these things are big, smart, and powerful enough to find loopholes. Some have created, or lead to the creation of, artifacts—mirrors, statues, monkey paws, puzzle boxes and the like—that can open the way for them. Thankfully, these usually are limited in some way; otherwise, the creature would probably have already come through. But they make excellent fishing lures, so to speak.
A summoned creature can’t do much of anything. Part of the summoning is binding it, at least if things are done right. Basically, the Summoner must release it—in whole or in part—to benefit from its abilities. For dumb creatures, this just means breaking the circle and letting them do their thing. For more intelligent creatures, it means releasing them to use their powers under strict ground rules.
Technically, these things are pretty Faustian about their bargaining. They generally can’t negotiate—unless, of course, they can—but they will try to exploit any holes in the limits placed upon them. However, nothing is less fun than coming up with precise wording for these things, so don’t demand it. GMs should ask for player’s intent, and then respect it. Doom Points and natural consequences should provide more than enough complications.
Doom Points are a rough currency to keep track of all the things that the character didn’t account for. Think of them as infernal loopholes, a bucket of things just waiting to go wrong with a summoning. Basically, they give the GM carte blanche to make the situation worse—not that she can’t do that anyway, but spending a Doom Point shifts the blame nicely. A few things that might be done with a spent Doom Point:
- Allow the creature to use a power outside the scope of the binding, even if only a little at a time.
- Allow the creature to summon other creatures.
- Allow the creature to establish contact with someone else, someone who might be interested in a better deal.
- The creature’s mere presence imposes a scene aspect on its environs, in a steadily growing radius.
Rituals and Aspects
Aspects seem like a great way to guarantee a safe ritual and avoid that whole GM doom thing, and they technically are. But there are a few things to consider.
When you do one of these summonings, you are doing something terrible. Every possible thing you could bring across is an abomination, and a threat to the world. When you invoke an aspect to help you do that, you may well be tainting that aspect.
We all understand doing bad things for good reasons, and that may be the motivation that drives someone to summon. But when you make that decision, you cross a line, and you are saying something profound about that aspect. That says something about your character, and it also says something about how that aspect shows up in play. Once you open the door to doing abominable things in the name of love, you have invited the GM to see how far you are willing to go.
And maybe that’s awesome. That may be exactly what you want to see in play—it’s a great, powerful theme. But we mention it here so that you walk through that door with both eyes open.
Creatures and Powers
And here’s the harsh reality—there is no way to fully catalog all the possible expressions of these horrible things. We’re going to provide a lot of examples, but the reality is that for this, you should look at every Fate build you can for ideas. These are all one-offs, and if the rules for a particular creature don’t work with the rest of the game, this will be one context where that makes sense. This is your opportunity to go absolutely nuts.
The only limiter is that you want to include some checks to prevent a total party kill as soon as the nasty thing gets loose. This may mean limiting the range of bad things to ones that can be dealt with. It may mean making sure your characters have certain defenses. It’s just something to be mindful of.
Summoning Difficulty: Fair (+1)
A little bit longer than a man’s thumb, these beetles have white, soft shells, like they’ve just emerged from some cycle of growth, but it never hardens. To use it, simply let it walk around on your skin for a while—it’s gross for a few moments, but then you won’t even notice it’s there. Literally. Unless you really, actively put some effort into trying to find it, you’re simply not aware of it, no matter where it crawls. If you don’t know to expect it, it’s just one of those creepy momentary sensations that passes quickly.
The beetle gets its name for its ability to eat wounds. It undoes things on a small scale, and it mechanically has a very potent effect: once per day, its owner can remove one physical consequence, effectively erasing the injury. After it’s eaten three such wounds, it will lay a little egg somewhere on your body—which will go similarly unnoticed—and in a week, another beetle will hatch and be walking around unnoticed—and able to eat additional wounds.
If, on the other hand, a beetle goes for a week without a wound to eat, it finds sustenance elsewhere, and eats one of its host’s aspects. This doesn’t cause any direct change—things aren’t forgotten or removed, they just matter a lot less. Once all of a person’s aspects are eaten, they pretty much yield to a listless ennui punctuated by occasional moments of intense activity or self-harm—quickly eradicated—in an attempt to get a grasp on something they lost and cannot find.
Their homes grow messier and more crowded with stuff, coming to resemble nests with paths radiating out from the glow of the television. Not coincidentally, such waste-filled environments are friendly to the beetle, which use the mess to travel more safely away from their host—as they are easy prey for boots and predators—to find new hosts, preferably sleeping ones who will never notice their new guest.
Beetles are not a huge threat on their own—even an unchecked infection rarely extends beyond a single building. However, they are also symbiotic with many more aggressive invaders or infections. A human turned monstrous killing machine is dangerous, but one covered in wound-eating beetles is a whole other problem.
Summoning Difficulty: Good (+2)
There’s a longer name for this thing, but it’s a mouthful. It looks like a cross between a lightning bolt and a centipede that never slows down enough so you can get a good look. It cannot sustain itself for long in stasis, though it can be kept in a properly prepared glass jar. Released, it is a flash and a bang, dangerous as a lightning strike, then gone.
If, however, it’s released into something it can travel through, like a power line, it can maintain itself indefinitely. It can crudely manipulate electronic devices in this fashion, and can strike like a cobra from any point of electrical exposure—light sockets, outlets, and the like. Such a strike—Superb (+5) vs. Notice, Weapon:7—is a potent weapon, but disperses the creature, and many practitioners use them as fire-and-forget weapons.
If one gets free, it tends to occupy a “nest” of wires, such as a house or office—they seem to have trouble travelling long distances across the grid. The only obvious sign of this is bizarre electrical oddities, at least until the creature spawns. A small lightning worm is the size of a true centipede and will crawl out of outlets, make its way into any electronics it can find—usually small gadgets—and stay there until connected to another grid where it can grow and eventually produce its own brood. If not, it will grow until its bonds can no longer contain it, then kill the next person it sees. Either way.
Setting aside the infrastructure threat these things represent, they have one other bad habit—fresh corpses make for a really interesting set of wires to them. Living things don’t hold much interest to them, but a recently deceased body possessed of a sophisticated nervous system? It’s like a party. A shambling, not-dead, crackling, taser-touch undead party—at least until it burns out.
The worms can be rough to spot, but completely cutting off the electricity kills them dead.
Summoning Difficulty: Good (+2)
A white sphere, roughly the size of an egg, this creature is harmless and inert much of the time. If, however, it is put in the eye socket of a recently deceased person, it will extend tendrils into the brain and cause the body to begin regenerating. Provided that the flesh—and most importantly, the brain—is largely intact, then over the course of the next 12 hours, the person will be restored to life. If the brain is not intact, then the body will reanimate and just shamble about until it starves and dies again. Creepy, but mostly harmless. But if the brain is intact, then the person is really back—personality, memory, the works. The only different is that the Lazarus Eye can never quite match the original eye color, so the eyes are mismatched.
The problem is, the Lazarus Eye lives on brain matter, and there are only two possible ways to get it—from the host or from someone else. The primary method is to drive the host to eat brains—or, secondarily, eat the host’s brain. This hunger may start with animals, but eventually they’ll be driven to cannibalism to get human brains. The brains of the recently deceased will suffice for a while, but will never sate the hunger like a fresh kill—or better yet, a still living meal.
However, this doesn’t change the essential nature of the person doing this—they are doing this monstrous thing, fully aware that it’s monstrous, but they need to do it. They can’t stop, they can just take steps to not go after their friends and loved ones. And the Lazarus Eye supercharges their adrenal system, enhancing their reflexes and generally helping them become the apex predator they need to be—+1 to all Physical skills, -1 to all non-sensory Mental ones. It also lays a few eggs in their stomach, which can come up through the mouth should the host need it, such as to save a loved one or to help a loved one join them, so they can be safe.
If the Eye isn’t fed regularly—once a month at the outset, but more and more frequently as time goes on—then it starts turning to the only food source at hand, eating its host’s brain, usually starting with memories and higher functions. When this happens, the result is a primal killing machine—+3 to all Physical skills, -3 to all non-sensory Mental ones—cracking skulls with its bare hands and scooping out the innards. If starved further, the Eye and the host both burn out.
Summoning Difficulty: Great (+3)
A corruption of ifrit, these beings look like toads made of fire, but their fire rots and darkens as it burns, the opposite of purifying flame. As beings of energy, they are hard to physically harm, but are damaged or dispersed by clean water. It has no stress boxes or consequences, but it ignores any damage except immersion or heavy splashing, like a fire hose—it’s akin to putting out a bonfire (albeit one that’s trying to eat your face), though doing so will profoundly pollute the environs. When summoned, a Freet is usually sent after a target to kill them. Freets have effectively Great (+4) Fight and Stealth skills. If they successfully attack a target, they inflict a Burning Rot aspect on the target—a terrible, painful infection that slowly consumes the target. Until the aspect is removed, the character takes 1 stress every day, and cannot naturally recover stress or consequences. The only way to remove the aspect is to destroy the Freet and any spawn.
Speaking of spawn, Freet lay their eggs in fires, little sparks that add a bit of bad odor to the flame. After three hours, the fire extinguishes, spawning a number of unbound Freets based on the size of the fire. A fireplace might produce one, while a forest fire could produce dozens.
The Dapper Gent
Summoning Difficulty: Poor (-1)
He goes by many names, and summoning him is simply a matter of saying the right one in the right context. He will, however, only appear on his timetable, and once you have summoned him, he may visit you any time you’re alone.
The Gent is the subject of many stories, but they have a few threads in common. He’s not physically present, and he may often appear only in reflections, as a shadowy outline, or in other impossible ways, though sometimes he simply appears normally. He is thin, though his complexion is a matter of some debate, and he is always dressed well, if oddly. He comes to a Summoner when they are alone, though the meaning of this has more to do with who notices them than literal solitude. He has appeared at parties and other large events where it is possible to be lost in a crowd, though no one but his erstwhile partner ever sees him.
The Dapper Gent would like to help. He can’t physically do anything to help, mind you, but he knows a lot. He has a bottomless well of secrets, both arcane and mundane, and he’s happy to share. And he’s equally up front that he will require the occasional favor in return.
The favors are fairly benign-seeming, though savvy practitioners have noted that they usually revolve around preserving and protecting information and rituals about the Void that might otherwise be lost. It is rare that he points his partner at those rituals directly, possibly because he benefits more from keeping his partner in the dark. One common favor is to “make an introduction” and teach someone else the Dapper Gent’s name. One may always refuse to do the favor, and the Gent will politely take his leave and not return. Unless, perhaps, you find yourself in very dire straits sometime later, at which point you may find the price has gone up substantially.
For some, this is the extent of this slightly disturbing relationship, a little tit for tat, and nothing more. But it grows more complicated for those who he finds interesting. If you interest the Gent, he grows all the more helpful, and his help opens big doors, and with those come big problems. And those problems have a way of getting worse and worse until what you really want is a way out.
And that is something the Dapper Gent is happy to provide. No one knows what happens after that.
Summoning Difficulty: Good (+3)
When summoned, it’s a remarkably ugly, pustule-covered toadstool, perhaps a foot high. Rest your hand on it, and a similar pustule will appear on your hand – painless but disgusting. Lay that hand upon a sick person—or yourself—and the sickness will leave them, as the pustule seals up, and a smaller Toadstool grows on the back of your hand. It may be removed—painfully—and planted, where it will eventually grow as large as the first. So long as the Toadstool is planted and remains healthy, the disease remains in remission, though the health of all subsequent toadstools depends on the health of the first.
One unpleasant addition—the diseases still run their course while within the Toadstool—their abrupt return includes all progress of the disease from the intervening time, often to terrible and dramatic effect.
The Toadstool can also heal injuries, even repair traumatic injuries, but this is somewhat more problematic. The cured character looks fine on the outside, but internally, the “healing” is in the form of spongy yellow fungal growth that functions as the replaced flesh. This is not directly harmful—unless it has replaced brain matter, in which case the results are unpredictable, but rarely good. However, those healed in this fashion constantly generate spores. Mushrooms grow where they sleep. These are mundane, if poisonous, mushrooms, but they speed the general decay that the Mineo Toadstool brings.
The mere presence of a Mineo Toadstool is unhealthy—not for the summoner, but for the general area. One is not so dangerous—flu might be a bit nastier in town, but not really noticeably. With each additional Toadstool, it gets worse. And as a bonus, if anyone dies while receiving the benefit of a toadstool—that is, while their disease is in remission—another Toadstool grows on their grave.
Variations and Options
Keeping It in Check
So, if the Void is so dangerous, why haven’t we lost the numbers game yet? Sooner or later something is going to come through, multiply exponentially, and scourge the planet. It’s just math.
There are a couple of possible answers, any or all of which could be true.
First, the world itself moves to reject the Void. Gaps heal over time, old summonings become useless through overuse, and there’s just a steady tendency toward keeping the Void out, which offsets its continual efforts to get in.
Second, the world is not just humans. In a magical world, this might mean fae, spirits, or even gods who take steps to stop the worst incursions, but even in a reasonably modern world, it’s true. The big giant brains that humans are so proud of are also a reason that we’re vulnerable to so much of this stuff. A creature that can drain the color from your soul and leave you craving human flesh to fill the Void might be absolutely devastating to a small town, but to a coyote it’s still a delicious snack. Animals are less impressed by existential threats, and it would be disturbing to count the number of times the world has been saved by rats and spiders.
Last, there may be people who actively work against this stuff. Stamping out information is hard, but not impossible, and this has all the earmarks of a good secret war. The need to control and destroy information while still staying aware of it and capable of responding is almost paradoxically hard. From such things, great stories are born.