Horror gaming has a long and storied history, starting as far back as 1981 with Call of Cthulhu. When Vampire: The Masquerade came out a decade later, new fans were drawn into RPGs by the appeal of a game that combined horror, violence, and romance. Both of these properties are still going strong, alongside other games that emphasize the supernatural (like Urban Shadows) or the Mythos (like Delta Green). When you combine the popularity of these games with the multitude of genres that use horror elements (Ravenloft or Warhammer in fantasy, Eclipse Phase in science fiction), it’s easy to see that horror is a big draw at the gaming table, even if it can be difficult to do right. Here to help, for one of the unlikeliest systems possible, is Evil Hat, with the Fate Horror Toolkit.
Why do I say Fate is an unlikely system for horror? It mostly has to do with my own preconceptions, which this book helped disassemble quickly. Fate is a game which focuses around playing competent characters in adventurous and dramatic stories. Player-facing story mechanics are part and parcel of Fate, which made me believe that horror, which is often about a loss or lack of agency against overwhelming threats, would be a poor match with Fate. There are two reasons I was mistaken about this, which are both explained well in the Horror Toolkit. The first has to do with the nature of telling horror stories at a gaming table, and the second has to do with the flexibility of Fate itself.
As a genre, horror generates fear through uncertainty and disempowerment. As a viewer (or player, or reader), you don’t know what’s going on, and as the story continues the dread that you have no ability to overcome the threat begins to overtake you. In a role-playing game setting, the GM will use tools to generate those feelings which are both atypical for other genres of RPG, but also uncomfortable. This is why the first chapter of the Fate Horror Toolkit is about setting up a horror atmosphere, but also about consent. When one reads a horror novel or watches a horror movie, they know what to expect, which is one thing that makes it enjoyable. Horror in RPGs requires the same, and given the nature of playing and empathizing with characters, also needs ‘outs’ in case the story becomes too intense. The Toolkit mentions the X-Card, which both Seamus and I have discussed in the past, as well as a more granular tool called Script Change, developed by Brie Sheldon. Both of these tools are intended to make the horror experience at the table into one all players want. What’s cool about starting here is that establishing your table as a safe space to play is what enables working with some of the more intense narrative tricks in the game. Within this toolkit are rules and suggestions for intentionally gaslighting characters (and players), exploring sex in horror, and a lot of disturbing body horror. These can make for an intense and memorable game . . . if everyone at the table wants it. Establishing the themes and scenes that players want to see in the game makes the experience better, as well as begins to explain how Fate can work so well in the genre.
Evil Hat Productions is not new to horror: Don’t Rest Your Head came from one of the original Fate developers, Fred Hicks. As such, it’s not surprising that the developers of the Horror Toolkit came into the project knowing how Fate worked, and what parts of the system wouldn’t work well for horror. There are three key themes that come up over and over again in this book: The GM doesn’t have to allow everything, It’s OK to play hardball, and The players should agree on the story they want to tell.
The GM doesn’t have to allow everything
After the first chapter on setup, chapter two goes into creating characters, both in terms of what players should do as well as how the GM can make NPCs relatable. The section for player standards tells some important ground rules: For stunts, the GM is recommended to disallow those which would break tension. Similarly, skills like Contacts and Resources should be limited or potentially disallowed, because they allow the characters to reach out to others when isolation is likely a part of the ongoing story. And finally aspects, especially important ones like the High Concept, should be grounded and appropriate for the story being told.
The overarching theme, that the GM should restrict what isn’t appropriate to the story, is not one that gets a lot of direct words, but it’s still important to highlight, especially considering the misconceptions many people have around Fate. In many RPG fora, there is a consistent and insidious belief that Fate is a story-game where the players are allowed to make up anything they want. There is a meme out there about different role-playing game rulesets called “Can I do the Thing”. The entry for Fate reads: “That depends, can you bullshit the GM into believing that one of your vaguely-worded aspects supports you doing the thing?” If players have that attitude about Fate, it’s no wonder many people see it as a difficult choice for horror. In reading the two setup chapters of the Horror Toolkit, you as a GM should be reminded: Fate works best when there is player buy-in, but at the end of the day, it’s a traditional game with a traditional GM. Establish what works for the stories you want to create, but don’t fall into the trap that Fate is a story-circle like is propagated on the internet (mostly by people who have not read and do not play Fate).
It’s OK to play hardball
Chapters 3, 4, and 6 are about ways to make life harder on your players. 3 covers rules on trauma, scars, and horror, 4 is about creating monsters, and 6 is about how to run survival horror. The common thread between all three chapters is that they provide tools for building tension in the story, and creating memorable stories by forcing difficult choices.
Chapter 3 is, ultimately, about a mechanic which is wildly popular in RPGs: the descent. Made famous by the sanity system in Call of Cthulhu, a descent mechanic is any in which the character is affected by what they see around them and slide down a steady decline, be it sanity as in CoC, or corruption as in Dark Heresy. Instead of using a points system like these, Fate offers a use of the existing consequences system (as well as the Conditions system used in Dresden Files Accelerated and the Fate System Toolkit) to explore how characters would cope with trauma. This system is more nuanced than a points scale, and also looks at how tough it can be to overcome trauma.
If you want to incorporate a downfall into your game, there is also a rule (brought up a little later) called the Book of Scars. Each medium, severe, and extreme consequence leaves a Scar, and once your book is full (usually five scars, meaning five consequences recovered), you can’t recover those consequences again.
Monster design in chapter 4 doesn’t focus on the way opponents are designed like the Fate Adversary Toolkit. While the chapter does offer the mechanics needed to design monsters, there’s more substantive advice about how to make the monsters the center of the game, revealing them slowly and making sure they come off as scary and overwhelming, as opposed to merely a boss fight. One optional rule that I particularly enjoyed was about monster knowledge. As per typical Fate rules, a player can spend a Fate Point to declare a setting detail. The optional rule states that players can spend points to declare details about the monster, but that those points go into a separate monster pool, which give the GM more points per scene to invoke or compel aspects pertaining to the monster.
Chapter 6 is about survival horror, and provides a mechanical framework for playing survival games of all stripes. The GM declares a number of resources that the players need, which are defined as aspects with free invokes on them. Each character in the survival group (both PC and NPC) must invoke these aspects regularly, over a time interval determined by the GM. If the group runs out of a resource there are consequences, from Physique penalties for lack of food, to combat consequences for lack of ammunition. These survival mechanics are well done and, while clearly meant for horror media like The Walking Dead, could add to games in many genres.
Other instances of hardball are made evident throughout the Toolkit. Chapter 2 has a section on dilemmas, and chapter 5 adapts a Clock mechanic, similar to the one in Apocalypse World, for impending doom.
The players should agree on the story they want to tell
Chapter 5 is all about a form of horror story that is both popular and requires explicit player buy-in: Impending Doom. We know from the popularity of Call of Cthulhu that it can be fun to play a game where the characters are expected to die or go insane. Chapter 5, appropriately titled “We’re All Going To Die”, generalizes this a little more and provides rules and advice for characters working against a massive, ineffable threat. Chapter 5 is where the Book of Scars (see above) is suggested, as well as options to enhance the notion of a downward spiral. A story about doom where everyone is expected to die can be very compelling, but it’s not going to work unless people go in at least accepting that as an outcome. The chapter does assume that playing to an impending doom is decided upon prior to the game, and goes over how a game with a predetermined outcome can still be interesting.
Chapters 7 and 8 are about telling very different sorts of horror stories. Chapter 7 is about feminine horror, and different themes which are present in these works. Key here are more grounded, interpersonal uses of horror mechanics, isolating, disempowering, and overwhelming characters in more mundane scenarios. Themes explored here include stalking, gaslighting, domestic horror, and sex in horror. While I understand why the themes here are called feminine horror, I’d reemphasize something stated in the chapter’s introduction, which is that these are themes for more intimate, interpersonal horror and are broadly applicable to characters of many identities. Chapter 8 is about telling horror stories for younger audiences, in the vein of Scooby Doo or Stranger Things. These stories may tone down the violence and existential despair, but ultimately the same tropes are used to creep people out and make the game interesting. There’s also a discussion tropes pertaining to the role of kids in these horror stories, using disbelieving adults as a source of disempowerment and isolation.
So what did I think of these sections, new rules, and advice? Overall, the Fate Horror Toolkit provides some great resources for running horror and horror elements in Fate. I may not be planning on running a straight horror game anytime soon, but the survival mechanics and Book of Scars concept are two pieces I’ll take out and use in other games, hopefully adding a little more tension in the process. Beyond horror and horror elements, I think the Fate Horror Toolkit also provides one of the better meditations on the player/GM control split in Fate out there, especially as most of the time a new Fate GM would have to navigate this by feel. My expectation is that future genre toolkits will continue to provide valuable information on both the in-game and meta-game process of running Fate. The Fate Horror Toolkit certainly did, and I recommend it.
The Fate Horror Toolkit is available at DriveThruRPG. Thanks to Carrie Harris at Evil Hat for providing us with a review copy!