Recently, I came across a post by someone claiming that the Fate Core system can’t be used for the horror genre. The person didn’t clarify which kind of horror they meant – even in the setting they were referring to, there’s both horror of the kind where ordinary people are helpless in the face of it, and the kind where exceptional individuals can fight back, even if the circumstances make it seem impossible, and at least wrangle a stalemate out of it.
I’ll agree that the first kind of horror can’t be simulated by Fate; if you want a tabletop game that mimics horror conventions established by things like the Halloween movie franchise, where ordinary people are stalked by an unstoppable killing machine, Fate will fall short. It does so out of necessity; the character in the game are considered to be exceptional examples, the best and brightest in the world. There are certainly people better than them, since otherwise there wouldn’t be a chllenge, but they’re not helpless and they’re the kind of people who can fight back against the seemingly unstoppable.
Which is where Fate does manage horror, and fairly well; the Alien franchise revolves around an exceptional person, who fights back against the nightmare stalking through the environment, and who ultimately triumphs over it. Ripley could be a Fate character is ways that none of the victims of Michael Myers could ever be. The situation is horrible, the odds are terrible, and she should, by all rights, be feeling a deep level of animal terror prompting her to curl up in a corner to try to hide from the thing.
So with that in mind, some ideas for horror in Fate:
- Make use of Scene Aspects to convey the mood; things like Deep Silence, Flickering Lightbulb, and Creaking Floorboards are all simple Aspects that the GM and players alike can use to play to the horror vibe.
- Players will want to have Aspects that reflect both why their character is capable of surviving the horror but also subject to it. Things like a High Aspect of Long-Haul Spacer or a Trouble of Flunked Xenobiology can have a fair measure of flavor, as can a Trouble like My Father Dabbled In Dark Arts or an Aspect as simple as Hair-Trigger Reflexes.
- The GM will want to keep an eye on the tension; while some movies are nothing but tension constantly ramping up, stories tend to work best when the tension occasionally gets broken by something that adds humor for contrast or otherwise releasing the buildup a little. After the first few scenes of increasing stress, with signs of the horror to come, the players hear something in the hall and go to look, weapon in hand – only to have the cat leap out of hiding and run away, or to find that the moaning sound they’ve been hearing is the wind at a window that doesn’t quite shut right.
- The best horror doesn’t show the horror right away; it gets telegraphed in shadowy glimpses and sounds just out of sight. Let the players handle threats caused by the main source without actually encountering it; a window gets smashed by something unseen and needs boarded up, and while doing so one of them catches a glimpse of glowing red eyes in the forest.
- When it comes time for the confrontation, don’t pull any stops; the players may be exceptional, but they’re still in the horror genre. Make them play smart, work together, and get creative to overcome something that seems unstoppable. The big bad horror is big, bad, and horrific, after all – it took a powered exosuit for Ripley to be able to fight the monster of her story, and she had to settle for getting rid of it, not knowing if her solution would really be the end of it.
- Finality is not a thing that should ever happen in a horror game; een when the nightmare is over, the players shouldn’t really be sure if they defeated it, drove it off for a time, or opened the way for something worse yet to come. Even if the thing they fought is laying there, unmoving and on fire, it doesn’t mean that this is the end. It may be reborn; it may regenerate when the circumstances are right; it might have been a herald or a gatekeeper for something worse.
- Consequences in horror can always be mental. Even something as simple as getting beaten up can impact the psyche in this genre. Don’t hesitate to offer up consequences that link the player to the horror. Let them start Hearing Whispers In The Shadows and Glimpsing Fleeting Movement after they first few scenes rough them up a bit. The person who went exploring on her own, against the advice of the rest, is Being Followed By A Black Cat that only she can see.
Lastly, make sure that you have player buy-in. No horror game will work, ever, without the players consenting to it. It takes just one joker to ruin the entire thing for everyone, so the most important thing you can do – no matter what the game system, but Fate particularly encourages cooperation on these things – is to get players to agree to let themselves be scared a bit.