When I was younger, my older siblings continually conspired to scare me. They would hide around corners and jump out at me, force me to watch scary things on TV, andÂ – my favoriteÂ – pretend to be dead, waiting for me to run screaming to my mom. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m pretty sure I’ve been sick of jump scares since before I was even in first grade.
Despite this baggage, I still managed to develop a fascination with various horror franchises. When my friends and I were in middle school, we would rent all kinds of scary movies. One of the first movies I watched when my little town got cable was Aliens, and through high school I became at least a little obsessed with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies.
I’m not quite as conversant in modern horror, but when I saw that Evil Hat was releasing a Horror Toolkit for Fate, it got my attention.
The Purple Beast
This review is based both on the PDF of the Fate Horror Toolkit, and the physical copy of the book. The book is 152 pages, and the physical copy is the same size as the standard Fate line, in hardcover.
The interior art is black and white, and matches the theme of the chapter in which the art appears. For example, when the topic is the zombie apocalypse or body horror, the art style is different than when it features Spooky Fun. There are some detailed images of dead bodies, insect creatures, and mutated body parts, but viscera and gore are limited (unless you count shadowy textured areas).
The formatting follows the clear and easy to read style that is present in other Fate books, with clearly bold headers, offset example paragraphs, and lots of bullet points.
Chapter 1: Gazing Into the Abyss
This chapter has an overview of the horror genre, what elements make up a horror-themed game, and a summary of the chapter contents. There are page references to specific rules in this book, and references to sections of the Fate Core rulebook.
This chapter also has a sidebar on the responsible execution of horror, and a two-page spread on safety and consent. Given the subject matter of the book, I think it was a very good move to put this right up front. The “Horror Doesn’t Excuse Being Horrible” paragraph hits about a third of the way through the first page, and you can’t miss it.
Chapter 2: The Raveled Sleeve of Care
This section addresses setting up a horror campaign and making characters that will fit into the horror genre. There is a list of media to consume for inspiration (most of which revolves around sympathetic and flawed characters in a horror story), as well as new optional rules to help reinforce the genre.
The tools presented in this section help build connections to the source of the horror and to give players reasons to compel their own aspects. There are also new rules that revolve around the following:
- Enhanced self-compels
- Group Fate Pools
- Heroic Sacrifice
- Legacy Aspects
- Group Aspects
- Intensity Aspects
- Moral Dilemmas
There is a lot of great material here even outside of horror games. Enhanced self-compels work with the group Fate Pools to reinforce the PCs working together against a problem. Heroic sacrifice, legacy aspects, and hauntings all incentivize a PC to accept death as part of the story, while giving them a way to continue to participate in the story. Group aspects dovetail with the rules for group Fate Pools, and intensity aspects introduce a rating system for aspects that tie the character to something potentially horrible or dangerous in the game. Moral dilemmas set up a resolution where X or Y equally hard resolutions are the most obvious ways to resolve the situation, and anything outside of those options automatically becomes more difficult.
Many of these tools highlight the agency of the player by creating rewards for their investment in the horror genre. Rather than just making things harder for the player characters, many of these tools highlight how the players can make life worse for the group to tell a better story, while still giving them some options to nudge the story in each direction.
Chapter 3: Some Scars are Invisible
This chapter addresses the portrayal of the mental stresses that are present in the horror genre. There is another list of media inspiration for horror media dealing with the mental toll of horror, and introduces some rules for portraying the long-term repercussions of trauma on the characters.
Some of the optional new rules include the following:
- Trauma Aspects
- Coping Conditions
- The Mental Toll of Gore
In addition to the game advice and new rules, there is also a thoughtful discussion of mental health and the proper way to utilize it in a game without trivializing it. This includes determining what the trauma was, how that would affect a person, and what they would do to lessen that effect. The emphasis is to do this without trying to find a specific medical condition, which could lead to stereotypical behavior based on a shallow reading of a diagnosis.
Trauma aspects are taken on by a character when something seriously disturbing happens, and coping conditions can be checked to allow the character to continue to function. There are different levels of severity for these conditions, based on the condition rules introduced in the original Fate Toolkit and elaborated on in the Dresden Accelerated game.
The mental toll of gore is a means by which the GM can attack the stress track of characters with the disturbing nature of an environment. It functions as an independent element that has a turn where it attacks, although some character aspects may, optionally, be used to explain why a player is inured to such attacks.
Chapter 4: Who’s Who of the Damned
This section is all about making monsters, and giving example monsters. Like the previous chapters, there is a list of media inspirations, this time focusing on media that has strong and memorable antagonists. There are discussions on how to use monstrous skills or approaches, as well as monstrous conditions, to build threats. The final sections of the chapter deal with body horror including rules for how a player character’s body part can function as a monster. There is an extensive section on The Other as a villain–a societal force that is attempting to subsume or eliminate the PCs if they don’t conform.
There are several fully built example threats, like the Vampire, the Slasher, the Killer Swarm, and the Created. There are also stat blocks and special rules for hands, tongues, hearts, and eyes to function as monsters while still connected to a character. This includes effects that might take place when the body part acts against its host, and what happens if a body part breaks free of its original body. As a brief aside, there are times I really love being part of this hobby.
When discussing The Other as a threat, there is advice about using care in choosing what “other” you are portraying. Because it represents more of a societal force or movement, there is more discussion on how a campaign involving The Other progresses over time.
Chapter 5: We Are All Going To Die
This chapter is about playing in a horror campaign where all the characters will eventually die, and how to facilitate that. The media sources cited as inspirational in this section revolve around horror media featuring doomed protagonists, and there are rules for a countdown clock and how it should function.
When setting up the countdown clock, the players and the GM set up what triggers the clock to tick forward, and what, if anything, rolls the clock back. The assumption is that there will be less causing it to roll back than causing it to move forward.
In a campaign like this, the group sets up what their goal is, so they still might accomplish something before the end. Once the clock ticks off its final segment, everyone is doomed, but the amount of time they have to “wrap things up” will vary based on the length of the campaign.
The discussion of this style of campaign was particularly interesting to me, as I like the concept of having an end game in mind when starting a campaign, and I like the dynamic way that a countdown clock might play into that. It also seems like a tool that could have broader applications than just the horror genre.
Chapter 6: The High Cost of Living
If you ever wanted rules to help model survival horror, this is your chapter. Inspirations cited in this chapter revolve around horror media where survivors have limited resources and ever-present external threats, and the optional rules include consumables, consequences and NPCs, and havens.
Consumables drive a lot of play, since they get used in different circumstances. There are general rules for the number of NPCs in a haven, and how they might be removed from play. Havens get assaulted and damaged, and must be defended and repaired.
The rules for connections between the NPCs and the PCs allow for some of the danger of survival horror to remain present while still having a stable cast of protagonists.
Chapter 7: Horror is the New Pink
Chapter seven is all about managing aspects of horror that overlap with the unique way the genre interacts with assumptions about women. It has the usual inspirational material, and has additional rules for feminine horror aspects, horror points, and several thematically linked scenarios.
Much of the material in the Horror Toolkit gives players agency while incentivizing causing problems for their characters, even beyond what Fate Core normally allows. In this case, characters will have a feminine horror aspect linked to the theme of the campaign. Self-compelling this will give the player a horror point, which acts as an especially effective Fate point.
The generation and use of feminine horror aspects and horror points allow for the player to have greater control over when they might be put in a position of vulnerability, and how much agency they will have in the resolution of the scenario.
The example story arcs explored in this section include the following:
- Poisonous Sexuality
- Anticipated Blood
- Alien Pregnancy
These include setups, feminine horror aspects, stunts, NPCs, current issues, and lingering issues. Lingering issues are a specific aspect that characters in a feminine horror scenario have, which represents past events and how they still affect the player character.
While the chapter has several tools for modeling the story structures described, this is definitely one of the chapters where reading the breakdown of the elements, and the usual progression of these stories, is as interesting as the mechanics reinforcing that story structure.
Chapter 8: Spooky Fun
Compared to the heavy topics in some of the other chapters, chapter 8 looks at a slightly lighter side of horror. The optional rules in this section deal with stories inspired by Goosebumps, Scooby Doo, or Nancy Drew. This includes inspirational media suggestions, a new way to present skills (the report card), conditions, stunts, and new rules like courage and fear. It also defines what being taken out looks like in this genre, and introduces formalized rules for twists in the narrative.
The report card version of skills presents a version of skills that is similar to approaches from Fate Accelerated, with the rating of a subject that can be broadly applied depending on the fiction. Player characters using these options do not have a stress track, but mark several conditions that they can clear over time. The group has a Courage stat that builds as they find clues. It can also go up when players introduce a twist to the story. The courage stat is available when the group is together, but not when they get separated, unless there is a special circumstance.
I like the concept of building the Courage stat, and how finding clues is less about having a convoluted mystery, and more about building resources until the group is ready to confront a threat. It reinforces the genre concept that having all of the kids together for the confrontation is the best way to get a favorable resolution.
There are two appendices in the book, and both involve safety tools that can be employed at the table. Appendix 1 deals with the X-Card by John Stavropoulos (which can be found here online), and Appendix 2 deals with the Script Change tool by Brie Sheldon (which can be found here online). While some of the text of both tools is included in the appendices, there is also some additional discussion on why these tools might be useful or preferable for a group.
I appreciate that these tools are both in the book in usable forms. Often, when outside safety tools are referenced in RPG material, it can be easy to not follow up on links presented in the text. In this case, while there is more material on both sites, there is enough to make both tools functional from the book itself.
I have a lot of respect for both tools, but I am especially happy to see Script Change referenced in an RPG safety section, as it is a great tool that I have seen used very well at a table, and Brie Sheldon did a great job designing it. I’m looking forward to more “safety in gaming” sections referencing their work.
Plenty of Stakes, Lots of GarlicÂ Many horror stories manage to be scary or impactful even when they are using established tropes. This toolkit does a great job of explaining how to use those tropes to maximum effect.Â
The tools in this book are useful for a horror game, but many of them, like the group Fate Pool, heroic sacrifice, and trauma aspects, can be used for games that aren’t explicitly in the horror genre. The discussion of doomed campaigns, survival horror, and feminine horror, as well as the outline of The Other and how it progresses in a game, provide strong campaign frameworks. Almost all the tools provided have a strong, built-in aspect of agency to them.
Should I Have Invited Them In?
If there is any downside to the book, it’s that the tools may work better for creating a good horror story than being immersed in a good horror story. There has been discussion about how well Fate can do horror in the past, and while the tools in this book incentivize players to make the decisions that will put their players in harm’s way, for some players, knowing that they can pump the brake may drop them out of the immersion they were previously hoping to experience.
Recommended –Â If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are even a little interested in Fate or in horror as a genre, it is unlikely you will regret this purchase. In addition to providing a wide range of useful Fate related tools, the discussions on genre and campaign structure are going to be of broad appeal, even for people not running their game using Fate.
If you are the kind of player that is more focused on the flow of the story and hitting the right beats, you may appreciate this a bit more than if you want to be immersed from your character’s point of view, but even in that instance, many horror stories manage to be scary or impactful even when they are using established tropes. This toolkit does a great job of explaining how to use those tropes to maximum effect.
What do you think of horror RPGs? Do you need to feel scared for them to be successful? What horror games have done this the best? What Fate toolkits would you like to see in the future? I’m interested to find out all of that and more, so please leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks Jared for sharing this scary at the same time interesting game. I truly enjoyed reading this review as I am also a fanatic of horror stories specially when it comes to games. Just sharing, aside from this kind of setting, I also enjoying playing Secret Slots at blog.secretslots.com.
No foolin’ — there’s stuff in the Horror Toolkit that is useful for games outside of the genre. Some of the ideas in Chapter 2, for instance, immediately struck me as useful for the kind of cyberpunk game that I like to run: heavy on the human price of life in a doomed future (no matter how much 80s zeerust and new wave music you cram into it).
There’s probably other stuff that’s useful across genres, but that’s what I was paying attention to, because that’s my jam.
Thanks for sharing it.