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Emerging Threats Unit – a Fate Horror game skeleton

Last night, I ran an action horror game. It’s a thing I do: if I talk about how I hate something, I start wondering why, and try to come into contact with it. I proposed running a game for some friends, and giving the timing, it was just billed as a “spooky” game.

I decided on action horror because I forgot what action horror does well: it’s good for a lighthearted game. And it turns out that I actually like running those. It’s more than I’m desiring psychological thrillers in my gaming these days, because I don’t get that enough, and so I don’t really want to play action horror.[1]

Once everyone was there, I pitched the following (edited, of course):

There are three lines of defense the United States has against paranormal threats. You’re who they send in when the first line fails. Welcome to the secret paramilitary wing of the Centers for Disease Control — the Emerging Threats Unit.

This will be a standard ETU-CDC operation. The Secret Service has failed to contain the problem. You’ll be going in under the guise of quarantining an outbreak, of course. If you do not report back within 48 hours, we will have no choice but to consider you as sacrificed. FEMA is waiting with a Ripley team to neutralize the local population, and I for one don’t want to see them cause another Katrina because we failed.

With that, I explained how this Fate game different from the Diaspora game they had played. In addition to playing this as a one-shot with abbreviated character setup, I tried some new tricks.

Skills

First of all, I only used eight skills:

Chase

Chase is used for most physical activity. It’s a measure of your athletic ability and twitch nervous responses. Use it for athletics, chasing to/from monsters that want to eat you, initiative, etc.

Drive

Drive is used for doing anything high-stress in a moving vehicle. Along with the obvious, driving in a stressful situation, it can also limit other activities in a vehicle (like, say, shooting at a monster that wants to eat you).

Subterfuge

Subterfuge is used for dealing with people. Intimidation, charm, empathy, deceit, all that emotional and social manipulation jazz. It’s also useful for resisting such manipulation.

Special note: You can use this skill against another PC. In that case, if you succeed, they have a temporary aspect on them like “[Your name] is manipulating me” that’s being instantly compelled. If they go along with what you want, they get a Fate point. If not, they have to pay one. Thank you, Apocalypse World.

Survival

Survival is used for not fucking dying. In addition to being great for dealing with urban and wild environments for knowing what’s safe and what isn’t (which translates into scene aspect declaration), it’s what you use to notice things that are about to eat your face. Yes, it’s your Alertness skill.

Tech

The ETU has some advanced technology, but not much. They get by more with tech on the ground. When you’re up against a Class II Vvak Tunnel Vampire[2], being able to modify local firearms to fire plasmashot is handy as hell. It’s also needed for following the ETU mandate: utter signal discipline. No information about the supernatural is to leak out.

Unnatural Sciences

This skill is dangerous. People who have studied Unnatural Sciences (which is everyone in ETU, to some degree) are able to tell the difference between a quantum projection and an actual rift in spacetime. Importantly, that translates into knowing which isn’t a waste of ammunition (in 75% of cases, actual rifts). Unnatural Sciences is used mostly to declare either monster or research aspects. (Also, research aspects are AWESOME. That’s for next week, though.)

Violence

ETU does not fuck around. Your mission is the sterilize the local paranormal threat. Violence is how that’s achieved. Fists. Knives. Guns. Rocket-propelled grenades. That’s what Violence is about. It can also be used to defend against Violence (which Chase also covers, if physically dodging and the like).

Withstand Horror

This skill is a passive one. ETU agents must confront the horrors they face. The GM will call for Withstand Horror rolls in two cases: either when being assaulted by a sight or when an entity is actually using psychic violence against them. If the roll is made, nothing happens! (And if you get spin on the roll, instead of getting a +1 to the next roll, you get a free declaration or assessment based on what you’ve just learned dealing with this threat.)

If you fail, you have a temporary aspect of Fleeing, Frozen or Fighting, your choice. And the GM is going to compel that for bad fun times! If failed against a psychic attack, it may instead be stress against Sanity.

…And those are my eight skills. Anything not covered in them is rolled at +0 or can be added to an existing skill as a new trapping via a stunt.

Character Aspects

There are no generic aspects in ETU. For character aspects, there are:

  • Drive Aspects — these are what motivate your character on the mission
  • Hope Aspects — these are something your character hopes for, above and beyond just surviving
  • Personal Demon Aspects — these are the tragic flaw your character has
  • Relationship Aspects — these are one-sided feelings or opinions you have about another character

Drive aspects are simple, similar to High Concept aspects in Dresden Files RPG.

Personal Demon aspects are likely similar to Trouble aspects in DFRPG, but typically focused on being an internal problem.

Hope aspects are fun. I gave people the option of not filling it in before play, and finding something they wanted to hope for by the first hour of play. And I told them their Hope aspects were free to invoke.

The first time someone did, I dropped a fate point into a bowl for me. And again, and again. The more they used their hope for free, the more points I had for the Threat later to invoke its own aspects. But it was sort of safe to use those aspects, because I might use that Fate point to hurt someone else.

Relationship Aspects were awesome. I asked everyone to come up with relationship aspects for different people, asking what they think of another character are writing them down as their aspect. “Butler is a danger to herself and others.” or “Forty-Five is my hero.” It’s important that it doesn’t have to be true. But if you’re helping or being helped by this aspect, either of your can invoke it — though if you’re invoking someone’s opinion about you, you have to show why that opinion might be true.

There’s a killer non-character aspect type called Research Aspects. Someone should remind me to blog about them next week. It’s the thing that made me suddenly be able to run an investigation game on the fly that didn’t suck.

Character Skeletons

The last thing I sketched up were the character skeletons, to be fleshed out at the table. I made six characters, which only consist of a Codename, team role, Drive aspect, High skill, Low skill.

Briefly, about skills: since I had eight, I decided the distribution would be: One at Great [+4], two at Good [+3], two at Fair [+2], two at Average [+2], and one at Poor [-1]. Anything not covered by one of those skills that is important enough to roll (and I haven’t encountered that yet) is rolled at Average [+0]. Thus, I prescribed the Great and Poor skill, and left the others for filling in either right away or in play.

“Butler” – the leader

Drive: No one on my team will be left behind.

Great [+4] Withstand Horror — been on a lot of missions
Poor [-1] Chase — lamed by an earlier mission

“Forty-Five” – the sterilizer

Drive: I am here to sterilize the environment.

Great [+4] Violence — people and things will die
Poor [-1] Tech — that’s for other people, I’m busy shooting things

“Mute” – the information disciplinarian (a.k.a. hacker)

Drive: Containing Information is more important than anything else.

Great [+4] Tech — with enough gear, I’ll own the environment
Poor [-1] Subterfuge — people are choatic and make no sense

“Tome” – the scientist

Drive: The unknown must be explored.

Great [+4] Unnatural Sciences — non-euclidian genius
Poor [-1] Drive — I’m more comfortable in my lab back home

“Network” – the face

Drive: People are my playthings.

Great [+4] Subterfuge — Like I said, people are my playthings
Poor [-1] Survival — I am most likely to be eaten by a grue

(Yes, I intentionally named the not-hacker “Network.”)

“Park” – the sixth character I realized I had to make and kinda phoned in

Drive: People need protecting, sometimes at their own expense.

Great [+4] Chase — I will catch anything, no matter the terrain
Poor [-1] Violence — But I’m shell-shocked, so violence doesn’t come easy.

I think that’s enough for now, since I’m at 1500 words. Probably enough for Fate-heads to play with, but I’ll follow up with more as I keep playing this out. The scenario is either called “Emerging Threats Unit” or “Paranormal Containment,” as the idea of the game is a bit Hellboy-ish: monsters are on the loose in a dense urban environment, the first line responders failed, and if you fail FEMA is going to call in a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or whatever to take out the city.

Because they don’t fuck around, neither can you, agents. Briefing dismissed.

– Ryan

[1] A bias that’s frankly shown in my post the other day

[2] Which they were in my game. And named that. That’s canonical now.

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12 Responses to Emerging Threats Unit – a Fate Horror game skeleton

  1. Marc Majcher says:

    I love the implication that there’s a third line of defense, a bunch of even badder asses that come in and clean up when the ETU pooches it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Marc,

      Thanks! It’s a bit inspired by Aliens and later X-fIles — the twin threats of the monster and bureaucracy. Having that third line that will just wipe the city out means having to bargain for time from their superiors as well as fight against the Threat.

      And by making them the second line of defense, it reinforces this idea — someone else already screwed the pooch and the situation is worse.

      – Ryan

    • Codrus says:

      Where I like where this is going is that there are no easy cases for the PCs. They are all hard cases and all they get are hard cases.

      For a video-game tie-in, I thought Halo:Reach did a reasonably good job of portraying the Spartans as getting the worst jobs, the ones that require big damn heroes to take on giant problems – because they are the only ones who can. There’s a lot to be said for ratcheting up all of the drama and scale. (Or, for another hat-tip, Lensman!)

  2. Codrus says:

    I really like this Aspect tweak:
    —-
    Special note: You can use this skill against another PC. In that case, if you succeed, they have a temporary aspect on them like “[Your name] is manipulating me” that’s being instantly compelled. If they go along with what you want, they get a Fate point. If not, they have to pay one. Thank you, Apocalypse World.
    —-

    But to play devil’s advocate:

    * I’m worried about the lack of interaction with the target character’s aspects. That is, if anyone can be manipulated without needing to discover their weaknesses, why would any faceman care about who his victims are? He’d just manipulate them. (Normally, I’d say that the defending PC could tag aspects to keep from being manipulated, but if he’s going to do that, he should just pay off the compel).

    * if other players got really obnoxious with requests, I could end up spending all my fate points to defend myself. Presumes an unfriendly table environment.

    * The requests have to be meaningful, otherwise this seems like a way for players to pump up free fate points at the table. That is, the person doing the manipulating isn’t spending fate points to do the manipulating here, so fate points are being generated out of thin air.

    I need to think about this more, there’s a great idea there, but it is surrounded by a few rocky shoals that might make it only work with a cooperative table.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Let me address those one at a time:

      I’m worried about the lack of interaction with the target character’s aspects. That is, if anyone can be manipulated without needing to discover their weaknesses, why would any faceman care about who his victims are? He’d just manipulate them. (Normally, I’d say that the defending PC could tag aspects to keep from being manipulated, but if he’s going to do that, he should just pay off the compel).

      What isn’t said in the quickness of the write-up is that you need a justification or leverage to be able to do Subterfuge. And finding that leverage is where assessing or declaring comes in. Without that, you can’t do Subterfuge. (Or you might be able to do short-conning, but nothing long-term.)

      if other players got really obnoxious with requests, I could end up spending all my fate points to defend myself. Presumes an unfriendly table environment.

      Yeah. I won’t write rules these days around bad tables. Maybe I would make it so that the Fate point has to come from the player rather than from the GM, so that it always costs the player to do social PvP.

      The requests have to be meaningful, otherwise this seems like a way for players to pump up free fate points at the table. That is, the person doing the manipulating isn’t spending fate points to do the manipulating here, so fate points are being generated out of thin air.

      Thought of that. Was still thinking about it. And I’m at the point where doing it from the person is how I’ll try it the next couple times it comes up.

      Thanks for pointing all that out!

      – Ryan

    • Codrus says:

      As a old-time playtester, I always feel it important to point out the “bad table” problems or the odd exploits. A great table of players doesn’t need a hell of a lot of rules, to be honest. A great GM shut downs obvious exploits without needing the rules.

      I think having the player pay addresses a lot. Players still have freebie options:
      1. assess the mark and exploit a free tag on an existing character aspect.
      2. make the compel snappy enough that they earn fate points from coolness. :)

  3. Lon Sarver says:

    Hey, Ryan? Don’t forget to write about research aspects next week.

    It sounds good so far. I’ll have to try it out sometime.

    How are you going to handle monster powers and magic, if there is any?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Lon,

      Remind me later this week how I handle monsters and magic. That’s yet another post. :)

      – Ryan

  4. Lord Bounty says:

    I’m amused that FEMA is a disaster response unit in asmuch as they respond with a disaster.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yup! It’s the piece that started to make the setting idea sing for me. Even if it’s never in play, since the scope of the game is about what happens before that, the threat implies some neat stuff about the world.

      – Ryan

  5. David Steiger says:

    Groovy.

    An observation: Unless the party is usually split in separate vehicles, Drive’s domain is pretty specific, likely limited to one PC per encounter, and so likely going to be the dump stat. Which may be fine.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      David,

      Yeah, I’ve been trying to solve Drive. I have some other ideas, but I’m unhappy at how specific it is compared to the others.

      – Ryan