Review: ‘The Secrets of Cats’

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The Secrets of Cats by Richard Bellingham is an excellent setting for Fate, part of their Worlds of Fate series (which, by the way, is generally wonderful, as they’re really committing to their Open Gaming Licence and promoting lesser-known designers with innovative uses for the system). The characters are all cats who belong to a secret cat society that guards and watches over humans, their ‘Burdens’, using sacrificial magic, territory and occult know-how. If that didn’t already make you excited about this game, you’re probably a lost cause for this review, because this game fully embraces the concept. Less horrifying than Bunnies and Burrows, more heroic than Another Fine Mess, it’s a sweet and occasionally brutal game of animals who are willing to risk anything to save those they love.

I initially had some reservations about how well The Secrets of Cats would actually expand on its subject matter: it’s very easy for someone to decide that it’s a terribly good idea to play as animals or sentient dishcloths or whatever and then fail at the execution. However, I was pleasantly surprised by quite how rich this small (only 50ish pages) supplement is.

The magic system is really cool, with cats able to dreamwalk and fight their Burdens’ nightmares, astral project, use their enemies’ True Names to control them and ward houses against evil through the power of leaving tiny animal sacrifices anywhere. And that’s one of the best things about this game – it takes cat behaviours (gross ‘presents’, getting stuck in trees, yowling in chorus) and turns them into rituals. Time is measured in naps (15 minutes) and sleeps (1 hour). A warding is disrupted by the sacrificial small animal being thrown away by their oblivious humans – so cats hide them in cunning places to make the ward last as long as possible. Makes sense. Disgusting sense. It also incorporates folklore – cats can sense illness or impending death, there is a stunt to represent their nine lives, and the legend that cats steal sleepers’ breath is explained as their way of entering dreams. There’s an awful lot of very flavourful additions to play with here, through magic, new stunts and the Territory skill. Plus lots of references to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats!

However, The Secrets of Cats never loses sight of the fact that cats are cats, even magical ones. They can’t read by default and have to make Lore checks to know basic things about how humans function. There are guidelines on how to play a magical sapient cat (though thankfully they are rather more able to communicate and reason than the animals in Another Fine Mess). Their magic is powered by sacrifices of small animals. However, the game does carefully keep away from the potential horrors that Bunnies and Burrows explores (seriously, it’s like Watership Down: the Game) by making a distinction between sapient and non-sapient creatures and making it clear that those who sacrifice sapient creatures for magic are abominations. Plus, they also suggest that you discuss with the group how much they want to play through the hunting aspect of the game. This isn’t nature red in tooth and claw, and that makes sense, because that’s not what this game is. It has a clear and consistent identity.

The book is only short, and a pay-what-you-want title on DriveThruRPG. It does use the Fate Core rules rather than Fate Accelerated, but guess what, there’s a whole System Reference Document online that provides a bunch of the rules. I’m so into this whole thing – Evil Hat is doing some really good stuff by making Fate highly accessible. The Secrets of Cats covers the setting and concept, and the new rules specifically for this world, in the first 30 pages, and then sets up a sample town, Silver Ford, with an adventure called ‘Black Silver’ that is classic small-town folkloric horror. The final section gives you some guidance on weird and wonderful threats to throw at the players, and ends with a list of inspirations (some of which I hadn’t heard of and now really want to check out) and random-roll tables for creating cats.

Like so many of the Fate Worlds, this is a gem of a book with relatively simple mechanics (the magic gets a bit complicated, but if your characters dabble in the simpler stuff rather than having the high levels, it’s fine) and enough flavour for a really different kind of campaign. I had a three-act short campaign roughly sketched out before I finished the book, and while I could imagine that it works best as individual stories rather than an epic campaign on the scale of D&D, it will certainly be memorable! If you like cats or  weird little settings, this is definitely worth checking out. If you don’t like cats…we might not get on so well!

For context, here is a picture of my cats. Mordecai (left) is probably a Seeker or maybe a Shaper. Lilith (right) is almost definitely a Namer. Either way, they’re doing a good job of protecting us!

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