What is Fate?
A few posts got me thinking about this, and it’s a thought that’s been in my head for a while—mostly around the whole “if you’re hacking, what are the ‘safer’ things to hack, and at what point are you mucking with the base assumptions of the system?” Like Ryan Macklin’s post, I think of Fate as being a specific game that does specific things. There are things Fate is super-awesome at, and things that Fate isn’t super-awesome at. When I want to do something that Fate isn’t super-awesome at, I tend to use a different game.
I don’t consider that a negative on Fate in any way. I have a Jeep Wrangler. It’s good at some things (transportation), awesome at other things (off-roading), and absolutely sucky at certain things (hauling lots of things, carrying lots of people, going fast). And to make my Wrangler better at those things would almost necessarily make it worse at the things it does well right now.
So I don’t use Fate to play D&D. I might use Fate to run a game in a D&D setting, but I don’t think it would feel much like the D&D game—I’ve previously described what I think it would be as more like “D&D: The Movie: The Game” (not the horrible movie, an imaginary good one).
Yeah, I could hack Fate enough to run a passable “D&D game”, but would it still be Fate? I don’t think so, because the core questions and assumptions of D&D are different than those of Fate. Which, again, isn’t a knock on Fate or on D&D, much like saying my Wrangler isn’t as fast as a Ferrari isn’t a knock on my Wrangler.
So what are the things that I consider to be “Fate”? Not as some kind of purity test, but as a more general gauge—if I see a Fate build that hits 95% of these, it’ll probably “feel like” Fate to me. But if I see something that only hits 10% of things, it probably won’t push those Fate buttons very well.
This is one of the biggest. Fate characters are proactive. They make things happen. The game progresses as a result of their actions.
This seems like all games, but it’s really not—it’s an argument that railroading doesn’t belong in Fate games. If you know what’s going to happen, then at some level the characters aren’t proactive. They’re just looking for the magic “next scene” button. They have no real agency. And some games and styles are built heavily upon this kind of game structure. Which is fine, I just don’t necessarily think it’s a good fit for Fate.
It also makes it a good question whether investigation-based games are a super-awesome fit for Fate either. Investigation-based games are usually about following the breadcrumb trail, which leads to reactive and not proactive players. Because everyone is reacting to the clues and the plot, the level of narrative control Fate gives players makes for problematic investigation.
Fate characters are competent. They’re good at stuff. Maybe not the best in the world, but whatever they’re good at, they’re good at it. They’re not bumbling amateurs.
Skills, Aspects, Compels, Invokes
Without these four elements working more or less how they do in Core, it doesn’t feel much like Fate to me. And stunts can be removed if they need to be, because Fate is often more than just stunts and doing them.
The Phase Trio
This has been around, and almost unchanged, since SotC. It works, and how it generates interlinked characters is to me, a pretty important part of the Fate experience.
Lack of Character Optimization
As a game, Fate almost goes out of its way to avoid having players maximize the things they are good at. Creating stunts focuses on making things interesting instead of min/maxing. So creating stunts is the opposite of the idea of “finding the perfect combination of stuff that makes my character awesome”. Discussion of stunts around the table also has a general veto built into the process if one player is seeking to min/max their character.
One of the things I really appreciate about Fate is the idea that skills represent your final ability to influence a scene—not a base ability to be modified by a gazillion other factors. This ties in pretty heavily with the character optimization point above.
Lack of Emphasis on System Mastery
For me, Fate is not a game about learning to manipulate the game system. It’s a game about the fiction (the stuff we’re imagining in our heads), not the rules. The rules get out of the way, and it’s hard to have system mastery be important if you’re trying to de-emphasize the system.
Attempts to make Fate “crunchy” (making system mastery more important) make games feel less like Fate.
Branches, Not Gates
Scenes in Fate games work best as a series of possible branches. They’re not challenges to be overcome. If there’s a 95% chance of success at no cost, there’s no real point in having a scene.
Focus on Opportunity Cost
This is a big one. Unlike games that focus on system mastery and overcoming challenges, Fate I think works best when opportunity cost is shoved in the players’ faces. That’s a question that appears over and over in Fate—how much do you want this and what are you willing to give up to get it? Do you spend Fate points to buy a victory, succeed at a cost, or accept Compels?
If a Fate game de-emphasizes this, to me it starts to feel less like Fate. Hacks to Fate that do things like require the pre-spending of Fate Points or the like feel less-”Fate” to me.
A Focus on What’s Important in the Story That Doesn’t Model Reality
In most fiction, the weapon a given combatant uses isn’t particularly relevant most of the time. You want to know what story you are telling.
An example of focusing on the story you are telling is thinking about mecha. Is the story about the mech? How many stats should a mech have, and how much of its combat ability should be based on it instead of its pilot? If it’s about the pilot, and a good pilot in a weak or mediocre mecha can still be an effective combatant, then the mecha should only have a modifying impact on the pilot’s skills, and the story will focus around the pilots. But if the story should focus around the attainment of awesome mecha, then they should have a larger impact. It’s not a matter of what’s “realistic”. It’s a matter of “what impact does this have on the game, and what elements do I want to be important in the game?”
Active Instead of Passive Bonuses
The bonuses being active as a result of things that you do fits in with the idea of proactive characters as well.
Skills Tied to Results, Not Actions
In many games, using a skill means you’re engaging in a specific task that may have a variable result. In Fate, I see it more as “I’m trying to accomplish this–do I succeed?” It’s a subtle, but pretty important point, and colors how a lot of mechanics get applied.
Bell Curve Results
Fate uses a randomization scheme heavily biased towards “average” results, or a bell curve. It doesn’t use a flat distribution. How that bell curve is specifically achieved, or exactly how biased it is, is somewhat more open–but a flat distribution doesn’t feel like Fate to me. By using a bell curve that trends towards 0, it places more emphasis on the rating of the skill. When your character is good at something, it feels like they are good at it.
This is kind of the core of what I consider to be Fate or not Fate to me.
Why the Heck Am I Doing This?
I’ve put a lot of time into some of these posts, and I’d like to point out why. I’m a long term gamer. Been playing for over thirty years now, having started with Moldvay D&D. I’ve played a plethora of systems. I’ve worked with famous industry folks, though I certainly am not “famous industry folk” myself.
My mindset is pretty old-school. Yay character death, and yay difficulty, and yay earning the awesome. If you asked me a year ago if it would make sense for a character to find a secret door that wasn’t on the map, just because they’d rolled well, I’d ask if you were crazy. If you told me a year ago that I’d advocate not killing characters without a discussion, I’d ask you to share what you’re smoking. (Though I still maintain those statements for certain types of games!)
I started Fate with SotC and DFRPG. And it was a learning curve. There were things I just wasn’t getting, and I knew it. But I liked enough of what was going on, and liked enough of Fate (my previous foray into more narrative systems had been Burning Wheel) that I stuck with it. And the biggest issue, over and over again, was the fact that I was unconsciously trying to make Fate act like a more traditional system.
Where were the attributes? Where were the things you put together? How the heck did it make sense to have an aspect Really Strong, yet it only came into play on occasion? Madness!
But I stuck with it. I read the books, I played with folks that got it (Hi Jacob Poss!). I read responses from the gurus on this community (more than I care to name, most of you know who you are!).
At first, it was a few bits here and there that came together that were just awesome. And then, at some point, something clicked. It came together. I got it. “Fiction, not physics” became more than a cute catchphrase to make fun more important than realism. I stopped looking for more systems. The airplanes-as-stunts in Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie made sense. The importance of the Phase Trio clicked.
When it all came together, I found a new way to play RPGs. A way that’s pretty awesome, and very unlike the D&D I played when I was 10.
Don’t get me wrong—I still like other ways of playing. I’ve got no problem with a good old dungeon crawl, or a set of tactical encounters with some story/investigation bits between them. I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun over the years playing those games, and I’m sure I’ll have more in the years to come. I want to run an X-COM game at some point, and it almost certainly won’t be in Fate (GURPS and Savage Worlds are the front-runners).
And that’s what these posts are about—detailing my realizations, and throwing them out there to maybe help other people that are struggling to come to grips with the same things I came to grips with. So if I post something like, “Fate doesn’t have a damage system,” don’t take that as a proclamation. Take it as me going, “Holy shit! I just realized, this game doesn’t have a damage system! It thinks about the results of combat in an almost totally different way! That’s crazy cool!”
So that’s what these posts are about. Trying to help others look at Fate with a bit of “beginner’s mind,” and seeing it through eyes not trained by years of gaming in other systems. It’s about helping others to find the things that I find awesome in the system. It’s not about telling people they’re doing things “wrong”—there’s no Fate Police ready to knock down doors. If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. It’s about sharing the things I’ve discovered about the system when I stopped trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
Which is tough. We’ve got a lot of things in traditional gaming that work, and make for awesome games. In a lot of cases, deviating from those slightly doesn’t work, as those games tend to sit on “local maxima”—areas where the decisions made work together in a tight, interlocked way. But I think Fate sits on a very different local maximum than most games, and to find it you’ve gotta change a lot of assumptions. I’ve found it worthwhile, so I want to share what I’ve learned to help others find that same awesome.
Introducing People to Fate
This seems to come up a bunch. Fate does some things differently. Fundamentally, I think that’s because it tries to answer very different questions than typical RPGs do. Because of that, it can look a bit weird at first for new players. There’s a number of concepts that don’t mesh particularly well with more ‘traditional’ or typical RPGs.
So how do you introduce new players?
The first thing I do is talk up the system’s strengths up. I point out how the system really allows you to think about who your character is, instead of just what they are and what they can do. I point out how fast it runs, and the great support it has for non-combat options and actions.
Before the game, I go over a few things. First, I talk up the fact that in Fate, the expectation isn’t that you’ll be given a bunch of encounters, and that you have to overcome them. I point out that failure is normal and expected, and won’t mean the end of the game.
At game time, I go through cooperative setting/character creation. I find this builds investment in the setting, and eases the making a character bit. Getting players invested in the game and excited before they start seems useful for getting them to plow through if they hit a rough patch.
I make sure that when creating characters, it’s done as a group—the person whose character is being made leads their part but everyone is paying attention and contributing.
Explaining aspects at this point helps, as well as offering suggestions. I can drive them towards slightly more useful aspects with my knowledge without having to knowledge dump them.
The usual explanation of aspects I like to give is something like this: “Take Han Solo at the end of Star Wars. What things would stories have to include to really be ‘Han Solo stories’?” Usually the answer will be things like the Falcon, Chewie, his debt to Jabba, him being a dashing/cocky guy, etc. And those are all things I’d consider to be his aspects.
While the cooperative, one-at-a-time character creation may seem like it would be slow, in practice it works faster. I think the collaboration and interest level, combined with attention from someone that knows the game keeps things moving at a somewhat better clip. Also, for the “guest star” phases, it seems to help because the players will already be somewhat familiar with the stories they’re guest-starring in.
After filling out skills, I usually kind of gloss over stunts a bit, and just leave blanks. I may help them think of stunts that would work with their character, but I’ve found this to be the thing that can take the most time. Instead, I’ll suggest stunts during play as they become available, and point out beforehand that this is what we’ll be doing.
I make sure I stick with the model of TV/Movie/Book. All examples I use to explain rules will either be from one of those, or framed as being in one. I’ll make references to “camera shots” and stuff like that—even do cutaways or “title sequences” as appropriate. To me, I find the key here is being consistent in framing things this way, to help overcome some of the “simulationist” tendencies that most new players (myself included) have.
Also, during play I try to keep in mind what I would do if I was running that PC, and offer suggestions. I also keep an emphasis on “okay, but what do you do” whenever players start focusing more on the numbers than the game.
One thing I’ve seen is players having difficulty being proactive and try to actually drive things. The usual mode I’ve seen for players is to kind of passively investigate. So I will also frequently ask “Okay, what are you trying to get out of this? Imagine the best possible success for this—what does it look like?” Strangely, I think the idea of players succeeding at that level, and getting what they want, is a novel concept in many cases.
Almost certainly a physical Conflict (fight) will come up, if for no other reason than in most RPGs it’s expected, and so I don’t mind meeting that expectation. I see this as an opportunity to further teach Fate and get people more engaged and interested in it.
The key here is to get them thinking in terms of good Fate strategy targeting weaknesses, using Create Advantage, and all of the other stuff. Again, I find it useful to go back to movies/TV/books. Either before the Conflict, or within a round or so, I’ll call a quick timeout, and explain how it works, and how Create Advantage can really do wonders for your effectiveness, rather than trying to throw your 2 Fight against your opponent’s 6 Fight.
I’ll also make sure they know about conceding, and will point out that they can offer to do so any time. I’ll emphasize that how long they stay in the fight is really more about how much they’re willing to risk, and reiterate that loss isn’t necessarily bad. In many cases, this first fight will be deliberately designed to be lost/conceded. I’ll often frame it as an inciting incident, so that it propels story forward.
One thing that I don’t do is try to ‘ease’ the learning of Fate by making it more like other games. I know that’s pretty common, but I haven’t really seen any value in it, or any need for it. I find it usually works very well to just say “Yes, this is different. Here’s why, and here’s what it gets you. So let’s try it out.” For those things that “don’t match”, I think you have to do one or the other—either make it enough like what the expectation is that it doesn’t trigger the reaction, or call it out so that it is in the conscious mind of everyone, which also bypasses that kind of unconscious reaction.
Fiction First, Fiction-Rules Interaction, & Nonsensical Results
“Fiction First” is the Golden Rule of Fate. To understand it, we have to define “fiction”.
“Fiction”, to me, is the crap we’re imagining in our heads. When we forget about our numbers, and let our imagination take over the scene, that’s the “fiction” instead of focusing on the dice and character sheets.
And that’s pretty damn powerful. I don’t know about anybody else, but that’s the reason I play RPGs. Not for the number crunching, but for that sense of being “in” the world, and seeing what happens. So, what does “fiction first” mean, at least to me? It means character actions should start with the “fiction”, and be described in terms of the “fiction”. Then, and only then should they be interpreted into mechanics.
This means that in general, players shouldn’t start with “I Attack/Overcome/Create”. If you hear a ton of game jargon in terms of what’s going on, it’s time to place more emphasis on the “fiction”, and less on the rules. Paint a picture. Make sure everybody is “seeing” the same thing in their mind. Have them say what their character does, not what the collection of numbers on the page suggests is the optimal course of action.
From there, figure out what else is involved in this action. Who opposes it? How difficult is it?
Once we’ve figured this out, then we can start figuring out how we’re going to resolve the action. Is it an Attack? An Overcome? A Create Advantage? Is there passive opposition, and if so, at what level? Then we roll the dice, go through any invocation ‘bidding’, and get a resolution.
And here we get to the next point: Fate doesn’t actually tell you what happens. The dice never tell you what actually occurs—at least not the way they do in GURPS, where the system determines “you hit the orc in the arm, for x amount of damage, and have disabled the arm”. Instead, they place constraints on the narration.
If you Attack an opponent with a sword, and tie, you get a Boost. Great. What does that mean? It’s nothing concrete We have to narrate what happens, but what happens?
Well, Fate doesn’t tell us. What it does tell us is the general parameters of the narration. We know that no stress has been inflicted, so that the target isn’t really inherently closer to being Taken Out. We know they haven’t taken any Consequences, so nothing significant happens to them. We do know that they’re placed at a temporary disadvantage, though, and the narration has to incorporate that how we do that is up to us, though.
For a gritty game, it could be that the shock of parrying the sword made them go slightly numb in that hand, but nothing that couldn’t get shaken off. Or they could be knocked back by the force of the blow. For a swashbuckling game, maybe their clothes get ripped causing them to see red for a few seconds. In a more cinematic game, maybe they take a flesh wound that causes them to recoil.
How can a Boost actually be a hit that causes damage if it didn’t inflict Stress?
Stress isn’t damage—it’s a pacing measure, a way of determining how close someone is to being Taken Out. And succeeding on an Attack doesn’t mean you hit, and tying, or even losing, on the Attack doesn’t mean you don’t hit. Again, Fate doesn’t tell you what happens, it just places constraints on the narration. And since Stress is really a measure of how close you are to being Taken Out, as long as the narration of the resolution is consistent with that, you’re fine. You don’t need to hit someone to get them to be closer to being Taken Out, and just because you hit someone doesn’t mean that they are closer to being Taken Out.
So we narrate the results, and the game progresses. This gives an overall flow that looks something like this:
- Describe scene in terms of “the fiction”
- Determine character’s action in the “fiction”
- Determine opposition
- Determine how to apply rules
- Resolve action mechanically
- Get constraints on resolution from the mechanics
- Narrate the resolution within the given constraints
In my mind this clears up a few common questions/concerns that come up about Fate, especially with more players coming from more traditional RPGs.
First, if you can use Create Advantage to create an arbitrary aspect, why can’t you use it to come up with some blatantly overpowered thing that wins the scenario?
We skip the first five steps of the resolution process. If the proposed action doesn’t make sense in the fiction, you’ll never get past step two. And step four definitely stops it, as there’s no real way to apply the rules to an impossible action.
If we’re playing a gritty military game, and someone says that they want to flap their arms and fly to the top of a guard tower that just can’t and doesn’t happen. Neither does making a bomb out of sticks and mud. To even get to the point where we roll dice, the action has to be accepted as plausible, even if unlikely.
Secondly, how can you get hit by a rocket launcher and only take 1 point of stress? I’ve heard a bunch of stuff about stress and damage and taking large hits and whatnot. The key here is that stress isn’t tangible or concrete. It just places constraints on the narrative. If you “get hit” with a rocket launcher (aka, the Attack succeeded), and take a single point of stress, that doesn’t mean that the rocket hit you full on the chest and you brushed it off.
What it means is you take A point of stress. One point. And that the narration of what happens as part of the rocket launcher attack needs to be consistent with that. Since getting hit by a rocket from a rocket launcher means, logically, that you’re turned into personal salsa, then clearly you didn’t actually get “hit” by the rocket. Maybe you twisted your ankle dodging. Maybe you got hit by some kicked up rocks. Maybe you were mostly covered, but got singed a bit.
The third thing is what about just shooting someone in the head? This even shows up in the main Fate Core book! One of the sample characters (I forget which) drops an important NPC with a single hit from their sword. What about stress! What about consequences!
Well, what about them? If a trained warrior hits an unarmed, unexpecting non-combatant with a sword, what do you think is going to happen? They’re going to get pretty murderified.
This isn’t really a Conflict, so stress isn’t relevant (stress is a Conflict pacing mechanic, not an inherent property of characters). Think about how to resolve an action. That resolution is dependent on a few things:
- The action being performed
- The intended result
- The specific situation
- The larger “goal” of the scene
In many systems, resolution is dependent only on the first point. In Fate, that’s not the case. Pushing someone can be an Attack (attempting to push them off a cliff), or it can be Create Advantage (knocking them down or off balance), or it can be an Overcome (moving them out of an advantageous position).
Shooting someone doesn’t mean it’s an Attack—Attack is generally a Conflict action. If the scene is better modeled as a Challenge or Contest, or even just a simple Overcome, an Attack may not be necessary. Heck, a sniper shooting someone in the head should be able to take out his target with one shot—something that’s not really possible against non-mooks using default stress/consequences. So maybe that means that a ‘typical’ sniping situation (unaware target, etc.) isn’t a Conflict—which would make sense since the target isn’t providing active opposition, and isn’t trying to hurt the sniper.
The fiction drives the rules. It’s called the “Golden Rule” of Fate for a reason.
As well as being a hell of a lot more fun.
What Collaborative Setting Creation Means to Me
Collaborative setting creation seems to be one of those weird things for people new to more narrative games, and it was a hurdle for me. What exactly does the GM have power over? Does that mean that the players can just determine whatever they want? Does the GM do no world-building? If the players can just declare anything they want, then doesn’t the game just devolve into sitting around and telling a story?
I think the best way I can explain my thoughts on this is to give you a few examples of what I think it means. My examples will be three versions of a single pitch—government agents investigating supernatural threats—and how this changes according to the three groups it’s run with. Some of this will be slightly not-strictly-according-to-the-rules for the sake of the examples.
GM: “Okay, so government agents are investigating the supernatural. What do you guys like for a threat? Kind of at the looming threat level?”
P1: “Aliens. I like aliens.”
P2: “Cool! But, how about a conspiracy? Like, the aliens are working with the government?”
GM: “I dig it. So you guys are what, then, FBI?”
P1: “Yeah, that sounds cool. Some interesting possibilities for the government investigating itself and their politics in there.”
GM: “Okay, any ideas on characters? I’d like to keep the players pretty normal—I don’t want this to be a superhero game.”
P1: “Okay, I can do normal. Since we’re doing aliens, how about if I’m an investigator obsessed with the supernatural, since my sister was abducted when I was a kid?”
GM: “I like it.”
P2: “Good stuff as a counter, why don’t I play a character that’s more skeptical? That’ll make some good tension between the two?”
GM: “Awesome. I’ll work on some details, and we’ll get to playing.”
GM: “Okay, so government agents investigate the supernatural. What do you guys like for a threat? Kind of at the looming threat level?”
P1: “Hrm. How about something like an alternate dimension?”
P2: “Yeah, there could be something like a war looming, only we’re unaware of it.”
P3: “That’s pretty cool. Though maybe there should be something else, some kind of group that’s kind of, I don’t know, dimensional cops or something.”
GM: “Good stuff. Okay, any character ideas?”
P1: “Can I be a government agent? Maybe psychic?”
GM: “I’d like to keep this pretty much with normal people. I guess psychic is okay, but is it okay if it’s more ‘plot-psychic’, as in it’s not a generally useful skill?”
P1: “Sure, that works. It’s not relevant until it is.”
P2: “I want to be a mad scientist, how’s that?”
P1: “Hey, you can have experimented on me when I was a kid, and that’s why I’m sorta psychic!”
P2: “Awesome. I love it.”
GM: “Cool. P3?”
P3: “We’re doing this dimension thing, right? How about if I’m someone from this other dimension?”
GM: “Mmm, I kinda want to keep the other dimension thing unknown to the characters at the start.”
P3: “That’s fine, maybe I just don’t know it. Maybe I was dragged over here when I was a kid.”
P2: “Maybe by your friendly neighborhood mad scientist?”
P3: “I love it. But why?”
P2: “Maybe you’re the alternate version of my dead son?”
GM: “Oh, wow. I can’t see that blowing up in anyone’s faces. But does that mean that everyone has an alternate version?”
P1: “Yeah, I think it would.”
GM: “That could get very cool if people start crossing dimensions. Love it. Okay, I’ll set it up, see you guys next week.”
GM: “Okay, so government agents investigate the supernatural. What do you guys like for a threat? Kind of at the looming threat level?”
P1: “I really like the idea that myths are based on some kind of reality, even if it’s heavily distorted. Can we do something like that.”
GM: “Sure. What kind of myths?”
P2: “I dunno, most of the old myths are overdone.”
P3: “How about fairy tales? Except we’ve drastically misinterpreted them.”
GM: “That could be cool. So, what are you guys thinking? FBI for you guys?”
P1: “Mmmmm how about something more low-scale at first, to kind of make the larger conflict seem bigger. Maybe local cops?”
P2: “Yeah, I like it. And maybe the fairy-tale creatures are trying to rise to prominence like they used to be.”
P3: “Oh, that’s awesome. But if we’re going with misinterpreted fairy tales, I get to be the big bad wolf.”
P3: “No, really! Except I'm like, reformed, and a vegetarian.”
P1: “That’s kind of awesome.”
GM: “I really want to keep this more about regular people, not superheroes”
P3: “That’s fine. Maybe I’m a bit tougher than most people, but that’d really be about it. I figure most of these supernatural folks are just kinda hanging out living regular lives anyway, so I don’t really need anything super-awesome.”
GM: “Yeah, I can see that working.”
P1: “Okay, so these are fairy tales, right? How about if the fairy tales were written down originally as kind of a warning about the supernatural? And then I’m one of the descendants of this group that fought against them?”
GM: “I like it. P2?”
P2: “Well, you want to keep this grounded, and we’ve already got the big bad wolf and a monster hunter, so why don’t I just be a regular cop? That’ll provide at least some grounding back in reality. Plus, I think getting exposed to this stuff will lead to some cool character development.”
GM: “That’s awesome. I’ll get some stuff planned, and see you guys next week.”
In each case, the players have modified the setting, and the story of the games will end up revolving around them—it wouldn’t work with other characters. But, the GM still has a huge amount of responsibility over the game—the players helped set the overall world, as well as the general themes of the game, but the individual events and scenarios still are well within the realm of what the GM does, even if they’re based on character aspects.
Pacing Mechanisms in Fate
One of the things I see some confusion about in Fate are the various pacing mechanisms available—Conflicts, Contests, and Challenges, or as I like to call them, the 3 Cs.
We roll dice in Fate to answer a question. Technically, if we wanted to, we could answer any question, no matter how big or small, with a single die roll—probably an Overcome.
And fundamentally, that’s the point of pacing mechanisms. They’re nothing more, and nothing less, than a tool to make the resolution of a single question take longer than one roll of the dice/action resolution.
They drag things out, and provide an ending condition. Roll the dice, figure out the results, and then narrate the results in a way that makes it clear that one side or the other is getting closer to achieving their goal.
So, which one of these do you use? Much like Attack vs. Overcome isn’t based on what you’re doing, but rather whether you’re trying to Take Out your opponent, which pacing mechanism you choose isn’t determined by the actions that are being undertaken, primarily. It’s determined by the nature of the opposition.
I’ll start with Challenges, since they have the easiest criteria. Use a Challenge when you don’t have active opposition over the entire Challenge.
Zird warding off the zombies meets these criteria. The zombies are (mostly) a passive, environmental challenge, and at any rate he’s really barring the door to them. Convincing the townspeople is arguably active opposition but they’re not interfering with the majority of the challenge, and so is an Overcome. Casting the ritual is simply environmental, and is an Overcome.
This could mean that the opposition is unaware and inactive. This could mean that you do have active opposition, but only for part of the Challenge (in which case you can either model that as an Overcome, or as a sub-Conflict/Contest as appropriate).
Now, part of a Challenge may involve active opposition—such as the villagers being convinced in the Zird example. In that case, you can either treat it as a simple Overcome within the Challenge (remember, that all pacing mechanisms are basically stand-ins for a single resolution), or you can expand it out further into an inner Conflict/Contest if appropriate.
But what if you have active opposition—some individual or party that is directly opposing the question that you’re trying to answer? This is why there are Conflicts and Contests.
If your opposition is active and wants to get you to back down, you use a Conflict. By backing down, I mean that the goal of the opposition is to get you to back down in some way either by getting knocked out and killed, by surrendering, by fleeing, etc. For a Conflict, then two things should be true:
- Both sides are committed to getting the other side to back down
The “question” of the conflict is either:
- Whether a particular side will back down in some way
- Something that the winner can accomplish if the opposition isn’t there
So if you’re trying to capture some bad guys (or the other way around), that could be a Conflict, so long as both sides are exchanging blows (by choice or because no other option exists). If you’re trying to get past guards to defuse a bomb, that’s a Conflict.
If your opposition is active and indirect, choose a Contest. By indirect, I mean that both sides aren’t engaged in mutual annihilation. The obvious cases would be races, or a chase. It could be trying to capture someone, so long as they’re trying to evade capture. It could even be fleeing from a shooter (“Can I make it to cover before I get shot/killed?”). But the key here is that there are still two or more active participants/sides.
Aside: You might choose a Contest with an unaware side, if that side is actively doing something that would bring the Contest to a close—a sorcerer opening a gate to an evil realm, for instance, might be in a contest with the adventurers trying to make it to his sanctum to interrupt the spell, even if the sorcerer is unaware of their presence. The real key here is the active bit.
In general, any time you can phrase the question you’re answering as “do I X before they Y” is a Contest, unless both X and Y are the same goal.
That’s the basic way I divide up the pacing mechanisms. And it’s interesting, because some high-level actions may fall under any of the three pacing mechanisms, based on the context of the action.
If the target is unaware of what you’re doing, and there’s no enemy awareness of your presence, it’s a Challenge—there’s no active opposition, so there’s no “other side”. There’s certainly some passive opposition that must be overcome in some way or another, but you’re not dealing with an active opponent.
If the target is unaware, but there’s a patrol in the area that’s hunting you down, then it’s a Contest—”do I shoot my target before the enemy patrol finds me” definitely falls into the Contest template described above.
If you’re in the middle of a firefight, and trying to snipe one of your opponents, then it’s a Conflict, pretty clearly.
These three pacing mechanisms do a pretty good job of covering just about all situations. Some might requiring a bit of coercing to get into place, but they’re all workable. And again, they don’t really “model” anything. They’re about pacing, not modeling.
Calibration—the Dial Without a Dial
A common thing that I see discussed in Fate is how to model super strength or the like. Which is a great question. If 4 Athletics is a super-athletic person, and a 5 or 6 is an Olympic quality gymnast, then how do you model something even more athletic than that? Maybe peak skill should be a dial?
One of the things that I look at in Fate Core is that the mechanics are solid for a lot of scenarios out of the box. And that skills don’t represent an objective measure of training, but are rather the ability to influence a scene in a particular way. These seem like relatively contradictory things, but come together in the idea of “calibration”.
In Fate Core, I don’t think 4 Athletics means “very athletic person”. I don’t think 5 or 6 means “Olympic gymnast.” I think 4 means “the most Athletic that a starting character can be.” No more, no less.
The meaning of this will, of course, vary from setting to setting. If you’re doing a Zero-Dark-Thirty style game, 4 will mean a highly trained, extremely strong, professional soldier, at or near the bounds of human ability. 0 means the baseline capabilities of a professional soldier, below 0 you’d be drummed out of the service.
I’ll admit, of course, that there are circumstances where this doesn’t work. If you want one skill to have a higher scene influence than another, for instance, or where you want the difference in capability between the peak and the base to be higher. In practice, though, I think those circumstances are relatively rare. You don’t put a 5 skill vs. a 0 with any hope of success anyway.
Another thing that can benefit from calibration is damage. This is particularly the case when you’re trying to model grittiness or incredible realism.
Let’s say with default Fate rules, you take a three stress hit from a sword. You mark off your third stress box and narrate this as taking a nasty cut across the chest. You’re nearly Taken Out.
In a grittier game, one nasty cut across the chest may well be fatal, and taking one probably means that you’re close to death. We can model this by dropping the stress track to one, and making consequences only worth -1/-2/-3. Now it’s a moderate consequence and your only stress box filled in! Grittier!
How do we model a gritty fight in Fate, without changing any of the dials? Again, you could change dials as well, but I think it’s interesting to see what happens if we don’t change those dials.
Let’s take another look at a three-stress hit. What does this mean? Mechanically, it means two things: We’re somewhat closer to being Taken Out, and there are no long lasting effects from this hit.
So if we’re going for “gritty”, clearly this doesn’t mean we took a nasty slice across the chest. We have alternatives:
- We’ve been forced out of position and are “on our heels”
- We’ve taken a parry poorly, causing our hand to sting but no lasting damage
- We had to jump out of the way to dodge, causing no injury, but making us get a bit more winded.
Pain, muscle damage, blood loss and shock would probably mean that a single serious blow means “game over”. So while grittiness can be imaginative and descriptive, more often than not it is less interesting for gameplay.
The same challenge exists with consequences. What does a -2 consequence mean?
Mechanically, it means that the person that delivered it gets a free invoke, it will likely go away shortly after the fight, and that you’re that much closer to being Taken Out.
Narratively, we have to match the feel of the game. For a cinematic game, that may mean a cut to the arm, or something like that. For a gritty game, it may simply mean that you’ve lightly twisted an ankle, got a bit of dead arm from a hit that your armor soaked up, or the like. Dice dictate the mechanical results of the action. A “hit” or a “miss” is a narrative explanation of that mechanical effect. The dice don’t dictate narration. “Does three stress” is a purely system-level statement. How that translates into narrative is up to you and should vary based on the type of feel you’re going for.
A three stress hit becomes getting knocked out of position. A minor consequence is getting winded, or a minor laceration from shrapnel. A severe consequence is a mild cut rather than a severe gash. And being Taken Out means you suffered a single hard blow, not half a dozen.
Here’s an example of how the same fight may play out in both “cinematic” and “gritty” style. The same mechanical effects will be used in both situations!
Alfred hits Bob for three stress: “Alfred strikes at Bob, leaving a nasty cut across his chest. Blood drips down as Bob begins his counterattack”.
Bob hits Alfred for four stress, Alfred takes 2 and a minor consequence: “Bob’s wicked counterattack catches Alfred off-guard, cutting him across the arm. The cut looks deep, but Alfred’s not out of the fight yet.”
Alfred hits Bob for five stress, Bob takes a Severe consequence and one stress: “Alfred continues his furious assault at Bob, laying a nasty strike to the leg. The cut doesn’t look quite to the bone, but it’s pretty severe”
Alfred hits Bob for three stress: “Alfred strikes at Bob. Bob’s not ready for the sudden strike, so he stumbles and falls as he barely manages to parry in time.”
Bob hits Alfred for four stress, Alfred takes 2 and a minor consequence: “Alfred presses too hastily, and Bob lashes up from his off-balance position. Bob manages to get his blade down in time, but it looks like his hand is going to be sore from having taken the impact poorly.”
Alfred hits Bob for five stress, Bob takes a Severe consequence and one stress: “Nursing his injured hand, Alfred kicks at Bob and sprawls him out. Bob gasps in pain, it feels like he may have a fractured rib.” Same mechanics. Very different feel, based upon narration and calibration.
Fiction, not Physics
“Fiction, not Physics.”
I find myself quoting this a lot, and it’s really become key to how I understand Fate. When I first heard it, I assumed it meant “we’re not concerned with realism” And that’s partially true, but only partially.
What I’ve come to understand this phrase as meaning is that Fate sets out to model how stories flow in actual cinematic media.
Here’s a scene we’ve all seen countless times in film: Our spy hero needs to get past a door, guarded by a couple of mooks. We see him slip into the shadows where the mooks can’t see him. He then climbs into the pipes above the guards, and once above them drops down, taking them both out. He hauls the guards off behind some boxes and proceeds.
In a more traditional RPG, this would be a stealth roll, probably some more Notice checks, probably a roll to get up on the pipes, and then an attack roll with some bonuses.
Now, sure, you could do something similar with Fate, after all it does have elements like skill rolls and whatnot. But, it’s better to map actions cinematically, just like how we’d see them in the movie. So in the first shot of the scene, we see our spy slip into the shadows. That’s a Create Advantage roll, opposed by the mooks’ Notice.
Then our hero climbs up on the pipes. Here he is Creating Advantage, but against a static difficulty this time (the danger of failing is more from the inherent danger, and less from being noticed—we’ve already established that our character is out of view.)
With these aspects now in place (the scene is now ABOUT our hero being “In the Shadows” and “On the Pipes Above the Door”), and our free tags on them, it’s a pretty easy Fighting roll to do enough stress to knock out the two mooks.
So as you can see, Fate is more concerned with modeling how the fiction feels rather than how long certain kinds of action would take in the real world.
Conflict with Named NPCs
Conflict with named NPCs isn’t really about who wins, or even tactics. It’s a test of your commitment to your goals. It’s a bidding war. It’s a game of chicken.
In a roughly even conflict, there’s a steady escalation of resource expenditures. Sure, you’ll win if it takes nothing but some skills rolls, after all, that costs nothing. But, are you willing to spend some Fate points?
Then we escalate to consequences. Are you willing to take them? Are you willing to risk being taken out?
Here’s where the concession mechanic really shines—at any point, you can accept a loss and gain a fate point. That helps escalate the stakes as the conflict goes on.
At the beginning it is just trying to achieve your goal, such as stopping a necromancer from raising an undead army. As the conflict starts it becomes stopping the necromancer vs getting a Fate point.
Soon the conflict becomes stopping the necromancer by spending some fate points vs getting a fate point while avoiding consequences. The stakes are rising as we reach stopping the necromancer, spending Fate points, and taking consequences vs getting a bunch of Fate points. At this point being Taken Out becomes a consideration.
This escalation is happening simultaneously for both sides in the conflict. Tactics and abilities can change how quickly each side escalates, but at the end of the day it’s about how badly you want it more than anything else.
Put a Scene On It
So I’m running my Kriegszeppelin game, and a player wants to hop up his plane using some mechanics. I’m fully thinking GURPS/D&D, and so I have him roll the dice. He succeeds, gets some invokes on a Scene Aspect, and we move on. Did I do it right?
No, I couldn’t have flubbed it more if I tried. Where was the drama? Where was the conflict? Where was the story? Nowhere. What I should have done was frame this in a scene:
“Okay, Eddie, the plane’s in the hangar with the other planes. When are you doing this? At night, when nobody can see? Or are you being open about it? What do the mechanics think of you messing with the plane? What about the other pilots?”
Once I’ve tied this to a specific place and time, it becomes a lot more interesting. The mechanics can show up. Compels start to suggest themselves. Conflict. Drama. Story. The reasons we play.
Any time something happens, frame it in a scene. Contacts roll? Where are they going that’s appropriate to find these people? Investigate? They’re in a library or pounding the streets. There is absolutely no mechanic that can’t be improved by framing it in a scene. Fiction, not physics.
There’s another subtle benefit of thinking in scenes. Things happen in scenes. You’ve got to ask the big scene questions first.
- What is this scene about?
- What’s at stake?
- What could go wrong?
- What interesting thing is about to happen?
And if you don’t have interesting answers to those questions, it’s probably not an interesting scene and should just be skipped over. If your game was a TV show or a movie, would they waste script time on this?
Ramp it up. Put a scene on it.
Fate Core Character Creation
Backstories are stories. They’re what drives the game forward.
And that’s why I love Fate character creation.
First, it’s one of the few character creation systems that focuses first on who a character is, rather than what a character can do. I find it in many ways hard to create characters in other systems now, as it’s an exercise in point optimization.
The shared stories also present the party a good reason to know each other, and do a great job of banishing “you meet in a bar”.
But the real reason I enjoy character creation in Fate is more than these. It’s the Phase Trio. It’s creating and enriching stories about these characters. Because each time I go through the exercise, we end up with a plethora of threats and antagonists in the world. We end up with story threads that need to go somewhere, and that I want to find out what happens with. I end up with complex relationships that I want to see resolve in an interesting way.
I can’t imagine running a Fate game where character creation didn’t influence coming events. And if I played in one where our pasts didn’t come into play, I’d kind of feel like something was left out.
I’ve learned to dislike the term “backstory” when it comes to Fate characters. Backstory implies that it’s the past, and in many gaming circles carries the connotation that it’s only important from a motivational view after all, the story was probably created before you made your characters. Your character’s history drives the game. It’s what creates complications, and gives players the chance to decide what type of game they want to play.
Rob’s Guide to Writing Good Aspects
Aspects are one of the recurring things people, especially new people, have problems with in Fate.
Lots of people new to Fate think of aspects in terms of defining what their characters can do, as Merits/Feats/Advantages work in other systems. Try not to think of aspects in this way, it tends to create poor aspects. Instead, the best overall view of aspects is “what would I want to see in a story about this character?”
Specifically, things that can be handled with skills or stunts should be handled as skills or stunts. You don’t need a Good Shot aspect to hit people with a gun—that’s what the Shoot skill is for. And if you want to be a great sniper, an appropriate stunt will do the job much better than an aspect will.
Now, what a good aspect is becomes a bit harder to define, especially without a solid understanding of what aspects do.
What Do Aspects Do?
To write a good aspect, it’s fundamentally important that you understand what they do in game. While this may depend on a number of things, aspects on character typically do one or more of five things:
- Grant permission
- Make you awesome doing some things
- Hinder you in some circumstances
- Complicate your life
- Create setting
We’ll cover each of these, and why they’re important.
One of the common uses of aspects is to “grant permission” to do certain things that the majority of people can’t do. This is probably the vaguest of the four uses of character aspects, so I’ll try to clarify with some examples. Most people can’t use magic, but a Wizard Private Eye can.
Most people can’t use the Force, but The Last Jedi sure can.
Most people can’t go into the palace and talk to the king, but The Brother of the King sure can.
Most people can’t find the assassin’s guild, and certainly can’t get in, but An Assassin in Good Standing can.
As you can see, a lot of times a ‘grant permission’ aspect follows the formula “Most people can’t, but I can”.
If you’ve got an aspect in mind, think of whether or not it gives you any kind of permissions. If not, that’s fine, not all aspects do.
Make You Awesome Doing Some Things
The most common use of an aspect is probably to make you more awesome doing things. When coming up with an aspect, try to think of things that your character might fail at if the aspect weren’t true.
“My character might have missed that shot, but The White Death doesn’t miss.”
“I may not have been able to defeat those stormtroopers had it not been for My Wookiie Copilot”
“They may have seen me try to sneak by, except for the fact that I’m One With the Shadows”
“I may not have been able to do what I want, but I’m a master of Tropical Drink Diplomacy”
Hinder You in Some Circumstances
This is the exact opposite of the previous section. Aspects under this category can cause failure when otherwise you may have succeeded.
Now, this is probably an odd concept. Why in the world would you want to do this?
Aspects are triggered by Fate Points. Each scene, the GM gets a Fate Point for each character. If the GM chooses to use one against you on one of your aspects, you get that Fate Point at the end of the scene.
If the GM uses them on one of the NPC’s aspects, you don’t get them.
Now, rest assured that the GM will use his Fate Point budget on each scene. It’s just going to happen. The only question is whether or not you get those Fate Points, one of your fellow PCs gets them, or if they just vanish into thin air.
That said, the template for “bad” aspect use is almost exactly like the “good” ones, so you can think of them in almost the same way.
“I probably would have talked the official into doing things my way, except that I’m obviously not trustworthy since I’m One With the Shadows”
“I would have been able to grab onto that ledge, except my Bionic Hand froze up”
“I would have been able to jump out of the trap, had it not been for my Lame Leg”
Complicate Your Life
And here’s another one where it seems aspects are negative. And the reason for why you want these is exactly the same—to get delicious, delicious Fate Points.
Occasionally, the GM can decide to complicate your life by using one of your aspects. If you’re The Last Jedi, then there are probably people hunting you down, and they very well might barge in on you at the most inopportune moments. And when that does, the GM hands you a Fate Point.
Even without the Fate Point, wouldn’t you be better off without these complications? Well think about it. It’s the GM’s job to complicate your life. It’s what they do, or games would get really dull, really quickly.
So to see if this applies to your character, try and see if there are ways that this will complicate your life. This is a bit different than the previous set of ideas, though, in that these situations aren’t about directly helping or harming you at a task, rather they’re about story-level complications.
“It gets tough to work in this town, since the cops like to hassle the only known Wizard Private Eye”
“Man, I keep creating trouble for myself since I’m a Known Troublemaker”.
“People keep trying to kidnap me since I’m The Brother of the King”
This is probably the least important use of aspects, but it’s still worth noting. Since with an aspect, you declare something as true about your character, this is a good way to make things exist in the world because you want them there.
If you’re a Guild Assassin in Good Standing, there must be an Assassin’s Guild.
GMs may veto some possibilities, though, so keep that in mind. A lot of playing Fate is taking the ideas from everyone at the whole table and making an awesome story, so your GM should work to get everyone involved.
Lots of things can make good aspects—specific items, relationships with people or organizations, internal aspects of your personality, goals, or even catchphrases. Someone who’s Got a Bad Feeling About This is probably going to be right about those feelings at least some of the time!
So think of something interesting about your character, something you’d want to show up in a story.
The more ways you think of how these ideas can be used in a story, the better. Try for at least three ways. If some help you, and some hinder you, you’re on to something good.
Go broad in your aspects, not specific. If you choose a relationship, consider a relationship that has a lot of implications. Brother of the King lets some things happen, but Exiled Half-Brother of the Tyrant King says a lot more! For non-relationships, think of phrases that have both flavor as well as multiple connotations—Mrs. Fixit has some obvious uses, but Monkey Wrench (one of my favorite all-time aspects) can be used all over the place—whether with hitting things with a literal monkey wrench, fixing things, or causing or being the recipient of a “monkey wrench in the works”.
Lastly, think of aspects with flavor. Think of things that make you excited about the character, and show the character’s personality. Troubled Life is kind of blah. Penchant for Trouble is a little better, but “I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This” says a lot about the character.
Have fun. It’s a game, and it’s supposed to be a fun one. And no decision you make is super-permanent. The vast majority of your aspects can be swapped out on a regular basis, so as you get a better feel for what is and is not coming into play on a regular basis, you can adjust your aspects so that they become more useful to you, or to reflect character development.
Intent and Task
One thing that I’ve seen as a stumbling block for people coming to Fate is that Fate handles rolls and actions differently than a lot of “mainstream” games.
In a lot of mainstream games the rules define what you can do, how you do it, and how effective you are (or aren’t) at it. I call these “task-based” games since the player decides what task he’s going to accomplish, and then sees what the result of that action is.
Fate is different. Fate is in the bucket of what I call “intent-based” games. What that means is that a player starts with what they want the results of their action to be. Then they see if they can achieve that result.
For an intent-based system to work, you need to know two things for every action. What it is you want to achieve, and how the heck you’re going to go about doing that.
Without those two pieces of information, you can’t really determine how to roll for something in Fate.
For instance, if a PC is flying around and has an enemy plane On His Tail. This player then says “I want to fly through the canyons.” Okay that’s probably a piloting roll, as the Task almost always determines the skill rolled, but which of the four actions should it be?
The clearest case is an Overcome, and the intent of the player may be to get those pesky planes off of him!
Or, it could be an attempt to Create An Advantage on either those planes, or even other opponents, something like Lost Him In The Canyons. The player may want that to really ensure they get those planes off!
Or, he could be pulling a Han Solo and trying to get the planes to fly into the canyons and blow up—which sounds awfully like an Attack.
So without both the intent and the task , we can’t really resolve an action. Several of the “classic” how does this work conundrums fall into this category. Handcuffing someone to a desk—well, is it intended to be permanent and effectively remove them from the fight? If so, it’s Taking them Out, and is an Attack. Is it just supposed to slow them down? It’s Creating an Advantage.
Same with the Hulk throwing someone over the horizon if you’re trying to throw them over the horizon and remove them from the Conflict, you’re trying to Take Them Out, and it’s therefore an Attack. If you’re just trying to stun them, move them around, or whatever, it’s Create An Advantage.
Getting players to say what their Intent is can be tricky, especially if they’re coming from more traditional (task-based) games. I like to ask players when something is unclear “Okay, describe success. Let’s say this works what is it that you want to happen?”
Sometimes this isn’t really necessary, of course. If the player says “I run him through with my sword!” you can pretty well assume that the Intent is to kill him.
Intent and task also are important when discussing Fate Core builds and modifications/stunts. “How do I do cybernetics” is an unanswerable question, without understanding what it is you want cybernetics to do. If you want cybernetics to make people super-powered, that’s one thing. If you want them to grant some other bonus, that’s another. If they can reach the limit of human capability, that’s fine, too.
But what kind of difficulties can cybernetics cause? Can they break down? Do they need maintenance? Could they even be hacked?
On the other hand, there’s also the social aspects of cybernetics to consider—do cybernetics cause you to become removed from humanity? Do they cause others to react differently?
And really, cybernetics are a “Task”. They’re a means to an end. To figure out how to use them, you really need to start with what you want your game to be. If you want superheroes going around doing super stuff, then you’re going to approach them one way. If you want part of the theme of your game to revolve around the loss of humanity, then you’re going to approach them a very different way. All those questions combine to form the “Intent” of your cybernetics system. And depending on how you answer them, you may decide that they’re nothing but descriptive fluff and have no narrative effect (people aren’t against them, but you don’t want them to grant superhuman abilities, and don’t want them to really be troublesome, either).
And all of those are great, and can serve a particular goal. But the only way to judge the effectiveness of your cybernetics implementation is against a defined goal.
Fate Doesn’t Go To Eleven
Let’s talk about skills. Skills are how good you are at something, right?
That’s true in most games, and is superficially true in Fate. Physique isn’t a “skill”. I see skills as closer to “how a character impacts the scene”. If you think about someone with a gun versus a martial artist, realistically, the martial artist will be less effective given the same skill.
But, if we just say that the skill represents your ability to influence the scene, then we can roll the influence of the weapon into the influence of the skill and call it a day. So with a hypothetical Martial Arts skill of 4, you’d be Jackie Chan, but with a Shoot of 4, you’d be pretty competent, as your weapon itself would be part of that scene’s influence.
I’m getting somewhere with this, really! Thanks for reading so far!
In the previous essay, I talked about modeling a cybernetic arm primarily by just giving the character the appropriate skill (Physique or possibly Athletics), an Aspect for the more narrative bits, and maybe possibly a stunt, and calling it a day. This works because, to me, having that 4 in Physique says “I have this much influence in scenes, when I approach them in this way. How I got that influence is irrelevant, whether it’s working out, technology, magic, or whatever.”
At this point, you might ask “what if I was a body builder that had cybernetics installed, hrm, Mr. Smarty Pants?”
“Fate Doesn’t Go To Eleven.”
Okay, I finally got around to the essay title. But what the hell do I mean by that? If you’re not familiar with the phrase “goes to eleven,” it comes from the movie This Is Spinal Tap. In it, one of the guitarists talks about his amps being special because while most amps have ten as the highest setting on the dial, his goes to eleven. Apparently he’s too dumb to realize that it’s the internals of the system that determine the volume of the amp, and that the label is exactly that, just a label.
Fate does not go to eleven. If the maximum skill you can have in an area is 4, then that’s what you get. That also represents the maximum ability that a starting character can have in that area. Period. (Okay, there’s stunts, too, but there shouldn’t be anything granting a flat bonus). 4 doesn’t need to represent the same thing in every game. It represents the maximum that a player can start with, in that game. 4 Physique could be the strongest a human can achieve in one game, and it could be Superman in another. It’s a scale, a way of calibrating. It’s not GURPS, where 15 STR means exactly what 15 STR means, and you have lots of tables telling you exactly what 15 STR does, and you have to have crazy high levels of strength to represent augmented individuals, or supers, or whatever.
Now I’m going to tie back to Just Do It again. One of the reasons that people like toolboxes is that they like going to eleven. They like hearing about the maximum value of something, and then finding a way to surpass it. “How high can we stack the bonuses?” Many folks will want to make a character with a cybernetic arm not because they think it makes a great story, but because they think that it will allow them to go higher than the supposed highest in the system—it lets them go to eleven. Which, of course, means that the “highest” in fact wasn’t, and the real “highest” is totally dependent on how high you can stack your Lego blocks.
Fate doesn’t do that. Fate just says, “You can have 4. And a few stunts to let you do a bit better in specific situations. You can’t have more. Have a nice day.” Fate just says your amp goes to 10, and if you want to be louder, you need a louder amp—aka, play in a setting where 4 means something else. It doesn’t lie to you and just relabel the loudest as 11 so that you feel more awesome. It’s honest in its calibrations and ranges.
Some people, of course, do love that type of char-op. I personally have little use for it, and I suspect some people agree with me. And thankfully there’s tons of games in the hobby, and lots of them support that level of char-op. If I want a game that does that, then I’ll play that type of game.
I’m just glad that Fate doesn’t do that, and that it gives me an option that doesn’t go to eleven.
Fate Doesn’t Have A Damage System
Fate doesn’t have a damage system. We’ve got Stress, we’ve got Consequences. But nothing that says Damage.
So what’s Stress, if not damage? Well, at an abstract level it’s a pacing mechanism. What that means more concretely is that it’s a measure of how close you are to being Taken Out—and there are lots of reasons you might be Taken Out. And since Stress clears at the end of a Scene, it’s pretty clear that it’s not meant to represent actual physical damage in any way.
What about Consequences, then?
Still not damage. I’m going back to “physics, not fiction” here. Damage is primarily a “physics” concept, what the actual physical effect something like an attack or a fall has on your body. Fate doesn’t model that, and doesn’t want to. It models fiction.
Now, what’s interesting about fights or other conflicts in fiction is not the detailed description of exactly what the physical effects of a sword blow are. It’s the impact that they have on the story on an ongoing basis. Whether it’s Harry Dresden having a headache, or John McClane limping from his feet being hurt from glass, what fiction cares about is the impact that the fight has on the story. If an “injury” is purely internal, or in another way doesn’t impact the story, it’s irrelevant.
And that’s what Consequences model. They model the continuing impact of the conflict and how it carries through the story.
And this opens up all sorts of options. There’s only so many ways you can describe damage, but there’s lots of possible consequences from a fight. Big sword hit? Sure, it can be a Gashed Leg. It may make you Fearful of Your Own Mortality. It can destroy a mystic artifact you’re holding, leaving you Half In This World.
The Stress and Consequences model dictates the impact an Attack has on a character. It’s not a “damage” model, so it doesn’t dictate the type. That’s up to you, your table, and your game. Make it awesome.
The Not-So-Hidden Logic of Paying to Invoke Aspects
Aspects are kind of like a combination of advantages and disadvantages from GURPS, only more free-form, right? If I’m really strong, it would make sense that I’d always be really strong, and it would be a constant bonus. I mean, that’s just how the world works, right?
Let’s take a section of badly-written prose:
Nanoc, the IP-Friendly Barbarian warrior, waded into battle. He knew his target, the evil warlord Baddaguy. A screaming warrior attacked him, but Nanoc split him in half, the pieces falling to his sides. He looked around for a glimpse of Baddaguy. There! Up on that hill! Nanoc started making his way up the hill, only to find three of Baddaguy’s filthy minions blocking his path. A sword strike felled one, and a parry-and-counter combination sent the next to hell. The third minion, seeing his friends die in a matter of heartbeats, ran off like the coward he was.
Compare that to just this modified first paragraph:
Nanoc, the IP-Friendly Barbarian warrior, waded into battle. He knew his target, the evil warlord Baddaguy. A screaming warrior attacked him, but Nanoc split him in half with the strength from his might barbarian thews, the pieces falling to his sides. He looked around for a glimpse of Baddaguy. There! Up on that hill! Nanoc started making his way up the hill, only to find three of Baddaguy’s filthy minions blocking his path. A sword strike fueled by his mighty barbarian thews felled one, and a parry-and-counter combination, supported by the might of his barbarian thews sent the next to hell. The third minion, seeing his friends die in a matter of heartbeats, and quivering in fear of the mighty barbarian thews, ran off like the coward he was.
As bad as the first section was, the second one is I feel I need to bathe in disinfectant for having written it.
But that’s the fundamental reason that aspects are “fueled by” Fate Points. Nanoc’s struggle against Baddaguy was the only place he really needed to swing the narrative, and constantly talking about his mighty barbarian thews is just dull.
Fate Core, as far as I can see, tries to emulate fiction. That doesn’t just mean “a physical simulation of fictional worlds”. That means the flow and structure of fiction. That means that when we look at how a game of Fate ‘should’ flow, our reference point should be ‘does this play out like a book, or a movie?’ rather than ‘does this work like how it would work in the physical world’?
A slippery, ice-covered surface, in fiction, doesn’t mean that every description or shot of people on it involves them slipping and sliding around. That’s boring. What it probably means is that at some key moment, somebody will slip because of the surface creating some dramatic moment. And that’s what Fate tries to emulate—how the dramatic elements work together, not the actual effects of fighting on a slippery surface. It follows the rules of fiction regardless of realism, not reality—even ‘cinematic’ reality.
How I GM Fate Core
This is how I run Fate.
Step One: The Pitch
This is where I just say to some people “Hey, let’s play some Fate!” I’ll include a general description of what type of game I’m thinking about running: “Let’s play a basic fantasy-type game!” “Let’s do a game based on Brutal Legend!” or something along those lines.
Step Two: Initial Prep-work
I’ll usually take a look at the skill list, dials in Fate, extra subsystems (magic, armor, etc.) and propose some defaults. This is still pretty lightweight, and seriously subject to change. This is more about setting an initial stake in the ground in terms of what the game will be than anything. As part of this, I may flesh out some high level conflict that I think may be interesting—but again, this is kept very vague and loose, primarily so that I’m not overly attached to it if it turns out the players want to go a totally different direction. Depending on how detailed the pitch is, the planning I’ll do at this point will typically be more along the lines of coming up with NPCs/factions that may be opposing each other and create dynamic forces in the world, not a series of events. They’ll typically be vague, so that I can insert appropriate details from character creation.
If I’m going to muck with the phases, I’ll usually do so at this time and throw it past the players to see what sticks. This will be based on what makes sense, thematically, for the scenario. In general, I’ll add an aspect or two before I actually remove the Phase Trio, but if I need to dork with stuff more than that then I’ll consider ditching it in some way.
I’ll also try to come up with some kind of immediate situation/encounter/etc. for session zero, though again, I go with lightweight for this.
Step Three: Session Zero
Now we’re actually going to throw some dice. I come to this session with my prep work, a new folder for game docs, some blank character sheets, the Fate cheat sheets available, and a couple of devices that can display my electronic versions of Fate.
First is setting generation. I’m a big fan of “Places and Faces”, and setting up immediate/impending issues. One thing I’ve found with more narrative games like Fate is that they work best if there’s something that demands immediate attention, so I try to make sure there’s at least one current issue.
I do setting generation first, as it helps give the players something to latch onto for character creation. I also try to be very permissive at this stage there’s no game, so it makes no real sense to veto anything, unless it just goes utterly contrary to the game pitch—someone wanting to be a space alien in a fantasy game, for instance. Of course, sometimes that can be worked into something that makes sense—see Warforged in Eberron, for instance. Even in cases where there’s an established setting, most of setting generation makes sense, there’s just a few more defined fences that already exist. But in no published setting is every tavern, every organization, and every city mapped out to the degree that players can’t add their own stuff to it, even without contradicting canon.
As part of this, I’ll expand on the faces/places created, and use those to collaboratively world-build. Often, a single place/face will suggest something larger about the world, so I’ll drill down on that. If organizations or governments are suggested, I’ll guide the group into fleshing those out.
Then, character creation. I generally run this by-the-book. I’m a huge fan of the Phase Trio, and think it’s something that adds a lot of value to Fate games, especially in terms of making the game really about the characters. If you’ve already got a plot planned out that won’t be impacted by your characters’ backstories it’s less important. But that’s not why I play Fate.
I do the phase trio very collaboratively. I go from player to player, as each phase goes out, and have them say what their story is, kind of on the spot. I encourage other players to make suggestions or give input, and if the player whose turn it is seems stuck, I’ll ask them for their kind of general thoughts on what they want, even if it’s somewhat vague. The idea here is to keep everyone involved and active and thinking creatively. A second goal of this is to have all of the players involved with all of the characters, so that they have some knowledge of these characters and some investment in them.
As we’re going through the phases, I try to look for recurring themes, pull out oppositional NPCs/groups, and start merging this into any previous ideas I had about the big players in the scenario. If something pre-planned doesn’t fit, I ditch it. If there’s a clear theme in the characters, I run with it. If some of the backstories imply setting facts that don’t work with my preconceptions, I run with those and ditch the preconceptions. This, to me, is really about the players telling me what kind of game/world they want to play in, and it’s kind of my job to provide that.
I have two primary jobs during all of this: Recording what is said, and keeping things moving. I’ll offer my own suggestions and input, but I don’t really assume that my input has any more weight than anyone else’s. If there’s enough time after character creation, and there’s enough for me to grab onto, then I’ll run some kind of initial encounter/inciting incident. I usually try to get to this, since many people aren’t used to a ‘play-less’ Session Zero.
Step Four: Post-Session Zero
This is probably the biggest prep time for me, even more than keeping the game going. What I need to do now is to take my initial thoughts for what the game might be and reconcile them with what we at the table came up with. Between my initial thoughts, the current and impending issues, setting creation, and player backstories (via the Phase Trio) I’ll have a number of elements to play with. Now, I take these elements and try to integrate them into some kind of consistent setting.
This will often require the creation of NPCs. I focus more on NPC creation than plot creation—characters drive stories, not events. Events happen due to conflicts between characters. I’ll try to have several NPCs/organizations/groups acting in opposition to each other, to keep things interesting. Depending on the game, I also try for a little ambiguity—bad guys who have good intentions or do some good work, or good guys that have bad methods, or even two groups that both want incompatible versions of good. I find these types of things make for more interesting stories, generally. I’ll write all this down in my campaign folder, and use it to generate several possible initial arcs, where an arc is usually defined by some NPC/group trying to achieve some goal. I’ll look at what their goal is, how other groups might be involved, and go with that. Part of this is always going to be looking at character aspects for things that tie into the characters—the story is about them, after all! Though that is generally not an issue since these groups/NPCs/goals have generally come out of setting creation, character backstories, or the current/impending issues! Ensuring that things are somehow tied into characters is always a good thing to do.
Step Five: Arc Generation
This is where I start actually planning the arc. I set this out as a separate step, because there’s a big loop here in longer games that goes back here when an arc is resolved or is starting to be resolved.
Arc generation is usually about taking one of the preliminary arc ideas from Step Four, and fleshing it out. Again, I focus on NPCs, not events. Who is trying to achieve what? Who might be in the way? Who might assist them? And, perhaps most importantly, how do the PCs get dragged into this? The best arcs, again, are about the PCs in some way or another, and wouldn’t work if you had a different set of characters. That’s a pretty good heuristic on story arcs, anyway.
I ask myself the following questions when I’m mapping things out:
- Why is this relevant to the characters?
- Who is involved in this?
- What are they trying to achieve?
- Who might be opposing them?
- Who might be helping them?
- What will they do, if unopposed?
More traditional players/GMs might find this artificial. I see it as a focus on fiction—in fiction, the events are directly about the characters, and often specifically to highlight inner conflict of the characters. This involves the characters and players more directly, and focuses the story on them. This is what changes Star Wars from a generic story about shooting lasers to a more meaningful story about the darkness within us, and the temptation of that darkness. This is what gives us recurring enemies that players love to hate. Incidentally, one of the main reasons I use player-created opposition when possible is the simple fact of investment. Players care about things based on how much they have invested in them. GMs often forget this—the big bad that we create is cool to us, because we have invested in them heavily. The players couldn't care less, until that bad guy touches something that they have invested in. By stealing opposition from the players, we start with some level of investment, even if that’s no more than the players coming up with a name. And we’ll all be invested naturally through the prep process. So this ends up making a more involved game for everyone.
Step Six: Pre-Game Prep
Now we’ve got the game and arc prep done, and it’s time to do the session prep. Fortunately, this is usually pretty easy.
- So what’s changed in the world since we last played, or as a result of the last session? This is my way of getting my head around all of the other NPCs in the game and what they’re doing. How are they going to react to the events of the last game? How have their plans changed?
- What are the relevant NPCs up to, anyway? Figure this out, and usually the next set of events will suggest themselves.
- Look over the character sheets for any good compels/complications to add. Always try to tie things back to the characters!
- Do I have an idea of where the characters are going this session? Hopefully, yes—Fate is a game about proactive characters, and so generally they should have been in motion at the end of the last session. If not, that’s okay, we can get them in motion.
- Prep some hand grenades. Hand grenades are events that occur that demand a PC response—even if not a particular response. They should be things that make the story more interesting. They may or may not be compels, but if they tie into a character or aspect, that’s awesome! NPCs coming to the PCs for aid, revelations, NPC actions, these are all examples of hand grenades.
An example of a hand grenade from one of the last games I ran: The PCs were investigating some particularly nasty bandits, who it turned out to be were demon-infested (void summoners). One of the PCs had the aspect “Doesn’t Trust A Pretty Face”, another one had the aspect “Compelled To Help Those In Need”, and the PCs got stuck with the situation aspect “They Know Who We Are” as the result of a concession in the previous game (the inciting incident, actually). The hand-grenade was the youngish, female demon-infested bandit coming to the PCs and asking for help.
Demands action? Yup. Deliberately targets PC aspects, and creates interesting conflict? Oh, yeah.
- Sketch out possible set-pieces if they’re clearly coming up. This is actually the thing I do the least, as it invests heavily in a defined course of action by the PCs, and I try not to do that. As a GM, it’s way too easy to get a particular course of action in mind, and subtly “guide” the PCs that way. So I deliberately go the other way and avoid even thinking about what the PCs will do. Instead, I create interesting situations, and, as a “fan of the PCs”, get excited about how they’ll deal with those situations.
Step Seven: Running the Session & Session Start
The good stuff! I sit the players down, spread out snacks and drinks, hand out whatever handouts need to get there, check out any character sheet updates if necessary, and ask a player to recap the last session, including any corrections/etc. from my notes.
During the game I have a laptop/tablet/etc. out that I can type on. Since I typically use PDF versions of the game books, I try to have at least two available, one set up just for note-taking.
If this is the first session, I’ll break out the inciting incident and start the characters in-situ. Otherwise, it’s time for that time-honored question:
Step Eight: “What Do You Do?” AKA, Setting the Scene
Hopefully, the characters have some clear goal in mind, something that just won’t stand and demands action. If not, I break out a hand-grenade and lob it at them. Done right, this will get them moving, even if in an unknown to me direction! For instance, with the demon-infested girl asking for help, I had no idea how that would go down, if the PCs would offer to help, if they would attack and kill her, if they’d try to track her back, or what. The important thing is to get them moving.
Now, the PCs should come up with some course of action. This is where a little GM subtle nudging comes into play. What we’re trying to do at this point is to quickly drive to an interesting scene. I find there’s a few things I can do to help this.
- If the request is abstract, turn it into a real action. “Investigate” isn’t a scene. “Go to the arcane academy’s library and look up xyz” is a possible scene.
- Understand what the PCs goal is. “Okay, so what are you trying to accomplish? If this goes your way, what changes?” It’s amazing how often the players won’t initially have an idea! Nudging them towards this allows me as a GM to:
- Not railroad
- Provide appropriate opposition
- Keep things moving!
- Figure out who might be opposed to this, and how it might go poorly. While in some cases ‘behind the scenes’ consequences can be interesting, I more often prefer to keep things “on-screen”.
If there’s no interesting consequences, and no interesting opposition, I generally just let them have what it is they’re trying to do, or briefly do a couple of rolls and get on with it. No point in spending time on minutiae.
Okay, so now we’ve got a scene! At this point, I’ll set the scene, and figure out the appropriate skill/roll structure for the scene—challenge, conflict, contest, or just simple rolls. Lately I’ve been trying to do less of the naturalistic ‘roll after roll’ sequence in favor of more structure approaches, but that’s a stylistic thing.
Note that I’ll generally allow almost any proactive action from the players, even if it’s not what I had in mind. If the players want to try something that’s just utterly against the precepts of the game/scenario, I will warn them, but apart from that, anything is fair game. Three guys taking on the entire King’s Guard in broad daylight? Might be a bit much, but they can try. However, if they want to try and poison the garrison? Sure! If they want to try to drum up supporters? Sure! Find a way to sneak in undetected through a hidden passage? Why not? Disguise themselves and get in the front door? Sounds good to me! The players setting the scene is more about what kind of challenge and story we’ll have than anything else, so I’m typically willing to allow anything a chance of success unless it just makes no real sense within the fiction.
Another good thing to do when players want to do something that short-circuits a lot of things is to add complications. “You want to summon a ghost to find out who killed Baron Whatsisname? Sure, you can do that. You’ll just need to find a ghost summoning spell, or a specialist. And figure out what materials are needed. And then you’ll need to enter the Dead Realm to find him.” Again, the player course of action is helping to determine what kind of story they’ll have, it’s not short-cutting the story entirely. In many cases, the player course of action will take more than a single scene, and that’s fine—just handle the scenes one at a time.
Step Nine: Resolve the Scene
Resolution is pretty much in line with the Fate Core rules, so I don’t really have too much to add here. The only thing I will say here is to keep looking at your characters’ aspects, and look for ways to compel them.
Also, each die roll should have a potentially interesting consequence. Not necessarily the worst thing that could happen. Not even the most dangerous. But what’s the most interesting thing that could happen as a result of this if it goes wrong?
So play through the scene, and determine the aftermath.
Step Ten: Ending the Scene
Your players have done some crazy stuff. They’ll either get what they want, or get something else, or encounter a setback, or some combination of the above.
Recap with the players what’s changed, figure out how the opposition is going to react to this in the near time, and give the players a chance to reflect on what’s happened. Then—go back to Step Eight, and repeat this until the end of the session.
If a scene resolves well (as in, you’ve done a good job—not that the players get what they want), you shouldn’t have to lob many hand grenades. A well-resolved scene will either provide the players something that they need to move forward (which is why I ask them the goal of the scene), or it will provide an obvious setback that needs to be accounted for. If investigating at the arcane library, a success might mean that they find the information that they need, which points them in the direction of whatever it is they need to find/kill/acquire/etc. A failure might mean that enemy agents have found them and are now chasing them. Either way, the players should have some impetus to keep them moving.
If for some reason, this isn’t the case, throw out another hand grenade.
Repeat Steps Eight through Ten until it’s close to the session end.
Step Eleven: Ending the Session
You want to leave your players wanting more, not anxious to leave! If they want more, they’ll show up next time, and you’ll keep a healthy game going. If the game drags on and on, you’ll start to notice players not showing up. The goal isn’t to keep the game going on as long as possible—it’s to keep the Awesome Per Minute as high as possible.
Once you’ve ended the actual ‘game-time’, you’ll need to handle all the wrap-up stuff. Tell the players what kind of milestone they’ve hit, and what that means. Ask them if they’ve got any initial ideas on character changes (especially aspects!) that they may want to make. Collect all of your stuff, and do the clean-up.
And perhaps most importantly—solicit feedback. You should always ask after a game about what went well, what didn’t go so well, what people would like to see more/less of, etc. The goal of the game is for everyone to have fun, and if they’re not, then something needs to change. Also make sure that players feel they can email you or contact you privately, as some will not want to speak up.
The most important thing about feedback is to listen to it. Don’t get defensive, don’t take it personally. It’s not about what’s “good” or “bad”, it’s about what the players find fun. And that will not be the same for every player. This is a learning process for you to be able to improve your GMing skills. And even negative feedback doesn’t mean what you did was “wrong.”
In cases where you had to make a call that was contentious, explain why you ended up making the call you did, the factors involved, and what else you considered. Also, ask the players how they would have handled it. Be open and honest—Fate is a game that encourages this kind of behavior. Often, simply explaining the situation and asking the players how they would have handled it is enough to get them to see your side, as well.
Collect any Fate Points, and see how players are doing with them.
If they’re hoarding FP, think about why. A session where players end up with positive FP should, in general, be one where things went poorly overall for the players (or they just got lucky). But if they’re hoarding FP consistently, and not suffering setbacks, throw more compels at them and increase the difficulty of their opposition.
Are they all drained of FP? If they are, they should have made decent progress. If not, you may have been too hard on them. In the future, you can reduce the opposition or provide some ‘weak’ compels to increase their Fate Point pools.
Step Twelve: Next Session
With that done, start thinking about the next session. Think about the events that have happened so far, and what that means for the future. If you’re honest with yourself, you may need to revise some of your plans for the future of the game—nothing prepped is “real” until the players see it, anyway.
Has the arc ended? If so, plan the next arc like Step Five. Otherwise, just plan the next session like Step Six.
If the campaign has reached a natural conclusion, and there’s no desire (or easy way) to continue it, then great! Pitch a new game!
There’s also a couple of things that I try to do during the game. These are overall guides, and so they don’t really belong in any one section.
- Don’t predict where the game will go. This one is so important, I’ll put it at rule zero. The more you predict what will happen, the more you’ll try to make it happen. Going into a game with no clue of where it will go is quite scary at first, but is also amazingly fun once you get used to it. It also ensures that you’re listening to your players, and letting them drive the game. If there’s an overall arc of the game that you’re expecting, like fomenting a rebellion instead of having guerrilla action, or heavy political play, make sure you talk to your players about that—this is the kind of thing that everyone should be on the same page about when it comes to “this is the game we’re playing.” It’s also something that can be readily discussed without causing “spoilers”.
- Keep people involved, but respect everyone’s style of playing. This is a bit of a balancing act. As the GM, you are a mediator. It’s your job to keep everybody involved in the game, but some people are just naturally more introverted, and won’t be as proactive or forceful in their opinions. Try to coax interaction out of them, but don’t press the issue. Your main job with this is to keep the more extroverted/forceful folks from drowning them out or dominating the game
- Keep things dramatic. Fate is a game about drama.
- Keep things centered on the players! Your job is to keep the players interested with what’s happening, not keep yourself interested with all of the behind-the-scenes hidden stuff that you know about.
- Show, don’t tell. As I said earlier, some ‘behind the scenes’ stuff can be interesting, but in general you want to keep things visible and on-screen.
- I usually like difficulties to be based on dramatic importance more than anything. If something is critical, make the players decide how bad they want it! Fate is more about deciding what’s important, via Fate Point expenditures, than it is about micro-managing bonuses or simulating reality. So put those hard decisions front and center!
- Keep failures interesting. Success with a cost is great, and interesting failures are great, too. What’s not great is “that doesn’t work.” Keep things moving, even if not in the direction the characters necessarily wanted to go!
- Solicit player input. This is a great way to offload some work. Details about a holiday? Ask the players! Who’s the innkeeper? Ask the players! Also, encourage collaboration. If a player feels on the spot by a question like that, ask them for any kind of thought they have on it, and then get others to jump in and collaborate.
- Be honest. Fate is a great game for honesty. There’s nothing wrong with telling the players the consequences of a failed roll before you roll if you’re planning something that’s not super-obvious. Talk about why you’re setting things a certain way, and encourage players to be involved in that.
- Keep consequences appropriate. I like to say “For someone to be Taken Out, they have to be Taken Out.” That’s my way of basically saying that you can’t shortcut the stress/consequences track by, say, throwing someone off of a cliff—if they still have stress/consequences, then maybe they’re holding onto the cliff, evaded your grab and twisted their ankle, etc. But it works for other rolls, too. A check to cast a trivial spell generally shouldn’t have the end of the universe as failure! This can be true even if it would “make sense”. Instead, take a higher-leveled view: Even if the particular spell failing would result in the end of the world, maybe a failure means something else—maybe it means that as part of casting the spell, something bad happens—or it takes longer than you expected—or possibly you realize that you don’t have something you need or can’t summon the energy.
- Help players with the rules and strategy! Man, if I could change one thing about the first couple of times I ran Fate, this would be it. Effective strategies in Fate aren’t always obvious to new players, and as such the game can be very frustrating. Make sure your players know how Create Advantage (CA) works, especially in a Conflict. Make sure they know how to use CA to use their better skills against either environment opposition, or their opponents’ weaker skills. As a GM, constantly ask yourself “hey, what would I do if I was this player?” and suggest that to the players! Have a brief conversation with them about skill match-ups, stacking aspects granted via CA, and even the trade-offs between big hits (fewer rounds to take someone out, requires more shifts) and little hits (more rounds to take someone out, requires fewer shifts).
- Get your players used to success and failure in Fate! Specifically, make sure they know how tough it is to get Taken Out in a single blow! Put them through a Concession early if they’re not used to Fate, and show them how the game keeps going. Have them fail some rolls, and again show them how the game keeps going. Many gamers are used to games where “failure” = “game over”, so this is a key part of Fate for new players.
And most of all
One of the things that I’ve said here a bunch is that Fate is a game that encourages players to fail. I’ve also argued that just about any player-created plan should have a chance of working (which seems contradictory, I know). Some players have said that their players want a risk of death. In the past, I myself have argued that games without death were weak, and that allowing players to always have a chance of success was crazy.
These seem like a whole ton of unrelated topics, but they’re not. They all come down to a key concept: Failure, and what it means in the game.
In a typical RPG session, you’ve got a goal. A princess needs saving, so you head to a cave to retrieve the antidote, fight a monster guarding that antidote, and only after winning the fight and saving the princess do you learn that the next thing you’ll have to do is stop the wizard from poisoning another princess. On and on your adventure goes, doing things, learning what comes next, and repeating that over and over.
This can get stale very quickly, since the players have to keep winning otherwise the monsters defeat them, princesses aren’t saved, and wizards keep poisoning people.
The trick is that players want the impression that they may lose. A lot of the GM’s job in these types of games is to make the opposition hard enough that the players feel at risk, but weak enough that they will win.
Even players that say things like ‘I want death to be a possibility’ are kind of being vague. They want the feeling of danger. They probably don’t want their characters to die (or, at worst, they want death to be an inconvenience). They surely don’t want a game so lethal that they have a character dying every session.
When games are often about going through a series of challenges (whether they’re puzzles, exploration issues, non-combat challenges, combat, or whatever), and they’re gated by the solution, it becomes pretty obvious that they’re very likely to actually succeed, and that the ‘risk’ is imaginary. They just want to believe it’s not.
There’s two fundamental reasons for this:
- A number of games remove player agency in terms of the overall story structure
- A number of games don’t provide for meaningful failures that aren’t death. If you lose combat, the orcs kill you. If you fail your jump, you fall into the deathy-death pit of death. Or, you lose hit points, which will make death happen sooner.
In Fate, death is a rare occurrence. By the rules. To kill someone, you have to Take Them Out before they can concede, and even then you have to explicitly choose that they die. There’s no automatic death condition, and Taking Someone Out before they get a chance to react or concede is virtually impossible.
To traditional game thinking, that makes it seem like you can’t fail in Fate. So, why bother playing?
A similar issue occurs when you get to things like ‘if a player wants there to be a hidden passage, give it a chance to exist.’ And here we get to the crux of the matter, truly.
I’ve described this kind of ‘gated event’ structure a bit before. There’s nothing wrong with puzzles that are meant to be solved. Jigsaw puzzles are clearly meant to be solved, and the challenge of the jigsaw is figuring out how to do it. That’s a lot of fun!
But other things exist that let you make pictures. Like crayons. And crayons let you make any picture you want. That’s crazy! Where’s the challenge! How do you know you’ve done it right?
Let’s look at a simple situation. A locked door.
In a traditional game, you’ll have a chance to get past this door. If you fail, you fail. If you really need to get past that door, you’re SOL. But what about in Fate?
Fate Core, pg. 187: If you can’t imagine an interesting outcome from both results, then don’t call for that roll.
Does that mean if you can’t think of how to make opening the door interesting, then it just opens? Where’s the challenge in that???
But there’s a hidden gem in there that’s the key to understanding ‘failure’ in Fate. If you have an interesting outcome for both results, then opening the door isn’t a “gated challenge”. It’s a fork in the road. It’s a place where the story can go one of two places, and you don’t know which one will happen. So the roll becomes less about ‘do we pass the challenge?’ and more about ‘how does the story progress?’
So with the door, we want to break it down. We now need to come up with an interesting failure, another way that the story can go. “It just doesn’t open” isn’t a story, it’s a stall in the story. It kills momentum, and doesn’t progress anything. But trying to break down the door—that’s interesting because it’s noisy, and it would attract attention. Bringing guards or alarms into play helps keep the story moving, and is exactly the sort of cinematic gameplay Fate does best.
I’ve suggested the idea of ‘Fractal Challenges’ before (the idea that a single roll can be expanded into a Conflict, Challenge, or Contest, and that the inverse is true as well). So let’s look at our poisoned princess from the same view. In the original version, if you don’t make it through the Clammy Caves, you don’t save Princess Perky, and she doesn’t tell you who the Wiley Wizard is. Traditionally, you’re looking at either getting the information or dying and not getting the information.
In Fate, the same ‘interesting result’ rule for a single roll applies to a Conflict as a whole. If there’s not an interesting result if you fail the conflict, don’t have one. By viewing the Conflict as a decision point, as a branch in the story, rather than a challenge to be overcome, we allow for ‘failure’, where in the traditional game failure tends to be rather game-ending.
I’ll go so far as to say that every die roll in Fate should be tense. That’s where the system works best. This isn’t a game where the goal is to stack your bonuses so high that you never fail. This is a game where failure should always be a possibility, where things getting worse can always happen.
A Fate game, run as Fate can be far more brutal than any D&D game I’ve ever played. Embrace this. Embrace failure in your games. Embrace not knowing what will happen. Embrace rolls, Contests, Challenges, and Conflicts as decision points. Embrace Concessions, and don’t think of them as a cop-out.
Failure is a core part of Fate “as Fate”. Embrace it.
Demystifying the Fate Fractal, and the Nature of Aspects
My first real exposure to Fate was Spirit of the Century. I had come from a long history of playing traditional games. I saw Aspects and thought “Hey, neat! Those are just like Advantages/Feats/Edges/etc.!, except you get to name them cool things and you can make anything you want!” It seemed pretty obvious, and pretty cool. Having figured that out, I went on to the rest of the system.
Except that I was wrong. This was one of my first errors in understanding Fate, and it’s a pretty significant one. I was thinking of an aspect as primarily something that gave a bonus, and something that was attached to something else, like an adjective. And you can make an argument that some aspects are like that, but it’s really not a very good understanding. An aspect is both simpler, and more complex than that.
An aspect is a story element. It is something, anything, important to the story in some way. It’s an ‘aspect’ of the story.
I’m going to go back to ‘narrative first’ here. We need to understand what is important to the story (at least at this point, this scene), and then we capture those things, stick little labels on them, and call them ‘aspects’.
But what about characters, you may ask. They’re important to the story, clearly! And they’re characters, not aspects!
Ah-ha! You have fallen into my trap, oh non-existent-person-that-I-put words-
in-the-mouth-of! You’re assuming that characters aren’t aspects, but they clearly are!
Well, then how come characters have skills, and aspects don’t? I mean, clearly Pitch Darkness can’t drive a car!
And here, perhaps, there’s some presumptions made about what a ‘skill’ is. A ‘skill’ doesn’t represent training. It represents the ability of a story ‘aspect’ to influence a scene, without being invoked by someone else.
That is a lot of meta talk, so let’s clarify.
A character is a story element. It can influence a scene. It does so by using skills. What a skill represents, then, is the ability for a story element to influence a scene, without the influence of another.
So, what about Pitch Darkness? It certainly can’t drive! This is true, which is why it won’t have the Drive skill. But, depending on the game and scene, it can influence things! Darkness can make people paranoid, it can cause them mental stress. Instead of having a bunch of rules for all of these things, Fate just handles it by saying ‘Sure, Pitch Darkness can be active and influence a scene if appropriate. Just give it skills’.
And this is one of the fundamental points of the fractal—that story elements can influence scenes, and they do those using ‘skills’.
A character isn’t really any different than Pitch Darkness. It’s just easier to lump up some commonalities of story elements controlled by players, and call it a ‘character’ by convention.
And story elements can possess other story elements. The character story element Han Solo is associated with The Millennium Falcon. It’s easy to call the Falcon a ‘detail’ of Han Solo since, if he wasn’t in the story, the Falcon wouldn’t be either. So we declare The Millennium Falcon to be an ‘aspect’ of Han Solo (who is, himself, an aspect—a story element). And, of course, the Falcon can have its own skills, and its own aspects (Hidden Storage Everywhere, for instance).
And that’s a good description of the Fractal. But there’s one piece that’s missing. A fundamental feature of fractals, in math, is that they have infinite detail. You can zoom out of them, view them at a larger scale, or zoom into them, and see them at a tighter scale, and they still have equivalent detail. That’s pretty cool. And it’s pretty important to understanding the Fate Fractal, as well.
Let’s say there’s a fantasy game, and there’s the setting aspect The City State of Warrington. It’s relevant to the story, so it’s an aspect, and as such can be invoked or compelled.
Now our protagonists get closer to Warrington, and so it becomes more relevant to the story. We can start giving it aspects of its own, such as Rules With An Iron Fist, Constantly Guarded, and Bloodthirsty Militia. We can give it skills, like Conquer Other City-States:4.
Let’s say that our protagonists get closer to the city. The city is constantly guarded, but we want some more detail, so we can declare a Gate Guards aspect. If the protagonists maintain their distance, an aspect, by itself, is probably sufficient to indicate their effect on the scene.
Examining things more closely, we might want to have some more detail there, again. Maybe we decide that there’s a Fat Guard and a Skinny Guard. As we get closer, maybe they get some aspects of their own. And certainly, if we storm the gates, they’ll need skills, and possibly equipment, and so on! And even their equipment could get aspects—if a PC uses Create Advantage to declare that the Skinny Guard’s sword is old and brittle, then so it is!
This is what the Fate Fractal is really about. It’s about having a universal way of describing story elements, and their ability to impact the world. It’s about having the ability to describe these elements with the right amount of detail for the current scene. I don’t need to know specifics about the two guards if I’m a hundred miles from Warrington. I need to know that it exists, and that it’s oppressive.
But as I get closer, its ability to manipulate things becomes important. I need to know more about how it impacts the scenes characters are in. So the Fate Fractal gives me tools to flesh this out. Even the guards go from being a generalized aspect (Gate Guards), to individuals, to individual elements containing skills, and possibly even sub-elements.
And none of this changes a single thing about them, at any point. The guards don’t suddenly ‘gain skills’ when I get close to them. They always had them. It’s just that they weren’t actually important until we were in a position to interact with them. They didn’t ‘change’ from ‘aspects’ to ‘characters’—that’s a false distinction. They were always aspects, in that every story element is an aspect! And they were always ‘characters’, because what else could a guard be? But as we needed to know more about them, we detailed them out further, and when we didn’t need that detail, we didn’t have to think about it. The city-state of Warrington didn’t become a fractal aspect when we needed more detail—it’s still ‘an aspect’, just one with less detail associated with it. Nothing about its fundamental nature changed.
So if you have an aspect that needs to be active in a scene, just give it a skill! There’s no change in ‘type’ that needs to occur. ‘Skills’ is just how story elements impact scenes, without being driven by another story element. It’s all just aspects. All the way down.
Fate’s Big Question
I think all RPGs have a “Big Question”—a fundamental decision-making exercise that’s really the point of the game. To a great extent, competence with this question is what separates a “good” player from a “bad” player in a given game, so that’s a useful metric to figure out what this Big Question is.
For early D&D, the Big Question was “Can I use the resources at my disposal, and those I get on the way, to get as much treasure as possible out of the dungeon without dying?” And by looking at that Big Question, we see the choices that drive the game: resource management, the risk of death, and a desire to gain treasure.
The vast majority of RPGs today have variations on the same Big Question: “Is my ability to build a character, and my ability to manipulate the mechanics of the game, sufficient to overcome these obstacles?” It’s pretty common to assume that Fate has the same Big Question.
But it doesn’t.
Fate Core doesn’t really allow for optimization in a way that makes character optimization an interesting exercise. Character building, sure. Character op? Not so much. If you’re halfway proficient in the system, it’s hard to make a character that’s really incompetent, or super-competent. (As an aside, I find the biggest issue with char-op in Fate is, ironically enough, people that over-specialize, which is the best strategy in most games).
And Fate Core’s mechanical systems don’t really support a deep game of mechanical fiddling. Again, yeah, there’s some basics, but once you’ve got the general hang of using Create Advantage, the mechanics of Stress/Consequences, and how to get good skill matchups, you’re pretty much good to go.
So, those can’t be Fate’s Big Question. But what is?
One thing that I’ve been saying a lot more recently about Fate is that a Fate Character can do anything, but they can’t do everything.
Now, that’s obviously an exaggeration. There are some things that character just can’t do in a given setting. But that’s not really what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about here is the fact that, given sufficient Fate Points to spend, and sufficient willingness to take on Consequences, a character can accomplish just about any reasonable goal. If the character wants to sneak into the castle, he will. It’s almost inevitable. Almost anything can be accomplished. But doing so will deplete those resources. You’ll end up out of Fate Points, and with your Consequences all consumed. And then you’ll find yourself at the whims of the dice next time around—which is exactly why you can’t accomplish everything.
And to me this leads right to Fate’s Big Question. And that question is simple: “How much do you want this?” Or, since cost is really only interesting in terms of opportunity cost, “Which of these do you want more?”
And to me, that’s the Big Question of Fate. And just like every encounter in a “typical” RPG has to drive towards being a challenging exercise of build/tactics, every scene in Fate should drive towards making the players make those tough choices. The choice of which thing they care about they can have, and which one they don’t get to have.
That’s why failure is important in Fate—if you never fail, then that means that you’ve gotten everything you want—and you’ve never had to make that hard choice. That’s why we drive plots off of character aspects—because otherwise, it’s likely that the players/characters won’t really care enough about anything to make the choice a tough one. And that’s why we let the characters be proactive—to ensure that they get to make the decisions, that they set up the hard choices for themselves by conveniently telling the GM what they care about, and what they’re invested in.
So what a GM really needs to think about in Fate is not “how do I make this encounter mechanically interesting” (at least, primarily—though that’s a great secondary concern). It’s “how much am I going to charge them to get their way on this?” It’s fundamentally a costing exercise, and the cost should be high. Every time they buy something, it should be painful, knowing that getting this means that there’s something else that they care about that they’ll have to forego, or a painful cost that they’ll have to bear.
Want an example of this? Harry Dresden. He refused to sign up with the bad guys for years, until his GM (aka Jim Butcher) made him choose between his daughter’s life and signing on with one of the bad guys.
He had to make a hard choice. That’s great drama. That’s great gameplay. That’s the point of Fate.
As the GM you drive the costs that the players pay. Figure out what the players want and make them pay for it. Make them give you the “you’re a dick” look on Concessions or Compels. Let their priorities get them in deeper and deeper.
They’ll thank you for it.
Questions & Decisions
There’s a screenwriting book called “Save the Cat.” It’s a pretty good book for people who want to learn about script writing and screenplay structure, and I found it had uses outside writing. Save the Cat taught me a lot about game development.
What Save The Cat does well is post questions that lead people to decisions. Will Luke be able to Destroy the Death Star? Will Batman stop the Riddler? Can the single parent make dinner?
Every RPG session should answer some question. This is what drives play, and keeps people engaged.
So when starting a campaign, ask yourself what the campaign question or questions are. A grand, sweeping question is fine, but then there needs to be something more immediate, relevant, and obtainable.
The other thing is to ensure the players are invested in finding the answers to the questions. So think about what your players care about—which is generally stuff they’ve invested something in. In Fate, that means their characters, but can also mean the setting bits that they’ve had input into. You may have a grand idea for a war between massive factions, but the players, at least to start, don’t really care about your factions. You do, because you made them—you’re invested in them.
Most scenes should answer a question. Sure, there are scenes that are just exposition, or character development, but a good dramatic scene has to have a question that it answers. If you can’t figure that out, then maybe you should skip over the scene, or give the players enough information that they can get to a scene with an important question.
The other part of making a game engaging is decisions. Questions set the stage, and create the drama. But player decisions are what answer the questions.
When you’re looking at a scenario, think about what decisions the players are making. If they’re just going along from point A to B to C, and defeating challenges, then they’re not making a ton of decisions, and not doing much to answer the important questions. That’s fine for some games, but it seems kind of counter to the games where Fate really shines.
A lot of times we look at adding mechanics, or encounters, or tweaking things, or setting up scenarios. And that’s great. But I find it’s best to always do those things with a mind towards “what decisions does this enable for the players?”
You’ve got a town that’s having an internal power struggle? Great! One’s clearly the good guys, and one’s clearly bad, well, you’ve just removed a decision, in that (hopefully!) the players will align with the good guys. Instead, try to make the two sides have implications for the future of the town that aren’t just “good” and “bad”—or even better yet, tie them into character aspects, especially if you can find conflicting aspects!
Same with game mechanics. Got some funky new dice mechanic you want to try? Awesome! But what decision points does it give to the players that they don’t have? If the players are still making the same decisions (or worse, fewer because the new mechanics provide some kind of optimal path), then rethink your mechanic.
If the players’ decisions are driving the answer to the questions of the game, then you can’t know the answers ahead of time. I deliberately avoid planning what will happen—even to the point of thinking about how cool things might be, and then stopping myself from thinking about that.
Questions and decisions. Get those, and you’re golden.
In Defense of Monster of the Week
Monster of the week episodes on TV get a bad rap, and they can also get a bad rap in game sessions. The idea that they’re filler content with little creativity and has nothing to do with the overall plot that’s occurring does not speak to their strengths.
Especially at the beginning of a campaign, MotW sessions are great for helping to get a feel for the overall tone of the game, and figuring out what the group, as a whole, responds to. It’s a great way to figure out what elements players will want to deal with, and to take those and start integrating them into the bigger picture. If they like something, it’s easy to bring it back, or something like it. But if they don’t like an element, it’s a lot easier to just forget about it and move on with the game
And those are all valid points in favor of MotW sessions.
Look at the first season of Buffy. A witch cheerleader mom? Totally unrelated to the overall plot. Monster of the week. Pointless? Nope. Because the episode wasn’t about the witch. It was about Buffy wanting to live a normal life, and about how she can’t because of what she is. Mantis teacher? Pointless, right? Nope. It was about Xander being unlucky (and a bit desperate) in love.
Hyena gang? That’s a double-whammy, being both about Xander’s desire to fit in, but mostly about how much Willow cares about Xander.
Computer demon? Another double-whammy, hitting up Willow’s unluckiness in love as well as Giles’ love of books/discomfort of technology.
The point of these episodes isn’t to advance the plot. It’s to highlight and flesh out the characters that are involved. And that’s the key.
So if you’re doing a monster of the week, great! Good for you! But do it right. Make it about the characters. Don’t start with a monster idea. Start with the aspects of the characters, and then make up a ‘monster’ that reflects that aspect, or shows the weakness, or drives that conflict home.
Aspects, the Information Economy, and Chekov’s Gun
Most people are aware of Chekov’s Gun—”if a gun is on the wall in the first act, it should be fired by the third.”
Especially in a play, everything that’s there should be there for a reason.
We see this in TV shows, movies, and books, as well, but not to as great of an extent. Most of these media try to immerse their audience in the reality of what’s happening, something that’s generally not a goal for plays. And so there might very well be a gun on the wall that never gets fired, or a shadow that nobody leaps out of.
To put it another way, there’s a difference between a scene being dark, and a scene being Dark. A dark scene may be a poorly lit bar—but the lighting is just ambiance. It doesn’t influence the plot in any way. It doesn’t really impact how the characters do things. It’s just there to set a mood.
A Dark scene is different. In a Dark scene, we can expect somebody to jump out of the shadows at some point, or disappear into them.
And that’s kind of what aspects are. They’re the things we’re pointing out to the players as important. We don’t try to capture every detail, or worry about the minor things that have a slight influence on what happens. Size advantages/disadvantages aren’t a big deal, until you’re talking about something on the level of Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul Jabaar yeah, one guy might have a slightly longer reach, and one guy might be slightly faster, yada, yada, yada, but all of those are minor factors.
Fate worries about the major factors. It worries about the big things that will swing how the scenes play out. It doesn’t worry about the minor effects, even though those certainly can add up to a big effect—but it assumes that, like a TV show or movie, that those turn out to be a wash most of the time.
It’s important to keep in mind that every aspect should be something that could be important, and that could be something that causes the scene to swing a different way.
Missing rules in Fate
There are a lot of rules Fate “doesn’t have”. In many cases, it’s because the missing rules would be derivatives of the core rules, and they can easily be agreed upon at the table.
Take the eternal example: “on fire”. Many games say “being on fire means you take some amount of damage per turn.”
That’s one interpretation. But being “on fire” could mean lots of things, everywhere from being fully engulfed in fire to having a couple of flames on your sleeve. Is one answer really correct here? One single mechanic? If not, how many mechanics would it really take to cover all the possible situations? Do we just handle the mechanical, physical effects? What about the instinctual terror that something like being on fire tends to cause?
And that’s assuming a single genre. A similar cause (say, having your clothes on fire) might have very different effects in different genres—an Action Movie Star might just blow it off, while someone in a horror movie could totally freak out.
Fate Core’s model of figuring out what you want to do, then applying the rules handles these variations incredibly well.
Fate is a game focused on telling exciting stories. With this book, we’ve covered how you and your friends can work together to create your most incredible gaming stories.
You now have in your toolkit ways to introduce people to Fate’s playstyle. Character failure at the table has become player fun! Hard choices will make your games more intense than any fireball.
The ins-and-outs of Fate have been analyzed and presented to you—aspects make sense, as do Fate’s stress and consequences.
The Book of Hanz got turned into a book not by the author but by the Fate Community. The original posts that turned into these essays were shared and kept by that community. It is an honor to have this in your hands today.