In a brainstorm, the PCs (and their players) spitball, make observations, or run tests and/or experiments in an attempt to formulate a workable hypothesis about a phenomenon. This can take a few minutes, a few days, or a few weeks. It all depends on the context of the scene.
Ideally, the result of all of this is a hypothesis. And because we’re talking about highly trained and talented characters, it is always true. In other words, whatever explanation the players collectively establish will steer the course of the story. This is accomplished through a short series of skill rolls (usually involving whatever sciences the PCs can bring to bear) made by all players at the table who choose to participate. Characters will try to establish facts about the situation, then use those facts to develop their hypothesis.
If they don’t establish enough facts to come up with a workable hypothesis, then the problem remains a mystery, which the GM gets to enforce with an aspect.
Step 1: Begin the Brainstorm
Ideally, a brainstorm begins when one player uses a leading phrase in the course of normal conversation and roleplaying. This phrase could be something like “What do you think’s going on here, Doctor?” or “So how do we stop it?” That’s everyone’s cue (but especially the GM’s) to start brainstorming.
If this doesn’t happen, though, that’s okay. It’s equally fine for the GM or a player to just come out and say, “Hey, how about a brainstorm?”
Everyone taking part cites a reason why they’re getting involved by compelling a relevant aspect. In other words, everyone gets a fate point just for participating, and everyone who wants to participate can come up with an excuse to do so with a little effort.
Step Two: Establish the First Fact
Next, all participants roll simultaneously to create an advantage using a relevant skill against a difficulty of Good (+3). Each player can (and is encouraged to) use a different skill. The relevance of the skill here will depend entirely on the situation at hand. In any case, it should be a skill that covers something the player will want to talk about more, or that sparks an idea.
Whoever succeeds and has the highest result (make a note of number) is the “winner.” The winner gets to do two things. First, they record one or more victories, depending on the margin of success.
1, at a cost
Success with Style
The cost on a tie is up to the GM to determine (see Fate Core, Outcomes and Actions), but it should always be a minor cost.
Second, they get to introduce a fact. This takes the form of a situation aspect, and must follow three guidelines:
- It clearly derives from the skill used to create it.
- It clearly relates to the situation.
- It can be stated as an objective fact—an observation of something in the scene, a remembered bit of research, or some other piece of factual information that relates to the situation.
In any event, the fact doesn’t have to be something previously established in the fiction. Whether it comes from something the PCs have already done or seen, or whether it’s something the player has invented from whole cloth, it’s equally valid in the brainstorm.
Conversely, the fact should not be:
- A hypothesis all on its own.
- A personal opinion instead of a fact.
If no one succeeds on the roll, nobody establishes a fact or places an aspect—nothing useful comes out of that segment of the discussion, and it’s back to Square One.
If there’s a tie for the highest total, each tying player gets to establish a fact, but only one victory is scored.
Step 3: Establish the Second Fact
Establishing a second fact proceeds much like establishing the first fact did: everyone picks a skill and simultaneously rolls it. It can be the same skill or a different skill, as long as it still makes sense in context.
The difficulty for this second roll is equal to the winning total from the first roll. For example, if the winner of the first roll got a Superb (+5), the difficulty for the second roll is also Superb (+5).
This represents the amount of effort everyone’s putting forth to figure things out. Every victory scored represents a minor breakthrough.
If no one won the first roll, the difficulty for the second roll is Good (+3).
If a new situation aspect was created during the first roll, it can be invoked as usual. If it has one or two free invocations, whoever created it gets first dibs, or they can hand it off to someone else.
The only restriction on using this new aspect is that if it’s invoked by the winner of the second roll, the new fact and aspect they create must take the invoked aspect into account. It can’t contradict or wildly diverge from what the invoked aspect has established as a truth in the fiction.
For example, if you invoke Distinctive Energy Signature and win the roll, you can’t then put the aspect Strange Lack of Energy Signatures on the brainstorm.
Step 4: Establish the Third Fact
Go back to Step 3, rinse, and repeat.
The difficulty for this roll is the winning total from the second roll, if there was one, or Good (+3), if there wasn’t.
At times, the PCs may be less interested in working together than in one-upping each other. No problem. Disagreements happen. And because whoever gets to form the hypothesis at the end gets to steer the story in a particular direction of their choosing, players might very well want to vie for the privilege.
Using this optional rule, each player records their own victory total, separate from their colleagues. Everyone still rolls simultaneously.
Players can also choose to back someone else’s horse by giving their victories to a colleague, so long as that colleague has already established a fact and placed a situation aspect on the brainstorm. This only applies to recording victories—the player who wins the roll still establishes a fact and an aspect. These must support whatever facts the colleague in question has already established during the brainstorm.
Be warned, though: all this competition will definitely draw out the brainstorm, so make sure you have a consensus before starting down this path.
Step 5: Form a Hypothesis
If the PCs rack up at least three victories, everyone makes one last roll. There’s no difficulty number—all you care about is who has the highest total.
There are several possibilities for this final roll, including:
- Each player must select a skill already used in the brainstorm.
- All players roll the same skill, selected by the GM.
- All players roll Will (see Fate Core), or another standard skill that reflects pure mental ability or fortitude.
- The players roll 4dF with no skill bonus. Instead, each player gets a +2 bonus to their roll for each fact they contributed to the brainstorm.
Whoever wins this final roll gets to come up with a hypothesis that dictates what’s actually going on. This becomes the truth of the situation. The hypothesis must take into account and build on the facts already generated during the brainstorm.
In other words, it doesn’t come out of nowhere—everyone who scored at least one victory in the brainstorm ends up having a hand in the hypothesis.
The hypothesis becomes an aspect, like The Washington Monument Has Developed Artificial Intelligence, or Exposure to Radiation Has Turned the Ants into Giants! All the situation aspects established during the brainstorm go away when the hypothesis aspect is placed. The hypothesis is an amalgam of all of those aspects.
The number of free invocations on the hypothesis aspect (if any) depends on how many total victories were scored in the brainstorm, as shown on the table.
Failure—it’s a mystery!
Success—hypothesis aspect with one free invocation
Success with Style—as Success, but two free invocations
If the PCs haven’t scored at least three victories, the phenomenon defies scientific explanation, at least for now. They’ve failed to shed any light on the situation, and now they’re a little worse off for it.
In this case, instead of a hypothesis, the GM places an aspect on the game to reflect the team’s utter lack of comprehension—something like Science Can’t Explain It! or Nobody Said Anything About Ghosts.
Any situation aspects generated during the brainstorm go away, but the facts remain—the GM will need them (see below).
The GM’s Role
So if the players set difficulties and discuss possibilities and argue amongst themselves, what’s your role in all this, GM, apart from sitting back and enjoying the show?
Right off the bat, let’s establish that there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and enjoying shows. That’s just a given. You work hard, GM. No shame in taking a little break.
That said, pay attention to the facts and hypothesis the players come up with, because you’re going to need to incorporate them into the story going forward. If you need a little time to determine how to do that, just let the players know. “Hey everyone, you’ve kinda thrown me for a loop here. Let’s take five so I can figure it out.”
When the players are in competition, though, you’ll have more of an opportunity to meddle in their affairs. It’s easy to do: compel their aspects.
“Aren’t you a Graduate of the Institute of Magical Arts? Are you really going to go along with this scientific gobbledy-gook your colleagues are spouting?”
“Seems like a Team Player wouldn’t be so adamant about advancing his own ideas when an associate’s have already gained traction. I don’t know; maybe it’s just me.”
“Strong and weak forces? Really? And not the Freemasons? Does that sound like something a Conspiracy Theorist would buy into?”
Mess with them as much or as little as you like—but be mindful of their reactions. If they’re not on the same page as you, back off.
Combine a brainstorm with an action or combat scene whenever possible. Brainstormers can’t participate in any other part of the scene other than the brainstorm. When a brainstormer’s turn comes up, everyone who’s brainstorming makes their roll. And don’t be afraid to have your NPCs target the brainstormers. This gives those who can’t or don’t want to participate something vitally important to do—usually, keep everyone else alive.
In addition to the above, to really drive home that a rational, scientific discussion is more difficult when it’s raining lead, consider making the brainstorm rolls opposed by the NPCs in the scene rather than having the players roll against a static difficulty number. Careful, though—if you take an active role like this in the brainstorm, your goal should be to make the brainstorm more costly for the players, not to foil them at every turn.
Normally, a brainstorm starts with a question and a compel. Instead of privileging the science-types this way, consider the reverse—compelling PCs to fight instead. This really only makes sense if the group isn’t especially combat-capable, or if they’re just desperate to sort out the mystery and would rather do anything but fight.
Alternately, compel everyone, but let the players choose the aspect. Their choice will determine whether they’ll be thinking or fighting—it’s largely a matter of flavor. Either way, everyone gets a fate point out of it, so this is a good option if the group’s fate points are running low.
Spread the brainstorm out over several scenes instead of doing it all at once. The first time a player speaks the magic words—“What’s really going on here?” or the like—begin the brainstorm, but after that only continue it when the players have encountered some new evidence or information. This gives the non-brainstormers little “breaks” here and there instead of sitting silent for what basically amounts to an entire scene. The other advantage of this approach is that it leaves room for each fact in the brainstorm to have its own effect on the narrative, as opposed to being a mere stepping-stone to the hypothesis.