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Actions as Intent: Discover in Fate Core

by Mark Diaz Truman

When I first started as a developer for Fate on Timeworks, I had a tough time writing stunts. John Adamus—my patient editor—kept sending drafts back to me with the same note: “You don’t need a stunt to use Shoot to lay down suppressive fire or Resources to make a problem go away with cash. The actions already take care of that.”

It took me a while to internalize that a skill like Burglary works for more than just picking someone’s pocket. It can be used to convince someone you’re a real thief instead of an undercover cop (defend), to find high-quality tools for breaking and entering a big box store (create advantage), to run a classic con job on a mark (overcome), or to interrogate a suspect about a crime (attack). Burglary doesn’t say how a character should use their skills and talents—it just outlines an arena of conflict that matters to a particular build of Fate Core.

As I’ve done more Fate development, I’ve thought a lot about how the four actions structure those arenas of conflict. In Fate Core, actions convey the intent of the players as their characters engage through the lens of their chosen action. The four actions we have, however, neglect learning as a collaborative tool in the fiction; players aren’t inherently rewarded for choosing to learn something about the situation at hand. This article presents some of my thinking about how the existing actions are structured and presents a new action for use in Fate Core that explicitly puts learning into the player’s hands—discover.

While Fate can certainly have more than four actions, discover offers unique opportunities to shift the tone and focus of Fate Core—this article also explores the option of removing attack as an action, digging deeper into drama, intrigue, and mystery, and moving away from combat and injury. I hope the discover action finds a place at your table—and in your Fate Core builds—whenever investigation and discovery are central to your game.

Skills as Intent

In many roleplaying games, skills convey intent. Diplomacy as an available skill clearly offers a way to resolve problems nonviolently. If you take Diplomacy as one of your core skills, you’re the talker of the group; it’s your job to settle conflicts with words. On the other hand, an Appraise skill is about discovering information rather than resolving problems. The intent of Appraise is to gather data or prepare for a negotiation rather than overcome an obstacle.

In most games, you don’t need to say what you intend to do with a skill when you pick it at character creation; the very act of picking the skill tells the GM and your fellow players a ton of information about your character’s position in the game. “The guy with a high Firearms skill and a specialty in Shotguns? Oh, he’ll be shooting people for us in combat. The rest of the time he’ll hang back so our social characters can get things done.” The skill conveys your intent, long before you say what you plan to do in a scene.

Stretching Intent

The narrow focus of skills in most systems often results in some strange interactions at the table, as players try to find ways to use their core skills with completely new intents. The fighter tries to use whatever skill makes her good at hitting people with swords to talk someone into cooperating; the wizard tries to come up with a clever plan that uses his intelligence to harm their enemies once he’s out of magic spells.

And thus the debate begins: does a skill establish an arena of conflict or does it tell us what your intent is within that arena of conflict? If you’ve got Swords as a core skill, does that mean you’re skilled at harming people with swords (an intent!) or does it simply indicate that you have a wide degree of training in swords, such that you should dominate conflicts across the entire arena of the skill?

Actions as Intent

The subtle genius of Fate Core is that it separates the arena of conflict—a skill—from the action’s intention. Differentiating the arena from the intent makes Shoot or Athletics or Rapport about more than just one mode of interaction with objects in the fiction. Instead, each skill delineates an arena of conflict and the actions allow the players to mix and match intents as needed. Players can use a skill to charge through a problem and then turn around and use the same skill to patiently prepare for future conflicts.

For example, you can use Provoke to overcome a weak-willed guard blocking your path, create an advantage by inspiring Carnal Lust or Intense Jealousy in a target, or inflict mental stress with a focused attack. In some versions of Fate Core, you might even be able to use it to defend against some actions. (There’s another article I could write here about why some skills can’t attack or defend.…)

Overcome

When characters choose to overcome an obstacle, they intend to move past the obstacle right now. Moving past opposition can happen in stages as part of a challenge, but overcome is usually about an immediate attempt to move past a problem—which is why most experienced Fate players try to create an advantage or two before rolling to overcome.

Create Advantage

Create advantage, unlike overcome, is future oriented. When characters create advantages, they intend to prepare for future rolls and establish the context for future action by creating aspects. Clever players use create advantage to create aspects that shift or redefine conflicts, but those aspects still need to be compelled or invoked to resolve the situation.

Attack

Overcome is about moving past an obstacle; attack is about harming or weakening an obstacle in a significant way. Superheroes might overcome the guard outside the supervillain’s lair to get to the bad guy, but they intend to weaken the villain so he can be taken into custody. Attack is about sticking with a target until that target is defeated, removing the opposition from the narrative instead of moving past it to the next obstacle.

Defend

Characters can defend against more than attacks: they might oppose other characters learning things about them, protect important aspects or other characters, or maintain their focus in the face of distractions. Defense is about resistance. The intent is to say “No!” and continue on the current trajectory instead of allowing other characters to act.

Learning New Information

Of course, create advantage is also used to learn more about a situation or a character in the scene. Empathy, for example, is often used to uncover existing aspects or place an existing aspect on a target. Unfortunately, the overlap between preparation and learning isn’t as clean and simple as we might like it to be.

Preparation vs. Learning

Create advantage works primarily because preparation and learning have some overlap. If a vigilante superhero detective runs tests on fragments of a bullet found at a crime scene, he’s both trying to learn something about the murderer and prepare for future confrontations. Ideally, the vigilante learns something meaningful about his opposition that he can also call upon later in the story to assist him in capturing the villain.

But preparation often doesn’t have any learning component at all. If our friendly neighborhood hedge magician is cooking up a Potion of Strength, it’s unlikely she suddenly gains any knowledge during the ritual. The same goes for a kid detective gathering up A Crew of Misfits or a rugged space marine equipping a Heavy Minigun. Characters can clearly get ready for a future conflict without learning any new information about their opposition.

Yet characters can learn something new about the opposition without also preparing for a future conflict. I think there’s room in our stories for players to ask interesting questions that don’t lead to aspects, provided there’s a way to make the information matter to the story.

Fictional Positioning in Fate

In Fate, the players create the narrative in which the game takes place, collectively determining the fictional positioning of the story elements. Fictional positioning is an agreement we develop through talking during a game, the way we all agree that goblins would probably run from a giant troll or that bullets don’t hurt vampires. This kind of positioning builds on itself, and we track it in the game—even if we don’t notice we’re tracking it—so actions in the past tend to influence actions in the future. If goblins ran last time, for example, shouldn’t they run this time?

Determining fictional positioning in Fate frequently means creating aspects, but that’s not the only way to do the job. If your Fate game is about a team of bionic detectives investigating crime, you can add the aspect Bionic City Blues or you can simply state “We’re all bionic detectives, investigating crime in a near-future city.” The lack of an aspect doesn’t make it less true; it only means you can’t spend a fate point to invoke the aspect on a roll.

The lack of mechanics around fictional positioning sometimes leads players to want to create aspects for everything. But if every new piece of information warrants an aspect, you end up “spamming” aspects, overwhelming the narrative with ten aspects on the table that are never reincorporated into the fiction. When every invoke is a free invoke on a new aspect, we miss the satisfaction of returning to the aspects that grounded the story in the first place.

In my experience, most players intuitively understand that aspect spamming distracts from the narrative, and they limit their create advantage actions to meaningful moments of preparation. And since the vocabulary of create advantage doesn’t imply discovery to most players, those create advantage actions don’t usually involve listening, learning, observing. Characters prepare, act, and react, but they don’t take much time to learn in any formal sense, even when they’re creating aspects.

The Player’s Gaze

One solution to the absence of create advantage actions dedicated to learning is to just give players the information they need when they need it. Compels are great for this, since the GM can introduce information that’s complicated—“No, I am your father”; tricksy—“I am not left-handed either”; or downright devastating—“What’s in the box?” Information is often less important than action, so giving the players the information they need to get to the action is the priority.

But this model isn’t really collaborative; the GM delivers information and the players act on that information. The magic of roleplaying is that information is really part of a broader conversation between the players and the GM. The questions the players ask are as important as the answers the GM gives because they determine what parts of the world get defined. Discovery only has a collaborative element if the players have an equal say in what merits disclosure.

Imagine a game as a cluttered, darkened attic, filled with books and artifacts. Sure, the GM called out some specific parts as relevant before the players sat down to play—the major antagonists, some set pieces, a few themes—but the back and forth between the players and GM shapes the space. Where do the players direct their flashlights? What objects hold their interest? What questions do they ask about the space? The answers to these questions define the space as much as anything the GM presents.

Moving Toward Discover

What’s needed is a method of learning new things about the setting that frame the action without overwhelming the system with aspects. Information straight from the GM is useful but ultimately limiting, since it works against the collaborative nature of Fate. We need something more robustly in the players’ control, something that allows them to trigger new information without needing to place a new aspect on the table—a discover action!

The Discover Action

Use the discover action to learn new information about environments, obstacles, and characters in a scene.

The discover action allows your character to get new information about what’s going on in the current scene without creating a new aspect. Sometimes you’ll need to dig deeper into a situation to discover answers, but other times a quick glance is all you need to start learning more about the situation.

When you undertake a discover action, you get the chance to ask the GM a question about the situation through the lens of the skill you’ve chosen. If you want to know more about a threatening gunman, you can try to determine more about the gun itself (Shoot), the emotional state of the gunman (Empathy), or the position the gunman is occupying (Notice). The GM answers honestly, but failure results in your question pushing you into danger, revealing unpleasant information, or costing you precious time or resources.

After you finish your discover action, you may want to create an aspect on the scene by creating an advantage with your new knowledge or taking advantage of the boost you created if you succeeded with style.

Using Create Advantage and Discover

If you include discover as an action, players can’t use create advantage to learn new information. All of those actions now fall under discover. Players can use create advantage to capitalize on the information they’ve gained, such as using Provoke to place the aspect Hot Tempered on an NPC after discovering the NPC’s weakness using Empathy.

When you fail using discover, you either ask a question of the Gamemaster related to the skill you used at a major cost or the opposition asks questions about your character, delving into your secrets and weaknesses.

When you tie with discover, you ask one question of the Gamemaster related to the skill you used at a minor cost.

When you succeed with discover, you ask one question of the Gamemaster related to the skill you used.

When you succeed with style, you ask one question of the Gamemaster related to the skill you used, followed by either another question or the creation of a boost.

Katherine’s spectral photographer, Deborah, is taking photos of a child’s bedroom. Deborah’s team has been hired to cleanse the house of evil spirits, and they’d like to know what they’re up against.

Katherine says, “I’ll take a bunch of different shots all over the house, using the Spectral Film I brought. I’ve got a cheap instant camera in addition to my normal rig. I’d like to use Investigate to discover what kind of ghosts or demons might be haunting this place.”

Marissa, her GM, says, “Sure. That sounds good. I think you’ve got all the gear you need for a quick survey. It’s a Good (+3) difficulty with passive opposition.”

Deborah has a Good (+3) Investigate and rolls + + - - for a total of Good (+3). Not quite enough to succeed without any costs.

Marissa asks, “Do you want to use the free invoke on your Spectral Film?”

Katherine says, “Yup! I’ll use that for +2, and I’ll also spend a fate point on my Sharp Eye for the Supernatural to succeed with style. Here’s my question: ‘What kind of supernatural forces are here?’”

Marissa smiles and says, “There are definite signs of demonic possession throughout the building…and signs that something mortal fought them off in the past. You also see signs of new demonic activity, as if they’ve been reawoken.”

Katherine thinks for a moment about taking a followup question or a boost. She settles on Demonic Signs as a boost so her team can take immediate advantage of what she’s learned.

Sample Discover Actions

Here are a few Fate Core skills presented with an appropriate discover action. These should give you some idea about what discover might look like in your game, including a few skills that might be difficult to imagine using with discover.

Crafts

Discover: Use Crafts to learn about the properties, strengths, and weaknesses of various objects. You might use it to learn about how a building or device was constructed, to find out what materials were used to make an object, or to discover who made a particular item, assuming the creator would leave telltale evidence. You may need additional scientific equipment or time with an object to use this action with Crafts.

Drive

Discover: Use Drive to learn more about vehicles and the evidence they leave behind or to judge speed and distance while driving. You can also locate the quickest or safest route to a destination or find the correct parts or gear to get a vehicle up and running again.

Investigate

Discover: Use Investigate to ask questions about a crime scene, learn information from records, or get any other information that’s best learned through careful study. It’s important to differentiate this from discovering information using other skills—i.e., specifics about cars (Drive)—and information gained through a quick overview (Notice).

Physique

Discover: Use Physique to ask questions about physical training, exercise equipment, and your own body. Ask questions about your physical limits and abilities, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of physical objects. You can also gain information about the world through physical tests using Physique, e.g., how much does this thing weigh?

Provoke

Discover: Provoke lets you learn more about your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, but in a social sphere instead of a physical one. Use Provoke to ask questions about how people react to specific stimuli, spotting reactions that might not be immediately apparent. Note that you need to differentiate Provoke and Empathy; the latter provides much richer information about the intent and emotions of the target.

Will

Discover: Use Will to learn more about the mental defenses of others—especially when you see them tried and tested—and, through reflection and concentration, recall what you may have overlooked. Discovering information with Will may also be possible in contests of mental strength, like interrogating a difficult witness.

Five Actions in Fate Core?

What does adding the discover action mean to your Fate Core games? Well…it works pretty well to just drop it into an existing setting. Players internalize what discover can do fairly quickly, and nothing in Fate Core limits you to four actions. Five actions diversify intentions in scenes, giving players many tools to use when interacting with the environment and each other.

Overcome as Attack

If you want to keep your Fate game to four actions, think about cutting attack. In your setting, do folks often turn to physical or social violence to damage their opposition? Or do characters mostly try to accomplish their goals without harming others at all? Maybe you don’t actually need an attack action.

If you want to cut attack, let overcome do the heavy lifting for you during combat. Since most fights can be thought of as moving past opposition instead of harming people, your players can use overcome to take out their opposition in a conflict. Targets of an overcome action can mark stress boxes or consequences—one for a success and two for a success with style—to resist being taken out.

This has a few huge advantages:

  • Avoids the Arms Race: Without an attack action, there’s no longer any advantage to having a +10 to a roll. Anything above 3 shifts (a success with style) is wasted. Players can focus more on non-combat skills—and spend more fate points outside of combat—even if combat is a solid chunk of the game.
  • Cuts Down on Conflicts: Since overcome doesn’t inflict stress, many fights are over after a single roll. Characters have to choose to stay in, marking stress boxes and consequences to represent that they aren’t willing to give up the fight just yet. That’s always the case in Fate, but treating attacks as overcome actions helps dramatize the choice.
  • Diversifies Takedowns: In addition to minimizing fights, it also puts social, mental, and physical skills on the same level. Taking someone out with Deceive or Provoke works the same as taking someone out with Fight or Shoot. Staying in the fight against mental and social attacks works the same too!

Passive Discovery

This discover action works well with Ryan Macklin’s take on Passive Discovery (page 10 in The Fate Codex, Vol. 1, Issue 2). Instead of rolling, characters with a Good (+3) or better in a skill can choose to succeed without style on any passive discovery action.

As you might guess, I’ve got some other stuff planned that makes use of swapping out attack for discover. In the meantime, I look forward to what you all do with this version of discover!

Special thanks to Emily Care Boss for her work on fictional positioning, Ryan Macklin for his early thoughts on the potential for a discover action, and Bruce Baugh for sharing his thoughts on actions and intent. There are sure to be many versions of discover, but this one owes a debt to all of you.