Adding Reality to your Fantasy
by Nicole Winchester and Cheyenne Rae Grimes
Stop thinking like a normal human with empathy and compassion…and start exploiting people’s private lives, human faults, and intense emotions for ratings and personal gain. Congratulations! You’ve just become a reality TV producer! Your players are your cast, and you need a good story out of them to keep your job—one way or another.
In this article, we’ll show you how to build a Fate Core game set in a reality TV show, both behind the scenes and on-screen. We’ll detail special mechanics that replicate the most common features of reality shows, including “ratings” stress, reality-specific skills, and everything else you need to play through a full “season” of trashy television. Enjoy immersing yourself in the on-set drama and high stakes of reality television production without the messy business of starving on a desert island or cooking in a kitchen with an abusive head chef.
Creating Your Show
In order to bring reality TV to your Fate game, start by creating the show itself as if it were a character with aspects, stress tracks, and a name.
Reality is favored in television production because it’s cheap to produce and hugely popular due to its “anything can happen” reputation. In truth, reality of all kinds is predictable—there will be interpersonal drama, fighting, tears, backstabbing, and train wreck moments whether you’re watching a competition show or following the weekly life of an average family. Reality shows have a regimented structure, five “acts” that always have the same challenges, the same roadblocks, the same cooking tasks, and the same highs and lows at roughly the same times.
Choosing a Genre
When you initially get together with your players, discuss the reality shows you love and the reality shows you love to hate. What shows or genres would you like to play in? What is it about them that makes them compelling? Once you settle on a type of show you’d like to use, decide if the concept seems interesting enough to the group to play on its own, or if you need a twist, like placing it in the past or future, or drastically changing the setting. Ask questions to zero in on the points of interest.
For example, if your group was interested in playing Big Brother on a space station, what do they find most interesting about being trapped with a bunch of fame-hungry people in space? The chance of technology going wrong? Aliens and humans trying to socially interact? Zero-gravity challenges? Losers getting airlocked? Why is it an exciting setting to play in? Take notes, as they will be helpful in creating aspects, and for ideas for future sessions.
Crafting Reality Events
After you’ve chosen an idea for your reality show, discuss what events need to happen in every episode you play. Are there important competitions, ceremonies, or challenges that come up before the end of every episode? Are there scenes at “work,” family dinners, or even regular arguments?
Note a couple of things that happen every episode and prepare to introduce those scenes when the opportunity arises. These scenes can be on-camera or off-camera, depending on the needs and interests of your group. (“Previously on...”s and character introductions are fine to include if they’re important to your show.) A Fate game of Survivor, for example, would have a challenge and a tribal council every “episode.” It’s up to the producer to determine the best time for each, taking both time and dramatic impact into account.
You have a show! Give it a few aspects to bring it to life, starting with a high concept and a trouble. Remember to reach for the stars!
Your show’s high concept should explain the essence of your show, why it exists, or some combination of the two. This is the elevator pitch, the quick recap that tells people why they should tune in every week.
Examples: Don’t Wear That, Wear This; Real People Become Fantasy Heroes; Human Hamsters Trapped to Win Money; or 19 People, 39 Days, 1 Survivor.
There’s always something about a reality show that critics can’t stand, recappers hate, or fans complain about. It’s as if the show can’t avoid these pitfalls, no matter how many seasons it lasts.
Examples: Cast to Fail; Just a Little Mean; Too Much Drama; or Cheesy.
Shows are measured by ratings, so each reality show has a stress track that measures ratings stress. When your show takes stress, you’re losing viewers, buzz, and interest, and you’ll have to clear that stress to climb back up the ratings board.
Shows start with three ratings stress boxes, and each box absorbs shifts equal to its number. When a cast member fails a skill roll in Body, Fight, Gossip, Notice, Party, Stealth, or Will (as described below or beginning on page 98 in Fate Core System), the show takes an amount of stress equal to the number of shifts by which the character failed the roll. The show clears the highest box of ratings stress at the end of each session of play. When the show is “taken out,” it is cancelled, at which point the producer and cast work out the aftermath of being on a briefly successful reality show.
Like characters, each show has a -2, -4, and -6 slot, and taking show consequences can help a show avoid ratings stress. Possible consequences for a show could include a Schedule Change, Pre-Emption for a significant event, No Network Promotion, or a particularly Brutal Review. Mild consequences clear after an episode, while moderate and severe consequences will take several episodes to heal. The cast collectively chooses whether or not to take consequences on their show and works with the producer to define them appropriately. Show consequences heal at the same rate as normal consequences; see pages 162-166 in Fate Core System for more information.
Don’t stress much over the naming of your show. The people who come up with perfectly evocative show names have been doing it for a long time. It’s their job to be good at it—and even if they are, many show names sound a bit ridiculous before you get used to them.
Reality TV Mechanics
Although you can play reality TV stars in Fate with the traditional aspect, skill, and stunt mechanics, these three mechanics replicate the most fascinating features of reality TV to help producer and cast recreate the genre. Feel free to use all or none of them, as fits your show!
Off-Camera vs. On-Camera
When the cast is on-camera, their every move can be edited, manipulated, and broadcast to the world; when they’re off-camera, they have some small pretense of privacy, but the producers always have demands. It’s not long before the cast will try to take conflict off-camera to save face…or turn the cameras on to catch their rivals in compromising positions.
As the producer, you’ll frame each scene as on-camera or off-camera when it starts; however, players can use their fate points to turn the cameras on or off at moments they’d like to show to the world—or hide from everyone.
Cameras On…or Off
Whenever cast members want to “flip” the cameras on or off, they must spend a fate point to take control of the scene. Other cast members (or the producer) can flip the cameras back, but they have to spend another fate point! Turning the camera off can allow players to have private conversations, discussions with production, or production meetings, while turning the cameras on can let them catch each other in bad behavior, arrange advantageous discussions, or set themselves up to look good.
Reality shows are famous for hidden cameras that can to be turned on at a moment’s notice and camera crews on-call to shoot film at the drop of a hat. Framing each scene as specifically on- or off-camera not only provides the opportunity to put exciting moments and drama in the show as they happen, but also gives the cast the chance to develop an on-screen persona separate from their off-screen reality.
Janet has deeply disliked Nate since day one of the show. During an off-camera scene where Nate confesses a deep, dark secret to another character, Janet spends her fate point to go “on-camera,” so Nate’s secret is broadcast to the world—and reframes the scene so she’s been secretly listening in the whole time. She has ensured Nate’s secret is now hot new gossip for the audience, and has information she can use against him.
Reality TV Editing
This mechanic replicates the show’s ability to manipulate recorded events, editing them to appear differently. Editors have immense power in their darkened suites, creating storylines or drama out of the hundred-plus hours of tape they winnow down into one episode.
Editing for Drama
When on-camera, characters can spend a fate point to use reality TV editing when they are trying to mislead other characters or mask villainous deeds or embarrassing moments. Off-camera, editing can be used to ensure a rival’s worst tantrum makes it to air post-haste. Producer and cast are encouraged to be as creative with editing as their real-life counterparts—if there’s a terrible unseen moment from the past that would be dramatically appropriate to surface right now…maybe that makes the best story.
In an “on-camera” scene, Janet and Nate argue about Nate’s secrets that Janet has exposed to others on the show. Though Janet professes her innocence sincerely, Nate would like the viewers to catch Janet in a lie. Nate spends a fate point to “edit” in a scene break, and the producer then narrarates a clip from an off-camera scene two sessions ago, where Janet tells another character Nate’s secret. Janet is revealed as not only a gossip, but also a liar!
This mechanic recreates one of the most compelling staples of the reality genre—the direct-to-camera address in which cast members reveal their dastardly tactics and darkest thoughts.
Forcing a Confessional
Confessional can be used once per character per game for free, while fate points can be spent for additional calls for confessional. The cast members “in confessional” have a short scene with the producer at the time the call is made in which they discuss the current situation, their feelings and thoughts, and the other cast members, assuming the audience is watching. The character calling for confessional then gains +2 to the next action in a scene with the character “called in”—related to what was discussed in the confessional. Confessional scenes can provide excellent Milestone moments for characters, particularly in situations of high drama or intense emotion.
Nate has discovered Janet’s lies, and he is infuriated that she has betrayed his trust. In the midst of a heated argument between them, another player breaks in to call for Janet’s confessional, wanting to hear her real thoughts and motivations for exposing Nate’s secrets. As Janet has not yet had a confessional in the session, a fate point is not necessary. The producer and Janet take a few minutes to discuss the situation and what she actually thinks before returning to the argument with Nate.
Casting Your Show
Now that you’ve created your show and learned how to run it, it’s time for casting! Do you want to have a cast full of Type A personalities that are bound to clash? Is everyone working together for the purpose of creating a specific environment? Are the player characters only housemates or can they also work on the production of the show?
For the most part, character generation is just like a regular Fate Core game. Give each character a high concept and trouble as normal, focusing on big and bold statements that will create drama and generate ratings!
After creating the first two aspects, leave the other character aspects blank on each character. Everyone is a stranger! Through the course of the first session, each player should add two more aspects: something that defines their character on the show and a story from the past that comes out in the first episode. Whether this story is true or not is up to the player. However, if the story is false and ends up being exposed as a lie, the character loses this aspect.
Reality Show Skills
The skills available to each character are Body, Deceive, Empathy, Fame, Fascinate, Fight, Gossip, Notice, Party, Provoke, Rapport, Stealth, Tears, and Will. Skills are to be chosen according to the traditional skill pyramid, peaking at a Good (+3). Existing skills (Deceive, Empathy, Fight, Notice, Provoke, Rapport, Stealth, and Will) can be found in Fate Core System on pages 97-127. New skills (Body, Fame, Fascinate, Gossip, Party, and Tears) are presented here:
Body (replaces Physique, Athletics)
This skill encompasses all aspects of what your body can do. Everything from what you are physically capable of doing to what you look like doing it.
Overcome: Using your looks to change a decision or someone’s opinion of you, showing your physical ability to be a true competitor.
Create an Advantage: Whether it’s your ability to perform in a physical challenge, win a beauty contest, or know how to look like you can.
Attack: Physically attacking or lashing out at someone, tearing someone’s looks apart based on your own.
Defend: Use Body to defend against attacks against your physical self or your looks.
This skill is all about who knows you and who you know. Many times, reality TV shows will bring in (minor) celebrities to boost ratings. Having access to trust funds, your parent’s fame (or celebrity friends), or being “internet famous” are wonderful assets.
Overcome: Using your fame as an excuse, knowing the right people to “pull some strings for you.”
Create an Advantage: Name-dropping famous people, catching people off-guard with your big name charm.
Attack: Claiming to be more famous than other minor celebrities on show, getting more airtime than others due to name recognition.
Defend: Deflecting attacks by rising above the petty problems of the less famous.
This skill is for that certain something that makes everyone want to pay attention to you: from having an air of mystery to being so magnetic, people just want to be around you. Fascinate is sure to keep the focus on you and no one else.
Overcome: Fascinate is not used to directly overcome obstacles.
Create an Advantage: Putting yourself in the middle of every situation to make sure you have camera time, pulling focus from others.
Attack: This skill is not used to attack.
Defend: Skillful contestants know that they can defend against attacks on their character by soaking up the attention.
Gossip (replaces Lore)
This skill is used to spread information. Rumors, first hand accounts, hearsay, and information being passed off as the truth are vital parts of getting face time. Having a wealth of knowledge about the other contestants can be very useful. Just be careful of what dirt they have on you....
Overcome: Gossip is not used to directly overcome obstacles.
Create an Advantage: Knowing when to speak up and when to lie. Controlling the Gossip that floats around about yourself or others can be downright deadly.
Attack: This is the primary use of Gossip. Whether it’s a lie or an ugly truth, what people say about you can make or break a successful run on a reality show. Keeping what you want known about someone a secret can be a huge asset.
Defend: Placing blame on someone else or shifting focus onto the wrongdoings of another contestant can be the easiest way to get yourself out of hot water.
This skill is about knowing how to be the center of attention. Being the life of the party is a great way to become a ratings darling. Who doesn’t love a fun housemate? The ability to have a great time and cause others to do the same could be your saving grace.
Overcome: With Party, you can smooth over hurt feelings by bringing the fun. Diffusing tension could be the best way to keep friends, avoid making enemies, and win the hearts of the viewers.
Create an Advantage: Bringing attention to your own fun-loving personality, keeping the atmosphere in the house light and friendly, and highlighting the achievements of your housemates by throwing them a bitchin’ party.
Attack: This skill is not used for attack.
Defend: This skill is not used for defense.
This skill is exactly as it sounds: being able to turn on the waterworks on cue and using them as leverage.
Overcome: Using your tears to change someone’s decision, crying during a made-up story about your past to convince the audience it’s legit.
Create an Advantage: Sobbing during any situation to gain sympathy, crying to draw attention away from someone else.
Attack: This skill is not used to attack.
Defend: Tears is really a defense mechanism in every social situation; nothing keeps you out of the crosshairs like a few tears.
Though reality shows don’t have fate points of their own, the characters that work and star on reality shows can use fate points to affect the show through the use of the confessional and editing mechanics (see above) and by invoking the show’s aspects (as listed above). Characters can also use fate points to flip a scene from “on-camera” to “off-camera” or vice versa (see "Off-Camera vs. On-Camera").
Character Stress Track: Q Score
A Q Score is a metric that determines the familiarity and appeal of a celebrity, TV show, property, or brand. In a reality TV game, Q Score measures how much viewers love or love to hate the characters, and it helps producers decide who to keep and who to fire. In addition to physical and mental stress tracks, all reality cast members also add a Q Score stress track to their sheet.
The Fame skill allows characters to take more stress boxes in Q Score, like with Physique and Will for physical and mental stress tracks. Each cast member starts with two stress boxes in Q Score; Average (+1) or Fair (+2) Fame will give the character a 3-point box, while Good (+3) or Great (+4) Fame will give the character a 3-point and a 4- point stress box.
Marking Q Score Stress
When cast members fail a Deceive, Empathy, Fame, Fascinate, Provoke, Rapport, or Tears skill roll on-camera, they take an amount of stress equal to the number of shifts by which they failed the roll. As always, cast members can take consequences to avoid marking Q Score stress from failed rolls. Q Score stress can be healed by succeeding with style in one of the above skills on-camera—essentially in televised actions that redeem the cast member in the public’s eyes. Each success with style clears the highest box of Q Score stress.
When cast members are taken out with Q Score stress, they choose one of two options: pay double the cost for turning cameras on and off, Editing, and Confessionals, or only participate in scenes framed as “off-camera.” Being taken out through Q Score means you’re no longer in the public consciousness—you’re a nobody!
Running a Season
Now it’s time to bring your show to air! Have your notes at hand from your initial discussions to keep what’s most compelling to the cast in mind, and use the show’s basic structure to pace out the main events. In the Survivor example, the producer would aim for the challenge to come in the middle of the episode and end the show with the tribal council. If events on- or off-camera cause these to move around in different episodes, so be it. The road of production never runs smoothly.
Keep the Pace
Use the conventions of reality shows to provide a speedy pace to “episodes.” Keep them quick, self-contained, and to a set time limit—try for an hour. Stop scenes mid-way to provide cliffhangers to end the episode; frame scenes with specific parameters and aspects, as they might end up on television post-editing; pause scenes to demand a confessional from the cast! Playing multiple episodes per session will provide a four to five hour session of gaming, but keep each scene short, focused, and goal-oriented—even if that goal is to decide who will be voted off the island.
Keep It Fresh
As reality show seasons usually run twelve to twenty-four episodes with a rotating cast, one season provides an option to play out a limited campaign with a fixed number of sessions. In shows where characters are “voted off the island,” players can become part of the jury that awards the prize, pick up an NPC rival as a new character, or some combination of the two. Don’t forget many competition shows include a twist where eliminated players can return to the game! If the group is more interested in an ongoing show, many shows go on for years with the same cast living out their lives on camera. Others regularly implement “All-Star” seasons or invite old players to return; reality “stars” from one genre often move to another, or lead a whole new show during the summer break…the possibilities are only as endless as “production resources” and your group’s interest and imagination.