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Approaches as Scale: How to Go Big in Fate

by Tracy Barnett

You’re creeping through the tunnels of the dragon’s lair, trying to stay as quiet as possible. It doesn’t pay to wake a dragon, especially when you’re looking to steal from it. There’s an ambient glow that gets brighter as you proceed. When you round the last corner and the tunnel opens into the lair itself, you’ve got one thought:

Holy cow, that dragon is huge.

In a lot of traditional roleplaying games, there are mechanical ways to handle scale. Bigger things hit harder, move more slowly, get more hit points, and so on. In Fate Core, there aren’t any specific guidelines for how to, say, throw a giant at your players, or a kaiju. You could add more stress boxes, give higher skills, sure. But I think there’s a better solution.

I ran into this problem when I was writing Iron Edda: War of Metal and Bone where giants and giant-scale threats feature prominently. In an early draft of the game, my rule for handling giant threats was simple: if it’s bigger than you and it hits you, you’re dead. Big feet = squish. I thought that would express the danger of the giants. I wanted to highlight the value of having a giant of your own in your group.

In the early playtests, however, the first thing the players wanted to do was the climb the big dwarven destroyers to attack. If I’d squished them outright, it would have taken away their autonomy. They wanted to fight the giant directly. It makes sense. Fate’s a game of big action, and when you combine that with Norse myth, it makes little warriors go for the giants.

The fix came when Clark Valentine suggested I use approaches to signal scale. With giant threats, using an approach for its stats does a few things:

  • It puts the focus not on what the threat is doing, but how it’s doing it.
  • It keeps the range of skills and shifts the same for giant scale.
  • It allows human-sized players to easily interact with giant scale threats.

Example Threat: Our Dragon, Kringellion

To look at how all of this works, we need an example threat. Let’s give our hypothetical dragon some scales, wings, claws…and a few aspects and approaches:

Kringellion, the Destroyer

Aspects

Mistress of the Seven Hills, and All I Survey

It’s Mine, Mine, Mine, all MINE

Wings That Cover the Hills in Shadow

A Stomach Full of Hellfire

Intellect as Sharp as My Bladed Teeth

Approaches

Forceful: Good (+3)

Careful: Poor (+0)

Sneaky: Average (+1)

Flashy: Fair (+2)

Quick: Average (+1)

Clever: Fair (+2)

That’ll do for a character outline. Stunts don’t factor into this example, so we’ll leave them out for now.

How the Dragon Does Dragon Things

The interesting thing about using approaches instead of skills to represent something giant-sized is the abstraction. When we see depictions of massive threats, from Godzilla to Smaug, we’re not interested in how well they Fight or Shoot. What we’re interested in is how Forceful or Flashy they are. It lets our imaginings of them become larger, because the details of their specific abilities are obscured by how they’re approaching the conflict. Approaches let big threats stay big.

How the Numbers Work

One of the things that really gets in my way when it comes to scale in other games is that the math gets big along with the threat. You end up adding modifier after modifier, and things tend to bog down. With approaches as a signal for scale, the math stays the same. With our example dragon, I used the same range of numbers as characters in Fate Accelerated. The same number range for skills and such helps keep the game moving.

We can also use the ratings on those approaches to do a few different things, such as giving the players a way to interact with a giant-sized threat. That sounds like a segue!

Giant-Scale Threats as Maps

If you run up to Kringellion the Destroyer and try to stab her using Fight, you may or may not do much damage. Mechanically, it’s possible to hit hard enough (more on why it’s difficult to hurt her later), but human-scale individuals often do best in combat against giant-scale threats by creating advantages and setting things up for their giant-scale allies to do the hitting.

To create those advantages, or have the characters interact with Kringellion, we assign each of Kringellion’s approaches to a different section of her body, then map out those sections as combat zones. Each of those zones has a number assigned to it, the same number as the rating on the approach of the zone.

Here’s how the approaches and body zones break down with Kringellion:

Kringellion, the Destroyer

Approaches and body zones

Careful (Hind Legs): Poor (+0)

Clever (Head): Fair (+2)

Flashy (Wings): Fair (+2)

Forceful (Tail): Good (+3)

Quick (Torso): Average (+1)

Sneaky (Forearms): Average (+1)

You could feasibly assign whatever numbers you want to those zones, reflecting an increased difficulty for, say, trying to climb on the dragon’s wings. For this example, and for Iron Edda, I kept the numbers the same as the approach ratings to keep this method’s overhead low.

The ratings on those zones are the difficulties that characters have to overcome to be able to do anything in that zone. The way the approaches are assigned to the body parts also gives you some good information about how to run a giant-scale threat. Kringellion’s legs are Careful, with a low rating. This means she won’t be leaping around her lair, instead choosing to plant her feet when on the ground. While those feet are planted, though, her Forceful tail will be slapping characters around left and right.

If a human-scale character wants to create an advantage on one of those body parts/zones, you can either have them roll versus the passive difficulty, or you can make a roll with the approach to reflect the dragon’s active defense against being Tied Down, for example.

This strategy works well if your party of PCs is made up of one or two giant-scale characters and a few human-scale characters that are creating advantages as setups for the big characters to hit hard. What happens when you’ve got highly adventurous PCs (i.e., all of them), or no giant-scale characters?

When They Hit, They Hit Hard

The ratings for each approach do more than double duty as passive difficulties for combat zones on a giant body. They also serve to reflect how much more powerful a giant-scale threat can be for a human-scale opponent.

I like to keep the math simple in Fate, and the system supports this really well. When using approaches as scale, we handle this by using the ratings on each approach as a Weapon rating on offense, and an Armor rating on defense.

So much damage may seem egregious at first glance; 5 shifts from a mostly average roll seems like a lot. But that’s the point—we’re talking about threats that are scaled to make the average adventurer quake in their boots. Looking at it from a mostly narrative/fiction perspective, that number of shifts makes sense.

Delithia the Bold chooses to forego the advantage creation her companions have been doing. She pulls her longbow, takes aim, and lets loose with a human-scale Shoot roll. Her Shoot is +3, and her dice come up ++-0. Net of 4, and not a bad shot. Kringellion chooses to defend Flashily, using her mighty wings to blow the arrow away. Kringellion rolls +000, for a total of 3. However, because Kringellion is giant-scale, her +2 on her Flashy wings counts as Armor:2. That means Delithia fails by 1 shift, and the arrow goes sailing off into the far reaches of the cave.

To punish Delithia for her temerity, Kringellion plants her feet and whips her tail Forcefully at the archer’s head. The dragon rolls well, ++00, for a total of 5. Delithia tries to get out of the way with her Great (+3) Athletics, but rolls 00-0. Kringellion has Delithia by 2 shifts, plus the Weapon:3 on her Forceful approach. That’s 5 shifts of dragon tail slamming into our impudent archer.

It also makes sense from a mechanical perspective. There are two factors that feed into the mechanical side of things.

  • The system is Fate. Yes, that’s enough stress to take out most characters in one hit. However, in Fate, characters are resilient, and are built for success. It might come at a cost (consequences, etc.), but characters in Fate generally succeed. They’ve got fate points to spend, created advantages to invoke, and stress tracks. Big threats mean risk. If the character decides it’s worth it, they’ll find a way to succeed against opponents at scale.
  • Characters can seek out Armor and Weapons to even the odds. None of these options for scale negate how Weapon damage and Armor shift absorption work. That might be the most important point of all of this. An Armored character absorbs the extra shifts normally. This allows prepared characters to be able to withstand a blow from a giant-scale threat, and maybe even give back as good as they got.

Stress for Giant-Scale Threats

Fate Accelerated uses only one track for all character and enemy stress. That same method is the default when it comes to giant-scale threats. The same numbers that we used to map the approaches and determine difficulty can be used for stress boxes as well.

By default, give a giant-scale threat a number of stress boxes equal to the rating of its highest approach. For Kringellion, we would assign 3 stress boxes. This doesn’t seem like many stress boxes, but since we use that same rating as Armor, it means human-scale opponents have to hit really hard to damage something that’s giant-scale. This parity also lets us do a few different things:

  • Stress is easy to track, and you don’t have to do much figuring to whip up a giant-scale threat on the fly. Handy for games where you don’t have as much time to prepare as you would have liked.
  • Giant-scale threats without a highly rated approach aren’t that difficult to take down. Most characters in Fate have at least 3 physical stress boxes, so all you’re really doing is helping giant-scale threats hit hard, and giving them a chance to absorb stress.

What happens if you make a big, hulking giant-scale threat, stat it out, and decide that 3 stress boxes isn’t enough? Well, you’ve got a couple of options:

  • Increase the value of its highest approach. Harder-hitting essentially means harder to take down in this case. Increase Kringellion’s Forceful approach to +5, and you’re looking at 5 stress boxes for your players to deal with, as well as Weapon:5 damage and Armor:5 absorption. Remember that any rating above +4 is a vastly increased difficulty for the players!
  • Look to your threat’s aspects. If your threat has an aspect that indicates better defense, give your threat an extra stress box per appropriate aspect. Kringellion has Wings That Cover the Hills in Shadow. It’s a small stretch, but it seems like those could be used well defensively, so we could give her a fourth stress box.

Creating Advantages as Giant-Scale Threats

Creating advantages as a giant-scale threat works the same as it does for everyone in Fate Core. There is one situational wrinkle, however: If you send a giant-scale threat against a party that has all human-scale characters, the giant-scale advantage is automatically treated as a success with style on a successful roll. If the giant-scale threat rolls a success with style, then it generates an additional invoke of that aspect.

This brings up another new rule to use for created advantages: use whatever someone rolls to create an advantage as the target number needed to hit to overcome the aspect. If you’re human-scale, treat that as normal (a 4 to create the advantage means a 4 to overcome). For giant-scale threats, double that number. So if a giant-scale threat ends up rolling a total of 4 to create an advantage, it will take Legendary (+8) roll to overcome. Feel free to ignore this doubling if a giant-scale character is overcoming the advantage.

You can use these same rules if you have a mixed group with giant-scale and human-scale characters, but you might want to have the giant-scale characters spend a stunt to get the ability. If you don’t, it’s one more bonus that giant-scale characters have. Threats, being threats, get to break the rules a little bit. If you’re hugely balance-minded, make these bonuses cost your threats a stunt as well.

Players with Giant-Scale Characters

It’s possible that you’ll have players who want to have giant-scale abilities. It all depends on the type of game you’re running. In our fantasy-type example, it might not come up as much. Maybe a character would get a magical item that gives them a giant-scale ability, but it doesn’t have to be a player option. However, if you’re running a take on Pacific Rim, then you definitely want to have giant-scale rules available for your players. Here are a few options:

Situational

This is how the Bonebonded work in Iron Edda. I built the following Extra:

Extra: Bonebonded

Permissions: Replace your Warrior Clan aspect with a Bond aspect. Your spirit is bound to that of a dead giant. Giants are cruel, capricious, and tend towards evil. They bear no love for humans. However, you have chosen this bond to help save your people from the constructions of the dwarves. You will continually battle the nature of the giant as you use the bones. This battle continues even when you are not working with the bones. The bond is a part of you, always. Look to the approaches you chose for the bones to give you an idea of the temperament of your bond. Some giants are brutish and straightforward, while others are subtle and cruel. This is the burden you will carry with you; choose well.

Costs: 2 refresh; 1 of your starting 3 stunts must be used on your giant.

This Extra is pretty straightforward. You get an aspect that relates to being Bonebonded, you pay 2 refresh (Iron Edda’s default is 4), and you must assign a starting stunt to the giant. All of the other ramifications are narrative and social, Bonebonded being a new thing in the context of the setting. You can use this as a template to build your own stunt for mecha pilots or dragon-riders.

Single Power

In Iron Edda, there are Runescribed, people with access to a single approach that operates at giant scale. Here’s how their Extra is worded:

Extra: Runescribed Magic

Permissions: Your Sacred Item aspect is your Rune; indicate which Rune it is and how it’s inscribed (scarred, tattooed, burned, etc.).

Example: Frostburned Rune of Isa (Ice)

Costs: Reduce your refresh by 1.

You gain a single approach at Good (+3) that reflects your tie to your Rune. That Runic approach operates on giant scale.

Attack: When attacking a giant-scale thing with your Runic approach, you may deal stress as normal. When attacking a human-scale thing, treat your Rune as having a Weapon rating equal to the rating of the Rune.

Defend: You can use your Runic approach to defend against giant-scale attacks as normal. If you use your Runic approach to defend against a human-scale attack, treat the Rune as having an Armor rating equal to the rating of the Runic approach.

For this, there are also narrative/setting constraints. The Runescribed cannot hold political power, and are often the most devoted to their Clan. These constraints help guide the players so they don’t overuse their approach. If they do, there are social consequences.

Stunts

The final way to handle characters who want to operate at giant scale is by giving them a stunt that costs a fate point to activate. Here is the example stunt from Iron Edda:

The Bigger They Are. You’ve got lots of experience attacking giants, and you know how to hit them where it hurts. For the cost of a fate point, you can use a skill as if it were an approach, allowing it to affect things on giant scale for one exchange.

This is the simplest way to handle giant scale, and a good method if you’re looking to slowly introduce the idea of giant-scale threats to your game.

Wrap-Up

Giant-scale threats can add some interesting variety to your campaign. All of the above methods will allow you to literally bring out the big guns—kaiju, spaceships, mecha, etc.—and present your players with threats that act in accordance with their size. When you choose to unveil a giant-scale threat, these mechanical options help provide both a sense of scale and an appropriate sense of danger. Have fun! +

(Special thanks to Clark Valentine for the original idea of using approaches to signify scale. Thanks as well to Fred Hicks, Rob Donoghue, and John Adamus for the refinements that came from the playtest sessions at Metatopia in 2013.)