Changing Skills: a Matter of Survival
by Ryan Macklin
By only having 18 skills, the default skill list in Fate Core has some odd quirks and blind spots. Much of that is by design—different settings should have different skill lists. To quote Fate Core System, page 96:
When you’re creating your own setting for use with Fate, you should also create your own skill list. The default list we provide is a good starting point, but creating skills specific to your world can help make it seem richer by reinforcing the story with mechanics.
Of course, we don’t tell you in the book how to go about doing that, partly because there’s no one true way and partly because that’s not the job of the core book. In this article, I present a new skill while walking you through the design process. It sheds some light on how to make design decisions while building a skill list, and concludes with a new set of mechanics that were created as a result of rethinking two skills. Because there’s no one true way, the process in the article is shown by example—one you can use in your own builds, and tweak to serve your needs.
There’s a character archetype that isn’t well supported in the default list: the survivalist. That includes the way Aragorn uses his knowledge of the wilds in The Fellowship of the Ring, the classic trope of the street urchin who knows how to survive in the urban jungle, characters like Robinson Crusoe or Oliver Queen (especially how he’s portrayed in Arrow), and so on.
The ratio of 18 skills/10 skill slots (which I call “the 55% Rule”—more about that in a moment) is key to Fate’s skill economy, because it means that any given character only gets reasonable spotlight time with just over half of the skills. To keep the ratio with minimum fuss, I’m going to swap out another skill—the natural choice for that is Notice, for reasons we’ll get into shortly.
There are a couple of exceptions to the 55% Rule that you should take into account when making new skills:
Skills reserved for a privileged few don’t count toward the number of skill slots determined by the 55% ratio.
Skills that are split functions count together.
Talents that are rare in a setting, like psionics or magic, are typically handled as an extra (chapter 11 of Fate Core System). Some extras work best as unique skills rather than getting tacked onto an existing skill. Because those skills aren’t available to everyone, they don’t count in the ratio. Furthermore, people taking such a talent are intentionally making a choice to be competent in something interesting, so part of the cost is not being competent in another (often related) set of actions. For instance, someone might take Psionics as a skill and forgo Shoot (because he has a stunt called Mind Bullets) or Physique (because he doesn’t need to work out to use Telekinesis). So the ratio is skewed slightly, but the competence element enforced by the number of skill slots remains.
Likewise, if you split a skill into different areas—such as having Lore become Academics (for broad scholarship), Sciences (for technical knowledge), and Lore (for occult, spiritual, and religious matters), then there’s no need to add a skill slot. In settings where such splits matter (such as the upcoming Fate edition of Achtung! Cthulhu splitting Lore as above), players who take one of these split skills generally have a particular branch in mind, not unlike having a specific take or vibe in mind when taking Lore from the Core skill set. So if a player wants their character to have two or more such skills, that’s a fine choice because, while it decreases the number of slots the character uses for conflict-oriented skills, it privileges them with discovery and knowledge—which is something of interest to quite a number of Fate players.
So, the 55% Rule isn’t about strictly adhering to a number. Keep it in mind when building your setting’s skill list, but understanding where each skill fits into the skill economy is just as important to making a Fate build work.
Notice is probably the second-oddest skill in the bunch. (The oddest goes to Resources, which is its own article. Or series of articles.) It covers situational awareness, passive discovery, and reflexes in physical conflicts (in that it covers turn order). So before we construct the Survival skill, let’s parcel out Notice’s spheres of influence.
First of all, passive discovery—where the GM might call for a Notice roll to see if the characters process something they’ve just seen or heard in an actionable fashion—should be split into all the other skills. Investigate is the default, but every skill can be used to discover something: Lore to process that some arcane writings are actually a passcode to magically open a door, Shoot to get a sense of what weapon was just shot from a distance (“That’s a very distinctive sound” from Leverage’s Eliot), Empathy to reflexively tell if someone’s lying, etc. This means that anything where the character isn’t intently focusing on something, just the brain automatically processing stimuli in a useful way, is covered by how well versed the character is in a field. (This will naturally include ways where Survival conveys such information, such as spotting a useful item in the muck or seeing a hidden danger.)
We’re going to play more with this idea toward the end of the article.
The other two elements—situational awareness and establishing turn order—work with the skill we’ll naturally call “Survival.” But that’s not enough, because it doesn’t cover those characters in fiction mentioned above; it doesn’t cover the expertise needed to survive in those worlds. For that, we’re going to borrow some of Lore’s functionality, where knowledge is useful for overcome actions and creating advantages.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait, but Lore covers those situations already.” That’s true, but it doesn’t inherently model the characters above. The street kid has street smarts, not the breadth of knowledge conveyed by Lore. Oliver Queen is sharp, but in a way that means a high Survival rather than a high Lore. Now, we’re not going to completely steal that from Lore—the person with Great Lore will be a virtual encyclopedia, pointing out different plants and animals in a forest, but not necessarily be useful in action. Likewise, the person with Great Survival will be able to tell you what’s in a book on life in the desert, but the rest of the library isn’t in her wheelhouse.
Fate already has a precedent for skill function double-up, where Athletics and Fight can be used for melee defense, and Physique and Athletics can both be used to get out of tight situations, so this isn’t new. It simply builds on the high-competence nature of Fate characters.
That’s enough to construct a Survival skill, using language from Notice and Lore. But let’s play with one more thing…
Survival isn’t an attack skill.
Another odd hole is Shoot defenses. Typically Athletics is used to dodge a bullet in more cinematic circumstances, but if Survival is based in part on being able to stay alive, then we can extend that to being a defense against ranged attacks by hunkering down or taking cover. (Depending on the nature of the narrative, it might even make more sense than Athletics.) So we’re going to add this as a base function of Survival.
A noteworthy design bit: this could just as easily be moved into a Survival stunt, if as a designer you think that’s one piece of functionality too many. The reason I don’t mind it is because Survival isn’t an attack skill, and it doesn’t defend against combat that’s right in your face.
The Survival skill is all about the ability to endure and physically thrive in the wilds, whether in jungle, desert, or even the streets and sewers of a city. It covers situational awareness—your overall perception and the ability to pick out at a glance useful things or dangers hidden in the surrounding environment.
Overcome: You use Survival to overcome obstacles relating to your environment, such as finding your way through rugged terrain, gathering edible food and potable water, and so on. Survival is also used to overcome obstacles relating to reaction: noticing a danger, hearing a faint sound of someone following you, spotting the concealed gun in that guy’s waistband, etc. Additionally, Survival can be used to treat a physical consequence akin to being a field medic, provided you have the proper supplies and time.
Create an Advantage: You use Survival to create aspects based on direct observation of your surroundings—finding an escape route in a debris-filled building, noticing someone sticking out in a crowd, tracking an animal or person, etc. When observing people, Survival can tell you what’s going on with them externally; for internal changes, see Empathy. You might also use Survival to declare that your character spots something you can use to your advantage in a situation, such as a convenient Escape Route when you’re trying to get out of a building, or a Subtle Weakness in the enemy’s line of defense. For example, if you’re in a barroom brawl you could make a Survival roll to say that you spot a puddle on the floor right next to your opponent’s feet that could cause him to slip.
Survival also allows you to create aspects based on using or manipulating your environment, such as making a trap or a foxhole, scrounging for supplies, building a shelter or tools, and otherwise altering the environment to suit your needs.
Attack: Survival isn’t really used for attacks.
Defend: You can use Survival to defend against any uses of Stealth to get the drop on you or ambush you, or to discover that you’re being observed. Survival is also used to defend against gunfire and other such attacks, but only when you are huddled down in a defensible position, such as a foxhole or bunker. (This is the opposite of using Athletics, which involves avoiding these situations via movement.)
Special: Survival is used to establish turn order in a physical conflict, replacing Notice.
Since the skill to survive in the wilds is now how turn order is determined in a conflict, and not every great fighter is also a master of the outdoors, you could use the skill replacement method of stunt creation to cover other character concepts.
The Danger Sense and Body Language Reader stunts from Fate Core work for Survival. Depending on how you feel about it, the Reactive Shot might as well. Here are a couple more stunts tailored specifically for Survival.
Animal Ken. Creatures of the wild are second nature to you. Use Survival for Empathy and Rapport situations with animals.
Master of the Wild. Pick some sort of terrain or broad environment. Once per scene, when you create an advantage that involves spending a little time scavenging or manipulating the local area, you can give that aspect an additional free invoke.
Natural Healer. Your time in the wilds has taught you how to patch yourself up when hurt and to recognize what’s good to use around you for cleaning wounds or as medicine. You can use Survival to address consequences that are physical in nature. (Design note: I’m on the fence about whether this is a natural part of the skill or a stunt, and sometimes I think that maybe just recovering from a mild physical consequence is inherent to Survival.)
Master of the Ring. Given even a brief sense that the situation could get physical, you can use Fight in place of Survival for the purposes of establishing turn order and for spotting hidden dangers that could come into play during a fight.
At Home in Academia. Whether browsing in the library stacks or wandering through the campus garden, no one gets a jump on you on your home turf. Use Lore instead of Survival or Empathy when establishing turn order.
Now that we have Survival detailed, we’re done with hacking the skill set, right? Well, yes, but we don’t have to stop there. I mentioned above that we’re splitting the passive discover of Notice into all skills, so let’s extend that concept into a new mechanic: automatic discovery.
This concept centers around rewarding characters with high competence in any field (which is every character in a Fate game) by ensuring they never miss key information. In automatic discovery, all of your skills rated at Good and higher have an additional benefit: they always succeed at overcome actions or creating advantages that involve passive discovery—i.e., any time when the GM would normally call for a skill roll to spot or hear something that is reflexive and takes no time or effort. No roll is required; the characters are just that good. Now instead of the person with a high Notice being the person who discovers all things, the person with the high Athletics notices the martial arts an opponent is using (thus suggesting where they trained), the high Burglary sees the telltale scratches around a lock or window pane that suggests it’s been compromised, and so on.
The characters can still make actions involving active discovery, just as normal. Nothing’s changing in that regard for creating advantages or other actions that involve focused effort. After all, Notice isn’t really useful in that regard; that’s where Investigate (or other skills, depending on the situation) comes into play.
Furthermore, we’ll add a little bit more to skills that are Great or higher—assume they succeed with style at passive discovery. That means extra free invocations or other benefits from being one of the setting’s top experts or masters of that field or discipline.
In settings where gaining knowledge is potentially harmful, such as those where fighting to retain one’s sanity is a big deal, automatically succeeding at passive discovery is one of the most dangerous things to have. And that makes it even more interesting. But even without that, this dynamic highlights every character’s mind and ability to discover and unconsciously process things under fire.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this walkthrough on making a skill and extending the rest of the skill list. Happy gaming!