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Deck of Fate: Variant Fate Points

by Mark Diaz Truman

Nearly every Fate designer I know has spent time trying to assign values to aspects instead of a flat +2 per fate point spent. It seems like it should be easy to diversify aspect ratings, but attempts to create tiers of aspects usually end up wrecking the tightly constructed system of invokes and compels that makes Fate fun. Tiered aspects are a white whale of Fate design, often hunted but never captured.

Instead of changing aspects, what if we change how fate points work? In this systems piece, I’ll show you how to use the Deck of Fate (and normal Fate dice) to vary the strength of fate points without sacrificing the Fate economy. These variant fate points aren’t quite tiered aspects, but they will create new variety in your Fate stories without a lot of bookkeeping or hassle by making use of the Deck of Fate.

Fate Cards as Fate Points

Instead of passing out tokens at the beginning of the session, hand out fate cards from the Deck of Fate. Characters with a refresh of 3, for example, should take three fate cards from the Deck of Fate. Hold these cards like a hand in poker; don’t show anyone what you’ve got and try not to give yourself away if you draw something solid. Throughout the session, you can use these fate cards to invoke and compel aspects as if they were fate points… with some fun new tricks.

There’s a few rules we have to put in place to make fate cards work:

  • You’ve got to keep your hand secret. If players discuss their hands with each other, talking about the fate cards becomes the focus of play. You can obliquely refer to your cards—“I think I’ve got a strong hand.”—but don’t say anything concrete like “I have a +3 fate card.”
  • You can only play fate cards when you can spend fate points. The cards are replacing fate points, so you can spend them only when you would normally spend a fate point: when you’re rolling against passive or active opposition or when another character is rolling against passive opposition.
  • Reshuffle and redraw when someone plays a +4 or -4. Over the course of an entire session of Fate, it’s pretty easy to count cards from the deck if you don’t reshuffle and redraw. Refresh the deck by collecting everyone’s hand, reshuffling all the cards, and redrawing whenever someone plays a +4 or -4 fate card.

Invoking Aspects with Fate Cards

Playing fate cards to invoke an aspect works like a normal invoke—you declare that you’re invoking an aspect that’s appropriate for the situation and play the card—but they have some new effects. You can play as many fate cards as you want, just as you can spend as many fate points as you want, but any cards played are used up once they leave your hand.

Variant Invokes

When you invoke an aspect by playing a fate card, add the number on the fate card to your total, your opponent’s total (against you or a passive opposition), or passive opposition instead of adding +2. Positive cards add shifts to the total; negative cards remove shifts from the total. (Hint: you’ll probably want to play the negative cards on your opponent or passive opposition!)

Sometimes this means that your invoke is worth the same or less than a normal invoke (+1 or +2 shifts), but it can also mean that your invoke makes a task more challenging for an opponent (negative cards) or has an extra powerful effect (+3 or +4 shifts). When you play these variants, narrate how the aspect is keeping your opponent from making progress or having an intense or severe effect.

Marissa and Justin are space pirates hijacking a Revellian trade ship. While trying to leap from ship to ship, Justin’s character, Merlavik, comes up short on his roll against a Great (+4) difficulty. Since he’s got a pretty low Athletics, he only got a Mediocre (+0) result. Justin has a few cards in his hand, but nothing above a +1. He plays one of them to invoke his Hard to Kill aspect to raise his roll to Average (+2) and narrates how Merlavik grabs on to the edge of the ship to keep from flying into space.

Luckily, Marissa has a better hand. Her character, Alleea, is the heavy hitter in the crew, and she’s got the +4 card that’s going to save Merlavik’s life. She plays the card to invoke her All Eyes Open and add +4 to Justin’s roll against the passive opposition, bringing him to a Superb (+5) result. She narrates that she sees him barely grab on to the ship, and reaches out into space to pull him in before anyone can see him. Since she played the +4 fate card, the GM collects all the cards, reshuffles the deck, and passes new cards out to everyone.

Invoking for a Reroll

Of course, the +0 cards don’t do much as variant invokes. It’s not helpful to spend a fate card to add nothing to your roll! Instead of using +0 cards to add or subtract shifts from a roll, use +0 cards to invoke aspects to trigger rerolls. You can only trigger a reroll if you rolled the dice; you can’t spend them to make someone else reroll.

When they are about to take the ship, Justin realizes that Alleea is actually planning to kill the rival captain to get revenge for some past wrongs. When she starts to blast through the security doors instead of stealing the cargo—rolling -2 on her dice for a total of Good (+3) against a Fair (+2) difficulty—he decides to invoke Eyes on the Prize by playing his -3 card. Merlavik yells at Alleea to keep moving toward the cargo, distracting her at the crucial moment.

Marissa’s still got options. She decides to play one of her own cards… but she’s only got three +0 fate cards left. She plays one to reroll, invoking Never Forgive, Never Forget to reroll her dice. She comes up with a +3 on the dice, shifting her total to a success with style! She blasts through the door; Merlavik knows she won’t be stopped now.

Looser Invokes

If you want a crazy and wild game of Fate, let everyone play cards to invoke aspects at any time. It won’t break the game, but it will mean that players will play cards as often as they can, burning through fate cards quickly and challenging every result. If you do this, however, players will need to accept a lot more compels to collect enough fate cards to keep up the pace.

Free Invokes

When you use a create advantage roll to create a new aspect with free invokes—or add free invokes to an existing aspect—draw a number of cards to your hand from the Deck of Fate equal to the number of free invokes you create. Place that number of cards from your hand face up next to the aspect you just created or improved, banking those cards into that aspect. These cards are safe from reshuffling. When you use the free invokes from that aspect, play one of the cards you banked.

Your allies can use banked cards as well, so bank strong cards if you think someone else can make better use of them than you can. Since you can’t reveal your hand, creating advantages allows you and your allies to coordinate spending your best fate cards. In addition, banked cards don’t get reshuffled, so you can save a card you want for later by banking it!

Once Alleea breaks through the door, she orders Merlavik to fan out to catch the captain. She makes a Command roll to create the advantage Imperial Tactics based on her former assassin training. She succeeds with style, drawing two fate cards into her hand, one for each free invoke she earned on the aspect. She decides to bank one of her new cards worth -3 and one of her old +0 cards into the aspect. She can use them anytime she can use a free invoke or pass them over to Justin so that Merlavik can use them too. She gets to keep the other card she drew in her hand.

Compels, Story Details, and Stunts

You can use a fate card for anything else that you can use a fate point for in Fate Core, including offering compels, adding story details, or activating stunts. Just discard the card face up—revealing whatever you had on the card—and activate the compel, detail, or stunt as normal. You’ll probably use a lot of weaker cards this way, although you might have to sacrifice a strong card if you’re in a tough spot.

For the GM

What about the GM? Well… the GM gets fate cards that can be used for invokes as well. At the beginning of each scene, the GM gets to draw a number of cards equal to the number of players in the game. The GM can use these fate cards the same way players can, invoking aspects and modifying rolls. The GM can also offer fate cards from the top of the deck as compels, just as if the cards were regular fate points.

Fate with Variance

The goal of variant fate points is to give aspects some new depth and variety, creating that moment when a special feature of your character makes all the difference in the world. It suits settings where big changes in momentum are fun—like space opera—and gives players new ways to use create advantage to work together. At the same time, it retains the key parts of Fate that matter to a coherent story, and it will challenge your group to continue to add narrative detail every time a card is played. I hope you enjoy it at your table!