by Brendan Conway
Fate gives a huge amount of power to the PCs. That’s a good thing! It’s one of the core appeals of the game—you get to play awesome, cool characters who are capable and emotionally interesting.
But a side effect of all that power is that sometimes conflict is robbed of its tension. After all, you’re all pretty capable—so if you really want to win a conflict, you can. The GM could give the opposition high enough skills, with enough refresh and stunts, to be a bigger challenge, sure...but that risks tipping the seesaw too much in the other direction, creating a threat that’s insurmountable even with the advantage of fate points. What’s more, a foe of such drastic power can be a frustrating surprise for players who’ve spent most of the game expecting to be able to overcome any given threat.
The escalation die system gives you a means to create tension in conflicts without deeply unbalancing conflicts against PCs or smacking them with a surprisingly powerful opponent. The system gives the GM additional resources to use for the opposition in the form of an escalation dice pool kept in front of them during play. This article describes the core particulars of the system, along with a few variations you can use at your table.
Core Escalation Dice System
When using the escalation dice system, the GM sets four fate dice in front of them. Each one is turned to the - side to start. These are the GM’s escalation dice or, collectively, the GM’s escalation dice pool.
On any roll, the GM can swap any number of the dice in the escalation dice pool for the same number of their own rolled dice. This is a straight swap—for every one fate die that goes into the escalation dice pool, another comes out, and vice versa. The GM only ever has four fate dice in the escalation dice pool at any given time. The GM can choose to swap a - in the escalation dice pool for a rolled +—thereby disadvantaging their own roll to store a + in the escalation dice pool for future use—or, they can swap a + in the escalation dice pool for a rolled -—thereby bringing up their own roll but depleting their escalation dice pool.
The GM can’t swap dice in the escalation dice pool with dice that the players rolled.
During a fight between the PC monster-hunters and a nightmarish werewolf, Jack Silverbolt (a PC) fires a silver arrow at the werewolf. I roll for the werewolf’s defense, and get ++--. I swap one + in my roll with a - in my escalation pool, leaving me with a roll of +--- and an escalation dice pool of +---. If I wanted, I could swap both +s out of my roll and into my escalation dice pool, but I don’t want to go quite that far.
The core escalation die mechanic, as presented above, is pretty simple. That means there are plenty of ways to tweak it for different effects or specific forms.
In this variant, the escalation dice slowly shift from - to 0 to+ on their own. Every time a PC succeeds on a roll, the GM can shift one die in the escalation dice pool up a face, from - to 0, or 0 to +. Every time a PC succeeds with style, the GM can shift one die in their escalation dice pool all the way from - to +, or can shift two separate dice each up a face.
Jack Silverbolt has hit the werewolf, with a total of +4 against the werewolf’s +2. I get to shift one die in my escalation dice pool up a face, leaving me with an escalation dice pool of +0--. Later in the same conflict, Ariel Brightblood lands a deadly blow on the werewolf, succeeding with style. I decide to shift one - all the way to a +, leaving me with an escalation dice pool of ++0-.
This simple system raises the stakes against the PCs at a much more constant rate than when the GM can only store + by swapping dice.
In this variation, every time a PC fails a roll, they get to shift a die in the escalation dice pool down one face. Every time a PC accepts a compel, they get to shift a die in the escalation dice pool down one face.
Jack Silverbolt accepts a compel on his Dark Hero with Deep Compassion to let the were-cheetah get away while he tries to save the life of the monster’s innocent victim. Jack’s player gets to shift one of my escalation dice down a face, taking a + down to a 0. When Jack rolls to apply first aid, he fails, and again gets to shift one of my escalation dice down a face, taking that 0 to a -.
This variation gives players a means to intentionally defuse the escalation dice pool at a slow rate—by pursuing compels or by engaging with challenges that are beyond their skills.
Passive Opposition and Escalation Dice
In this variation, the GM can spend dice out of the escalation dice pool to elevate passive difficulty. Any time the PCs are up against a passive difficulty, the GM can spend one escalation die set to a + by turning it to a - and raising the passive difficulty by 1.
Since the GM sets all passive difficulties, it may seem pointless to allow them to also boost the passive difficulty of dangerous actions with the escalation dice. The objective with this variation is to give the GM a valve by which to justify making the passive difficulties higher. The GM still has to initially judge the situation based on the fiction, but can then choose to amp up the tension by spending escalation dice, if they desire.
Ariel Brightblood is trying to cast a complicated magic ritual, and fast. I set the difficulty at Great (+4) to start, because of the situation. But then I decide that this is a tense moment, and I want to make it even more so. I spend an escalation dice out of my pool, changing it from + to -, and raise the passive difficulty by +1 to Superb (+5).
Use this variation if you want to give the GM an additional way to use escalation dice, outside of just using them in conflicts or with active opposition.
In this variation, the escalation dice pool directly modifies the rolls of the NPCs throughout each conflict. This is a deeper change to the core escalation dice pool mechanics than the other variations. In this variation, the GM can no longer swap dice between their escalation dice pool and their rolls. Instead, their escalation dice pool only changes when PCs either succeed or fail, as per the Constant Escalation and De-escalation variants.
When using this variation, in conflicts—and only in conflicts—the GM adds the full total of their escalation dice pool to every roll they make.
My escalation dice pool is ++0-, for a total of +1. Ariel Brightblood is engaged in a duel with the terrifying Baron von Sanguinus. When she attacks the Baron with an opening salvo of thrown silver blades, I add the escalation dice pool total to the Baron’s defense roll. I succeed in my defense, which means Ariel fails in her attack, and gets to shift one of the escalation dice down a face. Her player takes the + down to 0. Then, when Baron von Sanguinus attacks her in turn using his deadly blood-rapier, I still add the total of the escalation dice pool. But the pool is now +00-, so that total is +0.
This variation makes the escalation dice far more consistently important, and removes the need for the GM to make a decision about when to use them. Because they modify every GM roll, they also have a natural balancing mechanic. As the escalation dice pool becomes stronger (with more and more +), the GM succeeds more, and the PCs fail—thereby de-escalating the dice in the pool. If the escalation dice pool is ever too low, then the GM’s roll fails, and the PC succeeds, thereby bringing the escalation dice pool back up.
This variation is meant to push PCs to try to end the conflict as quickly as possible. When using this variation, at the start of every round of conflict, the GM can shift one escalation die to a +.
It’s the start of a new conflict between Jack Silverbolt and the Creature of the Abyssal Depths. My escalation dice pool is +00-. I immediately get to shift one die all the way to +, so I shift the -, leaving my pool with ++00. Once every character has taken an action (and I haven’t swapped any dice into or out of the pool), we start a new round of the conflict, and I again get to shift one die all the way to +, leaving me with an escalation dice pool of +++0.
This variation gives PCs a strong incentive to try to end a conflict as quickly as possible. Over the course of the conflict, the escalation pool is likely to get stronger, and slowly wear them down, if given the chance. They are instead incentivized to spend their resources to win up front, or to concede.
Combining Variations: Conflict Duration and Conflict Escalation
You can combine these two variations easily to provide a very, very intense conflict escalation system. Every round of conflict, the GM gets to set one of their escalation dice to +, and then adds all their escalation dice to every roll they make, just like the normal Conflict Escalation variant. The net result is that a lengthy conflict may very well get utterly overwhelming for PCs, laying an even stronger emphasis upon either ending the conflict quickly or conceding. In the right tone—say, the kind of game in which the odds should be meaningfully stacked against the PCs—the system might provide exactly the right kind of intensity.
This variation gives the pool additional effects, beyond just changing the results of rolls. It makes the specific die faces matter still further.
If the escalation dice pool is ever showing one of the following combinations, the players can choose to spend all the dice, resetting the pool to ----, to introduce that effect. The GM can do the same by spending a fate point. So PCs might want to deplete the escalation die pool to diminish their opposition, but will have to suffer some fictional setback to do it.
If the escalation pool is...
...then you can spend all the dice in the pool to make a PC:
Concede a conflict immediately; the other side gets to demand a major concession, and the PCs receive no additional benefit.
Concede a conflict immediately; the PCs still get to set the terms, but they receive no additional benefit.
Take a consequence, moderate or higher.
Accept a compel without receiving a fate point; if they wish to resist the compel, they can just leave the escalation die pool as is.
I’ve managed to get my escalation dice pool up to ++++ over the course of an epic battle between the Wraithataur and the two PCs, Jack Silverbolt and Ariel Brightblood. They’re still in the fight, but Jack’s player eyes that escalation dice pool warily, and decides to do something about it. They concede the conflict. But since the dice were at ++++, Jack and Ariel don’t get any additional benefit, and they have to acquiesce to a major concession from the Wraithataur. I propose that the concession is the Wraithataur getting its hooves on the Dream Medallion they were protecting, and Jack and Ariel’s players agree. The conflict ends with the Wraithataur escaping, Dream Medallion in its maw, but the escalation dice pool stands at ----.
Follow the normal procedures for concessions and compels, with the exceptions to the process noted above. If the PCs take a consequence, work together to decide exactly what form that consequence takes, fitting the fiction.
This variation incentivizes the players to disadvantage themselves to defuse the escalation dice pool. It puts more pressure on some options in Fate that can be overlooked, and leads to more complicated, consequential fiction in your game.
Escalating Your Game
Keep in mind the tone of your game when deciding whether to use escalation dice at all, or to use any of the variants. This system increases the odds against the PCs, making things just a bit harder on them. It lends more tension to your conflicts, and makes it more likely that the PCs will have to deal with failure or defeat. If you’re not interested in a Fate game that puts more pressure on the PCs, then this probably isn’t for you.
But if you want to play Fate with more emphasis on tension and pressure on the PCs, this system gives you what you’re looking for. Experiment with the variations to get the right mix of tension and pressure for your game, and always keep an eye on finding just the right balance for your particular game.