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Fate Gamemaster Moves

by Mark Diaz Truman

While much praise is heaped on Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games for making the player experience more accessible—playbooks! moves! 2d6 rolls!—I was first drawn to PbtA games because of the tools they offer GMs. Instead of the vague, amorphous advice that plagues many roleplaying games, Apocalypse World includes specific mechanics for the GM that make running the game easy.

In this article, I lay out a system for incorporating similar GM moves into Fate Core, giving GMs specific actions to take to make the game awesome. Roleplaying games are a conversation—a discussion about a fictional world through which players and GMs build a collaborative story—and this tool is designed to make that conversation easier on the GM by providing prompts and direction for what to say and when to say it.

Make no mistake: these are radical changes to the Fate Core engine, adaptations that build on the basic tools described in Fate Core System (pages 177-223) to give you, the GM, new ways to keep your game moving and provide your players with dynamic stories in which their choices matter. Be prepared for a bit of a learning curve while you master these new tools!

The Moves

At their core, moves are simple: when “x” happens, do “y.” In the context of GM moves, this means that you’ve got an easy formula to follow whenever the players take actions (or avoid taking action) during a game session:

  • When a player character succeeds on a roll ...give them what they’ve earned.
  • When a player character ties on a roll ...impose a minor cost for success.
  • When a player character fails a roll ...pick: impose a major cost for success or describe their failure with a twist.
  • When there is a lull in the action ...introduce a twist.
  • After each move, ask “What do you do?”

Easy right? Let’s break it down a bit and talk about each of the moves in turn.

Narrow Success

If you’re interested in seeing more mitigated successes—outcomes similar to 7-9 results in Apocalypse World—treat results ranging within one point of the difficulty (that is, between -1 to +1 from the difficulty or opposed roll) as narrow successes: the heroes get what they want, but at a minor cost. Ties in Fate Core are already fairly common, but employing narrow successes can add a lot of nuance to your story.

Success and Success with Style

For the most part, you don’t have to do anything differently when a player character succeeds on a roll. If someone tries to overcome opposition or create an advantage, follow the rules in Fate Core System (page 130-143) for success and success with style. Success is easy: the player characters simply change the world with their actions.

Minor Costs

In the event of a tie, give the player character the success they wanted at a minor cost (Fate Core System, page 189). Perhaps they take stress while cutting down a squad of armed assailants or their escape from the burning building leaves them vulnerable to people who are pursuing them. Either way, the minor cost doesn’t invalidate the success; it merely complicates the narrative.

Here is a list of minor costs you might use in your game, along with some examples drawn from a 007-style superspy setting:

  • Inflict a stress or minor condition
  • Announce an approaching twist
  • Give the opposition a boost or aspect

Inflict a stress or minor condition

Stress is often the perfect minor cost: it pushes the PCs toward interesting decisions about consequences and failure without stealing the spotlight from their success. Remember to tie the stress to the fiction! A player should always have a sense of why they are marking stress long before you tell them to mark it.

You see the goon with a rocket launcher just in time to swerve your sports car off the main road and into the alley. The rocket narrowly misses your spoiler, but you feel the impact as it slams into the wall just behind your car. Mark a stress. What do you do?

Give the opposition a boost or aspect

Since aspects have both hard mechanical attributes and fictional impacts, they can be used to simultaneously impose costs and move the fiction forward. For a minor cost, you can either give the opposition a boost—a temporary bonus—or an aspect without any free invokes—useful, but not overwhelming. As with stress, aspect costs are a great way to impose costs without invalidating success.

Your deft driving gets you off the streets quickly, but your phone—preemptively hacked into the local police scanner—reveals that Lord Kiel’s political connections have alerted the local authorities. The police are on the lookout for the car you stole. I’m adding the aspect Stolen Car to your vehicle. What do you do?

Announce an approaching twist

Twists are dramatic moments in the fiction that you create as the GM to push the story forward. We’ll talk more about twists in a bit, but announcing an impending turn in the story is an excellent way to set the stage for future action. As a minor cost, you’re not bringing the twist to bear yet; you’re just letting the player characters know that the twist lurks on the horizon, ready to strike when the time is right.

You slip out of the car, rolling out of sight as the vehicle zooms toward the edge of town. Your pursuers follow, none of them realizing that they’re chasing a ghost. Yet…who was the woman you saw in the passenger seat of the lead car? She seemed familiar. Is she an MI6 agent? You’ll have to consult the database and pull her file. What do you do?

Major Costs

When player characters fail a roll, it’s time for you to choose: success at a major cost or failure with a twist. Note that this choice isn’t in the hands of the players; it’s up to you to decide how the story pushes forward. Do the characters get what they want at a major cost or is it time for a twist?

In the event that you choose a major cost, give the PC the success they wanted at a serious cost. A major cost—like a minor cost—shouldn’t invalidate the success, but it will push the characters to make tougher choices or use up serious resources to get what they want.

Here’s a list of major costs that you might use in your game, along with some examples drawn from that 007-style superspy setting:

  • Inflict stress, conditions, or consequences (as established)
  • Give the opposition an aspect with free invokes
  • Take away one of their things

Inflict stress, conditions, or consequences (as established)

Major costs can hit hard and fast, escalating conflicts suddenly or bringing the full weight of the opposition to bear. Follow the fiction and tell the players what those costs are in mechanical terms by inflicting stress, conditions, or consequences.

You see the goon with a rocket launcher just in time to swerve off the main road and into the alley. The rocket slams into wall just behind the car, showering shrapnel into the side of the vehicle and pushing you forward down the alley away from Lord Kiel’s men. Take a mild consequence: Shaken by Shrapnel. What do you do?

Give the opposition an aspect with free invokes

While basic aspects and boosts are great minor costs, major costs require a bit more juice. When you impose a major cost in the form of an aspect, give the opposition an aspect with one or two free invokes.

Your deft driving gets you off the streets quickly, but your phone—preemptively hacked into the local police scanner—reveals that Lord Kiel’s political connections have already blown your cover. The police are on the lookout for you…and they know you work for MI6. I’m adding the aspect Blown Cover to the scene with two free invokes. What do you do?

Take away one of their things

Major costs give you the opportunity to hit the PCs where it hurts: their stuff. Perhaps a prized tool slips from their fingers at a crucial moment or they simply run out of bullets after emptying an entire clip at the villain. Either way, a major cost can leave the PCs at a concrete disadvantage for future rolls or even make some actions impossible until they overcome a particular problem.

Be careful here not to invalidate the success the PC wanted—you can’t take away the object they’re trying to protect or save—or violate a PC’s high concept or other aspect. Spider-Man is still a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man when he’s out of web fluid, but Iron Man is just a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist if you take away all his suits.

You pull off the road a few miles ahead of your pursuers, your stolen sports car sputtering to a halt. You smell motor oil and burnt rubber as you step out of the vehicle; one of Lord Kiel’s goons was able to put a bullet through the engine. It looks like you’ll have to escape on foot from here. What do you do?

Twists

If you decide on failure (instead of success with a major cost) when a PC fails, it’s time to introduce a twist, a dramatic moment that reshapes conflicts, adds a new dimension to the drama, or pushes the PCs in new directions. Twists aren’t rare, but it’s important to remember that they tend to escalate and expand conflict instead of resolving it. Use them when you’re ready for a scene to get more complicated instead of moving forward easily.

Note that the trigger for a twist can be a failure, but it might also be a point in the fiction when things get boring or dull. If you find the players sitting around, avoiding taking action or stuck in routine conflicts…it’s time for a twist. This is a rule you probably already follow as a GM; there’s a reason random encounter tables date back to the origins of roleplaying!

Unlike costs, twists need to reflect the fiction of your particular setting, a list of common dramatic moves specific to the game you and your players want to play. You should always think about customizing your costs to better suit your setting, but you must customize your twists to ensure that your moves match the story you want to tell. Complicate a social situation is a terrible twist for a Fate game about dungeon crawling, and reveal a secret identity only works in Fate games where secret identities matter.

Here’s a short list of twists I might use in the superspy setting:

  • Put an agent in a spot
  • Surface a secret, ancient or modern
  • Expand or reinforce the opposition

Put an agent in a spot

Twists require escalation: few things keep a spy story moving like placing agents into physical or social danger. Note that this move doesn’t require you to put player characters in direct trouble! It’s equally valuable to reveal that other agents have gotten themselves into a tight spot and need the PC’s help.

Lord Kiel’s men block off the road in all direction, keeping you from fleeing the immediate area. You pull into an alley as your phone chirps. It’s a text message from Agent Ramirez: “I think Kiel knows that I’m working with you. He just called me into his office.” What do you do?

Surface a secret, ancient or modern

Failure is always just the beginning of the story. Use twists to introduce new information about the setting and the deep web of secrets that surrounds each and every superspy. For extra effect, remember that betrayal always cuts deepest when it comes from the PC’s closest allies and friends.

They catch you in minutes, disabling your car with road spikes and swarming the vehicle with armed men. They haul you in front of Lord Kiel. “You didn’t think you would get away that easily, did you? I’m afraid that I’ve already hacked into the MI6 mainframe, gaining access to an infinite number of your secrets…including the tracking program that follows you everywhere you go. Did you know about that protocol? Of course you didn’t.” What do you do?

Expand or reinforce the opposition

Twists can also be used to make a bad situation worse. If a PC is already in a tight spot, you can reveal that the opposition is larger or better prepared than they first appeared to be, escalating the conflict without fundamentally changing the stakes.

You’ve had little luck shaking your pursuers. As you skid to a halt in heavy traffic, you spot a glint from a rooftop: a sniper. Before she gets off a shot, you realize you recognize her! It’s Sokolov, the Russian agent you left for dead in Moscow. Is she working for Lord Kiel now? What do you do?

Getting the Most from Moves

If used correctly, moves merely codify what you’re probably already doing as a GM: figuring out how to complicate the story in ways that your players find interesting and holding them accountable to the choices they make. The power of moves lies in their reliability, the way they give you easy prompts to keep the action interesting session after session.

More Costs? More Twists?

The lists of minor and major costs in this article are sample lists that you can customize or expand for your own game. Think of them as a jumping off point, not an exhaustive list of costs that you could include at your table!

Make Your Move, but Misdirect

One of your main jobs as a GM is to attach fictional motivations to characters, plots, and actions in the story. Players want to feel like the world is real, that the people who populate it are driven not by the needs of the story but by the needs of their hearts. You’re a magician, creating emotional connections to mechanical pieces of a game system.

When it’s time to make a move, make sure that the fictional outcome caused by your move springs from a fictional action. You might decide to inflict stress, but describe the source of the stress before you talk about the mechanical effect; you might decide to award an aspect to the opposition, but tell the players what it looks like before you write anything on an index card.

Never Speak Your Move’s Name

Whenever possible, avoid telling the players the name of your move. Let them wonder! You’re a magician—conjuring characters and conflict from thin air at a moment’s notice—so don’t ruin the trick by explaining how it works. Don’t say “I’m going to surface a secret now about your past”; surface the secret in the fiction and let the players react.

Obviously, you need to be straightforward with some parts of the system: aspects, consequences, stress, etc. But allow these mechanical elements to be driven by the fiction you create based on what the moves prompt you to add to the story. Don’t reduce the narrative you’re building with your players to a few index cards and a stress track.

Stay Collaborative; Ask Questions

While you’re making decisions as the GM to keep the story moving, your players should still have a strong creative role in every session. To that effect, don’t use the moves to cut players out of the process of creating aspects and building fiction! Fate with moves is still a collaborative game.

One way to avoid too much GM control is to focus on questions. Before you reinforce the opposition during a conflict, ask the players “What kinds of troops did your briefing warn you about?” Build on the answer, using the moves to draw the players’ contributions into the fiction in a concrete way.

Moves, Moves, and More Moves

Like all things Fate, this system is designed to be hacked, modded, and altered to fit your local campaign. I look forward to seeing folks use these moves to give GMs all new tools to make their Fate games awesome! 

Special thanks to Brendan Conway for his help in developing this system for Wicked Fate, a new setting for Fate Core based on John Wick’s Wicked Fantasy.