Making Fate Points Matter
by John Adamus
The five of us sit around my dining room table. It’s hour two of our game, and as usual Mike is tapping his poker chips on the table. He has three. Craig has two. Dale and Mollie each have three. They’ll probably get one more each before the food arrives in the next twenty minutes. And those chips will get stacked, fiddled with, forgotten, used as tiddlywinks, or spun as tops before we get into the big huge fight an hour from now. Even if I prod them with a very fiction-jarring, “Don’t forget you have points to spend,” they’re still going to hold onto those chips.
Why does this happen? They’re not bad players. They’re actually quite good at coming up with aspects and interconnecting character stories; during fights, they manage to play off one another’s moves with an ease that sometimes feels rehearsed, like they coordinate their combat maneuvers when I’m out of the room. No, it isn’t their fault that they end up with a stack of chips during the non-fighting times in a game. It’s mine. As GM, I have a responsibility to make those points matter to each player beyond something that can be stacked, arranged, or fiddled with.
It’s human nature in gaming to want to collect material during play. Pass a certain square on the board and you’ll receive colored bits of paper. Correctly guess the number the little metal ball lands on and get a pile of clay chips. Even if the collection doesn’t have a physical component—kill the monster and get experience points—we still like collecting things.
You may notice a lot of talk about the fate point economy, but fate points aren’t money in the strictest economic sense; they can’t get used to pay for dinner. They aren’t proof that someone is a good guesser or even that someone defeated imaginary creatures with imaginary weapons. What they are—and what the players don’t realize when they stack the chips up in front of them—is half of a commitment. They’re the promise of something awesome. So while hoarding them is the natural tendency, the focus should be on spending them.
Because spending them is the other half of the commitment. By giving my player a point, I’m promising them that they’re going to get a moment to have the spotlight and, very likely, praise from other players if what they do is particularly awesome. They just have to meet me halfway and take charge of the moment and be awesome.
The fate point is a reminder of that. Or at least it should be. The fate point is well named: it speaks to the fate of the spender and makes a point about what they are capable of doing. The players sitting at my table WANT to be awesome. I want everyone to have a good time. Fate points make this easy, assuming the players recognize that potential. So let’s talk about three different ways everyone can recognize and realize that potential—as GM to player, as player to GM, and as player to player.
GM to Player
The hunk, his girlfriend, the nerdy girl, their stoner buddy, and his dog—yes, we’re pretty much playing Scooby-Doo—are sneaking around the creepy old mansion, trying to figure out if the ghost of Mr. Webster is real or not. They haven’t split up yet, which means I haven’t had the pleasure of springing a terrible trap on them. I know the hunk’s girlfriend, Doris, has an aspect of Trouble Finds Me More Than I Find It, so I casually pick up a chip and spin it between my fingers.
“You know, Doris, this room has loads of bookshelves. High, tall, heavy-looking bookshelves.”
Doris knows what’s coming.
“And trouble finds you more than you find it, doesn’t it?” I say.
Doris takes a look at the one chip she already has and compares it to the stacks other players have. She reaches across the table and takes the chip out of my hand. “Yeah, it does, which is why I’m going to grab that book marked ‘Building Your Own Secret Passages for Fun and Profit’.”
By far this is the easiest of the three to bring up, because this discussion comes up more often in play than any other. The GM has a list of player aspects handy (or at least should. Seriously. Even if it’s just scrawled on a notecard) and when one of those aspects can change the course of play—for good or ill—out comes the compel.
The GM has tremendous ability to incentivize action here. In the above example, I didn’t know which book would be a trigger, and I didn’t even know what it would be a trigger for, but I know my players, and I know how canny and perceptive they can be. When you add up old house, big library, and Scooby-Doo vibe, of course there’s going to be a secret passage. As GM, I don’t need to script everything to the last detail, because I trust my players to be able to create the experience they want. I’m just there to keep their creations within the boundaries of the setting and mechanics.
Little by little, in letting the players act, rather than just always react to me, I’m encouraging them to go deeper into the world. And if they feel encouraged to add details, even as small as a book title, they’ll stay hooked into the fiction we’re creating.
Of course, that still doesn’t address spending points. My giving them out only means there are more poker chips sitting idle next to the corn chips. As GM, I need to make them seductive, and that requires a little manipulation on my part.
I can hold up the chip and describe one of the possible actions a player can take.
“What did you find while searching the kitchen?”
This tethers the possible action to the chip, and should show that the actions are possible in trade. Then it only becomes a matter of one player going first, and showing the others that there’s value in using rather than holding onto the points, and the table as a whole benefits once the floodgates of actions-feeding-into-more-actions open and the story accelerates.
Accelerating the story means that, ideally, chips are being trafficked more. Aspects are coming into play to help inform actions and give nuance and depth to the story. It’s no longer my story alone; the story belongs to the whole table, and when I hand out chips, it’s a stock paying dividends.
Okay, yes, flashing fate points while suggesting a course of action is sort of like forcing action through bribery. The player might not have naturally come up with wanting to search the kitchen; they might have just gone on to another room or done something else.
And it’s not what they find in the room that really matters—the point here isn’t to push them to discover something I already decided is in the kitchen. What matters is that we’re equalizing the story-telling field: we’re each providing details, which spares me the extra on-the-fly fabrication and helps invest the players in what’s going on.
Player to GM
Here’s the reverse of my dispensing chips: players choosing to pay me. And it’s trickier to manage than when I’m handling the economy because I’m not in control and because I’m trusting the players understand the rules and mechanics well enough to take over and be awesome, even if just for an action.
Carrying a shovel she found in the shed, the nerdy girl, Margot, moves down the dark corridor. After some hesitant steps, she turns a corner to find the Big Scary Creature.
The accompanying dice roll isn’t that awful, but she’s short of really smacking the Creature and buying herself some time to make good her escape. Margot’s player hands over a chip.
“I’d like to add +2 to my roll,” she says. “Adrenaline surges kick in at just the right moment so the shovel comes down square in the Creature’s midsection.”
Theatrics aside, the best way to get players to hand over chips is by giving them a good understanding of how the mechanics work. In-game reminders, however gentle or meta, can be incredibly jarring for some people, no matter how tempting they might be as quick prods. Skip them, and focus more on good rules explanation up front, whether it’s at the beginning of every game, or just the first of the series.
A player handing over a chip isn’t just doing their part in the mechanics of the game; it’s an admission that they’ve bought into the story, and they want something to happen. This anticipation, this want for cool stuff, isn’t instantly generated. It doesn’t just appear because you’ve passed out note cards and the fate dice. It needs to be cultivated by the story you’re telling. Having already solicited information from them at the start of play, and knowing your players like you do, you as a GM should have a wealth of material to draw on. It’s all bait, luring players to buy into the story, made easier by the fact that they’ve contributed to the foundational elements of this story, and all you’re doing now is perpetuating their involvement in it by accepting their chips.
Roll With It
When the player contributes, go with it. Yes, they’re going to likely bring up something you didn’t plan for. Yes, they’re likely going to give you something they think is great that you might think is terrible or that it derails all your carefully laid plans. Go with it. Say “Yes” to it and weave their idea into yours as though it has always belonged. The bulk of creation is still yours, if you’re looking for credit or praise; they’re just adding color and depth. Let them. Flexibility helps tell the story and makes players want to play. Their enthusiasm, which helps them want to reinforce the story, and the vibe and the shared experience can and should totally be infectious, to you AND to the other players
And you can encourage them to keep offering details, by giving details in return. They want to tell you the details of the room they’re in? Give them details about the next room when they enter. Paint the most evocative picture of how the badguy-of-the-week jumps, kicks, and punches, and players will respond in kind.
In this two-stroke cycle of GM-to-player and player-to-GM, a game flows nicely. The give and take isn’t even, and isn’t necessarily regular, but there’s enough movement of fate points to tell an interesting story and pass a few hours around the gaming table while consuming food that will likely give you indigestion later.
But there’s a third leg, making this economy a sort of isosceles triangle, and that’s when a player instigates action from another player’s aspects.
Player to Player
This is the hardest type of economy to pull off, but it guarantees that players won’t hold onto chips: they’ll be too busy using them to strategize and further their story.
Old Man Webster is dead; his body was stuffed in the walk-in freezer. Mrs. Webster, though, is alive and well and currently chasing our intrepid teens all through the house, with sharp knives and a murderous gleam in her eye.
The group, newly reunited after they all took the shortcut through the conservatory, hides now behind a credenza. They take stock of their supplies.
“No guns, no knives. What do we have?” asks the hunk.
“I’ve got a shovel,” says Margot.
“And I’ve got a bag of marbles,” says the stoner friend.
The players all share a look, and then look at me.
“John, is there a chandelier in the room?”
“You tell me.”
Someone plunks a chip down. “Yes, there’s a chandelier, of course there is, it’s right overhead. We just need someone to climb up and get ready to pounce.”
The hunk turns to Doris, tapping her chips. “Oh look, Being a Gymnast Makes Me Popular For Some Reason.”
After a bit of arguing that climbing up furniture like a cat is a lot harder than it looks, Doris relents, and a chip makes its way over to me.
It shows a certain level of involvement when one player can use the material another player provides to help everyone get more out of the story. In that scene with the chandelier, the players were invested in having a certain type of situation happen, and rather than relying on GM direction where they only had to fill in the blanks, they took the initiative to tell me far more than I was telling them.
Yes, this means players need to know the aspects of both their character and those of other players. Yes, that may mean they have to ask a fiction-breaking question mid-play about who has what aspect. Let them. Seriously, let them. Have enough confidence in yourself that you can hook them back in, and trust them enough that they won’t spend the entire gaming session strategizing while the story sits “paused.” Then bring them back to the fiction. There’s nothing wrong with a meta pit stop, just don’t let it become a protracted sidebar away from play.
I often worry that a lot of traditional players come to a more “indie” or story game with preconceived notions of competition or one-upmanship, that they as an individual have to do better than everyone else in order to “win.” In my own experiences with my group, it did take a lot of exposure to different games and mechanics to break the connection between playing a game and always having a superior winning position.
When a player uses the mechanics to the story’s advantage, rather than their own interests, it’s a signal to other players that the mechanics are in place not to limit fun but encourage it. In the previous example, the hunk got Doris to shimmy up the furniture and onto the chandelier, taking Margot’s shovel with her, so that when Mrs. Webster ran into the room, she’d get a faceful of shovel. That’s not a GM plan. I figured they’d use the marbles on the ground to make her trip, or that they’d find the rope in the shed and tie her up. Instead, we all got pleasantly surprised when a few good rolls led to my villain eating shovel before the police arrived.
Do I think understanding these three ideas of point exchange are going to forever stop players from hoarding chips? No. It’s going to take a combination of investment and incentive and flexible GMing on a situation-by-situation basis to keep the chips flowing in and out of play as story development tools.
Because that’s what gaming with your friends is: the story of you and your friends telling shared stories that everyone has a part in, and that everyone enjoys.