Fate Codex

Making Magic With Stress

by Christopher Ruthenbeck

Fate Core and Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) are phenomenal games, but chances are they don't always meet your needs. There are two existing stress tracks for Core and one for FAE that are designed to fill a specific need—and they do it extremely well. However, there are times when your needs and their design don't mesh; when that happens, you get to make your own stress track. Fate Core System does a decent job of laying the groundwork for modifying your game, but while Extras (page 269) is all about fine tuning skills and stunts to do what you want, there's not much about tuning the stress tracks. In this article, I introduce a new mana stress track for magic users while walking through the design process.

A Brief Introduction to Stress

Stress is a much-used component of Fate, but it tends to get less attention than skills, stunts, and aspects. Skills and stunts are very easy for gamers to latch onto: 4 actions, 4 outcomes, and plenty of design space to fiddle with it all. Aspects, too, are easily enough understood: they're important facts about the character, scene, game world, and so on. Stress, on the other hand, is this nebulous concept that resembles hit points from other RPGs, and is commonly dismissed as such. It’s constantly used in conflicts to save your skin and out of conflicts to succeed at a cost. It's always there, in the background, making your character shine. But it can do so much more.

Both Core and FAE use the same basic mechanics for their stress tracks: each box has a value from 2 to 4 (set right in the middle at 3 for FAE), and when you check a box you use its value to reduce shifts of an attack. Another way to look at it is this: check a stress box to add its value to your roll. If you fail a defense roll by 2 and you check your second stress box, you take no consequences and aren’t taken out, right? Effectively, it's a bonus to your roll.

Stress is a cost, sure, but it's one you choose to pay. When you fail a roll, one option is to “get what you want at a serious cost” (Fate Core System, page 132). For failed defense rolls, stress is that cost. If you don't pay, you don't get what you want, and the aggressor gets what they want—which is usually to take you out!

Extra Stress

For many Core games, the two existing stress tracks are sufficient. Mental stress can be used to fuel Willpower-type abilities, and physical stress can be used to represent pushing your body beyond its normal capabilities. Since physical conflicts rarely attack the mental track and vice versa, using one track to power abilities for the other's conflicts can be a potent combination.

Because FAE only has one stress track, it's often better to make a new track instead of drawing on the existing one. Fueling your abilities by “double dipping” on the same track that prevents you from getting taken out is a sure-fire way to get taken out very quickly!

Mana, A Stress Example

A common fantasy trope is the wizard or sorcerer who uses magic to do the impossible: Harry Dresden and Anita Blake from their self-titled book series; Eragon the dragon rider from the Inheritance series; Merlin from Arthurian myth; Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. We've heard of or read about many of them or others like them: literary figures who can do the impossible with mystic powers.

For some games, you want more than just the default stress tracks that can be spent in the default manner. Sometimes you have extras (Fate Core System, page 269) that need a little bit more oomph to them than just skills and stunts. Stress tracks can fill the gap when neither skills nor stunts are exactly what you want.

While skills are used to tackle problems head-on—hence the four actions—and stunts make you better at your skills, stress tracks work more as a modifier to your skills and stunts. It's a subtle change in the focus of the skill or stunt, not always coming into play, but always there to do its thing when needed. For example, your character is in a foot chase and needs to make an overcome roll to jump over a low wall. If you tie on the roll, you succeed with a minor cost. You and the GM decide that cost to be a point of stress. You’re still in the chase, but you’re that much closer to being taken out.

Stress Backgrounds

The first step is creating a bit of background for the stress track. No more than 3 or so sentences is needed, just something to get the idea of what the track is used for and a place to draw inspiration later on if you get stuck. For this step, keep in mind the Golden Rule of Fate: “Decide what you're trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it” (Fate Core System, page 185). Since Fate is a narrative-focused game, you want to start with the narrative first, then move on to the mechanics.

Mana is an ephemeral source of energy that mages learn to tap into for power. It is easy to harness, but slow to recharge. With it, mages can harness unimaginable power of destruction—and creation.

Track Length

There are many ways to determine the length of a stress track, and both Core and FAE have one such way as their default. Fate Core uses the skill-based stress track: you start with 2 boxes, and gain bonus boxes for having a high skill. FAE utilizes the fixed-length track: it has a set length of 3 boxes.

The skill-based track in Core is good for general-purpose stress tracks: the better you are at something (i.e., higher skill), the more stress you have to go along with that skill. Fixed-length tracks are good when adding new stress tracks to FAE, since that matches up with the existing stress track, but they can also be used for Core games where the resource represented by the stress track is limited.

There are two other options for stress track length: aspect-based and stunt-based. Aspect-based tracks are good for those you want to limit in size: your character aspects are limited, so dedicating them to your stress track says worlds about your character. The stunt-based track favors specialized characters: the more stunts you have for your stress track, the longer the stress track is.

The aspect-based stress track originated in the Fate System Toolkit under the wealth stress track (page 69). It starts at 2 boxes, just like the skill-based, but gains one bonus box for each aspect that references why it should be longer. So both Filthy Rich and Hoarded Savings can increase your wealth stress track.

The stunt-based stress track also starts at 2 boxes, and you gain 1 additional box per two stunts that are related to the stress track—and note that these stunts don't actually have to draw on the stress track, just be related to it.

If you're creating a new stress track for FAE, it's best to avoid having your new stress track based off an approach since each approach encapsulates so many different facets of your character. Therefore, FAE stress tracks are best left to either fixed length, aspect-based, or stunt-based. The example mana stress track is using the stunt-based length, so it can be used for either Core or FAE.

The skill-based stress track has its own built-in length limit: you can only have a skill rated so high, and the skill pyramid prevents you from skyrocketing the skill too high, too fast. The aspect-based stress track maxes out at 7 boxes since your character only gets 5 aspects. The fixed-length track also has a built-in limit: it’s one length, period. For stunt-based tracks, however, you need to think about the maximum length it can be. Even a starting character can use all 3 stunts and 2 refresh to have 5 total stunts dedicated to the stress track. That would give your stress track a length of 4—and the next milestone could see it rise to 5! Generally, 4-6 is a good maximum, unless you want the characters to be extremely powerful; in that case, a maximum of 8, or even no maximum at all might be called for.

Since more powerful mages are able to harness more mana, the mana stress track is going to be stunt-based. It starts at 2 boxes, and is increased by 1 for every two magic stunts the mage has. Powerful mages are able to do wondrous things, but they must devote their lives to the craft. For now, I will set a maximum length of 5 boxes.

Spending Stress

Now that we know what our stress track is about and how long it's going to be, the next step is figuring out what we can spend stress on. The default stress tracks are used to succeed at a cost, but that's not the only option. You could also use stress for a bonus to your roll, or in lieu of fate points. A good example of “stress as fate points” is Brian Engard's Ammo Track from Fate Codex—Vol. 1 Issue 1: spend an ammo stress to reroll a Shoot roll with a gun.

There is a small but important difference between using stress to succeed at a cost and using it for a bonus to your roll. They seem very similar on the surface, but the end results can be very different. Say you fail a roll by 1. If your stress track is a success at a cost, checking any stress box means you're ok, you paid the cost. But if the stress track is a bonus, you could mark off your 1-stress to turn that failure into a tie—or check off the 4-stress box to succeed with style!

Which one you use depends on the feel you're going for. To get a more powerful, active use of something, use the roll bonus. If the stress track is more defensive or reactive in nature—such as stress tracks that show resilience, stamina, etc.—it should be used to succeed at a cost. Making a new stress track is very much an art, not a science, and this is one example of why. It’s tempting to forego the succeed at a cost method because adding bonuses to your rolls may seem more advantageous, but keep in mind the purpose of the stress track. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it, though; just go with what feels right. When in doubt, go back to the background write up for the stress track and mine it for ideas.

For the mana track, the stress boxes will be a fate point analogue. Spending mana stress is akin to spending fate points—meaning that each box is the equivalent of one “magical” fate point. Also, since each stress box is only worth one fate point equivalent, they will all have a value of 1, no matter how many boxes you have.

To use these stress boxes, mages must take stunts that can access them. Fate Core System talks about fate point powered stunts on page 92, so that's a good place to start. A good rule of thumb is that in place of the usual “once per session” or “in a limited circumstance” limit placed on a stunt, you’re required to spend a mana stress instead. For example, a mage can throw a fire blast spell at a single target all day long without spending any mana stress (it's a normal ranged attack), but affecting an entire zone with the attack requires the Fireball stunt: Take one mana stress to attack every target in a zone of your choice.

Fate Accelerated Edition has a similar once per session stunt template on page 32 that can easily be modified to cost stress instead of being once per session. Of course, since Core and FAE are extremely compatible, you can easily use the stunt options from Core in your FAE game!

Recovering Stress

After stress is spent, you need to recover it. The standard method is that after a conflict, when you've had time to catch your breath, all your stress goes away. It's easy and doesn't require any bookkeeping. However, in some cases you may want to change how stress is recovered. The ammo track mentioned earlier requires a resources roll, representing buying more ammo, while the wealth track from the Fate System Toolkit has its own special way of recovery. In brief, you need to find “money parcels” as treasure or payment, and the rank of the parcel is the amount of stress recovered.

The method you use to recover stress should be based on what is already known about the stress track: what it represents and why it's there. If you're trying to create a stress track for super heroes, you want it to refresh more often so the heroes can be heroic more often! On the flip side, for a gritty, power-comes-at-a-cost stress track where even the most basic of spells are potent, there should be a commensurate cost to recovering the stress.

Since mana is easy to spend but slow to recover (as stated in the back- ground section), we're going to go with a third option: stepping down. Instead of clearing a stress box automatically at the end of a scene, erase it and check the box to its left. If you're removing the first box, it's just removed. With this method, you're guaranteed one free stress box each scene. Since mana is only spent to fuel the really powerful spells, your mage is still able to use their lesser spells freely.

Here's the mana stress track in all its glory.


Mana is an ephemeral source of energy that mages learn to tap into for power. It is easy to harness, but slow to recharge. With it, mages can harness unimaginable power of destruction—and creation.

Gaining Mana

In order to have a mana stress track, you must have a high concept dealing with your training or status as a mage. It starts at 2 boxes, and you gain +1 box for every two magical stunts you take, to a maximum of 5 boxes. Each mana stress has a value of 1.

Spending Mana

Mana stress can only be accessed via stunts that allow for its use. Any stunt you create that would normally require a fate point can instead be written to use one mana stress instead. For a stunt to count as a magical stunt, it has to modify or enhance your spellcasting ability, even if it doesn't cost a mana stress.

Recovering Mana

At the end of each scene, step back each point of mana stress. Erase each spent stress box and check the box to its left. If it's the first stress box, just erase it—that stress is now gone.

Sample Stunts

Crushing Gravity Cages. When you succeed with style when creating a Gravity Snare or similar aspect, instead of the normal benefits of succeeding with style you may cause a 2-stress hit.

Fireball. Take one mana stress to attack every target in a zone of your choice (Fate Core System, page 207).

Focused Blast. Choose one of your magical attacks. Take one mana stress to gain a +2 bonus to attack rolls using said attack spell.

Green Thumb. When you cast a spell to control the local plant life, you gain a +2 to your create an advantage roll.

Magic Missile. When attacking multiple targets and splitting your shifts (Fate Core System, page 206) you get a +2 to your attack roll.

Versatile Magic. Once per scene, you may take one mana stress to invoke your high concept as if you spent a fate point. +