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Stunts Are Cool

by Mike Olson

The three fundamental parts of a Fate Core character, generally speaking, are skills, aspects, and stunts. And it’s probably safe to say that, for most people, stunts lag in importance behind aspects and skills. Google offers up plenty of Fate-related discussions on doing away with stunts or even skills, but you don’t come across many Fate fans who want to ditch aspects.

It’s easy to see why this is. Aspects give you reasons to care about a character. Skills tell you their areas of expertise and competence. But stunts tend to come off as purely mechanical, rules-bending widgets, more concerned with making a character effective rather than interesting. Devising stunts that reverse this trend can often be a chore, and “chore” isn’t a word you really want to associate with a roleplaying game.

Me, I’m a fan of stunts. Which is good, because between Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game and the forthcoming Shadow of the Century, I’ve written more stunts than I can remember, and as a system editor for a number of Fate Worlds & Adventures products, I’ve evaluated a fair few more. I’ve found that writing and evaluating so many stunts is liable to drive one mad (with Fate Madness, specifically) unless one tries to find new ways to make those stunts interesting, engaging, and fun. I’m a firm believer that stunts should be invented and personalized for each character, not merely picked from a list—but I also realize what a pain in the ass that can be if you’re straying from the two standard stunt formats: “+2 to X with Y when Z” and “Use B instead of A when C.”

So in an attempt to help, I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned about stunt-writing over the past few years. Not rules, but guidelines that’ve worked for me. This is all from the perspective of a GM—either helping a player to come up with stunts, or making pre-generated PCs or NPCs for a game—but players can make use of this material too!

First, though, we need to talk about an uncomfortable issue: balance.

Nuts and Bolts

As seen in Atomic Robo, the unit of measurement I use for “balancing” stunts is the stunt benefit. It’s hardly a science, and really, it’s hardly even balance, but as a rule of thumb: one stunt benefit is worth a situational +2 bonus to a single skill, or a situational +1 bonus to two skills, or the equivalent thereof.

I also tend to limit the stunt benefit to one of the four actions—attack, defend, overcome, or create an advantage—because that’s just how I operate. If the stunt requires sufficiently narrow circumstances, I’ll bypass the action requirement altogether. It’s very dependent on the assumptions of the particular campaign or game, though. I consider all skills equally valuable—there’s no distinction made between “combat” and “non-combat” skills, for example.

For example, say I’m in a Fate Core game set in 17th-century France, and I want to give Vivienne, my swashbuckling-poet character, a signature rapier called Chanticleer, because I’ve always liked that name. I might represent Chanticleer as any of these stunts below, each of which is plausibly worth one stunt benefit:

  • +2 to attack with Fight when wielding Chanticleer
  • +1 to attack or create an advantage with Fight when wielding Chanticleer
  • +1 to defend with Fight or Athletics when wielding Chanticleer
  • +1 to create an advantage with Fight or Provoke when wielding Chanticleer
  • +2 with Fight when wielding Chanticleer against royalty
  • +1 with Chanticleer against nameless NPCs

(Each of these says something markedly different about Chanticleer and why it deserves to be a stunt, but we’ll get into more detail on that below.)

So that’s one of the two basic models for stunts. The other substitutes one skill for another in specified circumstances. Substitution is much less objective than the +2 bonus because its value is going to vary depending on a character’s skill ranks.

For example, if I want Chanticleer be an embodiment of Vivienne’s reputation as an impressive swordswoman, I might do something like this:

Use Fight instead of Provoke to create an advantage through intimidation when you show off Chanticleer.

But! If her Fight was Great (+4) and her Provoke was Good (+3), this stunt would be worth less than one stunt benefit—I may as well give her a +2 bonus to Provoke in those same circumstances. You get the idea. It’s not all about the numbers, but it’s at least a little about the numbers.

Other Stunts

The stunt benefit of a stunt outside the two basic models is a little harder to determine.

If you’re into Weapon and Armor ratings (from the Fate System Toolkit), a +1 skill bonus is equal to Weapon:2 because the latter’s so circumstantial—but a +1 skill bonus is worth as much as Armor:1 because Armor ratings are much more universally applicable (and also because high Armor ratings are much more boring in play than high Weapon ratings). So to make something worth one stunt benefit, you’d get combinations like “+1 to attack with Shoot and Weapon:2” or “+1 to defend with Athletics and Armor:1.” What these might reflect—an accurate weapon, a good eye for your target’s vulnerabilities, muscle-amplifying body armor, a knack for not getting hurt—is another matter.

When it comes to other, more narrative effects, these are reined in by one of three limiters:

  • Spend a fate point
  • Once per scene
  • Once per session

The more severe the limiter, the more comfortable I am making a stunt worth more than a single stunt benefit.

“Spend a fate point” gives the player almost complete control over how frequently the stunt can be used, which is great. The danger here is creating a stunt that accidentally does nothing. If the effect is equivalent to a one-time +2 bonus to a roll, but disguised as something else, that’s the same as invoking an aspect, which you can already do with a fate point, so that won’t fly. By this I mean effects that sound different but aren’t, like “reduce a physical hit by 2 shifts” or “increase your Armor rating by 2 against a single attack.” Those are worth zero stunt benefits. (In fact, using the Armor stunt is objectively worse than simply invoking an aspect, because your attacker will likely get a boost!)

Instead, a stunt costing a fate point needs to do something that invoking an aspect can’t (usually) do, or it must carry a purely narrative effect that the player wouldn’t use more often than they felt they absolutely had to anyway. Examples include:

  • Invoke one specific aspect of yours, chosen when you take this stunt, for a +3 bonus instead of +2. (Common variations on this include invoking an opponent’s consequence for +3 instead of +2 or invoking any situation aspect created by an ally for +3 instead of +2.)
  • When not being directly observed, you can “disappear” from a scene, as long as there’s a reasonable way out. Spend a fate point to reappear in the same scene or a subsequent scene, as long as there’s a plausible way to do so.
  • When you enter a new city for the first time, you can spend a fate point to declare that you have a contact there. Specify how you know them, and create an aspect with two free invocations to represent your relationship with them. When you leave the city, remove the aspect from play.

An effect with a limiter of “Once per scene” will be something you could (or should) expect to see, well, every scene, where applicable. This is good for a broad effect that isn’t necessarily tied to a single skill, but is still quantitative and mechanical. (Stunt-worthy narrative effects that happen as frequently as once per scene will either get old fast or not show up as frequently as you’d think.) The stunt might not put in an appearance in literally every scene, but if it does, you should be okay with it. For me, a scene-limited stunt that I’m “okay with” usually does something roughly equivalent to invoking an aspect. A few examples:

  • Invoke a specific aspect for free.
  • Get a free boost called Something to Prove after failing a skill roll.
  • When a nearby ally is hit by a physical attack, you can check one of your own physical stress boxes to reduce the shifts of the hit.

A “Once per session” effect is the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a TV series around once an episode, if that. It’s a chance for a character to do an iconic move or have a moment that can dramatically affect the story. If it has a mechanical effect, I’ll usually make it worth two stunt benefits, focused on a single effect, and last for an entire scene. If it has a narrative focus, it should be something that, if you were reading a story or watching a movie, would be pretty dull if it happened in every scene. A once-per-session stunt could let a character:

  • Get a +2 bonus to all actions with a specific skill for one scene.
  • Gain Armor:4 against physical attacks for one scene.
  • Have just the right tool on hand when you need it, along with a free boost to represent it.

Once Per Significant/Major Milestone

If you take this thinking to the end of the line, there’s one more limiter: “once per significant/major milestone.” If this kind of option interests you, though, the stunt’s effect needs to be character-altering in some way if it’s going to seem at all worthwhile. You could tie it into the usual milestone rewards, like gaining an additional skill rank (but not refresh) whenever a milestone grants one. Or you might push boundaries a little and introduce a communal stunt that each player can use once per significant or major milestone—something to reinforce the genre or reflect their cohesion as a team.

Things to Avoid

While the possibilities for stunts are nigh endless, not all of them are created equal. These might work sometimes, but in my experience the following are best avoided.

  • Messing with the values of stress boxes or consequences. It might not break the system, but it’s likely to cause some confusion when a fundamental piece of the conflict works differently for each character at the table.
  • Granting additional actions in a round, especially extra attacks. If you want to make a character more effective in a particular area, there are better ways to go about it.
  • Receiving a fate point for something other than a compel. If you have a way of getting fate points outside of compels, you’re less likely to compel yourself or accept compels.

Adding Cool

So enough about the nuts and bolts of what a stunt contains. That’s only the beginning. Here’s some advice on how to make your stunts as interesting and engaging as anything else on your character sheet.

Name Your Stunts

This is pretty rudimentary, and it’s something you probably already do, but it’s worth stating right up top. Giving a stunt a distinctive name—or a funny one, or whatever—will nearly always point the way toward something cool. You might come up with the effect first, or not, but either way a good name will really bring things into focus. Name the stunt as if you were coming up with an aspect. Make it flavorful, and odds are the effect will assume some of that flavor. In fact, if you feel like you can’t quite capture a character’s color like you want with their aspects alone, some well-named stunts can go a long way toward remedying that.

Going back to Vivienne, is the stunt for her sword just called Chanticleer? Or does it have a more personal name, like My Mother’s Blade? Maybe it’s a famous Sword of Kings, or Sharper than a Serpent’s Tooth. Each of these tells you something about Vivienne, Chanticleer, or both. If Vivienne’s a pre-gen character for a convention game, the stunt’s name helps further define the character and gives the player a better sense of how to play her.

Proceed from Aspects

Related to the last suggestion, you can let one or more of the character’s aspects lead you to a logical mechanical conclusion. If we know that they are this thing, it makes sense they’d be able to do that thing. Does an aspect suggest some unique or flavorful way they can bend the rules in their favor?

Paranormal investigator Odin Ortega has an aspect of Stay Alert, Trust No One. We can really take his hyper-vigilance to an extreme by giving him this stunt:

It’s Not Paranoia: Use Notice instead of Athletics to defend against physical attacks.

Even if giving him +2 to defend with Athletics would be mathematically identical to this, I’d still go this route because it’s much more flavorful.

Extrapolate from Skills

Look at the character’s apex skill. With this as their primary shtick, what should they be able to do? This is a chance to really reinforce a character’s chief strength and make them the best at what they do. Stacking a bonus on top of that apex skill will certainly make them more mechanically effective, and doing so is definitely tempting, but see if you can step back and think of some other way to call out their expertise. Odds are it’ll be more interesting in play.

Tank is a bipedal triceratops with Superb (+5) Physique. (That’s probably why they call him Tank.) If we really want to hammer home his destructive capability and role within the group, we could give him this stunt:

Tank Smash: Spend a fate point to automatically destroy an inanimate object in the scene.

I’m going with the fate-point spend instead of, say, limiting it to once per scene. If a player wants to blow five fate points in a single scene to level the place, I don’t have a problem with that.

Mitigate a Shortcoming

This is the opposite of above: instead of reinforcing a strength, use a stunt—especially one that gives a bonus—to make up for a weak skill rank in a specific situation. Skills in Fate Core are usually pretty broad, which is great for characters with equally broad competencies, but sometimes you want a character to be way better with a particular application of a skill than their rating would otherwise suggest.

Princeton astronomer Professor Richard Pierson isn’t exactly a combat monster with his Average (+1) Fight, and that’s as it should be. But it’d be good if he could hold his own when the chips are down.

Used to Box for Oxford: +2 to attack with Fight when unarmed.

This makes the professor more effective in combat, but only in fairly desperate circumstances, plus it tells us a little something about his past.

Plan for Your Close-up

Stunts with a narrative effect are often a good way to shine the spotlight on your character. While a bonus or skill substitution is usually a passive mechanical thing that nobody really has to know about but you, a narrative stunt can really let you take the reins of the story. Assuming you want that, what’s a cool thing you’d like to see your character doing?

Intergalactic smuggler Ahn Loos has Superb (+5) Contacts and aspects of Been from One End of the Galaxy to the Other and Imperial Academy Drop-Out. It’d be cool if sometimes they could save the day not with fancy flying or the pew-pews, but by simply knowing the right person at the right time, whether that person’s a scoundrel or serving in the Imperial Navy. So how about we give them this stunt:

Old Friends: Once per session, you can declare that you know someone who can help you out of a tight spot, assuming you have the means to contact them. Name them, and represent them by putting an aspect into play with two free invocations. Then roll one Fate die. On a +, they owe you one and are friendly. On a -, you owe them one and hope they’re not holding that against you. On a 0, you have a contentious relationship but they’re still your best bet.

I limited this to once per session because while there’s no guarantee of it happening as frequently as that, I’d be cool with it if it did. If I’d made the stunt cost a fate point instead, it might happen multiple times in a session, which would seem weird (and get old fast).

Write Toward a Role

If you see your character as embodying an archetype or role—and you probably do—think about how a stunt can help them achieve that. You probably don’t want to dedicate more than one stunt toward this, as doing so will tend to dilute your brand, as it were, but one of these should be enough to stand out.

Dervil Meaney, an adventurer and disgraced knight, is the archetypical meat shield. With aspects like Hard-Bitten Hulk of a Man, Protect the Geeks, and I Can Handle It, he’s clearly geared toward being the party’s point man in a fight. An easy way to make this even more evident in play would be with a stunt like this:

Get Behind Me: When a nearby ally is hit by a physical attack, you can check one of your own physical stress boxes to help reduce the hit.

No frequency-limiter required here—the effects of the stunt itself are cost enough.

In Closing

Okay, you’re all set! Go write a hundred stunts.

Whether or not that’s a reasonable thing to say, it’s worth restating that these are merely guidelines learned from something like eight years of hacking Fate. Don’t feel constrained by them. But hopefully they’ve helped you feel, as I do, that stunts are cool.