Three Ideas about Stress
by Tara Zuber
What’s your pitch for luring others into playing Fate?
Key ideas I’ve heard across many Fate pitches include: Pulp. Aspects. Funny dice. Collaborative story-building. Fiction first. Proactive characters.
Those ideas make up why we play and run Fate. And stress is an integral part of Fate doing those things.
This article has three big ideas.
- Stress is how much characters can take.
- Stress enables the awesome.
- Stress strengthens genre.
These aren’t new ideas, nor are they innovative or revolutionary. Understanding them, however, can help you as both a GM and a player use stress more effectively to make your conflicts more tense and true to your characters and genre. The first section reviews the basics of stress and focuses on its core importance. The second discusses how stress creates tension and builds character in play. The last section reviews how stress reinforces the system as a whole by looking at its effect on game genre, and how you can change stress to suit other genres.
One: Stress Is How Much Characters Can Take
Fate characters can withstand (or avoid) more pain—both physical and mental—than ordinary people. Their conflicts and actions within conflicts are cinematic.
The stress system facilitates this larger-than-life feel by focusing on how characters handle the hits they’re given. Stress allows players to show how their characters can push through pain in a fight, only taking consequences when a hit is extra hard or when the smaller hits have built up. In essence:
Stress is an in-the-moment measure of how much lasting pain a character can endure or, by luck and skill, avoid in a conflict.
This doesn’t mean the hits just slide across the character and have no impact, however. Stress represents lasting pain, something more than a weak punch that isn’t even felt or a cutting remark that falls flat. The physical pains, social barbs, and mental strain still hurt, they just don’t give the character’s enemies any leverage or shift the conflict’s momentum.
Sometimes, however, the small attacks add up (nearly all stress boxes are marked) or an enemy unleashes a massive attack and the effect is overwhelming (a higher number of shifts than available stress box values). The character cannot endure or avoid more stress without losing the advantage. In these cases, the PC fills in a consequence.
A consequence is when the pain can be used against a character. Their enemy can exploit the wound and the momentum may shift against the characters.
Most people can’t shake off pain. It affects how they move and act. Almost every time a normal person is hurt, they go straight to taking consequences. A punch in the arm weakens the next punch they throw. A Fate character, however, can take more pain without losing advantage. Stress boxes allow the characters to endure more and avoid taking lasting damage or an immediate consequence.
Two: Stress Enables the Awesome
Not only does stress allow characters to shrug off or dodge attacks that would flatten ordinary people, the system also empowers players and enriches the story, allowing both to be awesome.
Fate is a fiction-first system that encourages player contributions, from the initial world-building to ongoing story detail declarations.
Stress provides another way for players to contribute. Each description of how characters handle stress adds detail to the characters and, potentially, the world. For example, when a character takes a hit of three shifts from a charging unicorn, the player has the opportunity to narrate and show off how their character remains standing.
As the unicorn lowers its head and charges, I spin aside at the last moment so the horn drags along my upper arm and back. The cuts sting, but I grin through the pain. “Nice try. Now it’s my turn.”
Each mark of stress is an opportunity to better define the character. Are they the type to rely on fate and luck? Agility? Mind over matter? Sheer strength? Magical defenses that surge up and dissipate? The way a player describes how their character is still standing after an attack should reflect the kind of character they are.
Here are some ideas for how stress can look in the narrative.
The Mid-Fight Shake-Off: The character is clearly hit, and maybe is dazed for a moment, but shakes it off and stays in the fight. Being punched in the face is like this in movies, though not in real life.
“The guy’s fist slams against your eye. That inflicts 2-stress. What’s that look like?”
“My eye is bruising, but my vision is still clear. Grim’s taken worse than this.”
The Lucky Near-Miss: The character’s nearly hit, and maybe rattled or at least focused on the attack that nearly hit them.
“The dagger is flying for your head, and it’s going to inflict 3-stress. Do you want to take a consequence?”
“No, I mark stress and bend sideways just in time. It just misses me and slams into the wall. A hair more left and I’d have lost my ear.”
“So your heart is probably racing now.”
“Oh yeah, feeling a bit rattled, but not enough to slow me down or anything.”
The Invisible Damage: The character’s clearly hit and it hurts, but from a dramatic standpoint it’s not yet enough to change the sense of action. Eventually the hits will accumulate and shift the momentum, but until then the damage the PC has sustained is, in a sense, invisible.
“That punch landed right on your stitches, opening them back up. How do you want to handle the shifts?”
“Stress. Mind over matter. The blood is soaking through my shirt, but I’m wearing black, so no one notices. I don’t want them to know how badly I’m hurting here.”
“Cool. You’re down to one open stress box now—want to bow out now that you’ve shown off your strength?”
“Nah. I’m going to end this once and for all.”
This kind of storytelling, using stress to emphasize character, doesn’t come naturally to everyone. If you struggle describing how you mark stress at the table, consider making a list of keywords and phrases on an index card and keeping it by your character sheet for ideas.
Here are some possible words and phrases to start you off:
- Bricking it
- Glanced off
When your character takes some stress, use your card of words and phrases to help you explain how they avoided taking a consequence.
Stress enriches story by increasing tension and making consequences matter more.
Each marked box is a visual reminder of the strain the character is under. Mark too many and they’re not only out of the conflict, but at a disadvantage. Players watch their boxes fill up and have to decide just how much more their characters can take and what they’re willing to do to stay in the fight.
Unlike fate points which players can earn back any time with a compel, stress boxes only empty after the scene is over. Once a player marks stress, they can’t get it back until the scene is done. Those little boxes seem innocuous, but each is a reminder that characters can only take so much in a single scene, and as the PC marks them, they clearly show the character’s personal tension building throughout the scene.
As the boxes fill up, the character runs out of options and time. They must win, bow out quickly, or take some heavy consequences.
Stress Makes Consequences More Meaningful
Imagine a character is caught in a tense standoff. Guns are out and pointed. Both sides want the other side to back down before bullets start flying, but are utterly willing to shoot, maim, and kill if necessary. Each volley of threats is a mental attack. The character has taken some small stress hits throughout the fight, showing how they’re supposed to be cool under pressure. But now the antagonist threatens the character’s family and they have another shift of stress to handle.
The player has a few options. They can invoke their high concept to improve their defense, take a consequence, or mark a stress box.
When the player chooses to take a consequence, it not only saves one of their boxes—keeping them in the scene longer—it lets them highlight how and why this particular attack of threats affects the character more, even though the earlier attacks had technically been worse in terms of shifts.
When players choose to take a consequence, they are deciding which attacks affect their characters most and give their enemies leverage over them.
This gives two levels of pain: stress for the pain characters can handle and consequences for when, for some reason or another, an attack hits too hard.
Two levels of pain means the character’s involvement with the scene can escalate. The movement from stress to consequence becomes notable, even meaningful, and ratchets up the tension of the scene.
For example, if a character is both shot and punched, each causing a hit with two shifts and the player marks stress for the bullet and takes a consequence for the punch, that says something about the character. Why does a bullet faze them less than a punch? Is it just the accumulation of pain? Are they shot more frequently than they’re punched? Did the punch trigger a bad memory?
When players have a choice between stress and consequences, they have another opportunity to add drama and meaning to their play.
Three: Stress Strengthens Genre
Pulp games shine with Fate. The system encourages characters to take chances and be larger-than-life with fate points, the skill pyramid, and stress. Stress allows characters to shrug off hits others can’t. Characters take drama and story-infused consequences, and they push forward through risks others would balk at. Stress enables characters to be larger-than-life pulp heroes.
But what if pulp isn’t up your alley? What if players want to play out a tense night trapped in a haunted house? Or normal people hunting down terrible monsters?
The stress system reflects and reinforces the genre of the game. If the game isn’t about heroes in a pulp setting, change the stress system. And in turn, if you change the stress system, then you change the entire genre of the game.
The following is a list of stress variations, the effect they can have, and ideas for games to run with each.
Only One Kind of Stress
In this variation, you remove one of your stress tracks, but treat consequences as usual. So, if you have only mental stress, you can hold your own against fear and social attacks, but even a light punch weakens you enough to give your enemies the advantage. Or, if you have only physical stress, you can handle some bangs and bruises, but fear, psychic attacks, and other mental stress can be debilitating.
- Court of intrigue. All physical battles are handled on the dueling field—a place most try to avoid, preferring instead to use words and rumor as their weapons. Players only have a mental stress track. Physical pain not earned on the dueling grounds—overexertion during a dance, for instance—can lead either to embarrassment (mental stress) or a consequence.
- Small creatures in a big world. You’re small and easily hurt, but your spirit is mighty. You rely on your wits to survive a cruel world full of predators. Players only have a mental stress track.
- Cavemen. Brute strength and endurance are what keep you alive against an unfriendly environment and creatures many times your size. Mental attacks are rare, but powerful. Players only have a physical stress track.
Different Stress Box Values
In this variation, stress boxes represent both physical and mental strength and endurance on a single track. Instead of the normal range of box values from 1 up to 4, players take the total value of their boxes on each track and reorganize the points. For example, a character would normally have a 1, 2, 3, and 4 value stress box. That’s a total of 10, which the player could reorganize into many low value boxes—five 2-stress boxes, for instance—or consolidate to a couple high value boxes, like two 4-stress boxes and a 2-stress box.
Characters with few high-value boxes can take tougher hits, while characters with a greater number of lower-value boxes can stay in the fight longer if they’re willing to take consequences to compensate for big hits.
- Superheroes. Every character gets a set number of points for both physical and mental stress and gets to decide how many stress boxes they want for what values. Each hero has their own configuration to fit their strengths and fighting style.
- Monsterhunting. You and the other PCs have normal stress, but the monsters are all different, such as some monsters having one 8-stress box, while others have many 1-stress boxes. Each monster requires study and tailored strategies to take down.
Stress Fades Slowly
In this variation, stress clears one box per scene after the conflict or only when narratively appropriate, such as finding time to get patched up or rest. This keeps the characters on edge and is especially appropriate for games where the pressure doesn’t let up.
- Haunted house. Just because you survived your latest encounter with the ghost doesn’t mean everything’s hunky-dory. You’re still stuck in a haunted house, after all. You only start to breathe easier when you can convince yourself you’re safe. Stress only fades when PCs have either left the house or honestly believe themselves to be safe.
- Noir. Your collection of bruises and nightmares are going to become a liability fast if you don’t find some doctor friend to patch you up or some safehouse where you can rest your head. Stress only clears when PCs receive medical attention or take narrative time to rest.
Even More Options
These are only a few options of how you can tweak stress to make your game fit its genre more completely. The Fate System Toolkit has more ideas on how to modify stress. Read through them and think about how each would affect the characters. Find the configuration that makes the genre of your game feel more vibrant and real. The stress system should strengthen the genre of your game. If it doesn’t feel right, tweak and play.
In Conclusion: Stress Is Integral
Stress supports extraordinary, proactive characters who can seek out conflicts with confidence while also enabling collaborative story-building and ongoing character development. The stress system is also a useful lever for tailoring new games to better fit a certain genre. In all, the stress system helps Fate be Fate.
So play with it. If you’re a GM, ask your players to narrate what’s happening each time they mark a stress box. If you’re a player, think through why your character takes stress or a consequence in a given moment. Try changing up how you have the stress tracks configured for your game, for both the PCs and NPCs. After a session, discuss how stress worked that day. Be mindful and try new things.
Stress strengthens the Fate system as a whole; it will strengthen your game, too.
Special thanks to Ryan Macklin for providing his insight into stress.