Two Hour Fate
by Jacob Possin
As gamers get older, they inevitably get busy. This is a sad fact of life. Until we’re all in the retirement home gaming together, we’ll always have the distractions of life clamoring for our attention. With all of the adult responsibilities, needs, and wants, gaming can be difficult to manage. Who has time to play for four hours, much less those epic twelve-hour games we played as kids? Even if someone in your group has a spare four hours, chances are no one else can squeeze it in on that day. Gaming becomes a big game of scheduling musical chairs. If only games could be played in less time.
I have good news: they can. For the last few years I’ve been playing mostly online and working on keeping my game nights to about two hours in length. This has helped immensely in getting all of my players to the game. While it’s hard to find four hours, we can all find two hours when we’re available.
What follows is my method for running a two-hour game session using Fate Core.
The First Session
Your first session will be a little different than the rest of your campaign. You need to:
- Build the game world
- Create characters
- Play through the first scene of the game
Building Your World
Some of this will look similar to what you would normally do in a first session of Fate Core; however, this is streamlined and aimed at getting to play as quickly as possible. This means that you may start with less material than you’re used to having in a standard game of Fate Core. Think of it as a stripped-down variant.
Before you start the game, someone should have an elevator pitch that offers the rest of the players some direction when they sit down to play. This is usually the GM, but if someone has an awesome idea for a game and everyone is into it, go right ahead and use that. The key to a good elevator pitch is brevity. You want to be able to sum up the core idea of your game in less than thirty seconds.
At the beginning of the first session, build the world as a group, creating the people and locations your player characters will interact with. You cannot ignore this step—even if you’re setting the game in your hometown in the modern day, you still have to do some world building. Your group will create the issues, places, groups, items, and faces for the first few sessions of your campaign, giving you a strong foundation to build your game on. Your players can also create an aspect for each item, place, group, and/or face as you make them, though this isn’t necessary at this point. You can add in more aspects as the game progresses.
This part of the first session can potentially eat up much of your time; once you hit the hour mark, move on and work with what you have, even if it’s not finished. As long as you have one issue and one place, you have enough to get started.
After presenting your elevator pitch, get the players’ input on a good issue for the start of the game. Issues are the people, organizations, situations, and events that motivate the players’ actions. As this will drive play for the first few sessions, if not longer, it’s crucial that the whole table agrees on a starting issue that will intrigue or interest the players and the GM. If the group comes up with several possible issues, take note of their ideas. You only need one issue to get started playing, but you’ll add more issues as the game develops.
Good issues are aspects that represent an urgent problem or challenge that cannot be quickly overcome. The focus of your first issue should be on immediate use. Groups of antagonists work well as first issues; they’re easy for players to connect their characters to and can be used in multiple circumstances. See pages 22-25 in Fate Core System for more on issues.
Places, Groups, and Items
Once the issue has been established, go around the table and ask each player to create a place, group, or item that will play a central role in the adventure to come. Bear in mind that you only need one place to get started playing, although the players may have an easier time getting into the game if they’ve come up with a few more setting details.
Go around again and ask each player for a face attached to one of the places, groups, or items. Faces are NPCs (non-player characters) in your game. This grouping of faces won’t be all the NPCs you need as the game goes forward, but it gives you a solid grouping of NPCs to play with right out of the gate. Much like with issues, the focus here should be on immediate usability and connection to the world and other characters.
When you’re running a two-hour game of Fate, abbreviate character creation and focus on just the stuff that matters for immediate play. It won’t produce a full character sheet like a normal session of character creation.
Each player should create their character’s high concept and trouble as well as their top three skills in the pyramid. You use a similar method for Fate Accelerated, except you fill in the top (+3) and bottom (+0) approaches. As you play through the first couple sessions, the rest of the character sheet will get filled out. For each skill, stunt, or aspect filled in after character generation, the player should describe a quick flashback where the character demonstrates the skill, stunt, or aspect in a cool way. Flashbacks should take no more than a minute or so. If the player is having difficulty coming up with something to say, don’t push. You can help out with ideas, ask the other players for their thoughts, or just move on, dependent on time.
A fun thing about this method of character creation is the fluid nature of the character. The players fill in the stunts, aspects, and skills or approaches that they need as they need them. This can lead to characters that are different than the players might have imagined them if they had constructed them whole cloth at the start of the game.
The First Scene
While the players work on their characters, you, as the GM, should plan the first scene. Grab the issue you’ve just created, add in a place or face, and set up a challenge, a contest, or a conflict. The aspects that the players are creating for their characters and the aspects they’ve already created for the places and faces can help you build the first scene so that it incorporates the desires of the players. If you have a great scene, but can’t figure out why the characters should be in it, ask the players why their characters would be in this place or moving against this face. This creates an opportunity for them to flesh out their characters a bit and maybe build a new aspect.
Ryan is running a game for his friends, Adrienne, Alex, and Chuck. While the players are building their characters, Ryan needs to come up with the first scene they’re going to play through. They’ve already created the threat Secret Cyborg Invaders and a couple of places and faces. He decides to start out in the abandoned pet store that Chuck created. Listening to the players discuss their characters, he hears Adrienne bring up her character’s high concept Cop on the Edge. He decides to start with an investigation into the cyborgs in the abandoned pet store. Alex is playing a hacker, so Ryan quickly discusses a possibility with him—Alex will be trying to digitally exorcise the cyber ghost haunting the pet shop. So now Ryan has the first scene set up for the players. Cyborg invaders are in the pet shop, and everyone is invested in that.
Playing the First Scene
When moving into your first scene, you want to invest your players in the game world as quickly as possible. You can pull them in through gameplay mechanics or through the narrative. Both work well at getting the players involved and both together is gold. To get them mechanically invested, dive into the game mechanics quickly and smoothly. To get them narratively hooked, pull them into their character’s world and mindset. There are a number of ways to do this.
To engage both mechanically and narratively, start the scene as close to the action as possible. Starting in media res often works really well. Your characters are loosely defined; throwing them directly into the action lets the players retroactively build the characters on the fly. By focusing on the action and tension, you draw the players in through the characters and the scene. They’re forced to build a little bit more of their characters mechanically, while engaging with the issue they established earlier.
Your group only has one scene this session, so hit ’em hard. Go with high difficulties or enemy skill levels. Make your players spend those fate points and feel free to compel like mad. Allow the players to get into the ebb and flow of the fate point economy. This is a fine time for your players to come up with a cool stunt or aspect relevant to their character’s needs in the scene, with cool flashbacks to break up the action a bit.
The goal of this scene is to give a preview and a hook, leaving your players breathless and in an interesting situation at the end of the session. Fill in only the minimal details required; you can always add more later—details, extensive plot, and big mysteries will all come in the sessions to follow. If your players are impatient for the next game, you did it right.
By the time the scene is over, your two hours should be up; tell your players you’ll see them next week.
After your first session, planning and running games is a bit more complex for you as the GM. World building and character creation as a group is over and done. From this point on, when you run into an unknown you can make it up as you would normally in Fate Core. If you find a need for a place, a face, or an item that you don’t already have constructed, make one up or have the players help you.
Using hooks from previous sessions will help with your planning, and an opposition budget can help you design opposition on the fly.
Use Hooks to Plan
You probably have a dangling hook or two after the epic scene from the first session. A hook is an unfinished or unused plot element that’s appeared in the game. It could be the mention of a face or item, it could be a captured opponent—any piece of the game that could be a whole scene by itself is a hook. If you can’t think of any hooks, look over the aspects of the PCs and the world. Use a couple to compel the players. They get more fate points, and the next adventure gets started.
Once your hooks are set, it’s time to plan your adventure. As time is our concern in this method, plan for three to four scenes. You might not use all of your scenes in a session, or some may go faster than anticipated, but that’s fine. During the first couple of sessions you’re dialing into your group’s style and speed of play. Conflict scenes tend to take the longest, and challenges the shortest, so keep that in mind when designing your session’s scenes.
Although you want to keep the game moving, not all scenes need to be full of clattering dice and mechanical choices. Scenes in which the characters plan the next mission or deal with simple obstacles can be as narratively compelling as any fight.
Keep Scenes Focused
When you’re playing a two-hour game, it’s particularly important to keep your scenes focused. Before each scene starts, make sure you know the purpose of that scene—what the players are trying to accomplish. As soon as the purpose of the scene is fulfilled, it’s time to move on. See pages 241-243 in Fate Core System for more on structuring scenes.
Plan your first scene somewhat tightly so your players can get right into the action. The rest of the scenes should be loosely planned so you can respond to how previous scenes turned out. Before each scene starts, make sure you determine the purpose of the scene so you know when the scene is over and it’s time to move on to the next one. When you near the two-hour mark, the purpose of the scene might be to tie up some loose ends or to leave the game on a cliffhanger.
Create the Opposition
You don’t need to fully flesh out every opponent mechanically. To maximize your game time, focus on developing one main opponent, then use an opposition budget to fill in the rest of your opposition and obstacles. The budget is a variation on the Bronze Rule, which states that you can treat anything as if it were a character. Regardless of the nature of the opposition, its mechanical representation is drawn from a pool of aspects, skill ratings, stress boxes, and consequences. This method takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re acclimated to it, it sings.
Before the session, fully create one opponent as the main antagonist. This opponent’s stats don’t pull from your budget. This NPC is frequently an existing face that you or your group created, although it may be a new face you’re introducing to the group as well. Building these NPCs will be your largest out-of-game time expenditure, but it’s more manageable if you’re only creating one fully statted characters for each session. Provided the players don’t kill or otherwise remove the opponents permanently, you can reuse them. As the campaign goes on, you’ll build up a solid stable of mechanically constructed faces that are linked to the player characters. This gradual world building is also useful as it reduces the number of things you need to remember from session to session.
The Opposition Budget
Aside from your main NPC, you don’t need to stat out the remaining antagonist NPCs or challenges that the player characters will attempt to overcome. Instead you use a budget that’s split amongst the opponents and obstacles for the session. For a two hour session, I recommend starting with a budget of:
- four aspects
- five skill ratings (one +5, two +2s, and two +1s)
- eight stress boxes
- three consequences (one minor, one moderate, and one severe)
This budget has worked out quite well for me with my group, but feel free to tweak it to taste. By varying when you use your budget or the numbers you start with, you can alter the feel of the game, but keep in mind that they aren’t all created equal—what you change and how you change it will have different impacts on your game.
Adding stress boxes and consequences can drastically increase the endurance—and thus the length—of a scene by allowing you to throw far more opponents and tougher challenges at the characters. Since consequences are also aspects, they can lead to more drama.
More aspects can add a lot of narrative depth, though problems can come up with keeping track of them all. Extra aspects also allow for longer challenges and minions with more depth.
Increasing the skill ratings can increase the defenses and deadliness of your session by allowing for more obstacles and fewer minions and mooks, unless you also add in more stress boxes. If the players have walked through a few sessions without feeling pushed, increasing the skill numbers can add difficulty without altering the length of play. I don’t recommend increasing the ratings more than three over the highest skill rating of the party, as it will make the game feel very desperate and difficult.
Spending Your Budget
The budget can be spent in a couple of different ways: minions and challenges.
Minions must have a skill rating and at least one stress box. The consequences can be used at any point by any of your NPCs, as they belong to the session rather than the character. Minions are useful for conflict and contest scenes, so you’ll probably end up making a lot of these.
For a challenge, grab a skill rating; this becomes the default difficulty of the rolls for the challenge. You can attach a stress box to your challenge to increase the difficulty by two. Challenges require at least one aspect from your budget. For every aspect attached to the challenge you get to throw three obstacles at the characters, each with the difficulty chosen at challenge creation. Be wary of putting too many aspects on a challenge, as it can lead to repetition or longer scenes than you intended.
And bear in mind you still have at least one fully fleshed out NPC who can enter at any time. If you‘re nearing the end of the two-hour mark, have your NPC concede. Concessions are the key to recurring characters, and every recurring character is a character you don’t have to invent whole cloth.
Possible Budget Expenditures
A horde of mooks led by a minion [total cost: one aspect, one +5 and two +1 skills, four stress boxes]
- Minion: Low Level Shot Caller [1 of the session aspects], one +5 skill for opposing the characters, two stress boxes
- Two Groups of Mooks: no aspect, one +1 skill each, one stress box each
A series of booby-traps, each more clever than the last [total cost: two aspects, one +2 skill, one stress box]
- This Room Is Filled with Traps; Death at Every Turn [2 session aspects], +2 difficulty [+2 skill rating], one stress box [increase difficulty by two], Total difficulty +4
Landing a plane on the ocean in a hurricane [total cost: three aspects, one +5 skill, two stress boxes]
- The Engine is on Fire; Raging Wind and Waves; Must Save the Passengers [three session aspects], +5 difficulty [+5 skill], two stress boxes [increase the difficulty by four], Total difficulty +9
Though we have less time for gaming as the years go by, that doesn’t mean that we need to game less. Through some simple planning and some judicious application of the Bronze Rule, anyone can get their Fate games down to two hours or less. While we may not be able to play the games the way we did when we were children, we can still play the games we love.