Under the Hood: Skills as Character Competency and Player Influence
by Travis Scott
Fate Core is a stylish storytelling vehicle built on a pair of simple yet powerful concepts. Aspects are the most noticeable. They’re the sleek exterior, the high-tech touch screen in the dash, the body-shaking sound system. Just about everything we can see, hear, and feel in a game of Fate Core is an aspect. But this lean mean narrative machine isn’t much fun without a thrumming engine under the hood.
Skills are that engine. They’re what we use to act on the fiction represented by aspects. They’re what move us around a story, sometimes in hot pursuit of a goal and sometimes purely for the thrill of going as fast as we can. When we’re flashing past the mean street’s narrative beats—gunning a Souped-Up Coupe de Ville, trying to get The Crown Prince of Mundavia to safety even though the car is One Wheel Short—it’s easy to forget that skills are what make it all happen.
Most of us probably drive our real-world cars without more than a vague idea of how an engine works. But if you want to be a top-tier speed demon or an elite mechanic, you need to tear down that engine to examine all its moving parts and how they affect the rest of the system.
That’s the goal of this article. We look at how Fate Core System presents skills, and how these one-word powerhouses emphasize player agendas and influence as well as character competency. We also take a closer look at the central role skills play in character creation and how they energize play. And finally, we see how using the full range of skill levels is necessary to create the dynamic and exciting stories your players crave.
What Is a Skill?
Fate Core System defines skills as the part of the system through which characters interact with the game world. Skills are knowledge and ability “which your character might have gained through innate talent, training, or years of trial and error.” Characters in Fate Core are highly competent, and for that reason, “your list of skills gives you a picture of that character’s potential for action at a glance—what you’re best at, what you’re okay at, and what you’re not so good at” (page 86).
In other words, how players rate their skills not only shows their character’s preferred means for taking action, but, equally important, it shows where they want their shortcomings to matter in the story. If aspects are the signs and waypoints that tell you what direction you’re headed, skills are how you’re going to get there, because they tell everyone where, when, and how you want your character to shine, both in success and defeat.
Skills Define Player Agendas
Fate Core System portrays skills as abilities, capacities, and competencies—or, more simply, how well you can do something. There’s an important reason that the designers framed skills this way, which we’ll get to in a moment. But first, we need to tear down that tidy little idea that skills are just, well, skills. Let’s start with an example of how skills work in character creation.
We’re starting a new low fantasy game where we play filthy greenskins in a nasty orc village. Mary creates her character, Zub, a proud Orc Berserker who wields Kh’zum, An Ancient Dwarven Blade. She puts together the rest of Zub’s aspects and moves on to skills.
Based on just these two aspects, Mary decides to make Zub’s best skill Fight, ranking it at +4. He’s been grinding the faces of his enemies into the dirt since he was a little slug of an orc, and by now he’s pretty good at it. Nobody crosses Zub unless they want to savor the flavor combination of dwarven steel and their own teeth.
This approach to choosing what Zub is best at is consistent with how Fate Core System describes skills. He’s a wild and brutish warrior from the greenskin tribes. He also has a cool weapon he looted from an enemy. The choice about which skills to rank highest is almost made for Mary by the aspects she wrote. That’s one reason why we write aspects before choosing skills: they give us the fictional pretext for subsequent skill choices. Even if we’re doing a quick start game, Fate Core System advises, “You should know your best skill to start—that gives us further ideas about your character” (page 52).
The phrase “further ideas” hints at a principle that Fate Core System never quite says explicitly. The choices a player makes when ranking their character’s skills communicates both what the character is good at and also what the player thinks is interesting. When Mary declares that Zub is Great at Fighting, she’s telling the GM she wants to get into physical conflicts early and often. She’s also telling her fellow players that Zub is a superior warrior, and she expects him to shine when the blood is pounding in his pointy ears.
As the GM, you can help your players figure out what they might find interesting by asking them to tell you why and how their aspects became true. By telling a little story about the past, aspects provide the logic for choosing skills, which is another reason why we allocate skill points second.
When I ask about the two aspects, Orc Berserker and Kh’zum, An Ancient Dwarven Blade, Mary creates a vignette about Zub’s history: Zub goaded a hot-headed dwarf into a duel—he won handily and took his foe’s sword. Based on that story, she decides she wants Zub to have Provoke at +4, instead of Fight. He’s still a great warrior, so she puts his Fight at +3. And, since he was quick to pick up on the fine crafting of the sword, she gives him Notice +3. (That also grants him a good initiative, so maybe he needs the aspect Zub Stabbed First? Skills can suggest aspects sometimes, too!)
Skills Promote Narrative Influence
Aspects aren’t the only way players tell GMs what interests them. The highest skill also represents a player’s declaration about where and when they want the most narrative influence. Mary’s first idea for Zub was a hulking brute who dominated in battle. In other words, she wanted to have the most influence over fights—knocking enemies off balance, avoiding their blows, and forcing stress and consequences on them.
But after thinking a little more about her aspects, Mary made a different choice for Zub’s best skill. She reimagined Zub as more cunning than your average berserker. She decided that over the course of many battles he learned that he can Provoke enemies into foolish actions that open them up to his savage attacks. That choice says something very different about what Zub is good at and what Mary, as a player, is interested in.
Fighting-Zub might be a dumb lummox, a useful tool to anyone who can control him, or maybe a warrior honored for his berserk fury. But, Provoking-Zub is a different animal. He’s the orc who always has a stinging comment for allies and enemies alike. He has a face decorated with scars that lets everyone know who they’re dealing with. And especially, Provoking-Zub has just become a character with more influence in the mental and social arena than he has skill at arms. With this one change, Mary just told the table that she wants our game to be about rage and fear more than blood and gore. And she also declared that she wants to be the biggest bogeyman on the block.
Skills in Play
Fate Core sets us up to declare our character’s best skill right away, because it gets us right into the action. But what do skills actually do in play? And why should we care about them representing anything besides high degrees of competence? When we open up the combustion chamber of Fate Core—actions and outcomes—we discover that the full range of skills from high to low are how a group of players generates forward momentum within the fiction. High skills stake out the parts of the story where players want their characters to shine, but competency alone isn’t enough to drive a story. We need low skills to represent areas where characters are typically fallible, vulnerable, and prone to losing. In other words, handily overcoming every challenge is boring, but struggling as the opposition mounts and things go wrong: that’s the stuff of high-octane fiction!
More Than Success or Failure
When your character undertakes one of the four actions, it leads to one of the four outcomes. In general, a failed roll leads to an interesting complication: the opposition gets stronger or you grant your opponent an advantage in the form of an aspect or boost. Succeeding (with or without style) has the same effect, but the roles are reversed: now the opponent gives up position or strength as they’re put under stress or outmaneuvered.
By treating skills only as the relative likelihood of success or failure, Fate Core cleverly hides their role as the real workhorse of the system. If we imagine that a high ranking in a skill means the character is simply good at it, we will still create a fun game. Fate Core allows us to play characters that are highly capable within their bailiwick. It’s exciting to be a cat burglar who can tumble through a thicket of laser beams, and sometimes we just don’t need to overthink the thrill of being awesome.
A character’s highest skill also expands a player’s influence over the narrative, tending to make their character the most dynamic figure in certain scenes. From moment to moment, a high skill allows you to leverage fictional positioning in ways you find most interesting and exciting. You get to say who is Dangling Precariously, why the crowd has Shifting Sentiments, or introduce some sturdy tables to take Momentary Cover. Thus, your best skill is more than what your character is good at doing—their competency. It’s also a clear statement about which single area of action you want the most influence over during play.
Choosing your best skill is usually easy. But, nearly every player struggles to fill out the bottom layers of the skill pyramid, including which skills don’t get points at all. When we emphasize picking the one thing your character is best at, we can create the feeling that the skills ranked from +0 to +3 mean pretty much the same thing: “These are the things I’m not-the-best-at.” One way to help players get over this hurdle is to tell them to think about their lowest skills as areas of the story where they want more resistance, challenge, and, yes, even failure. Instead of thinking of the skill pyramid as a ranking of abilities, GMs can encourage players to think of it instead as a gradation of likelihood, from unqualified successes at the top to complications and partial successes at the bottom.
From this perspective, skills serve a similar function to aspects. Fate Core System advises players to write double-edged aspects that can be used advantageously as well as lead to complications. After a GM asks, “What is the one thing your character is awesome and successful at doing?” she should also ask, “What are some cool ways your character fails?” or “What actions tend to lead your character into more problems?”
When asked these questions, Mary has an opportunity to describe Zub in more detail and to stake out a whole new area of play that would be interesting for her.
Mary decides that although Zub is a master at dishing out threats, taunts, and bluffs, he’s not so good at picking up on when others do it to him. She decides Zub should have Empathy +1, because being the scariest orc in the village means he rarely has to think about others’ feelings. And if a bellowed threat fails to do the trick, he’s still got that sweet dwarven sword and a +3 Fight.
I talk it over with Mary, and we agree that Zub is being set up to get hoodwinked and manipulated, to which he will probably respond violently. She tells the group that she wants to see him develop from a bit of a bully to a character with potential to seize power and lead, and she thinks being weak on social defense is a great place for Zub to have some complications in his story arc.
Interesting Success and Failure
In Fate Core, interesting is about so much more than winning or losing. By building the skill pyramid from the top down, the game’s text implies that skills are first and foremost competencies, concentrating on success versus failure rather than interesting success alongside interesting failure. When we treat skills as mere ability, Average and Mediocre skills risk becoming a kind of dump stat, which causes them to lose their potential for generating excitement and drama.
If we look at skills instead as representing a player’s agenda and influence over the fiction, we can drive play towards interesting outcomes instead of playing to win. After all, Fate characters almost always win in the end, which means the only question is how interesting is the trip to the victory party?
The four outcomes give us ways for our characters to shine both in success and failure, which is where those low skills come in. Since failed rolls always lead to complications, Average and Mediocre skills effectively tell the GM, “These are the areas where I want my character’s complications to shine!”
If you can stand his nasty face, let’s take another look at Zub.
After a wildly successful skirmish against those puny dwarves, Zub’s reputation has Grigma the warchief worried. The clan is impressed by Zub’s terrifying appearance and bloodlust, and if she isn’t careful, they might just install him as their new leader.
Zub’s meager +1 Empathy is barely enough to guess when some sniveling goblin is lying to him. Typical for a warchief, Grigma rules through lies and rumor. Since Mary told me she wants Zub’s social and political life to get complicated, I make the warchief’s Deceit +4, which will probably smash callous Zub’s Empathy of +1.
I describe how, before Grigma calls a council, she spreads poisonous lies about Zub’s true nature: he doesn’t even make sacrifices to the dark powers, and secretly follows the Way of the Light!
If Mary and I had not already discussed Zub’s low Empathy skill, this might look like I’m metagaming just to set them up for a crushing defeat. But the GM’s job is to provide interesting challenges for players, and she helped me to identify where she wanted that challenge, because I talked to her about why she put Zub’s Empathy at +1.
Often, GMs focus on a player’s aspects to try to deduce what a player thinks is interesting, but this can lead to reinforcing the same ideas over and over again. How many times do we need to be told that Zub is a berserker with a dwarven sword? Drawing inspiration from a player’s skills leads to more immediate and exciting conflicts, for one simple reason: conflicts are active, and skills are how players act. So when I positioned Grigma to trounce Zub in the social arena, what I was really doing was giving Zub a chance to win and lose in a way Mary told me she would enjoy!
As expected, Zub is blindsided by Grigma’s lies. It dawns on him too late what happened and who is responsible. Mary and I have talked about how skills work in Fate Core, though, and she knows that failed roll is a gift—she plays her trump card and has Zub challenge that old fool Grigma to a duel! Her failed Empathy roll sets up an opportunity to bring out her big Provoke skill, and now it will be so much sweeter when Zub guts that lying warchief.
These little ups and downs are the meat of great stories. And by treating a character’s low skills as an opportunity to explore their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, they become more dynamic and relatable.
Diverging and Overlapping Skills
Some game systems work best when players either avoid overlapping their skills or have certain skills in common. Fate Core, by contrast, works well regardless of which skills and ratings players choose.
Sometimes, it makes sense for skills to diverge.
Jason introduces his character Tusk, a priest of the dark. He decides that Tusk should have Empathy +3, because she savors the terror that electrifies her clan, and also because Jason doesn’t want Tusk to be so easily fooled. Getting the wool pulled over Tusk’s eyes is just not something Jason wants to happen very often, so he ranks Empathy much higher than Mary did for Zub.
Character ability and player influence shine once again: one character can pick up another’s slack (competency), while also making for more dynamic stories by adding something to the game that no other player can (influence).
In some games, players focus on divergent skills to make sure everyone has their own niche. Not only does this ensure that their group of characters will be able to succeed in more varied situations, but it also helps ensure that each player gets to do something special all their own. While this approach is useful or necessary in some games, it is less so in Fate Core.
Tusk excels at sowing fear both among her clan and her enemies, so he ranks her Provoke skill at +4. Mary has already created Zub, who also has Provoke +4. Fate Core System points out that aspects can help to distinguish two characters with a similar skill profile from one another (page 59). Zub is scary because he’s an Orc Berserker, while Tusk is scary because she has A Fiery Shadow. Whenever you can solve a problem with fictional positioning in Fate Core, aspects will do the job.
Another consideration is that, like aspects, overlapping skills point the GM toward the kind of game their players want. When two players make Provoke their best skill, it ought to be a clue that they want to push more at the psychological themes of life in the clan. The players have all but shouted what they want the tone of the setting to be and the kinds of issues they want to explore with their characters.
Rebuilding the Engine
Fate Core’s skills bridge the gap between fiction and mechanics. Skills let us undertake the four actions that lead to the four outcomes. They communicate the themes and events a player finds most interesting. Even more importantly, they tell the GM what her players’ agendas are.
The beauty of a Fate Core skill is that it works flawlessly as “a broad family of competency at something” (page 86). You’ll be screaming down the adventure highway in no time flat if you just choose your best skill and jam down the accelerator. Yet, Fate Core’s skills are more than just character competency. By paying attention to what players rank as their best and worst skills, we can get a lot more out of the ride. Great stories exist in the friction of moving between success and defeat. And skills create the momentum you need to knock the wheels off and light your story on fire!