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At What Cost

by Mark Diaz Truman

Over the past five years, a new style of indie game design based around Apocalypse World has fueled a number of interesting designs like Dungeon World, Monsterhearts, and Sagas of the Icelanders. Despite their differences, all of these games operate with the same core mentality: they reject preplanned “plots” for a “play to find out what happens” ethos that prioritizes moment-to-moment conflicts that build over time.

As I’ve learned more about this style of gameplay, I’ve struggled to express some sort of complementary mentality for Fate. Fate offers something equally engaging, a playing style that hits an entirely different set of buttons for my group and keeps us coming back for more, but it’s a style that requires the GM to put forward more traditional plots and the players to prioritize the broader story over moment-to-moment conflict. It’s not playing to find out what happens at all.

I propose that Fate works best when we play to find out the costs. We know that success is all but guaranteed for the heroes, that they will meet challenges and overcome them, but we are playing together to find out what our heroes are willing to sacrifice, whether they are trying to keep the world as it is or change it forever. Our heroes define the costs they are willing to pay, and those costs, in turn, define our heroes.

Playing to Find Out What Happens

When Vincent Baker published Apocalypse World in 2010, he gave these instructions to gamemasters (emphasis mine):

Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to [gamemaster for] Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside.

(Apocalypse World, page 108)

This blew my mind when I first read it. No planning out plots? No scheduled twists or surprises? How would we have a story if we just bumbled from one encounter to the next? It made no sense.

As I ran more Apocalypse World, I came to understand that the rules, the characters, and the fictional setup all created situations for our group without prompting; it was my job to represent the world to the players, to give them an external logic they could bump up against when they engaged the fiction. Their decisions—focused by the world I held constant—added up to a story, albeit one we can only see in retrospect.

Apocalypse World-Style Fiction

I’ve realized that Vincent’s clever turn of phrase describes more than just a style of roleplaying games; playing to find out what happens is really the central tenant of a whole style of storytelling. It encompasses shows like Lost and Breaking Bad, movies like Mad Max and Pulp Fiction, and novels like the A Song of Ice and Fire series, The Walking Dead, and pretty much anything by Stephen King.

In this style of fiction, the protagonists—not even necessarily heroes—are vulnerable, physically and spiritually. Their world is beset with troubles, no one is safe, and shocking revelations are a regular occurrence. Characters die. Plots twist. And the story rolls on. We stick around to find out what happens, to chase the fiction all the way to the end of the road, no matter how ugly it gets. We don’t worry about what that story is until we see it in our rear-view mirror, obvious to anyone looking backward but invisible to the characters making decisions about the future.

What About Everything Else?

But there’s another type of fiction that works along a fundamentally different axis, a kind of story in which I know precisely what’s going to happen…and I delight in the journey. Superhero fiction. Cop dramas. Animated movies. A style of storytelling that looks a lot like the kind of fiction created by Fate.

Think about movies like Iron Man, Die Hard, or Toy Story. Is there any doubt that the heroes—and there are definitely heroes!—will triumph? Are there really any unexpected deaths or earth-shattering twists that radically shift the course of the fiction? Do we hang on for the ride to see where the story goes or does something else keep us grounded in the story as it unfolds?

And if we aren’t watching to find out what happens, why are we watching?

Playing to Find Out the Cost

I propose that the style of this fiction is concerned not with the literal events of the story—the things that happen—but instead emphasizes the costs of success. We want to know what our heroes are willing to sacrifice to win, what they’re willing to change about themselves and the world in order to reach their goals. We know they will overcome the villains, but we want—need!—to see them pay the price to get there.

Take Sherlock Holmes, in any incarnation. We know that Sherlock Holmes can solve every case; he’s Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective! But we don’t know what pains he’ll bear, we don’t know how his relationships will change with the people around him, and we don’t know how the world will be different after he cracks the mystery. In short, we don’t know the costs of this case, both for him and for the world at large.

When we start to gather up fiction that focuses on costs instead of what happens, the list looks mighty familiar: superheroes, serialized crime drama, military sci-fi, adventure-oriented fantasy, etc. It’s the kind of fiction that works great in Fate because it has vibrant, dramatic characters who have an outsized impact on the setting. The characters don’t usually get stronger or more powerful as much as they become different people, changing to meet the challenges rather than building their power and influence over time.

A Spectrum, Not a Binary

It can be tempting to view this distinction between these styles as a dichotomy, but it’s more like a spectrum. Some fiction that focuses on what happens, like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, sometimes emphasizes costs over uncertainty; characters like Jack Shepherd or Admiral Adama are protected and sacred, shouldering costs and making choices without ever really showing up on the chopping block. Conversely, even superhero fiction can be written in a style that emphasizes moment-to-moment conflicts and internal logic above the costs that the heroes pay to succeed: Kick-Ass, Suicide Squad, and Age of Apocalypse all strike me as stories about playing to find out what happens.

I’m not asserting that Fate can’t tell stories that focus on events; I’m saying that Fate works best when we acknowledge that the mechanics are built to support playing to find out the costs. It’s why Fate struggles to handle horror—a genre built on the anxiety and uncertainty around the events to come—and why long physical conflicts using Fate can be boring and dull. When we focus on the uncertainty around what will happen, like whether or not the heroes will win a single conflict, Fate can drag. Focusing on the costs that the heroes are willing to pay, knowing that they are capable of paying those costs and succeeding, makes Fate work at the table.

Using Costs in Fate

But how do we use this stuff? It’s great to know that we’re playing to find out the costs that the heroes are willing to pay, but how does that help us at the table? What does “playing to find out the costs” really entail?

Above all else, this play style is a commitment to leaving a certain kind of question open within the fiction: we know that the heroes can win, but what costs will they bear to succeed? As the GM, you must put forward obstacles that demand sacrifice, pushing the characters both mechanically and narratively, but you also have to be willing to let them choose the costs of their success.

Fate games struggle when we let players pay costs cheaply. Cost is built into Fate at every level—story questions, invokes and compels, stress and consequences—but we too often let our players off easy to get to the next event, the next outcome. How can you make costs count in ways that build meaningful Fate fiction?

Story Questions Costs

Playing to find out the costs starts by selecting story questions (Fate Core System, page 232) that emphasize costs over outcomes. “What will it cost the heroes to stop the villains who infiltrated the secret homeland security program?” is a much better story question than “Will our heroes stop the villains who infiltrated the secret homeland security program?” The former question shifts every scene you set up away from what will happen to the costs that the heroes will bear. Nothing is free, not even for heroes.

Since we’re almost certain the heroes will stop the villains, giving them an arena of cost—in this case, the fate of the secret program—makes their choices much more clear. They might choose to reveal the truth to the world, including exposing their own illicit activity, or they might choose to root out the corruption without toppling the program, risking an incomplete sweep. Either way, the costs will snowball into a new set of conflicts, ripe with potential and drama, based on their decisions.

Framing your story questions this way means that you can skip long physical conflicts or mysteries that conceal information your players will need. (If your players love this stuff, frame story questions that point at those physical conflicts or concealed information.) Instead, you should push them toward the choice points that matter:

  • The heroes secure a copy of the program’s secret files. Will they leak what they have to the internet?
  • One of the heroes’ friends appears to be working as a mole. Will they confront him or use his connections to learn more about the conspiracy?
  • The villains are holding an ally hostage in a secure location. Will the heroes risk injury and pain to rescue them before the traitors kill the hostages?

Note that “Can the heroes defeat the biggest enforcer in a huge combat?” is not a good story question. The answer is ultimately yes; the costs are incidental because the heroes are eventually going to win. They might tangle with the big bad a few times before bringing them down—and might even lose one or two scraps—but almost no Fate GM is going to kill off the characters if they fail. The heroes always get a second shot, so there’s no reason to fight to the death in any given fight. Those aren’t the stakes.

If you want to make a fight with the big bad interesting, you’ve got to find a way to structure the conflict around costs that the heroes might be willing to pay. For example: “Will the hero who refuses to kill execute the villain? Or leave him to fight another day?” or “Will the heroes prioritize stopping the villain or saving innocent people?” Only then will the stakes of the combat feel real because there are real costs that matter to the heroes in play.

Invokes as Costs

The most common cost that heroes pay is fate points. Since the players have a limited number, each fate point spent is a declaration that a player is willing to pay the price to succeed in this moment (or to fail with a smaller margin). An invoke on an aspect is effectively a narrative declaration that the hero is going to step up a bit—in a particular way tied to their identity—in order to win the battle.

Fate point costs can seem cheap and easy, but remember that a fate point spent now is one that can’t be spent later. Any time a player invokes an aspect, they are saying, “Success now is worth more to me than success later. I’m willing to pay real costs later in order to avoid paying any real costs now.” That’s valuable information!

On one hand, invokes tell you what a player envisions as their character’s strengths and weaknesses. A legendary archer might spend fate points every time she shoots something with her bow, but turn down opportunities to intimidate people; a mighty warrior might settle for merely besting his foes by a shift or two in combat, but invoke an aspect whenever he has a chance to play up his reputation. Take that data and build story questions around it, asking how much those players are willing to sacrifice when those strengths and weaknesses are called into question.

The stakes of an invoke also point at useful information. Fate points are used to declare the player’s intent cheaply, but they indicate a kind of early redline, a point at which the player is unwilling to accept failure. If the archer spends fate points to save a particular NPC, then that’s a place you can push on in the future. Is she willing to pay more than just a few fate points to keep that NPC safe?

Compels as Costs

Compels are equally revealing. Whenever you offer a compel to a player, you’re asking them to pay a cost—usually narrative failure or complications—in order to gain a resource for a later fight. In other words, you’re giving them a reverse loan: they can pay now in order to have what they need when it counts.

But the compels they accept define their character more than they realize. When a player accepts the fate point, they are saying, “Yes, I acknowledge that complication you’re describing is inherent in my character’s story” and they are working that complication into the gestalt they’ve built up thus far. Of course the heroic warrior has enemies that want him dead; that’s the cost of gaining the kind of reputation he’s got.

Because these costs are as definitive as any failure, you’ve got to push hard with your compels. The problem with “weak” compels isn’t just that they flood the system with fate points; it’s also that they fail to define the characters. Let the players decide what costs to bear—including when they turn down compels—but make them make a choice. It’s easy to accept a compel when all it does is merely inconvenience you.

Undeniable Compels

Because compels have to mean something, I’m usually loath to offer a compel when players don’t have fate points. It doesn’t mean anything to accept my compel when they don’t have any other options. When a player runs out of fate points, I instead try to get them to take a self-compel, revealing to me again what kinds of costs they envision as inherent to their character’s story.

Stress and Consequences as Cost

The most obvious cost, of course, is stress. But for the most part, it’s not an interesting cost at all. It’s fictionless by default, a little box your players check to avoid having to state something interesting about their characters. Consequences, on the other hand, are narrative gold, aspects that define “damage” in ways that further the story.

Thus, you have to distinguish conflicts that are designed to provide meager opposition—like the security guards that stand in the way of our heroes—from events that are designed to push characters toward consequences. We do a disservice to the role that stress and consequences have to play in the system when we mix up these two kinds of conflicts, creating long combats when we need to push the story forward or allowing the heroes to blow past the real antagonists without batting an eye.

In the case of the meager opposition, small to medium mobs (Fate Core System, pages 213-217) are the perfect opposition. If they use teamwork, they hit hard enough to land a punch on the heroes, but they are soft enough to go down without too much of a fight. The heroes get to show off what they can do, but the villains don’t distract us from the real costs at work in the scenes ahead.

On the other hand, real antagonists need to push the heroes toward consequences. Here are a few types that tend to work in Fate:

  • Glass Cannons: A villain with a massive attack score, clever and tricky traps, or hordes of henchmen, and a weak defense can knock the heroes off their feet without feeling unfair or creating a drag on the story. These kinds of antagonists are doubly useful if they endanger bystanders or the environment in ways that occupy the heroes. Examples: Bullseye, HAL 9000, Hans Gruber.
  • Kryptonite Villains: All heroes have blind spots and areas of weakness. Villains targeted directly at those weaknesses can push the heroes to their limits without shortchanging their strengths. Amoral antagonists, for example, often thwart the heroes by expanding the field of conflict in unexpected ways. Examples: Khan Noonien Singh, Scarecrow, T-1000.
  • “Friendly” Foes: Antagonists who have emotional sway over the heroes can be devastating, especially when they are pursuing goals that are almost morally permissible. In these cases, the opposition is effectively a walking story question: will the heroes harm people they love to save the day? Examples: Darth Vader, Stinky Pete, The Winter Soldier.

Note that villains whose main schtick is taking a beating are not interesting antagonists in Fate. It’s fun to watch Neo destroy a million Agent Smiths; it is much less fun for Neo’s player to roll the dice and spend fate points until they are finally permitted to move through the plot. Good villains inflict consequences in conflicts; the heroes have to push through those consequences to get what they want.

Consequences That Snowball

In the end, you can judge consequences by what kinds of stories they open up for the characters. A Broken Arm is a weak consequence…unless the character who suffers it just happens to be the world’s greatest musician. For the average hero, broken arms are run-of-the-mill, the kind of cost that gets hand waved in between sessions because it’s not much fun to be a superhero in a sling. But for the musician, it’s a crisis that requires her to find someone to cover for her while she figures out what to do.

When you push your players to the point that they take a moderate or severe consequence, push them even further. Work with them to create emotional and mental consequences—Doubting the Mission or Can’t Let My Guard Down—that point toward the next session’s conflicts. Make the recovery a story unto itself, so that the cost they paid resonates.

Cheap Costs Cheapen Everything

Like playing to find out what happens, playing to find out the costs requires discipline. But instead of sticking to the strict logic of the setting and characters, your job is to never back down from the costs. Present them fairly. Be honest with your players. Let them know that winning “no matter the cost” might change them. Push them to commit to their own heroism and nobility in the face of massive obstacles. And then drop that hammer when the time comes, demand they pay the toll, and never look back.

We know what happens. We know they win. But what will they pay to get there? That’s up to them. Don’t cheapen it by letting them off the hook at the last minute. Play to find out the costs. +