Being the Game Master
Table of Contents
As the GM, you are the director of game sessions. Note that you are not the boss. Fate Condensed is collaborative, and the players have say in what happens to their characters. Your job is to keep things moving by doing these things:
- Run scenes: A session is made up of scenes. Decide where the scene begins, who’s there, and what’s going on. Decide when all the interesting things have played out and the scene’s over. Skip over the unnecessary stuff; in the same way that you don’t roll dice if the outcome of an action won’t be interesting, don’t have a scene if nothing exciting, dramatic, useful, or fun will happen during it.
- Adjudicate the rules: When some question comes up about how to apply the rules, you can discuss it with the players and try to reach an agreeable consensus, but you get final say.
- Set difficulty: Decide when rolls are necessary and set their difficulties.
- Determine the costs of failure: When a character fails their roll, you decide what the cost of success at a cost will be. You can certainly take suggestions from the player—they may know just how they want their character to get hurt—but you ultimately decide.
- Play the NPCs: Each player controls their own character, but you control all the rest, from cultists to monsters to the Big Bad itself.
- Give the PCs opportunities for action: If the players don’t know what to do next, it’s your job to give them a nudge. Never let things get too bogged down in indecision or lack of information—do something to shake things up. When in doubt, think about your Big Bad’s tactics and goals to create a spot of bother for the heroes.
- Make sure everyone gets the spotlight: Your goal isn’t to defeat the players, but to challenge them. Make sure each PC gets a chance to be the star once in a while. Spread around compels and challenges tailored to the characters’ different abilities and weaknesses.
- Complicate the PCs’ lives: In addition to throwing monsters at the characters, you will be the primary source of compels. Players can compel themselves and other characters, of course, but you must ensure that everyone gets opportunities to experience the negative repercussions of their aspects.
- Build off player choices: Look at the actions the PCs have taken during play and think about how the world changes and responds. Make the world feel alive by presenting the PCs with those consequences—good and bad—in play.
Setting Difficulty and Opposition
Sometimes, a PC’s action will face opposition via a defend roll from another character in the scene. In this case, the opposing character rolls dice and adds their relevant skill rating, just like the PC. If the opposing character has relevant aspects, they can be invoked; the GM can invoke NPCs’ aspects using the fate point in their pool.
But if there’s no opposition, you have to decide on the difficulty of the action:
- Low difficulties, below the PC’s relevant skill rating, are best when you want to give them a chance to show off.
- Moderate difficulties, near the PC’s relevant skill rating, are best when you want to provide tension but not overwhelm them.
- High difficulties, much higher than the PC’s relevant skill rating, are best when you want to emphasize how dire or unusual the circumstances are and make them pull out all the stops, or put them in a position where they will need to suffer the consequences of failure.
Likewise, use the adjective ladder of ratings to help you choose an appropriate difficulty. Is it superbly difficult? Then pick Superb (+5)! Here are a few rules of thumb to get you started.
If the task isn’t very tough at all, make it Mediocre (+0)—or just tell the player they succeed without a roll, as long as there’s no serious time pressure or the character has an aspect that suggests they’d be good at it.
If you can think of at least one reason why the task is tough, pick Fair (+2); for every extra factor working against them, add another +2 to the difficulty.
When thinking about those factors, consult what aspects are in play. When something is important enough to be made an aspect, it should get a little attention here. Since aspects are true, they might have influence over how easy or difficult something should be. That doesn’t mean that aspects are the only factors to consider, of course! Darkness is darkness regardless of whether or not you decided to make it an aspect on the scene.
If the task is impossibly difficult, go as high as you think makes sense. The PC will need to drop some fate points and get lots of help to succeed, but that’s fine.
For an expanded look at what you can do to create varied and interesting opposition and adversaries for your players, check out the Fate Adversary Toolkit, available for sale as a PDF or with its essentials freely available here at the Fate SRD.
NPCs include bystanders, supporting cast, allies, foes, monsters, and pretty much anything else that might complicate or oppose the efforts of the PCs. You will probably want to create other characters for the PCs to interact with.
If someone is particularly important to the story, you can stat them out just like a PC. This is appropriate for someone who the PCs will deal with a lot, such as an ally, a rival, the representative of a powerful group, or a Big Bad.
A major NPC doesn’t necessarily follow the same limits as a starting PC. If the NPC is going to be a recurring boss-level threat, give them a higher peak skill (see Setting Difficulty and Opposition), more stunts, and whatever else it takes to make them a danger.
NPCs that aren’t going to be major, recurring characters don’t need to be nearly as well-defined as major NPCs. For a minor NPC, only define what is absolutely necessary.
Most minor NPCs will have a single aspect, which is just what they are: Guard Dog, Obstructive Bureaucrat, or Enraged Cultist, etc.
If necessary, give them another aspect or two to reflect something interesting about them or a weakness. They may also have a stunt.
Give them one or two skills to describe what they’re good at. You can use skills from the skill list or make up something more specific, like Fair (+2) at Getting into Bar Fights or Great (+4) at Biting People.
Give them zero to three stress boxes; the more they have, the more of a threat they can be. Generally, they have no consequence slots; if they take a hit with more shifts than they can absorb with stress, they are simply taken out. Minor NPCs aren’t meant to stick around.
Monsters, Big Bads, and Other Threats
Like minor NPCs, monsters and other threats (like a storm, a spreading fire, or a squad of armored minions) are written up as characters, but are usually simpler than a PC. You only need to define what is absolutely necessary. Unlike minor NPCs, these threats can be defined really in any way. Break the rules. Give them whatever combination of aspects, skills, stunts, stress, and consequences it will take to make them dangerous, and think about what sort of difficulties they will present to the PCs when determining their ratings.
Your Fate Points
At the start of each scene, begin with a pool of fate points equal to the number of PCs. If the scene includes a major NPC or monster that conceded a previous conflict, or received hostile invokes in a previous scene, those fate points are added to your pool. If you received a compel in the prior scene that ended that scene, giving you no opportunity to spend the earned fate point, you may add that point to your pool as well.
Charles, Ruth, Cassandra, and Ethan are headed for the final confrontation with Alice Westforth. Previously, she escaped from the heroes by conceding a conflict after she had taken a moderate consequence. That means the GM gets four fate points for the PCs and two more that Alice is bringing along.
As the GM, you can spend fate points from this pool to invoke aspects, refuse compels that the players offer NPCs, and use any NPC stunts that require you to—all exactly as the players do.
However, you do not need to spend fate points to compel any aspects. You have an infinite supply of fate points for that purpose.
GMs (and truly, players as well) have a responsibility to ensure that everyone at the table feels safe in the game and space they’re playing. One way a GM can support this is by offering a framework for anyone at the table to voice a concern or objection. When this happens, it must take priority and must be addressed. Here are some tools that can help make that process more available to the players at the table and more easy to enact when necessary.
- The X-Card: The X-Card is an optional tool (created by John Stavropoulos) that allows anyone in your game (including you) to edit out any content anyone is uncomfortable with as you play. You can learn more about the X-Card at http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg
- Script Change RPG Toolbox: For something with a bit more nuance and granularity, look to Script Change by Brie Beau Sheldon, which provides options to pause, rewind, skip ahead, and more using an accessibly familiar media-player metaphor. Learn more about Script Change at http://tinyurl.com/nphed7m
Tools like these may also be used like the bogus rule for calibration. They offer a way for players to comfortably advocate for what they’re looking for in the game. Give such tools the respect and support they deserve!