Challenges, Conflicts, and Contests
Table of Contents
Many times, you will be able to resolve an action with a single roll of the dice—do you crack the safe, avoid security, or convince the reporter to give you their notes? Other times you’ll face extended engagements that take many rolls to resolve. For those cases, we offer three resolution tools: challenges, contests, and conflicts. Each does things a little differently, depending on the goal of the engagement and the opposition involved.
- A challenge is a complicated or dynamic situation. You’ll be opposed by someone or something, but there isn’t a dominant “other side.” This is how you might play out a researcher looking for clues in an ancient tome, the party negotiator distracting the librarian, and the bruiser holding back untold horrors from entering the library all at the same time.
- A contest is a situation where two or more parties are pursuing mutually exclusive goals, but not actively harming one another. Contests are perfect for chases, debates, and races of all sorts. (And just because the parties are not trying to harm each other doesn’t mean that harm can’t befall them!)
- A conflict is when characters can and want to harm one another. Wrestling in the mud with a cultist as knives stab at bellies, riddling a swarm of ghouls with bullets as their claws rake at your flesh, and an exchange of vicious barbs with your rival under the watchful eye of the queen—these are all conflicts.
Setting Up Scenes
Regardless of the type of scene, the GM will start by setting the essential pieces into place, so that the players know what resources are available and what complications are in play.
Zones are a representation of the physical space—a quick map broken into a few discrete sections. A conflict in a remote farmhouse might have four zones: the first floor, second floor, front yard, and back woods. Two to four zones are sufficient to handle most conflicts. Large or complicated scenes may require more. Try to keep your zone map to a simple sketch, something that fits on a note card or can be quickly drawn on a whiteboard.
Zones help guide the story by shaping what is possible. Who you can attack and where you can move depend on the zone you’re in.
Anyone in a zone can interact with everyone and everything in that zone. This means you can hit, stab, or otherwise physically engage with people and things in your zone. Need to open that wall safe in the bedroom? You’ll have to be in that zone. Anything outside your zone is usually beyond your reach—you’ll need to move to get there, or use something that can extend your reach there (telekinesis, a gun, etc).
Moving between zones is easy, as long as there’s nothing in your way. You can move to an adjacent zone in addition to your action during an exchange as long as nothing is in your way. If your movement is impeded, it takes your action to do so. Make an overcome roll to climb a wall, rush past a group of cultists, or leap across rooftops. If you fail, you stay in your zone or the movement costs you something. You can also use your action to move anywhere on the map—though the GM is within rights to set a high difficulty if it’s an epic movement.
If something isn’t risky or interesting enough to merit a roll, then it isn’t an impediment to movement. For instance, you don’t need to use up your action opening an unlocked door—that’s just a part of the movement.
Shooting lets you attack from a distance. Ranged attacks can target enemies in adjacent zones or maybe further, if the zones are clear enough. If there’s a creature rooting around in the bedroom upstairs and around the corner, you can’t shoot it from the bottom of the stairs. Pay attention to the way the zones and situation aspects are set up when deciding what’s fair game or not.
When setting the scene, the GM should think of interesting and dynamic environmental features that can constrain the action or provide opportunities to change the situation by using them. Three to five details are more than enough. Use these categories as a guide:
- Tone, mood, or weather—darkness, lightning, and howling winds
- Impediments to movement—connected by ladders, covered in slime, and filled with smoke
- Cover and obstructions—vehicles, pillars, and crates
- Dangerous features—crates of TNT, barrels of oil, and eldritch artifacts crackling with electricity
- Usable objects—improvised weapons, statues or bookshelves to knock over, and doors to be barred
Anyone can invoke and compel these aspects, so remember to take them into account when you wrestle that cultist to the ground amid the Caustic Slime Covering Everything.
More situation aspects can be written down as the scene plays out. If it makes sense that there are Deep Shadows in the recesses of the catacombs, go ahead and write that down when a player asks if there are any shadows they can use to hide. Other aspects come into play because characters use the create an advantage action. Things like Flames Everywhere! don’t just happen without character action. Well. Usually.
Free Invokes on the scene’s aspects?
It’s up to the GM to decide if a situation aspect arising from the scene’s setup provides a free invoke to the players (or even to the NPCs). Some of the scene’s aspects might provide a clever player just the advantage they need right away—and a free invoke can be a strong incentive to drive players to interact with the environment. Free invokes also might end up on the scene’s aspects at the start due to preparations made in advance.
Some situation aspects might apply to specific zones on the map, and not others. That’s okay—it can add some extra texture, opportunity, and challenge to the map that might be lacking otherwise.
Often, you won’t need to know who is acting precisely when, but in contests and conflicts turn order can become important. These scenes take place over a series of exchanges. In an exchange, each involved character can take one overcome, create an advantage, or attack action, and can move once. (Contests work slightly differently.) Because defending is a reaction to someone else’s action, characters can defend as many times as they need to during other characters’ turns, so long as they can justify their ability to interfere based on what’s already been established in the story.
At the start of a scene, the GM and players decide who goes first based on the situation, then the active player picks who goes next. The GM’s characters are selected in the turn order just like the PCs, with the GM deciding who goes next after the NPCs have acted. After everyone has taken a turn, the last player picks who goes next at the start of the next exchange.
Cassandra and Ruth have stumbled across a small group of cultists, led by an acolyte in a golden mask, performing some arcane ritual. Because the cultists are focused on their work, the GM declares that the PCs will go first in this conflict. The players decide that Cassandra will act first: she creates an advantage against the masked cultist, Distracted, by running directly at them screaming. It’s crude but effective. To make the best use of the situation aspect, Cassandra’s player decides that Ruth should go next. Ruth throws a dagger at the masked acolyte, and immediately invokes Distracted to improve her attack. It’s not enough to take out the acolyte in one hit, but it is a one-two punch that leaves the cultist reeling.
Unfortunately, now that all the PCs in the scene have acted, Ruth has no choice but to pick one of the cultists to go next. She chooses the masked acolyte. The GM smiles, because they know that once the acolyte acts, she can have the cultists act until the end of the round, at which point they can choose the masked acolyte to start the next exchange. The PCs may have gotten a good first hit in, but now the cultists get to fight back.
This method of determining turn order goes by several names in online discussion: elective action order, and “popcorn,” “handoff,” or “Balsera Style” initiative, the last one named after Fate Core author Leonard Balsera, who planted the seed of the idea. You can learn more about this method and its strategies at https://www.deadlyfredly.com/2012/02/marvel/
Fate offers three methods for teamwork: combining the same skill from multiple characters on a single roll, stacking free invokes by creating advantages to set up a team member for success, and invoking aspects on an ally’s behalf.
When you combine skills, figure out who has the highest level in the skill among the participants. Each other participant who has at least Average (+1) in that skill adds a +1 to the highest person’s skill level. Providing support like this uses your action. Supporters face the same costs and consequences as the person making the roll. The maximum total bonus a team may provide this way is equal to the highest person’s skill level.
Otherwise, you can create an advantage on your turn and let an ally use the free invokes when it makes sense that they can. Outside of your turn, you may invoke an aspect to add a bonus to someone else’s roll.
Many of the difficulties your characters face can be handled with a single roll in the course of a scene—disarm the bomb, find the tome of eldritch lore, or decode the cypher. But sometimes things are more fluid, more complicated, and it’s just not as simple as finding the tome of eldritch lore because the yacht you’re searching is careening through Hong Kong harbor while a monsoon rages outside and the boat’s library is on fire—which is totally not your fault.
In complicated circumstances with no opposition, you’ll want to use a challenge: a series of overcome actions that tackle a bigger issue. Challenges let the entire group work together in a scene, and they keep things dynamic.
To set up a challenge, the GM considers the situation and picks a number of skills that can contribute to the success of the group. Treat each action as a separate overcome roll. Teamwork actions are allowed, but may introduce costs or complications, such as running out of time or other inefficiencies.
GMs, do your best to give each character in the scene an opportunity to contribute—aim for a number of skills equal to the number of characters involved. Downsize if you expect to have some of the characters pulled away or distracted by other priorities, or if you want to make room for teamwork. For more difficult challenges, build the challenge with more needed actions than there are characters, in addition to adjusting the difficulties of the actions.
After the rolls have been made, the GM will evaluate the successes, failures, and costs of each action as they interpret how the scene proceeds. It could be that the results lead into another challenge, a contest, or even a conflict. A mix of successes and failures should allow the characters to move forward with a partial victory as they face new entangling complications.
A contest is when two or more sides are in direct opposition but there isn’t a conflict. This doesn’t mean one side doesn’t want to hurt the other. Contests may have the group trying to escape a threat before it cuts off any chance of victory.
At the start of a contest, everyone involved declares their intent, what they hope to get out of it. If there are multiple PCs involved, they can be on the same or different sides, depending on their goals—e.g., in a foot race, each character might be on their own side. In a contest, the PCs can't or aren't trying to harm the enemy. External threats (e.g., erupting volcano, angry god) may attack any or all sides; those threats might also be a participant in the contest.
Contests occur over a series of exchanges. Each side takes one overcome action to do something to achieve their goals during each exchange. Only one character on each side takes the overcome action in each exchange, but their allies can provide teamwork and try to create advantages to assist (which comes with some risk—see below). The overcome actions can be against passive difficulties—if the contestants are facing separate environmental challenges—or compared against one another when they’re in direct competition.
At the end of each exchange, compare the efforts of each side’s action. The side with the highest effort marks a victory. If the victor succeeds with style—and no one else did—then they mark two victories. The first one to three victories wins the contest. (You can always decide instead to run an extended contest requiring more victories, though we recommend no more than five.)
When there’s a tie for the highest effort, no one marks a victory, and an unexpected twist happens. The GM will introduce a new situation aspect to reflect how the scene, terrain, or situation has changed.
In contests where a threat is trying to harm any of the contestants, everyone on a side takes a hit when their contest roll is lower than the threat’s attack roll or static difficulty rating. They take shifts equal to the shifts of failure. Just like in a conflict, if a character can’t absorb all the shifts of a hit, they are taken out.
Creating Advantages in a Contest
During any exchange, your side can try to create advantages before making your overcome roll. The target, or anyone else who can reasonably interfere, may oppose with a defend roll as normal. Each participant may attempt to create an advantage in addition to rolling or providing a teamwork bonus. If you fail to create an advantage, you have a choice: either your side forfeits its overcome roll, or you may “succeed at a cost” (preserving your roll or teamwork bonus) by giving the other side a free invoke instead. If you at least tie, proceed as normal with your roll or bonus.
When the heroes get into a straight-up fight—whether with the authorities, cultists, or some unspeakable horror—and can win, you have a conflict. In other words, use conflicts when violence or coercion is a reasonable means to the ends of the PCs.
Conflicts may seem the most straightforward—after all, the history of roleplaying games is built on combat simulators. But keep in mind a key part of their description: the characters involved have the capability to harm each other. If it’s one-sided—say you’re trying to punch a living mountain—there’s no chance you can hurt it. That’s not a conflict. That’s a contest, probably where the PCs are trying to escape or find the means to fight back.
Conflicts can be physical or mental. Physical conflicts can be shoot-outs, sword-fights, or ramming extradimensional beings with trucks. Mental conflicts include arguments with loved ones, interrogations, and eldritch assaults upon the mind.
Timing matters when using some kinds of teamwork. You can invoke an aspect on your ally’s behalf to improve their roll at any time. You can help an ally before their turn comes around by creating an advantage or giving a +1 bonus as your action. If they take their turn ahead of you in the exchange, you can’t create an advantage to help them, but you can use up your turn (skipping it for that exchange) to give them a +1 teamwork bonus.
You can absorb shifts of a hit by marking stress boxes and by taking consequences. If you can’t or don’t absorb all of the shifts, you are taken out—you’re removed from the scene, and the attacker decides how it plays out.
A series of regrettable decisions has put Charles in a dank basement, confronting a ghoul that very much wants to eat him. The ghoul attacks, lunging with its sharp claws; this is an attack using its Fair (+2) Fight. The GM rolls 00++, bringing the effort up to Great (+4). Charles tries to leap out of the way with his Good (+3) Athletics, but rolls 000-
Simply put, stress is plot armor. It’s a resource used to keep your character up and in the fight when their foes hit them. When you mark stress boxes to absorb a hit, you’re saying things like, “That just missed me,” or “Whoa, that knocked the wind out of me but I’m okay.” That said, it’s a limited resource—most characters only have three boxes for physical stress and three boxes for mental stress, though characters with high Will or Physique have more.
You’ll find two stress tracks on your character sheet, one for physical harm and one for mental harm. When you take a hit, you can mark empty stress boxes of the appropriate type to absorb it and stay in the fight. Each stress box you mark absorbs one shift. You can mark multiple stress boxes if you need to.
The boxes are binary—either they’re empty and can be used or they’re full and can’t. That’s okay, though. You’ll clear the stress track as soon as you make it through the scene—provided the monsters don’t eat you first.
When you take a consequence to absorb a hit, write an aspect in an empty consequence slot that describes what harm befalls your character. Use the severity of the consequence as a guide: If you were bitten by star spawn, a mild consequence might be Nasty Bite, but a moderate consequence could be Bite That Won’t Stop Bleeding, and a severe consequence might be Crippled Leg.
While stress turns a hit into a near miss, taking a consequence means you got hit hard. Why would you take a consequence? Because sometimes stress isn’t enough. Remember, you have to absorb all the shifts of the hit to stay in the fight. You only have so many stress boxes. The good news is that consequences can take pretty big hits.
Each character starts with three consequence slots—mild, moderate, and severe. Taking a minor consequence absorbs two shifts, a moderate one absorbs four shifts, and a severe one absorbs six shifts.
So, if you take a big five-shift hit, you can absorb the whole thing with a single stress box and a moderate consequence. That’s a lot more efficient than spending five of your stress boxes.
The downside to consequences is that they are aspects—and aspects are always true. So if you’ve got Gut Shot, your character’s gut is shot! That will mean you can’t do things a gut-shot person can’t do (like run fast). If things get particularly complicated due to this, you might even face a compel on your consequence, too. And, just like the aspects you make when you create an advantage, the character that created the consequence—that is, whoever shot you—gets one free invoke on that consequence. Ouch!
Charles is still battling the ghoul. It claws at him, this time rolling a 00++
Getting Taken Out
Getting taken out is bad. Whoever took you out decides what happens. Given dangerous situations and powerful enemies, this could mean you’re dead, but that’s not the only possibility. The outcome must be in keeping with the scope and scale of the conflict at hand—you won’t die of shame if you lose an argument—but changes to your character sheet (and more) are possible. The outcome should also fit within the boundaries your group has established—if your group feels that characters should never get killed without the player’s consent, that’s perfectly valid.
But even when death is on the table (it’s best to be clear about that before a roll), GMs should remember that it’s usually a boring result. A PC that’s been taken out could be lost, kidnapped, imperiled, be forced to take consequences… the list goes on. A character’s death means someone has to make a new character and bring them into the story, but a fate worse than death is limited only by your imagination.
Follow the fiction when describing how someone—or something—is taken out. Was a cultist taken out by a barrage of machine gun fire? A spray of red fills the air as they slump with a wet thump to the ground. Were you hurled from the truck as it crossed the 26th Street overpass? You disappear over the edge and are left behind as the conflict rumbles on along the Dan Ryan. Keep death in mind when discussing the terms of being taken out, but often it’s just as interesting to cheat death.
The ghoul gets in a very lucky hit, dealing a Legendary (+8) attack against Charles’s Poor (-1) defense. By this point in the conflict, all of Charles’s stress boxes are full, as is his moderate consequence slot. Even if he were to take a mild and a severe consequence at once, absorbing eight shifts, it wouldn’t be enough. As a result, Charles is taken out. The ghoul gets to decide his fate. The GM would be within their rights to have the ghoul kill Charles then and there…but getting killed isn’t the most interesting result.
Instead, the GM declares that Charles survives, getting knocked out and dragged to the ghoul’s lair, consequences intact. Charles will wake up lost and very fragile in the pitch-dark catacombs beneath the city. Because he was taken out, Charles has no choice but to accept the terms laid before him.
So how do you keep from dying horribly—or worse? You can interrupt any action in a conflict to concede as long as the dice haven’t hit the table yet. Just give in. Tell everyone that you’re done, that you can’t keep going. Your character loses and exits the conflict, but you gain a fate point plus an extra one for each consequence they took in the current conflict.
Also, concession means you declare the terms of your loss and how you exit the conflict. You can escape the monsters and live to fight another day. It is a loss, though. You’ll have to give your foe something they want. You can’t concede and describe how you heroically save the day—that’s not on the table anymore.
Conceding is a powerful tool. You can concede to escape with an action plan for the next fight, a clue as to where to go, or some advantage going forward. You just can’t win this fight.
You must concede before your opponent rolls the dice. You can’t wait to see the outcome of the dice and concede when it’s obvious you can’t win—that’s poor form.
Some negotiation is expected, here. Look for a solution that works for everyone at the table. If the opposition isn’t on board with the terms of your concession, they can push for rewording those terms, or ask that you sacrifice something different or extra. Because a concession is still a loss for you, that does mean the other side should gain at least part of what they’re after.
The more significant the cost you pay, the greater the benefit your side should receive as part of the concession—if certain doom is about to befall the entire group, one member choosing to concede as a heroic (and fatal) last stand could mean everyone else is spared!
Ending a Conflict
A conflict draws to a close when everyone on one side has either conceded or been taken out. At the end of a conflict, any players who conceded collect their fate points for the concession. The GM also pays out fate points owed to players for hostile invokes that happened during the conflict.
Recovering from Conflicts
At the end of each scene, every character clears their stress boxes. Consequences take more time and effort to clear.
To start the recovery process, the person treating you will need to succeed at an overcome action with an appropriate skill. Physical injuries typically are addressed using medical knowledge via Academics, while mental consequences are healed with Empathy. This overcome action faces difficulty equal to the severity of the consequence: Fair (+2) for a mild consequence, Great (+4) for moderate, and Fantastic (+6) for severe. These difficulties increase by two when you’re trying to treat yourself (it’s easier to have someone else do that).
If you succeed on this roll, rewrite the consequence to indicate that it is healing. A Broken Arm may be rewritten as Arm in a Cast, for instance.
Success here is only the first hurdle—it takes time to clear the consequence.
- Mild consequences take one full scene after treatment to clear.
- Moderate consequences last longer, taking a full session after treatment to clear.
- Severe consequences only clear when you reach a breakthrough after treatment.