What To Do During Play
Table of Contents
Now that you’ve gone through the process of game creation with the players, let’s take a detailed look at how to approach your various jobs during a session of play.
The Golden Rule
Before going into specifics, here’s our general Golden Rule of Fate:
- Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.
This might seem like common sense, but it is called out because the order is important. In other words, don’t look at the rules as a straitjacket or a hard limit on an action. Instead, use them as a variety of potential tools to model whatever you’re trying to do. Your intent, whatever it is, always takes precedence over the mechanics.
Most of the time, the very definition of an action makes this easy—any time your intent is to harm someone, you know that’s an attack. Any time you’re trying to avoid harm, you know that’s a defense.
But sometimes, you’re going to get into situations where it’s not immediately clear what type of action is the most appropriate. As a GM, don’t respond to these situations by forbidding the action. Instead, try to nail down a specific intent, in order to point more clearly to one (or more) of the basic game actions.
The Silver Rule
The corollary to the Golden Rule is as follows: Never let the rules get in the way of what makes narrative sense. If you or the players narrate something in the game and it makes sense to apply a certain rule outside of the normal circumstances where you would do so, go ahead and do it.
The most common example of this has to do with consequences. The rules say that by default, a consequence is something a player chooses to take after getting hit by an attack in a conflict.
But say you’re in a scene where a player decides that, as part of trying to intimidate his way past someone, his PC is going to punch through a glass-top table with a bare fist.
Everyone likes the idea and thinks it’s cool, so no one’s interested in what happens if the PC fails the roll. However, everyone agrees that it also makes sense that the PC would injure his hand in the process (which is part of what makes it intimidating).
It’s totally fine to assign a mild consequence of Glass in My Hand in that case, because it fits with the narration, even though there’s no conflict and nothing technically attacked the PC.
As with the Golden Rule, make sure everyone’s on the same page before you do stuff like this.
Due to a failure on a previous roll, Cynere has accidentally set off a deadly magical trap while in pursuit of the Idol of Karlon-Kar, an ancient god of destruction. Amanda describes the hall as continually filled with fiery bolts of death, seemingly in a random configuration, with the pedestal holding the idol located on the far end of the hall from where Cynere’s currently standing.
Lily says, “Well, there’s nothing for it. I’m going after the idol. I take off down the hall, keeping my eye out for fiery death bolts.”
Amanda thinks, because she knows that dice are going to have to come out on this. If Cynere is moving through the hall, it looks most like an overcome action to do the movement. But with the fiery death bolts in the room, it seems more like Lily would need to defend herself. There are also two ways she could handle the trap—it’s technically just passive opposition against Lily to prevent her passing through the room safely, but because it can do damage, it seems more like an attack.
So Amanda asks, “Lily, we need to go to dice, but what exactly do you want to accomplish here? Are you mainly trying to make sure you don’t get hit, or are you blasting through the hall to get to the idol?”
Lily doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, the idol, for sure.”
Amanda asks, “So you’re willing to take damage in the process?”
Lily says, “Yeah. Throwing myself into danger as usual.”
Amanda says, “Okay, so we can do it in one roll. Here’s how we’ll handle it. You roll Athletics against Fantastic (+6) opposition. If you make it, you’re through the trap and don’t take any harm. If you don’t make it, you’re stuck in the hallway and will have to try again to make it all the way through. We’re also going to treat that failure like a failed defense roll, so you’re going to take a hit as well. Because of all the fiery death and whatnot.”
Lily winces, but nods and gathers up her dice.
In this example, Amanda combined effects from overcome and defend to determine what happens to Cynere. This is totally okay, because it fits their intent and it makes sense given the situation they described. She might have decided to do both rolls separately, and that would have been fine too—she just wanted to get it all into one roll.
If you’re ever in doubt during play, come back to the Golden Rule and remember that you have the flexibility to do the same kind of thing as you need to. Just make sure that when you do this, you and the players are on the same page.
When to Roll Dice
Roll the dice when succeeding or failing at the action could each contribute something interesting to the game.
This is pretty easy to figure out in regards to success, most of the time—the PCs overcome a significant obstacle, win a conflict, or succeed at a goal, which creates fodder for the next thing. With failure, however, it’s a little more difficult, because it’s easy to look at failure in strictly negative terms—you fail, you lose, you don’t get what you want. If there’s nothing to build on after that failure, play can grind to a halt in a hurry.
The worst, worst thing you can do is have a failed roll that means nothing happens—no new knowledge, no new course of action to take, and no change in the situation. That is totally boring, and it discourages players from investing in failure—something you absolutely want them to do, given how important compels and the concession mechanic are. Do not do this.
If you can’t imagine an interesting outcome from both results, then don’t call for that roll. If failure is the uninteresting option, just give the PCs what they want and call for a roll later, when you can think of an interesting failure. If success is the boring option, then see if you can turn your idea for failure into a compel instead, using that moment as an opportunity to funnel fate points to the players.
Situation Aspects Are Your Friend
When you’re trying to figure out if there’s a good reason to ask the PCs to make an overcome roll, look at the aspects on your scene. If the existence of the aspect suggests some trouble or problem for the PC, call for an overcome roll. If not, and you can’t think of an interesting consequence for failure, don’t bother.
For example, if a character is trying to sprint quickly across a room, and you have a situation aspect like Cluttered Floors, it makes sense to ask for a roll before they can move. If there is no such aspect, just let them make the move and get on to something more interesting.
Making Failure Awesome
If the PCs fail a roll in the game and you’re not sure how to make that interesting, try one of the following ideas.
Blame the Circumstances
The PCs are extremely competent people (remember, that’s one of the things Fate is about). They aren’t supposed to look like fools on a regular or even semi-regular basis. Sometimes, all it takes is the right description to make failure into something dynamic—instead of narrating that the PC just borked things up, blame the failure on something that the PC couldn’t have prevented. There’s a secondary mechanism on that lock that initially looked simple (Burglary), or the contact broke his promise to show up on time (Contacts), or the ancient tome is too withered to read (Lore), or a sudden seismic shift throws off your run (Athletics).
That way, the PCs still look competent and awesome, even though they don’t get what they want. More importantly, shifting the blame to the circumstances gives you an opportunity to suggest a new course of action, which allows the failure to create forward momentum in your story. The contact didn’t make his appointment? Where is he? Who was following him to the rendezvous? The ancient tome is withered? Maybe someone can restore it. That way, you don’t spend time dwelling on the failure and can move on to something new.
Succeed at a Cost
You can also offer to give the PCs what they want, but at a price—in this case, the failed roll means they weren’t able to achieve their goals without consequence.
A minor cost should complicate the PC’s life. Like the above suggestion, this focuses on using failure as a means to change up the situation a bit, rather than just negating whatever the PC wanted. Some suggestions:
- Foreshadow some imminent peril. “The lock opens with a soft click, but the same can’t be said for the vault door. If they didn’t know you were here before, they sure do now.”
- Introduce a new wrinkle. “Yes, the Guildmaster is able to put you in touch with a mage who can translate the withered tome—a guy named Berthold. You know him, actually, but the last time you saw him was years ago, when he caught you with his wife.”
- Present the player with a tough choice. “You brace the collapsing ceiling long enough for two of the others to get through safely, but not the rest. Who’s it going to be?”
- Place an aspect on the PC or the scene. “Somehow you manage to land on your feet, but with a Twisted Ankle as a souvenir.”
- Give an NPC a boost. “Nikolai surprises you a bit by agreeing to your offer, but he does so with a wry smile that makes you uneasy. Clearly, Nikolai Has A Plan.”
- Check one of the PC’s stress boxes. Careful with this one—it’s only a real cost if the PC’s likely to take more hits in the same scene. If you don’t think that’s going to happen, go with another choice.
A serious cost does more than complicate the PC’s life or promise something worse to come—it takes a serious and possibly irrevocable toll, right now.
One way you can do this is by taking a minor cost to the next level. Instead of suspecting that a guard heard them open the vault, a few guards burst in the room, weapons drawn. Instead of being merely cut off from their allies by a collapsing ceiling, one or more of those allies ends up buried in the debris. Instead of merely having to face an awkward situation with Berthold, he’s still angry and out for their blood.
Other options could include:
- Reinforce the opposition. You might clear one of an NPC’s stress boxes, improve one of their skills by one step for the scene, or give them a new aspect with a free invocation.
- Bring in new opposition or a new obstacle, such as additional enemies or a situation aspect that worsens the situation.
- Delay success. The task at hand will take much longer than expected.
- Give the PC a consequence that follows logically from the circumstances—mild if they have one available, moderate if they don’t.
If you’re stuck for just how serious a serious cost should be, you may want to use the margin of failure as a gauge. For instance, in the vault-opening example, above—the one where the guards hear the PC and burst in the room—if the player failed their Burglary roll by 1 or 2, the PCs outnumber the guards. Not a tough fight, but a fight nonetheless. If they failed it by 3 to 5, it’s an even match, one that’s likely to use up resources like fate points or consequences. But if they failed by 6 or more, they’re outnumbered and in real danger.
Let the Player Do the Work
You can also kick the question back to the players, and let them decide what the context of their own failure is. This is a great move to foster a collaborative spirit, and some players will be surprisingly eager to hose their own characters in order to further the story, especially if it means they can keep control of their own portrayal.
It’s also a great thing to do if you just plain can’t think of anything. “Okay, so, you failed that Burglary roll by 2. So you’re working the lock, and something goes wrong. What is it?” “You missed that Alertness roll. What don’t you notice as you’re sneaking up to the queen’s chambers?” It’s better if the question is specific, like those examples—just saying, “Okay, tell me how you fail!” can easily stall things by putting a player on the spot unnecessarily. You want to let the player do the work, not make them.
When you’re setting passive opposition for an action, keep in mind the difficulty “break points” mentioned in Actions and Outcomes—anything that’s two or more steps above the PC’s skill is probably going to cost them fate points, and anything that’s two or more below the PC’s skill will be a breeze.
Rather than “modeling the world” or going for “realism,” try setting difficulties according to dramatic necessity—things should generally be more challenging when the stakes are high and less challenging when they aren’t.
(Functionally, this is the same as setting a consistent difficulty and assessing a circumstantial penalty to the roll to reflect rushing the task or some other unfavorable condition. But psychologically, the difference between a high difficulty and a lower difficulty with a penalty is vast and shouldn’t be underestimated. A player facing a higher difficulty will often feel like they’re being properly challenged, while that same player facing a large penalty, likely chosen at the GM’s discretion, will often feel discouraged by it.)
Setting a difficulty low is mainly about showcasing a PC’s awesomeness, letting them shine in a particular moment and reminding us why this character is in the spotlight. You can also set lower difficulties during periods when you know the PCs are low on fate points, giving them the chance to take compels in order to get more. You should also set lower difficulties on anything that’s in the way of the PC’s getting to the main action of a scene—you don’t want them to get stalled at the evil overlord’s drawbridge if the point of the scene is confronting the evil overlord!
Finally, some actions should take lower difficulties by default, especially if no one’s contesting or resisting them. Unopposed efforts to create advantages in a conflict should never be harder than Average (+1) or Fair (+2), and neither should attempts to put an aspect on an object or location. Remember that opposition doesn’t have to always take the form of an NPC getting in the way—if the evil mastermind has hidden the evidence in his office away from prying eyes, you might consider that a form of opposition, even though the mastermind might not be physically present.
If the PCs are overflowing in fate points, or it’s a crucial moment in the story when someone’s life is on the line, or the fate of many is at stake, or they’re finally going against foes that they’ve been building up to for a scenario or two, feel free to raise difficulties across the board. You should also raise difficulties to indicate when a particular opponent is extremely prepared for the PCs, or to reflect situations that aren’t ideal—if the PC’s are not prepared, or don’t have the right tools for the job, or are in a time crunch, etc.
Setting the difficulty right at the PC’s skill level is, as you might imagine, sort of a middle ground between these two extremes. Do this when you want some tension without turning things up to 11, or when the odds are slightly in the PC’s favor but you want a tangible element of risk.
Important: Justify Your Choice
Your only other constraint in setting difficulties goes back to the Silver Rule above—you need to make sure that your choices make sense in the context of the narrative you’re creating. While you shouldn't go crazy with trying to model the world too much and thus box yourself into a useless set of constraints (“Locks in the village of Glenwood are generally of Good quality, due to their proximity to a rich iron mine.”), don’t look at this purely as a numbers game either. If the only reason for setting a difficulty at Superb (+5) is because it’s two higher than the PC’s skill level and you want to bleed his fate points off, you strain credibility.
In that sense, you can look at setting difficulties as being a lot like invoking aspects—there needs to be a good reason that backs up your choice in the story. It’s totally okay if that justification is something you’re about to make up, rather than something you know beforehand. Situation aspects are a great tool for this—if the players already know that the cave they’re in is Pitch Black and Cramped as Hell, it’s easy to justify why it’s so hard to stay quiet as they Stealth through the tunnels. No one will bat an eye at you looking at the relevant situation aspects and giving a +2 to the opposition for each one, because it mirrors the invoke bonus they get.
Either way, don’t skip the justification part—either let the players know what it is immediately when you tell them the difficulty, or shrug mysteriously and then let them find out soon thereafter (as in, the time it takes to think it up).
You might also try using “out of place” difficulties to indicate the presence of unanswered questions during the game—for some odd reason, the stable you’re trying to break into has an Epic (+7) lock on the door. What could be so important in there that you don’t know about?
Or maybe you’re trying to finish the famed initiation test of the scholastic Amethyst Order, and the test is only a Fair (+2) Lore roll—what’s the deal? Are they going easy on you? Is your appointment a political necessity? Who pulled the strings on that? Or is it just that the reputation of the Order’s scholars is a fabrication?
Dealing with Extraordinary Success
Sometimes, a PC is going to roll far in excess of the difficulty, getting a lot of shifts on the roll. Some of the basic actions already have a built-in effect for rolling really well, like hitting harder on a good attack roll.
For others, it’s not so clear. What’s happens when you get a lot of shifts on a Crafts roll or an Investigate roll? You want to make sure those results have some kind of meaning and reflect how competent the PC’s are.
Here are a few choice options.
- Go Gonzo with the Narration: It might seem superfluous, but it’s important to celebrate a great roll with a suitable narration of over the top success. This is a great time to take the suggestions above for Making Failure Awesome and applying them here. Let the success affect something else, in addition to what the PC was going for, and bring the player into the process of selling it by prompting them to make up cool details. “Three extra shifts on that Burglary roll—tell me, is anyone ever going to be able to lock that crypt again?” “So you got five shifts on that Contacts roll—tell me, where does Nicky the Fink usually go when he’s running out on his wife, and what do you say when you find him there?”
- Add an Aspect: You can express additional effects of a good roll by placing an aspect on the PC or on the scene, essentially letting them create an advantage for free. “So your Resources roll to bribe the guard succeeded with four shifts. She’ll let you through the gate all right, and she’ll also act as Available Backup if you should need some help later.”
- Reducing Time: If it’s important to get something done fast, then you can use extra shifts to decrease the time that it takes to do an action.
Dealing with Time
There are two kinds of time in Fate: game time and story time.
Game time is how to organize play in terms of the real players sitting at the table. Each unit of game time corresponds to a certain amount of real time. They are:
- Exchange: The amount of time it takes all participants in a conflict to take a turn, which includes doing an action and responding to any action taken against them. This usually doesn’t take longer than a few minutes.
- Scene: The amount of time it takes to resolve a conflict, deal with a single prominent situation, or accomplish a goal. Scenes vary in length, from a minute or two if it’s just a quick description and some dialogue, to a half hour or more in the case of a major set piece battle against a main NPC.
- Session: The sum total of all the scenes you run through in a single sitting. A session ends when you and your friends pack it up for the night and go home. For most people, a session is about 2 to 4 hours, but there is no theoretical limit—if you have few obligations, then you’re only really limited by the need for food and sleep. A minor milestone usually occurs after a session.
- Scenario: One or more sessions of play, but usually no more than four. Most of the time, the sessions that make up a scenario will definitively resolve some kind of problem or dilemma presented by the GM, or wrap up a storyline (see Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios for more on scenarios). A significant milestone usually occurs at the end of a scenario. You can look at this like an episode of a television show—the number of sessions it takes to tell one story.
- Arc: Several scenarios, usually between two and four. An arc typically culminates in an event that brings great change to the game world, building up from the resolution of the scenarios. You can look at an arc like a season of a television show, where individual episodes lead to a tumultuous climax. You’re not always guaranteed to have a recognizable arc, just like not all TV shows have a plotline that carries through the whole season—it’s possible to bounce from situation to situation without having a defined plot structure. Major milestones usually happen at the end of an arc.
- Campaign: The sum of all the time you’ve sat at a table playing this particular game of Fate—every session, every scenario, every arc. Technically, there’s no upper limit to how long a campaign can be. Some groups go for years; others get to the end of an arc and then stop. It is presumed that a typical group will go for a few arcs (or about ten scenarios) before having a grand finale and moving on to another game (hopefully another Fate game!). You might set up your campaign as a kind of “super-arc,” where there’s one massive conflict that everything else is a smaller part of, or it might simply consist of the smaller individual stories that you tell in your scenarios.
Story time is the time as the characters perceive it, from the perspective of being “in the story”—the amount of time it takes for them to accomplish any of the stuff you and the players say that they do during play. Most of the time, you’ll do this as an afterthought, mentioning it in passing (“Okay, so it takes you an hour to get to the airport by cab”) or mentioning it as part of a skill roll (“Cool, so after 20 minutes of sweeping the room, you find the following…”).
Under most circumstances, story time has no actual relation to real time.For example, a combat exchange might take a few minutes to play out in real time, but it only covers what happens in the first few seconds of a conflict. Likewise, you can cover long swaths of time simply by saying that it happens (“The contact takes two weeks to get back to you—are you doing anything while you wait, or can we just skip to the meeting?”). When used this way, it’s really just a convenience, a narrative device in order to add verisimilitude and some consistency to your story.
Sometimes, though, you can use story time in creative ways to create tension and surprise during the game. Here’s how.
Nothing creates tension like a good deadline. The heroes only have a certain number of minutes to disable the death trap, or a certain amount of time to get across the city before something blows up, or a certain amount of time to deliver the ransom before loved ones get aced by the bad guys, and so on.
Some of the game’s default actions are made to take advantage of deadline pressure, such as challenges or contests—they each limit the number of rolls that a player can make before something happens, for better or for worse.
You don’t have to limit yourself to using just those two, though. If you set a hard deadline for something bad in one of your scenarios, you can start keeping track of the amount of time everything takes, and use it as a way to keep the pressure on. (“Oh, so you want to browse all the town’s historical archives? Well, you have three days until the ritual—I can give you a Lore roll, but just the attempt is probably going to eat up one of those days.”) Remember, nearly everything takes time. Even a basic attempt to create an advantage using Empathy requires you to sit with the target for a little while, and if every action the PCs are taking is chipping away at a clock, it may be time they don’t have.
Of course, it’d be no fun if there was nothing they could do to improve a deadline situation, and it’d be no fun if the crawl toward the deadline was predictable.
Using Story Time in Success and Failure
Therefore, when you’re using story time to create deadline pressure, feel free to incorporate unpredictable jumps in time when the PCs do really well or really badly on a roll.
Taking extra time is a great way to make failure awesome as per the guidelines above, especially using the “Success at a Cost” option—give the players exactly what they want, but at the cost of taking more time than they were trying to spend, thus risking that their efforts will come too late. Or it could be the thing that pushes a deadline over the edge—maybe things aren’t completely hopeless, but now there are extra problems to deal with.
Likewise, reward extreme success by reducing the amount of time it takes to do something while the PCs are under deadline. That historical research (Lore) that was going to take a day gets wrapped up in a few hours. While looking for a good merchant (Contacts) to get your supplies, you manage to find another one who can fulfill your order that same day rather than in a week.
If time is a factor, you should also be able to use invocations and compels to manipulate time, to make things easier or more complicated respectively. (“Hey, I’m a Garage Bunny, so fixing this car shouldn’t take me that long, right?” “Oh, you know what? Your sheet says I Can’t Get Enough of the Fun and Games… doesn’t it make sense that if you’re looking for a guy in a casino, it’d be easy to get caught up in distractions? All those machines and stuff…”)
How Much Time Is A Shift Worth?
Just like with any other roll, the number of shifts you get (or the amount you fail by) should serve as a barometer for just how severe the time jump is. So, how do you decide just how much to award or penalize?
It really depends on how much time you decide the initial action is going to take. Time is usually expressed in two parts: a specific or abstract measure of quantity, then a unit of time, such as “a few days,” “twenty seconds,” “three weeks,” and so on.
It is recommended that you measure in the abstract and express all the game actions as half, one, a few, or several of a given unit of time. So if you imagine something taking six hours, think of it as “several hours.” If you imagine something taking twenty minutes, you can either call that “several minutes” or round up to “half an hour”, whichever feels closest.
This gives you a starting point for moving up and down. Each shift is worth one jump from wherever your starting point is. So if your starting point is “several hours,” and it benefits the PCs to speed things up, then it works like this: one shift jumps the time down to “a few hours,” two shifts down to “one hour,” and three shifts down to “a half hour.”
Going past either end of the spectrum moves you down to several increments of the next unit of time or up to half the next unit of time, depending on which direction you’re going. So four shifts on the aforementioned roll might jump you from “several hours” to “several minutes.” Failing by one, conversely, might jump you from “several hours” to “half a day.”
This allows you to quickly deal with time jumps no matter where you’re starting from, whether the actions you have in mind are going to take moments or generations
Story Time and the Scope of an Action
It’s easy to think of most actions that a PC takes being limited to anything that the character can directly affect, and working on a “person-to-person” scope. And most of the time, that’s going to be precisely the case—after all, Fate is a game about individual competence shining in the face of dramatic adversity.
However, consider for a moment what a PC might do with that competence and all the time in the world to accomplish a particular action. Imagine a month-long Rapport roll for a negotiation, where the PC gets to talk with every delegate in detail, rather than just focusing on a single conference. Imagine a weeks-long Investigate, charting out every detail of a target’s personal routine.
By allowing each roll to represent a long period of time, you can “zoom out” to handle events that reach far beyond the individual player character making the roll, and affect the setting in a big way. That month-long Rapport roll might result in charting a new political course for the country the PC is negotiating for. That Investigate roll might be the start of bringing in one of the most notorious criminals in the setting, one that’s been hounding the PCs for a whole campaign.
This is a great way to make long breaks in story time more interactive, rather than bogging the game down with long narration or trying to retroactively come up with what happened during that time. If the PCs have long-term goals they want to accomplish, see if you can find a way to turn that into a contest, challenge, or conflict that covers the whole break, or just have them make a single skill roll to see if something unexpected happens. If they happen to fail the roll, whatever you invent as a consequence will make good material for the game going forward.
Remember that if you do this with a conflict or a contest, that you scale each exchange appropriately—if a conflict is taking place over the course of a year, then each exchange might be a month or two, and everyone should describe their actions and the results of their actions in that context.
During a major milestone in the campaign, Landon shifted his high concept to Former Ivory Shroud Disciple, as a result of discovering a plot from within their ranks to take over a small kingdom as their own.
Amanda wants to jump the campaign six months forward, and she suggests that if Landon goes on the run, they’re going to try to hunt him down. She sees an opportunity to create material for the next part of the game, so she says, “I think we should find out if Landon starts the next scenario in their clutches or not.”
They decide to do it as a conflict, with each exchange representing one confrontation between Landon and the Shroud’s trackers. It goes badly for him and he concedes, taking a moderate consequence into the next session. Amanda suggests that they want to bring Landon back into the fold rather than hurt or kill him, so Lenny decides to take I Don’t Know What’s Right Anymore, reflecting the seeds of doubt they’re planting in his mind.
When we see Landon again, he’ll be in the clutches of the Ivory Shroud, struggling with his loyalties.
Zoom In, Zoom Out
There’s no rule that says you’re required to keep your rolls consistent in terms of story time. One cool trick you can do is use the result of one roll to segue into another roll that takes place over a much smaller period in time, or vice versa. This is a great way to open a new scene, contest, or conflict, or just introduce a change of pace.
During the aforementioned six-month break, Cynere has been researching the demon compatriots of the horrific Arc’yeth, who soul-burned her in the last arc of the campaign. She decides to go it alone, even though Zird offered to help, and ends up rolling her newly acquired Average (+1) Lore to succeed at an overcome roll.
She ends up doing really well, and Amanda describes Cynere getting lost in research for a few months. Then Amanda says, “Awesome. You return home with the dirt of the trail on you, weary to the bone, hands stained with ink, but your search has uncovered the hiding place of Arc’yeth’s right hand in the Circle of Thirteen, a minor demon named Tan’shael (all these apostrophes!). You fall into bed, ready to start the search in the morning... and are wakened in the middle of the night by a crashing sound coming from your study.”
Lily says, “Well, hell, I get up and rush in there, grabbing my sword as I go!”
Amanda says, “Great—you notice that your research notes are gone, and that the window is broken open. You hear footsteps rushing away into the night.”
Lily says, “Oh, hell no. I’m going after him. Her, it, them, whatever.”
Amanda says, “Great! That’s using Athletics, and let’s do a contest and see if you can catch the culprit.” (Notice, GMs, that this is now happening in immediately consecutive time—we went right from rolling for months-long stuff, to rolling for the seconds it takes for Cynere to give chase.)
The contest goes badly for Cynere, and the person gets away. Lily immediately says, “Screw that. Someone in town has to know something, or he left some clue behind, or something. I’m going to roll Investigate.”
Lily rolls and succeeds with style, and Amanda says, “A week later, you’re in the village of Sunloft, outside the Shoeless Horse tavern, where she (it’s a she, by the way) is rumored to be staying. Oh, and you got some shifts, so I’ll just go ahead and tell you her name is Corathia—she dropped it to someone in your hometown while trying to find your place. That’s worth an aspect, I Know Your Name, which you might use to undermine her confidence.”
(GMs, see what happened? One roll jumped a week, but Amanda and Lily are playing it at the table in continuous time.)
Lily says, “I bust the door down and scream her name.”
Amanda says, “Everyone backs away from a lithe woman at the bar, who sneers at them and goes for her sword, bounding off the stool and aiming a whistling cut at your face.”
“It’s on!” Lily says, and goes for dice to defend. (Now it’s a conflict and happening in super zoomed-in time.)
Judging the Use of Skills and Stunts
By now, you pretty much have all the advice you need to deal with skill and stunt use—the individual descriptions in Skills and Stunts, the action descriptions and examples in Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts, and the advice immediately above about setting difficulties and how to handle success and failure.
The only other major problem you’ll have to worry about is when you run into an “edge case” with a skill—a player wants to use it for an action that seems like a bit of a stretch, or a situation comes up in your game where it makes sense to use a skill for something that’s not normally a part of its description.
When you run into this, talk it over with the group and see what everyone thinks. It’s going to end up one of three ways:
- It’s too much of a stretch. Consider creating a new skill.
- It’s not a stretch, and anyone can use the skill that way from now on under the same conditions.
- It wouldn’t be a stretch if the character had a stunt that allowed it.
A lot of the criteria you’re going to rely on for these conversations will come from the work you and the players did with the skill list at game creation. See Skills and Stunts for advice on figuring out what the limits are for a skill and what the dividing line between a skill and a stunt is.
If you decide that a certain use of a skill needs a stunt, allow the player in question the chance to spend a fate point to temporarily “borrow” that stunt for the current roll if he or she wants. Then, if they want to keep the bonus, they have to spend a point of refresh to buy it (presuming they have any available), or wait for a major milestone to pick it up.
Aspects and Details: Discovery vs. Creation
From the player’s point of view, there’s almost no way to know what you’ve made up beforehand and what you’re inventing in the moment, especially if you’re the kind of GM who doesn’t display or consult any notes at the table. Thus, when a player tries to discover something you haven’t made up yet, you can treat it as if they were making a new aspect or story detail. If they succeed, they find what they’re looking for. If they fail, you can use what they were looking for as inspiration to help you come up with the real information.
If you’re really comfortable with improvising, this means that you can come to the table with very little prepared beforehand, and let the players’ reactions and questions build everything for you. You may need to ask some prompting questions first, to narrow down the scope of what information the player’s looking for, but after that, the sky’s the limit.
Zird the Arcane is scouting an ancient ritual site, looking for a good place to work on banishing the curse that’s been placed on the nearby village of Belwitch, the mayor of which is paying him good money for the effort.
Ryan says, “I’m going to spend some time in a local library, researching some history about the site. I’d like to use Lore to create an advantage.”
Amanda thinks for a moment. She didn’t really have anything special planned for the site, because all her energy was focused on detailing the nature of the curse and what would be required to get rid of it, because it’s being maintained by a force more powerful than the PCs currently realize.
“What kind of info are you looking for?” Amanda asks. “Just book report-type details, or...?”
Ryan says, “Well, what I really want to know is if anyone’s used the site for dark or nefarious magic... if this village has a local boogeyman or spook story centered around that site.”
Amanda says, “Oh, cool. Yeah, roll your Lore, opposition is Fair (+2).” Unexpectedly, Ryan rolls a –4 and ends up with a Mediocre (+0), meaning that he failed. Ryan decides not to spend any fate points on the roll.
Wanting to turn the failure into something awesome, she says, “Well, you don’t get an aspect for it, but what you find out is actually the opposite of what you’re looking for—the site has an impeccable reputation as a place of blessed power, and the records you find all talk about healing and harvest rituals that brought great plenty and good fortune to the area.”
Ryan says, “If the site is so powerful, how did the village become cursed?”
Amanda shrugs. “Guess you’ll have to investigate further if you want to find out.”
In her notes, she jots something briefly about the fact that the site is now magically defiled and that the town’s priest is keeping that a secret, changing Ryan’s suggestion a little bit and adding some material for him if he decides to ask around.
Skills and Specific Measurements
Looking over the skill descriptions, you might notice that there are a few places where you are given an abstraction for something that in real life depends on precise measurement. Physique and Resources are strong examples—many people who are into strength training have some idea of how much weight they can dead lift, and people spend specific amounts of money from a finite pool when they buy things.
So how much can a character with Great (+4) Physique bench press? How much can a character with Fair (+2) Resources spend before going broke?
The truth is, it is unknown and the Fate system is reluctant to pursue a specific answer.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, creating minutiae like that detracts from the verisimilitude of the game in play. As soon as you establish a detail like, “Great Physique can dead lift a car for five seconds,” then you’re cutting out a lot of the variability that real life allows. Adrenaline and other factors allow people to reach beyond their normal physical limits or fall short of them—you can’t factor every one of those things in without having it take up a large amount of focus at the table. It becomes a thing for people to discuss and even argue about, rather than participating in the scene.
It’s also boring. If you decide that a Fair (+2) Resources can buy anything that’s 200 gold pieces or less, then you’ve removed a great deal of potential for tension and drama. Suddenly, every time you have a Resources-based problem, it’s going to hinge on the question of whether or not the cost is 200 gold pieces, rather than whatever the point of the scene is. It also turns everything into a simple pass/fail situation, which means you don’t really have a good reason to roll the skill at all. And again, this is not realistic—when people spend money, it’s not about the raw dollar amount as much as it is a question of what someone can presently afford.
Remember, a skill roll is a narrative tool, meant to answer the following question: “Can I solve X problem using Y means, right now?” When you get an unexpected result, use your sense of realism and drama to explain and justify it, using our guidelines above. “Oh, you failed that Resources roll to bribe the guard? Guess you spent just a bit more at the tavern last night than you thought... wait, why is your belt pouch gone? And who’s that shady character walking a little too quickly just past the line of guards? Did he just wink at you? That bastard... now what do you do?”
Dealing with Conflicts and Other Weird Stuff
The most complicated situations you’re going to encounter as a GM will be conflicts, hands down. Conflicts use the most rules in the game and pack them into a small amount of time compared to everything else in the system. They require you to keep track of a lot of things at once—everyone’s relative position, who’s acting against whom, how much stress and what consequences your NPCs have taken, and so on.
They’re also where your movie-watching brain will come to the fore, especially if your game features a lot of high-octane physical conflict. Action sequences you see in media don’t always conform to the structured order of turns that Fate has, so it can be hard to see how they correspond when you’re trying to visualize what happens. Sometimes, people will also want to do crazy actions that you hadn’t thought of when you were conceiving the conflict, leaving you at a loss for how to handle them.
Here are some tools to help you handle things with grace and speed.
Affecting Multiple Targets
Invariably, if you play Fate long enough, someone’s going to try to affect multiple people at once in a conflict. Explosions are a staple of physical conflict, but are by no means the only example—consider tear gas or some kind of high-tech stunner. You can extend this to mental conflict also. For example, you might use Provoke to establish dominance in a room with your presence, or Rapport to make an inspirational speech that affects everyone listening.
The easiest way to do this is to create an advantage on the scene, rather than on a specific target. A Gas-Filled Room has the potential to affect everyone in it, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that the Inspirational Mood in a room could be contagious. In this context, the aspect presents an excuse to call for a skill roll (using the overcome action) from anyone in the scene who attempts to get past it. Generally speaking, it won’t cause damage, but it will make things more difficult for those affected.
Landon stalks the battlefield in search of a worthy opponent.
“Who’s the biggest, toughest-looking guy around here?” Lenny asks Amanda.
“That’s easy,” Amanda answers. “You immediately spot a towering 7-foot-tall warrior, clearly not entirely human, armed with an unnecessarily flanged axe and flanked by three underlings. They call him Gorlok the Demon-Blooded.”
“Yeah, that sounds good,” Lenny says. “I’m gonna kill him.”
“I like it. His three henchmen move to intercept. They’re not exactly 7-foot-tall half-demons, but they seem to know what they’re doing.”
Lenny sighs. “I don’t have time for these mooks. I want to make it clear to them that they’re not up to this. You know, wave my sword around menacingly and look like even more of a bad-ass. I want these guys to know that this fight is between me and Gorlok.”
“Sounds like you want to put an aspect on the zone. Give me a Provoke roll.”
Lenny rolls a –3, and adds his Fair (+2) Provoke for a total of Poor (–1). He needed a Mediocre (+0), so he’s failed. But Amanda likes the idea of Landon and Gorlok facing off here without anyone else getting in the way, so she decides to give it to him, but at a cost.
“All right,” she says, “what’s it going to be?”
Lenny doesn’t hesitate. He writes down a mild mental consequence: This Guy is Bigger Than I Thought....
“Cool. They look at you, then back to Gorlok. He waves a hand dismissively. ‘Go, find another to kill,’ he growls. ‘This one’s mine.’”
Things get more complicated when you want to filter specific targets, rather than just affect a whole zone or scene. When that happens, divide your resulting total up against every target, who all get to defend as per normal. Anyone who fails to defend either takes stress or gains an aspect, depending on what you were trying to do. (Note: If you create an advantage to put an aspect on multiple targets, you do get a free invocation for each one.)
Zird the Arcane is unleashing fiery death upon his foes in a magical fashion, as is his wont. He has three such foes, charging at him across a battlefield. Zird figures it’s probably Landon’s fault he’s found himself in this circumstance.
Zird’s magic uses his Lore skill, and he does extremely well, getting an Epic (+7) result.
He knows he wants to get one of them pretty good, so he opts to divide his spread up as Superb (+5), Average (+1), and Average (+1). That adds up to +7, which was his roll, so he’s all good. Now Amanda has to defend for all three of them.
The first defender rolls a Mediocre (+0) and takes 5 stress. This is a nameless NPC (see below), so Amanda decides he’s out of the fight, and describes him screaming and batting at flames.
The second defender gets a Fair (+2), beating the attack roll. He charges forward undaunted.
The third defender gets a Mediocre (+0) as well, taking a single point of stress. Amanda checks his lone stress box and describes him sacrificing his shield to deflect the blast.
Attacking a whole zone or everyone in a scene is something you’re going to have to judge by circumstance, like any other stretch use of a skill. Depending on the circumstances of your setting, this might be a totally normal thing to do (for example, because everyone uses grenades and explosives), it might be impossible, or it might require a stunt. As long as you can justify it, you don’t need to apply any special rules—you roll for the attack, and everyone in the zone defends as normal. Depending on the circumstances, you may even have to defend against your own roll, if you’re in the same zone as the attack!
Compels and Multiple Targets
Just a quick note: players who want to compel their way out of a conflict don’t get a free lunch on affecting multiple targets, whether it’s one aspect or several that justify the compel. A player must spend one fate point for each target they wish to compel. One fate point compels one individual, period.
Not every participant in a conflict is another PC or NPC. Plenty of things without self-awareness can potentially threaten PCs or keep them from their goals, whether it’s a natural disaster, a cunning mechanical trap, or high-tech automated security.
So, what do you do when the PCs go up against something that isn’t a character?
Simple: treat it as a character. (This is the Bronze Rule of Fate: You can treat everything like a character. There are a lot of different ways to work with that in the Extras section, but let’s stay on topic for now.)
- Is the hazard something that can harm a PC? Give it a skill and let it make attacks just like an opponent.
- Is it more of a distraction or harassment than a direct threat? Let it create aspects.
- Does it have sensors it can use to discover a PC’s aspects? Give it a skill for that.
And in return, let the PCs use their skills against the threat just like they would an opponent. An automated security system might be vulnerable to “attacks” from a PC’s Burglary skill, or they might escape a trap by winning an Athletics contest. If it makes sense for the hazard in question to take a good deal of effort to surpass, give it a stress track and let it take a mild consequence or two. In other words, cleave to whatever makes narrative sense—if a fire is too big for a PC to put out, the scene should focus on avoidance or escape, and work like a challenge.
Cynere, Landon, and Zird are exploring the Caverns of Kazak-Thorn, in pursuit of one of the demonic opponents that Cynere’s been so interested in lately. Of course, the demon princess in question doesn’t appreciate being hunted by pesky adventurers and has summoned the powers of darkness to stand between our heroes and herself. So it goes.
They come to the bottom floor of the cave system, only to find it full of wisps of inky darkness, writhing around snakelike and cutting off the light where they whip about. Zird rolls Lore, and Amanda tells him that they are magical hunger spirits—not individual entities so much as pure expressions of hunger, ready to devour anything they touch. He throws a stone into the corridor and watches the tendrils turn it to ash.
“I think I speak for us all when I say ‘Yikes,’” Ryan says.
He asks about banishing the monsters. Amanda shakes her head a touch. “You’re in Asahandra’s place of power, and the whole place is just flooded with those things—it’d take days to dismantle an enchantment this strong. You might, however, be able to use your magic to keep them at bay as you look for Asahandra herself.”
Lily says, “I’m willing to go for it. Let’s do this.”
Amanda decides that even though she could put them into a straight-up conflict, it’d be easier and quicker to deal with it as a challenge. She tells them that to get past the shadow summoning, each of them needs Will to resist the shadows’ potent magical aura and Stealth to move past. Zird can roll Lore to try and thin the herd with magic. In addition, she says that the spirits can provide active opposition against each attempt, and that failing the Will roll will be treated like an attack. The three grit their teeth and start to make their way through the cave....
Dealing with Aspects
As with skills and stunts, the entire Aspects and Fate Points section is designed to help you judge the use of aspects in the game. As the GM, you have a very important job in managing the flow of fate points to and from the players, giving them opportunities to spend freely in order to succeed and look awesome, and bringing in potential complications to help keep them stocked up on points.
Because of that, it is recommended that you don’t apply extremely exacting standards when the PC wants to invoke an aspect—you want them to spend in order to keep the flow going, and if you’re too stringent on your requirements, it’s going to discourage them from that free spending.
On the other hand, feel free to ask for more clarification if you don’t get what a player is implying, in terms of how the aspect relates to what’s happening in play. Sometimes, what seems obvious to one person isn’t to another, and you shouldn’t let the desire to toss fate points lead to overlooking the narration. If a player is having a hard time justifying the invocation, ask them to elaborate on their action more or unpack their thoughts.
You might also have the problem of players who get lost in the open-ended nature of aspects—they don’t invoke because they aren’t sure if it’s too much of a stretch to apply an aspect in a certain way. The more work you do beforehand making sure that everyone’s clear on what an aspect means, the less you’ll run into this. To get the player talking about invoking aspects, always ask them whether or not they’re satisfied with a skill roll result (“So, that’s a Great. You want to leave it at that? Or do you want to be even more awesome?”). Make it clear that invoking an aspect is almost always an option on any roll, in order to try and get them talking about the possibilities. Eventually, once you get a consistent dialogue going, things should smooth out.
During the game, you should look for opportunities to compel the PCs’ aspects at the following times:
- Whenever simply succeeding at a skill roll would be bland
- Whenever any player has one or no fate points
- Whenever someone tries to do something, and you immediately think of some aspect-related way it could go wrong
Remember that there are essentially two types of compels in the game: decision-based, where something complicated occurs as a result of something a character does; and event-based, where something complicated occurs simply as a result of the character being in the wrong situation at the wrong time.
Of the two, you’re going to get the most mileage out of event-based compels—it’s already your job to decide how the world responds to the PCs, so you have a lot of leeway to bring unfortunate coincidence into their lives. Most of the time, players are just going to accept you doing this without any problems or minimal negotiation.
Decision-based compels are a little trickier. Try to refrain from suggesting decisions to the players, and focus on responding to their decisions with potential complications. It’s important that the players retain their sense of autonomy over what their PCs say and do, so you don’t want to dictate that to them. If the players are roleplaying their characters according to their aspects, it shouldn’t be hard to connect the complications you propose to one of them.
During play, you’ll also need to make clear when a particular compel is “set”, meaning that there’s no backing out without paying a fate point. When players propose their own compels, this won’t come up, because they’re fishing for the point to begin with. When you propose them, you need to give the players room to negotiate with you over what the complication is, before you make a final decision. Be transparent about this—let them know when the negotiation phase has ended.
In order for the compel mechanic to be effective, you have to take care that you’re proposing complications of sufficient dramatic weight. Stay away from superficial consequences that don’t really affect the character except to provide color for the scene. If you can’t think of an immediate, tangible way that the complication changes what’s going on in the game, you probably need to turn up the heat. If someone doesn’t go “oh crap” or give a similar visceral reaction, you probably need to turn up the heat. It’s not good enough for someone to be angry at the PC—they get angry and they’re willing to do something about it in front of everyone. It’s not good enough for a business partner to cut them off—he cuts them off and tells the rest of his associates to blacklist them.
Also, keep in mind that some players may tend to offer weak compels when they’re fishing for fate points, because they don’t really want to hose their character that badly. Feel free to push for something harder if their initial proposal doesn’t actually make the situation that much more dramatic.
Encouraging the Players to Compel
With five aspects per PC, it’s prohibitively difficult for you to take the sole responsibility for compels at the table, because that’s a lot of stuff to remember and keep track of. You need the players to be invested in looking for moments to compel their own characters.
Open-ended prompting can go a long way to create this habit in your players. If you see an opportunity for a potential compel, instead of proposing it directly, ask a leading question instead. “So, you’re at the royal ball and you have The Manners of a Goat. Lenny, do you think this is going to go smoothly for your character?” Let the player do the work of coming up with the complication and then pass the fate point along.
Also remind the players that they can compel your NPCs, if they happen to know one of that NPC’s aspects. Do the same open-ended prompting when you’re about to have an NPC make a decision, and ask the players to fill in the blanks. “So, you know that Duke Orsin is Woefully Overconfident....You think he’s going to get out of the jousting tournament unscathed? How might that go wrong? You willing to pay a fate point to say it does?”
Your main goal should be to enlist the players as partners in bringing the drama, rather than being the sole provider.