Fate System Toolkit
Fate Core provides a default power level that emulates a specific kind of action. It’s heroic and action-oriented, but it’s also a bit gritty, with heroes that are fragile enough to get hurt badly after a few good hits but tough enough to stay alive for a while. It also provides a certain level of competence in the form of the skill levels and fate points you get.
That power level isn’t right for every game, though. Sometimes you want to emulate high-octane pulp or gritty noir, and the default settings for those dials aren’t quite right. Well, no problem—just adjust those dials!
In Fate Core, characters have ten skills in a pyramid ranging from Average (+1) to Great (+4). This emulates highly competent individuals with a small number of things that they’re very good at and a wider variety of things that they’re pretty good at. There are two things you can adjust when it comes to skills: number of skills and skill cap.
When you increase the number of skills available, you’re making the characters competent at a wider variety of things. When you increase the skill cap, you allow PCs to become very good at a few things, possibly reaching into superhuman levels. Decreasing these things tends to push things into a grittier area; fewer skills means the heroes have more niche protection but also increases the chance that the group won’t have a specific, important skill. Decreasing the skill cap makes the PCs less competent, which can be good if you’re trying to emulate a group full of regular folks.
Most games increase or decrease both; adjusting one without adjusting the other can result in skill bloat or the upper limits of capability going unused.
Adjusting refresh up or down impacts PC competency and versatility directly. More importantly, it also affects how often the PCs have to accept compels. Higher refresh means the PCs get more fate points every session, which means they can refuse more compels. Lower refresh means compels are more important, but it also means the players are more at the GM’s mercy.
Refresh also affects how many extra stunts a player can buy, which has a direct impact on specialization, niche protection, and competency.
It should come as no surprise that handing out more free stunts makes PCs more powerful, and handing out fewer makes them less so. This will also have an impact on refresh—fewer free stunts means players might need to spend some of their precious refresh on more stunts, and vice versa.
A second way to adjust power level through stunts without affecting the number of stunts a PC gets is to adjust the power level of the stunts themselves. In Fate Core, a stunt is worth about 2 shifts. Adjusting that up to 3 or 4 means that each stunt has more individual impact, while adjusting it downward makes each less important.
Fate Core sets stress tracks at 2 each, adjusting them upward based on certain skills. You can increase this to make characters tougher if you want them to be able to take more of a beating, while adjusting stress downward makes them more fragile. This change has a direct impact on how long fights last. More stress means PCs can shrug off more punishment, which makes fights less risky and probably more common. Lower stress means fights are a lot more dangerous, which means that players will think twice before starting one. It also means they’ll need to consider conceding more often in order to avoid getting taken out.
Adjusting the number of aspects upward or downward from five doesn’t have as much effect on power level as some of the other dials you can turn, but it does have an impact on character versatility. More aspects means there are more tricks the players can call upon to pull their bacon out of the fire, while reducing the number of aspects gives them fewer. However, be careful about adjusting the number of aspects. The more aspects there are, the less important each aspect is and the more likely it is to be forgotten or ignored. Reducing the number of aspects means that each individual aspect becomes more important and less likely to be overlooked, but it also means you’ll have to make up for it to some extent with extra situation aspects. In general, more than seven aspects leads to aspect bloat, while fewer than three gives characters too little depth.
You’ll also want to think about adjusting refresh if you adjust the number of aspects. If you have a ton of aspects but low refresh, most of those won’t get invoked.
Here are a few examples of power levels you can use for your own games.
- Eight skills: 3 Average (+1), 3 Fair (+2), 2 Good (+3) (15 skill points equivalent)
- Skill cap at Good (+3)
- Refresh 2
- 1 free stunt
- 2 stress boxes to start
- 5 aspects
- Fifteen skills: 5 Average (+1), 4 Fair (+2), 3 Good (+3), 2 Great (+4), 1 Superb (+5) (35 skill points equivalent)
- Skill cap at Superb(+5)
- Refresh 4
- 5 free stunts
- 4 stress boxes to start
- 7 aspects
- Eighteen skills: 5 Average (+1), 4 Fair (+2), 3 Good (+3), 3 Great (+4), 2 Superb (+5), 1 Fantastic (+6) (50 skill points equivalent)
- Skill cap at Fantastic(+6)
- Refresh 6
- 5 free stunts
- Stunts are worth 3 shifts each
- 4 stress boxes to start; stunts can provide more
- 5 aspects
These starting skill spreads are suggestions, made with Fate Core’s default 18-skills-long list in mind. If you use a longer skill list, the relative breadth of the starting skill sets changes. Look at the above in that light. Gritty Noir’s eight skills cover about 45% of the available skills, Fate Core’s default covers about 55%, Pulp Adventure’s is about 80%, and Super-Heroic’s is 100%.
This is a competence dial. It measures not only how well a PC can take on a specific kind task, but how many different kinds of tasks a given PC can excel at.