Fate System Toolkit

Swashbuckling Duels

The kind of cinematic, heroic action that typifies swashbuckling stories is near and dear to Fate Core’s heart—that’s just the nature of the game. But those climactic one-on-one fights between our hero and a dastardly villain almost always involve a lot of back-and-forth before one of them lands a blow. In the meantime, they might trade witty repartee or provocative insults, swing from chandeliers, leap off balconies, baffle their opponent with their cloak, or a thousand other things. Look at D’Artagnan and Jussac in The Three Musketeers, Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Cyrano’s poetry-laden duel with Valvert in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, or Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader’s duel in The Empire Strikes Back.

The create an advantage action in Fate Core makes it easy to model these sorts of conflicts, but most players will still gravitate toward the most efficient means of dispatching the opposition, especially if there aren’t other PCs around to give them an excuse to create situation aspects. That’s what this hack does—require players to rely on skills other than Fight in a conflict, with colorful results.

These one-on-one dueling rules introduce something called the upper hand. Only the duelist with the upper hand can actually use a skill with the attack action to inflict harm. The other duelist can take any other action, but cannot attack—until they get the upper hand, of course.

How does one get the upper hand? By succeeding with style with a skill other than one that deals harm in physical conflicts (Fight or Shoot, or whatever the equivalent is in your game). As soon as one combatant succeeds with style with one of these other skills, they get the upper hand. This replaces the action’s usual reward for succeeding with style, such as getting a boost or an extra free invocation. You get either the upper hand or the usual reward, but not both.

Use a token of some kind to represent the upper hand. Whatever it is, it should be something that can easily be handed back and forth, like a coin, a little plastic cocktail sword, an index card with a hand drawn on it, a fencing glove—whatever works for your group.

At the beginning of a physical conflict between two (and only two) participants, determine the turn order, as usual. If this involves a skill roll, and one of the two succeeds with style, they start the conflict with the upper hand—they got the jump on the other guy.

After that, the combatants can do any of the following every turn:

  • Attack, if they have the upper hand
  • Try to get the upper hand, if they don’t
  • Do something else—put down situation aspects, try to escape the conflict, etc.

It’s highly recommended that you use the Stress-Free variant with these rules. Otherwise, there’s a real risk of combats dragging out, instead of knocking down and dragging out.

Dekka, an Imperial Lawkeeper of Porthos V, is facing off against her arch-nemesis Xoren, the scheming cyborg and would-be usurper of the Celestial Throne, in the midst of the coronation ceremony. Each is a master of the photon blade, as they’ve demonstrated to one another multiple times in the past. Their high-tech weapons flicker brilliantly with a copyrighted hum. It’s on.

Dekka wins initiative with a +5 to Xoren’s +3—a success, but not one with style. She starts things off with a little patter, hoping to discover one of his aspects using Empathy. “What’s your damage, Xoren? Is there an algorithm for evil somewhere in your neuro-matrix? Or do you actually think this ploy is going to work?” She gets a +6, while Xoren gets a +2. Success with style!

“Evil?” he spits back. “Spend one day as a cyborg in this wretched wreck of an empire and you’ll gain a new appreciation for true evil!”

She discovers the aspect All Shall Suffer for My Pain!, and chooses to gain the upper hand instead of taking the extra free invocation.

Now it’s Xoren’s turn. Being an evil cyborg, he grabs a bystander and flings him at Dekka, hoping to create an advantage with Physique. He beats Dekka by 4 shifts—enough to gain the upper hand—but she uses that free invocation on All Shall Suffer for My Pain! to reduce that to 2 shifts. Her player explains that Xoren, in his righteous rage, accidentally telegraphed his move. The GM buys it. Xoren puts a situation aspect of Civilians in Danger in play, with one free invocation.

Dekka still has the upper hand, and she means to use it. Shoving the poor onlooker to one side and springing forward at Xoren with her photon blade, she attacks with Fight at +4, beating his Fight defense of +3. He capitalizes on the fact that she’s distracted by those Civilians in Danger, using his free invocation to bump his total up to +5. After trading a couple more fate points, Dekka comes out ahead by a single shift. Since they’re using the Stress-Free variant, that means a mild consequence for Xoren—Faltering Confidence.