Odds and Ends

Calibration—the Dial Without a Dial

Oooh, how zen.

A common thing that I see discussed in Fate is how to model superstrength or the like. Which is a great question. If 4 Athletics is a super-athletic person, and a 5 or 6 is an Olympic quality gymnast, then how do you model something even more athletic than that? Maybe peak skill should be a dial?

(And as soon as I said dial, you probably looked at the title and went, "Oh, Rob, you think you're so clever." Well, ya got me.)

One of the things that I look at in Fate Core is that the mechanics are really solid for a lot of scenarios out of the box. And that skills don't represent an objective measure of training, but are rather the ability to influence a scene in a particular way. These seem like relatively contradictory things, but come together in the idea of "calibration".

In Fate Core, I don't think that 4 Athletics means "very athletic person". I don't think that 5 or 6 means "Olympic gymnast." I think that 4 means "the most Athletic that a starting character can be." No more, no less.

The meaning of this will, of course, vary from setting to setting. If you're doing a Zero-Dark-Thirty style game, 4 will mean a highly trained, extremely strong, professional soldier, at or near the bounds of human ability. 0 means the baseline capabilities of a professional soldier, below which you'd be drummed out of the service.

Now, if you're doing a game about normal people in extraordinary circumstances, the calibration is going to be a bit different -0 probably means a more or less average person, while that 4 may be calibrated slightly beneath the "4" in the previous example (who would be likely closer to a 5 in the "everyday people" game). And if you're running supers? Superman is probably a 5, and a normal human being would be lucky to hit 1.

The beauty of this is that then all of the differences can be handled with narration, while the core math doesn't even get tweaked. Which is a great thing -the core math works great, and modifications to it are inherently more risky than simply modifying your narration appropriately!

I'll admit, of course, that there are circumstances where this doesn't work. If you want one skill to have a higher scene influence than another, for instance, or where you want the difference in capability between the peak and the base to be higher. In practice, though, I think those circumstances are relatively rare, and should probably be the result of playtesting. You just don't put a 5 skill vs. a 0 with any hope of success anyway.

Damage is another thing that can benefit from calibration. The "gritty" question keeps coming up, and I see lots of number-based ways to handle grittiness. And those can work, but may not be necessary.

Stress and consequences, to me, are about pacing and "aftermath". They're not about damage or realism or grittiness. They're just about how long fights last, and what carries with you afterwards.

So let's say that with default Fate rules, you take a three stress hit from a sword. You mark off your third stress box (moving you closer to being Taken Out) and narrate this as taking a nasty cut across the chest.

Now, we want to have a grittier game. One where a nasty cut across the chest may well be fatal, and taking one probably means that you're pretty messed up. So, we can do this by dropping the stress track to one, and making consequences only worth -1/-2/-3. Now, that's a moderate consequence and your only stress box filled in! Grittier!

It also makes fights shorter. Which may be what you're going for, but isn't necessarily tied to grittiness. A gritty fight might be two guys fighting each other for minutes, slowly wearing each other down, small nicks and bruises adding up as they desperately struggle. That certainly sounds gritty, anyway. And it's not necessarily short.

So, how do we model a gritty fight in Fate, without changing any of the dials? Again, you could change dials as well, but I think it's interesting to see what happens if we don't change those dials.

Okay, so we take a three-stress hit. What does this mean? Well, mechanically, it means two things: We're somewhat closer to being Taken Out, and there are no long lasting effects from this hit.

So if we're going for "gritty", clearly this doesn't mean we took a nasty slice across the chest. It could mean lots of things though. Some things it might mean:

  • We've been forced out of position and are "on our heels"
  • We've taken a parry poorly, causing our hand to sting but no lasting damage
  • We had to jump out of the way to dodge, causing no injury, but making us get a bit more winded.

But what would a nasty gash to the chest be, then? Well, probably it would be Taken Out. Pain, muscle damage, blood loss and shock would probably mean that a single serious blow means "game over".

We can do the same thing with consequences. What does a -2 consequence mean?

Well, mechanically, it means that the person that delivered it gets a free invoke, it will likely go away shortly after the fight, and that you're that much closer to being Taken Out.

What that means, narratively, has to match the feel of the game. For a "cinematic" game, that may mean a cut to the arm, or something like that. For a "gritty" game, it may simply mean that you've lightly twisted an ankle, got a bit of "dead arm" from a hit that your armor soaked up, or the like. "But wait", you may be saying. "The descriptions of a lot of those don't sound like hits at all!"

And? The dice dictate the mechanical results of the action. A "hit" or a "miss" is a narrative explanation of that mechanical effect. The dice don't dictate narration -they just provide an end result that you narrate to. "Does three stress" is a purely system-level statement. How that translates into narrative is up to you -and should vary based on the type of feel you're going for.

What this ends up meaning is that, to create a grittier feel, you paradoxically narrate effects of hits as being weaker, not greater. A three stress hit becomes getting knocked out of position. A minor consequence is getting winded, or a minor laceration from shrapnel. A severe consequence is a mild cut rather than a severe gash. And being Taken Out means you suffered a single hard blow, not half a dozen!

Here's an example of how the same fight may play out in both "cinematic" and "gritty" style. The same mechanical effects will be used in both situations!

Alfred hits Bob for three stress: "Alfed strikes at Bob, leaving a nasty cut across his chest. Blood drips down as Bob begins his counterattack".

Bob hits Alfred for four stress, Alfred takes 2 and a minor consequence: "Bob's wicked counterattack catches Alfred off-guard, cutting him across the arm. The cut looks deep, but Alfred's not out of the fight yet."

Alfred hits Bob for five stress, Bob takes a Severe consequence and one stress: "Alfred continues his furious assault at Bob, laying a nasty strike to the leg. The cut doesn't look quite to the bone, but it's pretty severe"


Compare to:

Alfred hits Bob for three stress: "Alfed strikes at Bob. Bob's not ready for the sudden strike, so he stumbles and falls as he barely manages to parry in time."

Bob hits Alfred for four stress, Alfred takes 2 and a minor consequence: "Alfred presses too hastily, and Bob lashes up from his off-balance position. Bob manages to get his blade down in time, but it looks like his hand is going to be sore from taken the impact poorly."

Alfred hits Bob for five stress, Bob takes a Severe consequence and one stress: "Nursing his injured hand, Alfred kicks at Bob and sprawls him out. Bob gasps in pain, it feels like he may have a fractured rib." Same mechanics. Very different feel, based upon narration and calibration.