Odds and Ends

Fate's Big Question

This is something that's been poking around my head for a bit, and I think I've finally figured out how to express it.

I think that all RPGs have a "Big Question" -that is, a fundamental decision-making exercise that's really the point of the game. To a great extent, competence with this question is what separates a "good" player from a "bad" player in a given game, so that's a useful metric to figure out what this Big Question is.

For early D&D, the Big Question was "can I use the resources at my disposal, and those I get on the way, to get as much treasure as possible out of the dungeon without dying?" And by looking at that Big Question, we can kind of see the choices that drive the game -resource management, the risk of death, and a desire to gain treasure. It's all there, spelled out in front of us.

The vast majority of RPGs today have variations on the same Big Question: "Is my ability to build a character, and my ability to manipulate the mechanics of the game, sufficient to overcome these obstacles?" And that's how most games are played -the first two factors, in various proportions, are put up against a set of obstacles to see if the player is skillful enough to beat them.

(BTW, I understand that most games aren't "just" that. I'm not talking about the totality, just the primary emphasis).

And because a lot of elements in Fate look like those systems, it's pretty common to assume that Fate has the same Big Question.

But it doesn't.

Fate Core doesn't really allow for optimization in a way that makes charop an interesting exercise. Character building, sure. Character op? Not so much. If you're halfway proficient in the system, it's hard to make a character that's really incompetent, or super-competent. (As an aside, I find the biggest issue with charop in Fate is, ironically enough, people that over-specialize, which is the best strategy in most games).

And Fate Core's mechanical systems don't really support a deep game of mechanical fiddling. Again, yeah, there's some basics, but once you've got the general hang of using Create Advantage, the mechanics of Stress/Consequences, and how to get good skill matchups, you're pretty much good to go.

So, those can't be Fate's Big Question. But what is?

One thing that I've been saying a lot more recently about Fate is that a Fate Character can do anything, but they can't do everything.

Now, that's obviously an exaggeration. There are some things that character just can't do in a given setting. But that's not really what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about here is the fact that, given sufficient Fate Points to spend, and sufficient willingness to take on Consequences, a character can accomplish just about any reasonable goal. If the character wants to sneak into the castle, he will. It's almost inevitable. Almost anything can be accomplished. But doing so will deplete those resources. You'll end up out of Fate Points, and with your Consequences all consumed. And then you'll find yourself at the whims of the dice next time around -which is exactly why you can't accomplish everything.

And to me this leads right to Fate's Big Question. And that question is simple: "How much do you want this?" Or, since cost is really only interesting in terms of opportunity cost, "Which of these do you want more?"

And to me, that's the Big Question of Fate. And just like every encounter in a "typical" RPG has to drive towards being a challenging exercise of build/tactics, every scene in Fate should drive towards making the players make those tough choices. The choice of which thing they care about they can have, and which one they don't get to have.

That's why failure is important in Fate -if you never fail, then that means that you've gotten everything you want -and you've never had to make that hard choice. That's why we drive plots off of character aspects -because otherwise, it's likely that the players/characters won't really care enough about anything to make the choice a tough one. And that's why we let the characters be proactive -to ensure that they get to make the decisions, that they set up the hard choices for themselves by conveniently telling the GM what they care about, and what they're invested in.

So what a GM really needs to think about in Fate is not "how do I make this encounter mechanically interesting" (at least, primarily -though that's a great secondary concern). It's "how much am I going to charge them to get their way on this?" It's fundamentally a costing exercise, and the cost should be high. Every time they buy something, it should be painful, knowing that getting this means that there's something else that they care about that they'll have to forego, or a painful cost that they'll have to bear.

Spoiler alert

Want an example of this? Harry Dresden. He refused to sign up with the bad guys for years, until his GM (aka Jim Butcher) made him choose between his daughter's life and signing on with one of the bad guys.

He had to make that hard choice. That's great drama. That's great gameplay. That's the point of Fate.

So drive that cost. Figure out what the players want, and make them pay for it. Make them give you the "you're a dick" look on Concessions or Compels. Let their priorities get them in deeper and deeper.

They'll thank you for it.