Odds and Ends

Fiction First, Fiction-Rules Interaction, and Nonsensical Results

So, this is just a collection on my thoughts on this subject, as I think it's often one of the most overlooked, often by me. Some of this stuff may be subtle or just pedantic. So, either bear with me, or call me an idiot. It's all good.

"Fiction First" is the Golden Rule of Fate. To understand it, we have to define "fiction".

"Fiction", to me, is just the crap we're imagining in our heads. When we forget about our numbers, and let our imagination take over the scene, that's the "fiction". It's not a statement of some kind of book-writing agenda, or talking about some kind of predetermined plot. It's what happens when we let our imaginations take over the game, instead of focusing on the dice and character sheets.

And that's pretty damn powerful. I don't know about anybody else, but that's the reason I play RPGs. Not for the number crunching, but for that sense of being "in" the world, and seeing what happens. That's the good stuff -all the other stuff is just what helps us get there.

So, what does "fiction first" mean, at least to me? It means that character actions should start with the "fiction", and be described in terms of the "fiction". Then, and only then should they be interpreted into mechanics.

This means that in general, players shouldn't start with "I Attack/Overcome/Create". If you hear a ton of game jargon in terms of what's going on, it's time to place more emphasis on the "fiction", and less on the rules. Paint a picture. Make sure everybody is "seeing" the same thing in their mind. Have them say what their character does, not what the collection of numbers on the page suggest is the optimal course of action.

From that, figure out what else is involved in this action. Who is opposing it? How difficult is it?

Once we've figured this out, then we can start figuring out how we're going to resolve the action. Is it an Attack? An Overcome? A Create Advantage? Is there passive opposition, and if so, at what level? Then we roll the dice, go through any invocation 'bidding', and finally get a resolution.

And here we get to the next point. Fate doesn't actually tell you what happens. The dice never tell you what actually occurs -at least not the way they do in GURPS, where the system will tell you "you hit the orc in the arm, for x amount of damage, and have disabled the arm". Instead, they place constraints on the narration.

If you Attack an opponent with a sword, and tie, you get a Boost. Great. What does that mean? It's nothing concrete, that's for sure, at least not like it would be in GURPS. We have to narrate what happens, but what does happen?

Well, Fate doesn't tell us. What it does tell us is the general parameters of the narration. We know that no stress has been inflicted, so that the target isn't really inherently closer to being Taken Out. We know they haven't taken any Consequences, so nothing significant happens to them. We do know that they're placed at a temporary disadvantage, though, and the narration has to incorporate that how we do that is up to us, though.

For a gritty game, it could be that the shock of parrying the sword made them go slightly numb in that hand, but nothing that won't get shaken off. Or they could be knocked back by the force of the blow. For a swashbuckling game, maybe their clothes get ripped causing them to see red for a few seconds. In a more cinematic game, maybe they take a flesh wound that causes them to recoil.

Wait.. What? How can a Boost actually be a hit that causes damage? We didn't inflict Stress!

Well. yeah. But Stress isn't damage -it's a pacing measure, a way of determining how close someone is to being Taken Out. And succeeding on an Attack doesn't mean you hit, and tying, or even losing, on the Attack doesn't mean you don't hit (though that's usually a good bet). Again, Fate doesn't tell you what happens, it just places constraints on the narration. And since Stress is really a measure of how close you are to being Taken Out, so long as the narration of the resolution is consistent with that, you're fine. You don't need to hit someone to get them to be closer to being Taken Out, and just because you hit someone doesn't mean that they are closer to being Taken Out.

So we narrate the results, and get on with the game. This gives an overall flow that looks something like this:

  1. Describe scene in terms of "the fiction"
  2. Determine character's action in the "fiction"
  3. Determine opposition
  4. Determine how to apply rules
  5. Resolve action mechanically
  6. Get constraints on resolution from the mechanics
  7. Narrate the resolution within the given constraints

Okay, so in my mind this clears up a few common questions/concerns that frequently come up about Fate, especially with more 'transitioning' players. You know, like me.

First, if you can use Create Advantage to create an arbitrary aspect, why can't you just use it to come up with some blatantly overpowered thing that wins the scenario?

So, this is answered by the fact that we're skipping the first five steps of the resolution process! If the proposed action doesn't make sense in the fiction, you'll never get past step two. And step four definitely stops it, as there's no real way to apply the rules to an impossible action.

If we're playing a gritty military game, and someone says that they want to flap their arms and fly to the top of a guard tower that just doesn't happen. Neither does making a bomb out of sticks and mud. To even get to the point where we roll dice, the action has to be accepted as plausible, even if unlikely.

Secondly, I've heard a bunch of stuff about stress and damage and taking large hits and whatnot. The key here is that stress isn't tangible or concrete. It just places constraints on the narrative. If you "get hit" with a rocket launcher (aka, the Attack succeeded), and take a single point of stress, that doesn't mean that the rocket hit you full on the chest and you brushed it off.

What it means is you take a point of stress. One point. And that the narration of what happens as part of the rocket launcher attack needs to be consistent with that. Since getting hit by a rocket launcher means, logically, that you're turned into the consistency of chunky salsa, then clearly you didn't actually get "hit" by the rocket launcher. Maybe you twisted your ankle dodging. Maybe you got hit by some kicked up rocks. Maybe you were mostly covered, but got singed a bit.

But at any rate, Fate can't give you an illogical outcome, because it doesn't give you an outcome. For it to give you an illogical outcome, there would need to be no possible scenario in which that outcome made sense and there are plenty of ways to justify taking a single point of stress as the outcome of a rocket launcher being shot at you.

The third thing I see is the various forms of shooting someone in the head. This even shows up in the main Fate Core book! One of the sample characters (I forget which) drops an important NPC with a single hit from their sword. What about stress! What about consequences!

Well, what about them? If a trained warrior hits an unarmed, unexpecting non-combatant with a sword, what do you think is going to happen? They're going to get pretty well murderified.

This isn't really a Conflict, so stress isn't even relevant (stress is a Conflict pacing mechanic, not an inherent property of characters). The missed step in the resolution outline above is four -determining how to apply the rules to resolve the action. The core error here is really in assuming that every time someone swings a sword (or shoots a gun), it's a Conflict, and so we need to use the Conflict pacing mechanism and rules and all that jazz.

But we don't. We don't skip step four! We should always think about what the right way to resolve an action is, even if just for a millisecond. And most importantly, that resolution mechanic is dependent on a few things:

  1. The action being performed
  2. The intended result
  3. The specific situation
  4. The larger "goal" of the scene

In many systems, resolution is dependent only on the first of these. In Fate, though, that's not the case. Pushing someone can be an Attack (attempting to push them off a cliff), or it can be Create Advantage (knocking them down or off balance), or it can be an Overcome (moving them out of an advantageous position).

Shooting someone doesn't mean it's an Attack -Attack is generally a Conflict action. If the scene is better modeled as a Challenge or Contest, or even just a simple Overcome, an Attack may not be necessary. Heck, a sniper shooting someone in the head should be able to take out his target with one shot -something that's not really possible against non-mooks using default stress/consequences. So maybe that means that a 'typical' sniping situation (unaware target, etc.) isn't a Conflict -which would make sense since the target isn't providing active opposition, and isn't trying to hurt the sniper (yet!).

So that's what "fiction first" means to me. It means that the fiction drives the rules. It's called the "Golden Rule" of Fate for a reason, and that reason is that following that rules settles an absolute ton of other potential problems or questions.

As well as being a hell of a lot more fun.