A Fateful Exercise in Flexibility

I’ve started adapting my setting and existing Proteus material to Fate Core while I continue to learn more about the system and how it has been utilized by the community. One thing that is very apparent with Fate is that there are almost always multiple ways to accomplish the same objective within the rules. There is no one right way to handle a given situation. At the same time, there may be a best way to handle a situation to get what you want out of that particular scene in your game. For me, this comes down to understanding what the character’s intent is and where you want your narrative focus.

I’m still working to refine my understanding of when to use different actions, both for myself and so that I can provide clear guidance as I continue to convert things over to Fate. Attack and Defend are easy, and I’ve already decided to include Discover – in addition to being conceptually helpful, I think it can add something to certain situations and styles of play. Of course, as I continue to read posts and comments from around the community, I still encounter situations when I’m not sure which action would fit. Sometimes this is just due to lacking information on the intent and context of the action, but I think there is still room for significant improvement in my understanding of where the lines are drawn between Overcome, Create an Advantage, and Discover.

A related topic is that of zooming in and out within the story – essentially deciding how you want to handle a situation based on where you want the narrative focus. Frank Hanz discusses this concept here, and Malcolm Reynolds touches on it in his comments about creating advantages to impact different layers of play. Malcolm refers to the Fate fractal in his comment, and I agree that this idea is very much a fractal – but I don’t think it’s the Fate fractal.

Typically, the fractal refers to the application of the Bronze Rule – the idea that anything in the game can functionally be treated as a character (though there are limitations). But that’s not necessarily what this is; this is a second fractal. This one holds that any action in the game can be handled with varying levels of detail by adjusting its complexity and the number of rolls required to achieve the character’s intent. This is handled primarily by varying the number of tasks which must be required to accomplish a goal, the scale of those tasks, and the use of pacing mechanisms (challenges, contests, conflicts, etc.).

In other words, any event or action in the game world can be handled by a single roll, a series of rolls, a scene or two, an entire scenario, or even a whole campaign. It all depends on where you want to focus the story, and that focus can vary from one event to the next. Fate likes to name some of its rules, which I think helps players remember, apply, and refer to them. (Technically, this concept is not limited to Fate, but Fate’s scalable mechanics make it extremely well suited to applying this concept.) So I’ve taken to calling this the Glass Rule – as in you use a magnifying glass (or telescope) to zoom in and out of the action in order to change your focus and level of detail.

The rest of this is just a few examples of how to handle the same situation with different levels of focus and different actions. It’s something of a “thought exercise by way of hypothetical gameplay scenarios” just to help me work through this and codify it in my mind.

General scenario: The PCs are agents or operators of some kind and are currently attached to a military battalion. That battalion is preparing to assault and take control of an enemy research compound, and the characters decide they want to recon the compound to give the battalion an edge in the battle to come.

Example 1: The players and the GM are more interested in the battle to take the compound, so that’s where the scene will focus.

Scouting the compounds defenses is handled with a single roll to create an advantage. Success creates a Defenses Identified and Mapped aspect on the compound with a free invocation which can be used in the battle.

Example 2: The players and GM are focused on the battle itself, but the GM wants to illustrate how valuable having operators like the PCs can be to preparing for the battle.

The GM calls for an overcome roll to first infiltrate the compound, followed by a roll to create an advantage as the characters sabotage the security system. Success creates an Automated Security System has been Compromised aspect on the compound with a free invocation for the upcoming battle.

Example 3: Similar to the second example, but one of the characters is a hacker so the GM wants to show off how he can contribute to the battalion’s victory. The GM decides to handle this with a challenge with the team working together.

The team will have to enter the compound (overcome), hack the security system (overcome), hold off any guards during the hack (overcome), and then escape (overcome). One of the characters also wants to set some traps to help deal with the guards (create advantage). The PCs roll a success at minor cost to enter the compound (boost to the GM when holding off the guards), fail to set the traps (boost to the GM on the escape attempt), succeed to hold off the guards, success with style on the hack, and success with a serious cost to escape.

The GM narrates that the team manages to infiltrate the compound through a sewer access, but a guard stumbles upon their wet footprints and lets his team know to be on the lookout for anything strange. They discover the traps and sound the alarm. The team manages to hold them off while the hacker not only analyzes the compound’s security, but also finds a way to control it remotely. Unfortunately, the guards decide to focus on locking down the compound to prevent any escape. The team manages to make it out without any serious injury, but now the compound is aware of a possible attack. A Security System Remote Access aspect is attached to the compound with two free invocations, but a second aspect, On High Alert is also created on the compound.

Example 4: The players are far more interested in infiltrating the compound than they are in the actual battle, so the GM sets up the attempt to recon the facility as a full scene.

GM: Okay, you arrive outside the compound a couple hundred yards from the entrance. You identify a few guards on patrol, a number of cameras, and a couple of automated gun systems. Some areas of the perimeter are also protected by fence, and it looks electrified.

Player 1: I don’t like the look of those guns; let’s see if we can find another way in.

GM: Like what?

Player 1: Maybe a small service or delivery entrance with less security?

GM: Okay, that sounds like a discover action; roll Scout. Assuming you’re trying to avoid being spotted while looking for a way in, this will be against the guards’ Notice (+2).

Player 1: Okay, I got +2 – does that mean they saw us?

GM: No, just a minor cost. How about this? You find an emergency exit door that’s left open with no camera coverage, but the reason it’s open is that the guards like to use it while they’re on taking a break. There are three guards on break right now, milling around outside the door and talking.

Player 1: Well, that gives us a way in without being spotted, if we can just deal with these guards.

Player 2: Let’s setup some sort of diversion to draw them away while we slip inside.

GM: Okay you’ll need to Stealth to slip passed without being seen (overcome action), but you can create an advantage to lure them away first. How do you want to do that?

Player 3: Well, we don’t want to do anything that lets them know someone is here, just something to get them to move and look away for a couple minutes.

Player 4: What about a fire?

Player 3: Wouldn’t that tip them off that we’re here?

Player 4: Not necessarily, I can use my Engineering skill on the fence to make it look like the fence just shorted out and started a grass fire.

GM: Nice. Cool plan and with your Engineering it shouldn’t be a problem, so no need to roll. There’s a Grass Fire Near the Fenceline and the guards move off to investigate. They’re still being watchful, but they’re definitely distracted. You’ve got a free invoke.

Player 2: Okay, we’ll use it and make our way inside. I’ve got the highest Stealth, so I’ll lead everyone in. With the invoke I’ve got a +4.

GM: Okay, while the guards are dealing with the fire you manage to slip into the building without being seen. You’re at the end of a corridor on the ground level. Seems to be an office area. What now?

Player 3: We need to try and find information on how their security is setup, but we’re going to need to blend in if we want to look around. This is a research facility right, so there are probably scientists and lab techs all over the place?

GM: Yeah, most of them would be in labs and such, but you’d expect to see them throughout the facility.

Player 2: Let’s snag some lab coats from a supply closet!

Player 3: My thoughts exactly.

GM: Okay, the trick will be finding a supply closet before someone sees you. Lab supplies would probably be near the labs on the lower level.

Player 3: Yeah, but wouldn’t there also be recent shipments that need to be processed? That would be in an office area like the one we’re in now. Somebody’s got to fill out the paperwork when they get new supplies in right?

Player 4: Discover to establish there are supplies in the office area – with Bureaucracy?

GM: We could, but I don’t want to get bogged down in how you guys find some lab coats. Just use Bureaucracy to create an advantage so you can start looking around. Shouldn’t be hard, so roll against Average opposition.

Player 3: All right! I succeeded with style.

GM: Okay, so you find an office marked Logistics. It’s vacant, and the storeroom has all kinds of supplies, including the lab coats. You also find some newly encoded ID badges. They won’t hold up to serious scrutiny or get you into high security areas, but they’ll help you blend in. You all look like Just Another Lab Tech and you’ve got two free invokes. Moving around outside of any restricted shouldn’t be a problem if you don’t do anything to draw suspicion to yourself.

Player 4: Now we can get down to business.

Player 2: Well, we already know what security is like at the front of the building. What else do we need to get?

Player 3: We need something that will help the military take the facility.

Player 4: Like access codes or something?

Player 3: Maybe, but those would probably be hard to get without going into high security areas, which we want to avoid if we can. I was thinking along the lines of how many guards they have, when they’re on duty, and what other forces might be in the area. Stuff like that. Though even those kinds of details might not be easy to find.

Player 2: Maybe there’s something going on with their research projects that would make it better for the battalion to attack at a certain time – like a big test or something. Lots of people might know about that.

Player 3: I like it. Now where should we look?

Player 4: Well, we’re in the Logistics office. Maybe there’s a directory or lists of offices around here.

GM: Okay. You find a list with a bunch of offices listed. It includes room numbers, phone numbers, and the name and title of whoever is assigned to the office.

Player 4: We don’t want anyone too high up the food chain; they might have extra security. We want an office with just one mid-level person. Important enough to know what’s going on, but not too important…

GM: How about an Assistant Government Liaison for Research?
Player 4: Sounds promising.

GM: Dr. Agnew’s office is on the laboratory level, along with a few other offices, but it’s outside any restricted areas.

Player 3: Let’s go.

GM: All right. A quick elevator ride later you find yourselves on the lab sub-level heading down the corridor to Agnew’s office. It’s at the end of the hall, next to a stairwell and across from a breakroom being used by the scientists. [Reveals Scientists on Break.] The office is unoccupied, but the door is closed and locked.

Player 2: Doesn’t anybody work around here? Everyone’s on a break!

Player 3: Okay. We need to get into that office.

Player 2: I can pick it with Tradecraft, but not with all those scientists around.

Player 4: What if we distract them?

GM: How?

Player 4: We could start talking about work – but none of us have much in the way of Science skills. Maybe I could use Engineering?

GM: Without any idea of what they’re working on, that might be tough. If you’re just trying to hold their attention long enough for him to unlock a simple office door, it doesn’t have to be about work. You just need to avoid causing suspicion. How about Mimic?

Player 3: So Mimic to create an advantage for his Tradecraft roll?

GM: The lock isn’t hard to pick, it’s just about not being caught. Just roll a straight overcome action with Mimic against their Insight. I’ll also burn a fate point to invoke Scientists on Break. That puts the opposition at Good (+3).

Player 3: Okay, I’ll head into the breakroom and strike up a conversation family or something while he picks the lock. Maybe stand in the doorway and listen to me to block their view. I rolled a +2, but I’ll use one of our free invokes on Just Another Lab Tech to push it to +4.

GM: Good enough. You hold the scientists attention while he easily unlocks the door. They’re soon tired of listening to you prattle on about your kids and decide to get back to work. [Removes Scientists on Break from play.] As soon as the coast is clear, you duck into the office and lock the door. It’s a Messy Office, with a desk, a few filing cabinets, and a computer.

Player 4: Okay, so we’re looking for any information on upcoming events or tests that might create an opportunity for our guys to come in and take this place. I’ll check out the computer, hopefully it’s not too hard to get into, because I don’t think any of us are good with computers.

GM: Just a username and password. The username is already displayed, but you don’t have the password. You could hack the system with Tech.

Player 2: I don’t think that would go well unless we can create an advantage or something first. Not sure how we’d do that.

Player 3: Maybe we can figure out the password. Look through his desk to see if he wrote it down. Maybe a date or a name.

GM: Hmm. Okay roll Insight to discover what he might have use as the password. Opposition is Average.

Player 3: Can we use teamwork?

GM: Sure.

Player 3: Okay. Not the greatest roll, but +2 is enough.

GM: Okay, you notice that all of the pictures in the office are of a young boy, a few with a woman that you assume is Agnew’s wife, but the boy is in all of them. Looking through the photos, you find two names written on the back of one of them: Samantha and Tim.

Player 4: Let’s try Tim for the password.

GM: No joy.

Player 4: How about Timothy?

GM: You’re in.

Player 4: Score! Now let’s start looking for any information on upcoming tests or events.

GM: There’s a lot of information to look through, and you don’t want to stay in the office forever.

Player 3: It’s a government computer system right? Can I use Bureaucracy to find schedules or emails?

GM: Sure. Another discover action to locate the information you’re looking for, but I’ll spend a point to invoke Messy Office. This guy is seriously disorganized, and that extends to his computer as well. So opposition is +4.

Player 4: Ok fine. [Rolls] Not going well today, I’ve only got +2. I’ll spend a point to invoke my Government Calls Me to Solve Problems aspect to make it +4 and at least avoid a serious cost.

GM: Fair enough. You finally manage to sort through his nightmare of a file system. You find a few references to an upcoming project demonstration scheduled for a couple of days from now. Agnew has been coordinating a visit by some other military and government officials to observe the test.

Player 2: That’s not going to help us at all! If anything there will be more security.

GM: Actually, you notice that the demonstration will be held at a place called the Clearmoor Test Range. A quick search reveals that the range is about four hours away. There aren’t any detailed security plans for the event on this computer, but from some of the messages it seems that most of the security and military forces in the area will be used to protect the test equipment in transit and secure the range.

Player 2: So there won’t be much security here at the time, and everyone else will be a few hours away. That should give our guys a big enough window to take this place.

Player 3: Yeah… But what’s the catch, where’s that minor cost?
GM: Just then the phone in the office rings.

Player 4: Don’t answer it!

Player 3: Right. Just let it ring while we get out of here.

GM: The call goes to voicemail, and a woman’s voice leaves a message. “Dr. Agnew? This is Janice in lab 3. I know you just left here, but I need to get your signature on another form so we can finish making the preparations for the test. You mentioned you were headed back to the office, but I guess you’re not there yet. When you get this message, could you please drop back by the lab before you leave for the day? Thanks.”

Player 2: Great. We’re about to have company. Make sure you leave everything how we found it, and let’s get out of here.

Player 4: Yeah. Let’s get moving!

GM: You put everything back in its place and head out the door. As you step into the hallway you see a small man in a lab coat and glasses come around the corner and head in your direction. His eyes go wide when he sees you – a look that quickly changes to one of suspicion as he realizes were you just came from. “Hey! What are you doing in my office?!”

Player 3: Uh… “We heard the phone ringing and saw that the door was open, so we were going to answer it.”

GM: He continues to walk towards you after pausing momentarily. “You were just going to answer someone else’s phone?! How did you get in there?”

Player 2: No. This sniveling lab geek government flunky is not going to talk to us like that. I’m walking right towards him. “Look pal! We heard a phone and thought it might be important. We’re trying to help you out! And you thank us with this kind of attitude?! Maybe if you kept your door locked in the first place you wouldn’t have this problem! Come to think of it, that’s probably a security violation.” I turn to look back at them. “Aren’t we supposed to report that sort of thing?” I’m not breaking cover, but I want to intimidate him into backing down.

GM: Okay. We’ll call that creating an advantage with Manipulate. Roll against his Resolve. You’re right about him being a flunky; his Resolve is Mediocre and he defends with… [Rolls] zero.

Player 2: Hah. I got +2. How about Quaking in His Lab Boots?

GM: Sounds about right, with an invocation, but he’s still suspicious.

Player 3: Okay so now we need to press the advantage. We follow right behind and go to move past him like any other scientist.

GM: All right. Another Mimic roll to maintain your cover as you make your way past him to get out of the facility without him notifying security. Remember he’s a government liaison, so his Insight is Great +4.

Player 3: We’ll use our remaining free invoke on Just Another Lab Tech along with the invoke on Quaking in His Lab Boots.

Player 4: As we approach, looking like the lab techs we obviously are, I tell him, “Janice called and said she needed you back in lab 2 to sign some more forms. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Like we don’t have enough paperwork to fill out already!”

Player 3: [Rolls] We’ve got +6 with those invokes.

GM: Okay. He stammers for a second, looking back and forth between the three of you. Then his shoulders slump and he turns around, heading back towards the lab section while muttering to himself.

Player 2: Right. Now can we get the hell out of here?

Player 3: We should have enough to make battalion command happy, let’s move before we press our luck any more than we already have.

GM: All right. You make your way through the facility and out the front door, still wearing your scientist outfits. No one gives you a second look. You remove your lab coats and head back to the battalion staging area. You’ve got the battalion a free invoke on Security? Just a Skeleton Crew. That should come in handy during the battle.

Player 4: Hey guys, what do you say to letting the grunts take care of the attack on their own? With security that light they should be able to handle it without us, and I’d like to see if we can find out what’s going on at this test range.

Player 3: I’m kind of curious to find out about this Clearmoor place myself.

Player 2: I guess it doesn’t do us much good to take that facility if they get away with whatever they were making and we don’t know anything about it. But this time we’re going armed.

Okay that was longer than I first intended, but I think it illustrates the point. All four examples end up with largely the same result: an advantage is created for the battalion’s attack. But there are four very different levels of detail and focus involved. Plus the actual advantage was established using different game mechanics. Only the first two examples used create an advantage. The third example used overcome actions in a challenge, and in the fourth example the aspect was created at the conclusion of the scene. The necessary information was actually uncovered with a discover action, but it didn’t become useful until the team got it back to the battalion.

I also tried to point out a few places in the last example where a roll could have been handled differently. Again, a key concept in applying the mechanics is to focus the story on the parts that are interesting. There are obviously a number of other ways that scene could have gone down. For example, the encounter with Dr. Agnew could have been handled as a full-blown conflict, starting out as mostly mental, but possibly transitioning if the PCs had to resort violence.

Or if the team had rolled success with style while looking for information, they might have learned that a captured scientist (perhaps a long-time acquaintance of one of the PCs) was being held in the compound and forced to assist with research. That one roll could take the scene in a completely different direction if they try to rescue him. Similarly, a failed roll could have resulted in guards being alerted at several junctures – which could easily have led to a contest to locate the information while the guards search the building floor by floor. That all assumes the characters try to remain covert; they could always escalate things and try to fight their way out.

That’s more than enough for now.


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