Tag Archives: Tabletop

Twisting Fate: Zero to Hero

This is part of a series of posts looking at some questions about Fate Core – usually questions I’ve had and seen repeated by others – and some of the underlying topics that may lead to these questions in the first place.  Take a look at the first post – Twisting Fate – for a better explanation of why I’m writing this.  Also take note of the obligatory disclaimer that I am not trying to “fix” Fate – it’s not broken.  I’m just trying to expand my own understanding and apply it towards my game.

I also want to acknowledge Rob Hanz.  I’ve encountered him a number of times on Google+, and his explanations have been invaluable to helping me understand Fate better.  Somehow I only came across the Book of Hanz and began reading it.  Not only are Rob’s posts a great resource for those of us still learning more about Fate, but they have also made me feel much better about the questions I have about the system.  There are definitely a lot of elements of the system that “click” for me now that didn’t before I read Rob’s advice, and many of the underlying “issues” I’ve had with things have at least been validated by some of his posts – as well as others.  So at least I’m not completely crazy.  (Or if I am, at least I’m in good company.)

Zero to Hero

I came across a post recently in which a player wanted to create characters that were “lower level” than the typical starting Fate character.  He was planning to run a long-term game in which the characters went from no-name average characters to eventually becoming world-saving heroes.  He had an idea of how to accomplish this and was asking for feedback.

I’ve seen questions similar to this numerous times, and I myself am also looking at different ways the character creation process could be modified to produce characters that are closer to what might be “average”.  In typical awesome fashion, the broader Fate community usually provides some insight and feedback, throws around some different possibilities, and answers follow-up questions.

That being said, in discussions like this, I have often seen two particular responses that got me thinking.  The first is an immediate reference to D&D and its style of character advancement.  (I’ll save a discussion of that cognitive leap for my post focusing on progression.)  The other discourages using Fate for this type of game.


Give a forum thread talking about “low-level” Fate characters enough time, and you are extremely likely to find a player post a quote from Fate that the game is “about competent, dramatic, proactive characters”.   The implication being that if you are seeking to run a game about more average or weaker characters, Fate might not be the best system to use.

It may very well be the case that the player in question might be better served by another system, but as Fate is often said to be designed to simulate fiction, it seems odd to suggest that Fate cannot be used to tell a story about normal, everyday characters that become something more extraordinary (a not uncommon trope in a variety of media).  I’ve asked questions about this in the past, and based on the ensuing discussions I’ve come to believe that there are a few reasons that veteran players sometimes jump to this conclusion.

In short, I think players place too much emphasis on the competent part of “competent, dramatic, proactive”.  When you start comparing what types of characters do and do not work well in Fate, being proactive is by far the most important element in this concept.  Characters that stand around and wait for things to happen don’t work well.  Being dramatic is also important to varying degrees depending on the genre – think of dramatic as being interesting or non-boring, and you’re on the right track.  Now, being competent is important in that only a very particular style of game will work if the player characters are stumbling around in a perpetual state of incompetence.  However, as long as the characters are passably good at something (or at least are likely to succeed periodically) the game can still work.  There are two important reasons why a game with less-skilled characters can still function just fine (and be lots of fun), but both require effort on the part of the GM – which isn’t to say that they require any effort beyond what is usually expected of a GM.

Lower Level Conflict

First, we have to remember that there are plenty of ways to make the characters seem normal, especially at first, and many of them require little or no mechanical difference.  Want to play more “average” characters?  Then just focus the game on a more “average” playing field.  Instead of tackling political corruption in a capital city or averting empire-wide catastrophe, just deal with the problems in your neighborhood.  Keeping the characters grounded in a smaller scale, everyday environment can go a long way to making them feel “normal” – especially in contrast to when they do eventually start taking on bigger issues.  Scale the conflict (little c, not talking Conflict mechanics here) down to an everyday level, and gradually scale the stakes and scope of the conflicts the characters face as they grow in power and influence.

Fate Core does caution players on trying to simulate every little negotiation, and rightly so, but keeping the conflict at a small scale doesn’t mean you have to deviate from that guidance.  Just make sure that the stakes of the conflict are meaningful to the characters and that the results of rolling the dice are always interesting.  Which brings me to…

Failing Forward

The other issue with assuming a high level of competence is necessary for Fate to work is largely rooted in traditional tabletop games: an aversion to failure.  If the players keep failing rolls, and the characters aren’t successful at anything, no one is going to have any fun.  To some extent, the could certainly be true.  Of course, if you scale the conflict to fit the characters, that shouldn’t happen too often.  More importantly, it ignores one of the the elements of Fate (and many narrative games) that make the system so effective at telling great stories: failure can be just as interesting as success (often even more so).

Fate Core presents this idea largely in terms of Success at a Cost.  One possibility is that the character doesn’t get what he wants, but it’s also possible he gets the result he was hoping for – it’s just that something else happens too.  Traditional games can pose problems when the characters really need to succeed at something in order to move the story forward, but that is easily remedied by the concept of failing forward.  The story moves forward no matter what, it just becomes a little more complicated.  Not only does this mean that a game about everyday characters can still be interesting, it also gives the GM all sorts of ways to propel these average people into decidedly more unusual circumstances.

I’m not going to go into a long discussion about how awesome failing forward can be or how to use it (run a quick search and you’ll find plenty of advice), but the point is that if failure is not that significant a problem in Fate, then neither is competence.

Maybe Not Zero… But One…

There are certainly approaches to using low level characters in Fate that can cause serious issues.  You can’t have a system as elegant and interconnected as Fate and not expect some ripples when you start tinkering with mechanics.  That said, given the flexibility of Fate, there are almost certainly at least a handful of ways to handle this kind of game that should work just fine.  If this kind of game interests you, there are plenty of posts out there with ideas of how to do just that.  Just don’t get discouraged if someone suggests maybe Fate isn’t the system for you.  You may have to check some preconceptions at the door and step outside of your comfort zone, but there’s a better than fair chance you can find a way to use Fate for your game if that’s what you decide you want to do.


Fate’s Fifth Action: Discover

I’ve recently started seriously looking at Fate Core for my little game project.  I started converting my skill list over, but decided I needed to take a closer look at Fate’s basic actions first.  In addition to the four basic actions covered in the rulebook, many in the community value the utility of adding a discover action to the game.  This includes Ryan Macklin, one of the creators of Fate Core.  Feel free to check out his post, Fate: the Discover Action.

For my game, the discover action seems to be a good fit, so I’m definitely going to include it.  I’m also a firm believer that the use of Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts to zoom in on the action should never be compulsory.  You should be able to handle any attempted action with a single opposed roll if that’s what works best for your game.  Zooming in should largely be a concern of importance to the story, pacing, and how detailed you want to get with the results.  Read Robert Hanz’s post on this idea and how this can allow for zooming in and out to any level of detail.  This happens to hold great potential for my idea for a game that lets you shift between roleplaying and a more strategic tabletop game.

All this means that I’ll need to rewrite or expand on the descriptions of Fate’s basic actions to better clarify what action is used in different situations and at different levels of detail.  So I decided to start with taking a crack at a write-up of the discover action.  I also decided to create an icon for discover similar to those used for the other actions – it’s going to need one eventually.

This may need to be changed as I work through everything, but it’s a start.  Feedback is welcome.  So here it is: the discover action.


Use the discover action to reveal or establish information.

The discover action covers learning information that does not provide an immediate tangible benefit – though it may still be critical to advancing the plot of the story. It also allows a player to introduce new information into the game in a manner similar to spending a fate point to declare a story detail.

The discover action is about information; it is not about gaining anything tangible. You could use discover to look up historical events in a library, learn about building methods likely used in a structure, identify locations a criminal is known to frequent, find out the name and location of the best armorer in the city, ascertain that the creatures terrorizing the town are vulnerable to silver, recognize an opponent’s fighting style, and even detect a weak point in a stone wall – but discover will not provide anything which conveys an immediate advantage. Using the knowledge gained to your benefit requires an overcome or create an advantage action. Discover can be used to locate items, materials, and people, but it cannot remove a significant source of opposition. If acquiring the item or tracking down the thief is a source of opposition, use the overcome action.

The discover action can reveal aspects as well as more generalized facts, but success does not automatically award a free invocation on that aspect. If you want to use that aspect to your advantage, you will need to spend a fate point or use a create an advantage action. If your game includes hidden aspects, the discover action should be the primary means of revealing them.

Note that the GM is always free to provide the players with information and reveal aspects whenever it makes sense to do so. The discover action is merely intended to provide a means by which trying to gather information or learn the truth can be a source of dramatic tension. It also enables players to contribute story details without the use of fate points – much as the create an advantage action allows aspects to be invoked for free – but with the added risk that the facts they introduce into the story may turn out to be somewhat less than entirely true.

Oppose Opposing Discover

A discover action is typically rolled against passive opposition, with the GM setting opposition based on the level of detail and obscurity of the information, as well as any other factors that may make it more difficult to acquire. Certain circumstances may warrant rolling active opposition, such as trying to extract information from the subject of an interrogation. Just be sure that the character providing the opposition is only trying to avoid revealing the information, otherwise you might be dealing with an attack action.

Discover Using Discover

When you roll to discover information, you should describe what you are trying to find out (this can be fairly broad or very specific) and what you are doing to acquire the information. It’s normally assumed that you’re trying to reveal information already known to the GM, but if nothing’s established the GM can and should encourage you to introduce new details to the story. When introducing new information, you should clearly detail what you are attempting to establish prior to the roll so that the GM can determine appropriate opposition. You should also justify how or why you would have this information based on your aspects and skills. As with declaring a story detail using a fate point, the GM has the right to veto any suggestions that seem out of scope or ask the player to revise them.

Discover may be used to reveal aspects, but should not normally be used to create new aspects – that’s creating an advantage. Of course, information introduced through a discover action could later be turned into an aspect using the appropriate action or when it makes sense within the fiction. The GM can also decide to create a new aspect if it helps take things in a new direction or otherwise enhances the fiction, but you still shouldn’t get a free invocation unless you succeed with style.

If you’re using discover to reveal existing information…

  • When you fail, you either simply fail to gain any useful information or you succeed at a serious cost. What you learn is actually false, or perhaps part is true while the rest is complete poppycock; there could also be a serious complication. Maybe silver does affect the creature, but it makes them stronger somehow instead of weakening them. The armorer you were looking for turns out to actually be a long-time enemy of your family. The historical documents you reference turn out to have been written by a cult who twisted the facts. If success means revealing an aspect, then that aspect is changed to make the situation worse, or perhaps a new aspect is also created. It may also be appropriate to grant a free invocation to an opponent. Sure, you reveal Silver Gives Them Power, but the characters also gain the aspect Believes Silver is their Weakness. Perhaps you learn the magistrate’s dark secret, but now The Authorities Are After You, and the GM gets to invoke it for free. This tends to create lots of opportunities for compels.
  • When you tie, you gain the information or you reveal the aspect, but at a minor cost. What you learned is not as reliable or clear as you’d hoped, or there’s a complication. The information might be incomplete or misleading, it may need to be decrypted to be understood, or perhaps you inadvertently revealed the information to someone else as well. This could provide someone else with a boost, reveal the opposition of a later action is higher than expected, or introduce a minor problem. An aspect revealed on a tie remains true as always, but someone opposing you gets a free invocation or a boost. Maybe you tipped someone off while you were poking around.
  • When you succeed, you gain the information or you reveal the aspect.
  • When you succeed with style, you gain the information and get a boost or you reveal the aspect and get a free invocation.

If you’re using discover to establish new information…

  • When you fail, you either fail to establish the information or you succeed at a serious cost. Maybe you simply realize that you must have been thinking about a fort in a different valley, or you just do not recognize the fighting style being used by your opponent. On the other hand, you might remember the fort was abandoned due to a plague, or perhaps you mistakenly conclude that your opponent was trained by Si-Juk – when he was actually trained by Si-Juk’s arch rival. Normally, establishing new information doesn’t result in creating new aspects, but failing could mean a new aspect is created that creates serious problems. You may have been able to learn what part of town the thief calls home, but now The Thieves Guild Has Taken Out a Contract on You. Truly abysmal failures might also warrant giving a free invocation to an opponent. Again, lots of fertile ground for compels can come from a failed discover roll.
  • When you tie, you confirm what you wanted to know, but at a minor cost. What you learned is not as reliable or clear as you’d hoped, or there’s a complication. The information might be incomplete or misleading, you might remember that the only way to reach the fort is to fjord a river, or maybe you mistake the girl who used to live around here for her sister. This could provide someone else with a boost, reveal the opposition of a later action is higher than expected, or introduce a minor problem.
  • When you succeed, you establish the information as true within the game world.
  • When you succeed with style, the information is established as true and you get a boost, or the information becomes an aspect and you get a free invocation.

Discover in Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts

Discover is often used in challenges to gather information or supplies necessary to later actions in the challenge. Since the results of the challenge are determined after all rolls are made, a failure on a discover action often means that some of the information was wrong or the supplies were of poor quality, resulting in diminished or unintended results.

The discover action is rarely used to generate victories (unless the goal of the contest is to gather information in a limited amount of time), so discover sees little use in most contests. Similarly, the discover action is not used to accomplish many of the tasks commonly attempted during conflicts. However, discover can still play a key role in these situations by revealing aspects, which can then be invoked with a fate point or by creating an advantage.

Examples of Discover (In progress)

  • hw5
    From Bride of Re-Animator

    Studying a creature’s corpse to learn it is vulnerable to silver, followed by a create an advantage action to acquire silver weapons. Success with style on the discover roll could allow the character to remember the location of a nearby silver mine, or perhaps silver has declined sharply in value recently, making such weapons far less expensive.

  • Remembering that an old fort lies not far ahead while trudging through a blizzard, followed by an overcome action to successfully locate the fort. Unfortunately, the character fails the discover roll. They remember the approximate location of the fort, and manage to make their way there with an overcome roll. Little did they know that the fort has since become Home to a Pack of Wolves.
  • 7abd99f57de479f12c8c06b252607d10
    From Trail of Cthulhu: Bookhounds of London

    Searching through a library for information on a lost artifact and finding excerpts from an explorer’s journal describing where it was found, but the explorer moved the artifact and the journal itself is not located in the library. Notes in the library do mention the name of the last known owner of the journal. Succeeding with style might even reveal that the owner of the journal is currently in deep debt and in desperate need of money. In this case, acquiring the journal was intended as a source of opposition.