Story time: A matter of zooming

Petri Leinonen
6 min readMay 27, 2020

Fate of Atreus, our Fate Core (or Condensed) campaign set in an alternate timeline of the Battletech universe, continued. It’s Giant Robots in the style of Top Gun meets Game of Thrones. If the game in April had a huge success in using Compels, I think last night’s game was a wonderful capstone to our four game session long conflict and how Fate is a matter of zooming in and out, while the mechanical framework stays the same. There are three small stories from the session I want to share.

The first is the big mission. As said, this was the fourth session of running the same higher level Conflict. In a move blatantly stolen from Blades in the Dark, the opposition of the characters in this conflict were four stress tracks on a mission tracker that when completed meant the success of a part of the mission, and four stress tracks that were the possible obstacles they could face during the mission, such as the WarShip they were trying to sabotage reaching the final destination and releasing its deadly ordinance on the home world of the revolution the characters are leading. There were very few actual Attack rolls in this Conflict, with the mission stress tracks filling though Overcome rolls instead (1 tick on a success, 2 ticks on a success with style), which meant that Success with Cost was on the table a lot. The players had a clear view of how their mission was progressing on a meta level, and the actual rolls they made were almost always against a member of the enemy crew, which turned each roll into a personal encounter with a highly capable adversary. Minor rules changes were in effect: I had Fate points to spend in every round of the Conflict to represent the narrative strength of the NPCs. The player characters didn’t refresh their Fate point pool at the start of session, instead gaining just one point if they were below their Refresh rating. And characters’ stress had to be cleared through taking an Overcome action to relax instead of working on the mission. It worked beautifully, and I have to say that Blades in the Dark is a game that benefits a Fate GM in a huge way for constructing heist/mission type narratives.

In yesterday’s game, after a short setting vignette (asking a few questions about the WarShip and the characters to get the players to the mindset of where they were) the first actual scene was about how to deal with another distraction — the WarShip was attempting to attack a random passing JumpShip, and the political leader of the group and the tactical leader of the lance (both PCs) had a very differing approaches to how they should proceed. Both appealing to their authority and their principles, this was a clear point where neither really wanted to budge from their perspective. So, with the players permission, this became a Conflict on something very insignificant on the grand scale of things. Zooming in and setting the stakes to who got to decide on the action. And in this Conflict the lance commander ended up taking a Consequence before Conceding and letting the politico’s intervention be the way to go (albeit with the concession that they would not use any of their mission critical assets to pull it off). We looked at a minute moment in a discussion through the most complicated of the system’s mechanical lenses and the players played an intense game of chicken with a decision that in other games would have been a moment with no support from the system at all. And this small exchange, thanks to the weight we put in, will have huge impacts in the future because of the Consequence it left.

Then there was the end rolls to resolve the mission. As stated, we were running a very extended Conflict. One other special rule in it was that the players could “Concede” at any time by calling in the cavalry, or in this case another WarShip, to wage combat with the one they were on. And hopefully their sabotage would have paid off enough so that their weaker ship could take on the massive war machine.

The players called on the FWLS Light of Andurien to attack the pirate ship Harvester Gull and we zoomed all the way in, and then right out. The whole operation boiled down to three Overcome rolls that when the roll started were about the characters, in their BattleMechs, fighting an overwhelming enemy on the hull of the pirate ship, but once the rolls were made and it was time to invoke the aspects and talk about the stakes of the Overcome, we were in fact talking about the whole of the battle in those rolls. The difficulty being +8, minus the mission goals they had managed to complete before calling it, in this case three, for a total of +5. And with the zooming out, what happened was that the invoking of Aspects became something truly grand.

And here’s where I tell you a stories of the two most significant NPC of the whole story arc, the security chief and the munitions chief of the Harvester Gull. Ka and Zar. Ka was a very excellent leader, quite insane, and possibly the one person who truly understood two of the player characters and what they were dealing with. She had character, a very important place in the story, Aspects, Skills, Stress track, the works. She was the main antagonist of the player characters on their stay on the WarShip. Excellent, important NPC. Zar was a convert to the players’ cause, and the face to a small group of Marik soldiers working alongside the pirate group that would stage a mutiny onboard the Harvester Gull on command. Zar was a no-nonsense officer who became a place of stability for one of the characters.

Why do I want to mention them here? Because the last of the three rolls to determine the battle became about those two. As the characters spent their Fate points and Free Invokes, so did the NPCs on the opposing side. And Ka had been keeping an eye on them, and especially found out about the internal struggle of Thunderhawk, the political leader making the final roll, of wanting to be a hero vs. wanting to be a leader. So she invoked the free invokes she had built over the four session Conflict, to turn the success Thunderhawk was rolling into a tie, meaning a minor cost. And with the stakes so high, that “minor” cost would be that Zar and all the other mutineering crewmembers would be slaughtered, starting by Ka pulling the trigger on Zar. She was asking Thunderhawk to stop the fighting so she could let Zar live. Fate points running low and Free Invokes left on only irrelevant seeming Aspect, there was nail-biting tension on this moment. Resolved by Thunderhawk’s player invoking an Aspect on his bodyguard, who is well-known for being there even when you don’t notice them being around, and having them pull the trigger instead, shooting Ka in the back, killing her. The roll was won and the Harvester Gull (formerly FWLS Tabitha) belonged to the Andurien Secessionists.

And so we had killed one of the major NPCs, on an Invoke in an Overcome roll. No calculating the amount of stress. No worrying about conceding. Not even rolling the dice for that. The death was a by-product of something else. And it was beautiful. Very fitting for the game and the situation. When you zoom out enough, she became a casualty of a war far greater than herself. Whereas the start of the session saw the importance of a very personal situation. In the same game session. I just love this system.