The Myth of Bland Fairness in Fate

(Disclaimer: Like most of my articles, this is about Fate Core by Evil Hat. This may be heretical to your personal interpretations of the Fate Core system. You’ve been warned.)

If you’ve been playing Fate a couple of times, chances are you are getting really excited or really underwhelmed by Fate’s central rule concept of “everything you do in the fiction can be a meaningful Action if you want to.”. I’ve spoken about that before in a positive light. But if it’s not really clicking with you, that underwhelming feeling can easily turn into an angry dismissal of the whole system because “no point in what skills I choose as everything can be used to do anything.”

Now, if you listen to me for a moment, I’ll explain how the apparent pointlessness is an illusion created by looking at the game components from a perspective that’s not really part of Fate’s paradigm.

The Ladder

The Ladder is an often overlooked part of the system that gets simplified to equal a Target Number or Difficulty Class for action. If performing the Action is something easy, you place it on a low rung like +2 of the Ladder. If it’s harder, then you put it on a higher post, maybe a +4. And use the number as purely the difficulty of the mechanical task as Opposition. And you, the Game Master need to be consistent so that the players can make informed choices and the game stays fair for everyone. So you scale the Opposition as a DC or TN like you would in other games.

And that would be the traditional gamer speaking. The one where the rules are there to create the story from a simulation of some forces of nature and probability. But Fate is a game where the fiction truly informs the rules. And when dealing with the Opposition and the Ladder, it is more apparent than anywhere else.

Anything Can Be an Action

My favourite example of Create an Advantage is the character steeling her nerves by having a smoke to create the Aspect “Steady hands”. What’s the difficulty of that? The physical act of lighting a cigarette is not hard, the opposite of that. To be brutal from a purely “mechanics need to be fair” perspective, the Opposition would be something like +2, even if we look at the action of calming ones’ nerves to perform better from a psychological perspective. Most likely the action of smoking would have a +0 Opposition or less.

And that sort of thinking (“how difficult is the action of this Action”) makes things fair because you’re treating the Ladder in Opposition as a Difficulty Class or something and the difficulty of lighting a cigarette is always the same. But it also makes things bland, because if this is the case why would you ever do anything that’s hard when you can rack up Aspects with Invokes on them by doing easy things. And Fate is a game about doing dramatic things, so going the easy route each and every time doesn’t feel right. We want things to be impactful and full of drama.

Before offering some insight into how I think these things should be treated, I’ll look at another false assumption that rises from thinking the Opposition as a Difficulty Class to beat. It is the point where you start adding and subtracting things from the Opposition number because of what conditions are affecting the situation. It’s windy, so it’s harder to light the cigarette, so that’s a +1 to the Opposition. The character has been through so much that it will be harder to calm their nerves to get the Aspect created by at least +2. But if you stop and think for a moment, neither of those are modifiers to the Opposition in Fate. They’re Aspects that might be Invoked when the roll happens. And if you’re applying them to the Opposition’s place on the Ladder before the roll, then will they be applied twice if you Invoke them or are they something you can’t bring to the roll if you choose to?

Bring on the Drama

So what is the way I want you to think about? It is hard, because it involves the GM being able to say “no” to a player and their idea. To be exact, the GM and the players should be the judges to what constitutes as a “dramatic enough” Action to have an effect to the narrative, and the GM being the final arbiter in that.

The Actions’ place on the Ladder need to match the stakes. And the Opposition should reflect that. A simple Create an Advantage to “steady hands” with a smoke might be simple, with a Fair or Good opposition for a lower stakes situation, but any roll in a critical situation should never feel like the player is just going through the motions.

When they take an Action to Create an Advantage “steady hands”, as the GM, hit back with questions to make the Action and the roll worth the level on the Ladder that, in your opinion merits that +2 from the free invoke if they succeed. “You’re steeling your nerves to steady your hands? What do the tremors in your hands look like that you need to do that? And why are your hands shaking? What’s the deeper scar here you’re fighting against? Why is this so important?” And when they have reasons pressing enough for the roll to matter, tell them the appropriate difficulty. The Action could have a Great meaning to the character and the moment, so it could be a +4 Opposition.

And if after the questions, it feels like there is not enough story weight behind the Action to affect the situation at hand, it shouldn’t be an Action and the GM can say “You have a quick smoke to calm your nerves. Now, what’s your Action for your turn to stop the alien invasion?” The questions will also likely inform you of what sort of Aspects you can bring to the table if the player doesn’t succeed.

The sad fact is that you can’t let the players off too easy when playing Fate. Easy solutions, easy rolls and treating the Opposition purely as a Target Number for difficulty of the task lead to a bland game. And we don’t want a bland game of Fate.

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