A Fate Primer

Systems

FATE characters are composed of three main properties: Aspects, Skills, and Stunts.

Aspects are phrases that describe some significant detail about a character. They are the reasons why your character matters, why someone is interested in seeing your character in the game. Aspects can cover a wide range of elements, such as personality or descriptive traits, beliefs, relationships, issues and problems, or anything else that helps us invest in the character as a person, rather than just a collection of stats.

Skills are what you use during the game to do complicated or interesting actions with the dice. Each character has a number of skills that represent his or her basic capabilities, including things like perceptiveness, physical prowess, professional training, education, and other measures of ability.

Stunts are special tricks that your character knows that allow you to get an extra benefit out of a skill or alter some other game rule to work in your favor. Stunts are like feats, edges, knacks, talents, or special moves in a video game, letting you do something unique or distinctive compared to other characters. Two characters can have the same rating in a skill, but their stunts might give them vastly different benefits. Say, two people with +4 Academics look pretty similar at first, until you see one person has focused on medicine and science stunts, while the other’s stunts relate to mechanical and technological endeavors.

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Beyond that, there are a number of other things on the character sheet that are of interest:

Stress is one of the two options you have to avoid losing a conflict—it represents temporary fatigue, getting winded, superficial injuries, and so on. You have a number of stress levels you can burn off to help keep you in a fight, and they reset at the end of a conflict, once you’ve had a moment to rest and catch your breath.

Note that in this campaign, to replicate the frailty of flesh compared to large thundering war machines, most characters will not have any stress, and will instead rely on:

Consequences, the other option you have to stay in a conflict. These have a more lasting impact. Every time you take a consequence, it puts a new aspect on your sheet describing your injuries. Unlike stress, you have to take time to recover from a consequence, and it’s stuck on your character sheet in the meantime, which leaves your character vulnerable to complications or others wishing to take advantage of your new weakness.

Refresh is the number of fate points you get at the start of every game session to spend for your character. Your total resets to this number unless you had more fate points at the end of the last session. Fate points are much like action/edge/force dice, willpower, bennies, and other player currencies, and are spent to gain bonuses and activate powers.

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Rolling the Bones

When you need to roll dice in Fate, you roll four Fate dice (also known as 4dF). Fate dice are six-siders, where two sides have a plus-sign, two have a minus-sign, and two are blank. When you read the dice, read every + as +1, every 0 as 0, and every – as –1. Add them all together. You’ll get a result from –4 to +4, most often between –2 and +2. [The dice system is designed to create a bell curve around 0, meaning that your skills are Fate points carry more weight than the dice in measuring effectiveness.]

When you need to roll dice in Fate, pick up four Fate dice and roll them. When you read the dice, read every + as +1, every 0 as 0, and every – as –1. Add them all together. You’ll get a result from –4 to +4, most often between –2 and +2.

The result on the dice isn’t your final total, however. If your character has a skill that’s appropriate to the action, you add your character’s rating in that skill to whatever you rolled.

So, once you’ve rolled the dice, how do you determine what a particular result means? Glad you asked. Fate uses a ladder of adjectives and numbers to rate the dice results, a character’s skills and the result of a roll (see image at right).

The Four Actions

Each skill can be used to do certain things, and those things fall into four general categories: Overcome, Create Advantage, Attack, or Defend.

  • To overcome an obstacle, such as using Athletics to climb up a wall, Empathy to calm down a crowd, or Craft to repair a device.
  • To create an advantage for your character (or someone else), in the form of an aspect you can use. Examples include disarming an adversary, learning a monster’s weakness, or emboldening your troops with a dramatic speech.
  • To attack someone in a conflict, such as shooting, stabbing, punching, etc.
  • To defend yourself in a conflict, such as evading an attack or dodging a snipe with a witty rebuke.

The Four Outcomes

After you’ve tried to do something with a skill, your results fall into one of four categories.

  • Failure: If you roll lower than your opposition, you fail. This means one of several things: you don’t get what you want, you get what you want at a serious cost, or you suffer some negative mechanical consequence. Sometimes, it means more than one of those. It’s the GM’s job to determine an appropriate cost.
  • Tie: If you roll the same as your opposition, you tie. This means you get what you want, but at a minor cost, or you get a lesser version of what you wanted.
  • Succeed: If you roll higher than your opposition by 1 or 2 shifts, you succeed. This means you get what you want at no cost.
  • Succeed with Style: If you roll higher than your opposition by 3 or more shifts, you succeed with style. This means that you get what you want, but you also get an added benefit on top of that. (See Boosts under Aspects.)

Using Fate Points

You’ll have tokens (poker chips in this case) to represent how many fate points you have at any given time during play. Fate points are one of your most important resources in Fate—they’re a measure of how much influence you have to make the story go in your character’s favor.

You can spend fate points to invoke an aspect, to declare a story detail, or to activate certain powerful stunts.

You earn fate points by accepting a compel on one of your aspects.

Invoking Aspects

Whenever you’re making a skill roll, and you’re in a situation where an aspect might be able to help you, you can spend a fate point to invoke it in order to change the dice result. This allows you to either reroll the dice or add +2 to your roll, whichever is more helpful. (Typically, +2 is a good choice if you rolled –2 or higher, but sometimes you want to risk a reroll to get that +4.) You do this after you’ve rolled the dice—if you aren’t happy with your total.

You also have to explain or justify how the aspect is helpful in order to get the bonus—sometimes it’ll be self-evident, and sometimes it might require some creative narrating.

You can spend more than one fate point on a single roll, gaining another reroll or an additional +2, as long as each point you spend invokes a different aspect.

Declaring Details

Sometimes, you want to add a detail that works to your character’s advantage in a scene. For example, you might use this to narrate a convenient coincidence, like retroactively having the right supplies for a certain job (“Of course I brought that along!”), showing up at a dramatically appropriate moment, or suggesting that you and the NPC you just met have mutual clients in common.

To do this, you’ll spend a fate point. You should try to justify your story details by relating them to your aspects. GMs have the right to veto any suggestions that seem out of scope or ask the player to revise them, especially if the rest of the group isn’t buying it.

Compels

Sometimes (in fact, probably often), you’ll find yourself in a situation where an aspect complicates your character’s life and creates unexpected drama. When that happens, the GM will suggest a potential complication that might arise. This is called a compel.

A compel often means your character automatically fails at some goal, or your character’s choices are restricted, or simply that unintended consequences cloud whatever your character does. You might negotiate back and forth on the details a little, to arrive at what would be most appropriate and dramatic in the moment. By its nature, though, a compel means bad news is coming; it’s accepting a reward now at the cost of a complication, in exchange for fate points you can spend later to affect something that really matters to you.

By the way, compels don’t necessarily mean that something bad happens to your character, and will never directly result in something as extreme as character death. They always create complexities and complications—drama that makes your life a little harder—which often leads to bad things happening.

If you accepted a compel on your character’s Hot-Headed aspect, you’re accepting that fate point while knowing that your character’s short fuse would have him rush into the scene instead of waiting for backup—it’s accepting that this character’s aspect is going to get them into a little trouble. After taking the compel, you can’t sit around waiting for backup to arrive, unless you’d rather just have the bad guys stumble onto you instead. You won’t get gunned down instantly in the lobby, but you will be taking on a warehouse full of goons alone, which is where the drama comes from.

Once you’ve agreed to accept the complication, you get a fate point for your troubles. If you want, you can pay a fate point to prevent the complication from happening, but it is not recommended that you do that very often—you’ll probably need that fate point later, and getting compelled brings drama (and hence, fun) into your game’s story.

Players, you’re going to call for a compel when you want there to be a complication in a decision you’ve just made, if it’s related to one of your aspects. GMs, you’re going to call for a compel when you make the world respond to the characters in a complicated or dramatic way.

Anyone at the table is free to suggest when a compel might be appropriate for any character (including their own). GMs, you have the final word on whether or not a compel is valid. And speak up if you see that a compel happened naturally as a result of play, but no fate points were awarded.

Finally, and this is very important: if a player wants to compel another character, it costs a fate point to propose the complication. The GM can always compel for free, and any player can propose a compel on his or her own character for free.

A Fate Primer

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