I’ve been kind of randomly designing Fate widgets for a variety of purposes and thinking about some fiddly bits, and I figured I’d share a couple of them.
Hard and Soft Compels
So, one of the most contentious rules issues in Fate revolves around the handling of compels. The question is this: when the GM puts forward a compel, should the player be able to defer (at no cost) or should the player have to pay a fate point to put off the compel.
There are good arguments on both sides that more or less boil down to this: On one hand paying to resist a compel is pretty expensive and not necessarily fun because that fate point could be better spent doing something interesting. On the other hand, paying to resist is the only way to give aspects teeth, and without the requirement to pay, aspects which should have a concrete effect, like injuries or scene aspects like “Out of Air” don’t actually have any teeth.
There are other issues too, though less central ones. For example, not-paying is arguably more newbie-friendly (which is why my earlier Magic Words implementation was a no-pay one). You can pick any number of issues, but as long as you can grasp the main conflict, it should be pretty clear.
In an ideal world there should be some way to distinguish between aspects that you opt to take versus those which you must take. There’s a temptation to split the terminology here into offers (optional) and compels (Pay or play) but just for consistency I’ll refer to them as soft and hard compels.
There are a couple of ways to handle this, so here are two that are on my mind:
1. Straight Signaling
No mechanical change here except that when the GM puts forward a fate point as part of a compel, there are two ways to do it, depending on how the GM intends the compel. On a soft compel, which the player is free to refuse, the GM offers the fate point held upright in his fingers, or in his palm, facing up. On a hard compel, which the player would need to buy off, the GM sets the fate point down on the table (ideally with a forcible *click*) and withdraws his hand.
The one thing this demands are fate points that are clearly visible and easily manipulated. Poker chips are my usual favorite and they work very well for this approach, especially for getting that *click*.
2. Adjusted Cost
One other easy way to do it is to up the effective “value” of a hard compel over a soft one. Doing this effectively reduces the cost of refusing a compel by one fate point, which is to say, when the GM puts forward one fate point, the player is free to refuse. If the GM puts forward _two_ fate points, the player needs to put forward one to counter it. The GM can then put forward a third, the player a second and so forth. This has the advantage of being pretty clear with any kind of fate point, and it implicitly acknowledges that some compels are nastier than others.
So, a fixed refresh pool is an important thing when it’s a part of the rest of the system, as it is in the case of Dresden Files, but that’s not a necessity in every game. Similarly, Spirit of the Century has an implicit refresh (it’s not called that) equal to the number of aspects, but there’s no need why that must be so. Setting a much lower or higher refresh value can tweak a game. Admittedly, setting it higher can get silly, but setting it low, sometimes quite low, can be very powerful. The trick that I am currently very fond of is this: Assume a default refresh of zero, and increase it by one for every aspect on the character’s sheet that you’ve used to plan the current session.
This is a nicely double-edged trick. To players it communicates who is going to be in the spotlight in a given episode. As a GM, it tells you how well you’ve engaged each player. If you find yourself giving someone no fate points, you’ve probably done something wrong. I’m doing this in my Cold War game, and, I try to gun for at least two per player as a baseline, with more of them for the character drawing my attention.
I love a good phased chargen for building connections between players and characters, but you simply don’t always have time to do all that, so here’s a quick and dirty way to generate a list of aspects that defines the character and ties everyone together.
First, generate your three key aspects. The first is your High Concept. As in the DFRPG, this is the single aspect most reflective of what your character is, If you were to describe him in a single turn of a phrase, it would be this. The second should be your Trouble, the aspect that lies at the heart of most of the problems you encounter. This is the big obstacle you struggle with. Third is your ace in the hole, your little something extra that makes you a little bit more than yout high concept and trouble might suggest. Maybe it’s a secret, maybe it’s a different problem entirely, maybe it’s some unexpected past experience you can call on. Whatever it is, it’s the twist that rounds out your core description.
You will get an additional number of aspects equal to the number of players (including yourself, but not the GM). The first of them is what your character thinks (or perhaps hopes) people think of you. This is your Facade. At this point take a quick pause – everyone should share their High Concept, Trouble and Facade and, optionally, their Ace in the Hole.
The others are each something your character thinks is true about each other character. It’s helpful for these to be strong opinions, and it’s important to embrace the idea that these (as well as the facade) are not simply _possibly_ wrong, they are almost _certainly_ wrong. That’s as it should be. It creates a mild friction that provides a basis for interaction that might otherwise be purely limited to the necessities of play.
Feel free to openly discuss these aspects as you pick them, and players should reveal them all at the end of chargen before play begins.
As a GM, give the players opportunities to change the aspects if they have particularly good player-player interactions that would seem to change the relationship. Make sure that the new aspect is clearly stated. See, no one is one thing all the time, so creating a new expectation is just as much of a play driver as a misapprehension.
1 – The iconic bad example of this is a character with a “Broken Leg” refusing a compel on an athletics roll to keep the from sprinting around.
2 – This pair of options (and others like it) are the kind of rules options I’m very fond of because you can drop them into any FATE variant and they hold up.
3 – Yes, you can keep your Ace in the Hole secret, and while this would seem at odds with my usual problem with secrets, note that with the limited set of aspects, there’s going to be a strong incentive to _use_ that aspect. Which is to say, if it’s a secret, it’s a secret that wants to come out in play, and that’s as it should be.
4 – Kudos to the fantastic Smallvile RPG, which inspired this idea.