Fate Spies

This is the ruleset I’m using for my current Cold War espionage game. There’s a mild supers element to the game I’m running, but I’ve compartmentalized that and taken it out of this writeup. I may write it up as a standalone at some point, but honestly, the supers part is the most hand-wavey part of the game.

Character Creation
Like most Fate games, character generation is something performed with the players sitting down together and figuring out some elements of their shared history. The assumption is that when play begins the players are an established unit or cell, and that inter-player trust can be a solid commodity. A game looking to introduce a little more conflict within the party might mix it up a little.

Characters have five aspects. The first three relate to the character’s history and background, while the last two relate to missions the character has previously been on with the team.

Background Aspects
The first aspect picked should be the primary aspect for the agent. This is a descriptor which, if you only had to describe the character in one way, it would be this. I might be a role like Assassin or Mechanic, or it might be something that speaks to their story like Sole Survivor. There’s nothing that mechanically distinguishes this aspect from other aspects as an aspect, but it is going to say a lot about the agent’s role in the game, so it maybe important to consider how it’s phrased.

The other two aspects should catch the character coming and going. The first reflects where the character comes from (their background, family, education or the like) and the third reflects how they got into the agency or their time in the agency (or some other service) before joining the team.

Flashpoint Aspects
The last two aspects will be flashpoints – missions that they team took together. The details of these jobs should be worked out between the players and the GM.

After all aspects have been chosen, each player needs to come up with an anchor for each of his aspect. An anchor is a person, place or thing that is representative of that aspect to the player. The GM is expected to bring anchors up in play with some frequency as a guarantee that even fairly abstract aspects get hit often enough.

There are eight broad roles which cover the breadth of agent activities, and they are:

They will be ranked at one of 4 levels
World Class (+6)
Elite (+4)
Trained (+2)
Untrained (+0)

Agents are exceptionally skilled, and as such have one world class role, two elite, four trained and one untrained skill.

Skill Breakdown
Athlete covers most physical activities like running, jumping and climbing. Hopefully it’s pretty straightforward. If no other physical role is appropriate to a task, use athlete.

An Elite Athlete may choose one of the following benefits:
Mobility – The character can do crazy parkour/Jackie Chan type stuff, allowing them to move full tilt in environments a normal person would have to slow down for.
Brute – The character is strong as hell and can perform a burst of strength to do thing silk break ropes or bust down a door.

A World Class Athlete receives both Elite benefits.

Diplomat covers most social interaction, from making friends to lying to impressing the opposite sex. It does NOT cover the perception of the same (that’s under this auspices of Observer).

An Elite diplomat may choose one of the following benefits:
Subtle Inquiry – You can tell the GM you want the answer to a specific question before you enter conversation with an NPC. Provided you converse with them for a reasonable time, you subtly steer the conversation in such a way that you get the answer you’d have gotten if you’d asked.
Plant Seed – After a few minutes of conversation, you can plant an idea in someone through subtle language and cues. This isn’t mind control or hypnotism, it just plants an idea the way that a song gets stuck in your head. It’s not a big thing, but it can be a good way to help someone have a brilliant idea.
Gambler – In any game of chance where there are other players, the character may roll Diplomat rather than luck (which is a 0).
Dangerous Grace – In any social situation where there are rules of behavior, you can force someone into a Faux Pas, or prevent such a faux pas from someone (including yourself).

A World Class Diplomat may choose two Elite benefits.

keep track of what’s going on. They rely on keen eyes, keen ears and the sharp intellect to separate the wheat from the chafe.

An Elite Observer may choose one of the following benefits:
Cold Read – Upon entering a scene, the observer may ask one of the following questions and get a good faith answer:
Who is the most dangerous person in the room?
Who is the most important person in the room?
Who is watching me?
Where is the fastest exit?
Faces Are an Open Book – Any time they make a roll against another person regarding deception (such as whether or not someone is lying) the player will be told what the opposition rolled after the fact.
Elementary – When the character finds a piece of information, he may ask for one additional piece of information he can extrapolate from it (such as the weight of the person who left footprints) over and above what his roll may merit.

A World Class Observer may choose two elite benefits, or he may choose a single benefit (Cold Read or Elementary) and ask two questions.

covers all the interactions with people that do not depend on them liking you. A good politicians understands how power structures work, can give good orders and find loopholes in those he receives. He understands the law and perhaps most important to an agent, he understands paperwork. Outside of the uses on a mission, politician is the skill required to requisition resources for a mission or to effectively call in support.

An elite politicians can choose one of the following benefits:
A Little Bit of Law – The politician is actually a lawyer, and has the education and paperwork to prove it, and is familiar enough with international law to fake it in any country where he can speak the language. The exact benefits of this vary from country to country, but even in those with few protections for lawyers, knowledge of the law can be handy.
SOP – The politician knows the rules and regulations of any organization large enough to have rules. That means he can identify them on sight and make declarations regarding how they are supposed to respond in specific situations. For example “Ok, those are Hercule Security guards – that means 4 man teams, 1/2 hour patrol intervals and a mandatory lunch break of not less than 45 minutes”
The Man – The politician is a person of importance, if not prominence. He might own a large share of a major corporation or be royalty from someplace where that matters, but whatever the case, he moves in the circles with the movers and shakers.

A World Class politician may have two of these benefits, or he may choose to focus on The Man, in which case he is one of the dozen or so secret figures who pull the strings behind the scenes. Whether or not this is apt for a player is a decision for the table.

know things. Simple as that. While there are many situations where the application of this trait is obvious, this also has the advantage of being the fallback trait to roll when no other trait seems appropriate. Scholar can be used to make declarations as appropriate, or to allow the agent to get answers without research.

An elite scholar can choose one of the following benefits:
Linguist – The agent is the master of a number of different (and unspecified languages). In practice it means that the character can speak any language that comes up in play.
Great Mind – The scholar can choose some academic field. Within that field he is a published, respected figure, the sort that gives speeches and writes book. He can use one of his aspects for free when rolling scholar within that sphere, and when dealing with other scholars within the same circle he can use the Scholar in lieu of Diplomat.
Pattern Recognition – Given time to study the paperwork around a situation (which is to say, the kind of situation that would have paperwork to research) the character can extract one aspect associated with the situation.

A world Class scholar may choose any two of these benefits, or may take an improved version of Great Mind, in which case he is the greatest authority on the world on the topic.

covers violence of any stripe – guns, fists, sharp sticks and so on. It’s pretty simple

An elite soldier can choose one of the following benefits.
Heavy Weapons – The agent can use larger weapons, from rocket launchers to tanks. Technological complexity is no barrier to them.
Martial Arts – The character’s skill with unarmed combat is such that they do not grant superiority (see the notes on combat, below) when fighting hand to hand, no matter what the opponent is armed with, and they gain superiority against other unarmed opponents who are not similarly trained.
Tactician – The agent can use soldier in lieu of Observer when in a fight.

A World Class Soldier may take two of these benefits.

covers the ability to fix, understand and operate machinery (including driving cars).

An elite technician can choose one of the following benefits.
Pilot – The agent can drive anything, including planes, helicopters and boats.
Hacker – Computers behave for the agent like they do in the movies (well, specifically, movies from the early 80’s, so it’s still all green screens and squealing modems) rather than the way they act in real life.
Gadgeteer – The agent doesn’t need to spend fate points to have reasonable tools and gadgets on hand, and anything you can’t carry you can probably build it out of parts on hand.

A World Class Technician can take two benefits.

covers activities of stealth, deception and (of course) theft.

An Elite thief can take one of the following benefits.
Fast Hands – The agent can perform feats of legerdemain while in the middle of the most distracting of circumstances, such as in the middle of a fight or chase.
Face in a Crowd – The agent can sneak in plain sight provided there are people for him to mingle among.
Magician – The agent is an accomplished stage magician, capable of displays both flashy and subtle.

A World Class Thief can take two benefits.

Special Rules

Aspect Invocation

Characters may only invoke a single aspect of their own per roll, for either a +2 bonus or a reroll. Similarly, they may only tag one aspect on the scene.

Aspect Exploitation
Characters may exploit any number of aspects of their opposition in a scene on a given roll. That means that if you want to spend a bunch of fate points for a big bonus, you need to know your enemy well.

Descriptive bonuses
Good plans, good tools and other things that might help a roll can grant a +1 bonus to any roll. Such bonuses do not stack. Superiority (see below) is an application of this rule.

Combat and Conflict[1]
In any situation where an agent is throwing down with opposition (whether in a fight, a chase or the like) things get resolved pretty quickly. It’s all about advantage. Both parties roll appropriate skills and the outcome depends on the margin.

At any point in the fight, things will be in one of the following states:
Bother side are on equal footing
One side has an edge
One side holds an advantage
One side holds a decisive advantage

The meaning of margin of success depends a lot on the starting point in the conflict. Once one side wins they are considered to control the tempo of the fight, and this is mechanically reflected by them holding an edge, advantage or decisive advantage. The side which controls tempo has more options than the other side, depending on their status.

Starting from even footing (and some fights may start with one side or the other having an edge) the outcomes are as follows:

Win by 0-1 – status does not change
Win by 2-3 – winner gains the edge
Win by 4-6 – winner gains the advantage
Win by 7+ – winner gains a decisive advantage

If you hold the edge, the outcome chart changes as follows:
Win by 0-3 – keep the edge (unless he gives it up, see below)
Win by 4-6 – gain the advantage
Win by 7+ – gain a decisive advantage

The side with the edge gets to narrate the direction of the fight – not outcomes per se, but the general direction of things. As part of his description, the agent can give up the edge (restoring tempo to a neutral state) and add an aspect to the scene as part of the description.

If you hold the advantage, the outcome chart changes as follows:
Win by 0-4 – keep the advanatage (unless he gives it up, see above)
Win by 5+ – gain a decisive advantage

The side with advantage can describe things in such a way as to harm or inconvenience the other side. You can sacrifice advantage to reflect that inconvenience or damage as a consequence.

Decisive Advantage
Once you hold decisive advantage, you can sacrifice it for victory on your terms. That said, it’s not carte blanche – you can achieve one end with a decisive victory, and if there are more things you need to accomplish, you may need to reach it more than once.

Weapons and tools impact the roll in terms of the relative advantage they offer. Any weapon is a help against an unarmed opponent, but certain weapons will be more useful in certain situations, such as a knife in close quarters. Advantage is usually worth a +1 bump, but may be as high as +3 if it’s extreme. In very extreme situations (like a fight at range where only one person has a ranged weapon), not only does that grant superiority, but the defender can’t ever get better than edge, no matter how well he rolls.

Non-Fudge Alternative
If played without Fudge Dice, this is the alternate system.

The base roll is 3d6, with the outcome modified the role value[3] making use of bonus and penalty dice to reflect a lot of things. When a roll has one or more bonus dice, they’re extra d6’s rolled along with the usual 3d6, and the player counts the 3 highest dice showing. If the roll has penalty dice, then they’re extra d6s as too, except the player counts the three lowest dice.

On a normal roll, the outcomes break down as follows:
Less than Five – Unmitigated failure, described by the GM with an eye on making trouble.
5-9 – Failure, described by the player, who may mitigate the consequences of the failure, but not cancel it out. Best phrased as “Tell me how you fail.”
10-14 – Qualified success – This is a reasonable success, but the door is open to complications. The GM may, at his option, introduce a complication to the success, or a choice that must be made in order to succeed. When the GM does this, the player gets a fate point.
15-19 – Unqualified success, narrated by the GM
20+ – Dramatic success – as with an unqualified success, but the player has the option to ask for a little extra spin.

Conflict works roughly the same way, but table changes a little
Base or with Edge
1-4 – Edge
5-8 – Advantage
9+ – Decisive Advantage

With Advantage
0-4 – Maintain
5+ Decisive Advantage

Superiority is still reflected as a straight bonus to the roll.

Aspects in the 3d6 game can be used for rerolls or bonus dice.

1 – Informally, I’m calling this the Tempo System, because edge used to be called tempo, and I still think of it as that in my head.

2 – Notice there’s not really any difference between the normal and the edge table, I just separate them for clarity. The big change comes once you have Advantage. It all looks very fiddly, but the reality is much simpler: The threshold for taking someone out drops by two so long as you hold the advantage.

3 – Designer hat here. Some part of me suspects the 3d6 model would work better with an additional tier, so roles would be untrained (0), trained (+2), experienced (+4), elite (+6) and world class(+8), suggesting a distribution of 1 world class, 2 elite, 2 experienced, 2 trained, 1 untrained.

10 thoughts on “Fate Spies

  1. Deborah Donoghue

    I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to the new system. I dislike systems (which you know) and especially new systems (which you know) and especially systems that don’t live off adjectives (which you know). I am almost done eying all of this with vast suspicion.

    So it is high praise that I say, “I get it, and I like it. But more adjectives, please.”

    I also agree with Fred. The bonus die and penalty die were one of the few times I’ve really seen a system reflect players teaming up and rewarding it. That’s not an offhand. That’s jackpot, from a player perspective. Now I know that when I throw in behind Bull, it will *matter*.

  2. Codrus

    Interesting system ideas. The tempo/conflict rules remind me a little of old Ars Magica dueling, but look a little cleaner. I may pilfer some of that for my war skill challenges system I’ve been fiddling with.

    Question: I notice that your game here, and Ryan’s game at the Iron GM competition both went to very small skill lists with a pyramid + 1 poor skill. Is the intent there to make it easier for players to cover all the skills? Contrasted with SOTC, where roughly half the skills for a character are at mediocre, which can mean a surprising number of situations where you have the Wrong Skills. Anyway, the theory of how many skills + how player’s proficiencies should be distributed across the skill list seems like an interesting topic for a future post. 🙂

    Anchors definitely look useful particularly for more abstract sounding aspects — essentially it feels like a way for the player to tell you how to engage that particular aspect in play, which is nice. Just in general, thinking of the aspect phrase as shorthand for a bag of effects (3-4 different types of tags and compels, backstory, anchors) seems useful. It makes me want to make some sort of “aspect development sheet” as a brainstorming tool.

    When I get my Dresden FIles game off the ground, my hope is to do something like Anchors and do it publicly during character generation, with actual format being a graph similar to a Smallville relationship map. Everyone can see how the group develops.

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @Codrus Partly it’s a function of smaller lists where everyone has a range: SOTC assumes much stronger division of skills, since the talky guy is probably MUCH more talky than anyone else, as opposed to everyone expecting to be a bit talky (But in the SOTC case the talky guy is SO talky that he does it for the group). Honestly, I’m not sure which approach is really better, but it seems a good match for streamlined skills.

    And, yeah, anchors are absolutely a solution to a problem I encounter at the table. My players are too damn poetic!

    -Rob D.

  4. Rob Donoghue

    @deborah, oh, right, I forgot the helping rule!

    When one player helps another, the first player rolls. Depending on their roll (5/10/15) they can hand the helpee one of their dice – low, mid or high based on the roll – and the helpee treats that as a bonus die that rolled what it’s showing.

  5. Anonymous

    This reminds me of the role specialization for the Leverage RPG (and the accompanying show).

    For highly competent groups, or focused “mission” types (spies, assassins, con-men, etc) restricting the possible skills seems a very useful way to keep the game in the genre.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *