The Right Tool for the Job

I suspect anyone who’s looked at FAE’s approaches has considered the mechanical exploit of just using your +3 approach whenever possible. And if your +3 is in one of the more flexible approaches (Careful, Clever and Flashy in particular) then it’s not terribly hard to spin your fiction so that there’s a good argument for a particular approach.

This is kind of lame. No question about it. But the immediate tool of arguing with the player about which approach is applicable is even lamer. No one wants to stop play to have that discussion.[1] And, honestly, it’s not a huge problem – the spread of approach bonuses is small enough that this behavior is hardly overwhelming, and presumably the player is having fun with it.

But still, it bugs me. And it’s a big reason why I will always use the optional rule of adjusting difficulties based on approach [p. 37, 2] party to mitigate that behavior, but also because it simply makes intuitive sense to me. It’s rare that I’d adjust by more than +1/–1, but it’s a good option to have.

But it also scratches the surface of a larger issue, one that can be a bit of a frustration for a lot of GMs. Out of the box, Fate (and by extension, FAE) has poor support for what I call “the right tool for the job.” Because all aspects are mechanically equal (as are all approaches), there is a tendency to go for quantity over quality – that is, even if one aspect fits a situation perfectly, it may well be accompanied by two more that are kind of loosely applicable.

I admit, this is a space where I think there’s a lot of power in having a trusted GM’s judgement in play. The right tool is only rarely a technical concern – it is most often one of theme and taste. When Inigo Montoya tags his revenge aspect against the 6 fingered man, that seems right and true. When he tags his Swordsman aspect, that feels mechanical.[3]

But supporting that is tricky, especially since you really don’t want every aspect invocation to be a conversation, and the easiest way to solve that problem is the same way it’s done with approaches – by adjusting difficulties. Using the right aspect might decrease the difficulty by 1 (effectively granting it a +3) while a lame or questionable aspect might increase it by 1 (effectively reducing the bonus to +1).

There’s some sleight of hand to doing this on the difficulty side, and were I to be completely transparent, then I would effectively be promoting a variable aspect payout system that would break down as follows:

  • +1 – Technically applicable, but uninteresting. The thousandth time you’ve used your ninja aspect.
  • +2 – Most invocations
  • +3 – Oh, man, yes, that’s perfect. A Paladin fighting a devil.
  • +4 – (effectively granting a free second invocations) Oh holy crap that’s so perfect I can’t stand it – this is your moment to shine, and if you’re not about to hit a milestone, something is badly wrong.

But that’s really not tenable in play. Even if the vast majority of uses come out to a +2, the need to check each time (and the opportunity to argue each time) is a total drag. And that’s why I offload it to the GM side, out of sight, with difficulties (because mechanically, a +1 for you or a –1 for me is a wash).

Not everyone is going to be ok with such an approach. It demands a lot of trust in the GM to allow such hidden tools, though arguably it’s only so much of a stretch, since difficulty is already under the GM’s auspices. And if your table is not comfortable with something like this, then don’t do it. The purpose of this is to reward certain behaviors (ones your players hopefully enjoy), not to try to sneak in a little bit of extra GM authority while no one’s looking.

  1. Not to say that discussion can’t be had. Coming to an understanding of where one approach ends and another begins is a very useful thing for your table, but that’s something to do before or after play, not in the moment.
  2. Fate Accelerated, Evil Hat Productions, 2013
  3. If you disagree with that assertion, then the good news is that this is not a problem you need to solve! That is not a bad place to be in at all.

12 thoughts on “The Right Tool for the Job

  1. Declan

    I’m not sure about this, because it devalues Fate points.

    There is already a balancing mechanism in Fate in the form of Fate Points. If someone repeatedly invokes an aspect they will soon run out of Fate points. Each fate point has a standard value. The Aspect as I view it grants permission to spend the Fate point rather than having intrinsic value itself.

    Also, as a GM I would only question a players use of an aspect if it was highly questionable. I have to trust them to know their own characters far better than me.

    Yes, some players will try to game the system, but because I’m the arbiter of what constitutes a compel, a compel having to actually complicate their lives, the Fate system is actually quite hard to abuse, especially when the characters have low refresh scores.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Not unreasonable, and that’s a perfectly valid reason to not use the downgrade option (which is fine, it sees little real use, an dis included mostly for completeness and the odd problem player*) but would you still object to the extra potency? As a GM, I like the ability to mechanically support that something is a good idea without making a big deal of it.

      * – Side note, knowing your players solves most problems, but it’s not always a solution. New players and situations like convention games are good problems to have. And, honestly, I can develop blind spots when I know a player too well, so I’m skeptical about leaning on it too hard as a solution.

      1. Declan

        No, I wouldn’t object to the extra potency.

        I tend to reward players for moments of awesome by handing them an extra Fate chip. When something fits perfectly though I may tell them not to roll, and just describe a fantastic outcome – sometimes I don’t want to risk the dice messing up the players moment to shine.

  2. Devon Apple

    This reminds me of the Scaled Invocation section from the Fate System Toolkit (currently page 14).

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Not a coincidence. 🙂 Though I cannot take credit for the section in question, which is fantastic.

  3. LongStrider

    Please stop using ablist slurs. The repeated use of ‘lame’ to mean uninspiring made me sad and unwilling to share this around.

    We’ve become particularly sensitive to this in our effort to stop our daughter from using that slur which she picked up from TV (gee thanks Disney channel) when we saw how it hurt her grandmother who lost the use of her legs several years ago.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      So, I’ll try to take that into consideration. Abilism is an important issue to me for personal reasons, but I admit that despite that, I never crossed that issue with that particular use of the term.

      But with that said, I might suggest you frame it differently in the future. The first sentence of your response is combative, and greatly undermines what follows, something which I suspect serves your sentiment poorly.

      1. fredhicks

        Yeah, that was my read on it as well, even tho clarity soon followed after. (And I’ve already been alert to the problems with “lame”.)

  4. Jeremy Morgan

    I’m probably zeroing in on something that is tangential to your point, but the judgment of a trusted GM seems to only be part of the issue. Is this a situation where it would be helpful to have language that enables a less experienced (with Fate/FAE) GM to build this particular skill set? I actually like the variable payout system you’ve outlined here due to that lack of skill, but that’s probably because I’m looking for a quick way out when it comes to the problem you’ve outlined here.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yes, probably, but trying to do so without it being cumbersome is the trick. Not sure how to juggle both priorities.

  5. Jim McGarva

    I too was unaware that anybody might take offense at the use of the term “lame” in that sense. I would never use that word to describe a person because it is a pejorative and, as you say, a slur.

    I am surprised to hear that it’s still considered offensive in other contexts. I have a few questions (all completely genuine. I very much want to be sensitive and appropriate in my use of language):

    Does this apply to other words that, when applied to a person, would be considered slurs? For instance, calling a person “crippled” is a slur. Is it still a slur in the sentence “the threat of a presidential veto left the bill crippled and it died in subcommittee”?

    Obviously there is some limit on this. It is not considered appropriate to call a person disabled but surely saying “my internet connection has been disabled because I didn’t pay my bill,” is in no way problematic. What else should I watch out for to avoid ablism?

    Are there any uses of the word lame that are not slurs? Applying it to animals, say? (I have often seen it in the context of horses)

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      So, the rub with Lame in particular (which makes it a bit clearer than other words within that penumbra, like crippled or weak) is that it’s being used in a broadly negative fashion with little connection to the actual meaning of the word. That is, lame is being used as a synonym for “bad” rather than having any specific connotation in the way that “A crippled aircraft” might. As the word is moved to having such a general connotation, then it associates the technical definition with the broad connotation – that is, if you’re lame, you’re lame. This is why I would still be comfortable using the term in relation to horses – that has a specific meaning beyond a flavor of bad.

      All of which is slightly secondary – there’s not really much of a technical right or wrong answer to questions like this. It’s a people thing, and I figure everyone’s got to find their own answer. For me, I think “ablist slur” puts it far too strongly, but I am going to try to curtail that use of the word because it is potentially hurtful. But that’s just my take on it.

      Anyway, there was some good conversation on this over at Google Plus which may be worth a gander.


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