Atomic Action and FAE

Fate AtomThere is a tendency in RPG’s to think of actions as atomic. You swing a sword, pick a lock, climb a rope or whatever. This is, of course, a convenience that helps mechanize the experience. It allows us to create a consistent fiction and crystallize out moments of uncertainty in the form of actions with uncertain outcomes, resolve those uncertainties, and proceed with the fiction.

It’s good tech, and it dovetails well with the existence of skill lists. Skills are, after all, flags for uncertainty which are agreed upon in advance. As the OSR joke goes, no one fell off a horse in D&D until the riding skill was introduced. Rolls happen when the conceptual space of skills intersect with the crystallization of a challenge.

For all that this approach is very common, it is not the only way to go. Even within atomic systems, things break down when you step back a level of abstraction – picking a lock is a very different challenge than getting past a door, which might also be smashed, circumvented, dismantled or otherwise removed from the equation. In an atomic system, each of these is a separate moment of uncertainty resolved differently. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a good GM is their ability to interpret unexpected actions within this atomic model.

In the case of games without skills, there are no clear intersections. That is, whereas pickpocketing, climbing and lockpicking provide easy cues for when an where to introduce uncertainty and challenge, “The Artful Dodger” does not. And so most game nerds will, effectively turn broader descriptors into what are effectively containers for a skill list which exists in the GM’s head. This is a reason that games like Risus or Over the Edge are often very comfortable to affirmed gearheads – they look light, but they can run on the substantial backend that the GM has in their head.

More interestingly, those sorts of games can take on a whole different character if one is not already trained in more atomic games, but that’s a rare case. But it crystallized very interestingly for me in recent discussion of FAE. See, FAE’s approaches are structurally similar to broad, descriptive skills[1], but they critically differ in that their domains overlap VERY strongly. That is to say, there is no practical way to construct a virtual skill list for each FAE approach because it contains too many skills AND it shares most of those skills with other approaches (sometimes all other approaches).

On its own, this is neither good nor bad, but it creates a very specific problem when one is used to the intersection of skills and challenges. If you are used to thinking of problems in terms of skills, and you present the players with challenges in uncertainty in those terms, then you’re going to be staring down a disconnect, because your players are already thinking at the next level up of abstraction – you may want them to pick the lock, but they want to get past the door.

And this, in turn, points to a very common concerns with FAE’s approaches – that a character will always just pick their best approach. At first blush this seems like a problem because if this were a skill, it would be. Over-broad skills and skill substitution are known problems in RPG design, best avoided or carefully controlled. FAE runs blithely past those concerns, and that looks like a problem.

And it is, if your perspective does not change. If challenges are approached atomically, then approaches get very dull, very quickly – do you quickly pick the lock? Do you carefully pick the lock? Maybe you sneakily pick the lock?

Honest to God, does anyone really care?

If you narrow your focus down to picking the lock, then approaches become virtually meaningless because the action (and by extension, the fiction) becomes muddled. If someone was watching your character pick the door, they’d just see you pick the lock – there would be no particular cues that you were being quick or clever or whatever the hell you were being.[2]

And that’s because picking the lock is solving the wrong problem. There are games where it’s the right problem, and you probably have a lot of experience with those games. It is not the wrong problem in those games, but in FAE, it is driving a screw with a hammer.

The heart of it, to my mind, is this – different approaches should inspire different actions, even if the ends are similar. If there is no obvious difference in how an approach impact the scene, then of course the player will use their highest bonus. This is not them exploiting the system, this is you asking them the wrong question (or going to dice over the wrong thing). You need to step back a level, get the bigger picture, and see what that looks like.[3]

As a FAE GM, you have a little bit less power than normal, but you still have some potent tools, and one of the most subtle and critical is that you determine when a roll is called for. In atomic systems. this does not necessarily call for much consideration – character uses a skill, player rolls the dice, character gets results. FAE does not offer you that same crutch, and if you turn to it out of habit, then you run the risk of diminishing your experience. FAE is a bad skill-based game[4], and if you run it like a skill based game, you may have a bad experience. But FAE is a pretty good approach-based game. Try treating it that way, and see what happens.

  1. For a non FAE example, consider systems with very broad stats like BESM. Similar issue.  ↩
  2. The counterexample is, of course, Sneakers, for showing us how you forcefully pick a lock.  ↩
  3. Incidentally, doing this also clears up another difficulty in FAE – setting difficulties. There is a bad habit of setting difficulties on an atomic level as well – that door is a Great difficulty, and thus you roll great whether you try to pick the lock or smash it down. That is easy, but dumb, and utterly devalues player choices (which is another reason they’ll just grab the big bonus). The door does not matter. The character’s action is what matters. Hear it, understand it, and set a difficulty based off that, not some sort of narrative physics engine model of the world.  ↩
  4. It does not help that stunts are often constructed to look like skills, but that’s a whole other topic.  ↩

9 thoughts on “Atomic Action and FAE

  1. Leonard Balsera

    There’s something else going on here that I think is worth pointing out: almost no fiction, especially genre fiction, is interested in differentiating the precise degree of relative effectiveness any of the protagonists have at resolving the conflict of a particular scene. The precise *nature* of an obstacle always matters less than revealing the character through how they approach it (pun wholly intended).

    RPGs are not fiction, for all our fuss about the touchstones. But when you’re talking about Fate, which has constantly billed itself as an engine that uses the structure of fiction the way that D&D uses the 5-foot step, it’s an important thing to keep in mind.

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  3. Jean Paul

    First of all, great article/advice. It makes a lot of sense.

    I was just wondering if you could expand the example a little bit. How would it play out at the table?

    Player: I want to get past that door?
    GM: Sure. What do you do to get past it?
    Player: I pick the luck, duh. I am the rogue of rogues in Karell Town (high concept).
    GM: Ah. So that’s sneaky.

    Arguably, the player could say: No. I do it flashy (’cause that’s his highest approach).

    Let’s say the player rolls the dice and succeeds.

    Arguably, the GM could say: Great. You pick it, but your flourish is so exaggerated that you make a lot noise. Someone might have heard you.

    Is that it? I’m not sure if I got the gist of the post with that example. What do you think?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      That example totally works, but let me elaborate a bit with a critical question: By choosing your approach, what are you *not* doing?

      THe easiest answer is that if you’re not doing any of the other approaches. If you’re flashy, you’re not quick or careful. If you’re forceful, you’re not flashy. But what does that mean?

      First, it speaks to the consequences of their effort. Let’s stick with the door they need to get past. THe dice are going to determine whether or not you get past the door, simple enough. If they succeed narrowly, then they succeed “But…” and the approach can speak clearly to the nature of the but. But if they succeed, then there’s an implicit “And…” which is also implicit in the approach.

      The problem is that the And is not always helpful. This is not a function of the GM looking for ways to screw a player, but rather, should be a natural result of action. Careful takes time. Quick is sloppy. Forceful causes collateral damage and makes a lot of noise. This is a subtle but powerful element of the *fiction* helping drive what the “right” approach to take is.

      That sounds very abstract, but it becomes very concrete when you put situations in context. it is not enough to know I need to get past a door, I also need to know *why* I need to get past a door. Is it because someone is in hot pursuit? Then Forceful or Quick have obvious benefits, where Careful might mean I open the door but get caught doing it. Is it because I’ve snuck into this place? Sneaky is the obvious choice* and going for forceful or quick might well get the door open but also alert the guards. Do I need to make a dramatic entrance on the far side? Flashy seems to be apt. Do I have all the time in the world to just sit and do this? Then sure, do whatever. Notice that lack of context translates almost directly into lack of interest.

      * – Careful also seems like it has a place here, but BEWARE OF CAREFUL. It is very easy for careful to seem to imply a second approach (I’m carefully being sneaky!) and it does not. Careful is *focused* but that by no means implied stealth, flash or other approaches. That said, there are times when two approaches are called for (I want to be careful, in case the door is trapped, but I want to be sneaky so I don’t make any noise) and the player needs to make a decision. While they may opt for the higher bonus, they are also makign a very concrete decision about how marginal successes and failures are going to play out.

      1. Bill

        Your discussion on careful seems like it helps to solidify your previous discussion on FAE2.

        “I carefully/sneakily pick the lock.”
        “I forcefully/flashily kick down the door.”
        “I forcefully/sneakily break off the door handle.”

  4. Anders Gabrielsson

    When I read the post I felt like I was being led to something great and interesting that was left too vague for me to grasp it, but the explanation here in the comments cleared that right up. Thanks!

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