Category Archives: Fate

GM Approaches

The other day, I talked up using different approaches for NPCs, and while I think that’s a solid idea, it also opens the door on something even more interesting – GM approaches.

Unlike NPC approaches, GM approaches are less about the action and more about GM intention. That is to say, GM approaches are based upon the expected consequences of the GM’s actions. As such, the core GM actions might be:

  • Harm
  • Misdirect
  • Steal
  • Misrepresent
  • Delay
  • Escalate

Harm is reasonably self explanatory, since it comes up in every fight, though anything that might result in PC harm (or certain types of aspects) falls under this.

A successful Misdirect gives the players false information. How you handle that will depend on your table habits regarding secrets, but the result is fairly straightforward.

A successful steal strips a player of a resource. Maybe it’s cash or a weapon, but it might be something more ephemeral, like support or an ally.

A successful Misrepresent changes how the world sees the characters, and comes up in many social exchanges.

A successful delay, well, causes a delay.

A successful escalate makes the situation worse.

Note that one specific approach which could be on that list but is not is stymie – the GM approach focusing on just stopping the players. Why? because that’s the boring outcome. By removing that from the explicit list, the GM is forced to always think about a non-boring outcome.

There’s a lot of room for mechanics in these. They could easily be restricted to explicit outcomes if you want a move-like set of limitations, but I consider that a better starting point than a conclusion. A little more curious is the question of how a GM uses them, and to that end, I see two possibilities.

First, the GM could set these levels at the outset of play (2 +3s, 2 +2s 2+1s) either by her own logic or as determined by players, and then the values are re-allocated whenever you use a +3 – It becomes a +1, bump up a +1 to a +2 and Bump ups a +2 to a +3. Creates a challenge for the GM to balance between outcomes and difficulty, which is kind of appealling.

Second, and possibly more compelling, this allows for the possibility of GM Character Sheets. That is, how would you stat yourself up as a GM? Where do you want to focus your strengths? Heck, throw in some stunts (Because I’m a Killer GM, I get a +2 to harm in the first round of combat) and you could build a whole profile. Write up a few of these and you could have a variety of GM “hats” to choose between before play. Heck, spread them out on the table before a con game and let the players choose the form of the destructor.

Ok, yes, there’s a bit of frivolity in this idea, but as a trick to channel the GM to thinking about outcomes, there’s a lot of utility here.

Also, totally curious what people think their GM sheet looks like.

NPC Approaches

Bear with me here, this is still a pretty experimental idea, but I have found myself wondering what happens if the GM starts having approaches.

There are some slightly indirect ways to implement this – NPC approaches make a lot of sense when you’re talking about villains. Heck, I could totally see a villain whose approaches are:

  • Minions
  • Gadgets
  • Gloating

and it would be pretty easy to run with that. Really, you’re mostly just using them as a means of establishing difficulty baselines, so the mechanical challenge is straightforward. And as a GM, they basically create clear directions of action for the villain. I mean, yes, you could probably come up with a universal list of villain approaches, but I admit t really like the idea of customizing them per villain.

It seems like a fun way to handled “named” villains in FAE. I mean, most NPCs in FAE really can be viewed as having 3 approaches:

  • What I Do Well: +2
  • What I do poorly: –2
  • Everything Else: 0 (and you can really just toss this)

Taking the Steel Assassin from the book (p. 38)

  • Sneaking and Ambushing: +2
  • Standing up to determined Opposition: –2

Yes, it’s just a reframing of what’s already there, but in thinking about them like approaches, it becomes easy to scale these things up for more interesting opposition without necessarily making for more complicated opposition. That is, if I need the Steel Assassin Wizard, it’s as simple as

  • Sneaking and Ambushing: +2
  • Lightning Magic: +2
  • Standing up to determined Opposition: –2

(and, yes, this streamlines EVEN FURTHER if you mush approaches and aspects together for NPCs, and there’s no good reason not to in a lot of cases).

One useful thing about this is that most NPCs matter only in the context that they appear in. That is, in most situations we don’t ever need to know how good a cook the enemy mecha pilot is, so we can easily represent him with Guns, Missiles and Laser Sword approaches. PCs need to be much more robust, so they need the general approaches, but that scene-specificity allows the GM much more leeway in thinking about NPC approaches.

This becomes even more important when you want to hang additional fiddliness off these things. To use the mecha example, why would you differentiate lasers and missiles as approaches? Why not just call them a “weapons” approach, and fill in the color?

The answer is that you totally can do that, but sometimes we WANT to make that differentiation, and mechanics can support that. Maybe Lasers ignore armor, or Missiles can attack multiple targets. A few simple things like this can give an enemy a lot of extra color, and the mechanics are usually as simple as “lower bonus, but some manner of special effect”. To go back to our Steel Assassin, we upgrade him to the ICE ASSASSIN as follows:

  • Sneaking and Ambushing: +2
  • Frozen Strike: +0, adds “Frozen” aspect on hit.
  • Shattering Blow: +2, invoke target’s “Frozen” aspect for free.
  • Standing up to determined Opposition: –2

The “combo” that drives this NPC is pretty straightforward (Freeze people then smash them) so it’s not much more complicated to run, but it’s much more colorful than our usual steel assassin.

This is one of those things that let’s a GM use FAE for her end of play, even if the players are using Fate Core, because the mechanics really are a list of the things the GM hopes to see in the scene, supported simply and robustly.

Of course, this is just one approach. There’s another one that’s been on my mind for another day.

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.

Approaches as an Add On

Bruce Baugh was pondering the idea of using FAE’s approaches as spheres in Mage, which is a great idea and really got me thinking. In the specific, there’s probably a little song and dance that you might want to do to handle combination, but the idea totally works, and I might want to drill into it sometime. However, it lead to a second idea which kind of excited me.

Another great use of FAE’s approaches is that because they are simple, clear and reasonably intuitive, they are an easy way to attach a subsystem onto an existing fate game with a minimum of effort. It is as simple as saying “within this particular sphere, you use these approaches” and you’re ready to go.

This is incredibly useful for games where some element is ubiquitous (like martial arts in a wuxia game) or something that really takes the game in a different direction (like netrunning or some types of magic). You just need to figure out what the approaches are (genre sensibilities should inform that) and how big the bonus set is.

So, let’s say for example we want to do a netrunning system, since those are always a bear. We could probably argue for some time on the ideal set of netrunning approaches, but for purposes of example, let’s use the following:[1]

  • Equipment – Use your deck or programs
  • Exploit – Find loopholes or back doors
  • Disrupt – Mess thing sup and take advantage of the chaos
  • Brute Force – Patience, time or lots of processing power
  • Circumvent – Route around a problem

Let’s say we’ve added a hacking skill to our Fate Core game, and we use that for everything but Equipment, which is probably defined by gear. For the other four approaches, you get a number of points to distribute based on your Hacking skill X2 (so, Fair gets you 2 points, good 4, great 6 and so on). Let’s say we adhere to a rough pyramid distribution just to limit spiking.

We might allow a few other sources to add to the pool. Certain stunts might increase it. If your vision of the net rewards strength of will, you might grant an extra point to someone with a Will of great or better.

But the net result is now you have, effectively, a secondary character sheet that handles all netrunning which is easy to set up, plays nicely with the rest of the system, but still feels very much like its own thing. That’s super satisfying.

The benefit for ubiquitous skills (like, say, fighting) is that it allows you to get a lot of differentiation without needing to lean as heavily on stunts. It can be a fun way to handle duels with a fine grain (as the two masters go to their respective approaches for the fight) that easily collapses back into the Fight skill for broader conflict.

For magic – well, for an easy example, imagine how easy it would be to do a magic system based on the Stormcallers system[2] where there’s a magic skill, and the storms are approaches. Easy peasy.

Approaches remain a really robust technology, and what’s most fun is that we’ve still only scratched the surface.


  1. This list adheres to the general metaphor of breaking into computers. If you’re playing with lots of hallucinatory landscapes, the approaches would probably be very different (and with more specific visual cues).  ↩
  2. If you haven’t seen the magic system toolkit preview, it’s a form of elemental magic, where each “storm” corresponds to an element.  ↩

FAE’s Best Friends

Gregor Hutton’s Best Friends RPG is an amazing little game (which is no great shock, Gregor’s stuff is all amazing) with a petty, malicious, brilliant little chargen technique which is trivially ported to FAE.

Best Friends has a list of stats like tough, pretty, rich and so on, all of which are effectively the approaches that matter to a high school group of frenemies. As with Leverage, it’s a list that’s pretty easy to map directly to approaches, but that’s tangential to the appeal.

What’s most marvelous is that for each stat (or for our purposes, approach), you write down which character your character hates because they’re better than you. Literally. “I hate Betty because she’s prettier than me”. GM gathers those up, and the value of the stat (approach) is equal to the number of people who hate you for it.

There are a few rules to make sure that everyone is reasonably equally represented, but that’s an easy bit of math based on the number of approaches and the number of players. Slightly trickier is making sure the total number of plusses comes up to a competent total. If need be, you might start everyone at +1 everything, and layer the additional points on top of it, but only if you really feel the need.

Anyway, it’s a wonderful trick, and so trivially easy to port to FAE that I had to share.

Approaching Approaches

Now that FAE is out in the wild, people are getting a good sense of what approaches are, but for the unfamiliar, here’s the quick version: approaches replace skills, and represent the style with which you solve a problem rather than the manner in which you do so. Sounds pretty abstract, but it’s easy to illustrate. In FAE, the approaches are:

  • Careful
  • Clever
  • Flashy
  • Forceful
  • Quick
  • Sneaky

So, if I get in a swordfight, we’re not rolling my skill, but rather we’re rolling based on how I’m approaching the swordfight. If I’m hammering away at my opponent, I’m being Forceful. If I’m dancing around, launching quick attacks, I’m being Quick. The basics are pretty straightforward[1].

Once you’ve got a grasp on the basic idea, the next question that springs to mind is whether that list really covers everything, and the answer is “no, of course it doesn’t”. But it’s not supposed to – it covers enough of a range to support the kind of play that makes for the baseline for FAE but, importantly, it also teaches the concept in a quick, very absorbable fashion.

Why is that important? Because one of the easiest ways to hack FAE is to come up with your own set of approaches, ones that reflect the specifics of your particular game. The general list works well for many things, but different games have different priorities, and by delineating approaches, you are explicitly calling out the areas where things happen in your game.

How do I mean that? Consider how easily FAE can be used to hack the Leverage RPG. In leverage, the 5 core stats (Hitter, Hacker, Grifter, Mastermind & Thief) can just as easily be seen as approaches. It’s pretty much a direct port[2], which is handy.

Too easy? Ok, let’s step into the realm of super spies. When I think about James Bond, I feel like he doesn’t quite line up with the approaches as listed, and I might try something like:

  • Violence
  • Stealth
  • Intellect
  • Charm/Sex
  • Resources (Gadgets, money)
  • Contacts (other people)

Easy to debate the specifics of the list (and I encourage you to make your own) but it illustrates the way that James Bond solves problems from my perspective. And if I run a FAE game with those approaches, I’m making a statement about the shape of the game.

Note that that list also reveals two interesting things about approaches:

First, they’re exclusionary – There’s no “violent” approach in the core list because violence could be approached in any of the ways listed. By making violence an approach, it’s called out as its own focus of spotlight and, more importantly, as something that CANNOT be accomplished with another approach. In effect, the Bond list says “violence is its own thing, and it caries weight.” That is to say, if there is a most important thing in your game, then you explicitly don’t want it on your approach list – thus, there is no “spying” approach for James Bond.

Second, they can also be external – the FAE core list is solidly traditional in that it talks about expressions of the character, but there’s no reason that approaches need to be that way. Can you solve a problem by throwing money at it? Then perhaps resources are a valid approach, if you expect to see that a lot (I could totally see it for the Richie Rich game). This point is important when you start thinking about plugging in things like magic systems into FAE, and deciding if magic should be an approach. It also matters a lot when you start thinking about GM approaches.

But that’s a whole other topic.


  1. And should also be familiar to anyone who remembers my Amber hack (Grace, Force, Resolve and Wits) as well as somewhat reminiscent of Robin Laws’ Dying Earth RPG.  ↩
  2. speaking broadly, you will find similar portability in any system where it is expected that characters have ALL of the possible skills at some level of capability.  ↩

What Makes a Skill

Yesterday, I stole one idea form Bulldogs! and today I’m going to steal another.

Back in the day, Feng Shui presented a very interesting way to handle skills that worked very well for it’s wide, loose model. In short, a skill represented three things. The first, Physical Ability, was the traditional meaning of a skill – actually doing the thing the skills described. If the skill was guns, it means shooting people. If it was Thief, it meant breaking picking locks and such. All standard enough.

The second thing, Knowledge, measured how knowledgeable you were about the skill in question. Thus, if you had a high guns skill, it also meant you had an encyclopedic knowledge of guns. This worked very well for the action-movie focus of the game, since that tends to be how action heroes operate. The thief may not be “The Smart Guy”, but he can rattle off the details about a specific type of bank vault with nothing more than a glance.

The last thing, Contacts, measured the character’s connection to the community surrounding the skill. This meant you knew who the other big players were in your space (“He was killed with a golden bullet through the left temple, the signature of Midas Mayhem!”) but also the broader network around it, including gun dealers, collectors, specialists and so on. Among other things, this meant that a thief could find a fence or a gun-bunny could get his hands on a bagfull of guns without much real hassle.

Now, I don’t know if Laws took this from another game, but for me it was a total eye-opener. By establishing these Skill Components, he’d neatly solved a ton of problems from more detailed systems that emerged from a disconnect between the character as envisioned and the character as supported by the rules. That is, even if you bought up your core skill, you would usually need to also buy up the far less rewarding Knowledge and Contact skills to avoid looking like a chump (or, as was more often the case, ignore them and hope the GM did the same).

I internalized this approach in my own play, to great satisfaction. In time, I added my own spin in the form of a fourth Skill Component for Perception (So gun guy could spot a sniper or a concealed carry without being Sherlock Holmes) and happily meandered onward.

But for all that, there was a bit of a downside to this, since it did not map to all sill lists, especially if you want to go to a finer grain. As an example, Feng Shui had the Intrusion skill, which covered a wide range of thiefly pursuits, and that worked. But if you ever needed to split it up (into, say, Burglar and Stealth) then you ran into weird questions, like what exactly Stealth Contacting meant. Is there a big Stealth community out there? Do they have a very sneaky newsletter?

Bulldogs! strikes at the root of that problem by taking a similar (but more detailed) breakdown and building _up_ from it to construct skills. The basic idea is that a skill can be used to do the following things: overcome an obstacles, make an assessment, make a declaration, place a maneuver, attack, defend or block.

Now, what exactly those mean has some system-specific weight, so if you’re not clear on what “make an assessment” means, then don’t sweat it (or go read SOTC) but what’s important is that those are, effectively, the seven mechanical things that a character can _do_ in the system, so using them as the baseline to define the skills makes for super tight engineering.

The idea is not portable in and of itself – those 7 things are fate specific – but the idea is a fascinating lens to take to another game and ask what characters can actually _do_. Curiously, you can end up coming around to a similar space as Apocalyse World’s moves this way, albeit from a somewhat different direction. In both cases the bones of system are laid bare, and the construction on top of them is made apparent to the reader.

So, yeah. It’s a good trick.

Space Race

Before I start, let me give a quick plug for a young gaming blog, charactergen.net. The authors are a pair of talented and inspired writers who are already off to an excellent start, and promise many cool things yet to come.

Anyway, it should be obvious that I’m a big fan of Bulldogs!, and if it’s not obvious, I suggest taking a look at the lower left hand corner of the back cover, which should answer any questions about where I stand. It’s a fun game standing firmly on a well-loved piece of sci-fi real estate and, notably, just launched its own foray into fiction with Redwing’s Gambit, by the ever talented Monica Valentinelli, if that’s your bag.

For all its explosive, sci fi fun, I want to really call out two pieces of gaming technology that any designer might want to take into account. Neither is FATE specific (though one leans that way) and both could be powerful seeds for other games.

Today I’ll talk about the first, the handling of race. Race is a tricky thing – in fiction as in life – but it’s also an essential part of this sort of sci-fi. Alien races need some manner of hook to make them something other than different colored rubber suits, but at the same time it gets very dull when every member of the race is incredibly similar. The classic racial template model tends to stray a bit too close to the latter problem – it works very well when you have one alien of a particular type on the crew, but as soon as you introduce a second one, it gets weird. Think of any six episodes of Star Trek and you can probably see the problem.

However, if you stop and think about any six episodes (well, any six *good* episodes) of Deep Space 9, you can get a sense of what you want to see. Since DS9 had so many recurring alien characters, it was no longer sufficient for “Ferengi” or the like to be a sufficiently distinguishing feature to leave it at that. Instead, it was a starting point to build a character on. Bulldogs! has found a way to build that into chargen, and quite cleverly.

See, it starts with a list of 10 aspects for every race. They’re good, colorful aspects and they paint a nice and complete picture of each race. Presenting them this way spared the author the need to write up long descriptive blurbs for each race that restates the content of those aspects. The aspect tell us plenty about the race and about how others might feel or react to them. That’s all implicit in the aspect list itself. It’s a dirty trick, and a super clever one.

If you stop there, this is basically just a clever presentation of the classic racial template – good, but dull. The twist comes in application. A character is only expected to take two of those aspects.

It’s a simple thing, but the impact is profound for a couple of reasons. First, it creates a range for a lot of different aliens of the same species, but it does so in a way that doesn’t abandon the complete picture – the fact that your character doesn’t use 8 of the aspects doesn’t mean those don’t exist, it just means they’re less important to you. The full list provides a context that the narrowed selection takes advantage of. To put it in concrete terms, it means Klingon poets might be a rarity, but they’re not impossible to make (or even penalized) – just pick the aspects that dovetail with your concept.

And as a bonus, it makes the GM’s job MUCH easier for creating NPCs. The simple act of choosing _not_ to use some baseline aspects can tell you plenty about a character. Plus, if you’re feeling lazy, you can just use more than two of them if you need to quickly stat someone up.

It’s also worth nothing that the game gracefully avoids the “Humans are the baseline” problem which often accompanies these systems. The human-equivalents are handled in exactly the same way as everyone else in this regard.

For interested GMs, it’s super portable to any system that uses descriptors of any sort (whether they’re feats, distinctions or anything else) to construct groups. Races are the most obvious application, but it’s easy to see how this could be used for organizations in the vein of White Wolf’s old splats. Hell, it could be narrowed in scope and be used to create fencing schools. Anything where you need things to share a common root but have different expressions could be well served by borrowing this idea.

Reading Fudge Dice

It should come as no surprise that I’m quite fond of fudge dice, and I’ve put a lot of thought into the different things that can be done with their three outcomes. I’ve shifted things on several different axes, and I’ve failed as often as I’ve succeeded, but it’s a fun area to play in.

One idea that I’m quite fond of is less about altering the dice or how they’re rolled and more about what that mean. Specifically, you can get a lot of mileage out of separating the dice from the outcome.

To illustrate what that means, consider that on a normal df roll, you are judging an outcome, generally based on die roll plus whatever skill is in use as well as any other bonuses or penalties. The final outcome is expressed as a number or an adjective (or both) and that’s what’s used as a basis for narration.

Now, as gamers we have always implicitly understood that there can be some separation between the dice and the outcome, specifically in situations where the dice roll badly but the roll is a success or vice versa. What I propose here is to make the distinction a little bit more explicit, and make the roll itself as important to the narration as the outcome.

To do this requires a little thought about what the die roll means. Most often, we think of it as representing the role of luck in an activity, but that doesn’t hold up under any real scrutiny. Luck maybe part of our lives, but it’s usually something we consider as part of what happens to us, less about what we do. If we miss a target, it’s because we need to get _better_, not luckier.

So instead, consider the dice to represent all the other factors that the system hasn’t already accounted for. Distractions, coincidences, a good nights sleep and anything else. Think of all the reasons you succeed and fail and – unless you’re a terrible egoist – those external factors will become obvious.

With that in mind, the dice represent the “swing” of the world at large. For narrow results (-1 to +1) nothing of any real note happened. You tried, you succeeded or failed, that’s just the way things go.

For slightly broader results (-2 or +2) something went right or wrong. Someone gave you directions. The wind was at your back. The wind _wasn’t_ at your back. The lighting was off. THere’s something you can point to and say “That helped” or “Man, that got in my way”.

Rarer results (-3 or +3) represent rare strokes of luck or bad luck. Coincidence falls for or against you. The librarian just happens to be and expert on the topic in question. The supplies you need were destroyed in a freak fire. Your opponent slipped on a patch of oil. You take a nail in one of your tires.

By this thinking, critical results (-4 or +4) are just a logical extension of this model. They’re the truly preposterous strokes of luck, good and bad, that turn a situation around.

With this in mind, you can combine this information with the outcome (which won’t be changed) to be able to describe action in terms of “success because” or even “success in spite of” to get a better picture of how a given even transpired.

This combines interestingly with aspects. If you do a dice-flipping bonus (that is, invoke to turn a die to a +) then you need to describe how the aspect is changing the situation, maybe turning a drawback into an advantage. That’s very colorful, but also makes using aspects more work.

If you just go with the +2 bonus, this has the nice effect of making your efforts look more heroic. When you spend to get a +7, it’s awesome, but bland. It’s cooler to my mind if you also take into account that you had to do it while the floor is shaking (rolled a -2).

Either way, if you use an invocation for a reroll, this makes the story of the reroll much clearer, since it has now translated into a problem which has been overcome or worked around.

This also has some interesting interaction with bonuses, penalties and uncertainty. In this model, you can legitimately have someone roll fewer dice to simulate “lab conditions”. In fact, if you think of that as pre-setting those dice to zero, then you could actually just fold penalties right into the dice.

Now, be aware this only really works if you take a light hand with bonuses and penalties, but doing so makes them much more concrete and makes them feel more toothy while actually making them a bit more normalizing. Consider – if you’re rolling with a -2 penalty, you could generate anything from -6 to +2. If two of the dice a pre-flipped to -2, then the roll will be somewhere from -4 to 0. Now, some people might miss the more extreme outcomes, but I’d wager that the latter case will _feel_ more like the penalty mattered – both narratively as well as mechanically.

(as a bonus, you might allow aspect rerolls to “clear” a penalty, if you can come up with a justification for it, since a reroll represents a change of situation)

What Else Compels are Good For

One of the curious issues I have with Aspects these days is that I almost never compel them. Not because I don’t bring their negative implications into play, but because my players are sufficiently enthusiastic about playing up the negative side themselves that I don’t even need to bother.

It’s a good problem to have. I can easily swap to a pile of fate points in the middle of the table for them to draw out of as appropriate, but I tend not to do so because those few occasions where I offer a classic compel tend to be fun and memorable, and I don’t want to lose that.

The problem, of course, is that this experience is not universal. A lot of people have encountered a lot of different problems with compels, and these problems are wide ranging enough that there’s no one solution. They are either too much power for the GM or too much power for the players, depending who you ask. They’re too restrictive, or too open ended, also depending who you ask. This has always made them a bit rough to write about because if you speak to one set of concerns, you inflame another. This is why I’ve steadily fallen into the pattern of talking about what I consider good or rewarding practices rather than seeking to solve specific problems.

So with that in mind, there are two things that go on around compels that I’m not sure get enough airtime, and which offer a slightly different perspective on things.

The first is something my players make clear to me on a regular basis, and that is that a compel is really the GM offering you an opportunity that isn’t immediately visible to you. That is to say, the GM has a slightly different perspective on what’s going on – maybe she has more information a broader perspective or whatever – and that means she will occasionally look at a situation or choice and go “Wow, that speaks _directly_ to this thing my player finds cool” and calls the player’s attention to it with a compel. The assumption is that if the player had seen this opportunity, they would have already taken it (and that assumes a certain type of player-GM relationship). If the player has seen it and declines, then all is well and good, but the GM’s done her job.

Obviously, this is harder to do if you’re doing all hard compels all the time, and I tend to treat these compels as soft (that is to say, can be declined freely).

The second is that a compel can zoom the camera in on a moment, ideally a moment of choice. If the player is faced with a choice, the compel flags it as something significant, that it’s a choice that means something for the character. Not every choice is necessarily this important, and some might merit hard compels and others soft, but the bottom line is that the compel is a spotlight, and it’s worth using to shine on things worth seeing.