Monthly Archives: December 2013

GM Constraints

ChainsI have been chewing a bit on the mechanization of GM restrictions. Often they take the form of things that the GM cannot do, but such restrictions are usually designed to curb abuses. While that’s admirable, it often has elements of fighting the last war, which feels wasteful.

But what if you begin from a position of high GM trust? It’s the position I like to take – I am happy to empower any GM who is good enough to know when not to use that power. For that GM, is there a way to impose limitations on their actions which produce fruitful results the same way that some game designs have gotten a lot of energy out of constraining player choice (constraints breeding creativity and all that).

It seems like rich territory, especially because things that might be a bit to “meta” for players might work very well for the GM.[1] If the GM has broad authority but must work towards a particular end (even if it’s as simple as a “this will go well/poorly”) directed by something other than her sensibilities, that could force play in unexpected directions.

The trick, of course, is to make the direction useful. If it’s merely random, then it’s likely to produce random results. The constraint needs to be something that moves play in rewarding directions. This is, on paper, what a GM is often trying to do when “railroading” players, but in that case it is based on the GM’s decision to trust her sensibilities over the organic direction of play.

And that’s the dark specter of this. If the GM is subject to constraints which spill over into play, is it ultimately a different flavor of railroading? I don’t have an easy answer to this, and I don’t know any real way to find out other than testing out ideas.

So, here’s one for the curious, using Fate/Fae. It has two modes: hard and soft, and some variants.

The basic mechanic is simple: Make a deck of your player’s aspects.[2] Put it in front of you and flip up the first one.

That is the only aspect you can compel. When you do so, discard it and draw the next card. Now that is the only aspect you can compel.

Now, there are two caveats to this:

First, this will work better if your table allows players to pay each other for compels, even retroactively. I like the bowl of chips in the middle of the table that players can just grab from when they self-compel (or recognize a tablemate doing the same). Yes, that demands high trust, but all this is predicated on an assumption of high trust – if the GM is the only person at the table who can be trusted with authority, your game has deeper problems than someone hoarding fate points.

Second, this does not demand that the GM push hard to compel that aspect, but I would certainly suggest acting as if it does. I think this gets most interesting if the GM treats this as the primary driver of play. Because it’s the character’s aspects, the game will always tack towards the players, but because the “chain of events” is unpredictable, the route may be totally crazy.

A few options and hacks:

  • The default treats cards as single use (until you go through the deck), but if you shuffle them back in, then you get the possibility of reincorporation, but lose the guaranteed distribution of hooks.
  • This model gets easier to implement if you also use anchors
  • This probably should be kept hidden from players, just so they can be surprised, but it may not be required.
  • If the GM really wants, she can introduce a number of cards into the deck equal to the number of aspects 1 player has. She cannot dictate when and if they come up.
  • Alternately, if the GM wants to use an abbreviated deck to drive toward s a theme, that might be cool.
  • If you need more flexibility, flip up the top 3 cards, and you can use any one of them. Replace the card used when that happens.
  • If you really want to go nuts, do 3–5 cards, but keep them face up where players can see them. Every time you compel one, replace it, and put one fate point on each remaining one. When the time comes for that one to compel, pay out the full amount on it, rather than the usual 1.


  1. GM Moves, from the *world games, are not really constraints, though they may appear to be at first glance. They are closer to best practices.  ↩
  2. You should do this anyway, since it’s super useful for a lot of things.  ↩

FAE: Lords of Intrigue

So, here’s another FAE hack that I’m calling “Lords of Intrigue”. This is a bit of a stunt, and if you spot the gimmick, then it will be pretty obvious, but if you don’t, fear not, I’ll explain at the end[1].

Another FAE hack. This one does not have a cunning name yet. The Fate Freeport Companion can be a bit of a help in this one.


Rather than the usual approaches, characters have the following 5 Approaches:

  • Arcane which covers the magic of wizards, but also scholarly understanding of the world.
  • Commercial Trade and business, as well as most day to, non-adventurey interaction. Commerce’s penumbra is quite broad, and if there is no other applicable approach, then Commerce is probably correct.
  • Pious Covers matter religious and clerical, but also matters of the heart. Swaying or understanding emotions fall under the auspices of piety, as does endurance.
  • Sneaky covers matters covert, from stealth to theft, and also speed and agility.
  • Violent as the name suggests, covers fighting (including sneaky fighting). it also encompasses strength.

These are not fairly distributed approaches. The simple reality is that Arcane and Pious are less useful than the other three. This is intentional – Arcane & Pious are the gateway to magical abilities, which broaden them significantly.

Players distribute the following array of bonuses: +3, +2, +2. +1, +0 among the 5 approaches. They also select aspects as normal – the Freeport guidelines may be useful in this regard as the expectation is that aspects will be along lines familiar to any D&D player.

Stunts are allocated based on approaches. You may take 2 stunts from under your +3 approach and 1 from one of your +2 approaches.

For Pious and Arcane stunts, look to Freeport (or some other magic system of your choice).

Violent and Sneaky stunts are (hopefully) fairly self explanatory.

Commercial stunts work a bit differently – each stunt represents a resource. The resource may either be something permanent (like an ally, a holding or a title) in which case the character gains a bonus aspect to reflect that. Alternately, it may simply take the form of liquid assets, and may be tapped for a +2 once per session any time money may lubricate matters (and like money, this bonus can stack).


The expectation is that characters are agents of a mysterious patron in a fantasy city. They will have some descriptive goal, like, say “Eliminate the Undead Coven” but they will also have a mechanical element of challenge to them.

That challenge will be rated in five different ways: Priests, Mages, Warriors, Thieves and Resources (and, yes, they correspond with the approaches), which are referred to as opposition. So, for example our undead coven quest might have a rating of 2 priests, 2 warriors and 1 Thief. That might be expressed as

Eliminate the Undead Coven

Those values are used by the GM to create a story for that quest as well as to set some mechanical thresholds. Each opposition represents one aspect (usually, but not always a person) and a +1 to the baseline difficulty. So, in our example, matters of religion and violence have a default difficulty of 2, and sneaky stuff has a +1, and it might have the following aspects:

Brother Malvolio, the mad street prophet (P)
The Secret Chapel in the Sewers (P)
Rotting Soldiers (W)
The Grave Cannot Hold Us (W)
Shadow Hunters (T)

I don’t know about you, but once I’ve laid out those aspects, I’ve got most of what I need to make this a mission.

The City

The problem is, of course, that these things never go in a straight line. I have all the elements in place for the adventure, but I don’t want to just point the players at it. How do I handle the investigation element?

The city gives me what I need, or more specifically, the locations in the city do. City Locations are treated similarly to quests, though rather than having a opposition, they merely have occupants, which are rated in the same fashion. For example, an arena where gladiators duel might have two Warrior occupants, and be noted as

Triumphant Field

As with quests, those turn into two fighting related aspects, such as:

Olivia One Eye, Gladiator Trainer (W)
Always More Hopefuls (W)

When players go an engage one of these places, then you connect two aspects of the same type to give the players a clue. For example: a conversatiosn with Olivia (W) might reveal that she saw a Gladiator get killed and get up again (The grave cannot Hold us) and she can tell the players where to find out more.

This may not be enough to crack open the case immediately, but it should be enough to get things started. If the players then engage some other aspects (perhaps some P and T) then they should be able to put together a full picture. As a rule of thumb, if the players visit places with enough occupant aspects to total up to the opposition aspects, then they should have enough to bring matters to a head.

In this case, for example, suppose the players visited

The Smiling Tiger Tavern(TT)


The House of the Sun(P)

Then they should be pretty close – maybe close enough that good skill rolls and clever play might get them there. If not, then

The Cathedral(P)

Should push things over the top. There is no obligation to make players go through all the hoops, rather, as they go through more hoops, you should be making things more and more obvious.

Also bear in mind that players will hit occasional dead ends. If they had cone to The Magical Academy(W) or The Grand Bazaar(RRRR) then it might have been a fun scene[2]but it would not get them any closer to the Undead coven.

Anyway, this is still rough around the edges, but I think it’s a fun start.

  1. This is basically written with the idea of using a copy of Lords of Waterdeep (A fantastic boardgame, also available on iOS) as a game generator. I think most people who have played it immediately realized it that almost any game of it could be used as the backbone for a cool urban campaign. This is still pretty rough – I haven’t figured in the Intrigue cards, and I still want to figure out how to use the Lords and the Factions (though my instinct is to use the factions as an excuse to rip off 13th Age Icons.  ↩
    Screenshot 2013-12-16 21.50.25

  2. And maybe useful for a different quest, if players are pursing more than one quest at a time.  ↩

Getting on the Supplement Treadmill

Because there was some demand, I present the immensely bloated Advanced TinyFate, with double the pagecount of TInyFate!




For the nerds, this basically just takes Bruce Baugh’s suggestion and combines it with the “Aspect Only” rules from the fate toolkit where aspects provide a constant passive +1 bonus when they’re applicable.   This is definitely “advanced” because applicability is something that depends on familiarity with Fate, but it’s still pretty simple.

Importantly, this also brings total bonuses back in line with default FAE (offsetting the loss of stunts) which may be useful for some.




The Tiniest Fate Hack

So, I saw these and immediately thought they looked like character sheets. Dogberry

As written, you could probably do them up in FAE in short order, but it would require adding in approaches and stunts, and I admit that would lose a bit of the elegance of it. What it really required was an aspects-only hack.

Conveniently, I had just been thinking about how to really make character differentiation work in FAE (see Classes, for an example) and I had been thinking that one way to do that was to let the core aspect be invoked for free as a way of driving it home (effectively, making it an approach with a value of +2).  And that got me thinking that maybe you could get more mileage if you *didn’t* lock in the free invoke.

And that, in turn, lead to the tiniest Fate/Fae hack of them all – TinyFate

TinyFate CHARGEN Pick one aspect that sums up your character  Pick one aspect that says what kind of trouble happens to you. Pick one aspect that describes your role in the group Pick one more aspect.   RULES Each time you roll the dice, the first aspect you invoke is invoked without cost.

What’s a FAE Adventure?

A couple of resources that came up in conversations on twitter

These are three different methods to create a compelling and engaging adventure with little prep and – importantly – without having a pre-written adventure on hand. I love this kind of stuff, and I think it’s directly and practically useful at the table.

It’s also on my mind because I’ve been thinking a bit about what a published adventure for a FAE game would look like. To understand why this is such an interesting challenge, consider converting any classic D&D module or module series[1] to FAE. It reduces the bulk of the dungeon rooms drastically and pulls out the blatant GM forces, laying bare the bones of the actual adventure. Some hold up, others do not.

Now, there’s a case to be made that a good FAE adventure could be little more than the expression of one of those templates I listed above. I think that could work, certainly. It’s all that’s needed in the strictest sense. But I feel like that’s missing something. There were elements of fiction to classic adventures which made them compelling – often more compelling than the actual adventure component itself was. But I have not yet put my finger on how to express that without just effectively handing the GM a short story.

Which might not be a terrible solution. But I’ll noodle around until I think of something else.

  1. My personal go to is the Slave Lords series, It’s premise is actually really cool and gameable, but between the requirements of dungeons and the fact that it’s designed for tournament play, it really falls apart when you unplug the D&D.  ↩

FAE Classes

I doubt I will ever stop noodling on FAE. I was thinking this morning about what I would do if I wanted to write a self-contained adventure for FAE, something in the vein of a classic low level D&D module. That specifically got into the realm of character differentiation. Setting aside magic stuff for the moment, I still kind of like the idea of differentiating the fighter from the rogue from the bard and so on. So here’s a quick thought on how to throw that in.

  • A “class” is added adjacent to the list of approaches. When the character does something within the scope of the class (fighting for a fighter, fast talking for the bard and so on) they receive a +2 bonus.
  • While there need not be a fixed list of classes, the classes and style of classes are something to discuss and think about. Fighter, Rogue, Bard, Paladin and so on are a valid list, but so is Hitter, Hacker, Grifter, Thief & Mastermind.
  • If something loosely fall under the auspices of a class, instead of arguing, take a +1 bonus instead of +2. So, rogues might get a +1 to fight instead of +2. These will often be situational – if the “fight” is stabbing someone in the back, that’s absolutely a +2 for the rogue.
  • If you settle on a magic system, then the +2/+1 becomes a potential hook for “semi” magical characters. What the cleric does at +2, the Paladin might do at +1.
  • You can keep using stunts as written, in which case they stack on top of classes, and that is cool and badass, but classes give a different possible approach. Stunts could become a way to broaden the scope of a class. That si, for a stunt, add a category of activity to the +1 level, or raise a category of activities to the +2 level. So might fighter might take the “Scholar of war” stunt to treat academics as something that loosely falls under my fighter class (so I get a +1)
  • If you need “true” advancement, then it might even be possible for the class to start at +0 or +1 and increase as high as +4. In those cases, loosely associated activities are at –1 from the class level.

Anyway, just a wacky idea, but it appeals to me a bit because I could pretty easily express it in a page or two for a self-contained product.