Buying Trouble

A Fate Die Rolling Variant


I’ve been running a lot of games in the Blades in the Dark family lately, and enjoying it a lot.  I really missing having aspects as a knob to turn, but it’s full of other shiny bits.  The one that I really enjoy is the mechanization of the complications as something orthogonal to difficulty.  It’s an idea that exists in other forms in other games, Fate included, but it’s a tricky piece of tech that I’ve sometimes struggled with.

This is, hopefully, the end of the struggle.


This rule has only two parts: Complications, and Buying Trouble


Complications are twists on a situation.  Stylistically, they have a fair amount in common with aspect compels, but mechanically they are separate from the aspect economy, and are instead tied to the situation at hand.  Aspects are fertile ground for inspiration for complications, but it’s bad sport to use a complication for something which is more appropriate to a compel.

Complications are created as a result of rolls, and it’s important to remember that the complication should never negate the success. The complication is *something else* going wrong – it may complicate the situation (thus, the name) but it should never devalue the success. Specifically, if the player takes a complication in order to avoid a problem, the complication should not be that problem. 

 Complications might include:

  • The arrival of opposition
  • Unwelcome information being released
  • Resources being used up
  • Flumphs

Complications come in 4 different levels

  1. Annoying – These are minor complications – maybe a small resource loss or a moment of slapstick.  
  2. Inconvenient – This complication is making the current situation a little more difficulty.  It might require another roll, an unexpected resource spend or otherwise keep things from going quite as smoothly as hoped. As a tip, this is *roughly* the severity of a compel. 
  3. Problematic – The complication is a problem of it own, and needs to be dealt with or avoided. 
  4. Disastrous – Things Go Bad.  This complication is a BIG problem, and is likely to totally upend the situation.

Buying Trouble

When a player rolls dice, they have the option of dropping all dice showing minuses to ‘buy trouble’.  Doing so changes the result of the die roll, but introduces a complication  of a level equal to the number of minuses spent.  


Finn is picking a lock, because RPG Conduct Code demands that all examples include at least one door.   His player rolls – – + +, for a net zero.  Finn could take that, but he’s in a hurry – the guards are coming and he’s tight on time, so he buys trouble, and changes his roll from a 0 to a +2 and the GM is free to introduce an inconvenience.   

The GM should explicitly NOT have the effort take longer, or have the guards show up as a complication – that’s exactly what the player was buying trouble to avoid, so it would be a Jerk move.

If Finn’s been making trouble elsewhere, this would be a great time for that to be found out, and perhaps have an alarm go off.  This is going to make things harder, but it doesn’t create an immediate consequence.

But supposing he hasn’t, the GM might have the door go someplace other than Finn’s player expects.  Perhaps his map is wrong, or he picked the wrong door, and now he’s lost, or in an awkward location.

If Finn had bought more trouble (say, he’d rolled  – – – +), then the door might go someplace like a closet, or to a room where the staff are preparing a meal, and now he has a whole new problem. 

Using These Rules

You can drop these rules into any Fate game, and they’ll work fine.  However, there are some interactions that are going to be worth watching.

First, in games where there are a LOT of Fate points in play, this is going to be a less appealing option, because the mechanical utility of this approach depends on the pressure to offset a bad roll.  If fate points are bountiful, there’s very little pressure to take consequences.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing – presumably the many fate points mean that compels are keeping things plenty interesting, so complications are less necessary.  This rule still works in those games, it just may come up less often. 

Second, this approach synergizes well with having aspects flip dice rather than give a flat +2, because it keeps bonuses bounded, and it introduces a bit of a dynamic of using aspects to avoid trouble when appropriate. 


Nuanced Trouble

There may be a temptation to let players decide how much trouble they want to buy (rather than have it be all or nothing) .  That’s fine, and it’s a reasonable option, but it has the risk of introducing analysis paralysis.  Don’t use this option if your players are going to take more than half a second deciding how many minuses they’ll spend.

Closed Economy

For players who like to constrain the overall Fate Point budget in play, consider this option:  

  1. The GM starts play with a fixed pool of Fate Points (say, 1 per player)
  2. When the player takes a complication, the GM may opt to take a number of Fate Points equal to the level of the complication.
  3. The GM’s Fate point pool is limited to those on hand.


Aka “The Morgan Rule” – If you want to steal Devil’s Bargains from Blades, they can turn blanks to plusses.  Not sure if this really works, but – putting a pin in it as I think.


So, this is pretty much version 0.1. I’m genuinely excited to try this at the table and see how it evolves. I suspect the closed economy option has got a lot of legs, because I think it might be a real solution to the se’f-compel issue. My biggest concern is to see how well it plays with the flow of fate points. They might be complimentary, but there’s a non-zero chance of them tripping over each others shoelaces, in which case this might be the basis for something else entirely.

10 thoughts on “Buying Trouble

  1. sirien


    Sorry for the complete offtopic question, but does anyone know what happened to Fred Hicks blog?

    Everything is redirected to Wikipedia, main page of the blog to article about parasocial interaction.

    Is that a hack or a bug? Or did something happened to Fred?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      He pretty much withdrew his online presence to improve his quality of life. It’s been good for him.

      1. sirien

        Thanks for info. If it works then good for him.

        Nonetheless, if he ever decided to resurrect his blog, at least in read only mode, many people would be grateful – there was much design and gaming wisdom which helps people to improve their home games or to make better new games and its absence is a great loss for both Fate and broader RPG community.

        If not then I (we) can understand.

        I hope Fred is fine (now, at least).

        1. Fred Hicks

          I am fine. But I’m done being a resource and finding my emotional well-being in the hands of strangers who think they know me. It’s time for the world to keep moving on and leave me behind, really, even more than it already has. I’ve been much better since I abandoned the portals folks had into me like that. For everyone else there’s the internet wayback machine, perhaps.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Pandemic has made experimentation hard, but as luck woudl have it I’ve finally started a game using this, so we’ll see.

      1. Mike W.

        Any further thoughts on this after having tried it / sat with it for a while now? I’ve really been chewing on this idea since reading about it a few weeks ago, and would love to hear how it worked out and if you’ve tuned it any more.

        I have tinkered with a similar(ish) approach where players switch out one of their normal dice for a “menace die” – which is simply a different color Fate die. The total for the roll is calculated normally, but if the menace die shows a minus (after all rerolls) then a complication occurs. For riskier actions the GM can have the player switch a second die out for an additional menace die. I use this sparingly but have it in my back pocket in the same vein as the “trouble die” Fred Hicks wrote about years ago in his blog.

        A player can also, with the GM’s okay, voluntarily switch out a second (or third) die. This is typically accompanied by the player describing how things are getting worse, the stakes have increased, and / or how they’re taking a bigger risk (ala Danger Patrol). With the additional chance of complications comes the potential for greater reward (increased effect in FitD speak).

        I find this additional little lever interjects some of the position / effect flow of FitD and “mechanization of the complications as something orthogonal to difficulty”, which I’m also a sucker for. In practice, I find it doesn’t add much overhead, other than a second set of Fate dice per person and the obvious extra cognitive load of coming up with complications. The former is largely a non-issue these days between cheap dice and online play. The latter is never going to be everyone’s bag, but if you enjoy what it adds then you miss it when it’s not around.

        While your idea does correlate success with the complications a bit more directly, as the only reason a player would buy trouble is if the resulting altered die roll resulted in a success, it is an elegant approach that keeps everything tidy in a standard 4dF roll. I also really like, on paper, some version in the idea of blanks rolling into something akin to a Devil’s Bargain.

        Thanks for all your wonderful content, nuggets of wisdom, and inspiring me to continue playing with my games and designs. Best!

        1. Rob Donoghue Post author

          So, have had it hit the table a few times now, and it worked *startlingly* well. It turns out there’s sort of a natural pause that happens when the dice take a certain turn that makes the conversational beat of raising this prospect feel very organic.


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