Category Archives: Fate

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.

Flip Fate

There’s a rules variant I use for Fate Points when running It’s Not My Fault which a friend asked me for the writeup on today and I said “Sure, i wrote that up somewhere, one sec.”

Yeah, well, it turns out, I had written it, but had lefts it in my ‘to be posted” file for a very long time. Oops. So, having found it, I how share this very belated post. Credit where it’s due – the original idea for this came from the really cool way that FFG’s Star Wars game handled force tokens.

Flip Fate

A variant rule for using Fate Points

  1. Grab some double sided tokens. Exactly what doesn’t matter much, but the sided need to be EASILY distinguishable at a glance. Othello/reversi tokens work very well for this. Coins can work in a pinch, but the lack of color difference is sub-optimal. For purposes of conversation, I’m going to assume tokens with a black and white sides.
  2. At the start of play, take a number of tokens equal to the number of players +3. If that’s an even number, add one more. Then, drop them on the table (to randomize) which side is up, then set them up in a line, grouped with like colors.
  3. From this point forward, whenever someone (GM or Player) would spend a fate point, they flip one of the tokens. Players flip from white to black, the GM flips from black to white.
  4. If a player earns a fate point in some way, such as through a compel, the GM makes a flip from back to white.

Optional Rule: Dramatic Reset

One thing that can happen in this system is that the chips can go all black or all white, meaning that one “side” can no longer use Fate points. This is an intentional outcome, since it gives each side incentive to keep the Fate Points moving, but also makes it clear when it’s safe to do so. Getting a “lock” is an invitation for one side or the other to push very hard to leverage their advantage.
However, that may be a bit too dry for some tables. A dramatic reset happens when the chips are all one color, though it should wait until whatever action triggered it is resolved. Once that happen, there is a dramatic change in the situation, narrated by the “winning” side – the players if the chips are all white, the GM if they’re all black.
This is a moment of strong authority, and can resolve or drastically change the game. For players, it’s an opportunity to take full GM authority for a moment. For the GM, it’s kind of a chance to make an unkind move without feeling bad about it. Usual suggestions about “don’t break the game” remain in play, but I trust you.
Once the reset is resolved, the tokens are randomized (AKA “dropped on the table”) again and play continues. If they come up all one color? Honestly, go ahead and do another dramatic reset. The odds are so far against that you might also want to go buy a lottery ticket or something.

Variant: Fate Dice

Rather than tokens, you can do the same thing with a number of Fate Dice equal to the number of players. A “flip” increases or decreases the face value of one of the dice, with the GM moving towards – and the players moving towards +. Dramatic reset happens when the dice show all plusses or all minuses.


I just tweeted about this, but I like this enough that i want to capture it here. I have finally gotten around to reading the new Over the Edge. It’s not released yet, but I backed the kickstarter, and the pretty-much-final preview version got sent around recently, and I finally sat down to read it. I had not read any of the previews before that for two reasons. First, OtE is an INCREDIBLY important game to me, so I was willing to be patient. Second, I hate reading multiple versions of a game because all the rules stick in my head, and I end up in a muddle when all is done. This is why I don’t read any of the preview editions of even games that I love and am super excited about, like all of the Blades in the Dark family of stuff.

Anyway, there is a specific trick in the new OtE that I love and which I think is wonderfully portable. In the game, every character has a question. Now, to get the question, you pick some descriptor of their nature (Honorable, Honest, Merciless, Cruel and so on) but then append it with a question mark, so the character is “Honorable?” or “Merciless?”.

What this signifies is that this thing is both very true to the character and that it’s mostly true, but there are exceptions (which may or may not be communicated) and those exceptions are damn well going to come up in play.

I love this, for a host of reasons.

Dramatically, it’s just great, because it acknowledges that a lot of these essential ideas are more interesting in their exceptions and contradictions (but only if they still have weight to them). “Honest?” is more interesting than “Honest” or “Dishonest” because it implicitly brings in uncertainty and motivation rather than simply leaving it as essential.

Practically, it also addresses a classic communication problem in RPGs – when a player makes a statement about their character, it is not always obvious whether they’re establishing a baseline (and want it to be taken for granted) or if it’s a flag on something that they want to be pushed and tested.

For an easy illustration of this, let’s use a paladin. They’re good for this.

If my paladin is “Faithful” then his faith is a constant. If he is presented with temptations, he will reject them. If challenged, he will be resolute.

If my paladin is “Faithful?” then all of the above is true most of the time, but the outcome is less certain. When my faith is tested, there is a chance it will falter, and that’s something I want to play.

Sidebar: bear in mind that these can both be awesome characters. There’s a storytelling assumption that the latter is somehow better because it’s narratively more interesting, but that is looking at these elements in a vacuum. It’s good to have a mix of essentials and questions to make for a robust character.

Now, if you’ve read that far, it’s pretty obvious that this is an idea that’s easy to port to almost any other game. It needs not mechanics – it’s just a communication and description element, so it can really be applied to any game. But when the game has a space for such things, it’s all the easier to hook in.

The most obvious applicability is, of course, to aspects in Fate and related games. No new mechanics are required, but the simple act of turning an aspect into a question gives all the benefits we’ve been talking about and provides much greater clarity around expectations for compels and invocations. If I, as a GM, see a question mark at the end of an aspect, I take that as a clear indicator that you – as a player – want me to offer lots of possible compels there. And, implicitly, it also tells me to maybe not lean so hard on the ones that you don’t have a question mark next to.

Sidebar: In fact, I might even supplement this approach with exclamation points, to represent “implied comma, dammit” to the end of an aspect to make it CRYSTAL CLEAR that I take this as a bedrock assumption and am not interested in playing against it. This doesn’t mean no compels, but it does suggest the type of compels that the “Honorable!” Paladin is looking for are different than the type of compels the “Honorable?” Paladin wants.

So, as I said, I love this. I 100% intend to use this in my next Fate game, and encourage it in other games I run and play. There’s pretty much no downside to it, and if it sounds cool to you, definitely consider taking it for a spin.

Auto Compelling Dice

I’ve been thinking a lot about things you can do when you change the assumptions of the Fate Point economy, and I hit upon a curious trick, one which is very simple as a rule, but very deep in its implications. The rule is this:

  • If the player rolls a -3 or -4, they gain a Fate Point.

Simple, yes? But lets unpack the implications a bit.

First, there is no requirement that the low result stand. If the player wants to spend a fate point for a reroll or a bonus to offset the roll, then they can, and the first such point gets rebated. But the only way that they get to keep the free fate point is to let the roll stand. That is to say, the player is accepting a bad outcome in return for currency. Or, put another way:

The dice are offering a compel, which the player may accept ot not.

Once you think about it like a compel, it all kind of clicks into place – the bad die result is no longer an outcome, rather it’s a trigger for a twist, a complication or something else appropriate to a compel. It’s an invitation for trouble. Which, in turn, means the effective dice curve of results is now -2 to +4, which is satisfying on a few levels.

It is so satisfying, in fact, that I’d actually be inclined to expand this to -2, -3 and -4 results. That would means dice compels come up more frequently, and the remaining dice results are very respectful of character capability.

What’s also interesting is that there is no particular interaction with aspects in this. Originally, this idea struck me as I was pondering replacements for the current fate point economy. In the absence of GM-driven compels, this could be the sole source of Fate Points for players, which might satisfy players who don’t like that kind of GM authorship. Or it could be used in a game that doesn’t use aspects at all to still allow for a bit of organic pacing.

What intrigues me most about this approach is that it could be used as a step to decouple fate points from aspects. As to why someone might want to do that…well, that’s probably its own blog post.

Dice Adjacent Fate

I have thought about diceless Fate on numerous occasions, but it’s a hard sell for fairly personal reasons. See, one of the reasons Fate exists is that Fred & I loved the Amber DRPG, but wanted to bring some randomness back into it, for our own sensibilities. Still despite that resistance, the reality has always been that Fate is trivial to convert to diceless play by simple virtue of the 0-centered dice results. If you just assume that all dice rolls come up 0, you’re about 90% of the way to supporting diceless play.

This works ok. Play becomes much more about the exchange of fate points and the impact of aspects, which is kind of fun, but also demands a little bit more precision in the language about where fate points come from and when (thus, the previous post). All solvable problems. But what’s the fun in that?

So I got to thinking about a thing you see in PBTA derived games, where the dice produce flavorful results, but don’t actually take difficulty into account in the rolling. I admit, that sits poorly with me, but it struck me that the idea could be twisted to work by separating the die roll entirely from the question of success or failure.

That is, consider a Fate game where success or failure is determined entirely by whether or not your skill (or approach, or whatever) is equal to or greater than the difficulty of the the task you’re trying. Rules remain the same – treat it like you rolled a zero and keep moving.(fn)
But then add an extra step: Roll the dice for the outcomes.

Now, this is going to be a little counterintuitive for gamers, since we have been trained to consider success/failure to be the outcome, but in this case the question of success has already been resolved dicelessly, so the roll is entirely to determine the other things that the roll would normally handle. The results would be something like (EDIT: NOW WITH THE RIGHT TABLE):

+4 - Miraculous +3 - Amazing +2 - Pretty good +1 - OK 0 - Good Enough -1 - Enh -2 - Ew -3 - Crap! -4 #$%!*&

In this system, aspect invocations can be used in two ways:

  1.  to add +1 to the skill or approach (to buy success)
  2. As die flippers on the roll

Now, it’s worth noting that this is part of what the previous setup was for – in this model, the GM can also use compels to flip dice because that can’t bring failure in the traditional sense, but it can complicate a situation.


Now given that, here’s the really interesting trick. The Press Your Luck mechanic.

If you are facing a situation where you know you’re going to fail, but want to try anyway, you absolutely can.  Go ahead and roll the dice.  Then remove any plusses you rolled – each plus so removed increases your effective skill/approach by 1.

If that’s enough for you to succeed, then great! Just use the remaining dice to determine your outcome as normal.

If it’s not enough? Well, you still use the result, but replace “Succeed” with “Fail”.

This has been rattling around in my head for a bit now, and I really need to try it out.

Thoughts on Aspects

I was writing something else, and ended up needing to think a bit about GM compels, scene aspects and a bunch of other things that can sometimes be a bit fluid in Fate.   Specifically, I’m working on a toolset where it’s entirely appropriate for the GM to spend compels for mechanical effects (like flipping dice to minuses) which is a bit of a bugbear in Fate.  So I ended up coming up with some terminology to make it a bit easier to talk about, and that took on a life of its own.

I am genuinely not sure if this is the final form of these ideas, but I’m pretty happy with them as they stand. I think they clarify some ideas that are useful to me, and give me some hooks for other things I have in flight.  However, I have blind spots, so I’m sharing my thinking here because I’m curious what people think.

Anyway, the core here is 4 terms: Dramatic Compels, Mechanical Compels, GM Fate Points and Scene Fate Points.  The ideas behind them will be very familiar to Fate players, most of the newness is in terminology, and most of that is to set up a way to talk about compelling scene aspects.  Take a look and see if it makes sense.

A Dramatic Compel is a compel without an immediate mechanical effect, such as the GM offering a hard choice or appropriate complication. While it may lead to mechanical issues, the compel itself is entirely a function of the fiction. Dramatic compels cost the GM a fate point, and if the aspect compelled is on a character, then the fate point is given to the player unless they pay a fate point to resist the compel.

A Mechanical Compel is a compel with an explicit mechanical effect, and it costs the GM a fate point. While there may be other uses (from stunts or other rules) the default use for a mechanical compel is to either reduce a character’s skill by 1 (before the roll) or flip a die to a – (after the roll). The GM spends a fate point for this, which is given to the player who is acting or rolling. These compels cannot be directly resisted – rather it is expected that if the player wants to counter it, he will spend points for a countering bonus. Mechanical compels are almost always paid for with Scene Fate Points.

GM Fate Points are the GM’s bottomless supply of points used for most dramatic compels. If when the GM spends a GM fate point, it is given to the player upon resolution (so it cannot be used to resist the compel, but it’s available for use to deal with the consequences of the compel).

Scene Fate Points are the GM’s limited budget of scene-specific aspects. The differ from GM Fate points in the following ways:

  • They may be spent for mechanical compels
  • They are awarded to the player affected at the end of the scene.
  • The GM has a limited reserve of them at any given time.

Scene Fate Points can also be used for specific sorts of dramatic compels – dramatic compels on scene aspects.

One use of this is familiar – if a character is tightly tied to a scene aspect, then the aspect might be compelled against them as if it were an aspect on their sheet. In this case, it’s just like invoking a personal aspect, with the point going to the player at the end of the scene,

The other use may be less familiar, and that is to compel the scene. That is, the GM may spend a Scene Fate Point to compel an aspect on the scene in a way that changes the scene. This is a very powerful tool in the GM’s arsenal, and it’s important that the GM follow the narrative logic of the scene when using this, but within those bounds, this provides a simple tool for reflecting the consequences of action in play without it being entirely arbitrary.

To illustrate, consider the example of the building being On Fire. It’s a classic, and offers plenty of opportunities for use, but sooner or later that fire is going to have consequences. The fire department may show up. The sprinklers may come on. The building may collapse. These are all reasonable consequences of the existing aspects, and the GM could very reasonably use a scene compel to make them happen. In this case, the Fate Point is spent but goes to nobody. If the GM does something like this but targets a specific character (such as by bringing in their nemesis), then that should be a dramatic compel of that character, and pay out appropriately.

Mechanically, these compels will usually be reflected with either the addition of a new aspect on the scene, or by rewriting an existing aspect.

There are a couple practical things this does:

  • It allows the GM to keep the scene dynamic without requiring NPCs to do strange Create Advantage rolls or similar.
  • At the same time, it keeps the amount of changes bounded by the GM budget.
  • It gives a little more potential life to the various aspects that players tend to create on a scene in order to get free invokes, then forget about. Players will be careful to make sure they’re not things the GM can easily use, but if the GM is able to spend to create consequences and results of those aspects, then there’s a lot more room for organic action.

Sidebar: Consequence Countdowns

This is not actually relevant to this discussion, but here’s a tool that has some situational use (with credit to Blades in the Dark which this is derived from) – the GM may opt to add a track (like a stress track) to an aspect she creates (either in framing the scene or that he creates later) as a signifier that this aspect is going somewhere. What leads to checking off boxes is situational, but might include:

  • When the aspect is invoked/compelled
  • When a particular NPC takes an action
  • As a consequence of “Success, but…” or similar rolls.

There might be ways for players to uncheck boxes too. Again totally situational. Whatever the case, when the last box is checked, the aspect “flips”, and becomes its consequence. Effectively it’s a scene compel that the GM doesn’t need to pay for because she provided advance warning and an opportunity to react.

Examples might include an alarm which flips into reinforcements arriving, or a fire that flips into the building collapsing.

As presented, this is an open ended tool for the GM to use whenever she likes, which is all a high trust table needs. There are absolutely ways to mechanize this to make it more constrained, but I’m not going to dive into those now, because this is already a total tangent from the topic at hand.

How Many Scene Fate Points?

There are a ton of ways you could figure out the right answer to this question, and I encourage experimentation. However, I’m very lazy, so I use a simple rule of thumb. Start with X scene fate points where X is the number of players (not including myself). The scene budget is X for most scenes, 2x for scenes that seem more interesting and 3x for big scenes (finales and such). If I’m not sure how interesting a scene is, I check how many aspects I’ve written up in framing it. That tends to roughly correspond with the multiplier.

Named NPCs may also have their own reserve of Scene Fate Points. Ideally it would be something like X, tied explicitly to that NPC and used over the course of a session when necessary. In practice, that is more bookkeeping than I’m likely to do, so if I am doing this, I tend to just add half an X to the scene if there’s a named NPC.

Aspects in Broad Strokes

We like to encourage the use of colorful aspects that have a lot of meaning in them, but those are not always a good match for players who aren’t starting play with a strong sense of who their characters are and want to find out through play.

One option for dealing with that is aspects-on-the-fly. Leave your aspect slots blank and fill them in during play as inspiration (or need) strike. This is a lot of fun, but it’s a bit too extreme for some folks, and with that in mind, there’s a middle path.

At character creation, feel free to pick broad aspects – ones that may not have much detail, but convey the broad strokes of the character in your head. If you want to play a big, strong, heavily armored soldier type, then the aspects: Big, Strong Armored and Soldier will completely do the job, and will be entirely playable.

That’s all you need to do. However, at the end of any session, you may decide to elaborate on one of your aspects. This is not a complete re-write, but rather a restatement that maybe gives a bit more context. The idea is that the aspect is still perfectly usable as it was before, but now there’s a bit more to it. We know more about the character now.

Sometimes the path to this is obvious – it’s not hard to discover some background in play and change Soldier to Veteran of the Pijelo Campaign. Something like Armored, which seems external on the face of it, can be unpacked into talking about what the armor means (whose armor is it? What does it signify?).

Sometimes it might not be so clear – how do you elaborate on Big, after all? In those cases you might ask why the character is big, and end up turning that into Scion of Clan Bennek (since everyone knows the Bennek’s are huge!).

Or, honestly, maybe you never elaborate it at all. You are never obliged to do this.

So, this is a pretty simple trick, but I wanted to lay it out there for people who are maybe not syncing with aspects at the moment of character creation, but still want to take a swing at it. Feel free to start with broad strokes – you have every right to refine them as you play.


Image illustrating the risks which have just been described in the text.

I’m going to make an assumption at this point that as a GM, you’ve got a pretty solid grasp on success and failure. You understand that failure should not stop play, and that you should only turn to the dice to determine success and failure when both outcomes are interesting and fun to play. So what we’re going to talk about that other stuff that surrounds success and failure – specifically we’re going to talk about risk.

In this context, the risks of a situation are the things that could obviously go wrong, but which do not necessarily make success more or less likely. For example, if a character wants to kick down a door1, there is a risk that it will make enough noise alert the guards. This risk has no impact on the action, but it has a profound impact on the situation.

When games take risks into account, they often simply fold them into the difficulty of the roll, and assume success to mean the risks have been addressed, and draw upon the risks in the case of failure. More nuanced games, fold the risks into ideas like partial success or success with consequence, so there’s a middle tier of results between success and failure.

While I can’t pretend to cover the entire range of possible risks in play in one post, I would suggest th

at there are a handful of risk types which you will see over and over again. They are:

Cost: The most straightforward of risks is as simple as a price, usually in the form of lost resources.

Harm: Equally classic, winning but taking an injury is an iconic example of success at a cost.

Revelation: The acting character reveals some piece of information, whether it be a clue or their location.

Confusion: The acting character conveys something other than intended, creating opportunities for upset, bad timing, offense or more dangerous misunderstanding.

Waste: Functionally, this is akin to cost, but where cost is intentionally, waste is the result of misapplication of resources.

Ineffectiveness: Hitting the target may not mean knocking it down. A success without follow through may end up reaping limited (or no) rewards.

Spillover: Alternately, sometimes the problem comes from too much effort – fragile things break, pieces no longer fit, people are annoyed and other results of overkill can all be problems.

Delay: Sometimes things will just take longer than intended.


(This list is almost certainly not comprehensive, and I’m 100% open to suggestions for additions.)

Now, this list is very useful to a GM who is looking at a situation and thinking “ok, what might the risks be here?”. Running down a simple checklist is an easy prompt to the self to consider potential options before the dice hit the table. But, critically, almost no situation will call for all risks. If there’s no one watching, there’s no much risk of a reveal. If there’s no hurry, then delay is not much of a risk. This is not a problem – that different situations have different risks is a feature because risks drive player behavior.

That is to say, risks impact how characters approach a problem, and they provide an avenue of action and play that grows naturally out of the success and failure that are already afoot in your game. Two mechanically identical rolls can feel drastically different when presented with different risk profiles. That benefit is so profound that we’re starting today with laying the groundwork on thinking of risks as something distinct from difficulties.

Risks and Approaches

(This bit is fairly FAE Specific, but some of it can be more broadly re-used).

I love Fate Accellerated, but I think it’s generally understood that there are times when the question of which approach to use becomes more of an exercise in mechanics than fiction, which rather misses the point of using FAE in the first place. I’ve written about a few other ways to approach the problem of how to make it matter which approach someone choose, but I think the real secret sauce lies in risks, with one simple trick of perspective:

Approaches are less about success and failure than they are about mitigating risk.

Ok, maybe that sounds weird, but work with me here. Straight success is not hard to pull off in FAE, even with a ‘weak’ approach. Difficulties aren’t super high2, and aspects provide a lot of extra oomph when needed. But for all that, there is still incentive to explain why everything you do it clever and therefor gets your +3 bonus.

But suppose you looked at that list of risks as the inverse of approaches. Remove cost and harm – they’re always on the table as the situation demands it – but the rest line up suspiciously well.

If you are not quick then you risk delay.

If you are not clever, you risk waste

If you are not forceful, you risk ineffectiveness

If you are not flashy, you risk miscommunication

If you are not sneaky, you risk revelation

If you are not careful, you risk overkill

That is to say, the choice of approach can be a reasonable response to risk. In play, this means that the right choice of approach can nullify a risk.

Illustrated set of which approaches counter which risks

Ok, that’s all well and good in theory, how does that look in play?

So, mechanically, when the GM looks at a situation in play, it should have one or more risks (if there are no risks, then definitely question why there’s a roll at all), and set difficulty, with the reminder that 0 is a totally reasonable difficulty. Then add the following 2 twists: First, every 2 points over the difficulty can cancel out a risk (if it makes sense). This makes for a sort of proxy difficulty increase with automatic success-with-consequence. Second, the approach chosen cancels out any appropriate risk.

To go back to the door example: Finn needs to get through a door to escape pursuit. It’s locked, and the guards are in pursuit, so it’s time to kick it open. It’s not a super robust door, and the GM is comfortable with a difficulty of 1, so she does a quick audit of potential risks:

Cost or Harm aren’t really in play directly, but they’re always on the table when things go pear shaped.

Waste isn’t much of a concern. There are no points for neatness in door kicking.

Delay on the other hand is a problem. If this takes too long, the guards may catch up.

Miscommunication isn’t really a concern, since ideally there’s no audience.

Revelation is borderline – the GM could say that one of the risks is that the guards will know which door Finn went out. However, he’s going to break down a door, so they’ll probably be able to figure it out however the roll goes, so the question is more whether they’ll find him soon enough to matter. From that perspective, this shades into the territory we’re already covering with the risk of delay, so the GM lets this one slide.

Overkill is almost certainly not a problem

Ineffectiveness, on the other hand, really would be. He cannot afford to be dainty here. But despite that, this merits a little thought too – the consequence of ineffectiveness is also that the guards catch up, so is it really that different? Wouldn’t ineffectiveness really map to failure in this case? Those are reasonable concerns, but they also need to be balanced against the sensibilities of the moment and the fact that the GM has already been generous about Revelation, and this feels right. However, double dipping on the guards catching up is unfair, so instead she considers the door not quite breaking all the way and him having to squeeze though, probably leaving some loot behind.3

So with that in mind, the GM figures the situation has risks of delay and ineffectiveness one top of the +1 difficulty. If he succeeds, he’ll get out through the door, but there’s a risk that the guards will be in hot pursuit if he takes too long, or he may have to leave some loot behind if he can’t kick the door all the way open.

In terms of pure math, this suggests a fairly large number of options:

If Finn tries to be quick (nullifying delay):

  • On less than 1, he fails, and has some guards to fight
  • 1-2: He manages to squeeze out the door but leaves some loot behind.
  • 3+: He kicks the door open dramatically and runs out onto the street.

If Finn tries to be forceful (nullifying ineffective):

  • On less than 1, he fails, and has some guards to fight
  • 1-2: He kicks the door open, but the guards catch up and the chase continues out onto the street.
  • 3+: He kicks the door open dramatically and runs out onto the street.

If Finn tries some other approach.

  • On less than 1, he fails, and has some guards to fight
  • 1-2: He squeezes through the door, dropping loot, and it pursued by the guards.
  • 3-4: The GM makes a quick judgement call based on which next step seems more fun, or if Finn’s description suggests a particular direction, and Finn either drops some loot, or is pursued.
  • 5+: He kicks the door open dramatically and runs out onto the street.

That looks complicated, but in practice, it’s pretty simple and logical. And critically, it makes the choice of approach meaningful. This is a situation where a Quick or Forceful character will have an opportunity to shine, but success is still equally within reach of all characters.

And, critically, there is still plenty of room for creativity and problem solving. If a player has a clever way to mitigate or transform a risk, or use an approach in an unexpected way, then awesome! That’s a good thing! The goal here is not to penalize “wrong” choices, but rather to give weight to the choices made.

Risks and Success

But wait, you might say: What if avoiding a risk is implicit in the action the character wants to take? What if I want to sprint, or sneak or do something else where triggering the risk would equate to failure?

The answer, counterintuitively, is that it changes nothing, except that it clearly communicates the approach that you want to use in this situation, and in doing so, may call into question the necessity of the roll.

That is, if there is only one risk (say, getting spotted or not), then that risk is obviated by using a Sneaky approach, at which point, why are you rolling? The answer might be “more or less because rolling is fun” in which case I refer you to the next section, but ideally it’s because “Oh, right, there should be more going on for this roll than this simple binary – what other risks might be in play?”4

All Risk, All The Time

Ok, dirty truth. I have occasionally found myself in situations where I’ve called for a roll and I’m not really prepared for failure. I should know better, but sometimes the situations just feels like a roll is the right call at the moment, and I might need to fake my way out.

Risks are a great tool in this situation because, frankly, I can drop a 0 difficulty and assume success, with the question being one of risk. See, these situations almost always have multiple risk vectors in play simultaneously, and that is what the instinct to roll is responding too. I’m not really looking for success or failure, I’m just looking for how well things stay under control. “Failure” in this situation means all the consequences come home to roost, even the one the approach was supposed to mitigate.

Communicating Risks

There might be a temptation to list off risks as bullet points so players can respond to them, but I would recommend against it. The categories of risk we’ve listed are a shorthand, not an actual description – they are for your convenience as a GM, as a placeholder for the actual fictional risks you will describe (or not describe in some cases) to your players.

As a general best practice, use risks as cues for describing the situation. You don’t need to elaborate on each risk, but when you think of descriptive elements for the scene, take a moment to think about each risk and see if it might contribute to the description.

If you do start literally laying out risks as Mechanical constructs, I’ll be curious how that goes for you, though.

Risks vs. Consequences

This is a bit of bonus content. If a risk is something that might happen, a consequence is something that will happen as a result of action. Beyond that, they are structurally very similar, and once you have gotten the hang of thinking about risks, you can apply the same sort of thinking to consequences to use one of the most powerful tools of scenario design out there.

That is, if you want a really solid session, one trick for doing it is to present a single, simple problem or task which the players can absolutely accomplish, but which has numerous dire consequences. The adventure then becomes a matter of identifying the consequences and figuring out how to nullify or redirect them before performing the main task.

Which is to say: It’s how to design a heist.

Icons used are largely from

  1. Because by the law of RPG examples, it must be a door. ↩︎
  2. In fact, they can feel “too low” to the GM at times, which can lead to some undesirable behaviors. Adopting the risk model to FAE allows the GM to embrace low difficulty numbers, because there’s still plenty of room for low difficulty being accompanied by plenty of complicating risks. ↩︎
  3. This would technically be a cost, which is fine. You can absolutely borrow across risk types when it makes sense, and both cost and harm are sort of generic resources. ↩︎
  4. Interestingly, this reveals the real problem with one of the great RPG bugbears, Stealth. We have been trained by skill lists to think that “sneaking” is an action in its own right, but really it’s just moving with intent. ↩︎

Fixed and Dynamic Aspects

Padlock with fate icons in lieu of a combination“Always On” aspects is one of those ideas that has been kicking around as long as aspects have existed. There are a lot of great implementations do things like  grant simple bonuses for aspects. TinyFate is based on this idea, and the truly excellent Three Rocketeers by PK Sullivan is almost iconic in its application.

With that in mind, I decided to solidify my thinking on this approach to aspects in a way that makes them easier to talk about, and to that end I want to talk about locked and dynamic aspects.

What’s a Dynamic Aspect?

That one’s easy – it’s a “normal” aspect. I’m applying this label purely for clarity.

What is a Fixed Aspect?

A fixed aspect is written up like a normal aspect, but its Fixed nature is denoted by it being underlined. Mechanically, a Fixed aspect’s impact is very simple: If it would help on a given roll, it grants a +1 bonus. If it would hinder a given roll, it applies a -1 penalty. Simple as that. Note that there is no interaction with fate points in this – it’s simply something to be taken into account.

How to Use fixed & Dynamic Aspects

As designed, fixed aspects can be used interchangeably with dynamic aspects. In fact, their use is the easiest part of this. If I have the aspects:

  • Strong
  • Fierce Fighter

And I make a roll to attack, let’s say I get a +2. Now, Strong is a fixed aspect, so it’s going to give me a +1, bringing that to a +3. Fierce Fighter is a dynamic aspect, so if I spend a fate point, I’ll bump that to a +5. Mechanically, this is all very simple.

Where this gets a little more complicated is the question of what aspects should be locked and which aspects should be dynamic. To that end, there are a few different models:

Free For All

The simplest model is to simply decide what type each aspect is when it’s created1. As an option, you may allow for an aspect to be ‘flipped’ by spending a fate point to change it from fixed to dynamic or vice versa. This works well if there’s a balance, but it breaks down in edge cases. Specifically, if characters simply load up on fixed aspects, then bonuses can quickly get out of whack, and characters will also get much more boring, since the usual advice (“More interesting aspects are more mechanically potent”) stops being true, and aspects that grant more bonuses more often become more desirable. As such, this is not a recommended approach.

Constrained – Capped

This is the same as the Free For All, with the single caveat that the bonus from fixed aspects is capped at +3. This is still quite potent, but it can work decently well in games where there’s a more constrained set of other bonuses (such as FAE).

Option: If you like math and a world FULL of aspects, instead of a hard +3 cap, consider 1 aspect grants a +1, 3 aspects a +2, 6 a +3, 10 a +4 and so on.

Constrained – GM Only

Another approach is to make fixed aspects the domain of the GM, and any aspect the GM creates is considered to be fixed, while character and player-created aspects remain dynamic. This model has a lot of advantages – it drives any GM invokes and compels towards the players while allowing for simpler mechanical application of things like environmental aspects and unnamed NPCs (who could be expressed purely as aspects). In fact, under this model, the GM will probably almost exclusively create static aspects except for very key elements (like named NPCs or plot points worth hanging a lantern on).


Note, this model does not work well with skills or even approaches, but it is a solid way to handle aspect-only play. In this model, aspects are both fixed and dynamic. That is, they will provide their passive bonus or penalty, but can also be invoked or compelled for an additional +2/-2 as appropriate.

While this is very simple on its surface, the one complication is the question of what fate points are used for. Because the fixed bonuses can be substantial, players may decide they do not need as many Fate Points to function, and we can end up with similar problems to the free for all. If your game has some additional use for Fate Points (either because you’ll be pushing compels hard for setting reasons, or because they have some other mechanical value, such as fueling stunts) then you should be fine, but if not, consider implementing a cap.

Pure Fixed

As with Blended, this works poorly in conjunction with skills (unless you introduce a cap, as in the Constrained-Capped model) but this is another way to do aspect-only play if you have always been interested in Fate but less into the whole hippie-dippy fate point economy stuff. This will complicate specific games that require fate points for mechanical elements (Dresden Files, for example) but for many games, this offers a different but functional model of play.

Other Options

There’s still plenty of room for nuance and tweaking within this space – the approaches I’ve outlined are far from the only ways to handle it. But for all that, this can be a useful tool to throw into your toolbox, especially for GMs who like the descriptive  nature of aspects, since it allows the GM to go aspect-only in many situations.  Starting up NPCs is as easy as noting they’re a StupidBrutish Thug and you know they have +2 to most violence, -1 to anything depending on cunning, and you’re good to go.

This also can interact well with consequences.  While I recommend that most character aspects are dynamic, consequences can be a reasonable exception to that for games which want injury to carry a lingering impact.  This becomes even more true when you decide to replace stress and consequences with conditions,

Anyway, my goal here is not to exhaust the idea, but simply to talk about it in a way that allows easy interchangeability between fixed and dynamic aspects. If nothing else, it’s provided me a way to talk about it in the future, so I’m good with that.


  1. Important mechanical note: if you create a fixed aspect, then that effectively forgoes the free invoke (or extra free invoke for success with style) and that may disincentives creating fixed aspects. That sounds like a bug, but it’s really a feature, since it means player-created aspects will tend to be dynamic, while GM-created aspects (those for framing a scene) will tend to be fixed. ↩︎

Blades of Fate

Blades in the Dark clarified a lot of things that Fate 2 and Spirit of the Century tried to do, so I decided to steal its tech to go back over some old territory, mashing it up with new technology where appropriate. So, hang on tight.

Adjective Ladder

Step 1, we’re compressing the adjective ladder as follows:

X: Poor
0: Mediocre
1 : Fair
2: Good
3: Great
4: Superb

And done. You can extrapolate from there if you want, but that is the functional core, and to take it a step further, Poor and Superb only show up in very rare circumstances, so the heart of things is 4 steps. Compressing the ladder also means the honorable retirement of “Average” and years of discussions regarding the difference between mediocre and average. It also, I think, improves its conversational usability.

Dice Rolling

When you roll dice, you roll a number of Fate dice determined by the ladder, and pick the best one.

If it’s a (success) +, then you succeed, free and clear, based on the terms of the roll (more on that in a bit). This maps to a 6 result in BITD. Multiple Plusses map to a critical success.

If it’s a blank (Mixed), then you succeed, but the GM gets to complicate it in some way. This maps to a 4-5 result in Blades.

If it’s a – (Failure), then you fail, and what that means also depends on the terms of the roll. 1

Poor and Mediocre rolls

If you’re mediocre, then roll 2df and keep the lower. If you’re poor, you just fail.

Skills, Approaches and Whatnot

In fine Fate tradition, this supports any kind of descriptors. Skills? Approaches? Professions? Descriptors? Whatever. They all work. But you need to pick one and run with it.

For illustration purposes, we’ll use approaches, but please consider it the tip of the iceberg. This will be largely familiar to anyone who has played FAE, but the main difference is that in addition to each approach having an implicit meaning, it has implicit failure states and these matter a lot on mixed rolls and failures.

For example, the failure states on Flashy are 1) Insufficiently flashy and 2) only flashy. That matters because by default, a mixed means that you were flashy enough, but the problem emerges because you were insufficiently Quick or Forceful or some other approach that might have mattered. In contrast, a full on failure is a failure to be sufficiently flashy.

These failure states are not cast in stone – situations can freely generate exception – but they exist to give a more clear default for how to handle what approaches mean.

Terms of the Roll

When a roll is made, it has 5 components:

  • Action – The action and situation being described which has called for a roll
  • Effort – The skill/approach chosen and the dice rolled
  • Position – how risky of controlled the action being taken is.
  • Effectiveness – How well or poorly this is likely to work, under best/worst circumstances.
  • Effect – The result of all this. IN the case of a success, this is synonymous with effectiveness.

Action is either a whole thesis topic on its own, or perfectly obvious. The player has described an action which is sufficiently interesting, uncertain or both as to call for the dice. For simplicity, I’m going to treat this as a solved problem

Effort comes from the player: They choose which approach they’ll use, roll the dice (and make any decisions related to that die rolling).

Action and effort combine to determine position (which will be Free, Controlled, Risky or Dangerous2) and effectiveness (which will be potent, normal or weak). These are determined and communicated by the GM as a logical extension of the action and effort.

This is, explicitly, where the “That approach is bullshit” filter gets applied, especially with effectiveness. The GM is free too (encouraged even) to diminish effect for approach selections that seem more made for the bonus than the in applicability of the situation, and by the same token to reward clever approach selection with greater effect. This should not turn into a game of “Read the GMs mind for best bonus” but it should be resolvable within the bounds of common sense.


Position impacts the effects of failure. Failure or mixed success from a controlled position tends to be have minor consequences. From a risky position, they can have more teeth, and from a dangerous position they can be very costly indeed.

I’m not going just restate the table from Blades, but in my head, that’s what we’re talking about.


Just as position shapes failure, effectiveness shapes success. The best roll in the world can only make so much of a difference with the wrong tools solving the wrong problem. But on the flip side, the right tool for the job can make heavy work light. In practice, a success with potent effectiveness will have more punch (a free crit, perhaps) while weak effectiveness means diminished effect. Again, mentally I’m just stealing the Blades table for this at the moment.

Do we need both?

In theory, you could collapse position and effectiveness. You wouldn’t want to have a 3×3 grid because that would be fiddly, but a fair number of games tie effectiveness back to effort (by modifying the roll, with bonuses and penalties) and trust the diminished roll to reflect the diminished effectiveness. Of course a lot of games do the same with position as well, so we could arguably ditch both in favor of a more robust effort model. That kind of works, but it’s very game-logical rather than human logical.

But even beyond that, I like having the explicit GM tool to express an opinion. Explicitly calling out position and effectiveness forces a fruitful moment of clear communication between player and GM while providing protection against the rules getting too disconnected from reality.

The Free Roll

This equates to the Fortune roll in blades. A free roll has neither position more effectiveness (and is probably sketchy on action and effort) because it has no particular consequences, and is simply a roll the GM may call for to answer a question.


Success is more common in this system, but that’s fine – this is for somewhat friendlier games than those about cutthroat thieves. Trickier is the fact that it means criticals are more common, so we’ll need to make sure their meaning is very clear. Not fully unpacking that yet, but planting a flag as something to come back to.


As with Blades, Scale affects position and effect because it encompasses both, and carries them to a greater magnitude. The most obvious example of scale is size – a mouse has a hard time fighting a horse, or a soldier an army – but it can encompass much more than that, including available time, appropriate tools, correct understanding an so on. Sometimes scale exists on a ladder (such as with tiers of size) but sometimes it’s a simple gateway (like a language barrier). It is a many faceted thing, but when something is impossible, the barrier is usually scale.

Functionally, scale’s impact on position and effectiveness are independent and situational. Sneaking past a giant robot might be no harder than usual, but punching it is unlikely to have much effect.
Now, the nuances of scale are very much a genre driver, because it speaks to the kind of situations that can come up and what things like a “fair fight” look like, so with that in mind, treat this generalization as very suspect.

Scale has only two meaningful steps (beyond parity): “Oh Crap” and “Oh, hell no”.

If it’s Oh Crap, then the scale difference is enough to make your life harder. One guy fighting a gang. One chef cooking for a wedding. It’s doable, but harder. This can imperil position, reduce effectiveness or both. If it’s Oh Crap for the other guy, that’s effectively reversed.

If it’s Oh, Hell No then you just don’t bother. You cannot fistfight an army, nor can you pick lock a bank vault. These are sufficiently out of scope that failure is presupposed and you go to the dice for things adjacent to it (like running away from that army you tried to fistfight).

Where this gets interesting (and genre raises its head) is where scale can be ignored or altered. A legendary bar fighter might be able to ignore Oh Crap in a bar fight. The god of bar fights might be able to punch an army (ignoring the Oh, Hell No).

Skills are flash, but scale matters

More critically, with planning and effort, a brawler might manage to get in front of an army at a point where they’re forced to come at him one at a time, overcoming scale with skill and cunning. It still probably won’t end well, but it’ll be a hell of a fight.

And that’s the rub. When we talk about “skill” outside of the RPG context, there is this idea of legendary skill, and legendary acts of skill, and when we map that to RPGs we tend to map that as very high values overcoming very high difficulties. The problem is that this only represents a very small subset of significant actions. Hitting a target can be dramatic an exciting, but it is a different order of action than, say, winning a war or curing a disease. There are entire categories of actions which are not resolved with a single act, but rather by steadily changing the situation so that something that started out as impossible becomes possible.

Scale is how you handle things like that and, critically, scale rules are how you communicate how important actions like that are to your game. Not every game needs a path to cure cancer or gather enough votes to become mayor.

All of which is to say that scale is a bigger deal than we tend to acknowledge, and how we handle it is a critical descriptor for genre.

Aspects, Fate Points and Stress

There is no mechanical reason not to port Stress into Fate. It’s not hard, and requires only a few decisions. The simplest model is this:

  • Fate Points and the stress track are now Stress Pool
  • Players may spend Stress to invoke an aspect to add a die to a roll
  • Compels replenish the stress pool.
  • Damage is taken to the stress pool
  • Consequences can ablate damage as normal
  • Devils Bargains effectively combine a simultaneous invoke and compel

This totally works as placeholder, but I’m going to put a pin in it because this is the the point where we need to stop and think.

Ok, So What’s The Point?

This text file had sat idle on disk for a while because I was not sure it was worth pursuing. It’s a fun technical exercise, but does it serve any real purpose? I couldn’t answer that until the other night, when we had a session of Blades where the dice were very strongly in our favor, and it pretty radically changed the tone of play for the session into something a little bit more cinematic and wahoo. Maybe not the tone we want in Blades all the time, but there are definitely games where that is exactly the tone I would want to hit. So that example persuaded me that there’s definitely room for this, but explicitly not as any kind of direct port, so I’ll be well served to re-examine any assumptions as I review them.

To that end, I suspect a focusing tool will be in order, so the next step will be, I think, coming up with an It’s Not My Fault variant version of this. It’s core system is FAE, but it may well benefit from a bit more structured play, and some concepts from Blades might help to that end.

All of which is to say, this is the rough starting point of an idea, and I’ll be refining it over time.

  1. Multiple minuses are not a critical failure because, if so, then almost every failure would be a critical failure. ↩︎
  2. I’m explicitly stealing Blades terminology here, but I’m also doing it by memory, so if you see a divergence from Blades, that is me making things up, not me pretending I’m not stealing from Blades. ↩︎
  3. I’m 80% convinced to rename this “scope” just to reflect how it’s used here. ↩︎