Category Archives: Tempo

Mooks Gone Haywire

This is related to the Smart Everyman thing, but in ways that may not be immediately obvious.
If you haven’t seen it, Steven Soderburgh’s Haywire is a great movie. As with Mamet’s Spartan it’s an action movie by a very talented director (and writer, in Mamet’s case) who does not normally delve into the action genre. The result is something that feels very different than the standard action flick because it does not proceed fromt he same assumptions.
Now, whether you think that’s a good or bad thing is going to hinge on several issues of taste, but if you’re as inclined to overanalysis as I am, these views on common things through an unfamiliar lense is utterly compelling.
Numerous elements of Haywire are noteworthy (the chases, in particular, are awesome) but the fights are what really caught my eye from the perspective of gaming. They were great fights, mostly hand to hand, that were brutal, intense and very engaging, but they were also where some of the biggest deviations from the traditional action formula could be observed[1]. Two if them in particular have stuck with me, guns and mooks, and today I’m going to talk about mooks.
In Haywire, there were no mooks. Every fight was dangerous and intense, but even faceless opponents were dangerous. Fights against them were quicker, but still involved several exchanges.
In a standard action game, this would be weird. Feng Shui’s mook rules have become a de facto standard for genre[2] emulation, but that becomes a problem when you want to tweak or grow the genre. Removing them from film hilights what removing them from play might suggest – more danger and more attention.
Attention’s an interesting one. Mooks do not just emulate genre, they speed gameplay, and it’s taken as a given that this is a good thing, but the reality is a bit more complicated. Consider, let’s say you think combat’s should take a half hour. Mook rules let you squeeze more into that half hour without increasing the time and bookeeping required, and that’s a win. However, if you’re not pushing for any kind of structure, then mook rules can just mean faster and less interesting fights.
Less interesting fights is a fascinating point to get snagged on, because there’s so much implicit assumption in RPGs that fights are (provided they’re well run) intrinsically interesting. That is to say, we (usually) do not complain about “too many fights” in D&D because fights are a large part of the expected experience. The fight is supposed to be fun.
But heavy use of mook rules allow for fights that end up at approximately the same level of engagement as picking a lock. That’s not automatically bad, but it requires more work on the GM’s part to create extrinsic engagement because it’s nto intrinsically rewarding.
However, there’s a flipside – if there are no mook rules, every fight can be a potential drag on play, especially lopsided ones. There comes a point in many bad D&D fights where it’s clear how its goign to go, but the fight can’t end until the party has finished “grinding down” the opponenent’s hit points. No one wants to get in that situation either. There are mechanical tweaks that can address that, but more broadly it really depends on the fight having genuine tension, and havign that tension be maintained consistently.
This is a pretty complex topic, and the reality is that it does not have a simple lesson. Mook rules can be super useful, but can also be problematic – there’s no one right solution that fits all situations. But it does reveal something critical and fragile – If you rely on fights being intrinsically engaging, then you are walking a very fine line, and it’s easy to slip off. If, on the other hand, you are ALSO making sure that fights have some external reason to maintain tension and engagement, the rest of these potential problems tend to evaporate.
In a purely mechanical sense, this idea ended up in the Tempo rules with the idea that a single hit takedown[3] is VERY hard on the intial exchange, but becomes much easier after you have established an advantage. In theory, this allows a highly skilled character to take down an opponent quickly, but usually requires at least a single exchange to establish advantage. Still needs more testing, of course, but I’ll be curious if it captures that Haywire kind of feel.
1 – At this point it’s also worth calling out that a lot of the fight quality also came from Gina Carano‘s ability to sell the fights convincingly. She was fantastic.

2 – Super nerdy aside – there are a lot of fine gradations of genre which I am casually ignoring here, but which are actually relevant to the conversation.  Action is a wide umbrella, but the nature of threat and violence actually varies greatly across the range, from the virtually superheroic highs of James Bond and gun ballets to intensely grim, lethal stuff.  Most action movies tend towards the former, but its worth noting that a lot of action-in-context films (which includes a large swath of espionage) are further down the spectrum.  Haywire is nominally a spy movie, so it’s no surprise it leans gritty, but that’s also no guarantee, since spies also bring us James Bond.
3 – As an aside, if a game has a high stealth component, single hit/mook rules can be applied situationally to relfect that. That is, targets caught unawares are treated as mooks. This is a simple way to capture the feel of certain games like Dishonored or Deus Ex.

A Framework of Faces

We played another round of the cold war game on Monday. It was a slightly compressed session, but it ended up going pretty well. It also ended up cementing my understanding of what had been the stumbling block for me with espionage, and it reinforced some baseline realities of how I look at games, things that it’s important for me to remember.

I’m a pretty good GM, but I’m at my best when I have a fairly rich tableau populated with well-motivated NPCs who feel as alive as possible to the players. This is difficult to establish instantly – it requires introducing the NPCs, letting the players develop opinions and relationships, then allowing the NPCs to “settle in” to the setting in sch a way that they feel like a natural part of it. Once this has been accomplished with enough NPCs (what I think of as critical mass), then the game will round a corner for me where things get both easier and better.

With this critical mass of NPCs, I can worry far less about plots and sessions and approach things far more improvisationally. By keeping the NPCs in mind and in play, their interests and actions (and their intersection with PCs interests and actions) combined with a decent sense of the dramatic can very easily maintain a near-constant stream of interesting, meaningful play. Meaningful is kind of a key word here, as the meaning in question hinges upon the “reality” of the setting – for the NPCs (who in many ways really _are_ the setting) dynamics to be a driving force, then players need to be invested in them for this to work.

This means that this approach works much better for certain games than others. Specifically, games that abstract the process, or lay bare the NPCs as constructs, tend to be a mismatch for this approach. They can still be great games, but I definitely approach them differently. But mechanics are only part of the equation – setting and tone can both have a huge impact on how well this model works and how quickly critical mass is achieved.

Without realizing it, this was exactly problem I’d been encountering with my Cold War game, the problem that was creating a vague sense of frustration that I couldn’t pin down. The problem is that because I was trying to enforce the “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side” theme of the game, I tended to use NPCs very shallowly rather than allow them to form relationships. At this point in the game I have perhaps six or eight NPCs established that i can work with, and that’s pretty anemic. And tellingly, the past two sessions (both of which have been fantastic) were basically a result of me cheating and putting five of them in play and letting the ball roll.

A great point of contrast for this is the Amber DRPG, which more or less starts play at or near critical mass. It’s setting is really a list of about 20+ characters with strong and weak ties to the PCs who are an excellent mix of familiar (from the books and other games) and mysterious (since the loose framework leaves the question of GM interpretation of character specifics on the table) which allow for dynamic play to begin very quickly. This is, in many ways, one of the reasons Amber remains such a potent touchpoint for me.

What’s more interesting is that this distinction, between my cold war game and Amber, has nothing to do with mechanics. I could very easily run either game in the other system (quite seriously) and the problems and benefits would remain Identical.

This is not to say mechanics can’t help with this. Aspects and similar mechanics can help provide pointers to NPCs to help build to critical mass faster. Heck, one of my favorite things about Leverage is that is quickly builds a similar dynamic for a given job – it’s not as deep as a full NPC mesh, but it’s usable in a lot of the same ways. But for me, the thing I need to remember is my own advice: everything in the game has faces. Bring those faces to life, and the game takes care of itself.


The first post-holiday game of the Cold War game I’ve been running was last night. Coming back from a break is always rough, and there’s often a fear the game will have lost it’s inertia during the hiatus. Thankfully, things went off very well, and we had a great adventure chasing shadows and lightning in time-stopped Washington DC.

It was a great session, but I was not originally going to write about it. We’d had fun, but I’d had no particular mechanical insights as a result of it, and I’m not comfortable saying how awesome a session was without some sort of excuse. I have a skill challenge idea queued up that’s chomping at the bit to see daylight and I was ready to let the session go by with a nod until Fred noticed something: we had finished early.

This is strange enough that we went back through the usual range of possible explanations: had we started early? No, we actually started about 15 minutes late. Had the session felt skimpy on content? Nope, it had been pretty much stuffed from end to end.

We had no explanation, except that the pacing of this particular adventure had really just rocketed along. I was a bit surprised myself, since I hadn’t exactly planned for it to be a fast session, but in retrospect I saw many of the decisions that lead to it. Some of them were just good habits, but some of it seems to have been an upshot of running Leverage (and its variants) over the break. Leverage does a lot to support very tight pacing without calling it out explicitly, and I need to keep a few of those things in mind. Some of them are classics (like starting out with a bang) but a few more are up for consideration of a permanent place in the toolbox. Notably:

Niche Protection is Not Just For GMs – It helps things a lot when players have an understanding and respect for the strengths of other characters, measured by the simple rubric that if they encounter a problem of a certain kind, are they more likely to just try to tackle it or are they likely to call in the expert? This has a subtle impact on how effectively you can play with a divided group: if the group has that level of respect, then getting divided isn’t a big deal because they’ll naturally draw each other back into play. If they’re all rugged individualists or roughly equally capable, then things can remain unfocused. Mechanics play a role in this (as you often want the guy with the bigger bonus) but it really hinges on the players buying into the idea to work.

Small Details Carry Weight – In Leverage, these tend to take the form of post-its littering the table in front of me, which demands a certain brevity, but I came at it from a different angle last night. To underscore the oddness of the time stop, I made the decision to switch to the language of a horror game in my descriptions. That meant small, colorful details but not a lot of dwelling on minutiae. Draw attention to things that change. The net result may not have been hugely scary, but it was surprisingly focused. Horror, after all, depends a lot on pacing to maintain tension, so it’s no shock that what works for it can work well for other pacing.

This kind of terseness also goes a long way towards helping your players create strong visuals in play (since it gives them more freedom to play while providing simple building blocks to anchor from). Since those are the things they’re going to take home with them at the end, don’t underestimate how big a deal that is.

Maintain a Clear Course of Action – This is one that’s going to be easy to say, but maybe hard to explain, and I expect to chew on how to express it more effectively for a while, but the short of it is this: the clearer the course of action is (clear in terms of evident, not necessarily clear in terms of a lack of obstacles – obstacles are half the fun), the faster things will move, especially if there is some external pressure to keep things moving. On its face, this is dangerously close to a case for railroading, but that’s not the heart of it at all. For one thing, there will often be more than one useful course of action, and for another this is about action on the scene level, not the whole arc of the adventure.

This hinges on information management – it’s all about making sure the players have enough information to make decisions (at least most of the time) and that means that they need to feel confident in their knowledge of 1) What they would need to do, 2) Whether or not they’re capable of it and 3) the immediate consequences of doing so. Adversarial dungeoning encourages GMs to be be very cagey about these data points, especially #2 and #3, but that’s a bad instinct. Not only does it slow play, but keeping everything obscure utterly devalues the things you shroud for good reasons.

The Good Parts Version – This is an old one from the bottom of the bag that merits dusting off. The speed of a particular scene or action should not depend on its importance, but rather it should be inverse to the level of player engagement. The only long scenes are ones where all the players are engaging each other – everything else deserves to be brisk and keep the ball moving. If it’s something a player enjoys, it should take longer than something that’s clearly a plot necessity.

This technique is super-useful to GMs looking to weed their own garden. It makes you aware of things you’re stretching out because they’re cool to you but not your players, so you can decide what to do about that.

Anyway, it’s not a science yet, but I feel like I may have started getting my hands around really making pacing work. Which is one more reason I need to get working on that Skill Challenge thing.


Man, the Cold War game is kicking my ass. The mechanics have been working just fine[1], but man it is making me bump up against most of my real weaknesses as a GM. Some of it is no doubt that any night, any time, might not go well. I’m ok with that. Everyone has an off night. But some of it is that I think espionage may be my Achilles heel.

See, the heart of the matter is information. A spy game revolves around information, and as I had no desire to just infodump at the players, I needed to put information into play in a way that actually put it into mind through experience. In the abstract, that’s fine, but in an information-centric game, that’s a lot of data to push down the pipe, and it impacts the play experience.

This last session kind of came to a head. At the culmination of 3 sessions, the players busted up an underground auction of Marktech (technology related to supers), saw a number of players in action, had numerous reveals and move the plot forward, and at the end of the night, I felt like crap. That session felt much more about me revealing plot than about the players than about them, and that’s no way to run a circus, but at the same time I’d be hard pressed to say how to do it differently and still stay within the genre we’re shooting for.

Part of the frustration is that I dislike having to say no to players based on something I know about the setting and they don’t, especially when it’s about genre expectations. In a more fast and loose game (my preference) it is easier to roll with player ideas, but when there are hard limiters on tone (such as, specifically, guns are dangerous and your opponents are dangerous because they’re smart, not because they’re strong) it gets harder. Worse, when I throw up a barrier to something on that basis, I feel like I’m just being that asshole GM saying no because it’s not the way I want things to go.

It gets exacerbated by having thematic barriers but no real thematic core. The spy (and crime) stories I enjoy revolve around some sort of actual moral core, usually loyalty (Bond) or some sort of moral limits (Burn Notice)[2] but I shot that in the foot a little bit in the premise – things are sufficiently gray and muddy that there’s not a lot of purchase there. The players have brought some core to the table on their own, but it is sometimes better suited to a different kind of game. On some level, I wonder if I would just be better off flipping the lever from espionage to thriller. Thrillers require much less beyond the immediate situation to be engaging, and lord knows that would be easier to run.

Anyway, sorry for the down note, but chewing over this stuff is how I improve.

1 – With one exception – I may need a tweak to make a guy with a drawn gun more dangerous.

2 – This applies to other morally gray games too. Amber, for example, is full of villains, but at least they’re a Family

3d6 and Bonus Dice

Gonna be a nerdy one today, with more noodling on the FATE Spies 3d6 mechanic (which I may need to start calling something else soon).

EDIT: I just noticed I didn’t upload the key. Basically, the black line is a flat, familiar 3d6. Red line is 3d6 with 1 bonus die, blue is 2 bonus dice and green is 3 bonus dice. Click the image to see it in better detail.

Yeah, I was feeling a little crazy last night and wanted to see just how big an impact bonus dice had on a regular 3d6 distribution (the black line). But even so, I admit that’s kind of crazy to see.

Bonus and penalty dice, for the unfamiliar, are a fairly simple mechanic I first encountered in Over the Edge. They work quite simply – when rolling a set of dice, say, 3d6, if you have a bonus die, you roll 4d6, and tally up the best three of them. If you have a penalty die, you roll 4d6 and tally up the worst 3 of them. The math is pretty easy, and so long as you’re dealing with tallies that people can handle comfortable then I find it’s a useful mechanic because it has a few curious attributes.

Most importantly, it doesn’t change the range of outcomes, it just changes the likelihood of where a result will fall. This is a fantastic way to keep the numerical representation of the world consistent yet bounded, because the best result that can ever possibly be rolled is a known value, and you can reasonably set difficulties based on that.

This model works exceptionally well when the dice themselves represent values, as in Over the Edge (where your attributes were rated at 3d6 or 4d6) or in the newer versions of Cortex (where everything is described with a die value EDIT: as illustrated in the Leverage RPG which is out today!).[1] It is a little odd to be using it with a bonus system, as I am with the Fate Spies game, but it’s proving a surprisingly good match for the relatively short skill ladder (only 4 steps, though I have a hunch 5 might be better) because the range of bonus seems large enough to tilt a roll, but not large enough to overwhelm it.

Consider, in contrast, if your roll a d20 and have a +2 bonus. Your bonus isn’t going to make too much of a difference in the total value of your roll. It weights it a little, sure, but the range of outcomes is broad enough to overwhelm it. In contrast, if you have a +32 bonus, the bonus is much more telling. (Yes, this is partly math, but there are some caveats to that. But it’s also about perception).

Compared to that, a +0/+2/+4/+6 set feels pretty good, especially on a 3d6 curved outcome. +2 is still enough to pretty impressively improve your odds (increases your chance of hitting a 10 by almost 25%) but is more likely to drop you in the 10-14 range (complicated success), which seems exactly right. Once you start adding bonus dice and penalty dice into this, it feels like a very potent range of options in a fairly tight package.

As a bonus, setting a hard limit on potential outcomes makes it easier to handle superhuman ones if and when they come up. If the best guy in the world’s best shot is a 25 (18 + 6 + 1 point misc bonus) then I know that superhuman starts at 26 and can build from there.

Even more, it makes the game nicely compact in terms of materials. D6’s are easy to come by and it’s easy to get sets by color. If I’m feeling saucy, it’s entirely possibly to hand out fate points[2] as differently colored d6’s. Combined with the fairly minimal skill list, and the whole game kit could probably fit in an index card box. I love the physical elements of games, but I lean towards minimalism in my tastes, so I’m always thinking about what’s involved in building a kit, and this may end up shaping into a true kit game.

1 – There’s some similarity to Roll & Keep systems, such as L5R, but those have different benefits.

2 – Aspects in this system either grant a reroll or add a bonus die. I had worried that wasn’t quite potent enough, but looking at the math, it pretty much is, but it offers no incentive for spending them before the roll. I need to decide if that’s a bug or a feature. If it’s a feature, ti means I’ll assume it will _always_ be after the roll, and make specific narrative demands to that end.

More Spy Results

Another session of the spies game last night. The mechanics are still present, just because they’re primarily in my head (or on the blog), so I’m trying to keep them transparent, but I think they’re holding up. Specifically, We’re been playing the 3d6 variant and it’s proving fairly robust.

Last night was the kind of session where things took a much more wiggly path than I anticipated, but I made a lot of unexpected discoveries. The sole downside is that the tempo system feels a little stretched in a close quarters gunfight – one that feels like it should be more dangerous than normal. While it’s easy to give one side or another an advantage, there’s no dial for making a specific fight nastier. I could probably tweak the margin of success in the background, but that seems a little ham-handed. Something to think about, but I don’t think it detracted from the game.

On the upside, I think I finally internalized the need for penalty dice as a difficulty gauge. As it’s a fixed-outcome roll (influenced by Apocalypse World, but it is definitely not an AW hack) the game has the frustrating habit of distributing outcomes independent of the fiction of the world. Tossing in a penalty die to say “This is harder than just doing the same thing in different circumstances” feels very natural, and since the impact of the penalty die is immediate and palpable, I get a lot of mileage out of just using a few. One means this is hard, two means this is really hard, and three means you’re really pushing it. Keeping it down to 3 possibilities keeps it easy to grasp.

I also made a realization which Fred verbalized. As in AW, there is a “Success with complications” outcome that is the most likely of outcomes, but unlike AW, the complication is not automatic – in this, the complication is at the GM’s option, and if he adds it, the player gets a fate point. This worked out very well in play, and added a few surprises to the game, but the real payoff was on the meta-level. As a GM, it allowed me to back off from a roll I shouldn’t have called for or which I was just using to test the breeze. For the players, Fred pointed out that it removed a lot of the hesitation of using lower skills, since those were the ones most likely to hit these results. That last in particular pleases me.

Didn’t get to test combat too much – two fights, the first one ending in rapid withdrawal (that was the close quarters gunfight), and the second ending under the weight of such an overwhelming opening roll that it couldn’t really be categorized as a fight.

As a GM, I was reminded that I have a weakness for NPCs who manage to pull off an escape in the face of overwhelming PC firepower, and I had to let myself get comfortable with letting the dice shape the follow up. I’ve also made a note to myself to see how the tempo rules fare in a chase.

Anyway, all in all a good game, and this may yet shape up into a full system.

Fate Spies

This is the ruleset I’m using for my current Cold War espionage game. There’s a mild supers element to the game I’m running, but I’ve compartmentalized that and taken it out of this writeup. I may write it up as a standalone at some point, but honestly, the supers part is the most hand-wavey part of the game.

Character Creation
Like most Fate games, character generation is something performed with the players sitting down together and figuring out some elements of their shared history. The assumption is that when play begins the players are an established unit or cell, and that inter-player trust can be a solid commodity. A game looking to introduce a little more conflict within the party might mix it up a little.

Characters have five aspects. The first three relate to the character’s history and background, while the last two relate to missions the character has previously been on with the team.

Background Aspects
The first aspect picked should be the primary aspect for the agent. This is a descriptor which, if you only had to describe the character in one way, it would be this. I might be a role like Assassin or Mechanic, or it might be something that speaks to their story like Sole Survivor. There’s nothing that mechanically distinguishes this aspect from other aspects as an aspect, but it is going to say a lot about the agent’s role in the game, so it maybe important to consider how it’s phrased.

The other two aspects should catch the character coming and going. The first reflects where the character comes from (their background, family, education or the like) and the third reflects how they got into the agency or their time in the agency (or some other service) before joining the team.

Flashpoint Aspects
The last two aspects will be flashpoints – missions that they team took together. The details of these jobs should be worked out between the players and the GM.

After all aspects have been chosen, each player needs to come up with an anchor for each of his aspect. An anchor is a person, place or thing that is representative of that aspect to the player. The GM is expected to bring anchors up in play with some frequency as a guarantee that even fairly abstract aspects get hit often enough.

There are eight broad roles which cover the breadth of agent activities, and they are:

They will be ranked at one of 4 levels
World Class (+6)
Elite (+4)
Trained (+2)
Untrained (+0)

Agents are exceptionally skilled, and as such have one world class role, two elite, four trained and one untrained skill.

Skill Breakdown
Athlete covers most physical activities like running, jumping and climbing. Hopefully it’s pretty straightforward. If no other physical role is appropriate to a task, use athlete.

An Elite Athlete may choose one of the following benefits:
Mobility – The character can do crazy parkour/Jackie Chan type stuff, allowing them to move full tilt in environments a normal person would have to slow down for.
Brute – The character is strong as hell and can perform a burst of strength to do thing silk break ropes or bust down a door.

A World Class Athlete receives both Elite benefits.

Diplomat covers most social interaction, from making friends to lying to impressing the opposite sex. It does NOT cover the perception of the same (that’s under this auspices of Observer).

An Elite diplomat may choose one of the following benefits:
Subtle Inquiry – You can tell the GM you want the answer to a specific question before you enter conversation with an NPC. Provided you converse with them for a reasonable time, you subtly steer the conversation in such a way that you get the answer you’d have gotten if you’d asked.
Plant Seed – After a few minutes of conversation, you can plant an idea in someone through subtle language and cues. This isn’t mind control or hypnotism, it just plants an idea the way that a song gets stuck in your head. It’s not a big thing, but it can be a good way to help someone have a brilliant idea.
Gambler – In any game of chance where there are other players, the character may roll Diplomat rather than luck (which is a 0).
Dangerous Grace – In any social situation where there are rules of behavior, you can force someone into a Faux Pas, or prevent such a faux pas from someone (including yourself).

A World Class Diplomat may choose two Elite benefits.

keep track of what’s going on. They rely on keen eyes, keen ears and the sharp intellect to separate the wheat from the chafe.

An Elite Observer may choose one of the following benefits:
Cold Read – Upon entering a scene, the observer may ask one of the following questions and get a good faith answer:
Who is the most dangerous person in the room?
Who is the most important person in the room?
Who is watching me?
Where is the fastest exit?
Faces Are an Open Book – Any time they make a roll against another person regarding deception (such as whether or not someone is lying) the player will be told what the opposition rolled after the fact.
Elementary – When the character finds a piece of information, he may ask for one additional piece of information he can extrapolate from it (such as the weight of the person who left footprints) over and above what his roll may merit.

A World Class Observer may choose two elite benefits, or he may choose a single benefit (Cold Read or Elementary) and ask two questions.

covers all the interactions with people that do not depend on them liking you. A good politicians understands how power structures work, can give good orders and find loopholes in those he receives. He understands the law and perhaps most important to an agent, he understands paperwork. Outside of the uses on a mission, politician is the skill required to requisition resources for a mission or to effectively call in support.

An elite politicians can choose one of the following benefits:
A Little Bit of Law – The politician is actually a lawyer, and has the education and paperwork to prove it, and is familiar enough with international law to fake it in any country where he can speak the language. The exact benefits of this vary from country to country, but even in those with few protections for lawyers, knowledge of the law can be handy.
SOP – The politician knows the rules and regulations of any organization large enough to have rules. That means he can identify them on sight and make declarations regarding how they are supposed to respond in specific situations. For example “Ok, those are Hercule Security guards – that means 4 man teams, 1/2 hour patrol intervals and a mandatory lunch break of not less than 45 minutes”
The Man – The politician is a person of importance, if not prominence. He might own a large share of a major corporation or be royalty from someplace where that matters, but whatever the case, he moves in the circles with the movers and shakers.

A World Class politician may have two of these benefits, or he may choose to focus on The Man, in which case he is one of the dozen or so secret figures who pull the strings behind the scenes. Whether or not this is apt for a player is a decision for the table.

know things. Simple as that. While there are many situations where the application of this trait is obvious, this also has the advantage of being the fallback trait to roll when no other trait seems appropriate. Scholar can be used to make declarations as appropriate, or to allow the agent to get answers without research.

An elite scholar can choose one of the following benefits:
Linguist – The agent is the master of a number of different (and unspecified languages). In practice it means that the character can speak any language that comes up in play.
Great Mind – The scholar can choose some academic field. Within that field he is a published, respected figure, the sort that gives speeches and writes book. He can use one of his aspects for free when rolling scholar within that sphere, and when dealing with other scholars within the same circle he can use the Scholar in lieu of Diplomat.
Pattern Recognition – Given time to study the paperwork around a situation (which is to say, the kind of situation that would have paperwork to research) the character can extract one aspect associated with the situation.

A world Class scholar may choose any two of these benefits, or may take an improved version of Great Mind, in which case he is the greatest authority on the world on the topic.

covers violence of any stripe – guns, fists, sharp sticks and so on. It’s pretty simple

An elite soldier can choose one of the following benefits.
Heavy Weapons – The agent can use larger weapons, from rocket launchers to tanks. Technological complexity is no barrier to them.
Martial Arts – The character’s skill with unarmed combat is such that they do not grant superiority (see the notes on combat, below) when fighting hand to hand, no matter what the opponent is armed with, and they gain superiority against other unarmed opponents who are not similarly trained.
Tactician – The agent can use soldier in lieu of Observer when in a fight.

A World Class Soldier may take two of these benefits.

covers the ability to fix, understand and operate machinery (including driving cars).

An elite technician can choose one of the following benefits.
Pilot – The agent can drive anything, including planes, helicopters and boats.
Hacker – Computers behave for the agent like they do in the movies (well, specifically, movies from the early 80’s, so it’s still all green screens and squealing modems) rather than the way they act in real life.
Gadgeteer – The agent doesn’t need to spend fate points to have reasonable tools and gadgets on hand, and anything you can’t carry you can probably build it out of parts on hand.

A World Class Technician can take two benefits.

covers activities of stealth, deception and (of course) theft.

An Elite thief can take one of the following benefits.
Fast Hands – The agent can perform feats of legerdemain while in the middle of the most distracting of circumstances, such as in the middle of a fight or chase.
Face in a Crowd – The agent can sneak in plain sight provided there are people for him to mingle among.
Magician – The agent is an accomplished stage magician, capable of displays both flashy and subtle.

A World Class Thief can take two benefits.

Special Rules

Aspect Invocation

Characters may only invoke a single aspect of their own per roll, for either a +2 bonus or a reroll. Similarly, they may only tag one aspect on the scene.

Aspect Exploitation
Characters may exploit any number of aspects of their opposition in a scene on a given roll. That means that if you want to spend a bunch of fate points for a big bonus, you need to know your enemy well.

Descriptive bonuses
Good plans, good tools and other things that might help a roll can grant a +1 bonus to any roll. Such bonuses do not stack. Superiority (see below) is an application of this rule.

Combat and Conflict[1]
In any situation where an agent is throwing down with opposition (whether in a fight, a chase or the like) things get resolved pretty quickly. It’s all about advantage. Both parties roll appropriate skills and the outcome depends on the margin.

At any point in the fight, things will be in one of the following states:
Bother side are on equal footing
One side has an edge
One side holds an advantage
One side holds a decisive advantage

The meaning of margin of success depends a lot on the starting point in the conflict. Once one side wins they are considered to control the tempo of the fight, and this is mechanically reflected by them holding an edge, advantage or decisive advantage. The side which controls tempo has more options than the other side, depending on their status.

Starting from even footing (and some fights may start with one side or the other having an edge) the outcomes are as follows:

Win by 0-1 – status does not change
Win by 2-3 – winner gains the edge
Win by 4-6 – winner gains the advantage
Win by 7+ – winner gains a decisive advantage

If you hold the edge, the outcome chart changes as follows:
Win by 0-3 – keep the edge (unless he gives it up, see below)
Win by 4-6 – gain the advantage
Win by 7+ – gain a decisive advantage

The side with the edge gets to narrate the direction of the fight – not outcomes per se, but the general direction of things. As part of his description, the agent can give up the edge (restoring tempo to a neutral state) and add an aspect to the scene as part of the description.

If you hold the advantage, the outcome chart changes as follows:
Win by 0-4 – keep the advanatage (unless he gives it up, see above)
Win by 5+ – gain a decisive advantage

The side with advantage can describe things in such a way as to harm or inconvenience the other side. You can sacrifice advantage to reflect that inconvenience or damage as a consequence.

Decisive Advantage
Once you hold decisive advantage, you can sacrifice it for victory on your terms. That said, it’s not carte blanche – you can achieve one end with a decisive victory, and if there are more things you need to accomplish, you may need to reach it more than once.

Weapons and tools impact the roll in terms of the relative advantage they offer. Any weapon is a help against an unarmed opponent, but certain weapons will be more useful in certain situations, such as a knife in close quarters. Advantage is usually worth a +1 bump, but may be as high as +3 if it’s extreme. In very extreme situations (like a fight at range where only one person has a ranged weapon), not only does that grant superiority, but the defender can’t ever get better than edge, no matter how well he rolls.

Non-Fudge Alternative
If played without Fudge Dice, this is the alternate system.

The base roll is 3d6, with the outcome modified the role value[3] making use of bonus and penalty dice to reflect a lot of things. When a roll has one or more bonus dice, they’re extra d6’s rolled along with the usual 3d6, and the player counts the 3 highest dice showing. If the roll has penalty dice, then they’re extra d6s as too, except the player counts the three lowest dice.

On a normal roll, the outcomes break down as follows:
Less than Five – Unmitigated failure, described by the GM with an eye on making trouble.
5-9 – Failure, described by the player, who may mitigate the consequences of the failure, but not cancel it out. Best phrased as “Tell me how you fail.”
10-14 – Qualified success – This is a reasonable success, but the door is open to complications. The GM may, at his option, introduce a complication to the success, or a choice that must be made in order to succeed. When the GM does this, the player gets a fate point.
15-19 – Unqualified success, narrated by the GM
20+ – Dramatic success – as with an unqualified success, but the player has the option to ask for a little extra spin.

Conflict works roughly the same way, but table changes a little
Base or with Edge
1-4 – Edge
5-8 – Advantage
9+ – Decisive Advantage

With Advantage
0-4 – Maintain
5+ Decisive Advantage

Superiority is still reflected as a straight bonus to the roll.

Aspects in the 3d6 game can be used for rerolls or bonus dice.

1 – Informally, I’m calling this the Tempo System, because edge used to be called tempo, and I still think of it as that in my head.

2 – Notice there’s not really any difference between the normal and the edge table, I just separate them for clarity. The big change comes once you have Advantage. It all looks very fiddly, but the reality is much simpler: The threshold for taking someone out drops by two so long as you hold the advantage.

3 – Designer hat here. Some part of me suspects the 3d6 model would work better with an additional tier, so roles would be untrained (0), trained (+2), experienced (+4), elite (+6) and world class(+8), suggesting a distribution of 1 world class, 2 elite, 2 experienced, 2 trained, 1 untrained.

On the Mark

Third session of my Cold War game, and conclusion of the first plot arc, and I think things fell into place. Not going to do a full on recap, but I want to hit on a few points that I think are generally useful.

  • Found a solution to the Fate Point problem. First off, by generally raising the stakes and making thins harder, there were more rolls that were harder to make, so they saw more use. I also budgeted them based on which of the character’s aspects I’d used to plan the adventure, in this case 2,2, and 3. I’m pretty happy with this because it also serves as an informal spotlight mechanism, and as a GM it makes me check that I’ve included everyone. If one player is starting with zero fate points, that’s probably a bad sign.
  • Morgan got to demonstrate the power of a concession. His super-soldier was fighting a guy in an exo-suit who was slowly kicking his ass, and it was looking bad, he offered the concession that he lose, but that he dragged it out. I went with that, and his opponent eventually resorted to gassing the room because Bull just wouldn’t go down. I think the net result was a loss that was also satisfying to Morgan. Bull did get a rematch later, which went somewhat better by opening the fight by hitting his opponent with a jeep.
  • It is good to plan, but sometimes unnecessary. The bad guys had an elaborate double cross planned, and had many contingencies in place to try to get Anne alone (she’s the one who got 3 fate points because many bad things went here way this time) but sometimes your players will just do all the work for your.
  • I did have one badass NPC ally, which I always feel uncomfortable about, but I think I kept his contribution to a minimum, and I think people were ok with it because a) he’s an important part of Anna’s backstory and b) through a sequence of bad luck, Anna was the only person who didn’t actually get to see him, which annoyed the player (in a good way).
  • One big trick I’m finding with espionage is that I need to quash my instinct to answer questions. I normally like to make sure things are tidily wrapped up, if only to show that I didn’t cheat, but not for this. Every improbable coincidence or strange-seeming turn of events is fodder for play, and the answers need to be _earned_.
  • Similar, I’m happy that the cast of supporting character has grown. That this session ended with a still-breathing enemy inspiring profound hatred is a good sign.
  • I got anchors from people right before the game, so I haven’t even looked at them yet, but I look forward to folding them into the next session.
  • I added a little bit more mechanic to the fight scening, enough that I feel it covered Bull’s fight, but Grey ended up in a gunfight with some guards which ended up, mechanically, kind of flat. Next thing to fix, I think.