Stress, Consequences, and the Fractal

Today I’m going to dig deeper into the notion of stress and consequences in Fate, and talk about how the principle of the Fate Fractal can be applied to complicate the model (in a good way).

A Few Words About Stress

When it comes down to it, consequences are the real meat of the system, by dint of being aspects. But in order to get to them, we’ve got to talk stress.

So, what is stress — really?

From a system standpoint, stress is, simply, a pacing mechanism (this is equally true of hit points in D&D). It’s a means of measuring how long a character can stay in a fight, and thus, a measure of how long fights are. 

I can’t stress (ha) that point enough — the length of a combat scene creates a variety of experiences for the player. Systems where fights can be suddenly, brutally over with a single swing of the sword can feel “grittier” or “more dangerous” or “too fast”.  Systems where characters can endure a quite staggering variety of abuses before falling to the ground can feel “more cinematic” or “too slow” (this certainly arises with Spirit of the Century’s five to eight box stress tracks). 

Even when consequences come into play, it’s the length of the stress track that ultimately sets the pace. Run out of stress track boxes, and you’re going down even if you can reduce that 7 stress hit to a 1 stress hit with your consequences. 

Generalized, a stress track counts the number of blows a character can receive before he falls down. There’s finesse there, for sure; if you adopt a weapons and armor system like the Dresden Files RPG, you’ll have some means whereby you can draw out the effectiveness of those boxes — or shortcut them. A bigger blow has fewer places to go on the track than a smaller one as things start to fill up. You can go with the default of those blows landing on a specific numbered box, or you can backfill any lower boxes, or you can simply go for a hit point style track, but at the end of the day those are simply decisions about how much of your time-resource (your pacing) gets consumed when someone lands the blow.

Countdown to Consequence

As such, as a resource, as a countdown clock, the stress track is a prime location where the player will or won’t experience tension during a conflict. This can be a bit of an art, and is absolutely something that should be tuned and play tested until it fits the experience you want to create with your particular implementation of Fate. 

But that clock is pretty boring by itself, all the same. It does one thing: it counts down. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor (even if it comes in a few different types). You have to add in consequences to really get the jazz.

Consequences have a bit of a pacing element to them as well. They’re a finite supply, so you’ll see that resource getting spent down, and they’re differently weighted in terms of the amount of stress they absorb when taken. Go for our standard of -2/-4/-6 and you can still suck up some pretty big punishments — they’ll just hurt real bad. This also sets the maximum amount of stress a target can take in a single blow and still have a chance of walking away. If characters can take only one consequence per attack, then the biggest is their track length plus six, for example. If characters can take multiple, the biggest is a fair bit higher. The bigger this number is, the more durable characters will be in the face of attack — but if they’re taking consequences, they’ll be measurably diminished for a time. Past fights will be able to catch up with the present. All the same, in many respects the bigger the “biggest number” is, the more cinematic the feel (but cinematic in a Die Hard way more than a Three Musketeers way, perhaps).

In SOTC, we wanted heroes to stay on their feet in a variety of circumstances unless the odds were really stacked against them. Frankly, we overdid that: at a base of 5, extensible up to at least 8, stress tracks in SOTC just ran too deep. We also hadn’t embraced the -2/-4/-6 consequence method yet, instead making it a steady progression from Mild to Moderate to Severe to Taken Out. In doing this, we missed out on driving folks to the fun part (consequences), and we devalued the magnitude of hits when the stress boxes ran out. (“I hit for 5!” “Well, he has no stress left, so that’s just a mild consequence the first time.) Once Lenny put the -2/-4/-6 method out there (he is the very original source on that), we quickly saw that was the way we should’ve gone, and recommended folks go for a base track length of 3 or 4, with what’s now our standard for consequences.

In Dresden Files, we wanted the fights to be scary, sudden, and brutal. But we also didn’t necessarily want the heroes to drop in the first round; Dresden Files is a curious blend of a gritty feel alongside some cinematic durability. Testing showed us that meant making the stress tracks shorter, but keeping the -2/-4/-6 ratings on the consequences. We gave means to shortcut the track further when the lethality dials got cranked — and made sure the characters had enough consequence slots available so they could really feel the hurt, but avoid the “instant drop”. We also had the stress track lengths top out at a certain point (extensible only through superpowers), with characters at high stress-track-granting skill levels getting additional minor consequence slots instead. And we added in the idea of a permanent consequence at -8 that could redefine your character when it landed. And taking multiple consequences in a single blow was a-OK. In aggregate this got us scary+gritty+cinematic thanks to a short stress track but a large (really large) maximum hit number, which was just about right. Fights didn’t run too long and players could make some choices about whether to fight and hurt for it, or run away prudently. 

While we didn’t directly work on Diaspora, the guys there made some decisions that fit their sensibilities but I believe also helped uphold more of a hard SF feel (this may have been intentional design). I’ll be saying this off the top of my head, so forgive me if I have some inaccuracies: there, consequences land in a -1/-2/-4 progression rather than our more broad one; I forget if you could only take one consequence at a time, but it wouldn’t surprise me; and if I recall correctly their stress track backfills lower boxes when a blow lands. This gets you a quicker pace through the length of the stress track, and a low maximum hit number. Diaspora ain’t cinematic, but the experience of play as felt through stress and consequences should certainly feel authentic to a hard SF fan.

When designing your Fate implementation, don’t be afraid to try a few different configs. If it’s in the middle of campaign you’re running, fess up to it and explain why you’d like to make a change — we certainly did once we realized SOTC’s config was a bit too far in one direction. Also, play other games and keep tabs on yourself and your fellow players. How many times around the table before interest starts to flag? You probably don’t want your stress tracks to be much longer, and probably a bit shorter, than that number. Get suggestions from the Fate community and be clear about the experience you want your conflicts to produce. The dials are yours to spin.

Compound FracturesFractals

So that’s an exploration of stress, consequences, and some of the thinking that goes into setting the dials. Is that good enough for your purposes? I think it’ll work well for most people, and at the very least I think it’s the right kind of starting point. But, being Fate, there are always places you can hook in something more detailed or (YMMV) more evocative by involving the fractal.

Here, I’m thinking about consequences. Consequences are aspects, and to a fractal-hacker, an aspect being on or representing something is a bit of a flag that “hey, this could be treated like a character”. So here’s a grab bag of thoughts about that. If you’re looking for consequences to have more depth or teeth, any one of the ideas below might give you what you’re looking for.

Consequences are like characters, therefore…

… they’re represented by aspects. 

This is the core already-established function, our springboard for the rest. It means that consequences can be compelled and invoked (usually by someone else, in acting against the possessor, but not always).

… they have a skill rating. 

Maybe a consequence could have an adjective rating tied to it based on the number of shifts it absorbed, so a 4-shift consequence would be rated at Great (+4). (Or maybe you’re doing away with the stress track entirely, with rated consequences replacing that function.)

That skill could then be used as a block on actions that you’re trying to take that would be affected by the consequence. Or it could even launch attacks of its own if the consequence represented something ongoing, like a festering wound or a nasty scandal. Or maybe those are too heavy-handed; even then, the skill could be used as an opposing difficulty when  trying to do away with the consequence.

… they have stunts.

Stunts might resemble special conditions imparted by specific kinds of attacks or weapons. To reference the above, maybe your festering wound consequence gets the “Ongoing Damage” stunt, granting the ability for the consequence to make its own attacks. Or maybe it’s an “Entangling” stunt that says “this consequence will prevent your movement” (or maybe just add a border value of 2 to moving out of your current zone).

… they have a stress track.

For real! The consequence might have a stress track of its own, for tracking your progress in getting yourself rid of the consequence. “I attack the Ongoing Scandal with my Politician skill!” Which takes us back around to…

… they HAVE aspects.

If you’re going really nuts, consequences might possess aspects of their own (aspects inside of an aspect! aaaaagh!) — at least temporarily. A doctor might maneuver/assess/declare a temporary aspect on the consequence as part of his diagnosis, which he later invokes to help in the operation to fix the condition. If a stress track is in play, a particularly tough consequence might take consequences of its own before getting taken out. (For that matter, if a consequence can be taken out, what’s to say it can’t concede? What sort of concessions might be offered, then? “The treatment sends the cancer into remission, but there are complications…”)

Old School Stress Tracks

Stress tracks in Fate 2.x had a different vibe going to them. Ultimately it was the Fate 2 implementation of stress at that got split into two parts to get us the stress and consequences model we have today in Fate 3.

In Fate 2, a stress track was a series of boxes organized into “tiers”, each of which had a range, and each of which would cause a side-effect when a box on that level first got checked off. It looked something like this:
1 [][] Take a -1 to your next action
2-4 [][] Take a -1 to all actions this scene
5-6 [][] Take a -1 to all actions per box checked until healed
7+ You are taken out

This was fun  and had some nifty crunch to it (you could vary the number of boxes at each tier, vary the range of stress needed to hit each tier, etc), but as we moved into Fate 3 we realized that minuses weren’t as much fun as plusses (and provided less incentive for the recipient to remember to account for them), and moved several parts of the system on to a +X rather than -X footing. Plus we realized that lasting wounds could be aspects (that’s the fractal in action: using an existing piece of the system rather than adding something new). So we moved to the current model.

Still, there’s something to be said for that older method. Those who prefer it could set things up such that the tiers are instead: 
1 [][] Your opponent gains spin
2-3 [][] You take a mild consequence
4-5 [][] You take a moderate consequence
6-7 [][] You take a severe consequence
8+ You are taken out

… and get the best of  both worlds. I say this, but haven’t had a chance to play test it. If you do, let us know how it works out.