The Core of Fate Core, Part II

So, Fred’s post talks a lot about what Fate Core has been. My main interest is in where it’s going. That’s what this post is about, as a supplement to Fred’s post. In that sense, the title might be misleading – I’m thinking out loud a lot throughout, more interested in asking questions and exploring potential than finding answers. I don’t know if this is really “Core” material or not. But, who cares? It’ll be fun. I’m assuming you read the other post and that this isn’t your first rodeo with Fate as a system.

I think the best way to proceed is to go a subheader at a time, in roughly the same order Fred did, and just follow all the way down through the document. Again, minimal editing, so if I go off into left field weirdo designer territory… well, just go with it.


So, what’s interesting about the use of dice in Fate is that in a sense, they mainly serve as a positioning mechanism that determines how many fate points you’re potentially going to spend in a particular instance. My experience with using d6-d6 shows that players will spend fate points more quickly and more often, because the results are more varied. So compels and other means of pushing fate points back to the players become more important in the course of a session – you might consider an automatic restoring (aka refresh) of fate points at the halfway mark of a session or something like that.

It also makes the setting of difficulties even more art than science than normal, because the players are more vulnerable to bad dice luck. It’s even more important, when you’re going with this, to make sure that both failure and success have interesting outcomes that push play forward.

Finally, keep genre in mind – does the increased randomness fit the kind of game you’re running? High action comedy adventure, rock on. Serious, down to earth spy drama? Maybe stick with 4dF.

The Ladder

Nothing much to say here. I suggest you locally adopt the practice of naming steps over Legendary, with such titles as “Fuck Dang +11” and “Dick Awesome +12” (is a registered trademark of Ryan Macklin).


You can get a sense of whether or not you will need to invoke aspects to succeed by looking at where the difficulty sits relative to your skill. If it’s 2 or more under your skill, no worries. If it’s within one or even, you might need to invoke, but probably not. If it’s 2 or more above, you’re probably going to need to invoke.

GMs: This is a great tool for you to manage fate point flow, as long as you aren’t an ass about it.


I consider skills to be an optional concern in a Fate game you might build from the ground up. I’ll talk about that in more detail here in a sec, probably after I talk about stunts.

Choosing Skills

One of the ways we tend to talk about niche protection is by looking at a character’s “peak” skills, which are the three highest skills on the character sheet. If each PC has a different peak with no overlap, you probably have a good variety going on, regardless of what that variety actually is.

GMs: Those skill peaks are what that player came to your table to do. Make sure they have that opportunity on a reasonably frequent basis.

Designing Skills

So the first thing you’re looking at here, in terms of trappings, is providing access to all the basic game “moves”: simple actions, assessments, declarations, attacks, sprints, maneuvers, and blocks. Different skills provide this access selectively, consisting of one or more trappings.

(You might have figured out that the reason why skills are optional is because the trapping, the access, is really what matters. Skills are just a way of articulating that access in a nice, neat package for ease of reference. There are other ways to do so. We’ll get there. I lied, I started talking about it early, whee!)

The second thing you’re looking at (and maybe this doesn’t need saying, whatever), is the narrative context under which you have that access. It’s not sufficient to build a skill like Intimidation and say, “You can use this skill to attack.” Because then I could say that I can add my Intimidation to a roll to punch someone in the face, which is obviously weird.

So instead, you’d say something like “Attack: You can use Intimidation to make a mental attack against someone when you’re in a position to incite fear of injury or harm.” Now you’ve provided both parts: a context in which that skill operates and access to a game move. Now it’s a trapping.

The reason I’m bringing up narrative context is because that’s where you’re going to figure out what skills you need and what skills you don’t. If you can come up with a short description of, say, ten to fifteen things you expect the characters to routinely do during the game, your skill list is pretty much built – you’re not going to have the Cotillion skill in your Vietnam War game, because there is no appropriate narrative context where you’d need that to provide you access to one of the basic actions.

I’m sure I’ll end up talking about this in an example post later.

Also, in games where your skills determine other passive things about your character, like stress tracks, it’s considered to be a part of this “game move access” even though you don’t proactively engage them. So, if your game was a merchant fleet game, and you had one ship for every rank in Resources, that’s the same kind of “game move” as being able to make the declaration that you own something of value. This will be important when we start talking about stunts.

Aspects aka The Reason Why We’re Here

Generally speaking, we acknowledge that aspects can be described as falling into a few major types, recognizing at the same time that the boundaries between these types are fluid and edge cases exist:

  • Description – The aspect tells me a trait or detail that is true or generally accepted about your character. Hyperbole is accepted and at times encouraged. (“Strongest [Wo]Man in the World”, “Volcanic Temper”, “Survivor’s Guilt”, “Chieftain of the Nakotas”, “I LURVE PUPPIES”)
  • Connection – The aspect tells me about your character’s relationship with a person, group, or object. (“Excalibur, My Blessing and Curse”, “I Love Mom”, “The Bureau Needs Me”, “James, Why Won’t You Just Die”)
  • Situation – The aspect tells me what kinds of things tend to happen when your character’s around. (“Always the Butt of a Joke”, “Oops, I Broke It”, “Danger Magnet”, “Someone’s Always Got to Challenge Me”)
  • Story – The aspect tells me what motivates and drives your character, what forces, external or internal, impel him or her to action. (Snarky version: This aspect tells me why I should give a damn about your guy.) (“On a Mission From God”, “They Kidnapped My Sister”, “Debt to the Mob”, “The Burdens of Knighthood”)

As stated above, these are going to overlap – “Survivor’s Guilt” is a description aspect, but it’s also a story aspect. As long as you’ve got a good smattering of these, your character should be in good shape.

Using Aspects

So, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how we might streamline or re-approach the way we talk about using aspects. Time to hypothesize. Don’t worry if this starts to sound weird – it probably sounds weird to me too.

If we strip away all the divisions we currently have about using aspects, reduce the process down as far as we can, and eliminate artificial distinctions, what we get is the following:

  • Someone mentions an aspect is relevant to what’s going on in a scene.
  • The nature of that relevance determines who gets a fate point or has to spend one.
  • Someone gets to do one of two things: manipulate the dice, or manipulate the in-game situation (or the story, or the fiction, or whatever you call the part that you roleplay).
  • The appropriate parties exchange Fate points.

I’m abstracting out this far in order to point out some stuff about the invoke/compel dichotomy that may not really be necessary or even desired in some games. For example, there’s kind of a default assumption, even in our own texts, that invoking is something the players primarily do and that compelling is something the GM primarily does.

There’s no reason why it has to be this way – it’s perfectly legit for the GM to spend fate points on behalf of her NPCs to help out her dice, and it’s perfectly legit for the player to spend a fate point to propose a dramatic complication for one of the GM’s characters.

So I think there’s a lot of flexibility to these dials that we haven’t explored. Ryan’s been mining some of that territory on his blog with distinguishing “Internal” and “World” compels; I highly recommend you go check that out.

Anyway, what matters is that the use of aspects promotes a cyclical flow of fate points from the players to the GM and back out again, rotating the “story power” around the table for the length of the session. The other method we introduced for getting Fate points back in Dresden (cashing out of a conflict via concession) is built from this logic – a concession is basically a “self-compel” of the consequences you’ve taken, with the outcome of you not being able to get what you want out of this fight.

As another example, the text of our books talks a lot about how in order to be a “real” compel, some consequence (plain English consequence, not game term consequence) of weight or merit must follow from it, and that if you don’t have one, you should push until you do. I’m pretty hardcore about this at my tables – you have to derive a certain kind of pleasure from watching your character suffer (and then overcome suffering) to play Fate with me.

But, you know, maybe your group doesn’t like that kind of stuff. It can be a pretty disconnecting experience for some people to get behind their character and then have to be okay with bad shit happening to them. Some people just don’t want to think like writers when they game.

So, hey, maybe they shouldn’t have to. Maybe the main way they get fate points is by roleplaying the crap out of their aspects and getting awarded at the high points of that roleplaying – whenever the whole table laughs, or oooos and aaaahs, or any other one of those momentary expressions of enthusiasm.

Maybe the GM in this kind of game doesn’t really put pressure on them as much dramatically, but focuses on providing good opposition that will ensure a steady drain of fate points in conflict scenes. Maybe you can still concede in conflicts and get fate points that way, so you have an out when the dice aren’t falling your way.

You know what? As long as the flow remains intact, that’s perfectly okay and perfectly Fate.

Am I suggesting that we get rid of invoke/compel? Maybe. Not necessarily. But I wonder how much wealth could be mined from focusing on teaching the fate point economy itself, rather than a particular configuration for distributing it. I envision a “Ways to Spend Fate Points” and a “Ways to Gain Fate Points” that’s a little more reflective of the possibilities, with the standard invoke/compel as an example, rather than as a definitive norm.

This allows the potential toolkit-savvy group to identify their preference and drift the thing to their liking, without my macho bullshit getting in their way.

Also, I think “tagging” can go away as a term. A tag (as of Dresden, anyway) is a one-time, free invocation that you get from having established or unearthed an aspect on the scene or another character. Do we really have to have a special term for that, if we just say, “Hey, if you establish this aspect, you get to invoke (or whatever we call it) once for free! Yay! Make more aspects!”?

Maybe we do. I’m just asking.

Choosing Aspects

Not much to say here, except this: phases don’t necessarily have to be about backstory in the “and then X happened” sense. The amount of ways you can group phases is staggeringly immense, and as long as you get the cross-pollination stuff happening in there, the results will still be just as cool.

The second edition of Fate (2004, holy shit, really?) offered two alternate ways of structuring phases – by where in the world you lived, or by what careers or pursuits your character was interested in. This would shape not only what aspects you’d end up with, but also what skills you could invest in.

So imagine that instead of doing history-based phases, the GM came to the game instead with a map of her fantasy world, and told you, “Okay, so for each phase you’re going to place yourself in one of these nations. Life in these nations tends to follow these themes, so here’s a list of examples of the types of aspects that would be common to people from that region. You can spend as many phases as you want in the same place, or you can travel, and pick up different aspects elsewhere.”

Or imagine that the GM said, “Okay, at the start of character creation, there are basically three paths – Peasant, Artisan, and Noble. Here are the kinds of aspects that would be common to each. In your second phase, if you take Noble, it opens up a path of Religion, Military, or Politics, and here are example aspects for those. If you take Peasant in your second phase…”

You see where I’m going with this? The important part of phase work is that it gives you a certain kind of context for you to determine what the most important defining, human features of your character are before you start play. It doesn’t necessarily need to involve the creation of a backstory.

I guess that was more to say than I thought. Oops.

GMs: Taking advantage of this kind of structured phase work can help you a lot if you really dig worldbuilding.


Here’s the dirty secret about stunts: for the most part, they’re just skill trappings separated by some kind of special privilege. That privilege usually has something to do with calling out a particular ability as rare, or wanting it to be a signature that highlights a particular character type or a trope of the genre you’re playing in.

As an example, let’s look at a Scholarship stunt from Dresden Files, called “Doctor”. The Doctor stunt lets you use your Scholarship skill to justify starting the recovery process for moderate or severe physical consequences. We could have just made a skill called Doctor and gave it a trapping that let you roll to do the same thing. Why didn’t we?

Because in Dresden, like in our current modern world, doctors are rare, and if you aren’t gifted with some form of supernatural aid, recovering from injuries is a difficult process. You get badly shot, you go to the hospital, period dot. If we’d put a Doctor skill on the list, nearly any character could take at least one rank in it and then be able to help people recover from severe injuries – that doesn’t jive with the setting.

Let’s look at another one. There’s a Performance stunt called “Poet”. It gives you a +2 on a Performance roll when you’re composing something with words. We could have made a Poetry skill and given it the trapping “Simple Action: You can use your skill to compose written works; the higher the roll, the higher the quality of the work.” Why didn’t we?

Because this way, it provides a special bennie to someone who is interested in making their character just that much more distinctive. Poetry doesn’t have the broad utility that most skills on the list do (like, Guns, for instance), and doesn’t really make sense in the context of the setting as a general character option. The Dresden Files is not about a bunch of poets running around writing odes to monsters.

As a privileged signature trait for a character, though, it can be pretty cool. Other people might also have Performance, but you’re the poet – it can become something your character is known for, and it has a mechanical effect to reinforce that recognition.

So, privilege. You don’t normally have access to what stunts can do, because they’re set apart on purpose to make them special.

That brings us to the other dirty secret about stunts: without a skill list to define what the commonly accessible trappings are, or some setting/genre conceit to create that privilege (like magic or the Force), stunts are effectively meaningless.

Finally, the Point

When Ryan said, in a comment on Fred’s post, that skills are actually the optional construct rather than stunts, this is basically what he’s pointing at. Unless you’re going to artificially separate the “normal” trappings from the “privileged” ones, it’s all just trappings, and then stunts and trappings are the same thing. You need them, because they give you access to the game moves. But you don’t need to use skills to group trappings. That’s just one solution. It’s a good solution for a variety of reasons, just not the only one.

Probably I’m going to have to tease alternatives out in an example later too, because this thing is getting long.


Don’t really have a lot to talk about here, except clarification kind of stuff. This is another area where I’m wondering if the system couldn’t use some streamlining.

Here’s the biggie: Maneuvers, assessments, and declarations are basically the same action, they’re just opposed differently. It’s you using a skill to establish an aspect or a detail onto something else in the game world that isn’t you. Sure, you can make a quibble that an assessment only “discovers” an existing aspect, so you’re not really establishing it.

I say hogwash. In play, there’s almost no difference between the GM writing her NPC’s aspect on an index card and sliding it to you and the GM writing the aspect you just made up on an index card, sliding it to you, and assigning it to her NPC.

We make the distinction largely for the sake of context – maneuvers happen in conflict, assessments and declarations usually happen during investigation scenes outside of conflict. But my experience is, there’s a huge amount of overlap here, and I question whether we really need to keep those distinctions by default.

That whole “particular family of difficult tasks” thing is what we’ve referred to as simple actions in other texts. Maybe that’s kind of a shitty name, right, because there’s nothing simple about picking a deadbolt lock, but that’s totally a simple action that you could do with the Burglary skill, in game terms.

Functionally, defenses and blocks are the same thing – it’s just that, in our games, the need has arisen to make a distinction between the reflexive things you to do protect yourself and the committed effort you might take to foil an action that’s targeting someone else. But it’s all about trying to stop someone else’s effort. In another implementation of conflict, we might not need to make that distinction.

The movement thing is what we called a sprint in Dresden, to distinguish it from the free movement of one zone you can take on a turn if you want. It’s important to note that movement doesn’t have to be physical, when you’re thinking about trappings and skills for your game – you can have social “movement” or political “movement” or whatever you need. The idea behind zones is really about organizing who is capable of engaging whom in a conflict – if you figure that out differently, it’s possible you wouldn’t need sprints as a basic game action at all.

Supporting Character Change and Growth

Nothing really to say here. I’d like to see some other options besides the Dresden model explored in Fate Core. I just don’t know what they would look like right now.

The Fate Fractal

Fred pretty much covered everything I think needs covering here, too, for now.

Thank God, It’s Over

So that’s what I’ve got for now. I think it’s a fertile ground for conversation.

Bring it.