Counters and Cards – how to run a great Fate one-shot

A couple of weeks ago I went to Furnace, the original and biggest RPG con based at The Garrison Hotel in Sheffield, UK. One of the games I ran was a Justice Society game using the Fate system – to be more precise, a modified version of the Dresden Files Accelerated system. I thought I’d give a run through of how I go about prepping – and running – a Fate one-shot.

Before you play: it’s all about Aspects

Make sure that your pregens (if you’re using them – Fate is also great for semi-finished pregens that the players can add Aspects and skills to as they play) have Aspects that are both broadly applicable but also able to be Compelled. Players should never look at their sheet and struggle to find a relevant Aspect unless they are operating well out of their comfort zone and PC skill set – and even then there should be Scene Aspects they can use. Don’t over-think Aspects, just make them descriptors of character traits and abilities – hopefully with a negative side that can be Compelled to earn Fate points.

In terms of props, you’ll need some sort of counters for Fate points (see later) and some kind of cards for Aspects and Boosts. You can using ordinary Index Cards or Post-its, but the wipeable index cards from All Rolled Up are a re-usable solution as well.

For each scene in the game, design two or three Scene Aspects and have these pre-written up on cards before the game starts. If you’ve got them pre-written you’ll be much less likely to forget to put them on the table when the scene starts.

For your named NPCs, make sure that their Aspects are also broadly applicable so you’ll be able to use them at the table without having to think too much. You should be using these Aspects to survive the players initial attacks and force them to use their Fate points and Aspects to beat you, so make sure each named NPC has at least one Aspect that they can use to defend or avoid damage.

While you play: it’s all about Fate points

When running the game, as GM you should be focusing play to keep a steady flow of Fate points between the players and GM. How can you encourage players to spend more Fate points? Well, here are four ideas that I try to use:

  • don’t make the players roll for anything that isn’t important. If a roll isn’t going to be worth investing a Fate point in, it’s an unnecessary roll. Simple investigation, get-to-the-next-scene filler, can just be given to the PCs with necessary roleplaying – it doesn’t need an Overcome check to find a clue unless that clue has some danger attached to it and meaningful (and exciting) consequences for failure
  • give meaningful difficulties. Overcome should be at an absolute minimum of Fair (+2) difficulty – and often I’ll bump them up to Great (+4) if players are going to work together on them. Likewise, named NPCs should be tough enough to present a decent challenge – let the PCs eat up mooks but make the named NPCs memorable
  • refresh Fate points frequently. In a one-shot I also usually offer a free refresh about halfway through the session when the PCs reach a place of safety; they can return up to their refresh (note that this is especially useful in high-powered games where some PCs might start with a Refresh of 1 or 2)
  • model spending them. Remember that the GM starts each scene with one Fate point per player (note that this does vary in different flavours of Fate; but it’s one per scene in Fate Core). You read that right, every scene. With this in mind, you should be spending them immediately to resist the PCs efforts initially – this will also provide challenge and pace the scenes – don’t worry about this becoming predictable, as Fate dice are swingy enough to add some unpredictability to this

While you play: it’s also all about Aspects

As well as using PC, NPC and Scene Aspects, both you and the players should be using Create Advantage to make their own Aspects they can then get a free tag on to their own advantage. To encourage them to use this part of the game, you can

  • make Create Advantage relatively easy. I keep the difficulty for Create Advantage down to +2 normally unless they are actively countered by an opponent, so that it becomes an achievable option to use an action on – if a player is using their turn to create an Aspect, they should have a good chance of succeeding
  • model the behaviour you want to encourage. Show the players how easy it is to use Create Advantage by having some of your mooks do it to set up the big bad; after seeing you do it, they are much more likely to realise how powerful it is
  • don’t be shy of making Defend difficulties high. With a couple of well-placed Create Advantages, players can easily be rolling with an initial +4 without even tagging any of their own or the Scene’s Aspects, so you don’t need to be shy about having  opponents with, say, Superb (+5) resistances. Don’t make these always the case, but if you want to push the players to use all the resources at their disposal, these can make for decent fights. Remember that Fate PCs and named NPCs are pretty resilient if you negotiate Consequences that aren’t always a hindrance – and they don’t have to be.

So, a few guidelines to how to set up and play a Fate game one-shot, and to encourage the table to engage with the key bits of Fate that make it different to other RPGs out there. If all that sounds like a lot to remember if you’re running Fate for the first time, start by just getting counters for Fate points and cards for Aspects and Boosts – just having these out in front of the players is a big incentive to see them used. Is there anything I’ve missed? Does different advice apply in different genres?

By the way, if you want an example of a quick-play Fate adventure set-up, it’d be remiss of me to not recommend my own Bite of the Crocodile God, a short (as in 30-45 minute) adventure for D101 games’ Hunters of Alexandria, a swords-and-sandals monster-hunting Fate game.

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