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.

Review: Fate Worlds – The Three Rocketeers

In a sentence: Musketeers in space. Or in space, powered by SCIENCE!! Rocket packs, force swords, and outrageous accents unite in P K Sullivan’s Fate setting The Three Rocketeers (TTR), available here in .pdf and also gathered in the Worlds Take Flight print supplement. It also manages to hack Fate to do away with Skills entirely, and create something with about the complexity of Fate Accelerated (FAE), and in some ways cleaner. It’s not quite as lovably gonzo as Masters of Umdaar, but it comes close.

The Fluff

Musketeers in space! That is pretty much all you need to know. France, Britain, The Holy Roman Emperor, and Spain are planets instead of countries, but everyone behaves pretty much like they did in 1625 in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The PCs are Rocketeers, guarding Queen Marie-Helene of Gallia (France), and carry rocket packs and force blades (which are often based on 17th century fencing designs). They do exactly what the musketeers do, but in space. There’s minimal setting information, but definitely enough; it’s handwavey space opera where economics and long-term consequences of space travel are not things to worry ourselves about.

Oh, and the Holy Roman Empire has a Star-Pope, of course. And a Simian Guard of Cyber-Apes. Who carry force halberds. It’s great, or awful, depending on your tastes, that it is literally the plot and conceit of The Three Musketeers in Space (FYI, I think it’s great).

The Crunch

There are two big rules hacks in this Fate World; the first is Aspect-only play. PCs in TTR don’t have skills, instead picking 6 guided Aspects. Each action, they decide how many of these are relevant to the action, and get +1 per Aspect (+2 for their Rocketeer aspect, because, well, musketeers in space). They can roll against a fixed opposition, or against NPCs who are dealt with just as in FAE – which saves the GM having to add up modifiers or worry how many Aspects are relevant. These Aspects can also be invoked as normally in Fate for rerolls or bonuses.

I like the idea, and I’m surprised it’s restricted to just this setting – I can see it working for any high-pulp Fate game of derring-do. It’s going to lead to some stretchy definitions unless your players are good at self-regulating, but it’s not as if FAE doesn’t require that as well; I think on balance I probably prefer it to FAE’s loose Approaches style.

The second one is Conspiracies – the GM stats up their opposition as if it were a FATE character, allocating a Skill pyramid to Conspiracy-ish approaches like Secrecy and Influence. These then provide static opposition as the PCs try to uncover the Conspiracy, and the GM can also spend a Fate point to use a Conspiracy Approach instead of an NPCs ability.

It’s a really clear explanation of the FATE Fractal that is high on concept but light on concrete examples, and it’s followed in the starter adventure included. I will definitely use this as a reference for other settings and games – but more on that later.

The One-Shot

You might have gathered by now that this is a setting that lends itself to a one-shot well; I can’t really imagine running it for longer without players starting to think about, well, space travel, or the interstellar economy, or why the Star-Pope is guarded by uplifted gorillas.

The starting adventure captures the feel of the game nicely – it’s a 3-act conspiracy where they first discover (and are evaded by) a lieutenant of the conspiracy, then infiltrate a palace to confront them, before learning of the real threat and having a massive showdown with them.

I think there might be a touch too much content even for a 4-5 hour session, so if running it I’d be prepared to narrate or montage some of the middle scenes to allow for the structure to stay as tight and epic as it is. It’s as railed as it needs to be to hew to the plot structure, but you need that many rails for a one-shot, and there’s a few investigative bits to break up the action.

But, what I can’t help but think is that it would be too easy to take out the space stuff and run a ‘straight’ 17th-century musketeers game full of pulpy action. Or, to use a more familiar reference (to me at least), a Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds adventure.

I should add, if you want a good taste of the setting, system, and gonzo-potential of the setting, I would recommend checking out the One Shot podcast where they play this setting, run by P K Sullivan. I’m usually no fan of listening to Actual Play – it’s a poor substitute for, well, actually playing, but this is something else.

Review: Fate Worlds – Masters of Umdaar

In a sentence: There are Lazer-Wolves in the sample adventure.

This tells you all you need to know, and it’s not a bad thing. Lazer-Wolves. With a “z,” like you came up with them before you knew how to spell “laser”.

The Fate Worlds of Adventure supplements are some of my favourite resources to turn to for one-shot planning; they each present a setting, rich in adventure and possibilities, with Fate rules guidelines (always including some variant rules for the setting), and a starter adventure. There’s a lot of them out there, so I’m going to be posting some snapshot reviews of them – they’re all really good one-shot fodder, but there’s rather a lot of them and so it can be tricky to get your head around what they are good for.

Masters of Umdaar is available from RPGNow as Pay-What-You-Want for the .pdf; if you want it in print, it’s also part of the “Worlds Rise Up” Fate Worlds collection, along with three other Worlds of Adventure.

The Fluff – Archaeonauts Assemble!

Masters of Umdaar (MOU) presents a science fantasy world where tyrannical Masters rule a fantasy world; you play the brilliantly-named Archaeonauts, hunting down lost technologies to try and defeat the Masters and restore freedom to the land.

In tone and style, at least to someone of my age and cultural origin, this reads and plays like a more-gonzo He Man and the Masters of the Universe game – PCs will be one of 15 bioforms including Mutabeasts, Chimeras, and the relatively mainstream Amazons and Mutants, and are certain to be employing a mixture of magic, technology, and anything else that can be easily handwaved. The setting and sample adventure are unashamedly gonzo; the adventure includes Lazer-Wolves, only a slight shift from the flying laser-eyed bears of the lovably bonkers World of Synnibarr RPG.

The Crunch – Cliffhangers and Random Gonzo-ness

MOU uses the Fate Accelerated (FAE) system as its base, but adds some tweaks. Character generation adds an optional random bioform element, random tables for Powers, Weapons and Adaptations (basically Stunts) and gives some suggested “class”-based allocations of Approaches. This, with FAE’s adaptability, comes up with interesting characters and pushes your players (or you, if you’re making pregens for a one-shot) towards embracing the gonzo in your game.

It also includes a new type of Scene, the Cliffhanger, which is an absolutely excellent way to model deathtraps / skill challenges / just about any extended scene in FAE. By allocating which Approaches will be most succesful, it allows flexibility for players to choose how to solve problems while still allowing the GM to be prepared for the scene to work. Even if the thought of laser-tailed canines leaves you rolling your eyes, if you have any intention of running a high adventure FAE game, this supplement is worth buying for these rules.

The One-Shot – Like Wolves, but with Lasers, sorry, Lazers

It’s the ideal setting for a one-shot; the Saturday morning cartoon feel means the tropes and high-pulp action are easy to get into, and the laughably simple premise points the players directly at whatever adventure goals you have planned. While the character generation rules are fun, I’d still provide pregens for this game though – even with the random rolls, Fate is most fun when you’re playing, and the stunts and aspects add a bit of crunch that will slow the game down to the speed of the most leisurely player when you really should have your PCs fighting mutants and hanging from metaphorical cliffs.

Having run the sample adventure as written as a one-shot, I’d recommend it with one caveat – it is quite quickly over. There’s a social Challenge scene, a fight, a Cliffhanger, and a big fight at the end – but the implied pace of the encounters is unlikely to give your players much pause for thought. If you want to fill a slot with it, while you could add more sections to the plot, I would be tempted to tack on a follow-up adventure to find another Starblade of Su’ul (honestly…) and weave this into the original plot.

Have you had any experience of running or playing in MOU as a one-shot? Or looked at importing Cliffhangers into a more vanilla FAE game?