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 havingĀ  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 – Camelot Trigger

Questing knights fight a posthuman AI threat across the solar system in this Fate World that sets gonzo to Flash-Gordonesque and gives a great mixture of options at a carefully curated level of complexity. Detailed exploration of the Arthurian legends this is not – think of changing the names to be more sci-fi (or more Paranoia – you’ll see) and adding in giant armour. This Fate World came out pretty early and is, I think, only available in the Volume Two: Worlds in Shadow anthology, and I’m kicking myself I didn’t give it a proper read through earlier.

The Fluff – Arthurian Knights… in spaaaaace!

When insane AI MerGN-A attacked Earth, humanity was scattered and defeated until John Arthur found MerLN, another AI, and worked together to turn the tide of conflict. Now Arthur, Valerie Le Guin, and (wait for it) L4-NC3-L07 lead brave knights in giant mecha suits crossing the solar system trying to fight the remnants of MerGN-A’s hidden base and defeat her remaining Exurgent armies. As I said, Pendragon in mecha this is not.

There’s lots to do, all described in enough detail to get you there and going – Mars is a manufactory dedicated to war machines, with arenas where hopeful knights can battle it out, the Asteroid belt is home to brigands and Edge Knights who have been cast out – maybe because of chivalrous misdeeds – and Saturn is wealthy and successful but refuses to acknowledge Arthur’s claim to the throne. Each planet gets a paragraph of description, and each has lots of plot hooks – there’s a reason why adventurous knights would go to each one, and what problems they could find there.

It’s a great setting, if it could just get past those clunky names. L4-NC3-L07, apparently, has kept the alphanumeric name he had as a slave in honour of all those beaten down, and… well, it’s my one problem with the setting. How do you say it? I’m guessing like “Lancelot.” So why not call him Lancelot? What’s wrong with the AIs being called Morgana and Merlin? It’s not like the original IP is in copyright. Other conceits – like Knights usually inheriting their Armour, and so keeping heraldic designations on them – feel like they fit the setting, but the names just grate for me.

The Crunch – Giant Mecha Combat Rules!

There’s an allure now about new FATE supplements as the rules have evolved to cover lots of different scenarios, whether it’s steampunk combat that actually gives great rules for Age of Sail ship battles, or trapped-in-a-flooding-room traps that emulate the best pulp scenarios, and it’s wise to remember that Camelot Trigger came out relatively early in FATE’s lifetime. Nevertheless, the mecha rules are refreshingly smooth, giving just enough complexity without adding too much handling time.

Your Armour has systems (normally 5, one in each body location) that can have either skills – which replace the pilot’s skill if it is less – or stunts, which function just like stunts in regular FATE. You use your pilot’s stress tracks, but can shut down systems on your Armour like Consequences to avoid them. You might be accompanied by air support, in which case you’ll get some extra stress boxes – it’s all very streamlined and simple, and actually makes me want to see it in action. There’s a very sensible discussion on scale where humans are fighting Armour – that it should be resolved as a contest and not as a combat encounter, and a reminder that chivalry means this is unlikely to happen in an open battle. There’s a whole pack of sample Armours, as well, which neatly show off how the design system works, and rules for tweaking it to allow transforming mecha and combination mecha.

The One-Shot – Knights or Lords?

This game would work great as a one-shot – the setting is complex and weird while still having enough classic tropes to get players on board quickly. There’s loads to do and I can easily see a range of missions for a group of questing knights. But the game also includes write-ups for Arthur, Valerie (the Guinevere analogue), L4-NC3-L07, and MerLN – and I can see a great one-shot where 4 players each play one of these big movers and shakers in the setting dealing with MorGN-A’s return. It’s rare that I read a setting and want to jump in so immediately – again, I’m disappointed this has been sat on my bookshelf unplayed for so long!

 

Review: Fate Worlds – Sails Full Of Stars

Steampunk planetary romance / naval adventure across the solar system that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be, Sails Full Of Stars is one of the Fate Worlds series of short settings for the Fate RPG, and is available here, and in print in the Worlds Take Flight anthology. It takes a neat, grabby setting and paints it in broad brush strokes, before adding in some complex and not-always-clear ship combat rules.

The Fluff

It’s 1850. The world, and indeed the Solar System, is dominated by three great powers – Napoleon’s France, the Ottoman Empire, and China, who first discovered how to travel between planets using handwavy rheosilk that catch currents between planets. Navigators read the vibrations of these currents by ‘sounding’ glass spheres and so the solar system is now full of massive rheoships hauling cargo, being pirates, and smuggling goods. Oh, and dragons. They were there before, though.

The presentation of the setting is great, but I can see how it might frustrate some. What is given is very broad-brush, with all the detail left for GMs (and players) to fill in. For instance, it doesn’t mention whether each empire has a base on every planet, so you have to sort of infer this from an idea of the tropes the designer is trying to pull in (and from some extra detail in the starting adventure). It gives a paragraph for each planet, so we know that Venus is full of dangerous jungle – but no clues as to what animals might live there. Mars is full of Martian ruins, naturally, and the promise of ancient tech / alchemy – again, all left up to be filled in. And there are the dragons, who allegedly gave the gifts of sailing the cosmos to the Chinese around 1200, but they are left similarly vague.

It’s an interesting technique, but compared to the other Fate Worlds it can feel a little sparse. This is clearly an epic setting with lots of moving parts, and a conscious decision by the designer to show the overall picture and leave the minutiae to the GM, but it feels … unfinished. Where some of the other Fate Worlds get round this with random tables and an explicit permission to make it up as you go along, this feels altogether more serious, which makes it feel more constrained. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t as tight an idea for what the PCs actually do in SFOS – in the sample adventure, they’re Traveller-style edge of the law merchants, but you could just as well be spies, explorers, privateers or mercenaries based on the implied rules and settings here.

The Crunch

There are a few variations from Fate Core here – two new skills; Alchemy lets you craft compounds – left a bit handwavy even for me, and perhaps more concrete examples of constructions would have helped. Sail is much more clearly defined, as a lot of ship combat rotates around its use. Also, around twenty new stunts – an excellent way for settings for Fate Core to define themselves and give the flavour of their genre – which is useful.

There are detailed – and tactical-feeling – rules for Rheoship combat which look like they capture an age-of-sail style ship combat with vast crafts trying to outmaneuvre each other using only the rheospace winds. There are a few bits that I’m not sure I can get my head around – such as how many actions you actually get to take in a round (I’d assume one per PC) and an absence of difficulties for most of the tasks (my usual Fate approach of Fair (+2) or Good (+3) difficulty probably applies here). There are also some variant rules for mass combat, which need the Fate System Toolkit – to account for crew actions like boarding and capturing a ship – again, very age of sail.

I’d need to see these in action, but I suspect they are very good – they are just sometimes a little hard to parse, but I’ll put faith in Fate’s resilience against any rules shonkiness. The ship combat would definitely work for an age-of-sail conflict, and as we’re not exactly overwhelmed with games to play 19th century naval adventures (except for the excellent Beat to Quarters) there’s probably a niche for them.

The One-Shot

I can see this being a great setting for one-shot play, providing the GM is fine with filling in plenty of the setting blanks. There are lots of ideas for satisfying one-shot adventures that leap out, and as usual it comes with an adventure as well.

If I’m honest, though, the adventure, Secrets of the Red Planet, feels a little flat. It’s not quite as clearly presented for running as I’m used to (I’d need to make some bullet-points of scenes to run it, as they are often long paragraphs with plenty of options) and it has some twists for the PCs that might lead to disgruntlement from players. It feels a little like an example of the setting and what PCs might do rather than an adventure to play for. In fact, I’d write my own.

It also doesn’t have any pregen PCs, which is a shame as they would’ve been a great chance to show some points of detail about the setting. Again, there’s enough promise here for me to want to make my own, but it’s a shame there aren’t ones supplied, though I guess word count was an issue.

Overall, an intriguing setting, and a shame it’s not as immediately usable as some of the other Worlds of Adventure supplements. I will definitely give it more thought though, and it’s on my convention / one-shot prep list to do some work on it – I’ll try and remember to share it here too.