Mar 252011

On a previous post, I talked a bit about how stunts, skills, and trappings were abstractions that had far more in common than is perhaps apparent on the page.

Let’s dig into that some more.

A review: a trapping gives you access to one of the basic Fate game moves under a certain narrative context.

Those actions are:

  • Attack/Contest
  • Defend/Block
  • Maneuver/Assess/Declare
  • Simple Action (need a better name)
  • Sprint (though this may not always be necessary in every Fate implementation)

Included in most implementations of Fate are trapping-dependent constructs that count among the number of game moves, such as setting the length of a stress track or determining the default rating for something (like a Personal Workspace, see SotC’s Gadgeteering stuff).

Skills are packages of trappings, grouped together for ease of use and genre enforcement. They have variable ratings on the ladder as a way of differentiating character action.

Stunts are trappings for which the access is privileged somehow, either by entirely mechanical means (you have to take the stunt), entirely narrative means (something in the fiction has to be true about your character) or a combination (see Dresden powers, which require that your High Concept justifies the taking of a power, and it costs you refresh). That privilege provides more specific genre reinforcement by setting aside rare things in the setting and allows for character niche protection.

Trappings can stack on one another, providing improved effect. That’s how skills and stunts work – skills provide a baseline, stunts enhance from there or broaden the range of options.

Now let’s talk about the fate point economy for a bit.


People have often told me that really, aspects are all that matter to Fate, because they govern the economy. Everything else, they say, is ancillary. Those people are collectively missing a part of the big picture.

Trappings have an enormous impact on the fate point economy in play for a simple reason: they give bonuses to the dice that don’t cost you anything. Thus, they create”spaces” in play where you don’t need the fate point currency to resolve stuff. Thus, they lessen the burden of producing that cyclical flow I’ve previously talked about – without them, the spending rates would be much higher and the need for compels would be subsequently higher. There’d be a danger of fate point rewards becoming wholly arbitrary just to keep the cycle going, which takes away a lot of the tactile feel they have.

So, you need trappings in the game also – they essentially represent the fate points you aren’t spending, and that’s important.


Here’s the interesting part: really, trappings are all you need. Skills and stunts do interesting things, but they aren’t really necessary to a build of Fate. All you really need to know is 1.) what game moves can my guy get at 2.) under what circumstances and 3.) at what bonus?

#1 isn’t really all that hard to get at, because the default answer is “all of them”. Nearly all Fate builds let you roll the dice to try and do something when you don’t have an appropriate skill, at default level (usually +0).

#2 and #3 are harder – without skills, how do you figure out what it is that your character does, and does well compared to other characters?

Well, Fate already has another tool for allowing narrative context to have mechanical impact – aspects.

So imagine something like this:

Your character, Steve, has an aspect called “Assassin of the Scarlet League”. We can generally surmise some things that he’s uniquely good at – stealth, killing folks, platforming around buildings, etc etc. We have a context for action built into the aspect.

Remembering what I said above about trappings representing the fate points you don’t spend, we can easily suggest that certain things about this character count as always-on invocations, providing the +2 bonus when you roll without spending the fate point.

So it’d look maybe like this:



  • Attack a target to cause physical stress with the League’s usual arsenal. (Remember, trappings need access and context.)
  • Defend against physical attacks.
  • Sprint whenever it involves climbing, jumping, or generally moving on buildings.
  • Maneuvers that involve the use of stealth and hiding, or taking sudden, unexpected positional advantage in physical conflict.
  • Contest attempts to spot the character with the use of stealth.
  • Simple actions that involve breaking and entering.
  • Assessments or declarations involving an assigned target, to assign properties to a cased location, or identify weaknesses in locations Steve is trying to infiltrate. Also, assessments or declarations that require the use of the League’s information network.

For everything else, he’d just roll at default. Maybe we’d even allow “stacking” so that we could get more than a +2 on some of these trappings, and then we’d have something more like normal Fate’s skill progression.

Obviously, if a character has six or seven aspects, going through these bulleted lists can take time and energy – one of the reasons why we package them into skills in the first place. But for games where characters are defined by only a few broad aspects, or games where only certain categories of action matter enough to warrant bonuses for regular use, this isn’t a bad approach.

(You could also do it backwards – say, “Here’s a list of trappings important to the game, and if you want access to them, your aspects have to justify it.” You could also combine trappings into categories, like conflict or non-conflict, and let one provide access to multiple game moves at a time.)


So, how would stunts figure into such a model?

Well, remember that the primary purpose of a stunt is to privilege access certain actions, or set a character apart in a big way.

If you want to do that with the above, there are a few tricks:

  • “Lock” the trapping to that aspect – no one else can have access to it without that aspect. So, maybe Steve is the only guy who can declare that a person is “Marked by the League”. No one else can do it because they aren’t members.
  • Turbocharged benefit for a very specific instance. So, maybe Steve gets double the bonus when he’s attacking a target that is unaware of him and who is also “Marked by the League”.
  • Allowing a character to take a trapping as “Best of X”, meaning either their bonus is so huge that it requires fate points to even the playing field, or assuming he automatically succeeds unless aspects are invoked to create an exception. Maybe when Steve is infiltrating a marked target’s home, he gets a crazy +6 or simply always succeeds, unless the target can invoke an additional “Well-Guarded” or “Beefed-Up Secutity” aspect to force him to roll.


So, in sum: trappings are necessary. Everything beyond that is a choice.

 Posted by at 6:48 pm

  29 Responses to “More Fun With Trappings, Skills, and Stunts”

  1. It’s nice to see what you and I have been talking about for years over a lot of alcohol crystalized. Nice work, man.

    – Ryan

  2. When I first picked up Starblazer Adventures at GenCon 09 I had a hard time seperating the Skills from the trappings and the Stunts until I was able to sit down and read the whole book through to “grok” it. SA being my first real exposure to FATE was a bit of a “deep end of the pool” moment for me. This posting did more for my understanding of FATE then the whole SA rules at once. That is NOT a knock on SA, I love the crap outta that game. But a simple “bare-bones” lay-it-out style like this? Genius.

  3. I have a feeling this will help me tremendously in my seemingly never ending endeavour of translating my 8-year long Deadlands campaign into FATE ^.^

  4. Clarification Please:
    Does one get all the trappings that are listed with the skill or must one choose just one trapping available under that skill?
    For example, if my character has Alertness, does he “gain” access to Avoiding Surprise, Combat Initiative and Passive Awareness too?

  5. @Michael: Yes. When you do a skill build, you take all the trappings listed under the skill.

  6. Brilliant. I can see collections of trappings in place of skills and stunts as key to a class-based implementation of FATE. Class trappings and aspects would be all you needed on your PC sheet. Advancement would them be largely comprised of adding/unlocking new trappings, as well as adding/changing aspects.

    Maybe I’ll write that up someday. 🙂

    Man, I love FATE!

  7. This sounds like a good way of doing an Aspect-only version of FATE. As long as your Aspects justify it, you get a bonus on your roll. I’m going to have to think more on this now!

  8. Basing trappings on aspects has a wonderfully appealing elegance to it.

    To add a touch more differentiation I’d probably borrow the idea of a “defining aspect” from Strands of Fate. The “always on invocations” based on that aspect would provide a +4 instead of a +2.

  9. @Christopher:
    I’ve tried it on last Thursday, had an impromptu game based loosely on “Transmetropolitan” comic. The chars were described only by 6 aspects and we treated them as skills (levels, pyramid) AND aspects (FATE point gaining, rerolls and +2s). The twist was: you can’t roll for the same aspect successively and you can’t spend F-points on the aspect you’re rolling. It is simple but it allowed us to set up a game in less than 20 minutes with flesh-and-bone characters.
    Basically it was a test run for my starting campaign (I will only add Stunts to it) and it turned out surprisingly good.

  10. Something I’ve been experimenting with: “Nexus Skills”. You select a skill when you define an Aspect. You get all the trappings of the skill. Core value is +2, but you can select one trapping to specialize in which means you roll that trapping at a +4. Number of Skills: 2 for High Concept, 2 for Trouble. All other Aspects get one skill each.

  11. Not a bad idea. I may yoink that for the game I’m working on.

    On the other hand I have a weakness for Skill; years GMing D6 Star Wars will do that.

  12. This article is very helpful. I’m just getting into FATE (via Dresden Files) and one of the things I am looking for in a system is a way to get away from skill “buckets”. Intimidating someone because of your intellect is different than being physically intimidating and just because you are one shouldn’t mean you are the other.

    Obviously it could be handled role-playing wise, but then why have mechanics at all?

    If you were to “un-bundle” the skills in DF, how would you have to change the number of “skill points” given, since they would be getting “less”?

  13. Further along the “Nexus Skill” Road (with a tip ‘o the hat to Scott Peck . . .)
    The thing that I’ve found with skills, no matter the game-engine, is that most players stay focused on the top 2 or 3 things their character does best. maybe sometimes the top 5. While I totally agree that character-creation is playing (thanks to DFRPG for really highlighting that!), even for an ol’ seasoned gamer like me it can be rather tedious to try to fill in all those lower skills slots. Specially if the process is done in a linear fashion were the selection of skills comes in around steps 3 to 4 in that process. Given the ‘traditional” Fate Pyramid, selecting the top 3 (1 at Superb, 2 at Great) is quick and easy. Selecting 3 at Good may flow well, but then it begins to bog-down when the player starts considering “OK, now I’ve got to pick 4 at Good and 5 at Fair. Hhhmmmm . . . where’s the skill ‘Underwater basket-Weaving???”.

    The reason being for this angst is that:
    1) They already have picked the ones that seem most important.
    2) They feel *whatever* if they don’t do SOMETHING with those slots
    3) ???? Choose your own paradigm . . .

    Oh course, as a GM I could reduce the number of skill slots, but in the linear process most players I have found feel cheated some how. “It says I get 15 skills and I WANT 15 skills! (Even though I will most likely never use the Fair level ones for really exciting play . . .)”

    So, by intermixing the picking of skills during the Aspect phase, it provides a sharper focus for the player as to the skill(s) to choose as they just have been really focused on detailing the Aspect.

    For quick play I just tell them to focus on the skills for their HC & TRBL Aspects (if they want).
    The skills for the other Aspects can be chosen over the course of the next couple adventures.

    For skills that are not connected to an Aspect, it is rolled at Mediocre level (+0).
    Obviously there would be some boundaries to this: The “Assassin of the Scarlet League” as detailed above would NOT be able to do Brain Surgery as a skill. If anyone thinks our assassin could, I would REALLY like to see that logic!

    Additional Nexus Skills could be added later,. Either to existing Aspects or newly acquired Aspects.

    While having a skill level at the default Fair value, remember this: You can select one trapping in that skill to specialize in, giving you a Great level. For tight situations, for a little extra umph for that specialized trapping, spend a FP and it’s now Superb. OR, spend a FP, invoke the Aspect and now that specialized trapping is Fantastic.

    Another way it might be boosted is bringing in a Stunt that ties directly to what your character is trying to do. These last few options will cost you a couple of FP’s, but that’s what they are there for: To bring into play during those tight situations. As the FP pool runs low, this gives the GM the opportunity to really work those compels.

  14. Aarrrgggghhhh! I hate discombobulations! In my descriptions of the skill pyramid, I messed-up the levels.
    I meant to say:
    “selecting the top 3 (1 at Superb, 2 at Great) is quick and easy. Selecting 3 at Good may flow well, but then it begins to bog-down when the player starts considering “OK, now I’ve got to pick 4 at Fair and 5 at Average . . .”.

  15. Hi there! I’m a big fan of Spirit of the Century (having only consumed the book, not yet played it). I came across this site in preparation for a sort of Darkwing Duck variant on SotC and was delighted to see that the conversation is active.

    I’ve been catching up on said conversation today, and trappings are completely eluding me. (I don’t think they’re present by that name in SotC, which I don’t have to hand.) Let’s take the example you’ve given. Surely, a player who takes the aspect “Assassin of the Scarlet League” would also take at a high level skills like stealth and killin’ things and jumping about, as in your list. Why are these being called “trappings” in this context, instead of just being skills we’d expect out of this character?

  16. @Tom: You are correct, I think, that SotC doesn’t refer to trappings.

    Hopefully this will answer your confusion – what we’re mainly talking about is just how you organize the expression of what a character can do.

    So, in a more “traditional” (ugh, hate that word) build of Fate, you’re absolutely right – that character would take high Guns and Stealth and whatnot. And all of the groupings of things that are covered under those skills, like attacking someone or rolling to sneak past someone, are what we’re calling trappings.

    All this post is showing is that you could build a version of Fate that doesn’t use skills, and extrapolate a character’s access to in-game actions (again, trappings) directly from his or her aspects.

    Make more sense?

  17. Nope, Tom, Lenny, you’re both wrong that Trappings didn’t exist in SOTC. Trappings have existed since SOTC. Page 82. Boldfaced, to call attention to a terminological event. Explaining what the eye-in-the-circle glyph means under each skill. SOTC was in fact their point of origination. 🙂

  18. @fred: I blame the alcohol.

  19. I guess I’ll attempt to understand them when I get my SotC copy back, then.

    If you’re interested, I created a mindmap of my understanding of Fate from my readings today on the site and what I could remember from the book. I’m attempting to share it via my Dropbox– it appears that an exported mindmap works only with Firefox. Let me know what you think. (If you can in fact see the thing!)

    NB: I included some brief examples of things for which I imagine one might use the Fate Fractal. (I’m a mathematician, I dig the concept.) See under Toying with Fate.

  20. Seems to work in Chrome as well.

  21. Since this whole idea is about “unpacking” skills, does anyone have any idea on how would you have to change the number of “skill points” given, since they would effectively be getting “less” for each skill point (1 trapping versus 1 set of trappings called a skill)?

    Or perhaps you just leave the points the same? It would make a less powerful character, but if you wanted that it might not be a bad idea.

  22. @Omnis: I would probably throw out any of the current ideas about skill points altogether, because the norm of the game itself would be changing – if you did trappings from aspects, then you’re talking about a game where bonuses to rolls are very limited in both scope and situation. You’ll end up rolling at +0 a lot of times, and then at +2 or +4 when you’re doing your character’s “thing”, whatever that is.

    So it’d change the distribution of skill “currency” among the PCs completely.

  23. It’s interesting because if you unbundle trappings from skills aren’t they just equal to the “lowest rated” mortal stunts?

  24. @Omnis: I know it’s been a bit so nobody might see this, but right now I’m playing around with a FATE|HeroQuest Hack and (I think I’m returning “back to the future” to some Fudge concepts even) I’m using “Rated Aspects” with Trappings under an Aspect currently limited to a +1 or +2 modifier to the Aspect’s Ladder rating (although after reading this discussion and thinking of Trappings as “full members” of the fractal community, I might allow other values (negative values could be interesting for a player to define “Compel Targets” for an Aspect for example).

    In my hack, characters get 20 points for Aspect Ratings and 5 points that can only be used for Trappings. I was also initially playing around with a limit of (Rating -1) Total Trappings per Aspect as a limit on power-gamers stacking all their Trappings in their highest-rated Aspect.

    For now, everyone has a Refresh of 5 and 5 Stress for simplicity (I didn’t want to get into the complications of how Trappings interact with both Stress and Refresh and HQ doesn’t really use either).

  25. Oh and I forgot to mention players can use their starting pool of 20 Aspect points for both Aspects and Trappings so long as they build a “legal” pyramid (using the DFRPG Skill Point Assignment rules)

  26. So, under this system, if I use a trapping for the +2 bonus, should it count as invoking the aspect, even though no FPs are used, or can I invoke the aspect as well, to gain +2 from the trapping plus another +2 for the aspect invocation?

    Also, would there be any problem in dropping the trappings too? Just go and say “if you want the bonus, justify it with an aspect”? I’m planning a simple modern-day Fate implementation, and I don’t want to go through SotC’s skill list and add what is missing (and I don’t own Dresden to draw on), so I plan to “cop out” and simply drop skills wholesale. It is going to be a simple thing, so a huge skill / trapping / stunt list would mostly be a distraction anyway.

  27. […] so not really faking, but approximating. This post from the Fate site by Lenny Balsera sums things up fairly well. Aspects house  a lot of information. If that information is imaged as […]

  28. I figure this comment thread is long dead, but what the hell. Aaron, I am also trying to wrap my mind around a HeroQuest/FATE hack, and am curious about your ideas. For me, I have a couple of stumbling blocks.

    1) Why not rank Aspects and get rid of skills altogether?
    2) What does that do to the Fate point economy? Should there be rolls requiring no FATE point for trappings under an Aspect. If so, what does “invoking” an Aspect mean anymore? (Should invoking just be rerolls and declarations? Can you invoke the Aspect you originally rolled? Does an invoke give you the bonus the Aspect is ranked at?)

  29. Recently read through Kerberos Club and loved the Unique Skills option. Instead of taking several different skills at, say Fair, to make an US Army Ranger and in the process possibly compromising the character concept, I like the idea of being able to group together several trappings into Unique Skill: US Army Ranger.

    Problem I have run into is that I prefer the trappings in Dresden Files over the trappings in Kerberos Club (which are understandably generic in terminology). So the flow chart for Unique Skill building in the book is kind of useless.

    Would this be appropriate and balanced: 1 skill point for every trapping included in a custom skill + buying the skill up from Mediocre (+0)?

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