Feb 022011

Today I’m going to dig deeper into the notion of stress and consequences in Fate, and talk about how the principle of the Fate Fractal can be applied to complicate the model (in a good way).

A Few Words About Stress

When it comes down to it, consequences are the real meat of the system, by dint of being aspects. But in order to get to them, we’ve got to talk stress.

So, what is stress — really?

From a system standpoint, stress is, simply, a pacing mechanism (this is equally true of hit points in D&D). It’s a means of measuring how long a character can stay in a fight, and thus, a measure of how long fights are. 

I can’t stress (ha) that point enough — the length of a combat scene creates a variety of experiences for the player. Systems where fights can be suddenly, brutally over with a single swing of the sword can feel “grittier” or “more dangerous” or “too fast”.  Systems where characters can endure a quite staggering variety of abuses before falling to the ground can feel “more cinematic” or “too slow” (this certainly arises with Spirit of the Century’s five to eight box stress tracks). 

Even when consequences come into play, it’s the length of the stress track that ultimately sets the pace. Run out of stress track boxes, and you’re going down even if you can reduce that 7 stress hit to a 1 stress hit with your consequences. 

Generalized, a stress track counts the number of blows a character can receive before he falls down. There’s finesse there, for sure; if you adopt a weapons and armor system like the Dresden Files RPG, you’ll have some means whereby you can draw out the effectiveness of those boxes — or shortcut them. A bigger blow has fewer places to go on the track than a smaller one as things start to fill up. You can go with the default of those blows landing on a specific numbered box, or you can backfill any lower boxes, or you can simply go for a hit point style track, but at the end of the day those are simply decisions about how much of your time-resource (your pacing) gets consumed when someone lands the blow.

Countdown to Consequence

As such, as a resource, as a countdown clock, the stress track is a prime location where the player will or won’t experience tension during a conflict. This can be a bit of an art, and is absolutely something that should be tuned and play tested until it fits the experience you want to create with your particular implementation of Fate. 

But that clock is pretty boring by itself, all the same. It does one thing: it counts down. It doesn’t have a lot of flavor (even if it comes in a few different types). You have to add in consequences to really get the jazz.

Consequences have a bit of a pacing element to them as well. They’re a finite supply, so you’ll see that resource getting spent down, and they’re differently weighted in terms of the amount of stress they absorb when taken. Go for our standard of -2/-4/-6 and you can still suck up some pretty big punishments — they’ll just hurt real bad. This also sets the maximum amount of stress a target can take in a single blow and still have a chance of walking away. If characters can take only one consequence per attack, then the biggest is their track length plus six, for example. If characters can take multiple, the biggest is a fair bit higher. The bigger this number is, the more durable characters will be in the face of attack — but if they’re taking consequences, they’ll be measurably diminished for a time. Past fights will be able to catch up with the present. All the same, in many respects the bigger the “biggest number” is, the more cinematic the feel (but cinematic in a Die Hard way more than a Three Musketeers way, perhaps).

In SOTC, we wanted heroes to stay on their feet in a variety of circumstances unless the odds were really stacked against them. Frankly, we overdid that: at a base of 5, extensible up to at least 8, stress tracks in SOTC just ran too deep. We also hadn’t embraced the -2/-4/-6 consequence method yet, instead making it a steady progression from Mild to Moderate to Severe to Taken Out. In doing this, we missed out on driving folks to the fun part (consequences), and we devalued the magnitude of hits when the stress boxes ran out. (“I hit for 5!” “Well, he has no stress left, so that’s just a mild consequence the first time.) Once Lenny put the -2/-4/-6 method out there (he is the very original source on that), we quickly saw that was the way we should’ve gone, and recommended folks go for a base track length of 3 or 4, with what’s now our standard for consequences.

In Dresden Files, we wanted the fights to be scary, sudden, and brutal. But we also didn’t necessarily want the heroes to drop in the first round; Dresden Files is a curious blend of a gritty feel alongside some cinematic durability. Testing showed us that meant making the stress tracks shorter, but keeping the -2/-4/-6 ratings on the consequences. We gave means to shortcut the track further when the lethality dials got cranked — and made sure the characters had enough consequence slots available so they could really feel the hurt, but avoid the “instant drop”. We also had the stress track lengths top out at a certain point (extensible only through superpowers), with characters at high stress-track-granting skill levels getting additional minor consequence slots instead. And we added in the idea of a permanent consequence at -8 that could redefine your character when it landed. And taking multiple consequences in a single blow was a-OK. In aggregate this got us scary+gritty+cinematic thanks to a short stress track but a large (really large) maximum hit number, which was just about right. Fights didn’t run too long and players could make some choices about whether to fight and hurt for it, or run away prudently. 

While we didn’t directly work on Diaspora, the guys there made some decisions that fit their sensibilities but I believe also helped uphold more of a hard SF feel (this may have been intentional design). I’ll be saying this off the top of my head, so forgive me if I have some inaccuracies: there, consequences land in a -1/-2/-4 progression rather than our more broad one; I forget if you could only take one consequence at a time, but it wouldn’t surprise me; and if I recall correctly their stress track backfills lower boxes when a blow lands. This gets you a quicker pace through the length of the stress track, and a low maximum hit number. Diaspora ain’t cinematic, but the experience of play as felt through stress and consequences should certainly feel authentic to a hard SF fan.

When designing your Fate implementation, don’t be afraid to try a few different configs. If it’s in the middle of campaign you’re running, fess up to it and explain why you’d like to make a change — we certainly did once we realized SOTC’s config was a bit too far in one direction. Also, play other games and keep tabs on yourself and your fellow players. How many times around the table before interest starts to flag? You probably don’t want your stress tracks to be much longer, and probably a bit shorter, than that number. Get suggestions from the Fate community and be clear about the experience you want your conflicts to produce. The dials are yours to spin.

Compound FracturesFractals

So that’s an exploration of stress, consequences, and some of the thinking that goes into setting the dials. Is that good enough for your purposes? I think it’ll work well for most people, and at the very least I think it’s the right kind of starting point. But, being Fate, there are always places you can hook in something more detailed or (YMMV) more evocative by involving the fractal.

Here, I’m thinking about consequences. Consequences are aspects, and to a fractal-hacker, an aspect being on or representing something is a bit of a flag that “hey, this could be treated like a character”. So here’s a grab bag of thoughts about that. If you’re looking for consequences to have more depth or teeth, any one of the ideas below might give you what you’re looking for.

Consequences are like characters, therefore…

… they’re represented by aspects. 

This is the core already-established function, our springboard for the rest. It means that consequences can be compelled and invoked (usually by someone else, in acting against the possessor, but not always).

… they have a skill rating. 

Maybe a consequence could have an adjective rating tied to it based on the number of shifts it absorbed, so a 4-shift consequence would be rated at Great (+4). (Or maybe you’re doing away with the stress track entirely, with rated consequences replacing that function.)

That skill could then be used as a block on actions that you’re trying to take that would be affected by the consequence. Or it could even launch attacks of its own if the consequence represented something ongoing, like a festering wound or a nasty scandal. Or maybe those are too heavy-handed; even then, the skill could be used as an opposing difficulty when  trying to do away with the consequence.

… they have stunts.

Stunts might resemble special conditions imparted by specific kinds of attacks or weapons. To reference the above, maybe your festering wound consequence gets the “Ongoing Damage” stunt, granting the ability for the consequence to make its own attacks. Or maybe it’s an “Entangling” stunt that says “this consequence will prevent your movement” (or maybe just add a border value of 2 to moving out of your current zone).

… they have a stress track.

For real! The consequence might have a stress track of its own, for tracking your progress in getting yourself rid of the consequence. “I attack the Ongoing Scandal with my Politician skill!” Which takes us back around to…

… they HAVE aspects.

If you’re going really nuts, consequences might possess aspects of their own (aspects inside of an aspect! aaaaagh!) — at least temporarily. A doctor might maneuver/assess/declare a temporary aspect on the consequence as part of his diagnosis, which he later invokes to help in the operation to fix the condition. If a stress track is in play, a particularly tough consequence might take consequences of its own before getting taken out. (For that matter, if a consequence can be taken out, what’s to say it can’t concede? What sort of concessions might be offered, then? “The treatment sends the cancer into remission, but there are complications…”)

Old School Stress Tracks

Stress tracks in Fate 2.x had a different vibe going to them. Ultimately it was the Fate 2 implementation of stress at that got split into two parts to get us the stress and consequences model we have today in Fate 3.

In Fate 2, a stress track was a series of boxes organized into “tiers”, each of which had a range, and each of which would cause a side-effect when a box on that level first got checked off. It looked something like this:
1 [][] Take a -1 to your next action
2-4 [][] Take a -1 to all actions this scene
5-6 [][] Take a -1 to all actions per box checked until healed
7+ You are taken out

This was fun  and had some nifty crunch to it (you could vary the number of boxes at each tier, vary the range of stress needed to hit each tier, etc), but as we moved into Fate 3 we realized that minuses weren’t as much fun as plusses (and provided less incentive for the recipient to remember to account for them), and moved several parts of the system on to a +X rather than -X footing. Plus we realized that lasting wounds could be aspects (that’s the fractal in action: using an existing piece of the system rather than adding something new). So we moved to the current model.

Still, there’s something to be said for that older method. Those who prefer it could set things up such that the tiers are instead: 
1 [][] Your opponent gains spin
2-3 [][] You take a mild consequence
4-5 [][] You take a moderate consequence
6-7 [][] You take a severe consequence
8+ You are taken out

… and get the best of  both worlds. I say this, but haven’t had a chance to play test it. If you do, let us know how it works out.

  21 Responses to “Stress, Consequences, and the Fractal”

  1. For some reason while reading about injures as character I kept thinking about how you could expand that to make a Trauma Center roleplaying game using FATE. The FATE Fractal is always interesting to think about but the interaction between fractals can be a little confusing.

  2. Hey Dusty, can you expand on your last sentence there?

  3. My players had some issues with stress, they felt it was too abstract. The division of stress (abstract) vs. consequences (concrete) seemed to confuse them, especially since (if you has a stress track of 4), you could take a 4, a 3, a 2 and a 1 and be in the same situation if you’d taken 4 1s. The idea we had was to have some weapons be ‘lethal’ and do consequences directly, while non-lethal would do stress.

  4. After thinking it through aloud, maybe it isn’t necessarily Fractal interactions that are confusing. I’ve been playing Starblazer Adventures recently, which is where my confusion is coming from. Starblazer Adventures uses the Fractal more then Spirit of the Century. (I know Starblazer is Cubicle 7 instead of Evil Hat but your insights would still be useful.)

    Most of the confusion is about the interaction between Starships and Characters. Due to scale characters can interact with small starships (like medium freighters). I think my problem is that the game makes it look like Starships and Characters should be able to interact but they both operate just differently enough that it feels like there should be special rules dealing with their interaction.

    Also it would be useful if there were rules (or guidelines) on how characters could interact with organizations. I believe at one point it recommends that Arms could be used to determine the Minion Quality for that organization, but that was about it.

    I’ve come up with my own idea while writing this. While it is not normally possible to damage organizations from character level play, maybe your entire mission (like infiltration a base to steal crucial information) is just a method of dealing stress to an organization (maybe 1 stress).

    I hope some of this make sense?

  5. So, one experiment I tried one time was moving stress fully into the ablative model for consequences.

    Instead of having the stress boxes, I assigned their values as “Close Calls”. A CC is something you can use to buy off stress of that value without having to take a consequence or be taken out. Narratively, it’s exactly that – the swing that *barely* hits you, etc.

    So, someone with a three-stress track in this hack has the following resources available to buy off stress:

    1 – Close Call
    2 – Close Call, Mild Consequence
    3 – Close Call
    4 – Moderate Consequence
    6 – Severe Consequence

    I know what you’re probably thinking: why not say 6 points’ worth of close calls and be done, and treat them like hit points?

    Because this way, you get the emergent effects of stress roll-up *and* the added benefit of expanding the range of choices available.

    Say I take a 3-stress hit. I can buy that off one of several ways: I can use my 1-pt and 2-pt close calls. I can use my 3-pt close call. I can take a mild consequence and use my 1-pt close call.

    By itself, this choice might seem a little weird, until you start thinking about what happens on the *next* hit I take. If I use my smaller close calls, then I’m forced to use the big one no matter what kind of hit I take. If I use the big one, then I’m edging closer to being forced to take consequences to stay in the fight. If I take the consequence, I still have 5 points of close calls I can take to ward off a big hit.

    It also was less confusing for some folks to use, because you don’t need the visual concept of stress rolling up or off of the stress track.

    So, there’s yet another tool for the toolbox.

  6. Oooh, Lenny, I like.

    Dusty — yeah, I laid out SBA but I’m not intimately familiar with its subsystems. With any significantly “upscale/downscale” fractal object, you need to think about defining how character-scale entities might interact with them, if at all. But I’d say your instincts are good, that an entire adventure might be about getting off one attack roll against an organization, etc.

    Also, different skills of an organization might be interacted with differently. Consider an org with a “Security” skill at Good, indicating how good their general level of security forces are. That’d be easy for an individual to interact with when they decide to try to infiltrate a facility.

    Some stuff translates, some doesn’t. Which is why it’s hard to just give a Here’s How rule/answer. That sort of thing needs to be considered and decided with each fractal implementation when it’s implemented.

  7. Yeah, the fractal is more of an art than a science – it’s a guideline saying, “Hey, there’s mileage in applying logic you already know to new problems, rather than trying to bolt on new subsystems.”

    Sometimes, the peculiar requirements of a setting or whatnot need non-fractal approaches, too. But the guidelines for coming up with those are a little harder to express – I manage it mainly by drinking a great deal to sublimate bouts of frustration.

  8. Hey, I’m working on my own FATE implementation (inspired by your posts.) Tentatively named Wolfheim, it’s a gothic horror game with fantasy and steampunk elements.

    I had an idea for allowing curses to be placed on characters in a variety of ways (including as a -4 consequence [I’m going -1/-2/-3/-4, and a 3-5 stress for each track])

    Anyway, giving curses a stress track and stunts seems to be the perfect way to represent the effort to lift them (stress track) and representing how they affect a target (stunts.)

    Giving aspects stunts is something I’m probably going to use in more places in Wolfheim, thanks for the idea!

  9. I’ve been thinking about how certain Fractals would interact with each other. Mainly I’ve been thinking about Organizations and Characters. Trappings seem to be the natural place to explain how Characters and Organization interact. Starblazer Adventure doesn’t provide any Trappings for Organization Skills so I thought that I would give it a shot.

    I posted by thoughts if anyone is interested.

  10. The Fractals Idea reminds me Object Oriented Programming. There are objects which are abstract (in oryginal meaning, not Fate) and they can interact eachother.

    In high level detail, the Core Fate is about interacting objects with other objects by their interfaces like Skills to affect their recources like Stress.

    I wonder if it is possible to write The Core in the most abstract way. To prepare rules for abstract beings interaction which can be specified later by given Fate implementation or GM.

    For me Fractals are the essence of Fate. I’m going to teach new players in that way:
    There are Beings. Each of them can have Abstracts, Skills, Stunts, Stress.[…] The Being can be Character, NPC, item, place, organization, district, city etc.

  11. @milczek — From my perspective as a designer, I agree that Fate is very object-oriented in the way you’re describing. I’m not sure that that perspective is useful to everyone, however, which is why I don’t “lead with the fractal”, as it were. 🙂

  12. Another example of fractalization and character-to-org interactions can be found in VSCA’s prototype game Chimaera. We modified the cluster system for a more fantasy, or at least rustic look, making the three traits of nodes on the cluster Resources, Integrity, and Connections. Resources are a “chunkier” version of Diaspora’s trait of the same name. A Resource score of 3 indicates three nameable resources–Grain, The Brain Vats, and Deep Wells, for example. Integrity breaks down into Exemplars–that is, Integrity 3 means you have 3 NPCs that are influential in that community.

    The bit that was a stroke of genius (IMO of course) was Connections–these are a communities access to other communities’ Resources and Examplars. If your community has Resources 4, you don’t have that stuff, but you’re connected to it. Brad took that further and determined that connections between communities determined the quality of the roads (with Resource-sharing) and goodwill (diplomatic activity as shown by shared Exemplars).

    The latest playtest was with The Shadow of Yesterday, a system I’m fond of, but it played a bit blah at our table. All the lessons learned went into the relatively system-agnostic cluster system.The current state of play is here with a particularly nice example from actual play.

    In general I think it’s useful to look at the scale of effort that players can produce. You can roll a skill; win a conflict; conclude an evening successfully; or even longer terms. A skill roll does something that another thing that fits into a scene (usually a character) needs to respond to; winning a conflict changes how other elements in play have to pay attention to (the other party’s interests, like the “team” the defeated or victorious side is playing for); and finally doing a whole session could earn the attention of global players (on the scale your game happens to be at).

    You can compress the time-domain too to get more effectiveness in less play time, for a “montage” effect; this is what happened in our Diaspora session where a year-long political campaign was done in one conflict using an abstracted social conflict zone map.

    Anyway, I begin to ramble. Oh, I do believe you got the Diaspora stress-track system bang on. I know the damage boxes “backfill”. I don’t recall our ever assigning multiple consequences on one hit, but that’s the kind of thing that can get a bit lost in the scrum of play at the table.

  13. I really like the idea of ditching the stress track and using stress taken equaling the consequence rating and treating those as blocks. Seems like a great mix of the Fate 2 and Fate 3 stress iterations. Totally stealing that for my own Fate game.

  14. I’m late to this discussion, but Dusty’s comments about starships and characters has been kicking around my head. In particular the idea that consequences can be adjusted depending on the difference in scale.

    1) Add a new type of consequence, “trivial consequences”, to capture advantages in scale. A one point advantage would give a -1 “trivial consequence”, a two point edge would give a -1 and a -2, and so on. Trivial consequences differ from other consequences in two ways: they only allow a +1 advantage when invoked/compellled, and they’re fragile.

    2) Have consequences remove an extra point of stress for every difference in scale. So a one point scale advantage would upgrade -2/-4/-6 to -3/-5/-7. This could work the other way as well: a one point scale disadvantage turns -2/-4/-6 into -1/-3/-5.

    3) A non-consequences angle: remove 1 pt of stress for every level of scale in your advantage.And vice versa.

    A few differences in scale rapidly add up. For example a three point scale difference would give the larger party -5/-7/-9, while the smaller would be reduced to 0/-1/-3. So yes, you can attack a star destroyer with your laser pistol. Just don’t expect to survive the fight.

  15. I’m working on a game I may actually publish one day. It’s going have a comedy/fantasy feel.

    Right now I’m debating having a Stress Track of 1 and having an HP skill that adds +1 per rating so a person with Good HP would have 4 Physical stress. Players can also take staking stunts that could give them up to +3 more stress (for three stunts) on top of this.

    I’m worried though that this may make stress tracks WAY too variable, but we’ll see what happens in play testing.

  16. […] artículo original se encuentra en http://www.faterpg.com/2011/stress-consequences-and-the-fractal/. Desde aquí queremos agradecer a Fred que nos haya permitido llevar a cabo la […]

  17. […] e até a própria campanha! O Diaspora evidencia o que os autores do FATE atualmente chama de proposta fractal do sistema, ou seja, que suas mecânicas podem representar, sem modificações, tanto um personagem como um […]

  18. […] von „Stress, Consequences, and the Fractal“, den Fred Hicks am 02. Februar 2011 auf Faterpg.com geschrieben […]

  19. Sorry, kinda late into the discussion, but some help would be useful. I’m working on a FATE fantasy game that has a gritty style feel to it. My group felt that hit points style stress track was easier to manage and learn. So, Im going with each character gets 2 + level of Endurance. Skills pretty much similar to Dresden Files. At Superb, however, you add an additional mild consequence, instead of gaining a new box. It caps the stress boxes at 6. What do you guys think?

    Im looking in to releasing this as a FATE system eventually, so be brutally honest about it.

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