May 272013

Over on Google+, Christopher Ruthenbeck asked a question about handling absolutes in Fate Core. Read the thread for full context. Here’s an edited/expanded/altered excerpt of my response to it.

Absolutes are tricky. They’re the least gameable thing we might adopt from our inspirations in fiction. And they’re often something that can’t really be trusted. “This here’s absolutely true,” our television or book series tells us in one episode. Then a few episodes pass, and suddenly we find out there’s an “except…” The cloaking field is absolute, except when a particularly clever opponent figures out a way to look at secondary signs of the presence of a cloaked vehicle. Etc.

But let’s proceed with the notion that an absolute is desirable in our game.

What is an absolute? It’s an unavoidable outcome, something that in a success vs. failure scenario either eliminates the possibility of success, or eliminates the possibility of failure. Ah, yes. And there’s the crux of it, that “vs”.

Absolutes for me typically reduce into the same ur-example: the fall to the death. The players must make their climbing roll successfully, or they fall to their death. Except that sucks and is anticlimactic and as such should actually never be on the table in the first place. There is no success vs. failure there. This is an absolute for our purposes: crossing the chasm must be a success, full stop.

Fate Core already gives us a tool for handling this situation: success vs. success at a cost. If you don’t succeed, you still succeed, but you pay a price to do so: You make it across the chasm, but you’ve lost valuable time, your important widget fell into the lightless depths below, whatever.

So for our “100% no-fail cloaking device” absolute, how do we apply that tool? We apply it to the attempt to hide: successful hiding vs successful hiding at a cost. Essentially, working like this: if the enemy WOULD detect you — thereby implying failure of your attempt to hide — you can instead treat your failed attempt as success at a cost.

Working out what the “at a cost” is is the real sticky wicket. Failure’s off the table, so don’t let it distract you at all.

When an absolute is considered palatable for your game — it won’t be for everyone — this suggests a class of “absolute-validating stunt” that you can work into your extras or power set or what have you. Like this:

Absolute Cloaking Field: You can’t fail at attempts to hide. If the rolls indicate you would have failed, you may instead choose to succeed at a cost. Costs could include: draining all power from the ship’s systems; losing valuable time that you can’t afford to lose; etc.

Depending on your taste, this sort of stunt could be completely off the table; on the table as a standard option; on the table but only for certain kinds of skills; on the table but at a higher than one refresh cost; etc. I leave the pricing as an exercise for a specific table and its tastes.

What other absolutes could we apply this to? An invulnerable foe who always succeeds at defense rolls, only the cost of that success is sometimes quite nasty? Perhaps. It’s probably best applied to circumstances that would normally be a succeed/fail Overcome Obstacle roll, but depending on how far you’re willing to push the system it could potentially work its way into the other of the four actions too.

What absolutes do you want to put in your Fate game? And how would you build them, given this?

 Posted by at 9:13 am

  5 Responses to “The Actual Dichotomy of Absolutes”

  1. Great idea for a new class of stunt, utilizing existing rules. Kudos on a simple, elegant innovation!

  2. Basically it takes “game-ending defeat” and turns it into “really annoying inconvenience that drives more story.” Saddling people with multiple costs allows the game to continue without shutting it all down. However, this also crosses into the “don’t mess with my stuff” issue, whereby some people find it much worse if a GM strips them of their stuff than if they kill their character off. It’s related to the problem of mind-controlling characters.

    My question, and I don’t think it’s actually that big a problem, is how to maintain a sense of threat when you’re never going to face an absolute. Failure = death is boring, yes, but the alternative does force a GM to explore ways to motivate certain players in a manner that doesn’t just have them say “whatevs, I can’t die.”

  3. @Cam – but it doesn’t have to be GM decree. Succeed-at-a-cost can be very interesting when the player has to decide what the cost is (subject to GM/group approval, and consistent with the power’s examples). It also neatly sidesteps anything triggery, or problematic for the player.

    Imagine an Iron Will ability that absolutely negates the PC being mind-controlled. Instead failure might mean the PC is physically/emotionally drained after winning the battle of minds, or did something embarrasing to stop the attempt (like making a scene at an ambassador’s party), or had to spend valuable time they can’t spare, mentalling battling.

  4. This follows, essentially, the same pattern as a concession, I think, only the risk is that it is negotiated after the loss rather than in anticipation of the loss. So when approaching any absolute why not simply make it an overarching conflict challenge? Follow the “fate fractal” and negotiate a damage track, skills to apply, consequences for failure and success, and then go through the scenario.

    Let’s take the ur-example.

    You have chosen to cross the mountains, and avoid the Mines of (TM)oria, by climbing up a canyon wall. You fall, you die…which is booooooring. The GM sets a damage track based on height and difficulty of this and creates another “time” track. The characters can “attack” the climb by using the lead characters “climb” stunt (based on athletics or survival or whatever). The climb can “attack” the characters, they defend individually with athletics, but a successful attack is narrated as difficulty on the climb and “damage” is applied to the time track based on the number of characters that fail to resist the attack. That means the characters can create consequences against this time track and/or make active concessions such as leaving a character behind or having them taken captive by hostile wildlife.

    I think this creates the effect Pandora mentions, it tosses the storytelling back in the laps of the players. It creates a mechanism to grind out a story from “failure” that is more complex than “you’re dead.”

  5. So I started on a specific example: Danger Sense. We won’t go into the genre. Say you have character with a foolproof danger sense ability. You cannot sneak up on them, they know when there is danger around.

    “Failure” You are provided a warning. There is a generic “Danger Sense” aspect placed on the scene. It may not be tagged first round. (Possible addition: the character automatically reveals that they are suspicious.) This may not be enough penalty and needs work.

    Tie: You are provided a warning. There is a generic “Danger Sense” aspect placed on the scene. This is taggable once. No free tag.

    Success: An aspect of the scene that is about to “surprise” the character is revealed and they get a free tag.

    Succeed with Style: In addition to above another aspect that the opposition has available to them (say through an ambush roll) and they can either free tag an aspect OR cancel a tag the opposition holds on an aspect. (I wanted something a little different than a typical free tag.)
    For every 2 additional shifts another free tag is available in the coming fight on a scene aspect

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