Sunday, 26 October 2014

Changing the Stakes in Fate Combat

Fate is a terrific game system, one I've been strongly enamoured of since I first read Spirit of the Century many years back. A lot of things about it hit the sweet spot for me, especially the way it uses Aspects to highlight the most important part of a game, and also the way it explicitly gives the players a more authorial stance during gameplay. (The meta-thinking about the game that Fate encourages is an irritant to some players, but those guys wouldn't be interested in this post anyway - carry on.)

If there's one thing I'm not crazy about in Fate, it's the conflict system. Not that it's bad at doing what it's designed to -- to the contrary, it perfectly models the interactions of "competent, proactive" characters it's supposed to. Characters slugging it out are supposed to be important and capable -- otherwise, they'd be mooks. That's well and good, but sometimes Fate conflict tends to drag on long past the time that me and my players are having fun with it. Sometimes you just want to roll some dice, trade a few blows, and move on to more dramatic things.

In last year's playtest game of Tianxia, we found a comfortable middle-ground method of dealing with "named character" conflicts without the marathon. (I remember tossing this idea out myself, but my players may remember it differently. Whoever came up with it, I think it's a good idea worth repeating.) Instead of the usual trading-blows-until-someone-drops-or-offers-a-Concession rhythm of Fate conflicts, which admittedly would be less of an issue if my players were inclined to offer Concessions, we changed the conflict into more of a Contest. Best of three rolls won the whole fight.

This allowed the players to "go hard" for a few exchanges, spending Fate points and leveraging Aspects to hit as hard as possible, with a specific finish line in sight. This was particularly useful for Tianxia, because the conflict might have been prolonged by players trying to find each other's vulnerable points (as that game features different martial arts styles which interact in complex ways).

As in a regular Contest, this worked because in the player-vs.-player situation that was unfolding, neither player was especially interested in inflicting lasting harm on the other's character -- the confict was perhaps required by the story and the history between the characters, but it wasn't really about beating someone's face in. In a typical Conflict, however, the situation is a little more pointed. Characters go into Conflicts wanting to hurt the other guy and leave a few bruises, at least.

An idea I'm mulling over to use this model in more typical Conflict situations where satisfying honor might not be enough is to bring an element of wagering into it: Stakes. That is, the players decide before they begin the exchange what the Stakes for the battle will be -- are they fighting until someone walks away with a short-term Consequence, or something more lasting? This need not be a physical Consequence, as someone taking strictly defensive actions to win might leave someone with the Consequence "Humiliated and Outmatched" if they weren't able to overcome their opponent.

The Stakes would be based on the severity of the Consequence, or perhaps of the Condition inflicted by a loss. Since agreeing to this style of Conflict resolution would include a tacit agreement to accept that the winner of the best of three or five (or whatever, flavour to taste) exchanges would win the combat and the other character would effectively be Taken Out, Fate Points would be given to the loser as though they had agreed to a Concession. The Concession in this case would be built right into the terms of the Conflict.

I got to thinking about this while reading through the Fate System toolkit by Rob Donoghue and the gang, and mulling over the Conditions rules as a way of streamlining Consequences in a Fate build. I'm in favour of sleeking down Conflict as much as possible, and would take out the Stress tracks as a means to go directly to the juicy Consequences/Conditions.

Fate Core (and particularly the Toolkit) is full of delicious bits that us tinkers can poke and play with to mod our own versions of the game that Fred and Rob built. If you don't already own it, you need to rectify that situation right now, mister.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Build Your Own Apocalypse

I was literally hours away from running APOCALYPSE WORLD this summer when the group that would have played it flew apart. That was tough. I'd already invested a lot of time in preparing for that game - such as you can, in a game where you are expressly forbidden from preparing specific material for the first session - and all of that evaporated in a puff of changing schedules.

Well, why not make my loss your gain?

One of the few concrete things I could do to get ready for that first session that never happened was to write up a list of questions that I could ask the players during the first session, to get things rolling and begin collaborative worldbuilding during play. I think some of them are pretty good, and maybe they'll be useful to you if you're running your own Apocalypse World game or something similar.

  • What does your living space look like?
  • What small, personal object do you have in your living space that no one else knows about?
  • What's the tallest object in the area?
  • What does the sky look like today?
  • What do you see when you open your mind to the Maelstrom?
  • Who is the first person you see?
  • Is there anyone you're close with? Anyone you love?
  • Do you have any living family?
  • Is there anyone out there that scares you or creeps you out?
  • Is there anyone you hate or would like to hurt? Anyone you'd kill if you got the chance?
  • What's the ugliest place in the area? The creepiest? The most dangerous?
  • Where do you go to be alone?
  • Do you have a secret place known only to you?
  • Do you have many lovers? Anyone special? Anyone you want more from? Who turned you down?
  • Who are you sleeping with now?
  • Who's got your back when the shit hits the fan?
  • Who do you trust to always tell you the truth, even if it hurts? Who lies to you for shits 'n' giggles?
  • When was the first time you killed someone? Who? Did people look at you differently afterward? Are they scared of you?
  • What's your group got going for it? You don't have everything, but you have a few things you need and you can barter for others.
  • Who's the biggest wheel in the area?
  • Who's willing to do anything to get in the game?
  • Does your group have any rules or taboos? 
  • Who is the smartest or wisest person in the area?
  • There's a place you have to go sometimes that's really dangerous and scary. You never want to go there, but you always have to. Where? Why?
  • Does your group have any weird superstitions?
  • Who was the last person to die? How?
  • What do people say about you when they think you're not listening?
  • What's the most beautiful or amazing thing in the area?
  • What does it smell like here?
  • Was there anyone in your life that made you genuinely feel loved? Who turned their back on you when you needed them?
  • One of these motherfuckers stole something from you. What was it and what are you gonna do when you find out?
  • Who taught you every important thing you know? What happened to them?
  • Are there any families - with children - in your group? Have you ever thought you'd like to have kids?
  • Is there someone you won't let yourself be alone with any more? Who and why?
  • Where is the safest place in the area?
  • What do you wear on your body - or mark yourself with - as personal style?
  • What happens to those who don't follow the rules?
  • Tell me a secret.
A lot of the questions are meant to tease out details about the characters, especially pieces of their inner life and / or telling details about themselves. Some are meant to establish parts of the setting, of course, including other characters who could be part of the game, friends, enemies, lovers.

Of course I wouldn't actually ask each character all of those questions, although some would probably get repeated. Asking them of the other characters would likely get the other players thinking about that question for themselves, however, and that's the important thing.