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.

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