The Art of the Text Prop


So you’ve got a supply of teabags for aging, a lighter for edge-burning, or just a high-cotton fancy paper and you’re ready to use it. Tonight, your group is going to get a Text Prop! It’s going to look authentic, use the most obscure handwriting font you’ve got, and maybe even feature hand-drawn diagrams. But before you go to all this trouble to make your text prop look amazing, you need to ask yourself whether you need it at all.

Why Make a Text Prop?

In my experience as a GM (your mileage might vary, of course), there are three primary reasons that making a text prop is worth the time invested in it:

  1. As an incentive to engagement
  2. As an aid for recollection
  3. As a complex puzzle

Incentive to Engagement

One of my most hard-won secrets as a GM is the simple realization that players are more likely to believe something if it’s written down. Perhaps it has to do with the effects of a literate society in general or gamers’ reliance on rulebooks in specific, but the written word is generally valued more highly than the spoken as far as credibility goes. It’s entirely possible that a few more years on the internet will minimize this trend, but I’d hazard that the general understanding is that putting words to paper is harder than just saying something.

Consequently, if you have a fact, true or false, that you’d like the players to engage with—to seriously consider and potentially act upon—you can get way more certainty by making it a text prop. Unless they’ve been in the wrong sort of games all their gaming lives, players are entirely aware that NPCs can have just the same agendas and levels of trustworthiness as people in the real world, so facts spouted by a newly met or untrustworthy NPC may have little weight compared to allied NPCs that have earned their trust over many sessions. You’ll time and again watch them ignore the pertinent facts spouted by your plot sock puppet in favor of weird flavor details you added that are ultimately meaningless, or write the entire character off as a psychopath. But, if it’s a text prop (particularly an unsigned one), suddenly all those human barriers fade away and all the players have is, “someone thought this was important enough to write down.”

And, even if they don’t engage with it right away, they’ll likely still have the paper so they can recall it later…

Aid for Recollection

Your players presumably have lives outside of gaming. They play your game irregularly, their Monkeyspheres are full of real-world peoples’ names, and humans have bad memories anyway. The second major use of a text prop is to repair this problem by giving them an in-play cheat sheet for later use. The goal is to have a moment of, “that sounds vaguely familiar… hey! Check the text props!” Suddenly your players have gone from a muddled feeling of deja vu at hearing a proper name in your plot to a razor certainty of what’s going on and what they want to do about it.

The trick to this use is to understand why to do it this way rather than just handing out an out-of-play cheat sheet. The only thing wrong with an out-of-play cheat sheet is that it may be a challenge to keep it from feeling a little bit patronizing: you’re having to write down proper names from your setting and summaries of what you think the context of it is. You run the risk of players realizing that you don’t trust them to remember things, and inferring that you think they’re stupid. Whether or not they realize there’s a practical use for the sheet, there’s a tendency to look at it once, say “duh,” and lose it amongst all their other out-of-play handouts.

Meanwhile, text props tend to be hoarded. Chances are, there’s at least one player in your game that enjoys holding onto them, and will be able to produce them on demand. Even if not, I’ve never seen a player mind that text props got left in their group folder or just put on the table before every session.

And the beauty of the text prop is that, properly done, it’s not a summary of context, but the context itself. Letters are excellent for this: players can immediately associate names with the matters discussed in the letters, compare “handwriting” (likely fonts), and will likely even remember how they got or intercepted the letter. But letters are not the only use, as there are a world of in-play reasons someone might write down information: pages torn from in-play books, rubbings taken from monuments, or even an NPC’s personal reference notes.

Of course, for full utility, the prop should fall into the first or third category so players get some use out of it at the time, and then have reason to remember to look at it later.

Complex Puzzle

Both the most powerful and most dangerous use of a text prop is to create a puzzle that’s complicated enough that simply reading it out would leave the players constantly asking you to repeat things. This could be a strange diagram, a long riddle, or even something that requires arranging smaller scraps of paper to make a whole. In order to work properly, though, it must meet two major criteria:

  1. It should be given out in a way that encourages the players to work together solving it.
  2. It must consist entirely (or at least primarily) of information that the players have access to already or know exactly how to get quickly.

The first is a best practice, and has a little give in regards to perhaps creating something interesting to do for a puzzle-loving player in a group that is otherwise not, but is still a good rule of thumb. Giving out puzzles is an excellent way to get your players to gather around the table, discuss possibilities, and give you five minutes free of GMing to go to the bathroom or get a snack. If you give it to one player in a context where it doesn’t really make sense to share (e.g., “this is a letter from your superior in your secret society”), you lose all of the benefits of getting the players roleplaying amongst themselves for a while (and, of course, risk that there won’t be enough brainpower or context to solve the puzzle at all).

The second is more important. The players should be able to solve the puzzle by putting their heads together and making use of clues they already know, or it’s not really a puzzle. Specifically, if a lot of the information in the puzzle defaults to “make a knowledge check!” when the player doesn’t recognize it, then you could have just had them make some knowledge checks to get the answer outright and never bothered with the text prop. That is, you won’t get the fun that comes from solving a puzzle, but the frustration of having to drag information that currently has no positive emotional attachment out of the GM.

Prophecy and related puzzles get a small pass. There is certainly benefit to a puzzle where some of the information makes sense now, but other information will make sense later. The trick is to start giving out new context fairly soon after giving the puzzle, convincing the players that they’re not going to have to do boring things to drag out this information. Instead, it provides the hope that, eventually, they might get enough sense of how the context is occurring that they can use unrevealed passages of the puzzle to their advantage.

Ultimately, though, if you’re making a puzzle, it should be because you want the players to put their heads together, work on it right now, and come up with an “Aha!” moment on their own. If you’re just trying to obfuscate your plot and get them to draw it out from you in an exchange that can only occur player-to-GM because they’re missing crucial information, you run a very real risk of the prop backfiring.

Text-Prop-Making Best Practices

The reasons to make a text prop are far more important than the methods. A document that really, really looks like something that comes from the game world is unlikely to be as exciting to the players as it is to you: they’re already imagining your entire world, they can do a little bit more work to imagine that a document appears more appropriately in the world. However, there is some value in production.

  1. Do use a nonstandard font but Do Not use an illegible font.
  2. Do make the paper something unusual but Do Not make it gross to handle.


Chances are, your players look at documents in Times, Arial, and Calibri all day long at their jobs or for school. A slightly fancier font sends the message that it is time for play. It can also serve to differentiate props from one another; e.g., “pages from history texts are in ‘Antique’ while letters from our enemy are in ‘Roundhand’.”

What you don’t want to do is go too far and pick a font that’s hard to read. Some fonts are hard to read on a computer monitor at full zoom, much less in small text in the dim light of a typical gaming room. As far as text props go, the message is the message, not the medium: make sure the players don’t have to squint to understand what’s being said, or they’ll be less likely to reference the document later.


A text prop that’s just a half-page of text sitting at the top of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper is obviously at odds with its presentation. It invites questions of why the writer didn’t make full use of the white space, or why the denizens of the campaign write on modern printer paper at all. There are lots of things you can do to remedy this situation, and the simplest involve folding the paper to present the information in an out-of-expectations format or just trimming it down to size.

You certainly can go all out and rub the paper with tea, stick it in the oven to age it, and burn the edges. However, several of these methods make the paper feel weird, make it smell weird, or otherwise make it gross to handle or keep with your other text props. You want the players to use these things, and they won’t want to use them if they don’t want to touch them. Keep the paper comfortable to handle, and you’ll get more mileage out of the prop even though it doesn’t technically look as authentic.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 6


Capping off Spirit of the Century so we can move on to Dresden Files next week, here are the last couple of systems I want to talk about.

Minions and Teamwork

SotC fights against named foes take a long time, as discussed last week. However, you can run a game where your PCs mow through a ton of bad guys without ever touching a named NPC through the power of minions. A familiar accent to any action RPG, and obviously something I’ve been inspired by, minions are designed to be taken out by the handful. To accomplish this, minions:

  • Have Stress that works like regular hit points (e.g., 2 Stress damage against a minion with 2 Stress takes it out, even with no prior damage)
  • Have a fixed (small) bonus to any actions that make sense (e.g., a +1 minion rolls against anything at +1 unless it wouldn’t make sense for that minion to have such a skill)
  • Automatically group together with other minions in the fight until there are no more groups than PCs (e.g., 10 minions vs. 3 PCs would likely attack as two groups of 3 and a group of 4)
  • Group with named NPCs if they are present
  • Link stress boxes when grouped (e.g., a 5 Stress hit against a group of 3 minions with 2 Stress each takes out the first two and leaves the third with 1 Stress left), and this serves effectively as ablative armor for a named NPC grouped with the minions
  • Gain a Teamwork bonus based on their group size (+1 at 2-3, +2 at 4-6, +3 at 7-9, and +4 at 10+)

Minions are super cool. While I became quickly very hesitant to deal with named NPCs, as combat would slow right down, my games never lacked for two-fisted action because of minions. They’re the popcorn of the pulp adventure world. And they’re not just fluff that players can ignore: when grouped together, minions become a very serious threat that becomes very satisfying to players as hits begin whittling the group down to manageable size.

And then you have more minions dive in at various points in the fight and rearrange the group sizes. Good fun to be had by all!

However, as much as I love minions, this is one small flaw related to them: the teamwork rules for minions are the only teamwork rule in the game. When attempting to assist another person, the first PC (or friendly NPC) with the same skill grants a +1, the second helper does nothing, the third raises the bonus to +2, and the acting PC needs six helpers to get up to +3. And the bonus doesn’t change regardless of whether the acting character has a bunch of helpers close to his own skill or way below it.

This essentially creates a weird result in planning out skills. If there’s a skill that is likely to only be rolled by one player in a lot of cases (Investigation, Art, Engineering, etc.), you should either be the best in the party at it or have it at +1: if most of the time you’ll only be on assist duty with the skill, a +1 is just as good as a higher rating. In a party with one player with such a skill at +5, as a GM you’ll have to constantly work to keep the player with that skill at +4 from feeling like he wasted the points.

But this is ultimately a small wart: most systems have a hard time striking a balance between making teamwork too weak or too powerful. The grouping system for teams works very well for minions.


Car chases (or, infrequently, foot and biplane chases) are another nifty system in SotC, and another one from which I’ve taken inspiration. The gist of the chase rules is:

  • Lead character (target) describes a maneuver and picks a difficulty; if he fails the roll, the car takes a hit equal to the margin of failure
  • Following character(s) attempt to meet the same difficulty; a success deals the Shifts as damage to the target, a failure deals the MoF as damage to the follower
  • One passenger in each car can attempt a roll that would make sense as helping the driver, and use that result if higher than the driver’s

There are also rules for extended chase scenes where the GM can throw in reinforcements, special cars, etc. These are tied to a point mechanic, which is kind of arbitrary and mainly serves as a rough guideline, but they’re neat ideas for complicating the chase whether or not you use the points.

And… I have nothing bad to say about the chase rules. They’re really fun, and I was sad that I only had one player take much in the way of Drive, so I couldn’t contrive ways to use them very often. But the one time I did they delivered exactly as intended: a classic car overflowing with pulp heroes weaving through traffic, driving off of parking structures, and snarling traffic across a New York City block. Good times.

Part 7

Three Spirit of the Century Adventures


For those who’d like clearer examples of what I did for my SotC game that caused my various opinions in the reviews, or would just like some mostly-ready adventures, here are the three for which I had typed notes. The other two sessions I ran were less formal, using handwritten notes.

These adventures were all specifically tailored for the PCs I knew would be attending the session, and generally featured their nemeses. Sections designed to remind me which Aspects to compel will, of course, be far less useful to other groups. More info can be found on the campaign site.

The notes are somewhat simplified, as I really only needed them to jog my memory, but they seem to be fairly self-explanatory. Feel free to ask for clarification on any of them in the comments.

Similarly, if an insight into my game construction methods explains why I might not have been using SotC to its fullest extent, please let me know in the comments as well 🙂 .

Harbinger of Doom’s SotC thoughts post mentions several events in Lights Out in London.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 5


Continuing from last week to hit the big four system elements identified in part 3:

The Damage System

In combat, the shifts past the target’s defense becomes damage. If you roll a 3 and the target only gets 1 on defense, you did 2 damage. That’s about the point the damage system stops being typical.

In Spirit of the Century, player characters start with a base of 5 wound levels (called Physical Stress), and can get up to +3 from the Endurance skill and +1 from stunts. These don’t work like hit points: the damage dealt is the number of the stress box checked off, but all other boxes remain untouched. So, for the 2 damage hit above, the target would mark off his second stress box, leaving the first one empty. If the target takes damage that would fill an already-checked box, however, the damage “rolls up” and fills the next highest empty box. If the target took a second hit for 2 damage, the third box would be checked.

If the target has to fill a box higher than one on his sheet, he must take a Consequence: a temporary Aspect representing a wound or other complication inflicted by the attack. Consequences are the only thing that persists through the end of a combat: once PCs have time to take a breather, all Stress gets erased. Consequences rise in severity as more of them are taken, and the fourth (without stunts that increase this number) takes the character out (either killing or otherwise incapacitating as the attacker decides). Instead of waiting to be beaten to death, the target can, on taking a consequence, offer to concede: the target is incapacitated before he would technically have to be, but on his terms (typically a good idea when death is on the table in a fight).

This method for handling damage is more or less unique in RPGs, and, on paper, is an amazing tradeoff between the constant schizophrenia of RPG combat design: how do you create a damage system where heroes aren’t afraid of getting into a fight but targets can still be killed in one shot by weapons that should have that power?

In practice, even for a pulpy game where heroes are meant to take blow upon blow without complaint, the SotC damage system has some problems.

The first issue is simply that there are too many Stress levels: all PCs have 5 boxes at a minimum, and can have up to 9 if they make Endurance their best skill and take the stunt. In an even fight, beating a target by two is a significant accomplishment, so typical opponents must be hit successfully 3-7 times before they even start taking consequences (i.e., the only damage that will stick with the character between fights). In my experience, PCs almost never took a consequence unless they were completely outclassed by an enemy, and any NPC not using minion rules (discussed next week) wouldn’t go down until dogpiled for several rounds by every PC.

The second level is more of an inherent problem with the method for assessing damage: rolling up tends to quickly invalidate high-shift hits. If a target gets hit for a high number of shifts amidst several minor hits, the high shifts are effectively wasted: three 1s and a 4 is identical to four 1s for most purposes, because the fourth 1 would roll up to 4 anyway. In my combats, I would frequently see one lucky high roll against a target that would eventually be washed away by all the lower level boxes filling up with minimal hits. Since hits of greater than 2 only happen on lucky rolls, when a bunch of tags get piled on, or when the target is way outclassed anyway, a target’s stress boxes frequently mean, in practical terms, “you can take this many hits of 1+ Stress, don’t worry about how much more than 1 the total is unless it’s a lot more than 1.”

This seems to be largely a strange evolution of how challenge ladders worked in FATE 2.0: extended challenges worked in much the same way as damage, except levels could have multiple boxes. Rolling high and skipping lower levels is more significant in:

  1. OOOO
  2. OOO
  3. OO
  4. O

Than it is in:

  1. O
  2. O
  3. O
  4. O

Ultimately, I feel like Stress boxes kept an interesting mechanic between 2.0 and 3.0, but lost an important element to keep that mechanic useful.

The Tactical System

The last major element core system of a FATE game is how combat is laid out, tactically. Unlike most games with tactical movement in combat, instead of using a grid, GMs are encouraged to lay conflict areas out in zones: interesting small areas within the larger combat where opponents can reach one another. Zones can be of variable size more or less defined as, “the maximum amount of space required to fit a fistfight.” Zones can have boundaries such as walls that make them harder to get between, and other barriers like doors that are also difficult to get through. In principle, you should be able to take a floorplan for an area and carve it up into interesting places to have a fight, and each of those becomes a zone.

Zones are easier to handwaive in a game than a D&D-style grid structure with adjacency effects, but they’re useful to keep in mind as they’re the major limiter on movement and range. When moving around the battlefield, moving around in a zone is free, moving into an adjacent zone (with no barriers) is automatic and imposes a -1 penalty to your action when you get there, and moving more than 1 zone (or through a barrier) requires your action to make an Athletics roll with the Shifts determining how far you can move (I did find myself house ruling that you can always move 1, even if you blow your Athletics roll, for the PCs with low Athletics*). You can only attack people in the same zone with hand-to-hand combat, one zone away with thrown weapons, and 2+ zones away with firearms (one of the major benefits to guns in a game where everything does the same damage).

In my experience, zones are a really fun way of providing some level of tactical action in a fight without focusing too much on specific positioning; it’s probably as close to having a positioning system for combat that still feels freeform as pen-and-paper games are likely to get. Unless everyone in the fight is a hand-to-hand fighter (where, like in all games, the tendency is to drift into a big burly brawl), it also keeps things moving around the map.

My only real issue with it was primarily just my own difficulty finding useful, 1920s-appropriate floorplans of locations that lent themselves to being so divided. In theory, the system works way better with cluttered areas that feature doors and walls, but I often found myself with a more open warehouse, airstrip, or whatnot basically divided into a bigger variant of a grid. But that was my own problem having trouble coming up with really exciting places to have a fight.

* Edit 2-18-2011: On rereading the Athletics rules, I realized this was, in fact, not a house rule, but the actual rule. My bad.

Part 6

D&D/Pathfinder Haggling System


I realized that my Purchase-Based Social Conflict system was missing a key social interaction for D&D: haggling with merchants. Thus, below is a modification of the system to handle buying and selling:

  • Both haggling PC and Merchant choose a social skill (Diplomacy, Bluff, or Intimidate; see skill notes below).
  • Both sides roll the skill against a DC determined by the skill (see notes below).
  • If the roll is successful, the side gets 1 point. For each 5 points past the DC, add another +1 (e.g., rolling a 20 against DC 10 would be 3 points).
  • If the seller got more points, the difference in points is +10% to the cost of the item. If the buyer got more points, the difference is -10% to the cost of the item.

Merchants will generally try to buy from PCs at 50% and sell to PCs at 100% of the listed prices in the book.

The skill used makes a difference:


Roll Diplomacy vs. a DC of target’s Appraise + 10 (or the highest Appraise in the group, such as via multiple PCs).

Rolling Diplomacy assumes the character is being honest about the item for sale’s capabilities (or is acting in good faith when buying). Generally, in a fair trade both sides will use Diplomacy. However, when using Diplomacy, there is generally a limit of 50% modification to any item, no matter the results of the roll:

  • If the merchant is buying, he’s unlikely to argue the PCs below free and unlikely to accept being haggled above more than he expects to sell the item for.
  • If the merchant is selling, he’s unlikely to accept less than his costs and the PCs are unlikely to pay more than half-again the item’s book costs.

This cap may be even less for items that might be slow to turn over: it’s probably easier for the merchant to buy a +1 Longsword at full price but expect to turn it around again immediately than a +3 Merciful Kama.


Roll Bluff vs. a DC of the target’s Sense Motive + 10 (or the highest Sense Motive in the group, such as via multiple PCs).

If a character rolls Bluff, he’s lying about something involving the trade: the seller is inflating the value of the item (possibly ascribe greater characteristics to it) or the buyer is misrepresenting available funds and the market for the item. Using Bluff is not the safest tactic for long term mercantile relationships: just because an item was transferred at a profit under false pretenses doesn’t mean those pretenses will remain undiscovered. So Bluff is generally only a safe tactic when the character isn’t exactly worried about repeat business or getting caught.

Using Bluff does not have a cap for how much the point advantage can be.


Roll Intimidate vs. a DC of the target’s Hit Dice + Wis Modifier + 10 (or the highest total in the group, such as via multiple PCs).

Using Intimidation is usually less about haggling and more about extortion or robbery, or at the very least about trying to scare the opponent about the dangers of not transferring ownership of the item as quickly as possible. In order to use Intimidate, the character must have some kind of power over the target: either a physical imbalance of violence capabilities or the knowledge that the item is very dangerous (to a seller) or potentially lifesaving (to a buyer). In general, characters intimidated into a trade will avoid doing business with the character again if at all possible, so this is really only a long-term strategy for targets such as a criminal fence.

Like Bluff, there is no cap on the point advantage, though the item’s capabilities aren’t misrepresented, just the consequences of holding out for more money.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 4


I closed last week by boiling down the list of what skills can do into four broad key mechanics of the system. Let’s talk about the first couple.

The Standard Roll

At this point, I’ve talked to death about the actual mechanic for generating a result (4dF + Skill + Mods). But what does that mean in most cases?

Like most systems, the first question when rolling is whether the roll is opposed or not.

  • In Simple Actions (unopposed), players roll against a static difficulty set by the GM.
  • In Contests (opposed actions), players roll against the skill result of the opposing character.

This second variation for opposed checks has a couple of interesting ramifications:

  • It’s hard to get overwhelmed by a series of attacks (a target with a good defense will get to roll the same number no matter how many people attack him). Attackers ganging up on a target may find it better to use Maneuvers (discussed below) and other group tactics rather than just trying a traditional dogpile of attack rolls.
  • Four more dice are effectively added to the equation, increasing the potential range of results vs. just using a static difficulty number taken from the target’s trait. While 8dF is even more drastically center-weighted than 4dF, rolling for attack and defense does offer a greater chance of an outclassed attacker getting in a lucky hit (or a skilled attacker missing an easy target).

In all cases, the actual information about a roll is based on Margin of Success (referred to as Shifts). Simply hitting the difficulty results in a bare minimum effect. In combat, if you hit someone with 0 Shifts, you don’t do any damage. In other situations, 0 Shifts means doing the action with no particular flair. In general, shifts can be traded for:

  • Damage/Spin: In a conflict situation, as an aggressor the more Shifts you have, the better your attack. As a defender, three Shifts gives you Spin: a +1 bonus on your next combat roll.
  • Difficulty: If you’re trying to do something that someone might contest later (set up a Block in combat, make something more Subtle to escape detection), Shifts can be used to indicate the difficulty of the opponent’s Simple Action later.
  • Speed: If something takes longer than a turn, Shifts can generally be used to make it go faster. There’s a time chart and more Shifts result in increasingly smaller lengths of time as you step down the chart.
  • Quality: The most nebulous of the uses for Shifts is to improve the quality. This is perhaps the use most up to GM fiat as to its meaning.

Perhaps the most interesting part about the concept of Shifts is that, in many cases, Simple Actions default to 0 difficulty. That is, for long-term things, the GM can figure out how long it would take a completely untrained character, and just use the player’s result to make it go faster. For things that other characters might want to undo, the player’s roll becomes the straight-up difficulty. It can effectively create a system where no characters can ever truly fail on important tasks, but they can do them faster or better than other people.

In this view, the Quality use for Shifts is actually something of an unnecessary addition that encourages unthinking GM behavior. As I’ve been harping on, getting a 5 on a roll is much different than a 1. But a basic 1-5 Quality of Success chart can lead to setting the expectation that 5 is the best result and anything less is flawed in some way. It makes it harder to grok that 5 is a really good roll for someone moderately skilled, even if it is easy for a master.

In my experience, there’s some really neat mechanisms for translating skill roll results directly into more usable systems (without ever having to pass through GM fiat), but the trick is to remember to use them. In practical play, each additional Shift is a hard-won battle against the center-weighted dice, so can be allowed to make a difference. For GMs trained on more granular, swingy systems, the intuition about what a roll means is likely to be wrong; it’s better to just let the system sort it out with the only GM input being making sure a result doesn’t stray out of the realm of what the table’s willing to accept.

Aspect Manipulation

So beyond the basic levels of success, how do skills hook into the Aspect system?

In practice, Aspects are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting in the system. Many of the elements of the simulated world can be phrased as Aspects, and changing Aspects changes the world. Since Aspects can be tagged to give a bonus, changing the world can be a method for gaining a significant advantage. As mentioned above, systems flow into other systems, with nary a need for GM fiat: doing interesting stuff is its own reward, because it makes it easier to succeed.

There are three variations on using skills to manipulate Aspects:

  • Maneuvers represent doing stuff, either socially or physically, to add an Aspect to a person or scene. Any time a player says, “I’m trying to shove him Off Balance” or “I want to convince him that he Can’t Trust His Friends” or even “I’m just going to set the building On Fire” that player is describing a maneuver. There is a causal link between what the character is doing and what Aspect gets created.
  • Declarations represent knowing stuff, and are interesting in that this stuff is created by the player on the spot. Very similar to maneuvers, declarations don’t actually share a clear link between skill and result; the character knows stuff, and success means the player gets to define what he knows. “Wave the torch to distract them! These monsters Fear Fire!” Of all the types, declarations are the most subject to abuse, as players run out of interesting things to invent about a target and start grasping at straws to get their free tags (see below).
  • Assessments represent figuring stuff out, and, of the three types, don’t create an Aspect, but reveal existing Aspects on a person or scene. These are potentially very useful in a game with proactive players, but tend to demand the most work out of the GM. An assessment is a way for the player to trade in-game time for interesting facts about a target; if there aren’t really any interesting facts to be had, that’s when players start to abuse declaration.

Each of these methods is not only a powerful way to interact with the environment, but a potent driver of player behavior because they each grant a Free Tag. Functionally, when an Aspect is created or revealed, the next time the player or a designated ally uses that Aspect, it doesn’t cost a Fate point. It’s effectively a free +2 to the next roll that can make use of the new fact.

This is one of the hugest elements of the system: even characters that suck at combat can contribute if they set up free tags for those in the group that are better at fighting. Academics and Scientists functionally become a support class, reeling off useful factoids about opponents while they duck behind cover. Athletes and Intimidators can attempt to harass and handicap foes, even if they can’t do much directly. And if they have time to prepare to also set up some Assessments, it’s an even bigger advantage.

In practice, though, the system could use a little more robustness, particularly in the area of declarations. Unlike many elements of the system, adding an Aspect is a fairly binary pass/fail, with additional Shifts making little difference. Difficulties are based primarily on GM fiat for how interesting the declared Aspect would be. Without a use for Shifts, high-skill characters have no reason not to go for high-difficulty, ridiculous Aspects (there are three criteria for appropriateness, and hitting each one reduces the difficulty by 2 from a starting target of 6, so skill 5 characters can often hit a completely inappropriate difficulty and can even more regularly hit one with only a hint of appropriateness). Part of the issue is simply the length of combats in Spirit of the Century (discussed next week), so characters with skills more suited to declaration than attack have a lot of opportunity to run out of good ideas and start slinging out, “And… they also have… weak skulls. Yeah. Punch them in their Weak Skulls!” But this would be less of an issue if the system had made better use of non-fiat systems, such as some additional use for declaration shifts.

All that said, in play, skills manipulating Aspects accomplishes its goal to a large extent: it gives players a systemized incentive to try to do interesting things during a conflict instead of devolving into just attacking all the time. And, of all the things that Fate has inspired in recent mainstream games, this is one of the few ideas that I haven’t seen adopted though it probably should be. Half the battle in an action RPG is just getting your players to think about how to do interesting things in a fight, and maneuvers and declarations (with a side of assessments) make this happen.

Part 5

To End an Era of Exp, Conclusion


Over the past three installments, I’ve argued that experience points are outdated and no longer solve the problems they did originally. Meanwhile, I believe they’ve been frequently misused by becoming a staple of RPGs where they often lead to an unnecessary psychological reinforcement. In theory, games are fun without having to reduce them to a single axis of progress, and doing so can cause players to fixate on exp accumulation rather than what’s actually cool in the game.

So, assuming you’re with me this far, here are a few of the potential solutions to remove exp but still include advancement. They are likely to be more useful for video RPGs, particularly MMORPGs, but may still be useful in some way for tabletop games.


Eve Online is one of the few games of which I’m aware that have eliminated the ability to grind for progress by the simple mechanism of divorcing skill progression entirely from game actions. Instead, players designate which areas they’d like to improve, and timers begin counting down until that skill level is learned. I believe there may be some degree of requirement to do a few in game tasks to open up a new tier of skills, but that may just have been my limited understanding of the very complicated systems for the little time I played.

Reducing improvement to a pure time-based system is pretty much anathema to grind, at least for advancement. When you’ll improve at the same rate no matter what you do (and even if you don’t even log in), in theory there’s no reason to do anything besides what’s fun. There’s at least nothing boring to do that might have a better exp rate.

Conversely, time-based progression can create a game where late-comers can have a hard time competing with earlier players, as there’s no way to bridge a skill gap other than an earlier player forgetting to set the next skill to train. In the real world, this is solved by older generations making way for the younger, but such a thing is unattainable in video games until and unless permadeath suddenly comes back into vogue. Effectively, it may make sense to supplement a time-based system with something else that doesn’t discourage new players and alts.


A game with use-based skills gives a chance to increase a skill whenever it is used (or at least whenever it is used in appropriately difficult situations). Many video games include some kind of use-based system for skills. WoW has use-based weapon skills (or did the last time I played), and EverQuest had athletics-related scores that went up as you used those modes of movement.

Strangely, most use-based games also have an experience system that leads to actually leveling up. WoW weapons skills were mostly superfluous, and just a way to force more grinding: you’d only really be much under the level cap on weapons that you never used, and would have to spend a couple of hours training if you got a good magic weapon of an unused type. A lot of this is ease of balance: modern games gain a lot of mileage by being able to assume that a player of level X can do Y. And some games that go entirely use-based, like Oblivion, can generate some odd behaviors (in Oblivion, it’s often better to create a custom class that has skills that are easy to raise but you don’t plan to use; that way, you can game the level-up system by only leveling when you want to).

Despite making balancing harder, there’s still likely some mileage in use-based skills, particularly in a game that’s not rigidly class-and-levels-based. Specifically, if you can come up with a good way to make skills improve faster when the player is actually being challenged, and tie raising particularly useful skills (like defenses and mez resistance) to more interesting foes, you can avoid the grind while having a system that isn’t tremendously different from exp. The challenge-detection algorithms would have to be pretty good, and constantly subject to exploit-detection, of course.

You could even hybridize such a system with a time-based one, granting reduced time to improve a skill rather than a direct skill up.


Nearly every modern RPG, especially every modern MMO, has some form of achievement system. Do a certain countable thing enough, or do an unusual or difficult thing once, and the game can track it and award an achievement. For most games, these are largely for bragging rights, though some do grant decent bonuses for achievements (or collections of them).

What if constellations of achievements replaced experience for leveling? For level 2, you need three easy quest achievements, one medium difficulty quest achievement, two exploration achievements, and one first tier monster-killing achievement. You’d see them on your level-up screen: “oh, I need one more exploration achievement to level, let’s go explore!” Maybe you’d have to move on after killing the easiest group of monsters sufficiently for an achievement, or maybe subsequent achievements for that group would just get harder (“Achievement 1: 20 Total Goblins, Achievement 2: 60 Total Goblins, Achievement 3: 120 Total Goblins. Man, let’s just go kill zombies instead, I only need one kill achievement to level, and I don’t have any zombie ones yet.”).

The essential idea is that achievements allow you to granularly toggle rewards to what’s theoretically fun about your game. Exp is a lowest-common-denominator; you can’t make players do other things if they’ve found one supremely efficient source of exp. But if leveling required a variety of tasks at any time, it might be easier to convince players to try them.

This isn’t a mechanism for the faint of heart: it requires actually having a good idea of what’s fun about your game, and not trying to use the system to force players to go after filler. It also might require some multiple choices to avoid alienating different classes of player (“One exploration achievement or one PvP achievement” might be a good way to catch two different player agendas, for example). But, at the end of the day, you’re going to design an achievement system anyway, and a large number of your players will want to pursue it, so there’s no reason not to get some practical use out of it as well.

Final Thoughts

Experience is an easy fallback for designers. It’s so pervasive that most designers probably don’t even consider doing something else. Even if you do, that something else is going to require a ton of balance to prevent exploitation, and it’s probably an easier sell to just deliver a small variation on the traditional experience point.

But experience already demands a ton of balance, it’s just not getting it. It lies at the root of a host of player behaviors at odds with what should, theoretically, be foremost on a designer’s mind: delivering the fun. It, by its nature, steals the focus of whatever you’re doing and pulls it down to an accountant’s zeal for leveling up.

None of the ideas above may ultimately be ideas that survive vetting at the hands of a cunning playerbase, but I’m firmly of the opinion that trying something is better than using the same old mechanic without question. Nearly every other remnant of OD&D has been gradually replaced over the last 30 years of game evolution. Some of what was lost was of much more debatable value than experience points.

Why are they the last sacred cow to fall?

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 3

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Last week, Evil Hat was kind enough to post an initial draft of what could be considered the core systems of FATE 3.0 in compact format. Since this is so directly germane to this post series, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that further posts may closely reference it 🙂 .

Skills, Dice, and the Success Ladder

The first thing one might notice about FATE is that trait totals for a roll are limited to skills + infrequent mods, skills range from 0 to 5, and a +2 is considered a significant mod to a roll. At a first glance, this seems like a much smaller range of potential than in games that use bigger numbers: many games use a 0-10 scale with mods going even higher, and d20 can result in some truly huge skill totals. But Fudge dice heavily center weight. In FATE, a +2 vs. a +4 will only tie or win 26% of the time, and win outright 14% of the time. An Aspect invocation between two evenly matched competitors can turn a 41% chance of winning into an 86% chance.

Essentially, despite only being on a 0-5 scale, there’s a very big and very important difference between each level.

While this is borne out by the names assigned to each number on the success ladder (from Mediocre to Superb on 0 to 5), it can be hard to really internalize. A contest between a guy with Athletics 5 and Athletics 2 seems small, but in system terms it’s a battle between an Olympic athlete and a guy that likes to go jogging a decent bit. Without bonuses from somewhere, the lower-skilled guy is only going to win 6% of the time.

In Spirit of the Century, every character starts with a strict pyramid of skills: one at 5, two at 4, three at 3, four at 2, and five at 1. It’s a small range, but it’s similar to a D&D character starting with a +25, two +20s, three +15s, four +10s, and five +5s. That is, the kind of skill imbalance that doesn’t crop up until at least level 10 in 3e and which 4e tried to eliminate entirely.

It’s a deliberate decision of the system, but it can result in two real problems for casual users:

  • New players have a risk of being weak in areas that should be strengths. A character with a combat skill at 3 will barely be able to harm a target that won’t be quickly destroyed by another PC with a combat skill at 5. A character with Athletics 2 will take several rounds to just get to the fight that an Athletics 5 character reached the first round. It can be a real battle to keep new players from ranking skills that are important to their concept but unexciting too low to be as useful as expected.
  • New GMs may have a hard time getting that a character with a high score is supposed to be amazingly awesome on a regular basis. High Academics or Investigation results get treated as run of the mill. Villains get turned into nigh-unstoppable threats to most of the party to keep them from becoming speedbumps to characters with high combat skills.

My experience has been that a GM needs massive retraining of his or her GMing reflexes to really internalize that characters with 4s and 5s should be awesome at those skills, and be awesome at them all the time. And even if you do make that leap, it can still be hard to account for the massive skill disparity: a character with no combat skill over 3 can’t often be much more than a minion distraction while a character with skill 5 deals with the real threat.

This isn’t a failing of the system specifically. The ladder is clear on the meanings of the trait numbers (even if I have a hard time remembering them). All GM advice sets the expectation that anything higher than 0 is successful in most cases. But, in practice, a high effective range but low granularity can be unituitive, and the uber-competency of a character using his or her top skill can further bend expectations. Anyone playing or running the system is well advised to seriously reevaluate his or her expectations of what a given number means on a character sheet vs. nearly any other popular game system.

What Skills Actually Do

With all of that said, what do skills actually do? According to the core writeup, a skill can provide:

  • The ability to take on a particular family of difficult tasks
  • A method of gaining knowledge through perception or research
  • A mode of attack
  • A mode of defense
  • The ability to endure a kind of stress
  • The ability to speed movement and to move past obstacles
  • The ability to change a target or environment in some way, often by introducing or discovering an aspect (note: an “environment” is not always about physical surroundings)
  • A method of presenting a difficulty that others must overcome

Options 2-7 are really just variations of option 1 with particular subsystems. Put in different terms, FATE supports a handful of systems:

  • Basic variations of standard rolls: doing something by rolling against a difficulty set ad hoc by the GM or based on another character’s action (or innate defense), with margin of success (“Shifts”) being traded for something (increased speed, quality, damage, etc.).
  • Aspect manipulation: uncovering or creating an Aspect on a scene, character, or other target. In many cases, this can be hugely beneficial, since it gives a +2 that may not even cost a Fate point the first time you use it.
  • The damage system: taking damage and making that damage less significant, whether it be from physical or non-physical conflict.
  • The tactical system: moving around the environment and using it to your advantage.

That’s a pretty compact list of features, elegant even. Next week, I’ll start talking about whether they pay off this elegance in Spirit of the Century.

Part 4