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