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