Rising to the Challenge–Part 2: A Spotlight Hack for Fate (& Any RPG)

TL;DR: My favorite part of being a Fate GM is to help players share the spotlight. I hacked the Challenge rules to do just that and if you want to find how you can jump right to the mechanics.

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Background Info (That You Can Skip)

Among all the GM’s tasks, helping players share the spotlight is one of my favorite. It’s probably one of the reasons I love the Fate System so much: it is exceptionally well-crafted to do just that. Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies to get my players in the spotlight, and when I began to play around with Fari, I tried to solidify some of them for improvisation—something I still need to get better at.

Now, I know that this is not exactly what I promised in Part 1—that is, how to improvise Side-Quests—but something came up in my last Fate game (a Queer Clockpunk Fantasy that was pure awesomeness). One of the PCs had an unexpected occasion to shine in the spotlight, while the other player self-compelled themselves out of the scene and ran it with me as co-GM. I improvised a hack on the spot, and when I reflected upon it, I realized that the reason I’d been able to do so was that I had developed the skillset for it years ago.

Come to think of it, strategies for sharing the spotlight are perhaps the oldest tricks I developed. So when I wrote “over the years,” it does not mean “since I started with Fate” but “since I started GM-ing.” The hack in this post is an evolution of techniques I’ve been using all along. Now, as much as I like telling game tales, there’s no point doing it unless there’s a point doing it. And it is this: if you understand where the hack comes from, your decision to adopt it or not will be better informed.

The Permanently-Split Party Game

About 30 years ago, with a bunch of friends, we experimented with a generic homebrew system with freeform skills and no classes. I found myself GM-ing a cyberpunk-adjacent game where the PCs were a teenage computer genius, a rookie metro cop, a handling man in a commune of small boats, a wannabe operative of a political faction, and an escort girl (the last two being an RL couple). There was no fixed party, and the PCs’ storylines only crossed on occasion. The plan was that they would eventually converge—they did, and it was glorious—but everything was improvised, and there was no way to know when two storylines would meet. So everybody was around the table at all times and okay with not playing their PCs at all times.

How did we make it work? First, the PCs had cellphones and handhelds and could ask one another for help and support. Second, every time the story would shift to a subset of PCs, they would have a goal and a problem to solve to get there. And everybody would participate in planning a way to a solution, be it in-character if that made sense, or out-of-character if it didn’t. And so, scenes would usually focus on one PC completing a challenge while the others backed the PC up (in-character) or cheered the player (OoC).

C’est dans les vieux pots qu’on fait la meilleure soupe

Of course, the game was not Fate, and there were no mechanics to represent challenges, etc. But this feeds into the point I made in Part 1: Fate-specific advice about challenges can apply to any game (here, retroactively)—because Fate merely turns into game mechanics, a way of thinking about the gameplay that applies to any game.

The title of this section is a French saying that translates (according to Wiktionary) as: “it’s in the old pots that the best soup is made”—which is much more colorful than “tried-and-true methods are best.” Today’s hack is a freshly-made soup with bits of Fate in it, cooked in the old pot of my split-party game. So if you don’t like the pot, don’t bother with the soup. But it’s a tried-and-true method.

The 1-player Challenge

The hack I improvised co-opts the Challenge rules and stays true to their spirit, if not to the letter. If you are interested in the rules, you’ll find a discussion under The Fine Prints, but in this section, I’ll stick to the essential. The hack works best for a scene where:

  1. one player could resolve an action with a single skill roll; but:
  2. the situation has spotlight potential for the acting PC.

Last time this occurred in one of my games, I took what the single roll would have achieved and made it the overarching goal of a Challenge. Then, I expressed the goal in one sentence and declared a Spotlight Challenge scene. (I did not use those exact terms, because I did not yet have the name for the catgory, but like I said, I’ve been doing stuff like that for 30 years.) Since we were playing on Fari, I popped my template for Challenges, and modified it to get the index card of Fig. 1 (in my Private tab).

Fig. 1. 1-Player Challenge template, made in Fari

First, I  renamed the challenge with the PC’s name and the goal, with as few words as possible. 

Second, I asked the player whose PC was in the spotlight about their PC’s process for the goal, allowing them to build a bit of character backstory or remind the other players of their PC’s character. 

Third, I called upon table consensus to break the process in 2-3 actions based on the PC’s backstory, renamed the steps accordingly, and specified the opposition and PC skill I could (2 out of 3), left those I couldn’t blank, and shared the index card.

And that’s it. The character in the spotlight resolved the challenge. The other characters contributed with some meta-game (most notably, naming a Boost when the PC overcame the obstacle at the last step with Style). But in another occasion, it could have been with teamwork bonuses, Creating an Advantage, or investing Fate points (compels on the NPC, invokes on the PC),

There’s a little more to it, but it’s not essential (just a bit about the rules). You can skip it, but there will be a payoff at the end if you don’t.

The Fine Prints

Challenges, as per the Fate Condensed ruleset, respond to the following circumstances:

“In complicated circumstances with no [active] opposition, you’ll want to use a challenge: a series of overcome actions that tackle a bigger issue. Challenges let the entire group work together in a scene, and they keep things dynamic.”

Fate Condensed, p. 32 

That’s the spirit of the rule, and you could interpret “overcome action” as a generic (if strangely worded) advice, that applies to any game system. And now, for the letter:

“To set up a challenge, the GM considers the situation and picks a number of skills that can contribute to the success of the group. Treat each action as a separate overcome roll. […] GMs, do your best to give each character in the scene an opportunity to contribute—aim for a number of skills equal to the number of characters involved.”

Fate Condensed, p. 32

I took liberties with the rule point because the group is a “group of one,” but the other characters in the scene may still contribute. And if they don’t, I’ve already made sure that the players have contributed. Consequently, there is no need to match the number of skills to the number of players. The PC in the spotlight may very well resolve every step of the challenge with their apex skill. As mentioned already, the other characters can contribute in a variety of ways. But it’s fine if they sit back and enjoy the show.

Wrapping Up

It is not always easy to get everyone their time to shine in a system like Fate without default classes or roles. One way is to know your players and their PCs and plan moments for all of them in advance. Then again, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and no RPG scenario survives contact with the players. So you’d better be ready to improvise for the spotlight, too. I hope this post will have given you a few ideas about how to do that. And whoever tagged along until the end, here’s a link to my Fari template for Spotlight Challenge Scenes.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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