Master Your Fate–1: Meet the Crew

TL;DR: Character creation in Fate is sometimes intimidating, but there’s a method to ease the process while preserving most of the Fate experience, and if you don’t care where I got the idea from, you can jump right to it.

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Some Backstory (that you may skip)

You can only master the Fate system family if you confidently handle its most intimidating aspects (foreshadowing pun intended). They show up as early as character creation. In Fate, the backstory, which in other games would flesh out the character, becomes the character through character Aspects (ping the pun). And these are one of the earliest difficulties Fate players and GMs stumble upon.

At least, from what I’ve heard.

I’ve never had any issue with character Aspects. And because I’m comfortable with them, my players usually are, too. I don’t really know why, but I have a hypothesis. 

The TTRPGs I’ve played the most with before Fate were GURPS and Savage World. Both are classless, generic systems with similar mechanics: attributes, skills, unique benefits–Advantages (GURPS) and Edges (SW)–and limitations–Disadvantages (GURPS) and Hindrances (Savage Worlds). Benefits sometimes work like Fate’s Stunts and sometimes like invokes on character Aspects. Similarly, limitations work like compels on character Aspects. So when I transitioned to Fate, I immediately got one of the needs Aspects were responding to: triggers for benefits and limitations. Also, in GURPS, limitations sometimes grant you limited benefits–and here you go, the dreaded double-edginess (more on that later) is just an old friend by another name.

Writer’s Block & Paralysis by Analysis

A significant difference with Fate is that GURPS and Savage Worlds have looooong lists of benefits and limitations to pick from. To that, GURPS adds a near-endless list of skills with their own stunts (called maneuvers). Fate is free-form. Where Fate players and GMs see the beginning of writer’s block, I welcome the end of paralysis by analysis. To be fair, both GURPS and Savage world use the same device to mitigate it: templates with pre-made selections of benefits, limitations, and skills, that greatly facilitate character creation (in GURPS, at a significant discount). Being generic systems, they have generic templates that can be adjusted to settings later on.

The notion behind this post is that templates are as helpful with writer’s block as they are with paralysis by analysis. While the Fate family does not offer them by default, they are surprisingly easy to adapt. In today’s post, I’ll propose a simple implementation of templates in Fate. It requires some preparation from the GM but allows even new players to breeze along through character creation. I take my GM’s responsibility seriously, so the extra work is not a problem for me. You might not like my method if you think that character creation is more of a player’s responsibility.

Design Choices

The method I’ll propose is one method. There are other methods to inject structure in Fate character creation (for instance, Skill Modes from the Fate Toolkit), but I never used them, so I can’t say anything about their pros and cons beyond what I like or dislike. So, I won’t claim that the method I use is the best. Still, it’s very good at what it does: character creation for themed-but-generic scenarios. This would be a topic for a separate post (or a series), but the notion is also simple. Some stories can be adapted to any setting but will feature recognizable archetypes across all their iterations. In this post, I chose one such type of story—a heist—and made a batch of archetypes fit for heists in any setting. Other kinds of stories could work as well, but I won’t discuss them much.

I put quite a lot of thinking into these templates, and they have served me well. However, I did not use them as extensively as I’ve used GURPS or Savage Worlds templates, so I can’t say if they’ll stand the test of time. Some features are based on experience and preferences (see below). Others are supported by hypotheses, and I’ll try to make them explicit. That way, you can alter the structure based on your experience rather than my assumptions if you know better.

I made two adjustments based on my experience with new Fate players and my preference for a specific type of gameplay. Namely, the templates start with a Refresh of two and a single free Stunt instead of three for both in standard Fate Core/Condensed. I’ll give some reasons in The Fine Prints if you’re interested in the grounds for those decisions. Otherwise, you can trust me and proceed or stick with vanilla rules.

Finally, I used one optional rule, with an extra slot for an Extreme Consequence. I like it because it makes room for life-altering experiences, even if I run a one-shot. Also, it counterbalances the squishiness of Fate Condensed characters (compared to Core) which is not a bad thing. Again, you don’t have to run with it.

Fate Templates

For the templates, I used Fate Condensed, which I find more beginner-friendly than Fate Core. I have three reasons for this. First, Condensed’s Stress management is the simplest of all Fate iterations. Second, in Condensed (and FAE) Stunts introduce an additional Aspect. I usually let players invoke their “Stunt Aspect” on the condition that they let me compel it. Even if you don’t go that road, I’d suggest paying particular attention to Stunts’ write-ups. At the very least, consider re-writing the standard Core Stunts for flavor.

Now that we’re done with the general stuff let’s get into the specifics. I have five templates, with two main builds each (save one, that has four). I’ll just give a list with a minimal description of the role because each template includes notes that explain the design. So the templates are: 

  • The Heavy, a melee specialist;
  • The Infiltrator, a stealth specialist;
  • The Reserve, a gateway specialist;
  • The Smooth Operator, a social interaction specialist;
  • The Talent, a jack-of-all-trade or a mastermind, with options for magic users.

A “build” is (roughly) a combination of an apex Skill and a Stunt. There’s no obligation to pick the Stunt for the apex Skill, so there is actually more variation than the two builds. That being said, I would not recommend running a game with two Heavies and/or two Infiltrators because the builds are very close. The Smooth Operator, Reserve, and Talent are more versatile (in order of versatility). I briefly discuss the design principles below. The more arcane details are (as is usual now) left for The Fine Prints. But before, a slideshow of the five templates.

Design Principles

The template name can double as High Concept if inspiration is wanting. I usually let my players develop a feel for their character before asking them to choose their High Concept, so I left it blank.

All the Aspects passed a double-edginess test. Whenever I think of an Aspect, I run a thought experiment. I try to imagine a context for a compel and a context for an invoke. If I find both, I write the Aspect down. Otherwise, I tweak it and rerun the experiment. Try it by yourself. If it works, keep the Aspect. Otherwise, discard it. (I ruminate a bit about double-edginess in The Fine Prints.) Also, Troubles play in the archetype stereotype, while Relations play into the genre stereotypes. Hence, Relation Aspects can be swapped around and/or traded between players.

The cornerstone of a build is the Skill-Stunt combination. I proceeded as follows: I thought about an archetype and picked two possible Great (+4) “apex” skills and a Good (+3) skill for support and depth. The potential apex skill that is not chosen as Great (+4) becomes a Good (+3) support skill. As for the Stunts, I picked one per (potential) apex skill, gave it a colorful name, wrote it à la FAE/Condensed, with the boldface phrase working as an Aspect. They passed my test, but some strained my imagination a bit. Still, I’m okay with this. If you want to know why see The Fine Prints, and if that does not work for you, just don’t use them as aspects. Stress and Consequences need no explanation and are adjusted based on skills.

The Template Notes provide insights into the character both in terms of role(s) and design. They should help to pick the High Concept, the additional free aspects, and the Fair (+2) and Average (+1) skills.

The Fine Prints

Fate points & Stunts. Fewer Fate points encourage players to accept or suggest Compels or consider conceding. And this scarcity can be offset with Create an Advantage, introducing all these mechanics early in the game. A single free stunt shifts the emphasis away from rule exceptions and more towards creating advantages. So I’m willing to admit that the Fate points and Stunt adjustments are rooted in a bias towards the Create an Advantage action. There’s also a secondary concern: one Stunt only makes it easier to get all stunts in play in a session (especially if I’m running a one-shot).

Double-Edginess. It’s a common perception that Aspects must be double-edged to allow for both invokes and compels. It also seems to be a problem for new players and GMs. At least, from what I’ve heard, because it’s never been a problem with my players. In fact, never bring double-edginess explicitly. Double-edginess is more contextual than people realize, and it’s the role of a GM to provide context. It’s part of “running a scene.” So I don’t require it because I believe it’s my job to bring character aspects into play. If a player proposes an aspect that does not pass my double-edginess test, I’ll try to work with them to rephrase it. But that’s about as far as I go.

Wrapping up

Templates are time-efficient, middle-of-the-road alternatives between ex nihilo character creation and pre-generated characters. They give the players room to customize their character, familiarize them with aspects, troubles, and stunts, and fit multiple settings with minimal changes. If you are a Fari user, you can download my Heist Crew templates, including a “master template” to make your own.  

As you probably guessed from this post, I like to think about story types before thinking about a story token—that is, if you’ve heard about C.S. Pierce. (Otherwise, you can catch up with the Wikipedia article). And I don’t necessarily include the setting in the type because I like to let the players choose it. In future posts of this series, I’ll illustrate transitions from story type to story tokens that accommodates players’ choice of a setting. But setting creation will be the next step towards mastering your Fate.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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