Fate It Until You Make It–A Contest Hack

Sometimes, you need to build tension in a pinch, and you can turn a single roll into a contest; it works both for game prep and improvisation, and if you don’t care how I got the idea, you can jump right to it.

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However prepared I comes to a game, there are two humbling truths I never forget. The first is that no scenario survives contact with the players: regularly, my players come up with unexpected solutions which, on occasion, derail my plots entirely. The second is that players will always anticipate more devious plots than whatever the I have in store. So I’m left with either trying to do whatever it takes to save my story or improvising. I’ve never found a satisfying way to do the first. And so I finally resolved to become better at the second.

Now, I’m a sucker for game prep. Without game prep, I couldn’t improvise, even if my life depended on it. That may sound like a paradox, but it’s not. I’m just not good enough at thinking on my feet to whip up a scene out of thin air.

What I’m reasonably good at, however, is recycling, window dressing, and stretching out a plot point without making it too thin. I can turned a single rolls into a fully-fledged, player-generated sub-plot (I wrote about it here). This post is post, I’ll share a variation of this method that combines Fate rules and Apocalypse World DNA.

The McGuffin Problem

First off, the method arose from gameplay. I’ve altered circumstances, but it’s not to prevent my players from realizing that they’re responsible for a part of the plot. Letting them build storylines is part of the contract for that campaign. But our campaign-specific lore could have been a distraction. So, I chose a straightforward translation that should be more familiar to most readers than our homebrew setting. The sample scene I’ll build is identical (modulo translation) to the we played. Speaking of which, let’s get to the relevant details.

I my ongoing Queer Clockpunk Fantasy campaign, I introduced a McGuffin to keep things exciting and a bit mysterious. Eventually, my players told me that they’d like to investigate the device in our next session. I had opened sessions with Conflicts and Challenges, so I thought I’d go for a Contest this time around. I began Bronze-ruling the McGuffin into an NPC with aspects and a skill or two, and then it struck me: the subplot I had in mind was, to be generous, half-baked. For one thing, I could not figure out what my Bronze-Rule NPC would do nor its reasons to do it. 

So, I could let the whole subplot fizzle out, give my players a single skill roll, and try to word-salad my way out of it. Or I could exploit Truth #2 and let them develop a story of their own. The first solution was a nonstarter (I had built expectations about the McGuffin) and I liked the idea to start with a Contest. So, I needed a means to improvise one, without any precise idea of where I was heading, but looking like I did. And if I could make it a re-usable method, all the better.

The Instant Contest

For the sake of definiteness, let’s assume a fictional situation:

You’re GM-ing a techno-thriller campaign. A few sessions back, you used McGuffin: a laptop with unique software that could pilot a drone—your end-of-scenario boss. The real danger was the software; the PCs figured it out, deactivated the computer, and beat the boss. Then they kept the hardware, and now they want to know more about the software. There is no cyberspace in the campaign lore where this could play as a Conflict. You can play the situation as a single hacking roll (bland) or Bronze-rule the laptop and play it as a Contest (interesting).

Let’s say that you chose the second option. Fig. 1 shows the standard Fate set-up for a Contest on a custom Fari index card, with place-holders for the information you’d need to run it. And now, for some trouble: you don’t know enough about the computer/software to declare its intentions beyond a vague “protecting itself”—which does not help much to pick a skill for the computer’s Overcome action.

Fig. 1. A standard Contest, made in Fari

From that point on, there are two courses of action. One is to build a backstory for the laptop-and-software, define ad hoc skills, etc., to be able to put yourself in its shoes (casing? motherboard?) and play it as an NPC with intent, etc. The other is minimal prep and making-shit-up-as-you-go on game day. Since we’re piggybacking on Truth #2, let’s go for that one.

Fate It Until You Make it

I can’t resist a bad pun, but it’s not (entirely) gratuitous: we’re going to use a Fate trick. The again, this trick could work just as well in other systems—and arguably more smoothly, if not better, on some (I’ll conclude on that). The first part of the trick is to Bronze-rule our computer with no more than what we’ve come up with so far. We have no clear idea about it, so let’s give it a non-specific ad hoc skill called “NPC Skill.”

Fig. 2. Bronzed-Ruled NPC
Tip: Type “[Skill: n]” in the Note field to get a clickable “Skill (n)” at the bottom of the index card even when collapsed.

In this example, a Superb (+5) Skill seems thematically appropriate—it runs a pretty nifty piece of software capable of piloting a drone, so countermeasures should be top-notch. Now, what is the difficulty rating for the computer to defend itself? Or for the players to crack the computer security? Well, I propose that the Skill Rating is the difficulty rating. The difficulty rating makes good sense PCs: we are implicitly dealing with an Obstacle (specifically, a Block) with a Superb (+5) Aspect/Skill rating. It’s more arbitrary for the NPC but convenient: there’s nothing to remember but what’s on the card, and given the bell curve of Fate dice, it’s balanced (see The Fine Prints).

And that’s it. That’s the extent of your prep. Anything else is handled on game day. And it’s not much. First, for each exchange in the Contest, the Computer (or any NPC in a generic version) rolls vs. its Skill rating, and you declare the result as per Overcome rules. There’s some wiggle room here, depending on how your table interprets Contest rules (see The Fine Prints). Second, you adjust the declaration of intent for the following exchange. If the NPC didn’t mark a victory, repeat the last intent (the NPC is stubborn and tries again). If the NPC won the exchange, make something up. At that point, the players should have given you some ideas. If they haven’t, you can tell them they have no clue what the NPC is doing and repeat the initial declaration (with a crooked smile). Uncertainty is scary.

The Fine Prints

There are two points worth glossing on a bit. One is a general issue with the Contest rules, and I’ll start with that. There are four Outcomes for Overcome rolls, and for two of them, a choice between failure or success at a cost. If your group considers that failure is always failure and success, always a success, there is potential for one side trying to game the other. If one side declares failure first (to avoid a cost), the other may be tempted to announce success (to beat failure and advance the clock). The solutions are the following:
Force Success: Both sides succeed, always. Two Successes at a cost (minor or major) tie, and the issue disappears. Now, forcing costs on the parties introduces GM’s arbitrariness since the determination of costs falls on them for both sides.
Force Failure: Symmetrical to the previous one. No need to choose costs. Since no parties can benefit from boosts (on a Success at a minor cost), this may drag the Contest slightly.
Rock-paper-scissor it: Both sides write down their decision on a sticky note (if playing IRL) or a messaging app (if not) and reveal it at the same time (showing the sticky note or hitting the “send” button).
Change your mind: Agree that, after all, Success-at-a-[minor/major]-cost-or-Failure is a single outcome and that when both parties get it, they tie.

The second point is the validity of using a skill rating as a difficulty rating. There’s not much I can offer here, but that’s fine because it makes for a shorter argument. Fig. 4 represents the distribution of Fate dice rolls (top) and the odds to get a total of zero or better (bottom, source: AnyDice.com). In plain words, the top chart shows that when skill ratings and difficulty ratings coincide, the most likely outcome is a tie (i.e., a Success-at-a-minor-cost-or-Failure). And the bottom graph shows that the odds to get a tie or better are just under two-thirds. So, setting a skill rating as a difficulty rating for your NPC makes the odds for the NPC to score a victory consistent with the difficulty level of the NPC-as-a-Block.

Based on the odds for the NPC success alone, you may streamline even further if you let only the players roll, mark PC victory on success, declare a twist on a tie, and mark NPC victory on a fail. Doing so would be, in essence, a custom move in a PtbA game. In case you wonder, that’s how I got the idea. I partially implemented Fate rules in a custom PtbA ruleset. Then, I reverse-engineered the PtbA-style Contest, where the PCs do not roll, into Fate. So, with a modicum of mental gymnastics (and some knowledge of either probability or the syntax of AnyDice.com) you could easily adapt the idea to any game with skill rolls, saving throws, or whatnot, making the advice of this post truly generic.

Wrapping Up: Final Design Notes & a Game Tale 

The “Instant Contest” is barely a Fate hack: it does not change vanilla Fate rules nor introduce additional restrictions or permissions, even if it sneaks in ideas from other game systems (see The Fine Prints). Also, I made a Fari template for it (the one I took the pictures from).

Now, where did my players end up with their version of the computer? Not to overburden you with in-game lore, let’s say that the device included a question-answer module. The players assumed it was somewhat password-protected and may answer unreliably or lock itself if asked the wrong question. Their first action was to determine if it could re-program itself. They failed the Overcome roll, the NPC succeeded and marked victory. At that point, I still did not have much to go. But then, the PCs raised the possibility that the device might lie, and tried to determine if it did. They created an advantage—A Sequence of Trick Questions with Provoke, for a free invoke–and stacked a paid invoke to succeed with style and avoid a twist (the NPC had succeeded). Two victories.

I had not yet decided whether the device could lie or merely randomize answers and told the players that the PCs suspected it could be either one or the other. Then, the PCs came up with an elaborate plan to build an in-game version of a polygraph. I loved the idea and decided to roll with it. They created an advantage to represent the new questioning process—Provoke again, succeeding with style with Masterful Improvisation—cashed in free invokes on Overcome, and succeeded with style at it too (the NPC tied). This was the final victory, so I gave them a feel-good boost “We Tricked It!” and told them that they had spotted a pattern and that the device was lying to their face.

And just like that, sentient AI had entered our Queer Clockpunk Fantasy.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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