Fiddling Friday–Waiving the Rolls

TL;DR: This post has a short introduction quoting from the Fate ruleset, and a mechanics that does what the title says it does, and if you don’t need the rule reminder you can jump right to it.

The Abstract Bit: A Fascinating Fate Mechanics

There’s a fascinating bit of Fate rule mechanics that’s been around since Fate Core (p. 187 in the book, or here in the SRD) that boils down to this: if you can’t picture exciting consequences for both success and failure, don’t roll. Rob Hanz glossed about its concerning “failure”—mostly, but with tons of asides, including one on his hacking philosophy (which I’m a big fan of). I don’t know how much of this discussion influenced the Fate Condensed ruleset, but I’d suspect it was a lot (hint: look at the page numbers). Anyway, here’s the Fate Condensed revision:

“When a character wants to take an action, the group should think about these questions:

▽ What’s stopping this from happening?

▽ What could go wrong?

▽ How is it interesting when it does go wrong?
If no one has good answers to all of these questions, it simply happens.”

Fate Condensed, p. 13 (or here in the SRD)

Rob Hanz’s discussion is all about managing players’ expectations. Condensed‘s clarification acknowledges that balancing those expectations with “fiction first” (another big focus of Hanz’s) is integral to Fate. But the Condensed revision adds its own spin. Hanz shared the GM-centric perspective of Core, which stated the rule in the chapter “Running the Game.” Shifting to the group‘s viewpoint may look like a small change, but it has disruptive potential. And by disruptive, I mean Fate-2.0-kind-of-disruptive, or Fate-(n+1).0-… assuming the current version is Fate n.m. (I’ll leave the question of what n.m. is).

In my view, introducing waiving rules is merely an elaboration on that shift in viewpoint. Then again, if one assumes that Fate is complete—yup, that’s a thing (see Wrapping Up)—it’s something else. What exactly, well, that’s another topic, possibly fascinating in its own right. But for now, that’s enough abstraction. Let’s get to the meaty, practical part.

The Practical Bit: Waiving the Rolls

I’m a fan of the Bell Curve of Fate Dice. I’ve based hacks on it already (particularly that one), and I’d write about it if I could improve on what others have written alreadyToday’s hack is yet another one based on the Fate/Fudge dice math and generalizes another hack still unpublished. This other hack is “complete” (as far as I can tell; also, sarcasm intended) but it’s designed for a specific game, so I want to allow the rest of the table to weigh in on the mechanics before I go public with it. Nevertheless, I’ll call the rule a generalized waiving rule because it’s a generalization of another. First, we need two definitions:

  • Effective Difficulty Rating (of a task): Difficulty Rating (of a task) on the Adjective Ladder modified by Invokes increasing the task’s difficulty.
  • Effective Skill Rating (of a PC): Relevant Skill rating (of a PC) on the Adjective Ladder modified by Invokes increasing the PC’s skill.

Determining Effective Difficulty and Skill Ratings does not break the Fate principle that Invokes (free or paid) occur after a roll. First, trivially so: there is no roll. Second, more substantially: a bidding war is still an open possibility. In practice, an Invoke either adds +2 to the Effective Difficulty Rating or the Effective Skill Rating, depending on whether the Aspect invoked makes the task more or less challenging (respectively). And now for the Generalized Waiving Rule #1:

(VoI) What game set-up would Alice and Bob agree upon if they don’t know if they will play as Alice or Bob?

(GWR1) leans heavily on Fate’s “proactive and competent” side and pushes it towards a player-centric perspective (see The Fine Prints). Note that (GWR1) is a trade-off rule: a PC cannot Succeed with Style unless they take the risk of rolling—and incur a tie or a failure—or they cash in at least two more invokes than the total of unfavorable invokes (from the GM and possibly other PCs). 

Because it’s a trade-off rule, my inclination is to let the decision to roll or not to the player in the games I’m GM-ing. If that’s too Apocalypse World for you, you can substitute “the player does not need to roll” with “the GM can waive the roll.” Alternatively, and in true Fate fashion, one could defer to group consensus. A very Fate-y optional rule that goes well with (GWR1) is the Generalized Waiving Rule #2:

(GWR2) When the relevant Effective Skill Rating for a given task equals the Effective Difficulty Rating, the player does not need to roll but must accept a Success at a Minor cost.

Again, you can rephrase (GWR2) with “the GM can waive the roll” if that’s too player-centric for you. Now, for the sake of completeness, I’ll list a Generalized Waiving Rule #3 but with a * because I don’t think it’s a good rule (I’ll say why in The Fine Prints): 

(GWR3)* When the relevant Effective Skill Rating for a given task is lower than the Effective Difficulty Rating, the player does not need to roll but must accept a Success at a Major cost.

The only reason I listed (GWR3)* here is that it opens the fascinating possibility of a “diceless” (or near-diceless) Fate hack. Now, I won’t discuss this hack because it’s only theoretical at that point, and I have no clear idea if it’s balanced or not—but I strongly suspect it’s not. Still, to allow for that possibility, I did not restrict the (GWR#) to some subset of actions, such as Overcome or Create an Advantage. Note, however, that diceless play would require a substantial rewrite of the Defense and Attack actions.

I’ve used (GWR1) already multiple times, albeit implicitly. By “implicitly,” I mean as a guideline for GM-decision-making, for instance, to choose when to tell my players “you don’t need to roll, but if you don’t, you won’t have a chance to Succeed with Style.” So far, I’d say that the record is about 50-50 for taking a roll vs. waiving it. I’ve used (GRW2) once or twice, so the ratio is meaningless (unless you’re a Bayesian, in which case: the players took the rolls). So it’s almost playtested already.

The Fine Prints

Sources. The player-centrism of (GWR#) should be familiar to whoever played Apocalypse World or PtbA derivatives. This player-centrism is beyond Fate guidelines for waiving rolls because (GWR#) rules allow for waiving rolls even when the consequences of success and failure are interesting. Another source for (GWR1) are the “Take 20” and “Take 10” rules of D&D 3/3.5. I only know “Take 20” from its CRPG implementations, so I won’t belabor about it. Then again, crediting D&D is what honesty demands—as would Vincent Baker say. In short, “fiction first” (at least in some sub-contexts of play) was a D&D thing long before Fate was the beginning of an item, and the “Take x0” rules explicitly formalized it (see a good discussion here). However, 4E took them out, and with them, any player agency, so I don’t have to give too much credit to D&D.

Why not (GWR3)*? In a nutshell, because there’s a possibly better alternative, maybe two. But I have neither tested them nor run the math, so that’s merely hypothetical at that point. The first alternative would rephrase (GWR3)* to make it GM-centric but with a catch: the GM would offer it as a Compel. Now, I’ve done that without the rule (and I’m sure many Fate GMs have, too). But it was a piecemeal affair and a well-negotiated one. I’ve never reflected on whether it was true to the rules or disruptive of some balance in the game. And I won’t do it now. The second alternative would rephrase (GWR3)* so that a player waiving a roll would earn a Fate point. With the first alternative is in play, that’s merely a self-compel. Otherwise, it’s reminiscent of Cortex (I played Firefly), but I have no idea if it’s balanced because I don’t want to get into Cortex math to make a comparison.


Wrapping up

Recently, a minor keyboard war was fought over the notion that Fate is “complete.” There’s a Reddit post that sums things up if you’re into that sort of thing (and an archived thread on the Fari Discord, where I learned about it). But the long and short of it is that the opinion of the folks who wrote the books–literally: Fred Hicks and Rob Hanz–is that Fate is complete. Let that sink in for a bit.

Now, I have my opinion about that. Then again, one of the first things I warned readers about was the weight of my opinion (there, at the very beginning, the second paragraph after the Fari plug, for reference). Regarding Fate completeness, Fred Hicks’ and Rob Hanz’s opinions doubtlessly carry way more weight than mine. They wrote the books. I write a blog.

So, assuming they are correct, rules for waiving rolls are not Fate. So what are they? Personally, I view them as a chimera, in the genetics sense, combining DNA from Fate and PtbA. Then again, I’m a chimera myself (if you test my blood stem cells, I’m female, how cool?), so that may color my opinion.

I’ll let you judge whether any of this is relevant to choosing when (and how) to waive rolls in Fate.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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