Bronze Rulz!–Sufficiently Advanced Magic (Part I)

TL;DR: Fate has an implicit magic system, but powerful magical objects require to bridge a gap in the rules and you can jump right to it.

Sometimes I feel like my hobby is less playing Fate than hacking Fate for magic, and it marvels me to no end. The reasons are biographical—mostly—and of interest only if you like flavor text (I’ve given them elsewhere, no point repeating myself here). Otherwise, it boils down to that: I’m a proud member of the “Robert Hanz School of Hacking.”

“I’ve found in many cases that the ‘need’ for hacks is more about the preconceptions I’ve brought into the game than anything else, and that it’s easier to either abandon those preconceptions, or play something that’s better aligned with them if I really want that experience.”

The Book of Hanz, “Failure”

First, a disclaimer: I totally made the Robert Hanz School of Hacking up, and claim nor seek endorsement by Hanz. Second, what I mean is: when I want the game to do something that’s not in there already, I ask myself: how could I do it the simplest possible way with the rules as they are? 

And yes, sometimes, “the simplest possible way with the rules as they are” means changing the rules (like I did there, hence the disclaimer). But today, not so much. Today I’ll build upon my favorite way to handle magic in Fate, which amounts to not have a system of magic to begin with. So I’ll start with that one, and then I’ll get to the extension (and why I need it).

The Minimal Magic System

My first “Fate hack” was a magic system for a “Fate of Conan” game where my 8-year old daughter played teenage Conan. The campaign was set before the Howards stories (the only ones we accepted as canon) and would lead up to the siege of Venarium. It was also a teenage buddy movie. The other PC (Garbrogh) was a Cimmerian just slightly older than Conan, a shaman apprentice whose Trouble was Barbarian, Even by Cimmerian Standards

As per the Howard canon, magic was hidden, powerful, and something the PCs would fear, not welcome. Then again, a Cimmerian shaman should have had access to some magic, so we had to make something up. We had played a while with Savage Worlds, which has a powers-and-mana system that works well but didn’t have the right flavor. And so, we moved to Fate, which did not have a default magic system. But we immediately got one. How so? 

Well, the PC’s High Concept had the word “Shaman” in it. Being a shaman, we agreed that he’d have guidance from spirits-dreams, maybe fumigation rituals, visions from intoxicants, etc. That was the first linchpin: narrative permission for magic users to do stuff others could not do. How would a Cimmerian Barbarian do them? Well, he’d Craft them, using Create-an-Advantage (CaA) actions to place Aspects on scenes corresponding to whatever guidance he’d receive. Or he’d pick up herbs and maybe communicate with animals using his Survival skill (replacing Notice). And that was the second linchpin of our magic system: vanilla CaA actions with vanilla skills.

When Conan and Garbrogh needed to convince a Cimmerian chieftain to help them, Garbrogh retreated to a sweat lodge for an afternoon, came back with a vision, and led Conan on a quest to harvest rare plants. A side-quest later, they cooked (Craft) A Stew that Loosens Tongues, that did just that, and gave them access to the information they needed to convince the chieftain. Ta-da!

Xaltotun’s Glistening Sphere

The Minimal Magic System is highly flexible, but can it handle advanced magic? Pick up a Skill (say, Lore), add narrative permission, preferably with setting-related flavor—High Priest of Seth in Python is better than Wizard of Acheron—and that’s Xaltotun, the main antagonist of R.E. Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon. But what of the glistening sphere Xaltotun takes King Conan out with (depicted in the excellent Dark Horse comics King Conan #3, Fig. 1), at the beginning of Chapter 3 of The Hour…

Fig. 1. Xaltotun blasts Conan’s consciousness

Well, planning Conan’s first encounter with Xaltotun’s Glistening Sphere can test the limits of the Minimal Magic System.

Xaltotun’s sphere should be capable of taking Conan out in one shot (my daughter would never concede the fight). The sorcerer’s explanation in Chapter 4 does not give us much to go with but points to a mental attack. Assuming that King Conan has a Fantastic (+6) Will, Condensed rules give us six boxes of [1]-Stress, two Mild Consequence slots, one Moderate, and one Severe (assuming no extra Stress and Consequences from Stunts). That’s a whopping twenty shifts. Clearly, pulling a Glistening Sphere from Xaltotun’s sleeve with a single CaA isn’t going to cut it. Even with success with style.

“What the devil did you do to me?” demanded Conan.
“I blasted your consciousness,” answered Xaltotun. “How, you would not understand. Call it black magic, if you will.”

The Hour of the Dragon, ch. 4

If we focus on the sphere rather than Xaltotun, we need to develop a process to create it. Otherwise, it’s just a “random loot drop” that we endow with arbitrary abilities, without getting any closer to answer the question a PC might ask—“How do I make my own Glistening Sphere?”

Still, to do that, we’d need to explain how Xaltotun could create the Glistening Sphere as a Bronze Rule NPC. My “minimal” proposal is a pair of Lore Stunts: a Stunt substituting Lore to Craft for magical objects and a Stunt for creating rated aspects—akin to Hazards or Blocks, for which I propose the following write-up:

Because Xaltotun can turn a sword belt into a snake, whenever he Succeeds with Style at Creating an Advantage with Lore, he can spend a Fate point to create a Bronze-Rule NPC with a Rating on the Adjective Ladder equal to the difficulty of the CaA action (up to his Lore Rating) if he forfeits the free invokes

I could not find an appropriate quote, so I used an episode of interaction between Xaltotun and an Aquilonian soldier for the “Stunt Aspect.” The Stunt itself is somewhat generous: the Fate point is required to declare a story detail (the object created), and the “Bronze Rule NPC” will give Xaltotun a run for his money (in game currency: the 2 free invokes spent). I’ll leave the details about how to “balance” that NPC for Part II (but see The Fine Prints). Now, if we assume Xaltotun has Legendary (+8) Lore, he could create an Legendary (+8) Glistening Sphere with a Success with Style. That wouldn’t guarantee 20 shifts of harm, so we’d want to add options. And that will be close enough for today.

The Fine Prints

Balance I–In General. My view of balance in general terms in Fate sums up in one acronym: IDGAF. Simply put, you can’t break a game based on consensus: if my table thinks that a Stunt is too powerful, I make it less so. Balance is contextual, and discussing out-of-context is pointless. This proviso applies to all the write-ups and number-crunching of Part II, so I won’t repeat myself in it. If you’re not happy with either, adjust them with your table. But whoever tries to start a keyboard war about “balance” in general will find me a very slippery bastard: I’ll be AFK before they know it.

Balance II–In Context. I used a re-skin of Xaltotun’s Stunt in my Queer Clockpunk Fantasy campaign (see Wrapping up). Two of the PCs are craftspersons (an Engineer and a Blacksmith) who build and repair gear on a day-to-day basis. We agreed that Gear Aspects are destructible in that campaign. So being generous is kind of the point. Also, in that campaign, PCs started with a Refresh of two (instead of three) and a single Stunt at character creation, so being generous is also re-balance in that campaign (to Fate’s standards, at least).

Wrapping Up: Sufficiently Advanced Magic

If I were planning the first encounter between Xaltotun and King Conan in The Hour of the Dragon, I would need a more powerful artifact than an Legendary (+8) Glistening Sphere, but not by much. In the novel, Xaltotun has sent a demon of sorts to attack King Conan in his field tent already, so the King of Aquilonia would likely already carry a Consequence or two. But when the target is Conan, there is no such thing as overkill, so I’ll consider how to beef up the Legendary (+8) Glistening Sphere in Part II.

This would require some house rules, though. By contrast, the only addition to the rules is a Stunt that bridges the gap between Aspects created by CaA and Hazard-and-Blocks rated on the Ladder. If you don’t like its write-up, and you want to balance it for your campaign, you can change it (see The Fine Prints). To me, the missing link feels like an oversight in the Fate Condensed rules. Without it—or something like that—sneaky PCs can’t lay down traps, nor military/law enforcement officer PCs order a Sniper NPC to get in position. At least, not as Hazards. Re-skin Xaltotun’s Stunt for Stealth and Rapport, restrict it to (a type of) traps and chain-of-command, and there you go. Now they can.

Also, I know that Obstacles were introduced as a limitation to the Bronze Rule. And Hazards and Blocks are Obstacles. Make whatever you want of that.

Initially, I was tempted to conclude with sarcasm—Fate being complete (third comment on that Reddit thread), should I quit forcing my preconceptions about traps and chain-of-command into it, and go play Blades in the Dark and Band of Blades instead?—but that’s too much assholery, even for me. Instead, I’d like to conclude channeling A.C. Clarke, who is often credited for saying that sufficiently advanced technology is indiscernible from magic. Well, the converse holds, too. And so, the Minimal Magic System for Fate is, also, Fate’s Minimal Crafting System.

And that will be all for today, folks.

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