Fiddling Friday–Strength in Numbers: Mobs in Fate

TL;DR: There’s an alternative to Teamwork to handle mobs in Fate, and if you don’t care why I looked for it in the first place, you can jump right to it.

Mobs in RPGs are an interesting problem. They heighten the sense of challenge by whittling PCs in-game resources—ammo, health, mana, or whatever currencies the game system uses for representing PCs’ resilience. Still, they are disposable at a low cost of those currencies. The challenge is in their number, not their numbers: how many mooks are in the mob matter more than how high are their stats.

Fate handles mobs with Teamwork, which couples the number (of mooks) and the numbers (their skill ratings). Fate Teamwork rules are tailored for PC parties and reflect the players’ and PCs’ collective decision-making. But should they apply automatically to mobs? There is strength in numbers, that’s for sure, but only if there is coordination. Coordination between players—and subsequently, between PCs—is the norm, but it’s not a given in a group of thugs.

Now, mob Teamwork is also a quality-of-life decision for a GM. It’s a good enough solution if one does not want to keep tabs on individual mob members and try to figure out when and how they would coordinate against the PCs. Still, FAE, Core, and Condensed offer an alternative to all-or-nothing coordination. It does not require a lot of extrapolation from the rules either. But I’ve never seen it anywhere.

As usual for Fiddling Fridays, there’s a bit that you can skip, and a practical bit. The first goes over Teamwork arithmetic. If it’s not your idea of fun, you can jump to the gameplay part.

The Abstract Bit: Mob Arithmetic

First off, a caveat. I will take a tour of FAE, Core, and Condensed rules for mobs and Teamwork. I know you do not need me to read the rules, but I have a point. Still, if you know the rules, you can skip the next three paragraphs.

FAE. For a long while, my favorite way to handle mobs of mooks was the FAE approach (pun intended) to Bad Guys. Individual mooks get one or two ad hoc Fair (+2) and Terrible (-2) skills, one or two aspects, and between zero and two stress boxes. A group of mooks gets pretty much the same, but one of their skills is Fair (+2) Ganging Up. The example in the book/SRD has 1/2-stress per mook (two boxes for a group of four). 

Fate Core. FAE is straightforward—a mob of n mooks has a Fair (+2) skill, irrespective of n—but coarse-grained, and points at Fate Core, where mobs are also treated as a single character but with a built-in teamwork bonus. With this method, the skill of a mob of Average (+1) mooks rises to 1+n. So a mob of four Average street thugs could have Superb (+5) Fight and Athletics skills.

Fate Condensed. As warned in FAE, Core “may lead to very strong mobs, unless you start with extremely weak mooks.” Ryan Macklin proposed revisions for Teamwork, some of which ended up in Fate Condensed, especially a hard cap to the bonus equal to the highest skill in the team. By Condensed standards, a mob of n Average (+1) mooks has a skill capped to 1+1=2, however large is. (Note: I mixed Core and Condensed here because Condensed includes no explicit mob guidelines for teamwork.)

Average (+1) skills are the minimum required for Teamwork bonus. The math generalizes for any individual skill rating m—when m is at least Average (+1)—in a group of mooks, as follows:

  • FAE: for all values of n, the mob skill level is Fair (+2);
  • Core: the mob skill level is m+n;
  • Condensed: the mob skill level is m+n if n<m, and 2m otherwise.

In a nutshell, with FAE, n is irrelevant; with Core, m becomes less relevant as n grows; and with Condensed, m and n determine the mob’s strength together. Now, let’s put this arithmetic to work.

The Practical Bit: Strength in Numbers

I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that Teamwork rules were initially made for PC parties. Core rules make large PC parties stronger (and awesome). Condensed rules are not too limiting either: a party of four or more lead by a PC with Great (+4) skill could achieve an Legendary (+8) rating with four supporting PCs of Average (+1) or higher skill.

Consider now a gang of, say, eight thugs with Average (+1) Fight and Athletics. With Core, they are beyond Legendary (+8); with Condensed, they are barely Fair (+2). Again, I’m assuming a mix of Core and Condensed because Condensed barely mentions mobs once (as “a squad of armored minions”) and is remarkably unspecific on the topic.

Finding a Middle Ground

So, Fate Core mobs are experts in small-unit tactics, able to overcome stronger and more competent individuals through coordination. Think Roman legionnaires versus gladiators. I don’t say that this should never be the case, but it should not be automatic either. I can see a Stunt for it, though.

By contrast, Fate Condensed mobs resemble the bad guys in any 1990s Hong Kong action movie. It does not matter how many there are. What matters is how many bullets the good guys have—and how many they can take (anyone remembers Ti Lung’s character in the finale of A Better Tomorrow II?).

In my opinion, the best mob rules are still those in FAE—provided a minor tweak or two. They may need a bit of flexibility, particularly for the rating of the ad hoc skill, but that’s straightforward. I don’t think anyone needs me to figure that out, but I’ll touch upon it in  The Fine Prints because it gives me an excuse to talk about some of my favorite movies and tv shows.

Stunt-based Pre-loaded Invokes

The tweak FAE really needs is a materialization of coordination as extra effort. Capturing extra effort is straightforward in all Fate iterations: it’s Aspect Invoke by another name. Now, as a GM, you may not want to spend your Fate points when Teamwork is free, or lose a turn to Create an Advantage with an ad hoc skill for a mob that only acts once per exchange. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

I like to make things explicit, so I prefer to specify this as a Stunt, but you don’t have to if you don’t like it. Since I use FAE-Condensed write-ups for Stunts because they allow for a built-in Aspect, you can just add the Aspect to the Mob-as-Mook and be done with it (but I have other reasons, discussed in The Fine Prints). Here’s the Stunt I use:

Mob Rule: Because there is Strength in Numbers, the mob starts a conflict with [number of] free invokes on this Aspect, that they can spend when they launch a coordinated attack.

This Stunt does away with the bookkeeping of individual mooks but acknowledges that not all gangs are Roman legions in miniature. It lets the GM narrate the Mob’s efforts to stay together and burn invokes only when consistent with the narrative. Once spent, the Mob can regroup (Create an Advantage, hereafter CaA) and put some invokes on it (representing tactical repositioning).

I think that this makes better narrative sense than automatic Teamwork bonuses, but if you don’t share my opinion, I’ve got a few more arguments.

  • First, the Mob can fail a “regroup” CaA action and get disorganized, offering PCs opportunities.
  • Second, players can target the Strength in Numbers Aspect to get free invokes on it—e.g., when they divide the Mob.
  • Third, PCs could be allowed to Overcome the Strength in Numbers Aspect and disband the Mob, effectively taking it out.

These possibilities add some versatility to gameplay when mobs are introduced. To be honest, my motivation (as a GM) for the first two is to spare players the frustration I sometimes experience (as a player) when facing weak opponents. I love using CaA in a conflict, but I do it against mobs because I have to—otherwise, Teamwork rules stack the odds against me. I would not mind turning Teamwork against the NPCs on occasion.

Now, the third possibility tweaks the rules a trifle more, but it’s the most interesting (in my opinion, and again, feel free to disagree). I use Block rules from Condensedgive the Mob a rating on the Adjective Ladder (same as their skill Rating) and require a roll against that rating plus two to take the Mob out. I like it because it captures Hollywood badassness, like nothing else (see The Fine Prints).

The Fine Prints

Taking out a mob. Taking out a mob in one action is a common display of badassery in cinematic fiction. Think Swan getting rid of the Orphans with a single Molotov in The Warriors (Shoot or Provoke)—although it’s arguable whether the scene is a Conflict—or Wash ending the bar fight in “The Train Job” (Flight or Provoke) with a one-liner. I don’t always stick to the Fair (+2)/Terrible (-2) FAE guidelines for Mobs, though. The Alliance-friendly crowd in “The Train Job” is probably Fair (+2), but the Orphans are Mediocre (+0) at best, while the Baseball Furies (both also in The Warriors) are clearly Good (+3). I’d keep the “low” skills at Terrible (-2) because they’re primarily for flavor, but one might as well set them at [high skill]-4, just for fun—the Ophan’s Defend Their Turf skill is definitely beyond Terrible. If you think an Aspect rating matching the “high” skill makes a Mob too easy to Take Out, adjust it by plus two per free invoke in the Stunt—there’s even some narrative justification for it (see next paragraph).

Free Invokes & Balance. Both Fate Core and Fate Condensed allow for stacking free Invokes (last sentence of that paragraph in Fate Core, and of the next to last paragraph of the section in Fate Condensed). That lets the GM keep the feeling of “very strong mobs” from Core on occasions where the fiction demands it, not as a side-effect of co-opting Teamwork rules for PC parties. For those playing with Condensed, this allows Mobs to be strong in the first place without having to beef up their skills to bypass the hard cap on Teamwork bonuses (again, totally legit for PC parties). A free invoke on Strength in Numbers is equivalent to a +2 situational bonus, making it a 1-Refresh Stunt. A mob with two free Invokes has the equivalent of a 2-Refresh Stunt—they’ve invested some time learning how to operate as a gang and that makes them harder to take out. This, in turn, justifies bumping up the Overcome roll, if using a Hazard-like Rated Aspect.

Wrapping Up

Fate rules for Teamwork work perfectly for PC parties, but they’re a little coarse-grained for NPCs. Core rules turn any gang into a group of small-unit-tactics professionals, while Condensed rules make large mobs of poorly-skilled opponents unchallenging. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have something in-between those two options. Fortunately, that’s not too difficult with what stands, rule-wise, between Core and Condensed—at least, in terms of development cycle—namely, FAE.

And to be clear, I would not recommend this approach as a substitute for Teamwork, but as an extra option. I run my games with Condensed, but I sometimes use all-out Core Teamwork for strong mobs—I’d give it to the Baseball Furies (they still hit pretty hard after Swan & Cochise divided them).

This extra option is consistent with the rules as written, so it’s not even a ‘hack’—unless you use the Overcome option with it. Even then, it’s just stretching a few optional rules in Condensed. So it’s really nothing new.

And that old stuff is all there is for today, folks.

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