Bronze Rulz!–Sufficiently Advanced Magic (Part II)

TL;DR: I beef up Fate’s Minimal Magic-and-Crafting system from Part I and get it to do cool stuff, and if you just care for the mechanics you can jump right to it.

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In the last Bronze Rulz! post, I hinted at Fate’s implicit minimal crafting system. Just as Fate’s minimal Magic system, it rests on Aspects for narrative permission to create something (an object), and Create-an-Advantage (hereafter CaA) to materialize that creation (as an Aspect). I then pointed to the lack of bridging mechanics between Obstacles (chiefly Hazard and Blocks, because Distractions work differently) and CaA. My solution was a Stunt—and got me into a discussion with a Fate editor (reported here).

Many Fate players and GMs have qualified (and sometimes quantified) opinions about how often Stunts should play out and be “balanced.” I’m of the opposite persuasion. I tend to handwave and offload the balancing to my gaming table. But some of today’s eyeballing and number-crunching is still undergoing the table consensus test, so I’d be dishonest not to mention that.

Also, there’s an argument that Fate is “complete” (or “sort of” so) overlapping with the balancing act, but it’s optional reading. If you skip it, the post will resume where we left Conan and Xaltotun, so you may want to refresh your memory.

Completeness and Balance (Optional Reading)

That Fate is “complete” or “sort of” complete are quotes from Rob Hanz (second comment on the thread). I tend towards sarcasm when I use them (and in general) but it’s a distraction from the substantial issue. Here’s the quote.

Fate is…. well, kinda complete? Maybe not entirely, but with the core works, combined with FCon, and the various Toolkits, there’s basically everything you need for most things, and where there’s not, it’s pretty obvious how to extrapolate from what’s out there.

Rob Hanz, r/FATErpg

I agree with the last part wholeheartedly. Heck, if it were not pretty obvious, I would not be writing this blog.

Still, there’s a substantial issue that I’ve never seen addressed explicitly: whether it’s ok to tell players and GMs to extrapolate anything in the first place. I’m on the fence on that one. Sure, no well-defined line exists between using a ruleset and extrapolating from it, especially with a narrative game. So, things are a matter of degree here, and even more so for a generic system.

As fascinating as this would be, today’s not Theory Thursday, and not about extrapolation, either. Today’s about how to interpolate between two subsystems that should really be a single one. I don’t know about you, but to me, it’s pretty apparent that something is missing in the game engine if I have to do that.

(And to be clear, we agreed to disagree on that topic with the Fate editor I mentioned earlier: they think this post is good enough to deal with the issue, and I think it falls short of giving clear enough guidelines.)

This brings to balance. I’m not a game designer, but I have a working knowledge of game theory, enough to know how to influence players’ preferences and strategic choices, even in a complex game like Fate. I favor minimal magic systems not only for simplicity but also as constraints on strategies (players’ and GM’s). They steer overall gameplay in the direction I prefer, and the crafting (sub)system is “balanced” to encourage engagement with crafting rules in the same manner.

I’ll put some of my design choices in The Fine Prints so you can shuffle things around if you decide to use the system but want to tailor it to your table. But that’s enough foreplay, so let’s get to it, shall we?

Xaltotun addresses an Aquilonian soldier who just carried the unconscious body of King Conan.
Fig. 1.

“What is it about your waist” Xaltotun demanded.
“Why, my girdle, may it please you, my lord!” stuttered the amazed guardsman.”

The Hour of the Dragon, Chapter 3

Xaltotun’s Belt-Snake

Let’s begin with a refresher on the stunt from Part I. It alludes to the episode of The Hour of the Dragon where Xaltotun disposes of the soldier who helped to carry King Conan (Fig. 1 & 2):

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 

Pulling the Stunt

In Howard’s novel, the sword belt-turned-snake is an illusion. But I’ll follow the Dark Horse comics here, because why not. I gave Xaltotun Legendary (+8) Lore. Rather than assume a difficulty rating, consider what we want the CaA to achieve. That would be a Hazard, capable of taking out the Aquilonian soldier. For definiteness and simplicity, let us define him per FAE mook rules (Fig. 2).

A Fari NPC card for a Poor Sap of a Soldier based on FAE mook rules, with 3 custom Skills, including a Terrible (-2) See Xaltotun Coming, and 2 stress boxes.
Fig.2 An Aquilonian mook.

Taking out the Aquilonian Soldier in one shot is not exceedingly difficult. Assuming the Soldier would defend with his Terrible (-2) See Xaltotun Coming skill, a Mediocre (+0) Attack would inflict 2 hits of stress and take the NPC (assuming we wave the defense roll, because who wants rolls for NPC-on-NPC action). Based on the 4dF math, a Fair (+2) Skill has a .93 probability to achieve that result. We can bump to .98, giving the Belt-Snake Venomous Fangs (with a weapon rating of 1). And that’s good enough to wave the Attack roll, too.

A Fari card for Xaltotun's Belt Snake with a Fair (+2) Venomus Belt-Snake rated aspect that also acts as a skill and rated fangs.
Fig.3 It’s a belt. No, it’s a SNAKE

I’d be inclined to charge Xaltotun some extra difficulty for the Weapon Rating. First off, some obstacles may have a weapon rating of 0 (Blocks). Second, a weapon rating is, in all effect, a “half-Stunt” that yields +1 to Fight/Shoot in limited conditions (applying damage). And I’d like general guidelines to handle Bronze-Rule NPCs with Stunts anyway—for instance, to create Bronze Rule Healers or even a Legendary (+8) Glistening Sphere that could blast King Conan’s consciousness in one shot.

Fair’s Fair

Re-skinning Xaltotun’s Stunt is as simple as rewriting the boldface “Stunt Aspect.” From there, we can consider a baseline for Bronze-Rule NPCs. Now, please recall what I’ve written about “balance” in Part I and in the Optional Reading section. My baseline is bespoke for my game, but if you know how I tailored it, you can adapt it for yours. And that’s all I’m going to say about “balance.” 

And now, for the baseline. I propose that a Fair (+2) Bronze-Rule NPC should have the following:

  • Fair (+2) High Concept doubling as ad hoc skill;
  • if relevant, one or two Fair (+2) ad hoc skills clearly related to the High Concept;
  • a Stress Track based either on the HC rating (two [1]-Stress boxes) or on an ad hoc skill (four [1]-Stress boxes) as per the usual guidelines for Physique/Will (Fig. 4)
  • a Mild Consequence slot as an option.
Fig. 4. Stress Track per Skill Rating

And that’s it. Again, the baseline is what you’d get with a Success with Style at the cost of a Fate point. So for all practical purposes, it’s a Superb (+5) task. That’s good to know if you want to consider alternatives to a Stunt. I briefly consider one in The Fine Prints that you can also peruse for some details on “balancing.”

Extra Costs Extra (& Cheap is Cheap)

With a baseline, it’s easy to adjust costs for Extras and possibly get a discount. So far, in gameplay, I’ve used the following guidelines:

  • adding a Trouble allows the PC to roll at Skill Rating +2;
  • adjusting the target HC by +1/-1 increases/decreases the Difficulty rating of the CaA roll by 1;
  • any adjustment worth a bonus of +n in particular circumstances (Weapon/Armor Rating, extra Stress, Stunts, or Consequence slot, etc.) increases the Difficulty rating of the CaA roll by n.

I would be cautious with anything reducing costs any further. I would apply the reduction for HC first, calculate the ad hoc skills and Stress based on the new HC, remove the Consequence slot (if there was one in the first place). Then, and only then, would I consider further reductions. For instance, I would not necessarily lower the cost for reduced ad hoc skills, because they are not “real” skills (see The Fine Prints). However, if one is creating a mook like the Poor Sap of a Soldier, I’d discount the Terrible (-2) Skill only if it is general enough (and so, not in that case). With these precautions, you may want to consider:

  • after adjusting the HC, any further adjustment worth a –n in particular circumstances (reduced Stress, no Consequence slot, reduced Skill) adds +n to the Skill for the CaA roll.

Again, this system requires extensive playtesting. But so far, it has been serviceable enough. Feel free to try it, adjust it to your needs. If you like it, drop a line or two in the comment section. Or ping me in a message on the Fate Tabletop RPG and Fari Discord servers, where I live my social life by proxy.

The Fine Prints

Vanilla CaA. An alternative solution is to treat the Crafting problem as an regular CaA roll applying the same rule as the Stunt, but removing the Skill cap. Xaltotun’s Stunt (or a reskin thereof) bridges the gap between the Minimal [Magic/Crafting/Others] System and a magical-or-mundane system to create Extras. I think it’s cool because it allows for crafting on-the-fly magical objects, jury-rigged contraptions, etc. It gives a baseline for Crafting-as-CaA that makes sense: trading free invokes for a Rated Aspect. I would not necessarily charge a Fate Point unless you charge one for Extras (I don’t, see Balance). Short of a Success with Style, simply apply the vanilla CaA rules, or let the PC create a downgraded version.

Balance. First off, a brief justification of the base cost. The High Concept is obvious. Otherwise, nothing’s created. The Rating doubles as a skill (as per Obstacle rules), so the ad hoc skills should not cost anything extra. They’re merely a convenient way to offload some of the descriptions off of the High Concept. For the Stress Track, I have no strong opinion. I’m inclined to pick the first solution and make the second a paid option (as per Extra Costs Extra) because I give a Mild Consequence slot for free. And do so because I don’t charge a Refresh for gear Extras—but I can destroy them forever when I take them out. I also allow for “support” CaA rolls to create A Blueprint for [Object] (Mundane) or A Ritual for [Magical Stuff] (Magic, of course).

“You lie!” Xaltotun’s laugh was merciless as a sword-edge. “It is a poisonous serpent! What a fool you are, to wear a reptile about your waist!”

The Hour of the Dragon

Wrapping Up: Pretty Obvious to Extrapolate…?

Part I began with the Minimal [Magic/Crafting] System and raised a gameplay question: what if an N/PC tries to create an Obstacle rather than an Aspect? Finding no answer in the (otherwise complete) Fate Ruleset, I suggested a Stunt as a solution. I belabored that solution in this post and ended up with a set of guidelines sufficient to create Obstacles (Hazards and Blocks, as intended) and up to full-blown NPCs—with an alternative to Stunts.

There are more than a few free parameters in these guidelines. This is intentional and a nod (without irony nor sarcasm) to “balance” analysts who’d want to adjust those parameters to their game table. I care less for “balance” in general than Xaltotun for an Aquilonian soldier. Still, I care immensely for constraints on gameplay resulting from rules and how rule variations color a particular setting. I have a few stories about that, and they’ll end up in this blog eventually.

Now, I’ll leave as an exercise the number-crunching for Xaltotun’s Belt-Snake. That should be pretty obvious at that point. Ditto for the Aquilonian soldier (Hint: summoned by Tarascus, with a Rapport-based Stunt). I’m not doing it because the math depends on how you set the free parameters. If my Fate of Conan campaign resumes one day, I may crunch the numbers for Xaltotun’s Glistening Sphere. I have an idea for Stunts that would give it a fighting chance against King Conan. But doing so would require even more eyeballing and parametric decisions.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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