TL;DR: I give Fate’s “Headshot Problem” a dose of Fiction-First medicine that I translate (very tentatively) in the rules as written, and if you don’t care for the fiction, you can jump right to it (but for once I wouldn’t recommend it).
When I decided to get back to playing and GM-ing Fate in earnest, I made a mental list of the stuff I’d like to do (as a player) and see (as a GM) but could not figure out rule-wise on the top of my head. One of them was badass silent takedowns, lethal or not, à la Dishonored and Horizon: Zero Dawn. I had played a lot of those at that time. I never played any of the Assassin’s Creed or Thief games. I’m told they have them too.
Now, I can almost hear (because I’ve read it multiple times): “It’s not Conflict, Stress and Consequences are not on the table, so that’s obvious: Overcome!” I’ll admit that, after two years of chemo, my remembrances of Fate rules were kinda fuzzy. So, yup, I may have forgotten that.
Then again, the Overcome response is a case of not seeing the forest for the tree. It’s not a mechanical issue: it’s a matter of payoff. If the PCs can take out any NPC in one shot under the right circumstances, what makes a Big Bad Endgame Gal/Guy unique compared to a nameless sentry? Fate GMs I talked to about this often refer to it as the Headshot Problem. But there’s the Knife to the Throat problem, the Wooden Stick To The Heart Problem, etc.
I have a cool general moniker: Lethal One-Shot Takedown (LOST). The non-lethal versions are interesting too, but they don’t have as cool an acronym. Most of this post is ruminating about LOST badassery in fiction. There are significant spoilers for Walter Jon Williams’ Voice of the Whirlwind and Aristoi and Zelazny’s Amber, so be advised.
I would not dream of solving the Headshot Problem, however. Let alone with a single mechanical trick. So I’ll drop a dipping-the-toes-in-the-water proposal rather than a deep-dive solution. It does not make much sense without the first part. But feel free to jump right to it.
The Not-so-Skippable Bit: The LOST Payoff Problem
Before even considering the problem, there’s an obvious objection to deal with. LOSTs might be a case of Rob Hanz’s check-your-preconceptions-at-the-door-or-go-play-another-game (ditto nonlethal versions). Perhaps I should keep playing computer games and get LOST. (I love a terrible pun.)
Fortunately for me, LOSTs are featured in computer games for a reason: they abound in other types fiction and make for extraordinary moments. But there are preconceptions and expectations from computer games that we should check at the door.
LOST in Computer Games
Computer games solve the LOST payoff problem with a combination of game mechanics and level/quest design. Out of combat, PC-stealth or sniper perks and NPC-awareness, with UI-indicators, armies of mooks along the way, choke points with real mean opposition or impaired line of sight. In a fight, Quick-Time Events combos triggering takedown animations. None of this breaks immersion: mechanics work mainly under the hood, level design is predictable, but stays within the four-wall contract of computer games, and so does the UI.
Should we try to mimic how computer games deal with the LOST problem? Well, plenty of suggestions I’ve received from GMs I look up to amount de facto to a qualified “yes.” Armies of mooks, choke points, and either a straight-Overcome final blow or a “hack” to make it count. Many Fate players who also play computer games (me included) would enjoy the sense of familiarity.
Still, computer games are one kind of fiction. And there’s still plenty of LOST fictional badassery that does not fit that model. Coming are three examples, but be advised (again): spoilers.
LOST in Fiction I: Headshot, No Conflict.
Etienne Njagi Steward, the main protagonist of Walter Jon Williams’ Voice of the Whirlwind, is a beta (a clone). Steward’s alpha fought a Corporate war on a seemingly abandoned extrasolar planet, shipped back home when the aliens returned and ended the war, took security jobs for a few years, including the one that got him iced. He also forgot to update his memory banks.
Steward (beta) remembers his operative training—including a variant of Zen for mental conditioning—and retains the muscle memory, too. But nothing from the war, the aliens, or whatever followed. A recorded message from the alpha sends him up the corporate black ops operatives’ food chain, not so much for revenge, but to understand who used his alpha as a pawn. So, Steward is a perfect Fate material: capable and proactive.
Half through the book, Steward catches up with Carlos Danseur Curzon, a shot caller responsible for his alpha’s ice order. Going for a kill-kill, Steward hacks into Curzon’s clone insurance company and destroys his stored DNA and memory bank. After that, Steward buys his time and studies Curzon’s routine for a few days. Soon, he discovers that Curzon routinely crosses a very public space on his way to his job. Surrounded by bodyguards, but still.
On hit day, Steward shoves a silenced gun in a suitcase, approaches Curzon close enough, gets a clear line of sight between the bodyguards, pulls the gun out of the briefcase, aims, shoots, blows Curzon’s head, and puts the gun back in. His movements were so natural that only a single rando in the crowd caught them. Stewards “hush!” him, and almost gets away. But the rando alerts the bodyguards, who catch up.
Sure, there’s a build-up: the hacking, the stalking, the weapon—touted at the beginning of an earlier chapter, straight out of Chekov—with Aspects such as “I Know Curzon’s Routine” and Silenced Gun In The Briefcase and The Zen of The Moment. There is no army of mooks, no choke points, no blocked line of sight—but a nasty Compel on The Zen of The Moment if you ask me.
LOST in Fiction II: Conflict Without Stress or Consequences
Gabriel, the protagonist of Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, manages planetary domains, where he sponsors the arts and sciences. He practices Kung Fu as a martial art, but centuries of training (the setting is transhuman) honed his reflexes to near perfection. To his surprise, Cressida, a big-shot planet manager way above his league, contacts him about a galaxy-spanning conspiracy. Although she dislikes him, she candidly implies that he is too narcissistic to care about politics and be part of the conspiracy. So, she can trust him.
At first, Gabriel’s curiosity is piqued, although he pays equal attention to Cressida’s virtual clothes and her words. But when Cressida gets offed by the conspirators, Gabriel decides to solve the mystery of her murder. She deemed him trustworthy, whatever her reasons were, and no one has really ever done that before.
About two-thirds into the book, the conspirators capture Gabriel and brainwash him into working for them. Clinging to his last bit of free will, he eventually escapes, only to run into a fight with Saito, another centuries-old, planet-managing Kung Fu master. Matched skills leave the opponents unable to pass one another’s guards until Gabriel goads Saito into a killing blow that opens him to one as well. Saito crushes Gabriel’s trachea, but Gabriel’s counter, carried by centuries of muscle memory, kills Saito before Gabriel would succumb.
Quite the build-up here too. Still, no army of mooks or choke points. Both opponents are martial arts masters with formidable skills. A tie on a single Attack-vs-Defense roll could represent the whole conflict. Eventually, Gabriel manages to take advantage of both his Kung Fu Master Aspect and Saito’s, ditto their Centuries of Muscle Memory, because he is Ready to Trade Death for Victory while Saito is not.
LOST in Fiction III: Death By A Single Cut
The near-end of Roger Zelazny’s Courts of Chaos, the final novel of Corwin’s cycle, finds Corwin of Amber on his way to the Courts, preceded by his reputation, bearing arms—Grayswandir, his sword, who sets to fire chaos denizens—but, crucially, no armor. He is met by Duke Borel, the greatest swordmaster of the Courts, who recognizes Corwin and gallantly unfastens his armor not to enter the fight with an unfair advantage. Corwin turns heels—prompting Borel to call him a coward—hides behind a rock as Borel presses his mount to close the distance, surprises and unhorses Borel, and throws his cloak at Borel’s face.
I caught him just as he had brushed my cloak aside and was struggling to rise. I skewered him where he sat and saw the startled expression on his face as the wound began to flame.Roger Zelazny, The Courts of Chaos
“Oh, basely done!” he cried. “I had hoped for better of thee!”
“This isn’t exactly the Olympic Games,” I said, brushing some sparks from my cloak.
That stands on its own, so analyze it as you wish. Me? After waiting for 30 yrs for an Amber game, I joined an FAE-based one on a whim and made an Aspect out of the episode (War Is Not The Olympics). My GM shrewdly suggested that, for that character, it should be a High Concept (hint: his Trouble is Dark Secret of the Blood, but it really means “Inbred Bastard of Amber”). Thank you, Paul. You made my day with that one. Actually, every damn day I’ve played him. And a lot of the days in-between.
Mechanics: A Toe-In-The-Water Proposal
At that point, I should wrap up that post. It’s already too long. And given the scope of the problem and the breadth of opinions, nobody would be satisfied with any single mechanic. But there’s a familiar voice in my head crying, “Oh, basely done! I had hoped for better of thee!” So, let’s not chicken that one out.
The Power of Stunts
Let’s begin with the hopefully noncontroversial notion that Stunts sometimes establish rule exceptions. And to fully cover my ass on that one, let’s quote the Good Book.
Rule-changing stunts: The second type of Stunt changes the rules of the game. This is a broad category that includes, but is not limited to, the following:Fate Condensed, p. 11 (or here in the SRD)
[…] Allowing a character to make a specific rules exception.
Next, I propose the following interpretation, in Fate terms, of the three fictional cases of the first part:
- Gabriel, Corwin: Attack under exceptional circumstances—a bunch of free Invokes on relevant Aspects.
- Steward: Overcome under highly favorable circumstances—a bunch of free Invokes on relevant Aspects.
Still, Steward’s case is borderline: his move may have initiated a Conflict. But that would actually strengthen my argument. Which is: if we are serious with “fiction first,” we should wrap Gabriel’s, Corwin’s, and Steward’s LOSTs together. In terms of dramatic effect, an Attack under exceptional circumstances is sometimes equivalent to an Overcome action—and we should waive the Stress and Consequences arithmetic—if the “exceptional circumstances” are represented by relevant Aspects.
The “One-Hit Wonder” Stunt
Relevant Aspects in Steward’s, Gabriel’s, and Corwin’s situations reflect very different approaches: assassin skills, patience, and pseudo-Zen mysticism (Steward); melee skills, fortitude, and near-desperation (Gabriel); deception, guile, and weaponized assholery (Corwin). This cannot be captured by “one” Stunt, but there’s enough of a pattern for a Stunt blueprint with free parameters. Here’s one, in Fate Condensed format.
One-Hit Wonder: Because [I am/I have] [narrative permission], I can substitute an Attack with an Overcome action when I can invoke [Aspect reflecting exceptional circumstances]. If I [Succeed/Succeed With Style], my Opponent is Taken Out.
Now, here’s the catch. One-Hit Wonder is not necessarily meant to be taken “as is.” It reflects heat-of-the-moment discoveries. Granted, Corwin could have it, but his character Aspects would reflect exceptional circumstances anyway, and exceptional assholery is his daily routine. By contrast, neither Steward nor Gabriel knew in advance what they were capable of before they had to do it.
A one-hit wonder, as it were.
At any rate, One Hit Wonder complies with the letter of the rules as written (RAW) and shows how the “Headshot Problem” is solvable in principle within the confines of the RAW. I’d love to belabor on how to use it and set its parameters for “balance,” but I’ll leave that for another day.
Wrapping Up: Fiction First, Level Design Second
A few months ago, I started a conversation on the Fate Tabletop RPG Discord server about Steward’s hit. I kept my solution (not yet One Hit Wonder) for myself not to influence the conversation. There was a bunch of: “Hey, if it’s not Conflict, […]” but also valuable suggestions, mainly pointing to mooks-and-chokepoints-before-Overcome (and a “hack” or two to make it count).
And a few days ago (at the time of writing, not of publication), someone started a conversation on the Fate Tabletop RPG Discord server about Wooden Stakes to the Heart. As usual, some “Hey, if it’s not Conflict, […]” but also other valuable suggestions, with mooks, chokepoints, Overcome (and a hack or two) taking, again, the lion’s share.
One Hit Wonder takes these suggestions seriously. Following the best advice in both conversations (thanks, Paul!), it emphasizes the mechanical side of “Fiction First” (the creation of relevant Aspects) over level design tricks (mooks, mini-bosses, and minigames). Still, there’s value to the latter, and I may come back to it one day.
And that’s all there is for today, folks.