Peter’s Principle*–Fate Scenes Deconstructed

TL;DR: Fate has four types of scenes, but enough subtypes to confuse me, so I deconstructed base types in building blocs to get my bearings, and you can jump right to it.

Fate RPG has four base types of scenes. “Nameless” scenes (that’s one) are bare narrative units, to which Challenges, Conflicts, and Contests (three more) attach particular mechanics. Optional scene trappings yield even more variations. Case in point, there’s a smorgasbord of Contests, and when I’m like, “hey, what about setting up a Contest?” I invariably end up like Buridan’s ass in front of it. If you’ve never had this issue, you could save time for yourself and quit reading.

If you’re still there, here’s a second chance to quit: my way out of this kind of predicament is to find underlying patterns and re-invent the wheel. This post is more about patterns than wheels, though, so if analysis is not your jam, save time for yourself, etc.

As now traditional with this blog, there’s a part with abstract, geeky stuff that you can skip, followed by semi-practical stuff you can jump to.

Discrete Math and RPGs (Skippable Geeky Stuff)

My approaches to RPGs, logic, and discrete math (minus number theory and calculus because I’m good for shit with numbers) all go back to the smartest person I’ve ever met, a math geek who, in junior high, would ask questions teachers could not answer. Let’s call him Peter.

Peter’s Principle*

Needless to say, math tests would bore Peter to death. Geometry was the worst. The recommended method was: learning theorems by heart (Pythagoras’, Thales’, etc.), running pattern-recognition wetware on test problems, applying the relevant memorized theorem mechanically, and writing down the solution.

To survive boredom, Peter would learn the axioms and re-demonstrate the theorems he needed on the fly. That way, he’d get an answer from thinking through test problems while we’d be stuck trying to recall. With extra reasoning steps, he’d not be done too early nor spend too much time doodling.

I’m far from a mathematical genius, partly due to some mild dyscalculia I had to work around when I discovered logic. But I remembered Peter and learned reasoning from the basics rather than memorizing.  Let’s call this “Peter’s Principle*” (the “*” is for the difference with that one).

And it served me right. When I had to tackle a problem with infinite games similar to Zermelo’s with chess, I re-invented Zermelo’s non-repetition method—incidentally, to replace a rule with rational decision-making. Which is tangentially relevant to today’s topic and why I mentioned the circumstance. Aside from the bragging rights, that is.

Peter’s Principle* and Fate

In my GUPRS days, Peter’s Principle* saved me hours of canvassing the Rules As Written (RAW) when I needed to make in-game determinations. I brought that attitude to Fate. The downside is that I re-invent the wheel weekly. The flip side is that I can play pretend game designer before I realize I did it again.

Now, for Fate, the basics I make the most sense of are:

  • Actions. Attack, Defense, Create an Advantage, and Overcome.
  • Outcomes. Failure/Success at a Major cost, Tie/Success at a Minor cost, Success, and Success With Style.

From that standpoint, Fate’s simplicity and flexibility stem from symmetry-preserving combinatorics. That’s abstract, but I don’t think in words, and I promise you it’s much more straightforward when pictured. Then again, even in words, it’s simpler than it looks.

  1. Combinatorics=Flexibility4 Actions times 4 Outcomes equals 16 variations that cover everything in-game.
  2. Symmetry=Simplicity. The base 4 Outcomes make the 4 Actions akin to variations of one underlying type (but that’s a story for another day). 

Thinking it that way helped me with the Silver Rule (otherwise, every application is possibly game-breaking), fiction-first problems such as LOSTs and other one-hit wonders, and rule-induced tunnel vision. Granted, none of these issues are new, and there’s no shortage of solutions out there. But my issue with Fate rules is “paralysis by analysis” (if you’re not into ass-humor; otherwise, not an improvement over Buridan’s). Peter’s Principle* side-steps it.

Deconstructing Scenes

Let’s assume that Fate’s Rules As Written (RAWs) are just the Core, FAE, and Condensed books/SRDs. My Trouble is Buridan’s Ass, and so, I always risk a self-Compel when dealing with them (“…it makes sense that I’d ask on Discord and Reddit, read every answer, and follow every link”). But I have a Stunt.

Peter’s Principle*: Because I prefer reasoning from the basics to browsing the Internet and memorizing, I get +2 to Create an Advantage with Academics when extrapolating from Fate’s RAWs.


Sure enough, Aspects I get out of it could almost always be phrased Re-inventing The Wheel. But I can choose Success every time, and sometimes, the free Invokes are mine, not the Internet critics’. So let’s apply that to Scenes, shall we?

Scenes basics

Scenes in Fate (as in any other RPGs) are narrative units providing a backdrop for drama. From a more abstract standpoint, Scenes are sets of bells-and-whistles constraining Fate’s base mechanics—“roll 4dF+Skill for [Action] if dramatically appropriate.” Simplifying greatly:

  • Vanilla Scenes. [Action]=Overcome, Create an Advantage, Defend (special).
  • Challenges. [Action]=Overcome, Create an Advantage, Defend (special). Outcomes of Overcome rolls are tracked and determine the end result of the Challenge.
  • Conflicts. [Action]=All. Actions occur in turns (Exchanges). Stress and Consequences are in play.
  • Contests. [Action]=Overcome, Create an Advantage, Defend (special). Actions occur in turns (Exchanges). Outcomes of Overcome rolls are tracked and determine the end result of the Contest. They may introduce within-Scene dramatic changes (Twists).

A few caveats before moving on. First, the “(special)” after Defense is an additional restriction on [Action], namely: in all but Conflicts, Defenses add to (or substitutes to) passive resistance for opposed Overcome and CaA rolls rather than versus Attacks. The other caveats are about what I mean by “Simplifying greatly” and “Basics”, but I’ll leave them for The Fine Prints.

Not Monkeying nor Fiddling

I might cook up something from RAW’s Scenes on other days of the week (cf. section title). But today is not about “hacking” or recipes for it. Still, my point is not analysis for analysis’ sake either. So what is it? Well, check the table from Fig. 1.

B&WvanillaChallengeConflictsContests
ActionsO,C,D*O,C,D*A,O,C,DO,C,D*
StressNo**No**YesNo**
ExchangesNoNoYesYes
Action TrackNoYes (O)NoYes (O)
… for:End resultEnd result
Twists
Fig. 1–Bells & Whistles (B&W) per Scene types:
A=Attack, O=Overcome, C=Create an Advantage, D=Defense, D*=for resistance vs. O & C
No**=Not w/o optional Rule, Silver Rule, or other exception.

First, let’s play Captain Obvious. There’s an if, and only if between Conflicts, Attacks, and Stress, but exceptions to “No” for Stress are widespread (see The Fine Prints). So it’s really: there is Conflict if, and only if, there are Attacks. Stress and Consequences may bleed in all scenes and are excellent tension-builders for PCs heading toward a Conflict—imparting a sense of confidence (if it’s just Stress and clears) or dread (if it’s Consequences and don’t).

Second, there’s a blind spot. From the table, it looks like adding Exchanges to Challenges would yield Contests. It doesn’t. You’d need sides (ditto for Conflicts). In the RAWs, there are Exchanges if, and only if, there are sides. But defining “side” is dangerously close to discussing “agency,” and that’s a can of worms for another day. So I did not add a row for sides.

Still, in principle, you could add Exchanges in a Challenge to track beats (time or tasks) without sides if, e.g., the Challenge’s steps respond to narrative constraints other than the PCs’ number. Depending on the ruleset, this might count as a Challenge variant (Condensed, possibly) or not (Core, definitely). Nevertheless, if you use it, feel free to give it a catchier name than “Challenge with Exchanges”—maybe “Challenge Under Pressure.”

So Fig. 1 is an analysis tool that could double as a hacking tool. But first and foremost, the table is a decision-making aid: pick features you want for a scene, choose the closest type, modify it, and there you go. It might need a few more rows to accommodate bells-and-whistles for subtypes, but the basics are there.

“Simplifying greatly.”  Here’s a shortlist of things I disregarded. The Silver Rule permits Consequences out of ConflictFate Condensed’s minor costs leave open Stress-as-cost out of Conflict. Hazards (optional) may cause Stress out of Conflict. Stunts may also establish Stress-inducing exceptions. Stress out of Conflict is not the only omission. Countdowns (optional) could be a generalization of Contests’ and Challenges’ tracks (or an instance of something yet more general encompassing them as well). I know all that all too well, and purposefully left it for another day.

“Scene Basics.” I defined what I meant by Basics as: Core, Condensed, and FAE books/SRDs. I’m aware that leapfrogging hyperlinks from the Core SRD Bronze Rule stuff to The Limitations of the Bronze Rule leads to Contests under Fire. Just because I used Peter’s Principle* doesn’t mean I didn’t self-Compelled Buridan’s Ass beforehand. Of course, I did. But honestly, I find Ryan Macklin hard to follow—not blaming the writer, mind you, more my own understanding—and this post is, also, me getting my bearings before deep diving into Hacking Contests again.


Wrapping Up: Peter’s Principle* Rocks

As I hinted earlier, I don’t think in words. Any idea I have, good or bad, on my own or borrowed from someone else, that I don’t write down (or tell to myself, which is at times awkward) tends to fade fast. That’s pretty much why I started this blog—from getting countless “a-ha!” moments I didn’t want to lose from watching Randy Dean Oest (@AmazingRando pretty much everywhere) on the Fate SRD YouTube Channel

Before I knew it, I had spent Refresh on Peter’s Principle* rather than on some marketable skills and had begun to collect free Invokes on Re-inventing The Wheel. I spent some of them on blog posts to avoid losing half-baked ideas, but most of them were just prep for playing the damn game. 

So, applications of Peter’s Principle* are a by-product of my game prep. As I play more, expect more of that too.

And that’s all there is for today, folks.

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