Metagame Monday–Lessons Learned in Fate

TL;DR: Fate places PCs’ advancement at the metagame level and out of the Players’ hands, but there’s a way to give some control back to Players and you don’t care what other games it comes from, you can jump right to it.

Let’s keep pretending that “metagame” means “game about the game” as in “metalogic” and “metamathematics.” Not “what D&D players remember from the Monster Manual  and exploit to survive random encounters.” Then class-and-leveling-up mechanics are metagame rules. Fate does not have a class-and-leveling-up system. To some (included yours truly), it’s an appealing feature. But it has drawbacks.

For one, Fate handles character progression without any explicit in-game representation. The decision to let PCs advance is exclusive to the GM and limited to metagame-only events. Fate could benefit from bringing some of that metagame in the game if only to give players a sense of in-game character development.

I’m of that persuasion, but if you are not, you can save some time for yourself and quit reading.

If you’re still there, this post divides into two parts. The first analyzes various skill-experience mechanics and what they bring to gameplay, and you can skip it and jump right to the second that presents a wishlist for getting the Fate Skill metagame into the game. That’s quite a lot already, so I’ll leave “hack design” out of this post and explain why in the wrap-up section.

An analysis of skill metagame (Skippable)

Class-and-level mechanics define PCs’ ecological niches, allow for PCs-to-PCs-to-NPCs power-level comparisons, and for easy opposition-scaling. They are, however, dispensable. Skills/Stats cum Bell-Curve randomizers define levels equally well, albeit implicitly, through Skill/Stat rank—cases in point: Fate and some Apocalypse World (AW) derivatives (the original AW has classes).

When advancing Skills/Stats has an associated cost, the implicit levels can be made explicit by tallying the costs. Two systems with this feature are GURPS and Savage Worlds. GURPS also offers the option to track PCs’ downtime skill use (e.g., for professionals) and generate extra experience, but at the price of additional bookkeeping.

How vanilla Fate does it

Fate’s the system with a higher emphasis on Skills among those listed so far, both “as-such” and for their “falling dominoes” effect.

  • Skills-as-such. The Skill pyramid implicitly defines character niches and ranks, constraining character creation and progression (Fig. 1).
  • Falling dominoes. Stunts latched onto Skills reinforce PCs’ individuality, and the only game stat that can be spent as currency (Refresh) buys Stunts.

Trouble is, Skills ranks may only advance when the GM says so, i.e. when they declare a metagame event: Significant Milestones (Core) or Major Milestones/Breakthroughs (Condensed). Fate Condensed weighs the GM’s shoulders the most, letting them decide if a Breakthrough will advance one or two Skills and/or grant one Refresh.

Fig. 1–Valid Advancement in Fate Core/Condensed

Of course, players can negotiate for the occurrence of Milestones and Breakthroughs and (in Condensed) the magnitude thereof. But there’s little they can do in-game with the PCs.

Call of Experience

Call of Cthulhu (CoC) is the system with skill experience as the main advancement mechanics I know best. I quit playing with 6th Ed., but I doubt they’d change that part. Mechanically, CoC uses a percentage-based system: 1d100 [under-or-at/over] Skill-% [succeeds/fails]. During gameplay, on GM prompt, players checkmark skills their PCs used successfully, earning an end-of-session opportunity to advance the skills. 

The twist: GM prompts PCs on success, but end-of-session progress is conditional on failure.

  • Check on Success. Success is an “a-ha” moment; the less frequent (i.e., when Skill-% is low), the more significant.
  • Improve on Failure. Frequent success (i.e., when Skill-% is high) teaches less.

Succeeding at something poorly known is hard, but if successful then the [PC] learns from the experience. Conversely, being expert at something guarantees success most of the time, but that high skill leaves the [PC] unlikely to learn something new. It gets progressively harder to add percentiles to a skill.

Call of Cthulhu, 6th Ed., p. 53

The system has the following pros & cons:

  • Pro: lower-% skill use is incentivized, minimizing higher-% skills spam; skills improve organically; progress rate matches expertise (success has diminishing returns). 
  • Con: by default, PCs don’t learn from their mistakes. 

The Con is easily remedied: many CoC GMs (included Yours Truly) let players check skills on a critical failure, too.

Experienced by the Apocalypse

AW’s experience rules are simple but linked to subsystems for classes and their perks (or “playbooks”) and PCs’ inter-relations (the Hx stat). But the basic ideas are independent of those subsystems.

  • Experience triggers: after using specific moves, the Player marks experience, filling an XP track.
  • Advances triggers: once the XP track is filled, the PC gets an advance, the track resets, and progression starts over.

A player marks experience—fills in one of the little experience bubbles on her character sheet—under [special] circumstances in play. […] Toward the back of each playbook are the rules for that character’s improvement: she can choose new moves, sometimes get a gang or holding or whatever, improve her stats, things like that. When she improves, she erases all her little experience bubbles and starts over at 0.

Apocalypse World 2E, p. 13

AW’s system has the following pros & cons:

  • Pro: PCs learn from both success and failure.
  • Con: growth is not organic (experience earned with [move] may advance a Stat or grant a perk unrelated to [move]); success has a linear return (the number of “experience bubble” is constant).

Some AW derivatives adjust the track and/or triggers. Some, with the same rationale as CoC (XP on failure). Non-organic growth, on the other hand, needs no mechanical fixing. Keeping a character consistent with their concept is the player’s choice. It’s only a con insofar as the system does not guarantee consistency.

Fate as the Best Teacher

If you jumped here from the TL;DR or the introduction, here’s the skinny from the first part: if you’re after tracking experience in Fate, I’d suggest you Frankenstein together concepts from Call of Cthulhu and Apocalypse World and adapt them to Fate. And yes, I used “Frankenstein” as a verb, and I’m sure you get what I meant. 

A Wishlist

Here’s a wishlist for features an experience hack could have to give players some control over PCs’ Fate (I can’t resist a bad pun).

  1. Let PCs learn their lessons. Both “a-ha!” (Success) and “oh shit!” (same, but at a cost) should teach PCs something. Not every Skill-use teaches something though.
  2. Incentivize low-ranked Skill use. Learning from Success at a cost helps. Also, making the learning curve flatter.
  3. Reduce high-ranked Skill spam. When you have a Great (+4) hammer, everything looks like a nail, especially if you have a Stunt that makes it Fantastic (+6) on occasion.
  4. Capture diminishing returns of higher-level skills. Increasing higher-level, better-understood skills should take more time and effort. It’s as essential to balance as (3).
  5. Put PC advancement back into Players’ hands. That one is the most important, in my opinion. I’m not a fan of GM fiat, and anything that reduces it suits me.

Items on the wishlist are ordered by increasing importance, with perhaps the exception of (3) and (4), who are really two sides of the same coin (but I’d handle them differently mechanics-wise). Also, (5) does not need dedicated mechanics: achieving (1)-(4) should suffice.

Mechanizing the wishlist

#1-Let PCs learn their lessons. Actions that create dramatically significant Aspects with [Skill] should allow PCs to mark [Skill]. My favorite interpretation of “dramatically significant” is “I know it when I see it,” but others might prefer explicit conditions (such as free invokes used by another N/PC, etc.).

#2-Incentivize low-ranked Skill use. An Aspect created with a Success at a Major Cost on a Create an Advantage (CaA) with [Skill] has “dramatic significance” potential—that may actualize if the opposition uses the free Invoke. Two down, two to go, but see item #4.

#3-Reduce high-ranked Skill spam. Half of that is incentivizing low-ranked skill use (check). The other half is metagame at Milestones/Breakthroughs. Assuming a CoC-like approach with an Overcome roll with [Skill], adding +mn to the Difficulty for that roll—with m, the number of Stunts referencing [Skill], and n, a numerical modifier—would mitigate [Skill]-cum-[Stunt] spamming.

#4-Capture diminishing returns of higher-level skills. This, too, is metagame territory. Assuming a similar solution as above, tallying successes on the metagame Overcome rolls on an “XP track” for [Skill] based on guidelines for Stress tracks (Fig. 2) would emulate AW’s “experience bubbles” without the cons (but with extra bookkeeping). Notice how lower skills would progress faster (cf. item #2).

Fig.2–Guidelines for Stress Tracks can yield “experience bubbles”

Wrapping Up: No Fate But What We Make

Fate dispenses with the minutiae of tracking experience. I love that feature, its consequences less so, chief among them, that Fate’s character advancement is left to GM’s arbitrariness. And one-sided arbitrariness is never good in a collaborative-storytelling RPG.

I’ve offered suggestions on how to better involve Players in character development. But they cater to my preferences for experience-management mechanics. Yours may differ. And so, I focused on what skill experience would bring to a game rather than on hacking the game. Still, there’s enough for crafty readers to engineer their own hack.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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