Bronze Rulz!–…For Non-Actors

TL;DR: The Bronze Rule has been around by other names for a while and has sisters from other mothers; I took some inspiration from one of them, and if you don’t care where I got it, you can jump right to it.

While I love Fate, a few of its aspects (pun intended) do bother me on occasion. One of them is the most Fatey thing of all: the Bronze Rule. Take for instance the Bronze Rule page of the Fate Core SRD: it sends you to a post (“The Limitation of the Bronze Rule”) in which Ryan Macklin ties the use of the Bronze rule to conditions such as being “an actor” or “capable of its own actions.”

When I transitioned from the physical book (that I had used since 2014) to the SRD, the juxtaposition of a Rule and advice on not to use bugged me a bit. I realize that I may be one or two bandwagons behind, too, because the Bronze rule is not as fashionable as it used to be (it’s nowhere by name in Fate Condensed), but it is still a massive part of Fate’s gameplay. But the way I’ve used it on occasions has gone against Ryan Macklin’s test for agency (see the Reddit-inspired Caveat).

And that used to bother me. So I tried to make sense of my trouble. And in the process, I may have accidentally tripped on another game that has the Bronze Rule by another name. There’s a bit about that, but you can skip ahead. But before that, a caveat.

A Reddit-inspired Caveat: I’m aware using “agency” as shorthand for “being an actor” or “being capable of its own actions” is unusual in TTRPG contexts, where it is usually reserved for players’ Agency (capital “A”: making real choices and not being railroaded or compelled). That’s probably why Macklin used the longforms, not the shorthand. But it’s standard practice everywhere else—sanctioned by Merrian-Webster, def. 2—and it’s just a shorthand (one word instead of three, or six). If you’re only familiar with the term from TTRPGs, feel free to substitute mentally “being an actor” or “being capable of [possessive pronoun] own actions” to “agency” everywhere in that post.

The Skippable bit: “Anything you can do…”

Cortex Prime sort of has the Bronze-Rule by another name. Let’s fix intuitions with an example: a player declares their intention to bash a Sturdy Door open. A Cortex GM has then two options (capitalized terms are game lingo).

  • Option 1: GM decides it’s a pass-or-fail. They grab a Dice Pool (including a die encoding the door’s sturdyness) and set a Total that the player then has to beat (with their own Dice Pool).
  • Option 2: GM decides it’s dramatically appropriate to oppose. The player rolls a Dice Pool first; the GM can then waive the opposition (“Give In,” in Cortex lingo) or try to beat the PC’s Total with a Dice Pool (including a die encoding how sturdy the door is)

Since Leverage RPG, options 1 & 2 are called Test and Contest, respectively (I won’t discuss Fate’s Contests in that post, so there’s no risk for ambiguity). Possible outcomes for Option 1 are pass or fail, but Option 2 is different.

  • Case 1: The PC prevails. The Sturdy Door takes a Complication (Fate: a Stress-like Aspect) or is Taken Out (same lingo as Fate).
  • Case 2: The GM prevails. The Contest loops back with the GM’s Total becoming the new difficulty: the player becomes the opposition.

From there on, whoever takes the opposition role can Concede (gain a Plot [Fate] Point) or roll a Total and risk a Complication [Stress-and-Consequences]/being Taken out. Since Totals increase with each loop, eventually, one party will Concede or be Taken Out. The process is represented Fig. 1. (Concession is an option only after the first loop; equivalently: when the opposition has a Total).

Fig.1–A Flowchart of Cortext Prime’s Contests

Handwaving bells-and-whistles (third-party interventions and “mods” for standard turn-based action), that’s enough to back the claim that Test-and-Contest resolution is Bronze-Rule-by-another-name. And so, the default resolution (barring “mods”) in Cortex Prime is the Bronze-Rule-by-another-name. Here’s a short history lesson to the same conclusion, courtesy of Cam Banks—with my thanks for letting me quote verbatim from the Official Cortex Discord server. 

The idea that you can assign traits to anything is really what Fate’s Bronze Rule is about. Everything can be a character, etc. This first showed up in Cortex in Serenity, the OG Cortex RPG, where spacecraft and vehicles had the same [stat] sets as PCs: same attributes, same skills. This predates Fate’s use of it in published material, but really it was an idea that had been implemented in games before this, as far back as the 70s and 80s. It isn’t “called” anything in Cortex because it’s just how Cortex works.

Cam Banks

A Bronze Rule Option

If you skipped the first part: Cortex Prime has the Bronze-Rule-by-another name. More accurately, by no particular name: the Bronze Rule is Cortex Prime’s standard resolution system. Discussed was the following case: a PC is trying to bash a Sturdy Door open. Let’s say it’s a Good (+3) one and lay down Fate options matching the Cortex Prime case.

  • Option 1: Vanilla. The PC takes an Overcome action with Physique vs. Good (+3) difficulty.
  • Option 2: Bronze Rule. Same PC action, but the GM rolls active opposition with an ad hoc Good (+3) Sturdy Door skill.

First, let’s handwave Option 1: Success and failure must have dramatic consequences for a dice roll to be called for. Let’s assume they have. Now for Option 2: on the surface, it goes against best practices for “limiting the Bronze rule.” And that’s the part I’m not so sure about

Most events or successions of events in Nature have results that vary “on a curve.” Including Fate/Fudge dice rolls (which, incidentally, are “events in Nature”). With that in mind, flat difficulties on the Ladder and Fudge dice rolls have an alternative interpretation to passive vs. active opposition or without-agency vs. with-agency.

  • Difficulty (on the Ladder)= the Good (+3) Study Door is a mean  Sturdy Door (on a Bell Curve centered around Good (+3) ones).
  • Rolling an ad hoc “skill”= the Good (+3) Study Door coul be any Sturdy Door (on a Bell Curve centered around Good (+3) ones).

Under this interpretation, Fate defaults to “normal” (mean) while Cortex defaults to “variance” (any). That’s a philosophical difference between Fate and Cortex, but from a Fiction standpoint, both make sense. The take-home is that rolling Fate Dice does not force acknowledging agency to a Good (+3) Sturdy Door. It could be just “variance,” not “reaction.” There’s a bit more to where that comes from in The Fine Prints

The Fine Prints

Agency? What Agency? Compared to material properties, defining “agency” is a doozy. Take AI, for instance: a thermostat counts as an “agent” (an “intelligent” one, to boot) because it reacts to its environment—like the Steranko from Leverage and Macklin’s postGame Theory (GT) is even more lenient: a gene, and even Nature, are agents. Nature is not a “strategic” agent, however. Its “moves” are represented mathematically by lotteries, i.e., probability distributions (over possible sets of events) that do not adapt dynamically to other agents.

By that light, Cortex Prime’s resolution is just the GM playing Nature’s moves. Now, GT’s bar for being an “agent” is pretty low. Yours may be higher and, like Ryan Macklin’s, involve intentions and/or the ability to adapt and react to other agents. That would be GT’s notion of “strategic agent.” Macklin’s agency test restricts dice-rolling to strategic agency in GT’s language. All I say is: you can roll dice in Fate for nonstrategic agency as well. Then again, you could just forget about all this agency business, and think in terms of “mean” vs. “variance.”

Wrapping Up: Physics and Fiction

The “means vs. variance” business may not seem to improve much on Ryan Macklin’s “actors vs. obstacles vs. things” test. It looks suspiciously like “Physics, not Fiction.” On the other hand, Macklin insists on “narrative” reasons to consider things capable of action, and that’s fiction, not physics, right? Well, maybe not.

First, the “narrative” restriction of the Bronze rule to actors has a correspondence in “physics” modeling. When seen that way, it is very strict (in Game Theory, see The Fine Prints). Second, “mean vs. variance” also has a narrative interpretation: difficulties on the Ladder could capture circumstances the PCs know what they’re up against, and Fudge Dice rolls, cases where they don’t—while also mechanically mitigating GM fiat (introducing variance for difficulty).

Now, I didn’t go through the trouble of making a Cortex’s contests flowchart without ulterior motives—which may or may not be a Fate “Bronze Rule Hack.” But for now, here’s one, very tentative suggestion: one might (on occasion) roll Fate dice before the PCs with a pseudo-Skill (+N) rather than picking +N on the ladder, the Cortex way. That may or may not be the Bronze Rule, but it would capture PC (and GM) uncertainty, and reduce GM fiat.

Also, I can see plenty of good reasons not to do that. So if you have one, don’t do it.

And so, that’s all for today, folks.

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