Master Your Fate–3: Get a Job

TL;DR: Continuing the series on one-shot Fate, after character- and game-creation, this post brings a full “generic” adventure (almost) ready to play, and you can jump right to it.

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Playing a Fate one-shot is not at all impossible, but it can be tricky. Fate encourages collaborative storytelling and game-creation and works best with a “session 0”-kind of format. Then again, with pre-generated characters or better (if I may say so myself), templates, and a few game-building tricks, you can have the full-on Fate experience with a one-shot.

Since this is Part 3 of a series, I’ll assume familiarity with Parts 1 & 2 and avoid repeating anything here. That way, I can focus on the essential, namely, presenting a sample scenario and enough guidelines to play it. It’s playable in one session but with caveats.

As usual, there’s a short skippable part where I go through the inspirations for the scenario, some “design” notes, and some (very limited) gametales. Then there’s the practical part about the adventure, adapting it, running it, and springboarding from it.

Inspirations and Design (Skippable)

For anything Fate, my trouble is Buridan’s Ass (“paralysis by analysis” if you’re not into ass-humor). So, the RPGs inspirations below are mostly stuff I should have read but haven’t. If I had, I’d still be reading and wouldn’t have run a single heist game. As for “design,” I’m not a game designer. Still, the scenario contravenes some Fate tenets; it’s intentional, so a few words may be in order.

RPG inspirations

First, there’s the stuff I read or perused, and I’ll list them in order of increasing influence.

Leverage RPGCortex+ based. I love Cortex+, Cortex Prime even more, and it was on my reading list, but Margaret Weiss Publishing lost the license before I could buy it. I read some quickstart rules at one point, I think. I’ve also watched the first show, but not the re-boot. Inspiration for heists, templates, and all the goodness that, as far as I can guess, was in the book.

Blades in the Dark, aka Dishonored-PtbA-without-the-IP. Just kidding. It’s its own thing (that “Duskwall,” tho). I love Apocalypse World derivatives, and it was on my reading list until I dipped my toes in. I found it crunchy and gimmicky and running afoul of AW’s “pick-up and play” philosophy. I kinda liked the dice mechanics but, if I’m going for a crunchy and gimmicky system with dice tricks, I’d rather run Cortex Prime (and I do). Heists, templates, and flashbacks are in there, but I got them from elsewhere. What I got from BitD is confirmation they’re a good idea.

Firefly RPG. Another Cortex+/Margaret Weiss defunct IP. Where I got the idea for “flashback scenes” from (long before BitD was a thing). Firefly (the show) had astounding heists—“The Train Job” and “Ariel” and “Trash”—that all got prime treatment in Firefly RPG. I ran a Firefly-spinoff mini-campaign with the meh Serenity RPG, ported it to Savage Worlds, and re-booted it with Firefly RPG right before the group disbanded. I never got to play a heist with the ruleset, nor flashback scenes as “callback” (a mod of Cortex Prime that makes them kind of Invokes/FP-equivalent/once-per-session Stunts), but I fiddled with them as pacing mechanics, and it was awesome.

Second, I should mention stuff because I’m re-inventing the wheel, and the wheel is in that stuff, so referencing it will make me look less like a plagiarist (still like a smart Aleck, though). Everything in this post was already around and (probably) way better, in Infiltration in the Fate Codex vol. 1 #2 (which I skimmed through long after playing The Warehouse Heist’s first iteration) and CrimeWorld by John Rogers in Fate Worlds Volume Two: Worlds in Shadow, which is sorta Fate/Leverage (I read enough to know that Rodgers worked on the show). 

Still, re-inventing the wheel is kind of my schtick at that point. I took a Stunt for it.

Design notes

I’m not a game designer. I know scripted scenarios contravene some Fate tenets; it’s intentional with this one, so a few words may be in order. But the ones relevant to gameplay are in the next section anyway. Still, there’s that thing about how scripted adventures take “agency” off players’ hands. Oh, boy.

Here’s the thing. I’m a philosopher and a logician with a veneer of game theory. Defining “agency” is part of my day job. It’s a muddy topic at best over there. I’m not eager to see it bleed over here, in my hobby. Ontology discussions are not part of my ideal RPGs experience. So I give zero fucks about “agency.”

Still, I do care about not fucking players over, but D. Vincent Baker and Rob Hanz have written much better about it than I possibly could, so I’ll defer to them.

Topic covered. Let’s move on.

A Heist, Ready to Play

First, the adventure is a Fari preset, with all the information you need to run it. I’m not going to cut-and-paste it here. I’m not that lazy. Download it, open Fari, go to “My Binder,” and import it, and you’re ready to roll. If you don’t use Fari, your loss. Cut-and-paste somewhere else. 

Second, the Warehouse Heist is self-contained, but you may want to add an introduction, and it’s definitely missing a conclusion. Then again, you can totally start in medias res—it’s a one-shot, learn-to-play-Fate adventure; the standard for suspension of disbelief should be low, to begin with. I’ll give pointers for an introduction and conclusion in the wrapping-up section.

How to Run the Warehouse Heist

There’s a primary story arc with 3 steps: approachget inget out. Each of the steps is introduced by a read-aloud. Fig. 1 shows the overall structure and the first step. It plays as a cinematic montage: from the discussion at the preparation phase, “flashforward” to action scenes, then back to preparation, etc. Mechanically: 

  • the client describes the options for Overcome rolls (some examples provided);
  • the players chose one skill for the Overcome action at that step;
  • possibly, they go on a side-quest to Create an Advantage (guidelines included, and link to a full tutorial);
  • then they narrate the option, then proceed to the next phase.
Fig. 1–The Warehouse Challenge (first step)

Now, it’s not a Challenge by Fate Core’s Rules as Written (RAW), but I’ll leave the issue for The Fine Prints to keep things civilStill, you’ll probably want to keep track of Successes to determine the overall outcome of the not-exactly-a-Challenge, and (possibly) adjust them to the numbers of PCs to give a spotlight opportunity to everyone (by splitting some tasks and changing the not-exactly-a-Challenge counter).

Tips and Tricks to Run the Warehouse Challenge

The goal of the not-exactly-a-Challenge and the side-quests you can build out of it is to make the PCs look badass and the players feel awesome. It’s justified narratively—the PCs are consummate professionals—and reflected in difficulty scaling. The reason is that you’re setting them up for a Boss Fight (not included) or some final twist, reveal, and cliffhanger (ditto).

So, offer Success at a Cost whenever necessary. Let the players suggest the costs. Postpone minor ones—then pretend to forget them. Or make a show of inflicting a shift or two of Stress (it’s allowed in Fate Condensed, staying civil here; and if you don’t read the rules so, well, “Silver Rule” is all I have to say). It will go away at the end of the scene. If a Major cost is necessary, but the table fails to propose a riveting dramatic twist, offer the What If… option (see The Fine Prints).

The potential obstacle to badassery and awesomeness is that PCs’ are limited to reacting to the employer’s (and thus, the GM’s) suggestions. You don’t want them to feel like they’re protagonists of an interactive movie. Your best counter-move is to let the players freely create their own side-quests from the ground up. Summing up:

  • Let the players freely organize their Overcome rolls as they see fit, split the task, etc., and let them delay their decisions;
  • Let the players try a strategy, then backtrack it with a What if… twist, for instance, when a read-aloud section gives a new idea for an earlier stage;
  • Let the players take charge of the story when they pick an Overcome action for their PCs, and build a Create-an-Advantage side-quest.

That’s all I have to say about the a-thing I give zero you-know-what about (but see Fig.2).

Fig. 2–Full Support for Agency

Challenge with Time Structure. In Fate Core, Challenges explicitly exclude sequential order. And I know that because I’ve read the rules I just linked to. Also, because I’ve taken flack in a public, online discussion, for sometimes running Challenges with sequential structure. Instead of running Vanilla Scenes, with sequential Overcome rolls. And a counter for Success, like a Challenge, but not calling it that way because Challenges don’t have a sequential structure in the RAW. Sometimes, you wonder how the OG Fate designers intended the Silver rule to be read. Anyway, Fate gatekeeping can get annoying like that, and the incident riled me up enough for a 150-odd words rant, but no more. If you have problems with sequential Challenges, call them otherwise. Or don’t give them names, just combine mechanics. And for a breakdown of scene mechanics, you can go there.

What If… Often in cinematic montages, the camera follows the team, with a voice-over confidently describing the action until the team hits a snag. Then the frame freezes and the scene cuts back to the preparation time, and the setback turns out to be a mere what if… scenario. The team discusses the issue, there’s another cut, and the action re-winds until a solution can be introduced. You can mimic this by allowing players to declare the outcome of an Overcome action they don’t like was, in fact, a what if… (you can ask a Fate point for it). Suggest a Create an Advantage to support a new attempt. The first time I ran the adventure, I started in medias res and let the PCs roll to jump from the rooftop. One missed, Succeeded at a Major cost, alerted the guards. Cut. Back in the room for the preparation phase, an NPC said: “We need a zipline.” And they went to a side-quest for it.

Wrapping Up: Details and Devils

The Warehouse Heist’s write-up, like any premade adventure, handwaves many details, and that’s as many places for devils to hide. But remember, it’s a one-shot, and the standard for suspension of disbelief should be low, to begin with. Be upfront with it. If a game-breaking kink surfaces, work it out with the players. There’s a lot of room to add stuff, so it can happen.

Introductions and conclusions depend on how close you want to stick to a one-shot conceit—or want the players to learn about the system. For a true one-shot, cook up a story where the PCs are Dead Brokecompel the Aspect for everyone, and explain that the Fate point will help later. Crank up the difficulty ratings a notch to make the not-exactly-a-Challenge the main event, forget about a BBEG, and let PCs race against the guards through the sewers as a Contest.

The first time I ran it, I wanted to showcase Conflict rules and Create-an-Advantage (CaA) strategies ahead of a BBEG fight. I had an NPC trying to coerce (Provoke) the PCs into taking the contract because he had swindled them, and they were Dead Broke. Then again, I had agreed with the players on three sessions. So it was not a one-shot.

The second time I ran a variation, the players were fluent in CaA-ing and didn’t need a crash course, but the employer did not provide a plan, so they had to build their own not-a-Challenge by themselves. To speed things up, I compelled one of them to accept the contract, and greed did the job for the rest of the party. But again, we had agreed on three-four sessions.

If I ever pursue this series, I’d discuss adding a BBEG to the adventure or recycling its model to re-run it under another form. BBEGs are more setting-sensitive than warehouses and sewers, so I’d consider adapting the adventure to a setting on the fly, which is also helpful for a true one-shot without BBEG that includes a setting selection (see Part 2).

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

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