Monkeying Monday–Story Junctions

TL;DR: A never-ending quest to become a better Fate GM has sent me on a sidetrack, but I came back with a cool prep trick, and if you don’t care how I got it, you can jump right to it.

Recently, my never-ending quest to become a better Fate GM has sent me on a sidetrack, and I ended up making a TTRPG with a bunch of friends. None of us being game designers, we used a toolkit (not Fate), but we’re all pretty thorough folks, so we ended up adding our own two cents.

As it turned out, one of these additions can find uses in other TTRPGs (including Fate). We called them “Story Junctions” or Junctions for short (with capital “J” because it has mechanics). In short, a Junction is a bundle of narrative resources created during game prep, or on the fly, for pacing and improvisation. The resources may have different functions in the game, both dramatic and mechanic. 

As usual, there’s a bit about the idea’s origin and how it’s implemented in this here post, and a worked example. You can absolutely skip the first part, but some suggestions in the second part may seem weird if you do that. Then again, feel free to jump right to it.

Junction DNA

First, we claim no originality in the whole “Junction” idea. It’s a mash-up of stuff from other games and other game designers. If you know your Apocalypse World (AW) and your Fate SRD, they should elicit a sense of familiarity—for the first, with Threats and Threat Maps; for the second, with Rob Hanz’s ideas about scaling scene-level pacing mechanics up to the adventure/campaign level.

Second, it was designed for a particular system, but it’s generic enough. The system, Cortex Prime (CP) has its own economy, mechanics, and jargon, and Junctions use a good deal of each. Glossing over them would however be a distraction. CP’s design principles differ from Fate (or AW) and although some features translate well enough, others would have been Bronze-plated and really weird. So, losing them in the translation was intentional.

Third, the Fate translation is generic enough, too. It plays on the notion that Fate’s core (pun intended) vocabulary is just vernacular-with-capitalization. If you read Fate-specific advice in good faith and practice some minimal mental gymnastics (knocking the caps down), it could apply to any game. So, this post’s goal is not so much to translate a CP hack into a Fate hack but to propose a generic prep tool.

Finally, in the Fate-or-Generic translation, “bundles of narrative resources” is borderline word salad. In CP, however, these resources are all mechanically identified, but a Bronze-Rule translation, although possible, would be redundant (also, not generic), thus hindering the game flow.

CP, however, has more ways than Fate to leverage fiction mechanically. So the Fate-or-Generic translation is somewhat impoverished. What remains is that Junctions have internal structure and relations to stuff outside of them, including (possibly) other Junctions. Internal and external articulations identify them as a category distinct from scenes, plots, or NPCs.

A worked example

Junctions bundle stuff that may not be discovered simultaneously nor appear in the same scenes but fit together narratively. Moreover, they identify elements by narrative function (first) and mechanics (second, if at all). Examples would be:

  • Dramatic. A secret, a reveal, a twist, an ally, an opponent, a faction, a set-piece, a whole sub-plot, a new main quest, a side-quest.
  • Mechanics. An in-game object with a stat block or tag (NPC, gear, Aspect, etc.) or a metagame object with specific rules (scene type, counter, countdown).

Concretely, a Junction is built out of a story pitch. It could be the main story, a side story, or just an episode. Here’s one I came up with from the game we designed Junctions for.

Mr. Poole is a former accountant of “Mad Dog” Doyle, who embezzled money and has gone underground. The PCs are hired to find him before he disappears for good. 

That’s enough to get the ball rolling. It’s an example from gameplay, so I will write “I” a lot, but I don’t think there’s anything special in my process.

Narrative prep work

First, I fleshed out the outline with information the PCs would either know up-front or discover along the way, with just enough details to get things going. I usually leave stuff to make up in-game but always do a second pass and pluck obvious plot holes. You can do that or plan everything D&D-like. Below is an example of adding stuff: the regular text expands the blurb above, and the underscored text was added at a second pass.

After years working for “Mad Dog” Doyle, Poole reached a breaking point. He skimmed just enough money to pay for safe passage and some muscle while waiting. The goons he hired have been on “Mad Dog” Doyle’s payroll on occasion (that’s how he knew them), but they are independent and lack loyalty one way or another. While waiting for his ride, Poole has holed up in a hideout his hired muscle can defend, even if outnumbered.

That much information was already all needed to run a session. It did not tell me how to run it (yet). To get a little more mileage, I began to list items PCs could learn about independently and could play out differently, here: Poole’s motive, who’d help him, and where he’d be. With this list, I proceeded with the mechanical prep work.

Mechanics prep work

I like to keep “mechanics prep work” minimal. I don’t plan scenes, nodes, or whatnot, where Junction’s information would be revealed (more on that later). If that’s your thing, go check The Alexandrian, but honestly, with Junctions, that much planning is overkill. In Fate-or-Generic terms, for each item, I did this:

  • Make Aspects. For each listed item, choose a tagline. 
  • Determine Outcomes. Briefly characterize what happens if the PCs Overcome the Aspect or Create an Advantage with it.
  • Optional: Bronze-Rule. If the Aspect is an Aspect of something, make that something up, too (if necessary, or fun).

For instance, for Poole’s story, I’d have “I Just Want Out!” for his motive, “We’re In It For The Money” for the hired goons, and That Old Spartan Trick for the secure hideout. I like to put stuff on Fari cards, and I did it for that story, so I’ll just flash the pictures in the next section.

In-Game discovery and resolution

In-game is where Junctions shine. The notion is that when the PCs learn about an item, they advance the Junction counter. Unless you Bronze-Rule the Junction or its questions, there’s just one way to progress: learn about a listed Aspect in a scene. Still, you have options. Here are three, depending on how much time you have.

  • Open. Reveal everything. Throw the PCs in action, with an exposition scene.
  • Overt. Frame explicit questions about each item, to come up in exposition, too.
  • Covert. Give a cryptic tagline for each item, to be discovered in any type of scene.

The Open approach is straightforward. Cards are on the table, Aspects are known, ways for overcoming them or turning them into advantages are spelled out, and outcomes of doing so. Playing becomes a matter of choosing how to solve the problem. That’s great for a one-shot with limited time for a build-up, but there’s not much surprise (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1—Open: everything’s on the table, just add planning.

In the Overt approach, the questions are on the table, and playing is about finding answers (Fig. 2). There could be a scene where the PCs ransack Poole’s office and guess his motive from his ledger. Or a player could say: “You know what, let’s find out why Poole did all that,” and go for a single Overcome action (in Fate, a single roll). And the same, mutatis mutandis, for Poole’s contacts, hideout, etc. Every time they’d find out about one Aspect, I’d reveal ways to deal with it and outcomes of doing so or let the PCs figure them out by themselves.

Fig. 2–Overt: learn the questions, find the answers.

In the Covert approach, the PCs must frame the questions before looking for answers (Fig. 3). In practice, this could play out the same as overt: PCs could ransack Poole’s office and check his ledger for “a reveal” or just say, “What kind of Overcome actions do I have to take to get the reveal?” (ditto for the other items). Or I could let them wander about a bit more. Then again, if the story is slow-moving, I could still call for an Overcome roll for an item.

Fig. 3–Covert: frame the questions first.

Wrapping up: Going Generic

Fate-or-Generic Junctions are toned down from the crunchier but more versatile mechanics of Cortex Prime. Fated-down, they are akin to obstacles: Overcome them, and you discover the Aspects in it. Moreover, Fate-or-Generic Junctions work for any game: they are scene-generator, telling: (1) what matters for dramatic purposes; and: (2) why it matters. Have them at hand when you have to improvise a scene, and you’ll know what to focus on.

They are still a work in progress, so a file would be obsolete very quickly, I’d have to update it, I’d forget, etc. But you can take inspiration from the image below and alter the end-product to best suit your needs. Hit me on the Fari, the Fate Tabletop RPGs, or the Official Cortex Discord servers if you want my latest Fari file.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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