Peter’s Principle*–Single-Action Fate

TL;DR: If Fate had only one action, it would be Overcome—or rather, Overcome*—but is it smart? Maybe not, but it’s smart*.

As a general rule, I’m not a fan of my day job bleeding into my hobby. This is primarily because of how it does it and which part of my day job it reminds me of—usually, that’s the parts I enjoy the least, and incidentally, those that can negatively impact gameplay (one example here).

Still, on occasion, RPGs also remind me of the aspects of my day job I like the most. And one of them is making models of stuff that capture said stuff by combining the least possible moving parts. And I love Fate and Apocalypse World (AW) for letting me do that a lot.

In the Rise to the Challenge series, I reflected that one could virtually think about any type of story in Fate terms (mainly for game prep and improvised side-quests). “Challenge,” “Overcome,” and “Create an Advantage” are generic enough that anyone could translate Fate-specific advice into generic RPG advice with minimal mental gymnastics.

In this post, I’d like to push this logic just a little further but at the same time feed it back into Fate. I’ll let you judge if that is being smart or a smart aleck.

It all started with an Apocalypse

In Fate’s terms, AW only has one base action and handles everything (much) like Fate’s Stunts. From that standpoint, a possible question is: what if Fate had only one Action? That’s not a new one. I’ve seen it raised in more than one discussion on the Fate Tabletop RPGs Discord server.

Then again, with a few exceptions, folks over there don’t have a lot of interest in digging into AW’s mechanics, and that’s how I ended up writing over here instead of just spitballing over there. Also (spoiler alert), I’m not advocating for reducing Fate’s actions to one—just for learning as much as possible from looking at Fate through a particular crosshair (AW joke: check).

Fig. 1-Fate Contaminated

Overcome* passive* opposition

Anyway, the answer to the question above is rather obvious. Fate could do everything with Overcome*, where the “*” indicates stretching the interpretation of “Overcome” (the vanilla action) to the point of wordplay. Here’s what I mean by “wordplay”:

  • Attack. Overcome* the opponent’s defense (say, skill and armor).
  • Defense. Overcome* the opponent’s attack (skill and weapon).
  • Create An Advantage (CaA). Overcome* the status quo (environmental factors).
  • Overcome. Overcome* any situational or conceptual obstacle (duh).

Let’s disregard (for now) differences in outcomes for vanilla actions and focus on roll calls. Attacks and Defenses call for “active opposition” (opposed rolls). CaA and Overcome may call for it too (seldom) or for “passive opposition” (often). And there goes the segue to the first question: is the interpretation of “passive opposition” stretchable too?

The varieties of opposition are Fate Core terminology, and Fate Condensed SRD cleaned that up as “opposition” (for active) and “difficulty” (for passive). This makes the second question easier to answer. Let’s call difficulty* anything rating picked directly on the Ladder, i.e., that’s not a roll’s numerical output matched with an adjective on the Ladder.

Fig. 2-One action to rule them all.

Difficulty is difficulty* but difficulty* is opposition, too

In principle, any natural process with variable results could be Bronze-Ruled just because they’re on a Bell curve. For instance, we could roll any [Medicine Name] as a Skill vs. some [PC’s Name]’s [Consequence Rating] to check if [PC’s Name] is an average responder or an outlier. But is it dramatically appropriate? Sometimes, perhaps. Other times, not.

The above is a corollary of Fate’s “Fiction, Not Physics” moto (or, in the above case, “Not Biochemistry”). “Fiction First” implies, more generally, that not every Action is worth a die-roll. But there are borderline cases. Here’s an example from actual gameplay.

Ajuji (they/them) an Insightful Engineer, and Brynjar (he/him), a Versatile Tinkerer, are facing four Armored Mechanical Spiders, which are Great (+4) Ruggedized Mechanical Marvels with Great (+4) Probe Sounds & Shadows and Fair (+2) Click Out Of The Way skills. Ajuji, who has studied their blueprint, has warned Brynjar. They are both immobile, making no sound or (moving) shadows for the Armored Mechanical Spiders to probe. Ajuji also knows armor has been added without reinforcing the limbs: any extra weight added to the Armored Mechanical Spiders would cause them to break. They gesture Brynjar and, simultaneously, both jump on top of the two closest Armored Mechanical Spiders. As things could go wrong in interesting ways, the GM calls for an Athletics roll for both versus the Fair (+2) Click Out Of The Way skill as difficulty* for the opposition.

Roll first, decide later

Here’s some AW-inspired gloss about this example: in AW terminology, Attacks are peripheral moves, i.e., non-playbook-specific but situation-specific moves, the situation being: Conflict. Outside of Conflict, Attacks are not in play. So what is the dice roll in this example for? 

  • Thematically, a sneak attack
  • Analytically, Overcome* versus the difficulty* of landing on the Spiders.
  • Mechanically? Hum. Not sure yet. And that’s not even an issue.

Armored Mechanical Spiders are Great (+4) Ruggedized Mechanical Marvels, but they are merely Fair (+2) at Clicking Out Of The Way. They did not see Ajuji or Brynjar coming. So the GM (me) defaulted to their average Bell-curve response (Fudge dice average on 0). That’s for difficulty* but what does it achieve? Well, let’s assume that both Ajuji’s and Brynjar Succeed (as they both did in the game).

Given what Ajuji knows, the Armored Mechanical Spiders are Taken Out, so it’s at least Overcome. There are two Armored Mechanical Spiders left. Were they sentient, they’d be intimidated seeing their comrade fall before even knowing they’re in a fight. In that case, Ajuji and Brynjar could take advantage of Two Down, Two To Go (so, Create an Advantage). But they are not sentient, nor do they have handlers that could be impressed. So Overcome is enough, after all.

Here’s another example from the same Queer Clockpunk Fantasy game, but from an earlier session, long before I began to compare AW and Fate, or even consider the Overcome* doodad, and made similarly inspired on-the-fly determinations on the regular basis (as I do nowadays).

Escaping a gang of thugs, Ajuji hides under a turned-over fishing boat in a fish market and gropes around for anything they could use as a weapon. It’s pitch dark and cramped, but the GM determines that no other factor than darkness is working against Ajuji, and (based on Condensed guidelines) picks a Fair (+2) difficulty for an Overcome roll. Ajuji Succeeds with Style and gains a Boost that Ajuji’s player, who remembered that fishnets use lead weights, names Now I Have A Sling And Lead Shot, Ho! Ho! Ho! Given this sheer awesomeness, the GM backpedals and declares that the roll was, in fact, a Create an Advantage and that Now I Have A Sling And Lead Shot, Ho! Ho! Ho! is an Aspect with two free invokes.

Retrospectively, I’d interpret this not so much as a change of heart, but as an Overcome* action whose outcome is left undecided—and that’s in part why I eschewed earlier the discussion of differences in outcomes between vanilla Fate actions—until what makes the most narrative sense becomes apparent. 

Wrapping Up: A Companion to the Electrum Rule

Remember the Electrum Rule? If not, the alloy of Golden and Silver rule reads: Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules, but don’t let them dictate what makes narrative sense. Well, Overcome* is a stop-gap while deciding what makes best narrative sense. Then again, it’s not a “fifth action” no more than the Electrum Rule is a “fourth metal rule.”

Why so? Because if you’ve GM-ed Fate, you’ve probably upgraded Overcome actions to CaA, or turned Attacks into Overcome in the spirit of the Silver Rule, without waiting for me to be a smartass about it. But “a look from the Apocalypse” shows robust interaction between the four Actions and the metal (meta-)rules that can make our Fate games richer.

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

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