Fiddling Friday–Fate Dice, Less (Often)

TL;DR: This post offers guidelines to get a lot out of the Skill pyramid, the Adjective Ladder, and Fate points, without breaking too much the narrative flow with pesky dice rolls, and you can jump right to it.

Few things say “Fate RPG” louder than a handful of Fate/Fudge dice. Still, a Fate game runs smoother the fewer and far apart the dice rolls are. Granted, I might just be projecting personal preferences here. And although I share them with most folks I’ve played with, it might be a case of birds-of-a-feather.

So, if you don’t have a preference for Fate-with-fewer-rolls, you could save some time for yourself and quit reading just now. Otherwise, if you share them or are curious about them or their game-mechanical consequences, be my guest.

I won’t linger on my preferences, but there’s a bit about the job dice rolls do that explains why I’d be partial to getting rid of them on occasion. The game-mechanical consequences of doing so stand on their own, though, and you can jump right to it.

Fate’s Dice Dynamics

Fate builds on a particular interpretation of “fiction first.” It calls for a dice roll conditional on a PC’s action having dramatic consequences if going wrong. Then, and only then, does the fiction call for mechanical arbitration, which breaks down, in turn, in “before the roll” and “after the roll.” So let’s break that down, shall we?

Before the roll

Assuming that conditions for rolling the dice are met, before-the-roll splits between GM and Player. The GM’s part is straightforward from the rules as written (RAW). Paraphrasing:

  • set the difficulty, i.e., pick an adjective on the Ladder from simple guidelines;
  • determine consequences of failure from simple guidelines (again) for major and minor costs.

In practice, the GM can postpone cost determination until after the roll. I usually figure out and announce the cost upfront if PCs clearly know what could go wrong and otherwise deal with it post hoc. Also, I typically negotiate costs, which tends to slow gameplay down, but your experience may differ.

In principle, the players’ side is just “pick a Skill” (or “pick an Approach” in FAE). But in practice, Fate Core Aspects, Skills, and Stunts interplay in various ways (the same goes for FAE Aspects and Approaches, and then some). However, that’s for the Fine Prints because it’s not dice-rolling specific.

Neither is the question: which of the four Actions is undertaken? The answer is not always straightforward (see here and here) and interplays with scene mechanics (see here). It can be postponed until after the roll (see here), although I’d wager this may not be to everybody’s taste. 

Now, none of the above requires that a dice roll should follow. The “should follow” part makes it more than a Captain Obvious or duh! remark, but only just. To see this, let’s check what happens after a roll.

After the roll

Assuming the intricacies of choosing a Skill, an Action, and determining costs have been dealt with, after-the-roll mechanics boil down to:

  • PC total vs. difficulty* comparison, where “total” is short for “PC’s Skill modified by Fate dice total and bonus-granting Stunts” (if any), and difficulty* is (passive) difficulty or (active) opposition (see here for the “*”);
  • extra spending of either free Invokes or Fate points on relevant Aspects—which, being open to both players and GM, may lead to bidding wars; then, conditionally on the Action:
  • fictional feedback, i.e., the introduction or removal of “named” mechanical elements—Aspects, Boosts (if named), and Consequences; and/or:
  • mechanical feedback, i.e., introduction or removal of “unnamed” mechanical elements: bells and whistles for named ones (free invokes and who’d get them), and/or bookkeeping ticks (Stress, Challenge, Contest, and, optionally, Countdown clock dials).

Now, if you squint a little, none of the above requires dice-rolling. Not even the first one. Without dice roll, “PC’s Skill modified by Fate dice and bonus-granting Stunts” equals to “PC’s Skill modified by bonus-granting Stunts” alone.

Doing away with rolls

The rules below build on waiving rules I posted a while back. Since then, I’ve switched to an almost-diceless play and used them extensively, so there’s an update or two. The Fate Point options are new and have seen about as much use as waiving rules when I published them. So, not thoroughly tested.

Dice-less Rules are split by outcome for (hopefully) self-explanatory reasons. I’ll explain the “-” in conclusion, and don’t read too much into my calling them “Rules”—they’re just guidelines I’ve used repeatedly and put in “rule” form to share with my players. So, they’re not a “Fate Diceless Hack.” Promise.

We’ll need two shorthands from my earlier post (slightly modified):

  • the Effective Difficulty (of a task) is the task’s difficulty on the Adjective Ladder, determined per standard guidelines (with some adjustments); and:
  • the Effective Skill (of a PC) is the PC’s Skill rating on the Adjective Ladder, modified by relevant bonuses (Stunts, free Invokes, and possibly paid ones).

Fate Dice-less I: Success & Ties

As seen in part one, the GM’s first job is setting difficulties. As it turns out, official guidelines (FATE Condensed, here in the SRD) seamlessly translate into a “ground zero” Dice-less Rule (DR) for automatic Success. To that, I’ve added a Fate Point option for good measure.

(DR0) When a task is unchallenging, or a PC has an Aspect suggesting they’re good at it, they Succeed. If the latter, for the cost of a Fate Point, they Succeed with Style.

The FP option gives PCs access to extra benefits for Success with Style, such as additional free invoke or boost, if the chosen Action grants one. It’s subordinate to a relevant Aspect, which I think is enough for balance. Also, “good” need not be Ladder-good, aka Good (+3), because no difficulty rating has been set anyway.

Per the official guidelines, challenging tasks start at Fair (+2). I prefer to add +1 for extra factors working against the PCs rather than the “official” +2 in general. But I apply the “official” +2 guideline with NPC-created Aspects whose intended purpose is to hinder the PCs is in play. That’s not part of the rule, though, which is as below.

(DR1a) When the Effective Skill exceeds the Effective Difficulty, the PC Succeeds. If it exceeds it by 3 or more, or if the PC can spend an FP to invoke a relevant Aspect, the PC Succeeds with Style.

Since there is no dice roll, both Free Invokes and FPs can contribute to the Effective Skill. The “or”-part is thus just a reminder to offer the option of FP spending, rather than just say: “Ok, you’re good.” if no spending is needed for Success. Next, come Ties, with a tie-breaking option.

(DR1b) When the Effective Skill equals the Effective Difficulty, the PC Succeeds at a Minor Cost. Optional: an Aspect suggesting the PC is good at the task breaks the Tie at the cost of 1 FP (subject to GM determination).

I usually restrict the Option to “permanent” Aspects (character, gear, relation) rather than “transient” ones (resulting from CaA actions or declared story details), but that’s open to negotiation. (DR1b) option effectively collapses “minor cost” to “cost of 1 FP,” and that may seem a bit much. If so, feel free to waive the FP cost. I do that on occasion.

Fate Dice-less II: Failure and Major Costs

I don’t Compel much for reasons not everybody needs to agree with (see the Fine Prints). If you’re like me, there’s a risk for dice-less play to break the FP economy. (DR2) is framed with an option to counteract that. 

(DR2) When the relevant Effective Skill is lower than the Effective Difficulty, the PC Succeeds at a Major Cost or Fails (Player’s choice). Optional: if the Player chooses Failure, they earn 1 FP.

The Option makes FP-earning more player-facing, at least for players whose self-compel game is not top-notch. Still, it’s a significant departure from vanilla Fate and a bit “hacky,” but that’s precisely why I like it—it dispenses with vanilla rules I don’t like much (see, again, the Fine Prints). Also, why it’s an option that you can drop—didn’t I promise: “no hack”?

The Fine Prints.

Skill Overlap & Tie-Breaking. Fate Core skills overlap by design, with the magnitude of overlap depending on Aspects and Stunts. A Cat Burglar can crack a lock with Burglary for obvious reasons, and may receive occasional narrative permission to substitute Burglary for Athletics (to climb a wall or break a fall). A Versatile Tinkerer may claim narrative permission to substitute Craft for Burglary to crack locks by declaring they’ve tinkered with locks in the past (maybe at a Fate Point cost). By contrast, a Genius Car Mechanic might have to take a Stunt (call it “Hotwire”) to substitute Craft for Burglary as a lockpicking skill because cars locks are not similar enough to car engines. Except for the Cat Burglar’s lockpicking, none of these cases is clear-cut. Permissions are open to negotiation based on: (1) guidelines set during “Session Zero,” or: (2) in-game determinations. Most of the games I’ve had PCs in were (2)-only. The experience convinced me to GM mostly-(1) games. If anything, going dice-less increases dependency on negotiation, especially with (DR1b) tie-breaking. Type-(2) negotiations are major gameplay speedbumps, so I’d recommend stressing Session Zero before going dice-less, in particular, if considering the tie-breaking option in (DR1b)—and even more so if waiving the FP cost.

Fate Points. I’m no fan of Compels, which I see as bribes to temporarily turn PCs into NPCs. I like self-Compels better, but players are often too busy to come up with good ones. So I usually award FPs for “in character” decisions differing from what players know is the best course. Consequently, even before going dice-less, I already encouraged Create an Advantage and free invokes, and downplayed FP spending and paid invokes. Since Compels-as-GM-takeover let the GM describe a PC’s Action instead of allowing for a roll, dice-less gameplay further blunts their edge. In one group, it resulted in a string of sessions without spent or earned FPs, which bothered me a bit. That was the rationale behind (DR2) and doling out FPs for accepting Failure. Cortex-savvy players may also recognize the influence of the Hinder SFX (short for “Special Effect,” roughly: a kind of Stunt). In short, the Hinder SFX awards an FP-equivalent to a player taking a higher risk of receiving, roughly, a hindering Aspect (hence the name). That would be closer to Success at a Cost, so (DR2) is less nuanced, rewarding straight-out Failure. That’s a reflection of FATE being less subtle than Cortex about dice rolls outcomes, but that would be a topic for a Cortex-based post.

Wrapping Up: Fate Diceless? No: Fate Dice, Less.

Fate’s interpretation of “fictions first”, as per the Golden and Silver Rules, is that bringing in the game rules breaks the narrative flow. Yet,  thanks to the Adjective Ladder, difficulties and skill ratings remain expressible in narrative terms. Subsequently, the most significant disturbance is Ladder-based arithmetic.

(DR#) incorporate a fair bit of it, but collapses the before- and after-dice rolls parts, and sharpens the focus on AdjectivesFate is, however, not designed as a diceless game, so there’s a price: variance is entirely lost (see this post’s conclusion for “variance” vs. “mean”). And there are occasions where that price is too steep.

Take Conflicts and Contests. There, variance captures stressful circumstances. And as an intellectual exercise, I’d love to complement (DR#) with diceless Con[flict/test] rules, but that would not be Fate anymore. And so, my players and I still roll dice in Conflicts and Contests.

Interestingly, simulation-based TTRPGs from the 1970s and onwards, were rule-heavy-in-conflict, rule-light-everywhere-else, mainly because they were, at heart, skirmish simulators. I still remember when “role-play” was how we called in-character conversations between encounters. When we did not have to roll the dice.

And that’s a paradox of going dice-less with Fate. It brings the experience of a fiction-first game closer to that of a physics-first skirmish simulator. How quaint.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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