Fate/Cortex–Relationships, Affiliations, and Narrative Support

TL;DR: An odd Skill-list option from Fate Condensed solves a Cortex hurdle and yields a solid let’s-try-Cortex-out build for Fate folks as a byproduct—and if you’re in it for the Cortex stuff, you can jump right to it.

Rob Hanz once argued that Fate is “kinda complete” because whatever is not in the rules can be either found easily or extrapolated. I used to have mixed feelings about it but eventually came around. Extrapolation is a feature of the system, and “Fate hacks” miss that more often than not. I’ve been guilty of that kind of miss, but I’m recovering. 

Then again, sometimes, extrapolation bears strange fruits, and this post is about one such—born out of Relationships, a possible substitute for Skills. Long story short, a problematic tentative Fate build ended as a solid Fate-based Cortex build.

The first part is (mostly) about my Relationships issues. Perhaps a more Fate-savvy person could take them in another direction and do better than I did. The second part introduces a Cortex build, and briefly glosses on its use-case, with hints at future developments.

A last preliminary note: links to Cortex material won’t work if you don’t own a digital copy of the Handbook (unless stated otherwise). And I don’t have an affiliate link, in case you wonder.

An Odd Fate Option

Fate Core/Condensed encodes skillsets in:

  • Aspects, implicitly, in particular, those relating to a profession;
  • Skills, explicitly (duh); and:
  • Stunts, more-or-less explicitly, in particular, those broadening or swapping Skills.

It’s totally possible to leverage Aspects and Stunts for skillset-based determinations (FAE does it). Many Stunts are not even skillset-specific, so Aspects alone often suffice to do stuff—e.g., when a task is “not very tough at all [and] an aspect that suggests [the PC would] be good at it” (Fate Condensed, p. 42 or here in the SRD).

Fate builds often play around with the Skill/Approach list, but Fate Condensed has a couple of options I’ve never seen anywhere else (at least, in Fate material). One of them reminded me of my pre-Fate Marvel Heroic Roleplaying days.

Relationships: Leading, Partnering, Supporting, Solo.

Fate Condensed, p. 46 (or SRD)

MHR’s list is a tad different, with Solo, Buddy, and Team, called Affiliations. It’s not a standalone list: you’d use it to build a dice pool. I’ll come back to that near this section’s end, but you may want to check the Wikipedia summary if you never played. The Fate Condensed Relationships write-up prompted three questions in my mind:

  1. Have Relationships seen use in published Fate material? 
  2. What would a Fate game with Relationships look like?
  3. How would that list affect MHR gameplay?

Fate-knowledgeable folks asked about (1) drew a blank (including one who contributed to the book), leaving me and my imagination to answer (2)—so my MHR background will interfere (in a minute). And I’ll keep (3) for the wrap-up because it’s fun but lacks generality. Due to MHR interference, I can only see Relationships working in Combination (also a Condensed option) with a secondary list, but not on their own.

Combination: You may want to have two lists, with players adding together one from each to make their roll […] keeping the potential totals inside the zero-to-cap range. You might have ratings from +0 to +2 on each list, or -1 to +1 on one and +1 to +3 on the other, etc.

Fate Condensed, p. 46 (or SRD)

As a secondary, I’d use Actions, because it’s a 9-item list shorter than vanilla Fate’s 19 (same page/link): Endure, Fight, Know, Move, Notice, Pilot, Sneak, Speak, and Tinker. I have ulterior motives, but I’ll come clean in part two. And it’s for sake of definiteness, anyway.

Also for definiteness, assume a Relationships Diamond (+1, 0, 0, -1) and an Actions Pyramid (+3,+2,+2, +1,+1,+1). With Combination, untrained Actions vary between Average (+1) and Poor (-1) as a result of group dynamics, with a different rationale than, say, Relation Aspects Invokes or Compels. So, possibly interesting.

Now, assume we want to get rid of negative modifiers (it’s a thing, but for The Fine Prints, because it overlaps with Cortex’s design). Our Relationships diamond is now (+2, +1, +1, 0), with untrained Actions between Mediocre (+0) and Fair (+2). Fiction-wise, no teammate ever gets in another’s way. Mechanically, non-null Relationships just became Stunts (one regular, two powered-down). So, boring.

If we backtrack to MHR, then fast-track to Cortex Prime (the evolution of MHR’s engine) Distinctions are, in Fate terms, dice-rated Character Aspects; Affiliations, Fate’s Relationships by other names; Actions, a Skill list option. So, a Combination Fate build is a “two-thirds of Cortex” simulator. Why not follow the logic and try Cortex?

A Fate-Inspired Cortex Build

There’s a roster of reasons for trying out Cortex with a Fate group, which I’ll ruminate in future posts. The short of it is that Cortex Traits (anything with a dice rating) are storytelling guideposts and some players are more comfortable with support from the mechanics than with Fate’s more free-form, conversational approach.

Accordingly, this section delivers a let’s-try-Cortex-out-and-decide-if-it’s-for-us build aimed at Fate folks. It’s written from a GM’s perspective, assuming some familiarity with the system. If that’s not you, the Wikipedia page and (free) Cortex Primer should be enough to get the gist of it.

Basic Port

The port uses three Prime Sets. Anytime a PC takes action, their dice pool will include one die from each set of, and they will tell a story about one of:

  • “Character Aspects” (Distinctions): a High-Concept, a Trouble straight from Fate, and a third Free Aspect instead of a Relation Aspect.
  • “Relations” (Affiliations): using Fate Condensed’s lise: LeaderPartnerSupport, and Solo.
  • “Actions” (Skills): any list would do, but l like the shortlist from part one—if you skipped it: EndureFightKnowMoveNoticePilotSneakSpeakTinker.

Next, Fate has “Stunts” that apply only in definite circumstances and (typically) modify Skills, but can be attached to anything really. So, a non-prime set of Talents (free-form SFX, aka circumstantial rule exceptions) is a natural option. I’d throw in an “Extra”—a Fate Core option still in Condensed, but by other names—for good measure. I’d start with a  Signature Asset, and modify based on what players want it to do.

Fig. 1–Very much a WIP, based on Lynn Jones’ “Cortex Kitchen Sink” Fari template. Ping me (@The Polverine, PhD) on The Dirty Window, The Polverine‘s Discord Servers to get the latest version or chat about the build/template.

Playing with the build

Rarely-seen Fate options may not appeal to every player, but you can bring that closer to vanilla Fate. Fate’s default Skill list (in the Fate SRD) works great with a Cortex skill pyramid capped at D10 (also implicit in Fig. 1). Affiliations encourage a focus on group dynamics and Fate’s list is less constrained by circumstances than MHR/Cortex (see The Fine Prints). But honestly, any Attribute set would do with “Character Aspects” and “Skills.”

Next, here’s a shortlist of what I’d do before a game.

  • First, explain the logic of SFX as a substitute for “Stunts.” I’d expect players to whine about having to spend more “Fate Points” than they used to.
  • Second, insist on the Hinder SFX as a solution placing “Fate Points” generation in players’ hands—no Compels! (a selling point to me, but opinions may vary).
  • Third, recommend The Cortex Primer (freely accessible, quick read) but mention that contests and the effect die are missing; both are in the free Tales of Xadia Rule Primer (freely accessible, longer read).

There you go. Almost. Some Fate mechanics are intentionally missing—particularly, scene-pacing stuff (see that post for a breakdown). They’re crunchier than any Cortex near-equivalent, and I doubt Fate players would miss them so much they’d ask them back. But who knows? I’ll cover them in future posts. Next, three mechanics may come up in conversation, so here’s what I’d do if they do.

  1. Stress: Fate has “tickboxes” Stress and Consequences slots. I’d default to complications as consequences and only pick a stress mod if players really yearn for one.
  2. Initiative: Fate uses action order extensively. I’d default to dramatic order and “regular” contests, and introduce action order as a pacing mechanics, only if the game has boss fights.
  3. Plot Points spending: Original “Fate Points” allow to re-roll dice or introduce story details that don’t work as Assets. The Luck Ability has SFXs for that, so I’d consider it as a campaign/setting default.

The Fine Prints

No subtraction. Fate has no negative modifiers to dice rolls: any factor opposing the PC adds to a task’s Ladder rating. Still, “no subtraction” is not a Fate design principle: 4 out of 9 possible outcomes of throwing 4dF are negative modifiers to Skills. I’m biased against subtraction (due to a mild case of dyscalculia), but there’s an objective reason to avoid negative modifiers. For the nerds: the brain does not process integers as such, but kinda geometrically, i.e., as if moving along a line. “Adding” moves in one direction only, “subtracting” forces the brain to backtrack. Subsequently, negative modifiers may slow a game because wetware processing of subtractions requires backtracking that processing additions don’t (unless, of course, all modifiers are negative). Cortex is friendlier to brains (dyscalculic or not) because the “Roll-and-Keep” method only uses additions, although folks proficient in mental arithmetic may not perceive a difference.

A near-useless Fate option? Here’s the final nail in Fate’s Relationships’ coffin: Fate already has teamwork rules and Relation Aspects. So there’s little use, to begin with, for standalone Relationships. By the same token, they are mechanically redundant when combined with Skills, Approaches, Actions, or whatnot, and narratively unnecessary. The player-GM conversation should suffice to focus on PC’s relationships, with an occasional Compel or Fate Point spending on a Relationship Aspect to get something extra. Cortex is another story. Solo, Buddy, Team capture Marvel comics’ approach to characters and is always relevant but constrained by circumstances (the number of PCs) in ways Trait selection seldom is. Leader, Partner, Support, Solo is less constrained, more open to player choice, and works for a group of two. Incidentally, that’s why I looked into it: to have group dynamics Trait in a buddy-movie 2-player campaign.

Wrapping Up: Dynamic Duos

In 2013, I ran a buddy movie MHR mini-campaign: a Marvel enthusiast friend played Moon Knight, and my wife—usually bored to death by superheroes—reluctantly joined for company’s sake, channeling her grumpiness into Frank Castle. This cast was a workaround to deal with circumstantial constraints on Affiliations imposed by a table of two players. With Moon Knight, we could have a Team of one. 

This post’s Cortex build was born out of vanilla Fate buddy stories with different dynamics than Marvel’s. Fate Condensed “Relationships” were a serendipitous discovery solving a Cortex-building problem. Eventually, we settled on another filler set between Aspects and Actions, but that’s a story for another day.

Also, there’s more to say about competent Fate players moving to Cortex, how dice pools support storytelling, and why they’d do better than Aspects and Skills with some groups. But that, too, will have to wait for another day.

And that will be all for today, folks.

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