TL;DR: This post looks at Fate’s Create an Advantage through the lens of other rulesets, then loops back to Fate and the sad condition outnumbered Big-Bads.
Fate RPG has a remarkably streamlined action economy, with four actions—Attack, Defend, Create an Advantage (CaA) and Overcome—covering everything N/PCs could do. I’m a big fan of it for multiple reasons, but first and foremost, because it’s adaptable to other TTRPGs. In short: knock the capitals down, and you have categories that can facilitate prep for any game.
CaA skews the odds in the PCs’ favor and tends to dominate the Fate action economy. That’s a feature with known issues and workarounds I’m okay with, being a fan of mechanics that give PCs an edge. In fact, I even exported CaA in other systems I’ve played, and it taught me a thing or two about Fate.
And that’s today’s topic: how to emulate CaA in Apocalypse World and Cortex Prime, and get some Fate mojo in return. So, if you’re in it for Fate stuff, read the first part, then jump to the conclusion, peruse it, and decide if you need to backtrack for clarifications. Otherwise, the first part analyzes Fate’s CaA and Aspects and the second proposes translations—and you can jump right to it.
The Logic of Advantages (Skippable)
CaA is powerful by design and reflects Fate’s origins in Amber Diceless RPG, where PCs are strictly partially ordered by stat rankings. With no dice, stat-based binary comparisons always decide who prevails the same way, all other things being equal. Still, PCs lower in the order may stand a chance if they “un-equal” things—like Corwin vs. Duke Borel.
Fate has Fudge dice for random variance (even the best have bad days), and thus needs “tie” outcomes (dice roll results are not strictly ordered). But Aspects and free Invokes, the outcomes of CaA actions, let players manipulate fiction, break ties, and overall skew the odds in the PCs’ favor, because “Aspects are true” and Invokes modify dice results.
CaA introduces minor balance issues in many-to-one situations. But that’s Fate-specific, will be lost in translation, and is self-correcting anyway (see The Fine Prints). That’s in part thanks to an ever-present risk of backfire on failure, where free Invokes go to the opposition—great for drama, with CaA snowballing into Overcoming backfired Aspects.
I strive to keep all those features in non-Fate games I play the most, Cortex Prime (CP) and Apocalypse World (AW). These games are as versatile as Fate in the CaA-like department, but a raw translation may lead to not seeing the forest for the tree. To avoid that, let’s set a wishlist for what CaA-like mechanics should allow.
- Edit the fiction: that’s the Aspects-are-true part.
- Skew the odds: that’s the Free Invoke, un-equaling-things part.
- Backfire for drama: that’s the “all of the above, but for the opposition” part.
Next, let’s look at how AW and CP can achieve fiction editing, odds skewing, and occasional backfiring.
Leveling the Playing Field
If you skipped the first part: Fate’s Create an Advantage (CaA) is a blend of fiction-editing and odds-skewing with a pinch of occasional drama. Open-ended Aspects come easier with high-end linguistic skills, feeding into the perception that Fate is somewhat elitist—but it’s just a perception, not a reality: spitballing at any game table would turn a bland Machine Gun Aspect into an awesome Now We Have A Machine Gun, Ho! Ho! Ho!
Still, perceptions can be intimidating. And there are neurodiverse and/or socially awkward players (I have both in my favorite group) who don’t spitball too well and fare better with additional scaffolding. They can get it from other systems or a few Fate “hacks” inspired by such. So, let’s proceed with that.
Customizing the Landscape (Apocalypse World)
Starting with Apocalypse World (AW)—and not seeing the forest for the tree—the base-game move for CaA-like gameplay in AW is declaring retroactively that you’ve already set something up (p. 276), a custom peripheral move from the Advanced Fuckery chapter.
When you declare retroactively that you’ve already set something up, roll+sharp. On a 10+, it’s just as you say. On a 7–9, you set it up, yes, but here at the crucial moment the MC can introduce some hitch or delay. On a miss, you set it up, yes, but since then things you don’t know about have seriously changed.
This write-up explicitly checks the fiction-editing and occasional-backfiring boxes. Odd-skewing is implicit in the 10+ “you set it up” result, which dispenses with other moves—typically +cool act under fire or +hard go aggro/sucker someone, or even do battle.
Now for the obvious: declaring retroactively… is a +sharp move. Of all AW’s playbooks (including extended), only Angels start out with sharp+2 without a [stat]-2 to balance it. So, building a non-Angel PC for fiction-editing and odd-skewing comes at a steep entry cost.
Then again, declaring retroactively… is not vanilla, so criticizing AW for not balancing for it would be pretty bad faith if you ask me. Also, the proverbial tree mentioned earlier. Indeed, declaring retroactively… is a custom move, and custom is custom: if you made one, you can make others.
Fig. 1 exemplifies a custom move (1b) based on a non-vanilla Threat kind that I won’t detail, save for the one type I need (1a; still, all moves are co-opted from vanilla AW Threats). Card (1c) generalizes (1b) with a CaA write-up that could probably work for many situations.
I like to latch CaA-like custom moves onto Threats because it’s an instant recipe to figure out the 6- result: pick one (or several) of the Threat’s moves, and voilà: backfiring drama. I’ll come back to that in the next section because Cortex Prime really one-ups AW on that one.
Generally speaking, AW’s custom moves can achieve all things Fate’s Aspects can, and then some (see that post’s conclusion), at the minor cost of increasing the GM’s burden slightly. That’s a selling point for groups like mine, but otherwise, the spitballing solution to Aspect-framing would most likely cut it for on-the-fly custom-move design.
Now, there’s an important discussion about whether it’s a good idea to ask AW to capture CaA-like gameplay, to begin with, but I’ll leave that to The Fine Prints.
Counting your Assets (Cortex Prime)
If you’re a regular around these parts, you should be familiar with Cortex Prime’s roll-and-keep resolution by now, but let’s copy-paste it for reference anyway.
(R&K) Assemble a dice pool of n dice, then: (1) roll the n dice, discard all 1s; (2) keep m and add their display value: that’s your total; and: (3) keep m’ and note the side rating(s): that’s your effect(s).
Under normal circumstances, n=3, m=2, and m’=1, but I’ll show a different case in a minute. As for the 1s, let’s just say for now that they’re called hitches. Thanks to CP’s bronze-rule-by-no-particular-name, (R&K) alone supports CaA-like gameplay. Let’s illustrate with an example, to make things more lively, using the Fate-based build from that post (n=4, because a Specialty applies).
Qan’ef Elmesovy, a sort-of-thief, tries to escape the authorities, taking advantage of a panicked crowd. Since Qan’ef must maneuver the Panicked Crowd, the GM rules the task Challenging and rolls a pool for a total of 6.
Qan’ef’s player, Jake, cooks up a dice-pool story selecting her Contrarian Trickster Distinction: Qan’ef is making a point of Pride (Value) to Sneak (Action) past law enforcement officers, rather than taking an easy way out, to show off her Escape Artist qualities (Specialty). Jake rolls his dice pool for a total of 15 and an effect die, beating the GM’s total.
Since Jake beat the GM’s total by more than 5, he can step up his effect die (unfortunately, just one short of doing it twice) to a Hidden in the Chaos Asset. But Jake has also rolled a hitch: the GM proposes that the crowd has cut Qan’ef from her teammates and offers 1 plot point. Jake takes the offer, and the GM gives Qan’ef an On Her Own complication.
Fig. 2 shows the outcome of Qan’ef’s action, an asset, and a complication, matching one of the Panicked Crowd‘s Threat moves (see the previous section). Since the crowd’s existence matters more than its impulses or moves, I did not make traits out of them (unlike with Monk the Dick or Hum(e)an NPCs). But the moves still provided a blueprint for the complication (more on that in a minute).
Generalizing: in CP, at any time, a PC can take a test vs. a GM total and, if successful, create an asset: a free-standing trait with an m’-dice rating they can add to their dice pools thereafter. As shown by the example, the process ticks all the CaA boxes.
- Fiction-editing. The asset is a trait with a name and a die rating—bronze rulz!
- Odds-skewing. The player has one more m’-rated die to build future dice pools.
- Occasional-backfiring. The GM can introduce complications on hitches.
The icing on the cake: in CP, backfiring is orthogonal to success/failure. That’s quite unique—to the best of my knowledge, only Castle Falkenstein’s magic system had something similar (if you know better, please let me know). Qan’ef scored a Heroic success yet incurred a complication—and a different roll might have resulted in an uncomplicated failure.
Now, assets are just short of Aspect-that-are-true and obey a different logic. In short: they are props receiving narrative clout (a dice rating) for one PC—their creator or someone they pass along—for one scene. Metacurrency spending can extend assets to multiple PCs or scenes, and that’s one way to fully recover Aspects. And there’s a little more to Cortex-to-Fate comparison to make, looping back Big Bads, but that’s for The Fine Prints.
The Fine Prints
CaA with Big Bads In a two-or-more PCs vs. one Big Bad situation, the PCs have (at least) one Attack and one CaA per turn, while the Big Bad can only either-or. After a couple of turns, free Invokes stack up high enough to skew the odds in the PCs’ favor and tenderize even the toughest Big Bads. Vanilla Fate suggests fudging Big Bads’ survivability. An easy trick (not in the book) is pre-loading Big Bad’s Aspects with free Invokes (they’re smart and came in prepared). If you let the players target those Aspects with Overcome actions to knock Invokes out, that’s one more thing to do other than CaA for outnumbering PCs and some extra survivability for the outnumbered Big Bad. Of course, the Big Bad can target PC-created Aspects too—but they’re still at a numerical disadvantage. The drawback is Big Bad with bonuses that don’t require on-screen actions—which Fate usually avoids—but the tricks in the book do that, too (Solo Bonus, anyone?), so, as the French saying goes, ça m’en touche une sans faire bouger l’autre. Note that Cortex is remarkably immune to PC-vs-Big Bad imbalance, thanks to (R&K): without extra PP spending, n=2 no matter how many assets the PCs pile up.
Is CaA in AW a good idea, anyway? The declaring retroactively… move is peripheral, custom, Advanced Fuckery, and labeled “Playing with the Form.” As pointed to me by user @Bro (any/all) from the Apocalypse World Discord server, abusing it may simply break the game (my words, paraphrasing theirs). As the Bakers write, “The players’ job is to say what their characters say and undertake to do. […] Your job as MC is to say everything else: everything about the world, and what everyone in the whole damned world says and does except the players’ characters.” (AW, 2e, p. 81) CaA-like gameplay affects “the world” in potential breach of the AW player-MC division of labor. Still, some playbook moves already do that: the Battlebabe’s Visions of death, the Brainer’s In-brain puppet strings, or the Chopper’s Pack Alpha and Fucking thieves. They have built-in MC safeguards in 7-9 and 6- results, same as declaring retroactively… and that’s (in part) how AW maintains its intended emergent gameplay, with some local breach of contract. But I wouldn’t recommend fiddling with CaA-like moves in AW indiscriminately, and I owe @Bro for making me think twice about it.
Wrapping Up: Create Advantages, However
Create an Advantage dominates the Fate action economy for a reason—or ten. It has known adverse consequences for Big Bads’ survivability, but it’s a feature, not a bug, and part of Fate’s DNA anyway. Standard countermeasures include ad hoc Big-Bad-buffing options (here in the SRD), but comparisons with other rulesets suggest other solutions.
CaA exports seamlessly to Apocalypse World (AW) and Cortex Prime, and interacts well with Threats. If you’re considering a change of pace from Fate, both systems have advantages. AW’s custom moves are adaptable to all situations but increase the GM’s prep load. CP’s assets retain the open-endedness of Fate Aspects but add a twist, with possible complications even on success (but also uncomplicated failures).
Now, if you are not interested in trying out either AW or Cortex, you can still mine them for gameplay options. One of them is to increase the Overcome-to-CaA ratio in favor of outnumbered Big Bads. And I’m sure that you could come up with others.
But that will be all for today, folks.