Peter’s Principle*–Overcome Anything

TL;DR: Overcome actions are one of four in Fate RPG, but they’re more subtle than they look and pop up in other TTRPGs in ways that are subtly different, and this post goes through a few.

Fate RPG has a remarkably streamlined action economy, with four actions—Attack, Defend, Create an Advantage and Overcome—covering everything N/PCs could do. It’s also adaptable to other TTRPGs: knock the capitals down, and you get categories that apply to any game.

I recently raved over Create an Advantage (CaA). Today, it’s Overcome’s turn. These are really two sides of one coin, which in Fate RPG is somewhat biased. I’ll briefly address this bias as a preliminary and suggest some fixes before moving on to other systems.

Now, I reinvented the wheel so many times with that one that I actually quit counting. Also, I updated my Peter’s Principle* Fate stunt into an Cortex Prime SFX (here for the original story)

Peter’s Principle*: When you declare that you’d rather reason from the basics than ask folks on Discord and dig in your memory, create a Reinventing the Wheel asset, and step up or double your OCD Logician Distinction for one scene.

Preliminaries: Two Sides of Fate

Create an Advantage (CaA) fulfills three functions: odd-skewing, fiction-editing, and occasional-backfiring. I discussed them in a recent post, which left implicit that CaA:

  • skews the odds by improving the chances of the N/PC that CaA-ed,
  • edits the fiction by adding details that were not previously there,
  • occasional backfires by adding details skewing odds against the N/PC that CaA-ed.

Overcome does all that, too, in a slightly different way. How so? Well, let’s start with an example, inspired by actual gameplay.

Brynjar Björnsson is trying to force open a reinforced door while not alerting “By the Book” Bjarne, a guard Brynjar and his two companions recently sent on a fool’s errand. Elias, Brynjar’s player, decides to try and Overcome the door. Jake, the GM, checks the rules for difficulty and opposition.

Brynjar is A Bear of a Man, so Jake decides it’s not impossible but still “tough” which, according to the rules, warrants a Fair (+2) difficulty. According to the rules, doing it quietly adds another Fair (+2) increment for a Great (+4) total.

Brynjar’s Physique is Great (+4), and the others can help with a Fair (+2) Teamwork bonus for a Fantastic (+6) total. Things are looking good for Brynjar!

Alternatively, Jake could have picked any of the following alternative descriptions, compatible with the rules-as-written (RAW).

  1. The door is a Great (+4) Reinforced Door, factoring in both the quality of the door and the difficulty of opening it silently;
  2. The door is a Fair (+2) Reinforced Door, and there’s an added (+2) Fair difficulty to open it silently.
  3. The door is a Fair (+2) Reinforced Door, with one free invoke on its Aspect, representing the extra difficulty of opening it silently.

Each converts the RAW difficulty differently: (1) wraps it into a Situation Aspect rated on the Adjective Ladder; (2) splits it between a (rated) Aspect and its environment, and: (3) keeps the Fair (+2) rated Aspect and adds a free Invoke worth a Fair (+2) bonus. Mechanically, however, all descriptions are equivalent and do not affect the possible outcomes.

Jake announces that if Brynjar succeeds, the door silently ceases to be an obstacle; that on a tie, Elias can decide whether Brynjar opens the door but alerts Bjarne, or cracks it open (earning a Boost for his next attempt) but not enough to go through; and that, should Brynjar fail, “By The Book” Bjarne will be alerted, and the door would remain closed.

Whichever of (1), (2), or (3) Jake chooses, Brynjar’s action can:

  • skew the odds by potentially reducing the chances against Brynjar and his teammates—e.g. preventing an NPC from CaA-ing the door against them;
  • edit the fiction by removing something that was previously there (the reinforced door);
  • backfire, leaving in place something that could skew odds against Brynjar and his teammates—e.g. if an NPC CaA the door against them.

Three remarks about the bullet points. First, Overcome mirrors CaA, with implicit conditional clauses (“potentially” and “could”) reflecting that odd-skewing and backfiring are conditional on NPCs’ strategies (namely: taking CaA actions, on Situation Aspects, vs. the PCs).

Second, Situation Aspects with free Invokes are foreshadowing devices, not necessarily more (see The Fine Prints). Players may not realize the GM could upgrade the door into an Aspect NPCs could CaA. But a Reinforced Door with a free invoke enters their range of attention (which is a thing).

Third, the example generalizes to every interesting Overcome situation. That may seem a strong claim, but I’m a logician, so I know a few tricks. Here’s one: an Overcome situation is interesting if, and only if, it is one to which the generalization applies. And bam! Correct, by definition. The best kind of correct, if you ask me.

All of the above may seem awfully Fate-specific. Only it’s not. CaA and Overcome form a binary system, and Fate is far from the only TTRPG in which they do. And that’s my cue for a system swap.

Having it Both Ways

If you skipped the first part: Fate’s Overcome action is a blend of odds-skewing and fiction-editing with a pinch of occasional drama. And the last sentence gives you déjà-vu (or, as it were, déjà-lu) that’s from here, copy-pasted, with a one-word substitution.

Creating advantages (the topic, then) and overcoming obstacles (the topic, now) are two sides of one coin. The coin is somewhat biased in Fate, so Overcome actions need some boosting. But that’s not the case in other games. Let’s have a look at how to have it both ways.

Apocalypse World: Leader of a Pack (Sorta)

Let’s begin with my favorite move from my favorite Apocalypse World/Fallen Empire playbook, the Chopper’s Pack Alpha—re-skinned as Bloody-Crowned for FE’s Wolfhead—as shown Fig. 1 (or p. 35 in the book; also, p. 187). As a reminder, AW’s dice rolls are 2d6+[stat], and Choppers/Wolfheads start the game with +2 Hard, averaging Pack Alpha at 9 until (at least) their first XP advance.

Fig. 1. Pack Alpha, D. V. & M. Baker, Apocalypse World 2E, p. 35, fair use (commentary & criticism).

Pack Alpha is Overcome and Creating an Advantage both, on +10; either-or (player’s choice) on 7-9; and either-or-both (hard snowball) on 6-, ticking all the boxes very subtly (see The Fine Prints), and that could be a perfect model for a custom move for Brynjar (see next section).

Then again, even with an OCD Logician Distinction, I’d only prep a custom move for a door on a Hinder. My go-to recipe for Overcome in AW is a much simpler one-two punch:

  • announce future badness, the general-purpose move for MCs (Masters/Mistresses of Ceremony) for foreshadowing, to take care of the range-of-attention business;
  • act under fire, the basic (+Cool) move every PC has, ticks all the boxes (cf. Fig. 2, or p. 136 in the book).
Fig. 2. Act Under Fire, D. V. & M. Baker, Apocalypse World 2E, p. 137, fair use (commentary & criticism).

Like Pack Alphaact under fire introduces complications on 7-9 success, and you probably guess where I’m going with that. Before I get there: Overcome is a reaction to threats, and nearly everything the MC preps for in AW is a Threat (actual or potential). So, if you skint a little, you’ll find Overcome elements in many moves.

Cortex Prime: Yeet Stuff

Reminding the reader of Cortex’s Roll-and-Keep is probably overkill at that point, but I have a reusable block in WordPress, so might as well use it.

(R&K) Assemble a dice pool of n dice, then: (1) roll the n dice, discard all 1s; (2) keep and add their display value: that’s your total; and: (3) keep m’ and note the side rating(s): that’s your effect(s).

I’ll assume the typical values of n=3, m=2, and m’=1 for definiteness and simplicity and look essentially at m’. Next, consider the following “Beat to Yeat” which is not vanilla Cortex, but comes straight from MRH (modulo copyright-laws-friendly paraphrasing).

(B2Y) In a con/test, target a trait in the opposition pool. If you succeed and your effect die rating is higher than the target trait, shut it down; if your effect die is equal to or lower than the target trait, step it down.

For Cortex-savvy folks: (B2Y) is not intended to apply to multi-dice Boss and Mob traits, or Scale traits, and I assume “good faith” gameplay, so I’m sidestepping player abuse, etc. In vanilla Cortex Prime, (B2Y) is the standard for multi-dice Crisis Pools. In MHR, the first Cortex iteration of (R&K), the mechanics (B2Y) paraphrases are introduced by the bit of text in Fig. 3.

Not everything you want to affect in a big Action Scene is a character. You’ll often want to use your powers or natural talents to destroy, eliminate, overcome, or repair something in play that’s either causing trouble for you and your allies or helping your opponents. You can target significant objects and conditions with your actions when they’re represented in the game by traits.
Fig. 3. Cam Banks et al., Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, p. 54, fair use (commentary & criticism)

I’m not averse to redundancy or playing Captain Obvious, but this one is a bit on the nose even for me. So, I’ll let you figure out how, based on this, (B2Y) ticks all the *ahem* Overcome boxes (is it still commentary if you do the guesswork?), then look at Fig. 4 and the Fari card for Brynjar’s door.

Fig. 4. A reinforced door.

Now, what is immediately apparent to Coretx-savvy folks, but maybe not to another crowd, is that the Reinforced Door could, in principle, be added to a PC’s pool just as easily as to a GMC’s (Game Moderator Character). With that in mind, Brynjar’s player has two options here.

  • Break the door. Build a complication—say Broken Door—to take out the door, effectively rendering it useless for anyone.
  • Yeet the door. Forcing the door open with (B2Y), leaving it usable for later.

In the game that inspired the example, Brynjar’s player yeeted the door, and one of Brynjar’s companions later blocked the door from the other side to prevent the party from being disturbed. The door went from an obstacle (to overcome) to an advantage they did not even have to “create,”—although technically, a roll was involved, but I’ll leave that for a follow-up.

The Fine Prints

Static Bonuses? The Fair (+2) Reinforced Door with one free invoke, as a foreshadowing device, introduces a “static” bonus: no N/PC had to take action for it, somewhat against Fate RPG’s design principles. Folks whose opinions I value have different opinions (here, but a dead-end if you’re not a member). I’m okay with pre-loading for equipment if I can play out load-out scenes. Also, for outnumbered Big Bads (cf. the CaA post): it’s no more static than a solo bonus. Finally, I stand by my low-bookkeeping NPC teamwork, because it’s gated by a Stunt. Then again, if I’d genuinely enjoyed static bonuses, I’d still be playing GUPRS. For full disclosure: at the time of writing, I play in one Fate game (and GM none), the GM is ex-GURPS and okay with pre-loads, and most of my Fate tweaks are hack jobs for him. If you’d rather read about “hacks” with no static bonuses, hit me with a wishlist on The Dirty Window.

The Subtle Pack Alpha. For odd-skewing: on 10+, the Chopper gets something they’d have to make a move for otherwise (one of two ways AW-style CaA skews odds) and avoids two potentially disastrous move snowballs. On 7-9, it’s either-or, but there’s still at least one sure thing. For fiction-editing: on 10+, the Chopper gets both the CaA-like (“what you want”) and the Overcome-like fiction edits (no fighting back, no example, no bid to replace them). On 7-9, it’s either-or, but there’s at least one guaranteed edit. Finally, for occasional backfiring: short of 10+, Pack Alpha is a big, steaming pile of complications, and with a default of hard+2, the Chopper’s day-to-day average for a while. Again, since AW is about dealing with Threats, various playbook moves have this CaA-or-Overcome structure. Despite differences, AW and Cortex are closer to one another than to Fate, which divides CaA and Overcome more rigidly.

Wrapping Up: Almost There…

Overcome actions, be they called that or by other names, are fascinating. Overcoming an obstacle may be “just that” (it’s gone, move along) or may let the obstacle linger around for future use. Fate RPG establishes a dichotomy between overcoming and using as an advantage, but they’re really two sides of one coin. Apocalypse World and Cortex Prime don’t even have a coin.

In the CaA post, we saw that, in Cortex Prime, asset-creation is a test vs. a difficulty. And Overcome, as (Y2B), uses both a difficulty and an effect die. Now, what if, instead of simply overcoming a trait, one tried to change it? That’d be both overcoming and creating an advantage. That would be an interesting twist on Fate (I love a terrible pun).

That’s the “there” we’re almost at, but that will be all for today, folks.

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