Wonky Wednesday–Self-Compels, Everywhere

TL;DR: Player-facing metacurrency earning is not a big thing in Fate, but this post includes a recipe to make it a bigger one. Probably.

Metacurrency is a lynchpin of narrative-friendly TTRPGs and generally materializes as “points” of some kind—like Fate’s fate points (duh) and Cortex’s plot points—to be spent on temporary fiction-editing and rule-bending benefits.

Back in the “old school” TTRPGs days, on-the-fly fiction-editing and escaping the ordinary consequences of a rule (aka “fudging”) used to be the game moderator’s (GM) exclusive purview. But metacurrencies blurred the player-GM line by putting both into the players’ hands—at a cost.

Until recently, I had failed to consider the Fate’s Compel mechanics in that light. But today, I set the records straight. It’s time to make compels great again. I got this. Probably.

A Neglected Argument for Compels

In Fate Core, players earn metacurrency (Fate Points, or FP) one of three ways: refreshing them to a base value at a session’s beginning, conceding to end a conflict, and accepting a compel—an FP for a complication, which they can refuse if they pay an FP. Despite some second-guessing, the original compel is still Fate’s Rule as Written (RAW) per later editions (Accelerated and Condensed).

Fate Core includes examples of GM-led compels (event-baseddecision-based, and situation-based) that constrain PCs and a discussion without examples of players compelling other players or themselves as an afterthought. Fate Condensed mentions player-led compels first, but with no examples, and states that “the GM takes over running the compel for the affected target.”

So, compels sound like a big deal. It is, however, well-known that player-created Aspects give better value than FPs, for both bonus-granting and fiction-editing. FPs can buy a re-roll, but failing a roll is good drama, so an FP-bought re-roll is less fun than embracing failure. All in all, a Fate game does not suffer much if everybody forgets about Compels and self-Compels.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that some folks would disagree with that last statement, and probably violently so. But I honestly don’t get how “compels are in Fate’s RAW” entails that “not using compels is playing not-Fate.” Feel free to correct my limited understanding in the comment section.)

Still, all of the above leaves one huge blind spot: players can compel NPCs and Situation Aspects vs. NPCs. While not explicit in the RAW, it’s not ruled out either. And the possibility made me reconsider: as a Fate GM purposefully avoiding compels, I repeatedly failed to provide examples to players of how to use them against me.

Now, I’m not keen on redeeming GM-led compels beyond “teaching by doing,” and I’d rather stick with self-compels. But NPCs’ self-compels are not a thing in Fate and thus not something the GM can “teach by doing.” So, it’s time for a hack some trick.

A Self-Compel Trick

Fate Core provides fill-the-blanks write-ups a GM can use as blueprints for read-aloud to introduce event-based or decision-based compels (Fate Accelerated and Condensed do the same). For soon-to-be-obvious reasons, I’ll stick with the latter (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1-Decision compels

Consider a GM setting PCs up for decision-based compels without outright railroading (ignoring that compels are FP-bought railroading). Our hypothetical GM thus constrains themselves not to plot scenes triggering token decision-based compels, but they can still think about types. (If you’re unfamiliar with the distinction, invest some time in reading this.)

If I were that GM, I’d go for knowing the PCs’ Aspects inside and out and visualize some stereotypical decision-based compel situations—which, to be honest, is what any Fate GM worth their salt should do. Now, because I’m a logician, I’d probably wrap the visualization thingamajig into a conditional clause. Below’s an example.

Ajuji is an Insightful Engineer (High Concept) who is on A Spectrum of Their Own (Trouble) and is also an Eye-Hand Coordinator (Free Aspect), making them a great shot and a skilled sketch artist. Because of those Aspects, it makes sense that: (a) if the solution to a problem could be to shoot something, then they’d want to try it, oblivious of other approaches; and: (b) if the solution to a problem could involve drawing stuff, then they’d want to try it regardless of impracticalities.

That’s a handful of type situations a GM could tokenize—e.g., I’d consider adding to a scene a clear line of sight to a potential target or some complicated machinery with partially exposed internals, as bait. Generalizing, a GM could:

  • work backward from some PC’s Aspect to some conditional “If [Aspect, situation-type] then [potential decision]” where [potential decision] may have ill consequences; then:
  • bring about situation-tokens and bribe the player with an FP into making [potential decision] to introduce a complication. 

So far, nothing but Fate’s RAW. But this is about to change with (somewhat predictably) some Cortex Prime (CP), which shares with Fate game concepts, history, and designers.

CP’s metacurrency, Plot Points (PPs), is close enough to FPs, if not identical. One relevant difference is that compel-like PP-earning is player-facing and internalized as a special effect (SFX) attached to a Distinction (short version: CP’s equivalent of Fate’s Aspects) called The Folly (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 2. Cortex Prime’s almost-compel
Cortex Prime Game Handbook, p. 63

As you can most likely figure out by yourself, The Folly‘s translation into Fate lingo is straightforward—you just have to squint a little. Still, if you captain-obvious the translation into a write-up, it yields a generic paraphrase for decision-based self-compels.

The Folly. Gain a Plot Point Fate Point when you choose to do something detrimental related to the distinction Aspect.

I don’t know about you, but I’d take another step in CP’s direction and outsource The Folly to players as (kind of) a stunt attached to Aspects. I’d see a twofold benefit: less bookkeeping at the GM’s end and self-compels landing square within the players’ range of attention (it’s a thing).

Wrapping up: Compels are Means to an End

The Cortex Prime-inspired Fate hack trick I just proposed attaches self-compel write-ups to an Aspect. It’s a bit more constrained than free-form compels but is not intended to replace them. So it’s adding options to the toolbox without taking out anything, which I think is ok. It would add a bit of text on a PC’s sheet and thus may or not qualify as a “Fate hack,” depending on your threshold.

I’ve GM-ed Fate for years without caring much about compels or Fate Points (there’s a bit about that story here). I may have deprived the players of some fun gameplay opportunities. Don’t be that guy, gal, or person.

More self-compels, and thus Fate points, allow for more PC-led compels on NPCs. Imagine bringing in NPCs with their own Folly stunts for even more fun. 

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

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