Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fate Core Issues

I was recently in a conversation with someone discussing the Wild Talents game among a couple of other things and mention of Fate came up prompting the other person to respond that they hate Fate because it pretends to be versatile and flexible but it really isn't. Her reasoning behind that pointed toward the skill system and how advancement is done. It is an issue I have with Fate Core myself and one of the reasons I shifted to other forms of Fate that still make use of the Aspects without having the skill system I don't like. However, it occurs to me that I missed an opportunity to share understanding that I have gained of the thinking behind Fate's skill system.

Just to warn, I am going to go over a lot of the issues and problems the Fate Core skill system has for me before I start explaining how I came to look at the system from a different direction. That's because, my explanation for how to rethink things really won't work if you don't understand the perspective I was coming from originally that made it seem problematic. This is also going to be somewhat lengthy since I'm actually touching on several different aspects of the game that are tangentially connected to the central one.

To start with, let's discuss the skill system in Fate Core. There are a list of skills which you can add to, remove from, split up, or otherwise modify to better fit your specific campaign. The SRD entry giving the default list of skills is linked through this sentence. To start with, you have one skill at +4, two skills at +3, three skills at +2, and four skills at +1. As such, a particular character might come out looking like this:

Drive +4
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1, Investigate +1

These skills give the basic bonus you get when you roll for specific tasks and are modified by the use of Stunts and Aspects.


So far so good. Now comes to advancement. Fate uses milestone based advancements.

Minor Milestones

Minor Milestones allow you to change stuff around, alter Aspects (except for the High Concept), and other such things but doesn't actually add new resources. You can also choose to burn some Refresh in exchange for a new Stunt or Extra if the specific campaign allows it.

So after a Minor Milestone I could choose to switch two of my skills so that it now looks like this:

Investigate +4
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1, Drive +1

Significant Milestones

A significant milestone allows you to do all the stuff that you could do on a Minor Milestone but it also gives you +1 skill point to place. However, there is a caveat, the number of skills you have at one level must be equal or less than the number of skills you have at the lower level. For example, if I place my point like this:

Investigate +4
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2, Drive +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1

Then that would not be allowed because I now have more skills at +2 than I have at +1 and that's against the rules. First I would have to do something like this:

Investigate +4
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1, Drive +1, Provoke +1

And then next significant milestone I could raise Craft to +2 because it would look like this:

Investigate +4
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2, Drive +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1, Provoke +1

There are 4 +2s and 4 +1s, I'm good.

Likewise this would not be allowed:

Investigate +5
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1, Drive +1

Because there are no skills at +4 and thus there can't be any skills at +5.

Major Milestones

Major Milestones do everything that the Minor and Significant Milestones do, but also give you +1 Refresh which can then be spent to gain new powers in some campaigns. The Major Milestone, however, is not where the problem lies for myself and my friend I was speaking to the other night. It is the way Skills advance that gave me and give them issues.

The Problem

The overall problem with the Skill System in Fate Core that gives me issues is that it does not model real-world skill acquisition as I understand it to work. For example, let's look at the Minor Milestone. It allows you to make one minor change and one option is switching the positions of two of your skills. In practice I've generally seen people switch +2s and +1s, +1s and +0s, +4s and +3s, etc...skills within one level of each other. This is fine as compared to real world skills as someone can advance one skill at the cost of another deteriorating. This is realistic. But if you go to the example I had above, I switched my +4 skill with one of my +1 skills, specifically Drive and Investigate.

From my original perspective, this is sort of like if a world-class race car driver suddenly lost the majority of their skill behind the wheel but suddenly acquired Sherlock Holmes level deduction skills. That doesn't happen in a short period of time.

I've also seen cases where a person has flipped their skills to account for challenges they expect to come up in that game session. This felt to me like a very metagaming thing to do and kind of felt a bit off. You don't suddenly have more money just because you expect to have to buy something tomorrow.

Then comes the addition of the ladder and its requirements. On the one hand, I can understand how this system can sort of fit a real world skill acquisition model. There are theories that an acquisition of a broad number of fields can give you lines on new perspectives that help advance a skill that seems entirely unrelated. I have actually seen that theory supported in practical experience. However, that said, it still feels wrong to think that I can't just increase my +4 skill, I have to first build up a base of other knowledges and skills below that to support moving it to +5. For one thing, I have also encountered people in real life that are really, really good at one or two things and absolutely terrible at most other things.

Another issue for me is that not all of the "skills" are actually skills. Physique, Will, Contacts, and Resources are all regarded as Skills but to me that feels a bit off. The real world manner in which Physique and Will are built is different from how skills advance and Contacts and Resources each have different mechanics entirely.

My Original Solution

I first played Fate via the Dresden Files game and dealt with the headache of dealing with the Skill system as described above. After that, we switched to a new steampunk campaign using Strands of Fate which dumped the ladder and other such things in favor of a system of Abilities and Advantages.

I am not going to get in depth into the differences between the two here, I have an older discussion on that subject linked in this phrase (it probably needs some updating since it was written from the perspective described above under The Problem.) What I will note is that Strands of Fate lacked the ladder and the necessity of having enough +1 skills in order to be able to support the number of +2 skills I wanted.

The Abilities represented core basic characteristics and talents rather than skill and training. So a person who had a 2 Strength had an average ability with all applications of strength from lifting to melee fighting. A person with a 5 Knowledge would have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of every subject known to man. To represent training in specific applications you had Advantages.

For example, if I wanted a character who was very stronge but not a particularly good fighter, I could do the following:

Strength 2, Athlete (+1 bonus to broad range of athletic tasks), Herculean Strength (+2 to Strength when lifting/carrying weight, breaking objects, +2 bonus damage on successful attack).

This would mean that when I roll to attack I roll with a +2 bonus (Strength alone), but if I roll to lift a car off someone trapped in wreckage I would roll with a +5 bonus (Strength + Athlete + Herculean Strength).

This is not even accounting for Aspects and especially Persistent Aspects which can be used without spending a Fate Point in some ways.

If I really wanted them clumsy in combat but really strong still I could do the following:

Strength 1, Athlete, Herculean Strength, Persistent Aspect: Stronger than they Look(Strength)(P)

This allowed for characters that were average in some aspects of an Ability but very skilled at others. For example, the sample character for Divine Blood has the following:

Agility 2, Endurance 2, Perception 3, Strength 1

This doesn't feel like it would be a good match for a powerful swordswoman, but she also has the following Advantages:

Weapon Specialization: Swords (+1 to Attack with all swords), Deadly Grace (use Agility in melee instead of Strength), Soft Style taken twice (+1 per each instance to defense in melee, total +2 defense in melee), Weapon Master: Rapier (provides persistent Master of the Rapier(P) Aspect).

She then has Aspects she can spend Fate Points to invoke if necessary: Master Class Swordswoman (Agility), Protector of the Peace, and Will be the Best Secretary Ever (secretaries being the title for some of a particular organization's best operatives).

She also had the Acrobat advantage, but compared to how many points she spent on her combat abilities (four Experts and one low-cost Power Advantage, 6 pts total) she only spent a bit on her acrobatics (one Expert, 1 pt). As such, as regards Agility related tasks she has the following bonuses:

Melee Attack without a Sword, Ranged Attack, Stealth, Lockpicking, Sleight of Hand, Fine Control, All Other - +2
Melee Attack with a Sword, Navigating Difficult Terrain, Surviving Falls - +3
Melee Defense - +4
Melee Attack with a Rapier - +3 plus Persistent Aspect Master of the Rapier(P)
Melee Defense with a Rapier - +4 plus Persistent Aspect Master of the Rapier(P)

This satisfied me as a logical way to handle the advance of skills though I ended up finding the Strands of Fate gameplay cluttered with a lot of over-complicated mechanics, so I eventually matched the character generation to Fate Core's much more fluid and versatile gameplay so I had the game flow I wanted with the character generation that made sense for me.

Along Come Fate Accelerated Approaches

Fate Accelerated came out sometime after I had published Divine Blood and when it came out they had dropped the Skill system of Fate Core in favor of Approaches. There were six Approaches: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. You would have one of these at +3, two at +2, two at +1, and one at +0.

At first, I was perceiving this as some tasks being assigned to some approaches, such as Forceful clearly having all of the strength tasks. I first thought it was just a very slimmed down version of Fate Core, which it was, but this is also where I started getting the window on how my perspective on the Fate Core skill system differed from the intention of what the skill system was supposed to be.

There were two things that opened this window for me, the first was listening to an actual play podcast using Fate Accelerated where all the characters were doctors or disease experts of one sort or another set up to try and stop a world wide plague. I was initially mystified as to how this would work because clearly everybody would be taking Clever or Careful as their main Approach. But no, it turned out that they hadn't and it was rather illuminating. One of the doctors had a primary Approach of Forceful and tended to solve his problems by taking tons and tons of samples tested against numerous various substances. Another used the Flashy approach by basically showboating for an audience and playing his character as one who didn't try his hardest if there was nobody to impress. (unfortunately, I forget the podcast that had this game off the top of my head)

This really should have occurred to me as I had in the past noted that I tended to brute force my statistics and probability issues rather than applying formulas to calculate things quickly.

The next thing that I encountered that opened the window for me on how Fate Core was intending to be viewed was Station 53's breakdown of the New York battle from the Avengers movie as if it were a session of Fate Accelerated. More specifically, some of the other articles on that blog involving write-ups of characters like Batman and such ideas as Power Facts. Which again expanded for me the way Approaches worked.

At this point, I began to see that skill-level, mastery, and powers in Fate Accelerated were determined more by the Aspects than the Approaches and the Approaches were more akin to personality methods. For example, Tony Stark's primary Approach is Flashy and if there is a way to do things while making a big show about it, he excels. Batman's primary Approach on the other hand is Sneaky, and he works best when he does things in an indirect and deceptive manner.

This came up with the question of how you avoided the player always pushing to use their best stat. I have seen this addressed, but cannot remember for sure whether it is in the FAE rules (which I don't have access to right now) or in some blog. Basically, listen to how the character describes his action and then, from that, determine what Approach makes the most sense.

If Batman's player describes feinting and turning the opponent's strength against them, that's going to use his +3 Sneaky roll. If he decides to make use of a flurry of swift strikes, that's +2 Quick. If he makes use of an intimidating show to make them drop their guard, that's Flashy +1. If he gets angry and just lashes out with a kick, that will be his +0 Forceful roll because Batman's strength is in his self control and he loses effectiveness when he resorts to brute force.

The player can certainly angle for a specific Approach in their description, but the final say of what Approach is being used is up to the Gamemaster. Also, you can have a situation where the use of some approaches might be easier than others, an idea that shows up in the Cliffhanger mechanic from Masters of Umdaar. A lock might be devilishly clever and hard to crack, but maybe the door itself is easy to break so Clever might make for a high Difficulty while Forceful makes for an easy one.

Regarding "Bones"

My understanding of the way the Skill system in Fate Core was most likely intended to be used came when I had an epiphany in a discussion of Fate two or three years ago. The perspective I had acquired from Fate Accelerated finally clicked over and connected to Fate Core. Which is where I came to these two thoughts:

The Skill System in Fate Core does not actually relate to how skilled or accomplished a particular character is.

The Skill System instead relates to the character's role in the story.

For example, looking back above to the sample set of selected skills where this:

Drive +4
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1, Investigate +1

Became this:

Investigate +4
Lore +3, Will +3
Rapport +2, Contacts +2, Resources +2
Empathy +1, Fight +1, Physique +1, Drive +1

As I said before, my old perspective sees this as a world class race car driver suddenly becoming a master detective and losing their old skills. But it's not. The above Skills have only limited context because we don't know the Aspects of the character they are attached to. For example, a High Concept of Aristocratic Adventurer creates a different context for these skills than a High Concept of Traveling Occultist.

However, the example I've used that best matches what I think is the issue comes in the form of Star Trek's Dr Leonard "Bones" McCoy.

If we were to build the character using my original perspective, one of the first things I'd do is to give him Lore +4 since Lore is the default way to represent medical knowledge. There, of course, would also be Aspects such as Curmudgeonly Ship's Doctor or Skilled 23rd Century Physician.

That said, when you look at Bones' actual role in the show, his medical skill does not direct the plot very often. Most of the time he's shown using it is in actions that would be considered instant successes on a game table, such as to establish how advanced medicine is by showing he can just easily treat certain diseases and injuries, or else he's using his medical knowledge to identify how a person was killed or otherwise affected by the danger of the week.

Where Bones affects the plot is when he is making speeches often appealing to people's better nature and holding up a harsh mirror to their behaviors and demanding them to look at themselves. In this regard it makes more sense for his highest Skill to be Rapport, Empathy, or Provoke. This doesn't change the fact that he's still a great doctor, his skill as a doctor hasn't changed, but for the most part his skill as a doctor in Star Trek is not very important to the plot.

This perspective also causes the switching mechanic at Minor Milestones to make more sense.

If the Skills represent their personality and the plot-relevance of their abilities rather than their actual skill level, then switching the stats becomes a matter of adapting a different mindset when you know a particular trouble is coming.

For example, let's say Bones starts off with Lore at +4 but for the first few missions nothing that really needs his Lore turns up. Due to the setting, they've established that simple things like broken bones can be healed in a matter of hours without even really requiring a roll. He gets some use out of the high Lore by countering or adding to some of Spock's rolls but for the most part he doesn't need it. However, he's been getting fed up with a bunch of self-important sadists that offend his respect for life and so he's been using Provoke quite often and decides to switch that to his main.

Every so often comes an episode or two with a bizarre alien microbe or salt vampire and he isn't quite able to save people, but at least he is able to figure out how they died. Most of the time these are one-shot things. If a particular mission takes two sessions, he'll likely switch his Lore to high for the latter part of it as he bares down on the research and solves the problem. This matches well with the structure of a lot of Star Trek episodes where the early part of the episode Bones is puzzled but has it figured out by the end of the episode. But by default, he spends most of his time acting as the conscience of the team with high Empathy, Provoke, and Rapport. Lore probably sits around a +2.

However, there is still a matter to address. Certainly, if Lore is lower then Bones will fail even simple medical issues more often. Which causes me to move to one of my other common examples in Fate, coincidentally enough also one using medical experts.

Subjective Difficulties: The Three Medical Experts

Most games have objective difficulties. For example, in D&D a cliff might have a DC of 15 to climb. That difficulty remains the same regardless of who attempts it though one character will find it easier than another based on their bonuses. In this regard, yes, lowering Bones' Lore in favor of Provoke means he's a worse doctor than he should be. However, this is again where Aspects come into play.

As a Skilled 23rd Century Physician, Bones can solve minor things like simple colds, broken bones, minor cuts and bruises, and so on without needing to roll any dice. Look at how the show treats such things as just a matter of course. Whenever an injury is relatively simple and not particularly plot important, he just fixes it. No muss, no fuss. A particularly severely hurt person might end up generating some drama which indicates he likely had to roll for it if we're imagining the show as a Fate game. By comparison, if Kirk is off on his own trying to set a broken bone without any Federation medical gear, it is always a matter of tension and drama. He doesn't have Bones' skill so he has to muddle on the best way he can.

Basically speaking, there are things that Kirk has to roll for that Bones can just do and the things Bones has to roll for Kirk has no hope of succeeding at. This can be represented in difficulties and bonuses, certainly, but the Fate system suffers if you control such matters with difficulties and expect the same task to have the same difficulty for every character.

Breaking off of Bones for a moment, we're going to go to my other example. Imagine three characters: an Experienced Combat Medic, a Family General Practitioner, and a Genius Neurosurgeon. Assume this campaign has a specific skill for Medical and they all have it at +3.

Situation One: Car Accident

People are still in shock, someone is severely injured. The scene is in chaos and there's no on duty emergency services on site yet. If these characters go to try and treat the victim, I'd give the following difficulties.

Combat Medic: Difficulty 3
Neurosurgeon: Difficulty 4
General Practitioner: Difficulty 5

The combat medic is experienced and as thus seen situations as bad or worse than this one. The chaos and people screaming won't get to him. They know how to establish order and get people calmed down and focused. They know how to keep focused on what needs to be done and what represents the biggest threat to the injured party's life.

The neurosurgeon is used to high tension situations and seeing blood. They are aware of things that can quickly end a person's life and know what to look for. However, they are not used to chaos in the same way the combat medic is. They are used to working in focused silence and with only necessary words being exchanged. They are also not used to working outside of a sterile environment.

The general practitioner is the least prepared for the situation as they are not used to dealing with life-threatening physical injury or even emergency situations. They might have the requisite medical knowledge to save someone's life but such emergency procedures are rusty from lack of practice and need. They are just not prepared for the stakes involved.

Situation Two: Diagnosing Chronic Issue

A person is experiencing a common complaint that might be minor in appearance but is a sign of something larger. The signs are small and subtle. The character knows the person and sees them from day to day.

General Practitioner: Difficulty 3
Neurosurgeon: Difficulty 4
Combat Medic: Difficulty 5

The general practitioner is in their element here, this is what they should, in theory, be best suited for doing. Their main focus is on monitoring the continual status of an individual as it changes over time. They might not be completely aware of the all the potential problems that could be developing but they can definitely pick up when something is not normal and thus better know when to look into things.

The neurosurgeon has the medical training again, but they are more used to dealing with unusual problems that already require extreme circumstances. However, they are not as used to looking at a day to day status and monitoring it for issues that seem out of place. They are generally contacted by people who identify a neurological problem and their diagnosis is very detail specific focus.

The combat medic really doesn't have the proper training for this just on the matter of being a medic. Also their focus is very much on emergency situations and they don't by nature get called in to look at problems unrelated to injury or emergency situations. That said, they have some medical knowledge and common sense so it is possible they might be able to notice something and direct a friend to a doctor.

Situation Three: Brain Surgery

Someone has something going bad with his brain and it needs to be fixed now.

Neurosurgeon: Difficulty 4
General Practitioner or Combat Medic: Can't try.

Flat out, the only one of these three characters that has a chance is the neurosurgeon and it won't be easy for them. The general practitioner or combat medic would likely kill someone if they even tried to do it (depending on how realistic you want the campaign to be) no roll. Unless I'm running some really out there game or the characters have other Aspects to cover more medical skill, then yeah, the only one who has a chance is the neurosurgeon.

So Do I Now Use Fate Core?

Nope, knowing how the system is intended to be used and having a new appreciation for it allows me to build characters and run in that system without having a headache or having suspension of disbelief issues, but it doesn't mean that the Fate Core char gen is now the kind of character generation I prefer. I like my character sheets to be a more accurate representation of my character's abilities and I like to have a lot of dials on my character generation. I also like point buy based char gen and advancement. There are various reasons for this I believe I have identified which I won't get into here.

Dresden Files/Fate Core character generation is a lot more well done than I originally thought it was when I first played DF RPG way back when, and I enjoy enough of that narrative Aspect-based skill and power determination that I use subjective difficulties when I'm playing (I also modify how I structure challenges based on Aspects, one person might get a Challenge and have the end result of failure or success be based on the combination of several rolls instead of each roll while another person might have to roll and suffer consequences on several individual tests.) The Fate Core and Dresden Files game play is very much what I like so I use that. But the character generation is not my preference.

When it comes to Fate, I prefer to either use Accelerated where the way the Approaches are labeled avoids the psychological issue that creates that loss of suspension of disbelief I used to have with Fate Core Skills; OR I prefer to use Strands of Fate Char gen with lots of dials, multiple kinds of Aspects and lot of points to spend. It's a preference issue and that's all there is to it.

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