Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Look into Fate: Skills

(This essay is inspired by the discussion about Fate 3.0 now going on in These are not recommendations for the future of Fate 3.0, but instead the purpose is to ask questions that might open dialogue about some of the issues of taking Fate to the next level. Do all of these questions need to be resolved? No. But it is possible that discussion of these questions will increase awareness of what should be the goals and priorities in the designing the future of Fate.)

Why Skills at All?

Skills are a fundamental element of all the Fate branches, however, a couple of Fate-inspired games don't have them.

F# is a simplified version of FATE, combining both Aspects and Skills. Basically, if you have an Aspect (what they call a tag) it also has value, initially 1. If you want to do an action using that Aspect, you get a +1 on that roll (they have a simplified and easier success Ladder, so +1 is significant). If you don't have an applicable Aspect, you can make up a temporary Aspect on the spot with a value of 0, which you can make permanent by paying 3 Fate. If you successfully use that Aspect, you can later pay the value of the Aspect plus 1 in Fate points to increase the level of the Aspect to the next level, i.e. 2 to increase an Aspect level from +1 to +2.

Thus it can be argued that you don't need any Skills at all in Fate, just use Aspects. To a certain extent with the existing rules, you can substitute every Skill with an Aspect, which immediately gives you the equivalent of a skill at Fair (+2), and with a second Aspect it would be the equivalent of a skill at Great (+4). The big difference between using Aspects for Skills this way is that Skills don't require Fate points to use, so in a sense these are special Aspects that are free-taggable, only by the player, once every combat turn.

So what F# inspires me to think about in the future of Fate is the following:

  • Can Aspects be used instead of Skills? Can we have fewer skills and use more Aspects?
  • Should some Aspects have a value like Skills do?
  • Can Aspects be improved like Skills?
  • Can multiple Aspects be "linked" to allow them to be used without violating scope for greater then +2 bonuses?
  • Can Aspects have options that make them work more like skills, by making free-taggable, either once per turn, or possibly once per exchange, once per scene, or once per scenario?
  • Can Aspects be bought with sufficient Fate points?

Damage Capacity Skills

Skills come directly from their origin in FUDGE. In FUDGE, Skills were a subset of Traits, which also included Attributes, Gifts, Faults and Powers. Gifts and Powers from FUDGE are roughly Stunts and Faults are a kind of Aspect. However, the difference between Attributes and Skills is that Attributes have some Damage Capacity, i.e. all Attributes can are numbers that can be depleted

So in a sense, any Fate Skill related to stress tracks would be what FUDGE calls Attributes, as they they have a limited capacity.

All the Fate branches seems to have a physical damage capacity skill (typically called Endurance) and a mental damage capacity (Resolve in SotC, Composure in Diaspora, Conviction in DFRPG, Willpower in Strands). Many also have a social damage capacity (Presence in DFRPG, Composure in Diaspora, Popularity in Strands). Economics is important to Diaspora, so they also have a damage capacity skill Assets which is associated with a stress track.

A Fate-related RPG called The Shadow of Yesteryear and its SRD Solar System associate every skill will a stress track (which they call Pools). These stress tracks are slightly orthogonal to the typical physical/mental/social, and instead are Vigor (for both physical and mental toughness), Instinct (speed of reaction to physical and social), and Reason (active mental and social abilities). Many different skills have a cost to these stress tracks to use, which combined with stress to these pools limits skill abilities.

These variants raises some questions:
  • Clearly some Skills are special because they have stress tracks aka damage capacity strongly associated with them. Are they fundamentally different?
  • Sometimes the skill and the damage capacity track associated with them are very little different, but have different names. Why the complexity?
  • Why does every Fate branch have a slightly different name for the mental damage capacity skill?
  • Diaspora uses the mental damage capacity track for social damage, but uses Assets for wealth damage. How about Assets (or Resources as it is known in most other branches) be a social damage capacity skill?
  • If damage capacity skills are different then then the stress tracks associated with them, can multiple skills affect a stress track rather then just one? (i.e. can Endurance add health boxes as well as a different skills such as Fitness?)
  • Why do none of the Fate branches have a speed/dexterity/initiative stress track (i.e. what TSoY/SS call Instinct)?
  • Are the choices of physical/mental/social for the damage capacity skills / stress tracks the right division?
  • An interesting variant is active and passive stress tracks. Active is depleted by your own use, Passive is depleted by your defense. Thus Conviction would be a mental skill that was depleted when you use it to attack an enemy, but Composure would be depleted when you defended against a mental attack.
Skill Proliferation & Balance

Fate 2.0 had 21 general skills. SotC has 28 skills. Starjammer has 29 skills. Diaspora has 36 skills (+36 if you consider apex skills different). DFRPG has 25 skills but takes the concept of trappings even further then SotC, and ends up with 98 skill trappings. Legends of Anglerre has 27 skills and probably more then 100 trappings.

So there has been a general upward trend in number of skills, or skill variants such a trappings and stunts, but the number of slots has remained the same -- since Fate 2.0, most Fate branches have characters with roughly 15 skill slots and roughly 3 stunts. Only the Fate branch Only Strands of Fate (with only 13 skills, see next section) seems to defy this trend.

With a limited number of named skills, this increase in number of skills can make it difficult to have a small number of characters with enough skills for a viable party. You see this in Diaspora where by default your ship has crew with skills of Fair (+2) and some at Good (+3). You see this in DFRPG with need for sidekicks and minions to do research.

Not all skills seem balanced for player's time of play. For instance, in Diaspora the Navigator (a space combat skill) is used only once per the entire space combat, and the Pilot skill is not nearly as interesting as Gunnery or Electronic Warfare, and neither Pilot or Navigation is useful for much else. In DFRPG is having 7 different trappings under Scholarship a way of balancing it with Fists, which has only 2 trappings, but broader applicability to a players's play time?

My personal ideal is that every skill should have allow of the following: some form of simple use, another for it to assess or declare an aspect, it should function in some type of mini-game/combat as either an attack or defense, and some type of maneuver, move, or block in that mini-game.

  • How can we limit this proliferation of skills and/or trappings?
  • Is there some way to more generalize skills so that there are fewer of them?
  • At what point does having too few skills become just a revisiting of old-style characteristics? At what point are their too many skills?
  • How do we allow for sufficient skill spread for games with just 2 or 3 players + GM?
  • If there are skills that typically assigned to sidekicks (research) and crew (navigation), then why have them be PC skills at all?
  • How do we balance skills for player's time of play?
  • Some skills are useful in more than one mini-game (say Intimidation which can be used both in a combat mini-game as well as a mental and social mini-games). Can we make more skills be useful across different mini-games?
  • Can we have all skills have the ideal of a simple use, an aspect use, a mini-game attack/defense use, and mini-game maneuver/move/block use?
  • Not all skills have good narrative context, i.e. Intimidation is a mental attack in a largely physical mini-game. Diaspora does have some cross-over between the physical mini-game and the mental, with the first damage going to both health and composure. What other narrative context issues need to be examined?
  • Skills maybe should come in sets, i.e. if you have economics in your game, then you bring in Assets, Bribery, Bargaining, otherwise you just use the generic Resources.

Independence of Skills & Virtues & Skill Categories

Skills in Fate tend to be very independent, that is, you can be Great (+4) in Piloting but Mediocre (+0) in Driving, even though clearly the skills are closely related. In Diaspora could someone with Slug Throwers at Superb (+5) really be Average (+1) with Energy Weapons? In SotC would someone really have Archeology and no Academics? Or in DFRPG would someone have Deceit without Performance, or in Legends of Anglerre would someone have Rapport without Presence?

One answer for this is the near-Fate variant Houses of the Blooded is to have some base values for skills in broad "Virtues". They are Strength, Cunning, Courage, Beauty (Art), Wisdom & Prowess. All skills then become specializations or Aspects that fall under one or more of these Virtues. For instance, Appraisal can be based on the value for Cunning expertise or the value for understanding of Beauty. The value for Disarm Traps either can be due to Wisdom's knowledge or due to Prowess dexterity.

In Fate 2.0 there was a concept of skill "Categories" for which there were 10: Academic, Artistic, Athletic, Combat, Criminal, Magical, Perception, Professional, Social, Survival. Within these categories were a choice of "Broad" skills, for which there were 21 listed, or the wider "General" skills which listed over 50, and implied even a larger quantity of "Specific" skills. You could use these "Categories" like Houses of the Blooded's Virtues and give them a base value.

An example of this is the Fate inspired ICONS, which has only has 6 virtues (Prowess, Coordination, Strength, Intellect, Awareness, Willpower) each with a value, and where everything else is a specialty group (such as Weapons) which adds +1 to that base value. The Fate branch Legends of Angelerre has 8 categories that could maybe be made into base virtues: Craft, Combat, Knowledge, Mundane, Perception, Physical, Social, and Subterfuge.

The Fate branch Strands of Fate divides all skills (what it calls abilities) into 3 broad categories: Physical, Mental Social. Within these are only 12 skills (P: Agility, Endurance, Perception, Strenght, M: Craft, Knowledge, Reasoning, Willpower, S: Deception, Empathy, Persuasion, Resources) and an optional 13th skill Affinity which is used for magic/sanity/cyberpunk/nano genre specific skills.

It could be argued that you only needed base values for a skill category/virtue, and everything else is a free-taggable per combat turn Aspect (as described above in "Why Skills at All".)

Another answer used in other game systems is to have base values for certain skill trees, or offer fewer skills and more specializations. For instance, Basic Combat might be Good (+3), but Weapons or Close Combat are specializations that can be Great (+4) or Superb (+5). Or like Shadow of Yesteryear/Solar System (mentioned above) all skills can have a base on limited set of Attributes. For instance a Physical Skills of Fair (+2) would be for all combat, unless you specialize in Close Combat which is Great (+4).

Another solution is the concept of Trappings, where a skill is has multiple things that it can do. For instance, in DFRPG Fists has two trappings, one for brawling and one for close-combat defense. Whereas Scholarship has 7 trappings: Answers, Computer Use, Declaring Minor Details, Exposition and Knowledge Dumping, Languages, Medical Attention, Research and Lab Work. Note that Trappings are all at the same skill level--thus your computer use is directly proportional to the number of languages you have.

  • Is the independence of some skills a problem?
  • Are some current skills related enough that they really should be trappings of another skill?
  • Can we use a smaller list of skill broad categories/virtues and have everything else be a specialization, an aspect, or a minor stunt?
  • Since different game genres have needs for different kinds of skills, how do you allow flexibility for this yet also keep basic skills working basically the same way across different different genres? Is really a difference between Rapport and Empathy and Charm?
  • Does it make sense to make some genre-specific skills into their own categories and skill trees rather then trying to shoehorn them into the standard set?


In some genres (superheroes, ninjas and samurai) skills can get quite high. Even more mortal games such as Diaspora every player has 1 "Apex" skill that is your single Superb (+5) skill which are described as something special above and beyond that of just +1 over Great skill (+4).

When one of these high skills is opposed against another high skill, the results work well. However, when they are unopposed, or against a more mortal skill, they can result in a very high shift surplus (for which there are limited uses, such as Overflow non-combat supplemental actions, or for Spin, which just makes the combat even shorter.) You can use the shift surplus to make the time to perform the skill shorter (or in some cases longer), but often extra shifts for time are not useful.

The cross-over point appears to be at +5, as FUDGE dice give a range of -4 to +4. This means that Superb (+5) is the equivalent of being 100% successful in Average (+1) situations. As skills go even higher they become more of a problem.

In Houses of the Blooded, all the characters have relatively high skills, however, players have the option of withholding dice before rolling in the form of "wagers" that allow more narrative control if the player succeeds. Typically they are the equivalent of a declaration per successful wager. In opposed combat, even the defeated player keeps half of their wagers, so it is quite possible for the winner to win the exchange, but loose the battle because of declarations that happen after the loss. This allows for great narrative power to players for games that should be a bit over-the-top. Antoni Ten in Yahoo group has an interesting possible variant of Wagers for Fate where wagers are a form of temporary consequence that can be used for temporary fate points.

  • Should Diaspora's Apex Skill concept be generalized to to Fate Core for any Superb skill? Should there be other "thresholds" where skills above a certain point have special abilities without having to buy a stunt?
  • What else can you do with excess shifts (either attacking or defending)?
  • We need clearer examples of how Overflow can be used in DFRPG -- non-combat actions is not clear enough.
  • Is there some way to bring the concept of wagers to high skill combat? Just reducing the skill ranks to make a wager doesn't seem to work in Fate as mechanics like Aspects are typically done after the roll, and wagers really need to be set before the roll to work correctly.
  • What other issues are there for Superb (+5) and up skills?
Other Questions
  • Besides stress tracks, there are several other "limited" resources in Fate: Refresh (and thus stunts and the Fate pool), the total number of allowed Aspects, and the number of allowed Skills. Is there any value in having any of these to have damage capacity?
  • In all the Fate branches, no skill default to Mediocre (+0), however, in many Fate inspired variants and other story-dominant or participatory RPGs have a different ladder, where the default is equivalent to Average (+1) or even Fair (+2). All PCs would be considered to start with average, unless there was an Aspect (a disadvantage or fault) that lowered it below average. What would be the implication of having default skills start at +1 or +2?
  • Diaspora's concept of Scope is very useful, but use of skills are not in the scope rules. Some of the changes implied by the above may need some additions to Scope rules as well.