Fate Core Thought of the Day (Month?):  How I GM Fate Core

Hi, all, remember me???  Been a bit heads down between baby, work, and a few medical issues, so sorry about my absence!

So for my post when I come back, I figured I'd talk a bit about actually playing the game - specifically, how I run Fate, and to a certain extent how it compares to running other games.

Note:  This is how I run Fate.  It's not the be-all, end-all.  It's not the only way to run it.  It's not the One True Way, and other ways aren't BadWrongFun.  But it's how I run it, and it seems to fit the system well.

Step one:  The Pitch

This is where I just say to some people "Hey, let's play some Fate!"  I'll include a general description of what type of game I'm thinking about running: "Let's play a basic fantasy-type game!"  "Let's do a game based on Brutal Legend!" or something along those lines.  I don't really have a lot in mind at this point - maybe something like an overall story or theme, but I deliberately keep things pretty vague.

Step Two:  Initial Prep-work

Assuming that someone is dumb enough to play with me, I'll usually then take a look at the skill list, dials in Fate, extra subsystems (Magic, armor, etc.) and propose some defaults.  This is still pretty light-weight, and seriously subject to change.  This is more about setting an initial stake in the ground in terms of what the game will be than anything.  As part of this, I may flesh out some high level conflict that I think may be interesting - but again, this is kept very vague and loose, primarily so that I'm not overly attached to it if it turns out the players go a totally different direction.  Depending on how detailed the pitch is, the planning I'll do at this point will typically be more along the lines of coming up with NPCs/factions that may be opposing each other and create dynamic forces in the world, not a series of events.  They'll typically be vague, so that I can insert appropriate details from character creation.

If I'm going to muck with the phases, etc., I'll usually do so at this time and throw it past the players to see what sticks.  This will be based on what makes sense, thematically, for the scenario.  In general, I'll add an aspect or two before I actually remove the Phase Trio, but if I need to dork with stuff more than that then I'll consider ditching it in some way.

I'll also try to come up with some kind of immediate situation/encounter/etc. for session zero, though again, I go with lightweight for this.

Step Three:  Session Zero

Okay, now we're actually going to throw some dice.  I come to this session with my prep work, a new folder for game docs, some blank character sheets, the Fate cheat sheets available, and a couple of devices that can display my electronic versions of Fate.

First is setting generation.  I'm a big fan of "Places and Faces", and setting up immediate/impending issues.  One thing I've found with more narrative games like Fate is that they work best if there's something that demands immediate attention, so I try to make sure there's at least one current issue.

I do setting generation first, as it helps give the players something to latch onto for character creation.  I also try to be very permissive at this stage - there's no game, so it makes no real sense to veto anything, unless it just goes utterly contrary to the game pitch - someone wanting to be a space alien in a fantasy game, for instance.  Of course, sometimes that can be worked into something that makes sense - see Warforged in Eberron, for instance...

Even in cases where there's an established setting, most of setting generation makes sense, there's just a few more defined fences that already exist.  But in no published setting is every tavern, every organization, and every city mapped out to the degree that players can't add their own stuff to it, even without contradicting canon.

As part of this, I'll expand on the faces/places created, and use those to collaboratively world-build.  Often, a single place/face will suggest something larger about the world, so I'll drill down on that.  If organizations or governments are suggested, I'll guide the group into fleshing those out.

Then, character creation.  I generally run this by-the-book.  I'm a huge fan of the Phase Trio, and think it's something that adds a lot of value to Fate games, especially in terms of making the game really about the characters.  If you've already got a plot planned out that won't be impacted by your characters' backstories... it's less important.  But that's not why I play Fate.

I do the phase trio very collaboratively.  I go from player to player, as each phase goes out, and have them say what their story is, kind of on the spot.  I encourage other players to make suggestions or give input, and if the player whose turn it is seems stuck, I'll ask them for their kind of general thoughts on what they want, even if it's somewhat vague.  The idea here is to keep everyone involved and active and thinking creatively.  A second goal of this is to have all of the players involved with all of the characters, so that they have some knowledge of these characters and some investment in them.  I is a sneaky GM.

As we're going through the phases, I try to look for recurring themes, pull out oppositional NPCs/groups, and start merging this into any previous ideas I had about the big players in the scenario.  If something pre-planned doesn't fit, I ditch it.  If there's a clear theme in the characters, I run with it.  If some of the backstories imply setting facts that don't work with my preconceptions, I run with those and ditch the preconceptions.  This, to me, is really about the players telling me what kind of game/world they want to play in, and it's kind of my job to provide that.

I have two primary jobs during all of this:  Recording what is said, and keeping things moving.  I'll offer my own suggestions and input, but I don't really assume that my input has any more weight than anyone else's.

If there's enough time after character creation, and there's enough for me to grab onto, then I'll run some kind of initial encounter/inciting incident.  I usually try to get to this, since many people aren't used to a 'play-less' Session Zero.

Step Four:  Post-Session Zero 

This is probably the biggest prep time for me, even more than keeping the game going.  What I need to do now is to take my initial thoughts for what the game might be and reconcile them with what the players and I came up with.  Between my initial thoughts, the current and impending issues, setting creation, and player backstories (via the Phase Trio) I'll have a number of elements to play with.  Now, I take these elements and try to integrate them into some kind of consistent setting.

This will often require the creation of NPCs.  I focus more on NPC creation than plot creation - characters drive stories, not events.  Events happen due to conflicts between characters.  I'll try to have several NPCs/organizations/groups acting in opposition to each other, to keep things interesting.  Depending on the game, I also try for a little ambiguity - bad guys who have good intentions or do some good work, or good guys that have bad methods, or even two groups that both want incompatible versions of good.  I find these types of things make for more interesting stories, generally.  I'll write all this down in my campaign folder, and use it to generate several possible initial arcs, where an arc is usually defined by some NPC/group trying to achieve some goal.  I'll look at what their goal is, how other groups might be involved, and go with that.  Part of this is always going to be looking at character aspects for things that tie into the characters - the story is about them, after all!  Though that is generally not an issue since these groups/NPCs/goals have generally come out of setting creation, character backstories, or the current/impending issues!  Still, ensuring that things are somehow tied into characters is always a good thing to do.

Step Five:  Arc Generation

This is where I start actually planning the arc.  I set this out as a separate step, because there's a big loop here in longer games that goes back here when an arc is resolved or is starting to be resolved.

Arc generation is usually about taking one of the preliminary arc ideas from Step Four, and fleshing it out.  Again, I focus on NPCs, not events.  Who is trying to achieve what?  Who might be in the way?  Who might assist them?  And, perhaps most importantly, how do the PCs get dragged into this?  The best arcs, again, are about the PCs in some way or another, and wouldn't work if you had a different set of characters.  That's a pretty good heuristic on story arcs, anyway.

So, anyway, for arc generation, I usually try to answer some pretty broad questions, and leave it at that.  Those questions are:

0) Why is this relevant to the characters?
1) Who is involved in this?
2) What are they trying to achieve?
3) Who might be opposing them?
4) Who might be helping them?
5) What will they do, if unopposed?

Question zero is especially important.  When possible, the actions should stem directly from the characters in some way.  This becomes easier on subsequent arcs after the first!  At the minimum, what happens should be something that is directly opposed to one of the characters in some way.

More traditional players/GMs might find this artificial.  I see it as a focus on fiction - in fiction, the events are directly about the characters, and often specifically to highlight inner conflict of the characters.  This involves the characters and players more directly, and focuses the story on them.  This is what changes Star Wars from a generic story about shooting lasers to a more meaningful story about the darkness within us, and the temptation of that darkness.  This is what gives us recurring enemies that players love to hate.

Incidentally, one of the main reasons I use player-created opposition when possible is the simple fact of investment.  Players care about things based on how much they have invested in them.  GMs often forget this - the big bad that we create is cool to us, because we have invested in them heavily.  The players could care less, until that bad guy touches something that they have invested in.  By stealing opposition from the players, we start with some level of investment, even if that's no more than the players coming up with a name!  And we'll be invested naturally through the prep process.  So this ends up making a more involved game for everyone.

Step Six:  Pre-Game Prep

Okay, now we've got the game and arc prep done, and it's time to do the session prep.  Fortunately, this is usually pretty easy.

1) So what's changed in the world since we last played, or as a result of the last session?  This is my way of getting my head around all of the other NPCs in the game and what they're doing.  How are they going to react to the events of the last game?  How have their plans changed?

2) What are the relevant NPCs up to, anyway?  Figure this out, and usually the next set of events will suggest themselves.

3) Look over the character sheets for any good compels/complications to add.  Always try to tie things back to the characters!

4) Do I have an idea of where the characters are going this session?  Hopefully, yes - Fate is a game about proactive characters, and so generally they should have been in motion at the end of the last session.  If not, that's okay, we can get them in motion.

5) Prep some hand grenades.  Hand grenades are events that occur that demand a PC response - even if not a particular response.  They should be things that make the story more interesting.  They may or may not be compels, but if they tie into a character or aspect, that's awesome!  NPCs coming to the PCs for aid, revelations, NPC actions, these are all example of hand grenades.

An example of a hand-grenade from one of the last games I ran:  The PCs were investigating some particularly nasty bandits, who it turned out to be were demon-infested (void summoners).  One of the PCs had the aspect "Doesn't trust a pretty face", another one had the aspect "Compelled to help those in need", and the PCs got stuck with the situation aspect "They know who we are" as the result of a concession in the previous game (the inciting incident, actually).  The hand-grenade was the youngish, female demon-infested bandit coming to the PCs and asking for help.

Demands action?  Yup.  Deliberately targets PC aspects, and creates interesting conflict?  Oh, yeah.

6) Sketch out possible set-pieces if they're clearly coming up.  This is actually the thing I do the least, as it invests heavily in a defined course of action by the PCs, and I try not to do that.  As a GM, it's way too easy to get a particular course of action in mind, and subtly "guide" the PCs that way.  So I deliberate go the other way and avoid even thinking about what the PCs will do.  Instead, I create interesting situations, and, as a "fan of the PCs", get excited about how they'll deal with those situations.

Step Seven:  Running the Session - Session Start

And now we're into the good stuff!  I sit the players down, spread out the snacks and drinks, hand out whatever handouts need to get there, check out any character sheet updates if necessary, and ask a player to recap the last session, including any corrections/etc. from my notes.

During the game I have a laptop/tablet/etc. out that I can type on.  Since I typically use pdf versions of the game books, I try to have at least two available, one set up just for note-taking.

If this is the first session, I'll break out the inciting incident and start the characters in-situ.  Otherwise, it's time for that time-honored question:

Step Eight:  "What Do You Do?" - AKA, Setting the Scene

Hopefully, the characters have some clear goal in mind, something that just won't stand and demands action.  If not, I break out a hand-grenade and lob it at them.  Done right, this will get them moving, even if in an unknown to me direction!  For instance, with the demon-infested girl asking for help, I had no idea how that would go down, if the PCs would offer to help, if they would attack and kill her, if they'd try to track her back, or what.  The important thing is to get them moving.

Now, the PCs should come up with some course of action.  This is where a little GM subtle nudging comes into play.  What we're trying to do at this point is to quickly drive to an interesting scene.  I find there's a few things I can do to help this.

1) If the request is abstract, turn it into a real action.  "Investigate" isn't a scene.  "Go to the arcane academy's library and look up xyz" is a possible scene.

2) Understand what the PCs goal is.  "Okay, so what are you trying to accomplish?  If this goes your way, what changes?"  It's amazing how often the players won't initially have an idea!  Nudging them towards this allows me as a GM to:
  a) not railroad,
  b) provide appropriate opposition
  c) keep things moving!

3)  Figure out who might be opposed to this, and how it might go poorly.  While in some cases 'behind the scenes' consequences can be interesting, I more often prefer to keep things "on-screen".

If there's no interesting consequences, and no interesting opposition, I generally just let them have what it is they're trying to do, or briefly do a couple of rolls and get on with it.  No point in spending time on minutiae.

Okay, so now we've got a scene!  At this point, I'll set the scene, and figure out the appropriate skill/roll structure for the scene - challenge, conflict, contest, or just simple rolls.  Lately I've been trying to do less of the naturalistic 'roll after roll' sequence in favor of more structure approaches, but that's a stylistic thing.

Note that I'll generally allow almost any proactive action from the players, even if it's not what I had in mind.  If the players want to try something that's just utterly against the precepts of the game/scenario, I will warn them, but apart from that, anything is fair game.  Three guys taking on the entire King's Guard in broad daylight?  Might be a bit much, but they can try.  However, if they want to try and poison the garrison?  Sure!  If they want to try to drum up supporters?  Sure!  Find a way to sneak in undetected through a hidden passage?  Why not?  Disguise themselves and get in the front door?  Sounds good to me!  The players setting the scene is more about what kind of challenge and story we'll have than anything else, so I'm typically willing to allow anything a chance of success unless it just makes no real sense within the fiction.

Another good thing to do when players want to do something that short-circuits a lot of things is to add complications.  "You want to summon a ghost to find out who killed Baron Whatsisname?  Sure, you can do that.  You'll just need to find a ghost summoning spell, or a specialist.  And figure out what materials are needed.  And then you'll need to enter the Dead Realm to find him."  Again, the player course of action is helping to determine what kind of story they'll have, it's not short-cutting the story entirely.  In many cases, the player course of action will take more than a single scene, and that's fine - just handle the scenes one at a time.

Step Nine:  Resolve the Scene

Took a while to get here, huh?  Well, this part is pretty much in line with the Fate Core rules, so I don't really have too much to add here.  The only thing I will say here is to keep looking at your characters' aspects, and look for ways to compel them.

Also, each die roll should have a potentially interesting consequence.  Before a player rolls, ask yourself "what could happen to make the player go 'oh, crap!'?"  That's your calibration point.  Not necessarily the worst thing that could happen.  Not even the most dangerous.  But what's the most interesting thing that could happen as a result of this if it goes wrong?

So play through the scene, and determine the aftermath.

Step Ten:  Ending the Scene

Okay, so your players have done some crazy stuff.  They'll either get what they want, or get something else, or encounter a setback, or some combination of the above.

Now is time for what's called in the fiction-writing business a "sequel".  Recap with the players what's changed, figure out how the opposition is going to react to this in the near time, and give the players a chance to reflect on what's happened.  Then - go back to Step Eight, and repeat this until the end of the session.

If a scene resolves well (as in, you've done a good job - not that the players get what they want), you shouldn't have to lob many hand grenades.  A well-resolved scene will either provide the players something that they need to move forward (which is why I ask them the goal of the scene), or it will provide an obvious setback that needs to be accounted for.  If investigating at the arcane library, a success might mean that they find the information that they need, which points them in the direction of whatever it is they need to find/kill/acquire/etc.  A failure might mean that enemy agents have found them and are now chasing them.  Either way, the players should have some impetus to keep them moving.

If for some reason, this isn't the case (hey, it happens), throw out another hand grenade.

Repeat Steps Eight through Ten until it's close to the session end.

Step Eleven:  Ending the Session

Hey, good job.  Your players are having a good time, everyone's rolling dice and laughing.  Awesome!

But at some point the clock is going to tick closer to the ending time, or people will start yawning, or some other sign will occur that it's getting close to the end.

And that's a fine thing!  You want to leave your players wanting more, not anxious to leave!  If they want more, they'll show up next time, and you'll keep a healthy game going.  If the game drags on and on, you'll start to notice players not showing up.  The goal isn't to keep the game going on as long as possible - it's to keep the Awesome Per Minute as high as possible!  And if that starts to flag for any reason, call it a day and get some more ideas for what would be Awesome!

One of the best things to do is to end the session on a bang.  Is there some scenario-changing Compel you can throw down?  Do it.  Some great revelation you can make?  Great way to end the session.  Set things up for an epic battle?  Oh, yeah.  Make it a cliffhanger, and the players will want to tune in next time!

Once you've ended the actual 'game-time', you'll need to handle all the wrap-up stuff.  Tell the players what kind of milestone they've hit, and what that means.  Ask them if they've got any initial ideas on character changes (especially aspects!) that they may want to make.  Collect all of your stuff, and do the clean-up.

But perhaps most importantly - solicit feedback.  You should always ask after a game about what went well, what didn't go so well, what people would like to see more/less of, etc.  The goal of the game is for everyone to have fun, and if they're not, then something needs to change.  Also make sure that players feel they can email you or contact you privately, as some will not want to speak up.

The most important thing about feedback is to listen to it.  Don't get defensive - even if you think something was awesome and that the players are wrong, don't take it personally.  It's not about what's "good" or "bad", it's about what the players find fun.  And that will not be the same for every player.  This is a learning process for you to be able to improve your GMing skills.  And even negative feedback doesn't mean what you did was "wrong" - another group may have loved it.  It's about finding out what this group likes.

In cases where you had to make a call that was contentious, explain why you ended up making the call you did, the factors involved, and what else you considered.  Also, ask the players how they would have handled it.  Be open and honest - Fate is a game that encourages this kind of behavior.  Often, simply explaining the situation and asking the players how they would have handled it is enough to get them to see your side, as well.

Collect any Fate Points, and see how players are doing with them. 

If they're hoarding FP, did this cost them?  A session where players end up with positive FP should, in general, be one where things went poorly overall for the players (or they just got lucky).  But if they're hoarding FP consistently, and not suffering setbacks, throw more compels at them and increase the difficulty of their opposition.

Are they all drained of FP?  If so, they should have made decent progress - if not, you may have been too hard on them.  In the future, you can reduce the opposition or provide some 'weak' compels to increase their Fate Point pools.

Step Twelve:  Next Session

So now you need to start thinking about the next session.  Think about the events that have happened so far, and what that means for the future.  If you're honest with yourself, you may need to revise some of your plans for the future of the game - nothing prepped is "real" until the players see it, anyway!

Maybe some new characters/groups/etc. have been added to the game - make sure you find some way to integrate these!

Maybe something has been revealed that changes how you view one of the groups/NPCs in the game - again, go with it!  Maybe it makes more dramatic sense for the supposed bad guy to actually just look bad, and be fighting the "real" bad guy!  Maybe some innocent guy makes more sense to be the mastermind behind everything!  Maybe an NPC changes their ways based on events!  Remember, the world needs to react to the players - they are the protagonists, and they are the agents of change in the world!  It's their story!

Has the arc ended?  If so, plan the next arc like Step Five.  Otherwise, just plan the next session like Step Six.

If the campaign has reached a natural conclusion, and there's no desire (or easy way) to continue it, then great!  Pitch a new game!

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There's also a couple of things that I try to do during the game.  These are overall guides, and so they don't really belong in any one section.

0) Try not to predict where the game will go.  This one is so important, I'll put it at rule zero.  The more you predict what will happen, the more you'll try to make it happen.  Going into a game with no clue of where it will go is quite scary at first, but is also amazingly fun once you get used to it.  It also ensures that you're listening to your players, and letting them drive the game.  If there's an overall arc of the game that you're expecting, like fomenting a rebellion instead of having guerilla action, or heavy political play, make sure you talk to your players about that - this is the kind of thing that everyone should be on the same page about when it comes to "this is the game we're playing."  It's also something that can be readily discussed without causing "spoilers".

1) Keep people involved, but respect styles.  This is something that's a bit of a balancing act.  As the GM, you are kind of the mediator.  It's your job to keep everybody involved in the game, but some people are just naturally more introverted, and won't be as proactive or forceful in their opinions.  Try to coax interaction out of them, but don't press the issue.  Your main job with this is to keep the more extroverted/forceful folks from drowning them out or dominating the game.

2) Keep things dramatic!  Fate is a game about drama.  It's not a very good game about prepping the hell out of things so that there's no chance of things going wrong.  Don't get me wrong - that can work well with certain types of games, but those are usually the games with enough tactical 'crunch' to support this.

3) Keep things centered on the players!  Show, don't tell.  As I said earlier, some 'behind the scenes' stuff can be interesting, but in general you want to keep things visible and on-screen.  Your job is to keep the players interested with what's happening, not keep yourself interested with all of the behind-the-scenes hidden stuff that you know about.

4) I usually like difficulties to be based on dramatic importance more than anything.  If something is critical, make the players decide how bad they want it!  Fate is more about deciding what's important, via Fate Point expenditures, than it is about micro-managing bonuses or simulating reality.  So put those hard decisions front and center!

5) Keep failures interesting!  Success with a cost is great, and interesting failures are great, too.  What's not great is "that doesn't work."  Keep things moving, even if not in the direction the characters necessarily wanted to go!

6) Solicit player input.  This is a great way to offload some work.  Details about a holiday?  Ask the players!  Who's the innkeep?  Ask the players!  Also, encourage collaboration.  If a player feels on the spot by a question like that, ask them for any kind of thought they have on it, and then get others to jump in and collaborate.

7) Be honest.  Fate is a great game for honesty.  There's nothing wrong with telling the players the consequences of a failed roll before you roll - especially if you're planning something that's not super-obvious.  Talk about why you're setting things a certain way, and encourage players to be involved in that.

8) Keep consequences appropriate.  I like to say "For someone to be Taken Out, they have to be Taken Out."  That's my way of basically saying that you can't shortcut the stress/consequences track by, say, throwing someone off of a cliff - if they still have stress/consequences, then maybe they're holding onto the cliff, evaded your grab and twisted their ankle, etc.  But it works for other rolls, too.  A check to cast a trivial spell generally shouldn't have the end of the universe as failure!  This can be true even if it would "make sense".  Instead, take a higher-leveled view:  Even if the particular spell failing would result in the end of the world, maybe a failure means something else - maybe it means that as part of casting the spell, something bad happens - or it takes longer than you expected - or possibly you realize that you don't have something you need or can't summon the energy.

In general, I like to keep the results of success and failure roughly even.  If a success in something will gain a huge advantage, it's pretty reasonable to make failure a large risk as well.  While this may not always make sense from a "how things work" perspective, it's almost always good dramatically, and if you pull back and abstract just slightly, you can almost always find a way to justify it.

9)  Help players with the rules and strategy!  Man, if I could change one thing about the first couple of times I ran Fate, this would be it.  Effective strategies in Fate aren't always obvious to new players, and as such the game can be very frustrating.  Make sure your players know how Create Advantage works, especially in a Conflict.  Make sure they know how to use CA to use their better skills against either environment opposition, or their opponents' weaker skills.  As a GM, constantly ask yourself "hey, what would I do if I was this player?" and suggest that to the players!  Have a brief conversation with them about skill matchups, stacking aspects granted via CA, and even the tradeoffs between big hits (fewer rounds to take someone out, requires more shifts) and little hits (more rounds to take someone out, requires fewer shifts). 

10) This goes along with the last one.  Get your players used to success and failure in Fate!  Specifically, make sure they know how tough it is to get Taken Out in a single blow!  Put them through a Concession early if they're not used to Fate, and show them how the game keeps going.  Have them fail some rolls, and again show them how the game keeps going.  Many gamers are used to games where "failure" = "game over", so this is a key part of Fate for new players.

And... most of all...

HAVE FUN

Fate is a great game... but it's still a game!  The point of playing is for everyone - player and GM - to have fun.  If you're not having fun, FIX IT!  If someone at the table isn't having fun, FIX IT!
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