The Ultimate Fate Core GM’s Notebook

If you’ve been a GM for any length of time, you find yourself building a handy GM’s Notebook for all of the “stuff” you need to keep track of. If your a GURPS or D&D player your notebook is probably fairly thick. Fate Core lends itself to much less bookkeeping. But, I still think that Fate GM’s really should have a notebook on hand.

I run a Fate Accelerated campaign that is very D&D-esque and I thought it would be illustrative to share my Fate GM’s notebook contents.

Minimum Contents

There are lots of one-off items you could throw into your GM’s notebook, but some items are common sense:

Character Sheets either the Fate Core or the Fate Accelerated versions depending upon your game. I keep both on hand as I use Fate Accelerated for pick-up games and Fate Core for games that make it past 2-3 sessions. I prefer Fate NPC sheets to index cards. In my game index cards tend to get used for aspects and that’s about it. Even though I don’t use them often, I keep a handful of Game Creation Sheets on hand as well.

Lastly, as a bare minimum, I keep around the Fate Accelerated / Fate Core Conversion Guide because I transition between the two systems so frequently.

Rules That Make You Scratch Your Head

Fate is a very flexible game, but that flexibility comes at the cost of a mindset shift that can be difficult to make initially. Certain rules come up over and over again as points of confusion for new players. Even as a GM who’s been at this for a while sometimes I have to stop and think about how these rules really work and there are only a few culprits:

Boosts. I get why they’re needed. They’re the functional equivalent of a critical hit, only more flexible than that. Without success with style and the boost mechanic, the degree of success for any given die roll would be largely ignored and, well, that’s not dramatic enough. The problem is, they’re similar enough to aspects that they cause confusion. As such, Ryan Macklin’s excellent post Fate Boosts Revisited is well worth keeping on hand as a printout.

Teamwork. There isn’t much confusing about the teamwork rules in Fate Core. It makes sense, two heads are better than one and many hands make light work. The problem is the mechanic is just too open-ended and can lead to lopsided power imbalances, especially when very large numbers of NPC’s cooperate to the detriment of the players. The solution is to use alternate rules proposed in Revising Teamwork handy.

Bronze Rule One of Fate’s biggest innovations was the creation of the aspect. If that weren’t mind-bending enough, Fate further innovated with the creation of the Fate Fractal.

The Fate Fractal is, as we all, know Fate’s built-in capability of treating anything as a character.

Although the Fate Fractal is very flexible it has some sensible limitations that aren’t always obvious. Keeping a copy of Limitations of the Bronze Rule on hand is extremely useful for thinking through edge-cases that might be problematic when the Bronze Rule is applied.

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Awesome Articles

Fate Codex, for those of you who don’t know, is a monthly e-zine full of new rules, essays, and short stories all focused exclusively on Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. As a Fate GM, I have found many Fate Codex articles to be absolutely invaluable for my game.

Fate Codex vol 1 issue 1Lock and Load: Using Ammo in Fate fleshes out a cinematic approach to dealing with ammunition. The mechanics are flexible enough to be used in virtually any setting. “Ammo” could be bullets, crossbow bolts, catapult rocks, shuriken, or something else.

When have I used this? Post-apocalyptic settings where resources, including ammunition, are scarce. This is also handy in a modern setting with large numbers of undead that your PC’s must eliminate. Why? Because there is a simple zone attack mechanic, which is handy for taking out large numbers of undead at once Resident Evil style.

Fate Codex vol 1 issue 2Infiltration: Cracking The House has probably influenced me the most as a GM. You see, I like old school dungeon crawls. With Fate, you can do dungeon crawls the old fashioned way, one room at a time. This article gives options for treating entire locations — compounds, banks, dungeons, whatever — as characters. Properly applied, this can make dungeon crawls much more dynamic.

Is it the death of the 5 × 5 ft room? No. At least it does not have to be if that’s the kind of game you like to play.

When have I used this? Anytime I have a situation analogous to a dungeon crawl I use this mechanic. That said, individual “interesting” rooms that are right out of Grimtooth’s Traps (God, I love that book!) get their own treatment.

Fate Codex vol 1 issue 3

There is a lot of confusion around how magic can (or should be) handled in Fate. There are several solutions to this, Making Magic with Stress makes the case that stress (two shifts) is equivalent to a Fate point, a +2 to an action and a whole lot of other things. Thus, arcane magic users, priests with divine powers, psionic adepts, etc. can use their power as a normal action and spend stress on a special stress track to make extra-powerful actions.

When have I used this? Wizards or any other “supernatural power” users that are at all important get this treatment in my game. If they’re mooks, I don’t bother. I mix this mechanic with Aspect Based Narration and it works wonderfully in my game.

Ever run a game where the PC’s were at risk of being corrupted by darkness? Lots of settings have this in one form or another. Think about it, Lord of the Rings and the influence of Sauron or the One Ring. The dark side of the force in Star Wars or arcane magic in Dark Sun all share one thing in common: the power of some primordial force to tempt men to do evil.

Fate Codex vol 2 issue 2Corruption in Fate Accelerated takes a detailed look at how to swap the standard Fate Accelerated approaches for “evil” equivalents. Characters’ good or evil actions tip the scales one way or the other.

After reading through this article — twice — I could not get two images out of my mind: Star Wars role players having a lot of fun with this mechanic and the last of the DragonRaid holdouts (all five of them) quietly porting their characters to Fate Accelerated and hoping no one in their peer group notices.

When have I used this? Usually, very evil villains such as necromancers get this treatment in my game, if I’m running a Fate Accelerated game that evening. Oddly, I haven’t yet run a Star Wars game in Fate but when I do, you can bet I’ll take full advantage of the corruption rules throughout the course of the game.

One of the difficulties new GM’s face is properly balancing stunts in Fate. The tendency among new GM’s is to treat them as d20-style feats with a different name. That is a valid approach, at least some of the time. But that’s not all stunts are. At the end of the day, stunts are extensions of approaches: you can do this small mechanical thingamajig (that’s a technical term, by the way) because your character’s background and aspects justify it.

The problem is, a Fate game is balanced completely differently than a d20 game. The four actions mechanic is a bit fragile and one or two overloaded stunts can “break things.”

Fate Codex vol 2 issue 4Stunts are Cool is excellent advice on how to set the power level of your game’s stunts correctly right out of the gate. It also includes advice on making very powerful stunts that can only be used very rarely.

Not just GM’s but also players find this article useful. In my experience, players, especially new players, grind to a halt when they are asked to create a stunt for their characters. Admittedly, Fate Accelerated helps with this a lot by limiting most stunts to one of two very standard formulations that are easy to wrap your mind around and letting players run with them. This is a very useful resource for GM and player alike.

Great big fearsome fire-breathing dragons are a staple of fantasy literature and medieval fantasy themed role-playing games. Dragons are big, tough, and scary as hell. More than one Total Party Kill (TPK) was the result of close quarters combat with a dragon.

Giant creatures fill the pages of classic literature such as the Hebrew Bible, Homer’s Odyssey, and the Poetic Edda and sooner or later most RPG players want a crack at taking on just such an over-sized threat. The problem is, Fate’s mechanics for handling very large opponents aren’t well known. They’re not in the Fate Core rulebook nor do they appear in Fate Accelerated, rather they’re part of the Fate System Toolkit and they’re kind of terse.

Fate Codex vol 2 issue 5Approaches as Scale: How to Go Big in Fate fleshes out Fate’s scale rules and adds some interesting possibilities for handling very large opponents using approaches from Fate Accelerated. This isn’t the only way to handle threats so large they fill multiple zones, but it is well worth the read if you anticipate pitting your party against that kind of threat.

Fate Codex vol 3 issue 2Most players new to Fate think of stress as another work for hit points. The problem is, that mindset isn’t terribly accurate. Stress and consequences taken together are a completely different set of mechanics than traditional hit points. There are two absolutely essential essays on Fate’s stress mechanic Three Ideas About Stress is the first. (I’ll link to the second one a bit further down.) It details three different ways to think of stress that are absolutely game changing — literally — if you still think of stress and hit points as “more or less the same thing.”

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Brain Bending Blog Posts

Randy Oest

Randy Oest put together Thoughts on Fate: a Collection of Essays which has a ton of bite-sized content. Although he sells a PDF of his work on DriveThru RPG, most of that content is available for free on his blog:

Perhaps his most important articles are:

Although I’ve linked to a ton of his free content from his blog, I’m sure Randy Oest would love it if you dropped $2 and bought the PDF edition of his essays at DriveThrough RPG. Everybody’s got to keep the lights on.

Ryan M. Danks

Ryan’s blog is full of fun and interesting articles on Fate. His posts are really all over the map from a genre perspective and that’s a good thing. The insights he has into how best to apply Fate’s mechanics is top notch.

  • I first became aware of Ryan’s work when he posted his take on Marvel’s Avengers and DC’s Justice League as Fate Accelerated characters. It really showed me the power of Fate Accelerated even though it is the much lighter little brother of Fate Core.
  • His article Making Superman Truly Invulnerable In Fate Core (the other essential article about how Fate handles stress) completely changed how I viewed stress and consequences. It, more than anything else, got me out of the “stress = hitpoints” mindset.

Ryan M. Danks is perhaps best known for his Jadepunk setting. It’s a genre-bending fantasy world that blends Eastern wuxia with Western steampunk elements. It’s a game world full of sword duels, martial arts, and magic.

Bill Garrett

Bill Garrett is perhaps best known for his works Four Color FAE a (free) Fate Accelerated supplement full of useful advice on how to run a FAE game in a typical comic book universe setting.

Jeff Allen

  • Giving Movie and TV Scenes the Fate Treatment plays out the climactic scene between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back as a series of Fate plays.

  • Fair Summoners in Fate [Comming Soon!] details on how to handle summoners in Fate in a way neither breaks the Fate action economy in relation to other players nor imposes jarring handicaps on users of summoning magic.

Jeff Allen is perhaps best known getting his chemistry set taken away by his parents when he was about 10 years old after watching a teensy bit too much MacGyver on television.

Wrapping Up

If you genuinely found this article helpful, great! I have just one request: please share it with others.

Also, I’m currently working on two projects: an as-yet-unnamed guide to Fate specifically for the dungeon crawling crowd. Instead of bending Fate to look more like a certain old school rules system I could name, it shows players and GM’s alike how to use Fate natively to achieve similar ends. At the time of this writing, I’m about halfway done with the first draft.

This is usually the point where the more marketing savvy folks will offer a free loss-leader to get you to sign up for their email list. I don’t have a loss leader, yet. I’m working on it.

What is it, you ask? It’s a collection of Fate NPC’s, specifically for the fantasy genre. Many of these fully fleshed out Fate NPC’s will be villains, some potential allies, but all of them will be interesting reads and be a fun addition to your game. I should have my first batch of 10 NPC’s out in about a week with more to follow at regular intervals. If I hear a call for NPC’s outside the traditional fantasy genre, I’ll create more in a future release.

I any of this sounds interesting to you: sign up to be added to my email list, below and I’ll keep you in the loop.

Giving Movie and TV Scenes the Fate Treatment

Fate Core is a wonderful role playing game system. It’s flexible enough to be used in any genre as-is or with very minimal tweaks. Fate bills itself as rules light, in fairness it’s more like rules medium but forces the rules to take a back seat to whatever fiction your game runs on. There is a rules light version of Fate, called Fate Accelerated it’s intended as an easy introduction to Fate. Personally, I think of it as Fate: The Pickup Game edition.

Fate is descended from an earlier role playing game known as Fudge. It was basically an open source RPG developed entirely on the Internet in the early 90’s by a dedicated group of fans and later published by Grey Ghost Press. Fate’s major innovation over Fudge is the creation of the aspect. Aspects are basically bite-sized units of fiction and are not narrowly defined; in fact their wording is typically a bit on the elastic side intentionally. This gives the players and the GM flexibility to decide when they’re important and when they’re not. This change of mindset from rigidly defined rules to flexible consensus-driven game mechanics tends to throw new players for a loop.

To help new players more fully wrap their minds around Fate’s mechanics, I have decided to write up scenes from television and movies as a scene in Fate.

Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back in Fate Core

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for several decades, you’ve seen Star Wars. The iconic scene where Vader takes off Luke Skywalker’s arm with a stroke of his lightsaber and reveals Luke’s true parentage is classic.

There are, of course, several different ways to interpret the scene as Fate Core’s mechanics but the following seems reasonable:

Luke and Vader trade-off in lightsaber combat. At first, Vader is clearly pulling his punches and wants to test the boy but quickly ramps up the pressure. Luke knows he can’t beat Vader in a “fair fight” so he’s as evasive as possible to compensate for his relative lack of skill compared to Vader.

Vader attacks with Fight +3 + 000+ = +4 in the first exchange, parrying Luke’s attacks. Luke defends with Fight +2 + +-+0 = +3 and narrates this as a parry as well. Luke lost, but by less than one shift. Luke decides to take mild stress and narrates that means he’s been knocked down in momentary but dramatic fashion, but but quickly recovers.

Vader swings at Luke but misses by a wide margin. Fight +3 + 0-0- = +1 and Luke Defends with Athletics +2 + 000+ = +3.

Luke quickly becomes aware that Vader isn’t going to pull his punches for long. Luke is in deep trouble and he knows it. He decides to create an Advantage I’m Here to Stop Your Reign of Terror! and rolls well: Fight +3 0+0+ = 5. Luke invokes one of his aspects I’m a Jedi Like my Father for an additional +2 driving the total up to Epic +7. Vader defends with Fight +3 rolls +-+- and invokes his aspect Dark Lord of the Sith! +2 = 5. As a result, Luke wings Vader and he takes 2 physical stress. So, Vader checks off one physical stress checkbox.

Pissed, Vader makes a full attack (+2) forgoing all defense. Fight +3 + ++00 + Full Attack + 2 = +7 shifts. In order to avoid being taken out, Luke takes a Severe consequence My Arm! My [Expletive] Arm! and one shift of physical stress. Desperate, Luke creates a advantage with Athletics (+2) Putting Space Between Us as he works his way onto a ledge out of Vader’s reach.

Vader continues to press his advantage but switches to social combat alternating between Intimidate and Rapport his “Join me, I can complete your training” speech. Unfortunately for Vader, Luke won’t go for it. Rapport +1 + 0+0+ = 3. Luke defends with Will +2 + 0+++ = 5 and succeeds with style.

Vader takes a gamble and presses further with Rapport (+1) + +++0 he creates an advantage Luuuuke, I Am Your Father (+2) and uses his free invoke. Vader also invokes Luke’s high concept I Want to be a Jedi Like My Father (+2) against him for a total of +8 shifts. Luke takes 4 shifts of social stress and a moderate consequence I’m Nothing Like You!

At this point, Darth Vader has 1 physical stress and no consequences. Luke on the other hand has taken one physical stress, two social stress a mild and a severe consequence. He’s in real danger of being killed, or worse, turned to the Dark Side.

Luke takes the only real option left to him: he concedes and exits the scene by leaping into the abyss beneath him. Because Luke conceded but wasn’t taken out, he gets to dictate that he isn’t killed by the fall but is able to use the force to slow his decent and, eventually, wind up dangling on the outside of Cloud City with his friends nearby permitting him to be rescued.

Because the setting permits it, Luke later gets a bionic arm and takes a long bath in healing goo. Does he take a new aspect? Maybe. Given the context of the setting’s fiction, it’s up to the GM and the players.

I’m sure you can think of a few different ways to interpret the action, perhaps with more or less granularity. But, as written, it clearly shows the strength of Fate Core: it takes a back seat to the fiction and lets the story drive the game, not the mechanics. I’ll be writing up more scenes from TV and movies in the near future and give them similar treatment in either Fate Core or Fate Accelerated.