Oh, Fate, How I Want to Beat You in the Facemeat

I’ve been running a Dresden Files game for the Tuesday night Google+ group. It’s been going… okay. Fate, I’m realizing, is not my strongest game. It’s not bad, by any means, and lots of people have a great time with it.


I’ve come to really like certain things out of an RPG, and there aren’t many that deliver on my particular tastes. I like struggle. I like conflict. I like difficult choices. Drama. Fate does all those things pretty well. I like games that offer players a solid direction on where the fiction is headed. This is where things sort of fall down for me.

We had this situation where I (being the big asshole of a GM that I am. Mwahaha and all that) put the group in a shitty situation. There’s a private mom-and-pop orphanage (more like a specialized foster home, really), full of half-demon kids. Think of Changelings from the DF canon, but instead of consciously making The Choice, these kids go full-infernal when they express their basest instincts, right? So, a half-demon that’s all built on rage and violence might start reaching for that extra power in a fight, then pretty soon, rage and violence starts looking like a good solution to most problems and yada-yada-yada you wind up with a super-nasty demon. Probably. Anyway.

So, there’s a group of religious zealots who’ve killed one of these kids already, probably going to go after more. Oh, and one of the player-characters is a Warden, and this whole mess has been going on under the White Council’s nose. And to top it off, the demon-daddy of the kids shows up and asks the group to help him fulfill the contracts he has with the parents of these orphans (all nice and signed and legal, according to the Unseelie Accords). Yeah. I totally gave everyone the shit-end of the moral stick here, as best I could. It was a moment of pride for me.

In any case, the predictable debate broke out, right? Players arguing about what to do. Everyone looking at their Aspects, pointing to reasons why they should do one thing or the other. As a GM, my instinct was to give them a couple of minutes to yell at each other, then push for someone to grab for some dice. But I didn’t. Because nothing, mechanically, seemed right.

Sure, Fate’s got a social conflict mechanic, but it isn’t really well geared for dealing with a conflict between player characters (which, really, is almost always a conflict between players, anyway). It’s cumbersome against NPCs, and it seemed awkward to trot it out for this. I could have compelled an Aspect as a GM, but I felt like that would have been pushing things in the direction that I wanted, rather than letting the rest of the players get on the same page. Or, players could have started an Aspect-tagging bidding war, trying to bribe everyone else to go their way. That probably would have been the best thing, but it didn’t happen.

What did happen was that all the characters went off on their own, and this left me pretty frustrated with Fate. Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by how well Burning Wheel’s Duel of Wits mechanics deal with this exact sort of player conflict, but I was really unsatisfied with how that turned out. I should have known better, I guess. The last time I ran DFRPG, the entire campaign self-destructed when I put a different set of players into just this sort of conundrum. Maybe Fate just doesn’t handle that kind of no-good-answer scenario. Maybe I’m just shitty at running Fate. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it fell flat, and I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to handle it.


16 thoughts on “Oh, Fate, How I Want to Beat You in the Facemeat

  1. The first question I want to ask is why did you feel like compels would have been somehow wrong? You say that it felt like it would have been the direction YOU wanted instead of letting the rest of the players get on the same page. That’s screwy to me because 1. you’re playing the game, too. 2. Aspects are there to be compelled. Players write aspects for themselves that THEY want to come up. And 3. It sounds like you did want something very particular: for the players to get on the same page and play like a “party” instead of like individuals.

    I’m confident in #1 and #2, but just guessing on #3 – you’ll have to clear that up and/or decide for yourself.

    I’ve been running into similar issues in my BW game, but not because players can’t agree. Instead, they keep things secret from each other and go their separate ways whenever it’s more convenient. So there isn’t even an option for DoW to come up among them, they just have separate interests and when their interests conflict, they react in a backdoor, non-confrontational fashion. At times, the only thing I can think of doing is actually forcing them to write each other into their beliefs. But I ultimately settle on the idea that my players are playing the game they want to play. And I’m enjoying myself, so I’m okay with that, even though I see so much more potential with what is offered.

    So, while I fully believe you have issues with Fate, the issue you’ve _described_ sounds like one that is far from Fate-specific. I’m not sure I have a solution, so I hope this all just gives you a different angle on it. However, I’ll put forth an idea that your players might want to take to heart: I frequently find that the best players are ones who willingly close off future/potential options in order to make current ones more important and interesting. That type of play requires minimized expectations and openness that doesn’t suit even some excellent role-players. Whether that’s an issue or not, it sounds like none of your players were willing to sacrifice their long-term vision of their characters in order to create a positive change in the game’s momentum. It moved from a cooperative story to several isolated responses. And that’s _exactly_ when compels do the dirty work. It’s not just what you want as the GM, it’s what returns isolation to cooperation.

    • To answer your first question ( I think I’ve addressed where I’m coming from in my reply to Neosect), compels require the initiating player to have a specific outcome in mind, right? So, do a thing, or autofail a roll, or spend a scene dealing with some other thing that came up and thus be unavailable to provide input in something else important. The problem here is that my intention was to set up a situation where the players had a bunch of shitty options, and the point is to choose which one to go with. If I had started slinging compels around, it would have been tantamount to illusionism – here’s a nice, big moral issue, but I’ll bribe you to do what *I* think would be cool. Doesn’t sit right with me.

      • I’d say that no, you don’t have to have a specific outcome in mind. The examples in the book include very specific situations for clarity, but nearly all of the best compels I’ve witnessed involve a lot of freedom for the compelee to play it out. It’s not a moment during which someone else gets control over your character, it’s a moment during which your character’s nature gets the best of them. You get to role-play that, too, and that might be very limited, depending on the situation, but there’s no reason to take decision-making out of a player’s hands – fundamentally, decision-making is the core of role-playing.

        Honestly, orchestrating a situation in which the only options are shitty is only marginally different from giving a player a big nudge when a moral issue arises. If you were being absolutely true to letting the players decide, then you’d also allow them freely to get into whatever situation they create, whether some, all, or none of the options are shitty. But that’s probably boring. So don’t pretend. Just like you’re open about arranging the situation so it’s all bad, you should also arrange situations so that players’ aspects make them vulnerable. That’s why aspects are there.

        I don’t see how having DoW would change your described problem with the situation: you wanted consensus among your players. Isn’t that going to be a very rare result when a big moral issue is presented? If you want everyone on the same page, don’t give them a divisive moral conundrum.

        In my experience, DoW is not a way to do that, anyway. DoW is not a way to solve conflicts. Think of all the narratives you love and how frequently a big conflict is simplified or resolved by a debate or argument. Rather, arguments are almost always about _establishing_ expectations, consequences, or inter-character dispositions. It sounds like the argument among your players about how to handle the situation, even without a social conflict mechanic, did exactly that: they’re divided and they might actually work against each other. That was one of your many shitty options. Again, if you have a problem with that outcome, orchestrate a tiny bit further so that it’s not an option. Compels are a huge part of your tool set for doing that.

      • You’re absolutely wrong about DoW. That mechanic is about getting either an NPC or a player to do what you want. One of its explicit purposes is to get players to pick a direction and go with it, assuming that there are Beliefs involved.

        In this particular case, player-to-player compels would have worked great, GM-to-player compels felt weak. Or, really, didn’t feel like it would have gotten people on board with each other, it would have been a great way to get people to dig their heels in further.

      • My experience and the rules of DoW just don’t agree.

        First, you have to agree to a DoW. If what the other player wants is something you’ll never concede, then you just say no to the duel and that’s that. To me, a mechanic that’s fully optional is not a reliable one for getting everybody on the same page. If they’re so morally rigid that they cannot come to an agreement without the mechanic and they’ll split up because of it, that does not sound like a situation in which a DoW is even possible – why would anybody so firmly entrenched accept a duel in the first place? They wouldn’t.

        Second, the great majority of DoW are not shut-outs. Compromise is the real heart of the mechanic because it creates more complication. Again, it’s about establishing complication and consequences moving forward, and, yes, as you say, then to move forward – but not simplifying it so that it’s forgotten or that people agree.

        With both of those qualities so essential to DoW, it basically never resolves a _significant_ conflict.

      • Lets pretend that if I say something about DoW, the situation involves BITs that makes the use of the rules not an arbitrary thing.

        EDITED TO NOTE: I was totally being a tool right here. I’m not deleting the post, but I am calling myself out on it.

      • I’m not sure what you mean there. The rules are not arbitrary, regardless of what BIT’s are involved. They’re simply not absolute. DoW doesn’t change an intractable position because a DoW isn’t even possible then, and it seems like that’s what you had. If you didn’t, that’s cool, I’m just trying to get a read on what you’ve described. And I keep coming back to the decision that DoW wouldn’t help you here, so focusing on that gap between BW and Fate might not help.

      • Sorry, I was kinda grumpy yesterday and was being a dick. So, I waited until today to post.

        You’re right in that DoW, specifically, wouldn’t have helped the situation. I intended to use it as an example of the kind of mechanic I was looking for, rather than the specific one.

        The thing about Fate is that it’s really about who characters are, and the way that advancement works means that there’s no real incentive to not be intractable in a particular position, unless someone offers you a Fate Point to do so. Which really seems to mean that Fate’s intra-party social conflict mechanism is, “bribe the other guy into going along with me.” The alternative is to walk away, which is pretty much what happened. It was frustrating for me as a GM, because it means that I wind up running 3 games instead of one.

        Now, the DoW discussion is a digression, but I do loves me some kibitzing over Burning Wheel mechanics!

        So, yes, you can always walk away from a DoW. But, the game does provide a bunch of incentives for that to be fairly rare – advancement, Artha, and the fear of being ridiculed for being the, “But that’s what my guy would do!” guy. It does resolve conflicts, though, because even if there’s a massive compromise involved, the winner of a DoW gets what he or she wants. It might be at a high cost, or with unexpected consequences, but the winner still wins. So, in that sense, the result of a DoW are, indeed, final and binding. At least until one of the parties involved can manipulate circumstances enough to overcome Let It Ride. That usually involves some steel in someone’s face, in my experience.

  2. I understand that you may not have a path picked for the campaign and enjoy the conflict and finding the least-bad answer to the problem at hand. However, when the players go around in circles you need to push the story forward. Tell them to go to dice. Remind them of the aspect-tagging portion of the game.

    This is where the mortal players get to really shine as they have fate points a plenty to boss about the larger, scary wizards and such. It’s the essential mechanic of the game and it feels like it’s being underused. I understand that you like DoW in Burning Wheel, but unless you want to hack it into Fate, use the tools that are there.

    Another option is to have the NPC demon guy push forward his agenda without the PCs making a choice. If the PCs are arguing and not getting in his way, what’s to keep him from doing exactly what he wants with another avenue? Get those zealots on board with the “kill them demons” plan again. It sounds to me like a good old fashioned “burn ’em out” situation could happen at the orphanage if the zealots cut the power and order all the kids to come out or they burn the place down.

    Lots of options, you just have to either push the players to use the mechanics or force them to react to the situations present if they won’t make choices towards the story.

    • Oh, I know the options. Nobody’s standing still waiting for decisions. That’s not really the issue, anyway. My complaint is that, ultimately, Fate doesn’t have the best tools for this situation. When I suggested that y’all go to dice, you specifically were the one to say that the social conflict mechanics weren’t interesting. Which is true – between PCs, the social conflict rules are crap. Then you took a self-compel to go do a thing by yourself. And the cops did a thing by themselves. And the wizards went to do a thing by themselves until I used a compel to get them to pick either you or the cops to go with. So, I did use tools the game gave me, though perhaps poorly.

      My point was more that I tried to do something that either the tools are inadequate for, or that the collective amount of system knowledge at the table – and I count myself more to blame on that front than anyone else – isn’t enough to handle that kind no-good-option decision while remaining on the same page. It’s not that I want DoW in Fate, it’s that I think all conflicts between PCs are really conflicts between players, and I don’t feel like the system was really designed to handle that smoothly.

  3. As Paul noted, system alone isn’t going to solve this. You’ve gotta have players that a) are invested in the fiction and b) believe in the authority of the system.

    I really, _really_, love playing with Kristin and you, because all three of us really push hard for what we want in the fiction AND we respect whatever system we’re using as the way to resolve conflicts.

    I think often you get players that aren’t all that invested in the fiction (don’t want to deal with the hard choices) or don’t want to use the system to determine if they get what the want (preferring to just argue at the table, or ignore the other players and do something on their own).

    If a player does either of these, then system alone won’t help. I mean, how many times have you wanted a fight in BW to go to DoW but one of the players either refused or backed down or tried to weasel out of it? It happened a lot in Theorsa, and not because of system, or because of the story, but because of players either being invested in “my guy” syndrome and/or trying to dodge the rules.

    Much as I hate to say “talk to your players” this is totally a player buy in thing. If one of them isn’t leaping to say “look, I’ve got leverage over you because of X (aspect, thing in the fiction, whatever) and I want Y, I’m taking this to the dice”, then one of those two (investment in the fiction or respect for the system) is missing.

    I completely see why social conflicts in Dresden are funky. They are too easy to squirrel out of (as compared to DoW), where someone can just take some stress and then try to derail it. I’d be firm and say “this is how it’s handled. We play till someone gives (or is taken out) and the victor gets the spoils.”

  4. You can compel the fuck out of me if you want. I’m still getting in the swing of things and many times get distracted. I don’t mind if things get a little rough, just ask your wife! Okay, okay, sorry I couldn’t help it. Seriously, a GM sometimes has to push players, that’s part of the reason they are there. So use the rules at hand or hack it and bring in Duel of Wits.

  5. Incidentally, I’m more than aware and willing to admit that most of my issues with Fate aren’t “problems” with the system, they’re problems with my instincts and expectations grinding against the system. This whole thing is essentially the same thing as someone coming to Burning Wheel from D&D4 and being confused as to why there’s no real rules for mooks/minions and then complaining when a Fight took super long and nobody could hurt the dude in armor. So, I just want to put that out there.

    Also, thank you all. I really do appreciate the comments, especially from those of you in the game who are willing to put up with my whining.

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