One of my favorite new game mechanics was the idea of plot stress, introduced in Cubicle 7′s FATE products, Legends of Anglerre and Starblazer. In essence, it creates a structured framework for how a plot/event/campaign will play out—a reactive ticking bomb, in a way, that progresses towards your plot’s end-goal. It consists of “plot stress” (health) boxes, usually 2-3 boxes on each of four stress levels. These are are ticked away when things occur in the game to complicate or progress the expected situation—these will often come off a predetermined list you’ve cooked up, but can really be anything that impacts the plot. When each stress level is filled up, the campaign takes a “Consequence” and alters the situation by progressing down your pre-determined plot avenue.
Let’s have a concrete example that’s not so freaking abstract, and less complicated by FATE terminology.
My current ICONS game—villains forced to run black ops for the SHIELD knockoff, ala Suicide Squad—got a weird multidimensional theme because half the players were connected to the infernal realm for one reason or another. One was a demon sent to Earth Superman-style, raised ignorant of his heritage and prophesied Dark Scion destiny; one player was a wealthy Golden Age bank robber whose family cavorted with demon-binding to extend their lifespan, and another was playing his demon-power-infused manservant. My original inspiration was a little Savage Worlds setting called Necessary Evil, wherein the players are villains in a world under alien attack, forced to fight off the alien invasion because said aliens captured all the world’s superheroes right before the campaign starts.
I liked the idea of a demonic incursion better than a squid-headed purple alien attack, so I switched that; really, the invasion and playing villains are the only things I remember from Necessary Evil, so that’s all I stole from that. The demons are an extra-dimensional race with lots of political infighting (kind of like drow, now that I think about it), with one or two houses after the Dark Scion character to save him, while the rest want to kill him—sealing the fate of the world by denying the prophisized events to come about, which will eventually cause the end of the world. Since the other two were tied to a different demonic house, the politicking and complexity worked out nicely.
Plot Stress Consequence Description   Minor Various factions put hit squads near PC bases   Major Cosmic events distract superheroes    Severe Demonic rifts open; search for Dark Scion    Extreme Destruction of Earth looms overhead
Dealing “plot stress damage” is based on in-play events. Say, killing a group of demonic assassins might do +1 to it; traveling to another dimension or making themselves known might do +2; revealing critical information did +1 (and there was plenty of that, thanks to one player accidentally creating an observation imp and forgetting about it); tagging something related to demons or the infernal realm might do +2. As things turned out, I’m re-structuring the stress track since the demonic invasion was triggered way early by inter-party politics, paranoia, and the mentalist trying to mindjack the avatar of Chronos, Liege of Time and Master of Your Future, heading into the far past to capture the Dark Scion for himself. (Yes, the Greek titan, plus some Galactus, if Galactus was a 29th-Century being of pure force and limitless energy. Rolling a 15—a Massive Cosmic Success—followed by two 10s and an 8 meant that the player almost, but not quite, succeeded.)
Another example, from my increasingly modified Pathfinder Serpent’s Skull game. I’d re-skinned large chunks; the first module’s boss monster Yarzoth (cleric of an evil Kull-style serpentfolk race; I was playing up their alchemical and magi-tech abilities) escaped and became an ongoing threat, and the serpentfolk threat increased, as was my end-cap goal of level 20 for the campaign. The stress track kicks in when the players arrive at an ancient ruined city (think El Dorado done in full sandbox mode) in the third module, tied to the rise and fall of the serpentfolk’s dead god.
This kind of tracking method is incredibly helpful when you’re dealing with a sandbox scenario with tons of triggered and plot-related events, let me tell you.
Plot Stress Description   Players tracked, ambushed by serpentfolk   Assassination attempts on player allies    Serpentfolk unleash alchemical monsters    The Dead God Rises! Ritual begins
Plot stress was built more around the setting and plot than the previous example. Exploring the city district where the serpentfolk lived dealt +1, and cleansing it of serpentfolk life did +2. Finding an avenue into the subterranean realm dealt +1; the El Dorado city was the bulk of module three, and triggering the key events to the next two modules (linked to it in plot and theme) also dealt plot stress. There were also a few other things—and my plot stress track did away with consequences, and expanded thing out by a bit, since my plan had been to take the plot past what was written.
The idea of plot stress pretty abstract—it follows movie logic in that some things happen at just the right time because it’d complicate things or look cool, because of the Raymond Chandler rule (when things get boring, men with guns enter the room), or because plot-wise everything would have led up to it by then. It’s a metric for the GM to determine when the game moves forward and track large-scale plot occurrences; it takes the “eyballing-it” method I already do and gives it a nice framework to build around. Most of the plot stress triggers were built in advance, though they anything else that was relevant would add to it. (Finding a way to kill Yarzoth might have started the track with three boxes checked, for example, and making an alliance between any of the serpentfolks’ traditional rivals would add +1 to +3 depending on who was contacted.)
In general, I don’t plan my games out ahead of time like most normal people. Instead, I tend to come up with a more checkpoint-oriented design: here are a bunch of key plot events, situations, or cool shit I want to include that will lead to each other, and successively, to some sort of end goal. How or when they happen is more up to actual play and the events within the game than anything else. Hence my love of plot stress; it codifies my Handwavium method with something less hand-wavey and more frameworked, yet still vague and flexible.
So, in a recent post, I pointed out why the new Marvel Super Heroic RPG had an awesome initiative system, and that I was adapting it to ICONS.
Talking it over and thinking about it, I’ll probably adapt it Fate-based games in general. And in a system a little more granular than ICONS, it deserves a little tweak to buff it. Namely, a stunt. Probably more than one, but at least one to throw a bone to the dextrous character—the rogue, the swashbuckler, the gladiator, someone who controls the battlefield through speed and efficiency.
Athletics is the clear-cut Skill candidate here, under the Speed trapping.
Unnatural Speed [Athletics]
Requires Fast as a Leopard.
You can leverage your incredible speed to your advantage, enabling you to act earlier than anticipated and throwing others’ out of sync. When you take the first initiative action in a round, you gain a +2 bonus to any one roll. Alternately, you may spend a Fate Point to join the initiative at any point, preempting whoever had been chosen to act, much like what the GM can do with NPCs. Doing so grants you a +1 bonus to a roll. This does not allow you to act more than once in a round, thought it does permit you if you have some other method to take multiple actions (gear, a spell, etc.).
Sometimes I feel like I’m stitching together some horrible Frankensteinian amalgam… it’s something that Fate lends itself to well, if only because the Fate Fractal makes such things a snap. Most Fate-based games I see on forums or Obsidian Portal follow the same method, so at least I’m not alone.
It’s also a little hard for players to figure out, when I’m using my Starblazer core book, use bits of Bulldogs’ rules, and tell them I’m running “Fate.” The interrelated nature of all the various Fate games means they’re easier to jam together, riff off, and steal from than most other game systems; even mashing up different WoD games or d20 supplements can lead to some uneven balance issues or notable gaps.
- The Marvel Heroic RPG has a great initiative system I just talked about ripping off a few posts ago. Fate needs a decent initiative system that works, and has the same flow as the game on a meta level, and I think that’s the one to rip off.
- Plot stress from Starblazer and Anglerre is the greatest thing ever… when used right. Rather, when there’s a good place to use it. Pretty much the only time I’ve used it was as a ticking bomb in a zombie game; each time the players spent Fate points, the plot started taking damage, and after a while something would happen… more zombies would show up, help would arrive, that sort of thing. I’m still a huge fan of the original example in Mindjammer—trying to infiltrate a base, the plot takes damage whe the players mess up.
- Bulldogs! has this amazing idea of giving everything negative Aspects; it starts out when you’re getting your starting equipment: if you end up with something you can’t afford, slap on a negative Aspect to be compelled in a tough spot. That blaster might be an Energy Hog; that mystical black blade might be Trying To Dominate Me!
- Hell, take Bulldogs’ new applications for Aspects and turn it to eleven. We have Aspects on organizations, vehicles, equipment, cities, countries, cultures… why not go full-blown with them and start putting them on plots, sessions, or entire campaigns? The game with Band of Backstabbers is going to be a lot different than the one with Cutest Ninja Assassins Evah.
- I’m growing to like how in ICONS players have smaller Fate Point (e.g., Determination) pools, but need more to make Determined Efforts—thus, compels. After running Starblazer, it always felt like players had too many points, unless they had too little, leading to avoiding compels because there’s no need. Or being forced to take them, after making five re-rolls to avoid blowing the ship up. And speaking of compels…
- … and I’m still on the fence about forcing players to pay off a compel from their point pool, since it’s an easy way to abuse/strongarm players without any points left. I’ve noticed it’s something left out of some Fate games, and while I realize it’s a mechanical balancing thing, it’s one of the big areas for abuse in the system. If people actually abused it at all. (This was also a problem I had with TORG, and some other games before that: players stockpiling hero/action points, so that there was no need to be epic, or spend cards, or do whatever to gain more at a risk or cost.)
- Half of the time I end up wanting to compel things that aren’t related to a character’s Aspects at all, either because they’d lead to interesting results, or because it’d fit with a PC’s personality. I’ve shied away from this simply because it breaks the Fate economy down, getting rid of the expected rules and boundaries the players are used to, but I’m thinking of a “bribe” method, a compel that the players don’t have to pay off—either accept or decline—which otherwise follows the compel method.
- 7th Sea and Exalted have set my mind up to reward players for rule-of-cool, epic cinematic action. The irony in Fate is that rewards work the opposite way—by making things more complex, by taking short-term failure for long-term gains. With smaller Fate point pools, you have the freedom to reward these actions more often without overbalancing things in favor of the players—in other words,they still have to take compels now and then, so the Fate point exchange stays the same.
- My TORG games, and the way players attempted to abuse the Drama Deck (and backfired), was influential. Well, that’s pretty much compels in a nutshell: complicate the situation in some form or another and earn rewards for doing so. It’s a bit of a learning curve, especially as a GM, to get people used to the idea that setting things up for failure will pay off in the long run. It does run counter to logic—bad things giving you good things, it’s a weird connotation—but I’ve noticed people like to take compel-able Aspects just because it’s fun.
- Strands of Fate is a bit too GURPS-esque for my Cubicle 7-based Fate mind, but there are a few ideas I love from them. The big one is persistent aspects. In Fate, when you’re sneaking around in a dark building, you have to pay a Fate Point and tag the Aspect “Dark Building” to get a mechanical bonus from the Aspect. Yes, even though it’s dark, you need to pay to… make it dark for you. In Strands, you can tag the darkness for free; things like Under Cover and Pitch Black are persistent, and thus free tags, unless you alter them somehow (e.g., get out from under cover, set off a flare, etc).
While I really like ICONS, I think they took it a little too rules-light, four-color, beer-and-pretzels with its mechanics. Since it’s FATE-based RPG, slapping additional mechanics and modifying the rules isn’t just easy, it’s all but encouraged. (Or maybe I’m just too used to the Cubicle 7 method, which is to make FATE into a giant freaking toolset full of rules and options.)
Initiative is one of the many areas ICONS just doesn’t do it for me. The RAW rules are an overly simplistic back and forth between players, then NPCs, and so on, each in their own way. Needless to say ICONS gamers have come up with around fifty billion methods to determine initiative, ranging from “highest Coordination to lowest, with Awareness or Willpower breaking ties” to “roll a die, Coordination breaking ties,” to more complex formulas (1d6-1d6 + Coordination + Awareness + Relevant Power Levels).
But with all those options, note that they’re all roughly along the same tried-and-true methods that have been used for every game since D&D: roll some dice, and add your attributes. It’s a combination of sheer dumb luck and specific character choices, which is most weighted towards whoever rolled Super Speed or Super Sense. (Because we all remember how The Flash or Spiderman always act first in supers team-ups.) You’d think we’d have something more interesting than that to work with, given FATE’s often meta rules, but no.
So, what I’m cribbing from is the new Marvel Heroic RPG. I’m still not sold on the Cortex system, but it looks like a pretty good application of the system. What intrigued me most were its FATE-like rules mods, like its initiative system… little surprise to find they were influenced by Evil Hat’s Fred Hicks.
So, in a nutshell, rather than working out some formula weighted towards people who rolled/bought certain attributes or powers, initiative is determined by whoever makes sense to go first—whoever that, at that point in the narrative, it makes sense to have first action. Either by group consensus, or by the GM picking someone, or whoever yells out “I’m Going First!” first. The person acting chooses who goes after they do, until everyone’s acted, at which point the person who acted last in this round chooses who goes first in the next one.
That last little bit is the reason you’d want to stagger things between heroes and villains. Forcing the NPCs into the second half of the first round means they act first in the next one, giving them back-to-back turns to pound on the heroes, or worse: set up and pull off something complex and deadly.
And to top that off, the GM can spend a Doom Point to force one of the NPCs into the initiative track—the FATE equivalent I’m using would be to put a Determination/Fate Point into the group’s Team Determination pool, should they be using a team. So if the players aren’t interested in letting the ambush go first—and they should, since letting those HYDRA thugs go first means the PCs’d get to act twice before the HYDRA goons could respond—the GM can always just blow a point to interrupt.
So while it sounds like the old “cops and robbers” chaos you played in the schoolyard, there actually is an incentive to try and stagger things and spread them out between heroes and villains… especially if you’re trying to do a team-up maneuver. Plus, the GM always has final say (at the cost of a point), so it will only be as easy as the GM allows it to be.
I like it because it switches initiative from being a simple mechanic into a complex equation of fluctuation and bartering, so I think I’ll make off with this for my ICONS and FATE needs.
So, my most recent time-waster has been the Marvel Avengers Alliance Facebook app; it’s probably the best Facebook game out there—if you have a friend or two playing with you, or at least spamming gifts—but that doesn’t make it anything more than a Facebook game. It’s something of an action-JRPG meets standard Facebook grindquest/social-media-spam, but enough about that.
It’s yet another stop on Marvel/Disney’s road to the Avengers film, building hype and all that; between it and the Avengers cartoon on Netflix—which wasn’t bad for a cartoon, at least a lot better than the old ’90s X-Men cartoon—I’ve been getting into Marvel superheroes lately. Enough that I dug out my old single issues and riffled through them.
So, I’m really tempted to try and run ICONS, or dig out my old Aberrant/Scion mashup, because I have supers on the brain.
That’s kind of a changeup for me; I dig pulp and SF, and well-done, non-traditional-D&D fantasy, like Exalted or The One Ring. And while I’ve always wanted to run—well, play, rather, which has lead to a never-ending train of disappointment as people talk about but never run—a supers game, I never felt I had enough book-learnin’ to pull one off, like I didn’t know enough about comics to run a superheroes RPG. That’s starting to change.
To be honest, I didn’t really get supers as a kid—my mom, bless her heart, once picked up a box of old Marvel comics from the ’80s at a garage sale, and hid it away for a rainy day as moms are want to do. But while I ground through those back issues of Secret Wars and Spider-Man and The Hulk rainy day after rainy day, it just never clicked into something I wanted to get into. I always had the idea that they were too kiddie for me, for some reason. I say that as someone who came of age during the great comics explosion of the early-mid-’90s, where kids with quarters were replaced with growly old men clutching mylar polybags and backing boards, that horrible era of hype and variant covers and collecting, never reading, the damn things.
While I bought up a lot of new comics, but mostly Dark Horse or Image ones: they were hip, new, indie, tied to various motion picture properties, and best of all, these were the indie imprints that showed the most gore and skin, and as a prepubescent boy, watching Indiana Jones bayonet some German, or Lara Croft in a wet T-shirt… that was incentive enough, just knowing you’re reading something you probably shouldn’t. (Yeah, some stellar motivation right there.) And when you’re ten, things you shouldn’t see are cool. Probably cooler than they really are.
Hell, even today I buy trade paperbacks of weird, niche stuff over the tentpole, big-ticket heroes. And my unshaking devotion to Marvel over DC has began to erode; I love Marvel, its universe, its heroes, and its films, but I’m beginning to see what DC was onto with its universe. Before I picked up the four-volume 52 at a Bargain Books, I didn’t really give DC the time of day, with the exception of their most non-mainline stuff: I loved Gotham Central, and am hoping to see more Suicide Squad trades even though DC canned them. As a history buff, I sought out G.I. Combat and Weird War Tales as a kid, along with a few Weird Western Tales, and various horror/ghost story comics.
So where am I going with all this? Haven’t a flippin’ clue.
What I love most about FATE is the way its game mechanics can impact—and be affected by—the narrative, the setting, the characters, even events. Aspects are a clear example; they can Compel you to do something, or help you succeed, and in general round out your character’s background with game mechanics.
I’m most keen on Maneuvers, since they’re so underused yet so potent; these little babies can put any Aspect you want, on any target you want, thus give everything more Aspects. And Aspects are a critical part of the game; Tagging or Invoking one gives you a +2 bonus, which might not sound like a lot, but in FATE, where your results range from -5 to +5 (or -4 to +4) that’s a huge bonus. A bonus of around 50% if you’re using the -4 to +4 FUDGE Dice.
As defined, a Maneuver is “any attempt to change the situation or environment in some way”—that’s a pretty damn broad range. Literally, anything can be a maneuver, as long as their end goal is to change the scene by putting an Aspect on something. And they have a range of possibilities, limited only by the players (er, and the GM), much like Aspects.
For example. Kick over a fiery sconce? That’s a Maneuver, and gives the environment an “On Fire!” Aspect. What that means depends on how the players use it. They could try and throw enemies in the fire, giving them an “Also On Fire!” Aspect. Tagging it could deal more damage, or be used to distract them, or even drive them away to look for a river to jump in. Or maybe the players let the fire spread, setting fire to the building, giving everyone Consequences from the heat and stress unless they leave its area of effect.
Running Around to Eat Up Enemy Ammo
There’s a lot of good example Maneuvers in the book. My favorite is the suggestion to make an Athletics check against the enemies’ Guns skill, to try and give them an Out Of Ammo Aspect—running/flying around without being hit so the mooks empty their clips. It has a powerful result—enemies not being able to use Guns—if successful. And that’s a big if, since failure might mean enemies get free attacks on whoever tried to Maneuver, if the GM is feeling sadistic.
Spycraft tried to apply some interesting combat maneuvers to d20, and I think most of them would work just as good if not better in FATE. Take the standard covering fire/suppressive fire: shooting wildly at enemies so they’ll keep their heads down so some others can act. Perhaps a Guns check against Athletics, to try and give an Aspect like Duck And Cover or Under Siege or something.
The characters who were moving or doing something could tag the enemies’ Duck And Cover aspect to add to their own defense, saying their foes are too busy hiding to fire back. Or tag that same Duck And Cover to add to their Athletics, saying they could cover more ground (and dodge any sporadic fire) before their foes stop cowering.
The main example of why Maneuvers are so underused; Stealth can become one of the most brutal skills if used correctly. Rolling Stealth against Perception can give any number of Aspects: you could put an Aspect like “Where’d The Little One Go?” on the enemies, or something like Hidden And Dangerous on yourself. You could, obviously, tag that Aspect to increase your Stealth rolls, or tag it when making an attack, saying the enemy didn’t see you coming.
Not all Maneuvers have to be physical; you could recreate TORG’s Monologue card with a good Deceit- or Intelligence-based Maneuver, rolled against the targets’ Resolve. By yammering and pontificating, you could give any number of Aspects: Baffled by Bullshit, Stunned by Science, Entranced by the Speaker, etc. Others could tag these to add to Stealth or attack checks, under the guise that their enemies’ focus is on the speaker, or add to their Athletics to dodge, saying foes are attacking half-heartedly since they’re paying more attention to the monologue. You could use it as a distraction, as a stalling tactic, or to get everyone’s attention right before you hit them with a hypnotism ray or flashbang or something.
And a Grab Bag
There’s about fifty trillion ideas out there, I’ve only come up with basic examples… such as those that replicate d20 combat maneuvers, TORG approved actions, etc. In reality, Maneuvers are more like the kinds of stunts you can pull in Exalted or 7th Sea—often specific, determined and constructed on a case-by-case basis to counter specific obstacles.
- Resolve against Resolve to do a test of will/gunslinger showdown stare to give the target Blinked/Twitched First
- Deceit/Intimidate to make a taunt/boast, giving the enemy “They said What about My Mother?”
- Athletics to jump up on something, giving yourself Take the High Ground
- Deceit to explain, to whoever you’re bluffing, that “It’s like second nature to me!”
- Athletics against enemies to Put Them In The Corner, put them on Unstable Ground, or make them Flanked or Harried
- Fists/Weapons to put an enemy Off Balance
- Drive/Pilot/Starship Piloting to ram into an enemy vehicle to give both vehicles Wedged Together or Crashed or something
- Drop a chandelier on some thugs to make them Pinned Down
One of the stumbling blocks for people trying to get into FATE is the sheer flexible, modular, granular nature of the system. The base assumption some friends were working with were that it was either a traditional roleplaying game done rules-light (ala Savage Worlds or Star Wars d6), or a “storygame,” some abstract narrativist vehicle with mechanics tacked on (ala Burning Wheel). Read about FATE on the internet and most likely those are the assumptions you’ll come up with. That’s misleading.
The truth is that while FATE isn’t a traditional roleplaying game, nor is it the penultimate narrativist system that posters on The Forge hype it as. Rather, it’s something of a toolkit for designing your own roleplaying experience. If you want to incorporate strong narrativist elements and expand player agency, you can build that. Or you can build a more traditional game that’s highly cinematic, fast, loose, and rules-light, but one that runs and looks closer to a “standard” RPG (whatever that is).
A lot of this goes back to the game’s FUDGE background: it was one of the most customizable games in existence. FATE changed the rules up and devised its own style, adding in Aspects and other player-driven content. But FATE’s mechanics—skills, stunts, Aspects—has been regimented and uniform; most FATE games follow in the footsteps of Spirit of the Century, changing a few basics to suit a setting or tone.
Diaspora made a few changes in its quest for a Traveller-style Hard SF game, but oddly, most of its changes were related to narrativist shared-story and not Hard SF. Dresden Files, on the other hand, slimmed down the system, added in new rules, stress tracks, and otherwise pointed FATE in the direction of a setting—urban dark fantasy—and slammed into the bullseye. And now we have ICONS, showing what you can do with the system: the mechanics have been developed towards four-color supers rather than left loose for GM manipulation.
The FATE games on the market go either way. A number play up the build-a-game angle and are essentially glorified toolkits taken to the extreme: Cube 7′s output, Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre. I love them for their toolkit angle, putting all the power and flexibility of a powerful, flexible system into the hands of a GM… but they’re not games to pick up expecting a finished product.
Consider. In D&D, things are simple: the world is self-explanatory, challenges are picked from lists corresponding to party strength. In FATE, details are left vague for GM interpretation and manipulating: a GM has to deal with such minutia as figuring the physical (game-world) representation of the Resources +3 the group just acquired. Take how player-driven the characters are (the importance of Aspects and Consequences); FATE’s mechanics are just as GM-driven (and GM-reliant) as the characters are player-driven. That’s a turn-off for a lot of people, for whom a more “finished,” focused game like Bulldogs! or ICONS would be a better choice.
The reason I single out ICONS is because of how far it drifts from “established” FATE games. ICONS replaced skills (to a greater or lesser extent) with a set of FASERIP-style attributes, changed up what FATE points can do, and put in a Powers system to show that, yes, FATE can be a supers system. Many call it “not FATE but FATE-based.” (Probably based on the fact that strong inter-narrative control isn’t spread between players and GM as in Diaspora or Spirit.)
I think that’s a misnomer. Instead, it’s an example of the kind of finished-product RPG you can build with FATE by manipulating the existing mechanics to custom-tailor the product for the intended setting and tone. It’s a hyper-focused incarnation of FATE, and I think we’ll see more specialized FATE-powered games in the future.
Looking at FATE as more of a build-a-game than a finish product could really benefit the system—I’d love to see third-party companies do specialized games like ICONS, to properly blend form and function, setting and mechanics. I think it also explains why ICONS has had a successful following from day one, and why it clicked so well with my old group.
Mostly I’ve been curious about their statistics and whatnot, since I have the half-baked idea to switch dice mechanics depending on scene/setting or something for the Starblazer game I’m building: a more cinematic world uses d6-d6, while a space hulk horror session uses 4dF because it’s weighted towards zero.
The main thing to keep in mind: FATE, and Fudge, are systems based on “margin of success.” Having a Good skill means, most like, you’ll succeed on a Fair task/challenge; hence the dice systems pushing a bell curve aiming at zero. You still need to over-succeed to the point where you don’t just succeed with a Fair result, but generate some spin to do extra damage or decrease the time spent/increase quality. That’s changed a bit since Spirit of the Century came out—at least, in that other publishers are moving a little away from the idea with more “extreme results” mechanics.
4dF: Using Fudge dice goes back to the Fudge system, Fate’s progenitor, but there is a lot going for them. (A lot of people swear by them for all Fate games, at least.) The idea is to generate a total between +4 and -4, with a bell curve aiming straight at 0; to get there you roll four d6′s, each one having two “+” sides, two blank sides, and two “-” sides, then adding the results together. (If you’re a fan of math, you can do this at home with normal d6′s by rolling high/medium/low and factoring as +/blank/-.)
Because it’s a dice pool, things work very well towards creating the desired bell curve around zero: it’s unlikely you’ll roll many -4 or +4 rolls. In fact, the majority of your rolls will be within one step of zero, giving a lot of +1 and -1 results. That’s what Fate originally wanted, putting an emphasis on your skills and less on blind chance, though making things chancy for those low-ranked Average skills.
1d6-1d6: This was introduced with Starblazer Adventures, and goes in the opposite direction. You’re rolling two dice, one generating a positive number and the other generating a negative number, and adding them together. Here, you have two independent variables doing multiple things: you want one to roll low, and another to roll high. And you have to do the dreaded maths.
Unlike Fudge dice, this system is pure chaos; while (statistically) the bell curve is still around zero, with a lot of 1 and 2 results, things are expanded a bit in both directions. You’re a lot more likely to roll an extreme result; while those fives aren’t going to show up that often, the chances of rolling a three or four (+ or -) is a lot more likely than with Fudge dice.
Thus, it’s a tradeoff: less certainty of results around zero, but a lot of chaos and the chance for a big +5 payoff. 4dF is somewhat predictable and safe in its bell curve. d6-d6 theoretically has the same bell curve, but with higher end variables, leading to high risk, high reward. More importantly, it’s the system to use if the FATE game in question rewards shifts (successes by three or more).
(I have to admit, this is the one I’m leaning towards liking the most; its extreme results fit best with pulp and space opera in my mind. I recommend using light and dark dice to keep the numbers separated, or go with negative pips and positive numbers or something.)
2d6-7: Another option, to keep things simple: roll two d6′s, sum them, and subtract seven. You’re still ending up with the same -5 to +5 variable as with d6-d6, giving you the chance for major success or critical failure, but is a much more traditional formula. It’s a lot easier for newer players than rolling high-med-low or remember which is the negative die.
4dF is a predictable dice pool; d6-d6 is pure fate. This style is somewhere in between, and follows traditional RPG dice mechanics of “high is good, low is bad.” However, it falls back into predictability: you need both of your dice to roll high consistently, otherwise you’re boned. One system’s +5 and -2 would be a nice solid +3, but here, it’s a flat zero. (Of course, flip the modifiers around and you have a -3; those modifiers are something you just can’t control in d6-d6.)
It lacks the stability of 4dF and the random chance of d6-d6; on the other hand, it’s simple, straightforward, and lacks the random chance of d6-d6, putting it closer in stable predictability to 4dF.
3dF/5dF: There’s been some discussion about the benefits of using more/less Fudge dice. Either way disrupts the 4dF zero-based bell curve, but both have results more along the lines of 4dF’s predictability than some of the more random dice systems.
2d6, take lowest number and add die +/- modifier: Here’s one I saw posted on forums a while ago that some gamers are now using. Roll two d6, a negative and positive die (in some cases, 4d6, two positive and two negative); then, take the lowest numerical roll, and apply the modifier (+/-) of the die it’s on. Sixes (or tied sixes, I forgot) are treated as zero. Thus a roll of +3 and -1 would take the lowest numerical value (the one) and apply its dice modifier (negative) as the end result. By contrast, +2 and -6 would have an end result of +2.
It’s an interesting system, but I’m not sure I’d use it. It’s even more chaotic than d6-d6, which is hilariously chaotic to start with, while cutting out its random chance for extreme results. It’s chaos, but a systematic, streamlined one that minimizes the chances for huge success or failure. Most of the problem would be selling players on a system that has its own learning curve.
There’s always the option to use Technoir dice, which is a fascinating (if complex) system of spending Fate points as additional dice. Something like ICONS’ use of Determination to succeed at a task plus archetypical stunt/edge/action dice. Again, I like it for its games theory aspect, but when my prospective players are new to FATE (and me) I’d rather stick with something simple for them.
And there’s a system for making FATE rolls with a tarot deck.
One final note: I’m curious as to how 4dF works with ICONS. Most FATE characters have a skill pyramid with a single +5 or +4, while most starting ICONS characters rarely have attributes ranked lower than 3-4. 4dF is the closest of all these systems to having a pure bell curve of zero, so my assumption is ICONS characters would succeed constantly with 4dF, hence why the raw chaos of d6-d6 was used.