Fate Core and choosing the right Skills for the job

One of the things I’ve picked up over the years has been that some new-to-Fate GMs aren’t really sure how to finagle all the dials—as in, just about every game mechanic is inherently designed to be scalable, and a GM can easily create a certain tone or style of game by setting the dials to whatever degree of granularity they want. It’s one of the reasons I promote the Fate World books, and think they should be bought, read, analyzed, and re-read by just about everyone; they’re not just a collection of instant ideas and unique scenarios; if you listen, they show how the dials can be manipulated.

Fate Core Cover

Case in point, the skills list; as those Fate Worlds show, while there is a “stock” list of skills, there are benefits to customizing that list for the game. I’ve been thinking a lot about how skills: changing the skill list not just for simple aesthetic or semantic reasons. Skills can control the tone of the game as well as a lot of mechanical nuances, and choosing them with precision can have a huge impact on gameplay. More to the point, skills can act as permissions—having X skill grants permission for that character to attempt to manipulate the environment using that skill; without it, they’re unable or incapable of succeeding, or at best, aren’t going to make much of an impact.

As an example, think of any “fantasy characters face with technological items” scenario you’ve encountered, which probably had a “use tech” skill or feature of some kind that they had to learn to be effective in using those gadgets. Or think of any game with a “flight” skill, or flight powers in a Supers game—if I have points in Flight and you don’t, what does that imply I can do but you can’t?

Consider the players who show up for a Fate fantasy game, only to find that their skills have to be chosen from the following list:

  • Arcana
  • Ranged Combat
  • Melee Combat
  • Brawn
  • Speed
  • Deftness
  • Acrobatics
  • Tactics
  • Defense

Without any social skills, it’s implicit—to me, at any rate—that the characters simply aren’t able to roll those actions. There’s probably a reason for that. Maybe this game is designed to be all about combat and tactics, some Diablo-esque game emphasizing physical challenges, and chaining Aspects on adversaries until someone can deal the killer blow. (Actually, sounds like a way to do Shadow of the Colossus or Monster Hunter, and I would totally play that, but that’s beside the point.)

Or maybe it’s designed to evoke some OSR-type ideal, where things like social interaction and manipulating the environment (e.g., traps) are done using the characters’ imagination alone rather than letting dice rolls or other mechanics adjudicate the outcome. Want to lie? Make one up and let’s see if the table thinks it’s plausible or not. Want to disable that trap or explore that room? Tell the GM how you’re going about it. That’s a pretty extreme setup given that skills (or a similar mechanic) have become commonplace, but again, that skills list (or lack thereof) impacts how the party interacts within the game world.

This is something I’ve toyed around with during my Fate games. Deadlands Dresden was mostly about making aesthetic changes to existing skills, and most of my one-shots use FAE or Fate Freeport, but about a year ago I tried to run an anime-inspired space opera game using some inspiration from Rob Wieland’s wonderful Camelot Trigger (from Worlds in Shadow). The main idea was the idea that the characters were all stellar nobility, which was reflected by the skills list. Player characters would be operating on another plane compared to their subordinates, which gave non-noble characters both advantages and disadvantages—to crib from Camelot Trigger, nobles do not “investigate,” they “inquire,” showing the limitations when one does not wish to get their hands dirty. Unfortunately, most of the game didn’t really click with the players, not just the skill nuances but also the far-future setting and tech level.

While that didn’t work out as intended, it’s something I always consider when thinking about Fate games—I think there’s always some untapped potential in how to use the skills dial. It’s another thing you can use to guide the game towards a desired effect. Just your games philosophy concept for the day.

One thought on “Fate Core and choosing the right Skills for the job

  1. Good article and I’d agree with all of the above except to say that narration also impacts hugely on how the game is communicated. It really is an art-form and it’s an area where the hobby hasn’t shone well. The kind of terse, descriptive text that makes a good screenplay shine is the benchmark to which games-writers and GMs should be aspiring.

    Even the naming of skills can impact on the tone of a game, not just the mechanics. For example, my blog’s devoted to running Fate in the Forgotten Realms. It’s essentially a Freeport Companion hack but I quickly noticed the limitations behind the skill lists and broke away from the classic six abilities, instead going with nine professions – the inspiration coming from Jadepunk and the Fate System Toolkit. Those nine professions became Acrobat, Aristocrat, Brute, Marksman, Mystic, Rogue, Scholar, Survivalist and Warrior. They didn’t just give the game better mechanics to work with but crucially matched the tone that the GM is trying to bring to the table.


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