Take the 2-minute tour ×
Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. It's 100% free, no registration required.

In the Dresden Files game I'm in, the game master never tells us the target numbers for thaumaturgy spells and skill rolls. We roll, he tells us whether we succeeded, life goes on. I've heard this isn't encouraged for Dresden Files, but this is par for the course for me; my background is largely D&D. Unfortunately, it gets particularly obnoxious around thaumaturgy: the players have absolutely no idea where to stop making declarations and spending Fate points when constructing the spell. We usually stop somewhere around 15 points of power.

The GM's justification is that we're doing something "we don't know enough about," and so we won't know how much power we need until after we've cast a spell.

An example: we were tracking down a warlock with his collection of lieutenants, mana batteries, and other hangers-on, and we learned that he had a total of 13 places that made up a city-spanning sigil. One of his followers, a neophyte wizard we captured and turned to our side, offered to help us find them via scrying (he'd worked out the pattern, but couldn't mark the places on a map without scrying it again). The neophyte wizard was working with gear unfamiliar to him, so the water wizard in our party helped him make the spell. We modeled the whole situation as a straightforward scrying-via-thaumaturgy spell, but the GM wouldn't tell us what the difficulty was. I argued that this was a "partially-known" situation (the neophyte wizard had done this before, but with different foci; he was a new enough wizard that he really needed the training), but he still wouldn't tell us the difficulty, so we just declared various aspects until we came up with 15 power, and that turned out to be enough.

Should the GM be telling us the target numbers for skills and thaumaturgy, or is he right to keep us in the dark? It's slowing down the game a bit as we're going overboard to declare a number of extra aspects to make sure we don't fall short of whatever target number is in his head.

The GM has played more Dresden Files than I have, so he's claiming expertise. Related to the above, we can spend Fate points after the dice have fallen and he's declared whether the action succeeded, but we still don't know what the actual target number is. So if I spend a Fate point on a failure, the action will succeed, but I still don't know by how much. (Nobody's tried yet to turn a miserable roll into a success via massive spending.)

share|improve this question
Some what related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/10375/… –  mirv120 Dec 18 '12 at 17:58
add comment

4 Answers

up vote 32 down vote accepted


The books never explicitly say that the GM should or must tell the players the difficulty, but that's because it takes it for granted. (It really should say, because – as you point out – keeping players in the dark is just so normal for so many GMs.)

There is circumstantial evidence in the text that the GM is supposed to set difficulties "in the open", but they're scattered throughout hundreds of pages and can be subtle. The most obvious, undeniable one is on page 311 of Your Story (emphasis mine):

Difficulty as Plot Device

Sometimes, assigning an unexpectedly high or low difficulty to an action can create an interesting detail for your game. For example, if the PCs are breaking into a small company’s office building, they probably expect most of the locks to be Good difficulty or lower. Finding one that’s Great or Superb difficulty would be unexpected, and this will serve as a flag to indicate that not all is what it seems. […]

Likewise, if the same PCs are infiltrating a Mafia don’s safehouse and all the locks are Average difficulty, it should be an indicator to them that something is wrong.

Note that there is no way that this bit of GMing advice makes sense in a system where difficulties are kept secret. If difficulties are secret, they can't serve as flags that something is up. If difficulties are normally secret and the GM reveals only the "odd" difficulty that's out of place, then the advice straight up doesn't make sense because the players won't have any other difficulties to compare with; and the simple fact that the GM is suddenly telling them difficulties would be the indicator, not the actual difficulty. It would be less artificial to just say what's out of place instead of "indicating" or "flagging" with difficulties. This bit of GMing advice simply wouldn't be in the book if it wasn't simply assumed that difficulties would be played in the open.

So yes, this passage is just a bit of sidebar GMing advice, but it reveals the underlying context of a system that is written with the solid bedrock assumption that players will be told the difficulty of every roll they make.

On top of that, as you point out there are many disadvantages with keeping difficulties secret:

  • It slows down play significantly
  • It makes in-character strategising (which in FATE is done via Aspects) impossible
  • Players have no way of knowing what their characters do know – how their own world, bodies, and expertises work
  • It robs the players of narrative power in a ruleset that is designed to be hugely collaborative (and functions poorly when it isn't)
  • Playing "guess what the GM is thinking" is almost never fun. This is particularly true in the case of Fate's core mechanic, since uncertainty about target numbers adds no suspense while adding lots of drudgery.

I asked Fred Hicks via Twitter if there is an official rule either way, and he responded:

@sevensideddie I think Fate works best with difficulties in the open; you say jump, they ask how high, and you tell them. :)
4:26 PM - 14 Dec 12

So this is as official as it gets: The game doesn't require anyone to play with difficulties in the open, but the designer thinks people should and designed with that in mind. That's consistent with the books: they don't have a rule for it, but they consistently, subtly, assume that you'll play that way.

In sum, playing with secret difficulties is like voiding the warranty. You can do it, but the game is not guaranteed to perform as designed if you do. As you're discovering (and as I hope your GM can begin to appreciate), this game you're in is suffering somewhat for having its warranty voided and isn't operating at full capacity.

share|improve this answer
I like your quote, but it can also be construed as telling the players the difficulty after they make (or fail) the roll - with or without the players spending extra Fate points after the roll. I agree with you, I'm just hoping for something more definitive. –  Paul Marshall Dec 14 '12 at 23:51
Also, kind of a shot in the dark, but it seems to me there is no "you can reroll before the roll's result is known" thing in FATE. Still not definitive, but that would imply a known target number. –  Scrollmaster Dec 15 '12 at 1:13
I realize you can spent Fate points after the die is rolled, but the quote above allows this situation: <Player rolls, gets a 3.> GM: you failed. Player: Okay, I'm <aspect>, I spend a Fate point. Now it's a 5. GM: you failed. Player: There was <scene aspect>, I spend another Fate point; that's a 7. This is exactly how my GM is playing the game right now. It feels wrong in light of what I've heard, but I can't point out exactly why this is wrong to the GM; he's played more Dresden Files than I have, and he's claiming expertise. –  Paul Marshall Dec 15 '12 at 1:46
YS 264 says "it’s fairly easy to determine the specific complexity of a spell in shifts," and on 262: "If the complexity of the spell is equal to or less than your Lore, assume you have everything you need to cast the spell and you require no additional effort for preparation." I think these add strong evidence to your argument. –  BESW Dec 15 '12 at 2:20
Asking a game creator over Twitter? How marvelously straightforward; thanks! I especially like your comment about how, if difficulties are unknown, players don't know what their characters can do; I feel that exactly. –  Paul Marshall Dec 18 '12 at 20:19
add comment

Yes - because difficulty in FATE as a system-wide† general principle is announced prior to rolling in order to build tension and speed resolution.

Further, per the way Aspects work, you are not expected to decide on invoking them until you know if they'd make a difference. The advice on the top of Y.S. p. 311 about difficulty and fate points makes it clear to those with FATE experience in other settings that this is unchanged, tho' on its own it isn't as clear as, say Diaspora.

† by system-wide, I mean across multiple games using the FATE engine.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Perhaps a compromise solution would be to convince the GM to allow a Declaration to be Invoked to get an Assessment of the difficulty level, if it is going to be non-obvious. Like Dresden leaning into a Ward to feel how strong it is, rather than just slinging some long range Thaumaturgy at it and hoping it gets through.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to RPG! –  Paul Marshall Feb 26 '13 at 0:53
Welcome, and good example. Take a look at our FAQ. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Feb 26 '13 at 1:10
add comment

As a rule, yes. Yet, in the specific example, it should be "scrying on a person of that type (wizard, supernatural, mundane) as well as we know how to".

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.