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In the next month or so I'm going to start running the Dresden Files RPG soon with a group that has most of its experience in D&D 3.5 and 4e. We're all new to FATE, and I tried to explain the stress track to one player today. I think he understood the mechanics of how to use the stress track, but it made no sense to him as a method of measuring 'health,' which is the only schema he's got.

Best as I can tell, it seems like the idea of knocking off the third box without crossing out the first two also doesn't jive with his vision of how durability-depletion tracking should work.

How do I explain the logic (in terms of mechanical balance AND simulation, preferably) of stress tracks to a group that's used to hit points? I can show them how it works by rote, but how might I help it make intuitive sense to them?

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Best way is an example of play. – Sardathrion Jan 28 '13 at 12:47
As an aside, one way to convey how the stress track works mathematically is to suggest that the last box is "100% out of the fight," and that each box to the left of it is half the size of the one that follows. (So a three-box track would be 25%, 50%, 100%.) If you try to fill a box that's already full, you move to the next open box on the right. – Jadasc Jan 28 '13 at 17:43
One of the best pieces of simulation explanation I've found is that "Stress doesn't measure your capacity to be hurt, it's your capacity to avoid being hurt." Actually being hurt is what consequences are for. – MrTheWalrus Jan 28 '13 at 18:22
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Stress tracks in FATE work as a pacing mechanism. It's not meant to simulate the physiological reaction of a body to punishment; it's there to provide a means of determining whether a character is out of the fight or not and reproduce a narrative aesthetic. Hit points historically have worked this way; the description of what a "hit point" is has often included luck as much as physical resilience. Therefore, your descriptions need to move away from "mechanical balance and simulation" and more toward "dramatic intent."

To that end:

  • The stress track works on the idea that "softening up a target with a series of blows" works, and "haymakering someone" works, but "a big hit followed by a tap" won't do it. That's why you measure the last box.
  • The way one stays in the fight is by taking "consequences" to mitigate stress. Think of John McClane in "Die Hard"; there's a guy who took a great deal of punishment without being Taken Out. Taking consequences means negotiating with the game master, which can clash with simulation if you're not careful about it.
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It helps to first tell them that in a FATE game, the players are not their characters. Players are not much different than the GM in what they do, only that they usually have a limited jurisdiction (their character) and limited resources (their FATE points). Everybody at the table has control over how the story unfolds regarding their jurisdiction, and can extend that jurisdiction temporarily by taking certain actions and/or expending resources.

Now let's consider the reason for using a stress track in the first place: The "taken out" result. You try to inflict stress on a character in order to take them out. This means the original player of that character temporarily loses his jurisdiction over the character in the context of the conflict at hand, and that jurisdiction momentarily passes to the player that dealt the final blow, who now gets to tell how the story unfolds for the affected character.

So, in a meta-game prespective, a stress track is a measure of how much an opposing player must insist before he gets to tell the story about your character. It doesn't imply anything about why and how the character goes towards his demise. That's a story the opposing player can tell if and when your character is taken out. Before that, all he can tell is how his own character is attempting to take your character out. You may opt to mitigate some of the stress as consequences, but how that happens is still your story to tell.

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That's a lovely meta discussion that I may borrow to explain the whole philosophy of FATE! – BESW Jan 28 '13 at 22:17

Unfortunately, most d20 players I know crawl into their dice bag and don't want to come out when it comes to any other system. I think time, trial and error, and a hook are vital. If they are willing to try the system you are half way there.

Sample Characters would be my recommendation. Hand them each a pre-gen and as suggested in a prior answer, do a sample fight.

The best way I can think of for the stress track explanation is to compare it to the card game of war. When the other guy plays a card, you want to play something that just beats it and save all your good cards for when he plays his. Except in FATE, his choice is random and once you use a card it's gone for a while.

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+1 for War comparison. My players are very willing to try new systems, though; they just don't have a lot of experience outside d20 yet so the spirit is willing but the schema is weak. – BESW Jan 28 '13 at 22:14

The parallel I've drawn to the stress track for d20 games is it's fairly similar to spell slots for a Wizard- or Cleric-type character:

For example, a wizard has a certain number of zeroth-, first-, and second-level spell slots. They may use a second-level slot to memorize a first-level spell, but cannot use a first-level slot and a second-level slot to memorize a third-level spell (can't split the "cost" of a spell among multiple slots).

That covers the usage of the stress boxes; each has a value, and can be filled to cover the "cost" of a hit, but you can't split the cost over multiple boxes.

It also relates as a squishier indicator of combat progress: a wizard who's running out of memorized spells better start thinking about ways to get out of the conflict and recover (since typically their hit points aren't much to write home about). A FATE character running out of stress boxes better start thinking about getting out of conflict or risk Consequences.

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