Are GM Compels meant to be necessarily negative? And are they to have an immediate effect, or get the PCs into a situation?

Examining other accounts of compels, it seems that most of the examples are negative, and in many cases of immediate negative effect, i.e. fail this roll and you get a fate point. However, I've read other accounts that hint at the style I've taken, though I've seen no official indications either way.

Two examples indicate how I utilize them in some cases:

  1. The PCs have found indications that the villain behaves a certain way from assessments. However, when the players are actually looking at the situation, they ignore the prior assessment (which seems to happen a lot after the initial tag). I compel the one of the PC's Chess Mistress aspect to get her to recall her earlier assessment of the villain to spur their thinking in a different direction and move the story along.

  2. The PCs are trying to bribe a Satyr that lives with the homeless near a monument for information. One of the PCs morality is a bit skewed, so even though another PC gives him money to purchase food from the nearby market, he decides to steal the food and keep the money. I compel his Wow! That escalated fast! to have a cop be in the market behind him. I don't compel him to fail, nor to continue through with his decision to steal, just to throw in a complication.

In both cases, the use of the aspect isn't of immediate (and indeed in one of any) negative effect. Is there a better way to use the aspects in similar situations?


4 Answers 4


Compels are used to increase the amount of story occurring, using a form of reincorporation of a player-chosen theme (i.e., an Aspect). This is often negative because we tend to tell stories where the rising action is composed of challenge and setback, but compels are not necessarily negative suggestions. Their purpose is to complicate or add nuance to the situation or to advance the action in a surprising direction. They can just as easily be positive or neutral from the character's point of view.

A space marine with the Aspect "A lover in every port", while trying to seduce someone, might be offered the obvious negative compel that a jilted lover shows up and causes drama. Equally, if that marine's trying to find contacts who can repair a beam rifle that's illegal to own locally, she might be offered a positive compel that she has a former lover on the station who brokers black-market services. Either way, if the player accepts the compel, the story has taken an interesting turn that the player is automatically invested in because it's tailor-made for their PC. That is the power of the compel, and it transcends simple negative challenges.

Of course, as referee I could just say the helpful contact is there. By offering a compel, I'm putting it in the player's hands to decide, and feeding the Fate point economy. Likely they'll take it, so the net effect is the same but I've added another Fate point to the economy. I don't mind being generous with opportunities for giving Fate points, and by being so I also fund their ability to turn down "positive" compels, increasing their story control (and therefore, investment). Do it enough, and the few times that they want to turn down the positive compel (and so have to pay for it) are more than made up for by the extra "free" Fate points they've been getting, taking care of the potential for it feeling unfair when they reject it. As a general rule in Fate, anything that increases the number of Fate points moving around (not just being given to the players, but also given and spent) is likely a good thing for the game.

One thing I like about the text of Diaspora is that it belabours the ways in which Fate can put the power into the players' hands (and, not-so-sneakily, take some load off the referee). One of the specific ways it does this is to point out that players can ask for compels. Hence, even a negative compel, when asked for, can be a positive thing as far as the player is concerned.


Yes, although I'd use "adversarial" or "challenging" instead of "negative."

I'm going to quote from page 100 of Dresden Files: Your Story:

The GM often initiates compels. When she compels one of your aspects, she's indicating that your character is in a position where the aspect could create a problem or a difficult choice.

Once an aspect is compelled, your choices are:

spend a fate point and ignore the aspect, or accept the complications and limitations on your character's choices and receive a fate point. When you accept the fate point, the aspect is officially compelled.

A compel…

limits the responses available… introduces unintended complications… or it provides the inspiration for a plot development or scene hook.

A player who's having his or her character compelled is put in the position of accepting or rejecting (or introducing, with a self-compel) a change in circumstance that's not under their control and leaves them in a less secure position than before; in exchange, they get a Fate Point. Refusing the compel means you remain secure, at the cost of a Fate point of your own. (This isn't true in all variants of FATE -- Strands Of Fate doesn't charge you to refuse a compel -- but it's true in Dresden Files.)

I think you're spot-on with your second example; compelling that Aspect is going to add to the drama and give the grey PC something to deal with. However, your first example doesn't work as well for me; it sounds like you're using a compel to change how the PC is playing her character, and that's poor form. If she or one of the other PCs were to invoke Chess Master as a means of getting her a clue or a reminder, that'd be different.


An aspect can be compelled for effect outside a conflict, and that means you'd compel your player's aspect to suggest an alternative action (or inaction) for the character. You could say

Hmm, looks like you have Wow! That escalated fast!. I doubt that you'd be satisfied with stealing just two apples. Not while there's an unguarded cash register just begging to be emptied. And this fate point seems to agree with me…

Having a cop in there is something you can do without resorting to a mechanism. Just say that and the cop is there. However your decision may be preempted by a player who makes a declaration that there should be no cops there. That declaration is probably a Streetwise+4dF roll against the difficulty that you determine (say yes or roll the dice), and if successful, then that location gains that aspect. The declaration roll is also subject to compels and invokes. e.g. The player may boost his declaration roll, tagging seedy part of town if there's one, for a fate point.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Having a cop there is something I could do without resorting to a mechanism. But my point in doing it (rather than forcing him to go further as suggested above) was to put the ability to steer the story and the character's potential need for action. If they didn't want the side story, then pay it off. If they did, then the cop is there and deal with it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chuck Dee
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 22:16

A compel is simply some element that turns the story based upon an aspect. Usually, they are adversarial. But they can also be used by the GM (or via tagging, other players) to invoke some element they found fun.

Taking the example of the man with "A zillion jilted lovers"... a compel on that could be that he jilt his current significant other. Or that an angry one shows back up. But it could also be compelled to provide an instant buy-in for the GM to dispose of a story thread he's bored of... for example, the Cassanova is in jail, and the GM's bored with the jail story, so one of those Jilted lovers bails him out. She expects repayment... in personal attention, not money. If the player rejects the compel, its the player's way of saying, "No, I want more jail story."

That same character in the same situation could also have a very negative compel offered: one of his jilted lovers is the DA... and so isn't looking for justice, but revenge. Which makes the potential drama very different. Rejection of the compel isn't of need that she's not the DA, but that she's not hostile. Heck, the player could counter offer that she's still pining over him, and is actually on his side...

Or could have a former lover used as a distraction by the villain - she's a hostage - and the fate point is that inner guilt preventing him from letting her get hurt. Or the rejection (spending his own fate point) is that he's so over her he doesn't care that she gets hurt. Either way, it moves the story.


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