At different times, I have encountered statements that this or that game-mechanical phenomenon should be avoided because it leads to spotlight imbalance and/or narrative imbalance. To clarify the definition used, in this case spotlight imbalance is meant to include both the cases where one PC ends up being the hero who solves the situation more than other PCs (such as 'the sorcerer can do anything') [can-do-anything also tends to make such a PC influence the narrative too much compared to others] and cases where the PC hogs a spotlight despite not necessarily contributing to solving problems (such as when a PC's enemy becomes the central plot for a long while, while other PCs' pet plots get sidelined).

The main part of my question is: which mechanical phenomena (stunts, permissions, resolution mechanics etc.) should be treated warily due to always, often, or at least measurably more often than others, resulting in, incentivising, or otherwise contributing to either form of narrative imbalance in actual play?

My 'list of suspicions', which I would like confirmed or denied, but which should not limit the answers, since I'm pretty sure there's a possibility of other phenomena, ones I didn't think of, posing similar risks:

  • Refresh discrepancy. Some people say that if one player spent all sellable Refresh on Stunts, and another kept the Refresh, this tends to result in the GM constantly Compelling the former player's character, resulting in having as many FP to spend (thus competence) but also in significantly more screen time due to Compels.
  • Signature Aspect. This is a Stunt from Atomic Robo that provides a free Invocation of an aspect, and doubles the FP cost of both Proposing and Refusing the Compel on that Aspect. A friend is of the opinion that this also results in spotlight imbalance, more so if the Aspect is one that is highly relevant to a campaign (such as Former Master Cultist in a Call of Cthulhu game, which would be a 'magnet' both for Compelling and Invoking).
  • Flexible Magic. This suspicion is heavily coloured by my experience from multiple other game systems, in which sufficiently flexible magic managed to invalidate or at least infringe on other niches/PCs' spotlights (e.g. why become a good rider or hiker when the caster can summon a Cirrus Skiff and reduce travel times by months? Why learn disguise if the same magic skill can also be used to cast a face-changing spell?). I suspect this concern also applies to some of the magic systems\$^1\$ in this game too, but I'd like expert opinions from people with more actual-play experience in it.

\$^1\$ Such as Words of Power, High Fantasy Magic, probably the less-defined idea of using Aspect Permissions for magic, and perhaps other systems I'm not aware of.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Interesting Question! I'm definitely going to be thinking about similar impacts of certain 5e D&D mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Dec 20, 2018 at 14:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ As fate does not have a default magic system and thus it will vary from game to game, I do not think we can offer any advice with the "Flexible Magic" part of the question as it is now. Please provide an actual system to evaluate. \$\endgroup\$
    – Szega
    Dec 20, 2018 at 14:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Szega Examples added. Though as with all suspects on the list, it's a starting point, NOT an exhaustive enumeration to which answers should be limited. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 20, 2018 at 15:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah. My approach to tagging is to get the minimal set that fully covers the question, so I tend to avoid redundancies from more general tags. ([narrative-balance] is also not a tag that has gotten much acceptance, with only 5 questions, so I’m not sure yet it’s even a useful tag, especially when we have a more on-point tag.) However, if you feel strongly the tag is right for this question, please do add it back. :) Perhaps it has more utility than its current 5 uses suggests. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 20, 2018 at 15:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie I think it's an appropriate descriptor, and I'd like to see it become more accepted. I am thankful for pointing me towards spotlight - I didn't realise it was also an existing tag for some reason. I'm thinking the argument for removing the adjectiveless 'balance' tag may have merit. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 20, 2018 at 16:04

1 Answer 1


Ask your GM!

Har har, funny joke. But seriously, what's going to come next are just guidelines. Even Crafts (basket weaving) +4 is going to result in a spotlight imbalance if you decide that every man, woman, child, or unknowable terror from space is susceptible to a lovingly-made basket of condolence cheeses. There'll be some more advice at the end, but take this all in mind that it can't stop you and your casual interest in one thing or another from tilting the game. It's just something to think about when you're designing the extras.

Fate on Balance

So the Fate Toolkit's got a "magic" section, which can also be a "sufficiently advanced technology" section, which might also be called a "sufficiently complicated subsystem" section. One of its components is how to think about balance when making your own. There are three components: group balance, or how the extra will be distributed among the group:

At its simplest, this means you must have a compelling answer to the question "Why wouldn’t I buy this power?"

balance in play, or how GM time will be devoted to dealing with the mechanics of the extra:

If the mechanics demand more of your attention—because they require more rolls, for example—then it's a good chance that power is sucking attention away from non-powered players. This can be addressed through thoughtful GMing, but better if it's not a problem in the first place.

and setting balance, or how GM time will be devoted to plotting around the extra:

Obviously, the more tightly you constrain the power, the less you need to worry about these things, but that runs the risk of the power feeling like an overlay on the setting rather than a true part of it.

Worked Examples

But this is what you came for. Let's do this - though again, this is my call and my guideline for you. I'm not your players and I'm not you. I don't expect you to agree with my answers, just understand the principles of evaluation.

Paying Refresh for powers:

  • Group balance: some people aren't going to want to pay Refresh for powers because they want to charge out the gate with a handful of Fate Points.
  • Balance in play: not much mechanical work here! Some people get a bigger stack of points than others.
  • Setting balance: but, yeah, you could definitely spend more time working out how to compel the short stacks into a reasonable fate point total and not as much about the people with no powers. That's part of why I favor the Robo approach - everybody has a fixed refresh and number of stunts, and anything that stacks over that gives the GM more Fate Points at the start of a session to mess with anybody they want.

Signature Aspects:

  • Group balance: a single free Invoke probably isn't going to appeal to some players as a stunt feature, given what else stunts are capable of.
  • Balance in play: sometimes you wave around two Fate Points instead of one. No big.
  • Setting balance: maybe this could create the opposite of the refresh problem? You'd be writing away from people with a Signature Aspect sometimes, because you don't want them to constantly fish for super-compels? I haven't found that this has been a big deal for any of the sessions I've run, though again: not you, not your players.

High Fantasy Magic:

  • Group balance: players can take or leave this one, I think? Without spending refresh you're basically just devoting one of your Aspects to a particular set of Aspect Permissions. It's no big deal if everyone's a little bit magical, but that's really on the level of "variant character concept".
  • Balance in play: if some people go deep into magic crafting or summoning extra dudes, this could get kind of tilted. Worth keeping an eye on any one person's total number of schticks.
  • Setting balance: magicians can plot to make big magic effects. Definitely need to make it known to non-magical characters that they can plot to make big effects too, it'll just look different.

Words of Power:

  • Group balance: permission aspect, must have Lore, needs some sunk Stunts for power. Not for everybody!
  • Balance in play: dynamically stitching together spells and rolling to cast them can definitely eat some time, unless your mage GMed a Burning Wheel system and is great at adding up Ob.
  • Setting balance: since you get all the words all at once, this is a pretty big risk for just rolling Lore instead of anything else. Also there are big corker spells that would need a lot of setup.

Practicing Self-Balance

And, as promised, some ways for you to see if you really are keeping an even keel.

  • Roses and Thorns/Stars and Wishes. I'm not your players, but you're not your players either. So at the end of every session, ask them to tell you something they enjoyed (rose/star) and something they'd like to see done or done better next game (thorn/wish). This is all for everyone's fun, right? So see how you're doing.
  • Per-player Fate Points. Fate Points can be represented by literally anything, so see if you can get some literally anything in your players' signature colors. If you keep a separate "discard pool" from your source, you can see how many points players are getting and spending every game. A little imbalance in one session isn't bad - certain sessions will tend to lean toward certain characters, because of the variance in plot on offer. But a long-term trend may mean you're plotting too much around one character.
  • Per-player time coding. You're really not going to pull this off unless you already record your sessions, perhaps for streaming or something, and it's a big stack of time even so. But if you're really concerned about spotlight balance, go over the actual session play and see where the spotlight's pointed.

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