I know that messing with the action economy is considered a dangerous thing. And yet I happen to GM a setting where, from a narrative point of view, it's relatively easy to mass-produce or purchase moderately competent minions (in the sense of obedient, expendable entities). So far, a single PC used a single such minion, and the effect was moderate - not enough to unbalance the combat, but enough to fully tie up a single enemy. I'm thinking it's likely that such tactics may end up being used on a larger scale by the party in the future, so I'd like to be prepared.

In my case it's low-end robot bodies (produced in a matter of hours each if resources are available) controlled by multiple copies of an AI, or many cheap AIs (again, both options are 'firmly' on the table in the setting). I'm sure a similar situation may exist in other settings, such as worlds that undergone a magical revolution and have mass-produced golems.

Yes, such NPCs are of course not as competent as full-fledged characters (at least so long as we're dealing with copies of low-level AIs, and not copies of a hypercompetent mind/AI/etc.). And yet having even a half-dozen mooks with an Average skill or two in a Conflict or Challenge can make a big difference, through the power of the Action Economy (and also of Teamwork).

My concerns are that, on one hand, I want to ensure the narrative importance of such possibilities doesn't become 'in name only' (e.g. by downgrading any size of helpers into a mere Create an Advantage with a mere couple free invocations or to a bland Stunt of +2), yet on the other hand I don't want to enable a complete breakdown of the action economy (or equivalent) when the PCs decide to leverage bigger resources into making such minions.

What are good ways to reconcile the concern of backing up the narrative with actual effects, and the concern about breaking the game part of the RPG? What have you done when running settings/campaigns with such two concerns being at odds? What approached worked well, what approaches resulted in problems at the table?

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you don't mind me asking, if this is a technology that is widely available to anyone with money, why is it not a standard tactic for pretty much everyone in the setting? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kyle Doyle
    Mar 19, 2019 at 21:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ In a way it is. By those who have enough resources. But I'm more used to campaigns where either armies aren't as expendable, or such armies are not often found in the hands of PCs (and are usually relegated to set pieces and the like). I'm open to running things differently, but I'd like to bask in the experience of those . . . who are more experienced than me in this matter. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 19, 2019 at 21:41

1 Answer 1


How do you solve a problem like 10,000 Instant Martians?

Well, something like this, as a naive implementation:

Mob of Instant Martians: Fair (+2) Minion - Stress: (1) (2) (3)

Strong (+4) at: Brute Force, Massed Fire; Weak (=0) at: Close Analysis, Original Thought

Let's take that as a starting point to talk about some things.

First, an assumption you're probably going to have to make: a single rank-and-file Instant Martian is not going to have any narrative importance; contrariwise, an Instant Martian with any narrative importance is not going to be rank-and-file. You've hit the reason why, of course: if any Instant Martian is a character in its own right, skill pyramid and right to an action in conflict and all, then odds are going to heavily favor the side that can print the most Instant Martians, and that's not usually going to be the side the movie is about.

And that's how these things are, isn't it? If you're going to print a whole bunch of things, why print a whole bunch of smart but expensive things most of which, statistically, you won't even use? Print a whole bunch of cheap and dumb things marshaled by a very smart, very expensive thing. When the stress track of that mob of Instant Martians up there gets filled, that doesn't mean every last Instant Martian went up in a charred puff of green fuzz; that just means that whatever Instant Martians are left are too few and/or too disorganized to present a meaningful threat.

This is not to say that everyone who uses Instant Martians only uses Instant Martians and never any actual purpose-built Martians as security or observation or research personnel, who do have their own skill pyramid and right to actions in a conflict. But it's like... well, imagine you're architecting a corporate building. Do you make every element of the building, walls and windows and doors, interior and exterior, out of military-grade reinforced materials? Do you throw luxe and shine and plush and polish onto any surface that'll hold some? Who has ever? You luxe and harden the C-level suites, you luxe up the public-facing places, you harden research or central processing or whatever makes you the real money, and for the rest you just worry that it takes the weight and is cheap to maintain. How luxe and hardened the 6th-floor HR supply closet is will never matter.

Until the PCs smuggle themselves in disguised as a shipment of toner, I mean. But that's the point: Fate is dramatic. Fate isn't about the way things are usually done. Nobody who built Nakatomi Plaza was thinking "but what if, someday, a Die Hard?"

Instant Martians take the weight and are cheap to maintain, but around the things that really matter there will be agents with pyramids and actions, who are not rank-and-file Instant Martians.

But what if I want Instant Martians?

Well, it can be useful to model it as a combination of the summons from the High Fantasy Magic rules and the much older concept of attached minions from Spirit of the Century-era Fate "3.0". Essentially, you decide on your Instant Martians' turn whether they're providing you a teamwork bonus or acting on their own, and if they provide you a teamwork bonus, they also take the first bit of damage you would take and are dispersed.

So a stunt like:

Moption. When you have time to replenish and rehydrate them, you can begin any conflict with an allied fire team of Instant Martians. They have +1 to Shoot and one box of Stress.

isn't too far off in power from basic stunts, being about +1 to attack and create an advantage with Shoot until you take damage, if you use them exclusively in attached mode.

But how do you deal with attempts by players to get larger and more imposing backup squads of Instant Martians? Well, within limits, Atomic Robo's invention setup isn't a bad idea. You want to be able to, effectively, stack a certain number of free invokes on the Instant Martians you create, which you then burn to improve the stress they can absorb and the skills they have access to. But doing that feeds Fate Points into the GM reserve equal to that boosted number, and the Instant Martians are still susceptible to damage and may be more difficult to replenish depending on how you look at invention complications.

But what if the bad guys actually have 10,000 Instant Martians?

That's not really something a handful of PCs can deal with at a conflict level. Either they turn into units on a larger scale of conflict, or you treat them as obstacles the PCs have to overcome rather than seize the fate of and destroy. Pilot your ship down to the surface of the ACME corporate homeworld, under the withering blaster fire of 10,000 Instant Martians! Infiltrate through the attractively thick and toxic ornamental jungle, patrolled by 10,000 Instant Martians! Drive your cyber-form through to the heart of the ACME mainframe, defended by 10,000 Instant Martians on keyboards! (The overall structure is kind of a hybrid of contest and conflict, where there isn't really anybody but you to get overstressed; you're being attacked by an obstacle that you can't attack back while you try and rack up the successes that represent contest progress.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not so sure this reconciles them. In a way this seems to undermine the reason people in the setting may be using mass-produced 'mercenaries' and servants in the first place. But I do recognise that the question I asked is not an easy one. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 26, 2019 at 12:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, Fate is about framing as much as it is about mechanics, and to me this seems more like an issue of framing. I've added some lines to the effect that nobody in the setting has any concept of "this is narratively significant". \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Mar 26, 2019 at 15:25

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