The group in my current Fate Core game tends to get into a lot of combat and conflict situations that I don't really know how to run in a dramatic way that feels narratively satisfying without getting boring. They just kind of pile up boring advantages and then whale on their opponent(s) until victory. There's no filling up stress boxes and the tension that I'd expect to come from that, and any stress taken quickly goes away. Maybe some consequences are taken but they don't seem relevant most of the time (and often I have to really push to get any consequences because the players are so powerful too). So the result is that combat feels slow, boring, and inconsequential.

Non-combat conflict, meanwhile, is even worse. I can't seem to make the exchange of verbal blows narratively interesting at all, especially not for the length of time it takes to fill up stress boxes and actually offer a sense of danger.

I was thinking that, mechanically, it might be interesting (and speed things up a little) to draw some inspiration from Monster of the Week's "kick some ass" move, which kind of assumes that both parties will take damage in a conflict. Has anyone made rules for Fate that make it more like this, or otherwise accelerate and increase the dramatic tension of combat?


3 Answers 3


Washed-out action in FATE Core often points to a problem with your table's agreement (or lack thereof) about what aspects mean.

Let me start by saying I share your frustration. I confess a love/hate relationship with FATE. On paper, FATE Core should be the perfect story game. Aspects and the entire Fate point economy are essentially direct choices about what should matter in any given moment in the story. It's elegant. It is also -- in my experience, at least -- prone to feeling like none of those choices matter very much. Action, in particular, tends to feel narratively washed out, lacking color, depth, and emotional stakes.

Of course, an easy fix for the problem of players feeling too powerful is to simply crank up the challenge. Make your opposition tougher.

However, the best action-oriented FATE Core game I've experienced included two measures that helped to correct for this problem -- one within the rules-as-written and the other a minor modification. I'll describe both.

Get buy-in from your table to really lean hard into Aspects as establishing narrative truth.

Remember that, per rules-as-written, aspects aren't just minor situational advantages to be tagged for mechanical benefit and then forgotten. They are literal truth within the narrative.

If a scene has the aspect Room on Fire, yes, that means someone might tag that aspect to improve a result on the dice, but it also means the room is in fact on fire and all the narrative ramifications that flow from that fact. It's hot as hell, loud, hard to see, even harder to breathe, and so on.

The trick is that those ramifications only have impact if everyone at the table buys into them, which mostly means agreeing that the sheer fact of the fire constrains the narrative somehow. It puts limits on what the characters can do in the moment, not because you as GM are compelling the aspect, but simply because the fire exists. For example, your table might decide that the fire means some actions are impossible -- not merely "difficult but achievable with a good roll," but actually impossible. Shouting a warning to your teammate while your lungs are full of smoke and an inferno rages around you both could well be impossible, even without a compel.

Likewise, other parts of the scene that might interact with the fire can and should. Gas lines explode, water pipes rupture, wooden structures collapse, everything is charred and reeks of smoke, etc. Deciding, together, to let the aspect shape the truth and create heightened stakes will likely make the scene more exciting.

Similarly, if a PC has the aspect Big Metal Arm, that's more than just a cool toy that turns Fate points into +2's. It's an arm made of metal. Your table needs to decide what that means for the truth of the story. Is the metal arm subject to magnetic forces? Will it set off metal detectors? What happens when it gets hot? How is it powered? In other words, how does the very fact of this arm constrain the story and the PCs actions in it? If you can't answer that question, it's no wonder your players are heaping every available aspect on every roll. There's nothing stopping them from doing so, no story logic to guide them into thinking, "OK, this metal arm is probably a help in these circumstances, but a hindrance in those circumstances."

This same reasoning applies to consequences, which are just aspects by another name. If a PC has the consequence Broken Leg, there should be a table consensus as to what that means for the story and the PC's actions. Can the PC run? Can the PC even walk? Again, this isn't just about compelling the aspect, although that remains a tool in your GM toolbox. It's about letting the aspect give the story shape by setting logical bounds on what can or can't happen so long as that broken leg remains a fact.

Consider requiring players to declare all aspect tags before they roll.

By rules-as-written, players are supposed to declare actions, roll the dice, and then decide whether to tag aspects. In my experience, that methodology strongly contributes to both the "pile on the aspects" style of play and the general feeling of shallow narrative. You're making a roll, and then deciding after seeing the roll what aspects actually were important to your action. It's a sort of retcon, and it robs the action of its emotional stakes. After all, what difference does it make how risky the action is when you know you can just dump Fate points on it if the dice go against you?

Instead, try having everyone declare their aspect tags before any dice are rolled. Doing so turns task resolution into a kind of betting/brinksmanship game. I declare that I'm tagging X aspect. You respond by declaring you're tagging Y. So I respond by tagging Z. And so on, until one of us decides that the stakes are getting too high. Then the dice are rolled, and we both have to live with the outcome. None of this retconned "Oh, but actually it turns out your Big Metal Arm was held in just the right position to deflect the lethal blow" nonsense. If the big metal arm is going to matter in this moment, let it matter because you exercised agency and chose to bring it bear in our exchange, not because you want to win the exchange and are willing, ex post facto, to use any and every aspect on the table to do it.

This modification tends to encourage players to play more conservatively. They'll know their Fate points are limited and shouldn't be wasted by overcommitting on a task that might see a favorable roll anyway. As a result, it also tends to speed up the pace of play a bit, because players are less likely to go through the "tag every aspect on the table" routine.

(Incidentally, every one of the numerous players I've introduced to FATE over the years has intuited that this is how aspects should work. Universally, they want to tell the story of their action by deciding what aspects they're using before they roll. I have to repeatedly stop and explain, "No, technically the rules say you should roll first and then see if you need to use aspects.")


Make aspects have ongoing effects.

There are already rules for how to make there be ongoing damage. Aspects are always true which means that they can have lots of effects. They can cause damage, they can impede movement, they can block line of sight, they can make checks harder, they can do lots of things.

For example, if someone throws a motolov, and sets the zone on fire, if you don't move, you could get burn damage because the room is on fire. You might be unable to see stuff because there's smoke. It's gonna be harder to do anything that involves touch, because everything is on fire, and if everyone just piles on advantages you'll all burn to death.

I've found in my games that it's easy to use NPCs to break people out of boring aspects. They do interesting things, and I give them larger bonuses for it, and tell players I'll likewise give them bonuses if they do interesting things. I might say give one damage per round to an amusing aspect someone makes, or two damage per round to an amusing one that works well with an existing scene aspect.

Make the scene or an organization a character

The bronze rule of fate is that anything can be a character. and so, it often helps in combat if you make the scene or the organization around you a character. This gives some extra narrative weight to what you can do as GM, and lets you up the stakes of the fight.

For example, while the PCs whale on Dr Doom, the Doomstitute character might send a pair of mooks to retrieve the Device of Doom. If the PCs focus on taking down Dr Doom, they might endanger the world. You can also have the Doomstitute just shoot several of the PCs with snipers, doing some ongoing damage.

These two things should let you make fights more impactful and damaging.


Just because anything can be a conflict doesn't mean anything should be.

Here's a little something from the director's commentary on kick some ass that's useful to think of in Fate Core terms, too:

Don't automatically call for this move any time a hunter attacks something. [...] What the hunter's doing could also be a move like protect someone or act under pressure (or another move altogether): use what the player has stated the hunter's intentions are and the actions they've described the hunter taking to determine what makes sense.

-- MotW revised, p.188

If you find it difficult to sustain player interest over the course of a conflict, if you find it difficult to be interesting when coming up with conflict actions for your own NPCs to take, that's a good sign that the game element you're using isn't one that actually makes sense. What you're doing probably shouldn't be a full-on conflict in the first place.

Yes, Core does tell you to pull out the conflict procedure any time stress or consequences are on the table, but in the intervening years that stance has softened. Dresden Files Accelerated introduces contests and conflicts running in parallel, for when PCs are trying to accomplish things when violence is a factor. Fate Condensed added the idea of PCs fully engaging in a contest to escape or banish something that's still trying to hurt them, but which they can't hurt, don't want to hurt, or wouldn't accomplish anything by hurting.

Picking your C: How The PCs Win

As you're thinking about how to set up the scene, ask yourself:

  • what do the PCs want out of this scene?
  • what are the obstacles to to what they want?
  • can they take total narrative control of those obstacles?
  • if they can, do they have to?
  • are the obstacles providing mostly passive or mostly active opposition?

Note that sources of active opposition can be treated as passive if they're too small to bother rolling for (a handful of mooks) or too large to act against the PCs specifically (a colossus causing indiscriminate destruction).

If the PCs both can and have to take total control of their opposition to get what they want out of the scene, you should be setting up a conflict. Otherwise, the PC-facing portion of this scene is probably a contest if there's active opposition, or a challenge or series of challenges if there's passive opposition.

But what about the you-facing portion of the scene? You're not done just yet.

Opposition and Danger: What's In The Way

When you thought about obstacles they might have been in one of two categories: opposition, which have their own goals to accomplish in the scene, or danger, powerful forces that threaten the PCs but not with some goal. An arsonist is opposition; a fire is danger. Ask yourself questions for all your obstacles, too:

  • what does your opposition want out of the scene? Can they and do they have to take narrative control of the PCs to get it?
  • how does your danger threaten the PCs? Do the PCs have to neutralize the danger to get what they want out of the scene?

Keeping these answers in mind will help you decide exactly what you should be building out.

Whatever Weird Hybrid: A Scene For Your Needs

A key thing to keep in mind here is the joined conflict/contest rules from Fate Condensed, where your roll for the contest also counts as your defense against whatever opposition is out for you. This is useful when it makes sense to create a dangerous contest or challenge, where you want to hurt the PCs while they're trying to accomplish something - lining up a challenge to strike the first attention-getting blow against a rampaging colossus, or trying to out-show the intergalactic pop idol sweet.HEART in a contest in front of the galactic cameras while her army of fans heap abuse on you through the holofeed. Notably, when the danger and the obstacle to the contest or challenge are different things, you don't need to compare the PC's roll against the same number when checking success and determining damage. The danger can be higher-test such that the PCs can accumulate successes without completely defending against it.

It's also worth considering the opposite - a scenario where the PCs are on a conflict map but their opposition wants to do something other than take control of them. In the simplest case this is just keeping the opposition's desires in mind - when the PCs have done enough aggregate damage such that there's no hope in getting what they want out of the scene, they surrender. This saves you the time in playing out a scene everybody already knows the end to.

Or, the opposition is actively attempting to do something in the scene that will ultimately be to the PCs detriment but isn't just meeting violence with violence. Monster of the Week will tell you the same thing:

If you find yourself repeating the same sort of thing, take a moment to check the Keeper moves list and think about what else could happen right now.

Call for the hunters to use act under pressure, help out, protect someone, and read a bad situation whenever an opportunity comes up, so the hunters do not just use kick some ass all the time.

-- MotW revised, p.209

So: this zone where nobody starts is the control room. Every technician in this room at the end of the round will add 1 Lockdown Point. You don't want that to get up to 8. Or: remember this zone where I talked about the doors that you don't know where they go? Well, after you did that masterful takedown in the open, things have shifted over into a fighting retreat to that point.

By limiting your full-on conflicts to scenes where both the PCs and your opposition want to and need to go at each other, you make it easier for yourself to keep conflicts interesting. The plot is driving your opposition to take control of the PCs, so the elements of that plot will more naturally suggest the actions they should take. And you can threaten the PCs without needing to drag everything into a full-on conflict, by introducing dangerous elements into a challenge or contest such that both the PCs and you can get out of the scene at a faster tempo.


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