How to respond to “stress tracks / narrative consequences are arbitrary”?

Fate is admittedly an acquired taste. Interestingly, my players don't mind facing off against powerful enemies with stunts and skills that they themselves could not gain any time soon (full immunity against bullets or fire, immortality, and so on).

However, what has sparked a debate is the use of stress and consequences through narrative impetus. I know that the rules explicitly state that consequences may also just appear as a result of a failed action - a twisted ankle from failing to climb over a wall, shards of glass in the hand from smashing through a window - but my players are not buying that.

The main response to this question has been "then what do we have stress boxes for?", implying that stress boxes are essentially Health Points. I tried explaining that stress boxes don't outright translate to health, as they are effectively narrative 'character shield', but again, that distinction is not getting through.

I've also thought about my motivation for avoiding stress boxes in certain situations - and that's to keep the narrative flowing, plain and simple. Yes, that may sometimes be to the detriment of the player characters, but it should never be to the detriment of the players. Someone in an answer on here wrote that "Fate is about players conspiring with the GM against their characters", but in this particular case I feel like the general understanding is that the GM (me) is trying to bullsh*t the player characters into failing.

What is the best way of dealing with this? Is there a more in-depth explanation of what stress tracks ARE and AREN'T supposed to do?

I'd greatly appreciate any input!

• By "avoiding stress boxes," do you mean that you're forcing them to take consequences? – Aza Aug 7 '14 at 14:15
• Aye, I basically mean that I try to avoid having the dynamic of "just counting down stress boxes" outside of combat, in order to keep every action meaningful and interesting. – monsterfurby Aug 7 '14 at 14:19
• If you're reserving stress for inside combat, I can see how that would be giving them the impression they're just health points. – SevenSidedDie Aug 7 '14 at 15:17
• Are your users on the same page about the style of the game? Do they see the game as about the story or about winning? – C. Ross Aug 7 '14 at 15:28
• I'm not sure if this answer is a duplicate or not, but it should be helpful at least. Maybe you can edit your question to show how it's different from that one, so answers can be more useful to you. – BESW Aug 13 '14 at 8:46

Bypassing stress in the situations you mentionned is playing by the rules. But don't take my word for it, let's see what Fate Core tells us.

When to use stress?

"In brief, stress represents the ephemeral toll of participating in a conflict, whereas consequences are the lingering effects [...]" (FC 50)

So you need to be in a Conflict for stress to be relevant, at least for physical and mental stress, which by default go away after a conflict (FC 160). And what's a conflict?

"As long as the characters involved have both the intent and the ability to harm one another, then you’re in a conflict scene."(FC 154)

So stress isn't really an appropriate effect for a failed roll outside of a conflict where there's harmful intent, especially since the stress goes away after the scene by default. That is, unless you're using stress to model something else than the default, for example Wealth stress that occurs over longer times, and might take more than a scene or even a session to clear. (Toolkit 69)

What is the appropriate setback for a "situational" failure?

You can go with a Consequence, but it might be harsh depending on the failure, and is usually reserved for conflicts like stress. When you give someone a Consequence for a failed roll, it means that the character is sufficiently threatened to risk being Taken out. Is that what's appropriate? It might be, for example after a long fall off a cliff.

But if that's not the intended effect, consider creating an Aspect instead. It can be a negative one you put on the character, which adversaries can invoke once freely to make his life difficult, or it can be an additional obstacle in the scene (or a future one). In other words, treat it like a failed Create Advantage:

"When you fail, you either don’t create the aspect, or you create it but someone else gets the free invoke—whatever you end up doing works to someone else’s advantage instead. That could be your opponent in a conflict, or any character who could tangibly benefit to your detriment."(FC 136)

That way you can have lasting "consequences" outside of conflicts, and your players don't feel cheated.

• That's not strictly true. The Fate Core rulebook also suggests that you can have players take stress as a minor cost... but only in situations where they are likely to soon take more i.e. a conflict. (See "The Four Outcomes" and "What to Do During Play") Something like a minor cost from scaling the compound wall in which you will then have a conflict seems an appropriate use for stress. – heathenJesus Feb 20 '15 at 15:52
• You're right, and I wasn't implying otherwise. The rule is basically "don't use stress unless it has a real impact", which usually translates into "don't use stress oustide of conflicts". But if you're letting stress taken outside a conflict carry into the next conflict, then the stress has an impact and is an appropriate setback. – Maynor Feb 23 '15 at 3:12
• Yeah, basically. But I feel like it's still a nuance worth noting—something easy to overlook when you're just starting out. – heathenJesus Feb 23 '15 at 18:39

Bypassing stress and forcing consequences is confusing and risky behavior. It's not a way the system was designed to be played, and will create problems. A lot of things in Fate were meant to be tweaked by you, but this isn't one of them. (See below for the Silver Rule.)

One of the problems that arises, as you've seen, is the players' confusion. It's hard to argue that stress is a narrative shield when players aren't allowed to wield it.

Consequences are intended to be significant problems for the players, that are only activated as a last resort. For instance, if you would have sprained your ankle from a horrible roll and +4 shifts, forcing players to take a moderate consequence is very counterproductive, since they shouldn't have to do so. The players should be able to tick 4 stress and say "I failed, but didn't injure myself (this time)."

It's hard to communicate exactly why, but this is problematic and throws off the balance of the system. If I had to summarize, I'd say:

• Stress clears quickly for a reason.
• Consequences last far, far too long to casually create.
• and, most importantly: Consequences can be compelled and are almost solely negative, whereas stress cannot.

For instance, you can compel a Twisted Ankle to fail a jump to safety. But the alternative wouldn't be narrated, because there would be nothing to compel. The character would roll normally without that decreased chance of success, because they don't have an aspect that could suddenly bring them down. It makes the game a hell of a lot harder to have compellable aspects, and the players may feel they're undeserved.

Consequences arise from important points in the game. It's the system's way of saying, "Okay, you achieved it, but it's going to cause problems for you later." That later issue comes almost exclusively from compels.

That's not to say you can't take consequences outside of important scenes, but is has the possibility to throw things off a bit.

Without being able to rely on stress how it was intended, your players are likely to be confused by it. Stress exists to counterbalance every roll, and it's not a good idea to change this. The players, trying to see stress as a narrative shield and taking consequences anyway, will find an answer that doesn't make much sense.

As was pointed out in the comments, I should probably address how the Silver Rule plays into this. This example is from the text of the Silver Rule itself:

Never let the rules get in the way of what makes narrative sense.

However, in my experience, the Silver Rule should be taken with a grain of salt. I've personally found through experience that this rule shouldn't be used unless nothing else makes narrative sense. For instance:

But say you’re in a scene where a player decides that, as part of trying to intimidate his way past someone, his PC is going to punch through a glass-top table with a bare fist.

...everyone agrees that it also makes sense that the PC would injure his hand in the process (which is part of what makes it intimidating).

It’s totally fine to assign a mild consequence of Glass in My Hand in that case, because it fits with the narration, even though there’s no conflict and nothing technically attacked the PC.

I find the justification as written to be incomplete. The real reason it should be this way is because literally nothing else makes sense - you can't punch through glass without getting some in your hand. It just doesn't happen.

That's where I'd draw the line for the Silver Rule: when no other mechanics reasonably provide the capacity to handle it, then you can start breaking things. But casually invoking the Silver Rule is bound to end in confusion, especially with new players.

Though it's hard to tell from your post if this is relevant, it may also be worth considering that the players must also consent to a use of the Silver Rule - the GM can't just say "you take a consequence by the Silver Rule," as that would violate the spirit of the game.

• If you succeed on your glass-punching roll: "You crack the glass, pull your hand back, and it shatters a second later". "The safety glass shatters in a controlled manner and crystals fall to the floor." – smcg Aug 7 '14 at 17:42
• @smcg I don't think that could reasonably happen, and/or it wouldn't be very intimidating. At the very least, that would take quite a roll to pull off. – Aza Aug 7 '14 at 18:06
• my point was that it's possible to construct a narrative for that scenario (punching through glass w/ no consequence) even if it isn't immediately obvious. – smcg Aug 7 '14 at 18:30
• I agree that I actually wouldn't have given a consequence in that situation; the character is bleeding but it will be fine and forgotten by the next scene – Cristol.GdM Aug 13 '14 at 15:03