In playing Fate (Dresden Files, Fate Core), one problem has reared it's ugly head more than once. And I'm not sure if it's something that I'm doing wrong, if it's the way that the players are approaching the situation (same players in all iterations), or it's just the way that things are supposed to be.

My players do things to avoid the risk of failure. And that's quite easy to do in Fate, because of the position of the roll in resolution of tasks, and the small window that the dice present, i.e. -4 to +4.

They will not invest in the Fate point system at earlier, non critical points in the narrative, or even worse, invest in it only to the point of increasing their Fate pool, i.e. putting themselves in positions to fail or get a less than optimal result in return for increasing their pool.

Then, at the critical juncture in the adventure, i.e. defusing the bomb, interrupting the ritual, etc., the dice roll is almost an after thought. They roll the dice (re-rolling if it becomes too much of a problem), and use the pool that they have amassed to make the desired outcome occur through the use of aspects.

And it's awesome and a point of triumph- but that feeling of the possibility of failure on those circumstances is gone. They no longer roll to find out what happens... they roll to find out a starting point.

How do I bring back that tension of the possibility of failure, when dealing with players that are pretty much masters of risk mitigation?


My initial suggestion is to attack the problem from a different angle.

You say that in the early part of the encounter/investigation/episode, the players will not invest resources or better yet, garner points by putting themselves in situations to fail. That essentially means that they find the decisions they're making in the beginning of these sessions inconsequential- otherwise they would care about failing them.

If the session is to end on a note where the players are defusing a bomb, that doesn't mean that the bomb's defusing should be the only tense moment in the session. Let those little decisions that build up to that point matter.

Have a failed negotiation result in a well-liked NPC getting jailed or even killed! (Taken out, if you will.) A botched interrogation leaves the players with an opponent who now has dirt on them.

Essentially, make the little failures hurt. Not in such a way that they're as bad as the big problem they face "oh no, my friend is in jail" is leagues better than "oh no, this bomb blew up in front of me and all my friends". But they should make the players concerned about failing. It should at least stay their hand from intentionally failing because they know they're just saving their FPs for the big problem at the end.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good answer! Surprised I hadn't thought of this in terms of unintended/unforeseen results to get them out of the practice and more focused on what's going on in the story. \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Mar 23 '15 at 20:11

FATE's gameplay style is specifically and intentionally novelistic. The character does not gain or lose significant amounts of ability over the course of the story and while there is some variation in success the truly critical moments usually come down to previously established elements of the character's background. So, to some degree, yes, this is exactly how the game is supposed to work.

However, there are several things you can do to raise the level of dramatic tension. As you've already realized the resource management aspect of the game is far more relevant than the dice rolls. You should be doing things to drain those resources throughout the game.

  • One thing you really need to do is make sure that the compels you are offering are the sort of thing the player needs to hesitate before taking. If they're snatching up the fate points every time you're not being enough of a bastard.
  • You should also make sure that every session has more than one significant challenge. Ideally if you charted the tension of the plot it would have several peaks, leading toward the final climax. If your sessions are too short to handle multiple conflicts, consider giving out refresh every few sessions. You could also reduce the refresh rate but that can have inconvenient consequences.
  • Don't focus the critical challenges on the things the players are best at. If you are, you're not really presenting a challenge. If your players cover the spread, try to maneuver them so that they're not all together. Think about how things work in the Dresden Files books. Very rarely does the critical moment come down to something that Harry is good at. Even the magical challenges usually involve aspects of magic that Harry is not well versed in.
  • Although every challenge has to have a final, climactic roll, its often only such in hindsight (especially where combat is concerned). Present challenges as obstacles, not just a simple series of rolls to be made. Defusing the bomb, as given in your example, should never be as simple as making a single roll. Whether you have to disassemble the housing without setting off one of the backup triggers or are contending with the army of Red Courts just outside there are plenty of ways to extend a challenge beyond the critical roll.

Play a different system

Or accept that this is the way the metanarrative goes in Fate. The system is intentionally designed to have the characteristics you are complaining about.

Fate (and to a lesser extent FATE but we're talking about the former here) is a narratively focused game. Simulationism is theoretically sacrificed for the purpose of the characters and narrative being cool and fun in a this-is-a-good-story kind of way. Fate in particular tries to tell a particular kind of story, where the heroes work together to overcome stuff. This might take the form of a Heroic Journey, it might take the form of an episodic Superhero comic, it might take the form of investigative fiction. In its varied forms the narrative can be different in a lot of ways, but one of the ways it can't be different is that the heroes win. When you read a young adult book set in a dystopian future where the heroes are scrappy young idealists out to make the world a better place, when listen to an early episode of Superman (or crack open an early issue of the X-men, Spiderman or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), when you watch Iron Monkey or The Great Mouse Detective, there is no possibility of failure. There will be a happy ending, and when you're reading the final showdown with 3 pages left or 3 minutes of film or broadcast, there's only one way that fight can end. Earlier in the story or in the case of side-characters there can be uncertainty and the genuine possibility of failure, but in the end the audience is hopefully caught up enough in the narrative that the fact that the outcome to to a certain extent predetermined doesn't lessen the suspense of the conflict.

It sounds like your players are having fun, and not having any trouble suspending disbelief and enjoying those climactic showdowns. If its a problem for you, you could try suggesting another system to them (OD&D is pretty good for this, or Amber, or early Shadowrun. Ask a separate game req question, basically), or you could try getting your 'will they do it?' fix from the 'minor' conflicts and such where the players aren't necessarily successful, but they could be (will Bobby the redshirt survive this episode? Hint: if your players are gaming the system for fate points the answer's probably no) and especially in seeing what the players sacrifice and what the players protect in the process of the narrative.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fate, and especially the Dresden Files, can be dark. There is success at a very high cost all through the source material, and even so much as to make it Pyrrhic or indeed a failure. That is simulated by the Fate Point economy and the use of refresh to squeeze the characters, so I'd have to disagree that it's the system. \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Mar 23 '15 at 19:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @wraith808 I'm not disagreeing that it can be 'dark' for a given value of dark (c.f. dystopian fiction). I'm disagreeing that that final confrontation can end in failure played straight. The players will sacrifice things and then 'succeed', or they will subvert the game system. Your players are doing the former, which is "playing the game" and not the latter, which is "breaking the game". The game is designed for the players to do what they are doing and "the bomb goes off you die" is not a valid ending in the context of the game. \$\endgroup\$ – Please stop being evil Mar 23 '15 at 19:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ But... it does work for that. When playing with other players that aren't rabidly mitigating risks, sometimes when the 'fit hits the shan', they just don't have the fate points to make it succeed. Whether that's getting the dreaded -4 and having to use what little they have to re-roll, or just not having the points available. It's when they don't invest in the economy but rather play the economy that I see the problem happen. \$\endgroup\$ – Chuck Dee Mar 23 '15 at 20:09

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