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Fate is my default system for "book/TV modeling". The system itself has a lot of similarities with how those media are built (the same way MHR "feels" similar to comics), such as character concepts and motivations fitting nicely into Aspects, Acts/Scenes feeling like Fate's Acts/Scenes, and so on. When I see a show, or read a book, I "easily" see how to make those stories with Fate, more than with another system - with one of the only exceptions being when lethality is important to the series' concept.

So, as a Fate GM, I have a bit of a dilemma. While those stories really look like Fate stories, and I can see Aspects, advantages, invokes, and so on, Fate seems to not work well with character death, and to actually be quite against it:

Most of the time, sudden character death is a pretty boring outcome when compared to putting the character through hell. On top of that, all the story threads that character was connected to just kind of stall with no resolution, and you have to expend a bunch of effort and time figuring out how to get a new character into play mid-stride.

With this in mind, the question is:

Is there a tested/proven way to make very lethal stories in Fate?


Note 1: I am aware this is still quite an open question, so please keep in mind the Good subjective, Bad subjective.

Note 2: I am using Fate Core and Legends of Anglerre, so any Fate oriented answer will work.

Related questions:

What happens if I concede a fight to someone who only wants me dead?

What's the best way to kill a character in a way that is memorable, and treated with respect by players?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for discussion. They have been cleaned up, \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Apr 9 '15 at 0:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ Is there a particular reason why you feel you can't make a lethal story already? The quote you posted is there to signify that simply killing somebody's character is going to lead to a pretty poor story in general, but it is hardly a mechanical countermeasure to a character dying. What is the problem you are facing in making a lethal adventure? \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Apr 9 '15 at 6:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Theik sorry about that, it seems I didn't copy the right part of the quote... It is part of a page long discussion on why death isn't encouraged in Fate games, how it kind of goes against the spirit of the game, and how it should be kept for pivotal and extremely important conflicts \$\endgroup\$ – Cristol.GdM Apr 9 '15 at 9:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Cristol.GdM I've read the page, so I know what you mean, but going against the spirit of the game doesn't exactly make for a mechanical difficulty. You could easily make a game fatal by saying "if you concede you die, the end". Is there something particular about Fate mechanics that is making it difficult for you to make a fatal game, or is it simply the flavour and against-the-nature-of-the-game feel that you need help with? \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Apr 9 '15 at 9:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Theik I didn't mention having a mechanical difficulty. While there is no hard mechanical rule that I see as being a problem, I have learned that going against the spirit of the game, especially as explicitly described by the game itself, leads to pretty bad results. \$\endgroup\$ – Cristol.GdM Apr 9 '15 at 13:16
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I'm going to create a completely system-agnostic answer here, but it will probably apply to you, especially considering the example of A Song of Ice and Fire.

The reason that characters can drop like flies, even semi-randomly, in A Song of Ice and Fire without it detracting massively from the story, is because the story isn't about them. If someone whose tale you enjoyed dies, his story generally doesn't end there. What he did in life, how he died and what he was hoping to accomplish carries on into the future, influencing other events and the actions of other characters. The specific person may die, but the struggle over who gets to sit on the Iron Throne continues. Two houses might have some more enmity between them, but both Houses live on. (Even if you kill most of its members.)

So I think if you want to have a highly lethal game, you should try to emulate that. Don't tell the story of "Bob the Wizard and Jim the Fighter Find The Magic Gizmo And Save The Kingdom", instead tell the story of "The Magic Gizmo And The Twelve Groups Of People Who Want It".

I think that you'd need a change a few things to make it work, but it might turn into a very worthwhile and different kind of campaign. I would approach it something like this:

Scrap all preconceived ideas of where the story will go

Since this story will not be about any specific characters and there will be no good or bad side, it should not have a set direction. Instead, let it flow where it will. To some, this is normal, to others, it's a chance, but I think in a game like this it's a must. What makes A Song of Ice and Fire work is that for the most part, nobody has a clue who the good guys are and where the story will end. We want that feeling.

Present a situation/object worth fighting over, without assigning good/bad sides or fixed abilties

To keep the story going, there needs to be something that generates conflict, but it has to be something that isn't hamstringed into only doing a single thing. A Gizmo that can save the world from invasion by aliens isn't a good fit here, because it only does one thing and everyone will want it for the same reason. The One Ring is roughly in the same basket. But the Iron Throne on the other hand? You can do lots of things with it. The crown to a kingdom, an artefact that gives considerable (but not absolute) magical power to the wielder, a hoard of gold of incredible value, these are good things. You need something that will make people fight for all kinds of reasons, without an outside observer immediately being able to say "this guy good, this guy bad".

Do not assign player characters. Assign players Goals.

Characters are just going to die, probably a lot. That's good, and people should still get attached to them because it makes better drama and involvement, but we don't want the character's player to slam into a wall when the dice (or another player) finish off his character.

So instead we assign players a goal and then we attach characters to that goal. So instead of Tim playing "Jim the Wizard Who Wants the Magic Gizmo To Save Someville", Tim will be playing "The People Who Want The Magic Gizmo To Save Someville" and today he will be "Jim the Wizard". Now, when Tim gets his character killed, he doesn't have to stop. In fact, during play he probably revealed numerous characters who share his player-goal and he can just jump into any of those in an instant and continue playing his Goal. He can even switch from time to time when his other character(s) are temporarily out of the spotlight.

Give your players a reason to work with the goals of other players

The next step is to make sure that play won't devolve into each player running around on their own. You need to make sure they intertwine their goals, or at least make it so that their characters think their goals are intertwined, so they work together. (Until the inevitable backstab, of course.)

For example, the goals of "Use the Gizmo to control the people of Kingdom A" and "Use the Gizmo to prevent a war between Kingdom A and Kingdom B" are not exclusive to each other and people fighting for these goals could very well align (even if one is a little darker than the other).

Sometimes, even the simple threat of an outside Goal that interferes with both can be enough to get a group to work together for a while. (And it'll generate loads of conflict because both sides know it's temporary and they don't like each other). If the NPC party of "Use The Gizmo To Plunge The World Into Darkness" is clearly winning, maybe even "Use The Gizmo To Subjugate Kingdom A" and "Use The Gizmo To Bring Glory To Kingdom A" might work together for a few days.

And finally: Don't let characters hold back

Since the setting has to be lethal and we've set up the entire story to not be about specific characters but about a source of power and the struggle for it, characters can die freely without blocking anything. So make sure they do. While in most games, one player's character backstabbing another's would grind most of the story to a halt, this one is set up for it to not be a big deal, so make it not a big deal. (Give them a cookie every time they pull it off or something.)

Since the players are running a Goal, losing a person dedicated to it is probably not a very big deal. (For the progress of the story and the player's ability to play. It might be a very big deal for the goal and the other characters, but that's a good thing. Drama!)

The only thing that would truly disrupt a player's ability to play would be the complete and utter destruction of everyone who is trying to accomplish his goal... but that requires so much scheming, plotting and interesting storytelling that A) you'll see it coming from miles away and have plenty of time to flesh out a new goal and B) it would be awesome

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1 Although this is a great answer in one respect, it completely ignores all of the issues that make Fate as a system with its associated mechanics difficult to run this type of game in. As this is the main/sole focus of the question I feel that this answer does not do a good enough of addressing this at all \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Apr 8 '15 at 12:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ While I have not played Fate specifically (next month, finally!) I have read all of the rules and I see nothing to suggest that this approach wouldn't work for it just as well as for another system. But if you have some pointers on where this would not work in Fate, I would love to hear and update the answer. (I actually think with the Fate fractal it would work even BETTER than in most systems, but as I have no actual experience there, I have not included it as part of the answer) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Apr 8 '15 at 15:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Phil The question does not actually make any mention of why it is difficult to run this kind of game in Fate in the first place mechanically, it only quotes a section that states that character death makes for a poor story. As such, this answer is perfect in addressing that part of the question, it takes away the "character death makes for a poor story". \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Apr 9 '15 at 9:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ Actually I really like this answer, for some reason it feels like Fate to me (character goals, narrative-driven metagaming...). One question though: do you have experience running this kind of game, or something similar? \$\endgroup\$ – Cristol.GdM Apr 9 '15 at 9:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Fate fractal seems to me like it would apply really well here. You can still have a "character sheet", it's just for a group of people with a common goal. The high concept is probably your reason for wanting the gizmo, the other concepts tie your group to other groups. For A Song of Ice and Fire you could easily play houses with aspects such as "Successors to the Mad King" or "Bonded with House Tully by marriage". These aspects may change over time, potentially when people die. It may even make sense for milestones to occur when plans are achieved by houses. \$\endgroup\$ – Haegin Apr 10 '15 at 11:44
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All of the fluff about narrative and story aside, Fate, like all other RPGs, has a mechanic for death; if you get taken out of combat and your opponent wants you dead, you're dead. Regardless of how anyone may feel about what death actually means in the greater scheme of the story, the rules themselves are pretty simple.

So, how do you make Fate "deadly"?

You ditch all of the hand-wringing and hemming and hawing about how "death is boring and doesn't serve the plot" and put your players into situations where it's pretty clear that being taken out of a conflict means their demise. Ramp up the stress (as well as perhaps reduce the amount of stress characters are capable of taking) by using deadlier opponents/situations and make those opponents/situations capable of killing the characters. Then, have them do it. They don't leave Guy Hero for dead, they put two in his brainpan to make sure. Cthulhu doesn't leave him dribbling on the floor, he eats him. The only way to avoid these things happening is to concede early and often because leaving your Fate (ha ha) in the hands of murderous opponents is literally taking your life into your own hands.

Alternately, just tell your players that your game is going to be a bit more lethal than the average Fate game, and stick to that. Fate claims that the reason you don't kill characters is because it doesn't fit the narrative; so make it fit the narrative. This is especially handy with, say, the horror genre because it serves the story for characters to drop like flies.

Source: I ran Street Fighter: the Storytelling Game for several years. Street Fighter does Fate one up by literally having no rules for character death at all; the only time someone can die is if the story demands it, and as a GM I only ever invoked it for PCs when they put themselves into situations where there was no way we could hand-wave an escape. (I like to tell the story of a friend who got three characters killed this way; somehow, he managed to repeatedly get himself killed in a game which had no rules for character death.)

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I agree that sudden character death is mostly boring. It is the threat of sudden character death that makes a story interesting.

Unfortunately, that threat has to be real, otherwise it won't have any effect. Players will soon stop believing you if you say they could die any moment but they just don't.

One mechanism I used for a cyberpunk Fate game I'm developing is using different thresholds for different effects when a character is taken out. Once stress is dealt, any leftover shifts from the roll determine how much of an effect the attacker can have, as follows:

0: The character is out of the fight but nothing significant happens
1: The character does something weird that is against his side's interests. Treat it as an action by the taken out character, but as dictated by the victor.
2: The victor can replace a permanent aspect of the character.
3: The character is out of the game for good. How that happens is up to the victor, based on the nature of the conflict and the attack that took him out. Death and similar fates happen at this level.

The idea is, the victor is entitled to choose. With four extra shifts after stress, he may opt to deeply transform the character by replacing two aspects at once.

You can adjust those numbers to change your lethality level.

This has some interesting implications; It becomes safer to be taken out on your terms earlier, because you can absorb part of a strong attack as stress and accept being taken out at a lower level. If your stress track is full, you are more exposed to the stronger effects.

This worked for me in a game where lethality is part of the setting (where weapons almost always hit and kill you, and combat is about being able to shoot at your opponent before he can) Hope it works for you too.

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Caveat: You say you want to run a lethal game, but what do your players want? Rememeber that everyone's there to have fun, and some players may not enjoy investing lots of time and effort creating a character, only to lose it. From this point on, I'm going to assume that you've discussed this with your group, and that everyone is already on board with playing in a lethal game, and the possibility that losing a character can be fun. Make sure they know that death is an acceptable outcome, and one that they will be rewarded for (see below).

With that out of the way, note that the rules say "most of the time" -- this does not mean that all death is always boring (especially if you've got your table's buy-in). You are right that Fate models a story rather than modeling reality. But people die in books and films all the time. Why? Because (tvtropes warning) Death Is Dramatic. Sometimes Anyone Can Die, and sometimes even The Hero Dies. A death in a PC party is a bit different from many films, in that there is no single protaginist, but rather more of an Ensemble Cast. This makes a PC death an odd mix of a hero dying, and a supporting character dying.

In a book or movie, it is usually the supporting characters that die. Even if you intend on later killing your PCs, you should probably emulate this lethal tone by frequently killing friendly NPC's-- have the PC's family, friends, and allies, get killed by other NPC's. This part is easy to do in any game, but make sure that the PC grows attached to those characters first. They should have aspects involving the character (which may need to be replaced later), and you could even roleplay out scenes involving those supporting characters before they're offed. If the characters have aspects that tie them to the supporting character, than that character's death will become a complication for the character, and the character should rightfully earn a Fate point when the NPC is killed. This is exactly what Fate points are for: when a character suffers a major loss due to one of their aspects, they get a bit of narrative currency (a Fate Point) that allows them to have better narrative control in the future.


When you switch to talking about PC death, as others have noted, a character in Fate cannot be outright killed due to a random dice roll, without someone deciding that the character should die. So you need to create an incentive for the player to chose death. Once again, the Fate Point economy comes into play here; a player can sacrifice themselves to improve the narrative in the future. The problem is that you can't give the dead player a Fate Point for their loss, so who do you give it to? Here's a few options:

  1. Give a FP to those characters whose backstory includes the deceased character. This assumes that the characters' aspects were created using the three phases (FC38) which makes each character's history intertwine with two other characters at the table. This is essentially the same as the supporting character case: a PC has an aspect that ties them to another character, so that character's death counts as a complication for them, and they should be rewarded for it.

  2. Give every PC a FP (at least those who are present in the scene, or know about the death). In this viewpoint, you're compelling an unspoken aspect of "We're a Team!" against each of the other players. Depending on the size of the table, this might be too many FP for your taste, and might make future deaths (in that session) unlikely. On the other hand, the large number of FP might make death that much more appealing.

  3. Use the Fate Fractal (FC270) to consider the team as a single character, and award the team a FP that goes into a shared team pool. Any team member can later use this FP, if all the (remaining) members of the team agree to it. The superhero themed ICONS RPG (whose rules are based on Fate, pre-Core) uses this approach to model a superhero team, and it includes player sacrifice. I'll quote the relevant section of the rules below, noting that "Determination" is ICON's genre-flavored name for a Fate Point. Also note that, in line with the intended genre, these rules refer to being defeated, which is not usually death (though it could be), hence the reference to later recovering.

If a member of the team is defeated, and chooses to remain so until a normal recovery, then that character may commit an additional point of Determination to the team pool, inspiring the rest of the team with his or her sacrifice. This commitment means not using Determination to recover or otherwise retcon a way out of the defeat.

If only one member of a team remains undefeated, then that character has unrestricted access to the team Determination pool and can use it as desired (since there is only one vote that goes into such decisions). This "Last Hero Standing" guideline can be a potent final option for a hero in a crisis.

Now, granted, you may not want a game where the characters are nobly sacrificing themselves for the greater good, but it's worth bearing in mind player/character separation here. Just because the player may decide to sacrifice their character does not mean that, within the narrative, the character has chosen to do so. A character may fall into a Spike Pit Trap, and the player may decide to let the character get killed in order to give the rest of the team FP.


All three of these ideas revolve around rewarding the team a player's sacrifice, but what happens to the player?

Character death is not always fun for the player, even if they've bought into the concept. After all, their character is their only agency in the game world, and that has just been taken away. Presumably, they will eventually create a new character. This is where Fate actually can be helpful, since a new character could be created quite rapidly using the Quick Character Creation rules (FC 52). However, if you don't want to do that (or, if its difficult to come up with a brand new character immediately after the old one bites the dust), you may want to explore some alternatives. The answers to this question provides some Fate-specific ways in which a player can remain involved in a game after their character has died: How can I contribute to the game and have fun after my PC dies?

However, if and when a new character is created, what may end up being a problem is the player's attachment to their character, and their subsequent willingness to flesh it out. After all, who wants to go through the trouble of creating a deep and detailed character (even if that creation takes place gradually, over the course of the game, per the Quick Creation rules) if they that character is destined to end up being cannon fodder? The Paranoia RPG (not Fate based) features extensive PC death, and has an interesting "solution" to this problem: killed characters literally come back as a new clone each time they die, which allows the player to continue playing more or less the same character. But I think this is the kind of cheap death it sounds like you want to avoid.

The catch-22 is this: for character death to "mean something" to the narrative, the character first has to mean something, which means that the player has to invest meaning into it, which they may be reluctant to do if the game is too deadly.

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It's not hard to make lethal Fate games. It doesn't even really take any system modifications.

Use Tough Opponents

If your opponents aren't a capable threat to the PCs, you won't see death. If their numbers don't stack up, it's unlikely that they'll pose a credible threat.

So make enemies with high skills and good stunts. Give your unnamed NPCs fairly decent skills, and give them good gang-up bonuses. Let the PCs deal with numbers that don't immediately favor them.

Narrative Positioning

Most of the deaths in ASoIaF aren't really combat deaths, per se. They're not the result of a random sword stroke. They're the result of political positioning, of set ups, of all sorts of other things. Play NPCs smart, and canny, and ruthless, and have them position the PCs so that they are in unwinnable situations. Guillotines don't Attack, after all, and they don't do Stress. They just kill.

Have Stakes That PCs Will Die For

Make things that the PCs are willing to lay down their lives for. This makes for a more interesting game, anyway. Find out what the players are willing to risk their precious characters for, and put it under attack.

Let Death Be On The Table

There's nothing wrong with having death be a possible consequence of a fight. Just make sure it's obvious when it is, and why. Make the positioning of the game such that death is an option, and as said above, make the opposition's stats and numbers sufficiently high that defeat is a real possibility. Either make the stakes high enough that the PCs don't want to Concede, or have the enemies position things so that they can't run.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for pointing out that Ned Stark didn't lose a combat, he lost a social conflict and was taken out by an opponent that was willing to kill him. \$\endgroup\$ – gomad May 18 '15 at 11:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ He made a lot of mistakes, lost a key social conflict (with his own daughter!) and put himself in a position where his death was a certainty. \$\endgroup\$ – kyoryu May 18 '15 at 15:32

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