I am going to run a session for a plot. This is going to be an introduction to RPGs, and what I'm trying to do is to add an element of mystery to the plot to keep the players hooked.

The plot goes like this: people who have never met before fill in a form to apply to an organization. When they get there though, no one is in the building and there are signs of someone having broken in. While they are trying to get their bearings, the building is quarantined. The issue is that they want to get out. However, to do this, they must figure out what's going on.

However, the Fate system seems to discourage this kind of plot. Let me elaborate.

Setting Creation

In Fate, a setting is created with the GM and players cooperating. However, I would like to have a very, very important detail in the setting that I want players to uncover while playing, and if I do this, I have to reveal the secret bits, which would nullify the whole point of running this kind of game. Although they cannot use it IC (in-character), this does degrade from the "Ooh, I'm hooked!" feeling I'm trying to create.

Character Creation

A big part of the plot I'm trying to run is the fact that these characters don't know each other. The whole point of them being together at this point in the beginning of the plot is the fact that they don't know each other. Giving them adventures they had in the past would ruin the "Who are these people? Why am I in here with them?" part of the plot. Technically, their shared backstory is that they have all filled in a form, but that's all.

Can such a plot be run with the way Fate does things? If so, how? I have read in the Fate Core book that people can leave aspects blank and fill them in later, but wouldn't this degrade from the quality of the session?

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Fate can do this!

Many of the Fate systems I've used and studied talk about how to highlight "discover what the GM has planned" play styles. I'm going to describe the various tools and strategies I've used and learnt which bend toward your goals. I've never gone quite as far with them as you will, but they're robust and my experience with them makes me confident they'll work for your situation.

First off, Fate is really cool about leaving stuff blank to get filled in during play. It doesn't degrade from play at all! In fact, I generally encourage my players to do it because then they get to say how their character is exactly the right (or wrong!) person for the story they're in. I first learned this from Aeon Wave, but my pre-made Doctor Who character sheets for FAE are a more aggressive example of this in action.

PC creation: Instead of aspects hinting at a relationship with another PC, Behind the Walls suggests that PCs have aspects describing their appearance, past, or aspirations. Honestly the "crossing paths" phases of character creation never worked well with my group, and when we want relationship aspects we have more success with something like the "Shared" aspects in Masters of Umdaar.

Another way to define aspects is by areas of competency: asks me to define three broad skill modes my PC is good at like "banter," "fighting," and "sneaking." Then I come up with an aspect for each describing something specific about how he excels in that particular arena. (ARRPG's specific skills/aspects iteration of "modes" will be genericised and made available via SRD soon; I'll link to it then.)

World creation: Until Fate Core, the Fate engine didn't have a "shared world creation" default. It was always attached to an existing setting, and it continues to be used that way in many publications. As a GM, I've successfully run games where during world-creation I say, "This is a thing I need to have control over," or "I've got a cool surprise in mind but it means I'll need to ask you to make changes to the world ideas you're proposing." This works in direct proportion to how much my group trusts me to make choices that are fun for everyone.

Fate is happiest when there's big blank spaces for players to fill in during play, but exactly what kind of space that is varies from game to game. It doesn't preclude a GM guiding the narrative around a secret. Indeed, every version of Fate I've ever read has a section on how the GM can/should keep secrets.

Secrets in the game: Behind the Walls talks about many kinds of secrets and how to deal with them. It breaks them down into world secrets, NPC secrets, and PC secrets, but the basic advice is pretty universal.

The GM can use an unknown secret to give a +1 to difficulties and rolls where the secret is an obstacle or benefit as appropriate. This gives the secret mechanical weight without revealing it.

Eventually a secret must be exposed. Unwritten features a skill and scene mechanic which combine to give structure to PCs' investigations of secrets the GM has created; at its simplest Fate Core would replicate this by using Notice or a similar appropriate skill and asking 1 question for each shift on the roll, then using other skills to change the narrative so a new investigation roll can be made and new questions can be asked.

Often, however, waiting for players to do exactly the right thing to figure out a secret leads to overlong waits and sucking the drama out of the discovery. So I (and Behind the Walls) suggest something which I first found codified in the Engine:

Rather than waiting for a secret to be uncovered, the GM should reveal a secret at a certain "trigger" event. Specifically, when the players' actions have brought the narrative to a point where one of the following is true:

  • It increases the immediate stakes.
  • It explains, rationalises, or justifies exposition.
  • It will elicit a response from the table.

In conclusion: Fate doesn't handle mysteries in quite the traditional GMing style, but it's very amenable to secrets and mysteries. I suggest reading Behind the Walls, Aeon Wave, and Night Fears; they're all (free to download!) examples of Fate with a strong focus on secrets the GM knows which the players (not just the PCs) do not and are expected to be revealed through play.

And don't worry about the character creation phases. They're the first guidelines my group threw out and we've never missed 'em.


I can't consider this answer complete unless I mention that the best mysteries I've ever run were in Fate, but weren't anything like what I've described above. Instead, I set up questions and then invite the players, through their PCs' actions, to slowly declare and invent clues which eventually synthesise into a reveal nobody expected. This kind of play gives everyone (including myself!) a chance to go "oooh" and be surprised, but also gives everyone a chance to be part of orchestrating the surprise and its revelation. Atomic Robo and Unwritten have codified a mechanic to support this, which is described in the Fate SRD as Brainstorming.

Some suggestions on your focus points; it all comes down to how you interpret the rules.

For the setting, you have an idea that this is an organisation that people can sign up for, and it has a specific sort of premises to be quarantined. Assuming the players have bought in to the idea, you don't have to enforce it beyond these points. There will be a lot of interesting details the players can create about the organisation, the premises and the world in general, and the (perceived) nature of the quarantine. Let them surprise you.

For the characters, they may not have met in person, but they have been living in the same world, and they probably have common experiences like having lived in the same neighbourhood, having attended the same school, having survived the same cataclysm etc. Let them detail those from different perspectives, and you will have a world-defining shared backstory without breaking your prerequisite.

I would even suggest starting the story at the point where they learn about the quarantine while inside the premises, and doing the creation phases right then and there.


Now for the mystery. First, do not under any circumstances, modify rolls with hidden factors. It breaks the core mechanic of Fate. Players have to come up with ideas that utilise existing aspects, and they can't do that if they don't know what's going on.

My rule of thumb is: If you can't reveal something as an aspect (yet), it cannot affect rolls (yet)

However, you can definitely create and use aspects that explain the visible effect of a mysterious phenomenon without explaining the underlying cause. You don't have to reveal "The last ley line focus node in the world" if just using "Weird little purple sparks around that twisted tree stump" will cover your actions for now.

But surely the players will want to use such aspects for their own benefit. Let them do it, but just don't let them explain how it works. It somehow works, but they don't know how, yet. Unless they do of course.

First, you need to challenge your assumptions.

Collaborative world creation is a thing you can do, but isn't something you must do. You can share part of that with your players, but reserve story secrets.

Same with shared character generation, they CAN generate aspects all on their own, it doesn't break the system.

If you want interconnected stories without player foreknowledge, you could write up some little prompts about weird events which happened in their lives and put them on 3x5 cards (all FATE games involve copious index cards). Let people pass and choose from one set, then do another set with hidden connections.

Ex:

Card one: You are a volunteer fireman. Recently, while on a call, you went into a house that was burning down, because you heard cries. Inside, was just a strange brass goblet. Not knowing why, you grabbed it. You blacked out from the smoke. Later, you wake up in the hospital with burned hands and other injuries, with no memory of what happens after, or what happened to the goblet. Your hands have healed, but you're still on leave for a few more days. Bored, you went to fill out this prize survey you got a letter about.

Card two, chosen by somebody who didn't see the first card:

Your favorite uncle died, whom you used to camping and hunting with. You inherited this strange brass goblet he must've picked up on one of his trips. The first night you had it, you had terrible nightmares of somebody crying that you couldn't reach. You went to work the next day, and came home to realize your house was burned down. The goblet was never recovered from the ruin.

Or, if you have time and player participation by email, you could have them come up with those kinds of things, edited by you and shared with other players anonymously. That way they're still creating linked stories, they just won't know who they're linked to or how until it comes up in game.

I hope that helps.

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