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Help me to understand how skill mechanics are supposed to work in Fate.

The systems I am familiar with assume it's the GM who calls for a die roll:

GM: What do you do?
Player: I'm trying to catch a fish with using my fishing rod.
GM: make a Fishing check
Player: (rolls a die with the Fishing modifier)

However, Fate SRD assumes the opposite.

Taking Action, Dice, & The Ladder:

Lenny sighs and says, “Well, I’ve got Athletics at Good (+3), so I’ll try dodging and weaving through them to cross the hall.”

Actions & Outcomes:

Lily looks through Cynere’s skill list and picks Resources as her skill

In both examples, it is the player who makes the decision what skill modifier they should add. It might work fine until players start to choose bigger bonuses regardless of a poor narrative.

The system itself might encourage players to make weird choices:

GM: What do you do?
Player: I'm trying to catch a fish. I have "Electronics" on Great (+4), so I tie the lure onto a wire and cast it like a fishing line (rolls a die with the Electronics modifier).

Do the game mechanics provide a way for GM to correct the player's skill choice?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Related to this discussion, as FAE is a subset of Fate Core: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/66899/… \$\endgroup\$ – Mactrent Mar 3 '17 at 18:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Maybe the scenario is more "I'm trying to catch a fish. I have 'Notice' on Great (+4) so I look for a fish in the water and then catch it"? It's something that's plausible in terms of actually helping the activity, but seeing a fish is still very different from actually catching it -- throwing a line in the water next to the fish isn't going to automatically make the fish bite. Athletics and/or Lore would be much more applicable here I think. \$\endgroup\$ – Doktor J Mar 4 '17 at 18:02
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Yes, the rules do offer a way to steer things on track when people are using an inappropriate skill choice.

Your primary source is the Golden Rule:

Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.

What are they trying to do? Reel in a fish. What mechanics are going to help them do that? Physique or Athletics.

Electronics will not help them reel in a fish. It might help them justify having materials available for a fishing line, but it's not the mechanic that will help you reel in a fish.

Fate sees maintaining good use of mechanics as a group activity, and is written assuming people will use the system well, instead of using mechanics incorrectly. The GM, and in fact any player, can call people out when the mechanics are being used improperly with a “that skill doesn't make sense here, shouldn't you be using Physique?”. The GM themselves is vested with the task of judging appropriate use of the rules, and is absolutely in a position to respond to players calling things out like this and help steer things back on track and negotiate with the player to find a mechanic that suits what they're doing.

(If they're terrible at fishing, this may be a golden opportunity to compel them into their fishing attempt going horribly wrong.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Dec 26 '17 at 3:53
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This isn't really any different than the converse situation. If the GM calls for skill checks, this problem would be presented as:

GM: What do you do?
Player: I'm trying to catch a fish with using my fishing rod.
GM: (seeing the player has low Electronics) make an Electronics check

The players should indeed decide what skills they want to use. They should also choose skills that are relevant to what they are doing. It's part of their responsibility to make sure they pick a relevant skill for the task at hand. If they choose an irrelevant skill, you can certainly complain about it, just as they probably would if you tried to pull a fast one on them as above. Ultimately, it is the group that decides whether or not a skill is grossly acceptable, but ideally a situation where the group would have to do so over the opposition of the PC's player wouldn't actually come up in play. Much more common is the following:

GM: What do you do?
Player: Hmmmm.... I want to catch the fish, but I think I'll probably need at least a +3 for that. That gives me Electronics, Burglary, and Will. Any ideas, guys?
Other Player: Fishing is kinda like a contest of Wills, right? That could work.
GM and Other Other Player: (disapproving noises)
Player: Maybe burglary then? I could, like, steal the fish real fast or something?
Other Other Player: I've got a stunt for Mad Science, maybe we could team up and use your +4 in Electronics to make a Fish Magnet.
Player Group: (Much approval)
GM: (Disapproval)
Player: Alright, I'm gonna go for the fish magnet. I call other other PC over and we... (narration) (rolls Electronics)
GM: (Sighs) Fine, you guys will need a 6 though, cause this is pretty silly.

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The simple answer is to always require a judgement and confirmation from you as the Gamemaster before any dice are rolled.

There should be some amount of pause between when the player says "I'm going to use Electronics for this situation" and when they let the dice loose from their hands, during which you can stop and deny them if you think it isn't quite appropriate. At that point, you and the player (and potentially other players as well) can have a conversation in an attempt to find a better skill or to justify the original choice.

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First, the GM is the final arbiter of the rules:

You also act as a final arbiter of the rules, determining the outcome of the PCs’ decisions and how that impacts the story as it unfolds.

Secondly, the though the chairman, not God, the GM is specifically called on to judge the use of the rules:

It’s also your job to make most of the moment-to-moment decisions about what’s legit and what’s not regarding the rules.

Thirdly, given the above, the GM is given several tools in his/her toolkit for resolving these actions in a way that everyone deems is fair. Some examples are below.


Specifically in the case that a skill could be seen as helpful, the SRD's section on edge-cases has this advice for the gamemaster:

When you run into this, talk it over with the group and see what everyone thinks. It’s going to end up one of three ways:

  • It’s too much of a stretch. Consider creating a new skill.
  • It’s not a stretch, and anyone can use the skill that way from now on under the same conditions.
  • It wouldn’t be a stretch if the character had a stunt that allowed it.

In the above example of fishing using Electronics, along with the SRD examples quoted, the player's narration of this action can absolutely be influenced by the skills present on the character sheet. But the narration is what the GM receives, and it is up to the GM to frame what the difficulty of a roll is, and what success and failure look like (all from What to Do During Play, which is written to the GM).

In that case, absolutely, the GM (and ideally the players too) should be thinking in terms of the Golden Rule and its corollary the Silver Rule (same page), and attempting to re-frame the mechanics to match the narration.

If the player is describing using knowledge of the outdoors to accomplish the task, then by all means, insist that the roll is an Overcome roll using the Survival skill, for example. If the player is describing a technological feat that should improve the character's chances of success, or change the fictional reality, then this should instead be a Create an Advantage action using the Electronics skill!

The System Toolkit has a great explanation with examples for just how the Create an Advantage action might be useful in various kinds of situations. Imagine that in the above example, the character created some kind of High-Tech Fishing Gear. This aspect could change the frame of the problem, or could simply be used for as many free invokes as the player cares to keep rolling for.

After all, if the time available is unlimited, the character will eventually catch a fish, no questions asked. So why even roll, if that's the case? If, however, owing to his/her relatively poor fishing skills, the character is using precious time to build toward making a valuable catch... there's your dramatic story of a pro-active, competent but not omnipotent protagonist playing out as a consequence of the player's choices.


On Custom Skills

Fate Core's skill list is already fairly exhaustive, with pretty well explained and constrained skills by default. That said, creating and tweaking skills can be an integral part of a unique, mechanics-backed setting for a game. The Fate System Toolkit has tools to do this, but even to the most extreme "each player writes his/her own skills", there's an expectation that everyone should be on the same page about what skills can do.

In particular, the example about Fishing using the Electronics skill sounds like it could be a fundamental disagreement as to whether Electronics is a traditional Skill, or a more FAE-like Approach.

The GM, in collaboration with the players, has the opportunity to make these decisions at any time - but the sooner any misunderstandings are taken care of (like during game/character creation), the better off the game will be.

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