Taking Zero

FUDGE_4dF_probabilityMost RPGs are predicated on the 50% success rule. Heroes will succeed half the time they attempt a task. Fate Core takes a quantitatively different approach by predicating on the 100% success rule. Heroes are equal to any task which they attempt to undertake. The static skills test throws the differences between the two approaches into stark contrast and highlights the effectiveness of each.

The 50% rule is seen most clearly in skill tests against a static difficulty. Pathfinder and the d20 games even have an option for players to automatically succeed at tasks within a certain difficulty range. This is known as Taking Ten or Taking Twenty because it assumes an average die roll. This type of mechanic evolved from the roots of the game as a tactical simulation, under the philosophy that success should be based on tactical choices rather than luck. When adapted for dramatic simulation, the die roll represents the effort of the characters in a very real way.

Fate Core also includes the option to bypass the die roll in order to assume success of any static difficulty which is equal to or less than the character’s skill. We will call this rule “Taking Zero”. Like Pathfinder, it also assumes an average die roll. The Fate Core book instructs players that dice should only be rolled when the outcome is in question or degrees of success or failure will make the game more interesting. It is, in effect, the same rule.

How does this change our approach to the game?

IdealIf this were an exam, Pathfinder would be Pass/Fail, and Fate Core would grade on a curve. When you Take Ten or Take Twenty, your character may succeed at progressively more difficult tasks without undue stress. The opportunity is limited by the circumstances under which a character may choose to Take Ten or Twenty. If your skill is insufficient, you simply fail at the task. Another solution must be found.

The key difference lies in the way that Fate Core penalizes failure. By Taking Zero, your character succeeds at a task, but there is a minor cost. That cost may be expressed as a small penalty to a future action or as a complication within the story. But in Fate Core, success is always an option. Did your character fail the skill test by three shifts? No problem. He succeeds, but the price is progressively higher the greater the extent of failure.

This changes our approach to the game by allowing the characters to always succeed at static tasks but at the cost of future complications. Because the Fate Core system relies primarily on dramatic simulation rather than tactical simulation, the penalty for failure is seldom as straightforward as the loss of Hit Points. In this way, characters accrue penalties and complications to be leveraged against them during the course of the game. Because later penalties are directly related to previous success, this form of resolution creates stronger storytelling by using a callback to previous events. It is one of the tenets of circular storytelling.

Application in Action

In the early game, characters trade initial success for a more difficult challenge down the road. The easiest way to do this is to apply the cost of Taking Zero as an Aspect against the characters that opponents can tag for free in the late game, we’ll call this Stacking Consequences. But this is Fate, and players may well wish to bank negative Aspects which they can tag for Fate points when they start to run low.

In the mid game, Taking Zero keeps the characters on track and prevents derailing due to unexpectedly difficult challenges. It works the other way around as well. When prepping for the endgame, players can accept higher difficulties when Creating Advantages too be used later. In this case, a die roll is still required, but a quick glance at the probability chart shows that even when the target difficulty number is zero the chance of success on the die roll is about 60%.

In the endgame, this principle prevents the action from getting bogged down when a single task becomes critical. Fate Core has a related mechanic built into the system; characters may concede a conflict and retain some control over their fate. Extending this concept against static skill checks lets players essentially “concede” to the difficulty of the task and continue to participate in the story even when their skills have failed.

Taking Zero and conceding a conflict both manage the difficulty of an adventure as it progresses. If the point of the game is to move the action forward and keep the party from getting bogged down in the details, you will find them to be essential tools in your GM toolbox.

“Opposing Forces” is a tactical manual and bestiary of foes for Fate Core. Now funding on Kickstarter! Check it out!

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The Slave of Duty

Internal conflict within the plot comes from diametrically opposing forces influencing a character’s choices. These forces are: what the character desires to do, what others desire the character to do, what is morally right to do, and the action ultimately taken. In a perfect, conflict-free world all of these choices would be identical and characters would make the right choices every time. This might lead to a harmonious world, but it makes for pretty poor drama. Drama results from the effort to bring these forces into alignment.

In “The Pirates of Penzance”, Frederic describes himself as “the slave of duty”. The story results from Frederic’s choice to act according to the wishes of others (the dictates of duty) even when those actions run contrary to both his own desires and his conscience (the moral right). Frederic acts according to the moral right, which is already in line with his desires. Conflict enters when the dictates of duty pressure him to act differently from both his conscience and his own desires. Frederic’s quest to resolve his internal conflict forms the basis for one of the most successful comedies of all time.

At the beginning of a story, these four things are out of line. Good conflict happens when the character’s choice increases the imbalance between them. As one or another of these forces becomes more important to the character, he will base his choices more strongly on that motivation. These choices form a character’s journey and chart his growth through the story. “The Pirates of Penzance” exmplifies this journey is three different types.

The Pirate King acts according to his own desires. He is essentially a selfish and prideful character who pressures others into conforming to his will. He experiences internal conflict because he knows that he acts against both his duty to the Queen and the moral right. He attempts to reconcile these differences by being a tender-hearted pirate who never attacks those weaker than himself and shows mercy to orphans. In his character journey, the Pirate King learns to act according to his duty as a nobleman and to do the right thing for its own sake, which ultimately leads to his confession and reform.

Frederic subjects his own desires in favor of performing his duty as an apprentice pirate, even though he knows it’s morally wrong to do so. Because Frederic allows others to define his duty and acts according to their direction, he constantly experiences a state of emotional turmoil. Only when Frederic’s duty is clarified as being to the Queen and to the moral right is he able to resolve the conflict within himself and earn the love of Mabel.

Major-General Stanley is in complete possession of his faculties. He knows right from wrong. He is clear on his duty to the Queen and to his daughters, and his responsibilities as a Major-General. He desires to perform each of these roles to the best of his abilities. Stanley experiences internal conflict when he claims to be an orphan-boy in order to escape the pirates. This deception causes him a great deal of distress until it is uncovered at the end of the play and Stanley is able to make things right.

Being a comic opera, “The Pirates of Penzance” takes these character archetypes and journeys to an extreme expression of their execution. It is useful as a study in the basic types of internal conflict. One might even say it is the very model of the modern character-general.