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!

OF Logo - small

Red Herrings

Red herring

Welcome to the first weekly installment of The Writer’s Block blog. Every weekly entry will feature tips, encouragement, advice, best practices, and red flags for new, aspiring, and established writers. Wait … why target established writers? Don’t they already know what they’re doing? Well sure, but every one of those guys will tell you that every well of creativity needs a little rainfall to top it off, in this case, I assume they’re looking for affirmation and encouragement. And maybe, if I’m lucky, someone more experienced than I will take the time to agree or disagree with what I have to say. Enough marketing talk, on to the good stuff!

Nanowrimo is behind us again, and the writer now has a novel in need of editing. This is the time for him to look critically at all aspects of his manuscripts, decide what works, and excise what doesn’t. One important part of the editing process is tracking down and removing those portions of the manuscript that don’t pay off for the reader, we’ll call them “red herrings”. This process helps improve form, and is an important component of circular storytelling.

In chasing red herrings, we’re really only concerned about three types. The first type of red herring is the conventional misleading clue that causes a detective to come to an incorrect conclusion. We are applying the same principle to the reader in the following way: the first red herring is a portion of the manuscript that causes the reader to expect a certain payoff, but substitutes a different payoff. This is the “bait and switch” approach common in mystery and horror stories, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. The writer must only make certain that the reader, in receiving a payoff other than then one he expected, still feels validated for having spent time chasing the hook. A reader who feels cheated, who feels the writer isn’t playing fair, is a reader lost.

The second red herring involves a hook intentionally or inadvertantly set by the writer that fails to pay off for the reader. In it’s simplest form it involves the principle behind Chekhov’s gun – a gun present in the first act must be fired by the third. When tieing up Loose Threads, the writer seeks to find all of his red herrings and land them safely in the net. Now that the novel is “finished”, any red herrings the writer finds still on his hook need to be cast back into the ocean. By removing those plot and character hooks that fail to pay off for the reader entirely, the writer tightens up his story construction, and reduces the opportunity to disappoint the reader.

Excising these extraneous portions of the manuscript is easier and less painful than it sounds. Chances are, if a hook fails to produce a payoff, it wasn’t very important to the story to begin with. These types of red herrings are often found in concert with other hooks that do lead to a payoff, allowing the writer to eliminate redundancy in the manuscript while tightening the plot. Most often, hooks are left dangling simply because the writer has forgotten about them; removing the initial mention of the hook from the story will often neither impact the plot at all nor change the characterization.

Identifying a flopping red herring may be a little more complicated. The easiest solution is to give the manuscript a quick read and periodically ask, “Whatever happened to…” If no answer to the question is apparent, throw that herring back! Looking a little deeper, whenever two plot or character hooks are dropped at once there is a good chance that one of them may be a duplicate. If the payoff for any given hook happens at the same time in the same way, and is in fact the same as, the payoff for another hook, the writer has an opportunity to tighten the manuscript by removing the duplicate reference. With each hook that surfaces, the writer has a new opportunity to decide if it pays off, pays off successfully, or simply gets in the way. Each herring must be kept, cured, or thrown back as needed.

Which leads us to the final red herring – a time-honored salty snack that every writer needs to keep handy by his workplace. No, don’t try to eat them (unless you’re from Maine or just really, really British), just keep them there as a reminder that this is the kind of food you’ll have to eat if you cannot master your writing. It’s good motivation!

Loose Threads

As the main story draws to a close, the writer faces the unenviable task of gathering up the loose ends of the plot and character arcs and tieing them neatly together. As your novel draws to a close, the reader wants to feel a sense of completion, like he’s not missing any parts of the story. The writer needs to identify plot hoots and character points, making sure that each of them is resolved. In a perfect novel, the two will work together to form a single inevitable conclusion.

When the reader looks for the hallmarks of a completed novel, he’s not worried so much about having every single detail of every single event. The reader’s imagination will fill in many of the points left out by the writer, creating a sense of involvement and investiture in the story. The reader is concerned about picking up dropped plot and character hooks; the writer should be concerned with identifying those dropped hooks and carefully extracting them.

Identification of loose hooks is really the key. Character hooks remain unresolved when the reader recognizes an aspect of the character that is deficient, that aspect is provided with the means and motivation to change within the story, but the character never revisits this aspect to determine if it will change or remain the same. Either resolution is acceptable, as long as it makes sense within the context of the character and the decision is firmly enacted. Character hooks also remain unresolved when a key aspect of the character is mentioned but never demonstrated. When a character is strongly identified by himself or others with a certain trait, that trait needs to be demonstrated in action.

Plot hooks remain unresolved when an action that was begun earlier in the story fails to reach its logical conclusion. The aphorism “Chekhov’s gun” embodies his (Anton Chekhov’s) advice that one should not should show a loaded gun in act one, unless one intends to fire it later in the play. The aphorism was perhaps meant to address the correct use of foreshadowing, but has since come to represent any kind of plot hole. The writer faces the task of firing every gun that has been shown earlier in the story. Loose plot hooks may be identified by noting any singular instance of action or mention of an object. If that action or object is significant to the plot, it must be revisited at least once in order to demonstrate how the action is played out or the object is used.

Tieing up loose ends, firing all of your guns, is a key component of circular storytelling. Written stories are necessarily about resolution, as the writer has a finite amount of space in which to tell a story, and the reader a finite amount of time in which to consume it. Not every story needs to come to a final, unalterable ending; the phrase “To be continued…” is a key element of serial fiction. The reader needs to feel like the writer has treated him fairly, done right by the characters, and cleaned up his loose plot threads. Stories and characters live on the mind of the reader long after the last page of the novel has been turned; he just needs enough closure to the current story to imagine the rest.