Saturday, March 28, 2009

Fantasy: Artifice's Balancing Act

Reader inkylj made this comment on the Artifice entry:

Do you have any thoughts on the balance issue here? Unlike the other magic you've introduced, this one seems like it gives a permanent multi-use bonus -- effectively, it's a free stunt. Or stunts plural, since you can make multiple items, right? I'm pretty fast-and-loose about character balance in FATE but this seems like it's pushing it a bit.

Is the balance here that you can't have another kind of faster on-demand magic like Incantation? Or is it that the characters are finding magic items anyway, so what this gives you is mainly the ability to determine more precisely what you get?
Excellent points. I started to reply with another comment, but then it got so long I figured it deserved its own post.

I agree that there's a potential balance issue here, especially with a certain type of player. My problem is that I'm not that type of player, so I sometimes forget about that guy. The players in our playtest group definitely found some areas in the rules I'd written that were ripe for exploitation -- without purposely trying to min-max -- so I can totally accept that Artifice, as written, fits into that category.

One easy fix, and something that I've gone back and forth on, is reducing Refresh by 1 (or more) per item created with Artifice. That should slow down the magic-wand-factory PCs.

I see the inherent balancing factors as more narrative. If you're making a "standard gadget" -- that is, an item with three improvements -- it'll likely take a few weeks or more of game time. Is it always possible for your character to take that kind of time off? (It does go to the heart of the problem with things like Artifice and Alchemy, though, and that's that the things they let you do pretty much happen "off screen." They're down-time activities.) That's sort of up to the GM, I guess. In practical terms, it could mean cranking out one magic item of some kind between adventures, which doesn't really seem likely to create a glut of magic items. But that is, again, making an assumption about how other players and GMs will operate.

If you spend Fate Points to generate more shifts, you can speed up the process, but then you're also spending Fate Points, which lessens your ability to impact the story in other ways. Next session, you'll get those Fate Points back, so maybe that would render the whole point moot, but I'm considering having Fate Points refresh at the beginning of every story arc instead of every session, which would definitely affect things.

(Now, if you have Great Craft and roll ++++, you not only get it done in just a few days, but, in my games, you'll get a Fate Point to boot. But I'm not opposed to a character pulling off something legendary like that now and then.)

The other narrative balancer (and again, this is totally GM-dependent, so it's not much of a balancer) is that since the item wasn't acquired through a boon, I, as GM, would have no problem taking it away at some point. There's no real investment in it, so it doesn't have the narrative importance a boon-derived item would have. Either it gets irretrievably lost or stolen, or we just "forget about it" at the end of the story arc. This isn't really implied in anything I wrote, but it is in my head -- and is it really so unreasonable that you people should read my mind?

Reducing Refresh, to me, seems like a pretty good all-around adjustment here. However, if Refresh were reduced, I wouldn't be so ready to just take it away. It's too significant a character investment.

Another option, and one that I like, would be to require someone to take a story aspect for the item -- if not the artificer, then the PC who gets the item. It'd mean that you could never acquire more PC-created items than you had available story aspect slots. It also means giving up some flexibility for your character during play, and that if you don't have a story aspect open, then, well, you don't get this magic sword. Think of a reason. I'm not so interested in simulation here; justify it narratively. YMMV.

So here's my proposed fix. When a character makes an item with Artifice, one of two things happens:
  • Temporary Item: Either the artificer or the recipient of the item takes a story aspect related to the item. The item has no "narrative protection." It can be irretrievably lost or stolen, and disappears at the end of the story arc in any event. If the player chooses to make the story aspect a permanent one later, which he can do at any time, the item becomes a Permanent Item, as below.
  • Permanent Item: The artificer reduces his Refresh by 1, and at the end of the story arc the item automatically becomes the character's next boon... and all that entails.
How's that?


Bill said...

There's another perspective you can take on an ability like this. You make your roll and spend the shifts (and maybe a Fate point on an appropriate aspect?) at a critical point in the game to say that you just happen to have brought this magic item that you made recently that turns out to be very useful. This models the "conveniently I have exactly the right magical gizmo I need for this" story you see in Buffy, Bond, and other fiction. In effect, it becomes another way to implement SotC's "Universal Gadget" stunt.

If the character wants to keep it around indefinately, they have to spend an Aspect or stunt or whatever to lock it in. Otherwise it goes back on a shelf when they get home, and can only be brought out again the same way.

Slothman said...

Another way of doing this is making the ingredients for Artifice a form of treasure that the PCs can acquire— monster parts, magical jewels, etc. Those tend to get shared out among the party, and even the nonmagical members might find occasion to pass ingredients to a fellow PC (or to a helpful NPC, along with an appropriate bribe) for crafting.

Dusty said...

This is exactly the problem I've been working on for my FATE adaptation. In my game computer programs were supposed to be important. I want the players to be able to make programs without getting them to stock up on lots of programs with specific bonuses.

I'm sure to use some of the ideas you suggested.

Mike Olson said...

Bill: Absolutely. In a pulp game, or some other genres, I'd definitely do that. And it's certainly viable in a fantasy game, too. It's not the way I want to handle artificers. I don't like the image of an artificer as a guy laden down with trinkets and do-dads who pulls out a hitherto-unknown grenade or bottle of goo at just the right time. That's just me. It's too much like Adam West's Batman to me.

In the pulp or spy genres, though, I totally dig crazy coincidences and/or hidden gadgets. I look forward to tackling "Spies of the Century" when I finally get a chance, because I've been thinking about it for a while now.

Slothman: Also good, yes. I'd definitely use components as a motivation for adventure. Like I said, I'm all about narrative limits on power whenever possible, like time and materials.

Dusty: Good! What are you converting? Cyberpunk? I'd be interested to see it. If so, are you familiar with Tom Miskey's Spirits of Chrome and Cyberspace? It's on the FATE RPG Yahoo Group, and definitely worth checking out. I gotta pimp Tom's games, because we're both working on this Starblazer fantasy book (which will hopefully get a proper announcement soon, if it hasn't already).

Dusty said...

Mike, I sometimes check the FATE yahoo group so I took a look at Spirit of Chrome and Cyberspace, however much of it doesn't fit my setting. (Though I might adapt some of the hacking information)

The setting is in the not to distant future where Augmented Reality has really come to dominate the computer world. However a bunch of the other technologies I usually associate with Cyberpunk like robots sometimes magic doesn't exist.

A lot of it was influence by Cyberpunk though, but I wanted to concentrate one technology commonly seen in Cyberpunk. Also the anime Dennou Coil was a great influence on the game. (

I've been blogging some of the stuff I have been doing with it and you can read it there if you want. I've had two session of the game with my group and the next one in in a couple of days. I've even posted the actual play of the first session. I'm more then happy to answer any other questions you have about what I am doing.

Link to the blog where I am posting stuff: