Thursday, September 24, 2009

Rethinking No-Stress Consequences

I'm headed out tomorrow on a four-day Geek-End in Washington State with some old friends of mine from when I lived in Vancouver -- there'll be Blood Bowl, Space Hulk, a Magic booster draft, a PS3 with whatever it is that's good on a PS3, and, if we get to it, an RPG one-shot or two -- but I wanted to throw an idea out there before I go.

As you may or may not know, I don't use stress tracks in my FATE games, except for minions. Instead, stress goes straight to consequences. Every PC starts out being able to take one consequence of each degree -- Minor, Moderate, and Severe (usually) -- regardless of type. So if you take a Minor physical consequence and then have to take a Minor mental consequence, you take a Moderate mental consequence instead. If you have Good or Great Endurance or Resolve, you get to withstand more physical or mental consequences, but otherwise you're stuck with the three.

This doesn't appeal to me so much anymore. I used to be a little more into the hardcore idea of "narrative punishment" -- there's only so much abuse any character can take in a story before he drops out of it somehow. Having a high Endurance or Resolve was the player's way of telling the GM "My character will take more physical or mental abuse than most during the course of the story, because that's part of what makes him who he is." I liked how narrative and gamist it was without being all that concerned with simulating anything.

To prevent things from getting too out of hand what with the character-fragility thing, I've been clearly demarcating different types of conflicts, whether physical or mental. If you're in a mental conflict, you use social skills (mostly) to deal mental consequences, but can use physical skills to maneuver. It's the reverse in a physical conflict: Skills like Intimidation can only be used to maneuver an aspect onto an opponent, but don't actually inflict consequences. If you're in a mental conflict, like an argument, and want to escalate to a physical conflict, you can do that, but then there's no going back. This means that if you're going to keep arguing with someone without baring steel, it's because you're either a skillful arguer or have no intention of actually fighting. You can make a concession during an argument to escalate and essentially say, "Okay, you got me -- but now someone's gonna bleed."

This has had two major effects in play. One, arguments are short, because whoever's on the losing side is likely to escalate the first time they have to take a Minor mental consequence, lest they go into a fight staring down the barrel of a Moderate consequence they first time they're hit. If a character takes a Minor consequence like "Infuriated" in an argument, the natural next move may be to get physical -- but that's contraindicated by the game mechanics, which leads to some weirdly unintuitive metagaming. Two, there's no real parity between physical and social skills in combat, which is a big attraction for a lot of people (me included) in SotC. Piotr the troll can holler at a group of Average-quality goblin minions all he wants, but no matter how well he does the only thing he can really do with his Intimidation is create an aspect of "Scared." But he'll never scare them so bad they run away (barring some creative tagging for effect, but that's pretty hand-wavey).

I don't dig either of those. The easiest alternative is to have a set of slots for each type of Minor and Moderate consequence -- so if your game has physical, mental, and social consequences (as in "Spirit of the 17th Century"), the average starting PC would be able to withstand seven consequences before being Taken Out: one physical Minor, one mental Minor, one social Minor, ditto that for Moderate, and one Severe consequence of any type (Severe consequences are a big deal in my games). A character with Great Resolve (or Esprit, if you want to get technical -- and I do!) would be able to take another, say, two more: a second mental Minor and a second mental Moderate.

Up until recently, I'd pretty much dismissed this option out of hand, because the idea of a character who could take a full nine consequences is kinda ridiculous to me. Plus, there's something aesthetically unappealing about how the character sheet would look with that many consequence slots. However... I'm now of a mind that this is the way to go, despite those misgivings. That Great-Resolve guy might be able to take nine consequences, but he's just as fragile in a swordfight as he would be under the current system -- plus it gives the GM and the players something to do with skills like Intimidation in combat besides create aspects.

I want that pissed-off guy to jump into combat with the jackass who pissed him off if he wants to, not slink away with his Minor consequence between his legs and wait for another scene. I want Piotr to be able to scare the bejeezus out of those goblins and send them running back into the hills. More than that, I want that Piotr's player to feel like he can contribute meaningfully with his Great Intimidation in combat, instead of feeling like he made a mistake in chargen. It's perfectly in keeping with FATE if that troll shouting at his swordsman opponent is just as viable as that swordsman stabbing Piotr with his blade.

The only real misgiving I have is that a really Intimidation-focused guy against a combat-oriented guy who hasn't even ranked Resolve has the potential to be pretty damn brutal -- but no more brutal than the combat-oriented guy fighting a combat weakling. So... fair enough, I guess. (In either case, the defender would be well advised to make a concession and get out while he still can.)

How about you? What are you thoughts on any of this?


szilard said...

The only real misgiving I have is that a really Intimidation-focused guy against a combat-oriented guy who hasn't even ranked Resolve has the potential to be pretty damn brutal...

I have one thing to say about this.

(but I think it is a compelling argument)

Sayler Van Merlin said...

Nice argument, szilard. I quite agree. I think the system Mike describes is an elegant way to eliminate stress in the game(master) without losing composure( which, as szilard so elegantly illustated, is important).

Mike Olson said...

Yeah, exactly. In SotC, you can do just that by default, and it's awesome, so yes.

Josh said...

I think the premise I don't understand is the assumption about no parity between physical and social skills in combat: where is that idea coming from? Why wouldn't you let someone who was using Intimidation deal stress/consequences directly to begin with? I mean, granted, I'm someone who hasn't forsaken a stress track for the pure Consequences-only technique, but in my way of thinking (which is highly SoTC RAW influenced), I'd be only too happy to let the Intimidation-heavy troll wail away at those goblin mooks with Intimidation, dealing Composure stress to them all throughout, and forcing Consequences or Concessions nearby. Why restrict some abilities to dealing stress/consequences and others not?

Mike Olson said...

Josh, that's exactly why I'm leaning so heavily towards two consequence tracks by default. I want combat-by-other-means to be possible in my games.

Previously, I hadn't done this because I was all "hardcore" about consequences, and because I believed/wanted to believe an escalate-to-physical-conflict system would work for this sort of thing. But I've come across enough evidence to the contrary now that I've changed my mind.

The origins of it, though, are probably in SotC RAW, which, despite the separate stress tracks, doesn't have separate consequence tracks -- i.e., you default to one consequence of each degree of severity. I didn't want to over-complicate things with two many consequences, but as it turns out I'm thinking that's the best way to go.

Josh Culbertson said...

Ah. At the risk of turning this into a forum discussion, I'd always thought that the 3 Consequences/no-matter-which-type phenomenon was just about the subjective applicability of a Consequence to both physical and mental tasks once you've taken it. To whit, if I pummel you a bit in a fist-fight and you take "Thoroughly Pulped" as a Consequence during the conflict, it might still be fair-game for a Compel even during your attempt to make a speech before the town, because you're off your game. I might be able to tag your "Punched In The Face Too Many Times" when playing chess against you. Like any Aspect (even a temporary, non-sticky one), it could get tagged for any number of situations. So, I guess this is a long way of saying I'm right there with you, and agree that taking Consequences from mental/social stuff is a good thing. Buuuut, I worry that it becomes hard to distinguish what's a purely Physical or purely Mental (or particularly the distinction between Mental and Social... I mean, is an academic debate Mental or Social?) when taking Consequences. I didn't know you'd seen those as hard limits in the past.

Mike Olson said...

I see consequences less as simulating anything real than as sort of "narrative wounds" -- a character can only take so many of these before being shunted out of the story altogether. Supporting characters in books or movies are more likely to go down early, in game mechanical terms, because they can only take, say, one or two Minor consequences, whereas the protagonist(s) can take a Severe consequence and still be in the story. Part of a tougher character's identity (one who has a high Endurance) is that he can take more of these physically oriented narrative wounds than someone whose identity is wrapped up in being clever or a good shot.

As for the mental/social divide, I agree that it can be a fuzzy line. I distinguish between them based on what skill is being used, the player/character's intent, and what the genre is. For each kind of conflict, I generally have two or three skills that are used to inflict stress/consequences; the others are there for defense or maneuvers.

For example, in a physical conflict, Melee or Ranged inflict consequences, Athletics and Melee are defensive, and just about everything else (including Athletics, Melee, and Ranged) can be used to maneuver. You can also invoke/tag an aspect/consequence for effect to use a related skill, like Might, to inflict stress instead. If you want to be able to do that sort of thing all the time -- "My barbarian fights through sheer brute force!" -- then get yourself a boon that lets you substitute Might for Melee for some category of attacks (two-handed weapons, unarmed, etc.).

Similarly, for "Spirit of the 17th Century," social consequences come from spreading rumors and tearing down someone's reputation. Connections (Contacting) is the stress-dealing skill in social conflicts, because it represents your ability to effectively disseminate information in appropriate social circles -- but with a Fate Point and an appropriate aspect you could use Deceit -- sorry, Chicanery -- or another such skill to inflict stress instead, just like with the Might/Melee example above. Otherwise, Chicanery is likely to be a maneuvering skill, or at least a modifying secondary skill if the rumor you're spreading is false.

But regardless, if you're in the middle of a swordfight and you use Intimidation straight-up, you're dealing out mental consequences, because they're generally fear- or morale-based. I'd need a pretty good rationale for why you could deal physical consequences with Intimidation.

inky said...

Hrm. I am generally speaking in favor of this but I have two related concerns, which I'm curious to know if you've thought about.

The first is that combat skills are (generally) less flexible than mental/social ones. Athletics is an exception, but you'll note that generally speaking it can't be used offensively, only defensively. So you get the situation where the diplomacy guy can use his rapport in town to sweet-talk the merchant, in combat to bewilder his enemy, in the tavern to gather rumors, etc. Whereas the melee guy can -- use it in combat. So if you give the skills equal punch (heh) in combat, do you also let people use physical combat skills more freely out of combat? (Does Wesley scare Humperdinck because Wesley is good at scaring people, or because Humperdinck thinks he's a good enough swordsman to back up his threat?)

The related point here is, if I want to make a character with the concept of "expert swordsman", what defense skills do I have to buy? Clearly if the answer is just "Melee" that's too few skills, but if I have to buy up Endurance, Resolve, Alertness, and all the other defenses because if I don't have them all I'm helpless against some attacks, that seems like too many. (Whereas, at least for me, it's not as much of a negation of the character concept if "expert social character" can't stand up when the conversation turns into a fist fight.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike, Greetings from New Zealand.
I've been working on a fantasy variant of FATE for a little while and discovered your excellent blog.

I've thought about the stress/no-stress/consequences thing some and came up with an idea recently that I will try out soon.
The gist of it is that successful attacks will inflict stress as they do in SOTC RAW, and will also inflict a consequence. The degree of consequence (mild, moderate...) depends on the number of shifts.

What I like about it is I still get to use the stress track to see if a character is in play, but each hit does something interesting as well: a (taggable) consequence.

It does imply a character can have more than one consequence of any type, and the stress track might get short-circuited if a severe consequence effectively takes out the character, so there's still some rough edges potentially. We'll see how it goes I guess.