Stick In The Middle With You: Mexican Standoffs in Fate Core

Inspired by some very kind comments from the Fate Core Google+ Community, I recently took another look at the Firefly hack I blogged about last year. Whilst far too late to help my friend with the campaign he was running (sorry!), I thought this might still be of interest to other gamers out there. Today, I’ll look at a new sub-system I teased at the end of that post: the resolution of Mexican standoffs.

A Mexican standoff is one where the participants intend to shoot one another, but all participants know that whoever shoots first will be acting at a tactical disadvantage. The classic Mexican standoff scenario is the truel, where each participant knows that shooting one enemy will allow the other to shoot them, but there are other examples. Unforgiven speculates that the first person to draw in a gunfight will be whoever is most nervous; hands shaking, they’ll inevitably miss, allowing their cooler, stealier enemy to take careful aim and kill them.

In “fast draw” situations when everyone is incentivised to take the first shot (Mal vs The Operative at the end of Serenity, Han vs Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina), I’d argue that the default conflict rules are sufficient. Characters already act in order of Instinct (the skill my hack uses in place of Notice and Empathy), which can be narrated as the faster gunhand being the first to take action. Perhaps if you want to dramatise this a little, you could get everyone to roll an overcome action at the start of the conflict – whoever rolls highest gets to take a free attack action, before proceeding with the normal conflict order.

For resolving tenser build-ups where characters want to hold off as long as possible, the mechanics below use a variant of the conventional Fate Core contest rules. The three main differences are:

  1. Instead of making a series of overcome actions, characters in a Mexican standoff are making a series of create an advantage actions, earning themselves as much of a bonus as possible before the inevitable explosion of violence.
  2. Characters in a Mexican standoff can choose to remain in the contest even after accruing their three victories. The longer they hold off, the more advantages they gain, but the more pressure they face to lose their nerve and open fire (represented by increasing difficulties).
  3. A Mexican standoff is the prelude to a conflict (with slight modification to the usual rules) in which the actual shooting is resolved. So “winning” the contest is no assurance of “winning” the scene.

Here’s how it all works…

CUE THE TUMBLEWEED

When preparing a Mexican standoff, the GM sets up all the usual things they would for a contest: situation aspects (“Harsh Glare of the Sun” is a nice one), the participants in the contest, the skills to use etc.

Ordinarily in a contest, participants are split into “sides”, and only one character from each side participates in the contest, with all others providing a teamwork bonus. In a Mexican standoff, this rule does not apply. All characters make their rolls, and count their victories individually.

The classic Mexican standoff, in which poker-faced gunslingers face each other down in silence, is resolved as a contest of Will. Other skills might be more applicable in different circumstances. If your mortal enemies are chattier, intimidating one another into making the first fatal move, you’re probably using the Provoke skill. If the intentions and allegiances of the characters involved are concealed, and no-one’s sure if they’ll be drawing or not, or who they’ll be shooting if they do… that’s the Hustle skill (Firefly’s version of Deceive). Sometimes all characters will be using the same skill, other times they won’t. Avoid using the Instinct skill. It already plays a pivotal role in determining the order in which people shoot each other, and letting it determine the rate at which characters gain advantages as well grants an unstoppable lead to the characters with the higher skill.

Finally, each character starts with a “standoff aspect”, a situation aspect that indicates their resolve to remain calm under pressure and not draw too soon. Special rules apply for this aspect, indicated below. For now, no free invokes should be placed on any of these aspects, unless one or more characters start at a clear advantage (GM’s discretion).

When all the players have a clear understanding of the stakes and the stages to follow, proceed with the first round of the Buildup Phase.

THE BUILDUP PHASE

Like normal contests, Mexican standups proceed in a series of exchanges. In each exchange, characters have the option to hold, to draw or to concede. Characters select their option in secret, and reveal their choices simultaneously. If anyone drew, immediately proceed to the Draw Phase. If concessions occurred such that only characters on one side are left, the contest is over. Otherwise, resolve the actions of each character that held, then go onto the next exchange of the contest.

IMPORTANT: Characters can only choose to draw once they have at least three free invokes on their standoff aspect.

Assuming that no-one drew, any characters who held instead of conceding get to roll to create an advantage against a passive difficulty, using whatever skill was agreed at the start. Start with the character that has the highest Instinct, then allow all other characters to act in decreasing order of Instinct, breaking ties with Athletics, then Physique. Succeeding or tieing on the create an advantage action generates one free invoke for that character’s standoff aspect. Succeeding with style generates two free invokes for it. Failing generates a free invoke for someone else‘s standoff aspect (the GM might let you choose which of your enemies gets the advantage, if you’re lucky). Difficulties should start low: +1 (Average) or even +0 (Mediocre), but after every exchange, the difficulty for the next exchange’s round of advantage actions is increased by one. So in the first exchange the difficulty is set at +1 (Average), in the second exchange the difficulty is +2 (Fair), in the third exchange the difficulty is +3 (Good) etc.

A few important special rules apply to standoff aspects – they cannot be invoked when attempting to create an advantage as part of the contest, and they cannot be invoked as part of a defence roll. In fact, they can only be invoked as part of a character’s attack action in the Draw Phase, and after that it disappears entirely. Suffice to say, if the Buildup Phase lasts a long time, the conflict that follows will be resolved very bloodily indeed!

Characters can choose to concede at any time, regardless of how many free invokes are on their standoff aspect. Concessions are resolved in exactly the same way as in Fate Core conflicts – the conceder gets a fate point, before discussing with the GM what the ultimate fate of their character will be.

HOW TO REVEAL?

The simplest way for players to secretly choose and reveal their actions is to scribble it down on a piece of paper, then turn them all over together. That’s the boring option. Here are other methods I prefer:

  1. The Card Trick. Take a standard deck of cards and deal each player a black card and a red card. Each players places one card face-down in front of them, and on cue, everyone reveals. Revealing a black card hints at dark intentions only, meaning they hold. Revealing a red card means bloodshed, counting as a draw action. Players can instead, on cue, throw down their other card face-up and “fold”, which counts as a concession.
  2. Handguns. Every players closes their fist and reaches towards the centre, as though playing rock-paper-scissors. After the count of three (or ON the count of three if your group are monstrous deviants… seriously, work out with your group which you’re doing before you try this), players reveal one of the following: an open palm if you want to hold; a thumb-raised-forefinger-extended imitation gun to draw; or “hands up” to concede.
  3. Ca$h ‘n’ Guns. A fun game in its own right, it also comes with “Bang!” and “Click!” cards that could take the place of red and black cards in a normal playing deck, and foam guns for some kind of “Handgun” variant. I’m sure you can work out something cool.

Anything that feels genre-appropriate and is also dorky, stupid fun is good in my book.

THE DRAW PHASE

If anyone is revealed to have drawn in the Buildup Phase, the exchange is immediately interrupted, and all characters proceed to the Draw Phase.  Start with the character with the highest Instinct, then allow all other characters to act in decreasing order of Instinct, breaking ties with Athletics, and then Physique.

If a character drew during the last exchange of the Buildup Phase, their only option in the Draw Phase is to make a physical attack against a target of their choice (presumably with Shoot, unless the characters are very close to one another). Resolve this as a normal attack action, with the target defending as usual. Remember that free invokes on each character’s standoff aspect can be used to boost their attack, but not their defence. As standoff aspects are removed at the end of the draw phase, characters are encouraged to spend all of their free invokes during their attack action.

If a character held during all exchanges of the Buildup Phase, they have a choice. They can choose to attack when it is their turn to act, using the exact same rules as characters that drew (above). Alternatively, they can choose to make one last create an advantage action before firing – the difficulty for this action is the same as it would have been if the Buildup Phase had not been interrupted (i.e. if they would have been rolling to create an advantage at difficulty +2 (Fair) if no-one had drawn, they should roll against that exact same difficulty of +2 (Fair) now). If they tie or succeed, place an invoke on their standoff aspect (two free invokes if it’s a success with style) AND follow up with an immediate attack action, which again is resolved in the same way as for characters that drew. If a character fails in this last create an advantage action, they do not add any invokes to enemy standoff aspects; however, they lose their opportunity to attack during the Draw Phase. They held off just too long!

If a character is taken out before their turn, they lose the opportunity to act in the Draw Phase. Similarly any characters who conceded in the Buildup Phase cannot attack or be attacked in the Draw Phase. Characters who are targeted for attacks in the Draw Phase can choose to concede before the dice hit the table; again, this is resolved in the normal way, with the conceding player collecting their fate point, but losing the chance to act in the Draw Phase if they haven’t already done so.

WHAT’S NEXT?

If any characters on opposite sides are not taken out during the Draw Phase, they might have had their fill of violence and decide to leave things there. Or they might want to finish off the survivors! If it’s the latter, go straight into a conventional conflict. Remove all standoff aspects from play, but any stress or consequences inflicted are carried over into the fight. Now might be a good time to draw out your zones.

As often as not though, when the Draw Phase is over, there’s only one gunslinger left standing…

3 thoughts on “Stick In The Middle With You: Mexican Standoffs in Fate Core

  1. I’m not sure I can adequately explain how happy reading this post made me yesterday. As I was reading it, I could just see Tuco, Blondie and Angel Eyes having their showdown. Music rising, jaws set, eyes passing back and forth, hands twitching…

    I’m glad you mentioned Ca$h ‘n’ Guns, too. I was thinking it would be appropriate. Some of the cards from the game Bang! could work too.

    Like

  2. Wouldn’t failing at creating an advantage in a standoff be modeled by going straight into the draw phase with some disadvantage/ advantage to your enemy? Losing your nerve and firing first, etc.

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    • It depends on how long you want your lead-up to be. If failing a contest roll triggers the draw phase, then your standoff can be interrupted halfway through the first turn. That means less tension, but less outright destructiveness – characters are more likely to survive on the strength of their conflicts skills and stunts. Longer draw phases have more tension, and tend to resolve action pretty fast come the draw phases. If characters have 5 (or more!) free invokes down on their standoff aspects, then there often won’t be anyone left alive by the time the draw phase ends and “actual conflict” begins.

      Personally, I prefer always giving the player the choice of when their character draws. Because that way, the battle-of-wills characters go through, where they gamble on when is the right time to draw, is something the players get to play too. I believe in immersing players in the mindset of their characters by mirroring emotional beats as much as possible. If the player chooses to hold, and the character chooses to draw, I think that’s an immersion-breaker.

      If you try it the other way, I’d love to hear how that goes!

      Like

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