Fate is one of my all-time favourite RPG systems, but after a hundred or so games, there are plenty of things I’ve learned to dislike. Perhaps the thing I dislike about GM’ing it the most is how often you’re required to say “No” to players. There are so many calls to be made in Fate – stunt balance, compel penalties, the legitimacy of invoking an aspect – that the book gives a little guidance for, but mostly leaves for each gaming group to work out on their own. And whilst table consensus is usually the best way to make those calls, the players have a conflict of interest, because they always want their characters to be awesome. That pitches the GM into the position of naysayer, if any semblance of balance is to be preserved.
Antagonistic GM’ing isn’t my thing. I’d far rather manage storytelling collaboratively. So rather than shutting down players with a “No” over and over again, I’d far rather teach them how to get me to say “Yes” – to approach the distinct elements of Fate with the same mindset that I do. That way, everyone is on the same page, which makes telling a story together that much easier.
Recently I was advising my Ferrymen players how they can get me to accept their invocations of aspects, in edge cases where the legitimacy of an invoke is not always obvious. This is what I came up with.
When someone is invoking an aspect to their advantage, there are three things I’m looking for them to tell me, outlined here in decreasing levels of importance.
1. Tell me how your invocation ADDS COLOUR OR DETAIL to the scene that is currently developing. Sometimes this can just be using the aspect as springboard to provide more information about a part of the scene that has otherwise been quite thinly sketched (“This nondescript, undefined room we’re in is actually a workshop! And any Cyborg Engineer worth their salt would know exactly what tools to grab.”). But my FAVOURITE colour/detail adds a spin to the way the PC is currently conducting their action, and my ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE suggests an interesting way the aspect invocation can upset your lives if you fail the roll (“I persuade the guard to give me what I want by admitting that I’m the Greatest Thief in the Cluster, and if he refuses I’ll just steal it from him anyway.”).
2. Tell me how your invocation ADDS CONTEXT to the world around the character. Describe a time you were in a similar situation because of your aspect, how you resolved (or failed to resolve!) the problem then, and consequently learned from the experience. Or tell me about the weird quirks in the training for your profession, how that prepares you for this situation, and why that’s something that you do. My FAVOURITE context tells me something that we’ve never heard before, but my ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE context adds an interesting spin to something we’ve already learned about – providing new information about an already established critical personal event, for example. Reincorporation, reincorporation, reincorporation.
3. Tell me how your aspect would be logically relevant to the attempted action, in a way that fits with what you’d already described anyway. This is the minimum requirement to get me to accept an aspect invocation, but it’s the criterion I consider by far the least important, and the one I’ll be least receptive to. If I seem uncertain about an option 3 explanation, spicing it up with some of the suggestions above is by far the best way to win me over.
Usually when someone says they’re invoking an aspect and provides no further explanation, I respond by saying “Go on.” I think my players commonly misinterpret that as “I am unconvinced and now you have to persuade me”, which puts them on the defensive more than I’d like. More often than that, it actually means “I’d love it if you’d tell me a story right now.” Hopefully now I’ve actually communicated that to them, I’ll do a better job at getting my intentions across.
A BAD CASE STUDY
I’m embarrassed to admit this one – it’s not an example of good GM’ing, it’s an example of blatant favouritism – but it demonstrates what I’m looking for better than anything else.
There’s a PC in Ferrymen called Nate Ciepher – a former intelligence operative, now independent, working patiently from within to effect transformative change across the cluster. His High Concept is the pun-tastic Agent of Change, and he invokes it all the time: for social rolls, mental resilience, even physical action if it seems like something that would happen in a Bond movie.
The dodgy thing is… it’s probably true that one of the reasons invokes of Agent of Change seem to get accepted so often is that every time I challenge the player on it, he tells me an awesome spy story. And I absolutely love hearing them.
I’m not saying this because I’m proud of it, but because it’s useful insider knowledge for my players if they want to get aspect invocations accepted more often. And even if it doesn’t work, and all that happens is we get more cool, interesting stories being told around the table… well I’d still call that a win.