NPCs and Ad Hoc Skill Modes

One thing I do when I’m running Fate, whether on the fly or planned in any capacity, is abstract the skills for NPCs in evocative ways, much like using skill modes form the Fate Toolkit. This is a simple idea, so a short post today.

For instance, instead of figuring out if some has Good Fight vs Fair Shoot vs Average Athletics and Notice, etc. — which is honestly a bit boring to me as a GM — I spice it up with something like:

  • Good “Beating You Up”
  • Fair “Eyes in the back of my head”
  • Average “Crap With a Gun”
  • Average “Not All That Smart”

Which I’d treat “Beating You Up” to cover most rolls in Fight — initiative, attack, defense, overcome, create, all that jazz. Eyes… is good for Notice, and so on. I call this “ad hoc” because I make them up and interpret them as needed, and like to use different names for different characters.

When I use this, I always name the skill, as I found that added a level of enjoyment when I was first introduced to this idea from Unknown Armies. I especially love doing this with monsters[1], like having a zombie horde with Fair “Devour the Living,” Average “Hit us all you want, wounds mean nothing,” and Good “The Living Cannot Hide.”[2] Nothing quite like saying “I’m attacking with my ‘Devour the Living’ skill, what do you want to do?” to get action going.

And that’s why the idea works — not because it’s easier on the GM, but because it’s fun for the whole table.


Audience participation: Take one of the last NPCs you made for a Fate game. How would you stat up with colorful ad hoc skill modes?

– Ryan

You could also see this as action-based approaches rather than FAE’s color-based ones.

[1] Expect this treatment in Achtung! Cthulhu.

[2] I do more with monsters, like tweak stress, but that’s another topic.


10 Responses to NPCs and Ad Hoc Skill Modes

  1. James says:

    This sounds a lot like the “Two things they’re good at, two things they’re bad at” methodology of NPC design from Fate Accelerated Edition, which is one of my favorite things about that book. I’ve started doing something similar with NPCs on their initial appearances… only worrying about more detailed write-ups if they are returning characters and the players need more info about them.

  2. Judson says:

    My first exposure to the named-skills idea comes from On The Edge, which remains one of those hoary ancestors of modern roleplaying that ought to be taught in middle school or something. I’d be fascinated to know if named skills has an earlier predecessor.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I have yet to hear any that are older that OTE. Maybe some games where you got to define a sub-skill on your own? The evolution of our hobby in such a short time period is cool and weird. :)

      – Ryan

  3. Sandra says:

    Wow, yeah, I just re-read Unknown Armies (core book + Weep) and also noticed this.

    The reason I don’t really like this rule is because it is one of those things that rewards the GM more than it rewards player creativity. The players are left wondering “Should I rename my skills, or create my own, or what…?” which the GM might answer ambiguously, or (worst case) strictly forbid or force them to do.

    What I’ve considered instead, and for coolness sake, but for ease and speed, is to use “roles” like in OTE when assigning skills. Like, a cop could be “Average at doing cop stuff. Fair at poetry.”

    But then again, if the NPC character sheets are open, it could lead to the same problem as above.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I see none of this as a problem. Especially having a problem with rewarding GM creativity. That’s mind-boggling.

      – Ryan

  4. Sandra says:

    I guess it was because I was on such an anti-UA roll when reading them, because almost everything about the books seemed to be in-jokes for the GM’s eyes only, and this was one more.

    The scenario I got in my head here was, if the player asks “Oh, should I rename my ‘Fight’ to ‘The Mysterious Art of Swordplay’?”
    The GM could say “No, you can’t!” (I mean, hopefully no GM would say that. But…)
    Which would lead to sour feelings.

    The GM could say “Yes, you must! All of you, make cool skill names now!”
    Which leads to leaving out more shy, more new players who just want some easy participation.

    The GM could say “Sure, go ahead!” and then I wouldn’t have any problems and your mind wouldn’t have to be boggled. But this wasn’t necessarily the only outcome.

    OK, I need sleep now. One of my many typos and grammar-typos in my first post was “and for coolness sake” which was meant to be “and not primarily for coolness sake”.

    Thanks for making a great-looking game, Ryan. I’ve read it a few times already and can’t wait to get well so I can play it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I still see no problems with that. I don’t buy this “sour feelings” thing, and you “Yes, you must!” is totally an artificial contrivance.

      The point of this is to create moments of flavor with which to surprise and entertain the players, while also making NPCs easier to stat up. PCs have a different economy by which they’re built, so I wouldn’t…

      …unless I was intentionally using such an extra, in which case that’s something I would have stated up-front. :)

      – Ryan

  5. Sandra says:

    The “you must” thing wasn’t that artificial. I’ve made mistakes like that as a GM, with some players who really just wanted to ease into the game. One of the things that the formality of aspects make easier, and why I agree so much with your other post about the information economy with them.

    The “sour feelings” was my own reaction (again—colored by other perceived problems with UA). Immature, perhaps… but that’s how I felt and I guess still feel.

    I didn’t mean to put a cramp in your GM:ing style or rain on your parade. I like the evocative skills names. In Fudge, I do that all the time (but for players and GM alike). We never had a set skill list in our group.

    Of course, with Fate (I’ve played Fate 3 a lot), I’ve heard new players be happy that they could choose from the skills to fill up their skill pyramid. The PC economy in Fate is really elegant and I do understand why you’d want to protect that.

    Edit. After typing up the above, I guess pretty dumb(?) comment, I was about to hit submit but I saw the note about being a jerk or pedantic and looked at the chart about cockbite and now I just…

    This started with me feeling that the players were being “left out of the fun”. If you think that makes me a cockbite then there’s nothing I can say. I am not that!!!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Okay, then don’t use this extra. Simple solution. This isn’t a core thing, just a cool tool, but if it doesn’t work for you, please don’t use it (or other things that aren’t fun for you). :)

      But I won’t amend this because of someone’s individual sensibilities when it works for me and others in practice.

      – Ryan

  6. Sandra says:

    Yes, of course. Every table is different. I’m glad you’re having fun with this extra. I wish I had made that even clearer.