The Multitude of Zones, Part 1

Zones are one of the more arcane elements in Fate. It’s a tool we use for many different things, but we don’t really talk much about what it is beyond “some physical space” and have rules for interactions that involve assumptions on how an average zone setup works. For instance, you use Athletics to quickly move between zones, Fight allows you to attack anyone your zone, Shoot lets you attack someone a couple zones away, etc. This narrative logic breaks down in many instances, which makes mastering using zones as a tool more like mastering at art than a science.

I hope to share some of what I see with you, so that you can better use this tool. This ends up being a big topic, so I’ll divide it up into smaller posts. This one will kick off with a general discussion of what zones cover, and how that gets complicated.

(If you’re curious, much of this comes from working on the Fate Core builds of Achtung! Cthulhu and Eclipse Phase, as well as numerous conversations over the years.)

The Three Concepts

Zones cover three concepts: mobility, effect, and boundary. The way most people play out zones, all three are collapsed together, but in reality we’re talking about three very different senses of spatiality.

Mobility is about how capable someone is to be at or affect something nearby. The Fight skill’s “attack anyone in the same zone” works off of a sense that characters in a given zone can reach anywhere else in that zone. (Barring an aspect that would contradict such action or any active opposition to such movement.) To have a fight break up into multiple zones is to say that mobility is non-trivial, and that you will need to put effort into such movement.

This naturally gets weird when you have folks of vastly different sense of mobility: a person versus someone on a motorcycle. It also gets weird if someone describes a situation where they’re near the edge of a zone, there’s some other action happening on the other side of that edge, but because of how the zones were drawn when the action started, that would be crossing a zone.

Other adventure games handle this by character absolute speed. Yet other games don’t attempt to pin on either concept, instead leaving physicality out of the mechanics. Fate handles mobility by sketching the terrain, and that’s where a lot of people get hung up.

Effect is about where and what is changed by an action, and contains two sub-concepts: range and area. The Shoot skill allows you to attack someone in another zone, which extends what targets in a given situation can be affected—a.k.a. range. Other situations, like explosions, might affect everyone in a given area. In both cases, the concept is about “who deals with this effect,” in Fate answers that by using zones.

Many people continally note that this gets weird zone-logic contradicts real world-logic in a way that makes the story being played feel false or unreliable. Knowing that you have a gun that should be able to shoot someone in a given situation, but then looking at zone-logic and Shoot’s rule of “attack someone up to two zones away” has tripped some people up. (Yes, there’s a caveat about the range changing based on the weapon, but that isn’t talking about the range changing based on the situation.) It’s a rule that gets routinely thrown away, which shows that there’s awkwardness in the design. Thist also has the same awkwardness of mobility on the edges of a zone.

And it doesn’t always mesh exactly with how a set of given zones might work for mobility. So by collapsing the two into one mechanic and diagram.

Boundary is the easiest and most straightforward understanding of zones. It’s the idea that wherever there’s a zone edge, there’s something not insignificant between that and another zone. The reason it’s the element of zones that’s the most straightforward and easiest to use is simple: when we’re drawing zones, we’re generally drawing and defining boundaries. If you draw some zones in a bar for a brawl, you might have the area behind the bar be a separate zone because of the boundary, just as you might the bathroom, the area outside of the zone (with a large and breakable window), and the upstairs parlor.

There’s a rules hook here for adjusting a given boundary between zones to be non-trivial to cross, such as being difficult to cross (requiring effort), dangerous to cross (requiring a defense), or arcane to cross (requiring a particular action to cross.). However, this can get more complicated when people create advantages or overcome obstacles to make new or remove existing boundaries, and whether or not those moments alter the zone situation.

Boundary often meshes with mobility—though sometimes there’s no boundary, and mobility is just about a person’s speed. Boundary can impact effect, but that’s just as situation as everything else regarding effect.


That’s it for this post. Next time (likely later in the month), I’ll talk about how we can use this understanding to get really funky, and play to the strengths of zones rather than their weaknesses.

– Ryan