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Success at a Cost with Defending in Fate

A couple months ago, I wrote about how to do success at a cost with attacks in Fate. At the time, I figured there wasn’t a good way to do defending at a cost, but over the last week my mind starting working on that. I now realize that defending at a cost is possible, but it dramatically shapes the tone for your Fate game: it makes it darker, because whatever the cost is, it has to be on par with the potential denial of character agency that happens with taking stress and consequences.

If you attempt to defend against an attack and fail, the GM can offer a dangerous version of success at a cost. If you take the option, then you don’t take any stress from the attack. The attack still happens, but someone or something else takes the harm instead, and that must significantly impact the character. Here are some ideas:

  • An important or irreplaceable item carried is shattered. Maybe it can be fixed (with some difficulty, rare resources, etc.) or maybe it’s now worthless.
  • Something nearby that you were depending on is ruined. That getaway car? Engine’s shot now. This is an especially good option if others were also depending on that thing.
  • Someone else takes the shifts in harm. If that’s an NPC, bypass the stress track and do what’s necessary for dramatic story. Whether another PC can take this harm is something for each group to judge, though if another PC does, they should also get a fate point for what’s in a sense a compel on the pseudo-aspect Just Got Thrown Under the Bus.

Along with this effect, the attacker might gain some boost based on surprising or shocking the defender.

This form of success at a cost can only be offered by the GM, rather than volunteers by players. This rule only works for PC-vs-GM conflicts, and only for PCs as the dramatic tension isn’t as strong with NPCs making such choices.

The most important part of making this rule work: the players have to know the sort of price that can be paid, not know the specifics, and not be given the option to revoke the decision. If that uncertainty means that a player never takes up defending at a cost, that’s great! They’re making the firm choice to always take the harm themselves and to go out as a hero.

This came from something that flashed in my head while taking a shower earlier this week, in that I’m baking the idea of defend at a cost into the Emerging Threats Unit (to be clear: it isn’t using Fate), and in that I want scenes like:

GM: “You failed to take cover from the alien’s acid spit. But you’re pretty hurt; how about I offer defending at a cost?”

Player: “Please! I’ll take it.”

GM: “Sweet! Okay, you’re able to take cover. But the teenager you were getting to safety wasn’t, and got a faceful of acid. He Drops to the Ground, Screaming. What do you do?”

Now, maybe that’s a little harsh, but I think the rule should be harsh. Maybe once the cost is revealed, the only way to escape it is to using invocations to turn the defense into a success. At that point, you can’t just say “no, I will take the stress instead.” Or maybe you can go halfway — even a single invocation puts you back in the attack’s crosshairs, with the added benefit of reducing the difference in shifts.

As with attacks at a cost, this’ll need some playtesting. But I like that it can add a darker tint to Fate that is often difficult to get from aspects alone.

Clarification

Some people seem to be confused as to how this isn’t just the consequence system as written in Fate Core. It’s very much not, as consequences are direct markers that tie to individual agency. Here’s what I wrote to that effect:

Here’s the great divide: consequences persist with the person that took them. If you have a Broken Arm, then you have that even if you’re naked and transported to the other side of the planet. The idea of a broader sense of consequences that creates some that don’t persist and travel with the person breaks the very way that consequences work as a currency.

That’s what this “defend at a cost” is about. You don’t have to spend delicate, persistent narrative currency, but there’s a bit immediate cost that is still paid. All of my examples in that post are things that don’t travel with a person regardless of situation: something you need is destroyed, someone you care about is killed, etc. Maybe that also inflicts something on you, but that’s tangential to the immediate…well, I would say “consequence” but that’s a game term that continues to lead to confusion. (If I were rebuilding Core today, I would ax “consequences” as a confusing term, just as we did “maneuver” and “tag.”)

This, by the way, has made for some interesting thinking in the Eclipse Phase build.

– Ryan

Image: When I think of defend at a cost, I think about xenomorphs.

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One Response to Success at a Cost with Defending in Fate

  1. Jess says:

    I really like this idea. I think I like it better than Attack: Success with a Cost. It reminds me some of the 7-9 results in DW where the monster makes an attack, not just deals damage, and that attack can have whatever results the GM can think of as appropriate. I may have to employ this in the next gritty game I run using Fate.