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The Limitations of the Bronze Rule

Bronze Fist

Many people who get entranced by Fate do so in part because of the Bronze Rule (also known as the Fate Fractal):

In Fate, you can treat anything in the game world like it’s a character. Anything can have aspects, skills, stunts, stress tracks, and consequences if you need it to.

This is called this the Bronze Rule, but you may also have heard of it as the Fate Fractal if you pay attention to the Internet. You’ve already seen some examples of this in other places on the site; you give your game its own aspects during creation, you place situation aspects on the environment as well as on characters, and the GM can let environmental hazards attack as if they had skills.

That there are limitations gets a bit touched on in the Fate System Toolkit, but not well. This post is intended to be a better explanation of when you can apply the Bronze Rule with full effect. To start, my quick rewriting of the Bronze Rule is:

In Fate, you can treat anything in the game world capable of taking action  like it’s a character. They can have aspects, skills/approaches, stunts, stress tracks, and consequences if you need them to. Everything else can have difficulty ratings, aspects, stunts, stress tracks, and consequences as needed, but only things that can take action can have skills or approaches.

It’s less catchy, I know, but it’s accurate.

Actors vs. Obstacles vs. Things

The best way to look at this issue is to answer three questions about whatever narrative element you’re looking at:

  • Is it capable of its own action?
  • If not capable of action, is it capable of resisting action?
  • If not capable of action, is it something that can be possessed?

Actor: If something is capable of action on its own at least some of the time, then it can be treated like a character. It can have all that good stuff — aspects, skills/approaches, stress & consequences, etc. — and take its own actions. (t might not have all of that stuff, but it can.

Obstacle: If something isn’t capable of directly taking action, but can resist action, then it’s an obstacle when you’re doing an action against it. It can have aspects, a difficulty or set of difficulties, possibly a number of victories needed to overcome it as a challenge, and so on.

Thing: If something isn’t capable of directly taking action, but can be possessed by an actor that can, then it’s a device (in the narrative and possibly common sense) that can have aspects and may convey stunts and other rules to the wielder. Maybe you have a Legendary Sword that gives you Weapon:3 against dragons — that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Here’s where we get a little weird: in a narrative sense, a Raging House Fire or Steranko Security System are capable of taking action. That’s a limited set of actions, and they aren’t sentient or sapient entities (in most universes, anyway), but they’re still taking action against and resisting the actions of the PCs. And many elements that we consider just worthy of possessing can suddenly offer resistance — the Legendary Sword would certainly provide an obstacle for someone trying to destroy it, but it wouldn’t act on its own to combat it.

(Unless we, in trying to destroy the sword, learn that it’s capable of psychic communication and mental assault, which makes it an actor.)

Note: Being capable of action implies being capable of resisting action, though when that’s not true we get into a funky edge case. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The Lure of the Bronze Rule

Just as when people first discover aspects, they try to apply the concept to everything to a game’s detriment, many people when they first stumble upon the Bronze Rule try to apply it to non-actors and either flounder a bunch or make a game work in spite of the hurdle. (This is especially true of mystery-as-character rules, which is its own rant.) So when you’re applying the Bronze Rule, ask yourself two things:

  • Is this thing actually capable of action against other characters, or does something else take action on its behalf?
  • Does what I’m making really need an added layer of complication by making aspects, skills, stunts, whatever?

Hopefully by deliberately thinking about what the Bronze Rule does and is/isn’t useful for will help you  in your Fate games.

Additional: Why People Do This

(Edited to add 8/4/14) It occurs to me now that part of why people do this is because they want to create some sort of stakes element alongside a fight, and believe that since one side is fighting, that they other side must use some sort of stress-based way of tracking if they’re willing. After reading this piece from Bill Garrett, I realized that make people try to use the wrong tool for the job because they don’t realize there’s a better tool: contests under fire.

– Ryan

N.B.: Some of this came up as I made the Fate build for Achtung! Cthulhu, notably while making vehicle rules and the monsters. Perhaps you want to check it out for the various Fate goodness I dumped into it.

Image from: susieofarabia.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/the-fist/. Why did I choose a bronze fist? Because if you’re not careful, it will crush you.

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9 Responses to The Limitations of the Bronze Rule

  1. blackcoat says:

    Atomic Robo (which is kinda awesome, btw) talks about this a little, when they discuss how even something like a bunker can be described as a character, with skills like “Wave of minions” and “blast proof doors”.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Totally! I mention the Steranko above for the same reason — the building has enough pseudo-agency to threaten the characters through its sensors, locks, and security forces that it’s treated in that Leverage episode as more or less its own character.

      Of course, that also leads people to thinking that the Bronze Rule should apply all over the place, because of collapsing the idea of one plot-oriented non-person “character” into other plot-oriented non-people elements, regardless of whether they’re genuinely actors. And it can get even more nebulous from there, unless you put a bit of framing around the idea like I’ve done here.

      – Ryan

  2. I’m a bit fan of the thing category. Giving stunts and aspects is one of my preferred ways of handling “stuff”. I also want to second what Ryan said about Achtung! Cthulhu. It’s boss.

    I also noticed a footnote in the text about mysteries…but no footnote explaining it is to be found. Is love to hear your rant on doing mysteries in Fate, sir!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Fixed the vestigial footnote. I decided to talk about the mysteries-as-characters rules I’ve seen as its own post sometime, rather than distract from the global point, and forgot to cut the footnote marker before publishing. :)

  3. Adam Schwaninger says:

    This is very helpful – there’s a lot of Fate stuff floating around saying “you can, you can, you can”, but without guidance on “should”, you can easily overcomplicate things.

    I just wanted to speak on the perceived effect of the Bronze Rule in play, and it’s similar to using Conflicts vs. Challenges or Contests. It lets you control the pacing and scope of the game. IME, fleshing something out into an Actor that would ordinarily be just an Overcome roll focuses the action, it zooms in. Like the building-on-fire example, it provides a consistent means to apply the game mechanics but that fire is more than likely going to demand more game time or narrative weight by virtue of being fleshed out.

    By the same token, treating a bunker as a single Actor can “zoom out”, it can compress the action without necessarily leaving players feeling cheated because again, you’re using the same consistent mechanics to deal with that bunker that otherwise might involve many hours of game time if you engaged in a Conflict with multiple NPCs, a zone map, and who knows what else.

    I do know from experience you can zoom out too far, though. I treated a raid by my players on a vampire nest as a Challenge against some static difficulties, and it just wasn’t satisfying. It needed more focus and it didn’t get it, and the scenario felt rushed and flat. In my defense, we were running out of time for that session, but in retrospect it would’ve been better to have ended early and start the next game with a more complex situation, mechanically.

    • blackcoat says:

      Adam: What might have worked in that situation is that the Nest is a single character, with fledgling vampires, or renfields or something as a skill they can attack with, and a named vampire or two at the end of it. (Who could do things like Create an Advantage of “I bought my minions flamethrowers” which the Nest can invoke)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I wouldn’t jump to saying that, blackcoat. While that’s true, it’s just as important to say “yeah, that wasn’t a fun way of handling that for our group.” (And that what we can do theoretically might suck a bunch in practice.)

      – Ryan

  4. blackcoat says:

    Ryan: absolutely agree. My comment was mostly me trying to work out how I’m going to do a similar thing in an upcoming game I’m running. :)