Rules vs. Culture: Success at a Cost

Who “owns” success at a cost comes up quite often when talking about Fate, so it’s about time I wrote my thoughts about it from a designer stance—before and after seeing the emergent culture engage with the idea.

When it comes to the rules, success at a cost doesn’t care about who “owns” the concept. When we came up with this as an extension of Dresden’s investigation, with a nod toward GUMSHOE while staying Fate, Leonard Balsera and I didn’t talk much about whether this is a GM offer-only option, something that players can ask for, something that only players can trigger, or even something that the GM can nonconsensually enforce.

Almost everyone who talks about it in the Fate G+ community says something to the tune of:

  • “I thought that it was player-facing thing.”
  • “Clearly, it’s a player-facing thing.”

The difference being some people note their assumptions and others assert their assumptions as facts. Sometimes I see people who state confusion about how success at a cost works, and others replying to “clarify” the text… when it’s actually not intended to be clear-cut in any direction.

Genuinely, as far as Leonard and I are concerned this is a table/group dynamic issue to start. But Fate has a very player-empowerment culture behind it, so it’s entirely reasonable that when presented with an intentional void, a community would fill that void in with their shared ethos—in this case, assuming that players have the success at a cost option all the time.

Note I just said that this is a “table/group dynamic issue to start.” The meaning behind “to start” is to acknowledge different situations require different ways of thinking about the cost. Sometimes the cost doesn’t make sense, so the GM doesn’t bother adding that decision point to the action. In a conflict with many participants, allowing failure to be failure keeps the play speed going—even if that means individual actions don’t always do something interesting. (Whether you agree with the concept, it’s one of the more fascinating of the constant design problems  RPGs face.) And, of course, attacking and defending don’t have success at a cost components.[1]

Even then, there are a group within the Fate community who see the GM as a bit of a narrative butler, who is to always serve up a cost when asked. Because of this near-universal interpretation in the culture, I even had to write around that in Achtung! Cthulhu Fate edition, as there are times where in the sanity system succeeding at a cost isn’t an option or when it’s only the GM’s option.

I do wonder how much of this is bleeding in with the section in the book that follows it: Let the Player Do the Work. (Which, in one way of thinking about it, almost suggests that success at a cost as written isn’t a player-facing option inherently, since we don’t call out the player-facing element until later, but becomes one at this point. How text shapes in the zeitgeist is wicked interesting.)

This emergent play element is super-fascinating to me, because seeing success at a cost as inherently player-facing isn’t just a valid interpretation, it’s possibly the most Fate-natural one. And maybe the reason that Lenny and I didn’t talk about who “owns” the option isn’t just because we see the value of flexibility, but because we personally assume player-facing elements when presented with a Fate void—in this case, the void happens to be one we Fate Core writers put in for the stated reasons of keeping it flexible and not mired in dogma.

In fact, self-success at a cost isn’t unlike the self-compel—it’s the sort of concept and play mode that people engage in the more comfortable they are with Fate.

More than all of that musing, though, this emergent element a case study in how emergent culture will reliably fill in a void in the same way. One of the reasons I love tuning in to the Fate community is to study it as an organism that continues to take shape. It shows me ways that words and rules affect large groups of people in aggregate.

But to be clear about success at a cost: we want this to be situation. We want you to interpret the moment, use your judgment, play with the permissions and triggers in your game. We want you to be thinking, not just adhering to a cultural dogma, because great moments of play happen when you’re paying attention to each other.

– Ryan

Photo: When wouldn’t you want to engage with “success at a cost?” Probably while holding a chainsaw.

[1] Unless you hack it, such as with my attack at a cost or defend at a cost concepts or other ways the Fate community has hacked around with it.


One Response to Rules vs. Culture: Success at a Cost

  1. Ryan Macklin says:

    I’ve unpacked thoughts on how I run Fate on the G+ thread: