On Approaches Making Fate Better

After thinking about it for the last three years: Fate Accelerated’s approaches are best thing to have happened in the Core era of Fate. They’re a weird thing that forces reexamining certain game design principles that Fate embraced in the past. And that weird thing is also an astounding success.

What I’ve Learned from Approaches

The four actions say that, to the game, what you’re trying to accomplish matters. Skills say how you’re trying to achieve that, from a competency standpoint, matters. Approaches say “Nah, I’m not interested in character competency. Tell me about your character’s positioning and circumstance“—the things you say to describe justification.

Of the folks involved in the Core era, only Clark Valentine and the rest of the FAE team could have made FAE work as it did. I think it’s clear from conversations and blog posts that Leonard Balsera, Rob Donoghue, and I would have ground approaches down trying to fix the approach spamming problem. Damn good thing we didn’t, because approaches are eye-opening. (Consider: if they weren’t to us, Rob wouldn’t keep looping back around to them and I wouldn’t ponder external solutions.)

To the part of the post John Rogers has been asking me about for who knows how long (at least in its shirt version), approaches as written have these components:

  • Each addresses positioning or circumstance, not competency.
  • Each can be used with any competency. None have a skill (in the Fate Core sense) that it couldn’t apply to.
  • All characters have a rating in each approach, and each of those approaches means the same thing to all characters. They aren’t custom as aspects are.

The first two points are what keeps approaches from being mega-skills (or we wouldn’t keep rethinking this). That last point is what keeps approaches from being aspects with ratings, which makes the cognitive load in character creation and play.

Approaches also means there’s no spotlight protection. That becomes something handled (or not) organically at the table, rather than something the GM can construct by setting scenes up to be more relevant to some skills than others. Quite a shift in thinking about adventure beats, one that’s somewhat freeing.

Going Beyond Those Six Adjectives

Those six approaches aren’t the only ways to execute this mechanic, but they’re probably the broadest, most universal way to. Redoing approaches elsewhere takes even more thought regarding context and setting that skills do.

Katanas & Trenchcoats traits are approach-like: Awesome Sword, Raging Passion, Kickass Wardrobe, Mystical Talents, and Ancient Memories. They don’t sound approach-like, but because they’re paired with a skill, the game divorces those traits from being strongly linked to competency. You can use your Raging Passion with fighting someone, your Awesome Sword when looking for knowledge, and your Ancient Memories when running around the streets of Hannover. Cam Banks and Amanda Valentine did similar with the Demon Hunters RPG beta[1], though using FAE’s approaches as named rather than the silly junk I did for K&T.

(You can rename some traits in K&T, but just for flair; there’s no change in use or interpretation, and renaming them doesn’t creatively compete with character aspects as the game doesn’t have that component.)

You could take inspiration from In a Wicked Age…‘s forms: covertly, directly, for myself, for others, with love, with violence. In IaWA, each pair is effectively a category, and you choose one from two of the categories when forming an action. Math-wise, that’s not much different than Rob’s FAE2 if you stick to the IaWA’s form.

I used to think Smallville’s values and relationships could fit this bill, but I’m not so sure now. Values almost do, but because you write them however you see fit for your character, they don’t have the same-element thing about approaches that bridges character similarity. Not to say they couldn’t work, but they’re not the same as approaches—they become more like rated aspects that have some focus to their creation. And because relationships don’t even have that focus, they’d definitely fall squarely in the realm of rated aspects.

Speaking of Cortex Plus, the attributes in Leverage/Cortex Plus Action—Agility, Alertness, Intelligence, Strength, Vitality, Willpower—work effectively as approaches in those games, though they aren’t particularly interesting.

What I Think Makes Good Approaches

Roleplaying games are, by and large, about language. Approaches are far more about language use and manipulation than skills are, which is why I see power in every character having the same approaches rather than having them renamed, beyond dealing with the potential cognitive load problem. Language on the page and language we’re asked to communicate shapes how we think and interact.

Skills in Fate Core are effectively verbs—and many are in fact verbs—because they make you describe chiefly what you do. Approaches make you describe the situation around what you do, so the wording you choose has even more of an impact on play than the names of skills do.

The core approaches are very pulp or superhero-oriented, and work well for other action-adventure genres that Fate historically handles well. If you wanted something more focused on the romantic, in a way that constantly reminded players to think about how their actions in the game could fit in the genre, you could start with: Afraid, Angry, Cold, Numb, Sorrowful, Yearning.

The Leverage attributes above are another example, and that book does well to show how to merge each attribute with the mega-skills in the game called Roles. So though I say attributes aren’t interesting, the text is I think really cool for teaching the concept I’m writing about here.

Rob reminded me of his Amber Diceless-inspired Force, Grace, Wits, and Resolve in a conversation on Twitter where we talk about some related stuff we’re dealing with on this topic.

Why Approaches Make Fate Better

Because it causes this level of examination. What we learn and understand about approaches feeds into better understanding of aspects, skills, and Fate play overall.

Still Just the Beginning for Me

I’ve been chewing on approaches for three years, and I feel like I’m just now starting to really understand what they are at the fundamental level. My designs, even when I get to using something that looks like FAE, lean back to mega-skills when I’m asking for just one thing account for when rolling. When I release the Extra Secret Service, you’ll see mega-skills in place of approaches because I’m thinking about shifting spotlight based on competence.


(Your move, John.)

[1] Which has prompted a very different post I’ve yet to write.


6 Responses to On Approaches Making Fate Better

  1. What about context-providing ‘professions’?

    Preacher (heroic epic with heavy religious themes)


    Wanderer (fairy-tail themed fantasy)

    These outline characters in broad strokes, but in limited degree provide hows, whys whats and whos while unique character aspects accentualize details, like what they do or how they do it. Details, that players specificly want to highlight about their characters.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That misses the whole point I’m talking about. Those are like Roles in Leverage/Cortex Plus, where each one limits scopes of action rather than pins the language requirements on positioning and circumstance described.

      Unless you use those as meta-skills, but that’s a different subject. I’m not talking about ways to drift skills and other competency frameworks.

  2. Lenny says:

    I’ve been thinking hard about resurrecting some of the thematic battery action from Full Light, Full Steam to incorporate Smallville-like Values into FAE or a Faith Corps build.

  3. Nicola Corticelli says:

    Hello. I am an Italian player.I translate your articles in my own Language.

    Good work

  4. Jess says:

    If I understand correctly, it seems to me like the language used for these alternate approaches would have to tap into a shared understanding of language between the players, and the more it is distant from the baseline approaches for FAE (and from generally understood language) that they would have to be tied into a shared understanding of the setting and how these tie the characters to it, like your Katanas & Trenchcoats approaches seem to create a shared set of values that all of the charcater have in common.
    I could see the possibility of using an elemental system in a setting where the elements are core to it and possess a communally understood set of traits, not character defining traits like skills, but things like solid, stubborn and heavy for Earth. A spread like: Air, Earth, Fire, Light, Shadow and Water could make sense.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Sure. Once you get into a space where it takes more than a sentence for each to handle confusion or arguments, then they aren’t good approaches. Aspects are the only place in Fate where people should be arguing esoterica. :D