Revisiting Fate Compel Refusal

It’s more than halfway through 2017—quite a few years after Fate Core came out—and Lenny & I still occasionally have thoughts about how to tinker under Fate’s hood. Here’s the result of our texting one another last week.

Let’s take one of the weakest parts of Fate and turn it into a strength. To be totally honest, the mechanics around refusing compels is meh—by design. The Fate compel directives push for a yes-and or yes-but play ethos, where the GM can propose an interesting complication for players to have fun with. But to keep people from being strongarmed into situations they don’t want to be in, we have the refusal mechanic.

But the refusal mechanic delivers a hard no to a yes-and/but vibe, so we make it cost a fate point so refusal isn’t casual or automatic.

You may notice that we have a mechanic that exists to patch an issue, and a mechanic that exists to patch an issue within that issue. That’s not inherently bad design, but that does certainly flag a “hmm, can we be more awesome?” line of self-inquiry.

We sidestep this in Fate with the third option that doesn’t get the billing it deserves: negotiation. Given how compels are introduced, with the right to negotiate is buried in preamble rather than given equal visual weight with the two bullet points, it’s no wonder we kept saying “but also negotiate!” in advice in the years since.

Point is, refusing compels as outlined in the text is designed to make you not want to do them. The secret sauce of refusal is that it’s a moment of drama where you get to draw a line in the sand about your character, which is awesome. But because they exist as a release valve for bad compels, and because they cost a non-trivial resource to use, and there’s no inherent directive to use that output in the story, people don’t tend to see refusal as a beneficial thing.

Let’s unfuck that. Let’s make compel refusal fun.

Draft of this new rule:

Buying out of a compel should create story, just as accepting and negotiation does. Refusing a compel could mean your character shows fortitude in the face of temptation, struggles with a dramatic choice, etc.

When you buy out of a compel with a Fate point, the act of spending that Fate point does one of two things: it either creates a situational aspect relating to the refusal (which has a free invoke), or it puts a free invoke on an existing aspect. That aspect naturally relates to a relevant story element. That way, you still get a die roll benefit from the fate point expenditure; you’re just pushed into a situation where you had to spend your fate point now rather than later.

If you’re buying out of a compel because the GM is presenting something uninteresting, talk about that instead. That falls under “negotiate.”

Why do this? Because the best compel refusals are those where a fate point is slammed down in an act of defiance shown in character, that highlights the drama of the moment. To morph the rule into “you still get to roleplay, and you still get the mechanical benefit from your fate point,” we think those compel refusals are more likely to happen.

Or, at least, more people may learn that’s the optimal output of compel refusals.



12 Responses to Revisiting Fate Compel Refusal

  1. Nancy says:

    This is brilliant! Not only does it provide a mechanical reward for a spend, but it also keeps the story moving rather than just stopping it cold.


  2. Fnorder says:

    I’m gonna include this in all my future games! ESPECIALLY in my FAE Star Wars game where resisting the power of the Dark Side might sometimes cost up to 3 points!

  3. We’re also tinkering with “change that aspect” and making it free-taggable once, since very possibly the refusal story is “I’ve changed!”.

    • Benj Davis says:

      That could work really well in combination, such that you reveal that the character’s nature has shifted, showing how whatever this issue was, it isn’t now, and they’re immediately empowered (via a free invocation on the new Aspect) to show off their new self. I love it.

  4. Mike Olson says:

    I’m down with this.

    It’s funny — I have a mechanic in a Fate hack that really strongly encourages the player to accept compels by making the aspect in question grow more powerful, and basically punishes the player for refusing by returning that aspect to its default state when they do. While I still like that, in defiance of God and Nature, I should take another look at that and see if I can make refusal more fun.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I think that there’s enough of a punitive element in compels that adding an even heavier punitive element to it turns it from a good-faith player option into a bad-faith one. Though that’s all about framing and implementing design intent—the same dynamic works frequently for build up/cash out subsystems like Keys.

  5. A couple of examples would be helpful here, perhaps. I think I’m not quite getting it.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s fair, since compels are an abstract enough element of the system. Let’s start with some examples from the book:

      Zird has Rivals in the Collegia Arcana and is attempting to get an audience with their Inner Council, so it makes sense that, unfortunately, his rivals force the Collegia to demand he provide a detailed account of his highly-coveted research to re-establish his relationship with the organization. Damn his luck.

      Let’s break this external compel down:

      Aspect: Rivals in the Collegia Arcana
      Catalyst situation: Zird wants to talk with the Inner Council about Some Important Thing (yes, I have to make up some context here to better explain the whole compel picture)
      Story component that justifies the compel: His rivals have soured his good name
      Consequences of the compel: He don’t get the audience he seeks immediately, and has to work to get it

      Normal buying out of a compel is “I pay a fate point because no thanks” (which is all that’s required of the mechanics, by design), or maybe with a narrative element like “I pay a fate point and justify that by saying one person in the circle is a childhood friend.”

      This says to buy out of a compel, you can relate it to an aspect to get a benefit. Looking over Zird’s aspects in the back of Fate Core, I don’t see any immediately valid, and using the same aspect to justify the compel refusal is no good (which I just realized while writing this answer). So we get to declare a new, fleeting aspect on the scene. I like the idea that there’s one lifelong friend in the Inner Council, so I’ll go with Not Everyone Reviles Me as an aspect applicable for the moment, with a free invoke attached to it.

      So I, the player, pay the fate point to create that narrative truth and the mechanical advantage I may need to use soon.

      I could go a little further into this example to show how doubling down works, but I’ll save that for the moment. Next up:

      Zird has Not the Face! when he gets challenged to a barfight, so it makes sense that he’d decide to back down from the challenge. This goes wrong when the rest of the patrons decide he’s a coward and throw him unceremoniously out into the street.

      Let’s break this internal compel down:

      Aspect: Not the Face!
      Catalyst situation: Zird is attempting to get someone he met up with in that bar to go along with his plan, when a couple of a rival’s cronies decide to shit on his evening
      Story component that justifies the compel: Zird really doesn’t like being punched in the face
      Consequences of the compel: He looks like a coward, is thrown out, and that meeting is squashed

      Or… I as Zird’s player buy out of that compel. I look over the aspects, and there’s Doesn’t Suffer Fools Gladly. Great! I pay a fate point and describe: “Zird looks up at this asshole. ‘Son, I have had a really, really bad day. I’m already due to have a really bad night, and an exceptionally piss-poor tomorrow. If you think you want to add to that…’ The lights dim as Zird draws arcane energy from them because his field of fucks is barren. His eyes glow with that light. ‘…I welcome the distraction.'”

      Bam! Free invoke on that character aspect while relevant. Now, the GM could respond with “They back down” or “Awesome, sounds like it’s time for a fight,” but either way, the intended effect of “You look humiliated and lose the deal you’re working on” is off the table. I’d say that even if Zird loses the fight, the act of standing up means the intended consequence of the compel is still off the table unless Zird does something to earn that story decision.

      Does that help?

    • Oh, yes, that’s fantastic. Makes huge sense. Makes turning down a complel more interesting – I like “buying out” vs. “refusing”. Might even make complels themselves feel easier.

      Thank you for that!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Alternatively for the second example, I as a player could also say “Hey, I’m not feeling the ‘play a coward’ part tonight. I’ve had a crappy day at work. Could we just not?” That’s not refusing with a fate point, that’s just having a conversation and rolling back something that wouldn’t be fun for the table. There’s a huge difference, one that I hope is highlighted as two different forms of refusal that shouldn’t be lumped together.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      To go into the older doubling down rules, where you could offer a second fate point to say “no really, I want to push this compel on you,”—well, I can’t remember a time where that was actually fun and didn’t feel like a GM being pushy, even if the situation was otherwise benign. It takes tremendous social skill and table trust to pull off that mechanical successfully.

      But let’s say you play with that as an option. With this rule, as the GM you have to accept two things:
      a) The story elements introduced are true, and that situational aspect (if any) and free invoke happens no matter what.
      b) You can’t just re-compel the same situation, because the situation has shown to be more fleshed out. To push the compel, you need to add another aspect to the fire or play with a different facet of the initial aspect.

      Let’s dive into that first example a little more: The GM is all for this sudden childhood friend in the Inner Council. She fleshes it out a bit more: “Yeah, this friend of yours has your back, and in fact that’s probably the only reason you have any standing, yeah? After all, your rivals are really working to shred your good name.” She offers a second fate point. “That means your friend has to meet with you in private for now, because your rivals have their claws in others on the Council.”

      We could go back and forth, but I decide that’s cool, because I got to declare some cool story stuff to play with, and in the process of the double-down we got to establish more about the situation and create something cooler than just “no really, here’s two fate points to go along with my idea.”

      As I write this comment, I personally find the idea of doubling down interesting again. But if the player accepts the doubled compel, they get even a bit more out of the deal: they get both fate points and get to keep the aspect/free invoke created without having spent their fate point. Basically, you’re paying three fate points worth of stuff to hammer your version of the narrative.

      There’s a bunch of caveats and whatnot to this, but right now that’s about as much though as I can spare on that rule. :)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      You also bring up a good point about how “buying out” and “refusing” are two terms we use for the same concept. Mainly, you “bought out” in order to “refuse” as the default state. Neither are exactly the explicit game term, but there isn’t quite one for either situation.

      Something to think about in game design: creating terms for different decision points is useful to communication. Right now, if you said “Is that buying out or refusing?” the question is all mushy because the game’s text doesn’t make a distinction. But if we had a text that talked about two different options and use those words to relate to each, then the text holds that language that you could use when talking about this deal in play.