Saturday, August 3, 2013

Fate Skills (and Fields)

The setting and game system I am creating also happens to be based on the Fate Core system. Having already touted that Fate is amazingballs in my previous post, I will skip that part.  This post is about a variant to Fate which I had come up with. I do not know if this is an original idea. I have not found any mention of it in my reading of various Fate rules posts, discussions and blogs. If someone else came up with this and it has been discussed before, I wouldn't mind if you pointed me to where the discussion can be found.

The thing about Fate is that you do not want too many skills. A large selection of skills will guarantee that the characters will only cover a small subset of these skills in a group and there will be skills which no one chose. This is bad for a large number of reasons; the primary being that the skill exists but will never be used by the characters in the game. It may come into play from an NPC or from a story plot, but in the end, the skill exists to be ignored for the most part. I do not like this at all.

Given the Fate Core standard character pyramid is Great (+4), you get a total of 10 separate skills on your character sheet in the range of Average (+1) to Great (+4). The default skill list in Fate Core is 18 skills. This means that there will be 8 things your character will not be able to do with any skill at all. This works. Between three characters, the skill distribution should cover almost all the skills.

The problem arises when you go to a more complex setting such as space opera or sci-fi. Yes, you can still do with some 18 to 20 skills, but what happens when you want to break skills down further? For example: you add a Science skill. Does that mean the character is as good in all the sciences equally? There are a lot of different sciences such as Biology, Physics, Chemistry, Nanotechnology, Linguistics, Geology, Mathematics, Psychology, etc. Would someone who is Good (+3) at Science be equally skilled in Biology, Linguistics and Nanotechnology at the same time? For simplicity's sake, you can say yes and that is perfectly fine. Your character is a scientist and he can do Science! However, if you want a bit of crunchiness to this whole Science thing, you might say that as a Good (+3) scientist you studied mostly in technology and really know Nanotechnology, Physics and Mathematics. You also studied other fields of science, but you are not as versed in them as these three.

What you end up here with is something I call Skill Fields. Basically, you can take a skill and divvy it up between any number of "fields" which represent a specific area of knowledge within that skill. The number of skills on the skill list remains the same, there is only the one Science skill. You receive one skill field for each rank of skill you have in that skill. If you are Good (+3) at Science, you will have 3 fields to choose from. When your Science becomes Great (+4) later on, you can add another field to your list.

Fields basically determine how you roll for your skill checks. If you have the field in question which applies to the skill roll, you roll your skill normally at whatever rank you have it in. If you do not know the field, you roll at -2. What this does now is that even though you are Good (+3) at Science and you are trying to analyze some alien language with Linguistics, something which you did not choose to study in detail, your skill roll is made at Average (+1) instead. As a scientist you also picked up bits and pieces of other fields during your study which is probable and realistic.

This has two effects on character creation. You must choose what sort of specialist your character is at character creation when choosing fields for your character. Two scientist characters can now differentiate themselves from each other. The other effect is that you do not need to have a separate skill for each little thing your setting demands. 

Another quick example is Shoot which might have fields such as: Artillery, Heavy, Primitive, Energy, Slug and Thrown. Just because you're really good at shooting, maybe you never fired Artillery nor are you very good at Throwing. This can be represented by skill fields quite well.

In my space opera setting, a roll for a skill you do not have is made at Terrible (-2). It is harsher than the Fate Core recommendation of Mediocre (+0), however it makes not having a specific field always better than not having the skill altogether. It is safe to say if you don't know a skill, you are terrible at it.

Skill fields also translate well into things like magic and psychic powers. You can break your Magic skill into fields such as Necromancy, Conjuration, etc. A wizard character will never be a master of all of them, but he can be pretty good at a few with enough study.

An optional rule is Specialization. You may take the same field up to twice more, each time gaining a +1 bonus to the skill roll when that field is involved. The maximum bonus is +2 with the field chosen three times. This of course has the drawback that you are extremely specialized and will take a -2 to your skill rolls with the other fields which you ignored completely.

Comments are very welcome. I posted this in hopes of starting a discussion on the merits of the Skill Fields system. Is it cumbersome by needing to record fields for those skills which have them on the character sheet? Does it complicate things? I have not had the chance to play test these yet, my first Fate campaign will have to wait until my setting is complete.


  1. I like this idea! It fixes some issues I had with generalized skill lists without turning it into a mega skill list nightmare.

  2. The question : do all skills have fields? Only ones really essential to the setting? Only knowledge skills? If all skills have 4 fields and you have 20 skills, you've basically got 80 skills for people to pore through. Or you can go the Atomic Robo route, which is similar to this (I was a playtester) but sort of opposite, where you get Science! at a base level and then specialties at higher. Since Atomic Robo is about scientists, science gets split up, but no other skill. This emphasizes science and individualizes scientists, but not the other character types (because most PCs will be scientists). So think about what's important in your setting.

  3. Good question. Out of the 22 skills in my game, 10 have fields. The way my current iteration of the skill list is as follows (without setting specific ones)

    Contacts: Authorities, Underworld, Hackers, etc.

    Crafts: Armour, Art, Disguise, Forgery, Locks, Weapons, Traps.

    Drive: Air, Beast, Ground, Microgravity, Water

    Fight: Blunt, Edged, Energy, Great, Martial

    Lore: Nobility, Beasts, History, Planets, Security, Streetwise, Survival, Technology, Torture, Tracking

    Psi: Clairvoyance, Telekinesis, Telepathy, etc.

    Science: Archeology, Biology, Cosmology, Cybernetics, Nanotechnology, Energy Fields, Mathematics, Medicine, etc.

    Shoot: Artillery, Heavy, Primitive, Energy, Slug, Thrown

    Starship: Engines, Gunnery, Navigation, Piloting, Repair, Sensors

    Phew, that's a lot for sure!

    The way I see it, a captain of a starship will be knowledgeable about a whole lot of starship things and not just piloting for example. He can fix engines, use the sensors and plot a course. He may not be expert, but he knows a bit about all aspects of the ship. This is the basic premise of the fields.

    Based on your comment, and another from the G+ community, perhaps there are a tad too many of them. Fate is after all, about elegant simplicity. I'll have to think about this more.

    On one hand, I do want the simple, "I can do Science!" situation. And on the other, I really want to have a clear distinction and specialization in the skills. I think it makes sense on a certain level in a space opera game. It adds that small bit of crunchiness to the otherwise crunch-free Fate.

    I avoided stunts, because I am already using them to distinguish races and special groups with. I did not want to give the players too many stunts, as that adds too much plus tracking for my liking. Though I did increase the number of free stunts to 3 from 2 in Fate Core.

    This certainly works for Magic or Psychic powers. My assumption was that it would be good for other skills as well. Perhaps I went a bit overboard?