House Rules

During Sessions Top


In a brainstorm, the PCs (and their players) spit ball, investigate, make observations, or run tests and/or experiments in an attempt to formulate a workable hypothesis about a phenomenon or series of events. This can take a few minutes, a few days, or a few weeks. It all depends on the context of the scene.

Ideally, the result of all of this is a hypothesis. And because we’re talking about highly trained and talented characters, it is always true. In other words, whatever explanation the players collectively establish will steer the course of the story. This is accomplished through a short series of skill rolls (usually involving whatever sciences the PCs can bring to bear) made by all players at the table who choose to participate. Characters will try to establish facts about the situation, then use those facts to develop their hypothesis.

If they don’t establish enough facts to come up with a workable hypothesis, then the problem remains a mystery, which the GM gets to enforce with an aspect.

Running a Brainstorm

Step One: Begin the Brainstorm

Ideally, a brainstorm begins when one player uses a leading phrase in the course of normal conversation and roleplaying. This phrase could be something like “What do you think’s going on here, Doctor?” or “So how do we stop it?” That’s everyone’s cue (but especially the GM’s) to start brainstorming.

If this doesn’t happen, though, that’s okay. It’s equally fine for the GM or a player to just come out and say, “Hey, how about a brainstorm?”

Everyone taking part cites a reason why they’re getting involved by compelling a relevant aspect. In other words, everyone gets a fate point just for participating, and everyone who wants to participate can come up with an excuse to do so with a little effort.

Step Two: Establish the First Fact

Next, all participants roll simultaneously to create an advantage using a relevant skill against a difficulty of Good (+3). Each player can (and is encouraged to) use a different skill. The relevance of the skill here will depend entirely on the situation at hand. In any case, it should be a skill that covers something the player will want to talk about more, or that sparks an idea.

Whoever succeeds and has the highest result (make a note of number) is the “winner.” The winner gets to do two things. First, they record one or more victories, depending on the margin of success.

Margin Result Victories
None Fail 0
0 Tie 1, at a cost
1-2 Success 1
3+ Success with Style 2

The cost on a tie is up to the GM to determine (see Fate Core, Outcomes and Actions), but it should always be a minor cost.

Second, they get to introduce a fact. This takes the form of a situation aspect, and must follow three guidelines:

  • It clearly derives from the skill used to create it.
  • It clearly relates to the situation.
  • It can be stated as an objective fact—an observation of something in the scene, a remembered bit of research, or some other piece of factual information that relates to the situation.

In any event, the fact doesn’t have to be something previously established in the fiction. Whether it comes from something the PCs have already done or seen, or whether it’s something the player has invented from whole cloth, it’s equally valid in the brainstorm.

Conversely, the fact should not be:

  • A hypothesis all on its own.
  • A personal opinion instead of a fact.

If no one succeeds on the roll, nobody establishes a fact or places an aspect—nothing useful comes out of that segment of the discussion, and it’s back to Square One.

If there’s a tie for the highest total, each tying player gets to establish a fact, but only one victory is scored.

Step Three: Establish the Second Fact

Establishing a second fact proceeds much like establishing the first fact did: everyone picks a skill and simultaneously rolls it. It can be the same skill or a different skill, as long as it still makes sense in context.

The difficulty for this second roll is equal to the winning total from the first roll. For example, if the winner of the first roll got a Superb (+5), the difficulty for the second roll is also Superb (+5).

This represents the amount of effort everyone’s putting forth to figure things out. Every victory scored represents a minor breakthrough.

If no one won the first roll, the difficulty for the second roll is Good (+3).

If a new situation aspect was created during the first roll, it can be invoked as usual. If it has one or two free invocations, whoever created it gets first dibs, or they can hand it off to someone else.

The only restriction on using this new aspect is that if it’s invoked by the winner of the second roll, the new fact and aspect they create must take the invoked aspect into account. It can’t contradict or wildly diverge from what the invoked aspect has established as a truth in the fiction.

For example, if you invoke Distinctive Energy Signature and win the roll, you can’t then put the aspect Strange Lack of Energy Signatures on the brainstorm.

Step Four: Establish the Third Fact

Go back to Step 3, rinse, and repeat.

The difficulty for this roll is the winning total from the second roll, if there was one, or Good (+3), if there wasn’t.

Step 5: Form a Hypothesis

If the PCs rack up at least three victories, everyone makes one last roll. There’s no difficulty number—all you care about is who has the highest total.

There are several possibilities for this final roll, including:

  • Each player must select a skill already used in the brainstorm.
  • All players roll the same skill, selected by the GM.
  • All players roll Will (see Fate Core), or another standard skill that reflects pure mental ability or fortitude.
  • The players roll 4dF with no skill bonus. Instead, each player gets a +2 bonus to their roll for each fact they contributed to the brainstorm.

Whoever wins this final roll gets to come up with a hypothesis that dictates what’s actually going on. This becomes the truth of the situation. The hypothesis must take into account and build on the facts already generated during the brainstorm.

In other words, it doesn’t come out of nowhere—everyone who scored at least one victory in the brainstorm ends up having a hand in the hypothesis.

The hypothesis becomes an aspect, like The Washington Monument Has Developed Artificial Intelligence, or Exposure to Radiation Has Turned the Ants into Giants! All the situation aspects established during the brainstorm go away when the hypothesis aspect is placed. The hypothesis is an amalgam of all of those aspects.

The number of free invocations on the hypothesis aspect (if any) depends on how many total victories were scored in the brainstorm, as shown on the table.

Victories Result
0-2 Failure—it’s a mystery!
3 Tie—hypothesis aspect
4-5 Success—hypothesis aspect with one free invocation
6 Success with Style—as Success, but two free invocations

If the PCs haven’t scored at least three victories, the phenomenon defies scientific explanation, at least for now. They’ve failed to shed any light on the situation, and now they’re a little worse off for it.

In this case, instead of a hypothesis, the GM places an aspect on the game to reflect the team’s utter lack of comprehension—something like Science Can’t Explain It! or Nobody Said Anything About Ghosts.

Any situation aspects generated during the brainstorm go away, but the facts remain—the GM will need them (see below).

The GM’s Role

So if the players set difficulties and discuss possibilities and argue amongst themselves, what’s your role in all this, GM, apart from sitting back and enjoying the show?

Right off the bat, let’s establish that there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and enjoying shows. That’s just a given. You work hard, GM. No shame in taking a little break.

That said, pay attention to the facts and hypothesis the players come up with, because you’re going to need to incorporate them into the story going forward. If you need a little time to determine how to do that, just let the players know. “Hey everyone, you’ve kinda thrown me for a loop here. Let’s take five so I can figure it out.”
When the players are in competition, though, you’ll have more of an opportunity to meddle in their affairs. It’s easy to do: compel their aspects.

“Aren’t you a Graduate of the Institute of Magical Arts? Are you really going to go along with this scientific gobbledy-gook your colleagues are spouting?”

“Seems like a Team Player wouldn’t be so adamant about advancing his own ideas when an associate’s have already gained traction. I don’t know; maybe it’s just me.”

“Strong and weak forces? Really? And not the Freemasons? Does that sound like something a Conspiracy Theorist would buy into?”

Mess with them as much or as little as you like—but be mindful of their reactions. If they’re not on the same page as you, back off.

Competing Agendas

At times, the PCs may be less interested in working together than in one-upping each other. No problem. Disagreements happen. And because whoever gets to form the hypothesis at the end gets to steer the story in a particular direction of their choosing, players might very well want to vie for the privilege.

Using this optional rule, each player records their own victory total, separate from their colleagues. Everyone still rolls simultaneously.

Players can also choose to back someone else’s horse by giving their victories to a colleague, so long as that colleague has already established a fact and placed a situation aspect on the brainstorm. This only applies to recording victories—the player who wins the roll still establishes a fact and an aspect. These must support whatever facts the colleague in question has already established during the brainstorm.

Be warned, though: all this competition will definitely draw out the brainstorm, so make sure you have a consensus before starting down this path.

Brainstorming Options

Combine a brainstorm with an action or combat scene whenever possible. Brainstormers can’t participate in any other part of the scene other than the brainstorm. When a brainstormer’s turn comes up, everyone who’s brainstorming makes their roll. And don’t be afraid to have your NPCs target the brainstormers. This gives those who can’t or don’t want to participate something vitally important to do—usually, keep everyone else alive.

In addition to the above, to really drive home that a rational, scientific discussion is more difficult when it’s raining lead, consider making the brainstorm rolls opposed by the NPCs in the scene rather than having the players roll against a static difficulty number. Careful, though—if you take an active role like this in the brainstorm, your goal should be to make the brainstorm more costly for the players, not to foil them at every turn.

Normally, a brainstorm starts with a question and a compel. Instead of privileging the science-types this way, consider the reverse—compelling PCs to fight instead. This really only makes sense if the group isn’t especially combat-capable, or if they’re just desperate to sort out the mystery and would rather do anything but fight.

Alternately, compel everyone, but let the players choose the aspect. Their choice will determine whether they’ll be thinking or fighting—it’s largely a matter of flavour. Either way, everyone gets a fate point out of it, so this is a good option if the group’s fate points are running low.

Spread the brainstorm out over several scenes instead of doing it all at once. The first time a player speaks the magic words—“What’s really going on here?” or the like—begin the brainstorm, but after that only continue it when the players have encountered some new evidence or information. This gives the non-brainstormers little “breaks” here and there instead of sitting silent for what basically amounts to an entire scene. The other advantage of this approach is that it leaves room for each fact in the brainstorm to have its own effect on the narrative, as opposed to being a mere stepping-stone to the hypothesis.

Between Sessions Top

Episode Synopses

Episode synopses, like brainstorms, give players a concrete way to collectively steer the narrative. However, instead of answering the question “What’s going on here?”, an episode synopsis asks the players “What stands between you and your objective?”

During an episode synopsis, the players take turns inventing expected obstacles and resistance they expect their characters to face in the course of the episode. They also indirectly tell the GM what sorts of things they’d like to do during the episode by choosing what skills will be especially relevant. This also generates a supply of communal fate points that can be used during the episode , with certain restrictions.

Running an Episode Synopsis

Typical episode synopsises occur in the following steps: episode overview, expected obstacles, and resource allocation.

Step One: Episode Overview

Start off by giving the players a basic overview of the episode, starting with the chief objective and including some other useful intel, like schematics, blueprints, NPC names, or whatever might be relevant. But don’t make it too extensive or detailed—think about what the PCs would or could have already learned prior to setting off. And don’t shy away from a little misinformation or faulty intel. Don’t assume whatever it was they’ve already learned was actually correct. The best episodes keep the PCs on their toes.

Then name the episode. If you’re stuck, do what Fate GMs always do and ask the players. It doesn’t have to sound cool. In fact, sometimes it’ll probably ring truer if it doesn’t.

Write the episode name on an index card—this is the episode aspect. This aspect has no free invocations. Make sure the players know that. Leave room on the card for more stuff, because you’ll be writing a few more things on it.

Step Two: Expected Obstacles and Required Skills

Here’s where the GM hands it over to the players to fill in some details.

Pick a player, or ask for a volunteer. Have them describe an obstacle the party’s expected to encounter in the course of the episode. Take note of this. You’re not obligated to include it verbatim—bad intel is a thing!—but as an indication of what each player would like to have the opportunity to do during the episode, it’s invaluable. If you don’t include their obstacle exactly as described, at least replace it with something with a similar feel.

Next, have the player pick a skill, and explain why or how this skill will be vital to the episode’s success. Then write the name of that skill on the episode aspect’s index card. These skills are called episode skills. (Their use is described in the next section, Resource Allocation.) Go around the table until every player has described an obstacle and chosen an episode skill.

Let them know they’re free to come up with whatever obstacles they like, but they must flow from the chief objective or other obstacles that have already been established. Use logic and common sense. If it’s a bit of a stretch, that’s fine, but direct contradictions are right out.

These obstacle descriptions don’t have to occur in chronological order, either. Players can say things like “But before that” or “Next” to indicate when something during the episode might happen, but there’s no obligation to treat the order in which the obstacles are presented as some sort of timeline.

Step Three: Resource Allocation

For each episode skill, the player who contributed it makes a roll using a narratively appropriate information gathering skill (such as Contacts, Investigate or Knowledge).

The default difficulty is Good (+3).

Modify this difficulty by any factors the GM or players find relevant. Some examples include:

  • Proposed obstacle seems like a natural extension of the chief objective or other obstacles: +0
  • Proposed obstacle makes a leap in logic from the chief objective: +2
  • Proposed obstacle seems iffy in the context of another proposed obstacle: +1 per obstacle

Note that nothing lowers the starting difficulty.

For each success, place one fate point on the episode aspect. For each success with style, place two fate points on the episode aspect.

On a tie, the episode aspect gets a fate point, but at a minor cost. This is a good excuse to decide the reported obstacle in question is the result of miscommunication or deception.

On a failure, either the episode aspect doesn’t get any fate points, or it gets one fate point at a serious cost. This is the player’s choice, as usual. As with a tie, the cost will be something that occurs during the episode itself, so make a note of it.

Don’t hold back on a serious cost. Make it something truly dangerous, like maybe the targets are expecting the PCs, or their shady wizard friend feeding them this information is secretly in thrall to the Dark Lord. A serious cost during this phase of the episode synopsis could easily change the entire nature of the episode—unbeknownst to the players, of course.

The Episode Synopsis in Play

The fate points on the episode aspect are a communal supply to be spent by players when invoking an aspect—any aspect—for a bonus or reroll, but only when using an episode skill. This is their only use—making the PCs more effective with the skills they’d anticipated would be crucial to the episode success. The episode aspect’s fate points can’t be spent to refuse compels, pay for stunts that require fate points to activate, or anything else that might be done with fate points during play.

Once the episode aspect’s fate points are gone, they’re gone—preparation can only get you so far.

Missing Players

Originally from here.

If a player is absent from a session, their character is replaced by a ‘Missing PC Aspect’. This aspect is then added to Game aspects that all of the PCs have access to. This means that the players can use this aspect to help accomplish things that they rely on the missing PC for.

Using this technique, the players can still depend on the character for help with challenges, as the other players can invoke the Missing PC aspect to give them a bonus to something that they might not be good at, but the other character is.

Remember: A Missing PC Aspect should be written up in such a way that gives a reason that the PC isn’t as involved while also giving the storyteller a chance to compel it.

Recap Aspects

Originally from here.

After each session, the Storyteller posts the session name, a brief one or two sentence summary, and a series of section headlines. For example:

Session Name
A brief summary of the session…

  • Section Headline 1
  • Section Headline 2
  • Section Headline 3
  • Section Headline 4

Each player then writes a sentence or three under each section, talking about what went on. For each session that a player fills in a recap, they receive an aspect that ties to what they did or experienced in the session, with one free invoke on it.

These aspects are available for the duration of a story arc but once the arc concludes all Recap Aspects go away. This prevents too many aspects from building up and helps to keep them focused on what is currently going on.

Using Recap Aspects also has the side effect of modelling how the characters learn more about what is going on in the story. They start an arc with no Recap Aspects but as they learn more about what is going on they get aspects that tie into what is going on.

Session Signups and Planning

We use Google+ events to organise our sessions and determining who’s going to be present. Because of this, it is important for people to respond to these invites. Also, if a player later decides that their response needs to change, that player should take the time to update their response so that the Storyteller knows who to expect at the session.

If a player responds with ‘Yes’ and turns up for a session, they get a free Fate Point, only for use in that session.

If a player responds with ‘Maybe’, the Storyteller will only partially plan for the character’s presence during the session. If the player then participates in the session, they will get a free Fate Point, as above.

If a player has ‘Not Responded’ or ‘No’ as their response, the Storyteller will assume that the player will not be present and will plan the session accordingly. If the player then then turn up to the session, they should understand that their character may not be as involved in the story (as nothing specific was planned).

If a player responds ‘Yes’, and then does not turn up, their character will suffer a consequence in their lowest free consequence slot, as the character continues in the story and encounters challenges off-screen.

House Rules

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