By Mike Olson, (c) 2011. Cross-posted from Spirit of the Blank.
If you followed the development of the FATE supers hack on this blog that eventually found its way into The Kerberos Club (FATE Edition) (hereinafter KFC, for “Kerberos FATE Conversion”), you’ll already be familiar with much of how Strange FATE, the version of FATE used in KFC, came to be. However, if you’re new to the blog, perhaps because you recently purchased KFC and found your way here somehow, or if you just want more information on what makes Strange FATE different from its esteemed predecessors, this series of posts (crossposted with the Arc Dream site) should be highly informative.
I’m going to start with one of the system’s most dramatic additions to the FATE Toolbox: Power Tiers.
In brief, Power Tiers are a way to make super-strong, super-fast, or super-whatever characters in FATE without resorting to super-big numbers. Generally speaking, skill bonuses above +6 or +7 don’t sit right with me. Part of what I don’t like is that it means the dice matter less and less, but part of it’s also because all we really care about with skill bonuses is the margin between yours and mine. I mean, Fair (+2) vs. Good (+3) is really no different than Epic (+7) vs. Legendary (+8) — they’re both one point apart, so all that matters is that one guy’s skill rating is one higher than the other guy’s, but they’re still adding +7 and +8 to their rolls. The upshot is that they end up with big numbers when small numbers would do equally well.
I don’t like that.
Personally, I cap the skill pyramid (or tower, or whatever) at Great (+4). I like the symmetry there with four Fudge Dice, which also top out at +4.
So what Power Tiers do is let you keep skill ratings low while still accounting for wildly different levels of ability. There are five Tiers in total, from Mundane on up to Godlike. Mundane Tier skills are just regular FATE — characters in Spirit of the Century or Legends of Anglerre all have Mundane Tier skills, by this method. It’s the realm of real-world human effort. Every Tier higher than Mundane means a proportionately higher increase in effectiveness over what ordinary humans can do.
Note that I said “effectiveness” there, and not “ability.” Mundane Tier skills can cover abilities that ordinary humans don’t have, like flight or telepathy laser-beam eyes. It just means that your Mundane Tier flight won’t let you travel any faster than a human could run (although it will let you fly over obstacles). Likewise, Mundane Tier telepathy will get you the same level of information as a simple Empathy roll (although you probably won’t have to engage in conversation to get it). If those laser beams you’re shooting from your eyes are a Mundane Tier attack, they’re no more dangerous than a fist or a sword or a gun (which is to say they’re still pretty dangerous in FATE terms). We’re talking degrees of effectiveness.
When two characters face each other using skills in different Power Tiers, the one with the higher-Tier skill replaces one Fudge Die with 1d6 for each degree of difference. The one with the lower-Tier skillalways rolls 4dF.
So if I’m using a Mundane Tier skill against your Extraordinary Tier skill (that’s one degree of difference), I’ll roll 4dF and you’ll roll 3dF+1d6. If you’re two Tiers higher than me, you’ll roll 2dF+2d6, and I’ll still roll 4dF. And yes, if you’re using a Godlike Tier skill against me, and I’m still using a Mundane Tier skill, you’ll roll 4d6 and I’ll roll — as always — 4dF. But if both our skills are in the same Tier, whether that’s Mundane or Extraordinary or Godlike, we’ll both roll 4dF, like normal. We’re on even footing, whether we’re smashing faces or smashing mountains.
A difference of a single Tier is definitely going to favor whoever’s on top, but it’s hardly a guarantee. The range of dice results changes from -4 to +4 to -2 to +9 — a big leap on the high end, certainly, but a less likely result than +4 on 4dF. Besides, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen someone roll -2 on 3dF+1d6, I could buy a sandwich (and not a little one, either). Once you’re two or more Tiers higher than your opponent, though, it’s almost always a blowout. As it should be, if you ask me.
The “almost” is key, though. Even if my skill is Mundane and yours is Godlike, there’s still a chance I’ll roll +4 and you’ll roll +4. Not much of one, but it’s there. I like that.
Back when the beginnings of the Power Tier idea first started coming to me, it was basically a binary system. Is your Tier higher than your opponent’s? Then you win. You’re only rolling dice to add something to the narrative. The Hulk will always be stronger than Captain America, Cap will always be stronger than Mockingbird, and Mockingbird will always be stronger than Jarvis. Boom, done. But, as was pointed out and soon became obvious, there’s the matter of what came to be known as Iron Man’s Resolve, or the Defense Dilemma. Should Iron Man really always lose a mental battle against a psychic opponent? Is that fun? The answer to both questions was “No.”
The concept, though, was sound. I’d already been using a die-replacement mechanic in other genre hacks, but powered by a second player resource pool (variously called Chi, Will, Elan, etc., according to the genre), so it was a relatively short leap to adapt it.
And it’s been working great. Even if they’re already familiar with FATE, nearly all the players in the games I run at conventions have been new to Strange FATE, and nobody’s had a real problem picking it up. It’s been called “crazily intuitive” by one of them, which seems like a pretty solid endorsement. From a player-satisfaction perspective, I love seeing the gleam in a player’s eye when they realize they get to swap out a Fudge Die or two for some sweet, sweet d6s. The power of Power Tiers!