Avoiding the One-Note Approach

Fate Accelerated has, in the past, gotten the reputation of being somewhat flawed because of its use of approaches. The argument typically boils down to: you can almost always approach something in your favored method. Therefore the approaches don’t actually matter – everything is a +3. I find that argument valid, if you play FAE out of the box. Below, I would like to offer up some options to use in your games to avoid this behavior at the table.

But first…it’s important to note that the player chose certain approaches to be higher for a reason. Don’t stifle their play because they are consistently using the same approach. Approaches are worded the way they are for a reason: they describe not only how you are doing something, but also things about your character. In effect, they are aspects in their own right.

That said, here are some ways to handle approaches in your games to make sure that your game is not being railroaded by that power gamer who sees everything as a Sneaky hammer.

There Is No Spoon

Rob Donoghue talked about perceptions of problems that you present before you players, and I think it’s definitely worth mentioning.

In essence, GMs, don’t present your obstacles to players in terms of skills. That’s difficult to get over, since even Fate Core plays that way. But what you should be looking at when you present a problem is the obstacle itself. Here’s a thing in your path (a locked door, perhaps). How do you get past it? Don’t automatically tell the players, here’s a locked door, you have to pick it. That’s putting a skill first, and then they will will try to figure out if they should Carefully pick it, Sneakily pick it, etc. That conversation leads to one-note approaches. Instead, wait for the players to say I’ll pick the lock. Then you can say that looks like a Clever or Careful action, depending on how fast you are being. Someone else could just as easily say I’ll kick the door open. That’s obviously Forceful or Flashy.

This touches on my favorite method, which I’ll share a little later.

Set Different Difficulties for Different Approaches

Remember that door? Yeah, it’s made of solid oak with steel hinges. Trying to kick it down is a +4 difficulty for Forceful, +6 for Flashy because it’s going to be tough to look cool while you do it.

Want to pick the lock? It’s got twice the number of tumblers than most locks (what the hell’s behind this thing, anyway?). It’ll be a +3 Clever roll to pick it in a normal amount of time (+5 to Quickly do it), but if you take your time, you can pick it Carefully with only a +2 difficulty.

(Notice that Sneaky is not present. No one is watching you pick this lock, so you aren’t trying to hide. Maybe you could try to hide your presence as you move past, but that’s a separate issue from getting past the door.)

Notice how the above presents an obstacle that the GM wants a certain class of approaches to overcome (Clever and Careful). He forces the issue by creating the difficulties in advance.

This is my least favorite method because it chooses the players’ actions for them. They should have the opportunity to say what they want to do, and how they want to do it (that’s the reason FAE uses approaches and not skills). If you were going to force the issue for one particular approach, just use skills from Fate Core. That’s what they are designed for.

Still, this one has been mentioned in enough places that it merits a mention. And it’s still useful at times, especially if you wait to tell someone how difficult it will be until they announce their action. As the fiction lines up this difficult door it just makes sense that kicking it down will be tougher. To use this option, I would recommend having an approach or two that will be tougher than the rest (Forceful and Flashy in the case above) but allow the others to be used at the standard difficulty. But don’t plan in advance. Let the players drive the fiction towards a difficulty that makes sense.

Define What Approaches Do

That doesn’t mean you tell your table what it means to be Forceful. The book already did that. What this means is you define what happens when you do it.

For instance, a Forceful action is always somewhat flashy, and never sneaky. The results are obvious and loud. Conversely, a Sneaky action is never flashy. The always results go unnoticed.

By asking “what does success look like with this approach,” you define clear paths for each. If the situation is one that you have to break into a palace, the logical step is Sneaky. However, for that brutish and Forceful character, Sneaky isn’t a very good option. Using Forceful will definitely be noticed though (because Forceful actions are never sneaky), which would negate the effects of anyone else using Sneaky. Instead, that Forceful character might want to use Careful or Clever to figure out another way to approach the situation that won’t automatically be seen.

This method, combined with using a different approach as a means of describing what happens when you fail at cost (see my approaches cheat sheet, as well as the source of this idea), is my favorite method. Especially when it’s combined with…

Players Don’t Announce Approaches

That’s right. With this method, you, as the player, never get to say what approach you are using.

The GM presents a problem and you describe your action to deal with it. For most actions, that just happens. But if the outcome is questionable, then the GM asks for what your intentions are for the outcome of that action. Declaring that intention is very important. Doing so will define what approach you are using (see that cheat sheet, above – specifically, where it describes what success looks like).

If you have defined what happens when you use a specific approach, then you shouldn’t have a problem easily narrowing down what approach is being used based, not on the action, but on the intended result of that action.

But the player never makes a declaration about which approach they are using. Instead, another player (or the GM) will say that the outcome is questionable, and it sounds like you are trying to <description of result>, so lets see a test of <approach that goes with that result>.

This method appears, at first glance, to be closer related to a skill list than any of the others, but take a look at this sample list of what it means when approaches are successful.

  • Carefully take your time and get it perfect.
  • Cleverly understand the situation.
  • Flashily draw attention and look impressive.
  • Forcefully break things or hurt feelings.
  • Quickly get the job done.
  • Sneakily remain unnoticed.

None of those dictate a situation that the approach is applied in. They don’t even tell you how you are doing something. They are simply adding an embellishment on what it means to succeed with that approach.

So, in this case, it is impossible to use Sneaky in a situation where your actions would not remain unnoticed. Similarly, you can’t using Quick on something that has too many steps. You just don’t have the time.

But the key here is that you are clear upfront what you are trying to accomplish through an action, because your table is going to be asking you to roll approaches based on your description. When you say I sneak up behind him with my knife, intending to cut his throat. They are going to look at that description and the result and decide what approach to ask you to roll. It will also depend on who the target is. If it’s a guard at a post that you are trying to get past as you stealthily intrude on a facility then it could be Sneaky, as the result would be that you take out the guard and no one knows, and failure would mean that your action does not go unnoticed, and so alarm sounds. But if it’s a main bad guy you are sneaking up on, and succeeding on your action is unlikely to kill him, and whether you go unnoticed or not is irrelevant (and stabbing him in the back is certainly going to make him notice you). In that case, the table might call for a Sneaky roll to create an advantage as you get closer, but the act of dealing damage is going to be Forceful because the result will be obvious and harmful.

As with most things in Fate, an interpretation of the situation will dictate the use of mechanics. But by having the rest of the table ask for the rolls, you don’t get to decide how the mechanics function for you, though you do get to be part of the conversation that interprets the mechanics to use based on the results you are looking to achieve.

How do you avoid one-note approaches at your table?

6 Replies to “Avoiding the One-Note Approach”

  1. The piece I find critical is that each approach is a declaration of the 5 approaches you’re *not* using. This information allows for FAE rolls to be *stupendously* nuanced, even moreso that core fate, if one is so inclined.

  2. I don’t think the problem is with the approach structure in general, but with the specific approaches chosen. They appeal to one-note play because many characters have one preferred style of play, and FAE’s default approaches are very much about “style of play”. Tony Stark is a more interesting character when Flashy than when Sneaky, and if you want him to roll Sneaky, you have to take him out of his armor or something. But that becomes less fun each time you do it.

    I’m trying out another style with some NPCs in my space opera game. Military officers of the Imperium get these approaches: Ambitious, Brave, Curious, Dutiful, Honorable, and Merciful. These aren’t good general-purpose approaches, but they are good enough to illustrate approaches that revolve around motivation rather than style. What motivates my ambitious NPC captain right now? When trying to kill the PCs to get promoted, Ambition. When defending his men against monster attack, Duty. When noticing a minor detail that would have exposed the PCs’ plan, Curiosity. And so on. Motivations are fluid and situational. Style generally isn’t.

    1. Yes, but Tony Stark is also interesting when he’s being Clever, he is quite often Forceful, he has occasional bouts of being Careful, and he’s always stuck doing things Quickly (especially repairs). Sure, there are plenty of characters that would rarely use one of the approaches, so you may never find yourself being Sneaky, but most well developed characters use multiple approaches depending on the problem.

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