Many good things have been said regarding the adventure fractal I wrote for the Fate Core roleplaying game system years ago. Truth be told, I was never happy with it. While others could get it to work, I never could –– at least, not in the way I wanted. But I’ve years to work on it, improve upon it, and here is the result.
One thing you’ll notice is that this version is not limited to the Fate Core system, or any system, for that matter. I’ve been returning to my d20 and WoD roots of late, and the journey backward has given me a fresh perspective on this subject: that of easing the burden on GM preparation and in-game referencing.
Here’s the Adventure Fractal 2.0, a system-agnostic method of running tabletop roleplaying games on the fly.
From a GM’s perspective, every common RPG has the following:
- Difficulty Ratings –– a target number that skill and attack rolls must overcome to have some effect.
- Pacing Mechanics –– hit points, stress, etc. Something that determines how long the scene or encounter is likely to last.
- Consequences –– what will happen if a skill or attack roll fails, or if scene goals and immediate threats are ignored.
- Set Pieces –– what the player characters interact with (villains, traps, bystanders in need of saving, etc.).
Some set pieces actively work against the PCs. When this is present, the set pieces will have some version of the following:
- Threat Ratings –– the skill or attack rating of the set piece that is either rolled against the defenses of the player characters or which the player characters must overcome with a defense roll.
If threats exist, they often determine the consequences of the scene. For instance, if the player characters are faced with a pack of angry gnolls, the consequences exist in (1) the pacing mechanic of the player characters (hit points, stress, etc.) being diminished, or (2) the goal of the gnolls coming to fruition (pillaging a village, eating the player characters…whatever the case may be in the story).
For some context, here’s what each of these elements looks like for the combat pillar in the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons.
- Armor Class (Difficulty Rating)
- Hit Points (Pacing Mechanic)
- Damage or Spell Effect (Consequences for being hit or failing a saving throw)
- Monsters (Set Pieces)
- Attack Modifier or Save DC (Threat Rating)
So far, this is quite elementary. You likely already know what the traits of your favorite RPG are. It’s important we go over this in abstract form, however, as the purpose of such traits is often hidden within stat blocks, and thus difficult to see a clear means of extrapolating them for varied uses.
From here, we’ll borrow from the concept of the Bronze Rule of Fate.
Everything is a character.
In Fate Core, everything has the same stats as characters (skills, stress, etc.). In terms of Fate Core, everything with mechanics is called a fractal. We’re not talking about Fate Core, per say, here, but we’ll use the terminology because it fits.
The Scene Fractal
The reason I couldn’t get my early concept of the Adventure Fractal to work is because I tried to create the entire adventure as a fractal (I think it could still work, and has for many people who play with it, but it’s just not how I think while in the trenches of my table). Where I was able to get this work out well was when I wrote Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao and included what’s called the Scene Fractal.
In Jadepunk terms, the scene fractal is simple: every scene has a skill rating that player characters have to roll against to overcome elements of the scene, a stress rating as a pacing mechanic (when the scene’s stress is overcome, the scene has been overcome), and aspects (descriptions of each element of the scene).
So a scene where the player characters have to face down a squad (4) of Kausao City guardsmen would look something like: Difficulty +3, Stress 4, and would have City Guardsmen and maybe Innocent Bystanders or Enclosed Marketplace to describe potential complications in the scene. Anything the players try to do to affect the scene rolls against the scene’s difficulty. If they overcome the difficulty while trying to attack the guardsmen, the scene takes stress; and the GM may describe each point of stress the scene takes as a guardsman being KO’d. Once the scene is out of stress, the scene is defeated.
There’s more to that, like how aspects interact with the mechanics, but that isn’t relevant to how we’re going to extrapolate this concept to other systems.
Using the Fractal to Run Games on the Fly
Rather than creating a fractal for the entire adventure, we’re going to create scene fractals, because those work much cleaner and allow you to adjust every scene for climactic or dramatic effect.
Let’s say we’re playing D&D 5e, and our level 3 party of three adventurers have deviated from the pre-planned adventure (if you happened to prep anything; I usually don’t) and run into that group of gnolls. You could go through the Monster’s Manual and find the appropriate stat blocks, or you could write it up like this:
AC 13; Saves +2; 66 hp (21/ 21/ 21/ )
Six Attacks at +5 (1d8 + 2 damage)
66 hit points might seem like a lot for a single gnoll, but, and this is important, I want this fight to be 2-4 rounds long. Since most PCs deal 7 damage with a normal hit in tier one, each gnoll should go down with 3 well-placed hits. Now, the PCs might miss one or two hits, but they also might land a critical hit or use a spell or ability that gives them some extra damage. This all balances out to 7 damage per PC per round in tier 1 (YMMV). With 3 PCs, that’s 21 hp per round that I want the fight to last, which is how I’ve divided the hp among the gnolls.
Since players tend to have a few more hit points (average is 8 per level), it would make sense to give the gnolls one attack each at the stated damage (1d8 + 2 averages out to 6.5 damage per round, round up to 7). However, I’m pretty well-versed in D&D rules and I want this to be a fight that uses some of the PCs’ resources (like healing potions or spells), so I gave the gnolls double damage by allowing them to each hit twice. This makes the encounter dangerous for the PCs, as they are likely to be defeated (similar damage, similar hp, but double the number of attacks for the gnolls) unless they use those resources.
At every interval of 21 hp that the PCs do (they may think they’re hitting gnolls, but they’re really hitting the scene’s pool of hp), I’ll remove a gnoll set piece, as well as 2 of the gnolls attacks per round if I want the encounter to get easier as the battle rages on. I could leave the attacks on the board, justified by the surviving gnolls getting more desperate and increasing their efforts. I could also have them run away when their attacks are reduced below the number of attacks the PCs get each round, being narratively and mechanically overwhelmed. But those are decisions I would make at the table –– no plan survives contact with the (enemy) player characters.
Putting it All Together
I hope I’ve made this feel as simple as it is to run. I used a combat example from 5e, but it could just as easily be a trap with an effective pacing mechanic of 0 hp (because when the trap goes off or is disarmed, it’s either defeated or has dealt its consequences out to the players):
Web Trap (DC 15 to disarm; casts Web when tripped)
You can mix and match elements for more complicated scenes, if you like, or even include environmental dangers in the middle of a combat encounter, like a room full of traps. As an example, use the gnolls from before, but add the following:
Start of each creature’s turn: DC 10 Dexterity save or trip a trap (GM rolls 1d20. 15+ is a Burning Hands spell, all other results are a Web spell. DC 15 to disarm).
If you’re not playing 5e, all you need is your system’s version of a difficulty rating, pacing mechanic, consequences for failure (or getting hit), and some set pieces to represent these elements and you’re good to go.
For completion’s sake, here’s that same encounter for Fate Core.
Fighting +5, other actions and defenses +2, Stress 6 (every two stress taken reduces Fighting by 1)
Burning and Web Traps
Every round, traps attack with +3 vs. everyone in the zone (defend with Athletics). The first time you are hit, gain Restrained aspect. The second time you are hit, suffer shifts +2 damage.
Disarming: overcome with Burglary vs. +3. Each shift reduces the attack roll of the traps in the zone by 1. If the attack roll of the traps reaches zero, all traps in the zone have been disarmed.
If you’re familiar with Fate Core, you know that the traps could have been placed as an aspect on the gnolls and invoked when appropriate, but I wanted to show how a zone full of traps could be created in this method.
Did I Miss Anything?
Fans of my original adventure fractal may feel like I didn’t include enough here. As I said, I didn’t like my original version. It was…too much. I think this is a nice middle ground that can work at any table and with any common roleplaying game system.