This article goes over the dials pertaining to Skills, which have several built-in dials. Skills, in my opinion, are the second most important part of the Fate character sheet, after Aspects. Other than those two, the only other things that are mostly necessary are consequences, which you can play without as well, if you’re willing to greatly abstract conflicts to single rolls.
Besides their importance in play, skills are also very important for creating the atmosphere of your setting. That atmosphere is created through how skills are named and what skills exist in your game, but that will be dug into more deeply later. Let’s start with some numbers, instead.
Number of Skills
Technically, this covers two different numbers, but if you follow the guidelines given by the creators of Fate Core, it covers both indirectly. The two different numbers are the amount skills that a character can learn (whether you do it by the number of starting skill points that the characters can have to start with, or if you do it by providing your own preset amounts, similar to how the pyramid is implemented) and the number of skills that exist in the setting.
Before explaining the effects of these numbers, let me tell you about the guideline given by the Fate creators. They start off explaining that they have eighteen skills in their Core skill list, and the players are good at three and have access to a total of ten, leaving eight skills unaccounted for on the character sheet. While you may differ in the total amounts you use, it is highly suggested that you stick fairly closely to the ratio that their numbers represent.
What is so important about this ratio? It’s all about balance between covering all the bases while making different characters shine in their own areas. If the ratio leans toward too many skills for how many skills each character has access to, it leads to the party not being able to cover a majority of the skills amongst each other. If the ratio leans toward the characters having too many skills compared to the number of skills available, it makes it so that a character’s specializations are lessened due to the other characters being roughly the same as well.
But there’s actually a third variable that comes into play that the creators never mentioned when it came to providing their guidelines: the number of players. You can have fewer total skills with fewer players, since there will be fewer characters to have stepping on each other’s toes. You can have more if you have more players.
It is never said what the assumed party size is for Fate, but judging from their examples and past experience, I’m guessing it’s three to four players. So, keep that in mind when deciding the number of skills in your setting.
There are two skill caps in the system: the starting skill cap and the maximum skill cap. They don’t need to be different, and you don’t even actually need a max skill cap.
The starting skill cap is the highest value a skill can be at character creation. You can directly set a cap, or you can let it be dictated by the limits of your method for choosing starting skills, whether that be the standard skill pyramid, columns and skill points, or some other method you use.
The maximum skill cap often isn’t even brought up, in my experience, since it seems most campaigns don’t even last long enough to have the character break through the starting skill cap. But that’s my experience, and my group has never been that great with sticking to a story for all that long.
Explaining the effect of changing the skill cap is really simple: the higher a character’s skills can go, the more powerful they will be; the lower the cap, the less powerful they will be. It’s really a matter of preference and setting. Superhero games should higher skill caps, generally, and gritty games should have lower skill caps.
This part doesn’t cross the minds of people all that much, that I’ve seen, but it can be a pretty powerful tool. You can give skills more actions (all of them have Create Advantage and Overcome, but few have Attack or Defend), or can also limit a skill to fewer actions (I would not suggest getting rid of any of the skills’ Create Advantage or Overcome actions).This doesn’t necessarily mean giving a skill the Attack or Defend action if it doesn’t have it, or taking one away if it does, either. You could simply expand or contract the application of the skill.
Giving a skill the Attack or Defend action can create some interesting conflicts if the characters decide to use them. For example, if you gave Resources the mental Attack action, a character could choose to threaten someone with their wealth, claiming they could get the best lawyers to ruin their lives. Or they could use if for bribery.
You probably shouldn’t take away any of the Attack actions from the default list; there’s only three of them, after all. Taking away a Defend action from one of the lesser ones isn’t a horrible idea, though, if it suits your setting. If you take away the Defend action from Deceive, for example, it might say that you can’t lie your way out of being hurt by others.
Expanding and contracting the scope of a skill’s use is rare, unless the setting is using a similar skill as well for a more focused use, so the original skill is shrunk to not overlap with the new one. Otherwise, the GM may disagree slightly with the default skill and, say, remove the “covering your tracks” part from the default Burglary skill.
Generally, you don’t have to worry about messing with skill actions unless you’re coming up with custom skills.
By default, Fate has it so that if you don’t have a bonus on a skill, it’s at +0. That is the game’s “untrained” value. Personally, I’ve thought about it a little bit, and I feel that players should choose five skills to be at +0, and the rest go under -1 (with the default skill list, that would be three skills at -1). I don’t think there should be very many skills at -1, though, no matter how many skills there are in your setting’s skill list. The -1 is to show the few things that the character are worse than the average person at. +0 is sort of assumed to be average ability for average, normal people, and even heroes have things that they’re REALLY bad at, so why not have a couple -1s?
This goes against a philosophy that the game’s creators had of not having any subtractions from rolls. People don’t like having them, generally, so they were kept out of the game. I think that people can deal with a few -1s, thought, at least in my group. Afterall, in some guidelines for building NPCs, they are supposed to have a few things that they’re good at (+2) and a few things that they’re bad at (-2), so I think a couple -1s on some characters will be fine.
Mostly, I just wanted you all to be aware of the possibility, and think outside the box.
Truly, the only parts above that are actually ‘dials’ as defined by the creators of Fate are the skill cap (I’m pretty sure it’s referring to the maximum skill cap), whether or not the game is using the skill pyramid or columns for choosing starting skills, and , if you’re using columns, the number of columns (whether that’s supposed to be a maximum or a minimum, I’m not sure), if you’re even imposing the limit.
I obviously went above and beyond what they’ve got (including skipping right over whether or not to use the skill pyramid or column scheme, since I thought that was completely obvious when you read the rules), but I’ll be doing so for the next two articles as well, and already did so with the last dials article about aspects, too.
I’ll see you next time with Dials for Stress and Consequences.