This post is about FATE core. It's the latest iteration of Evil Hat's FATE system, and is currently being kickstarted over here. An early draft of the rules is available to backers. If you aren't a backer yet, you should be: the 10 dollar level is the best deal you're ever going to get on an RPG. So go get the rough draft of the rules, get yourself up to date, and I'll meet you here.
Failure is not an option.
In a storytelling game, failure is rarely a good outcome. Pass/Fail mechanics are problematic, because failure tends to stop the story short. "Failure" should be replaced with "Success, But..." The "But" can be an unintended consequence, or an unexpected cost, and the player should have the choice between failing the check or accepting the "But." Within this paradigm, contests and conflicts don't decide whether a character succeeds or fails, they decide how much success will cost the player.
FATE core kind of has this in mind when it outlines it's 4 possible outcomes. It notes that a tie means success at a minor cost, and a failure can mean success as a significant cost. That's good, we're on the right track. But it really only notes this in passing in a sidebar, and doesn't quite draw as much attention to it as I'd like. It's really a powerful notion that deserves to be front and center. And FATE has a wide variety of currencies the players can spend on success, from the obvious Fate points, to the awesome consequence slots. But I'd like to talk about stress bars.
Stress Me Out
Here's the basic idea: stress isn't a damage track that gradually gets filled until it overflows and you're taken out of the conflict. It's really a currency you spend to avoid failure. It works like this: when you fail a check to overcome an obstacle or defend against an attack, you may choose to fill in a stress box on the appropriate track equal to your margin of failure. Doing so turns your failure into a Success with no shifts. That's as far as it goes, however. No check where you took stress can ever be more than a zero margin success. This choice takes place after all Fate points are spent and aspects invoked; it's a last resort. It should also be noted that success with zero margin is NOT a tie: you aren't entitled to a boost.
This requires rethinking the action types a little. It means that attacks aren't actions that attempt to do stress damage. Instead they're actions intended to remove another character from a conflict. If the attack is successful, the other character is out. In some ways this removes the difference between the attack and the overcome actions: I need to think about it more to make sure there aren't any lingering differences that would break the game if I combined the action types. Since it also opens up the possibility of taking stress outside of a conflict, it also requires rethinking when stress is "healed." I'd say it refreshes when you get at least an hour of rest, as a baseline.
Consequences can be used to reduce the stress needed to buy a tie. However, this idea is an extension of, and goes very well with, Consequences as a Positive Currency. In that case, consequences can be used not only to mitigate failure, but to buy into actual success (even success with style).
What this does, first and foremost, is opens up a wide variety of circumstances for your character to take stress outside conflicts. You can overexert yourself with athletics, or drive yourself bonkers studying too much. Sure, the sidebar I mentioned before suggests stress and consequences as options when you fail, but this codifies it into an actual rule. And more importantly, it puts the ball firmly in the players court to make that decision. Instead of waiting for the GM to maybe offer the option, the player gets to cheerfully beat the snot out of their character at their discretion. And every scratch of it is self inflicted: at every point the player had the option to back down and instead chose to take those hits to stay in the game.
Lets take a look at how this rule would work in a couple of circumstances. Lets start with combat.
Bob and Alice are dueling with rapiers. Bob has initiative, and throws a +3 on his attack, and Alice rolls horribly and gets a total of -1 on her defense. She has an aspect to invoke, and so spends a FATE point to raise that to +1. That's still 2 short. She would be taken out of the conflict here, but instead she chooses to take the stress hit. She ticks off her second physical stress box and is still in the fight. Now it's her turn.
Notice something? That's right, mathematically this is identical to the current rules. Bob still succeeds with 2 shifts, and Alice still marks off her second stress box. The only difference is that instead of the attack forcing her to do so, Alice chose to take that hit. It's a minor difference, but it empowers the player with control over their character's narrative and that's always a good thing.
Lets try another common circumstance.
Alice is running out of the collapsing temple when, Whoops! The floor falls out from in front of her. She takes a moment to size up the gap, then leaps for safety! Under the circumstances, it's a Great (+4) difficulty. Alice is still rolling crap tonight, and only gets +3. She goes ahead and marks off her first physical stress box, and so instead of falling into the chasm, she hits the opposite ledge at chest height and bruises her ribs pulling herself up.
So here we've seamlessly handled taking damage outside a conflict. Which is really cool.
Lets get one more example in here.
Alice needs a favor: She wants a meeting with His Majesty the King. She's got some friends at court, but she's both foreign and a commoner, so this is going to be a Fantastic (+6) difficulty, and what's worse, she's untrained in Etiquette. Even with an decent roll and an invoke, she's 3 points short. Fortunately this is a game with a fair amount of courtly intrigue, so players have a custom "reputation" stress track that measures their social capital. Unfortunately, Alice only has two boxes. She decides she really, really needs to see the king, and so she decides to get pushy and take a minor consequence "Everyone at court thinks I'm an ill-mannered Barbarian." The reduces the stress hit by 2, and so Alice checks off her first box of reputation. She's burned a lot of bridges here, but she'll get her audience with the king.
As you can see, combining this rule with custom stress tracks can represent a variety of exhaustible resources for your character.
Though it's a decent pacing mechanic, Stress is probably the weakest part of the FATE system. This is evidenced by the number of people who play a "no-stress" version of FATE. Mostly this is because as a damage mechanic, Consequences are so strong that people want to get strait to those. Part of that strength is that consequences are heavily tied to player choice. Giving players that same choice about taking stress goes a long way to making it a more interesting mechanic.
Also, this allows for stress to be used in a variety of situations where it was either klunky or arbitrary before. Taking stress damage outside of combat was pretty much GM fiat. And modelling resources like character wealth or Mana reserves with stress tracks required interpreting things like shopping or casting a spell as an "attack" of some sort.
Mostly though, this isn't really a new rule as much as a new way of looking at the existing rules. The only difference between a meter you have to fill to take someone out, and a limited resource you can spend to avoid failure, depends on who's doing what to who. Empowering the player to spend stress gives players agency over their character even in failure, and makes modelling a wide variety of narratives easier. Not too shabby.