Cake and free invokes at the Mario Party

Mario Party 4 wallpaper featuring Peach, Daisy, Waluigi, and Yoshi (sadly not Red Yoshi)

Back in September, a friend of mine ran a one-off session of TinyFate based on Super Mario. It was, incredibly, his very first time GMing an RPG and he did a great job. He’d played in one of the TinyFate Monster Mash games that I ran, and liked the system well enough to use it himself. (TinyFate was designed for new players. Turns out it works for new GMs too!)

He also made some interesting tweaks of his own to it. And despite my claim previously that I would probably remove free invokes from TinyFate if and when I updated it, two of the main tweaks for the Mario Party game were both around free invokes.

These tweaks are very cool and they’re flexible enough to apply to pretty much any flavour of Fate Core. First was the two-sided game aspect to emphasise game focus; next was a change to the rate of return on free invokes for Create an advantage actions.

There was a third tweak, not about free invokes, that allowed players to exchange fate points for an in-game bonus, an Invincibility Star (also a real-life star-shaped cookie). It’s a cool way of regulating the number of fate points in play (they are flush in TinyFate by the end of the game), but today I’m going to focus on the two hacks dealing with free invokes.

But first, the awesome game itself

The GM pre-generated all of the characters in the game, including antagonists (which I had not bothered with in my version). The characters that the players picked were:

  • Princess Peach (that was me. Sorry, I mean “It’s-a me!”)
  • Red Yoshi
  • Luigi
  • Waluigi
  • Lakitu

Other options included Daisy, Toadette, and Birdo. Mario was not an option, for reasons I will explain in the very next sentence.

Mario has gone missing!

And it’s his birthday! And it’s the final of the sports championship and someone wrecked the scoreboard! And the Blue Yoshis have disappeared from Yoshi’s Island! And Bowser Jr. has been kidnapped! And it’s his birthday too! Catastrophe all round.

What followed was a hilarious few hours of play in the Mushroom Kingdom, a short trip to the Pokémon world, and a showdown on the Rainbow Road (Wii version). We met a wheeler-dealer Diddy Kong, sexy-voiced Bowser, and evil brainwashed Dr Mario. Waluigi’s player drew a moustache on her face and learned that you really can’t be a misunderstood good guy when you talk like this!

It was so much fun. At some point I’d like all of the characters to be posted online (especially because all of the character sheets had lineart of the characters that the players coloured in with crayons during the game), but for now I’m just going to focus on the mechanical stuff.

Two-sided game aspects

The rules for Fate Core already talk about game aspects, i.e. aspects on the table that are always relevant and can be used by any players or the GM. In Fate Core the suggested game aspects are current or impending issues, but they could just as easily be a high concept of the setting.

For the Mario Party game, the game aspect was ‘Nintendo Logic’, which was to represent the somewhat counterintuitive logic and physics of the Mario universe. Of course collecting coins can heal you. Of course mushrooms can talk. Of course jumping on clouds will let you ride around on them. Of course picking flowers will let you breathe fire, even underwater. Of course bricks are easily broken and contain treasure. Of course cute dinosaurs use their eggs as projectile weapons. Of course turtle shells have different properties depending on what colour they are. Of course!

As a game aspect, ‘Nintendo Logic’ is fine. It could have just been there and usable like any aspect on the table. But that’s not how it worked. Instead, ‘Nintendo Logic’ had a line down the middle, splitting it into two sides. One side was stacked with free invokes that could be used by players; the other was stacked with free invokes that could be used by the GM. And when any of these free invokes were spent, they moved to the other side of the aspect. That is, when a player spent a free invoke, this increased the stack that could be used by the GM, and vice versa. The amount of free invokes on the aspect never decreased.

The idea behind this is that ‘Nintendo Logic’ was supposed to be the key aspect that underpinned the game. It was relevant to both sides and could theoretically always be used. A never-ending supply of free invokes should have encouraged it to be used a lot.

Unfortunately, it got little use during the actual game, because players weren’t sure how it was appropriate to use it. Did we need to introduce a new element to the scene to justify it? ‘Nintendo Logic’ was so baked into the entire concept of the game that we constantly second guessed our ability to use it mechanically in specific situations.

But I think the idea of a two-sided aspect (or perhaps two linked aspects) from which free invokes are never lost is an interesting one and has a lot of promise, if players had a firmer understanding of how it was to be used. A martial arts game might have a two-sided ‘Everybody was kung fu fighting’ aspect (or similar), which could be used whenever players described a cool martial arts move. More description lets you use more free invokes.

One potential issue I see with it is the necessity of both sides using it in equal measure. As it was used in the game, it would have been easy for the GM (for example) to use all their free invokes, and then the players not use any so that they stop passing back and forth. A way to fix this, and also encourage escalation over the course of a session, might be to only put one free invoke on each side. Then, whenever one side uses any number of free invokes (which pass to the other side), they gain an additional free invoke on their own side that they can use in subsequent rolls or contests.

Turning the dial on free invokes

The second cool idea to come out of the game wasn’t even planned. There came a roll when Princess Peach (my character) was baking a cake (as she does), and the GM said that, for this roll only, I would get an extra free invoke on the aspect for every single shift by which I beat the target number.

I had plenty of aspects and fate points to spend, so I had to decide how many to spend. Lakitu immediately suggested to spend them all and take advantage of the rate of return of this once-in-a-lifetime offer. That seemed wrong to me. All I was doing was baking a cake. A fabulous cake, but still a cake. There were limits to how I’d be able to use it, surely. Lakitu was of the opinion that this didn’t matter because I’d find a way to use it somehow.

In the end I spent two fate points over what I needed and got a total of five free invokes. I was happy not to have spent more since I held onto all of them until the last roll of the game. Despite the excellent rate of return, there was an optimum balance and I didn’t want to push it too far.

This got me thinking about why the rate of return of free invokes is so low. On a Create advantage roll, you get one free invoke for creating the aspect and potentially one more if you succeed with style (three shifts more). This is intentionally so that players will not be able to generate free invokes for pumping in more fate points, but why?

Free invokes are different to fate points, with benefits and drawbacks. They can be more easily transferred between players, for example, but they are also tied to the specific aspect created. When the aspect goes, the free invokes go too. Increasing the rate of return, even if it was just to allow players to create one extra free invoke for every Fate point spent, would give players more choice about how they want their currency. Converting to free invokes is more risky, especially as play continues longer, but that’s a choice that players could make. As I said before, there’s an optimum balance to strike, and part of the strategy for players would be finding a balance that works for them.

It would also encourage more use of Create advantage rolls. I really like Create an advantage as a concept (hence making it effectively the only action in TinyFate), but in regular Fate games I’ve played it’s far from the most common action taken. I wish it was more common, because it gives players a lot of control over what’s happening.

I’m not suggesting that increasing the rate of return on free invokes is right for every style of game, but it’s another dial that should be considered when tweaking and hacking Fate Core. Furthermore, it’s a dial that isn’t mentioned in the Fate System Toolkit, which is all about the game’s dials you can turn.

Personally, I like it, and I’m tempted to run a game (perhaps of TinyFate) in which every single shift over a success will generate free invokes.

And if you’ve ever tried a game like that, I’d love to know how it worked for you.

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