Friday, January 9, 2015

The Tao of Fate: Creating Challenging Opponents

When Fate players are ready to throw down with the opposition, the question arises: how do you as the GM make such an encounter challenging? Here are the tools that I use to create and tune enemy NPCs to provide a suitable level of danger for the PCs.


I have three classes of NPC: "mooks", "named opponents", and "bosses". +Michael Moceri calls the middle group "lieutenants", which works as well.

General Guidelines

I generally present my NPCs' sheets to my players for inspection. I will leave off aspects or stunts which would reveal plot twists, but in general I've found that players who are on board with your program will go a long way toward producing an enjoyable combat, because you've set expectations up front about what their opponents are supposed to be like.

Number of Enemies

I populate a typical encounter with a number of NPCs between 2x and 2.5x the number of PCs. These will be brought into the fight in stages, between 1x and 1.5x the number of PCs at any given moment.

Michael Moceri's formula for a really tough fight, for N player characters, is N/2 bosses, about N named characters (or "lieutenants"), and between N and 2N mook units. This is between 2.5 and 3.5 the number of PCs.

Typically, you can use a 3:2:1 or 4:2:1 ratio of mook units to named opponents to bosses.

Mooks will make an appearance first, and named opponents or bosses will enter after that. This level of opposition gives a reasonably challenging fight and let the PCs move on without stopping to lick their wounds for too long.

You can use the Fate ladder to pick a specific number. Read down the ladder for a description of how hard the fight should feel ("Superb", "Good"). Divide the bonus (+5, +3) you see there by 2, and multiply by number of PCs in combat, and that's how many total NPCs (individuals or groups) you should plan for.

For example, a Superb challenge (+5) gives you about 2.5x (5/2) times as many NPCs as there are PCs. With four PCs, you'll have a total of 10 NPC units to bring in. You might decide this means 5 units of mooks, 3 named characters, and 2 boss characters. You might bring in 3 mook units and 2 named characters to start with, then add the others as combat progresses.


Well-designed opponents have aspects that mesh with the PC aspects, the scene aspects, and the story aspects. There should be a clear emotional investment in the conflict, and a clear payoff for winning.

Skills and Approaches

I typically run games using FAE, so my text will say "approach" here. You can substitute "highest combat skill" for Fate Core.

If the highest approach rating your PCs have is "N", I give tough bosses a peak approach of N+1, named opponents N+0 in their area of expertise, and mooks N-1. For starting PCs, this would be +4 for bosses, +3 for named characters, +2 for mooks.

I build bosses as fully realized Fate characters, with stunts, approaches, and so forth. Named opponents outside of focus will be at N-2, and mooks will be N-3.


Fights with named characters and bosses can feel "spikier" with some types of stunts, especially stunts that affect how the character does damage. For a smoother feeling in an attrition-style fight, go easy on assigning stunts.

Stress Boxes

The number and size of each NPC's stress boxes depend on their role:
  • Bosses and named characters get 3 stress boxes (1, 2, and 3) as a general rule.
  • Units of mooks have several (usually five) 1-point stress boxes.
  • Armored or tough mooks will get 2-point stress boxes, which helps them last longer against big attacks. They can still be knocked down with a bunch of 1-shift attacks.
Groups of mooks use the Hits and Overflow rules, allowing a single "unit" of NPCs to absorb incoming damage with multiple stress boxes in a single attack. Named and boss enemies use stress rules as normal.


I assign a full suite of Consequence slots to bosses and other named characters, but usually not more slots than a typical PC will have.

Consequences are double-edged for an NPC to have, because inflicting one gives a free invocation to the attacker. This helps fill the gaps at the end of the fight when the PCs' free invokes (or players' creativity levels) are running dry.

"Monster" Opponents

There are ways to create "monster" opponents that are tougher than even a typical boss.
  1. You can create a single creature with multiple body parts, each of which can take action, be damaged, and so on. A kraken and its left and right tentacles is a typical example. Do this if you want the players to make tactical choices about where to focus their fire. +Randy Oest does a great writeup of this approach here: Tiered Opponents in Fate.
  2. The scale rules from the Fate System Toolkit can give flat bonuses to attack, defense, damage, and armor.
  3. Such opponents can have stunts that break the rules in ways that PCs shouldn't, such as every attack being zone-wide.
NPC Actions: Create Advantage

One of the big values for mook units is their ability to create unopposed situation aspects for their higher-level allies. How often they do this will affect how competent, organized, and deadly the opposing force feels. Barbarian hordes, beastmen berserkers, or mindless bug swarms will do this less often, preferring to spam Attacks on the PCs. Organized military units, experienced fire-teams, or hive-mind creatures will support each other by creating situation aspects.

NPC Actions: Overcome

Whether your NPCs should be overcoming PC-created aspects is a matter of taste. In general, I will have an NPC roll Overcome if I can think of a logical reason, and a logical method, for them to do so.

NPC Actions: Attack

If you want a "war of attrition" feel from your enemy units, have them mostly use Attack - this will gradually chew through PC resources at first, but will make them less deadly to the party. Enemies that are using smart tactics will let the highest-level unit in play (a named character or boss) roll the Attack.

A good rule of thumb for reasonably smart enemies is to have half as many Attack actions from your NPCs as there are active NPCs. Other NPCs should be rolling Create Advantage or Overcome to support their allies.

NPC Actions: Defend

Typically, very high Defense rolls from your NPCs will be boring. Fate by its nature already encourages people to stack advantages and unleash big attacks. Forcing the players to do even more of this deprives them of a feeling of progress in the fight. Instead, letting them win a series of victories against lesser opponents gives them a sense of satisfaction.

Victory Conditions: Compels

Many interesting fights can end on a Compel - in either direction. For example, a boss who compels "Endless Waves of Mooks" to force a surrender from the PCs, or players who invoke "I Will Redeem My Brother" to make an evil brother NPC repent long enough to take him captive.

Victory Conditions: Concessions

Some genres, like four-color superhero games, make concessions the preferred way out of a combat.

I try to use concessions as character-establishing moments for new NPCs. For example, in my scifi game the PCs wanted to blow up an enemy power plant. The sub-commander assigned to take care of them showed up and started sniping. As a dedicated and loyal officer, she did a couple of almost-suicidal moves trying to take out the PCs.

They finally managed to knock her down far enough for her to be at risk. I offered a concession: "she bites down on a poison tooth, and manages to tell you that only her allies have the antidote". Since the person who had been fighting her had a moral code against unnecessary killing, they left her behind to be found and rescued, and left the scene with the generator destroyed. It conveyed the impression I wanted - someone who was doing her duty, and refused to be taken captive, but who didn't particularly want to die and felt a degree of trust in the PCs' motives.


Play with the four major slider bars you have: "number of actions", "peak skill", "damage capacity", and "tactical acumen". Customize your characters. Try new ways of building monsters. Go nuts. Don't be afraid to cheat.

Thanks for reading, and please leave feedback or opinions in the comments!