A stunt tree is a series of stunts that have prerequisites. In other words, once you have stunt A, you are allowed to get stunts B, C, and D as well. And if you get stunt D, whether or not you get B or C, you can then also choose stunts E and F. But you might want stunt B because it lets you get stunt G. So yeah, with the different branches it starts to look like a tree.
But today we are not really going to focus so much on what stunt trees are. Rather, we would like to delve a little more into the WHY. After all, in the Fate Core system any player can make any stunt they wish (under the basic rules), so what’s the point of making some stunts harder to get than others?
Most players do not come to a game-building session with a player they made from scratch, with custom stunts and skills already worked in. Particularly when looking at stunts and skills, most players want to choose from a list to see what does and does not fit their character concept. They will only ever consider making a custom stunt several sessions into a campaign.
So if you are wanting to inspire your players towards a certain direction, bringing pregenerated stunt trees is a great focus for that. It offers options that are tied together, so players look at an extra level of character depth. For example, “Do I want my smart character to be book smart with a +2 to research checks or quick and clever with a reduction of 2 time increments?” Becomes instead “Do I want to go down the Librarian tree with lots of knowledge and research options, or do I want to be more of a Detective and be able to read people and crime scenes quickly?”
Yes, players will still pull rabbits out of hats, but since it is core gaming instinct (and really human nature) to work with the options you have, having those more defined options really helps steer players in the direction you want. So your zombie apocalypse game may get a clown that loves to make people laugh with only stunts, but with stunt trees you get a former mall Santa that is doing his best to keep morale up. Still odd, but much easier to tie in.
Stacking Powers and Abilities
If you are wanting people to have access to +4 and even +6 bonuses on their skill checks, you may consider trees that have more or less the same bonus but can be combined. These are for the power play games that have characters with abilities far above and beyond normal human capabilities: super heroes, high fantasy, and some cthulu horror games would fall into this category. The idea being if a character can spare 3 refresh, they can get an amazing combo when it counts.
These stunt trees may start with a stunt that has a skill level requirement: at least a 3, or no higher than a 2. The former usually ties in with a complimentary skill (if your Shoot is 3, then you probably have good Notice). The latter is for those one use bonuses (you only have +1 Lore yourself, so you depend on your PAD to research and come up with info as if you were smarter).
There is a lot to consider with this type of stunt tree, and it really does affect skill choices for players. When someone is sending out Fantastic Rolls without spending a fate point, it really can make a Good skill seem meaningless, and an Average skill practically nonexistent whether in competition or conflict. Which can be great when you have alien titans invading a world of cyborg spellcaster.
A GM can veto any new stunt idea, and sometimes that means saying NO to all the custom stunts out front. Maybe your game has specific classes that players cannot cross, or maybe some classes are so well defined that dabbling does not matter. If that is the case, making large branching stunt trees can still keep options open while keeping your character classes defined.
This option works especially well when the world you build recognizes and even defines a character in some way by their ‘class.’ A fan fate on Avatar, where everyone is either a Fire/Water/Earth/Air/Non bender is a great example. A starship game where your branch (engineering, piloting, security, etc.) and training define you is also a great time to use this.
Players love to cross-class, and it is likely that you will need a pool of “neutral” stunts that everyone can take so that a character can be made unique or part of the team. And more-so than with other options, you will need to make a LOT of stunts for a LOT of classes if you want your players to feel any freedom with character creation.
One final reason for making stunt trees is to provide a discount to some abilities that make sense to go together. Most knights are good with a sword and a shield, while most rogues are good at sneaking and picking pockets. If you want characters to have lots more stunts, for a game about kung fu fighters or students at a magic school, this is a great way to make stunt trees appealing to players.
When you want skill trees to be more easily accessible, consider changing the rules on cost a bit. You can say that stunts of a stunt tree cost 1 skill point instead of 1 refresh, or you can sell them to players at a buy one get one free sale. Most players will take that option over a standard stunt or even a skill.
Keep in mind that normal stunts, or stunts purchased by cross classing, will be a lot less common because players will limit themselves to get the most bang for their buck. You will also see a lot more players taking multiple stunt trees than with other options, leading to some very interesting combinations.
Root: Changing the Rules
Final thought, and this is very important so you must understand this, if you are designing your own Fate setting then you must accept this one simple truth, this foundation on which all Fate Core fan fates and spin offs are built upon: you can change the core rules.
Now some of you have just closed the browser and vowed never to read our blog posts again. Others of you are thinking, “Duh. What’s the big deal with that?” Rule changing is a bit of a touchy subject in gaming circles, and we really don’t want to get into that more than we must. But we want you to understand that if you are making your own Fate game, then there are probably already some things that you are changing about the game: new skills, changing old skills, extras, and more stunts.
So yes, we realize that many of the things we talked about change the game: taking away some player freedoms, modifying costs and power balances, and even creating a class system. That’s on purpose. Believe it or not, Fate Core is intended to be modified as GMs and players see fit. Just ask the folks that made it.
So no need to be shocked or nervous. If something does not fit the game you want to play, don’t use it. If it helps, use it as much as you want. If it inspires a different idea, use your idea instead! Do whatever you need/want that creates the kind of game you and your friends love to play!
As always, feel free to throw questions and comments our way. If we made things less or more confusing, we’d love to know. We’ve already done one post on stunt trees, but we have lots more we can share if you wish!