Since The Dresden Files RPG, Fate has had the ability to grow characters by giving more skill points and more refresh. This allows characters to advance numerically in addition to whatever in-game growth characters go through.

However, sometimes there is too much importance put on numerical growth, and not enough on character growth—as in, growing the entire character instead of just giving more numbers.

Horizontal vs. Vertical

The terms horizontal advancement means to give more breadth to the character, more depth. As the character grows, they broaden their knowledge base.

Vertical advancement, on the other hand, is the leveling up characters do. They get bigger numbers and more of them. They get significantly better at something.

In Fate Core and Fate Accelerated, horizontal advancement is done via the story. Does your thief pull off the heist of a lifetime? Chances are the local thieves guild will want to make her a member. Did your daring swashbuckler defeat the sea monster? It’s a good bet that drunkards all over the seven seas will have heard about it. Did your space ranger stop the alien invasion? Sounds like a promotion is in order!

The point is, horizontal advancement comes from character action (or inaction, as the case may be). Many times in games this kind of advancement is left by the wayside because the GM is too busy juggling the rest of the game to recognize the ramifications of a particular PCs actions. It’s up to the player, then, to bring it up and discuss it with the GM—either in private or after the session, before everyone leaves.

Not all players are comfortable with that, though, and not all tables have taken the time to come up with a social contract to know if that’s even “allowed”. In Fate it most definitely is allowed and encouraged! Table consensus is very much at the core of Fate Core.

Vertical advancement, then, is in the significant and major milestones. Gaining skill/approach points and increasing refresh. The mainstay of vertical advancement is the skill/approach points, though, since you get more of them than refresh increases.

Skill points and approach points are the leveling up of Fate. You get noticeably better at something, especially considering how potent even a +1 is. All those times before when you had tied and had to accept a minor cost to succeed are behind you. Those ties become full successes, no strings attached. Half of the successes you would have gotten are now going to be with style. That’s pretty powerful.

Refresh increases are still potent, but overall less so than skill/approach increases. You do indeed gain one more fate point, but those don’t come into play as often as rolling a skill or approach. Indeed, sometimes you chose to gain another stunt instead. While stunts are potent in their own right, they are by nature less used than the base skill/approach they modify.

Removing Vertical Advancement

Instead of increasing your character’s numerical power, I’m proposing a way to increase their story power. This is not to diminish their mechanical power in any way, but to instead focus more on story developments.

The biggest change is to remove all instances of “gain a skill/approach point” from the significant and major milestones, and remove the option to raise the skill cap from the major milestone. At major milestones you still gain a point of refresh, and I’ll explain why in a little bit.

The main reason for doing this came from two different sources. The first was Diaspora, one of the first Fate games I ever played, which had only the equivalent of minor milestones at the end of each session, and D&D 5e. Stick with me, it’ll make sense momentarily!


Diaspora uses an older iteration of Fate, written a few years before DFRPG, so doesn’t have the same advancement ideas. It was based off of Spirit of the Century, I believe. As mentioned, the only advancement you had was changing aspects around (of which there were 10 per character), swapping skill ratings, and changing stunts—you only ever had 3 stunt slots, you couldn’t exchange refresh for stunts.

This means that the characters changed according to the needs of the story. If the brash pilot needed to become a better negotiator, he’d have to move around his skill pyramid to make room for it, quite possibly changing Pilot for Negotiate! Or the diplomat might have to spend more time on learning how to use weapons than in keeping her social contact network up to date—swapping out her Circle of Informants stunt for the Military Weapons stunt (or something like that, I forget the terminology).

D&D 5e

In D&D 5e they have this thing called “bounded accuracy” which, if I’m understanding correctly, basically means that there is a small variable in numerical bonii you can get on your d20 rolls. Proficiency bonus goes from +2 at 1st level to +6 at 17th level and beyond; ability bonus caps at +5, and +5 swords of epicness are rare indeed. This means that most of the numbers stay constant, no matter your level. An average task for a level 1 wizard is DC 10, as is an average task for a level 20 rogue.

If we take this idea into Fate (usually it’s going from Fate to D&D, but there you go :p), it means that no matter how long you’ve been playing, the advice on setting difficulty numbers will always be the same. You don’t have to worry about someone using an Epic (+7) skill when the creating difficulties is assuming a cap of Great (+4).

Horizontal Advancement

Once vertical advancement is removed, players and GMs alike can concentrate more on horizontal advancements for their character.

Anytime your character hits a significant milestone, take a look back at their actions since the last significant milestone and see if anything stands out. Any action that could possibly have repercussions on the game world as a whole should be looked at carefully.

If you have more than one thing that stands out, chose one. That action now has significant ramifications for both your character and the game world. Discuss these changes with your table and see what you all can come up with.

Some ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • An added ally/contact you didn’t have before
  • Access to items, locations, or people you couldn’t approach before
  • Some recognition/rank (like a military promotion)
  • Inclusion in—or creation of—a group of renown (thieves guild, the start of a rebellion, breaking off into your own clan, etc)
  • Unlock new powers or find new ways to use existing powers

New Faces and Places

Additions like this are almost always begging for a new face and place added to your game world. If you are now a member of the thieves guild, usually that means it’s going to be an important part of your upcoming games. If you manage to crate your own clan/town/settlement/etc, it might be high time to change more than one face and place, especially if you’re leaving the old clan/settlement behind!

Some of these faces and places might even come with a “once per session, I can break the rules” stunt to signify your new rank, power, or ability. For example, your military PC distinguished themselves in battle against the enemy, saving their home country/land/planet/etc. To represent this promotion, they now have access to the “good stuff” when requisitioning gear for their assignments. The new face, then, is Sergeant Syler the requisitions officer, and he has the following stunt: The Good Stuff. Once per session, when [your PC] requisitions anything, I can’t say no.

Focusing on a Goal

If you want a bit more structure in your advancement, then chose a benefit you want your character to gain and make it a current issue for your character, if not the entire game. Talk over with your table what you need to do to achieve your goal, and what failing your goal means.

Once you have done what was necessary to achieve your goal—or failed at it—you gain a significant milestone right then and there! Well, most likely after the end of the session, in any case.

The failure case is just as important as success case because it’s quite possible that you may indeed fail. I know this possibility doesn’t exist in all games, but Fate is all about the cost of success, and failure is always a possibility. If you’re trying to join the thieves guild, but ignore their plea for help, they might shut you out for good—or your lack of help may doom the guild entirely!

Of course, a failure to achieve your goal still nets you a significant milestone, just not the one you were hoping for. Instead of joining the thieves guild, you get a reputation as being a rat, and the town guard consider you a valuable resource. Instead of that promotion you were hoping for, you get a Purple Heart instead.

TAGS: Character Development