Fate is not exactly new. The system has been around for over a decade, in many different guises and variations. The latest iteration, Fate Core, was released in 2013 after a massively successful kickstarter, and I finally got around to running it. We’ve played through a small campaign of superheroes in Sydney which started off ridiculous and lighthearted and ended up ridiculous and dramatic. Here’s how it went, and what I thought of the system itself.
We’d spent the first session on character and setting generation. Following the advice in the rulebook, we made up setting troubles and aspects, and just talked of the overall mood and elements we wanted to see. There’s a lot of emphasis on group consensus and player creativity in Fate, and this initial session is a great introduction for players unaccustomed to having a say, not to mention GMs unaccustomed to having to listen.
This is currently my preferred method of starting a campaign: I still have the week between sessions to come up with plots and ideas, and players have all contributed and know what the game will be like. A marked difference from the start of a more “traditional” game where a GM shows up with their own pre-written campaign and players take part in it. No, it is our game in Fate.
Which is not to say that the game creation session is necessarily a smooth experience. The intertwining first adventures of the characters you are meant to make up, from which their aspects are to be derived, felt too restrictive or too insignificant to base an aspect on. The initial independent adventures were fine, but coming up with the way other characters tied into them turned out to be a drag as not all original ideas supported the suddenly complicated multi-faceted plot. I don’t think we’ll use this approach next time, as discovering aspects in game is more fun anyway.
The setting aspects we’ve created at the start had barely been used as actual aspects in the campaign, but were there to tell us what was important. It’s an area I’d like to work on some more, as it seems like a fascinating idea. Chalk that up to inexperience.
Already mentioned a few times, aspects are a major element of Fate, the thing that ties the narrative to mechanics. Each aspect is a pithy phrase describing a character or a situation. It’s something to shine the spotlight on, the important part in a scene. When aspects help you, you can spend fate points, a meta-currency, to improve your roll. When aspects disadvantage you, you earn fate points for going along with it – the aspect compels you.
This is a crucial part – because aspects are tied to the fate point economy, there is little reason to be concerned about their “misuse”, the broadness of their interpretation. Players still pay precious fate points for it, and it’s up to them to say what is an appropriate application of an aspect. But should they go to far, it’s up to the group consensus to call them on it, not just the GM.
Aspects are how I thought about my scenes and my characters before I knew aspects existed, much less played Fate. They are the noteworthy, stand-out, cool parts. They are the plot points, what stories revolve around. It’s a cheat in a way, a short-cut. In other systems, I’d come up with a distinctive idea for a scene or character and then figure out how to express it mechanically. In Fate, aspects translate that very idea into mechanics on their own. They are not always the most appropriate tool for the job, of course, and Fate offers other mechanics to represent different ideas.
Aspects are also very tricky to get right. Another thing that requires experience, figuring out what ideas and phrases work, and which never get used. Thankfully, the rulebook is full of suggestions and advice on this and other topics. It really goes out of its way to teach and demonstrate how the game is meant to be played.
Vagaries of Fate
The system uses weird 6-sided dice, with a minus on two sides, two sides blank, and a plus on the last two. You always roll 4 dice and add up their values, which means the bell curve they form is very sharp, the result likely being within 2 of the skill value. Together with the low variation in skill values (lowest is 0, max for starting characters is usually 4), this means each skill point is important and the ability to add +2 or reroll by spending a fate point is of huge importance, while still preserving the possibility of an outlier roll which shakes things up.
Should things not go your way, you have multiple ways to mitigate this. The already mentioned fate points; the stress boxes which let you soak up some harm; consequences which let you soak up even more harm but become an aspect for some time, thus having an impact on the further scenes; succeeding at a cost. All these, the costs and the consequences, are what you pay to stay in the scene, to have your say. But if none of these are enough, if everything fails and things are gloomy and you’re no longer willing to pay the price, you can concede, and be rewarded for it with fate points. The victor will determine how it ends, but you still get a say. Unless you pushed it too far, ran out of everything and are taken out. That’s the ultimate price you may be willing to pay – risk anything and everything happening to your character.
That’s another major element of Fate: something always happens. No matter the roll, no matter the action, one way or another, things always progress. The story doesn’t stall. Well, almost always. The Attack action is distinct in this regard, as it doesn’t normally offer any options for the attacker or defender to do anything if dice indicate a failure. It’s the only part of the game where you can “whiff”, wasting your turn and your time, and I look forward to Fate Core: Core Harder that solves this.
But coming back to the Something Always Happens dogma, there is an incredibly important advice given in the book which applies to all games, not just Fate: only roll if both success and failure are interesting. If only failure is desirable, offer a fate point to have the PCs fail without a roll. If only success is interesting, offer a success at a cost.
Another achievement of Fate, due to rewards for compels and conceding, is that a failure of PCs is not a failure of players. The story goes on, and the system gives players fate points to regain the upper hand and succeed. In fact, fate points can be viewed as a reward for players for going against the interests of their characters for the sake of a better story.
Deceptively simple to learn
We’ve covered aspects and dice. Other than that, there are skills which offer flat bonuses to activities, stunts that modify them (or the rules, which is trickier), four types of actions and four types of outcomes, and that’s pretty much it. We’ve had a player entirely unfamiliar with the system join us for the last quarter of the campaign, and jump right into the action. The game is very easy to pick up. But that simplicity is deceptive.
The problem, at least for me, is that Fate makes sense. You nod along as you read the rules. You see patterns in the way the four outcomes are almost identical for the four actions, with understandable variations. It all fits together. But because it makes sense, the little details don’t stand out. And once it comes to actually applying the rules you have to remember if tying on an Overcome roll is meant to give a success at a minor cost or a boost (the former), or if you can check multiple stress boxes at once (you cannot). I’ve read the rulebook several times, and only by the end of our 10+ session campaign was I somewhat confident in my rule knowledge.
On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter if you give out a boost or a success at a minor cost. Nothing will really break. As long as you understand the overall intent of Fate, you won’t go wrong.
Hard to master
What Fate offers are simple versatile tools. It’s easy to pick up a brush and smear paint onto a canvas, it’s much harder to actually paint something worth looking at. The system may offer all the brushes and paints and whatever it is painters use (you can tell I’m not one), but it’s your clumsy hands that will be fumbling with them. Coming up with good aspects is hard. Judging which mechanic to use is sometimes hard. Offering good compels is hard, offering good costs is hard, integrating player aspects into the plot is hard. But many of these difficulties are not actually difficulties of using Fate. Rather, the are the difficulties of cooperative storytelling. The rules help in this endeavor much more often than hinder.
It’s easier when you don’t have to worry about players running out of fate points, but that just means you’re not worrying about PCs being uninvolved with the plot. Weak compels mean you’re not really putting your PCs in trouble. Weak aspects mean you can’t identify what’s important about your character. It’s not your fault, either. Cooperative storytelling is hard. With a decade of roleplaying experience under my belt, I’ve learned to get my ideas out onto the table reasonably well. But mixing them up with the ideas of others is something I’m still learning, and Fate is pushing me in this direction.
Facets of Fate
Not only is Fate a toolbox, it’s a customizable toolbox. Unsurprisingly, the book on customizing it is called the “Fate Toolkit”. Remove stress, change the way skills are distributed, do whatever you want with it. Just like you can unsuspectingly break the rules without breaking the game, you can purposefully change them to better suit your needs. And there are plenty of existing settings and mods out there for you to use or steal from. This has actually been a source of some confusion for us: a player had tried the Dresden Files version of Fate before, and another has seen Fate Accelerated. Similar but different, they compounded my shaky knowledge of the rules.
As we’ve played a supers game, we referred to the Fate supers book, Venture City Stories for its mechanics. It left a bit of a mixed impression, in that we’ve never used some of the rules it suggested, the drawbacks of powers or their special effects, and barely used the collateral damage ones. In part they were too fiddly, but mostly I think it was that we were still learning the system and having those extra bits was just too much to keep in mind. And then we’d already established how things worked, and re-introducing these elements just didn’t seem worthwhile. Still, the overall idea on how to represent superpowers worked, and worked well.
Another comic book adaptation of Fate has recently come out, the Atomic Robo RPG. Being the latest iteration of Fate, it actually solves some of the issues I’ve mentioned, and makes a few other interesting changes. It makes for a great introduction to the system.
Playing the same game
That’s what it comes down to, all the talk about collaborative storytelling and player input. In other games, the GM adjucates, guides, decides, prepares. The roles are fundamentally different, it’s a different game the GM plays. In Fate they do all this too, but not from a position of power. They negotiate, they consult. Together with the GM, the players gleefully conspire against their characters. Together with the players, the GM drives the story forward – to where they all want to go. The campaign we’ve played wasn’t just our game, it was the same game.
Take a closer look at the illustrations of this post (aren’t they gorgeous? They were all made by one of the players, Oinkfrog). In the credits box on the side, under “Story”, it lists all the players, not just the GM. This wasn’t the result of some discussion, that was just the way Oinkfrog felt about it. And I couldn’t be happier.
So what are you waiting for? Fate Core is Pay What You Want, so you can get it for free if you’re still unconvinced, and pay them later. Try it!