One of the stumbling blocks for people trying to get into FATE is the sheer flexible, modular, granular nature of the system. The base assumption some friends were working with were that it was either a traditional roleplaying game done rules-light (ala Savage Worlds or Star Wars d6), or a “storygame,” some abstract narrativist vehicle with mechanics tacked on (ala Burning Wheel). Read about FATE on the internet and most likely those are the assumptions you’ll come up with. That’s misleading.
The truth is that while FATE isn’t a traditional roleplaying game, nor is it the penultimate narrativist system that posters on The Forge hype it as. Rather, it’s something of a toolkit for designing your own roleplaying experience. If you want to incorporate strong narrativist elements and expand player agency, you can build that. Or you can build a more traditional game that’s highly cinematic, fast, loose, and rules-light, but one that runs and looks closer to a “standard” RPG (whatever that is).
A lot of this goes back to the game’s FUDGE background: it was one of the most customizable games in existence. FATE changed the rules up and devised its own style, adding in Aspects and other player-driven content. But FATE’s mechanics—skills, stunts, Aspects—has been regimented and uniform; most FATE games follow in the footsteps of Spirit of the Century, changing a few basics to suit a setting or tone.
Diaspora made a few changes in its quest for a Traveller-style Hard SF game, but oddly, most of its changes were related to narrativist shared-story and not Hard SF. Dresden Files, on the other hand, slimmed down the system, added in new rules, stress tracks, and otherwise pointed FATE in the direction of a setting—urban dark fantasy—and slammed into the bullseye. And now we have ICONS, showing what you can do with the system: the mechanics have been developed towards four-color supers rather than left loose for GM manipulation.
The FATE games on the market go either way. A number play up the build-a-game angle and are essentially glorified toolkits taken to the extreme: Cube 7’s output, Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre. I love them for their toolkit angle, putting all the power and flexibility of a powerful, flexible system into the hands of a GM… but they’re not games to pick up expecting a finished product.
Consider. In D&D, things are simple: the world is self-explanatory, challenges are picked from lists corresponding to party strength. In FATE, details are left vague for GM interpretation and manipulating: a GM has to deal with such minutia as figuring the physical (game-world) representation of the Resources +3 the group just acquired. Take how player-driven the characters are (the importance of Aspects and Consequences); FATE’s mechanics are just as GM-driven (and GM-reliant) as the characters are player-driven. That’s a turn-off for a lot of people, for whom a more “finished,” focused game like Bulldogs! or ICONS would be a better choice.
The reason I single out ICONS is because of how far it drifts from “established” FATE games. ICONS replaced skills (to a greater or lesser extent) with a set of FASERIP-style attributes, changed up what FATE points can do, and put in a Powers system to show that, yes, FATE can be a supers system. Many call it “not FATE but FATE-based.” (Probably based on the fact that strong inter-narrative control isn’t spread between players and GM as in Diaspora or Spirit.)
I think that’s a misnomer. Instead, it’s an example of the kind of finished-product RPG you can build with FATE by manipulating the existing mechanics to custom-tailor the product for the intended setting and tone. It’s a hyper-focused incarnation of FATE, and I think we’ll see more specialized FATE-powered games in the future.
Looking at FATE as more of a build-a-game than a finish product could really benefit the system—I’d love to see third-party companies do specialized games like ICONS, to properly blend form and function, setting and mechanics. I think it also explains why ICONS has had a successful following from day one, and why it clicked so well with my old group.