When people mention that FATE is a “rules-light” game, or that it isn’t “mechanically stable” or “crunchy enough,” that triggers a knee-jerk reaction from me: “Huh? Are you drunk?” Because while FATE is a very streamlined and simple game, it’s anything from “rules-light.” Seriously, if you think it’s light, go crack open a copy of Starblazer or Strands of Fate and read through it. Hell, Dresden Files is two huge books packed with mechanics. It’s not so much “rules-light” as much as it is “thinking of rules in a totally different manner”—namely, more metagame, and on an ever-expanding scale.
Moreso, FATE has hard mechanics to run things other games deal with on a more roleplay/story/fluff basis. Want to play out a conflict between an invading alien empire and good old Planet Earth? Want to run a war between the thieves’ guild and the assassin’s guild or a religious crusade against demonic invaders in D&D? An internal power-struggle between branches of the Aztechnology megacorp in Shadowrun? Jump into some jetfighters or mecha and continue run-and-gun gameplay without a hitch? You can do any of those, very easily, in any system. However, games rarely support these with game mechanics, leaving them in the realm of the abstract. But FATE can do any of those, and more, mechanically. Thanks to the power of the FATE Fractal.
The Fractal itself is simple, a framework for GMs to hang whatever they want off of it, and goes along the lines of “anything can be represented in-game as a character.” Which sounds pretty simple and straightforward—duh—until you stop and realize the full potential of this tool.
It’s not like this is the first time someone’s introduced a sub-set of game mechanics that can be defined as “something bigger than a character, but made as if it was a character.” In the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder, the city and empire rules are based on the same tried-and-true d20 system formula used for characters—they have skill bonuses, and make checks with them to generate income or resist rebellion. CthulhuTech, MechWarrior, and several other games use glorified (and much expanded) character generation rules for building mecha. GURPS builds vehicles and constructs much in the same way it builds characters. The new Song of Ice and Fire RPG has rules to handle family lines and their holdings which aren’t far removed from its rules to handle characters.
Most of the above examples are extrapolated from the Starblazer, Anglerre, and Dresden Files books, which have rules for everything: organizations, vehicles, items, empires, monsters, cultures, cities, families and lineages, and more. Where in most games these things are too abstract to handle, FATE takes these abstracts and slaps them into a character roll. (Ironic, given that the game governed by abstracts instead of hard variables.)
The difference is that FATE expanded the scope dramatically, and allowed almost limitless scope and scale in its conflicts. The rules are fast, smooth, and cinematic enough to handle just about anything—and as usual, the GM can come up with some unique ways to handle situations, at their own jurisdiction. The advantage of using similar rules to run larger entities means that players are already familiar with them, meaning they don’t slow the game down as you learn new rules.
The names, scope, and scale might be different, but the mechanics work just the same. While a character might use their Guns skill to attack a space alien, which defends with its Dodge or Athletics, an alien empire might roll its Control to send in troops to quell a rebellion, and the defending planet or government resists with its Security skill (and invokes its Planetary Defenses Aspect for a bonus). A dogfight might involve one fighter jet making a maneuver—an Immelmann Turn—to place the “Where’d He Go?” Aspect on enemy fighters, something you could tag to give bonuses to dodge or remain hidden, or give a bonus when making a “surprise” attack. Maybe the thieves’ guild would make a Resources maneuver to try and buy out the assassins’ guild’s backers out from under them, giving them the Aspect “Support Network Collapse.”
It’s a beautiful thing that gets people thinking outside the box on how to handle situations mechanically. A vehicle or item, even an organization, those are obvious examples. But since everything can be a character, that adds limitless freedom to the GM, provided they’re open to some creative planning. Some of the posts on the FATE blog showcase this: the obvious simple way to handle a fire is to make it into an “On Fire” aspect. If you wanted to go out of the ordinary, go more in-depth, and full-blown meta as a GM, you could use the Fractal to run a “fire” consuming a burning building mechanically.
Give it a stress track, allowing people to try fighting it with extinguishers and hoses. Heck, if you want, go crazy with that: the more the fire spreads, the hotter it burns, so maybe its stress track can increase when it makes a successful roll or by generating Spin. Give it skills to represent a fire’s functions, like Smoke (to asphyxiate), Spread (to consume more zones), Intensify (to burn hotter), or Blaze (to burn). It now has two “attack” skills (Smoke and Blaze) to add complications and give threats to the would-be firefighters, thus creating conflict; a “movement” skill (Spread) that might allow it to cover more Zones/area and work its way to success; and a skill with a lot of uses (Intensify)—maybe that can act as a regeneration skill, “healing” its stress boxes, or can be used to make maneuvers, or used to increase any other skill it has.
And bam, you’ve just turned a situation into a character via the Fractal. Weird, yes. Effective, also yes. Remember: What your players don’t see can be as weird or meta as you want it, and they don’t always have to know just how your mechanics work.