So, Fate. The system has won me over more or less completely, despite my interest in things like Edge of the Empire, The One Ring, and Eclipse Phase. The lure of 5th Edition is a temptation, and I’d kill to run Dungeon World, but most everything I’ve planned in the last few years has revolved around Fate in one way or another.
The thing is, on the forums and the websites, one of the staple bits of wisdom told to newer players is that Fate is not like normal systems, it’s something you have to adapt to, that kind of thing. I’ve seen it come up quite a lot, in idea and tone regardless of whatever’s said in specific. It’s somewhat off-putting to new players when it’s hyped up as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but has the qualifier of pseudo-elitism that it’s a hard game to wrap your head around and implying not everyone’s cut out for it. I don’t think people do it intentionally—I’m pretty sure my enthusiasm for it has come across like that once or twice—but it’s a complaint one of my non-Fate gamer friends brought up.
I mean, Aspects are a little new and weird but everything else is pretty straightforward, it’s just funny dice with a skills system and stunts are like feats. Rules-light, narrative storygame. Right? Yep, mechanically it’s not really a huge stretch for someone who’s played their share of RPGs. But the mindset that Fate is working with actually does make it a rather complex and complicated system that doesn’t follow a lot of established RPG conventions. The real trick to Fate, and the paradigm shifts it offers, is that it’s doing things differently—often with different goals—which often run against the pre-conceived notions of how RPGs operate.
(More after the jump.)
And that’s the cause of all those words of warning, the statements that Fate is hard to learn or requires players to change their viewpoint in order to grok it. It’s deceptively complex, because it looks very similar to other RPGs, but the mindset it uses is distinct and new enough to have a learning curve. It may look simple, but there’s quite a number of differences from many of the games which have came before.
I wouldn’t say that it’s a mind-blowing revelation, or something only a chosen few can understand, since it’s often pitched as a great first game to teach children. But it’s a distinctive enough mindset with a lot of more meta elements, something that it’s helpful to understand so you can “get” the system. For that reason, I always kind of chuckle when it’s dismissed as a “rules-light” system not complex enough for long campaigns; why do we have 497 pages of Mindjammer, or all 688 pages of Dresden, if it’s a simple one-shot game? Because Fate is really one of the more thoughtful and complex systems out on the market today, a small part of why it’s become as big as it has.
To start off with paraphrasing Whose Line:
It’s the game where everything’s made up…: In most games, things have direct correlation and mechanics to govern “if x, then y.” In D&D, if you roll to Trip someone, they gain the Prone status and certain modifiers—you choose a defined action in exchange for defined outcomes. Rather than have a set list of options, Fate puts down mechanics and says “here, go wild.” Some players I’ve known just can’t operate without picking their move beforehand; in Fate, you may need to determine what “I swing at them” ended up doing after the fact (knocking them over, disarming them, etc) if you got a boost or succeeded with style. On top of this, older editions of Fate were confusing (explaining Spin was always a nightmare) and had huge barriers for the number of Aspects you had to come up with on a whim. There’s a lot of stuff you end up needing to create in-game due to rolls; I think it’s fun and creative, other people can find it taxing.
…and the dice don’t matter: The idea with Fate is that your character is already competent, about on par with 5th-10th level in D&D; the difficulty is usually set at +0 to +2 if the roll’s not contested and doesn’t have extenuating circumstances. In almost any other game, you’re expecting the dice to carry you from failure into success: D&D math expects that you’ll have roughly a 50/50 chance to make the DCs set at your level, for example. In Fate, the dice give you a bell curve centered around 0, so your chance of success or failure has less to do with the dice and more with your skill rating, with Stunts and Aspects to back you up. Granted, a +4 or -4 can be a huge boon, but there are plenty of occasions where you can roll a -3 and still succeed on your action without spending Fate points.
And, in a more general vein:
Fate cares more about drama over realism. In particular, high-action, high-stakes games full of dramatic scenes rife with conflict (which doesn’t always have to be swords and guns, as conflict and combat are two different things). It rewards players for being dramatic and complicating things (taking compels, success-at-cost), while behavior that diffuse drama (e.g., success, finality, etc.) come with a cover charge.
Fate is about fiction and genre over simulation and physics. Physics still apply, but it’s more on a level of how it logically fits the genre you’re emulating. The game does not set out to simulate a game world, it sets out to emulate the fiction you’ve chosen—its mood, atmosphere, and most importantly its genre tropes and conventions. Say you’ve got to jump over a pit. D&D may ask questions like “I can jump ten feet, how wide is the chasm?” or “The chasm is ten feet wide, how far can I jump?” Fate asks, “Can I jump the chasm?” If you’re in a two-fisted pulp action game, probably. In a gritty sword-and-sorcery dungeon crawl, it may be an insurmountable obstacle. In a Barsoom-style swords-and-planets romp, the chasm may be chump change compared to your “normal” of jumping hundreds of feet between moving airships.
Fate is more interested in people than gear. Fate wants to know what you do and how you can do it, not what you use to do so. The Fate game that comes closest to Shadowrun or D&D in levels of gear porn is probably Mindjammer, and as Sarah Newton explains, with gear in the form of Extras it’s more about giving your character the ability to influence another scale. Again, it is less interested in simulation or realism than it is on dramatic conflict and narrative context. The game doesn’t care about the relative muzzle velocity of your Glock 17 versus his Colt M1911A1, it’s more interested in the fact you’re in a Mexican standoff during a pistol duel in the rain on a Hong Kong rooftop. Heck, it may only matter that one gun carries more bullets than the other. Unless it matters to your character, group, or the fiction, gear is marginalized.
Fate Loves Complications. The game rewards players for making an imperfect character, letting the world know those imperfections, and placing those characters in vulnerable situations. Not only that, character flaws are something you look forward to, something you accept; it’s a greater level of depth than just making Charisma your dump stat, or loading up on horrible merits like Overconfident, One-Eyed, Mute, Ork Poser (cough) just because it’s FREE POINTS!!!1!. I may want to roleplay those flaws in Shadowrun or White Wolf, but Fate takes it to a whole new level, where getting into trouble is something that rewards you for playing your character as you’ve established them—you get both in Fate points and in new plot stuff. Fate doesn’t want you to be crippled and die, but it doesn’t want you to be perfect, either, because fictional characters are more interesting because of their flaws. This may be the biggest paradigm shift of them all.
Fate loves the abstract. Fate doesn’t generally concern itself with how many bullets you’ve fired in a round, since that’s abstracted down—one action could be one bullet or all of them. Instead of using grid-maps with specific distances, move costs, etc., Fate uses vague “Zones,” which range in size depending on what your GM considers a zone. Is a room a zone, or an entire house? Could be both, depending on how important that space is. Even Aspects are pretty nebulous to a newcomer; compare a room Bathed In Shadows in D&D and in Fate and what it means in each system. In D&D rules, darkness usually gives a sneaking bonus and cover; in Fate, you can invoke it to give a bonus to anything relevant, as part of the core rules and by virtue of its existence.
Fate cares more about improv than scripts. Fate rewards action, not careful planning. Sure, you can carefully plan something, but then when you get compelled to act against those plans and run in willy-nilly, you end up just making stuff happen without any prep. And compels can actively work against that planning to boot. So much about Fate is built on thinking on your feet, being creative and coming up with new stuff. In any given session, you’re going to be coming up with a lot of boosts and Aspects on the fly. And a lot of the game’s fun revolves around getting into some new jam, coming up with new boosts/Aspects, that sort of creation. That can be a big challenge for players to come up with more content, since not everyone processes info at the same speed.
Fate rewards proactive players and penalizes reactive ones. The big goal with Fate—the “collaborative” elements—are designed to reward proactive gamers. If you give yourself a relevant Aspect, you’ll be compelled to do be proactive about it, and the GM will probably include it anyways because Aspects can signify what it is a player is interested in. The biggest problem I’ve had running Fate was when the players who weren’t proactive didn’t do anything—didn’t include any Aspects that gave them ties to the world or motivations, didn’t create any elements to build off of or go after. Having a few movers-and-shakers and a few benchwarmers is a problem in any game; it’s even worse in Fate, since so much of the game is creation-based.
Every Table’s Fate is Different. Despite what the name “Fate Core” implies, it does not create the same unity as any other game system. If you go to twenty different D&D games, you’ll find a lot of differences and house rules attached to the same central mechanics. If you got to twenty different Fate Core games, you could easily see twenty different games: they still use the same sets of core mechanics, but there’s a realm of different setups that can still remain “Fate Core.” Why? Because Fate is modular. You can use it like a toolkit. Core itself is kind of bland, because it’s meant to be—it’s a starting-off point, a modular toolkit to custom-build your own game, not a complete game on its own. Look at the stuff in Fate Worlds to see what you can build using Fate Core.
Because of that, it helps if you have the time, effort, and interest in hacking and crafting settings/rules to get into Fate. It’s relatively easy and doesn’t need much heavy lifting, which is the surprising part. Alternately, you can use one of a dozen Fate games that take those core rules and build them in specific directions, building the mechanics to support the setting: Jadepunk, Fate Freeport, Mindjammer, Tianxia, you name it, there’s plenty to choose from.
Fate cares more about character depth than character presentation. Fate doesn’t have a lot of impact on your portrayal of your character; your sketch, your funny accent, your mannerism, that’s all window dressing, same as most systems. You don’t get Fate points for “good roleplaying” like you would in D&D or WoD: not from an impassioned speech or heroism. Instead you’re rewarded with Fate points for “good roleplaying” by playing your character—in other words, by using the Aspects you created to represent them.
Fate likes flawed characters. It’s a bit too simple to just say Fate likes bad characters; rather, it likes developed characters, people who have idiosyncrasies and foibles—the elements that make them both larger-than-life and well-rounded as characters—impact the course of play. Why did Indiana Jones fear snakes? Why did Superman have his kryptonite? Things like that make things complex; they make characters have their feet of clay to make them more realistic. You fear for characters in comics or movies at the exact moment things aren’t going their way, so that you can cheer them on all the more when they emerge victorious.
As with Dungeon World, Fate is Fiction First. In Fate, the proper answer to most questions—how to do X, how to represent X—is usually answered with another question: What would fit the genre you’re going for? As a toolkit/modular system, what works for you and your table, and what fits the fiction or genre you’re going for, will be the right things to consider every time. It’s more important that the implementation fits portrays the genre you want to play than most anything else. You’ll make certain changes to make characters weaker for a horror game, change certain elements to reflect the intricacies of a social-heavy game or a gear-heavy space opera. It could be changing skill names; it could be drastically altering the setting to fit the fiction, ala the Fate Worlds books that I tend to rave about.
The mechanics in Fate revolve around the Fate Point Economy. The most gamist element of Fate is also a strong one: balancing the FP economy, choosing to take a hit now and fail when you want to, so you’ve got the resources later to succeed when you need to. You get more FP from refreshes, yes, but mostly from the compels that occur during play. I know several people who feel this mechanic is too game-y or too gamist, though in most cases it’s neatly shrouded beneath the narrativist elements: the plot, Aspects, things like that.
In Fate, Crunch and Fluff Are The Same Damn Thing. Fate doesn’t seek to create realism through more math; it seeks to create narrative awesomeness through rules that hybridize fiction and game. What’s normally “fluff” in other games become game elements in Fate: remember all those character backgrounds you wrote up for every character you ever played? When you do that in Fate, you’re picking out really cool parts as Aspects and making that character background into game mechanics. To me, Fate gives you infinite flexibility to create whatever kind of character you want as the mechanics will always support your character, compared to in some other systems where you need to force your character idea to fit a rigid set of mechanics.
In a post-Fate world, we need better terms to replace “fluff” and “crunch” since the once discernible difference between them is rapidly disappearing. That’s one of the biggest elements that makes Fate deceptively complex and one of the most formidable systems on the market today: it’s adaptable to anything, flexible beyond measure, and hybridizes fiction with game mechanics in ways that haven’t been done before.