The Fate Roleplaying Game System

Fate (aka FATE 3.0) is a modern, indie roleplaying game system that has become extremely popular with tabletop roleplaying enthusiasts in recent years. It traces its lineage from the mid-90s game FUDGE, through FATE editions 1 and 2.0, until its modern incarnation "Fate", which was first developed and used in Spirit of the Century (SotC) in 2006. Since then, Fate has been used in a growing number of popular indie roleplaying games, including the notable Dresden Files RPG (DFRPG).

Interestingly, there is no one "core" Fate system book covering the generic rules common to all Fate games. This makes it difficult to point a newbie to a resource for finding out just what Fate is. There is a promised Core Rulebook in the works, and at least one notable attempt at a third-party generic system in Strands of Fate (SoF). However, the best and most succinct introduction to the system I've found is in this post: The Core of Fate Core. I encourage anyone interested in the generic Fate game system to start there first, before going down any of the branches in the "Fate fractal". It won't get you up and running any game, but it will give you a sense of what the core game system is about.

Aside from the aforementioned Core of Fate Core, some good, free resources on Fate that I've found include:

  • Free Fate - A simple, free variant of Fate. Probably a good, quick introduction to some of the rules, though note that it unfortunately uses an odd dice rolling variant that I haven't really seen anywhere else.
  • Compact Fate - A very terse aggregation of the core Fate rules. It will probably only make sense after you already understand the system, but a good reference once you do.
  • Comparison Of Various Versions Of Fate - "What's the difference between all these FATE games?", by the makers of SoF (who apparently also use Wikidot)
  • I also own the Strands of Fate PDF. It's a much more "rules/number crunchy" ruleset than most other Fate variants, but until there is an official Fate Core book it serves as a decent reference for a generic system. It's also a good source of inspiration in its own right. Contact me if you would like to take a look at it.

I've gotten very interested in Fate since seeing it pop up so many times on the popular RPGnet Forums, and have begun studying it rather extensively hoping to apply it to some future games I might run. Here then are my personal comments on the system (at least, before having actually seen it in play yet).

Introduction

Fate and many Fate players take their terminology very seriously. There are a lot of concepts common to roleplaying and storytelling in general that Fate has elevated to the status of Nouns With Capital Letters (who ever thought that Compel could be a noun?).

Some people view Fate and its players as somewhat pretentious about their hip, indie roleplaying system. I don't believe that most of its players are, but it has that reputation. I tried to avoid coming off that way myself, below. Hopefully I've succeeded.

I assume you have some very basic understanding of Fate, having at least read The Core of Fate Core. Otherwise a lot of the following won't make any sense.

The Dice

In dice systems like d20, every number has an equal probability of showing up. This leads to very, very swingy events, where critical successes (20) and critical failures (1) occur equally often. I like White Wolf's Storyteller system better, where successes don't follow a linear probability curve. Hence, I also like the default dice system of Fate, as inherited from FUDGE. However, the obvious strike against it is that you need special or modified dice, or put a little extra work in interpreting die rolls, in order to use it. This isn't a huge issue, but it is a minor annoyance.

There is the common "hack" on the Fate fractal to instead take two six sided dice, specify one as positive and the other as negative, roll them and subtract the negative result from the positive one. This has some disadvantages as well, namely: most of Fate is balanced using the Fudge dice, and the probabilities for each value are flatter, more linear, leading back to more swingy results. In particular, both +5 and -5 are possible with this system but not with the FUDGE dice.

In the end, though, I think either method will work fine as long as everyone in the group can agree on which to use.

"Skills"

First off, I like that Fate doesn't even try to have a generic list of Skills common to every game. Instead, every game using Fate has its own Skill list. Some super-rules light game may only have three skills "Body", "Mind", and "Social". Another may have all the skills in the d20 Player's Handbook. This makes every game feel like it's own world, but there is still a sense of commonality between other Fate games.

The difference, though, between Fate and both d20 and the Storyteller system is that those systems have a divide between Abilities/Traits ("Strength", "Dexterity", etc), and Skills ("Sleight of Hand", "Languages", etc). So if you have high Dexterity, you tend to automatically be good at things like Sleight of Hand and Acrobatics. In Fate, however, both Traits and Skills are lumped together under the moniker "Skills". So if "Dexterity" and "Acrobatics" happen to be two different skills in the game, then just because you have high Dexterity doesn't mean you are good at Acrobatics. This takes some getting used to, but ultimately I don't think is a huge issue for the style of games that Fate works best for. The games just have to be sure that each Skill feels like a distinct thing in the universe of the game.

"Stunts"

First of all, I dislike the term "Stunts" as a generic term, but it reflects Fate's first modern incarnation as the pulp game Spirit of the Century. Stunts are akin to d20 Feats, or White Wolf's Merits and Powers (i.e., Disciplines, Contracts, etc). The Strands of Fate ruleset calls them Advantages, which I think I like better than "Stunts", but we're a little bit stuck with the terminology now.

Stunts are just special abilities that characters have that are "always on" or "always available". They help focus and specialize characters and give them fun things to do. That being said, once we get to the discussion on Aspects, below, many of the simple Stunts found in SotC or SoF seem a little bit redundant under some circumstances. For modeling supernatural or paranormal abilities, however, they seem to work very well.

Where are we going, and where have we been

At this point, we could build a very basic roleplaying game and run it like almost any other roleplaying game. We have dice, skills, and feats (stunts). But this alone wouldn't be what has fired up so many roleplaying enthusiasts. Instead, Fate offers a little something more than other game systems at this point; something that seems makes Fate a different game to play than ones many roleplayers are used to. Some roleplayers are very turned off to this different style, though I think that many more very much like the difference. I myself am intrigued and interested in trying it out.

So what's the difference? I'll explain the mechanics below, but it comes down to how those mechanics play out. Essentially, games using Fate are supposed to focus on the broader narrative being told by the roleplaying game, slightly at the expense of experiencing the game "in character" for each player. The player has an awareness of the character's backgrounds, beliefs, goals, foibles, etc that the character themselves might not have. Furthermore, the player has some amount of narrative control over the game in order to advance some of those aspects of their character; narrative control that in traditional games is usually left to the GM.

Imagine an actor reading a script. The actor will be playing a character, immersed in all of the aspects of that character. However, the actor also has some awareness of the character's role in the broader narrative. Given both these things, the actor can ask to edit some of the lines — even some of the scenes — of the script in order to bring out those aspects in the story. Does this break the actor's immersion into the character? The character obviously wouldn't be asking for these things. Some actors can balance the awareness of the story and the immersion in the character. Others can't so well.

Fate requires that balance in order to run smoothly. The narrative control is accomplished through the use of "Fate Points" (FPs). Players gain Fate Points when bad things happen to their character for the sake of the story. In return, the player can spend FPs to affect the story in some way they see fit. All of this is moderated through the game mechanic called "Aspects".

"Aspects"

Where Aspects Come From

Aspects are the completely free-form words, phrases, quotes, etc that describe a character, object, scene, story, or basically any entity in a Fate game. Aspects are any concept that is a source of drama in a game of Fate. Basically, anything on TVTropes can be a Fate Aspect for something.

I like that Aspects are completely free-form, though sometimes it feels hard to come up with another Aspect for your character. Many of the games have nifty systems to help define Aspects for your character (SotC has "phases", SoF has its "Aspect alphabet"). You can also start a game with some Aspects blank, and fill them in as you realize what they are or should be by playing your character. In the end, you want your character to be multi-dimensional, right? Each dimension of the character should be an Aspect.

Most things in Fate start with many Aspects. Depending on the game, player characters start with some number of Aspects (between five to ten seems common). NPCs have some. Any special item in the game might have one or more. Scenes, or even the whole story itself, may have some. Usually, these will be revealed to you (e.g., you would be told that the frozen lake at night may have the Aspects "Darkness" and "Slippery Surface"), or may be determined through a Skill check (e.g., I use my "Lore" skill to determine that this magic sword has the Aspect of "Slayer of the Great Wyrm").

Aspects can also be added to the game world, by either the Game Master OR players. I love the idea of giving players some GM-like ability to affect the setting. For example, a Dwarf may be planning an assault on some mountain stronghold. The Dwarf's player may want to say that the mountain is Prone to Avalanches. They make an Assessment based on the Dwarf's Mining skill (or whatever) against some difficulty set by the GM. If the player succeeds, then that mountain now has the Aspect "Prone to Avalanches". It becomes part of the story. The Dwarf's player can now try to take advantage of it, or the GM can use it to make the characters' lives more interesting.

What To Do With Aspects

As the source of most of the drama in a game, Aspects end up being the source (and destination) of most Fate Points. A player gains and spends FPs through the system of tagging Aspects via Compels and Invokes. Compels inflict some negative effect on your character, related to an Aspect, generally granting you 1 or more FPs. Invokes, which generally cost 1 FP, grant your character some positive bonus relating to an Aspect — up to and including changing or adding some small Aspect to the story. This system forms a sort of "Fate Point economy", with action, drama, and (hopefully) fun increasing as FPs start moving around the table to "activate" various dramatic Aspects of the story.

It's these effects of Compels and Invokes that I think could replace what Stunts are often used for. Just think of all the Feats or Merits that provide some small bonus, like "Eidetic Memory". This could easily be an Aspect that can be Invoked for bonus when needed. One notable fact though is that Stunts at the normal level don't require a FP to use, which might tip the balance in the favor of using Stunts for some basic things and Aspects only for "Really Dramatic Things".

I do like how Aspects can model non-damage combat effects through Maneuvers. The best example I ever read was of the duel in "The Princess Bride" between Inigo Montoya and Westley (as the Dread Pirate Roberts). Saying "I am not left handed!" is a Maneuver to try to impress the opponent. The swinging over the bar is another one. Watching it, it looks like Westley's Maneuvers were a little more successful than Inigo's, so it's as if Westley stuck Inigo with two Aspects ("Impressed" and "Doubly Impressed", or whatever you want to call them). Then in one final blow, Westley's "player" Invokes each of those Aspects for a huge bonus and disarms Inigo. This is a good example of how combat is supposed to go in Fate.

There are some Fate enthusiasts that take Aspects to the extreme, and define everything as an Aspect. Skills become Aspects with a numerical rating. Stunts are replaced by Aspects as I described above. Invokes and Compels fly everywhere. This seems to me like it would work for an extremely narrative focused game, at the expense of all attempts to simulate any sort of physics. A darkened room has "Darkness" as an Aspect that only affects the dice rolls when a player tags it (i.e., is dramatically appropriate). Otherwise, it just fades into the background and has no effect on gameplay. There's a time and place for such games, I think, but only for those that have already gotten the hang of "normal" Fate. At least, I wouldn't jump off the deep end of this at first.

"Stress"

How do we know when a conflict ends? When the character has taken enough Stress that they are Taken Out.

Fate games have any number of "Stress Tracks" to track damage (called "stress" in Fate) that a character takes. "Physical" stress is the most common, but Fate also models "Mental" and "Social" conflicts quite well and so in games where they're important there are Stress Tracks for those as well. Other games might have even more esoteric tracks, whatever makes sense in game.

I like how the Stress system seamlessly works for all types of Conflict, and how using Consequences allows for a lot of player narration. If players aren't used to that level of narration, though, it might become difficult or frustrating. Hopefully that can be worked out with a bit of practice.

Conclusion

Fate games require active, not passive, roleplayers that are significantly engaged in the story as a whole, not just their characters. As a heavily story-focused game, Fate seems to me to be at its best as a "genre emulator" — i.e., for games that are deeply steeped in some particular genre ("disaster movie", "pulp fiction", etc) where "fiction logic" overtakes "realism". Hence, the players must be very accepting of this genre's various tropes and trappings. After all, those tropes and trappings will probably become Aspects as they play. If you don't have that level of buy-in, the game probably won't be very successful. Certainly that's true to an extent with any roleplaying game, but it looks like to me that Fate just requires it a little bit more.

I really, really like how extensible Fate is. The "Fate fractal" concept allows game makers to adapt Fate to whatever their needs are and go from there. Sometimes, though, this fractal feels more like Balkanization, and in trying to get help or insight on one part of Fate you run into many conflicting ways to approach it. Still, though, this feels like a net positive for me. It's a system that's very, very easy to "home brew", which appeals to me as an amateur game designer myself.

On Aspects and Fate Points

I've seen other games that reward "points" for doing good roleplaying that then have some game effect (Mutants & Masterminds with its "Hero points" being the system with which I have the most familiarity). However, making Aspects a precise "thing" in the game system that players have an explicit awareness of separate from their characters is what makes the Fate Point economy system work. It requires players to develop that separate awareness. It also requires players, and especially the GM, to have quite the repertoire of Aspects around to add to scenes, characters, and objects, since Aspects are so free-form. There's really no concept of "pre-determined list of possible Aspects", since even if two Aspects have the same name they may manifest themselves very differently from scene to scene.

This obviously requires a different approach to gaming than just "hack-n-slash". Even more so, there is no more just looking to the GM and asking "What effect does my character's action have on the game world?" In Fate, often, the GM will respond: "I don't know. You tell me".

Some players can't seem to handle that. Others love it. I'm intrigued by it, and would like to see how it plays out in a session of my own. I'm thinking of running a one-shot or two to find out. We'll see.

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