Changing Fate

This post is kind of long, so I’m starting it off with:

TL;DR

Fate Core is smoother, clearer, and better put together than any previous iteration of the Fate systems, including my beloved DFRPG. Important clarifications and simplifications have made it more accessible to newcomers and easier to understand and run for veterans.

So, the folks at Evil Hat have recently1 completed a Kickstarter to publish the latest version of their Fate game system: Fate Core. As part of the Kickstarter, Evil Hat has shared preview .pdfs of the new book with backers – that’s what I’m using for this little article.

Fate has gone through several iterations since its inception, but these have mainly been subsumed in specific game systems, such as Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. This is, as I understand things2, the first setting-free publication of Fate since Fate 2.0, about 10 years ago.

I say “setting-free” rather than “generic,” because the game makes it pretty clear that it is not really a generic game3. A quote from the book to illustrate:

Fate doesn’t come with a default setting, but it works best with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives. We give more advice on how to bring that flavor to your games in the next chapter.

The upshot of this is that, while the system will work with pretty much any setting you can envisage – fantasy, modern, science fiction, horror, urban fantasy, spy thrillers, whatever – the rules are constructed and tuned to reward a specific style of play, with competent characters taking risks to control their own destinies. I’ll talk a little bit more about what all that means in the sections below.

So, while you may wind up playing a cyber-soldier in a dystopian future or a talking rabbit in a mostly idyllic meadow or a lost soul trying to find redemption after death, the play experience will recognizably be a Fate play experience. The basic system, the characters as the centre of the game, and the types of actions that are encouraged or rewarded will be similar if not identical. You’ll know you’re playing a Fate game.

Let’s look at some particulars.

Game Creation

The assumption of Fate games is that players and GM alike spend some time constructing the setting, creating a shared understanding of the world and what type of game you’re going to be playing. This sort of collaborative world-building has been floating around the various Internet forums and pages for several years, and entered official Fate games with DFRPG.

The city-building chapter in DFPRG is wonderful, giving guidelines and advice for creating a setting that offers a lot in the way of adventuring opportunities and ties the characters strongly to the world and to each other. The advice in the Fate Core book has been smoothed and streamlined, obviously tuned from the feedback from DFRPG players over the years. It is focused, providing concrete steps to create the type of game that everyone wants to play, with all the necessary hooks to make for a playable world to fit the characters into.

This chapter pretty much single-handedly transforms Fate Core from a standard setting-free system book into a toolkit for building games. Reading through the section, I had many different ideas for games, and the example they give of a sword-and-sorcery game being designed and constructed clarifies all the high-level concepts with solid, workable examples.

In addition to the advice in this chapter, Evil Hat will be publishing a Fate Worlds book, with twelve fleshed out settings, from Arthurian mecha adventures, through small-town supernatural drama, to WWII mad science airship combat. Drafts of these various settings have been provided to Kickstarter backers, as well, and they all look pretty good4.

Character Creation

Characters are the core of any RPG, but Fate games, especially those built using the game building advice, there is such a strong interaction between the characters and the setting that character creation has a very definite effect on shaping the game. The character creation in Fate Core is similar to every other Fate game, but most like DFRPG. It has been simplified and streamlined in a couple of different ways, especially by reducing the number of aspects and phases.

The process is pretty simple, and again encourages a collaborative effort. You come up with the High Concept and Trouble5 aspects for your characters, writing up the necessary background info. Then, you get one adventure and two guest-starring roles in other people’s adventures, with an aspect for each, giving you a total of five aspects.

This is fewer than in any of the previous Fate games: SotC had ten aspects for each character, and DFRPG had seven. Reducing the number of aspects speeds up character creation and helps focus the characters a lot more. It also means that you need to make sure that every aspect you have pulls its weight, generating fate points and letting you spend them. From the GM point of view, fewer aspects means there’s a little bit less for you to keep track of, making your job a little bit easier. As for downside, well, I don’t really see one. There were always a couple of aspects on character sheets with the larger numbers that just never got used very much. As I said, this focuses things.

The skill selection process uses the skill pyramid idea from SotC, with the pyramid topping out at Great (+4). This is something that’s easy to adjust, either by raising or lowering the cap, or by going to a skill column idea with skill points, as seen in DFRPG. The upshot of this choice, though, is that picking skills is a little faster without having to fiddle with the columns and skill points – just choose and rank the ten skills you want, and you’re done.

This builds characters with real skills and abilities – characters who are good at things right from the start. While there is the ability to advance and get better at things, you don’t start as a green rookie with the life expectancy of a mayfly, and a need to be wary around house cats. That said, there are ways to change this aspect – essentially, you can dial things up and down the level of competence pretty easily, especially if you take some cues from the Power Level setting in DFRPG.

Stunts

I’m talking about stunts separately, though picking three stunts is part of character creation. Yeah, everyone gets three stunts, which the characters design in collaboration with the GM. So, stunts work just the way they do in DFRPG, though you get three for free and can buy up to two more, for a total of five. Each extra stunt, however, costs a point of refresh.

The explanation of building stunts is more clear and precise than in DFRPG – the changes they made to the text aren’t huge, but they make a big difference in how easy it is for players6 to design their own stunts. As examples, you get a few listed stunts illustrating each of the different kinds of things you can do with stunts.

Refresh

Refresh is still an important part of characters, but it’s not the central issue for characters that it was in DFRPG. Everyone gets three refresh by default, and you can spend up to two points on stunts or extras during character creation. Refresh still determines how many fate points your character starts with each session.

This is another setting that can be easily dialled up and down, increasing or decreasing the general power level of characters. If you build a game with lots of wacky powers for the characters, you probably want a larger pool of refresh to allow players to spend it on the extras you develop.

Extras

Extras are the special abilities and powers that some games require. These can range from magical powers, to specialized tech and vehicles, to organizations and locations that the characters have access to.

Extras are one of the ways to tune the setting developed by the players in the game-building phase. They show what unusual resources the characters may possess, showing what’s possible in the game world. The chapter on extras talks about how to create and define them, and offers a short list of different types of extras to use either as-is or as examples.

One of the more important parts of this chapter is the discussion on determining whether an extra costs refresh and, if so, how many points. It spells out the major concerns and considerations, and walks you through the determination process, supported by a few insightful sidebars in strategic locations. It’s all good, useful advice for building your own game.

While extras do a good job of adding flavour and depth to your game, it’s pretty obvious that they are not required for any game. Indeed, the building of extras in the chapter leverages all the ideas of aspects, skills, and stunts from previous chapters to show how to put extras together – canny GMs might choose to bypass extras and just deal with what they mean via aspects, skills, and stunts7. This approach works very well for games with a low weirdness factor, but other game types may have you wanting more powerful8 possibilities, represented by a list of available extras.

Aspects

This is a Fate game, so aspects are the beating heart. Every iteration of Fate has a new discussion about what they are, why they’re important, and how to pick good ones, and Fate Core is no different. Every iteration of this discussion gets clearer and more helpful, and the one in this book is the best so far.

Some of the terminology in this section has been overhauled to minimize confusion – removing the “tagged” term, for example, and just sticking with “invoke.” The use of compels gets a very welcome clarification, taking a bit of a cue from the plot point economy in the Cortex Plus games, I think, to solidify the fate point economy in a very useful way.

There is also a good explanation of situational aspects, which helps to emphasize the cinematic, collaborative, free-wheeling way that aspects can feed into play. The idea of assessing and declaring situational9 aspects have been cleaned up and simplified, again taking a bit of a burden off the GM.

Probably the best thing about aspects in Fate Core is the detailed and clarified description of compels. They’ve been broken into two types: event compels and decision compels, with clear examples structured around fill-in-the-blank sentences10:

You have _____ aspect and are in _____ situation, so it makes sense that, unfortunately, _____ would happen to you. Damn your luck.

You have _____ aspect in _____ situation, so it makes sense that you’d decide to _____. This goes wrong when _____ happens.

There’s also a good discussion about compelling your own character, and compelling other characters. All in all it makes the use of compels in play much simpler and clearer.

One other thing about the aspects chapter that I want to call out for special comment is the Using Aspects for Roleplaying section. I’ve been playing games with aspects11 long enough that I’ve sort of intuitively internalized the advice offered here on using your aspects to guide roleplaying, but it’s wonderful to see the idea explicitly called out and discussed in the rulebook.

In all, aspects haven’t changed much, but the explanations surrounding how they work have been clarified.

Actions

One of the places where Fate really became complex was in the skills section. First in SotC and then in DFRPG, the skills chapter was a big list of every skill and every way you could use a skill. It was wonderful for completeness, but it added a bit too much complication to the available actions. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this sort of thing, but I found that, while it gave a lot of guidance to GMs for handling skills, it added what amounted to a bunch of mini-systems for each skill.

Fate Core addresses this in a really useful way. The designers took a look at the way all the subsystems worked and pared it down to the essentials. They found that each of the skills basically does some combination of four basic things:

  • Attack: This is how you hurt someone with the skill. A successful roll deals stress12 to the target. Not every skill gets this ability, but creative play may allow a character to use a non-attack skill for a special attack13.
  • Defend: This is how you stop an attack from hurting you. As with an attack, not every skill gets this ability14, but special circumstances and good creative description may earn you some leeway from your GM.
  • Gain Advantage: This is essentially the new version of performing a maneuver from previous editions. Every skill gets this action by default. It establishes a new aspect on the situation or on a character that the character can then use for a bonus, or allows a character to take get a free invocation on an exiting aspect.
  • Overcome: Overcome is the action you use when you want to… well, overcome some obstacle or difficulty. So, that’s what you’re doing if you try and pick a lock, but it’s also what you do if you’re trying to remove the On Fire aspect from a room you’re currently standing in. It gets you past obstacles and removes situational aspects. In a lot of ways, it’s like the opposite of gain advantage and, like gain advantage, it’s a default option fro every skill.

The detailed descriptions and examples of each of these four actions in the book make their use rather intuitive. They also focus on opening up the possibilities for the skills rather than restricting them15, giving guidelines for how to tell which category of action a player’s intended use of a skill falls into, and offering suggestions for how to adjudicate it.

Following up the explanations for what you can do with skills, there’s a section on outcomes – the four different levels of success you can achieve – fail, tie, succeed, and succeed with style. This last one, succeed with style, was called spin in earlier iterations, and applied only to defence rolls. Now, it’s essentially a critical success that gives you a little bonus, depending on the type of action you’re attempting.

The next chapter spells out the structure of using skills in more complicated situations than just rolling to beat a given threshold. There are three of these structures:

  • Challenges deal with multiple overcome actions to defeat a given obstacle. Really, it’s a way to get more characters involved in a task – fighters holding off hordes of zombies while the thief tries to pick the lock and the wizard unravels the magical wards on the door, for example.
  • Contests represent two (or more) characters striving against each other for a goal, but not trying to harm each other directly. So, arm-wrestling, races, stuff like that.
  • Conflicts are fights, whether physical or not. This is two or more characters actively trying to harm each other.

I think it’s important to note that the different structures here are identified and examined, not to force you to use them, but to demonstrate the different ways that skill use by different characters can interact in dynamic, interesting ways. In this way, like the rest of the rules in the book, it’s a collection of suggestions for how to use the bits of the game mechanics to create exciting, fun stories. What I’m trying to say is that, as with the other Fate Core rules, you shouldn’t let yourself be restricted, but inspired by the suggestions and examples.

Mechanically speaking, actions are the engine of Fate Core, and they have been cleaned up, clarified, and polished from previous iterations. Like most of the rest of the rules, they have benefitted from the careful consideration of the designers and the years of play by a large, dedicated community.

GM Advice

The Fate Core book is chock full of GM advice, spread through every chapter, in the main text and in the numerous sidebars and examples. There are three chapters, though, that deal specifically with how to be a GM in a Fate game:

  • Running the Game talks about the gritty details of what to do when you’re sitting in the GM chair during a Fate session.
  • Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios gives practical advice about how to put together the story for a Fate adventure.
  • The Long Game explains how to string the individual adventures into a longer campaign.

These chapters do a great job of bringing together the entire toobox of Fate Core, making the thinking behind the mechanics clear, and showing the utility of the more abstract concepts presented in the book. More than anything, though, they work to transfer the designers’ understanding of the system to the GM, teaching what questions a GM should ask, and how to judge the answers to those questions.

All the GM advice is aimed at giving the GM the tools to run a Fate-style game, a game where the coolness of the characters is paramount and blends seamlessly with coolness of the story to generate a play experience that transcends both16.

Art

I’m not much of an art guy. I like nice pictures, but I can’t really discuss them in an intelligent, insightful way17. So, I’m not going to try and do that.

What I will do is tell you that I really like the art in the book. It’s all grey-scale, but it’s very well done grey-scale art. What I like most about it is that pretty much every picture gives me an idea for a game setting for Fate Core – kung-fu gorilla with a cybernetic brain, mystical police detective, biplane pilot with flying saucer silhouettes painted on her plane, sword-and-sorcery adventurers, dead guy in a mystic circle… I could base a game world on pretty much any single one of these.

To add to this coolness, there are three or four series of pictures, each of them fleshing out a given game world. So, there are several pictures of the kung-fu cyber gorilla, for example, each showing him18 in different situations, each of which adds a little more to the character and his implied world.

Summary

If there’s a single word I’d use to describe Fate Core, it’s “polished.” Every iteration of the system, its obvious that the designers have taken the opportunity to look at the game, see what’s working and what’s not, and shape it more and more towards their ideal game. Systems get smoothed out and clarified, explanations get better, and stuff that doesn’t work gets changed or removed.

There was nothing wrong with Fate19 in any of the previous iterations, but it’s obvious that the designers have been getting better at what they do and clearer in their vision of what the game should be. They see how the game works, what it does best, and tweak it to emphasize and focus on its strengths.

It’s a setting-less system, though, designed to be adapted to your chosen setting. That said, most of the specialized sub-systems from other Fate games, such as the magic system from DFRPG, could be adapted to the Fate Core system with trivial effort.

In short20, this game is awesome. If you like Fate games, you need to get it. If you’re not familiar with Fate games, this is a good way to start.

And if you don’t like Fate games, well, then there’s no helping you.

  1. Well, kinda recently. It wrapped up a few months ago. []
  2. Which is imperfectly at the best of times. []
  3. An argument can be made that there are no really generic game systems; most promote a pretty specific play style and experience. []
  4. Of course, some will appeal to you more than others. That’s the nature of things. But there’s something in the mix for pretty much everyone. []
  5. I talk about what this means in this post for DFRPG. Note that there are no templates by default in Fate Core. []
  6. And, of course, GMs. []
  7. The one place that might not work is in calculating cost for the extra if the GM decides that what the player wants is good enough to be worth charging a point or two of refresh. []
  8. Or more codified. []
  9. Or character aspects. []
  10. Lenny Balsera, in an interview, chortled about how he put Mad Libs into Fate Core. []
  11. Or similar things, like Cortex Plus‘s distinctions. []
  12. And potentially consequences. []
  13. Especially if you’re using the conflict structure and set-up to model something else, like a mystery or a chase. []
  14. Though more skills get the defend action by default than get the attack action. []
  15. Which is, counterintuitively, the opposite of what the lengthier descriptions in previous iterations did. []
  16. Pretty pompous phrasing, I know. But it’s true. []
  17. “Dude, that picture’s cool!” is pretty much the extent of art critique vocabulary. []
  18. I’m assuming it’s a him. He’s wearing traditionally male kung-fu silks. []
  19. In my opinion, anyway. []
  20. Yeah. Waaaaaaaaay too late for that, huh? []
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3 Responses to Changing Fate

  1. Fred Hicks says:

    Incredible depth and approachable detail as always, man. Thanks so much!

  2. Krisztian Nagy says:

    Thanks for the very detailed and expert analysis as usual, Rick. I’m a FATE Core backer too and I agree with your every word in every aspect (ha! you’ve seen what I did?).

    Thanks for this great game, Fred.

  3. Pingback: What's He On About Now? » Fast Fate

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