Sundog Millionaires: In The Beginning

Last Sunday, we got the old Storm Point gang together to run the game creation session of our new Star Wars game, using the Fate Core system. We were supposed to meet a week prior, but I really wanted the entire group together for this, and life intervened.

I have to say, that extra week was taxing on me. When I’ve got a new game coming up, I often immerse myself in preparing for it – working out background, roughing in some scenarios, and generally getting ready for play. But with the game creation being a collaborative process1, I couldn’t do any of that, because I didn’t know what kind of game this was going to be.

That is, however, a pretty minor complaint.

I had prepped all the players by letting them know what the steps in game creation would be, and by sharing with them Lenny Balsera’s game creation tips article from the first issue of the Fate Codex. They all came prepared, and we had a bit of a discussion2 before jumping in.

I started with getting each player to give me an individual Want / Do Not Want list, with three items in each category. That’s significantly more than Lenny recommends in his article, but I had a couple of specific reasons for doing that. One was that, as I got these lists from them without them discussing the various items, it allowed me to see what sort of overlap there was, and thus what things most of the group agreed on. Another was that this brainstorming approach would allow us to have a productive discussion about the similar – and dissimilar – items that would lead us to find common themes.

So, once we got our big list, we talked through it, finding similar entries, and talking about what it was about them that made us want or not want them. This allowed us to sort of boil down the list by consensus, coming up with a shorter list that addressed pretty much everything3 the group cared about. That gave us the basis for coming up with the framework for the game.

What we decided on was a game where the characters were the crew of a somewhat run-down freighter in the Outer Rim, taking odd jobs and exploring strange places. In conversation, the vibe we wanted for the game settled out at about half-way between Firefly and The A-Team. With, of course, all the tropes of Star Wars thrown on top.

So, with that done, we pressed on to the Issues, Locations, and Faces of game creation. I’m not going to go through the details of setting creation; I’ve put the initial results up in the Obsidian Portal wiki. I’m working on putting together a setting bible for the gang, but that’s going to have to wait until character creation is done, so that I can incorporate the things they come up with then.

The game got it’s name from our last little discussion on that evening – after much debate4, they settled on the name Sundog for their ship. And one of the players said, “So, obviously, the name of the campaign has to be Sundog Millionaires.” And the name stuck.

Soon, we’ll have the character creation session. I’ll post about that when it happens.

  1. And I want to be clear here that I think collaborative game creation is awesome. []
  2. And some dinner. []
  3. The main thing that didn’t get settled was the inclusion/exclusion of Jedi PCs, but I’ll get to that a little later. []
  4. And some god-awful stupid suggestions. []

Fate Core Star Wars, Redux

The other day, I wrote a post about how I decided not to use Edge of the Empire as the ruleset for the Star Wars game I’m going to be running soon. While I think I cover everything about why I made that decision, upon reviewing the post, I see that I haven’t really talked about why I think Fate Core is a good fit for a Star Wars game.

With this post, I hope to correct that.

Easily Adaptable

I’ve mentioned before that Fate Core is not really a generic system – it’s more accurate to call it settingless. Because one of the main goals of the system is to be useful in a wide range of settings, it is easy to adapt the mechanics for pretty much any setting. This is especially important for a setting like Star Wars, which is so big and encompasses so much that trying to stat it all up is a fool’s errand.

The structure of the Fate Core rules – specifically aspects and the Fate fractal1 – means that I can take care of most adaptations by thinking up a couple of aspects, and maybe a skill or two. Examples? Sure!

  • There are hundreds of different alien species2 in the Star Wars galaxy. Rather than having to stat up all the various species to make them available to the players as characters, I can just tell them to include the species in their high concept, use other aspects as desired to reinforce3 the stereotypes of that species4, and build any special powers using stunts.
  • Droids are always a problem to adapt well to a game. But I can just use the same guidelines as for aliens above, and done. Easy-peasey5.
  • Spaceships can be tricky to simulate well in games, and most games have a host of special systems and rules for them. In Fate Core, I can just build a spaceship like a character, using the idea of the Fate fractal – give it a high concept aspect, a trouble aspect, maybe another one or two aspects, and a stunt or two to make it extra-special. Easy to build anything from a droid fighter to a star destroyer like this6.

The ease with which Fate Core adapts to the the various settings means that I don’t need to set anything in the Star Wars setting off-limits for the characters7.

Which leads me to…

Game Creation

Saying that you’re going to run a Star Wars game doesn’t necessarily tell you much about what kind of game you’re going to run. Between the movies, the books, the video games, the comic books, the RPGs, and the various other tie-ins to the setting, there’s a vast number of time periods, locations, themes, group structures, etc. to choose from.

Typically, it’s the GM’s job to pick a specific setting and campaign set-up within the Star Wars galaxy, which can be problematic if the GM and the players have different ideas about what kind of game they want to play8. Alternately, the GM can throw it open to player suggestion, but that can lead to decision paralysis.

The Fate Core game creation system provides a structured framework for collaborative setting creation. It guides the entire group – GM and players alike – through a process of deciding on the big parts of the game, and then fleshing out the details. I’ve run the collaborative setting creation for two different DFRPG campaigns9, and both times I was surprised and delighted at the setting that emerged.

These two points lead me to:

Player Choice

The ease of adapting anything in the Star Wars setting to Fate Core, and the collaborative setting building leads to a great deal of freedom for players to play exactly what they want to play. Most published Star Wars RPGs limit what you can play10, both in terms of characters and settings, simply because there was just too much stuff to stat up according to their systems.

Now, because it’s a collaborative effort to create the setting and the characters, some people may not get exactly 100% what they want, but they’re going to be able to come a lot closer than in other games. And seeing as they’ll be the ones imposing the restrictions, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they will be restrictions they can live with.

Cinematic Action

There are very few games geared as perfectly for cinematic action as Fate Core11. It allows – nay, encourages – crazy, over-the-top, movie-style fights. Characters can run, jump, trick their opponents, swing on chandeliers12, slide down banisters, battle atop burning buildings, hit people with chairs, leap through windows, dive for cover, bully, intimidate, taunt, and anything else they may care to try.

A large part of this is that most brilliant piece of game mechanics technology, Create Advantage13. The ability to create advantage means that sometimes14, just trying to hit your opponent is not your best action in a fight. Instead, it’s more important to set your target up so that a single hit will take him/her/it out, and that means creating advantages. So, it makes sense that, instead of standing toe-to-toe and slugging it out with your opponent, you throw sand in his eyes to distract him, kick his legs out from under him, drop a barrel on him, and then finish him off with a well-placed kick to the chin.

The other thing that makes for great cinematic battles is the idea of scene aspects. Aspects can mean that you’re fighting in a burning building, trying to escape a crashing starship, prying open the doors of a closing trash compactor, being chased through a dangerous droid factory, and anything else you care to come up with. And because it’s just aspects, it all uses the same simple mechanic, rather than a raft of various situational modifiers and special rules.

Easy to Prepare

All of the above points make game prep pretty easy, even for first-time Fate GMs15. Putting together even complex stat blocks for adversaries, planets, ships, or whatever is a matter of minutes, not hours. That means more time to spend on story, and the characters’ aspects work very well to generate plotlines that will grab them and keep them interested.

Easy to Improvise

The first Fate game I ever read was Spirit of the Century. That billed itself as a pick-up game, and it worked quite well in that respect. The Fate Core system is clarified and streamlined, leading to a system that’s even easier for improvisation, with the ideas of aspects and the Fate fractal, as mentioned above.

Add to the basic simplicity the fact that I have a fair bit of experience running and improvising in Fate, and it makes me very confident that I can wing it when necessary. Building a dangerous threat on the fly is a matter of deciding on a couple of aspects, an attack skill and defense skill, and stress track. If I want to get fancy, I can throw in a simple stunt to give it some colour.

Same thing with planets and spaceships. All very easy to throw together quickly, if necessary. And reskinning something you’ve prepared to appear different is trivially easy.

And So…

And so Fate Core is an ideal system for running Star Wars. At least, I think it’s going to be. I have every confidence, and have read a number of success stories of people using it thus.

I guess we’ll find out if I’m right soon enough.

  1. The Fate fractal basically says that anything in the game – anything – can be constructed like a character, with aspects, skills, and stunts. It’s an elegant and simple way to attach mechanics to problematic elements. []
  2. Wikipedia lists 249. There may be more I don’t know about. []
  3. Or not. []
  4. A trick I ripped right out of Bulldogs! []
  5. Lemon squeezey. []
  6. I can even steal some ideas from CAMELOT Trigger for making extra big starships that have multiple zones. []
  7. Though my personal preferences, and those of the players, will probably wind up doing so. []
  8. Mystery-solving cantina band members traveling around in a psychedelic spaceship with a wookiee called Scooby? Please. []
  9. I’ve also tried to incorporate it into a lot of the other games I run. []
  10. The old WEG d6 game was the most open in this regard. []
  11. Certain iterations of Cortex Plus match it, I think, but that’s not surprising as they are at least close cousins in design philosophy, modeling the fiction of the game world rather than the physics. []
  12. Or chandelier-equivalents. []
  13. In previous Fate iterations, this was the Maneuver. Same idea, different name. []
  14. I would argue – and I havemost of the time. []
  15. And I am not one of those. []

The Dolorous Stroke

The brave Knights of CAMELOT Trigger face off against MerGN-A and her army of Emergents. Illustration by Brett Barkley. Used with Evil Hat's permission.

The brave Knights of CAMELOT Trigger face off against MerGN-A and her army of Emergents. Illustration by Brett Barkley. Used with Evil Hat’s permission.

So, yesterday, I did a post about the Fate Worlds books. One of the settings in Worlds in Shadow is called CAMELOT Trigger1, by Rob Wieland, and a couple of folks in my gaming group got really excited about the idea of Arthurian giant robots in space2. They’re hinting rather strongly that I should run a game.

Now, I don’t have time in my game schedule right now, but we are moving into the endgame for my Apocalypse World campaign, and are about the enter the last act of my Civil War campaign. That means I’m starting to think about what to replace them with, and so I’ve been considering CAMELOT Trigger.

One of the things I like about CT is that it gives enough detail to give you a good idea about the feel of the setting, and the broad strokes of the current situation. All the elements, moreover, are poised to provide interesting, dynamic conflicts for the characters to resolve, no matter where you want to slot them in. There’s the standard fighty bits one would expect playing giant space knights, but there’s also opportunity for intrigue, diplomacy, mystery, reconstruction, and quests.

What this really means to me is that, to run a game in the CT, you need to decide what the game is going to be. And, because I’ve been talking about it with a couple of my players, I’ve been thinking about that.

First, a caveat: if/when I actually run this game, I’m going to involve the players in designing the campaign, using the campaign creation rules in Fate Core. That just gives you more player investment. What follows is just a thought exercise, me testing to see if I can come up with a decent campaign idea that I like within the framework of the setting3.

And thus, we have…

The Dolorous Stroke

Some say that the problems arose when Sir Balin, an Edge Knight, struck down one of the Petty Titans, bringing all the careful political balancing that Arthur had done crashing down. But Balin – and his Dai-5H0 armour – has vanished. The disaster brought all the simmering resentments and hidden secrets to the fore. Now, the entire solar system is starting to collapse into warring human states.

After the Betrayal4, the alliance between the Inner Worlds is in disarray. Queen Valerie has returned to Venus, L4-NC3-L07 has abandoned his rulership of Mars to hunt Emergents in the Wreck. Rumours of a cunning nano-viral attack on Avaluna Base that has incapacitated both the King and MerLN are fed by the fact that John Arthur has sealed himself up in Avaluna Base. And MerLN, once so chatty during transit through the Breach, mutters and laughs to himself, uttering gnomic – and terrifying – prophecies to those Knights he bothers to address.

The Emergents are taking advantage of this collapse to mount new offensives against the humans. News of falling enclaves of humanity arrives weekly, and everyone is pulling back to defend their own borders.

Almost everyone.

A small group of Knights, Arthur’s most trusted warriors, have sworn that the light of Earth shall not be so easily extinguished. Something may be wrong with the King, but something is definitely wrong with MerLN. Fix MerLN, and they will have a powerful tool restored to help them fix the rest of the solar system.

And to fix MerLN, they will need the help of a dead woman. They need Dr. Vyvyan Locke.

So? Whattaya think? I think it’s definitely a gamable little campaign idea.

  1. I got the capitalization wrong throughout the entire post. Also, whenever I referred to it on Twitter or Facebook yesterday. This is the correct capitalization. []
  2. Really, who can blame them? []
  3. The answer, for those who haven’t guessed, is, “Yes.” []
  4. Note that I probably want to but a twist on the whole love triangle thing in play, but will be looking to the players to help define that. []

Worlds Enough, and Time

The other day, Rob Wieland1 let me know that he had hacked together a Fate iteration of 7th Sea, a swashbuckling adventure game set in a fantasy version of 17th-century Europe. It was always a cool setting, but I was never a big fan of the system, so seeing something like this made me very happy.

Actually, Rob did something even cooler than write up a Fate version of 7th Sea. He wrote up two versions: one for Fate Core, and one for Fate Accelerated. Now, using the hacks requires knowledge of the 7th Sea setting2, but even if you don’t have that knowledge, the constructions and choices made for the game are a great example of how the Fate system can be hacked to support a setting. And the fact that there are both Core and Accelerated versions for your perusal means that you can see two different ways to implement a setting.

And, of course, Rob’s posts got me thinking about the Fate Worlds books: Worlds on Fire and Worlds in Shadow.

These books are presented as volumes of settings for Fate Core. Each one presents six different game settings, complete with NPCs, specialized mechanics, and other story elements. Some of the settings are effectively one-shots or short campaign frames that you can use to extrapolate out to full campaigns, while others are much broader. All are eminently lootable for your own settings. Here’s what you get:

Worlds on Fire

  • Tower of the Serpents is essentially a swords-and-sorcery one-shot adventure. The setting is is more implied by the adventure than explicitly discussed, but it meshes with a lot of the examples in Fate Core to give you a solid foundation to start playing a low-fantasy campaign.
  • White Picket Witches embraces all the tropes and tangles of modern supernatural soap operas as you play inhabitants of a small town where witchcraft allow the five families to effectively run the town. There are some great rules for dramatic face-offs, social conflicts that deal with status and dominance. There’s enough stuff here to kick off a whole campaign, and the drama and relationship interactions will just keep generating stories as long as you want it to.
  • Fight Fire is a campaign frame about fire fighters. It splits its focus between the dramas of the fire fighters’ personal lives and some wonderfully detailed rules on how fires work and how they are fought. Even if the whole setting doesn’t grab you, looting the fire rules for another setting can make the idea of a building catching fire far more terrifying3.
  • Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie lets you play a famous WWI fighter pilot of your choice as you hunt down the titular airship to end the Kaiser’s threat once and for all. It’s effectively a single adventure, though one that will probably take a few sessions to play, and it can easily be used as a springboard into a pulp 1920s game.
  • Burn Shift is a kind of post-post-apocalyptic setting. The apocalypse has happened, the terrifying struggle to survive has happened, and now things are settling into a new status quo, and you get to play the folks deciding what that status quo is. You get all the wonderful mutant character options you’d expect in a whacky Gamma World game, coupled with a situation where you can choose the directions society is going to move. The resolution of the default starting situation will probably take several sessions, and will generate more follow-on goals and problems for the characters, building the campaign nicely.
  • Wild Blue is… okay. Follow me here. Wild Blue is a western with superheroes and faeries. It’s got some of the feel of the ancient Celtic superhero4 campaign that I keep toying with in my mind, moved up in time to the old west. If that doesn’t grab you, the super power rules are quite lootable for other games. But this is a complete campaign frame with lots of potential.

Worlds in Shadow

  • CrimeWorld is less a setting than it is a setting overlay. It’s written by John Rogers5, and it gives you advice for bringing cons and heists into any setting you might like. It’s a good primer for anyone wanting to run any sort of caper game in any setting and any system6.
  • Timeworks is, as you might guess from the title, a time travel setting. The twist is that Timeworks Incorporated is a small company of time travelers7 employed by corporations to adjust history to favour their clients. The corporate set-up is clever, and the time travel mechanics are solid and flavourful without becoming too arcane.
  • The Ellis Affair takes historical fact – the mysterious death of Earl H. Ellis, a Marine Corps spy in South East Asia in 1923 – and uses it to launch a pulp spy/mystery story. This is a single adventure, though one that will take a few sessions to play through, I expect8, and provides a lot of good advice for running mystery adventures in Fate.
  • No Exit is a single scenario, probably playable in a single session. The idea is that the characters are tenants in a housing complex where they can’t leave. The exact nature of the complex is left up to the GM to determine, and play revolves around figuring out what’s going on and, possibly, escaping. There are lots of nice, atmospheric bits to help play up the isolation, claustrophobia, and paranoia of the setting, and some advice on expanding the idea for longer play.
  • Court/Ship is set in Versailles in 1754. Lots of fancy food, court politics, intrigue, some duels… and aliens. Aliens who are invading in secret. They kill and eat humans, then wear their skins to pass among them. So, into the debauched court of Louis XV comes another scheming faction to mess with folks. The setting has hints for running it as a short, medium, or long game, and plenty of information on the time period – complete with relevant aspects.
  • Camelot Trigger was written by Rob Wieland9, and takes the Arthurian Round Table and puts them in giant robot armour to battle the robotic armies of MerGN-A out among the planets of the solar system. There are special rules for giant robot armour that can be ported to other giant robot armour games, and the skills get a nice tweak to reflect the space chivalry of the setting. Lots of solid stuff for a lengthy campaign, or for a pleasant session or two of diversion.

So, there it is. If you’re a fan of Fate Core or Fate Accelerated, but are wondering what to do with it, these two books should go a long way towards helping you out. I recommend you pick them up, even if you’re just looking for inspiration.

 

  1. Who is a pretty awesome guy; he ran a Firefly RPG game session at GenCon last year that I was lucky enough to play in. []
  2. No, it doesn’t, really. You can use the hacks and make up what the setting-specific stuff means. And they’re easily adaptable to other swashbuckling settings. But if you want to play in the 7th Sea setting, you’ll need info about the setting. []
  3. And thus more fun. []
  4. Oh, come on! The Fenian Cycle, with Fionn mac Cumhaill, has all the tropes of superhero comics, including the fan culture surrounding the heroes! It would work! []
  5. Yes, that John Rogers. []
  6. I’ll also point you towards the Leverage RPG at this time. []
  7. Mainly ex- or not-so-ex-criminals. []
  8. Though I can also see it being scaled down and sped up to get through is a single session for a convention or similar. []
  9. Remember him? Told you he was awesome. []

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’ve been thinking about character arcs in fiction and in roleplaying games. While I contend that RPGs don’t necessarily generate stories, characters still have a lot of the same qualities and requirements for us to enjoy them. In both fiction and RPGs, the basic formula for story is that the characters face obstacles and try to overcome them. And this is where one of the biggest differences between the two forms appears, because in fiction, characters can fail, but in RPGs, they can’t.

Now, I’m not saying that it is mechanically impossible for the characters in RPGs to fail. But, in the long history of RPGs-as-written,1, the basic assumption is that, if they fail, they die. This is because so many of the obstacles a character faces in an RPG are combats, and the general expectation is that the combat will be balanced to allow the heroes to overcome their foes, so it is only bad dice luck2 that kills PCs.

That mindset translates into other tasks in the games. Fail picking the lock? Well, try again. And again. And again, until either you open the lock or a trap kills you. Is that a disintegrate spell? Save or die. Tasks either can be repeated over and over3, or have immediate, irrevocable negative consequences4. Combat encounters that turn out to be too difficult are viewed as mistakes in balance on the part of the GM, or as the result of bad dice luck.

What this leaves out of the mix is a staple of fiction: heroes suffering a setback.

Setbacks are what happen when you don’t succeed at what you were trying to do, but don’t die. They are complications – new obstacles that show up because of your failure. They make things harder, or may close off an avenue of approach to your goal, but don’t completely prevent you from achieving the goal.

Classic RPGs, like D&D or RuneQuest, don’t handle setbacks very well. Fail and you either die, or can just try again. More modern games, like 13th Age and Fate, talk about using setbacks and the concept of failing forward, and provide some mechanical support for the ideas5. And there are a few games, like Drama System or the *World games or Fiasco, that live for the setback. The setback is the key to their success.

So, let’s talk about how different games handle setbacks.

13th Age

13th Age is described by its authors as a love letter to D&D. It has a bit of an old-school feel, coupled with some more modern elements of narrative games. It deals with setbacks in two different ways: negative icon relationships and the “fail forward” concept.

Negative icon relationships are sources for setbacks. By default, the GM rolls some dice at the start of a game to see which icons6 are important in this session and, if it comes up with an icon that one of the characters has a negative relationship with, that’s going to cause problems. It doesn’t quite fit the definition of a setback that I proposed above, but it does introduce new obstacles to the game based on player choices. If the characters are already in the middle of an adventure when a negative icon relationship rears its ugly head7, the new complication feels very much like the setbacks I’m talking about. So, all of a sudden, in the middle of a quest to recover an ancient sword for the Crusader, a character’s negative relationship with the Archmage comes up, and our heroes discover another group digging through the same ruins for the same sword, but they want to give it to the Archmage instead of the Crusader.

The “fail forward” idea is not exclusive to 13th Age8. It’s an idea and a viewpoint more than a mechanic, so it’s a little slippery sometimes to implement. On the other hand, because it doesn’t really have a mechanical component to it, it’s super portable to other game systems. The basic concept is that no failure on the part of the characters should dead-end an adventure. Failure should just complicate things. So, if you fail to pick the lock on the back door to the guildhall, instead of just not being able to go in that way, maybe you get the door open, but a guard spots you. Or you can’t work the lock, but a guard opens the door from the inside to see what all the noise is9. The adventure still goes forward, but now there’s a new complication to deal with – pretty much the definition of a setback.

Leverage RPG

What I’m going to talk about here is broadly applicable to all the Cortex Plus games. The Leverage RPG, though, gives the best and clearest example of setbacks in play. This is because pretty much the whole game is based on the assumption of competency on the characters’ part and the mechanic of the complication.

The basic assumption of the Leverage RPG is that your characters are not just good at what they do, they are among the best in the world. This is an important mindset for the game, because it makes it clear that a failed roll does not necessarily mean the character screwed up. It means something unexpected interrupted what would otherwise be the perfect plan. Trying to con someone out of the painting you need for the job? A fail doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t buy the pitch – it means that the painting is out for restoration work, or has been sold to someone else, or something like that10.

A lot of the time, failed rolls generate complications. In fact, you can run a whole Leverage RPG session by building the story and the opposition out of complications that play generates11. Complications can be added any time a player rolls a one on one or more of the dice in a roll. You take that die, give the player a plot point, and either add a new complication, or step up a current one. So, as the game goes along, more complications – Mob Interest d6, Heightened Security d10, Broken Toe d8 – arise and make the job more, well, complicated. And interesting. It builds the twists and turns you expect from a heist game12.

Fate Core

Fate has always worked on the idea that something interesting should happen on a failed roll, otherwise why bother rolling13? The latest iteration, Fate Core14, standardizes that idea, and gives some more mechanical guidelines, starting with the idea of the four outcomes.

The four outcomes are Fail, Tie, Succeed, and Succeed with Style, but the idea of setbacks only really comes in on the first two outcomes. If you fail, you might still get what you want, but at a serious cost. Serious costs make the current situation worse – it brings in new opposition, or grants a benefit to the current opposition, or maybe puts a consequence on the player. If you tie, you get what you want, but at a minor cost – adding a detail to the story that is problematic for the PC, or possibly giving the opposition a minor benefit. These are perfect examples of setbacks.

The ultimate setback in Fate Core, though, is the concession. At any point during a conflict15, a character can concede. This means that he or she loses the conflict, but gets to have some input on what losing means16, and earns some fate points in the bargain. So, to steal the example from the book, if you’re in a fight, and you’ve taken a couple of consequences already, and the bad guy is still big and strong and unhurt, you might want to concede. You get to say, “Okay, he doesn’t kill me or take me captive,” and the GM says, “Okay, he knocks you out, spits on you, takes your sword as a trophy, and leaves you for dead.” And then you get three fate points.

Drama System

Robin D. Laws’s new game system, Drama System, powers his Hillfolk game, and it has an interesting take on setbacks. The core of the game is dramatic interaction, where your character is alternately petitioning17 and being petitioned. The petition is one character seeking some sort of emotional concession from another character – I want him to respect me, I want her to love me, I want them to be proud of me, whatever. The other character can decide to grant or withhold that emotional concession, as they desire18.

What keeps this from getting bogged down in the standard I-will-not-lose, dig-in-the-heels argument stalemate that is so common in RPGs is that there is a drama point at stake, and you really want drama points in the game. They are a plot currency that gives you certain power over the narrative, and are incredibly useful and fun.

And you only get drama points if you don’t get what you want in the scene.

So, if you are the petitioner, you only get a drama point if the granter doesn’t give you that emotional concession. And, if you are the granter, you only get the drama point if you DO give the petitioner that emotional concession. The idea is that you will get what you want about half the time, and the other half, you get a setback and a drama point.

Apocalypse World

As with Leverage RPG, above, I’m using Apocalypse World as a single example of the entire family of *World games19. Setbacks are really the core of the system, and they are what drives the narrative and even forms the structure of the story. Whenever the PCs fail at a roll, the MC makes a move against them20, and then asks, “What do you do?”

“Well, you fire at old Scrub, but the bullet goes wide, and everyone hears the shot. Scrub dives for cover, and suddenly, Sheriff is on the scene, and she’s yelling at you to come out with your hands up. What do you do?”

“You can’t get the old door in the rock to open. The random codes you punched on the keypad didn’t make the light go from red to green, like it was supposed to. Something happens, though: sparks start to crackle all over the surface of the door, with little arcs of lighting grounding themselves in the surrounding cave wall. What do you do?”

It’s the “What do you do?” that you always end your moves with that make this setbacks. You’ve made things harder, added more obstacles, and generally defeated the characters, but the fact that you have to leave things open for the “What do you do?” means that you cannot dead-end the game. There must be a way forward – all the players21 have to do is decide what it is.

But good as the hard moves on a miss are, the really perfect example of the setback happens with a roll of 7-9. With that roll, the characters succeed at what they’re attempting,  but at a cost. Giving the characters a mixed success is good, but even better is making the characters choose between getting what they want and losing something else. This hard bargain creates some of the best setbacks in the game.

“Okay, you dive for cover, and roll up behind a burned-out car. As you fly through the air, you feel a tug at your clothing and, when you land and get your breath back, you see that a bullet went right through one of the ties on your pack. Half the contents, including your flashlight and the handkerchief full of bullets, are strewn on the ground out there, where the bullets are falling like rain. You’re safe where you are, but your gear is exposed and won’t last long under this fire. What do you do?”

Those are some fun setbacks.

Fiasco

Fiasco is another game built around setbacks. With the black and white dice mechanic, half the scenes22 end in an unfavourable outcome – as setback – for the character.  And it’s the rest of the group who gets to decide that. Oh, the player can influence what kind of ending he or she is getting through roleplaying, but really, if there’s no more white dice, it doesn’t matter how good the play or the argument, things will end bad.

Of course, bad endings are part of the fun of Fiasco. The first two pieces of advice I always give to new Fiasco players – especially if they’re experienced roleplayers – are:

  1. Don’t get too attached to your character. Bad things are gonna happen to him or her.
  2. Don’t try to “win.” Instead, embrace failure and self-destruction, and revel in them.

Fiasco players, like Drama System players, are incentivized to accept setbacks, because they are such a core part of the game. And they’re a core part of the game because they’re a core part of the inspiring media. Remember that Coen Brothers movie where everything went smooth for the characters and it all worked out great? Yeah, me neither.

So, Why Setbacks?

Okay, so we know what setbacks are, and how different games handle them. Why should we care?

  • Setbacks give the opportunity for character development, showing how characters deal with frustration, loss, and things other than success. That gives us more insight into the characters, the world, and the story.
  • Setbacks also vary the pacing and shape of the narrative. If events are just a single string of successes leading to a climax, we tend to get bored. Periodic failures keep us interested by building in suspense – if we know the character can’t fail, we can zone out, but if it’s in question, then we focus in. It’s just more interesting to us.
  • We know that, in life, nothing is ever perfectly smooth. There’s always a few hiccups along the way, and sometimes we need to take a step back before we can take a step forward. And, if our games have the same sorts of things, we can more closely identify with the characters we’re playing. It feels more real to us.
  • It gives us the opportunity to do fun things in a game. Have the heroes captured by pirates, or chased away from the rich treasure by a fearsome beast, or get caught in the stolen car with the twelve sticks of dynamite and open bottle of bourbon. You can throw in the weird and unexpected, the frustrating and the fun23.
  • Setbacks provide a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the adventure. Characters had more obstacles to overcome to reach the end, and had to work harder for their reward. It makes the eventual victory24 that much sweeter.

And that’s why you should care about setbacks in your game.

For the Players

Okay, gang, I’ve just spent close to 3000 words telling GMs that they should screw their players over25. Now I’m going to claim that I did it all for you.

As a player, I suggest you embrace any setbacks that come your way. They are another chance to show off how awesome your character is, in victory and in defeat. James Bond gets captured by the villain all the time, just so he can show off how cool he is when he escapes. Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite so that he can have his emotional moments with Leia and so that the rest of the gang can come and rescue him. The Fellowship of the Ring has to turn back from the mountain pass, and they get to confront horrible26 evils from the dawn of time in the Mines of Moria.

Setbacks are just another way to let your character be cool. It’s an opportunity to add a twist to the story, and to reveal something interesting about the characters, and to earn a sweeter victory at the end. Of course, this depends on both the GM and the players accepting this idea, and then implementing it in game. The chance to add further problems to the characters’ lives is probably incentive enough to get GMs on board with this, but it requires players to jump in just as eagerly, and to reward the GMs with good play and good moments when encountering a setback.

If both GMs and players are enthusiastic about the way setbacks can enrich a game, then setbacks will happen and will be awesome, even if you’re using an old-style game like RuneQuest or D&D.

 

  1. I’m going to be focusing on D&D in these examples, because it is the most universal touchstone that gamers have, and also really illustrates my point. []
  2. And sometimes poor tactics. []
  3. “I do exactly the same thing that didn’t work last time, but harder!” []
  4. “Natural one, huh? Well, I guess that medusa has a new fighter statue for her garden. What do you want to play next?” []
  5. Especially Fate Core and it’s derived games, and certain iterations of Cortex Plus. []
  6. For those unfamiliar with 13th Age, icons are the powerful NPCs and their factions that control the setting, like the Dragon Emperor, the Diabolist, the Elf Queen, and the Archmage. They all have their own agendas, and PCs frequently get involved in those agendas, for better or worse. []
  7. Or heads, as the case may be. []
  8. I’m pretty sure the phrase originated elsewhere – I want to say in Sorcerer, but that’s just because a lot of new language that we use to discuss games originated there. []
  9. Or, if you’ve got the right kind of group who will accept a heavy narrative hand from the GM, “Everything goes black. You wake up in a cell, chained to the wall. There’s just enough play in the manacles that your fingers can reach the big bump on the back of your head. You never even heard your assailant sneaking up behind you, you were so focused on the lock.” []
  10. Again, the idea of failing forward – adding a new obstacle, but not dead-ending the game. []
  11. I know this because I’ve done it. All you need is a basic idea of the job – the mark, the client, the basic situation. Stat out the mark with a couple of dice, as described in the rulebook, and you’re ready to run. Just make sure you have plenty of index cards or sticky notes to track the complications as they arise. []
  12. And from the TV show. []
  13. This is similar to Vincent D. Baker’s idea of “Say yes, or roll the dice.” []
  14. Which is available on a pay-what-you-like model in .pdf here. []
  15. Usually when things are going badly and defeat looks imminent. []
  16. Usually not dying. []
  17. Not in the formal sense, you understand. And often not directly. []
  18. And the game builds in reasons for the granter to not want to give that concession. []
  19. Including Dungeon World, Monster Hearts, Dungeon Planet, tremulus, and others that I probably haven’t heard of. []
  20. As hard and direct a move as the MC wants. Not as hard and direct a move as the MC can. This is a vital distinction in keeping the game flowing. And the characters alive. []
  21. Yes, the players. They choose their next moves, and, if they roll well, whatever they choose is the way forward. []
  22. Well, possibly a little more or a little less, if you use the default rule that the last die is wild. []
  23. Caveat: if you’re going to throw in the frustrating, you better throw in enough fun to compensate. Otherwise, you’re a jerk. []
  24. Assuming there is one, of course. But that’s a topic for another day. []
  25. Well, no I didn’t, but that could be one interpretation. []
  26. But very cool. []

Fast Fate

In case you missed it, I wrote a moderately long post about Fate Core. To be totally honest, I hadn’t intended to write that post, but as I was writing this post, I realized that it would make a whole lot more sense if I gave folks a look at Fate Core before tackling Fate Accelerated Edition.

So, what’s Fate Accelerated Edition? Here’s how they pitched it during the Fate Core Kickstarter. Basically, it’s the quick-start rules for Fate Core, pared down to a 32-page1 book. Describing it that way doesn’t really do justice to what Clark Valentine and the rest of the Evil Hat team has accomplished here.

FAE is not just an introductory game, or a set of quick-start rules. It is a fully functional implementation of Fate, tweaked for getting people playing fast even if they’ve never gamed before. It’s not just the kids’ version of Fate2 – it’s certainly as welcoming to younger gamers as it is to beginners, but there is an elegance and refinement to the system that will, I think, appeal a lot to older, more experienced players looking for something light and flexible.

I haven’t played FAE yet, but it may be my favourite implementation of the Fate rules yet.

Now, that statement is not intended to denigrate any of the other Fate games I love. I’ve just found that, as I’ve gotten older, I look for different things in game systems. There was a time I was deeply enamoured of complex, simulationist games and of rich, detailed rulesets, and elaborate sub-systems, but that time has passed. Now, I look for simple systems that will make it easy for the GM to improvise and supports player creativity without imposing too many mechanical constraints on their choices. Fate games fit that requirement, but FAE fits it best of all.

FAE runs on the Fate Core engine, but they’ve made a number of changes to simplify things, and to focus the play style in certain ways. If I don’t comment on something below, you can assume that it works just like in Fate Core.

No Skills

One of the biggest differences in the game is that there are no skills. The things your character can do are decided by the type of game you’re playing and the aspects your character has. So, in a game about mystical martial artists with control over the elements3, it’s reasonable to expect characters to be able to do fun, cinematic wuxia moves, like leaping up on to an enemy’s sword and kicking him in the face. And, if you have the aspect Wizardly Honour Student, you should be able to cast some basic spells4 and tell people all about the history of your magical school.

This covers the kinds of things you can do, but it doesn’t cover how well you can do it. That part is covered by approaches.

Approaches

Approaches replace skill ranks in determining how good your character is at any given thing. They don’t talk about what you’re doing, but about how you’re doing it. There are six different approaches: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky5. Characters get one at Good (+3), two at Fair (+2), two at Average (+1), and one at Mediocre (+0). So, when you’re trying to do something that you may or may not be able to do, you decide what approach you’re using, and make your roll using that.

I love this approach6 because of the way it makes you think about your character’s actions in play. If my highest approach is Careful, I’m probably going to be doing things in the game that reflect that – planning, finding things out, fighting defensively rather than charging blithely in, etc. On the other hand, if my highest approach is Forceful, not only am I going to be front and centre in any fight, I’m going to resort to intimidation or stubbornness before persuasion and compromise.

Example? Sure! Let’s say we’re playing a pirate game, and three characters are fighting off some boarders. Anna has Forceful as her highest approach, Beaumonde has Clever, and Clement has Flashy. Anna’s best bet is to dive in, pressing the enemy hard, and trying to drive them back. Beaumonde is probably going to look around for ways to trick his opponents without actually engaging them – gaining advantage rather than attacking. And Clement is probably going to be swinging from ropes, rallying the defenders, and maybe dueling the enemy captain one-on-one. Three different characters, three different styles – all supported and reinforced by the mechanics of the game.

Quick Game and Character Creation

The process outlined in Fate Core for creating the game setting and characters is streamlined in FAE, with the goal of getting people up and playing in half an hour. Game creation especially is pared down – basically, it comes down to having a quick conversation to decide some very basic parameters of the game world. Things like, “We’re playing kids attending a school for wizards,” or, “This is a game set in a 19th-century steampunk world with zombies.” Just enough to give everyone a starting point for thinking about the game world.

The biggest change to character creation7 is the removal of the story phases . Players pick a High Concept aspect, a Trouble aspect, and between one and three other aspects, depending on how many good ideas they have for aspects at this stage. If you leave an aspect blank, you can fill it in during play. Character aspects in FAE take on even more of the duty of filling in details of the world, thanks to the pared-down version of game creation, which helps put the characters even more solidly at the centre of the game.

After the aspects are chosen, everyone gets to pick their approaches, as described above. One of the nice touches is that the book provides six archetypal distributions of the approaches, so you can quickly grab the approaches for, say, the Brute or the Trickster or the Swashbuckler. Then everyone picks between zero and three stunts – again, stunts you don’t choose can be filled in during play.

Simple Stunts

Stunt creation is simplified in FAE, boiling it down to a very clean way of coming up with your stunts. It uses the fill-in-the-blank approach that clarified compels in Fate Core, and I think it’s just brilliant. There are two categories of stunt, the first using the following sentence:

Because I [describe some way that you are exceptional, have a cool bit of gear, or are otherwise awesome], I get a +2 when I [pick one: Carefully, Cleverly, Flashily, Forcefully, Quickly, Sneakily][pick one: attack, defend, create advantages, overcome] when [describe circumstance].

Now, this leads to stunts like:

Swashbuckling Swordswoman: Because I am a swashbuckling swordswoman, I gain a +2 to Flashy attacks when crossing blades with a single opponent.

The other stunt type uses the following template:

Because I [describe some way that you are exceptional, have a cool bit of gear, or are otherwise awesome], once per game session I can [describe something cool you can do].

This gives you stunts like:

Gadgeteer: Because I am a gadgeteer, once per session I may declare that I have an especially useful device that lets me eliminate one situation aspect.

You can have up to three stunts for free. Each stunt after that costs a point of refresh.

No Extras

In Fate Core, extras are the special powers, magical gear, and other things that make your character different from the rest of the world. There are no extras in FAE – that role is filled by character aspects. So, if you have an aspect like Weather Witch, you don’t need an extra like Meteorological Magic to be able to whistle up the wind. You have the Weather Witch aspect, so you can try to do that. The GM will ask you how you do that – i.e., what approach you use – and tells you to roll.

Potential Issues

Okay, I really love this iteration of Fate, but I can see some things that might be problematic for some people, so I’m going to call them out here. These are not problems with FAE8, but they are points to consider as you try and decide if this game is for you. You need to think about these things.

  • It may not provide the level of mechanical detail you want. Using approaches instead of skills means that carving out a niche for your character based on what he or she is good at doing9 doesn’t work too well. You can use aspects for this, but for some people, that may not be satisfying. And you may find approaches just too broad in what they cover.
  • Unless you’re trying to emulate a specific world – The Legend of Korra, or Harry Potter, for example – you may find yourselves having to do a lot of improvisation to fill in details of the world you decide to play in. If you’re good at that sort of thing, that’s not a problem, but if you’re not, it may demand a bit more prep time to create those details between game sessions.
  • The removal of the story phases from character creation means you lose that handy tool for tying the characters together from the outset. Maybe they’ll do it anyway, but you may have to spend the first part of play getting the characters together and pointed in the same direction.
  • The lack of extras, and the reliance on aspects, makes it very easy to play like a munchkin. As with all rules-light systems10, communication and trust between GM and players is vitally necessary to prevent one character stealing the spotlight from everyone else by taking advantage of the openness of the rule set and ignoring the implied understanding of co-operative play between the players.

So, think about those points when you’re deciding about this game. I think FAE is a great game, but it is not the perfect tool for every game or every group. Understand what it does well, and what it doesn’t do well, and you’ll have a better chance of getting a good play experience out of using it11.

Mix and Match

I’ve been talking about FAE and Fate Core as if they’re two different games, and they’re not, really. One of the things that make me so excited by FAE is the way it shows how you can hack Fate Core, to tweak the play experience in very specific ways12.

It also gives you a number of modular pieces that you can pull out and add to Fate Core, or vice-versa. Want an FAE game that has more developed original setting? Use the game creation rules from Fate Core. Folks in your Fate Core game having trouble coming up with stunts? Give them the two-page stunts section from FAE. Tack the extras system onto FAE to standardize weird powers. Use the approaches in Fate Core to simplify the skill system. Mix and match and blend until you have the mixture you like best.

So?

I think that FAE is my favourite implementation of Fate. I like Fate Core hugely, but the simplification of FAE appeals to my aesthetic sense a little bit more. It is a beautiful, elegant, clean system that makes it easy for folks to get into Fate games, and has me wanting to launch a new campaign – any new campaign – with a group of players to try it out.

Oh, and it’s only gonna cost you five bucks when it comes out. Did I mention that? Thus you have no excuse not to buy it and try it. But don’t do it just because it’s cheap.

Do it because it’s awesome.

  1. Though I should note here that the .pdf pre-release candidate I received as a Kickstarter backer is currently 48 pages. Some of that is index, cheat sheets, and art. []
  2. Though it slants towards that sort of feel with the wonderful, cartoony art that Fred has been previewing. []
  3. Just for instance. []
  4. Hell, even some advanced spells; you’re an honour student, after all! []
  5. Shadows of Esteren uses something kind of like this, but the how is paired with a skill in a more traditional way. []
  6. Though I can certainly see why others might not; I’ll be talking about that, too. []
  7. Other than use of approaches rather than skills. []
  8. Really, I see most of them as features rather than bugs. []
  9. Rather than how he or she is good at doing things. []
  10. I don’t think Fate in general is rules-light, but FAE certainly is. []
  11. This advice, of course, applies to every game system. I want to mention it explicitly here because of how much I’m gushing. Gotta be balanced. []
  12. The Fate Toolkit and Fate Worlds books coming from the Kickstarter will help with that, too. []

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? []