Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we look at an RPG that over four editions has turned from an indie darling to a Kickstarter juggernaut: Fate!
One of the largest developments in role-playing games in the last decade or so is the increasing prominence of what was called the “indie” community. While an indie RPG community has arguably existed in some form ever since Tunnels and Trolls was written as an improved version of D&D, in the 21st century it has been more focused around creating deliberate game rules intended to accomplish something different than the most popular games already out there. One of the most significant releases from indie developers was Apocalypse World and the Powered by the Apocalypse ruleset, and another was Fate.
Fate was originally released in 2003, but surged to new heights of recognition (and sales) when the generic version of its fourth edition, Fate Core (and its lighter brother Fate Accelerated), was released via an enormously successful Kickstarter in 2013. Since then Fate has become the cornerstone of a significant ecosystem, including games designed for Fate like Atomic Robo and Jadepunk as well as conversions of other settings like Eclipse Phase and Interface Zero. Beyond entire games designed in Fate, the generic Core and Accelerated games have both a system toolkit and a whole line of Fate Worlds books which both provide campaign settings and illustrations of different ways to hack the system.
Fate is an interesting system that dispenses with a lot of design choices considered standard for role-playing games. There are no stats whatsoever, and the ebb and flow of the game is largely dependent on the use of Fate points, a meta-currency which gives players bonuses to abilities and control over in-game elements. Additionally, the central mechanics for engaging with the in-game world are called Aspects, which are differentiated from each other only by their description. Aspects and Fate points are central to the game, but are also the two elements most likely to throw new players for a loop, especially if those players are more used to traditional games. Once a new player understands both how Aspects work and how Fate points work (and the cycle of Fate point use called the “Fate point economy”), then it’s much easier to appreciate how flexible and fun Fate can be.
In Fate, Aspects are mechanical differentiators that describe an important trait of a character. Each Aspect is a short descriptor (“Strength of a Bull”, or “Last of the Hightower Wizards”) which represents a property that’s relevant to the character. Aspects can be invoked by a player, giving their character a bonus to a relevant action, and they can be compelled by the GM, causing a complication in the story that’s germane to the Aspect. While the mechanics for all Aspects are the same, the GM has to make sure that the Aspect’s effect makes sense in the game’s fiction. For player characters, there are two special Aspects: the high concept, which should summarize what makes the character unique, and the trouble, which should summarize what gives the character the most, well, trouble.
The rules vary in each iteration, but Aspects are the one constant in Fate. While the game’s rules define the use of Skills, Stunts, and Approaches as additional ways to differentiate characters, Aspects are the only mechanical element that is required. As another example, you can choose to represent damage in combat, or you can solely use Consequences, which are rules for a specific set of Aspects. Further compounding the power of Aspects is a design maxim called the Fate Fractal: anything in the game world can be modeled as a character. This means everything uses Aspects in the same way, so any challenge the GM can think of can be written with the same set of rules.
What makes Aspects difficult and sometimes confusing is that they are similar to many other trait-based mechanics in role-playing games but also completely different. This dissonance causes a lot of confusion, and also means it can sometimes be harder to start playing Fate after other games, compared to starting your RPG journey with Fate. Ultimately, this comes down to what Aspects are supposed to represent. In many games, there are mechanical traits intended to simulate the real life abilities and limitations of a character. Core statistics in a game like D&D are a great example of this. Other mechanical traits are gamified versions of a character’s abilities or limitations; instead of simulating the character directly, they specify ways that the character interacts with game rules. Feats from D&D and Talents from Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games both work this way. In Fate, Aspects are neither of these things, instead being narrative elements of your character’s abilities or limitations. So while a strength stat tells you how much your character can lift, and a power blow feat “unlocks” a specific attack in the rules, the Aspect “Strength of a Bull” is telling you that the character’s strength is going to have an impact on the story. This is why everything in Fate can be specified with Aspects; all the GM needs to do is specify why the object is important to the story and it’s mechanically defined. A house fire could have the Aspect “Choking Smoke”, a car could have the Aspect “Questionable Electronics”, and a thicket of bushes could have the Aspect “Covered with Thorns”. The Fractal implies you can give objects other character traits like skills or stunts, but generally Aspects cover most of what you need without getting too far into the weeds.
One of the challenging things about Aspects is writing them for player characters. While it’s OK for static objects or lesser NPCs to affect a story in relatively straightforward ways, the PCs are going to be central to the story, and in Fate Core they have all of five Aspects to cover the breadth of their significance. Since Aspects are narrative devices, the easiest way to think about them is if the player character was a character in a novel. Like characters in novels, interesting characters in games have gifts, flaws, beliefs, motivations, and other traits which drive their behavior. Aspects give you a large palette to describe these elements of your character, but the large amount of latitude given in the core rules also makes character creation a bit daunting.
So what can you do to make the process easier? For GMs, there are two strategies that can take the load off your players who may be scratching their heads during character creation. First, make it clear that Aspects aren’t set in stone. The progression system used in Fate gives players the opportunity to reword or revisit an Aspect every session. If a player discovers that the Aspect they wrote just isn’t working, give them a chance to edit it. Second, take the character creation rules in the book as a suggestion. The “Crossing Paths” system of choosing three Aspects is a fantastic system for interweaving character backstories, but it also creates a lot of pressure to define a new character who may still be amorphous in the player’s mind prior to starting the game. What I often do instead is have each player come up with the two primary Aspects (high concept and trouble) and leave the other three blank. Then, in play, when it comes time to invoke an Aspect, the player can fill in one of the blank spots with something that makes sense for the character. The Fate Core player’s guide has some guidance on the content of Aspects, but what’s most helpful for new players is taking the pressure off of the process so that they (and their GM) can see what works and learn by doing.
Fate Point Economy
There are two things that get the most attention when talking about Fate’s mechanics from an outsider perspective: first is the funky dice, and second is the Fate point economy. While the dice are indeed funky, they aren’t anything new by themselves: Dice with two plus signs, two minus signs, and two blanks were first specified for Fudge, a game that had some very innovative concepts but was fairly traditional (some have even said it plays like a rules-light version of GURPS). While Fate was derived from Fudge and borrowed some ideas (like the descriptive ladder), there are also many new concepts, like Fate points. The Fate point economy makes Fate play quite a bit differently, and require a slightly different set of thinking.
Fate points are an example of a meta-currency. As mentioned above, much of the interaction in-game comes from invoking aspects for bonuses and having them compelled to add complications. Invoking aspects costs the player Fate points, and when the GM compels player aspects they receive Fate points. In an ideal scenario, the ebb and flow of fate points going back and forth from the players to the GM keeps the narrative interesting by both continuously adding challenge and twists while also continuously giving players chances to get the spotlight and do something awesome. This continuous flow of Fate points back and forth, as well as the notion that the GM “supplies” Fate points and the players “demand” them, explains why “Fate point economy” is a useful description.
The problem with the Fate point economy is not with the rules about Fate points themselves, but in how those rules violate expectations borne from other games. Dungeons and Dragons and most traditional RPGs are games of resource management. With a limited number of spell slots and daily use abilities, part of the challenge of the game is making risk/reward decisions about using your abilities versus having them for a later, more challenging fight. Fate points are *not* part of a resource management game, and treating them as such both slows down the game and prevents players from using their abilities as often as they could or should. It’s another way the Fate point economy works like an actual economy: money needs to flow, and excessive saving causes problems
The simplest way for GMs to counter this is to give out lots of Fate points. Be on the lookout for ways to make the story interesting by making it complicated. In combats and encounters, use a “hostile invoke”, invoking an NPC’s Aspect and giving the Fate point that NPC “spent” to the player on the receiving end. Both of these tactics help your players feel more comfortable using Fate points, but also normalize how often invokes should come up in encounters. Beyond just giving out lots of Fate points, try and pay attention to how many Fate points are on the table. In addition to seeing how players are engaging with the Fate point economy, it can sometimes also tell you which players are getting more of the spotlight. One other little trick to keep the invokes and compels coming: if you ever see a player spend their last Fate point, look for the earliest opportunity to get them another one. Since this isn’t supposed to be a resource management game, things like this reassure your players that you’re not going to let them run out of points to spend. Just like a real economy, though, try not to devalue your currency: if you’re going to give out more Fate points make sure you’re doing it by using more compels and hostile invokes. In addition to the fact that making your characters’ lives interesting makes the game more fun, Fate gives players some control when in-character failures come up so it’s a game where you can play harder as a GM without making anything seem unfair.
Fate is a game system that hits a sweet spot of both accessibility and adaptability. In addition to being easy to teach, the game is also delightfully easy to hack, making it a favorite for GMs who prefer to write their own material. At the same time the game’s publisher, Evil Hat, has both published and licensed a cornucopia of different settings and variants that can be picked up and played without any tweaking necessary. Very few games out there have this degree of support, especially games which may be considered “indie”. Fate does have its design limitations, going for story over simulation and requiring that players engage with strong meta-mechanics. Even if those elements don’t sound like games you’ve played before, Fate is worth a shot. From my experience, once you give the rules a read and understand how both Aspects and the Fate point economy differ from the gaming assumptions you’ve had in the past, you’ll be rewarded with a fast and flexible system that scratches a very different itch from your standard dungeon crawl.
Fate products are available from Evil Hat Productions. Additionally, two other products mentioned in this post, Interface Zero 2.0 Fate Edition and Eclipse Phase: Transhumanity’s Fate, are available from DriveThruRPG. Gamers interested in reading more about the Fate rules and ecosystem are encouraged to check out the Fate System Reference Document.