Strands of Fate Review

RPG design innovation is a slow, deliberate affair. For all the games which push the envelope, there are an equal number that go back over existing designs to tweak and adjust them. Even Fate, which represented a significant push on traditional mechanics when it first appeared 15 years ago, isn’t immune from this phenomena. Strands of Fate appeared on the market between when Spirit of the Century came out in 2006 and when Fate’s role as Evil Hat’s flagship was cemented with Fate Core in 2013. At the time, there wasn’t a generic version of Fate, and Strands of Fate sought to do that by expanding the mechanics and options available in existing Fate games like Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures. When Fate Core did appear, not only were there now two generic versions of Fate, there were two vastly different versions of Fate.

Now, after eight or so years, Strands of Fate has a second edition. While not a dramatic shift from the first edition, the new version takes many lessons learned from Void Star Studios’ other Fate game, Nova Praxis, as well as what’s been going on in the Fate ecosystem at large. As a fork prior to Fate Core, Strands of Fate is essentially Fate’s Pathfinder, a refined approach to an older version of the system that approached things very differently.

While what’s different in Strands of Fate is what will interest most Fate gamers, what’s the same is important, especially as Fate has always worked a little differently than many traditional RPGs. Strands of Fate doesn’t change this, and the core gameplay loop is the same as pretty much any other Fate-based game. Most actionable elements in the world, be they character properties (“Sucker for a Pretty Face”), environment properties (“Slippery Rock Face”), or even plot properties (“Under the thrall of an evil wizard”), are represented by Aspects. Characters use their Fate Points to invoke Aspects, which indicates them taking advantage of the particular property to further their goals. To keep the game flowing, the GM gives out Fate Points by getting players to accept Compels, which are complications brought about by their character’s Aspects. Where Strands of Fate diverges from Fate Core is the level of specificity in the mechanics and the level of rules complexity which is achieved.

The two primary sets of character traits in Fate Core and Strands of Fate, Aspects and Skills, go opposite ways in terms of complexity. Strands of Fate has a slightly shorter skill list than Fate Core, but those skills are more fundamental than the ones in Fate Core. Whereas Fate Core has Drive, Shoot, and Craft, Strands of Fate has Mobility, Reasoning, and Guile. These skills split the difference between a traditional game’s skills and stats, or between Fate Core’s Skills and Fate Accelerated’s Approaches. Like in Fate Accelerated, more specific skills can be called out as Aspects, or as Perks (what are known as Perks in Strands of Fate are mechanically similar, if not exactly equivalent, to Stunts in Fate Core).

Aspects are the first place where the core philosophical difference between Strands of Fate and Fate Core is made very clear. In Fate Core, there are Aspects and there are Boosts, which are Aspects that can only be invoked once. In Strands of Fate, there are both Standard Aspects and Minor Aspects (which are mechanically identical to boosts), but there are also Major Aspects. Major Aspects are “always on”, and produce a mechanical benefit (or detriment) to any situation in which they’re relevant, even without having any party spend a Fate Point. Due to having three Aspect types, Strands of Fate specifies how many shifts (how much you beat a die roll by) will allow you to create each type of Aspect when you attempt such a roll. These two things begin to get into how Strands of Fate compares to Fate Core broadly…the designers are going for more definition. Major Aspects mechanically define when Aspects give benefits without invocation…in Fate Core you’re told that “Aspects are always real” and are expected to adjudicate accordingly. This is a small example close to the core of the rules, but the basic philosophy continues throughout the game.

This basic philosophy is that of delineation and specification. Game setup is one key example of this that has some significant knock-on effects for the amount of rules detail in the rest of the game. In addition to establishing a number of skill points and Refresh, two things which are tweakable in Fate Core, Strands of Fate also has you establish a power level. In Strands of Fate, this power level not only alters your initial character build but also determines which Perks you have access to. What’s important here is not what the power level is, but the fact that in Strands of Fate there is a determined set which lead to determined Perks. Remember, not only was power level left entirely up to the GM in Fate Core, but there’s also no predetermined Stunt list! Strands of Fate is a much more grounded, delineated version of Fate, which while neither bad nor good, is certainly different from Fate Core.

One of the most significant parts of the rules which bear out how much more detail is recorded in Strands of Fate is combat. From the beginning of the chapter, one of the first tables called out is combat actions. These actions are simple enough, but differentiating melee attacks, ranged attacks, touch attacks and hand-to-hand attacks based on applicable skill is more detail than is given in Fate Core by a significant margin. While the overall combat structure is similar to other Fate games, Strands of Fate gets down into the weeds when it comes to providing rules structure for combat maneuvers. Fate Core is built on four ingame actions: attack, defend, overcome, and create an advantage. Within Strands of Fate there are roughly 20 combat maneuvers which have specified rules, and this doesn’t even count the overlapping rules for creating and using aspects. Providing this rules detail is of course helpful, but immediately the feel of a Fate game is different when operating from a more traditional menu of maneuvers as opposed to building out the circumstances using aspects and a few choices.

Beyond more delineated rules, Strands of Fate also provides a number of optional rules and some commentary on how they affect gameplay. Called Deviations, these optional rules range from simplifying certain parts of character creation to adding whole subsystems, like initiative systems and rules for hit locations. The deviations are similar to some of the expanded rules seen in Fate toolkits, but also involve bringing in more traditional gameplay rules. Some, like the playing card initiative, are obviously drawn from Void Star’s time writing for Savage Worlds. None of this is a bad thing, especially as optional rules, but it’s clear that the options exist for players to bring Fate more in line with traditional games in places where players and GMs think it counts.

Where Strands of Fate uses all these options to its advantage are the eponymous Strands. A Strand, of which there are four examples in the book, is a complete selection of available optional rules to align the game with given genres. The four examples in the book set up Strands of Fate for Lovecraftian Horror, Fantasy, Supers, and Cyberpunk. Each one sets a power level and tech level, bounds off the specific set of perks that works for the genre, and then provides deviations, both required and optional, which help give the game the right feel. While the Strands don’t add anything new to the mechanics, per se, they do show how Strands of Fate is intended to be used as a toolkit. While Strands of Fate adds a ton of new crunch to the basic Fate template, it does so in a way that is intended to make it easy to pick and choose whichever rules variants work best for a given genre.There are more rules to work with, but the rules are often more understandable to those coming from traditional games like Savage Worlds or D&D.

Strands of Fate aims to align the core Fate gameplay loop with a set of definitions more familiar to traditional gamers. In doing so, it creates an odd sort of hybrid…players of games like Savage Worlds will recognize the options as well as how combat is defined, but the player-facing and narrative-driven elements of Fate don’t entirely go away. Ultimately, the best audience to recommend Strands of Fate for is still Fate players. Strands of Fate is a very different approach to Fate, one that may sit better than Fate Core, which collapses all its rules into cohesive but hard to digest meta-concepts. If your group likes the idea of Fate but has bounced off the game before, Strands of Fate may be just the ticket. You’ll still be engaging with the Fate point economy and a lot of really meta mechanics, but the rules expansions will make GMing more consistent and in some ways more understandable. No matter your preference, Strands of Fate offers a new and quite different way to approach the Fate system.

Strands of Fate is available at DriveThruRPG.

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