Saturday 7 February 2009

Fate - The system that might make you change the way you play

Fantastic Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment (Fate) by Robert Donoghue and Fred Hicks is a smart, generic game system that will guide you into towards delightful, fascinating and wholly unpredictable story-driven roleplaying experience. That sounds like saccharin marketing material but I do believe it's true. If you're a more traditional roleplayer, like me, you will uncover something for you to add to your game. Onward then, as I review Fate and panel beat some truly dreadful metaphors from the grey steel of the English language.

The system

Fate is based upon Fudge. Although I've reviewed Fudge before, I'll go through the basics so that you can see how Fate massages the moisturising cream of story into Fudge's hard mechanical skin.

Fudge describes difficulty using a series of Adjectives called the Ladder. The adjectives are Abysmal, Terrible, Poor, Mediocre, Average, Fair, Good, Great, Superb, Epic and Legendary. You use these words to represent your proficiency in various things. You roll 4D6, each 1 and 2 you roll sends you down the ladder (for example, from Poor to Terrible), each 5,6 you go up. Before you roll, there will be a target adjective on the ladder you're trying to get to - for example to do a reverse-handbrake-turn in a car, you might need to get to 'Good'. If you beat this, you get a Margin of Success, if you don't get up the ladder enough, you get a Margin of Failure. Two characters rolling against each other compare results to find the winner. Fate adds challenges, where you can chain lots of rolls together. A challenge allows a character to do something much more difficult by breaking the task down into a series of small checks.

Character creation

This is where Fate takes its first bold paces into story. Many of the ideas presented here can be lifted and pasted into your own game. It's where I start frothing excitedly with anticipation.

It begins with the GM overview. The GM describes the setting, theme and tone. Is it a Space Opera hack and slash? Is it an intrigue set in dusty vaults and tunnels under London in 1901? This is where you find out. If you have a formal setting, that's OK but you can also thrown caution to the wind and soar into the unknown - buoyed by the thermic drafts of your GM's imagination.

Characters are moulded in a series of phases. Each phase is part of your characters life where things happen. These things are what give you Aspects, Skills and Extras. For example, if you survive a University degree in Mechanical Engineering, you might get a skill in that and an Aspect of Learned with an Extra of a tool kit. Perhaps also skills in drinking, sleeping in late and vomiting into the coiffured gardens of unsuspecting neighbours. It depends on the setting, naturally. The number of phases depends mainly on the GM and setting.

A character is made up from Aspects, Skills and Extras. There are no set attributes or feats, you have to dream them up yourself. Settings will have a list of Aspect examples but the players are spurred on to go off-piste, down the steepest side of their imagination mountains. Aspects include attributes (quick, intelligent), descriptors (charming, attractive), careers (soldier) or setting specific ideas. When you choose an aspect, it starts with one level, you can choose to boost it in subsequent phases if you wish.

Skills are bought using skill ranks. Each phase, you get to add ranks to each skill and they then translate into the Ladder (Average, Good etc). You can't pump all your ranks into a single skill, you need to balance by having twice as many in the rank below. For example, if you have 2 skills with rank 3, you must have 4 at rank 2. And 8 at rank 1 you need one more at the next skill down. For example, if you have 2 skills at rank 3, you must have 3 at rank 2 and 4 at rank 1 (many thanks for the spot, Little Shepherd). They try and justify this but I think the reasons feel more like excuses and they should just be content with saying that it's a game mechanic - live with it.

Once you've been through all the phases, you then set a goal - this is really to help the GM and as I am a serial one, I like any system that can help me satiate the frothing, rabid thirst of those putrid, gnashing, slavering, Darwin-baiting genetic-throwbacks I call my player group.

Aspects and Extras

Aspects are more than just advantages and disadvantages, they can represent traditional attributes, such as Strength but can also also represent connections to the criminal world, an ugly face or anything that might have an impact on the game. To use an Aspect, you explain to the somewhat suspicious GM how the Aspect helps in the task. You can then re-roll, or change one of the values. Alternatively, the GM can invoke the Aspect and do something detrimental to the character, the player can either spend Fate points to avoid it or gain Fate points by letting it happen. This is simply superb. You can keep using Aspects; once used, they lie dormant until refreshed. Extras are more raw abilities and 'stuffs' (such as a rocket launcher) and are bought with skill ranks.

Fate Points

These are points that can be used to add +1 to each roll and also to take narrative control of the game. In English, that means that Fate points are used for the players to tell the GM what's going on. There are other uses for Fate points, all encircling the concept of teamwork and character interaction. There are lots of ways of handing out Fate points, too - mostly concerned with putting effort into the game.

Other Sections

More than half of the book is concerned with describing, illustrating and supporting these rules. The GM section is all-important when you are trying to describe a new sort of gaming. After all, it is normally the GM that explains the rules to the players. The items of the GM section scream out that they are the result of long play testing. Magic and superpowers are dealt with as are a large list of Aspect example and Skill. Not an exhaustive list but enough to demonstrate what Aspects are for. The appendices hold alternative rules, the Fudge minimalist system and some design decisions. Hurrah! This is exactly where they should be. There is also a sample creation of game that reads like a film script. I liked this a lot as it shows how Fate can be used. There's also an index.


Fate will be a paradigm skid for most and that is a downside. This review echoes one problem with it. You will have to spend more time explaining it to your players. It will take more effort to get to grips with as the manner of play is new. You might think that's a beautiful thing, then great! This is definitely the system for you. Also, at some points the explanations are too tied up with examples. It could be ordered a little better with introduction sections. For example, Fate Points are mentioned seemingly at random before really explained about them. There could be a description page where it went through each concept and how they interact.

And that's it

Fate is a professional inspiration made free. Beautifully typeset, free of grammatical or typographical errors, its 90 pages present a game system for a very different sort of roleplaying. Allow the players some control, after all, why not? If you're looking for something different, Fate might just be the system to refresh your ideas about roleplaying.


Zachary Houghton said...

Excellent review, Rob! Keep 'em coming!

Michael "Stargazer" Wolf said...

Great review! FATE is a game I wanted to try out for quite some time now. Especially the aspects sound pretty cool, although I had some trouble to get my head around that concept. I even bought a couple of FUDGE dice just to be able to play FATE. :)

Rob Lang said...

Thanks chaps!

I had to admit going back through Icar and thinking whether I could add some of the more story telling ideas in... perhaps as option rules in the GM section. I have experimented tentatively with my more-evil-than-thou players and the results can be terrifying and spectacular, leading often to a table of shocked faces or raucous laughter!

@Stargazer, I might get some Fudge dice just for the kudos. :)

Jozef Kundlak said...

Nice one, Rob!

I must admit, I like the 2.5 version of Fate (as in Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures) much better than the original free 2nd Edition, mainly because the newer one fixes a lot of problems with uncertainty and polishes the Aspects, their use, the Fate point economy and other things.

I look forward on the 3rd Edition as a framework that you can pick up and tailor to your game.

Little Shepherd said...

Yeah, don't forget that Spirit of the Century and the Dresden Files RPG are both in a sense variations of the upcoming Fate 3e. Too bad we don't know exactly when 3e will come out, though I believe it's the very next product in their lineup after Dresden Files. From what I've seen, the changes from 2e to 3e (such as how aspects are invoked in play) are amazing. I can't wait.

Rob Lang said...

Thanks everyone. I must admit being a little confused about the versioning of Fate. It's not immediately obvious how 2.5 and 3.0 differ from 2.0. Admittedly, 3.0 is not released yet but 2.5 is - but only wrapped up inside Spirit of the Century.

I'll echo both that 3.0 looks like it might be the very thing to iron out some of the creases in 2.0. :)

Little Shepherd said...

Also, one comment:

On the skill pyramid, it's not double each level. It's only +1. So to have 1 skill at great, you need to make sure you still have 2 at good, and 3 at fair. Think of it like laying bricks, with each skill being a brick. I'm pretty sure that's the image used in the FATE PDF, actually, though I haven't looked at it in a while. Anyway, you lay the "bricks" in a staggering pattern, and the only requirement is that no bricks are hanging over the edge of the layer below.

So 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., not 1, 2, 4, 8, etc. The latter would be a nightmare!

Rob Lang said...

Little Shepherd, many thanks for the errata check. I have updated the post.

you're right, it would have been mad in the way I suggested!

Badger said...

Very nice review. I was recently introduced to FATE 2 via a Call of Cthulhu game. I absolutely loved how the game played out. It's a bit hard for me to play with FATE in a somber or serious manner because invoking is so much fun, but I'm not complaining.

Rob Lang said...

@Badger - do you feel FATE's relaxed attitude helped make CoC a little more fun?