Former FATE foe finally finishes; Finds fun; Feels funny; Formulates familiar fixes FATE fans find frivolous

Right after it became available to the public, I picked up a copy of the FATE Core and FATE Accelerated rules, just so I could give the game another try after having failed, again and again, to really get what was so compelling about it for so many people.

Understand, I come from a gaming background that stretches back to '79, so I have a number of ingrained biases that don't jibe with the most common implementations of FATE or other games that place emphasis on the story over the individual characters. Add in my general predilection for detailed simulation over abstraction of any kind, and my obsessive compulsive desire to avoid any mechanic that requires me to break in-character decision-making immersion, and you might see where FATE would remain, for me, a foreign country.

That said, I was suffering from an unfortunate case of insomnia last night and so I opened up the FATE Core PDF one more time, and used the borderline hallucinatory state I found myself in as a wedge to cram the game into my brain one more time. Against all hope, I think it finally started to make sense - or so I recall from when I finally gave in to sleep - and I'm taking the time today to talk about it here for those who might have been like me and assiduously avoiding the game due to preconceived notions.

The first thing that I came to understand is that I had to take a step back, and accept that while I had a pretty good idea of the kind of gaming that I enjoy, everything that failed to fit that pattern didn't automatically have to fall into the category of The Other. My denying the FATE rules because of how fond I am of GURPS and Hero System and RuneQuest 6 was akin to refusing to play Parcheesi because it lacked a Bank and funny-colored money like Monopoly had, and all the figures looked exactly the same instead of including a little car, and a hat, and a shoe. 

That's an oversimplification, but it helped me to get where I needed to go: I needed to let go of my Actor stance for a while, and accept that allowing myself to be an Author periodically didn't invalidate the actions my character took entirely, nor did it mean that I wasn't ever allowed back into Actor stance during the game - it's not an either-or proposition.

Far more difficult for me, however, was the acceptance of a level of abstraction that is normally anathema to me in what I enjoy as far as RPGs go. Again - GURPS guy - I like my skills and abilities to be finely grained. It's hard for me to accept a system whose combat skills are Melee and Missile, with no inherent option for being better with one class of weapons (swords, say, or pistols) than another. It was a stumbling block for me on Savage Worlds, and it has been one for me in FATE as well. But I sucked it up, moved on, and got to the section on skills where I was told that, of course I could increase the granularity of the skills, just to be prepared to also tweak the skill pyramid - the number of starting skills one has - to suit. Once I'd added in Stunts, and the ability they provided to differentiate skills, I was on my way to moving past it.

As I read through, I was pleased to note that the game designers accept and admit that what they're presenting is different enough to potentially be a problem for some players. That there are those of us who don't want narrative control, and those who aren't happy having to step out of our Actor shoes to make meta-game decisions. That admission from the authors was like a breath of fresh air compared to the FATE partisans one encounters online for whom there is only One True Way - and it made me realize I was being just as inflexible from my own positions as they are with theirs. It's nice to know that FATE isn't always the right choice, and even the authors understood that.

As I read through the Game Mastering section, I realized that a huge number of issues that I have with FATE - things that just rub me the wrong way - could be worked around. There are suggestions for how to create a "Top Down" game, where the GM comes to the table with a worked premise for the world and the players create characters within that framework. There's no reason that you can't have players making decisions primarily from their character's perspective, and leaving it to the GM to compel their aspects in much the same way that a GURPS GM calls out a player's disadvantages when they're being ignored.

Finally, reading FATE Core and comparing it to my personal experience in gaming brought to mind a common discussion we had back in the Old Days, when music was being released in digital format for the first time, replacing the analog of tape decks and LPs. Analog is a continuous wave, while digital would always have these jagged spots where it didn't quite true up to the wave that the original sound produced. Simulation games are very digital in that way, and the way to make them better is to provide greater detail and less abstraction. But FATE takes the other tack, and goes fully analog, with everything being so abstract as to be that fluid wave, open enough to interpretation to be able to better model what might really happen, but at the cost of precision and consistency. In much the same way that people who love vinyl albums appreciate the hiss and pop of the needle, FATE players come to appreciate that sort of realistic inconsistency that the game produces.

I came away impressed with the game in a way I never had before, and look forward to actually giving it a whirl now - something I'd not thought I'd ever say.


  1. I created a very special Fate hack specifically for people who never want to step out of their Actor shoes, as you put it. It doesn't change the rules of Fate at all, it changes who is making the decisions about things like invoking Fate, accepting or denying compels, etc from the player to the characters themselves! Give "The Fated" a quick read and see if this 1 simple change can help in your enjoyment of Fate:

    1. That's a very elegant solution for a specific type of game, and one I could definitely see using. It's akin to the notion from Doctor Who that, once you've time traveled, you're changed forever, and able to see and remember both versions of history when something gets changed. Very interesting and thought provoking stuff.

      I think that, for all that I've railed against dissociated mechanics, not every use of Fate points has to be dissociated. Investing a point in leveraging your "Strong as an Ox" Aspect isn't much different than investing a fatigue point for Extra Effort in GURPS or extra END to Push a power in Hero. If you're clever, you can keep yourself in Actor mode pretty consistently, even as those around you play a more conventional game of Fate.

  2. The thing about Fate that always bites me is the scale of Aspects. When I chat about it with friends, they always come up with wildly different ideas -- one guy wants to be "experienced soldier", another wants to be "marksman" -- and without some fairly strong guidance you'll end up with some Aspects being vastly more relevant than others in play. But that guidance doesn't seem to be there.

    I'm not completely opposed to the system but in general I don't find that stepping off the set and into the writers' room (see podcast episode 7) works well for me; I prefer to get into the immersive mode where I'm taking on my PC's mindset, and that takes me a while so I'd rather stick with it.

    1. The scale of aspects isn't really too much of an issue to me, as the primary limitation on them tends to be Fate Points, not the aspects themselves.

      And "experienced soldier" and "marksman" are both aspects that, as a GM, I'd probably work on a bit more... The best aspects generally define your story, and both of those don't really do much story definition. As an example, "Disgraced ex-Special Forces Team Member" says a lot more interesting things than "experienced soldier", and as far as "marksman" goes, well, that's one of the subjects of this:

      Basically, I understand the concern about breadth of aspects, especially coming from a traditional background. Much as Jason here, I had a traditional, heavy-GURPS background coming into Fate.

      But in practice, I haven't found it to be a practical issue in play - "I want to spend a Fate Point but I don't have a relevant aspect" is something I haven't heard, ever.

      Some aspects do need to be tweaked after playing with them, I've found, but the system allows for that quite well - aspects aren't permanent, and *should* change as the character and story change.

      I get the whole Actor/Author stance thing, though, and it's definitely "A Thing" in Fate. And if you can't enjoy it, you can't enjoy it.

      That said, to really give the system a fair shake, I think you have to kind of go into it with a "beginner's mind" a bit, and repeat to yourself repeatedly "this is not like . This is something different. Clear your expectations."


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