Going through Phases with Fate

I've had a weird relationship with the Fate RPG system since I first encountered it.

My first brush with it had me immediately saying "no" - way too rules light, and while it has a skill system, it's far too abstract and chunky. No fine granularity there, no realistic subdivisions and specializations, and too few levels to choose between. Then I started looking at other rules light systems and realized that perhaps you didn't necessarily always need the finest toothed comb, and there could be valid game choices that used a light system as presented in Fate.

So I tried again, and butted heads immediately with the primacy of Player over Character. I'm a big fan of games that only let the players impact the world through the thoughts, words and deeds of their characters. Fate flies in the face of that, demanding a certain level of detachment. Everything for the good of the story, no character deaths that aren't "meaningful" - that sort of thing. But, upon the third or fourth reading of Fate Core, I saw just how rarely some of the real problematic things happen in most games. Just because a system supports a style of play doesn't mean it's the only way, after all. I saw that Fate could well be tweaked, ever so slightly, to play more like a... traditional game.

In the interest of full disclosure, my mind immediately used the words "real" and "normal" in place of "traditional" just there, so you can see I'm not entirely free from my own internal prejudices.

So, I started getting a little excited - maybe I could make this Fate Core thing work, and find even more truly passionate gamers. (You don't know passionate online communities until you spend some time with Fate and Savage Worlds. Those people are all nuts). And then I had another epiphany, but not one that was necessarily useful if I was going to embrace Fate and Fate-based systems. I realized that while some of the game mechanics were lightened - combat is faster, wounding is very abstract, that sort of thing - it actually added rules where none were needed before.

From the beginning of time, we've had situations where the GM describes a location in a game, and the players immediately ask clarifying questions. "It's a bar, are there chandeliers?" asks the swashbuckler, looking for something to swing from. The GM, not having any notes on this, decides on the fly that yes, there are three of them, over the three tables he drew on the map. A simple on the fly decision about something that honestly needed no rules, no muss, no fuss, and notably, no mechanical rules or Fate point economy involved. You'd need to burn a Fate point to get that sort of concession in Fate, if I'm understanding everything correctly (I may not be, or that may be an optional thing that GMs tend to overlook).

That brought me around to the Fate point economy in general, though. Suddenly a lightbulb went off and I realized the same complaints that were made about D&D 4e - "If I'm cool enough to pull off this bad-ass maneuver, why can I only do it once a day or once per encounter?" - the same thing happens in Fate (albeit with a mechanic to refresh on the fly) - I'm going to do this killer thing, here's a Fate point, and I'm out of them now so something awful has to happen to me before I can do it again. It's artificial.

So, here I am back at square one. Fate looks great on paper, but when I start analyzing the nooks and crannies, I come away scratching my head and wondering if I'm misreading something, or if other people are just far more forgiving of compromised mechanics than I am.


  1. I like FATE even less after reading this. ;)

    To clarify:

    I don't hate it FATE community, trying to avoid an online lynching here, I just cant get my heart involved. With me, no feelings equals no playing.

  2. I'm going to throw Peter Dell'Orto at you both: does it work IN PLAY? Find a game. Play it. If you still hate it, or it rubs you wrong, not your cup of tea . . . cool.

    But try it out first. The one FATE game I played in was more play acting than RPGing - it was a guest spot - but it seemed really neat. And much as it took Ken Hite to explain to me the lens through which I needed to look at GUMSHOE/Night's Black Agents - it might take a bit of experience to figure out where FATE does well, and where it does not.

    You can also listen/read Leonard Balsera talking to me about Fate for well over an hour on the Firing Squad.

    1. I definitely try to keep that in the back of my head when it comes to things that I think are specific problems. Like my recent article on RQ - that came up in play, and it's such a tiny thing that if it didn't, I'd likely never have noticed it.

      But for larger, broader, systemic things - I tend to be more willing to go out on a limb and say "this is a problem for me" - noting that more often than not this is farther into the realm of opinion, and not that a system is "broken" to use a leading term. I'll definitely never say that something isn't fun, just because I disagree with it, but I will call it out for not being my bag.

  3. "I'm going to do this killer thing, here's a Fate point, and I'm out of them now so something awful has to happen to me before I can do it again."

    Suppose your characters has an Aspect that allows "this killer thing" (for example, flying). Aspects are always true, so you don't need a Fate point to do it; everything that depends on your character flying can be done. You spend a Fate point to invoke the Aspect, that is, to get a mechanical bonus or a reroll from using the Aspect.

    Consider the case that your PC is a Flying archer (that is, a long-range attack specialist with the Flying aspect) and your enemy is protected by some wall.
    - Using your Flying aspect to gain some height and attack him from above: you can always do it, and it's free.
    - Doing that, and *additionally* gaining a +2 or a reroll because your Flying gives you an advantage: that's a Fate point.

    1. Interesting - how do you balance an aspect like that - hell, I can't even think of an aspect that includes the ability to fly but isn't pretty much always positive - and one that's just a personality quirk? Surely there's a utility difference there.

      And it doesn't really explain why *sometimes* you can do whatever it is you do (flying especially well), but only when you expend a fate point, and the rest of the time, even though you can still fly, you can't do the cool thing you did to get the bonus.

    2. It is preferable for an Aspect to have a "negative" part (to be compelled), but it isn't necessary, if you have other Aspects that can be compelled. That said, there are simple ways that a Flight Aspect could be compelled. If you're flying, you're likely a better target for some kind of attacks, for example.

      You can *always* do the cool thing. Is just that you sometimes have a mechanical bonus, and sometimes you don't. That's not different of a game were mages use mana points, and they are always mages, but sometimes they have mana, and sometimes they are out of mana.

      But at the end, Fate isn't about perfect balance in every Aspect and Skill and Stunt. Isn't about complete realism, or simulation. It's a game oriented towards a certain pulpish, bigger-than-life mindset, I think.

  4. I have the same problem with the Gumshoe games: "I'm a great (forensic scientist, archaeologist, whatever) but I can only be really awesome a set number of times." As you say, player over character, in this case because the game engine forces you to step back and let someone else have some spotlight time. As a GM, I'm used to having that lever under my own hand, and I'm more inclined to say "this adventure is one in which I'm going to throw in lots of archaeology puzzles, so Mississippi Jones gets to be awesome"; i.e. I step back one layer of resolution, and feel that equal attention for each PC is something that can happen per campaign, rather than necessarily per adventure.

    The way I think about player-over-character is that it breaks immersion, because it forces me to think like a script-writer or actor ("what's my narrative role here") rather than like the actual guy in the actual situation. If you're deliberately trying to tell a story in the style of a film, a book, etc., then that's probably necessary; I'm of the opinion that RPGs have their own natural story forms, just as films aren't the same as plays even though they were made in the style of plays in their early days, and as long as all the players are enjoying it that's fine with me.

    1. Sorry for the late reply, but you really nailed what has always been my primary issue with narrative style games. I'm a hard-core Immersionist, and that's a hard habit to break.

  5. Prejudice is not really a bad word. It just means you are coming to a judgement about something based upon past experiences rather than judging it on its own merits. It makes for a wonderful survival tool, but like everything cannot always be used or it does more harm than good.


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