The Value of Systems: FATE

This is the second post in our series on The Value of Systems. Each post will look at a different RPG system and evaluate it based on what it does well, what it doesn’t intend to do, and possible tweaks to extend the system to cover what it doesn’t intend to do. We are not going to describe how the game works in depth, but where possible, we will link to resources that do.

Used by permission, gamers tell stories of starting off their hobby with D&D, and thinking for years that nothing else existed. Then some product, something like Amber Diceless (in one direction) or Rifts (in the other) opens their eyes to a wider universe of gaming.

For me, that product is FATE. I’ve played many other RPGs over the years, but most have, to one extent or another, felt like a variation of D&D with either more rules or fewer. Even a homebrew diceless game I participated in used a collaborative random number generation system based on a table, which simply felt like a replacement for dice. I’ve read other systems, like Primetime Adventures, that strongly break out of this mold. Until FATE, however, I haven’t had the opportunity to play one.

FATE provides a setting/genre/time-period-agnostic framework in which to play just about any collaborative storytelling game you can imagine. It is an open system, similar to the SRD created for d20 games, and is the basis for (among several other games) The Dresden Files RPG. FATE provides a flexible skill system, on-the-fly NPC generation, and a dead-simple (and quick) conflict resolution system.

So, it’s the Holy Grail?

Not quite. I said you could play just about any collaborative storytelling game using FATE. What you cannot do, at least at the core level, is provide nail-biting, chart-referencing, “I-critically-hit-him-in-the-left-kidney” kind of gaming. FATE is about the story, and the mechanics seemed designed to just “get out of the way.”

My gaming group recently switched a game system from Shadowrun 4e to FATE. Our rationale was not that FATE is superior to Shadowrun; instead, we recognized the desire to conclude the Shadowrun game to try new things. However, our group was invested in the story, and didn’t just want to drop it. Shadowrun does a lot of things well, but one thing it does not do is provide mechanics that allow for quick conflict resolution. Given our needs and desires, FATE was the appropriate new system for the game.

When we switched to FATE, the story moved faster, which is a definite plus of the system. However, shooting things in FATE is less interesting than shooting things in Shadowrun, and all the cyberware I stocked my troll up with was relegated to one “aspect” of my character.

When to use FATE

If you haven’t gathered by now, you should use FATE for story-centric games that do not base their sense of “fun” on tactics. FATE brings other things beyond story-driven gaming, however. FATE is a highly collaborative game in all respects: two games built on the FATE system (Spirit of the Century and DFRPG) include in their core rules collaborative character generation or collaborative setting generation. In a paraphrase of DFRPG, FATE games begin before character, setting, or story generation, not after. The game is the story.

When you have a group of players who love to create heroes who are characterized by more than a simple tagline, FATE is a good option. FATE also handles flexible time needs elegantly: when you have an adventure that requires certain scenes to have action at ten second intervals, but other scenes at weeks or months, FATE scales nicely.

FATE is also a great tonic to burned-out gamers who are sick of mechanics. Whether you play with people who feel like the rules limit the vision of their character, or who can’t resist doing something out-of-character because it provides a mechanical benefit, FATE simply sidesteps these issues. Players are given mechanical bonuses for playing to character, and there is a nice bell curve around tasks that your character is supposed to excel at, so a bad roll doesn’t necessarily tank you.

Tweaks to FATE

I’m not going to title a section called “When not to use FATE,” because really, do you ever go to your shelf of RPGs and say “Why am I not going to play this tonight?” Instead, we’ll look at the things FATE does not intend to do, and how you might be able to sidestep these if you have to. (Another important caveat: FATE has apparently spawned a handful of other systems. Aside from Free FATE, which is a fan-created attempt at FATE 3.0, I have no experience with these, and they are outside the scope of this article. You can find a link to Free FATE and read more about FATE and branches at the FATE blog.)

As I’ve alluded, FATE does not intend to provide tactical simulation. If your players are looking for a new game with a strong tactical element, FATE is probably not your best first choice. However, if you’re like my party, mired in a tactics-heavy game and longing for a story, here are some ideas for conversion. Take your character’s dominant facet, such as their primary attribute in D&D, and base their most powerful aspects off of it. Take your signature abilities–the things your character does better than anyone else–and figure out how to make other aspects from those. Finally, make a list of other mechanical elements of your character, such as skills, feats, class features, or racial bonuses. Group “like” elements, and turn these into your skills. It will be important to build this skill list with the rest of your gaming group.

Going through this work will allow you to use the tactical elements of the game you like, and move through other elements of the game with a strong representation of your character (arguably, stronger than in a purely mechanical game). For instance, if you are sick of resolving diplomacy in D&D, and it drives you crazy that your warlock can’t start a fire with his eldritch blast at the campsite at night, this might be a good solution.

Have you run games in FATE, or gotten bogged down in mechanics-heavy games? Tell us about it in the comments!

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