What I have learned about Fate Core

Among other things, I would like to share my impressions on games and game systems. For obvious reasons (“a distant age”, remember?) I mostly focus on old stuff. But since my curiosity on the development of the hobby is genuine, these days I am also doing my best to catch up with the 21st century. It seems to be the case that in the last five-ten years only two games have emerged as real trends and as contenders in the hopeless struggle against D&D: Fate and Savage Worlds. Interestingly to me, they are both generic systems. I have always been partial to solid rule systems that could adapt to different settings: to me GURPS has always been a golden standard, and I was delighted to learn of the existence of a Basic Role Playing rulebook. In the old days, I was not above playing Simulacres, a little universal system most of the English-speaking worlds must have never heard of. One of the obvious weaknesses of systems of the D&D family, I thought, was that they adapted so badly to other genres (non-fantasy settings, or even unfamiliar fantasy settings). You can imagine my astonishment when I found out that in the early years 2000s the d20 craze had made a pseudo-D&D the de facto standard for all sorts of settings… but I am digressing. Now I would like to post about my impressions of Fate.

Even in my relative ignorance of the recent history of RPGs, when reading Fate Core System I could immediately detect an influence of the indie post-Forgite scene, in that the book strongly emphasizes the following two points. First, it is a collaborative narrative game: it does have a GM, who is expected to do much of your traditional GM stuff, but players are expected to contribute to the narration directly in ways other than acting their characters. Second, it reiterately distances itself from simulationism: Fate models fiction, not reality. This is the underlying justification of many heavy abstractions (of encumbrance, movement, damage) which are likely to feel unfamiliar to traditional gamers.

Both tenets are somewhat realized in the central technical notion of the game: aspects. Characters have aspects, situations have aspects. What is an aspect? A trait, written out in plain (if at times whimsical or clichéd) English. It describes properties that are narratively relevant. Character aspects are the kind of things that GURPS models with advantages and disadvantages: personality traits, social status, ways of life, mental and physical strengths and weaknesses. The best aspects should be a synthesis of advantages and disadvantages: the reason is that aspects must enter the game in two opposite ways. An aspect can be invoked by a player in order to justify a bonus (either a +2 to a roll, or a reroll), or can compel the characters (on suggestion of the GM or one of the players) by forcing them to face bad consequences of the same trait. This duality is mediated by fate points: invocations costs a player one fate point, compellings makes a player gain one fate point. So the aspect “Soldier of the Legion” should involve both military proficiency and a heavy duty.

I find the mechanic interesting, and I find it to be a dynamic version of the old GURPS idea: in GURPS, advantages cost points, and disadvantages give you more points. Points, though, are to be spent on character creation and no later. Fate makes an analogous dynamics a constant of the game. A more peculiar feature is that Fate extends the same notion of aspects to situations as well. Anything in an action scene must be though of in terms of aspects by the GM, and these aspects are there to be invoked and compelled.

Besides aspects, PCs have skills, which are chosen from a list of eighteen pretty generic abilities (Fight, Will, Lore, Athletics etc.). These have the form of bonuses (+1 up to +4 or higher) that are added to the result of four fudge dice in a check. The result is compared to a difficulty threshold and measured in terms of shifts (margin of success). Skills can be exploited to do various things: to overcome an obstacle, attack, defend and, most important, create an advantage. An advantage is nothing but a situation aspect which is favourable to the PC: a cover against enemy fire, an escape route, the friendly attitude of a certain NPC. This last mechanic ties action resolution pretty tightly to the notion of aspects.

One eventually realizes that fudge dice tend to give results centering around 0 (zero). This means that what really makes the difference is first, your skill rating, and second, whether you invoked any aspect for a bonus. In other words: depending on their skills, PCs are going to almost always succeed at tasks of a certain difficulty, and almost never succeed at tasks of higher difficulties unless they resort to aspect invocations. This is not undesirable, under the assumption (on the authors’ part) that PCs are heroes and most tasks should be easy to them, reserving the real challenge for narratively crucial moments.

Somewhat to my suprise, I liked Fate. I reasonably like it as a system, but I especially like it as a book. Fate Core System is a superbly written rulebook. Everything is introduced gradually and thoroughly, with clear formulations and the right amount of exemplification. The only technical notion which feels a bit rushed off was boosts, which were soon clarified in a semi-official errata. For the rest, in spite of the universal insistence of Fate fans that most traditional gamers “will not be able to get it”, I think I managed to develop a more than passable understanding of the game. In the next post, I will express my perplexity at some features of the game.

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