Review: FATE Core

When you’ve been around roleplaying games as long as I have, you get to say you remember a lot.  I remember when Battletech first came out.  I remember all the stages of ownership of Shadowrun.  And I remember first hearing about an obscure game called Fudge.  Being as young as I was in the early 90’s, there was, at least probably, a non-trivial portion of me that hoped that such a game involved decadently rich chocolatey treats.  It did not, however.  Only these odd dice with plusses, minuses, and blank sides.  I didn’t understand what they were trying to do, so I stuck with Dungeons & Dragons, Mechwarrior, and Shadowrun (my gaming drugs of choice at the time).

Fast forward to 2020.  I am now something of a game designer, having released the Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit with my wife, Joann, under the Cypher Creator program.  And suddenly, I find myself more than a little fascinated with game mechanics.  They were something I had always taken for granted as part of the games I played, so I didn’t give them much thought.  Now, though, Joann and I were having detailed discussions of rarity, statistical distributions, static versus variable bonuses, and all manner of mechanical topics.  We began looking deep into the gaming world for examples of different mechanical systems that we could take apart and understand as we decided what we want to do from the standpoint of a path forward for Angel’s Citadel.

Enter FATE Core.  Evil Hat Productions took Fudge and released a fully fleshed-out version of a genre-independent system after a wildly successful Kickstarter in 2013.  The entire system is released under two different free content licenses (CC BY 3.0 and the Open Gaming License or OGL).  With Pay What You Like PDF’s available on their website, a ton of free resources, a Discord Server, and massive amounts of support materials and settings to go with it, FATE has become something of a powerhouse in its own little corner of tabletop roleplaying games and has propelled Evil Hat to become a “household name” in gaming with a number of other successful properties to go with it.

Manufacturing Quality

We purchased the FATE Core book along with three of the tool books for our library towards the end of last year.  They were, really, the first roleplaying books we obtained that used a 6 x 9 in. publishing format.  I have to say that I’m torn about whether I like it or not.  The book is lighter, more compact, and easier to transport than your typical roleplaying books, and Evil Hat has opted to keep the font size in the readable range for older people like us who no longer have eyes that function like magnifying glasses.  But at the same time, because there is less on a page, and less overall space in a layout, things like maps are more difficult, and the amount of flipping back and forth goes up.  Not that this is a deal-breaker or anything, it simply puts me “on the fence” about the layout format.

The book itself is well put-together, with quality binding and paper that holds the ink well even with warm or sweaty fingers.  The covers are almost a soft-touch, like they used some kind of polyurethane glaze or something.  It’s the only cover I’ve ever felt that was quite like it.  It definitely “sticks” to a table or a hand better than the typical glossy covers of standard roleplaying games which, once again, adds to the ease with which you can transport your gaming materials.

Content

FATE is one, if not foremost, in a family of roleplaying games that are most often described as narrative-focused.  Mechanically, everything in FATE is designed to drive narrative discussion, up to and including the dice rolls.  Many different systems have since taken lessons from this in one way or another including the Cypher System, Powered by the Apocalypse games, Forged in the Dark games, Fantasy Flight’s Genesys system (the one used in their Star Wars line), and others.  This starts at session zero and game creation.  FATE games are most commonly created along with the characters.  The GM brings a general idea of a genre or setting and as the players create their characters, the camera zooms in on the portion of that setting that is directly affecting the characters at that time.  While there are “mechanics” to do this, it is not a mechanical process, but a narrative one, a dialogue between GM and players and players and other players.

FATE is designed for characters that act.  Many of the mechanics delay decisions about character power until in the moment they are needed which can make characters feel powerful compared to other games.  This is done on purpose and other games have done similar things (the Forged in the Dark games come to mind rather quickly).  The idea is to reinforce the story-first design philosophy.  This is not a game of GM v. Players.  This is not a game where the players are trying to “beat” the mechanic of the game.  This is a game of high-action storytelling. While non-combat interactions are not out of place, “shopping trip” scenes are not where this system shines.

The Golden Rule of Fate is “Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it,” (FATE Core, page 185).  Results are rolled using four fate dice, six sided dice with two blank sides, two with plus signs on them and two with minus signs on them.  After successes and failures are cancelled out and blanks are ignored, the total on the dice is added to a relevant skill (there are no ability scores) to give a result on “the FATE ladder”.  The results are all descriptive words to give a narrative idea of the magnitude of success.  This is one of the concepts that the Cypher System took the next step (in my opinion) on in their table of difficulty levels.

The core of FATE is probably the concept of Aspects.  Aspects are “a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to.” (FATE Core, page 56).  They can also be described as “something that is true”.  Aspects can apply to characters, objects, or even scenes.  For instance, a Character might have the aspect of “Exiled Scion of House Nalarith”.  An object might have the aspect of “Blessed by the hand of the goddess”.  A scene in a building might have the aspect of “The roof is on fire!”.  None of these are unchangeable.  If, for example, with the last one, the characters find a way to dump a water tower on the building or use a fire truck somehow, the fire aspect might go away.  If the character reconciles with their family, they might no longer be an “Exiled Scion”.  But while they are in play, they are things that are true.

Characters and the GM can use Aspects to affect rolls and the narrative by spending FATE Points.  Aspects are what drive the FATE Point economy which, in turn, is what allows players to push the envelope of what their characters can do.  Players can Invoke an Aspect relative to the scene by spending one of their FATE Points or the GM (or even another player) can Compel an Aspect (usually with a complicating result) to grant a player a FATE Point (to refresh their pool).  Good Aspects can be viewed both ways (positive and negative).  For example, with the “Exiled Scion”, while you are indeed an outcast, you are still a Noble and though some may look on you with disdain, you have knowledge and training that may not be available to commoners.

Another way that Characters can be awesome in FATE is with Stunts.  Stunts are special traits that a character has that change the way particular skills work for them.  For instance, a stunt tied to the Burglary skill might be Always a Way Out which would give a +2 on Burglary rolls made to create an advantage whenever you’re trying to escape from a location.  Anyone can use a Burglary skill, but a character with that stunt is differentiated from them by such specialization.  Both Aspects and Stunts are written by the players.  There are examples in the book and guidelines on how to write good Aspects and Stunts, but the only limit on what you can do is what the GM and the players agree on for that game as fitting within the narrative.

The thing to keep in mind about how FATE’s core concepts work is codified in what they call the Bronze Rule (or sometimes the FATE Fractal):

“In Fate, you can treat anything in the game world like it’s a character. Anything can have aspects, skills, stunts, stress tracks, and consequences if you need it to.”

FATE Core, page 270

In other words, the concepts of Aspects, Skills, Stunts, etc… are designed to be generic enough to apply to literally anything in a story.  Thus, if the GM needs to apply a mechanical interaction with something (a person, an object, an event, a scene, etc…) based on players’ actions, they simply assign it whatever the relevant mechanic is based on the narrative need and continue on.  This makes for a very freeform, very flexible way to look at telling stories. There’s more to the system than this, but hopefully, this gives you a basic idea of the kinds of tools and mechanics you have available to tell stories using the FATE system. For a more in-depth look, the Pay What You Like PDF’s are available to you to peruse the whole system on your own.

Critique

When I first picked up FATE last year, I didn’t really get it.  It was so different than all the other roleplaying systems I’d ever tried that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around how it was supposed to work.  Joann and I played a game with a couple of friends of ours using the FATE Accelerated rules, which are similar, but not quite the same, and that helped some.  But what really helped me was when I became a Patron of the FATE SRD Patreon.  The Amazing Rando (Randy Oest) has several videos where he explained FATE in a way that made much more sense to me, both as a player and as a GM.

Now, after watching some of those and going back, it occurs to me that the FATE Core book is not, in fact, written in a way that is unclear, it is simply that the style of game is so different from the popular games in the tabletop market.  So perhaps, a critique or constructive criticism is this: A product that helped people transition from those concepts to those of FATE (a book, a PDF, a video, some combination of those…) might be useful in expanding the reach of what, to me, is an incredibly fun system.  I would also probably spend more time with examples (like examples of play) that highlight the thought process of the Bronze Rule of FATE.

Summary

FATE is one of the more possibility-filled games that I have ever played.  Perhaps it’s the narrative-first aspect of the design, or the way it empowers players to make their characters do awesome things with ease, but the potential for telling sweeping and action-filled stories is massive.  There are many pre-built settings already out there that use the FATE rules such as the Dresden Files (a personal favorite setting of mine), FATE of Cthulhu, Mindjammer, Interface Zero (a cyberpunk setting which will be a forthcoming review) and others.  The FATE Discord Server I referenced earlier is an active community with lots of games going on and is, for the most part, new user friendly.  Even if it were only from the standpoint of broadening your horizons of game systems, I highly recommend FATE to be put on your list of games to play.  I know I will personally be toying with it for years to come.  Happy gaming!

  • Josh Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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