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Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Shared Fate

The truth is that generic RPGs are not exactly interesting to review. They lack flavour, they lack the substance of a background that is usually the reason to buy into a RPG, and mechanics are never the most enticing thing to write or read about. Well, okay, but what you are reviewing when it comes to the generic RPG is its tone, the type of game it supports, and of course, its mechanics. So Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS is a mechanically detailed game with a realistic tone whereas Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Entertainment Group is broader in terms of tone and mechanics that particularly supports pulp action. Both are traditional RPGs in that they require a GM who creates the world and serves as the gatekeeper through which the players act and learn about the world. So what then of FATE Core, a more recent generic RPG?

Published by Evil Hat Games, FATE came to prominence in 2006 with the publication of the pulp action RPG, Spirit of the Century. It is a storytelling style RPG in which the player characters are competent and capable, and above all lead dramatic lives. The default game—other FATE-powered RPGs with their own settings do not necessarily require this—involves shared world building duties between the players and the GM. This is part of character generation, done through the creation of Aspects, the equivalent in FATE of advantages and disadvantages. Play is similarly collaborative, as players and GM alike can invoke and compel everyone’s Aspects to bring drama to the game. Above all, the task of both GM and players alike is to “make everyone around look awesome.”

The latest iteration of the game, the ENNIE Award-winning FATE Core was funded via Kickstarter and comes as a handsome digest-sized hardback. It is well-written, the content is clear and easy to understand, and it is engagingly illustrated. The illustrations primarily consist of kung-fu cyber-gorillas, magic cops, and the trio of characters—Landon (swordsman and ‘Discipline of the Ivory Shroud’), Cynere (‘An honorable thief with a fast blade’), and Zird the Arcane (‘Wizard for Hire’)—that together with their setting form the basis of the examples throughout the book. 

In honour of this artwork, our sample character is a combination of the magic cop and the kung-fu gorilla. Archibald  ‘Mourning Archie’ Maugham is a cop with the New Orleans police department, in a world where there is magic and there are intelligent gorillas and monkeys. 

Archibald  ‘Mourning Archie’ Maugham
High Concept (Aspect): Magic-Monkey on a Mission
Trouble (Aspect): Monkey in a man’s world
Aspects: Manners maketh the monkey, Should a monkey meddle in magic?, An eye for the ladies
Stunts: A good gorilla is hard to keep down, A gorilla’s grip, Just the facts, ma’am
Skills: Physique (Great +4); Investigate, Contacts (Good +3); Fight, Magic, Notice (Fair +2); Athletics, Rapport, Shoot, Will (Average +1)
Physical Stress (Physique): 1 2 3 4
Mental Stress (Will): 1 2 3
Refresh Rate: 3 Fate Points: 3

As can be seen by this example, characters are defined by their Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects describe elements of a character and to work effectively, they need to be double-edged, that is, each should be both an advantage or a disadvantage. For example, the Aspect ‘An eye for the ladies’ could be used as an Advantage to spot a particular woman in a crowd or a bonus to seduction attempts, but as a Disadvantage, it would mean that the character would be easily distracted in female company. In play, an Aspect is Invoked by the player to gain an advantageous bonus or a reroll, but Compelled to trigger its disadvantageous elements. It costs a player a Fate point to Invoke an Aspect, but he will gain a Fate point if the Aspect is Compelled. (A Compel can be resisted by a player, but this costs him a Fate point).
So for example, Archie is chasing Flyss the dip, a well-known pickpocket who frequents high class joints. With a flash of his badge he gets into the Cat’s Pajamas, a nightspot where Flyss is sometimes seen. He scans the crowd and will use his Notice skill of +2 (Fair) to spot the miscreant, but the GM knows that Flyss knows how to work the crowd and sets the difficulty at +3 (Good). This is not an easy roll, so Archie’s player Invokes one of his Aspects—‘An eye for the ladies’—to gain a +2 on the roll.
Conversely, instead of Archie’s player Invoking ‘An eye for the ladies’, the GM could Compel the Aspect. Were this to happen, Archie would charge into the Cat’s Pajamas and get distracted by the other pretty ladies in the joint so he fails to see Flyss slip out of the back door. In this, ‘An eye for the ladies’ has worked as a disadvantage, so why would Archie’s player let this happen? Well, for two reasons. First, because it earns Archie a Fate point, and second, because it is interesting and it contributes towards the drama.
Stunts provide advantages or bonuses under certain circumstances, usually to skills. Skills simply provide a bonus to skill rolls, there being a limited number of broad skills in the game. Where a character lacks a skill, he simply has it at Mediocre or +0.

Mechanically, whenever a player wants to undertake an action, he selects a skill and rolls four Fudge dice—FATE having originally been derived from the Fudge RPG mechanics—special six-sided dice, each of which has two faces marked with a ‘+’ symbol, two faces marked with a ‘–’ symbol, and two faces left blank. The ‘+’ and ‘–’ symbols cancel each out and the blank faces add nothing, so the results range simply between +4 and –4. The result is added to the player’s skill, aim being to beat a target set by the GM, an Average target being +1, a Fair target being +2, and so on, the targets matching the skill values in terms of progression. Should a player’s result match the target, then he succeeds at a cost; if the result is one or two points or shifts above the target, he simply succeeds; and if the result is three or more  shifts, he succeeds with style. In combat, shifts usually represent damage inflicted upon a target, but should a character succeed with style, then he can place a temporary Aspect in play, that can either be used once and then it is lost, or used once for free with subsequent uses requiring a Fate point to be expended.
For example, Archie has finally tracked down Flyss to her apartment, only to find that it is alight and burning furiously. He charges in to get his quarry out, only to discover that Flyss does not live alone. Now he not only has to rescue her, but also her roommates! As the building collapses around him, Archie’s player makes a Physique check against a difficulty of +2 (Fair) to hold up a support long enough for the girls to get out. He rolls ‘+’, ‘+’, ‘+’, and ‘–’ for a total of +3, which when added to his Physique gives a result of +7, which when compared to the target grants Archer five shifts! Archie’s player gets to set up two advantages at a cost of two shifts each. First, he buys ‘No-one gutsier than a gorilla’, essentially a temporary reputation, but second, he buys ‘I pulled your ass from the fire’, which he plans to Invoke when he interrogates Flyss.
Aspects like this can be set up on locations, objects, on NPCs, and on player characters, and then during play both the players and the GM can interact with them, Invoking and Compelling as necessary. Similarly, the GM can design and create places, people, and things all with the simple use of Aspects that get to the core of anything that he designs and creates, and again these can be Invoked or Compelled as part of FATE Core collaborative play. This collaborative element of the game begins before character creation, indeed it starts with the players sitting down with the GM and working together to create the world in which they want to play. This includes the genre, the campaign name, issues for the characters to face and deal with, and then locations and NPCs. From this the players can get an idea of their characters’ place in the world and what each wants to do before character generation. This in part is also collaborative, the players tying some of their character’s Aspects into previous experiences with each other. Should the players and GM know what they want, then it would be quite possible to create a world, characters, and the basis for a campaign just by sitting round the table and talking.

Further, Aspects are mutable. They can change as a game progresses and its events affect each of the players. Typically they come after a Milestone has been reached in a campaign, perhaps revealing thwarting the plot of a campaign’s villain, the greater the Milestone, the more that a player can change about his character. So for example, over the course of a campaign, Archie’s relationship with Flyss goes from cop and snitch to cop and contact to gorilla and girl, so perhaps the Aspect, ‘An eye for the ladies’ might become something like, ‘A girl for the gorilla’. In general though, FATE Core involves little in the way of character progression, skill improvement in particular, being slow and steady. The focus in FATE Core is the play and the drama, not gaining Experience Points, but a great touch is that alongside discussing player character progression, FATE Core looks at world progression, the idea being that both should go hand-in-hand. When you think about it, this is obvious, but it makes sense in as dramatic an RPG as FATE, that it should be an explicit point.

Mechanically, FATE Core is straightforward and not particularly complex—especially for the players. For the GM it is a slightly more complex game, but again not overly so. There is solid discussion of the mechanics and their nuts and bolts, of creating and running scenarios, and of designing and creating ‘Extras’, the elements that support a game, whether that is magic, cyberware, vehicles, and so on. This discussion of the rules and the mechanics is also supported by a discussion of how to run the game, but what it comes down to is a simple question, “What matters in this scene?” Answering this question should be dramatic and interesting—and it should have scope for equally dramatic and interesting failure.

In addition, it is easy to take FATE Core and use its mechanics to adapt the game, setting, film, book, or television series of your choice. Evil Hate Games has already done this with its The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, but the simplicity of the game’s skills and the adaptability of its Aspects and stunts make this mechanically easy. 

Now this is all great, and FATE Core is a very readable set of rules, but FATE has a problem. It is not a fault intrinsic to FATE itself, but rather with what FATE is—a storytelling RPG. Arguably, every RPG involves storytelling, but FATE Core focuses on it in particular by shifting narrative control. For a quarter of a century, the RPG has followed the model mentioned at the beginning of the review, that is, a GM or DM serving as the gatekeeper for the world through which the player characters learn about and interact with said world. Coming out of the Indie School movement, FATE Core takes ‘aspects’ of the narrative away from the GM and hands them to the players and their characters. This can be seen at first in the collaborative process of creating the world, but shows most obviously in the use and application of Aspects. It further shows in the move away from the ‘yes/no’ binary mechanics of older non-narrative games, to mechanics where the mechanics not only give the ‘success/failure’ binary results, but also the results ‘succeed, but with consequences’ and ‘fail interestingly’. This is a shift in both play style and thinking. It takes adjustment.

In no way is this problem insurmountable and in no way is it an impediment to playing FATE. It is certainly not the fault of FATE itself, but of decades an ingrained play style, and for the players it is a matter of adjusting to thinking about how their characters interact with the world. It helps that FATE Core is well written and gives plenty of examples. It helps that FATE requires a GM, that it is not a wholly GM-less, narrative storytelling game, the distinction being that someone is still in charge, presenting the world, but that someone is someone the players interact with rather than work through. It helps even further that Evil Hat Games makes available FATE Accelerated, a much condensed, but still very playable version of the rules for the pocket-friendly sum of $5. Arguably worth each player having a copy.

At the beginning of the review, I stated that the generic RPG is all about its tone, the type of of game it supports, and its mechanics. FATE Core is light in tone, though like most generic RPGs the tone can be made much darker, depending upon the genre. Mechanically, FATE Core is definitely light and broad rather than detailed, veering towards the cinematic in style. The detail in FATE Core though is in the drama that comes out of its play with the use of Aspects. Its combination of a GM and narrative play elements, primarily its Aspects,that enable player input, arguably place FATE Core in between the traditional RPG and the GMless, narrative storytelling RPG, making it a highly accessible bridge between the two.