How FATE Relates to Other Games

 Posted by on February 17, 2011  Filed as: Better Gameplay?  Add comments  Topic(s):
Feb 172011

I’ll admit, I’m a slow convert and I love my d20, but the more I read about FATE, the more tempted I am by it (I love universal systems. I don’t know why. It’s an illness). But since the game isn’t my primary area of expertise, I thought I would offer some counterpoint to the current direction of The Shack – specifically, how FATE relates to some of the other systems I play with regularly, and maybe, just maybe, some ideas on how to get a little of that FATE magic in your other games.

Aspects, Complications, And Extra Effort: FATE in DC Adventures

I remember reading somewhere that Steve Kenson was inspired by systems like FATE, Fudge, and so on, and that they were what drove him to write ICONS. But the other system he designed already has a lot of that magic back-doored in. Here’s a quick primer.

Complications are like the negative side of Aspects; in the same way that an Aspect can be compelled by the GM (earning you a Fate point in exchange for a penalty), Complications can be invoked (by either the player OR the GM!). There are are probably as many kinds of complications as there are Aspects.

The most basic kind of complications are Complications as Character: every character has a list of complications that make it easier to get into their head and into their world. Here’s a list from the book:

  • Flashbacks: Batman is sometimes stunned by traumatic flashbacks to the night his parents were murdered, especially in connection to Crime Alley, where the killings took place.
  • Nemesis: The Joker
  • Obsession: Crime fighting
  • Relationships: For a loner, Batman has a number of important people in his life, including Nightwing, Robin, Oracle, Alfred Pennyworth (the faithful Wayne family butler) and Police Commissioner James Gordon.
  • Responsibility: Batman considers Gotham “his” city, and his responsibility.
  • Secret Identity: Bruce Wayne

And here’s one I wrote awhile ago for a Marvel character writeup I did on Atomic Think Tank:

  • Guilt: Deaths of loved ones; Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy
  • Significant Other: Super-model Mary Jane Watson
  • Relationships: Harry Osborn, Aunt May, Black Cat, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, much of the Superhuman community
  • Low Finances: Peter is almost always strapped for cash.
  • Nemesis: J. Jonah Jameson
  • Enemy (Peter has tons of them): Norman Osborn, Eddie Brock, and the rest of a sizable rogues gallery.
  • With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility“: That’s the catchphrase of old Uncle Ben.  If you missed it don’t worry they’ll say the line again and again and again.
  • Reputation: J. Jonah Jameson makes sure that this is as bad as it can get.
  • Secret Identity: Peter Parker
  • Radioactive Blood: This can make transfusions difficult, to say the least…

(And before you ask, One More Day never happened. It NEVER HAPPENED. Ahem.)

And of course, Superman’s list wouldn’t be complete without Vulnerability to Kryptonite, right?

As a GM, seeing a list like this is great. Instantly, it gives you a feel for what kind of game the player is actually looking for, and gives you a whole HOST of ideas for how you can mess with him. And that’s just awesome, isn’t it? If you use something on the list against the player, give ’em a hero point. Isn’t bribery FUN??

There are also temporary complications, like Running out of Ammo, or Still having trouble seeing straight from that last attack. The former one is something that a GM might “Compel” on a player who’s been using that gun too much – effectively, “take a hero point and think of a new way to solve your problem.” The second one is even more entertaining; players are allowed to use complications to explain a failure, gaining a hero point and accepting an appropriate penalty – but only if they describe it narratively.

“But wait,” you’re saying, “that’s only half of what Aspects do. Where does the other half come in?”

I’m glad you asked. This is where I talk about Descriptors.

Descriptors, simply put, describe things. Yeah, I know, revelatory. They describe powers; they describe the environment; they describe origins, heroes, villains, purses and guns, space ships and laser beams. A descriptor is the difference between, say, burning hands and cone of cold.

Why do they matter? Well, I’ll tell you one good reason: Extra Effort.

Like Fate Points, the Hero Point economy in DCA/M&M is meant to be rapid. You need something to spend them on, right? This is where Extra Effort comes in.

Extra Effort can be used to gain:

  • Extra actions
  • Gain a bonus (+2, or increase an existing bonus to +5) on a single check, or negate a -2 penalty. (Which reminds me: the “GM’s Best Friend” is actually pretty much the core mechanic (or at least the core modifier) of most of the game. +2/-2/+5/-5, depending on how good or bad something is for you, and you’re good to go. SO much simpler than all those weird inconsistent rules from D&D, like “50% miss chance.” This is something that I seriously consider importing to every other d20 game I play as a house rule.)
  • Boost the rank of pretty much any one thing by +1 for a turn
  • Perform a Power Stunt, letting you temporarily gain a new effect for a power based on its descriptors.
  • Etc.

Normally, Extra Effort causes Fatigue; if you’re already fatigued then it causes Exhaustion. If you’re already exhausted, then it’ll incapacitate you. Hero Points? They change all that. Hero Points let you Edit the Scene: they give you re-rolls if you want them, but most importantly they let you shake off fatigue and other conditions like it (or move from Exhausted to Fatigued). There are a whole host of other uses, but I’ll shorten the explanation and just say that they’re kind of like FATE points. Oh, and of course they can be used to avoid a complication, (“No! I still have bullets! Keep your hero point, and here’s another!”) But honestly, why would you want to?

In Other Games…

So, we’ve seen how something like Aspects can look in another game system. How well would this translate to another game, like, say, D&D 4th Edition? Or Pathfinder?

Honestly, I think it’d work pretty darn well, though the list of things that you can do with them would have to change a bit. 4th Edition already has Action Points – pull that system, remove the spending, and plug in a modified version of Extra Effort (complete with “Awesome Points” or whatever you want to call them) and you’re good to go. With the lack of Power Stunts as an option (though you could add them, in theory) I’d go with Aspects over Complications, but either should work well – and make picking them a mandatory part of character creation. Ideally fairly early on in the process. Every character should have at least 2 – better characters have more.

Proposed House Rules for D&D Variants:

Author’s note: these rules are un-playtested; while they should, in theory, work excellently, there is always the possibility that I have missed something critical. Still, I’d love the chance to try them out.

  • Make ammo a complication. We all know that you’re not tracking ammo right now, anyway; this way, you have the ability to make the players run out of it at dramatic moments. Toss ’em a hero/fate/awesome point for their trouble.
  • Material Components are a potential complication. Just try not to be too mean about it. Seriously, though, this is another thing that gets cut in about the first five minutes with every D&D group I’ve ever met.
  • Establish a list of things that you can do with your point economy that is more impressive than just “take an extra Standard Action.” Truth be told, there are moments when I consider switching to Fate’s action system – you get one action, period, and if you want a move action, too, it’ll cost you a -1 on your die roll. Speed the turns along! But that’s an aside for another time. Most of the Extra Effort list could probably be used as is, really.
  • Not having enough rope is a complication. Having an extra 50ft coil on hand might cost you a hero point.
  • Not having enough money to pay the innkeeper is a complication. Let’s be honest; I hate the amount of time spent shopping for things in D&D, and a more abstract wealth system combined with the Dark Sun rules for Boons (or the Classic Fantasy variation found on this site!) goes a long way toward easing my pain. Make money a Complication/Aspect on top of that, and you’ve taken another step toward a more narratively focused game (and drastically reduced your bookkeeping).
  • Flat modifiers that make sense. Anything that calls for a 50% miss chance becomes a -5 penalty (or a -4, if you want to be consistent with 4th Editions “DM’s Best Friend.”) Anything that calls for a 20% miss chance becomes a -2. The next time you fight a ghost (or from behind cover), you’ll thank me (one less die roll! Hallelujah!)

Or, on the other hand, if that sounds unappealing:

  • Convert your D&D game to another system, like FATE, or Mutants and Masterminds. Either one could serve your needs well, honestly (M&M 2nd Edition even had a source-book for playing Swords and Sorcery style gaming, called Warriors and Warlocks). I may offer my own notes on how to do fantasy with M&M in a future series.

Anyone out there who’s used Aspects in D&D/Pathfinder/Insert System of Your Choice Here, please feel free to chime in with suggestions or experience. How did it work? What needed to be changed?

Happy gaming!

More awesomeness...

Jonathan Baldwin

Jonathan is a firm believer that the best way to make friends is to game with them, and that nearly any problem can be surmounted with a well rolled d20 and a sense of humor. Regrettably, his professors do not agree with him, which leaves him with the challenge of balancing his gaming habits with his studies. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  8 Responses to “How FATE Relates to Other Games”

  1. Starting tonight I’ll be GMing a game of Pathfinder using Strands of Fate. We’ll be creating characters first (of course) and then onward into Pathfinder’s first Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords. I’ll try to return and give you an overview of what happened.

  2. @G.E.Campbell: Sounds awesome! I look forward to hearing about it.

    On a side note, my Strands of Fate hardcover arrived in the mail a few days ago, and I’m pretty excited to read through it properly – books still work better for browsing and flipping than PDF’s do.

  3. @ G.E. Campbell

    I don’t know how much experience you have with Fate, but I’d suggest not skimping on the character generation. Make it a collaborative effort, where everyone works on the same parts of their characters at the same time, offering up ideas for other PCs. It worked REALLY well for us, and our characters came out that much better.

    @ Jonathan

    Oh hell yeah. Hardcovers are so much easier to read.

  4. My experience so far has been a game of Spirit and character/planet creation in Diaspora (game tanked afterwards). Both times though the collaborative character creation has been a blast. It was something I mentioned to my players as well. So yes, we’re definitely doing that.

  5. I’m easing my D&D4e group into aspects starting Sunday. The PCs have just finished a classic high fantasy story arc (“Halls of the Mountain King” from Open Design) and will leap into a wuxia-style campaign due to a flux in reality. (Don’t ask.) I’m requiring all the PCs to rename their powers appropriately (e.g. “Magic Missile” might become “Infallible Celestial Dart”) and to invent a name for their style of kung fu. Once per encounter, they’ll be able to do extra damage by vocally invoking their style, e.g. “No one can withstand Shaolin Mantis Sword!” Over the next few sessions, I’ll lead them to add more aspects (e.g. some thought/memory/philosophy that helps them focus their chi). Aspects will remain only-one-only-once-per-encounter, until I decide to start compelling them…and then I’ll start handing out “chi points” that will let them “pay” to use their aspects more frequently.

    Will it work? Who knows? But I figure they’ll end up doing FATE-like things without ever knowing that they’re doing so. As far as they’re concerned, it will just be a result of the reality shift that landed them in China.

  6. @ Jonathan

    Pardon my ignorance, I have only been reading this blog for a short time not and have never heard of FATE. I was wondering if there is a link for an explanation of what FATE is? I would like to get caught up ASAP, to be able to fully understand what I am reading.


  7. @ JAG

    THAT sounds like a lot of fun. Cool idea.

    @ Alton

    Here are some links for you! I’d get started with our three articles in our Playing with Fate column (especially the Defining Aspect article). After that you can check out the Strands of Fate homepage. We’ll have more articles on the way soon.

  8. I just was writing how much I wanted to do something like this and somebody commented that you had brought this up on your blog as well. Great stuff. I could totally see using Aspects on both the positive and negative sides in d20 for both 3.5 and 4e. They just offer such a great opportunity for roleplaying encouragement.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>