This past year a lot of interest has been generated for RPG’s that utilize the FATE system. Our Playing with FATE series of articles, focusing on the generic Strands of FATE (SoF) rule-set, has been well-received by many readers and even attracted the attention of SoF designer Mike McConnell. I’ve had the chance to use the system for a couple of different convention games as well as in my home gaming group, and I’ve learned some important lessons.
When we first looked at SoF, most of our gaming group liked what they saw, but like any change, we’ve struggled through some growing pains. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the system presented in SoF, but it may not be for everyone. Even for those of you who would like to give it a go may find it a difficult adjustment for your group. I’m not criticizing the game design in any way (it’s easy to learn and very well-constructed), but FATE does have a very different paradigm than most RPG’s. And therein lays potential pitfalls.
To give FATE the opportunity to really shine and show you what it can do, you need to be aware of three elements to the game that may be very different from the way you’re used to playing.
- Increased Player Control
- Aspects: The FATE Point Economy
Increased Player Control
This will most likely be the biggest adjustment for groups to face when switching to FATE. In most other games the GM controls virtually everything; setting details, NPC personalities, plot elements, etc. Players, on the other hand, control relatively little. They are responsible for their characters’ decisions and individual actions, but not much else. FATE is a very different beast.
In SoF the primary element that shifts control is the Declaration. With a roll of the dice, or the simple expenditure of a FATE point, players can “declare” something about the game. These Declarations could range from colorful background details, plot hooks, and NPC relationships, to potential bonuses and penalties for both players and NPC’s.
- “We’re docking at Stormhaven? My cousin Bertrim lives here.”
- “Don’t worry, caprimundas are nocturnal. We’ll be safe during the day.”
- “I have to be careful in this town; I have a warrant for arrest for a little misunderstanding with the magistrate.”
- “I’m approaching from downwind, that should give me an advantage.”
This puts tremendous power in the players’ hands and forces the GM to be more flexible and adaptive. Both of which take a little getting used to, but I think are good things for the game. In my experience, players tend to be a bit reluctant making “campaign decisions,” and GM’s sometimes have a hard time letting the players manipulate the stories and campaigns they worked so hard on. But don’t worry, as a player, you’ll love impacting stories in whole new ways, and as a GM you’ll be amazed at how much less prep work you’ll find yourself doing.
If you really want to see and experience the power of FATE, you owe it to yourself to embrace the idea of the Declaration. In my experience, the end result is a game with much greater emphasis on collaborative group storytelling and campaigns that players really connect with.
Aspects: The FATE Point Economy
Understanding and utilizing Aspects and the FATE point mechanic are absolutely essential to the FATE experience. In SoF, Aspects are EVERYTHING and FATE points make them work. Anything in the game can, and should, have Aspects: characters, equipment, the setting, vehicles, creatures, locations, etc. As a GM, your descriptive notes are probably perfect Aspects, so use them. The only thing to decide is whether or not the Aspect is relevant right now, on this dice roll. And here’s the simple little secret – any Aspect is relevant so long as someone is either spending or earning a FATE point, if not, it doesn’t matter right now.
The concept of the Aspect is simple and eliminates the need for dozens of different rules, mechanics, and sub-systems found in other games. This is what makes SoF so easy to play. You don’t need to remember what the cover bonus for a wooden crate is. Just ask yourself, “Does Pile of Crates seem like an appropriate scene Aspect?” If so, you’re done. Whether or not the crates will impact the game is up to the character that is willing to spend a FATE point to Invoke the Aspect for cover and gain the +2 bonus (it’s always a +2 bonus by the way). Or maybe the GM will Compel the Aspect against the player, forcing him to take a -2 penalty to his shot because the crates are in his way, but earning the player a FATE point for the trouble.
Aspects and FATE points (Invoking for +2 / Compelling for -2) are 95% of the rules. Instead of slowing the game down looking for a specific rule or chart, the GM merely has to decide if something is potentially relevant enough to be an Aspect. We’ve found that this becomes pretty organic after a while. The GM usually has a couple of Aspects in mind for any given encounter, a few more are usually self-evident (the spilled oil on the floor makes it Slippery), and the players will make Declarations or simply ask questions (“How’s the lighting in here? It’s Dark and Shadowy). It’s really very simple, just ask yourself “Does this (thing) seem like it might be relevant to the encounter?” If the answer is yes, it’s an Aspect. No? Forget about it.
The term “abstraction” tends to generate strong feelings amongst gamers these days. Some people prefer a more simulation-like experience in their game while others don’t care. SoF embraces a fairly abstract set of assumptions. There are no 5-foot grid squares or 50 meter ranges. Space and distance are determined by Zones which are defined by the need of the scene. Most of the game elements are fairly open and tend to be varying depending on the scene and situation. If you’re looking for exactly how many yards your .38 pistol can shoot and still be lethal, you might want to look at other games. Whether or not this may be appealing to you and your group really depends on personal preferences and group desires.
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Strands of FATE is an excellent fit for my style of gaming. But much like jalapenos, line-dancing, or S&M, self-awareness of your own preferences, and understanding how things work together, goes a long way toward potentially enjoying the experience.