Jul 182011

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.

  1. Increased Player Control
  2. Aspects: The FATE Point Economy
  3. Abstraction

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.

– – –

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.

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John Lewis

John Lewis started roleplaying back in 1983 with the ‘old blue box’ edition of Dungeons & Dragons. He has played and/or gamemastered more games than he cares to admit, or can even remember! Currently he spends the vast majority of his game time running a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying campaign. John's next project is to convert the Warhammer 40,000 RPG's (Dark Heresy, Deathwatch, Rogue Trader) to Strands of FATE. He is also an avid miniatures painter and wargamer and enjoys a variety of different boardgames.

  8 Responses to “Playing with FATE: “Is it right for me?””

  1. Another great Playing with Fate article. I always love reading these, and you guys always do a great job with them.

  2. Also, along with Declarations, one should not forget about Assessments (finding out about an aspect through observation) and Maneuvers (adding / modifying Aspects through action). While they’re not as game-changing as Declarations, they’re integral to the Aspects mechanic.

  3. I think the trickiest thing for me has been making Declarations and Assessments. It just takes a little getting used to, since for years I’ve always just been concerned about the information on my character sheet. But that’s ok, though, because the game isn’t necessarily dependent on Declarations and Assessments; they’re simply tools that add to the game.

    The best part, in my opinion, is that you are able to easily create deep, rich characters. Your characters just seem more “real” because of the personal aspects that make up their history, outlook, goals, quirks, etc. The Strands of Fate system naturally brings this component of your character into the game, making up both the system’s mechanics, and character immersion. win-win!

  4. Tourq brings up a good point. You can actually play Strands without using Declarations and Assessments at all, and it plays just fine.

  5. I personally am a huge fan of Fate, with the Dresden Files Rpg and Spirit of the century. A fun system that really does a fun job of playing adventure style games.

  6. @All; thanks for the kind comments. Hopefully my current schedule will allow more time for Playing with FATE articles.

    As for me I love Assessments and especially Declarations. Increased player driven story-elements have really reinvigorated my GMing, and helped our players connect with the campaign.

  7. Hi John. I have a huge problem when I’m playing with SoF. As player I know all NPC’s Aspects? If not, so when GM uses one – I know it automatically?

  8. Depends on how you and your GM want to do it. I state obvious ones right up front. If I Invoke an Aspect I also state it for the PC’s unless for some reason I doubt it would be noticable. I also am always sure to leave an Aspect or two waiting for a PC to discover through Assessments. For example, in my Warhammer 40k campaign a certain creature has -Poor close-up vision- as an Aspect. I’m not going to use it for anything or even state it unless a player makes a successful Assessment about it.

    As a note though I make NPC and creature Aspects pretty one-sided, in other words they tend to either be positive (for Invokes) or negative (for compels), unike PC Aspects which should be able to go either way. That way it’s pretty easy to decide what the PC’s would be aware of. This also has had a nice effect of getting PC’s to research foes to “discover” Aspects before encountering them.

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