Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fate RPG: System Guide for New Players (Revised)

I've become a Fate enthusiast in the last few years. I’d begun playing with the mechanics just before the Fate Core Kickstarter launched. Now I’ve run it online and f2f, and I’ve adapted several Fate elements into our long-running homebrew, Action Cards. Since Fate Core’s arrival, it has been well supported by Evil Hat and third-party publishers. The recent Fate Core episode of Tabletop might inspire some players to check the system out. So I’ve revised this list to help new players figure out what’s available for the system and what they need to buy.

I’ve broken this into several parts, beginning with the core rulebooks. I then look at other Fate products from Evil Hat. For this revised version, I’ve stuck with just first-party products from Evil Hat. I hope to put together a sequel list which now looks at the expanded universe of strong third-party games for Fate. Also, though I mention it later under Online Resources, I need to give another shout-out to the Fate Roleplaying Game SRD site. It has the best online support for Fate players new and old.

What Is Fate?
Fate is a universal rpg, like GURPS, Savage Worlds, or Hero System. It offers a more abstract approach to than those systems. Fate builds on the earlier Fudge System and has had several editions/ evolutions. It uses a set of unique dice- six siders with 0, +, and – sides (2 each). Rolling a set of four yields a value from +4 to -4, with most results in the middle. A 2d6 variant is possible, subtracting one die from the other, but it offers more swingy results. Players generally roll dice for actions, add a value (skill or approach), and compare it to the opposition’s value. Fate gives players several ways to affect and modify dice results after rolling.

That’s the basic resolution mechanic, but what actually goes on in the game? Different players will have different takeaways about that. Here’s what’s interesting and important to me:
  • Fate builds on simple concepts to define characters: Skills, Aspects, Stunts, Stress, and Extras. These can be easily tweaked and changed. Most operate with an elemental principle, making it easy for players and GM to tweak.
  • A few skills can define a setting. Players usually add skill values to die rolls. The pool of skills for Fate can be tight: 18 for base Fate, 14 for Atomic Robo, and 6 for Fate Accelerated. These connect to the four actions: Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, and Defend. That mechanic makes it easy to figure out what a skill can do.
  • Aspects are awesome. These are descriptors for a person, place, or thing. They have a quick and easy mechanical effect in play. When you “invoke” an aspect you can gain a +2, reroll dice results, or create an effect. Things like aspects on a scene (Stacks of Crates, Darkened Corners) encourage players to interact with the environment. Trouble Aspects operate like disadvantages or flaws in other systems, but offer more player control and actual utility at the table. Other games use aspects as well, but I appreciate how tightly they’re baked into Fate’s structure.
  • Fate’s damage system makes for colorful results and hard choices. Damage is called Stress and has two tracks: physical and mental. The abstract nature of Fate means many different kinds of conflict can happen using the same base procedures. When players take stress, they have deal with it immediately through marking a box off their stress track and/or taking consequences. Consequences are essentially wound aspects which create problems as the fight drags on.
  • You can easily craft different character roles and powers. Stunts are something like feats, talents or advantages in other systems. Fate has a simple set of options for defining these, making it simple to create new ones. Extras represent more potent or unusual special abilities. Fate’s abstraction means that these can be easily built from other parts of the system. If players want an effect for their character there’s a way to define these via collections or combinations of stunts, skills, or aspects.
  • It doesn’t take me long to shift Fate to new campaigns. Like other Universal systems, you have to spend some time doing additional tooling to fit the game to the genre or setting you want to play. Fate makes that easy and builds in player collaboration to create campaigns from the start. That makes it easy to use out of the box, with just a few choices needed about how to handle niche elements like Magic, Powers, Cybernetics, and so on.
  • Fate’s Bronze rule is that anything can be created and treated as a character: cities, plots, factions, obstacles, and so on. This means they can be defined with skills, aspects, stunts, and stress tracks. That’s a powerful tool for the GM in defining the world. It makes prep focused and simple, while allowing players to richly interact with these abstract ‘characters.’

Caveats: Fate operates differently from many other games. Those accustomed to lighter rules or more narrative games, might be unsure about how ‘present’ the mechanics are. If you’re accustomed to games with more defined rules for cases and exceptions, Fate can be hard to grok. It took me some time to finally get how Aspects worked. The abstract mechanics can take getting used to. For example, some gamers are comfortable with superpowers handled purely as aspects, while others want a more rigid list of choices. This potentially means GMs have to negotiate with players and tweak rules to get what they want. But that’s a fact of any universal system and Fate offers a host of tools and examples for that. Another stopper can be the Skill Pyramid. In my experience players can get annoyed/lost with that. Fate also has a restrained system for character advancement. Some players prefer characters get something after every session (exp, development points). Finally, some people hate Fate dice. I’ve had that reaction in my group.

The base book for Fate Core. This contains all the rules needed to play. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to refer to this as the Core book for this entry. Note that there’s another complete, but highly simplified version of the Fate Core system available, Fate Accelerated (see below).

The Core book offers a universal version of the system, not tied to a setting or genre. Many examples use a generic fantasy backdrop, but you can easily see how to adapt the system. After basic concepts, the rules move to campaign creation- showing how players and the GM can collaboratively decide the genre, tone, and issues for a campaign. This leads into character creation chapter which the Core book emphasizes as its own play. Players generate aspects for characters using the “Phase Trio.” Each creates a story for their character and then passes it to the next player. They then add their role in that tale. This connects players at the start, show who the characters are, and aids in developing aspects.

The rules then move into chapters covering elements of the characters: Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. It presents a streamlined set of 18 skills and three stunts associated with each. It presents clear mechanics for adding more. That connects to the next section, Actions and Outcomes, which covers resolution. Fate Core offers four kinds of actions. Overcome is the broadest. Players use this when trying to get past an obstacle: climbing a wall, investigating a crime scene, running a race. Opposition can be passive with a set difficultly or active with an opponent rolling. Players use Create an Advantage to add an aspect to someone or something: setting traps, creating a good mood, finding weak spots in a castle’s defenses, tripping an opponent. Finally Attack and Defend inflict or protect from harm in conflicts. Different skills have different access to these four actions. Levels of success affect results. Ties offer a small advantage, while beating a target by 3 or more means Success with Style which confers extra benefits.

These mechanics come into play in Contests, Challenges, and Conflicts. Conflicts add mechanics for Stress (damage) and Initiative. For conflicts with a spatial or relational set up, Fate uses abstract zones to define the battlefield. A neat element of Fate conflicts is Concessions. Badly hurt character can, before the dice are rolled, concede a conflict. They’re taken out, but have a say in what happens to them. They lose, but avoid truly terrible Fates.

The rest of the Core book presents advice on GMing Fate, character advancement, and extras (with examples). The short version of all that is the Core book provides all the basics to play Fate Core. It presents the material well, with plenty of example and sidebars. The page design makes getting through the book easy and the consistent art style sells the universal feel. I’d recommend this as the starting point for getting into Fate. It’s reasonably priced for a hardcover ($25, or less online) and available Pay What You Want as a pdf on RPGNow.

A condensed version of the Fate Core rules. There's some debate about whether Fate Accelerated (FAE) should be considered its own system. While it maintains Fate Core’s basic concepts, it feels distinct to me. Some supplements specifically serve FAE and it has a separate community on G+.

Fate Accelerated aims for speeding through character creation. Rather than Skills, characters have scores in six different ‘Approaches’: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. When facing a challenge players can suggest what approach they're taking and how it works with the situation. Some approaches more obviously fit (Forceful perhaps for kicking a door in). But others can be applied by providing appropriate narration. Picking the highest score approach might seem logical, but the player and GM negotiate about what fits. Approaches by their nature may have additional effects. For example, a Careful approach might take longer, eating up valuable time. The rest of the system- Aspects, Stress, Action Types, Consequences- remains intact but stripped down. FAE presents stunts via two Mad-Lib formulas, defining a +2 bonus to a specific action or a cool thing they can do once per session.

FAE presents all of this in just 48 pages, including artwork, reference sheets, GM advice, and sample characters. That's kind of amazing. The simplicity stands out and it offers a great introduction for new gamers. The price point and size means that it could be used to test the waters of the Fate with a group. While it might be slim, FAE has proven robust. Players have hacked the mechanics for many different settings and games. Approaches, for example, can reflect the logic and dynamics of a setting, like classic D&D stats for a fantasy game. Fate Accelerated's a solid game and lends itself to on-the-fly adaptation. Most importantly there's a strong linkage between Fate Core and FAE. That means supplements and materials for one can easily be ported to the other.

This supplement, released in parallel with the Fate Core rules offers tweaks, hacks, options, and examples for the system. Rather than feel like a collection of things left out, The Toolkit comes across as kind of masterclass. We have a gaggle of smart veteran GMs gathering to throw around variants & changes and discuss the implications of those. The first several chapters look at the key character elements: Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. These present new ways to handle them and importantly discuss the impact of those changes on play. Other chapters cover campaign design, niche events like chases & social conflict, playing out combat, and beyond. A large section, 70+ pages, presents ideas for designing magic systems. That includes five distinct examples. The final chapter lays out options for many different sub-systems including Kung Fu, Cyberware, Gadgets, Monsters, Warfare, Duels, Vehicles, Supers, and Horror.

Nothing in the Toolkit is essential to playing Fate (Core or Accelerated). You don't get the sense that this material makes the base rules feel unfinished. However GMs looking at how to reshape Fate to fit their style, an existing property, or a particular genre will want to pick this up. It is a grab bag and not everything will be useful for every GM. But the general models will provide a great insight and inspiration.

FATE WORLDS
Evil Hat has released four volumes of Fate Worlds. Each volume s several adventures, campaign settings, or genre frameworks. The first two collections came from the original Kickstarter; the second two volumes from bundling later pdf Worlds of Adventure. How are these useful? First, they offer easy variant Fate settings GMs can use to try out the system. Second, the authors have developed exciting and original universes, worth playing in Fate or any other system. Third, they show how a GM can create new and varied campaigns. Each plays with Fate's system for player interaction and issues. GMs can pick up tricks from these slightly different approaches. Fourth, several entries model new mechanical elements. We see new subsystems for mutations, capers, superpowers, air combat, and a host of other concepts.

While all the entries are solid, each volume has some that hooked me. Volume One, Worlds on Fire, has "White Picket Witches" a CW-esque supernatural television drama. It hits the right beats and shows how to run a game of social conflict with strong inter-group tension. "Fight Fire" presents a game of Firefighters. That sounded unappealing to me (or at least difficult to model). But this chapter gives a variety of mechanics and ideas on structuring these stories. Now I'd love to run or play such a game. "Kriegzepplin Valkyrie" presents a game of post-WW1 dramatic air-warfare. It has an great set of vehicle rules, as well as ideas on how to tune Stunts to a particular setting.

Volume Two, Worlds in Shadow, includes "Crimeworld" and you should buy this. Written by a showrunner for Leverage, this offers advice for running capers, heists, and con games at the table. While it's tuned to Fate, the concepts could easily fit any rpg. If you're a GM who enjoys running these scenarios, you ought to pick this up. "No Exit" takes on psychological horror. Some (including myself) has suggest Fate's less useful for horror because of its focus on player-empowerment. This set up works around that and shows how aspects can be engines to explore and haunt the characters. "Camelot Trigger" has mecha rules; nuff said.

Volume Three, WorldsTake Flight, has a classic feel with four settings. “Frontier Spirit” delivers a planetary colony setting. It has some echoes of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and The 100. But the threat isn’t really sci-fi, more supernatural in the form of spirits which threaten the settlers. The ritual and technology rules are especially interesting and adaptable. The volume also has “Sails Full of Stars” an alt-1800’s space fantasy with colonial conflict and pirates. “The Three Rocketeers,” Dumas inspired space opera, and “Gods and Monsters,” mythic world-shaping, to round it out.

Volume Four, Worlds Rise Up, leans darker. It has a great mix of striking different settings. That includes “Nest” which inspired a mini-campaign I ran. Here children who once rescued a magical kingdom have grown up and become mundane. They’re now called back from our world to save the lands again, but they may not be up to the task. Solid, fun, and easily adaptable. “Behind the Walls” is the grittiest of the WoA. Here you play survivors in a prison after a nuclear attack has cut off the outside world. It’s an interesting combination of the Walking Dead’s prison setting and aftermath media like Jeremiah. The collection includes “Master of Umdaar,” an homage to Thundarr the Barbarian, and “Psychedemia,” a surprising deep look at psionic students trying to use their powers to negotiate peace.

WORLD OF ADVENTURE
As of this writing, Evil Hat has released “Worlds of Adventure,” supported by a Patreon project. Each offers a unique campaign sourcebook. After their release through Patreon, they're available Pay-What-You-Want through RPGNow. They're well-done and offer GMs an easy campaign to bring to the table. All are worth looking at for GMs interested in what they can do with Fate. Two sets have been collected in “Worlds” books listed above. Some have only been released as pdfs. Chronologically these are:

The Secrets of Cats: A world where empowered cats secretly use their talents to protect helpless humans. Includes a setting, magic system, and unique stunts. Comes with a sample adventures.

Save Game: A strikingly illustrated campaign where players take the roles of characters from forgotten video games. In a retro world of information they battle against an evil glitch. Includes cool mechanics modelling video game elements via skills and stunts. Adventure/campaign presented.

The Aether Sea: For FAE. Fantasy sailing ships in space. Riffs on games like Spelljammer, but keeps a classic fantasy feeling. Includes a magic system and rules for building and handling ships in play. Sample adventure.

Romance in the Air: Romance and drama meet skyships and turn of the century events. I especially like the description of it as Last Exile meets Downton Abbey. Offering cool twists on skills as well as a vehicle system. Includes an extensive grand tour adventure/campaign.

Eagle Eyes: For FAE. Cop noir in ancient Rome. A good use of this historical setting. The supplement includes mechanics for lasses and invocations of the gods. Has a tight presentation of the setting. There’s a good section on investigations and mysteries.

Slip: A modern strange campaign. In this world beings from other realities have begun to bleed into our own. You play members of Vigilance, a group dedicated to fighting against this invasion. Many members possess psychic talents to aid in this fight. The game includes some interesting roles with benefits and costs. It also has a mechanic for running the invasion itself- “The Convergence”- as a character with its own rules.

House of Bards: A political game set in a fantasy city. House of Bards echoes House of Cards and A Game of Thrones. It has a stronger PvP elements than many other Fate settings. There’s some interesting ideas on social mechanics, including notes on fleshing out Contacts as a skill (which can be used to attack in this setting). Worth picking up if you’re doing any campaign with a strong social or negotiation focus.

Deep Dark Blue: A near-future game where resource depletion has sent explorers into the ocean in search wealth and advancement. Characters serve on a single ship and there’s some emphasis on building that as a shared location. Lots of stuff on underwater adventuring, including ship to ship combat.

Knights of Invasion: Aliens attack a medieval society. A more directed world, KoI presents a mini-campaign in three acts. It has some new skills, rules for period-appropriate elements like siege weapons, and a fully-fleshed setting.

Morts: After a zombie apocalypse, jobbers—called Morticians—get the unpleasant task of keeping things secure and dealing with internal incidents. Has a “worklife” comedy edge, but then veers into lot of material for magic and running supernatural creatures as PCs.

Nitrate City: For FAE. A strange event brings the people and creatures of the movie world to life in 1948 Hollywood. Los Angeles becomes a cinematic city, filled with pulp tropes and noir atmosphere. Think Who Killed Roger Rabbit’s Toontown, but with more realism and integration. The “Flicker” effect serves as a campaign element, to differentiate it from your usual pulp setting. Offers a novel take on approaches.

Under the Table: The tagline tells it really well: “Arthurian mythology meets Prohibition-era gangster fiction in this retelling of the Round Table set in a magic-infused alternate timeline during the days of Prohibition.” Has a few new mechanical elements, but is mainly focused on presenting the setting and characters.

Good Neighbors: A strange modern game set in Still Hollow, a small town on the border of the real world and the fae realm. Each player has two characters, one from each world. You battle against “The Industry” a group dedicated to exploiting this decaying but potent town. Uses troupe play, with events in one world affecting developments in the other. A neat take on how to present a highly structured game with phases.

Blood on the Trail: Vampires in the Wild West. Rather than the broader supernatural of Deadlands or even Owl Hoot Trail, BotL has a darker frontier haunted by dangerous monsters. Good material on the history, a mapping mechanic, and rules for handling an ongoing journey (and avoiding dying of dysentery).

Loose Threads: Characters at the margins of fairy tale stories try to help those who might otherwise be destroyed by magics and fantasy. A high concept setting, it focuses on the idea of costs literally in the setting and in the Fate mechanics. New systems deepen that concept.

Ghost Planets: The PCs are members of the Xenohistory Corps, tasked with investigating the ruins and artifacts of the many dead aliens civilizations discovered in space. The backstory hints at something like the Reapers from Mass Effect or the Mizari from Emprey. Has some new skills as well as a new take on research tied to character concept.

Red Planet: Soviet retrofuture space exploration by Jess Nevins, the master of Pulp History. Has some minor mechanical changes, but is primarily interested in laying out the campaign concept and setting.

Andromeda: Big picture, epic space opera. The rag-tag remnants of humanity have fled to another galaxy only to come face to face with a host of alien empires. Has a long and interesting list of inspirational material. Use the Deck of Fate to explore this massive scale setting. A neat mechanic approach worth checking out for GMs who want to radically hack Fate.

Uranium Chef: For FAE. Tongue-in-cheek space comedy. It seems like this might be a slight concept, but the supplement’s longer than most other WoA settings. Contains a sub-system for dealing with the eponymous culinary competitions. There’s a reality show element which reminds me of World Wide Wrestling and InSpectres. Has mechanics for seasons, specialty episodes, and a full sample adventure.

OTHER EVIL HAT FATE SOURCEBOOKS
A supplement based on the world of the Kaiju Incorporated card game. In it you play corporate drones doing rescue and clean up in the wake of giant monster attacks. Has a hit-or-miss comedic tone and art style. Usable with Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. It borrows some game tech from Atomic Robo (see below) for character creation. Actual event resolution uses an interesting event generator, which shifts the play highly structured scenes and turns.

This is a sourcebook for the Spirit of the Century pulp setting. While SotC uses an earlier version of Fate, this sourcebook has Fate Core mechanics throughout, in particular archetypes and new stunts. Mostly the book offers a complete pulp history for the setting, using the lens of a fictional magazine publisher. Jess Nevins knows his sources and brings them to bear. Recommended for any GM planning on running a pulp game.

Presents superhero setting of ambiguous morality. Includes a new and useful approach to superpowers. Originally released as a World of Adventure, Venture City Stories, Evil Hat expanded and re-released it as Venture City. You can see my review of the original here. That includes a link to an actual play video using the rules. The new edition adds many more sample characters, a stronger list of example powers & themes, and some mini-adventures. Venture City takes a minimal approach to power design. It offers a simple, customizable framework. That separates it from some of the other third-party Fate supers games which have been released (Daring Comics and Wearing the Cape). These take a more granular approach to the mechanics.

STANDALONE FATE GAMES
A complete, stand-alone version of Fate Core covering the Atomic Robo comic universe. It's a large, solid book with incredible layout and illustrations. Most importantly it captures the feel of the original comics and the emphasis on "Action Science." That's a modern pulp with high pseudo-science weirdness. Atomic Robo takes a streamlined approach to mechanics, rearranging and paring the skill system. It emphasizes on-the-fly character creation in stunts, aspects, and skills. It also brings several new or tweaked mechanics to the game: brainstorming, factions, organizations. Atomic Robo shows how Fate can simulate a particular genre. As well, it offers some of the best examples of play. Recommended if you're interested in the comic or the idea of modern pulp. You can see my review here. The One-Shot Podcast has some actual play here.

A “Windpunk” adventure game in the vein of Avatar the Last Airbender and Korra. Originally created for another system, this version adapts the world to Fate Accelerated. Players take on the role of youths tasked with solving problems and bringing peace. The focus includes non-violent conflict resolution and creative thinking. Do’s explicitly designed to be a family-friendly game. It’s a good example of how Fate can be modified to handle certain tones and limits.

A forthcoming adaptation of the Dresden File Roleplaying game to FAE. I’ve run this and I’ve written up my thoughts here. DFAE offers many new and interesting mechanics: unique conditions to define player archetypes, mantles representing role powers, and simple ritual magics. It’s a solid game and really shows how the rules can be tweaked and expanded. Well worth picking up for fans of The Dresden Files and/or urban fantasy.

“Roleplaying in a Grimsical World of Fantasy.” This adapts the War of Ashes miniatures game to Fate. This world consists of several cute & cuddly but highly violent races. WoE: FoA uses Fate Accelerated approaches with mechanics for playing out mini-compatible combats. About half the book’s devoted to the setting and background, half to character creation and mechanics. If you’re interested in seeing how you can bridge the gap between Fate’s openess and more traditional elements like minis, check this one out.

This adapts the Spirit of the Century setting (mentioned above) with a couple of major changes. Mechanically it uses Fate Accelerated, which massively streamlines the rules. As well, like Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, Young Centurions aims to be an all-ages product. Young heroes battle against sinister forces. The world’s four-color, embodying the brightest aspects of pulp literature and cinema.

FATE ADD-ONS
There are several unique secondary products for Fate. Generally each player will need a set of Fate Dice. Evil Hat and other manufacturers produce these. They can also be found listed as “Fudge Dice.” The Deck of Fate is a set of cards to use as a Fate randomizer. This 96-card deck includes cards covering the distribution of result across the dice, as well as inspirational phrases. Two sub-sets can be used for generating random approach values for Fate Accelerated or aspect starting points for any character.

ONLINE RESOURCES
Even before the Fate Core Kickstarter, Fate had a strong online community. That support has continued, with developers and players chatting and blogging about ideas. I recommend checking out the personal blogs for any of the Fate designers. I've gotten a ton from Rob Donohue and Ryan Macklin's work in particular. Other useful online resources include:
  • Fate Roleplaying Game SRD: Randy Oest put together an amazing and highly usable site. This takes all of the open material from Fate Core, Fate Accelerated, and the Fate Toolkit and organizes it. I keep this open to refer to whenever I'm working on Fate. Essential.
  • Community Fate Core Extensions: If you're looking for cheat pages, character sheets, rules variants, or adaptations to any existing game or property, you should check here. Some awesome tools available here. You can see links to various hacks (like my ambitious failure, Scions of Fate).
  • G+ Fate Community: G+ has vibrant community looking at play styles, rules implementations, and setting hacks. A great place to post questions. There's a smaller but equally rich community covering Fate Accelerated.
  • Fate Points: While it seems to have podfaded, Fate Points still has a set of interesting podcast episodes available.
  • Fate Codex: Mark Diaz Truman has a Patreon campaign developing a semi-monthly e-zine of dynamite Fate materials. Supporting the campaign gets you access to the current issue. I believe previous issues can also be purchased. Worth it.