May 28 2013

Fate Core, a primer and review

Fate Primer

I just want to hit a few thing before I get into my review because there’s some jargon in Fate that non Fate players might not be familiar with. If you are familiar with the game feel free to skip down to the review.

Basic Procedure of Play – Fate is played using fudge dice. They’re 6 sided dice with +, -, and blanks on two sides. You roll four of these dice, total the modifiers, and then add the total to your skill which will be usually be somewhere between 0 and 4, compare that to the target difficulty or the opposed roll. The oppositions roll follows the same procedure as described above. At this point aspects can be invoked using fate points. When you do this you can add a +2 to your total, re-roll, pass a +2 to another character if narratively reasonable, or add a +2 to a source of passive opposition. Now do a final comparison once both sides are finished spending fate points and compare. One of four things will happen: You fail at your attempt or choose to succeed with a consequence, you tie, you succeed, or you succeed with style if you have three or more difference.

Fate Point – The currency of Fate. You can spend these points to do a variety of things in the game from creating elements in a scene to invoking or compelling aspects.

Refresh – The number of Fate Points you start a session with if you ended your last session with fewer Fate Points.

Aspects – Phrases that lend importance to something in the game which can be Invoked or Compelled.

Invoking – You spend a Fate point to activate an aspect which allows you to add to a roll or re-roll your dice.

Compel – When one of your aspects causes you trouble you receive a fate point. The trouble is either an event occurs where your character is being prompted to do something and you now must try and accomplish whatever your character is being compelled to do or a decision where your character acts in a detrimental way because it makes sense for them to do so based on the Aspect. You can always spend a fate point to buy off the compel at the time of the compel.

Stunts – They modify how you can use your skills, make you better at using your skills in specific situations, or give you a new aspects.

The Skill Column – Skill ratings are like bricks you stack. You must always have at least one skill below the rating you want a skill at. In other words you can’t have two +4 skills if you only have one +3 skill. The +4 skill doesn’t have anything to sit on top of.

Stress – temporary harm you accumulate over the course of a scene. It goes away when the scene is over.

Stress track – the amount of temporary harm you can take before you are more permanently damaged in the form of consequences.

Consequences – A negative aspect from taking stress which exceeds the stress track.

Boost – A temporary aspect which only lasts for one turn regardless if it is invoked or not.

Extras – Rules you can add onto the core game covering superpowers, cyber ware, magic, or whatever else you might want in you game that the core game doesn’t cover mechanically.

Milestone – A break in the story of the game where advancement occurs. They come in minor, significant, and major.

The Review

Fate Core will help you build the game you want to play as long as the game revolves around characters who are proactive, competent, and dramatic. Every bit of this book is a guide to doing that, from teaching what FATE is in chapter one right down to how to add in all the extra bits like magic, superpowers, or cyberware in chapter eleven. Other games which try to do this don’t always excel at giving or explaining the tools to players and GMs. Fate Core is superb in that regard. The layout is easy to read, important information jumps off the page in bold text or in bullet lists, there are tons of examples throughout the course of the book, and the side bars are punchy and poignant. Oh, did I mention the hyperlinks for you digital readers. The table of contents is hyper-linked and there are hyperlinks in the margins to jump you to places in the book which might help you grok what’s written on the current page. Those margin notes also have page numbers for those with physical copies. This book is just another of the fine products produced by Evil Hat Productions and is the tightest Fate rules set produced to date. I recommend buying it but if you want to know what’s inside here’s a chapter break down of what you get.

Chapter one talks about the basics of Fate. It starts with the obligatory “What is role playing” section before moving on to describe fudge dice, the ladder, Fate Points, Aspects, taking action in the game, invoking, and compels. By covering all these ideas in basic terms the chapter prepares you for the rest of the book.

Chapter two covers game creation. This is a pared down version of the Dresden Files RPG city creation system but it also expands the ideas in that game to assist GMs in getting their groups to collaborate on any type of game they might want to play. It breaks down how to create a setting, set the scale of the game, get the games big issues going, and populating the game with, organizations, locations and NPCs.

Chapter three is all about character creation and how it’s also a game. Fate games use a system which tells part of a characters story and how the character connects with two other characters. From this little storytelling game you get your Aspects, which define half of a Fate character. The other half are skills and stunts. The skills use something called the skill pyramid. Each character gets four skills at +1, three at +2, two at +3, and one at +4. Characters are also capped at +4 or great according to the core rules. There is an optional rule where players start with twenty points to spend but are limited by the cap and the idea of the skill column, which is always in effect. In this version of Fate three stunts are free and refresh can be spent to get up to two more. Next Stress and Consequences are covered which is the way damage is handled. Finishing up some smooth and quick character creation rules are laid out. In short a character starts with a couple of Aspects, some skills, and a bunch of blanks filled in during the first session, adding in what is needed when it is needed. This works really well for people who have some ideas but aren’t sure how the game is going to play out and which skills will be really important.

Chapter four talks about what I believe to be the lynch pin mechanic which makes this game so much fun to play. Aspects and Fate Points. Fate points are the currency of the game and Aspects bring what would normally be background fluff to the forefront of play allowing it to be invoked or compelled. In previous books like The Dresden Files RPG and Spirit of the Century there have been chapters on the Aspect but none as comprehensive and easy to understand as in this book. It starts by defining Aspects and Fate Points, then discusses the type of Aspects: Game, Character, Situation, Consequences, and Boosts. After that we learn what Aspects do, covering how making something an Aspect makes it important to the game and get some advice on determining when the mechanics should be engaged.  Next it covers how to make quality Aspects. Here’s my favorite advice:

Always ask what matters and why?

If that question is answered an Aspect is easy to make. Following that is invoking Aspects which is the mechanical application of Aspects and hits on something I believe is new to this version of Fate in how free invocations are used. As many free invocations on an Aspect can be made at one time as there are fate points on the Aspect, even spending a fate point from the acting players own pool on top of it. Compelling aspects comes after along with the types of compels. The best part here is the idea of suggesting compels is everyone at the tables responsibility. After this are sections about using Aspects as role playing prompts, how to remove or change Aspects through play, and creating or discovering new Aspects. Finally the chapter talks about the Fate point economy, how refresh works, other ways to spend Fate points other than invoking, and how to earn them. Something new for the GM here is whenever a scene starts you get a Fate point for every PC in that scene. You can spend these Fate points on anything you want in the scene to help get your ideas going and to challenge the players.

Chapter Five explains Skills and Stunts. It starts by defining skills, what they do in the game, and touches on the four basic actions of Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, and Defend. When a player takes action that requires a dice roll in this game they are always doing one of these four things with some skill. The best rule change from previous versions of the game is the Create an Advantage action. It replaced a bunch of old actions that created Aspects. I was always confused since they were so similar.  Stunts are covered next and this section has a fantastic “how to” on building new stunts. In fact anytime this book is giving you the “how to” on anything it is done in superb fashion with the mechanical tools explained clearly, followed up with common examples so you have a blueprint to start with when building anything. Finishing the chapter is the skill list. I think it’s worth noting there is a quality side bar on dealing with the resource skill on pg 123.

Chapter six is all about Actions and Outcomes. This chapter and chapter 7 cover the procedures of play, starting by getting in depth with the four outcomes and the four actions. Everything in this chapter exemplifies the Fantastic layout of the book. It’s easy to read and understand and if a term was forgotten the margin notes point to where to find it.

Chapter seven covers challenges, contests, and conflicts. When a single roll of the dice isn’t enough to determine the outcome these are the procedures given to decide what happens. There are some great questions GMs can ask to decide which of these three frameworks should be used. Challenges cover overcoming some series of obstacles where a single roll doesn’t seem to fit, contests involve two or more characters striving for a goal but aren’t trying to harm each other directly, and conflicts are for those situations where people are trying to hurt each other physically or mentally. The conflict section is the largest of the chapter and covers setting the scene, determining turn order, what exchanges and zones are, creating situation Aspects, resolving attacks, taking consequences, recovering from consequences, ending a conflict and all the other little gritty details of fighting, be it with words or swords. I really like the teamwork rule in this game. It’s simple. If a character has at least an Average rating (or +1) in the skill that the die roller is using a +1 can be added assuming the characters assistance makes sense in the narrative. The only caveat is if a character helps they are now subject to any costs associated with the roll.

Chapter eight is all about running the game from the GMs perspective. It covers what the GMs responsibilities are which is starting and ending scenes, playing the world, judging the use of the rules, and creating scenarios along with just about everything else. So while that’s the over view of what the GMs job is this chapter goes deep, giving GMs some options for how to guide game creation and deciding if extras are needed. Then it hits on how to make the game go during play and it starts with the Golden Rule of Fate:

Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.

It seems so simple but it’s such good advice for any game. Next it talks about when to roll the dice:

Roll the dice only when succeeding or failing at the action could each contribute something interesting to the game.

Then there’s advice on how to make failure interesting, some excellent tips about how to not marginalize characters because they failed, and what constitutes a minor cost vs. a serious cost. After that the chapter goes into how to push some of the work onto your players, setting difficulties, dealing with game time and story time, and how to use story time in success and failure to create deadline pressures. There’s advice on zooming in and out on the story, judging the use of skills and stunts, why you should leave specific measurements out of the game, dealing with the weird things that happen in conflicts, and how multiple targets of effects could be handled. It covers environmental hazards, gives advice on dealing with Aspects and how not to be weaksause (their words not mine) when making compels. Finally there is an excellent set of guidelines for creating and playing the PCs opposition. This version of Fate, like others adopts a create only what you need philosophy, which I approve of, and covers how to right-size your opposition if you want rougher or easier conflicts based on numbers, skills, advantages, and venues. I think this chapter is a gold mine of advice for any GM running most traditional RPGs and even some which aren’t so traditional.

Chapter nine covers the creation of scenes, sessions, and scenarios. It starts with defining the scenario and how to start building them by finding the problems, asking story questions, establish the opposition, and set the first scene. After that the game should just go. It’s fantastic stuff and helps GMs out by posing a bunch of Madlibs to figure out what problems there are and following it up with questions you can answer to figure out everything else. Next is support for scenes through determining the purpose of the scene and figuring out what interesting thing is going to happen. Then the book takes a few pages to help GMs get their players interested in the scene by advising GMs to hit character Aspects and calling back to the three pillars of the game: Competence, Proactivity, and Drama. Then some superb advice is given.

Whatever you have planned will always be different from what actually occurs.

The chapter finishes with some information on resolving the scenario.

Chapter ten is called the long game which defines and then gives advice for building story arcs and campaigns. They’re basically giving frameworks for spontaneous storytelling. The mechanic that helps signify the ending and beginnings of these arcs are milestones. The book takes some time to define minor, significant, and major milestones and what mechanical benefits each of them give to players. Then advancing the world is covered and the things the GM should think about during each of the milestones. The chapter finishes up with advice about how to handle NPCs over the long haul.

Chapter eleven is all about the Extras. What’s an extra? It’s anything that’s part of a character or controlled by a character that gets special treatment in the rules. These are the setting rules you’ll get in a super hero game or the magic system in a fantasy setting. To help GMs out the book has a bunch of different add-ons you can use or use as a blueprint to build your own extras. To help GMs create those extra’s they even have a great list of questions GMs can ask to help them figure out what they may or may not need. In here is also one of the coolest things about Fate. The Fate fractal. Anything in the game world can be treated like it’s a character. A car, an organization, a location, whatever. Just throw some Aspects, skills, stunts, a stress track or two, and consequence slots on it if you want. You want a Birthright campaign, you can do it, just make all the kingdoms Fate characters with skills, stunts, or Aspects, and that’s just one of the things you could do.

My personal thoughts are this rules set is the tightest Fate has produced yet. Aspects are easier to understand than ever before, there is an interesting failure mechanic where the player gets to choose if they fail or succeed with a consequence, and the game creation sections along with the extra’s chapter gives you the tools to build the game you want. For GMs Chapters eight through ten are some of the best GM advice collected in one place I’ve seen in a RPG book that isn’t Robin’s Laws of Game Mastering. As far as presentation and use of language for explaining a game is concerned I’ve always felt the best book out there was the Mouse Guard RPG. While that book is still more beautiful I feel Fate Core is at least its equal and maybe just a little bit better at teaching the rules through the text and layout. I don’t give ratings but I will say this. I love Dungeon World and I’m very fond of Mouse Guard as a book to teach a rules set. Fate Core accomplishes the goal of teaching the game better than either of those games. I can’t say it’s a better rules set than Dungeon World or Mouse Guard because it’s focus is different but as a set of tools to help GMs and players build a game I’ve never seen a book or game do it better.

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  1. FAE or FATE Core? | The Reef

    […] Evil Hat or from your friendly local gaming store.  For good reviews of the system, see here and here.  For FAE reviews, see here and […]

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