Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Narrative? Check. Fast-paced combat? Check. Easily adaptable for design purposes? Triple check! (A Fate Core Review)


I thought it appropriate that as my blog posts up until this point have been revolving around adapting Time Heroes to the Fate system that I post a review of the Fate Core book that I've been using in this project. I am going to focus on what I consider the key concepts that I apply when looking at the playability of any RPG. Rules will be talked about, but not rated on any kind of standalone basis. At the end of each section I will include a "TL; DR" summary for those who just want to get the gist of it.



The Idea

"Fate doesn't come with a default setting, but it works best with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives."

The above quote from the beginning of the Fate Core book is probably the best way to capture what the game is all about. Fate Core is also a designer-friendly system in that the minds behind the game were open about how they created the game, thus making it easy to adapt other games/settings to. I say this from first-hand experience as I have just finished my design journal in which I adapt my Time Heroes RPG to the (I think) much more appropriate system of Fate Core.

If you're interested in learning more about a fast-paced narrative game or about a system that can be applied to most anything, keep reading!



Mechanic System:Atmosphere

The first of my key concepts is the one that I consider to quite possibly be the most important. Do the mechanics of the game successfully capture the atmosphere the game is trying to create? Below I will discuss various aspects of the mechanics in relation to the atmosphere of the game.
Before I get into the specifics of this topic for Fate Core, I'm going to address a probable question: How do you discuss the atmosphere of a game in which there is no default setting? I think the best way to do this is by use the idea the game is meant to be narrative, fast-paced and accessible to most anyone as the "atmosphere" intended in the design of the game. Of course, I can't say this is 100 percent the intent, but it is what I took away from the game.

Mechanics
The best way to talk about the mechanics of Fate Core is (for me at least) simply to describe them. First, the game doesn't revolve around dice rolls. If an action doesn't do anything interesting or potentially complicate things, don't bother rolling.

Rolling Dice
If an action does require a roll, Fate uses a set of four [thing=44946][/thing]. Each die is broken up into three symbols. Two sides have minus sides, two have plus sides and two are blank.

The basic rolling mechanic is this: Roll four dice, add them up and reach a number that ranges from -4 to +4. If there is a skill that applies to the situation, that number is added to the roll. That number is then applied to the Fate Ladder to determine success.

Fate Ladder
+8 - Legendary
+7 - Epic
+6 - Fantastic
+5 - Superb
+4 - Great
+3 - Good
+2 - Fair
+1 - Average
0 - Mediocre
-1 - Poor
-2 - Terrible

How does the Fate Ladder come into play? The two types of opposition in Fate Core are active and passive opposition. Active opposition is when two people are directly rolling against each other. When the rolls are made, the person who rolled higher wins the contest.

Passive opposition is when the GM chooses a level on the ladder and sets that as the difficulty for the action. If the total from the player is higher than that level, the action generally succeeds. If the total equals the difficulty number, it might succeed but not to the extent the player wishes. If the total is under the difficulty number, the action could fail or succeed at a cost or with other complications involved.

Aspects
The biggy of Fate Core for me is the concept of the Aspect.  Aspects are phrases that can have both positive and negative connotations (Ex: Tempted by Shiny Things). These aspects can be invoked by spending a fate point in order to allow a reroll or add +2 to a roll (With Tempted by Shiny Things the player might spend a fate point in order to use this Aspect to assist with determining how much a jewel is worth). The GM can also compel the player to use the negative side of the Aspect (again, with Tempted by Shiny Things the character might be distracted from their goal by the sight of some kind of treasure and then need to go acquire it at the expense of the others).

Fate Points
Fate points can be used to do a few things. First, they are spent to invoke the positive side of an Aspect. This allows the player to reroll the dice or add +2 to the total of a roll.

They can be used to create a scene aspect if a character aspect doesn't apply. If a player wants to invoke an Aspect but doesn't have an appropriate one on their character, a Fate Point can be spent to create a scene aspect (Ex: a wizard decides to charge a thug head-on. They only roll a total of +1 for their Fighting skill. Wanting to ensure success, the player pays a Fate Point to state that he telekinetically yanks a Rug out from under the thug, granting him a +2 to the roll for a total of +3). After that the Scene Aspect remains, able to be used by others for the extent of the scene.

Third, Fate Points can be used to declare a story detail. This is basically the "what a coincidence" use for Fate Points. For example, a character could need to get a safe screwed into a wall. The player could spend a Fate Point and say they happen to find (or have brought with them) a power drill with which to remove the safe.

Lastly, Fate Points are spent to use certain higher-powered Stunts.

A player gains Fate Points by accepting Compels of the negative side of an Aspect from the GM.

Skills
A character's skills are rated from +0(Mediocre) to +4(Great), at least to start. When a roll is made, if a skill applies to the situation, the player can add the skill level to the roll.

Skills are used for four different things:
Overcome - Skills are used to defeat challenges (your basic roll and beat the difficulty number and you succeed)
Create Advantage - A skill can be used to discover something that already exists about an opponent or create a situation that helps you succeed. It lets you discover and create aspects as well as granting a free invocation of them.
Attack - What you expect it to be, except in Fate, depending on what the player declares, an attack can be physical, mental, emotional or social.
Defend - The same as Attack from the other side.

Stunts
Stunts are special effects that can change the way a skill works.  They can add a new action to a skill (Backstab lets the player use Stealth to make physical attacks if the target doesn't know the character is there), add a bonus to an action (Arcane Expert gives a +2 bonus to create an advantage using Lore if the situation has to do with the supernatural or occult) or create a rules exception (normally a skill can only be used once in a challenge but Ritualist allows a player to use Lore in place of another skill, allowing the player to use it twice in one challenge).

Combat
Very briefly, combat is an opposed roll. The winner deals damage in the amount of how much they beat the defender by. The damage must then be absorbed via stress or give a consequence (a negative Aspect that is longer-lasting than simple stress, such as a broken leg). If neither of these is able to be done, the character is out of the fight. Stress goes away after a fight with a few minutes of a breather, but Consequences are longer lasting.

Being taken out of a conflict is not the same as dying. The rules are pretty clear that generally in Fate Core, the only time a character should die is when it is narratively appropriate (and the GM and player should agree on this).

Those are the basics of the mechanics and probably more than I needed to get into for a simple review, but I wanted to be sure and convey how the game works. Something I particularly like is that the rules are clearly laid out in an easy-to-understand format. Granted, this book isn't the final version, so there are some errors here and there. However, as a whole it's not a difficult read.

Character Creation/"Leveling Up"
Character creation in Fate Core is extremely collaborative and is also tied in with setting creation. Both occur immediately after each other (or simultaneously) and should involve everyone intending to play in the game. Some aspects (lower-case 'a') of the setting may already be determined, but a good portion of it should be decided upon by everyone together.

There are no "character classes" in Fate Core. The closest the game comes to this would probably be the "High Concept," or primary Aspect of a character. This might be something like "Knight of the Round," "Low level Thug" or "Wizard Private Eye."

Character creation itself breaks down into several steps. I won't go into great detail on them here, but these are the steps:

1. Aspects - Choose your character's high concept and trouble aspects. A trouble aspect would be the equivalent of a flaw, although like any other aspect it can be invoked in a positive manner when desired.
2. Name - Pretty self-explanatory.
3. First Phase - Discuss the first adventure your character was a part of.
4. Second and Third Phases - In each of these two phases, discuss how your character crossed the path of another character.
5. Aspects - Pick an aspect for each of the three phases to give your character.
6. Skills - Pick your skills and rate them. During character creation a player has ten levels of skills to distribute amongst the skill list: 1 +4(Great), 2 +3(Good), 3 +2(Fair) and 4 +1(Average). Every other skill is rated at +0 (Mediocre).
7. Stunts - Design or choose stunts for your character.
8. Refresh - How many Fate Points will you start with?
9. Stress and Consequences - Figure out how many of each of these boxes your character has.

I think the most important parts of character creation to touch on in this review would be steps 3 and 4. In these steps, not only do you get to flesh out your character's history, you also get to determine how you know other characters, affect the world in a concrete manner and indicate what kind of a game you're looking forward to playing.

Leveling up occurs during Milestones. The type of Milestone (Minor, Significant or Major) determines how exactly you're allowed to change your character (from switching out aspects to gaining new stunts or improving skills). These generally occur at the end of a session and the GM determines by where they are in the story what kind of a Milestone it's going to be.

TL; DR Summary - Mechanic System:Atmosphere

The use of Aspects in Fate Core has illustrated to me that it is just about the perfect medium for story-telling. The dice mechanics are unique and uncomplicated. Simply roll, add appropriate skills and apply to the ladder. Combat is fast-paced, has lasting story-effects and is only deadly when narratively appropriate.

Character creation and setting creation occur simultaneously and both are collaborative, involving everyone around the table. A portion of character creation is determining your character's first adventure as well as how he met two of the other characters. He then chooses aspects based on each of these three events that will have a long term effect on him.

Character advancement happens during a Milestone, the type of which (Minor, Significant or Major) is determined by the GM. Each type of Milestone has a list of advancements a character is able to make.

In short, in a game that is intended to be fast-paced, engaging and extremely narrative, I'm not sure if I could come up with a better system to accomplish all of this than Fate.

Mechanics:Atmosphere Rating -  5/5


Complexity

Complexity of a system can not only have effect on general playability, but also to how newbie-friendly it is. Because of this, the complexity of a game is the second of my key concepts as it applies to the Basic System, Players and GMs.

Basic System
I think this is one of those things that depend on the player. In general I would say that it might seem confusing on the first read through, but once you've had a chance to play it for even one session, things will pretty quickly click into place. It boils down to roll four dice, total them, add appropriate skill bonuses/aspects and apply to the ladder. If you beat the difficulty/opposition, you succeed. If not, you fail or succeed at a price.

Player
This is a game where if you don't want to go into detail on what you're doing or have a say in what's going on in the world, it might be too complex for you.  Fate Core is very much a collaborative storytelling game in every sense of the word. While the game may not be too complex rules-wise for players used to saying "I attack the orc," I think it might be description-wise. Fate is very much a game of thinking on your feet and creating advantages where there aren't any immediately apparent.

GM
This, I would say, is kind of a tough one to gauge. Some of the storytelling is taken out of the GMs hands, making life a bit easier. On the flip side of that coin, some of the storytelling is taken out of the GM's hands. In addition to normal duties, a GM of Fate must really be able to fly by the seat of his pants when it comes to dealing with new aspects/situations/places created by the players during the course of a game.

Fate has no default setting, which means that the GM has a bit more to do prep wise. However, as mentioned earlier, much of the setting creation is done collaboratively during character creation so it may not be quite as involved as in other generic role playing systems.

TL; DR Summary - Complexity

After diving into a game of Fate, the basic rules should come along fairly quickly, unless you are uncomfortable having more say in the creation/evolution of the story than you are used to as a player.

GMs don't have a base setting to work off of, but much of that is handled during character creation anyway so as generic rules systems go it's a bit ahead of the curve.

Complexity Rating - 4/5

GM Section

I am primarily a GM when I play, so the third of my key concepts is how useful the GM section of a book is for potential GMs. Some are extremely in depth and some are basically useless.

The Fate Core book is a bit more interwoven regarding player and GM sections. I expected this; given how much of everything that happens is a collaborative effort. That being said, when the book gets to the GM-specific areas of running the game, designing scenarios, etc., it does a good job of getting the point across.

Running the Game
This portion the book is more of an extended overview of exactly what it is a GM does. It also differentiates between the tasks of a GM in other games and the tasks of a GM in Fate.  Throughout this area (as with the rest of the book), there are sidebars giving hints and tips for GMs to help them get the feel of the game and run things smoothly.

This section covers such topics as how to start and end scenes, playing the world and NPCs, judging the use of rules and when (or if) they should be used and creating scenarios and games (campaigns). It goes into more detail on how to make failure awesome and gives suggestions on ways to fail the roll but still succeed at the task (at a cost or with complications).

It also covers most things the players read about from the GMs angle as well as touching on odd situations that might crop up and different ways to resolve them quickly and to the benefit of the group as a whole.

Creating Campaigns
The Fate Core book goes into great detail about how to create memorable villains, designing games that your players will like, how to determine difficulties of actions in a given adventure and balancing the game. The portions of the book covering adventure/campaign creation are extremely in depth and make a great read in general even if you don't intend to use the Fate system itself.

TL; DR Summary - GM Section

The GM section of the Fate Core book covers everything previously in the book but from the GM's perspective. It also is a great resource for adventure/campaign building, even for those who might not be interested in using the Fate system itself.

GM Section Rating - 5/5

Included Adventure
The fourth and last key concept for any core book is the sample adventure included. Ideally, this should give GMs an idea of what a general adventure in the system should look like while keeping it easy to reference.

Number of included adventures: 0

I am not going to rate this section for Fate Core. The reason being that those who have pledged the Kickstarter campaign for this will be receiving at least one adventure (in PDF format at least) that will work with the system. However, I do not have access to it currently.

I understand why the book itself does not have an adventure in it. Fate is a generic system and I can see why the designers wouldn't want to put an adventure in that might imply the system was meant for one genre or another.


Potential Concerns

This section isn't only devoted to things I don't like about a game, but also potential problems that don't bother me but might also bother others. This section isn't rated as it is even more subjective than the rest of my review.

Fate is a collaborative game. For players of D&D, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, etc., it could take some getting used to and may not be everyone's cup of tea. Everyone has to be willing to have input in regards to the world and can't be afraid to think outside the box. And role play.

My other potential concern is that this isn't the finished product. I don't expect too much to change drastically from what is in this book, but until the final version is released, that possibility will exist.


In Closing

I am preparing to run my first Fate game with a few members of the geek and have been working on adapting Time Heroes to the system. I think Fate is a fantastic generic system and the fact that the designers are so open about how everything works makes it a joy to tinker with. Lastly I think the fact that this game is going to be OGL makes the system even better. The Kickstarter still has some time left as of this writing and if you pledge even a dollar to it, you have full access to the PDF that I have just completed reviewing.

*This was my second entry in RPGGs 2013 Iron Reviewer Contest

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