Hein (fub) wrote,

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Sort-of-review: Fate Core

I'm a big fan of the Bundle of Holding: PDF versions of roleplaying books, pay-what-you-want (with bonus books added in if you break a calculated threshold) with the proceeds going to charity. Instant gratification while doing a good deed -- what's not to like? If the bundle is interesting (and not all of them are of interest to me!) then I'll chip in about USD 15 and get the full bundle.
The last one I bought was the Bundle of Fate: lots of RPGs that use Fate Core as the underlying rule system. I've had heard of Fate Core before (many a Kickstarter setting book or RPG uses it as the rule system), but I've never had reason to research it. But when the bundle came around my interest was piqued, especially because the RPGs were so diverse. Apparently Fate Core is very versatile, and I wanted to see what the deal was. It also helps that the rulebook of Fate Core itself is available as a pay-what-you-want download over at the website.

Fate is based on Fudge, the first 'open source' RPG that I encountered. Fudge started out as a text file, but later I bought the soft-cover version of the rules to support the creator. (I even had eight Fugde dice, but I never used them.) Like Fudge, Fate Core is setting-agnostic: you're supposed to create the setting yourself. Fate adds quite a bit on top of the ruleset of Fudge: aspects, Fate Points, the four action types and Stunts.

Aspects are precisely that: properties of people, places, even the campaign world. These are short phrases that describe something that the person is/does/has (like: 'Infamous girl with a sword' or 'Cast spells first, think later'), or something present in the location ('large golden idol', 'on fire') or an underlying theme of the setting ('the golden triad rules the underworld' or 'the darkness is coming'). The best aspects are things that can be used to the PCs advantage but also get them into trouble.
PCs have aspects too: one is their 'High Concept', their defining aspect. One is their 'Trouble': something that will often get them into a tight spot. And there are 'free' aspects that are determined during the group creation -- all the characters have some sort of backstory with eachother that might give them some aspects for their connections to each other or the world (so no more 'You all meet in a bar...').
I quite like the idea of aspects. It's a cool way to evoke a certain mood or image, and it's easy to keep track of changes: the list of aspects simply changes. There are actually rules to deal with this after every session, scenario or major milestone as part of character and story advancement.

You can invoke these aspects to your advantage ('I hide behind the large golden idol' (adding a bonus to your Sneak skill), 'Because I am an infamous girl with a sword, the thug has heard of my exploits and doesn't give me any trouble' (adding a bonus to your Provoke skill)), but these cost a Fate Point. But you can also be 'compelled' into a decision or into a situation that complicates your PCs life ('Because you are an infamous girl with a sword, someone recognises you when you enter the arena!'). However, the player has some authorial control over the compels and can decide to decline the compel -- but that costs a Fate Point. Accepting the compel means that the suggested complication comes about, but will give you a Fate point to be used later. In this way, players can decide when to complicate their PCs lives and when not. Using a Fate point makes your character extra awesome, but that will be balanced out by accepting more compels, creating more interesting story.
You can also use Fate points to power stunts, get a reroll or add +2 to the result of a roll. Fate points allow the player to exert authorial control over their character, deciding when they need to be extra awesome. I quite like that: you can save up your points to use them when you really need them. It's like the Edge from Shadowrun or the cards from Castle Falkenstein or the SAGA system, where you can use low-value cards to fail tests that don't matter much so you can hold on to your high-value cards for the big confrontations.

Let's talk about the action resolution system. Whereas systems like Pathfinder and Rolemaster use a linear probability (rolling a 20 on a D20 has the same probability as rolling an 11, and rolling 100 on a D100 has the same probability as rolling a 26), the Fudge dice produce a more bell-shaped curve. Awesome results will be more rare, as will dismal failure. But because your skill rank is added to your roll, the PC's results will often be at the upper end of the bell curve -- Fate is geared towards making the characters awesome.
Most games have three skill mechanics: one where you have to beat a certain target number to succeed a test (which Fate calls 'overcome'), and one to beat the skill roll of another character or NPC to overcome their opposition (you 'attack', they 'defend' -- not necessarily with the same skill). But Fate has another action type, for a total of four action types. The fourth is called 'create an advantage', and it lets you define a aspect of your opponent or the location that you get a free invocation for. For example, if you use your Lore skill to 'remember' that the type of monsters that you are currently fighting are 'Susceptible to Fire' (and you make your skill roll!), then the monsters do get that aspect -- and you can invoke it once for free, giving you a +2 bonus on your Fight skill when you use fire for your attack.
I think this is the best mechanic I've ever seen in any game. It allows a player limited authorial control over the game world, which is awesome: shared responsibility makes for much better stories, and your players can come up with all sorts of fun and unexpected stuff! Preparations pay off (scouting ahead to determine location aspects, investigating someone before confronting them in front of the jury), but the aspect-based bonuses are also very story-driven instead of simply dry numbers, inviting the players to co-author the story. Quite a contrast with the traditional 'Library Use' skill rolls in Call of Cthulhu that are merely a prompt for the GM to do some additional info-dumping.
Another cool thing is that if you fail your skill roll, you can still choose to succeed -- but there is a cost. This takes the form of an aspect that others could use against you: either an opponent through an invoke or for the GM to compel you with. This means that it is possible to proceed with the plot/scenario even though you missed a crucial skill roll: and the consequence aspect will make your character's life more interesting later on.

Stunts are like 'special powers' that you can invoke (for the usual cost of a Fate point) to add a bonus to a skill roll, or to use one skill instead of another. Special equipment that you posses can also be modeled as a stunt as well. The more stunts you have, the fewer Fate points are in your Refresh pool (the minimum number of Fate points that you start every scene with) -- which means you will be required to take more compels to power your stunts. This really balances out quite nicely -- and being compelled is actually a cool story mechanic instead of a punishment.

Fighting, traditionally determined by an intricate web of different rules, is pretty cinematic in Fate Core. It's a basic contested skill roll (modified by invoked aspect bonuses or stunts). The party that loses has to soak the damage through consequences or stress: these are aspects that your opponent can invoke for free the next round. A minor consequence could be a 'sprained ankle', a major one could be 'severed hand'.
If you can't soak up the damage, you are out of the fight and the person whose attack put your out decides what happens with you. But you can also concede the conflict -- basically, you flee. This will get you some Fate points to use later on for your revenge, and you decided yourself how you leave the scene (perhaps with a great speech about revenge later!). Of course, this also goes for the NPCs, and this is a great mechanic to emulate a recurring villain who always makes a narrow escape but who will pop up later with bigger guns (the so-called 'Law of Escalating Firepower')!
It also means that character death will be very rare: only in instances where strong NPCs gang up on a single character, heaping up the damage in a single round, will this be a factor. Otherwise, the player can choose to concede and live to fight another day.
The rules support a non-lethal, cinematic style of fighting, instead of the meticulous rule-driven murder-hobo'ing of Pathfinder. In Fate Core, fights serve the story, and are not the reason for the game.

Let's talk about the book itself. The rules are laid our very clearly, the PDF is also fully indexed. But that's all stuff that you would expect from a PDF anyway. Cross-references are clearly marked along with the associated page number (though sadly not clickable).
The examples follow the characters (and players and GM) of a fantasy campaign. We get introduced to them during the character creation, and every example describes the situation the characters find themselves in and how they use the game mechanics to deal with it. Because the examples are pretty detailed in their set-up, you get a real good feel for what kinds of characters the example-characters are, making it easy to connect the dots. This consistency makes it much easier to understand the rules through the examples.
The book also has a lot of artwork of excellent quality. There are three different campaigns that are consistently used in the art, with the characters in all sorts of situations that illustrate the rules. While the system is setting-agnostic, the art drives home the point that the mechanics can be used in campaigns with all sorts of different settings and tones.

There is also a 'light' version of the game, called Fate Accelerated. The main difference is that the skills are abstracted in 'approaches'. Unfortunately, it seems incomplete -- the text frequently points to the full Fate Core ruleset for further information. My advice would be to get the full Core book because it provides the best explanations. The artwork in Accelerated is also more cartoonish and less impressive.

Stuff I like:
- Players have (limited) authorial control over the world and can add their own aspects to the people and places in the setting;
- Fate points allows the player to conserve their energy to be used when they want their character to be extra awesome;
- Aspects and compels are a mechanic for offering bonuses -- in a story-driven way;
- Fate/Fudge dice give a bell-curve of possible outcomes instead of a flat, linear probability.
Stuff I would have liked to see different:
- I would have liked to see more skills, but perhaps that's just because I have gotten used to Rolemaster's gazillion of skills and not because they are all needed;
- I would have liked to see a bit more discussion about things like magic or special technology. It seems to me that making it a stunt or aspect is unnecessarily limiting. Or perhaps I'm thinking about this the wrong way around -- I'll read a few more Fate settings to see how they solve these things.

TL;DR: I'm very impressed with Fate Core. The Streamdales campaign is already firmly established in the Rolemaster ruleset (simply because that's the thing I'm familiar with), but if I had to re-do it, I would be sorely tempted to use Fate Core. It's been a long time since I was this enthousiastic about an RPG ruleset.
Tags: rpg

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