Among the majority of gamers, a roleplaying game has a pretty defined structure to it:
- The players create characters through a process designed to give potential options which are intended to be roughly equal in terms of effectiveness in the game.
- The GM leads these characters through a scenario which challenges the abilities chosen in character creation, requiring the players to (most frequently) engage in simulated combat with opponents, (less frequently) play-act interactions between their characters and other non-player characters in order to advance the story and gain information, and (arguably least frequently) use a combination of their character’s fictional abilities and their real ones to solve puzzles.
- The GM then, using either their own discretion or a process dictated in the rules of the game, rewards players with in-game currency which can be used to increase their character’s abilities and give them access to new abilities or in-game items.
- Another adventure occurs, and the process repeats from step 2.
This is how Dungeons and Dragons worked in the 1970s, and virtually all of the games that came about over the next two decades were built around this paradigm. At some point in the late 1990s, a guy named Ron Edwards started a website called The Forge with the intent of having a place to discuss games that *did not* follow this paradigm. Partially as a result, in the early 2000s you saw the first crop of well known games that were then called “indie games” get published. Burning Wheel first came out in 2002, and Fate first came out in 2003. Ten years later, the most recent edition of Fate cracked the Top 5 RPGs sold. This specific genre, which I will call narrative RPGs, still makes up a small portion of the market, but is better known and considered more legitimate than it was in the Forge days.
Among most people and even among a large swathe of gamers (the vast majority of the RPG hobby plays D&D and really nothing else), there isn’t much awareness of narrative RPGs coming into the market. Which is a shame, because I think narrative RPGs likely have better broad appeal than traditional games. First, they can be separated from the genesis of the RPG hobby, miniatures wargaming, which nowadays is arguably even more closed off than roleplaying gaming itself. Second, the rulesets for narrative games are arguably easier to understand than more traditional ones (there are exceptions, Burning Wheel is a more complex game than D&D is). Third, the experience of group storytelling is an easier sell to an outsider than something like a dungeon crawl, especially when it’s easier to go home and play something like Dark Souls than get involved with a D&D group.
Fate, specifically Fate Core, will serve as a key example of a narrative game. Fate is both one of the best selling narrative games, as well as a very well supported game, with many supplements and multiple other games using it as a rules backbone. Fate also combines some traditional elements (skill challenges, tactical combat) and some quite untraditional ones (aspects as core character traits, Fate points as a core modifier mechanic) for an end result that is still clearly a roleplaying game (unlike really mold-breaking games like Fiasco or Ten Candles) but also very clearly *not* Dungeons and Dragons. Though the publisher and authors have been very successful in marketing and supporting the game, I truly believe the core reason for Fate’s recent success has been a very real ability to give a different experience than the market leaders, one which I think non-gamers are more likely to appreciate.
Though Fate Core (one of two versions of the basic Fate game sold, the other is called Fate Accelerated and is more pared down) is built up to be more of a comprehensive game recognizable to players coming from other RPGs, Fate in general is very simple: every character and every challenge in the game is defined by aspects, which are the core traits that define how said character or challenge interacts with a player’s character. Players receive Fate points, which they can use to gain an advantage using one of the aspects that is relevant at the time (called invoking an aspect). In exchange for giving a player a Fate point, the GM can use the aspects of the player’s characters to encourage the character to act in a way that is aligned with the aspect, but against their character’s best interest (called compelling an aspect). Both of these actions should, ideally, help move the story forward. Fate even defines the story itself by aspects, allowing the advancing of the plot itself to become a mechanical element.
The only other part of Fate that is completely necessary to make the game work are the four actions. Characters can attack, defend, overcome, or create an advantage. Any action that doesn’t fit into these four likely doesn’t need to be challenged. Beyond aspects and actions, everything else (in the case of Fate Core, Skills and Stunts) can be removed or tweaked as necessary.
There are two reasons this works as well as it does. First, aspects mean that the player has a significant amount of power defining what is important to their character. If you want your character’s secondary story to be a tale of revenge on your father’s killer, you can literally write that aspect. In D&D, that’d just be a backstory element and you’d be at the mercy of the GM to include it. Second, while the idea of spending in-game resources to use your innate abilities is confusing (and in some cases actively offensive) to veteran gamers, the Fate point economy is a simple and fairly ingenious way to keep the game moving. The GM has license to throw in twists and turns whenever they want, but they must do it based on the aspects the players have given them, and reward them for accepting what happens.
Fate is not the only way to build a narrative game; I’ve discussed Apocalypse World which has the same intent but different execution. It serves as a good example, though, because the mechanics are built around the notion of story and having details which advance the story instead of being opportunities for mechanical optimization. It also serves as a good example of a game which could bring new players into the fold. Character creation is relatively simple to describe: your character has five aspects which represent the most important elements of who they are and how their story will unfold. Fate Core and other Fate-based games provide frameworks for developing these aspects, but they’re not necessary and shouldn’t be used to prevent players from coming up with other ideas. Likewise, aspects are really easy to explain to a non-gamer: These are traits of your character, things that are important for them. I dare you to explain a Feat from Dungeons and Dragons in a sentence that short, especially to someone who has never played before. Or why Intelligence and Wisdom are two separate statistics. I could go on.
The important thing for me is that mechanics like those in Fate enable me to run games for the purpose I’m looking for: developing a story with friends, creating tension and drama, and having fun with what evolves. Most of the wargaming core of games for me is somewhat extraneous, and playing in that numbers-driven way isn’t going to be the way to make things interesting. This isn’t to say that traditional games all boil down to number-crunching and combat; one of my favorite games for developing interesting stories is GURPS, an intensive and math-centric game if there ever was one. Still, if your goal is to have a story emerge from play, it’s going to be easier for you if your game has mechanics designed for the same purpose. Fate both puts story front and center and has the mechanical adaptability necessary to allow a GM to put emphasis on whatever element of the game or setting they want. From either an RPG background or no gaming background at all, Fate is a compelling entree into narrative RPGs.