roleplaying games

The Fate of the game

As I wondered about systems earlier this week, I had made an omission which splits the difference between Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games and GURPS essentially perfectly: Fate.

Especially since Fate Core came out, there really hasn’t been a game with as strong and easy customizability as Fate. The basic mechanics boil down to four “moves” (Attack, Defend, Overcome, Create an Advantage) which are modified in the fiction by four types of attributes (aspects, approaches, skills, stunts). These are all mediated by one unified randomizing mechanic, the 4dF roll (roll four six-sided “Fudge” dice with two plusses, two minuses, and two blanks as the faces). In general, a positive result is a success, a negative result is a failure, and a zero is a “success with cost”.

While Fate and PbtA can each be condensed to a paragraph when discussing their basic mechanics, their level of possible expansion is vastly different. PbtA games are based around character playbooks and a set of moves roughly divided into general and playbook-specific. In order to hack the game, you’re writing these new from the ground up, and balancing playbooks is a trial and error affair. With Fate, there are numerous ways to approach aspects, skills, stunts, and approaches, to the point where the two primary generic versions of Fate (Core and Accelerated) omit one entirely (approaches and skills, respectively).

To go even further, stunts and aspects in the base games are completely open-ended; stunts offer examples but allow you to write new ones, while aspects are to be written by the players. Limiting the types of aspects and stunts is by far the easiest way to immediately change the feel of the game.

Beyond that, there are dozens upon dozens of hacks and adjustments in Fate. The Fate Worlds series, of which I own the four large books, is a series of settings where each one has the system hacked entirely to fit the setting and type of game described. Among those games are new skill lists, new aspect ranges for character creation, limited stunt lists, mechanics variants like the GM reserve pool and Weapon/Armor Ratings, even a social combat system which didn’t exist in the core game.

The main difference in how the two systems are hacked is how easy it is to tweak Fate for whatever you want. Adding a magic system to a PbtA game would require writing one whole cloth, or stealing one from an existing game and hoping it doesn’t unbalance things. Fate would support a magic system built on character aspects, stunts, skills, or a combination of any of those. In fact, there already exists guidance on how to make a magic system based on what sort of effects you’d like it to produce. And it slots in nicely to everything else, to boot.

So what Fate has is that GURPS-level tweakability while still being a narrative, character-based game. Many of the most successful elements of my PbtA games, such as the session zero outlining and relationship mechanics, can be adapted for a Fate game without too much additional effort. Even the die mechanic can be modified…both games have a three outcome system, and aligning them to each other would just require a little writing and tweaking.

I don’t intend to say that Fate can be hacked to be just as good at being PbtA as PbtA; Fate is more open-ended and the restrictions in good PbtA games are one thing that creates stories as well as it does. But when you do want a game that’s a bit more mechanical in nature while still allowing you narrative control and freedom, Fate fits the bill. And beyond that, Fate is much easier to set up than GURPS, owing to its relative lightness. So while my Cyberpunk ideas are probably best served by running The Sprawl, my dark fantasy ideas are likely to be easier to hack together with Fate than with GURPS. The next step, of course, is to test this theory.

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