Review: Fate Core

Posted: 23 October 2013 in Reviews
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In the EN World review of hot roleplaying games, there is only one in the top five that isn’t an edition of Dungeons & Dragons.*

That game is Fate.

So what’s so good about Fate? I picked up the Fate Core System, so let’s find out. I’ve already reviewed Fate Accelerated Edition here, so this review is more about what is different and more detailed in the core rulebook.

If you haven’t played Fate before: It’s a roleplaying game without specific attributes, for PCs or indeed anything else; things are defined by Aspects, short free-text descriptions which can be invoked to give benefits on dice rolls. All characters are assumed to be average in everything, unless one of their Aspects says otherwise. The GM and the players work together to create the setting and the story, and any of them could have narrative control at any given point. Fate points are spent to invoke aspects, and gained by accepting negative consequences when someone else invokes one of the PC’s Aspects.

In a Nutshell: The latest edition of the Fate core rulebook, 310-page PDF. Much better explained and clearer than earlier editions I’ve read.

CONTENTS

All the way through the book, three example characters and their campaign are used to provide detailed illustrations of how and why things work. This works really well, and I recommend it to other game authors.

The Basics (16 pages): This is the player’s introduction to Fate; what you need to play, how an RPG works, how to read your character sheet, how to use Fate dice (d6 whose sides are labelled with two plus signs, two minus signs and two blanks); the four types of action, the Fate ladder (which ranks everything in the game that needs a rank from -2 to +8), how to use Fate points.

Game Creation (12 pages): This explains how to create a setting for your campaign, because Fate has no default setting. The focus is on telling exciting stories about people who are proactive, competent and dramatic. There is some solid campaign-building advice here; the group begins with some broad ideas of the PCs and the setting, and then adds two issues that the campaign will resolve, which might be current (organised crime, perhaps) or impending (the zombie apocalypse, maybe). Like most things in Fate, the issues are aspects which can be expanded and invoked.

After issues, the campaign needs faces and places – the few highly-important NPCs and locations. Each gets an index card, and NPCs get one or more aspects to define them.

These steps are intended to be done collaboratively, so that everyone knows the setting when they move on to create characters.

Character Creation (26 pages): Characters in Fate are defined by aspects, skills, stunts, refresh (how many Fate points you start play with) and how much stress and how many consequences they can take. Character creation is collaborative and takes the form of a narrative lifepath.

First, each player picks two aspects for their PC; one high concept (e.g. "Warlock of the Scarlet Brotherhood") and one trouble (e.g. "Black sheep of the family"). Then, three further aspects are selected by narrating short vignettes showcasing their acquisition; the first of these is about a recent adventure, and the second and third are each about how your PC got involved with another PC in the group.

Next, we come to skills, which replace the "approaches" in Fate Accelerated Edition. They form a pyramid; one skill at Great/+4, two at Good/+3, three at Fair/+2, and four at Average/+1. Unlike Diaspora, Fate Core allows skills to be improved beyond the best level at character creation.

Now, the player picks 3-5 stunts. A stunt is a trick which lets you do something cool and unusual once per session, or grants +2 to dice rolls in a specific circumstance. If you take more than three, your refresh starts to be reduced – the more cool stuff you can do, the more you have to accept bad things happening so that you can recharge your Fate points.

Refresh and stress tracks are now calculated. Refresh is three, less one per stunt over three. Both physical and mental stress tracks have two boxes by default; certain skills give you more. As in FAE, characters have three consequence slots.

If you just want to dive in and play, you can start with a vague high concept, your best skill, and a name. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Aspects and Fate Points (30 pages): This expands on aspects considerably, and introduces Fate Points. In Fate Core, the campaign, the characters, and situations can all have aspects. Generally, you can pay a Fate Point and use an aspect to make your life easier, or you can accept a Fate Point if the GM uses one to make it harder. There’s some good explanation of how to create good aspects and the impact they can have on play, with extended examples.

Skills and Stunts (16 pages): Apart from much longer and clearer explanations, the main change from Fate Accelerated to Fate Core is that around 20 skills replace the 6 approaches of FAE. They work the same way, namely roll 4dF, add your skill level, and try to meet or beat a target number; there are just more of them. (Oh, and a dF is a d6 with two plus signs, two minus signs, and two blank sides). Stunts are the local version of Edges, Advantages, Feats, or whatever your current game uses.

Each skill has about a page of writeup, explaining what it can do, and a couple of example stunts that go with it.

Interestingly, Fate Core treats things that most games call attributes or characteristics ("Physique"), and the PC’s wealth ("Resources"), as skills. This is a logical extension of the ideas that characters are average at anything which isn’t explicitly noted, and that skills and stats should obey the same rules. I rather like it.

Actions and Outcomes (16 pages): You can basically do four things with a skill, depending on what it is; overcome obstacles (skill check), attack or defend (combat, whether ranged, melee or social), or create an advantage – this last is something you don’t see in most games, and lets you create a new aspect of the situation ("I bet there’s a Pool of Oil in that end of the garage") which you can then exploit.

Tucked away on page 122 is the comment that creating an advantage with Resources can give you an aspect representing the object your PC bought to do it. That, and similar comments in the final chapter, are as close as Fate gets to a shopping list of gear.

Challenges, Contests and Conflicts (32 pages): Challenges are multi-step skill rolls, like Savage Worlds dramatic tasks or D&D 4th Edition skill challenges. Contests are opposed challenges. Conflicts are contests where the opponents are trying to hurt each other, like combat – and page 154 clears up something that was puzzling me from FAE, namely whether defending against an attack uses up your action for the turn; it does not, it is a reaction.

Rather than battlemats, Fate relies on rough maps split into zones, each of which has one or more situational aspects such as "Full of Heavy Crates".

Getting hurt eats your stress boxes, not necessarily in order; when you can’t use those, you take a consequence, which is a temporary aspect like "Broken Arm"; when you can’t use those, you get Taken Out, which means the opposition get to decide what happens to you. Or, you can concede, in which case you still lose, but you decide what happens. This means that a skillful player is essentially only going to lose a PC if he wants to do so for dramatic purposes.

The thing I find hardest to grasp about Fate is consequences, but the examples in this chapter make them easier to understand.

Running the Game (48 pages): This is the first of three chapters aimed at the GM, and is about what the GM does at the table during a session; start and end scenes, play all the NPCs, adjudicate the rules, and (for the first session) guide the creation of the setting – remember that is done collaboratively. This introduces us to:

  • The Golden Rule: Decide what you want to do first, then use the rules to help you do it.
  • The Silver Rule: Never let the rules get in the way of what makes sense.

There’s some good advice on how to make failure awesome, which I shall adopt forthwith; if a PC fails, it’s not his fault – something beyond his control caused it – and he can opt to succeed at a cost. I believe this is what the indie games movement calls "failing forward".

Scenes, Sessions and Scenarios (26 pages): This is about what the GM does away from the table between sessions; create scenarios (by riffing off the PCs’ aspects – I intend to adopt this by riffing off their Hindrances in SW), create NPCs and opponents, and so on. This chapter and the previous one blur into each other to the extent that I would have merged them, personally.

The Long Game (18 pages): This third GM chapter is about running a campaign, rather than a session. It encourages the GM not to plan too far ahead, instead reacting to what the players do as the sessions progress (sound advice), but does suggest how to build a story arc based (again) on PCs’ aspects, and the two issues you built into the campaign right at the beginning.

This is also the place where character advancement is handled. In Fate, characters (both PCs and NPCs) don’t so much grow as change, swapping skills around in their skill pyramid and rewriting their aspects as the character develops. It’s more like writing a shared-world novel than the character improvement I’m used to – and the game world rewrites its aspects as the PCs act on its issues, say "Impending Invasion" changes to "Under the Yoke".

Extras (22 pages): The optional setting rules (cyberware, spells and superpowers, vehicles and whatnot) and how to craft your own.

…and we close with a two-page cheat sheet, two pages acting as a guide to changes from previous editions, and six pages of character and campaign sheets. Oh, and an index.

FORMAT

The download version of the game has PDF, epub and mobi file formats included. I’ve stuck to the PDF for this review; two years ago I would’ve been all over the .mobi version, but my ebook reader can handle PDF now.

Full-cover covers, single-column black on white text with assorted greyscale illustrations ranging from about 1/6 of a page up to full page in size, one every few pages. Clean, simple, gets the job done.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

I kept thinking I had found something that needed improvement, but then finding an explanation of why it works that way a few pages further on. So if you find a problem, keep reading a little.

CONCLUSIONS

I’ve looked at earlier versions of Fate on and off over the last decade, and its predecessor FUDGE before it, and never quite grasped it. This is the most accessible edition of the rules yet.

Fate is a more collaborative form of storytelling than my group is used to; the players and the GM share responsibility for the setting and the stories. That suggests to me that Fate is better suited to groups with some gaming experience already, and to players who are closer to novelists than wargamers in their hearts.

There’s a lot here that is good, especially the advice on campaign and setting creation and how to run games, and some stuff that I don’t like – consequences and stress tracks seem disproportionately complex to me given the speed and flexibility of the core system. I like situational aspects and zones too, and these have inspired something similar for Savage Worlds at the Pinnacle forum. I’ve already started using SW bennies as a way for the players to get some narrative control, and that is now spreading into our Shadowrun run games by using Edge for the same purpose.

One thing I still can’t see how to do is play it solo, but maybe that is just lack of familiarity.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. If I wasn’t already so invested in Savage Worlds, I might have picked Fate instead, although I would probably have stayed with Fate Accelerated Edition because I don’t have the patience for the full-fat game. I don’t think it would work so well for my group though, they started playing with GURPS and D&D 3.5 and they are used to a certain amount of crunch in their games.

And I want to know more about the cyborg gorillas that pop up in illustrations throughout the book. Who are those guys?

* It takes a little effort to work that out, because they split their date into D&D, not-D&D, and supers, but it is so. If you’re interested, by that yardstick Savage Worlds is number 16, and Traveller is number 17. Oh, and I’m counting Pathfinder as a version of D&D, it sits at number 1.

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Comments
  1. I may be wrong, but I think he’s King Khan, time travelling professor (and featured in other Evil Hat products).

    Good review, funnily enough I’m the other way around, found Fate first and now can’t get into SW but see the appeal (and used to be heavy GURPSer). To me Fate is just a little bit lighter that SW.

  2. Sean says:

    Very informative review. Fate sounds interesting but I suspect I lack the imagination to play it solo.

  3. […] Core Basics (7 pages): I reviewed FATE Core here, so I won’t go through that again, but I will look at stress, conditions and consequences […]

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