A few weeks back I wrote of an upcoming bachelor/bachelorette party for which I had been asked to run a tabletop game. Some time ago, the groom-to-be had asked me if I would serve as the gamemaster at his bachelor party, and only recently did that favor finally get called in. This past weekend I ran the game, and this was my very first experience with the FATE system developed by Evil Hat Productions. Specifically, we played the Accelerated version of FATE, a game with simplified mechanics that’s more ideal for short campaigns or one-shots. And the experience we had at the table, while overall positive, left me with some thoughts about design that I wanted to explore in more depth.
First, I think it’s important to understand the context in which we experienced the game, as I think your situation can influence your impressions of something. I played a one-off session with a mixed group of men and women with various levels of RPG experience. Some of the people at the table with me have been in almost all of the campaigns I have run. Others had played RPGs once or twice, but not with me. Two had never played a tabletop roleplaying game period. Some folks didn’t know FATE – others only knew FATE. This mixed bag of experience levels meant that at least some of our session time would be spent on rules clarification and explanation, and that different players would move at different paces. One of our newer players needed lots of warm-up to feel comfortable coming up with ideas on command, while one our more experience ones often seemed as if they felt that the action wasn’t moving quickly enough.
It’s also worth noting that we played the game with more players than is recommended. Originally the guest list for the party made it appear as if I would be running a game for fourteen people, a thoroughly ridiculous number to try to have at the table for FATE. For perspective, the recommended number is three to five. Busy schedules and general disinterest in playing a roleplaying game whittled down the final tally to eight people. Now I’ve run games for that many before, but it certainly isn’t ideal. In a game that large, gameplay becomes very focused on the party rather than on individual characters, and it takes a longer campaign for every player to truly feel active and engaged. In a short one-off like this, most players were lucky to make more than one handful of rolls.
Finally, general party-related chaos caused the game to drag somewhat. I was told to plan for a three-and-a-half hour session and did so. We ended up adding another hour and a half on top of that between side conversations, folks taking breaks to use the restroom or eat or get drinks, and even new guests coming into the party to visit and pulling attention away from the players. These are normal, expected behaviors considering the setting that we were in, but it’s worth noting that this pulled some folks out of the game, caused them to lose focus, and even made it last so long that one person flat-out had to leave.
I don’t count these things against FATE Accelerated. But they were part of my experience with the game and perhaps influenced some of my feelings about it overall. When you’ve only played a game one time, it is difficult to divorce your thoughts about the session from your thoughts about the system. My goal here is to do just that – to speak critically about FATE based on its own merits, independent of the difficult circumstances that we put it through. It’s worth nothing that despite all of the circumstances that hampered our experience, many players at the table stated that they had a good time with the session – the question becomes whether this is a result of the mechanisms, or a result of other factors that influence a player’s enjoyment of a game session.
Let’s start with my preparation for the game. I had three-and-a-half hours to run a one-shot of an unfamiliar game for eight people. I knew time would be consumed by rules discussion, and that the massive number of people at the table would prevent any real exploration of character depth or storytelling. I wanted to maximize game time for the players, so in the interest of that, I wanted to premake characters and to tell a story that was familiar so that the emphasis moved from experiencing the narrative to experience the gameplay. The way I ultimately decided to handle that was to run the session as an adaptation of a Shakespeare play. I took a story and characters that I knew many folks at the table would know already, re-contextualized them in a weird setting, and injected lots of action.
Luckily, this is exactly what FATE Accelerated is designed to do. FATE is a universal system for roleplaying games, which is to say that it is designed to be able to run any setting you can imagine. Compare that to Dungeons and Dragons, a game which has a strongly-defined setting whose mechanisms are designed to make that specific setting work. If you play a robot sniper from the future in Dungeons and Dragons, you’re hacking the game. It goes against the types of characters that the game is designed to handle. In FATE, you will theoretically never run into that problem. It is designed to handle characters from any setting, from the distant future to the ancient past and everything in between. This allows you to combine one player’s wild west cowgirl with another player’s assassin android with yet another player’s tower-dwelling sorcerer.
The way FATE allows such a wide variety of character types is by painting those characters in the broadest possible strokes. FATE characters are made up of aspects, stunts, and approaches. Aspects are exactly what they sound like – it’s one aspect of who the character is or what they do. They are descriptive phrases that have mechanical effects in the game, as well as establishing details as being true. In my game, for example, the character of Lysander had an aspect of “An Ex-Solder with a Tactical Mind.” This establishes that he was once in the military, and that he’s a strategic person. Whenever Lysander takes an action where his military experience helps him – such as engaging in a firefight – he can potentially get a bonus from that aspect. Of course, it can also hold him back too; an enemy with special training against the tactics of soldiers could use Lysander’s aspect against him.
Aspects don’t just apply to characters, either – everything in the game is essentially made up of these things. Look around the room you are in right now. What are some aspects of it? I’m in the living room of my apartment. It’s a bit messy, there’s a glass door to the balcony, and there’s a tall standing lamp over by the television. What kinds of situations could transpire in a room like that? A single bachelorette trying to put the moves on her handsome date might be at a disadvantage because of the messy floor. An unsuspecting victim of a robbery could get an advantage on his attack by picking up the tall standing lamp. And if the building were to catch on fire, that glass door to the balcony might give a bonus to a roll to escape the room. Every object, location, and person in the game can potentially be another aspect that the GM or the player can use to add flavor and mechanical bonuses into the game.
Aspects are easily the best part of FATE in my view. They’re flexible, effective, and easy to understand. They are the strongest example of how FATE enables the player to explore any kind of character they want to play. And in my specific situation, because the characters needed to be familiar archetypes painted in broad strokes, aspects allowed me to do just that. A FATE Accelerated character is made up of a main aspect that describes their whole shtick in a nutshell, a troubling aspect that causes them difficulty, and then three other aspects that fill out their abilities and personality. Character creation is as simple as describing five things about the character you’ve conceptualized. And because you make up the descriptions, there are no limits. I chose to describe Shakespeare characters in the setting of a cyberpunk dystopia, but I could have easily done medieval knights or modern spies or Pokemon and had just as much ease in creating the characters that I wanted.
Once you have aspects for a character, you have to figure out approaches. Again, these are exactly what they sound like – it’s how your character goes about doing things. There are six approaches in FATE Accelerated: careful, clever, flashy, forceful, quick, and stealthy. You can apply any of these six approaches to any of the game’s actions: attack, defend, create an advantage, or overcome an obstacle. You can flashily attack by doing an elaborate dance with your blade as you slash, stealthily defend by lying to a suspicious officer, forcefully create an advantage by shoving someone onto the ground, or carefully overcome an obstacle by slowly walking along a lengthy trapeze wire. Each character has one approach they are particularly good at, one they are particularly bad at, and two each of low-middle and high-middle approaches.
If aspects are where FATE sings, approaches are where it dissolves into discordant noise. They’re not bad conceptually – they’re broad stats that can potentially be applied to any situation, which feels like a necessity in a game where you can play any type of character. The problem is, approaches are so incredibly broad that we often found them overlapping during actual play. Say I sucker punch you in the face. You didn’t see it coming; one second we’re standing talking and then BAM, your face is punched. Did I just attack you quickly, or forcefully? An argument could made for either. The rules, which effectively equate quick to D&D’s dexterity and forceful to strength, would probably argue for a forceful approach here. But maybe I think quick makes more sense. A quick approach, in the literal definition of the terms, is just trying to do your action with speed – it isn’t limited specifically to acts of agility or manual dexterity.
We ran into this problem constantly. Is springing a trap on an unsuspecting target a clever attack or a stealthy one? When you attack by driving your car through a stone wall and smashing into the enemy, was that a forceful blow, or was it flashy because of how loud and attention-grabby it was? Countless circumstances seemed to justify two different approaches, but there’s nothing in the FATE rules for combining them or finding an average. The section in the book which describes how you choose approaches is also pitifully short, offering no advice beyond “you can’t forcefully sneak through dark room.” It’s as if the writers never anticipated that two approaches could feel appropriate for the same action, but I have a hard time imagining that my table is the only one that ever encountered this problem with the game.
Finally, there are stunts. Stunts are effectively the combination of aspects and approaches – they are specific actions that your character is very good at because of the two. For example, our ex-soldier Lysander is particularly good at taking a careful approach. So he had a stunt that gave him a bonus when he carefully defended by using the terrain to his advantage. Whenever Lysander’s player described himself ducking behind cover or using civilians to disappear into a crowd, he had a particularly high chance of succeeding at that action. They allow you to create specializations for your character and even pull off cool moves that essentially break the rules of the game.
Another character in our game was Demetrius, who was the getaway driver of the team. He had a stunt which allowed him to appear, car running, in any scene he wasn’t already present in as long as he could conceivably drive there. His player used this ability to allow the team to escape from danger at the end of the session. Another player played as a character named Snug, whose neural link to the cybernet allowed her to stay online even when all of the power around her was out. Her player cleverly used this to his advantage by inventing an EMP to shut down the security system in the building the group was infiltrating – he didn’t have to worry about his character losing her abilities because of this stunt.
Stunts open up some very cool creative options during play, and even though they were the most time consuming part of character creation, I had a blast thinking up special moves and bonuses for all of the characters. Stunts are effective because they have reasonable limitations and are always justified by the game fiction as a result of being directly linked to aspects. They never felt unbalanced and the players who got good opportunities to use their stunts during the session had a really good time implementing them.
Now that we’ve discussed how characters work, let’s discuss the gameplay of FATE. Like many tabletop games, FATE uses a game master to present challenges to the players, who describe what their characters say and do in the game world. Play takes place in multiple scenes over the course of a session. Scenes can be distinguished between combat and non-combat, with combat having more rigid rules around how the scene functions. There are a few different actions types, but all actions use the same dice rolling mechanics.
FATE uses fudge dice, which are dice which have +, -, and blanks instead of a sequence of numbers. You roll four dice together and get a result somewhere between -4 and +4, with the most frequent result being in the -1 to +1 range (at least based on my experience this weekend). You then add the bonus from your approach and compare it to the number rolled by your opposition. If you beat them, you succeed at your action. If your number is lower, your action fails. You can save yourself from failure by spending FATE points to invoke one of your aspects, or one of the situational aspects in the environment, in order to gain a +2 to your roll.
FATE points are a currency that players start the game with and can earn during play. They are rewarded when the game master invokes an aspect of the player to negatively affect them. Essentially, it’s a bribe from the GM for the player to allow them to cause trouble. The player can refuse, but it costs them a FATE point to do so. So when the game master decides to, say, have Lysander’s old war wound open up in the middle of a fight, Lysander’s only option is to spend FATE to avoid it or the accept the consequences – and the extra FATE point. It’s a serviceable system that I’ve seen in multiple TRPGs. I don’t love it – I prefer interesting consequences to result from failed dice rolls, and for players to earn advantages rather than being handed them every time something bad happens. But it does the trick and folks do love getting a consolation prize when the villains get the upper hand.
There are four main action types in FATE: creating an advantage, overcoming obstacles, attacking, and defending. The latter two are used almost exclusively in combat, while the former can factor into non-combat situations as well. Creating an advantage introduces new aspects into the scene or gives you free uses of aspects you already know about. It’s a set up move to help yourself or somebody else overcome an obstacle, attack, or defend more successfully. Overcoming an obstacle is a catch-all move that tries to account for pretty much everything that isn’t trying to hurt somebody. You’re overcoming an obstacle if you’re sneaking, hacking into a computer, sailing a ship through stormy seas, trying to talk a strapping young lad into a second date, or narrowly sliding underneath a heavy steel door just before it slams shut on your abdomen. The issue with catch-all moves like this one is that none of the actions that your character can take feel any different from one another. The advantage is that the rules are pretty simple to learn and absorb, perfect for a one-shot with less-experienced players.
The attack and defend actions bring us to combat, where the rules get a little more rigid. Combat scenes are turn-based and divide the locations the characters occupy into multiple zones. Zones are simply smaller locations within a larger area. For example, if my living room is one zone, then the hallway, kitchen, and bedroom might all be other zones in the apartment. Characters within zones can battle in melee, while characters in different zones must rely on ranged weapons. Players can move their characters one zone on their turn. Turn order doesn’t rely on dice rolls – instead, either the character’s quick or careful approach is used depending on the nature of the conflict, and the game master breaks ties in whatever way she sees fit.
Now I’m not a fan of turn-based combat scenes in tabletop. The artificial structure takes the teeth away from the villains (who get the same number of turns as the players but are far outnumbered by them), and often it makes great fictional sense for characters to take action not on their own turns. For example, during a combat scene during our session, a player failed a roll which caused his opponent to receive a boost (a temporary aspect with a free invocation). The boost that made the most sense fictionally was for the player’s character to be wide open to attack. At this moment, it is natural to assume that the enemy would make that follow up attack. However, because the rules say it’s not their turn yet, another character got an action instead, which changed the fictional situation and made the boost feel irrelevant. Any sense of continuity is lost in turn-based combat scenes; it’s a weirdly rules-focused feature to include in a system that in many other ways lacks rigidity and specificity.
This brings me to my ultimate struggle with FATE Accelerated. The game promises a universal system in which any type of world is possible. The artwork portrays characters in all sorts of different situations, and the rules are intentionally broad in order to capture every potential possibility. Some of the mechanics of the game do this very well. Aspects feel great and are easily the best-designed feature of FATE – there’s a reason this mechanism influenced the tags in City of Mist. But the game’s vague approaches and actions are difficult to implement and offer little variety in the types of things that characters can do in the game. By trying to be everything, FATE becomes nothing, it’s decisions not strong enough to give the players and the game master direction on how to play the game effectively.
I enjoyed the time I spent with my friends this weekend, but I’m not sure yet that I enjoyed FATE Accelerated. It is difficult, though, to form a final verdict off of one play experience, particularly one which was riddled with structural issues unrelated to the game itself. I think there is a good game in FATE waiting to be discovered, but it might take some work to get there. If the game master and players are willing to go the extra mile to embellish the boring actions and to set hard rules around the appropriate use of approaches, FATE has potential. For now, though, I would recommend that anyone looking at FATE consider instead a system with more focused goals.
I’ve played lots of FATE before. I like it, but still agree with most of your criticisms. It really, really needs a GM who can improvise well, and even there it has a tendency to just lose control.
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Yeah, I definitely got that sensation while playing – although playing with such a large group in such a weird setting probably didn’t help matters when it came to control. I’ll maybe give it another try at some point with a group that’s truly focused on experiencing the game and see how it goes then.