Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Sideshow Arcade: No FATE But What You Make

The systems I’ve reviewed previously are all what are called d20 systems: the chief randomization mechanic relies on rolling a dice with 20 sides.  OF COURSE there are different systems; Top Secret, which I mentioned in my first foray on this line of thinking uses a system based on a ten sided die.  Damage amounts are handled by other dice: 8 sided, 4 sided, even the rare 12 sided dice, or 2-sided (we call those “coins” in my world.) 

The FATE system eschews the exotically sided dice for its system.  Nothing more is needed than four normal, six-sided dice.

But WAIT! cry the purveyors of fine plastic gaming effluvia.  What about merchandising?  What about aesthetic value?  What about the sheer pleasure of hearing seven or eight dodecahedrons spill out of your palms to tumble across a table? 

There’s some merit in that argument, but I think that a game should be more than just the dice you’re rolling.  If you’re intent on buying specialized dice, I’ll note that FATE dice are available at your local retailer, or for order online. 


In other gaming systems, there’s a target number (we’ll use Difficulty Rating (DR) here) to hit in order to accomplish something.  For example, jumping across a chasm might have a DR of 20.  Generally, you’d use your Jump skill to oppose the DR; roll a 20 sided die, add your Jump skill modifier, and if you succeed, you cross; if you fail you drop. 

Fate’s system is similar, but instead of a target number it uses a ladder of adjectives: Abysmal to Legendary.  Envision it like this:

  • Legendary (+6)
  • Epic (+5)
  • Superb (+4)
  • Great (+3)
  • G00d (+2)
  • Fair (+1)
  • Average (0)
  • Mediocre (-1)
  • Poor (-2)
  • Miserable (-3)
  • Abysmal (-4)

The adjective describes the difficulty of the challenge.  Using the previous example, jumping over that chasm is going to take an Epic effort; your skill at Jumping is Fair.  Roll the dice!  For every 5 or 6, climb one step up the ladder.  For every 1 or 2, move down the ladder.  3s and 4s don’t provide a bonus or a penalty.  You’ve only got four dice, so in order to jump the chasm successfully, you’ll need to roll all 5s and 6s.  Not an easy feat…


Another way that the Fate system differs from d20 systems is in the way that characters are created.  Instead of choosing race, class, rolling attributes, etc., you tell the character’s back story in phases.  With each phase, you choose skills that the character acquires during that period of his life.

Here’s the thing: with Fate, there are no set system-defined skills.  You make them up as you tell the character’s story.  As your campaign progresses, it’s up to you to decide how a skill fits a particular challenge, and how to justify its use to your Game Master.

Using the Jump example above: Ed’s character, Milan, doesn’t have the Jump skill, but he does have a skill called Acrobatic.  It’s not a huge stretch to see that the two skills may be related; the GM allows Milan to jump the chasm using his Acrobatic skill.

Characters may have between 5-8 phases of creation; it’s up to the GM to decide.  In addition to choosing skills, players choose aspects for their characters.  An Aspect is an element to describe the character.  Things like Ugly as Sin, Dapper, Greedy, or Salt-of-the-Earth.  Long-standing enemies can be taken as Aspects; so can places.  The number of aspects per phase is up to the GM. 

The point of Aspects is to use them to either get a reroll, or to change one die to a 5 or 6.  So: poor Milan didn’t quite roll well enough to make that jump; he’s one step away from the Epic effort needed to clear the chasm.  Ed decides to invoke Milan’s aspect, Circus Freak, and explains that Milan’s legs are powerful from being conditioned during his time as Kangaroo Boy in Barney and Bumley’s Big Top.  The GM decides to allow it; Ed changes one 3 to a 6, and sighs in satisfaction as Milan makes it safely to the other side of the chasm.

Note that Aspects can also be used against characters.  While Circus Freak may serve Milan well when he has to jump over chasms, it’s a detriment when he’s trying to convince Horatio Stalwart that he’s a serious and viable contender for entry into the League of Super Secret Financiers.  The GM can invoke Circus Freak to force Milan to do something ridiculous and inappropriate—like smash a banana cream-pie into his own face in order to “impress” Stalwart.

Of course, when the GM does that, the character gets a Fate Point…


Fate points can be used simply to give a bonus to any roll a player makes, hiking them up a single step on the ladder.  More powerfully, they can be used to gain an amount of narrative control over the story.  Locked in a jail, and need a hairpin to try to pick the lock?  Spend a fate point, and you’ll find a hairpin beneath the pallet of straw in the corner.  Exploring a run-down mansion?  Spend a fate point, and you find a secret door that leads to the basement, bypassing the locked door…

The way fate points can be used—especially in conjunction with Aspects—is varied.  Their use largely depends on the way your GM wants to adjudicate the game.  But it’s a powerful and thrilling concept.


I currently play a version of Fate called Spirit of the Century.  As a writer, I *love* its focus on story, and the ability of the players to drive the narrative.  The Fate system is flexible, but a bit nebulous at times; it’s obvious that it’s not quite as polished as other systems.  (For good reason: the Fate system is free.)  It’s power comes from pushing most of the rule-making onto the GM and Players; you need the right type of group for that configuration to work.

For what it’s worth, in my group there are two people who’ve never played an RPG before, ever; three people who have played RPGs but never a Fate-based system.  Only the GM has played Fate before.  We manage to have a good ol’ time.

-- Scott M. Roberts

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