Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Fate Core Review

Introduction

Now that I have the final copy of Fate Core PDF in front of my eyeballs, I've decided to do a somewhat more formal review.

Fate Core will be available from Evil Hat Productions no later than July. The PDF is going to be on, to quote Fred Hicks, a "pay what you want, including nothing" model. EDIT: It is actually available now, at least the PDF, on the Evil Hat webstore. There have been a couple draft copies that went out to backers - this review is of a fresh reading of the final electronic version. I don't expect it will change significantly between now and then.

First, for those who are unfamiliar with Fate I'll break it down as simply as possible. Fate Core is a game that is intended to let the narrative drive the rules and not the other way around. Characters are assumed to be competent and proactive, and those elements are baked into the system philosophically and mechanically:
  • Uses Fate (or Fudge dice, same thing), specifically four. Two sides are marked with a +, two sides with a -, and two sides are blank. They are read by adding up the results, so ++ - is a +1.
  • Skills are rated from 0 to 4 by default (though this range can be extended). They add to the die roll. There are no attributes.
  • Most importantly, uses descriptive "tags" called aspects. Aspects represent things that are important - to the character, to the scene, even to the campaign - and can be used to justify influencing the story or results such as getting bonuses to die rolls, rerolling bad rolls, creating a special effect or merely being used as a justification for an action. Aspects can be used by and against characters, and characters can take actions that will add new aspects into play.
  • It uses a currency called Fate Points that players spend to use their character's aspects (called invoking). Players receive Fate Points when their aspects are used against them (called a compel).

Production Values

The Fate Core PDF is 310 pages including the index and other extras. The book is black-and-white and laid out in a single column with sidebars on either side. The sidebars tend to be informative, calling attention to concepts, offering advice and giving examples - often there will be hyperlinks to other relevant sections of the document, which I have found very handy. Another nice touch is the sidebars typically have a black background with white text, a format I've always liked in other books. There isn't a default setting, although a fantasy setting called Steel Hearts is used for many of the examples. That setting and two others are depicted in the game's art: Hong Kong action Ancestral Affairs featuring magic-using cops in an alternate Chinese-colonized America, and semi-supers Chrome City featuring a cybernetic gorilla. On the subject of the art, it is all evocative of Fate's themes and very well done - that's what happens when you have a super-successful Kickstarter.

That's not a hover gorilla

The rules themselves are broken down into chapters on the basics, game and character creation, aspects, actions, running the game, setting up scenarios, etc. It's rounded out with a hyperlinked index as well as cheat sheet, a couple worksheets and sample characters.

Introduction and Character Creation

The introductory chapters lay out Fate's basics clearly and concisely, starting with the dice and moving to Fate Points and aspects. Fate uses a scale called the Ladder to rank things - skills, difficulties, whatever. It combines numerical values with descriptors, starting with -2 as Terrible, 0 as Mediocre and up to 8 as Legendary, but is really open-ended.  It's intended to be used to assess values on a descriptive scale, as in:
"I think that it would take Great effort to move that rock. That means it should be a 4 or higher to do it."
Rolls that are higher than the difficulty generate shifts, which are used to judge how successful the roll was. Invokes are used when an aspect is going to be used to change the die result (typically as a bonus or a reroll), while compels are used when an aspect gets in the way. The older terminology of  "tagging" has been renamed free invocation, while what used to be known as "invoking for effect" is simply a compel. Personally, I find it easier to remember Fate Core's terminology and when to apply it than, say, Spirit of the Century's.

The chapter on game creation is similar to the city creation guidelines from the Dresden Files rpg. The method given of "drilling down" into the setting by defining issues, then attaching locations, and finally personalities is one that I've found to be very useful, even with pre-existing settings and even other rpgs. 

Character creation is very straightforward: select aspects, assign skills, take stunts or Extras. The number of aspects has been cut down from other Fate implementations to five, which to me is a good move (in other games, I sometimes felt like I was swimming in Aspects). Characters have a High Concept and a Trouble aspect, then three more aspects that come from the Phase Trio. The Phase Trio is similar to the phases in Spirit of the Century, where players are passed someone else's character and then decide how their character contributed to the other character's background story.  I wish there were some examples of alternates to the Phase Trio, because I'm not completely sold on it for every potential game (or group). Skills are assigned by the skill pyramid, where the character has one "apex" skill with rows of lower ranked skills to support it. This is only for character creation, after which skills move to a "column" pattern. In practice, sometimes the pyramid seems stifling but I'm the type who always winds up feeling like my character is "done" even when I have a couple skill slots left to fill.

Aspects

Because aspects are such a large part of Fate, virtually every chapter discusses them to one degree or another, and an entire chapter is devoted to them. The aspects chapter goes into detail about how aspects are used, what they can do, creating good aspects, and gives a lot of advice on getting the most out of them.  One thing I love is the "Mad Libs" approach to deciding when to compel an aspect:
You have ____ aspect and are in ____ situation, so it makes sense that, unfortunately, ____ would happen to you. Damn your luck.
Even for seasoned Fate veterans there is a lot of goodness in this chapter, not only for the excellent overview of aspects but because there has been some divergence among Fate games regarding what aspects can be used for and how to apply them. Fate Core consolidates the "party line" on aspects and snaps them back to a common center.

One of the biggest changes to Fate Core regarding aspects is the Create Advantage action (which I talk about below). Essentially, the character can sacrifice an action to place an aspect that they can justify, without spending a Fate Point. For example, a character trying to run away from some thugs in a market can use an action to create the advantage, Rolling Fruit Cart and then use the free invoke to get a bonus to getting away.

Another way an aspect can be created is through a boost, which is the result of trying to create advantage and tying or as an extra bonus because of a high roll. Unlike advantages, which stay around around at least until the end of the scene (or when they would logically go away), boosts can only be invoked once and then they disappear.

If there is one weak spot regarding aspects, it's that the book glosses over the idea that aspects are always true, even when they are not being invoked. There is this sentence in character creation:
This may seem self-evident, but we figured we’d call it out anyway—the aspects on your character sheet are true of your character at all times, not just when they’re invoked or compelled.
And then this under Situation Aspects:
Sometimes situation aspects become obstacles that characters need to overcome. Other times they give you justification to provide active opposition against someone else’s action.
But that's it. The implications, particularly for players coming from other Fate games where this was either not the case or wasn't explicit, aren't immediately made clear. In Fate Core, a character who has the aspect Breathes Underwater can always breathe underwater, regardless of whether the aspect is invoked. A situation aspect of Pitch Black means that characters can't see where they're going or what they're doing - no invoke required. A character who is Handcuffed and Shackled doesn't need to have the aspect compelled to prevent the use of their hands or being able to run. I feel the concept needed more discussion in the rules to make it more clear to GMs how to apply it, especially for players of older Fate games or other rpgs in general.

The section also delves into the Fate Point economy, and how the players and GM earn and spend Fate Points. One important element is refresh, which dictates how many Fate Points the character starts each scenario with. Refresh can traded for extra Stunt slots, down to a minimum of 1.

Skills

On to skills. The default skill list is generic with broad-based skills. I've found from tinkering around with various settings that the default skill list covers all of the right bases, and is easily tweaked to provide the right feel for different games. I attribute the ease of working with the skill list to the new standardized actions each skill has. These actions - overcome, create advantage, attack and defend - cover everything a skill can be used for, and are a slight reduction from the number of actions that could be performed in previous versions of Fate.
  • Overcome is used anytime the character wants to do something with a skill (and is kind of the de facto action when there's ever a question as to which action to use).
  • Create advantage encompasses the assessment/declaration/maneuvers from previous versions of Fate. Characters use their action during an exchange in order to create advantage and gain a free invoke on that aspect.
  • Attack and Defend should be self-explanatory.
Not every skill has all four actions available - for example, Deceive isn't typically used to attack. Each skill only gets a couple of example stunts, which I think was a good break from having pages and pages of them in other Fate games. Also, because of the standardization the skill and stunt descriptions seem to be a lot shorter page-count wise (only about 40 pages - I actually read them all too!).

Stunts are abilities that allow the character to add new actions to a skill or otherwise break the rules in some way. They are a way of differentiating characters and providing a narrower focus or specialization to skills. Characters start with 3 free stunts by default, but can trade refresh (down to 1) for more. The section on Stunts covers how to build stunts and the various things they can do. It does it well enough that it's been  invaluable when creating my own stunts for the games I'm planning. This stunt for a skill called Pilfer in one of my settings is a good example (and is based on a stunt in Fate Core):
Memory Hole: You are so good at hiding things, you can actively roll against attempts to find them even if you are not physically present.

Running the Game

Two chapters cover actions and then conflicts, challenges and contests. This is another area where Fate Core has been simplified compared to previous games - the number of actions has been reduced and the potential outcomes simplified. A nice side effect to this is each skill or stunt is no longer its own little packet full of rules exceptions. The character makes rolls versus another roll or a static number, and either fails, ties, succeeds or succeeds with style. A failure is exactly that, although there is the option of succeeding at a cost, which personally is more satisfying than failure. For example, a character who is trying to use Resources to buy something and fails the roll can opt to actually get it, but wind up taking a Consequence or an aspect such as In Debt. A tie depends on the action that was being attempted, but generally it means succeeding at a small cost or getting a boost. Success also depends on the action but it means just that - success without a cost. Success with style typically means creating an aspect with a free invocation (or if you were trying to create one, two free invocations),

Contests and challenges are both outlined with steps for resolving them. Contests are used when a number of discrete actions need to be performed to obtain a goal. Challenges are when two or more characters are competing for the same thing but not trying to harm one another. In both cases the rules have been simplified from previous Fate versions. Conflict is broken into rounds called exchanges and, aside from the reduction in actions and changes due to the four outcomes, isn't much different than older Fate versions. Movement is done within Zones and is not precisely tracked - anyone can reach anyone else within the same zone. Zone boundaries from previous Fate games have been replaced with passive or active opposition, requiring an overcome roll - in fact, all movement between zones is treated as an overcome if applicable. There aren't any additional actions or tables of maneuvers or modifiers - the difficulty is set by the GM and adjusted by the presence of any obstacles or aspects.

Another thing most players of traditional roleplaying games will find novel is how Fate Core (and most other Fate games) handles injury or other effects of conflict. Each character has two stress tracks: physical and mental. Whenever a character fails their defense roll against an attack, the shifts from the attack have to be absorbed somehow. The stress tracks each have two boxes, although certain skills may add one or two more, which are checked off based on the shifts the attack generates. So if you take a 2-shift hit, you check off the #2 box. Characters also have Consequence slots - a Mild, a Moderate and  and a Severe. These Consequence slots can also absorb shifts - 2, 4 or 6 respectively. So if the character had marked off the #2 stress box and then takes another 2-shift hit, they would then take a Mild Consequence. Consequences are a form of aspect, and as a result can be invoked or compelled normally but are overall more negative than aspects (it's hard to invoke Broken Leg, but I suppose it could be done). Each has specific time periods that have to be pass before the character can recover and take them off of their sheet. Once the character does not have any more stress boxes or Consequences they are Taken Out (unless the character Concedes). Conceding means the character is taken out of the conflict (they get some extra Fate Points for this) and the opposition wins - but the character is still around. Getting taken out means the person who took out the character gets to decide what happens to them, including their character dying.

The next two chapters should be required reading for all GMs, everywhere. They cover running the game, scenes, scenarios, and campaigns. If you aren't interested in Fate's system, just throwing down however much you're willing to pay for the PDF is well worth those two chapters alone (did I mention that the Fate Core PDF, once it is released, will be on a "Pay what you like" model?).  From a sidebar titled, "Let The Players Help You" to discussions of campaign scale to the Golden Rule of "Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it", to more "Mad Libs" for helping decide what aspects are appropriate, these chapters are purified GMing awesome. One of my favorite parts is a sidebar called "Powerful Session-Starting Ninja GM Trick" that segues right into my preference for starting scenarios in medias res, by suggesting opening a scenario with "pre-loaded compels" and a few extra Fate points.

The chapter Long Game covers campaigns and character advancement and includes both a break from previous versions of Fate with little or no support for advancement and more traditional rpgs. Instead of using experience points, character advancement is accomplished by changing aspects, skills and stunts during minor and major milestones. The reason I like this system for advancement is it heads off trying to balance point costs of disparate things and gives a more "natural" feel to character advancement. As an aside, there is no standard conversion rate between skills, aspects or stunts in Fate Core. You can't trade a number of skill points for an aspect, or a stunt for a number of skill points. My feeling is these are different buckets and are truly apples and oranges. The chapter closes with the astounding concept (at least to me) of "world advancement", where the campaign or setting has its own milestones that prompt changes to the setting, locations and NPCs.

The last chapter covers Extras, which is anything that gets special attention. This can be super powers, cybernetics, a magic system, mecha, etc. It starts out with describing the Fate Fractal, which is basically the concept that anything in Fate Core can be treated like a character. There isn't a framework or point buy system for Extras - as the chapter rightly points out, creating Extras is an art and not a science. Examples include weapons and equipment (Fate does not have a default weapon or armor list, because it assumes that all gear a character would use is implied by their skills), as well as vehicles, a magic system, factions, and sample superpowers  Since Fate Core is a toolkit, the examples seem sparse and I think the section spreads itself thin, but other than adding another dozen or more pages I'm not sure I would have wanted to see anything different. It just takes utilizing some of the examples with a little out of the box thinking to get a specific implementation. Certainly what would have helped is some more discussion of the different approaches to the same Extra, such as aspect only, as a stunt, as a skill, etc.

Conclusion

In the end, Fate Core is an astoundingly well done product. Not only is it a well-produced book, but the system has been refined and distilled to be the best version of Fate so far. The result is a tightly focused game with very little fat and a nice change in direction from the bulked out Fate implementations of the last few years. At a price of "pay what you want" and concepts and advice that can be applied even to non-Fate games, there's really very little excuse to pick it up.

The only problems I can see are relatively minor, and easily fixed with a little supplemental reading: Extras not having enough in depth examples and a sparse discussion on a very important concept regarding aspects always being true. I don't envy the folks at Evil Hat for having had to decide what to include, what to go in depth about, and what to leave out. It's very likely that beefing up some other areas would have resulted in others being less detailed. Fortunately these are elements where a player with questions could get clarification on FateRPG website, blogs, etc., but I have to give the game a slight ding because the concepts aren't quite as fleshed out as maybe they should have been.