After roughly a year with extremely limited time for roleplaying games, I was invited by a close friend to play in his newly starting modern day, Cthulhu-esque campaign using the early release Fate Core rules from the Kickstarter from Evil Hat Productions. I had heard quite a bit from Dave and other friends about the Dresden Files RPG over the last few years but back in April I finally got to experience the Fate system.
After four gaming sessions I can say with confidence that Fate Core is a fantastic, and impressively versatile, roleplaying system and it immediately became one of my favorites. The system rules and their use of Fudge dice seem to be perfectly balanced in a sweet spot between crunch and fluff. Characters are primarily defined by a series of “aspects,” two of which are primary aspects known as “high concept” and “trouble,” and a pyramid of ten skills which provides you a wide range of average skills and a small range of exceptional skills. Much to my delight, that’s pretty much all you need to start playing your character! I sat down at the table with no prior experience in the system and was playing within 30 minutes, and most of that time was simply passing the rules between five players so we could each designate our character’s skills.
Character Creation Around the Table
Of the five players in the game, I was the only one that hadn’t developed my character yet so I purposefully showed up to the first session with only a very vague idea for my character with the intention of playing someone that fit into the party in the best way. Sitting down to my character sheet, the first thing the GM asked me to do was fill in my “high concept”. To tie into another player’s greedy museum curator, I wrote in “Adventuring Archaeologist” and decided I would go with an Indiana Jones type character (he ended up being much closer to Nathan Drake, but I wasn’t familiar with the Uncharted games at the time). As I took stock of the other characters developing around the table, I also opted for my character’s “Trouble” aspect to be “Curiosity Kills the Cat” as it seemed the party did not yet have a good instigator character. With these two aspects written in, and my pyramid of skills topped out with the Investigation skill and noticeably lacking the Drive skill (an error which has since been corrected), we were ready to start playing.
Much like the “First Job” opening adventure in Leverage RPG games, we weren’t truly done with character creation but we still had three more aspects to define for each of our characters and the rules encouraged us to tie each one of these aspects to a different character in the party. Due to being very close friends with several of the other players, especially the aforementioned museum curator, it was easy for me to set one of my aspects as “Begrudgingly Employed” and set out some backstory about how I’m employed by the curator to obtain artifacts for his collection. This also led to his character having the “Right Tool for the Job” aspect, and has since led to my character often being referred to as a tool. After acting out a few short scenes, and setting up some more backstory with other characters, we were ready to begin the first adventure with quite a bit of familiarity between the characters and five aspects each for us to draw upon.
The two outstanding character elements that I haven’t mentioned yet are refresh and stunts, because at that point I wasn’t very familiar with them and so I decided to leave them alone. Per the pre-release rules, each character started with a refresh of three and was given one stunt. Keying off of my highest skill in Investigation, I chose to expand on my “Adventuring Archaeologist” concept by adding in a bit of Sherlock Holmes and added a stunt that allows me to spend time investigating a specific scene and deduce one or more important bits of information based on the scene.
A Maiar and a Hobbit Walk Into a Bar…
Characters are given the option to reduce their refresh in order to take more stunts, allowing for characters or varying “power levels” within the party, but I knew I wanted my character to be closer to “normal” and so I opted to leave his Refresh at three and stick with one stunt (now with the rulebook in hand we noticed this has been increased to provide more stunts at character creation, but for time being we’re sticking with one each in our game). However, one of our players really wanted to play a half-vampire and so he was able to reduce his refresh (I believe he dropped it all the way to one) and added several stunts to his character that account for his increased speed, senses, and strength at night.
The disadvantage of a lower refresh is tied to the system’s Fate Points. Each character begins the adventure with a number of Fate Points equal to their refresh, and these points are used to effect the ongoing narrative of the game by drawing on various aspects presented in each scene or to create new aspects that you can draw on later. In actual play this mechanic works beautifully as characters with more stunts seem more individually powerful, but characters with fate points are able to react to and make good use of the situations and surroundings more often. This set up was first described to me, as you may tell from the heading above, as a perfect way to allow for a party to include both Gandalf and Frodo and still feel balanced, and I believe it does exactly that.
One of the best parts of Fate Core for me is the fact that a GM can invoke players’ aspects and drive the characters with certain impulses, and in addition a player may invoke their own aspects (the trouble aspect being particularly effective for both of these) in order to gain a Fate Point for playing to their own aspects/character concept. The GM’s invocation can be resisted but requires the player to spend a Fate Point they already have instead of gaining one which can be quite costly, but I feel it is suitably representative of a drain in willpower/energy from resisting your character’s base instincts. In play, I love how this happens that the GM can invoke my “Curiosity Kills the Cat” to inspire my character to explore or push further into something, but in our four play sessions I’ve probably invoked this aspect just as many times to gain myself a Fate Point because I enjoy playing the character with overwhelming curiosity (and I enjoy being rewarded for it by the system as well).
I have not yet had a chance to run Fate Core as a GM, so I can’t speak too much to all of the details of the system, but in general every scene (or “encounter”) we have been provided with a list of scene aspects that everyone, including our adversaries, can invoke when appropriate. These aspects can represent unique environmental factors, elements specific to those present at the scene, and pretty much anything that might come into play as the scene plays out. Our first two adventures culminated in a huge scene outside of a remote hotel that involved a tribal circle, numerous SUVs piling up, gun fights, players going insane and running passed each other in the woods, and explosions. The whole scene flowed quite smoothly and felt like a very natural ramp up in excitement that I feel was enhanced by the rules along the way.
The Best Aspects
Maybe I should have resisted using that header pun. The only drawbacks to using the Fate Core system are that I would say it leans more towards fluff than crunch, but for me coming off of a three year straight D&D campaign that went well into the epic levels, I find this a refreshing change of pace. I love the use of Fudge dice plus skills that max out at +5 so your degrees of success range from -4 to +9, but the majority of rolls for us end up in the 0 to +5 range. We have only briefly gone into character advancement, but I adore the system’s encouraging of changing aspects as your character’s priorities and personality change over time.
I am eagerly planning to run at least one upcoming game using the Fate Core rules (most likely a Lord of the Rings game, because I’m a huge nerd like that). If you’re looking for something like Fate Core but even easier to simply pick-up and go, try the Fate Accelerated rules which I have yet to play with but am looking forward to in the near future!