A D&D Lover’s Guide to Other RPGs: “Fate Core”

ptgof_front_cover_fullFull disclosure: I have had this article written for months, but I have been waiting to publish it until the Kickstarter was launched for Part-Time Gods of Fate, a “Powered By Fate” project I have worked on in conjunction with Encoded Designs. Now that the Kickstarter has launched, please check it out. Thanks!

Following up on my previous article about the Dungeon World game, I wanted to take a look at another popular RPG through the lens of a long-time D&D fan. This time I want to take a look at a wonderful game system known as Fate Core.

As a reminder, I am looking at this game (and the other games in this series of articles) as a D&D player, DM, and designer. Many gamers come to RPGs through D&D, so while it might not do another game its full justice using this method, I believe that many players can get a better understand of a game when compared to a better-known entity.

Evil Hat Productions: Kickstarting a New Fate

The current iteration of the Fate game is called Fate Core, and it builds upon previous versions of Fate, as well as the older FUDGE system. More than 2 years ago, Evil Hat Productions used Kickstarter to fund this latest version of Fate, and over $400,000 later, they had the budget to make many game products with wonderful art and a layout that is both attractive and functional.

The base mechanic of Fate revolves around the rolling of 4 Fate dice. These dice are 6-sided: 2 sides contain a + sign, 2 sides contain a – sign, and 2 sides are blank. When rolling these 4 Fate dice, the player generates a random number between +4 and -4, but the random number generated tends toward zero. That random number is added to a character’s skill ratings to attempt tasks in the game.

The Ladder and Shifts

Many RPGs have target numbers for checks, and meeting those target numbers decides the success or failure of the attempted action. Fate Core is no different. Interpreting those checks is handled through a table called the ladder. This assigns a word to describe the result, starting at Terrible (a result of -2) and going up to Legendary (+8). A result of +4, for example, is considered Great. As you can see, the game uses descriptive terms of narration in the mechanics of the game, showing a melding of mechanics and story that saturates the game, and the game is better for it.

If the character wants to attempt something that would be considered Average, she only needs to reach a +1 final result on the check. If the task is something that only the greatest practitioners might reach, the GM can say that a Superb is needed, meaning the result must be +5 or higher.

In D&D, succeeding on a check by 1 point or 10 points rarely makes a difference. In Fate Core, the difference between the number needed and the number achieved is very important. Each number between what was needed and what was rolled is called a shift. The bigger the shift, the more damage an attack does, and the more likely you are to be able to add some cool riders or extra benefits as a result of the action.

Aspects and Fate Points

Earlier I said that Fate Core melds narrative elements and mechanics very well with game elements like the ladder. Nowhere is that melding of mechanics and narrative more pronounced than with aspects. Aspects are, quite simply put, statements about your character. If you were writing a story about your character, aspects would be the bullet points about how to describe them and what makes them dramatically interesting.

Other games may do this to a greater or lesser extent, but Fate Core makes those aspects mechanically relevant through the use of fate points. A fate point lets you, in one case, either add an additional +2 to a skill check, or let you reroll all the Fate dice instead. To use that fate point, however, you have to invoke an aspect. If one of your aspects is “Studied Pyromancy with the Fire Walkers of Zeerlandia,” you could invoke that aspect when you try to cast a fire-based spell. In order to get the +2, you have to have a relevant aspect AND possess a fate point to spend.

What’s most interesting about aspects, other than how they meld story and mechanics, is that they can also be used against a character, called a compel. In this case, the GM might say, “The enemy wizard is using a cold spell on you, and since you are all about pyromancy, you know less about defending yourself again cyromancy.” In this case, you can accept the compel and take the consequences, but you receive a fate point in return, which you can use later to your benefit. If you don’t want the consequences, you buy off the compel by spending a fate point of your own.

This fate-point economy is a mechanical game process that relies on narrative elements: backgrounds and personalities and dramatic interaction truly matter within the mechanics of the Fate Core system. Players need fate points to do cool things, but to get fate points the player cannot simply avoid dramatic conflict. In fact, the more dramatic conflict you encourage the DM to embroil you in, the more cool things you can then do in response. And I have yet to see a game or D&D campaign where more dramatic conflict, especially when it draws upon character traits and backgrounds, was a bad thing.

Final Analysis

I have played D&D for coming up on 40 years now, and it will always be my system of choice. In all of my long-term campaigns, regardless of edition or whether I have been a player or DM, I have always looked for ways to meld roleplaying and mechanics seamlessly to make the narrative a part of the rules. If I hadn’t absorbed Fate Core before 5e D&D was released, I would have thought that 5e’s concept of ideals, flaws, bonds, and personality traits—and their connection to the inspiration mechanic—was revolutionary. I am still excited that those game elements found their way onto the front of an official D&D character sheet, but they pale in comparison to what Fate Core does with those concepts.

Like I mentioned in my review of Dungeon World previously, those GMs and players who need a heavier system to carry the weight of play are still better served with D&D. Even when you dig deeper into the Fate Core rules and start introducing “extras,” which can bring elements like magic items, spell systems, and other standard D&D elements into a Fate Core game, Fate still cannot match the codified heft of D&D. That is meant as neither praise nor criticism of either system—it is just a statement of fact.

If you want a game where you can almost play through combats without a GM because the rules handle so much of the resolution, D&D is still the boss. However, if the prospect of the narrative driving the game—even the mechanical parts of the game—tickles your fancy, you definitely need to give Fate Core a try. And even if you are never going to have the time to run a Fate Core game, just reading through the concepts introduced by the game can give you valuable insight into bringing drama, and the introduction and resolution of narrative conflicts, into any game you run.

Best of all? Fate Core is available for the low, low price of “pay what you want” at DriveThruRpg!


  1. Great article, I love that you write this from a distinct point of view. It provides context and meaning for those of us who “speak D&D”. I love Dungeon World and often try to describe it to people and find it really helps to use D&D as a reference. In DW’s case, particularly because DW was written with D&D gameplay in mind. Fate seems very different and I have much less experience with it. But it’s on my list of games to learn and play (run). Your article has moved it nearer the top. Thanks!

    • Shawn Merwin says:

      Hi Mike, thanks for the feedback. I am in the same boat as you, which is why I started doing these “D&D-centric views” of other games. Most of my regular players love D&D and want the experience that it provides, but as I started doing more and more work with other games, I started to see that even those hardcore D&D-only folks might be served well with coming at the genre from a different perspective. If there are any other games you’d like me to look at and talk about, let me know!

      • Well, since you mention it…..:)
        Would love to hear your thoughts on Dragon Age (particularly in light of the fact that a massive core book as recently been released) as it related to D&D, both mechanically and thematically/aesthetically. I’ve read the basic rules, own both box sets and have yet to convince my years long D&D campaign groups to take a break from D&D and give it a try.