Review - Fate Core
Description and mechanics brought together beautifully through the rules for ‘Aspects’
I would love to be able to say something smart about the dawn of a new way of handling characters, environments and everything else, but I’m late to the party with Fate and Fate Core! I remember hearing about it some time ago as “the game with the funny dice” but it was only this year that I actually picked up a copy of the game to read for myself. I’m certainly glad that I did! This isn’t a full review of Fate Core, it is a discussion about the part which interests me most.
I’ll go out on a limb and say that for me, the fate dice are the least interesting and least important part of Fate. The second most important are the fate points, but far and away the thing that enchants me about Fate are the Aspects.
Aspects as character and world building
I love how aspects are essentially the fundamental building block for building characters, building encounters, handling injuries, building worlds and even building campaigns.
In the rules, Aspects are defined this way “An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to”. They are facts which are true. They can be ‘invoked’ or ‘compelled’. An aspect is invoked in order to get a bonus; normally you pay a fate point for the privilege. They are compelled to add a complication to life (and you receive a fate point for accepting a compel). The combination of invokes and compels is the narrative engine for the fate point economy during the game.
Fate points are the mechanism for improving your ability to do anything; they can be spent to reroll some fate dice, or to add to the existing fate dice score. They are important to give the characters an ‘edge’, especially when the going gets tough. You can’t spend them unless you can reasonably invoke an aspect to do so - whether that is a character aspect, a situation aspect, a consequence that a foe is carrying or even a campaign aspect.
In some game systems a player character is defined by some combination of their ‘character class’ and ‘attributes’ (giving scores for things like strength or intelligence or charisma) or perhaps their skills. In Fate Core games a player character is primarily described by their Aspects. They will normally have five aspects
- a ‘high concept’ which summarises what the character is about
- A ‘trouble’ which is something that mostly complicates their life
- An aspect related to a past adventure
- A couple of aspects which are related to other player characters.
The amount of flexibility this provides for character creation is astonishing. In a kitchen-sink kind of game which mashes together fantasy, sci-fi, horror and magic the sky’s the limit in terms of what a character can be. But even in a more confined game setting this still gives a wonderful amount of variability. You don’t have to be the person fresh off the farm - if you want to be The Best Poker Player In The West, or The Fastest Gun, then you are.
The list I’ve given there is the default list from Fate Core, other options are available (the just released Fate of Cthulhu sets out a slightly different set of five aspects, for instance).
Fate Core also discusses having some game aspects which are always available for anyone to invoke, compel or create an advantage on at any time. If I was to convert my Starguild: Space Opera Noir game to Fate Core then a good game aspect might be “Fragile trust and easy betrayals” because that is the kind of thing which could turn up at any time in the game as a whole. Similarly I could envisage having an Aspect for each of the Regimes and a couple of Aspects for each of the worlds in the Starguild campaign - the desert world of Zared would have a very different feel to the playboys paradise of Corridor; campaign aspects mean that there are some things that could always be invoked (or compelled) when on those worlds, adding to the flavour of the campaign as a whole but making different places distinctive.
Role playing games often have conflict. Back in the 20th century most of the games I played in might describe a battlefield at the outset of an encounter but once the fighting starts it might as well have been taking place in an empty ballroom - there was no way that anybody could take advantage of things that had been described (other than occasionally to give a little bit of flavour to what was going on).
In Fate, on the other hand, an encounter might have aspects defined for each of the zones in an encounter - possibly a warehouse floor with teetering stacks of crates, a raised gantry with swinging chains and a set of offices with fragile glass windows.
Anyone could take advantage of these aspects by invoking them with a fate point in order to get a bonus on something they are trying to do with a skill. Or, of course, they could attempt to create an advantage based on one of these in order to create an additional situation aspect which is to their advantage or their opponents disadvantage.
I can’t help thinking of the scene in Die Hard where the terrorists are closing in on the barefoot McClane and they shoot out the glass windows so that McClane has to sprint across broken glass without any protection.
So Situation Aspects don’t just give us a narrative reason for interacting with the environment in a conflict, they give a solid rules foundation for gaining advantage for doing so.
During conflict, you will be taken out if you cannot handle the impact of the conflict. There are two principle means of avoiding being taken out. Stress and Consequences. Stress can be recovered relatively quickly, but is a limited resource. If you are impacted by a conflict and have to absorb more stress than you have, you can take a consequence. These represent lasting mental or physical harm which take time to recover from. They are effectively unfortunate temporary aspects. They add flavour to a conflict and, as with other aspects, they can be invoked for mechanical advantage by your opponents.
It’s like in the movie Sherlock Holmes, Game of Shadows - where Moriaty injured Sherlocks shoulder with a butchers hook at one point in the drama, and takes advantage of that injury in a later fight.
Other RPGs may ignore details of injuries altogether (e.g. D&D or Classic Traveller), or have purely mechanistic ways of handling them (e.g. Runequest, with hit points per location). I haven’t come across any games which allows such a broad range of both physical and mental consequences to be modelled, taken advantage of and resolved.
Although I’m late to Fate, I’m really excited to use it to run and/or play some games. I’m also highly tempted to attempt a conversion of my Starguild: Space Opera Noir rules to work with Fate. I guess I could say watch this space!
Photo by Alex Shutin on Unsplash