The Fate system for roleplaying has an interesting history. It saw commercial release in Spirit of the Century back in 2006, and Evil Hat’s approach of making the system ‘open’ and easily licensed meant that Fate rapidly appeared in many other incarnations with slight variations of the system’s implementation. This was at the same time fantastic, since it allowed creators to shift details of how the system worked in the context of the games they were making, but did also produce some conversational confusion as different people came into Fate from different angles with different mechanical interpretations of the same ideas.
Fate Core is an attempt to recentralise development using the Fate system by providing a concrete and consistent substrate to work from, at the same time as incorporating a huge amount of refinement in both how the system works and how to communicate about the way it works. Overall, it does a fantastic job. Fate Core isn’t a roleplaying game, it’s an engine to build roleplaying games with – both at the levels of individual gaming groups and commercial game development.
Fate in a Nutshell
All Fate systems share some core traits. Firstly, they use Fate Dice: six-sided dice with two – symbols, two + symbols, and two blank sides. They are essentially d3s. You roll four of them, yielding results from —- to ++++ and averaging to zero. The resulting dice rolls attach to flat numbers associated with Skills, so if you have Good (+3) Driving and you roll —-, the dice hate you and your overall result is Poor (-1). Every character has Aspects, which are a series of statements that describe the character. When these are useful for the character, the player spends a Fate Point to either reroll the dice or add +2 to the result. When Aspects complicate the life of the character, they get Fate Points in exchange as part of the economy. The third factor is Stunts, which modify how the character relates to the wider rules, such as letting them use one skill in place of another in certain circumstances. That’s the Coles Notes version, but given both Fate Accelerated Edition and Fate Core do a fantastic job of explaining all this, and they’re available Pay What You Want at the links above, you can easily have the professionals walk you through how everything works.
What Fate Core Brings to the Table
More than anything else, the greatest contribution that Fate Core makes to RPG culture at-large is clarity. Its layout and conceptualisation has a laser focus on communicating its ideas cleanly and quickly. Visually it’s a treat, and the artwork does an excellent job of relating to what’s under discussion at the time. Something I appreciate is that the tone and voice of the book are pitched to be clear and useful both to people with no background in gaming whatsoever, and people with significant experience. It’s not condescending, but doesn’t make assumptions about what information readers will understand.
The system itself has been reframed for simplicity and elegance. Previous incarnations of Fate were jargon-heavy, using different terms for slightly different ways of engaging with Aspects, for example, in an attempt to be clear. All of that is gone, condensed down to its, well, core. The system hangs around the Four Actions and Four Outcomes. You can Attack, Defend, Overcome Obstacles, and Create Advantages. A huge amount of Aspect management has been collapsed usefully together into Create Advantages, because that’s what it’s all about. The Four Outcomes are where small changes to the Fate system really come into their own: You can Succeed With Style, where you do so well you gain further advantage, Succeed, Tie, or Fail. Tying and Failing are where the magic happens. If you Tie, you can succeed with a minor cost, and if you Fail you have the option of Succeeding with a Major Cost. Aspects are really interesting for being player-side levers for engaging with the narrative and the world of the game; being able to succeed at a cost really underlines the importance of story over mechanics by asking what you’re willing to go through in order to have something else work. It’s beautiful, and the book itself does a great job of providing explanations and examples of how the idea works in practice. (In fact, let’s have a link to a great example of how Succeeding At a Cost can work in play.)
The heart of the system is simple, and the book spends the rest of its time discussing how to engage with it for best effect. This includes asking basic questions of what kind of game you want to have, and how you can shift the system to get it where you want to be. There is an entire book dedicated to this line of tinkering coming soon, called the Fate System Toolkit.
A central principle that Fate Core explores is the idea of the ‘Fate Fractal,’ which is that anything in the game can be written-up as if it were a character. A really good example of what this means in practice can be found here, where a player in a dungeon-crawl style game was poisoned by a trap, and the GM decided that the most interesting approach was to make the poison a character who could only attack the victim (and be attacked by its victim).
Fate Core is cheap, deep, and very useful. If you’re already a fan of Fate, give it a read: I’ve found that the way it explains things, and the system changes from earlier versions, can really help improve other Fate games. For example, I’ve been applying the Four Actions and Four Outcomes idea to games using The Kerberos Club, and that’s been really helpful. So much of the strength of Fate Core are its ideas and how it communicates them, rather than just mechanical changes, that its influence is going to be significant for a long time to come.
If you’ve been interested in roleplaying games before but haven’t managed to cross the threshold where you’ve had fun with them, I recommend giving Fate Core or Fate Accelerated a read. (Review of Fate Accelerated Edition available here). They’re available pay-what-you-want (including free, if it turns out to be what you think they’re worth!) from links at the top of this page, so there’s no reason not to explore them. If you want to see some characters from pop-culture that we adapted using Fate Core, you can check them out here.
Setting: NA. There is no native setting to Fate Core, and it presents examples from at least three different narrative worlds (all of which are represented in the cover art, which I think is neat). It’s an engine for building games, and does a great job of communicating how to do that.
How Easy Is It To Explain The Setting To New Players: NA. Since there’s no native setting this doesn’t really apply, but the book does a great job of exploring the kinds of games which will work well in a Fate context, and why that is. As such, if someone entirely new to RPGs were pitched ‘a game using Fate Core,’ they’ll have a reasonably accurate idea of what to expect in terms of vibe, even if the details of whether it’s fantasy, modern, or SF need to be nailed down, along with the game’s genre.
System: A+. It’s the cleanest and clearest implementation of the system to date, and is already appearing in books with more of a native setting to them.
How Easy Is It To Explain The System To New Players: A+. You can’t get much better than this, because the book does such a great job for you.
Is Character Generation Safe?: A. Absolutely, with the caveat that given building the underlying setting is part of the process, it’s important to make sure everyone is on the same page. That goes for any game, really, but doubly here.
Practicality of Use in Play: A+. The book is filled with page references at the side of each page for deeper exploration of connected concepts, and the layout has been carefully thought through. You can get a precis of how the system works during character gen, then leap to a deeper exploration of those ideas, and then if the GM wants to go deeper again into how those can be implemented in different ways, there’s a section for that too.
Ease of Running Sample Adventures: NA or A. There are no sample adventures included in Fate Core, and yet it dedicates enough time and effort to showing how to put together a game collaboratively really quickly, it seems churlish not to acknowledge how important that is. It’s going to do very well on a measurement of how fast you can go from No Ideas to Woah I Have Players And A Game To Run even without sample modules.
Entertainment Value: B+ to A-. In the same vein as FAE (for obvious reasons) the purpose of this book is not to be entertaining, it’s to be clear. It winds up pretty entertaining anyway, because of how the clarity of the writing intersects with the fantastic artwork which connects to what is under discussion. (Cyberilla! The Disguise art! Wonderful stuff.) It’s not in Kerberos Club “I’d read this just for fun” category, but so very little else is.