How I learned to accept Fate Core

A friend put it best when he was describing his experiences with reading and trying to understand Fate Core (and I’m paraphrasing quite a bit here): “This is what normal people feel like when they open up Dungeons and Dragons for the first time — we as gamers have been initiated into the world of tabletop rpg gaming partly by osmosis, and taught the secrets of how things work by people who have been doing it. Fate Core is as alien to me as D&D is to the average person.”

So I’ve been trying to fix that a bit. I’ve been running training sessions to people who have never tried playing Fate Core. I’ve focused on running combat, because that’s where the rules kick in the most. I’m writing this to get some of the insight I’ve gained from running these games out to you. They are small tidbits that are in no particular order.

They are not kidding about the characters

Fate’s character chapter starts with describing Fate player characters as Competent, Proactive and Dramatic. And that’s what you need to have for your game if you want the system to run well. Fate is not good with boring. It’s not good with everyday chores.

It’s not the tool you’re looking for if you want the characters to spend time arguing with customs officials about the percentage of tax they have to pay for their imports. Unless you are planning on making that a (melo)dramatic moment.

Make the characters and the game interesting and you’ll have a lot easier time than what you would have if you were creating mundane, reactive and ordinary people.

The dice don’t really matter (except when they do)

The Skills in Fate, with their numerical values and all that, are very relevant. If you have a Skill at +4, it’s a huge deal different from say a +2.

Because when you’re looking at the statistics of the 4dF roll, you are 62% likely to get a result that’s between -1 and +1 on your roll. That means that about 2/3 of the time, your skill rank is a very good indicator of how well you do things. Dice are not the thing you are actually playing with all that much, unlike in other games, where you’re banking a lot on the die roll.

This said — when the dice matter, they can matter a huge deal. A +4 or -4 will change the assumption you had about something by 100% (if you’re playing with starting characters that have a +4 maximum Skill).

But the Skills and the dice just give you a starting number to play with. The actual game happens with Aspects. Aspects are everything.

Aspects are everything

Aspects are everything and everything is an Aspect. If it is dark in the room, then there should be “It’s Dark” Aspect there if it’s relevant to what’s happening. When it’s no-longer dark, then no matter how many free invokes you’ve banked on that Aspect, it is no-longer there.

Everything can have Aspects: Characters, items, places, time of the year, the stock market, the game session, the campaign, anything. If you want it to have potential story relevance, it’s an Aspect. Creating and Invoking Aspects is a way to actually get the game rolling.

There is always something to do

Fate is the only game I’ve encountered where a player should never have to spend their turn to act in an encounter going “I don’t do anything.” There is always something that can be done in Fate.

If nothing else, they can always focus on themselves, getting prepared for the next action. Making mental calculations, looking around for potential exits, girding their loins, cooling their nerves by smoking a cigarette. Anything. And any of these are actions that matter. You can Create an Advantage by having that smoke and a Will roll and get a free invoke or two for that new aspect “Hands that don’t shake”.

There are no hit points

This is a thing that you need to understand about combat in Fate. There’s no hit points or such that go down as you go down in health. When you take a point of damage, you are taken out.

“What about Stress? What about Consequences?” you ask.

They are not hit points. They are ways to prevent taking damage, but they are not HP. It might seem like an academic point, but changing the way you think about them makes it easier to realize how they work and what they mean. As long as you consider them HP, you are projecting a false mental construct on the idea of what they are.

Stress is a buffer. It’s free way to keep you from getting damaged. Crossing off Stress boxes is free. When the combat is over, the Stress returns to maximum. It’s a shield, not health.

Consequences are more severe. Sometimes the combat gets tough and you take one. But again, they are not a marker of health as such. You can take consequences from Social actions just as much as you can from Physical. They just show that you are in a bad place because of the fighting.

Now. There is never a reason when you wouldn’t want to use Stress and Consequences to negate incoming damage if you’re fighting in a real combat. When you do get taken out (the technical term for when you can’t prevent that last point of damage), it’s up to the opponent to tell you what happens. Death is on the table. But even if they want your character alive, they might require you to fill out all your Consequences and change that Aspect “Noble bearer of the sacred blade of Mu” to “Former bearer of the now destroyed sacred blade of Mu” — taking one Consequence is a minor price in comparison to that.

Now depending on place you are in the fiction, the price of the damage can be horrible, but of course it doesn’t have to be. They may just force you to surrender. They may knock you out. It might be a friendly tap on the top of the head, if you were sparring. The one who deals the damage decides what it means. But what it always means is that the other person lost the fight.

Concede often

Conceding is one of the most counter-intuitive actions to a person who is used to traditional gaming. You still have hit points left, you keep fighting! The combat is a black box where you either emerge out of as the victor or not at all! That’s the trad way. Not in Fate. This has a lot to do with the previous point. There are no hit points. You take in one point of damage and you are out, and the opponent determines what that “out” means.

Conceding is a way around this. You choose to lose this fight to keep on fighting another day with some extra Fate Points in your pocket. And most importantly, you lose and have some say in how you lose. It might be that you bravely run away. It might be that you get knocked out. But it’s a compromise. Better than the alternative.

Concede is an action that should be embraced fully by both the GM and the players. Have the named NPCs concede when their minions start getting taken out. And as players, sometimes getting taken prisoner is a great way to take the story forward in new directions.

Everyone needs reasons

And on the back of that previous one — everyone needs a motivation. If the enemies are there just to kill the player characters, there is less room to negotiate an interesting concede than if the enemies are there to make sure the characters don’t take the evidence of the murders they’ve been committing to the police. It’s easier to think of ways for the characters to lose without dying when for the enemies trying to kill them is only one possible way for them to achieve victory.

From wishy-washy to super-specific

Fate is an interesting system. It has the Aspects, which are used in a way that is more or less haphazard — you spend a Fate Point and declare that your Aspect X helps you in this situation because reason Z. And the GM smiles and nods and takes your Fate Point. Most explanations should be ok. Smiling and Nodding.

Skills on the other hand, have much more specific uses. They are defined quite well — you usually have a good idea of what skill you are using for a roll.

And then there is Stunts, that are really super-specific. They are the polar opposite of Aspects in how often they can be used. There are very specific points where they come to play and apply to specific Skills even in those situations.

It’s a funny little game. Just saying.

Fate works with Miniatures and maps

Of course you don’t need them. But a nice big map with 3–4 zones and Minis on it makes the combat very fluid and things easy to represent. You see where everyone is and have a picture in your mind about things.

Also, a great thing about maps and Fate is that your maps can really be quite abstract! “This zone represents the alleyways”, “This one is the rooftops”, “This is that one bar”.

Creating an Advantage by spotting things

Speaking about everyone seeing everything. I pass the statistics of the bad guys to the players when they are about to face them. They see their strengths and weaknesses. They see their Aspects. Why? They get to call the shots in Creating Advantages this way. When you know as a player that the bad guy has “A Weak Knee” as an Aspect, you can then have your character Create an Advantage from that by Noticing it. Free invokes on the Aspect.

In Fate, it is easier to Create an Advantage on an Aspect that is already in play than to create a completely new aspect, mechanically (You win ties). Thus it is easier to hide in the “Shadows” that are already there in the fiction than in a “Perfect hiding spot” that you discovered out of nothing.

I think that’s all for now folks

There’s probably other tidbits, but this is all I can come up with at this point. Hope they help in some way or another.