How to Fate Core — Part I: Basics

This is my quick primer for any new Fate player, detailing the basics from ground up. It’s a recap / theoretical version of the Fate Core Combat Academy that I’ve been running lately.

I’ll do this in a couple of parts, with this first part being the very basics, so if you are a Veteran player and notice that “Hey, Stunts can in certain cases allow me to use Empathy for Rapport, but you are saying here that Empathy is used only for empathy things!” fear not. I’ll get to those exceptions in a later part of the series if/when I write it.

The Fate Core rules can be found at: http://fate-srd.com/

This article is based on Fate Core System and Fate Accelerated Edition, products of Evil Hat Productions, LLC, developed, authored, and edited by Leonard Balsera, Brian Engard, Jeremy Keller, Ryan Macklin, Mike Olson, Clark Valentine, Amanda Valentine, Fred Hicks, and Rob Donoghue, and licensed for our use under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

The Very Basics — Golden Rule

Decide what you’re trying to accomplish first, then consult the rules to help you do it.

The Golden Rule of Fate Core is really important. The system is damn easy to break if you want to game it, so it should be an extension of the actions happening in the fiction, not the other way around.

(The Silver Rule is that don’t let the rules come in way of that what makes narrative sense, which is a very important underlining)

The Very Basics — Characters

I won’t go into much detail about the characters, since this is a “very basics of” section, but Fate characters need to be three things: Competent, proactive and live dramatic lives. The system stalls with player character passivity. And doesn’t handle boring very well. Make your characters kick some proverbial butt if you are playing Fate.

The Dice

Fate uses Fate Dice (or Fudge Dice as they were called). They are special dice with two “+” sides, two “-” sides and two blanks (so six sides, yes, they are cubes). In Fate you always roll four of these dice. As the gaming tradition goes, a single regular 6-sided dice is denoted by 1d6, and five 10-sided are a 5d10, saying “four Fate dice” is shortened to a 4dF.

When you roll, you add 1 to your score for each “+” and subtract 1 for each “-”, so a result of two “+”s, one “-” and one blank means: “+1 +1 -1 +0" or a sum of +1, while three blanks and one “+” also gives a net result of +1. Negative values are possible as well. The range is -4 to +4.

Looking at how this actually works, Probabilities say that about one third (62%ish, full breakdown here) of all results of 4dF hit the total of -1, 0 or +1. This means that most of the time, the dice give a very neutral result.

(Exercise: Roll a few Fate dice, calculate results, notice the bell curve in action in real life.)

Online roller can be found at: http://ethanfudgedice.appspot.com/

The Ladder

All numerical values in Fate are on a “ladder” that dictate how awesome they are. Standard character has one skill at +4, and others at lower levels. While we’ll tackle skills in detail later, now the thing you need to know is that all rolls in Fate are 4dF+Skill. The number you’ll be needing to beat is based on the same ladder, with the “quick GM defaults” being +2 and +4 (for normal and challenging rolls, respectively) — and by beating I mean that if the difficulty of the roll is +2, to succeed, you need a total of +3. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but makes more sense if I spoil you a bit and tell you that in some cases (not covered in this very basics part) tied results matter.

Let it all sink in for a moment and then we’ll start thinking about what these numbers means for the game.

Like I said earlier, most of the time the 4dF roll results in -1, 0, or +1. So the skill number matters a lot. If you have a skill of Average (+1) in something, It’s more likely than not that your end result will be between 0 and +2 (which isn’t enough to succeed in a simple challenge), while with a Great (+4) skill, you’ll likely get a result between a +3 and +5, succeeding in a simple challenge and sometimes even a challenging one.

Then again, the extremes with a roll are +4 and -4, which means that someone with an Average (+1) skill might get a result of +5, and someone with a Great (+4) skill might have a net result of 0.

So, in summary: Most of the time, the skill level you have will dictate the result you’ll be getting, but sometimes you’ll get unexpected results.

Exercise: Roll a few times with skill levels 0, +2 and +4. See if you can beat difficulty of +2 or +4 with just the 4dF+Skill.

Skills

Fate Core has a default skill list of 18 skills. Each starting character has 10 of these skills with a score in them, so you’ll have things that you can do, and things you can’t do so well.

The skills are quite specific. You have Notice for noticing things, Investigate for investigation, Empathy for reading emotions, Rapport for positive social interaction and Provoke for negative social interaction, for example. The things you can do with skills is pretty much defined — you don’t go about being nice to people with Empathy (it’s about reading people, Rapport is the positive interaction skill), or intimidate people with your Will skill (that would be Provoke). You’ll use ranged weapons with Shoot and melee weapons with Fight. Even if you’re in close combat and fire your shotgun.

Each individual Fate game will have their own set of skills that will reflect that game. I’ve run a Star Wars game for a Fate tutorial, as it is a very good match for Fate Core, and even there I’ve had to change “Drive” to “Pilot” and “Craft” to “Mechanics” to reflect the scifi world I run it in.

If you don’t have a skill, you roll at a skill level of 0 (4dF+0).

Aspects and Fate Points

So far things have been simple. And really, Fate is a simple system when it comes to rolls. It’s always picking the relevant skill, getting the base number from that, rolling four dice, adding the plusses on your dice, subtracting the minuses, and comparing that end result to the difficulty.

If you did the math or rolled the dice in the previous step, you noticed that beating the +4 difficulty isn’t simple even at the character’s highest skill (of +4). That’s where the actual meat of the system comes in, in the form of Aspects.

Now, Aspects are freeform descriptors about … well, everything. Or if we want to be more precise, freeform descriptors about things that are relevant to the way the story can move. If it is dark in the room, there is probably an Aspect Darkness there. If there’s a slightly blue wallpaper in the room, that’s probably not really relevant, so there’s no Aspect for that (unless, of course, it’s relevant that there’s a wallpaper of a certain color, in which case, that would be an Aspect).

Of course, characters will have Aspects too. A starting player character will have five. If a character is a trustworthy merchant, she might have the Aspects Trustworthy and Merchant, or more likely the single Aspect Trustworthy Merchant.

And other things will have Aspects as well. So when I run my Star Wars Fate tutorial game, I have an aspect Epic Space Opera on the table to describe the genre of the game and A Tutorial Game Session Heavily Focused on Combat to keep the meta-narrative in the right place.

Before we can go into how to use the Aspects mechanics-wise, I have to mention Fate Points (or FP for short). They are a resource, and each player (the GM included) has a pool of Fate Points at their disposal. You get more of them at certain points in the game, and they can be used primarily to activate Aspects. A typical player (depending on their character and past actions) has 3 FP at the start of a game session.

The two ways you can use (“Invoke” is the Fate term) Fate Points with Aspects are: Rerolling all your Fate Dice or giving a +2 to the result. These are done after the roll. And you need to explain why that particular Aspect helps you with the result: “Because my character is Trustworthy, even if they would be suspicious to anyone else, they know her reputation and will let her pass. Thus +2 to the result to get them to let me through.” or “Because this is Epic Space Opera, that Stormtrooper can’t be the one killing a main character at such a boring moment in the story, so I’ll reroll my lousy defense dice for a better result.”

You can Invoke any Aspect with a Fate Point just one time per roll. So if you are rolling and trying to beat difficulty +4, and you have the result of +1, you can use two FP for +2 each (to get to total of +5), but each FP use has to be explained by a different Aspect. And in the next roll you do, you can tap those Aspects again, if they fit the situation.

Now, back to the probability side of things — The sad fact is that you don’t really want to use the reroll unless you rolled a -3 or -4. In all other cases, you’re better of getting the +2 to the result. If you rolled a -2, the +2 will give you a guaranteed result of 0, while a reroll will give you a better result than that only 38% of the time. Now, this is not an absolute. If you’re a gambling man, go ahead. Or if you have one Fate Point left and the +2 isn’t going to be enough, but a good roll could save the day…

The GM can of course use their Fate Points the same way as you, increasing the difficulty because of Aspects in the game. “Since you’re surrounded by Darkness, you find that it’s surprisingly hard to get a good shot in…”. To which you can of course reply with a Fate Point and an Aspect of your own.

Summa Summarum

So, to recap the very Core of Fate Core:

Your character has skills. For a starting character, skills are ranked from 0 (you don’t have the skill) to +4 (great!). Every roll you make follows the same pattern: you first choose the appropriate skill, and then roll 4dF, and add that to the skill score, and compare that total to the difficulty of the challenge. If your skill+roll is not enough to overcome the difficulty, you can use Fate Points to increase your result (1 FP = +2, or reroll all the dice), but you must reason the use of that FP by explaining (“Invoking”) why an Aspect on the table helps you in your task. You can use any Aspect once this way per roll.

Next up, Actions.