Fate Core – An Overview of a Great Roleplaying Game

The Logo for the Fate Core System, which is the word 'Fate' in large stylized block letters, with the A rising higher than the other letters, in white on a blue gradient background, with the words 'Core System' in smaller white block letters underneath.I’ve played a lot of roleplaying games in my life. I’ve talked about some of them here before, like Changeling: The Dreaming. The first I ever played was Marvel Super Heroes from TSR. I’ve tried the big, well known ones like Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve also played many small obscure ones, like AlbedoThe Whispering Vault, and Tales from the Floating Vagabond. Although I’d heard of the Fate system, it wasn’t until last month that I got to actually play it. A friend invited me to play in a two-session Dresden Files RPG game, which uses Fate. He then loaned me his copy of the Fate Core book.

I am a convert.

Let me tell you why.

An Overview of Fate Core

In most tabletop roleplaying games, characters have three primary types of statistics: attributes, skills, and special abilities. Exactly what these represent varies from game to game. Some are fairly light (like Tri-Stat DX, which has only three attributes) and others are heavier (like the Storyteller System, which uses nine). Special Abilities also vary wildly. Some, like the basic version of GURPS, just have ‘advantages and disadvantages,’ which describe mental or physical characteristics like ‘Code of Honour’ or ‘Blindness.’ Others include the various powers of D&D, such as wizards’ magic spells, clerics’ holy abilities, and the Feats available to every character.

Fate Core does away with all of that (well, for the most part. More on this in a moment). There are no attributes. Instead, characters have ‘Aspects.’ These are descriptive phrases that tell you something about who and what the character is. Many of the powers your character may have come from your Aspects.

Also in most games, players create their characters, and then they get together to play. In Fate Core, players create their characters together as part of the game itself. The group sits down together, and decides as a group what genre they want to use. Sometimes, the GM may have an idea for a game she wants to run, and if the players are OK with it, they start from there. But the rules emphasise that creating the game world should be a collaborative process.

Character Creation in Fate Core

Aspects

The players choose a ‘High Concept’ for their character. This is their core Aspect; it sums up who they are in a single phrase. Examples include, ‘Infamous Marauder Pirate,’ ‘Anti-hero Space Cowboy,’ or ‘Wizard of the Crimson Brotherhood.’ The best Aspects not only describe the character, but provide opportunities for drama. The ‘Infamous’ part of ‘Infamous Marauder Pirate,’ for example, implies that people often recognise the character, who has trouble travelling incognito. Really good Aspects also suggest characteristics of the game world. In ‘Wizard of the Crimson Brotherhood,’ the player has established that there is some sort of organisation in the world where the game takes place.

The players then devise their second Aspect: their ‘Trouble.’ This is what makes their lives interesting. This Aspect describes some reason that they often get into conflict, or a way in which they make problems for themselves. Some examples are ‘Can’t keep my mouth shut,’ ‘Sucker for a pretty face,’ or ‘Rivals in the Thieves’ Guild.’ As with all aspects, the only limit is what you can imagine.

Each character then has three more Aspects. Each of these must involve one of the other characters in some way, so that all PCs come pre-loaded with connections to each other.

Skills

Then you assign Skills to the characters. Skills have ranks from +1 to +4, to which you add the result of a roll using 4 Fate dice. Fate dice have two faces showing a plus, two showing a minus, and two blanks. This gives you a possible die roll of -4 to +4, averaging at 0, with +2 to -2 being the most common results. Add this to your Skill rating, and compare to the opponent’s roll (or a difficulty set by the GM).

Characters also have Stunts. These are specific applications of Skills, that make the Skill more useful in certain ways. Some Stunts allow you to use a Skill for a roll which would normally require a different Skill. For example, the ‘Backstab’ stunt lets you use the ‘Stealth’ Skill to attack a character, so long as that character isn’t aware of your presence. Normally, an attack would require the ‘Fight’ Skill.

Other Stunts give you a bonus in certain circumstances. One example is the ‘Arcane Expert’ Stunt, which gives you +2 to your ‘Lore’ Skill when rolling for supernatural knowledge. Stunts can even break the rules in specific ways, like the ‘Riposte’ Stunt. This Stunt lets you inflict damage on your opponent when you succeed particularly well on a defense roll.

You have three Stunts for free. You can purchase more by lowering your Refresh.

Refresh and Fate Points

You normally start with a Refresh of 3. At the beginning of each session, if you have fewer Fate Points than your Refresh rate, you gain enough to equal your Refresh. You can lower your Refresh rate to gain extra Stunts, or to gain Extras (see below for Extras).

You can spend Fate Points for bonuses on a roll, or for a reroll. But most importantly, you can spend Fate Points to invoke an Aspect. Characters are not the only one with Aspects; the Bronze Rule of Fate states that everything is a character: objects, locations, the game world itself… So you might be in a swordfight on a castle wall, and the GM has stated that the walkway has the aspect ‘Covered with Blood.’ By spending a Fate Point to invoke that aspect, you can suggest to the GM that your adversary slips on the blood and misses his next action. The GM decides if she likes that result (if not, the rules encourage her to negotiate a different result that works for both the story and the player’s desire to gain an advantage).

Players can gain Fate Points by accepting Compels. A Compel is basically the reverse of a player invoking an Aspect: the GM invokes an Aspect of the character. For example, if your character has the aforementioned ‘Sucker for a Pretty Face’ Aspect, the GM may hold up a Fate Point token and say, ‘As you’re working on picking the lock, a beautiful redhead walks by. It makes sense that you’d get distracted from what you’re doing and wander off to strike up a conversation.’

The player then accepts the Fate Point and incorporates the complication into the story, or else spends a Fate Point of his own to ignore the Compel. Fate Points, by the way, often take the form of poker chips, coins, paper clips, or other small tokens.

Extras

Depending on the setting, certain super-human abilities may be handled as ‘Extras.’ In essence, an Extra is something not covered by the normal rules. Super powers, cybernetics, magic, and more can all be handled as Extras. Depending on the play style of the GM and the rest of the group, these can be handled as Aspects, Skills, or Stunts. If those aren’t acceptable, however, the Fate Core rules provides a chapter describing ways to handle them as Extras.

Customising Fate Core

The main rules describe ways to alter the base system. The Fate System Toolkit expands the options to ‘hack’ the system as well. This secondary volume includes suggestions on more ways to handle magic, gear, headquarters, non-human races like elves, and different power levels. It talks about altering the number of Aspects, Skills, Stunts, Refresh, and other aspects of character development.

But the most important detail in playing Fate Core (or any of its variants, such as Fate Accelerated, which streamlines gameplay by doing away with skills for the purpose of speeding up character creation, or any of the games that use the Fate system, like the Dresden Files RPG) is that it’s meant to be a story-based game. It likely won’t appeal to Butt-Kickers, Power Gamers, or Tacticians, because so much of what those player types seek in a game is handled narratively instead of statistically. PCs are assumed to be good at whatever they do. Stories told using the Fate system are meant to be about capable heroes having noteworthy adventures.

Final Thoughts on Fate Core

And that’s what interests me about the system. Since I am a Storyteller/Method Actor type, this game has me very intrigued. I’ve already had several ideas for games I want to run.

But the best thing about Fate (either Core or Accelerated) is that it’s free. You can go to the Fate SRD website right now, where the entire rulebook for both systems are available. The (beautiful and well-constructed) physical books are available for purchase from the publisher’s site, as well, if you prefer physical paper copies.

There’s lots more to say about this game. I haven’t even touched on its history! But this article is quite long already. So I’ll stop here, and see you next week. Remember until then to

Game on!

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J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.

About J

J was introduced to tabletop roleplaying games in high school, where he found that he enjoyed telling epic stories through the medium of games. Since then, he has only grown more fond of games, and is now an active supporter of his local board game cafe. He's been blogging about games at gamingdork.blogspot.com for a while, and is even working on play testing his own original RPG. He lives in Oklahoma with his wife, a cat, and two rats.