The Most Mainstream of the Indie Game Producers…

Around about 2005, Evil Hat Productions announced that they’d received the license to make the Dresden Files RPG. To me, this seemed like an amazing match of both systems and timing, as I’d recently discovered both FATE 2.0 and the Dresden Files novels, and was a big fan of both. Prior to this announcement, Evil Hat had just been a couple of guys releasing a free rules set on the internet, who, it turned out, happened to be friends with an up-and-coming modern fantasy novelist that could think of no one better to translate his baby to an RPG. Between an already well-received first system and a license with major geek-cred, Evil Hat seemed to overnight have to turn into a full production company.

There were more than a few roadblocks in this transition, by the developers’ own admission. They announced too soon, started with a rules set that wound up needing more development than they’d realized, and just plain weren’t ready to become a mainstream RPG publisher as fast as they thought they’d be. When the Dresden Files RPG finally came out in 2010, they had gone through quite a lot of changes in both their company and their game engine, but were still straddling an interesting line between mainstream game studio and indie press.

Regardless of the classification of the studio, the interesting part of the transition is that it was bookended by two distinctive versions of the FATE 3.0 rules set. The first of these, released the year or so after the announcement, was Spirit of the Century. A well-received pulp action game in its own right (getting a cover blurb touting its superiority by the designer of the previously best received pulp-action game), it was also a stealth playtest for the new rules engine. It was released as mostly open source, featured a wiki incorporating lots of developer suggestions for alternate rules, and was used as a basis for several other indie games. The feedback of what worked and what didn’t informed the eventual development of the DFRPG over the next few years.

So, beyond any other elements of game design, FATE 3.0 is an amazing example of system design in progress. Version 2.0 is freely available on the internet. The first version of 3.0 is available under the OGL even if you don’t have SotC. The DFRPG is theoretically the culmination of around four years of the most widespread and democratic playtesting ever undertaken in the tabletop industry.

This review series will be longer than normal, as it will begin by analyzing the system present in Spirit of the Century. I’ll then take a comparative look at the Dresden Files RPG to determine what seems to have been learned, what was improved, and what still might be lacking in a system that is now more widely used as a basis for tabletop RPGs than anything but d20.

Core Mechanics

In all of its incarnations, FATE rests on two major components: Fate points and their relationship to Aspects, and a FUDGE-derived skill system.

The use of Aspects and Fate points changed significantly between 2.0 and 3.0, but still retains a lot of core motivation. Effectively, FATE proposes the theory that character attributes are not nearly as omnipresent in fiction as they are traditionally used in RPGs. The signature example in 2.0 is that, in The Three Musketeers, while Porthos is described as quite strong, it doesn’t seem to give him nearly the advantage it would in a swordfight modeled under most RPG rules for Strength. Instead, FATE relies on Aspects instead of Attributes: adjectives or phrases that indicate something about the character that can provide an advantage or drawback only when it is interesting.

This is managed, in the 3.0 versions, by the wedding of Fate points to the Aspects on a character. Whenever a character’s Aspect is germane to a situation, a player may spend a Fate point to gain a reroll or bonus to a roll that is more significant than spending the point without a relevant Aspect. A character with the “Strong” Aspect can do better than expected on contests that could be considered strength-related, but only if the player is willing to spend a Fate point. Meanwhile, the primary method to recover Fate points is to be hindered by Aspects: a character with a “Weak” Aspect isn’t constantly inferior to stronger characters in a fight, and will receive a Fate point from the GM if his weakness actually provides a hindrance. Interestingly, players are encouraged to come up with Aspects that can be both beneficial and detrimental in different circumstances. A character with a “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…” Aspect receives Fate points for going into a berserk rage and can spend them on combat rolls during that rage, both through the same Aspect.

The rolls themselves are based on the FUDGE system. Characters select a single skill to represent competency at a task. It is not generally added to anything else on the sheet, though may by modified by special abilities, situational modifiers, and related skills. Skills range from 0-5 (and are pegged to a scale of adjectives from Mediocre to Superb that I have a really hard time remembering, don’t find terribly useful, and find annoying when rules reference the adjective instead of the number). During a challenge, players roll four dice with equal numbers of minus symbols (-1), blank faces (0), and plus symbols (+1), which are added together to produce a range of -4 to +4 (with an identical curve to rolling 4d3-8). This result is added to the skill. So, for example, a character with a skill of 3 that rolls + + 0 – gets a final result of 4.

Effectively, barring modifiers, a player will average towards the skill level: if you have a 3, you’re regularly going to get a result of 3, with 2 or 4 slightly less commonly, and anywhere from -1 to 7 on outlying rolls. The FUDGE dice are very heavily center-weighted, such that even small score differences and modifiers can make a big difference to a contest: over 60% of rolls are between -1 and +1, so clever use of modifiers makes a much bigger difference overall than the range of the dice. This means that the +2 bonus for using an Aspect is deceptively powerful, as what would be a nearly trivial bonus in most systems with a higher range of scores and rolls is a big deal in FATE.

So FATE has a fairly simple dice mechanic that can be heavily modified by clever action and prudent expenditure of Fate points. Next week, I’ll start talking about how that is leveraged into the other systems.

Part 2