System Review: FATE 3.0, Conclusion

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The Open Game License is to tabletop RPGs as Open Source is to computer software. Or at least that seemed to be Ryan Dancey’s goal when he convinced WotC to institute it. Open Source development is as intended to generate improved code that can be used by the originator of the project as it is to make free software available to the masses. It’s questionable whether D&D ever used it as a true analog: Despite years of OGL d20 supplements, next to nothing made by third parties seems to have made its way back into D&D’s core. But as a side effect that may have even been unforeseen by Dancey, smaller publishers like Evil Hat have been quietly working to make OGL to Open Source a real comparison as their own original systems reap the benefits of public exposure.

FATE started as a couple of guys with an interesting take on attributes and skills plugging in the OGL FUDGE dice mechanic and posting the results online. An interesting quirk of the hyperconnectedness of geekdom meant that they were friends with a rising urban fantasy author who wanted to license an RPG to someone he trusted to do his setting justice. Over less than a decade they went from pure indie shop to a largely mainstream publisher* and every step of the way has been with flow back and forth through the OGL. The change from SotC to the DFRPG included crowdsourced testing and the proposed rules for “FATE Core” show clear signs of being clarified by non-Evil Hat implementations of the system. When the lead developer of the system isn’t afraid to send players to non-core implementations of the system to address their rules concerns, something about OGL has gone very right.

I’m really bad about generating more nitpicks about things that I consider nearly perfect, as the perceived issues stand out better when they’re few and far between. And that’s why this review series has ballooned to half again as long as any of my others (even accounting for two games being reviewed): I think FATE is a nearly perfect system. That’s not to say it’s the best choice of engine for any kind of game you might want to run, but for the things for which it’s appropriate, it’s excellent. It’s a system up-to-date with many of the latest indie innovations. It’s something you could be equally comfortable running for unrepentant hack-and-slashers and Forge elites. It’s a modular collection of really neat system tricks you can steal for other games.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend FATE to a pure toolkit GM; the engine doesn’t work as well if you’re not actively using it. I wouldn’t run it without house rules, but I don’t run anything without house rules; FATE, at least, seems pretty explicitly designed to accommodate fairly major changes without cascading consequences throughout the system. I probably wouldn’t suggest it as a gateway game for new GMs; it has a lot of subtly nifty features that I suspect require some kind of basis for comparison.

But if you’re that increasingly common kind of individual—the experienced mainstream gamer looking for a system that leverages the cool stuff internet collaboration has come up with over the last decade while still feeling like the kind of system you’re comfortable with—I cannot recommend FATE enough. Used correctly, you’ll see system-driving-play benefits you can’t get anywhere else. And, even if it’s not your thing, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find a few system ideas that you can’t help but take with you to become house rules for your normal game.

It’s a good game and, via the OGL and general user responsiveness, Evil Hat seems intent on continually making it even better.

 

 

* Evil Hat is kind enough to post complete sales figures. None of the bigger publishers seem interested in even giving a ballpark of their sales. So it’s very difficult to determine at what point you can even call someone “mainstream,” especially these days. Given the speed at which the kings of RPGs in the 90s are fleeing to more reliable revenue streams, my suspicion is that, if Evil Hat isn’t very close to being mainstream, then the term means even less now than it ever has.

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System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 6

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Capping off Spirit of the Century so we can move on to Dresden Files next week, here are the last couple of systems I want to talk about.

Minions and Teamwork

SotC fights against named foes take a long time, as discussed last week. However, you can run a game where your PCs mow through a ton of bad guys without ever touching a named NPC through the power of minions. A familiar accent to any action RPG, and obviously something I’ve been inspired by, minions are designed to be taken out by the handful. To accomplish this, minions:

  • Have Stress that works like regular hit points (e.g., 2 Stress damage against a minion with 2 Stress takes it out, even with no prior damage)
  • Have a fixed (small) bonus to any actions that make sense (e.g., a +1 minion rolls against anything at +1 unless it wouldn’t make sense for that minion to have such a skill)
  • Automatically group together with other minions in the fight until there are no more groups than PCs (e.g., 10 minions vs. 3 PCs would likely attack as two groups of 3 and a group of 4)
  • Group with named NPCs if they are present
  • Link stress boxes when grouped (e.g., a 5 Stress hit against a group of 3 minions with 2 Stress each takes out the first two and leaves the third with 1 Stress left), and this serves effectively as ablative armor for a named NPC grouped with the minions
  • Gain a Teamwork bonus based on their group size (+1 at 2-3, +2 at 4-6, +3 at 7-9, and +4 at 10+)

Minions are super cool. While I became quickly very hesitant to deal with named NPCs, as combat would slow right down, my games never lacked for two-fisted action because of minions. They’re the popcorn of the pulp adventure world. And they’re not just fluff that players can ignore: when grouped together, minions become a very serious threat that becomes very satisfying to players as hits begin whittling the group down to manageable size.

And then you have more minions dive in at various points in the fight and rearrange the group sizes. Good fun to be had by all!

However, as much as I love minions, this is one small flaw related to them: the teamwork rules for minions are the only teamwork rule in the game. When attempting to assist another person, the first PC (or friendly NPC) with the same skill grants a +1, the second helper does nothing, the third raises the bonus to +2, and the acting PC needs six helpers to get up to +3. And the bonus doesn’t change regardless of whether the acting character has a bunch of helpers close to his own skill or way below it.

This essentially creates a weird result in planning out skills. If there’s a skill that is likely to only be rolled by one player in a lot of cases (Investigation, Art, Engineering, etc.), you should either be the best in the party at it or have it at +1: if most of the time you’ll only be on assist duty with the skill, a +1 is just as good as a higher rating. In a party with one player with such a skill at +5, as a GM you’ll have to constantly work to keep the player with that skill at +4 from feeling like he wasted the points.

But this is ultimately a small wart: most systems have a hard time striking a balance between making teamwork too weak or too powerful. The grouping system for teams works very well for minions.

Chases

Car chases (or, infrequently, foot and biplane chases) are another nifty system in SotC, and another one from which I’ve taken inspiration. The gist of the chase rules is:

  • Lead character (target) describes a maneuver and picks a difficulty; if he fails the roll, the car takes a hit equal to the margin of failure
  • Following character(s) attempt to meet the same difficulty; a success deals the Shifts as damage to the target, a failure deals the MoF as damage to the follower
  • One passenger in each car can attempt a roll that would make sense as helping the driver, and use that result if higher than the driver’s

There are also rules for extended chase scenes where the GM can throw in reinforcements, special cars, etc. These are tied to a point mechanic, which is kind of arbitrary and mainly serves as a rough guideline, but they’re neat ideas for complicating the chase whether or not you use the points.

And… I have nothing bad to say about the chase rules. They’re really fun, and I was sad that I only had one player take much in the way of Drive, so I couldn’t contrive ways to use them very often. But the one time I did they delivered exactly as intended: a classic car overflowing with pulp heroes weaving through traffic, driving off of parking structures, and snarling traffic across a New York City block. Good times.

Part 7

Three Spirit of the Century Adventures

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For those who’d like clearer examples of what I did for my SotC game that caused my various opinions in the reviews, or would just like some mostly-ready adventures, here are the three for which I had typed notes. The other two sessions I ran were less formal, using handwritten notes.

These adventures were all specifically tailored for the PCs I knew would be attending the session, and generally featured their nemeses. Sections designed to remind me which Aspects to compel will, of course, be far less useful to other groups. More info can be found on the campaign site.

The notes are somewhat simplified, as I really only needed them to jog my memory, but they seem to be fairly self-explanatory. Feel free to ask for clarification on any of them in the comments.

Similarly, if an insight into my game construction methods explains why I might not have been using SotC to its fullest extent, please let me know in the comments as well 🙂 .

Harbinger of Doom’s SotC thoughts post mentions several events in Lights Out in London.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 5

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Continuing from last week to hit the big four system elements identified in part 3:

The Damage System

In combat, the shifts past the target’s defense becomes damage. If you roll a 3 and the target only gets 1 on defense, you did 2 damage. That’s about the point the damage system stops being typical.

In Spirit of the Century, player characters start with a base of 5 wound levels (called Physical Stress), and can get up to +3 from the Endurance skill and +1 from stunts. These don’t work like hit points: the damage dealt is the number of the stress box checked off, but all other boxes remain untouched. So, for the 2 damage hit above, the target would mark off his second stress box, leaving the first one empty. If the target takes damage that would fill an already-checked box, however, the damage “rolls up” and fills the next highest empty box. If the target took a second hit for 2 damage, the third box would be checked.

If the target has to fill a box higher than one on his sheet, he must take a Consequence: a temporary Aspect representing a wound or other complication inflicted by the attack. Consequences are the only thing that persists through the end of a combat: once PCs have time to take a breather, all Stress gets erased. Consequences rise in severity as more of them are taken, and the fourth (without stunts that increase this number) takes the character out (either killing or otherwise incapacitating as the attacker decides). Instead of waiting to be beaten to death, the target can, on taking a consequence, offer to concede: the target is incapacitated before he would technically have to be, but on his terms (typically a good idea when death is on the table in a fight).

This method for handling damage is more or less unique in RPGs, and, on paper, is an amazing tradeoff between the constant schizophrenia of RPG combat design: how do you create a damage system where heroes aren’t afraid of getting into a fight but targets can still be killed in one shot by weapons that should have that power?

In practice, even for a pulpy game where heroes are meant to take blow upon blow without complaint, the SotC damage system has some problems.

The first issue is simply that there are too many Stress levels: all PCs have 5 boxes at a minimum, and can have up to 9 if they make Endurance their best skill and take the stunt. In an even fight, beating a target by two is a significant accomplishment, so typical opponents must be hit successfully 3-7 times before they even start taking consequences (i.e., the only damage that will stick with the character between fights). In my experience, PCs almost never took a consequence unless they were completely outclassed by an enemy, and any NPC not using minion rules (discussed next week) wouldn’t go down until dogpiled for several rounds by every PC.

The second level is more of an inherent problem with the method for assessing damage: rolling up tends to quickly invalidate high-shift hits. If a target gets hit for a high number of shifts amidst several minor hits, the high shifts are effectively wasted: three 1s and a 4 is identical to four 1s for most purposes, because the fourth 1 would roll up to 4 anyway. In my combats, I would frequently see one lucky high roll against a target that would eventually be washed away by all the lower level boxes filling up with minimal hits. Since hits of greater than 2 only happen on lucky rolls, when a bunch of tags get piled on, or when the target is way outclassed anyway, a target’s stress boxes frequently mean, in practical terms, “you can take this many hits of 1+ Stress, don’t worry about how much more than 1 the total is unless it’s a lot more than 1.”

This seems to be largely a strange evolution of how challenge ladders worked in FATE 2.0: extended challenges worked in much the same way as damage, except levels could have multiple boxes. Rolling high and skipping lower levels is more significant in:

  1. OOOO
  2. OOO
  3. OO
  4. O

Than it is in:

  1. O
  2. O
  3. O
  4. O

Ultimately, I feel like Stress boxes kept an interesting mechanic between 2.0 and 3.0, but lost an important element to keep that mechanic useful.

The Tactical System

The last major element core system of a FATE game is how combat is laid out, tactically. Unlike most games with tactical movement in combat, instead of using a grid, GMs are encouraged to lay conflict areas out in zones: interesting small areas within the larger combat where opponents can reach one another. Zones can be of variable size more or less defined as, “the maximum amount of space required to fit a fistfight.” Zones can have boundaries such as walls that make them harder to get between, and other barriers like doors that are also difficult to get through. In principle, you should be able to take a floorplan for an area and carve it up into interesting places to have a fight, and each of those becomes a zone.

Zones are easier to handwaive in a game than a D&D-style grid structure with adjacency effects, but they’re useful to keep in mind as they’re the major limiter on movement and range. When moving around the battlefield, moving around in a zone is free, moving into an adjacent zone (with no barriers) is automatic and imposes a -1 penalty to your action when you get there, and moving more than 1 zone (or through a barrier) requires your action to make an Athletics roll with the Shifts determining how far you can move (I did find myself house ruling that you can always move 1, even if you blow your Athletics roll, for the PCs with low Athletics*). You can only attack people in the same zone with hand-to-hand combat, one zone away with thrown weapons, and 2+ zones away with firearms (one of the major benefits to guns in a game where everything does the same damage).

In my experience, zones are a really fun way of providing some level of tactical action in a fight without focusing too much on specific positioning; it’s probably as close to having a positioning system for combat that still feels freeform as pen-and-paper games are likely to get. Unless everyone in the fight is a hand-to-hand fighter (where, like in all games, the tendency is to drift into a big burly brawl), it also keeps things moving around the map.

My only real issue with it was primarily just my own difficulty finding useful, 1920s-appropriate floorplans of locations that lent themselves to being so divided. In theory, the system works way better with cluttered areas that feature doors and walls, but I often found myself with a more open warehouse, airstrip, or whatnot basically divided into a bigger variant of a grid. But that was my own problem having trouble coming up with really exciting places to have a fight.

* Edit 2-18-2011: On rereading the Athletics rules, I realized this was, in fact, not a house rule, but the actual rule. My bad.

Part 6

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 4

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I closed last week by boiling down the list of what skills can do into four broad key mechanics of the system. Let’s talk about the first couple.

The Standard Roll

At this point, I’ve talked to death about the actual mechanic for generating a result (4dF + Skill + Mods). But what does that mean in most cases?

Like most systems, the first question when rolling is whether the roll is opposed or not.

  • In Simple Actions (unopposed), players roll against a static difficulty set by the GM.
  • In Contests (opposed actions), players roll against the skill result of the opposing character.

This second variation for opposed checks has a couple of interesting ramifications:

  • It’s hard to get overwhelmed by a series of attacks (a target with a good defense will get to roll the same number no matter how many people attack him). Attackers ganging up on a target may find it better to use Maneuvers (discussed below) and other group tactics rather than just trying a traditional dogpile of attack rolls.
  • Four more dice are effectively added to the equation, increasing the potential range of results vs. just using a static difficulty number taken from the target’s trait. While 8dF is even more drastically center-weighted than 4dF, rolling for attack and defense does offer a greater chance of an outclassed attacker getting in a lucky hit (or a skilled attacker missing an easy target).

In all cases, the actual information about a roll is based on Margin of Success (referred to as Shifts). Simply hitting the difficulty results in a bare minimum effect. In combat, if you hit someone with 0 Shifts, you don’t do any damage. In other situations, 0 Shifts means doing the action with no particular flair. In general, shifts can be traded for:

  • Damage/Spin: In a conflict situation, as an aggressor the more Shifts you have, the better your attack. As a defender, three Shifts gives you Spin: a +1 bonus on your next combat roll.
  • Difficulty: If you’re trying to do something that someone might contest later (set up a Block in combat, make something more Subtle to escape detection), Shifts can be used to indicate the difficulty of the opponent’s Simple Action later.
  • Speed: If something takes longer than a turn, Shifts can generally be used to make it go faster. There’s a time chart and more Shifts result in increasingly smaller lengths of time as you step down the chart.
  • Quality: The most nebulous of the uses for Shifts is to improve the quality. This is perhaps the use most up to GM fiat as to its meaning.

Perhaps the most interesting part about the concept of Shifts is that, in many cases, Simple Actions default to 0 difficulty. That is, for long-term things, the GM can figure out how long it would take a completely untrained character, and just use the player’s result to make it go faster. For things that other characters might want to undo, the player’s roll becomes the straight-up difficulty. It can effectively create a system where no characters can ever truly fail on important tasks, but they can do them faster or better than other people.

In this view, the Quality use for Shifts is actually something of an unnecessary addition that encourages unthinking GM behavior. As I’ve been harping on, getting a 5 on a roll is much different than a 1. But a basic 1-5 Quality of Success chart can lead to setting the expectation that 5 is the best result and anything less is flawed in some way. It makes it harder to grok that 5 is a really good roll for someone moderately skilled, even if it is easy for a master.

In my experience, there’s some really neat mechanisms for translating skill roll results directly into more usable systems (without ever having to pass through GM fiat), but the trick is to remember to use them. In practical play, each additional Shift is a hard-won battle against the center-weighted dice, so can be allowed to make a difference. For GMs trained on more granular, swingy systems, the intuition about what a roll means is likely to be wrong; it’s better to just let the system sort it out with the only GM input being making sure a result doesn’t stray out of the realm of what the table’s willing to accept.

Aspect Manipulation

So beyond the basic levels of success, how do skills hook into the Aspect system?

In practice, Aspects are expected to do a lot of heavy lifting in the system. Many of the elements of the simulated world can be phrased as Aspects, and changing Aspects changes the world. Since Aspects can be tagged to give a bonus, changing the world can be a method for gaining a significant advantage. As mentioned above, systems flow into other systems, with nary a need for GM fiat: doing interesting stuff is its own reward, because it makes it easier to succeed.

There are three variations on using skills to manipulate Aspects:

  • Maneuvers represent doing stuff, either socially or physically, to add an Aspect to a person or scene. Any time a player says, “I’m trying to shove him Off Balance” or “I want to convince him that he Can’t Trust His Friends” or even “I’m just going to set the building On Fire” that player is describing a maneuver. There is a causal link between what the character is doing and what Aspect gets created.
  • Declarations represent knowing stuff, and are interesting in that this stuff is created by the player on the spot. Very similar to maneuvers, declarations don’t actually share a clear link between skill and result; the character knows stuff, and success means the player gets to define what he knows. “Wave the torch to distract them! These monsters Fear Fire!” Of all the types, declarations are the most subject to abuse, as players run out of interesting things to invent about a target and start grasping at straws to get their free tags (see below).
  • Assessments represent figuring stuff out, and, of the three types, don’t create an Aspect, but reveal existing Aspects on a person or scene. These are potentially very useful in a game with proactive players, but tend to demand the most work out of the GM. An assessment is a way for the player to trade in-game time for interesting facts about a target; if there aren’t really any interesting facts to be had, that’s when players start to abuse declaration.

Each of these methods is not only a powerful way to interact with the environment, but a potent driver of player behavior because they each grant a Free Tag. Functionally, when an Aspect is created or revealed, the next time the player or a designated ally uses that Aspect, it doesn’t cost a Fate point. It’s effectively a free +2 to the next roll that can make use of the new fact.

This is one of the hugest elements of the system: even characters that suck at combat can contribute if they set up free tags for those in the group that are better at fighting. Academics and Scientists functionally become a support class, reeling off useful factoids about opponents while they duck behind cover. Athletes and Intimidators can attempt to harass and handicap foes, even if they can’t do much directly. And if they have time to prepare to also set up some Assessments, it’s an even bigger advantage.

In practice, though, the system could use a little more robustness, particularly in the area of declarations. Unlike many elements of the system, adding an Aspect is a fairly binary pass/fail, with additional Shifts making little difference. Difficulties are based primarily on GM fiat for how interesting the declared Aspect would be. Without a use for Shifts, high-skill characters have no reason not to go for high-difficulty, ridiculous Aspects (there are three criteria for appropriateness, and hitting each one reduces the difficulty by 2 from a starting target of 6, so skill 5 characters can often hit a completely inappropriate difficulty and can even more regularly hit one with only a hint of appropriateness). Part of the issue is simply the length of combats in Spirit of the Century (discussed next week), so characters with skills more suited to declaration than attack have a lot of opportunity to run out of good ideas and start slinging out, “And… they also have… weak skulls. Yeah. Punch them in their Weak Skulls!” But this would be less of an issue if the system had made better use of non-fiat systems, such as some additional use for declaration shifts.

All that said, in play, skills manipulating Aspects accomplishes its goal to a large extent: it gives players a systemized incentive to try to do interesting things during a conflict instead of devolving into just attacking all the time. And, of all the things that Fate has inspired in recent mainstream games, this is one of the few ideas that I haven’t seen adopted though it probably should be. Half the battle in an action RPG is just getting your players to think about how to do interesting things in a fight, and maneuvers and declarations (with a side of assessments) make this happen.

Part 5

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 3

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Last week, Evil Hat was kind enough to post an initial draft of what could be considered the core systems of FATE 3.0 in compact format. Since this is so directly germane to this post series, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that further posts may closely reference it 🙂 .

Skills, Dice, and the Success Ladder

The first thing one might notice about FATE is that trait totals for a roll are limited to skills + infrequent mods, skills range from 0 to 5, and a +2 is considered a significant mod to a roll. At a first glance, this seems like a much smaller range of potential than in games that use bigger numbers: many games use a 0-10 scale with mods going even higher, and d20 can result in some truly huge skill totals. But Fudge dice heavily center weight. In FATE, a +2 vs. a +4 will only tie or win 26% of the time, and win outright 14% of the time. An Aspect invocation between two evenly matched competitors can turn a 41% chance of winning into an 86% chance.

Essentially, despite only being on a 0-5 scale, there’s a very big and very important difference between each level.

While this is borne out by the names assigned to each number on the success ladder (from Mediocre to Superb on 0 to 5), it can be hard to really internalize. A contest between a guy with Athletics 5 and Athletics 2 seems small, but in system terms it’s a battle between an Olympic athlete and a guy that likes to go jogging a decent bit. Without bonuses from somewhere, the lower-skilled guy is only going to win 6% of the time.

In Spirit of the Century, every character starts with a strict pyramid of skills: one at 5, two at 4, three at 3, four at 2, and five at 1. It’s a small range, but it’s similar to a D&D character starting with a +25, two +20s, three +15s, four +10s, and five +5s. That is, the kind of skill imbalance that doesn’t crop up until at least level 10 in 3e and which 4e tried to eliminate entirely.

It’s a deliberate decision of the system, but it can result in two real problems for casual users:

  • New players have a risk of being weak in areas that should be strengths. A character with a combat skill at 3 will barely be able to harm a target that won’t be quickly destroyed by another PC with a combat skill at 5. A character with Athletics 2 will take several rounds to just get to the fight that an Athletics 5 character reached the first round. It can be a real battle to keep new players from ranking skills that are important to their concept but unexciting too low to be as useful as expected.
  • New GMs may have a hard time getting that a character with a high score is supposed to be amazingly awesome on a regular basis. High Academics or Investigation results get treated as run of the mill. Villains get turned into nigh-unstoppable threats to most of the party to keep them from becoming speedbumps to characters with high combat skills.

My experience has been that a GM needs massive retraining of his or her GMing reflexes to really internalize that characters with 4s and 5s should be awesome at those skills, and be awesome at them all the time. And even if you do make that leap, it can still be hard to account for the massive skill disparity: a character with no combat skill over 3 can’t often be much more than a minion distraction while a character with skill 5 deals with the real threat.

This isn’t a failing of the system specifically. The ladder is clear on the meanings of the trait numbers (even if I have a hard time remembering them). All GM advice sets the expectation that anything higher than 0 is successful in most cases. But, in practice, a high effective range but low granularity can be unituitive, and the uber-competency of a character using his or her top skill can further bend expectations. Anyone playing or running the system is well advised to seriously reevaluate his or her expectations of what a given number means on a character sheet vs. nearly any other popular game system.

What Skills Actually Do

With all of that said, what do skills actually do? According to the core writeup, a skill can provide:

  • The ability to take on a particular family of difficult tasks
  • A method of gaining knowledge through perception or research
  • A mode of attack
  • A mode of defense
  • The ability to endure a kind of stress
  • The ability to speed movement and to move past obstacles
  • The ability to change a target or environment in some way, often by introducing or discovering an aspect (note: an “environment” is not always about physical surroundings)
  • A method of presenting a difficulty that others must overcome

Options 2-7 are really just variations of option 1 with particular subsystems. Put in different terms, FATE supports a handful of systems:

  • Basic variations of standard rolls: doing something by rolling against a difficulty set ad hoc by the GM or based on another character’s action (or innate defense), with margin of success (“Shifts”) being traded for something (increased speed, quality, damage, etc.).
  • Aspect manipulation: uncovering or creating an Aspect on a scene, character, or other target. In many cases, this can be hugely beneficial, since it gives a +2 that may not even cost a Fate point the first time you use it.
  • The damage system: taking damage and making that damage less significant, whether it be from physical or non-physical conflict.
  • The tactical system: moving around the environment and using it to your advantage.

That’s a pretty compact list of features, elegant even. Next week, I’ll start talking about whether they pay off this elegance in Spirit of the Century.

Part 4

System Review: FATE 3.0, Part 2

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1920s Pulp

As noted last week, Spirit of the Century was the first iteration of FATE 3.0. In addition to a very nice printed edition (especially for an indie publisher without a lot of prior print experience), publication was followed shortly be a full, OGL-compliant version of the system, free online. Shortly after that, the Evil Hat Wiki began including variant rules sets. As mentioned in the introduction, this would lead to the system getting used and modified in games from other publishers, such as Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora. All of these playtested additions would be considered for inclusion in Dresden Files.

But what about the original Spirit of the Century rules? What did they do right out of the box, and what could use some tweaking (hopefully incorporated by Dresden Files)?

Bias and Experience

I got my copy of Spirit of the Century as a preorder, and have been taking pieces of it as inspiration for other games ever since. My experience on the player’s side of the GM screen is limited to one short con game. I ran several long sessions of the game as a GM last year. Suffice it to say that my play experience isn’t as thorough as I would like, but is more than sufficient to test of the system in a variety of ways (especially since the sessions I ran were deliberately varied to try out different system aspects).

Part of the issue is that pulp isn’t truly in my comfort zone as a GM or player; I lack sufficient historical knowledge of the 20s to really feel comfortable riffing. A large part of the reason I only ran for around half a dozen sessions is simply the difficulty of doing enough research for every session to feel like I was doing the setting justice. Functionally, that meant, for me, that a book advertised as a “pick up” game wound up being more work than I had expected. I can’t fault the system for that at all, and the book even includes some very helpful GM advice for setting up games that significantly eased my load (though I can’t technically praise the mound of GM advice as a virtue of the system, as it’s all very system-agnostic; but it is, IMO, worth the price of the book and not included in the provided System Reference Document).

Despite my need to put more work into running a game than seems intended (and, most likely, because of it), I feel comfortable discussing how the system plays. However, as one final caveat, my preferences (and the preferences of most of my players) tend towards the toolkit rather than the designer styles of play. Some of the rules I’m not fond of may play far better in an “author stance” than in a “player stance” (as I believe the parlance goes).

Fate Points, Aspects, and Refresh

As I discussed last week, the core of the FATE system is, unsurprisingly, Fate Points. These are a variation on what is becoming increasingly common: Inspiration (from Adventure!), Drama Points (from Cinematic Unisystem), Plot Points (from Cortex), and even Action Points (from d20). Functionally, they’re an out-of-game mechanic representing all the fortune, inner strength, and dramatic power that would normally be given to a hero out of authorial fiat in a novel or movie.

Without any Aspects in play, Fate points may be spent to gain a small bonus after rolling (+1), insert a favorable coincidence into the narrative (make a declaration), or (in the most blurry situation between in-game and out-of-game-resource) power certain potent special abilities (stunts). In practice, Fate points rarely get used for these effects, because their use through Aspects is so much more potent.

An Aspect is, as discussed, the system’s replacement for attributes. Instead of a consistent, numerical bonus, characters have a list of (hopefully interesting) adjectives, nouns, and short phrases that define most of the character’s non-skill competence. Not only player characters have Aspects: NPCs and even locations have them as well. Most of the time, an Aspect is the X in “because of X, I can do Y:” they’re justifications for the character doing better than skill and luck would indicate.

Aspects are generally powered by Fate points: they don’t do anything beyond giving the GM a rough idea of what might interest a character unless a Fate point is expended through the Aspect (Invoking it if it’s on the character’s sheet, Tagging it if it’s anywhere else). Characters that use an Aspect in this manner may choose between a bigger bonus to a roll (+2), rerolling entirely (statistically less useful than the +2 unless you rolled really low), or making a declaration with more narrative “oomph” (e.g., it’s much easier to justify the coincidence of being armed with an aspect like “I always have a gun”).

In addition to their positive uses, Aspects are subject to “compels:” the GM offers the player extra Fate points to do something counterproductive but in keeping with the character’s background. A character with “Solace in a bottle” might be drunk at the worst possible moment, another with “I can take ’em” might start up a fight scene when talking is wiser, and one with “Hey, that’s my sister!” might abandon a fight to save an important NPC. Compels are designed to reward the player for making the game more interesting with the character’s flaws and are pretty much the only way to recover Fate points spent during a session.

I’m a huge fan of Aspects. Ever since FATE 2.0, I’ve been house ruling some variation of them onto every game I run where I think I can get away with it. They’re simply a highly effective way of encouraging roleplay: the player is more effective when pursuing the character’s personal strengths, and the player gets rewarded by playing up the character’s flaws. They’re easy to add to a game and tend to improve it in ways that simply adding a generic hero point mechanic doesn’t.

That said, their implementation in Spirit of the Century has a few flaws:

  • At its core, the biggest problem is that players simply have too many Aspects. SotC characters get ten of them. Players have enough room to tailor at least one Aspect to count for virtually any situation the character might willingly undertake. It’s easy to make an Aspect that will almost always be relevant for any of the character’s good skills, include a couple of Aspects useful in a variety of conflict situations, and still have a couple of Aspects to spare. Meanwhile, this many Aspects means that it’s almost impossible for a GM to really keep track of them all. In a group of four players, the GM has 40 situations that can be Compelled.
  • This flows directly into the second problem, which is the flow of Fate points at the table. SotC characters have a Refresh of 10: they start each session with ten Fate points (more if they saved up during the last session). Meanwhile, it can be terrifically hard to keep track of what can be Compelled, and game advice is that Compels shouldn’t be easy choices (the character should actually suffer a decent bit from accepting a Compel). In my game, this resulted in a really disastrous pattern of Fate point usage. In the first session, the players saw this huge stack of tokens and started spending them freely on rolls that they found interesting (as they should have). But the points didn’t come back as fast as they’d expected (due to my difficulty remembering to Compel in the middle of running a game, and trying to keep some constraints on keeping player-suggested Compels from having no teeth). So they started hording them in later sessions, afraid to use them early in the session for fear of running out, then each having at least half a dozen left to trivialize the climax of the session.
  • The third problem (a distant third) is simply the assumption that all locations and NPCs have Aspects as well. Perhaps I’m not as good at running by the seat of my pants as I like to think, but coming up with interesting and relevant Aspects for everything in the world on the fly wound up being pretty challenging. So using them correctly wound up intensifying my prep work for each session. And, having done this work, it made locations and NPCs less disposable, so it was a constant effort to avoid railroading my players to make sure they got use out of them. The sad thing was, due to problems one and two, the players almost never tried to use Aspects on locations and NPCs (unless the Tag was free): they didn’t spend Fate points freely, and, when they did, they likely had relevant personal Aspects.

Long story short: Aspects and Fate points are an amazing mechanic, but SotC hands out too many up front and makes it too hard to use them as intended during the game. Perhaps a lot of my problem had to do with running for five or six players and trying to cram a whole adventure into an afternoon session, but I think these problems would simply be reduced, not fixed, by more breathing room during a session (fewer players and less impetus to hustle).

When they work, they work beautifully, but SotC’s implementation of Aspects and Fate points generates a lot of headaches for the GM.

Part 3

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