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.