One of the questions I’ve been trying to answer when I look over a new game is “What do I want out of the game?” This is a key question, because the answer I come up with is also going to be the answer to “What ‘thing’ do I want the system to be able to do as a central function?”
To reverse engineer this, so I can evaluate the system in those terms, the opposing question ask about a game system is “What does this game facilitate as a central or key mechanic that interests me? What kind of game does that create? Does that interest me?”
You can rephrase the question as “What is special about the system that simply couldn’t be done in your generic-game-of-choice (GURPS, D20, BESM, FUDGE, et cetera) without rewriting the whole thing?”
Illustrating example: Sorcerer. The central mechanics of the system focus on (1) Descriptive, contextually relevant action from the players to fully realize their character’s ability (unlike most games, the Sorcerer character as they appear on the sheet are baseline, not optimal — more on that in another post). (2) A conflict that is at least partially concerned with (focused-by-the-system) on the characters nurturing/maintaining/squandering their personal connection to whatever makes them ‘human’ in that particular campaign, without dictating character behavior in any way (Humanity system). (3) A huge portion of the storylines are player-created (Kickers). If that’s not what I want, for whatever reason, then I want to avoid this game, because all of those elements are BUILT INTO THE SYSTEM and are simply unavoidable. I certainly wouldn’t want to try to staple these mechanics onto D20 or GURPS. Ugh.
What struck me upon initial reading of FATE was that it was basically a cleaned up, much-improved version of Fudge with a variable crunchiness level that is quite appealing. Hardly a bad thing, but on the face of it, it really runs dead on into the big question of why couldn’t you run any Fate game in another generic system. I initially supposed the answer was ‘no reason’, but upon re-reading and (most importantly) playing the game, I realised that the game does introduce some very special elements to play at a meta-level that really don’t exist in those ‘other’ generic systems.
The central Fate mechanics (Aspects and their effect on die rolls and rerolls) result in play in which the players have a lot of story control over their character and scenes the character’s appear in (using a ‘non-traditional’ (in other systems) order of resolution that lets the players truly decide how important the scene is to them), but at the same time aren’t put in a role — as they are in Sorcerer (covertly) or InSpectres (overtly) — in which they necessarily decree entire plots. That role is left to the GM, a very comfortable place for it for many GMs (and gamers).
This results in a great ‘blended’ style of play in which the players can have real control over their characters and the GM retains plot control at a level that a lot of folks are more comfortable with… a much higher chance for a win-win situation between the often-head-cracking conflicts between Narrativist and Simulationist creative agendas (with lots of Gamist risk-taking thrown in as well in the resource-management of Aspects and Fate points).
This concept (a game that can simultaneously and consistently let all three player styles get their personal kicks) is what the Forge folks call the “El Dorado” game: it’s not supposed to exist. I’m not sure Fate is it, but I think it comes a lot closer than most.