On Fate and GMing

So I kind of gave up on about halfway through August because the questions weren't that interesting for the second half. That's on me.

Anyway, it's a fun exercise in concept. Inspired (I guess?) by that list, someone came up with an extremely tongue in cheek (I hope) list of questions for September.

Which I also pretty much ignored, because they're mostly joke questions that would require me reliving moments of severe personal head-up-assedness, circa 2009.

However, today's question prompted some pretty thoughtful and useful posts from folks I see on Google+, so I thought I'd take a break from filling up their comment threads and post my own tangential navel-gazing, since it's something I've been meaning to write about for awhile.

The question:

How many friendships have you terminated because they confessed they kind of like to play Fate games sometimes? It’s okay. Fate players have to hear the truth.

Obviously the serious answer to the silly question is "none." Let's have that said.

With that out of the way, I want to post a different-but-related question, phrased (tellingly) as a PtbA-style Hard Move:

"You've spent several hundred dollars on the Fate kickstarters and Fate-powered settings and scenarios, run several fairly long Fate or FAE-powered campaigns, hacked and rehacked the system, designed custom Roll20 FAE character sheets and submitted them through github, and currently run a (theoretically) weekly FAE game, which your players enjoy… but you've come to the realization that you don't actually like running Fate very much. What do you do?"

Yeah. What do you do?

+Eloy Cintron got me thinking about this today, when he wrote "I don't like how it feels in play."


I like expressing stuff in Fate terms, but the further I go (and I have run three or four fairly long Fate and/or FAE things since Core came out, including hours and hours of play with my daughter), the less satisfying I find it in play.

Most of it boils down to: No surprises from the conflict system.

Let me break that down.

There's a conflict, dice hit the table… but really, there's not much point, because the results are almost entirely in the hands of the players. That's what I mean when I say no surprises.

Between capitalizing on Created Advantages, invoking preexisting aspects with fate points, and bringing applicable stunts in, almost any individual roll can be turned into a success. And just given compels as a means to refresh Fate Points (I actually do a Fate Point refresh every … five or six sessions, if that), Fate points are almost never a problem, especially since there's reasonably good odds on any specific roll that you won't need to invoke an aspect to get a success.

But don't read that and think I have a problem with player success. That's not it.

It's that Failure, Success, or (that Rarest of Rare birds) success at cost, are all just decisions the player makes, not a result they get and have to adapt to.

See, I'm a big, BIG fan of creativity within constraints, and for me one of the richest veins for that kind of thing comes in a conflict system that you can't strongly influence to 'force' the result you expect.

(See PtbA stuff, basically. That's my sweet spot. You can get it in lots of games, but I especially like PtbA for the largely unmined vein of Mixed Success it sets up in its dice mechanic.)

Put another way, I like getting results that make us introduce something new. I love "Yes, but…" results, because everything after that is something we weren't expecting.

I've got a great group of players in my current game, and they know my love of Mixed Success, but it's Fate, so… even if they blow the roll and I say "don't worry about invoking aspects yet, what about we go with a mixed success?" Even with great players, the inevitable (and fair! given the game system) question is: "Okay maybe… but what's the 'mixed' part going to be?" And we talk through it.

So… yeah. That. No surprises in the conflicts. Lots of resource use and/or negotiation to get to a known result.

Now, I know I can make Fate harder, to give the players less of that control. I know that. I've played a lot of Fate – I've hacked it down to the bone and built new flesh on the skeleton, more than once. I get how the pieces go together.

And I'll freely admit I don't push as hard as I can by using GM Fate points (which +Bill Garrett has called me on). But I know why I'm bad it: it feels adversarial in an unfun way (I'm FINE with adversarial in fun ways).

Boardgame Example: I like challenging games (I'm playing a Pandemic Legacy campaign right now, we're in September and seriously FUCK the C0DA virus); I don't mind losing because something is challenging, but I have less fun if I'm playing a game where the dial for "challenge" is controlled by "how much I (or someone else) voluntarily chooses to directly fuck with the other players at the table by making their stuff harder" – I'm looking at you, Settlers of Catan.

You pulled the short straw and have to be the Bad Guy in Betrayal at the House on the Hill or whatever? That's cool. You're cock-blocking someone's attempt to get Longest Road, just because? Much less fun. That's kind of what "pouring on GM Fate points" or "start everyone with no fate points and 0 refresh" feels like.

I mean, there's a point at which you've tweaked that dial so much you need to warn people they won't really be playing the game system they signed up for, exactly.

Does that mean Fate's a bad game? Nope.

Does it mean I wouldn't play it? No.

Does it mean I won't GM it? No, although I think I'm going to do some sunset planning for the system, in IT-speak.

Does it mean it's a game that doesn't especially suit my GMing style? Yeah, pretty much.

And that sucks a little, because as I mentioned I've got a LOT of Fate stuff on my shelves, and like… 25 sets of dice… and players who really like the game – some of whom I'm pretty sure would not especially enjoy 7-9 "it's a mixed success and you just need to deal with it" results in Powered by the Apocalypse games (which may be my favorite game thing ever).

Anyway. Something I've been turning over for awhile; glad to have it out of my head.


  1. Thanks for that, I think you have helped me understand part of my own slow fade from loving Fate. Maybe even helped me sort out a potential solution. I actually just possted a related post about how Fate feels.

    What do you think of this +Ryan M. Danks and +Benjamin Feehan ?

  2. The other thread is pretty noisy, so I'll reply to this idea here. Hopefully this is useful, or at least interesting.

    1. Games are there for you to have fun with. If it's not fun, don't do it. Nothing else on this list matters, it's just elaboration. It's okay to not do the things you don't like doing.

    2. Don't fall victim to the sunk-cost fallacy. Having a bunch of Fate shit on your shelves doesn't obligate you to run it, any more than me having a bunch of D&D or White Wolf stuff obliges me to run that. It was fun, for a long time, to play Exalted. Now I don't do that any more.

    3. That said, those books are still useful for my current gaming interests. GURPS worldbooks in particular are flat-out amazing for the detail and fodder for general gaming they provide. I'll probably never play or run Anima: Beyond Fantasy, but the artwork is inspirational. You could run "The Secret of Cats" in Simple World if you wanted. All this stuff is still in your head, giving you a vocabulary for articulating your ideas about the fictional worlds we work with.

    4. All that said, the game won't work if the game isn't played the way it's meant to work. GM fate points per session are a thing, and if you don't use them, then yeah, people will have an easy time getting through conflicts. There's ways to accomplish the same mechanical goal without feeling adversarial, probably. You don't have to spend the time searching Fate's possibility space for them if you would rather run/play something else, but I'm sure they exist.

    I can tell you what works for me as far as conflict and partial success, if that would be helpful in crystallizing your own goals. I've given this a lot of thought, and two games (one published, one not) have come out of that thinking.

  3. All good points, Bill. Especially 2. And I really do enjoy the Fate World sourcebooks that come out, if only for the ideas. Nest is a delicious campaign concept, for example.

    … and I have a class to teach in a few hours that I need to prep for, so … yeah. I'll need to table this and come back to it.

  4. I feel this. FATE was my entry point to RPG's in general and where my 10+ year supers RPG started. But yes. The inability to be surprised if you don't want to, the ability to overtly game the system in the name of "story-telling" kind of broke it for me. To me the best story telling in RPG's is when players are forced to ask themselves, "Well…what now?" and face the consequences of their own actions. Obviously, this is completely possible in FATE, but it's also a lot easier to avoid in FATE and culturally we hate failure and have built entire super structures of commerce and society to avoid consequences of poor decisions. Being forced to face these things under adverse circumstances is how heroes are made.

  5. I spent $200 on Edge of…Star Wars and $150 on D&D5e, and I've played both once. I feel a little sucky about that, wasteful, but I learned a lot through reading them, and have found use of some mechanics from each in more recent designs.

    7-9 results are great technology, but I can understand the feeling that it feels like my success was "stolen," though that's also an incomplete understanding of what is actually a success in that system (10+). It might be better to describe it as "I describe what the bad guy wants and ask you for an action. If you roll a 6-, the bad guy gets what he wants and you don't. 7-9, you both get what you want. 10+, you get what you want and the bad guy doesn't." Even though that's not really how the game is played at the table, it could help to ease a player into it.

    That said, one way to design something that could work for such a character is the ability to spend resources to buy off bad guy success. 7-9 gives the bad guy something, but you can spend a resource to only get what you want. And a 6-, becomes a 7-9. Essentially, resources allow you to upgrade the level of success.

  6. Or maybe you play with a pass/fail (failure = hard move by the GM) but you can spend a resource to get a partial success.

  7. Really strong criticism.

    As I've been saying elsewhere, so far, Atomic Robo is my favourite implementation of Fate, and I'm getting closer to really understanding why that is by reading other people's criticism.

    Where AR brings "surprises" back in is through the Brainstorm system. Sure, players get to choose what elements come out of the Brainstorm and become Aspects, but because of the dice element and the fact that the players are all contributing their own weirdest ideas, the strange gestalts that come out of a Brainstorm are often very different than what would have been expected by looking at their "ingredients".

    None of that invalidates any of your issues, it's just a realization that I might not have had without your comments.

  8. I love brainstorm, +Adam D (Moose Court) – it's definitely Atomic Robo's killer app.

    +Ryan M. Danks – yeah, but at the point where you can buy off/away from mixed success, I think we're just back to the problems I run into in Fate.

    Also: often 7-9 doesn't have to be about what the bad guy wants, but introducing some or different challenge to the scene.

    I mean, I love a good solid no holds barred success as much as the next guy, but honestly I think 7-9 can be a better result for the game session, because it's potentially "Success, plus things get more interesting!"

    That said, I don't want to get into a Fate vs. PtbA rabbit hole. That's sort of to the side.

    I mean, The Mountain Witch has mixed success as a huge portion of it's resolution mechanic, and did it years and years ago. It's one of the reasons I like the game, though not the main one.

    I don't even mind having resources to alter outcomes. I just like them more finite. 🙂

  9. I've told friends before that Fate feels kind of hollow for me, especially when mechanics are talked about explicitly – and I didn't realise it before, but this might be a huge part of it. Everything is discussed it doesn't just happen. I know +Erik Bernhardt is doing some REALLY cool things with Fate – I'd love to introduce you two and see what you think of the stuff he's making! You definitely seem to know fate inside and out in a way I don't – that's really neat. Maybe you'd have some insight on what he's trying to make?

  10. Yeah, and thanks.

    And I could be wrong about them. Could be they'd love it.

    Could also be I'd be better off introducing them via Monster of the Week or something else with Luck points 🙂

  11. For me, the short version is: the game, the GM, the dice, or even other players shouldn't get to invalidate the character I'm trying to play, if that character was accepted by the group. Any failure mode except that one is fine with me.

    If I come to the table and say "I'm a big strong barbarian with a huge ax", that's what's in my head and it's how I'm playing. If there's a door, I'm chopping it down. If there's an arm-wrestling competition, I'm getting into it. If there's a need for mighty thews, I have 'em.

    If my Mighty Thews can't Bend these Bars or Lift this Gate, tell me why. Make it an opportunity for the wizard's spell of unlocking. Show us the ancient metal used to construct the bars, and let the Dwarf's metalsmithing figure out a solution. But don't tell me that Mighty Thews just crapped out because I rolled a 1. I don't need Mighty Thews to guarantee success, I just need the game to acknowledge them.

    That requires trust between player and GM (or MC, or facilitator, or most knowledgeable player, or whatever – in my experience, someone at the table is always dominant, we may as well call them GM), and to an extent between player and other players. The rules can help build up that trust, or undermine it, by establishing a mindset for how to think about "failure" or "success".

  12. +Doyce Testerman, I'm right there with you. When FATE started development, I was a huge Fudge fan. I watched and was very impressed with the production values and so forth, but I never fell in love with the game, and the times I've played FATE games, my experience was the same as yours.

    It often feels more like the players do a lot of work (e.g. invoking Aspects and so forth) to justify a success after the roll is made than the roll itself meaning something. I miss that feeling of dread, despair, or triumph that comes with seeing the roll when it actually means something.

    I also want more character change, rather than static character concepts. (FATE tends to reward you for being the same person, over and over again, rather than challenging you to be someone else.)

    So, in short, I'm nodding along; you're certainly not alone.

  13. Actually, Fate plays better when you play to find out at what cost you get that success, not if you get it.
    And how.
    That's why it points so much on players spending resources to overcome obstacles and get what is at stake.
    Character change, if not that much mechanically fitting, is there: you Can change aspects, skills ot stunts each session or so.

    Don't want to fight you into liking Fate, mind: it might not be your taste, that's fine!
    Just my two cents on what to search in Fate if you want to approach its best.

  14. I'm pretty proud of the optional rules we created for miniatures combat in War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus. Did you try them?

  15. I find it hard to disagree with anything you say here, in terms of game results being driven by player / GM interaction, regardless of the rolls. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing (heck, some of my favorite gaming was ADRPG), but maybe doesn't provide quite the desired structure, sense of adversity, etc. The system feels superfluous, even modified as we're currently playing it. The game's been a lot of fun, but not because of the system.

    Now to read some of the comments.

  16. +Paul Taliesin "FATE tends to reward you for being the same person, over and over again, rather than challenging you to be someone else." Yes. That's realistic (we tend to go with what we know in real life), and can be tackled by providing a variety of conflicts that get in the way of exercising that high Aspect all the time (but, then, isn't that frustrating for the person who has invested in that high Aspect?).

  17. I like the character creation ideas in Fate quite a lot, and in that sense the pregame is possibly more fun than the actual game. Especially for the convention one shots that Spirit of the Century was intended to support. But I find the resolution system to be very unsatisfying, especially with regard to consequences, even if one manages to get the Fate Point economy flowing appropriately.

    I still scavenge lots of interesting stuff out of most of the associated game books though.

  18. +Dave Hill Yeah. Superfluous. I don't want that.

    I mean, if I'm using a system, I want it to do something – to have something to "say" – to influence the game. I feel like it should: it is the game. 🙂

    I need to think on this more. Maybe some experimentation and trial runs are called for.

  19. +Doyce Testerman Well, St Gygax knows I've followed you through a wide array of systems over the years. I am (if you will pardon the expression) game.

    (Okay, now thinking of how to structure a Star Wars game in Nobilis. "Power of the Old Republic" "Power of Youth" "Power of Freedom" "Power of Protocol" "Power of Smuggling" …)

  20. I think Fate might be more fun to play than to GM. As a player you get to kick ass and really stamp your character on the world. Which is awesome. As a GM, I think, and agree, that the lack of surprise in outcomes can be a problem. I like to be surprised by the outcomes of characters interacting with my portrayal of the game world. When I portray a game world it's fun for me to see how the characters affect and change it. But that gets tiresome after a while because I want the world to feel alive, and that means the game world should affect the characters equally. That doesn't seem to happen so much in my Fate games.

  21. To clarify my earlier comments:

    1. You roll to see how much success costs you, not whether you succeed.

    This is totally fine, and lots of great games (and great fiction!) work this way.

    However, in FATE the "how much will it cost you?" is primarily a mechanical question. ("Ok, I'll invoke these Aspects and I'll spend X many points.")

    I prefer when "how much will is cost me?" is a fictional question, rather than a mechanical one. For instance, in my game "Thus began the adventures of Eowyn…", you can spend points to reroll a die. However, even that risks triggering a danger, so you know that, for example, you can try again BUT it means your friend might get shot.

    This is just personal taste! Clearly some people really love the whole invoking-spending game and love the feeling of being good at it.

    2. +Dan Hall says: "As a player you get to kick ass and really stamp your character on the world. Which is awesome."

    It certainly is awesome! FATE is all about celebrating who the characters are. We watch the characters being awesome in their iconic ways!

    Again, personal preference. I prefer games where I get to discover who my character is, or games where my character is challenged. I like being surprised rather than having my character concept reinforced.

    FATE does its thing VERY well. I just have different preferences.

  22. This is the thing. If fate works off how much it costs you to succeed, it measures that cost in fate points and not fiction. I think that's a bit of a shame, personaly (ymmv, different tastes, etc). But I think fictional success at a cost is the missing ingredient, and you can't really add it to fate without changing the games main mechanic (fate points). I've often wondered how fate would go with no fate points but a larger pool of consequences to be used for adjusting rolls. Or maybe just accepting some kind of temporary negative aspect to get a fate point like bonus.

  23. Great idea, +Dan Hall?. Put yourself in a spot for a +2 on the roll, and maybe take a consequence for a +4?

    I could see one exchange playing out like a kung-fu fight scene, with each combatant taking turns saying what they'll allow to happen to them to prevent losing the roll. But then, what does losing mean?

    I think this would only work if you give aspects ranks to roll instead of skills. Otherwise, you have to toss the aspects because no fate points.

  24. Came across this little gem today, which I think is relatable to our discussion about Fate:

    In a podcast, Ken Levine once said, “Insulting, attacking, or upsetting the player is the goal,” and it’s a counter-intuitive truth. If you want players to sympathize with the characters they control, you have to make that character’s pain tangible. In other words, you have to make us [players] miserable.

    I think that Fate, with the amount of control it gives to players, removes the element of "system making players miserable because they lost the roll."

  25. It is. Now I'm going back through all of my designs to see if I'm making the player miserable enough with my damage mechanics.

    I think the hard part is finding a balance between miserable and death spiral.

  26. That's one of the better stressless systems I've seen.

    Having players be the ones who invoke the consequence against them would make them feel it, for sure. I would put a stipulation that until it's marked for recovery it gains an invocation every scene, and when you invoke it, you must use all of the invocations on it in one go. That would create a ticking clock of tension for the player. Invoke it every scene or suffer the…consequences.

    The permanent bit feels like a death spiral because it uses up one of your slots. Maybe have them rewrite another aspect to represent the change to their character? Coupled with a system that changes how aspects are changed at milestones (must reflect something you've been through?) that could be a unique implementation of Fate.

  27. Yeh, thats exactly the idea. An aspect changes to reflect what the character has been through. It shouldn't necessarily be negative, just inspired by the events leading to it.

  28. I think that Fate isn't just "about Fate Points".
    Spending them, you give up yourself to compels, which are fictional drivers.

    On character changing, I know it's not so strong mechanically, but you can change after each session. If you feel not to, it might mean that the session wasn't that important for you character.
    And its alright.
    You have (as a group) to push it a little more, and make those minor milestones matter, if you want to see your character change.

    On how much it speaks about who the characters are, the GM should hit you hard to make you choose if you are eager to spend that fp to get what you wanted. That's where it speaks about who your character is. Make that "what you wanted" important and strong.

    Also, the GM should (by the rules) create che scenario asking questions she wants to be aswered in game.
    Make those questions (together with the PC Aspects) be important for the kind of game you want, they can be as generic as "Will PC A help deposing the Tyrant?" or as stong as "Will PC A, who has the aspect being raped in childhood give up to rage when he sees someone else (or himself) seemingly threatened"?

    Fate is more of a toolkit than most other sistems, so it has no teeth by itself. You have to give it teeth with a proper setup and a proper GMing.

    Still, I see more focused systems being more suited to engage the particular theme(s) they focus upon, with less work (that can also go wrong) by the group, so I can understand all of your concerns.

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