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Game Design Musing Table Top

Fate Core and Fate Accelerated Pseudo-review

So, a few days ago, a conversation I was having on g+ crossposted to this blog. That wasn’t intentional, but I let it stand, because it brought a few more people into the conversation and (also important) let me check out how well the google+blog integration for wordpress was actually working.

Anyway, the conversation/question was about how to handle Mind Control in FATE, and one of the comments here on the blog was kind of important:

“What is this ‘FATE’ of which you speak?”

I Have Been Remiss

What with one thing and another, I haven’t been able to play a lot of tabletop RPGs for the last… umm… lifetime of my youngest child. That doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to (or kickingstarting) new games coming out, but I haven’t really been talking about them much, because I’m not playing them, and I feel playing a game is sort of important when determining if it’s worth recommending. “Dungeon World is an interesting game to read” isn’t exactly a value-add for the global conversation.

But FATE is different. I’ve been playing FATE (a little) and more to the point I’ve been playing with FATE (a lot) in terms of really digging into the rules and seeing what I can do with them. I thought I’d share what I’ve found so far.

FATE?

Once upon a time, there was a game called FUDGE, which was really more of a free toolkit of basic rules mechanics, a guideline on how to add color and setting flavor to those rules, and a very energetic group of folks on a mailing and IRC list, playing with the tools in the box.

Much later, Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue (both guys I knew through the online Amber DRPG community) came up with FATE, which was basically the first publicly distributed version of of a FUDGE hack they’d been working on and running games with for a long while — I think of this public, Open Gaming License version of the game as Fate 2.0 (with Fate 1.0 being the private version), though I don’t know if that’s accurate. I did a lot of gaming stuff with that version of FATE, as did Dave Hill (specifically with the espionage game he was running at the time). I enjoyed it a lot, though it certainly had it’s rough edges.

The game continued to develop, and while a “Fate 3.0” never really saw the light of day officially, more advanced versions of FATE continued to be released as parts of new ‘branded’ games. This ‘era’ saw the release of Spirit of the Century, which focused on pulp-era heroics and was a big one that I played and ran a lot. Thanks to the way Fred and Rob (and now Lenny Balsera) distributed and supported the rules, lots of other game designers got in on the fun and wrote their own games with the FATE rules. Diaspora — ‘hard’ science sci-fi — was one that I also played and enjoyed. The big score for FATE during this period was probably the massive Dresden Files RPG, which showed some real growth and evolution in the way the game’s developers were using the game.

Things went a bit quiet for a bit, which is usually a sign that there’s something going on behind the scenes. The result of that period of relative silence was FATE Core, and the FATE Core Kickstarter.

Simply put, Fate Core is the best version of Fate we can possibly make, built upon over a decade of play and design experience by Evil Hat, and with the Fate player community at large, taking the best lessons from all of gaming and distilling them into a cohesive, compelling whole.

The FATE Core kickstarter started out with a modest goal of $3000 to release a PDF of the new game version. Instead, the project attracted over ten thousand backers and over 425 thousand dollars, and the stretch goals took the project from a single new PDF of the rule book out to Hardback rulebooks, new games, a ‘ultra-lean’ Fate Accelerated Edition that takes Fate Core and boils it down to 42 pages, more new games, dozens of settings and worlds worked out for the rules system, a young adult novel written by Carrie Harris… it’s crazy. Just crazy.

But What’s the Game Like?

The PDFs for FATE Core and Fate Accelerated are both out now for a “pay what you like” download. I’ve had a chance to mess with them for months as well, so let me see if I can sum it up.

This is a game that is intended to let the narrative drive the rules and not the other way around. This is a fancy way to say “figure out what you want to do, say what you want to do, and how to do that in rules will be obvious — don’t start with the rules, start with the story.” It demands characters that are proactive, and assumes those characters are competent.

The game uses classic Fate dice, specifically four. These are standard six-siders, with two sides are marked with a +, two sides with a -, and two sides blank. They are read by adding up the results, so ++[blank] – = +1, which is then added to your rating in a relevant skill, which are rated from 0 to 4 by default (though this range can be extended).

Most importantly, the game uses descriptive Aspects to represent important… umm… aspects of everything in the game, from characters, to scenes, to entire campaign settings. These Aspects are used to justify influencing the story or dice results; for instance, by providing bonuses to die rolls, allowing reroll of bad rolls, creating (or simply permitting) special effects, or being used as a justification for an action. Aspects are double-sided things, and can be used for or against anyone, regardless of where they originated.

In FATE, you can treat anything in the game like it’s a Character.

What’s that mean? Let’s say you’re playing a Game of Thrones-inspired game. Here’s your setting:

The Seven Kingdoms

Aspects (as of A Feast for Crows)

  • Under the Thumb of the Bitch Queen
  • Sparrows are Everywhere
  • Winter is Coming

Maybe you’re up near the Twins in the Riverlands, which is currently in turmoil for a number of different reasons. In Addition to the aspects on the whole of Westeros, this area also has:

The Riverlands

  • Guest Rights don’t mean as much as they used to
  • The Night is Dark, and Full of Terrors

All of these aspect are those the players can use to boost their actions or justify pretty much anything, and that’s ignoring the Aspects the characters themselves have. When you’re playing someone trying to negotiate the peaceful surrender of a castle under siege, both sides of the conflict might consider calling up bonuses from any of these before they ever mention their own traits (like “Kingslayer” or “Too Old to Care About Anything But a Good Death”).

More importantly, since everything in the game can be treated like a character, and Aspects on characters can be changed, you have legitimate (if not at all easy) ways to get rid of the Queen — hopefully the replacement will be better.

Mechanics

For those who have played other version of FATE in the past, I’ll simply say that the mechanics for conflicts are more streamlined than ever before. Forget about complicated ‘zone maps’ with ‘borders and barriers’ and all of that stuff. Forget about Block actions. The authors have taken a hard, hard look at the rules and realized that in many cases they were just using different names and applying minute edge-case rules to a bunch of stuff that was really all the same thing. Conflict, for example, has been boiled down to four clear, straightforward actions without costing you anything in the way of flexibility or options – you’re less restricted than you may have been in older versions of the game, because you don’t have to remember all the different options: it’s so much simpler now — figure out what you want to do first, in the story, and the rules will follow. Fate Core is excellent.

And, if anything, Fate Accelerated is even better.

FAE?

As good as Fate Core is, it’s still a 300 page rule book. Fate Accelerated is 42 pages, and manages to be both satisfying in terms of the character depth is provides (sacrificing none of the nuances of Aspects in the pared-down rules), and quite possibly the best set of pick-up-and-play rules around, which is awesome for someone with limited time.

The big difference between FAE and Fate Core is the skill list: FAE doesn’t have one. Instead, characters rate Approaches (reminds me a bit of In a Wicked Age, which would be a great FAE Hack). Once Kaylee gets back from Grandparent Camp, she and I (and maybe Katherine, if Kaylee can convince her) are going to take this out for a spin.

So far, I’ve worked out characters in FAE ranging from Marvel superheroes to Doctor Who companions, and read some wonderful examples of characters ranging from Star Wars to Warhammer40k Space Marines — maybe the only version of WH40k I’ve read that I’ve wanted to play since Space Hulk.

Bottom lines

There’s too much for me to write about in this game. From the fact that you do campaign creation during character creation, to the chapters of GM advice that make the PDF worth paying for by themselves, I feel there’s something for everyone, and I’m sure I’ll be writing about it some more (if nothing else than just to share the Doctor Who write-ups I’ve done). If you want a comprehensive review, try this one or, for FAE, this one. I think it’s a great game, and for a couple bucks (or even free, if you’re particular cynical/suspicious/doubtful) you can’t beat the cost of checking it out for yourself.

Categories
Game Design Musing Table Top

My thoughts on the Mouse Guard RPG

I’m very excited about the first play session of our new Primetime Adventures game this Wednesday, and while I’m putting a lot of mental effort into it, another game is on my radar, and I really had to share.

There are a few games that I think of as the touchstones in independently published roleplaying ‘story’ games. Sorcerer. Inspectres. Dogs in the Vineyard. Primetime Adventures. The Shadow of Yesterday. The Burning Wheel. My heart wants to add Spirit of the Century to the list, or Don’t Rest Your Head, but while they’re some of my favorite games, they also came along later, and they were built with a somewhat different priority in mind than that first list.

Those who know my gaming habits know that I’ve played or run (or both) most of the games on that list — usually a number of times (usually not as much as I’d have liked) — with good reason. Each one brings something special to the table that either isn’t available elsewhere, or which became an element copied numerous times in other games. They’re seminal, as well as being fun.

The one exception on that list  of seminal, inventive games is The Burning Wheel — I’ve never played Burning Wheel.

Now, that isn’t to say I didn’t OWN the game — I had the very first edition of the game, hand-numbered, in pencil, with a little thank-you note from Luke Crane.

But play it? No, I did not.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good game – many many people will say a great game – but it’s very very crunchy.

And I don’t mean it’s “Crunchy for a Story Game,” the way Agon is; I mean it makes games like DnD, Warhammer, and GURPS look like diceless freeform.

Those other games reward players with better ‘performance’ once the players have achieved a degree of system familiarity. Burning Wheel goes a bit other other direction: it punishes the absence of system familiarity – it is through system knowledge that one achieves nominal – rather than exceptional – performance from one’s character.

At the time that I got Burning Wheel, I was already doing a very long-running DnD game, and frankly I didn’t *want* to run another crunchy, high-GM-prep system; I just didn’t feel as though people wanted to dive in and learn a whole new system with that much detail. Hell, *I* didn’t; the game sat on my shelves for several years – skimmed, but unread. If it came up in conversation, I mentioned that I really wanted to play the game with some people that understood it before I tried to run it myself. In the meantime, I ran other games — with DnD handling our/my need for crunchy tactical games, our indie gaming was taken up with other things — with limited gaming time and ever-shrinking schedules, the folks I play with are just more likely to choose games with a lower level of required investment than BW.

But I never quite abandoned my interest in the game. Everything I heard about the game sounded – to my tactical-loving side – quite cool, and the raves and praise heaped on the “Story” elements of the game (character Beliefs, Instincts, Traits, and Goals) were just as effusive. When the Revised version of the game came out, I picked it up; when Burning Empires came out, I read and re-read information on the game and its setting. But it was still a game that took too much time to learn, too much time to prep.

Then came Mouse Guard.

mouse_guard_rpg_cover

Mouse Guard is a roleplaying game where players assume the role of the titular Guard from the comic books by David Petersen: bipedal, intelligent mice who protect their communities from a variety of threats in a semi-medieval setting. There is no magic in the setting, nor are there any humans; the threats to those precarious communities are the seasons, the weather, the wild animals, and (sadly) the very mice the Guard are sworn to protect. Their goal is simple: to keep the roads open within the Territories – to keep from becoming prisoners in their own cities – mice in gilded cages, if you like.

To me, the idea that the creators behind Mouse Guard (who were also RP gamers of a more classic sort) wanted to have an RPG for their product didn’t surprise me – nor did the fact that they wanted a more story-driven game. What surprised me was that they were going to get the Burning Wheel crew to do the game. What surprised me the most was what I started to hear about the Mouse Guard RPG:

  • A streamlined version of the game. The sparest, most elegant iteration of the rules, to date.
  • Accessible to new players – not just new-to-BW, but new to Roleplaying.
  • Still a true and excellent representation of the Good Things That Are Burning Wheel.
  • Strong player-centered focus of play that’s built directly into the rules in numerous ways.
  • Lots of situation-generating hooks built right into the characters, making running the game easy.
  • Several procedural innovations that make elements of play that are problematic in other games (high crunch = high prep time) very fast and easy.
  • There are already a number of ‘hacks’ to port the game to settings that I find very interesting. (Such as “Realm Guard”, which involves playing Dunedain in the 4th Age of Middle Earth. Mmmm good.)

Also, it didn’t hurt that the book itself — 8″x8″, hardbound, 300+ pages, but with a ruleset that can be completely summarized on the backside of the official character sheet, and thus chock full of setting material, advice, and artwork rather than charts — is f’in gorgeous.

So I got it.

I read it. Cover to cover, like a good book. I annoyed Kate by reading sections out loud, explaining rules she didn’t care about, and recounting examples from the source material she’d never read. Hell, I’m still doing it.

Here are some of my thoughts.

Rewards

In short:

  • The player defines the character via their Beliefs, Goals, Instincts, and Traits, and it is ONLY through bringing those elements to light during roleplay, in the game, that you are rewarded with Fate and Persona points (which probably do pretty much what you expect).
  • Skills improve through active use. Period. Through play. Period.

The Mechanics of Success and Failure

Basic tests in Mouse Guard are simple RPG fare: either unopposed or “versus” checks – in either case, the player needs X number of successes to achieve Unmitigated success. Your skills are numerically rated (usually from 1 to 6), and when tested, you roll a number of d6s equal to the skill rating, count those rolling 4 or higher as successes and discarding the “cowards” that came up 3 or less. If you’ve played Shadowrun or Vampire, you’ll recognize this.

The innovation here is that there is no failure result in the game. What’s that? A crunchy-tactical game where you can’t lose?

Kinda. If you fail to get success outright, success is achieved at the cost of “Conditions” or a “Twist.” With conditions, you win, but you acquire (or more) conditions, such as Tired, Sick, Hungry, Angry, Injured, and so forth.

So you can save your wounded companion, even if you blew the roll, but now you’re Tired.

You can escape from the Owl, but you’re Injured… and Hungry… and Tired. Ouch.

Sometimes, you're not trying to escape...
Sometimes, you're not trying to escape...

Twists work similarly, but instead of taking a condition, your conflict is interrupted by (or leads to) a twist that takes the story in a new direction… and which very likely leads to ANOTHER conflict.

In other words, that bedrock concept of Indie Gaming GMing – “Failure should make things more interesting.” – is hardwired into the game.

Scripting

Scripting is a core concept of extended Burning Wheel conflicts — the “big” conflicts in BW use this kind of conflict, where opposing sides pick a short series of actions without knowing what the other side is going to do — potentially leaving themselves wide open at the worst possible moment, or tactically outguessing the other side at the perfect time.

I love the concept of scripting – it has that kind of immersive realism I sometimes enjoy – but in practice, I know the BW implementation leaves some people cold.

In Mouse Guard, the scripting is a far more streamlined version of the basic BW scripting… simpler, but with powerful choices — perhaps the best implementationof the mechanic. Far from being just a guessing game, you have to weigh which actions your character is good at, which your partners are good at, which your “weapons” are helpful for (scripting works in any kind of conflict, from weapons to survival to chases to oration debates), compare each of them to the actions the opponent might do taking into account what he and his weapons are good at… and then realize your opponent is doing all that too, at which point it becomes very much like a strategic board game mechanic, in terms of the mental gymnastics required to use limited information to outwit the other guy.

And, like the basic skill tests, Failure and Success has many many shades — it’s only by utterly defeating your opponent without letting them get a paw on you that you get exactly what you wanted, exactly how you wanted it.

Even if he wins, things will probably not go perfectly.
Even if he wins, things will probably not go perfectly.

Teamwork
Teamwork is vital. That’s one of the fundamentals of this game. You are little mice in a great big world, and quite frankly you will be ultimately unable to complete your missions if you don’t work together – eventually, even with the skill system having “outs” for failed rolls, you’ll hit a Full Conflict with scripting that simply blows you away, with no way out but death. The prey are bigger than you (hell, the herbivores are bigger than you, and they’re eating all the food!) the seasons are bigger than you, the weather is bigger than you… you need to help each other.

mouseguard-patrol

“Call it what you like, but I’m still failing”
Now yes: failure isn’t “failure” in Mouse Guard, but it stings to play a game and lose the first conflict – maybe the first several – but the way the game is set up, all that means is that a new, unexpected situation crops up. (And in other way, reminiscent of With Great Power, such struggles feed you the resources you need to Kick Ass later.)

There are a lot of games out there that are basically mission completion games. The point of those games is to use your resources well in order to successfully complete a mission. In those games failing the mission is failing; it isn’t game-destroying, but it is a failure. You had a chance to step on up, and you didn’t step, as it were.

Mouse Guard looks a lot like a mission-completion games. Mouse Guard feels a lot like a mission-completion game. But I don’t think Mouse Guard actually is a mission-completion game.
Mouse Guard is a game where you tell a story about heroes who go on a mission (little heroes, but still). That’s a close thing, but its also a sharp and important divide.

One of the most excellent things about that difference is that it might teach everyone at the table to let go a little bit and try something heroic rather than spend ten minutes figuring out a safer plan.

To act, rather than deliberate.
To act, rather than deliberate.

Conclusion
I don’t care if it’s mice (though I like the other settings people are porting the system into) — the simple fact of the matter is that I think this is one of the best tactical, crunchy, story-driven games out there — maybe the only one that’s all three.

I can’t wait to play.