Tuesday, 1 April 2014

FATE Core reading review

After my earlier encounter with FATE Accelerated Edition at Arthur's behest, I retained enough enthusiasm for the system to buy the FATE Core book. So here's a bit of a review.


FATE Core is exactly that, a set of mechanics and advice for running FATE games. What it isn’t is a game in itself; there is no default setting, pregen characters or list of NPCs. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. As a book of primarily mechanics, it can feel quite dense for its size, even though the mechanics being described are relatively simple and don’t bog down into lists and numbers that need memorising.

FATE works differently enough from other RPGs I’ve tried that I had to read quite a long way through the book before I felt like I had a reasonable grip on the core of the game, which are the interaction between Aspects, actions and the flow of the game, and the FATE Point economy that sees players selling trouble and complication for bonuses to call in later. I still need to reread it to get a better handle on things, but for now I’m reasonably happy.

Something this book does well is examples. This is a stark contrast to the FAE, which does provide examples but not in a very coherent way. With FAE, I felt like each example was disconnected both from every other example and from the actual mechanics they were illustrating. To quote myself:

I’m sure that it would have been much easier to get my head around character generation if they had, y’know, actually generated a character: start with a High Concept, add Aspects and Stunts, and carry them through to a finished playable character who could be used in rule examples.

And that's what FATE Core does. Here, the examples are a strong thread that runs throughout the book from start to finish, with three characters being first created (alongside designing their campaign world), then brought up repeatedly whenever a point needs illustrating. This allows you to not only see what a character might look like, but the in-play implications of those decisions. They have also wrapped these in a game context, so that the thought process of both players and GM is explained, helping you understand why particular decisions are made, and therefore get a better grasp on the rule system. Moreover, there's as much attention paid to the narrative side of the characters as their mechanics, which makes it easy to see how character concepts and roleplaying decisions would tie in with the crunch.

All of our rules examples in this book refer to the same example game and setting. The name is Hearts of Steel, a tongue-in-cheek fantasy romp about a group of troubleshooters for hire. They traipse about the countryside and get into trouble at the behest of the various petty kings and fief lords who hire them ... Check out Game creation to see how this game came about. We’ve included character sheets for the example PCs at the end of the book.

Aspects are central to FATE, and this book does a much better job than the FAE at explaining them, in particular in highlighting how to build a good aspect, and showing that through examples throughout the book. There are specific examples of bad or weak aspects, and why they're bad. Let's compare and contrast FAE and FATE Core for a minute.


This is a single phrase or sentence that neatly sums up your character, saying who you are, what you do, what your “deal” is.

Suggested High Concepts

  • Feline Captain of Cirrus Skimmer
  • Suncaller of the Andral Desert
  • Chief Field Agent of IGEMA


Your high concept is a phrase that sums up what your character is about—who he is and what he does. It’s an aspect, one of the first and most important ones for your character. Think of this aspect like your job, your role in life, or your calling—it’s what you’re good at, but it’s also a duty you have to deal with, and it’s constantly filled with problems of its own. That is to say, it comes with some good and some bad.

Suggested High Concepts

  • Despicable Regent of Riverton, Reluctant Lead Detective, Ambitious Low-level Thug.
  • Wizard Private Eye, Singing Knight of the Round Table, Monster-slaying Accountant.
  • Black Sheep of the Thompson Family, Low-level Thug for the Syndicate, Scar Triad’s Patsy in Riverton.

Two things really stand out for me here. The first is that the FAE High Concepts, as I noted at the time, do a pretty poor job of summing up your character and what you do. You need to already know what the descriptions mean before they mean anything to you.

The second is that the FAE suggestions offer very little in the way of opportunities to invoke the Aspect either for good or bad, but least of all for bad. This is a problem because you need to get your aspects invoked by the GM to earn you FATE points. An Aspect that won't get invoked is dead weight.

Here's a quick selection of FATE Core's specific discussion on Aspects.

Troubles also shouldn’t be directly related to your high concept—if you have Lead Detective, saying your trouble is The Criminal Underworld Hates Me is a dull trouble, because we already assume that with your high concept.

Lenny’s The Manners of a Goat could be used to the group’s benefit. Maybe he turns that up intentionally, to draw attention away from Lily’s character sneaking around.

Let’s look at an aspect like Computer Genius. The benefits of having this aspect are pretty obvious—any time you’re hacking or working with technology, you could justify invoking it. But it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of room for that aspect to work against you. So, let’s think of a way we can spice that up a bit. What if we change that aspect to Nerdy McNerdson? That still carries the connotations that would allow you to take advantage of it while working with computers, but it adds a downside—you’re awkward around people. This might mean that you could accept compels to mangle a social situation, or someone might invoke your aspect when a fascinating piece of equipment distracts you.

Let’s look at a simple aspect that a soldier might have: I Must Prove Myself... That’ll work for a bit, but eventually this aspect will run out of steam. It says just one thing about the character. Either you’re trying to prove yourself, or this aspect isn’t going to come up. Now tie that aspect in with a relationship to an organization: The Legion Demands I Prove Myself. Your options open up a great deal.

Let’s look at Memories, Wishes, and Regrets. There’s something evocative about the phrase. It suggests a kind of melancholy about the past. But as an aspect, I don’t really know what it’s supposed to do.

You don’t want all your aspects to describe the same kind of thing. Five relationships means that you can’t use your aspects unless one of them is in play, but five personality traits means that you have no connection to the game world.

Aspects which don’t help you tell a good story (by giving you success when you need it and by drawing you into danger and action when the story needs it) aren’t doing their job. The aspects which push you into conflict—and help you excel once you’re there—will be among your best and most-used.

Aspects need to be both useful and dangerous—allowing you to help shape the story and generating lots of FATE points—and they should never be boring. The best aspect suggests both ways to use it and ways it can complicate your situation. Aspects that cannot be used for either of those are likely to be dull indeed.

All of this information seems really helpful in guiding you to set up Aspects that are meaningful and mechanically helpful. Because Aspects are the core of the system, and because they are entirely player-generated (rather than pregenerated like PC features in many games) it's very important that players and GMs understand how to make them work well.

Character Generation

FATE Core begins with world creation, rather than chargen. This seems like a sensible step given how the game works, since without a solid game to play in, it'll be hard to create appropriate Aspects and Skills to use. You set up a genre, setting, world and some important places and characters. These help inspire the players and GM alike. The book talks a lot about the importance of character generation, and I was pleased with it. They explain that chargen is really part of the actual game, emphasise the idea that chargen should itself set up the next arc of the story, and take a firmly collaborative view of chargen.

As with game creation, character creation is best done as a group activity. Doing all of this together builds a strong foundation of communication between the players and GM, and this process has a number of ways to establish connections between the characters and the setting.

There's also some solid advice for making usable characters that can contribute to a collaborative game.

You must figure out why your character is going to keep getting involved in these more dangerous things. If you don’t, the GM is under no obligation to go out of her way to make the game work for you—she’ll be too busy with other players who made characters that have a reason to participate.

The FATE system does seem to lend itself to quite logical character generation through the straightforward Aspects system, but the FATE Core breakdown into non-mechanical types is a big help. Essentially, you're recommended to create a High Concept (who your character is), then a Trouble (something that complicates your life), then one or more Aspects based on backstory you invent with the other players. These leave you with Aspects that are likely to be quite disparate, meaning they're likely to be relevant in different situations. It's also quite a decent narrative basis for a character. Skills are fairly intuitive once those elements are in place, and Stunts arise easily from the combination of those two. I feel like this is really a pretty slick process, once you understand how the game works. However, an understanding of Aspects is absolutely crucial to it, in terms of getting a mechanically effective character, but also simply in order to understand what you're doing.

Stunts were another source of confusion in FAE. I feel like the FATE Core system is once again better. A lot of this can be put down to the substantial pagetime given to it in the whole rulebook (and again, I didn't actually read the detail sections in FAE), but even the chargen summary makes more sense. I think the main difference here is in the wording.


Because I [describe some way that you are exceptional, have a cool bit of gear, or are otherwise awesome], I get a +2 when I [pick one: Carefully, Cleverly, Flashily, Forcefully, Quickly, Sneakily] [pick one: attack defend, create advantages, overcome] when [describe a circumstance].

FATE Core refers you to the main Stunts chapter, but includes a passing example:

Lily decides to take the Warmaster stunt as one of her freebies: +2 to Fight rolls made to create an advantage against an opponent, provided the opponent has a fighting style or weakness she can exploit.

I don't know about you, or indeed a non-gamer, but for me, that's far easier to parse. It's a familiar mechanic, and the explicit use of a skill feels clearer than the pseudo-skills referenced in FAE.


Sidebars are frequent but not overwhelming. Sidebars all seem to be mainly friendly tips or overviews, rather than alternate rules. I'm pleased about that, because having a book where houserules are scattered throughout can be confusing, as well as giving a sense of inconsistency, or lack of confidence. While there are some rulebars, these typically just state that the rules given are not writ in stone, and encourage experimenation. This helps maintain the sense of a friendly, forgiving ruleset, without overwhelming the would-be GM with choices about optional rules. Some of the bars explain points that might confuse players of earlier versions, like removal of jargon (I approve) or tweaks to mechanics; there's also a quick Veterans Guide in the back listing the main changes, which seems like a good approach.

Visually, there are very strong distinctions between the main rules, the sidebars and the play examples. Headings are stark and obvious, and the text is very clear, with crisp font unmuddled by backgrounds or fiddliness. There are frequent, characterful illustrations that don't interfere with the text. This is all good stuff.

Each page features obvious page numbers, a chapter number and a margin bar that indicates its contents ("Character Creation" and so on). Between these, the obvious headers and the solid-seeming contents list and index, navigation is pretty simple. I suspect the index could probably usefully be a bit longer, but that's nearly always true.

A Cheat Sheet covers the main rules quickly and efficiently. There are page numbers for further explanation.

Something I particularly appreciate is the vast number of cross-references. These are sprayed liberally through the book, usually several to a page. Generally I think it's very hard to overdo these, because rules checking can be such a drag on the game that anything to speed it up is a boon. It's also handy if the order of the rulebook happens not to quite suit you when you start reading, as you can easily flick forward to get more detail.

Nice Touches

The game does a good job of explaining their philosophy, and what games FATE is suited to, in a few simple paragraphs. They outline three points, and then explain what each of these means in terms of "this is" and "this isn't"s. A couple of extracts:

The very best FATE games, however, have certain ideas in common with one another, which we think best showcase what the game is designed to do. Whether you’re talking about fantasy, science fiction, superheroes, or gritty cop shows, FATE works best when you use it to tell stories about people who are proactive, competent, and dramatic.

[from the Drama section] Any FATE game that you play should provide the potential and opportunity for drama among and between the characters, and give you a chance to relate to them as people. A game about adventurers mindlessly punching increasing numbers of bigger, badder bad guys is not FATE. A game about adventurers struggling to lead normal lives despite being destined to fight ultimate evil is.

There's no "what is roleplaying" section as such, but the game offers a very brief introduction to what you're doing that I find pretty solid. Like any game, it has its own take. FATE Core's summary is very collaborative and sounds a lot like improv theatre. This is very slightly misleading, since in practice the GM-player structure is still in there and will restrict players' narrative control somewhat, but for such a short summary, and given the way FATE works, I think it's fine.

If you’ve never played a roleplaying game before, here’s the basic idea: you and a bunch of friends get together to tell an interactive story about a group of characters you make up. You get to say what challenges and obstacles those characters face, how they respond, what they say and do, and what happens to them. It’s not all just conversation, though—sometimes you’ll use dice and the rules in this book to bring uncertainty into the story and make things more exciting.

For GMs

An extensive section on GMing includes sensible discussion of what your responsibilities are, and how they relate to the mechanics. There's some further philosophy here - FATE clearly prioritises narrative over realism, which makes sense for the mechanics they have. There are useful pointers to minimise the burden of GMing, which is a perpetual issue; here they recommend shifting it to players, getting them to make decisions about things related to their aspects, or creating their own detail when they create advantages. There's also a broad sense that information doesn't have to be concealed from players unless there's a reason - NPC secrets are concealed in the book's examples, but players have a reasonable idea of what's going on in the campaign world. I appreciate the section entitled "You're The Chairman, Not God".

The frequent examples throughout the book also weave in antagonists and NPCs, with examples of the kinds of Aspects and Skills they might have. Appropriate power levels relative to the PCs are discussed thoroughly, which I find important because even seasoned GMs may struggle to gauge that in a new game. There is thoughtful discussion of how, as longer-term games progress, the relationship between PCs and specific NPCs should change, and the distinction between static NPCs, who don't advance but show how the PCs have grown over time, and dynamic NPCs, who advance alongside them and remain relevant. An adversary who was once formidable but now presents no threat, or a mentor you have surpassed, are strong narrative devices. They also cover how to model developments in the gameworld, with PCs' Aspects changing to reflect their experiences, but also changing the Aspects of the world, organisations and NPCs around them.

Have the PCs resolved an issue in a location? Get rid of the aspect, or maybe change it to represent how the issue was resolved (In the Shadow of the Necromancer becomes Memories of Tyranny, for example).

The usual discussions of setting up scenarios, arcs and entire campaigns are there. Due to the nature of the game, there's a lot of emphasis on trying to design scenarios that tie in strongly to the PCs' Aspects, and on trying to maintain pace and drama.

Finally, there's a section on Extras - adding new features to the game using the same Aspects model that works for everything.

Personally, I can't help thinking of FATE as being basically like Python the RPG, but this may not be universally helpful.

Extras suggest ways to add in magic, superpowers, cybernetics, powerful organisations or detailed weapon rules with accompanying mechanics. The main example shows how adding a Magic extra could create new uses for skills and new ways of doing things, but there are also discussions of adding Wealth and Media extras that let you engage in financial combat for a highly political game, or adding vessels as an Extra with their own Aspects. I particularly appreciated the latter, because it stretches the range of the game and suggests options for doing things outside the action-adventure genre it favours. It's worth bearing in mind, though, that you don't necessarily need to add Extras in order to include things - you could decide to handle magic with the normal action rules, simply flavouring your actions with magic rather than might.


For what it contains, the FATE Core ruleset can seem pretty bulky. A lot of this can be put down to the illustrations, examples and sidebars that appear on virtually every page. The text is also large and clear, easy to read but taking up a bit more space than average. The examples are great, the sidebars helpful and the illustrations pretty and full of character that I'd be reluctant to lose. That being said, it would be possible to make a version half the size without much loss of content. Would it get bought? I suspect not, since prettiness is one reason to choose a hard copy over a PDF. However, a shorter version of the PDF could well be well-received, as it would make using it at the table easier. Presumably the size and illustrations also contributed significantly to the £30 cost of the books, but that's the way it is.

Another point worth bearing in mind is that, as mentioned earlier, the book contains absolutely no default setting. There are no locations, no goings-on, a handful of NPCs tied into the example game, and no monsters. This does leave things completely open for the group, but also means that unless you really want to be doing everything from scratch, you're going to be looking out for other materials. Even if you want the fun of creating your own world and setting, being able to drop in workable critters or characters that someone else has written up can be a great asset to speed up play, or simply as a source of inspiration.

Personally speaking, I've already bought a couple of PDF supplements (Worlds on Fire and Worlds in Shadow) just to try and get a better handle on the grain of the system, and what can be done with it. I'm a bit sorry that there don't seem to be any very basic FATE settings freely available to play around with - even a couple of pages would be handy for trying things out.

On the whole, though, I am very happy with the book and excited about trying it out.


  1. Sorry for the long blog-silence. Diablo III happened.

    Now that we've actually had a crack at it, I sort of think that a lot of the elements you cite as helpful in this post were less helpful in play.

    As we discussed at some length, I found the strict requirement that Aspects be clear, double-edged, evocative and varied to be a burden rather than a help. Similarly, while the examples in the book make it fairly clear what Aspects are supposed to be like, having actually tried them out in a game I'm not sure I actually agree. I don't, for example, necessarily think that "the criminal underworld hates me" is excessively overlapping with "Lead Detective", I think it embellishes on it in a useful manner. Similarly I don't really see why "the legion demands I prove myself" is better than "I must prove myself" or why "Memories, Wishes and Regrets" is strictly worse than "Scars from the War".

    Similarly I find a lot of the stuff about what does and doesn't make a good FATE (sorry "Fate") game a little bit unconvincing, because it feels to me to be indistinguishable from the "what makes a good GAME X" game sections in every RPG I have ever read. You might recall that we had a longish discussion about what the game meant by "characters who are proactive" and that it turned out it seemed to mean "characters who try to solve the problems in front of them with the resources at hand" which is more or less how PCs are supposed to act in every RPG ever written.

    Interestingly for all the play the Aspects system gets, as a player I found Skills massively more character-defining. Being a Butler Robot Turned Hired Gun gave my character a situational +2 on a dice roll if and only if I spent a limited resource to achieve it. Having "Shoot +4" gave me a +4 bonus on shooting *all the time*.

    Indeed it strikes me as a bit odd that the game makes such a big deal about having non-overlapping Aspects, but then has a skills system which more or less requires you to spend all your skill points reinforcing your High Concept.

    1. I think there’s a couple of things going on here. In practice, I share your feeling that unless a group are particularly good at devising rich multi-purpose Aspects that serve all masters, there’s a good argument for prioritising interest and usefulness in one direction, and aiming for an overall balance rather than a per-Aspect balance. It might, of course, get completely natural over time, but I’m sceptical because it strikes me as actually quite hard.
      That being said, in the context of the mechanics they outline with relatively few Aspects and the High Concept not being especially useful, having dual-use Aspects may be the only realistic way to keep the Fate Point economy going. We really didn’t make much use of them so I find it hard to tell.
      I tend to disagree with you on the other points, but it’s a matter of opinion. I think there’s a reasonable argument that being hated by the criminal underworld doesn’t offer many opportunities for invocation or compulsion that aren’t offered by very mild extrapolation of Lead Detective (and you’d need to extrapolate because as a High Concept it feels weak to me otherwise). I also get the sense that for Aspects, you really want a fairly diverse set so that it’s hard to wind up in situations where none of them are relevant.
      Similarly, I think “Memories, Wishes and Regrets” is a pants Aspect because it could be about virtually anything. You then either accept that the GM can invoke any emotional compels they choose, and the player can gain any emotional benefits they choose, or tacitly or explicitly narrow it to something more specific. In the first case, it’s so broad that I don’t feel it really says anything interesting about the character, and is quite likely to make them *less* coherent. In the second, the Aspect name becomes disconnected from the intended use and causes needless confusion, and potential for disagreement.
      Legion and non-legion is less obvious. I think the point is that by including the legion, you add in another potential source of invocations – you can now use the Aspect to do social stuff with the legion, to draw on legion resources, maybe to use the name of the legion against other people, or simply when legion characters are involved in a situation. This is an extra facet on the Aspect, whereas the non-legion version is largely limited to your own feelings. Complicating things is the narrative bit, because the legion stuff creates some plot opportunities and NPC stuff that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Of course, you could just create background fluff - although I note there's nowhere to write it.

    2. Indeed it strikes me as a bit odd that the game makes such a big deal about having non-overlapping Aspects, but then has a skills system which more or less requires you to spend all your skill points reinforcing your High Concept.

      I don’t actually find it odd. For one thing, you could have assigned skills in several different ways to create different versions of Butler Robot Turned Hired Gun – you went for the high Shoot route, but you could have been more brave and smart than skilled, or comedically bad at shooting but very persuasive, and so on. Also, I just can’t really see any other way that a skills system would work? I mean, either you have skills that reinforce your concept, or you have an incoherent character. You could presumably have a system where you didn’t *need* to assign skills to stuff related to your High Concept, but then that’s a different system whereby your High Concept is itself an ability. The distinction is that overlapping Aspects are redundant and therefore largely useless both to you and to the GM in terms of Fate Point use; Skills are entirely separate.

      Similarly I find a lot of the stuff about what does and doesn't make a good FATE (sorry "Fate") game a little bit unconvincing, because it feels to me to be indistinguishable from the "what makes a good GAME X" game sections in every RPG I have ever read. You might recall that we had a longish discussion about what the game meant by "characters who are proactive" and that it turned out it seemed to mean "characters who try to solve the problems in front of them with the resources at hand" which is more or less how PCs are supposed to act in every RPG ever written.

      I agree that it’s basically the same advice as always, but then that doesn’t make it bad – it’s just that most of this stuff applies to most RPGs. It’s still useful for beginners. Things like collaborative play are still fairly unusual outside RPGs and worth highlighting. Similarly I think setting out how much is assumed to be done by players and how much by GMs is helpful.

      Proactivity sounds kind of obvious, but there still seem to be plenty of counterexamples out there. Call of Cthulhu characters who don’t really want to investigate and expect plot to come to them are a common complaint. In our Pathfinder game, having explicitly defined the party as Fed-like troubleshooters for the powers-that-be, they were still strongly inclined to send a message and then hang around in town waiting for someone else to solve the problem. The rulebooks says: “They don’t sit around waiting for the solution to a crisis to come to them—they go out and apply their energies, taking risks and overcoming obstacles to achieve their goals.” For me, this conveys the idea of “characters go out and do something about known problems, rather than wringing their hands and waiting for someone else to do it”.

  2. I don’t actually find it odd. For one thing, you could have assigned skills in several different ways to create different versions of Butler Robot Turned Hired Gun – you went for the high Shoot route, but you could have been more brave and smart than skilled, or comedically bad at shooting but very persuasive, and so on.

    Fair point, but then I think that this highlights a bit of a problem with Aspects, in that an Aspect is supposed to be clear (which is why "Scars from the War" is apparently better than "Memories, Wishes and Regrets") but actually it's not clear whether a particular Aspect means that you're good at a particular thing or not (as you say, Butler Droid turned Hired Gun could be a crack shot or a comedically terrible shot). Which makes it unclear when it's appropriate to Invoke an Aspect in a character's favour or against them, or what's an appropriate Compel.

    As far as I can tell, Aspects are supposed to provide game mechanical reinforcement for key features of your character, but I kind of felt that skills were so much more mechanically defining than Aspects.

    I agree that it’s basically the same advice as always, but then that doesn’t make it bad

    Oh I'd agree with that, but it mildly bugged me that it seemed to be presenting me as something that was unusual about FATE. Which was particularly odd because there *are* things which are unusual about FATE, but "PCs are expected to be proactive" isn't really one of them.

    1. Yeah, considering that Aspects are the key to the system in theory, I'm starting to feel that they're really quite awkward. To some extent, I think this may be they're trying to do too many things as Aspects - honestly it makes more sense to me if the core concept of, say, Butler Droid turned Hired Gun is explicitly not an Aspect, but just an expression of your character for roleplay guidance. However, you could still end up with Aspects that can be used in contradictory ways, rather than just with both positive and negative slants.

      As usual I'm left with a sense that maybe I'm just doing it wrong. I would really love to find a usable FATE podcast by some people who are confident in the system, so I can hear how it goes when you aren't trying to work things out as you go along. Maybe there's some assumption I'm making that just isn't there, or vice versa.