Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.
Ashwolf Eagerfeathers asks:
You’ve discussed the merits of binary skill systems, such as one used in Pathfinder, and decried narrative skill systems that use degrees of success, such as Fate, if I’ve understood you properly.
I read your recent article Jumping the Screen and noted that you recommended the Fantasy Flight Star Wars system beginner boxes (Edge of the Empire, Age of Rebellion, etc). The GM instruction was superb, just as you said. Other than the instruction, what do you like about the system mechanically speaking? I guess I was surprised, probably due to ignorance on my part, that you would like and/or suggest such a system, since it would seem to take some of Fate’s Fate points and even the dice mechanic has the success/failure point to it. It also throws consequences, in the form of advantage and threats in there, potentially undermining the GM’s control over consequences. I’m sure I’ve missed some major point and want to be corrected if I’m wrong.
Another day, another e-mail without an EXPLICIT statement of how to credit the sender. So, I went to a random fursona name generator. Thanks for the question, Ashwolf Eagerfeathers.
Honestly, I hate these questions. The “what do you like about/what do you dislike about” whatever. But I’ve got to address this s$&% because there’s a thing that’s ESSENTIAL to understand if you’re going to be a GM. Especially if you intend to someday write your own material, either for your own use or for publication. And honestly, there’s also something important to understand if you’re going to read criticism of anything on the internet.
First of all, let’s address the whole thing about “why would you recommend blahdy blahdy blah.” You’re right. I was asked, point blank, whether I liked the dice mechanic in Star Wars. And my answer was “no.” No, I don’t like narrative dice mechanics. And I don’t like them for all the reasons I outlined. I like to take control of the development of the story and only rely on the dice for the bare minimum. But THAT’S me. Personally.
See, there’s nothing inherently BAD about asking more of your dice. And some people LOVE the prompts that narrative dice mechanics give them. Rather than thinking through absolutely every goddamned action, it focuses the GM on resolving individual moments in the game and it keeps everything nicely constrained. It becomes a game of moments strung together. And that’s totally fine.
If I can ramble – and I can, because this is MY f$&%ing website and you’re named after a wolf with feathers, so who the hell are you to stop me – if I can ramble, this is a f$&%ing ENDEMIC in gaming/geek culture. People confuse preference with broken all the time.
You can like or dislike or hate a game all you want. That’s your God-given right as a human being. But that’s just a personal opinion. And people are so concerned about the worth of their personal opinions that they are afraid to have them. Instead, a personal opinion gets amplified into a statement of fact. “I don’t like Star Wars: Edge of the Rebel Force, here’s why” becomes “Star Wars: Edge of the Rebel Force is a BAD GAME, here’s why.”
There’s nothing WRONG with Star Wars. It’s perfectly fine. It just doesn’t rock MY personal world. I don’t need the mechanical narrative complexity bloat that comes from rolling seventeen f$&%ing dice for every roll just to determine if this action is going to be the one that pisses off the Empire for realies and leads to further adventure. It is a good game. And I’m big enough to say that other people can totally like it. And to even recommend it to other people if I think it will work for them.
See, there’s two types of people who make recommendations. There’s the obnoxious dips$&%s who assume that if they like something, EVERYONE should and therefore they get a new favorite book or game or movie and tell absolutely everyone they know to go read or play or see it. And then there’s smart, rational, sexy people like me who tailor recommendations to people. And who can recognize the qualities in something they don’t like that might make other people like it.
And, look, if you have any interest in getting better at being a gamer and game master and honing your critical analysis and game design chops, it’s important to learn how to play a variety of games – ones you like and ones you don’t – and identify the bad parts of the games you like and the good parts of the ones you don’t like. Because no game is all good or all bad.
The trouble with Star Wars is that the dice mechanic is pretty much CENTRAL to the game. So, if you don’t like the cognitive load and time sink that it creates, that’s a pretty big obstacle to running the game very long. And, in the end, that’s why I haven’t spent much time with Star Wars. And because of that, it’s hard for me to give a good list of things I like about the system. I just haven’t played it enough to find the bits and pieces I like.
But that may change soon. It appears I’m being roped into running at least a session of Star Wars and it might turn into more if I can get over my distaste for wasting so much time on overly complicated die rolls. We’ll see.
Oh, one more thing: the game is NOT Fate-like. And this is an important point. And I’m going to follow up with another question/answer in just a sec that will clarify that a bit more. But this is also an important point to consider if you want to get better at the whole “being a critical gamer” thing. Just because you spend points on advantage and disadvantage, that doesn’t make the game Fate-like. People get very wrapped up in mechanics and when two mechanics look alike, they assume they are similar. But two identical mechanics can be very different. What you have to look at is what those mechanics are DOING and the experience they create. The mechanics of Fate create a unique experience and it is based on a very idea from most traditional RPGs.
When 5E came out and it revealed the Inspiration system, a bunch of dips$&%s came out and called it a “Fate Aspect mechanic.” But that was a ridiculous thing to say. Because what it was doing in 5E vs. what it was doing in Fate was very different. And, by the end of this article, hopefully you’ll understand why.
Hope that helps, Wolfbutt Bullfeathers or whatever I called you.
You once said that FATE is not an RPG. I must confess I don’t remember where you said this, because I’ve been reading a lot of your stuff recently and it’s all running together in my head. I understand your definition of an RPG is a game where you make choices (actual choices, not the fake choices like “you enter an empty room with an exit at the other side; what do you do?”)
So doesn’t FATE match that definition? At least as much as most RPG systems do? Why do you say it’s not an RPG?
Okay, let’s have this out. Because I’ve made this statement a few times in a few different places. And it ties in well to the previous discussion. And it seems like, no matter how hard I try, I can’t make people understand this. And that’s a shame, because if you can wrap your head around the argument (whether you agree or not), it can really elevate your skills as a “critical gamer,” that is a game who analyzes their games and understands why games do the things they do and how people engage with them.
First of all, a lot of shrieking idiots like to throw around the “not an RPG” argument. They use it as an insult. I’ve seen it leveled at everything from D&D 4E to Dungeon World. And I’ve always told those people they were shrieking idiots who should stuff dice into their noise-holes until language stops coming out. The reason is because they are clearly using “not an RPG” as a pejorative. Basically, the argument runs like this: “this game is so bad that it doesn’t even count as an RPG and it shouldn’t be considered alongside actual RPGs.” It’s sort of the equivalent of calling a video game a “casual game” or calling something a “baby toy.” It’s meant simply to denigrate the thing. And nothing more.
In general, there’s really no reason to give “it’s not an RPG” any credence at all. It’s a stupid thing to say, it’s whiny and trolling. And I would say it’s almost worthless to even make that argument. In fact, there is a general belief that you should let anything that wants to call itself an RPG be an RPG.
But, to me, that’s one extreme to the other. If the publishers of Clue wanted to call it an RPG, would that make it an RPG? I mean, you can make the argument. Each player has a specific character. They have limited information about the world, knowing only what their character knows. Within the scope of the game, they make decisions about how to act. And they have a goal: expose the murderer and prove themselves innocent. The only hiccup is that it is possible in Clue to BE the murderer without knowing you are the murderer. And, while you could explain that in the fiction of the story as psychosis, multiple-personality disorder, trauma-induced-amnesia, or clever denial, none of those explanations are anything more than just making excuses for what happens in the game.
Realistically, there are a LOT of games that you could argue count as RPGs because the player is adopting a role and making choices. Is Pandemic an RPG? Is Mysterious Desert an RPG? In those games, you have a character with a specific role and specific skills.
The problem with the attitude that “anything can be an RPG” is that the phrase ceases to have any meaning without clear definitions. And it is important for the phrase to have meaning. Identifying the common elements that make these games “RPGs” and those games “not RPGs” enables us to discuss the design of the games. It empowers us to understand how these games engage their players vs. how those games engage their players and vice versa. More importantly, it helps people find things they might like. If I like RPGs, and I see something is an RPG, that helps me figure out I might like it. And, even if you don’t go as far as talking about how it affects marketing and buying decisions, having a common definition of RPG helps us manage expectations. If a thing is truly an RPG, we know something about what to expect from it.
Now, it is true that every RPG is different. I’m not saying they are all the same or that they even engage people the same way. Genre definitions are definitely a little fluffy and nebulous and vague. But we are always looking to refine them. And to watch how different genres emerge from one another.
Once upon a time, for example, we called Star Wars and Star Trek the same thing: science fiction. Nowadays, we recognize there are fundamental differences in how they speak to their audiences. We call Star Wars science fantasy now. And we recognize that those two genres appeal for different reasons. Some people like one, some people like the other, some people like both, and some people like neither. But the line between the two – however blurry – is a useful line to have. Especially if you want to have a critical discussion about what the things do.
Now, I will admit that I like to say FATE doesn’t count as an RPG because it’s a slightly trolly thing to say and I like to be trolly. It’s fun. I like to get people riled up. But I also like to make loaded statements. And the statement that FATE isn’t an RPG is a loaded statement. There’s a lot wrapped up in there. Because, if you’re not a shrieking idiot and don’t immediately respond with “yes it is, shut up, stop being an a$&hole” and actually ask why, there’s a solid critical discussion to have. And it goes to the core of what we consider an RPG and where a new genre of table-top games might be emerging. Where we might eventually start to draw a sci-fi/sci-fantasy line between games.
Take Fiasco as an example. Fiasco never claimed to be an RPG, even though a lot of people try to argue that it is. And I always thought that was very smart of the developers. Because they recognized something fundamental about RPGs. In Fiasco, the players are telling the story of how a caper goes wrong due to the relationships between various characters and story elements. Fiasco is fun because it is a story about how a simple story goes horribly wrong once you add layers of complexity. The point is to sew chaos in the lives of the characters in the story. In that respect, the game is a game about telling a story. And the players are an audience for the story. Strictly speaking, the players are not the protagonists in the story. Often, the players make decisions that the characters in the story would never wish on themselves. Because the players want to watch the characters’ lives spiral out of control.
That’s very interesting to me because, in a typical RPG, a core assumption is that the players ARE the protagonists. That, ultimately, their goals and the characters are in alignment. The characters have goals in the game, the players are attempting to guide the characters toward success, and the antagonists – in the form of enemies, random happenstance, and fundamental forces of the universe – are in their way. More often than not, in a typical RPG, the goals of the players and the goals of the characters are in alignment.
And that leads to a particular emotional engagement. Specifically, it means that the players and the characters are in an emotional synchrony. When the characters succeed, the players succeed. And they celebrate thing. When terrible things to the characters, the players share in that despair. And it is that synchrony that some games exploit to terrific effect. Games like Dread and Call of Cthulhu absolutely RELY on the synchrony between player and character emotional engagement.
But, Fiasco, fundamentally works in the opposite direction. The players generally delight when things go badly. Because the story becomes entertaining. Humorous and irreverent. That is WHY you play Fiasco. To see just how badly things can go and enjoy watching the disaster. Fiasco promises a delightful trainwreck. And that wouldn’t be possible if the players had an emotional synchrony with their characters.
BY THE WAY… when I get into fights with players and GMs who encourage the players to make decisions they know are terrible just to sow chaos in the lives the PCs, this is precisely why. Because it is a fundamentally different engagement from traditional role-playing. And the thing is, when you have a group of people who expect the traditional player-as-protagonist game and one idiot decides to go the Fiasco route with their character, it destroys the emotional engagement for everyone. The idea of encouraging players to embrace failure is essentially telling players to get out of emotional synch with their characters. And, while some people like that, it is not the standard expectation for a role-playing game and it can be disastrous.
Now, where does Fate fit into this whole thing? Fate is actually an interesting case. It grew out of a more generic game, Fudge, but it dumped the idea of fixed traits and assets instead of a more freeform approach. And it added the idea of giving your characters “traits” to represent their role in the story of the game.
And that’s very interesting because it walks a very fine line. While the traits are freeform, some of the instructions given in various games, especially Fate’s Spirit of the Century, talk in very narrative terms. And that can lead to some interesting quirks.
The generation of descriptive traits, particular when it comes to the group character generation mechanic, has been compared to writing the description on the back of the novel about a character. In fact, Spirit of the Century AND Dresden Files, use that explicit example. Players are encouraged to think broadly about how their character fits into the story. Sure, you can go with very pedantic traits like “wizard detective” or “super-smart monkey adventurer,” but you can also go with traits that are descriptive of the sorts of things that happen around the character. For example, from the Dresden Files RPG, “the building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.” This speaks to the fact that the character is a good-hearted person who accidentally creates (or finds himself in the midst of) chaos and destruction.
And it is THAT possibility that starts to drift into weird territory, from player-protagonist to Fiasco. See, when you add on the fact that there are some benefits to using traits EITHER for OR against your character in various places and that the GM can also use traits EITHER for OR against your character, the game allows for both player-protagonist AND Fiasco play. The mechanics can go either way, depending on how you, the player, create the character.
Is that bad? NO. Absolutely not. I’d never play or run Fate. I’ve tried it out a few times and I am a player-protagonist type through and through. It’s easier to run games when I understand the motives of both the players and the characters. And frankly, that allows me to focus on the types of engagements I’m best at.
In point of fact, despite my dislike for the approach AND my dislike for Evil Hat as a company for a variety of personal reasons, I think it’s an amazingly good thing that a game like Fate can emerge. Because, if you’re willing to have the discussion like a rational adult – like I’m doing here – it does lead to a very deep conversation about what it is that makes an RPG an RPG and when it’s time to go from “everything is sci-fi” to “whoops, we made science-fantasy.”
The thing is, though, it’s an academic discussion. It’s only useful insofar as it gives a framework to have a discussion about RPGs. And maybe, in the end, you won’t share my opinion that the player-protagonist is a fundamental enough engagement to say that it is a necessary part of RPGs and if you take it away, you need to acknowledge you’re changing the fundamental engagement for a lot of people. That’s fine. That’s a good discussion to have.
And all of THAT is what I mean when I say “Fate doesn’t count as an RPG.” I’m trying to elevate the discussion. Not insult people. It’s just people are too f$&%ing stupid to realize I’m not insulting them. The dumba$&es.