Ask Angry: Star Wars, Fate, and Critical Gaming

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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.

Trey Asks:

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.

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37 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Star Wars, Fate, and Critical Gaming

  1. I run Star Wars currently, and I’m glad you’re recommending it for new players because I think that especially for people who are new and might not be thinking about the side effects of their actions, it’s great to have it baked into the dice mechanic. It’s a good thing to have in mind because it can allow some interesting decisions, and especially when backed up by crunch (or a well-communicated expectation), gives a really nice encouragement to not just attempt to apply the biggest skill to the problem without thinking about what the character’s doing.

    Yes it’s complex, but I find the complexity of deciding on which dice to use is paid back by being able to do nifty things like give the party an easier check that’s more likely to cause problems in the long term or a harder one with much lower chances of that big failure. If you just can’t think of a side effect, strain is there to dump threat into or recover it with to keep things moving (and also offer a way to set up an attrition effect if you feel like doing that although I don’t have the knack yet). Overall though I think it’s a good type of system to have exposure to because although you might be good at managing side effects of checks and failures going in different directions with DnD, it doesn’t really do a brilliant job of communicating that it’s a good thing to have in mind, and expecting new players to come up with great ways to do things without exposure to the ideas they’re based on is one of the bigger problems I generally find with introductory stuff.

    Fair warning, I do play online with a dice roller. Your mileage may vary when counting out dice like the cashier some little old lady is using as a receptacle for all her coins. With the roller it’s just push a few buttons and get the results out, rather than counting up arcane glyphs like a demented fortune teller.

    • To be honest I prefer Dungeon World attempt at doing it since its easier on the Gm and Players to realise what the rolls are. 10+ = Success, 7-9, = success but… 6- = failure and something bad happens.

      My look at and trying of Star Wars I have found that basically at its core its trying to do the same thing but then it is trying to add weird symbols, funny maths, and other confusing things to it so it makes everyone at the table have to spend 20 minutes at the table kind of knowing what the hell they should do with a dice that says triumph failure advantage or whatever.

      • That’s fair enough, I’m definitely isolated from a lot of the complexity because it’s just press a few buttons, click and then work down the line of success/failure, advantage/threat, and triumph/despair. So a second after the dice are rolled, I take one look and can say it’s a success/failure, and/but… If it’s a despair I can say what it is or pocket it like a flipped destiny for later effect (such as ones where I’m not sure right then but it’ll have a narrative effect later but I’ll probably see a good place later), if it’s a triumph I generally float something I’d consider and give the party the option of that or what they come up with and I find that when they have an option to fall back on or evaluate things against they figure things out quickly after a nice engaging choice making process.

        Because I’ve got the tools to manage it and have gotten pretty good at quickly resolving rolls, I find the depth it offers to be well worth the pretty small increase in complexity that my group has to deal with. Being able to do things like offer the choice between something that the party’s great at but is much more likely to cause long term problems or something they aren’t as good at so are more likely to fail right now and easily have the roll back it up by biasing the pool towards reds or purples is something that pays off in letting me do some interesting design with much less complexity on my end and a nice clear way of communicating it to my players.

      • Naturally I can’t edit and can’t remember to say everything I wanted. I will say that I very pointedly didn’t use that sort of dice when trying to gin up a homebrew system for use on an actual tabletop. That used something a lot more like Dungeon World because it is much simpler when running a system, and it’s not nearly as easy to mitigate the complexity. I think that what gaming setups work with which ways of buying depth with complexity is a sadly neglected topic of discussion.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I still dislike the game. And ultimately, I think the dice mechanic is a bloated morass. And I think the the idea of “not applying your best skill to the problem” is a really wrong-headed criteria. and any game whose basic mechanic is such an obstacle that you need a computer to handle it has a major design flaw. But it DOES explain itself well.

      All too often, though, I’ve watched people in Star Wars AND in Warhammer FRPG (which premiered this engine) just resort to strain dumps. Which is the problem when you try to make something that is inherently situational into a universal thing.

      So, don’t expect me to have much praise for the game system. But, given the game, the beginner sets actually do manage to teach people how to play and run the game. Which is more than can be said for most of them. And that is the only reason it got a recommendation from me.

      • With Star Wars, I got pretty quick at evaluating the dice by just taking results cancelling each other out from the table. No need for apps there, really.

        In order to achieve that, however, I bought three sets of dice. Which was probably the main reason for Fantasy Flight to come up with the dice system in the first place. Given their pricing that might have been a whooping 45$ about only for dice. And that would be my main issue with the system.

        Anyway, fair enough for not liking it. It tends to make people stare at roll results and try to make something of them – you have to use these advantages for something or whatever. Just as Dungeon World does not simply let you have a failure, you also always have to package something with the failure and escalate in some way. I think dice rolls should have a meaning, but sometimes I might call for a dice roll unnecessarily, or I just want to decide if a possibility becomes closed off to players depending on character skill, and if systems force me into certain escalations (“offering an ugly deal”) I don’t see the game improve because of that.

        The Star Wars Beginner Game boxes actually were the better version of the system, keeping it simpler – purely to my taste.

      • I’m with you; Anything that requires me to tabulate seven different types of dice and how they cancel each other and don’t is just too much of a mess, and I feel like adding different types of inherent complications means it’s more likely to be hard to come up with something appropriate, whereas if you’re just trying to think of “What kind of complication can I get doing this action?” it’s a bit easier.

        I also really like the content of this article – it feels a lot more open than a lot of discussions, though I felt like too many words were spent justifying the need for an explanation at the beginning of the second question.

        Also, I bet people don’t tell you how to credit them because they want to see what kind of ridiculous name you give them. Just sayin’.

      • That’s totally fair. The dice mechanic is very complex, and it does really require a computer to reduce the complexity that the users are exposed to to a low enough point that it’s worth it. That’s not a problem to me though because I’m already running the game over the internet and everyone’s running a computer anyway. In general I really don’t have any problem with trying to find the right tools for the job so I can minimize the complexity of dealing with mechanics. Good bookkeeping is a really powerful tool to improve a game’s depth/complexity ratio. I very seriously doubt I’d have gotten over the nausea DnD 3.5 style character creation causes me to actually play that or Pathfinder without the intervention of computer assistance and paid software, for example, let alone managing the horrorshow that is Shadowrun (which is manageable enough to be fun with the assistance of computers).

        Running SW over computers, all that complexity is basically free depth, because it’s trivial to use and it’s actually really straightforward as far as what the inputs and outputs do so it’s easy to understand what’s happening even if the dice are arcane little things. That roll with a bunch of purple was just something hard to do, that roll with a few red was something that was really likely to cause a long-term problem, and so on.

        I’d love to know how you handle that sort of situational thing in other systems that don’t have room marked out for it. I think that’d be really valuable to have in mind when/if I run a different system.

        Strain dumps are definitely a negative but in my experience a small and increasingly rare one, and going for strain can be a really nice way to ratchet tension.

        As far as the comment on “not applying your best skill to the problem” I think you’re stripping it of some pretty important context, but you’re not really giving me enough to be sure what your criticism is and whether I actually mean to be saying what you’re seeing there. My point is that it gives tools to make choosing how to get around a problem something more than just “hey it’s got a computer and the astromech’s ludicrously good with computers, we’ll do that because of course we will”, such as “the astromech’s basically a drop kick to get through the door, but it’s got a much higher chance of stetting off an alarm than if we try and pick the mechanical part of it open.” You can’t really do that in the same way if you only have one axis to pull things in.

    • I agree a roller really makes things better at the real table too.
      I think one of the issues in this discussion is old school rpg era come from a position of ” don’t game by playing “mini-games” just get the role playing on and let mechanics fade away. It’s a very 80s mindset.
      Star Wars dice Yahtzee is a fun mini game for a lot of people and FATEs mini games are the same sort of thing too. Some people like the mini games and that’s not wrong it’s just different. I think importantly tho’ a preponderance of mini games slows a game down so you can get less done…maybe that’s what people like as it means less prep for the GM? Maybe that is where the issue is? Old school play your doing a lot of encounters and getting a lot of the mega dungeon done – conversely this creates a prep heavy game? New school you need to prepare less but play is satisfied by mini-games? I wonder?

  2. Now, nobody jumped in to discuss FATE?

    Well, I would be interested in any rants about Evil Hat, but that is just sensational old me wanting to be entertained.

    Never played in a FATE game I liked so far. I was kind of hoping FATE Accelerated would be better, but to me it’s advertising itself as a simpler game which it only is technically. The whole approach (stealthy +3 or whatever) thing trims down complexity regarding any skill system, but when you dig into aspects and such, the book (IIRC) refers back to the big book (FATE Core) about what a Compel truly is.

    I’m not sure FATE explains itself well as a game. The internet is full of long discussions about what a Compel is, probably longer than the rulebook itself by far. People still get in arguments about that, I guess. And one GM ran FATE for me by basically introducing nothing into the game. Everything that happened he made us compel into the world. I wonder what he thought his role was – adding some descriptions and handing out FATE points?

    FATE just never engaged me. Maybe the Angry GM’s reasoning about player engagement is it. Or maybe its static, undeveloping characters are. Or maybe it’s uninspired game resolution mechanic. Or maybe magic systems that seem flat like “everything is the same, I just tell myself a story about how awesome I am using light instead of fire” – to achieve mechanically exactly the same. I wanted to like FATE but simply don’t. It happens.

    • I don’t really have a horse in the Fate race (Note: It’s not all caps.) but I’m confused about your problems with Accelerated – I don’t see any references to the Core rules in the explanation of Compels, which seems pretty short and straightforward. Yes, there’s a lot of argument about it on the web, but there’s a lot of argument about all kinds of stuff on the web.

      I do think that earlier versions of Fate tended to explain things a bit poorly, but I don’t think this is a problem in the newer versions.

      Certainly, it may not be for you – it’s not actually for ME either; If you require mechanical rules for fire setting things on fire and how light cannot, it’s definitely not for you, but I think you’re walking a little close to saying “This game is bad(ly explained)” than I think is fair.

      • You are right, FAE does not reference Fate Core when explaining Compels. It does so at several other points, like how to define a good stunt, etc. It’s been a while since I read that part. I just remembered how odd it seemed to read a game manual and getting a feeling of “And if you want to know how it’s done, look into this different stand-alone game book.” And I mixed that vague feeling with Compels.

        So, mixup on my behalf. Still, compels have triggered a lot of discussions online, and numerous “accusations” of “You’re doing it wrong.” and in my opinion still qualify as poorly explained. Then again, GM intrusions in Cypher have not done much better. Not saying is

        I did also not call for mechanical rules about fire and light, there you are just inserting too much yourself. I have however heard this complaint from several players spending more time with Fate games like Malmsturm. Lots of contrived invocations of aspects, and the feeling that it did not matter which trapping you applied or what you did with your magic – you always caused the same damage or created a +2 for someone else. It was a big turnoff for myself. That’s all.

        • I guess I’m confused by the complaint about lack of mechanic options then, because as I see it, all the feats and spells and crap in other games boil down to one of 2.5 things:

          #1: Do something you couldn’t before. Aspects have this. If I have the aspect “Angel’s Wings” that means I can fly, whereas I wouldn’t be able to without it.
          #2: Do something you could do before better, as in, “With a bonus” – and sure, Fate only has a single “level” of bonus, but I don’t really think that having +1, +2, +3, +4 and +5 for different levels of “stuff” actually makes the game any more interesting.
          #2.5: Do something you could do before only “more powerfully” – i.e. “Deal more damage” or whatever other flavor of “better but not the same as #2” leads to. I think there’s an option for something like this in Fate as well.

          So what is it, really, that is missing from Fate? Precise measurements of distance and area of effect? Really specific “feats” that say “Before, when you knocked someone over, they could get up right away, but now they are are stunned instead”? Or something else I’m missing?

    • Now I really like FATE, and I think that’s because of a few different things:

      1. It encourages people to have their characters do different things. I’ve played a lot more D&D (mostly 3rd ed) than FATE and too often I see people spent 5 rounds of combat where in each round they just hit something with their axe because that’s what they’re best at then start to get bored because that’s all they do. I know it’s possible to help this by constructing the combats differently to bring in more mobile enemies or more problematic terrain, but when the character closes with the enemy I want the player to have a few more options than “use my fairly optimised standard attack”. Bashing someone down some stairs with a shield or tripping them up with my halberd should be cool things that can happen, not tricks I have to spend 3-4 levels building my character towards. FATE does this really well.

      2. It has a pretty simple set of mechanics and they work for everything. You have 4 possible things you can do in the game and the dice and your aspects work the same way for all of them. 5th edition D&D is much better for this, but 3rd ed was a bit of a mishmash of the same system but not. Attacks are d20 vs a target number, 20 always succeeds, saves are the same, skills are similar but 20 doesn’t always succeed. Caster level checks are d20 plus a number versus a target with 20 not always succeeding again. And then you have trip, disarm, grapple, sunder, bull rush, and whatever else got thrown in there that are kind of similar but not, so you need the rules every time someone tries any of them. Once you’ve got the basics of FATE down you can do a whole lot of really cool stuff without needing 3+ rulebooks and a compendium to sort out edge cases they missed the first time.

      3. It helps players get involved in the story. This is a more minor one – in the games of D&D a player has always been able to write up a backstory and invent cool stuff that will probably come up in the game. FATE makes this more explicit and encourages characters to have a reason to get along and know each other before the game starts. It’s nice that they’re helping to set that up without a GM having to figure out that’s fairly useful for a good game by themselves.

      Now, FATE is a pretty generic system. It’s got lots of dials that you can tweak to a greater or lesser degree. Some people have players do a whole lot of the world building. It sounds like DerKastellan found a GM doing an extreme version of that when he was playing. I haven’t tried playing any FATE games like that but I’m not really interested in trying it. For me, I still want the GM to have a scenario figured out with NPCs who have motivations and things they’ll do planned. The players can come along and interact with those as normal, and maybe one player can declare they know a particular NPC from the past and, if it’s reasonable and fits with the story, they can pay the fate point and it’ll be so. That’s cool and gives players more of a feeling of being involved in the world.

      The other thing DerKastellan mentions is how a lot of stuff is mechanically the same, which is totally true. There are many different ways of handling magic or building gadgets or $cool_thing_here, but it’s totally possible that you’ll play in a game where the wizard rolls lore to use magic and there’s no mechanical difference between a bolt of arcane lightning, a spell that makes someone fly or a spell to summon a demon. For some people, that’s fine, for others, there are ways to make it a bit more complex by using stunts or extras. At the end of the day though, FATE is a pretty simple system when it comes to mechanics, so if you love the theorycrafting of working out a complex D&D character with just the right interaction of feats, racial abilities and magic items FATE probably ain’t the right game for you.

      As for static undeveloping characters, that’s only true if you don’t take the opportunities for your character to develop. After every session you’re probably going to hit a minor milestone which gives you the opportunity to change one of your aspects. This can be a really easy way to reflect changes to how your character sees the world, or what their goals are. Find out that the lost brother you’ve been looking for was murdered? Change “Oh brother where art thou?” to “I must avenge my brother’s death”. It’s not quite the same kind of increment a bunch of numbers that you get in D&D (though that also happens every few sessions or so) but it’s reflecting a different aspect of advancement – how your characters views change over time, rather than how your characters abilities get stronger because you smashed 10 goblins.

      At the end of the day, FATE isn’t going to be for everyone, and that’s why there are many games out there to choose from. I think a lot of people take some of the freedoms in the system too far, and that ends up putting a lot of people off the game entirely when it’s more likely to be that GMs way of running it just isn’t what they’re looking for in a game.

      • This is all fair enough and well-reasoned out, thank you.

        Where I would disagree is the character development. You see, for me changing character motivations and the development work better when I don’t have mechanical rules for that aspect. I would not want to write them as an aspect, in fact. I mean, the same idea is heavily used in Cortex Plus and I think it drags the character’s mindset into rolls needlessly. I’d rather develop some mechanical aspect of my character – skills and what it can do – in a mechanical way, and leave everything else of the character to roleplaying. I in fact would not even write it down. That’s my preference, however.

        Going through my list of beliefs (Mouse Guard) to check if they mattered in the game or still apply, or hitting some verbal description in a positive or negative way to gain a game resource, is something I don’t necessarily like. I tolerate it in Savage Worlds and then see players trying to hit it over and over to generate bennies (which is tiresome). It’s the one part of the character I would like to keep free-form and in turn not give mechanical rewards. I found plenty of players who armwrestled their beliefs, aspects, etc. into the game for rewards or stared at their sheets trying to figure out what their character stuff had to do with the problem at hand. For me those are the low points of roleplaying.

        That said, a game like Marvel Heroic can still be a lot of fun because I don’t take it serious and would never campaign in it. I just remember the blank incomprehension, however, when pregens were used in either Marvel Heroic, Leverage, or in Fate Malmsturm and players had to understand how to invoke personality traits/aspects. Or the headscratching when players had to make up these aspects for a game of a session or two. It’s not necessarily intuitive or a skill everyone has.

        • It’s a little odd that you have such an objection to the idea of writing stuff down; I’m having trouble grasping where you are coming from there.

          As for people “hitting it over and over again”, that kinda just sounds like a bad system. Most systems I encounter that use these sorts of mechanics limit you in some way to how often you can beat on your belief/ideal/aspect/whatever for the bonus to encourage people to mix it up. And if people are mixing it up, what is there to complain about? I don’t think anyone has ever said “Stop it guys, you’re roleplaying too much!”

    • When my group played FATE for the first time, it turned out to be one of our most memorable game nights. I had only been GMing for a year and had only played very mechanical games like Pathfinder and D&D 5e. What FATE gave me is the realization that my group and I prefers abstract mechanics and more focus on a narrative structure rather than a mechanical structure to the story. It was honestly a breath of fresh air for me.

      However, as mentioned before, FATE doesn’t explain what it wants you to do with its system well. It’s more focused on telling you the options of hacking the system and making your own game rather than explaining how the base system works.I had to give it up quickly because it didn’t have many interesting premade campaign worlds (we don’t really care for pulp fiction) and I wasn’t confident enough to make my own yet.

      As far as mechanics… I liked compels. But, I treated them more like GM Intrusions from the Cypher System. My players didn’t like the idea of voluntarily losing control of their character to gain a bonus, so we always ruled them as unpreventable circumstances (bounty on head, old rival interference, etc.) and not as a incompetency of the PC. But yeah, action resolution is too boring. Everything’s either a +2 BONUS or a REROLL. Zzz…

      • Mathias, that was pretty much what I was getting at.

        Compels can be interesting. If played right, Hindrances in the Savage World do the same and give you a benny. The reroll the benny grants is more interesting to me than a +2 or establishing a fact in the game world. As far as I understand it in Fate you either stuff your character with stunts and have those powers available or you have participate in the Fate chip economy to get those +2 boni. I’m not terribly excited about that second option, that’s all.

        BTW, did you check out the Fate Worlds? I think they published three books full of settings (Worlds on Fire, etc) by now.

        • This confuses me further; Do you mean to indicate that you would like Fate better if fate points allowed you to reroll instead of giving a +2? That seems strangely arbitrary, so I’m wondering if I misunderstand you.

          I think you’re really selling the “add a detail to the world” thing short though. It’s an extremely powerful and interesting option when used correctly.

          • FWIW Fate DOES allow to Invoke an Aspect to get a reroll; it’s right there in the corebook.

    • Try Cortex+ its got the FATE bells an whistles but it’s better written and presented the Firefly version of the rules are excellent.

      For a very well presented version of the FATE rules I’d recommend Bulldogs! they really present it ver well in that book.

  3. Pingback: Is Fate an RPG? | Rolling the Hard Six

  4. Would you say the Inspiration mechanics you described in an earlier article (the one about how to fix it) or just Inspiration in general fall into the category of desynchronizing the player?

  5. Having just written the comment below, I worry that I am regurgitating stuff I have read somewhere else. For example, on Angry’s pages or here:
    Ah well, what’s the internet for, if not to use other people’s ideas to make yourself seem smart in front of people you will never meet?

    To decide whether something should be called an RPG (rather than a game with a story or a game about stories or something), I think we should consider these questions.

    1) Do the goals of the character line up with the goals of the player? (as Angry said)
    2) Can the players influence the story only through their characters’ decisions/actions?
    3) Are the players limited only by what is reasonable for their characters to try and do in the fictional world?

    If the answer is “generally yes” to all three it’s probably an RPG.
    If players frequently get to decide on aspects of the world/story that are not their character, i.e. “no” to (2), it may be some kind of more general story game. So, if you can spend some kind of points to decide that, say, the shopkeeper is actually a secret agent, you’re maybe not playing a classical RPG.
    If there are often things that seem like your character should be able to at least try to do, but there is no option for it in the game, you might be playing a board game with a story. For example, in Cluedo, you can’t ask other players or suspects for their alibi, or try to find the body (that might give you a hint of where they were killed,right?).

  6. Does a drunk drink because it’s his goal? Does he hurt his wife because he really wanted to, or because he has a problem? Is it beyond belief that playing a drunk would be beyond the realm of a roleplaying game? No. Unless you ascribe to this nonsense. People sabotage themselves all the time, and it isn’t in their interests, yet they do it anyway! Does it make the game more interesting? Maybe, it could also be disruptive based on the game in question. Either way the player of that character is still roleplaying.

    I’d argue that every good character who risks it all to save someone isn’t acting in their own best or the parties best interest. The cleric who throws themselves into danger and dies leaves the rest of the group without a vital resource. Yet no one complains about that. It’s easy to see his goal as good or normal for a game about heroic characters, but he is doing the same thing as the drunk who is putting everyone in danger by passing out and not being ready to fight when the group comes under attack.

    Roleplaying a flawed character has made some of the best experiences for me over the years. A cowerdly pilot who, in the end, could swallow her fear and save the day isn’t a character that would work in every system. It is those “not a roleplaying game” systems that allow that experiance.

    • I suspect the fact is that people who only want to play “traditional” RPGs are not interested in those sorts of stories.

    • The fact that people STILL raise this argument and can’t understand the difference between people making bad decisions and the PLAYERS and CHARACTERS having completely different motives baffles me. I’m so tired of this argument.

      • The idea of playing the drunk character who destroys himself with booze is still about the player making the decisions the character would make if the character and the situation were real. Yes, people make terrible decisions all the time. But it’s also naive and very limited to say it’s all about self-sabotage.

        If the character is a drunk, the character WOULD drink himself to death. The character can also CHOOSE to fight the addiction. The classic example in the movies is the character who throws away the bottle and gets on with the third act. Yes, characters CAN make those choices either way in any RPG. And the player is making the choices the character would make. The smart choices and the flawed choices. THAT’S role-playing. You’re PLAYING A F$%&ING ROLE.

        The point is that the actions the character takes make sense. You understand the character through their actions.

        What I’m talking about is when the player isn’t trying to portray the character as a human but rather making decisions as if the character were a character in a story and the player just wants to see interesting things happen. The player is viewing the character like a toy to f$&% with. The building catches fire not because the character is careless or enraged, but because its the sort of thing that happens in stories about that sort of character.


        Here’s the problem in RPGs that HAS TO be acknowledged that the shrieking “flawed characters are more interesting waah waah waah” people ALWAYS miss. In real life, if you’re a soldier or a cop and you get drunk and get people killed, you get pulled off duty. You get dealt with. You’re out of the game. Or if you’re on my mercenary team and your moronic behavior constantly puts me in danger, I will kick you off the f$&%ing team. I don’t have to keep working with you if you are a danger to my life.

        But in RPGs, that usually isn’t allowed to happen. The basic premise of the game is that, no matter what, the players are a team. And that puts some limits on how much dickery you should be allowed to visit. Because, to some extent, you’re being shielded of the consequences of being a dick by the assumptions of the game.

        Yes, flawed characters can be interesting and you can role-play them. That IS role-playing. But there’s a lot more to consider than just your own fun and interest in playing the character. Because the nature of the game itself – the metagame – places constraints on what can and can’t be done in response.

        And before you say – YES, we all know that ANY GROUP can CHOOSE to deal with these things any way they want to. But that doesn’t make any of what I just any less of an important consideration. In general, if you bring a flawed character to my game and it’s ruining the fun for other people, you change or you’re out. Because the game isn’t always about you.

    • And also, the idea of “self sabotage” is a very naive and limited view of human motivation. There’s a lot of reasons why people make terrible decisions. If you look at it externally, yes, it’s self sabotage. But if you want to be a motherf$&%ing role-player, you have to look at it INTERNALLY. WHY does the character make the choices they do. THAT’S role-playing.

      • Fiasco has the premise of “shit goes wrong/crazy” and often the player motivation is to make that happen. Games such as FATE don’t have that same impetus. You can have a double edged sword or negative side of a character without dousing the game in gasoline and burning the whole thing down. It does require some thought and not being a dick (a staple of all gaming).

        Being a drunk may not play so well in a cop game, but it might be just fine in a game of leverage (Nate Ford anyone?). Having the choice to include negative character traits does not give you cart blanch to make a disruptive character that the other players and GM have to suspend disbelief to play with. Most games that include these negative traits also allow the player a choice about interacting with them. You can choose to throw away the bottle (a choice which is only meaningful because it cost you something!). It’s easy to say you fight off an addiction when you could declare that as a player at any time with no cost. Without mechanical backing your decision to be a drunk had no meaning and your decision to kick the habit had even less.

        Adding mechanical support to these aspects of a character allows the player to interact with them on a nonsuperficial level. Negative character traits become carrots to lead players towards roleplaying non Mary Sues. Sure, you could game the system and make it no fun for anyone… But that isn’t new or specific to this style of game system.

        Just an odd thought, but if your players are throwing wrenches at them selves, perhaps they aren’t being engaged and are bored? I know there are some games I wish I had a button that made orcs kick in the door. Since player engagement is bigger than character engagement, I’d almost think this was a useful feedback mechanism. Your players keep a ping up the drama? Perhaps the game they really want to play is more similar to a soap opera than what you are trying to run. Realizing that could lead to a situation where you adjust to the point that the players aren’t throwing the wrenches anymore.

    • While I intrinsically disagree, I think it’s very important to emphasise that the role-play of a single character is not the primary mode of play. Creating drama in the game is in most cases entertaining but I think the efforts of the Player needs to be channeled towards the goal of the game as a whole. Again this needs to be examined as there is at lest two schools of thought in role playing. One school believes RolePlay is emergent you don’t need to emphasise it’s or have mechanisms to encourage it as it happens as a byproduct of actual play and it’s spontaneous nature is what is valued. FATE is not the ideal tool for this type of play. The other school of play emphasises roleplay to the point where even the setting is informed by this goal. As a result these games naturally place the players in dynamic networks of interaction where there is rich dramatic potential.

      FATE takes this further and opens up the entire milieu and interaction with any part of it for play. This is simply far more then previous RPGs did thus there is a suggestion that it’s more than an RPG not less. I.e. Not an RPG but something different ( maybe in your case something MORE) I can tell you now the s#i+ I can do in FATE on a good day makes my GM rock on his chair and sigh, we turned a family drama in a small town into a time travel scifi Transhumanist intervention to stop the rise of the machine God. Non of that was scripted it was a murder mystery with a pice of sci fi in it… It wasn’t by the end of three sessions was it fun – sort of, was it a game yeah, was role playing involved? Yes. But in a traditional rpg session or adventure this could not have happened. It happened because we got really into messing with the structure of the game – you can’t do that in say RuneQuest.

  7. Pingback: MMP#195 – Video vs Tabletop Games » Misdirected Mark

  8. Angry wrote “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”.

    I’m calling bullshit. However I think this is more a matter of us all not having the language developed to fully cover this discussion in all its nuance.

    This – players playing PCs in misalignment with goal, story or other play artefact – is a model that’s been with us since at least Call of Cthulhu, led sugest some D&D modules even engendered this approach. In CoC sure you would like to “win” but going into the game, you know you’re very likely not going to. That creates a certain dramatic freedom which is interesting to play through. So the game play you refer to as one that FATE brought along is in traditional design too. I’d suggest FATE goes much furthe. In more recent design trends, excluding FATE, say Mutants and Masterminds as just one example, you see “complications” etc, which a player willingly excepts inorder to gain story “sympathy/synchrony” and a future mechanical benefit. This works really well in a traditional rpg sense and it gives the GM and players ways of supporting existing play activities and giving those activities additional weight.

    HOWEVER I totally agree with you that FATE is not an rpg, in the way we used to use the word. FATE _is_ something different. I sum it’s difference in the role of the “player” …the player becomes a “Sous-GM” I.e. There is a GM but all other players also gain – abet limited – GMing rights over far more then just their own character [in the traditional rpg model the player had rights over thier Character and that was it, maybe and only maybe that included your background e.g. If I wanted my father to be the King or a powerful wizard or a Jedi or genius scientist the GM could call veto, Fate changes this paradigm dramatically]. (Ps – I think players should get creative like this and force the GM to be creative right back). Suddenly in FATE game play this all changes at a fundamental level. You have the whole table manipulating, history, events, locations, geography you name it and you can toss cause-and-effect per old role playing as the story to-date can be “retconed” by anyone now that really changes things up unfortunately FATE is mired in poor jargon and unessesary terms making it particularly poor at explaining its play modes – however those modes are very mechanistic and very obtrusive upon play – this too is a significant difereciator traditional pre-FATE rpg design valued rules that disappeared allowing the narative and drama to the fore. FATE put its mechanics right bang into you gameplay and they are THERE in a very non-rpg sense ( if you look at the use age pre FATE).

    Conversely this is the success of Cortex+ where it weds both old rpg mores with a very different and new level of play which is still mostly taking its ques from accepted play tropes.

    I agree it’s valuable to recognise the differences and celebrate them as different types of game. The FATE game is not one that I personally enjoy due to” its showing of its slip” it ruins the magic for me to have so much of the milieu in flux at any given time and to see the workings of the game out in the open …its just vulgar to me.

    • I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean “embrace failure” as in “your characters will die, deal with it”. I’m also pretty sure he doesn’t mean “take these down sides to balance these up sides” is bad at all. Those down sides are built into class-based games like D&D, so any non-class system needs a way of creating them as well for game balance reasons.

      A core element of RPGs is that the player identifies with the character and makes decisions for the benefit of that character and that the character themselves would make. That’s what the “Role” in “Role Playing Game” is all about. FATE certainly allows this, but the mechanic also encourages the opposite: making decisions against the character just to see what happens. This turns the game into a non-RPG, because you’re no longer Playing the Role of the character, you’re doing anti-RP.

      The extreme mutability is exactly what makes it a non-RPG. A fun game, perhaps, and it certainly CAN be played as an RPG, which is why Angry-DM said his statements about FATE were loaded and a bit trolly, but nonetheless true. Unless you set it up just right it’s not an RPG.

  9. This addresses pretty much all of the issues I with some of the things you’ve said about various game systems. I can now say I agree pretty much with everything, except for specific RPG preferences. That makes me feel all fuzzy inside.

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