What is the FATE system?
This is getting asked all over the place, though most vocally over at RPG.net and on the FATE mailing list. It’s interesting because the current incarnation of FATE is basically a list of exemplar works that declare themselves to be FATE. This is not actually all that helpful because each tries to bring some new ideas to bear (it’s not fun just applying paint to an old game and calling it new — you want to improve it) and file off stuff from other exemplars that doesn’t work for you. And so the resulting definition of FATE is the intersection of all these exemplars and the intersection is both small and shrinking.
So my declaration is this (and it’s typical B.Murray vaguery): until there’s an official document declaring what FATE v3 is, no one knows what FATE v3 is.
Okay, so now I can tell you what I think it is.
First, FATE v3 is a core resolution mechanism that is not unique to it: fixed measure of competence + fortune + narrative benefit versus target value or opposed roll. The common expression of this, or rather the canonical one as in Spirit of the Century, is Skill + Fudge dice + Aspect invoke/tag. I think it’s fair to say that a game that doesn’t do some variation of this is probably not FATE v3. But lots of games do pretty much this and are certainly not FATE games.
So FATE v3 is also characters with Aspects. And so we need to define Aspects. Characters have Aspects if they have one or more descriptive phrases that can confer mechanical benefit (see “narrative benefit” above) at the cost of a narrative currency: the fate point. And so here I will say that the fate point and therefore the existence of a fate point economy (which at a minimum is used for mechanical benefit) is a FATE v3 requirement. I think that we also need to include the Compel as essential: there has to be a way to get as well as spend fate points.
I think that’s it. Everything else can come and go. Consequences are special Aspects. Stress tracks are completely detachable. Stunts are wildly malleable (as we’ve seen) and don’t need to exist at all. But a game where you roll dice and add skills, then narrate in your features and pay for the result is FATE. A game where you are shilling around for more of these points is also FATE.
Well that means that a good canonical statement of what is necessary to be FATE v3 shouldn’t take more than a half-dozen pages or so. And then six hundred pages of stuff you can glue onto it.
The end result of this is that I don’t know if any of the upcoming VSCA games are going to be FATE games now. Let’s look.
Hollowpoint. Dice pools that owe more to ORE than anything else and no points economy at all. Aspects are their own economy, burned when used. Certainly not FATE.
Soft Horizon. Tricky one because we’re just now thinking hard about changes. Certainly it’s FATE-like — the resolution is skill + dice + aspects, but the dice are in flux (could be |d6 – d6| — see the skunkworks). So far it retains a fate point economy as well, so I’ll call this one FATE on my own terms, but it could be debated.
Soulscape. I don’t know. We need to revisit this design before we know what it is. It is imagined as a pretty straightforward FATE v3 game but that was a long time ago and I think it could benefit from something more deliberately addressing its premises.
Chimaera. This game is, unsurprisingly, the most chimaeric. It uses a cool dice pool mechanism that’s distinctly unFATElike, and uses an Aspects-as-economy system not unlike Hollowpoint rather than a strict fate point economy. It also has some very cool dice-as-record-keeping tools that are fun to manipulate and also very much not FATE. I think we’ll call this “partially inspired by” but to be honest it’s more inspired by the play we got from FATE games than by the games themselves.
I guess that as players and designers we are continuously evolving our games and we don’t feel any particular attachment to whatever the core of FATE is, partially because it hasn’t been clearly stated. And I think that, even if it was, now we’d be as happy to say “it’s not FATE really” as “it’s another FATE game!” I mean, I get that there is a kind of built-in audience for FATE games just as with any other generic identity because there’s a community associated with it even though the definition is nebulous.
Maybe that’s at the heart of it — I would like for FATE to remain poorly defined exactly so that the community remains diverse and open to experiments and hacks. Hacking on it is what got me into design in the first place. It made the VSCA exist. I’d hate to lose that spirit in that community and a rich and rigid definition would risk killing it.
So here’s to FATE: skill + dice + aspects to resolve, and a fate point economy in action all through play. Hah, six pages indeed.