It Turns Out That I Just Don't Get Fate

For the past few weeks, +Jason Hobbs+Ray Case+Donn Stroud and I have been spending our Tuesday nights trying to figure out how to play Fate. I'm sure I've talked about this before. The setting that we had come up with was pretty damn cool, as were the characters. As far as we could tell, we'd all done everything right. We had aspects that read well, a very cool and relatively literary concept behind the setting and (we thought) a pretty keen grasp on what the setting meant. But then, two sessions in, it all fell apart and we've had to switch systems (but are thankfully still keeping the game alive!). Here's what happened.

Adam Has Never Played Fate

My first experience with playing Fate was running it for the first session of this particular campaign (called the "Fate of the Harshlands" because I was lazy). I think if I had played Fate before, I would have identified a few key issues that separate how I DM from how a good Fate DM does. There are some systems that I can readily identify as ones that I'd want to play before I ever tried to run, often because they don't make sense to me on the surface and I need to see how a good DM who's familiar with the system uses it. I'm still waiting for +Christopher Smith to teach me how to play Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard because my brain just doesn't work that way.

And so, somehow, I thought I'd had a handle on Fate, but I hadn't. I read the books, love the books, love so many things about the rules, but there were some things that just hadn't clicked and hadn't clicked so hard that I hadn't even realized that they hadn't clicked. They were the sort of things that I might have noticed had I played Fate before I tried running Fate. Who knows. I might not have. But I sure felt handicapped trying to run it because (a) Fate wants constant conflict, (b) Fate makes you have to think in soundbites and (c) consensus isn't always the best.

Fate Wants Constant Conflict

A year ago, I was playing in a d6 Star Wars game (I still love that system!) regularly, when something I'd never thought about that system occurred to me: the system works almost entirely on an oppositional basis, in that nearly everything a character does is opposed by someone else, largely eschewing objective difficulty in favor of relative difficulty. That was a mouthful. Here's the thing: in WEG's d6 system, there is room for objective difficulty, but it's been my experience (especially as someone who ran the hell out of the system back in the 90's), that no one really uses them, and instead just rolling some dice in opposition. This is really easy when there's someone acting in opposition to the character, but viable when there isn't, too. I think you get the gist.

Fate, as far as I can tell, works the same, which, these days, doesn't exactly sit right in my brain. In Fate, it seems like there should always be some for of opposition acting against the PCs, whether that opposition is NPCs or even the setting itself. This fact didn't sink in right away nor is it readily obvious and became apparent to me when I realized that we, as a play group, were using only a few of the doohickeys and doodads on our character sheets. Aspects were invoked, but infrequently. Fate points were rarely spent (though earned on occasion). Approaches weren't used as often as I'd have assumed. No one ever took any strain. It dawned on me that we would have gotten to play with more of the features of the system if, much like how I used to use d6 SW, most actions were set up as conflicts. Man, I was not prepared for that.

Thinking In Soundbites

It seems to me that one of the keys to being able to run Fate effectively is the ability to quickly and easily boil circumstances down to a very slim definition in order to turn those circumstances into an Aspect. On the surface, it seems like a good idea to be able and like it should be pretty easy. It could be, if it were obvious which parts of the given circumstance need defining, which usually, it's not. Well, not to me, not yet. Since I never know how many aspects I'll "need" to represent the given scenario, the amount of prep I'd need to do seems to me to defeat the purpose of Fate: that it can be used on the fly to represent in simple game terms via the selfsame aspects that I'm having so much trouble boiling things down to.

Consensus Isn't Always the Best

I know I'm betraying my Polish roots here (extra points if you understand that), but there are times when consensus just doesn't work in games. Sometimes, someone has to be in charge. Sometimes, a DM just has to stand up and say "it's not like that, it's like this," particularly if there's to be any sort of suspense or mystery in the game. Fate, as far as I can tell, seems to be driven by consensus and rely on it for integrity in order to make sure that the aspects in play function correctly. This part leaves me pretty confused because if there's going to be consensus on things and what they mean, then it seems pointless for there to be a central authority (the DM) on those selfsame meanings. Further, at least for the moment, it seems like a self-defeating effort to create consensus about anything that requires any sort of subterfuge or misdirection, making mysteries and suspense seem somewhat counterintuitive, if only from an ideological standpoint. I know that wouldn't matter to everyone, but it definitely matters to me.

How To Teach Myself Fate

I still really want to play in a Fate game sometime to see how someone else handles all of the stuff I can't seem to get a grip on. But, I'm sure that I can still teach myself how to run Fate without ever having played it, particularly since I know why my first attempt fell flat. First, I'd need to be working with a well-defined genre or IP, something like the Cthulhu Mythos or the Star Wars Universe. Second, it would have to have a finite scope so that there is an implicit (or explicit) goal and boundaries for the scenario. So, basically, a one-shot or con-style, single-slot session. The scenario should be set up as a series of conflicts rather than (as was my initial mistake) a situation to explore, so opposition is in and investigation isn't exactly out, but definitely won't be as central as it might have been in a normal Adam-style game.

So there you go. I might not get Fate, but I get what I don't get it and how I could teach myself to get it. For the current "Harshlands" campaign, I've given up on Fate, but I haven't given up on the system. Maybe I'll sort out a special occasion game when I have an idea that I think will translate well to Fate. In the meantime, though, the Harshlands will be rocking out LotFP's excellent Weird Fantasy rpg, which I'm viewing as a great opportunity to run an excellent rule system that I haven't gotten enough time to monkey around with yet, which is already working. So, until I figure out a thing that I think really needs to happen, gaming-wise, I'll wait it out until I've had the chance to play Fate.