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System Design Justifications

This is the section where I try to explain my heresies against FATE.

"Research your own experience; absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and add what is essentially your own." - Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do
I've played many systems, but FATE and Pathfinder remain my favorites. The two are drastically different in their approach to a tabletop game. FATE is free and narrative, while Pathfinder is rule-based and strategic. FATE Spin is an attempt to take the best of both worlds while cutting out my least favorite parts.

+ -
FATE Freedom, simplicity, the mesh between combat and non-combat skills. Aspect system, shared narrative powers, lengthy character creation system.
Pathfinder Combat, strategy, balanced and distinct roles for players. Anything non-combat, complexity, quadratic wizards and linear warriors.

Allow me to preface this section by saying that the features listed as negative are not inherently bad. Rather, they're just not to my tastes. Others rejoice in the cooperative theater in FATE, or in the maddening complexity of Pathfinder, but I don't particularly care for either of those. It's my hope that FATE Spin will appeal to that that have had similar thoughts.

Barbarbar

A flowchart for understanding the mechanical effects of Barbarian Rage in D&D. Posted on Reddit 02/16/17.

Accommodating Different Types of Players

FATE can be rough on a new party. It demands a lot of its players and the GM. From character creation to play, it’s an involved process that draws heavily on ingenuity. Stealing a phrase from one of the designers of FATE Core, people playing FATE can experience "creative fatigue".

The honest truth is that not all players will enjoy playing FATE Core. Players used to more firmly defined rulebooks may find it exhausting, while those new to tabletop are often overwhelmed. One of the major goals of this system is to offer something for many types of players. In some areas this involves narrowing the game (like simplifying character creation). In others, it expands the game (like changing the feel of combat).

Streamlined Character Creation

A new character in FATE Core needs a backstory, a High Concept, a Trouble, three Aspects, a skill pyramid, and three custom-made stunts. While some players see these as opportunities, others will be exhausted by the sheer number of options.

It’s been my experience that players unfamiliar with FATE create characters that don’t match their expectations. The technical task of ensuring that every stunt is appropriately powered and every skill column balanced is one thing. It is an entirely different task to ensure that the skills, stunts, backstories, and playstyles support each other.

To that end, the existing character creation system has been replaced with a more narrow class-based system. Players make two whole-clothe creative choices (High Concept and Trouble), then pick the remaining choices from pre-existing options. Paths exist for players that want a higher degree of control of character creation and for players that just want to start gaming. This hopefully strikes a balance between overwhelming freedom and cookie-cutter characters.

Classes and Combat

FATE Core is less inclined to combat than the ever-popular D&D and Pathfinder games. This is, I believe, to FATE's credit. More tabletop games could benefit from a robust non-combat system that pushes players off the murderhobo path. That being said, combat is an integral part of swords-and-sorcery campaigns. One of the goals of this overhaul is to liven up fight scenes by placing interesting abilities in the hands of players.

Battles depend as much on the people in a group as the system it’s implemented in. The more technically-minded will want to seek strategies. Others will be trying to make fights interesting with unexpected avenues, while a few (new players especially) will just be looking to follow a role. FATE Spin seeks to offer opportunities for each group. The crux of this system is the player classes, which place unique combat-based abilities in player hands.

The best fights are those where the players make unusual use of their environment and abilities while still being aware of their limitations. They know that their Magic Missile can deal x damage, but could also be used to knock over a nearby tree. The worst fights are those that devolve into “roll attack, now roll defense”. It’s my hope that classes will encourage players to think outside of the box by better showing them the box’s outline.

Aspects, Fate Points, and Unnecessary Complexity

To me, aspects are the weakest part of FATE. They can work wonders when used properly, but using them properly is a pain. Every player has a half dozen permanent aspects (High Concept and Trouble included) that I need to keep track of, loaded on with whatever momentary injury or boost they have. That’s saying nothing of environmental aspects, enemy aspects, and equipment aspects. This article discusses how even aspects can have aspects.

The Aspect problem mirrors one of my main issues with Pathfinder; Does Grog hit with his axe? Well, let's add Grog's base attack bonus, bonuses from feats, strength modifier, effects of rage, weapon enchantment, current spell-effects... Oh, and we need to do the same for whoever Grog is trying to hit. Grog should be more concerned with what part of the body he's hitting than the numerical quantification of his attack.

I like my systems simple and clean for maximum roleplaying. That's one of the main reasons I chose FATE as a base for this system. The Aspects mechanic felt like an unnecessary complication for most of the campaigns I've run, leading to a flurry of house-rules that minimized their influence. FATE Spin goes the extra mile and removes all but a few character-specific aspects.

Modified Aspects

Each player has a High Concept, a Trouble, and a Permission. High Concepts and Troubles remain more or less unchanged. Permissions (a newly improvised mechanic) serve as an aspect with kick; it allows spellcasters to be spellcasters and gives non-spellcasters an exotic ability.

The ever-popular Fate Points are stripped of having to correspond with an aspect. They can provide a +2 to any action (even after the fact), allow for a declaration (like finding a torch in your pack), save your life in a tight spot, or convince the GM that your crazy plan isn’t so crazy.

Another change is that the GM does not have a pool of Fate Points. They're more like the banker, able to hand Fate Points out but not keeping any for themselves. Powerful characters under the GM's command (Captains) have a small personal pool of Fate Points.

My personal experience has been that this encourages pitched fights and player agency. Players know you mean business when you set a stack of Fate Points down on the table. As I'm sure Veteran FATE players are aware, this is a significant change to the Fate Point economy. Expect things to run differently.

To summarize, the Aspect system is heavily modified, Fate Points are beefed up, and the Fate Point economy gets a makeover. The end result is ideally something hopefully less complicated for players and GM's both.

Stress, Injuries, and Death

Given the emphasis on combat, I felt that a few changes were warranted. The first was the “Check Two” rule, which made characters tougher. The second was giving characters separate consequence tracks for physical and mental health (also making them tougher). The third was discouraging the use of “concessions”, which put characters much more at risk of dangerous injury or death.

FATE Core has a different health-balance when compared to D&D and Pathfinder. There usually aren’t any healing potions to make the pain go away, but death and injury can be dodged without too much work on a player’s part. It’s been my experience that keeping the threat of death about encourages better play. Players are less likely to murderhobo their way through the world if they meet things that can murderhobo them right back. It's one of things I like about Pathfinder.

Consequences needed adjustment since they were previously tied to the aspect system. In FATE Spin, consequences (injuries) apply skill penalties. Minor injuries apply a -1 to related tasks, moderates a -2, and severe a -3. Recovering from injuries is intended to take time, further encouraging players to watch their step.

Cooler Stunts and Better Balance

Ever heard of the Weapon Focus feat? It provides a flat +1 bonus to attacking with a particular type of weapon, and is about the most boring feat in existence. Useful, certainly, but dull as flint.

Abilities should provide interesting effects. One of the best parts of being a wizard in Pathfinder is that you have access to dozens of useful, powerful spells. Fighters get the short end of the stick unless they delve into the esoteric mess that is combat maneuvers (which means GM's get the short end instead).

FATE Core uses “stunts”, small abilities that provide bonuses or circumvent rules in useful ways. I like the intent of stunts; that is, encouraging players to customize their characters in the direction of their theme. Everyone has specializations and a few neat tricks up their sleeves.

In practice though, every group I’ve led has had a mix of excellent and not-so-excellent stunts. Many new players are overwhelmed with building three completely custom abilities, lacking the context for why a given stunt may or may not be useful (no, gaining a +2 to climbing ladders is probably not going to be useful, John). It's the GM's role to vet these stunts, but we're not omniscient. How a player uses their abilities is every bit as important as the ability itself.

FATE Spin attempts to get mitigate this problem by providing a set list of abilities to players. This has the disadvantage of limiting creativity, but allows for something resembling quality control. It also offers the possibility of balance by encouraging abilities that will be useful to the player. Stunts are introduced as characters “level up”. At which point, new players should have a better idea of how stunts may benefit them. Specific options also exist for players that want to build their own abilities, which hopefully serves as an acceptable compromise.

Lightening the GM's Load

FATE is not an easy system to GM for. There’s a lot more in the air than Pathfinder or D&D. Aspects (something I complain about elsewhere) represent a gnarled mess to track. The GM needs to keep in mind every player’s Trouble to ensure the Fate Point economy keeps moving, as well as their numerous stunts. The opposition needs to be staffed with a veritable rogue’s gallery of baddies, complete with backstories and quirks.

Compare this to Pathfinder, where monsters are neatly laid out in a search engine-accessible format and players can be broadly represented by their class. The advantage of FATE is less number-crunching but the cost is fewer concrete rules to serve as creative load-bearing supports.

FATE Spin tries to alleviate this in a couple of ways. Firstly, by abolishing the aspect system and putting in something more lightweight. Secondly, by creating a class system so GM’s don’t need to approve and remember every single stunt in their party. I’ve also placed some notes for building quick-and-scalable enemies for players to encounter.

Why not use...

FATE Core?

  • "Creative Fatigue" for new players and players used to crunchy games.
  • Aspects require more micro-managing than I like.
  • "Shared Narrative Powers" just aren't my style, and my players prefer the traditional method.
  • Combat isn't great.

I like FATE Core, enough that I chose it for the base of this system. Still, it didn't quite match what I needed. Aspects are a chore, combat isn't that interesting, and it's hard to pick up for folk that aren't used to being so gosh darn creative.

FATE Accelerated / FATE Freeport?

  • Most of the same reasons for FATE Core.
  • The Approaches System / Attribute System is a little too up-in-the-air for my taste.

Honestly, I think I prefer FATE Accelerated to FATE Core. It mitigates many of the problems I had with FATE Core, like reducing the number of aspects and boiling things down to one stunt. FAE was just a little too flexible for my liking. It's too easy for a clever player to dominate the game by justifying everything as Flashy or Quick. Players don't get the feeling of specialization they do in other systems.

Pathfinder?

  • Excessive complexity (feats, spells, BAB, etc.)
  • Strict limitations.
  • A broken sense of class balance.
  • Non-combat isn't great.

I have mixed feelings about Pathfinder. On the one hand, I love its intricate ruleset. There are dozens of classes, each with a dozen archetypes, variations, and prestige classes. There's also a lengthy bestiary of pre-made enemies and scenarios waiting to be used, and a combat system that's (rightfully) beloved by many.

But only the most die-hard fans will deny Pathfinder's flaws in balance. It's a system founded on combat, and some character builds are undeniably better at combat than others. There's no shortage of archetypes with great flavor that just don't measure up when put into practice. Any martial build, for instance, is going to have a hard time measuring up to its magic-enhanced cousins.

Pathfinder falls short of my expectations because it's too precise, too hard for novice's to pick up, and too focused on a combat system that locks out otherwise great character concepts.

D&D 5e?

  • Most of the same reasons for Pathfinder

D&D sure has come a long ways from AD&D. It's a fantastic system for folk familiar with the D&D way, but doesn't have much to offer for the type of campaign I'd like to run. The complexity has been reduced from previous editions, which places it comewhere between Pathfinder and FATE Core (though much closer to Pathfinder).

Dungeon World?

  • Somehow manages to be too restrictive and too free at the same time.
  • Combat is interesting, but uncomfortable.

I've run a couple of Dungeon World games, and both times left me feeling... weird. The character creation system is exactly what I was looking for. Players pick a class, a race, and a few other minor choices before heading out on their way. Things get weird when the mechanics come into play.

All possible actions fall under a handful of specific scenarios (attack, defy danger, level up, etc.) All possible GM reactions also fall under a handful of specific scenarios (soft moves and hard moves). It's an interesting way of looking at things, but sometimes it feels a little arbitrary, like playing a simulation of a game.

Damage is also handled in a way I didn't care for. Players that fail their Defy Danger roll might be hurt, or they might lose an item, or be presented with a choice, or be disadvantaged in some way. The spontaneity is nice, but the arbitrarity can leave players scratching their heads. Why was Bob hurt when he failed his attack roll, but Jessica just broke her wand? Are any of us in any real danger?

The goal of rules is to create a common ground between players and the GM. Both sides know that actions have consequences, though dice rolls make it so that neither is sure of the severity. Dungeon World circumvents this by placing the authority of consequence squarely in the GM's hands, and I don't care for it. Not a bad system, but not one I'd want to use again.