Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fate Accelerated Edition: Thoughts After Playing

I picked up the PDF for Fate Accelerated Edition a while back, and wrote a "first impressions" review of it.  As I said in the review I couldn't see myself running the game in the near future, largely because I've got so many other things I want to run.  But one of the players in my group was intrigued by it, bought it, and decided to run a three session mini campaign to test drive it.

The setting was a modern day alternate universe where the Cold War never ended, and recently Russian terrorists launched nuclear warheads at many major cities across the globe.  The twist is that it was combined with a bio-weapon, and the resulting disease (called RadPox) wiped out most of the global population.  The PCs began in Missoula, Montana.  We had an interesting array of characters, which is perhaps to be expected from a modern game without a tight thematic focus (i.e. spies, or dungeon delvers, or fringers trying to get by under the radar of the Empire/Alliance, etc.).  My own character was an old man (under description I wrote "current Harrison Ford") with the aspects Retired Border Patrol Ranger - Canadian Border (high concept), I'm Getting Too Old For This Shit (trouble), Sucker For a Pretty Face, Bruce Collins Is My Oldest Friend (refers to an NPC), and My Dead Brother's Shotgun.  The other PCs were a large animal veterinarian and a quirky accordion player (part of a duo with an NPC mandolin player; like I said, quirky).  The premise was that we were leaving Montana because of the imminent onset of winter, headed south to pursue rumors of a "holy land."

Approaches are a great narrative "shortcut," but they definitely have their limitations.  While it's easy to liken them to ability scores in D&D, they feel a bit more like watered down backgrounds in 13th Age.  That is to say, they represent a philosophy or broad thematic archetype much more than a physical trait (and I say "watered down" in that it lacks the specificity and detail of a good 13th Age background, which isn't to say that it's "worse").  So having a high Sneaky approach doesn't just make you the stealthy (Dex) guy, but you're good at tricking people or lying to them in social situations as well.  One big strength is right there in the name: it encourages players to think about different ways to approach a situation.  Different GMs will draw the line differently insofar as how much they'll allow a PC to justify a shaky or borderline approach; it seems like too much leniency can lead to approach-spamming, whereas strict adherence to the GMs vision can stifle creativity.

There are two big issues that I have with approaches in play.  The first is that sometimes (at least once per session) a PC will try something that doesn't neatly fit one of the approaches.  It might not even kind of fit one of them.  At that point you just have to try to shoehorn it into a category, which can feel like fitting a square peg into a round hole.  It's awkward.  It also means that certain approaches (Clever, Careful, and perhaps Forceful) tend to be more useful because it's easier to justify "off" actions as being one of those.  Sneaky and Flashy seemed to be noticeably more limited than the others.  It's worth mentioning that my character's highest approach was Sneaky, and the accordion player's was Flashy, and we both ended up using them less frequently than we would have expected.  In contrast, the vet had Clever at the top and probably used it about half the time.

My second issue is unavoidable given the abstracted, streamlined nature of approaches, and it's simply that sometimes suspension of disbelief can be strained.  Skill systems imply previous experience at a given task, but with approaches your potency with the same task will vary depending on which angle you're coming from.  For example, I ended up using no less than 4 different approaches at different times to shoot a shotgun.  Charging in guns blazing was Forceful, an ambush was Sneaky, a "quick draw" type situation was Quick, and most of the time it was assumed shots were aimed, and so Careful seemed most appropriate.  Now I don't know about you, but I tend to be more accurate when I actually aim.  Problem was, my PC's Careful was only rated at +1, and so I ran into this strange situation where I was more effective making more reckless shots.  Fortunately the GM awarded us a milestone after session 2, and so I boosted Careful to +2.

Aspects and The Fate Point Meta-game
At its heart this game is all about the Fate Point economy.  Oftentimes it would be necessary to invoke multiple Aspects in order to succeed at a roll, and so having more Aspects is useful, even if they're redundant.  Indeed, redundancy can be really useful if the Aspects apply to common situations!  I think more ideally though is that PCs should make judicious use of the Create Advantage action to get more Aspects into play, and while we didn't do that as much as we probably should have it probably becomes habitual the more you play.

The extent of the meta-game, and how players and their characters might have very different goals, really clicked for me in session 3 last night.  The climactic final battle was an EPIC firefight, and I honestly thought it would end up being a TPK.  Anyways, at one point I got shot at and hit for 1 shift, and decided to compel an Aspect against myself to turn it into a 3 shift hit so I could get a Fate Point out of the deal that would help me out with offense later.  Yep, that's right, me as a player wanted my character to get more hurt, and the game actually rewarded me for it.

While a +2 bonus might not seem like much, especially if you come from a d20 background, Aspects (and sometimes Stunts) will determine whether you succeed or fail more often than what you roll on the dice.  The results for a pool of Fate dice ends up being between -2 and 2 most of the time.  We calculated a result of +4 on the dice as happening 1.25% of the time, which is sobering considering a natural 20 on a d20 happens 5% of the time.  Exciting rolls are the exception (such as when I rolled +4 on my attack when the enemy's defense roll was -3), and so you really have to embrace Aspects as your primary "success currency."

What hit home in that third session, when I tried to get my character hurt to give him more Fate Points, is that the player's job is to orchestrate the tempo of their character's story as much as it is to roleplay them.  The player can contribute to deciding when the character gets beat down, all so that they can come back swinging later, when the stakes are higher.  It's an interesting twist, for better or worse, that can really only occur in a game with Fate Points (or Plot Points; hopefully I'll get to play Cortex+ Firefly soon!) as the game's major currency.

I wrote up my first Stunt using the guidelines in Fate Accelerated Edition, but I found that implementation really dull.  Yes, a +2 bonus is a pretty big deal in Fate, but when everything of consequence boils down to "another +2!", my interest starts to wane.  Sure, the game is more about how you use the elements that give you the bonus, but there's already plenty of that with Aspects.  If something is called a "Stunt," I want it to feel cool.  Besides that, I find the "fill in the blank" statements of the FAE stunts to be pretty clunky.  And the +2 modifier makes it feel like part of a skill system tacked onto the more abstract approach-based system.

The easy solution is to port in some of the ideas from Fate Core and the Fate System Toolkit when you're making your Stunts.  Some of these also boil down to a situational +2 bonuses, but at least the wording is more free-form and so the stunts feel more organic.  In addition to the modifier, Fate Core also outlines examples for creating rules exceptions, using balancing mechanisms like "once per session I can..." and for creating Stunt "trees" with effects that build off of each other.  The Fate System Toolkit really goes into detail with Stunt costs, broader Stunts with smaller bonuses, triggered Stunts, combined Stunts, and tying Stunts to Aspects.  Essentially as long as you keep in mind the refresh equivalency you have more flexibility in creating balanced Stunts.  While some of these options might be considered to crunchy for FAE by some, others are just as simple (if not moreso) than the default FAE Stunts.

Final Thoughts
I can see why Fate is so popular, but it definitely requires a different mindset to play than most traditional games (even traditional/narrative hybrids like 13th Age and Edge of the Empire).  We had a bit of a rocky transition period that made me really glad that my GM went with a 3-session arc; the first session was a messy disaster where we struggled to fully use the system (half the group are new to RPGs, having just played one campaign of Edge of the Empire that lasted a few months), the second went fairly smoothly, and in the third session things really started to click.

I don't see Fate becoming my go-to system (I prefer medium crunch, hybrid narrative/traditional games), but it was definitely an interesting change of pace and it makes me excited to try out Firefly (Cortex+ seems very similar to Fate).  This also wasn't the last time I'll play it, though.  In fact, I'll GM the next mini-campaign for this group, and at some point we'll probably have the main group try it out.

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