Is Fate an RPG?

Yes. Of course it is. That’s a stupid question. Sorry for the inflammatory title. But, the Angry GM recently raised the question of what kind of RPG it is. A question that’s been asked a dozen times and answered in about as many ways, but I’m going to take another stab at it. Because damn-it-all, I’m entitled to my very own, super-special opinion on the topic.

See, Angry raises a good point in the delineation of RPG’s. The metaphor of Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy and Star Trek vs. Star Wars is an apt one. There are growing “branches” of RPG’s developing. Maybe they’ve always been there, and are simply gaining more traction as the industry worms it’s way into niches, expands, contracts, breaks apart, and reforms.

You have old-school-revival games. Storytelling games. GMless. Diceless. Games where you’re the good guy, games where your a centuries-old bloodsucking monster. But! I think by trying to break all these games into their own neat little sub-genres, we miss an important point.

In the comments of a recent article, Bankuei schooled me on the many independent axes of the Same Page Tool vs. the differences between subsets of GNS theory. By trying to fit everything into the neat little boxes of Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist, I lost track of a key point: games vary up and down on all of these axes. Hell, we can literally be playing the same exact system, and still vary wildly in Creative Agenda and the hows and whys of play. Bankuei’s game is wildly different from mine is different from Angry’s.

In his answer, Angry states that there is a “standard” RPG that games like Fiasco and Fate deviate from. This, I think, is where his analysis begins to fail. See, even within such a narrow band as “Fifth Edition DnD”, there are wildly different play-styles, creative agendas, and answers to the “Same Page Tool.” Now, Angry might say that deviation from the standard he follows is “wrong”, he’d quickly add that we’re free to play any wrong way we want (and, in fact, such wrongness is essential to the development of the hobby.) Bankuei might call his standard broken play and illusionism. My point is simply that there is no “standard.”

OK, so let’s talk about Fate. And hell, Fiasco while we’re at it. Now, I’d argue that there is great deal of latitude in how you play these games in terms of creative agenda and where your own particular game-on-the-table fits on the many axes of the Same Page Tool. That being said, systems tend to lend themselves better towards certain play-styles, and a lot of friction and broken play comes from players picking (and sticking with / trying to fix) a system that doesn’t match their preference of play-style. Or everyone has their own play-style and is trying to tug-of-war meet in the middle. But Bankuei’s better at explaining all that better than I am so, again, go read his stuff if you haven’t.

So, let’s take a look at the axes I think Angry is using to judge the deviation from his normative RPG:

Borrowed from The Same Page Tool:

Doing the smartest thing for your character’s survival…

a) …is what a good player does.
b) …sometimes isn’t as important as other choices
c) …isn’t even a concern or focus for this game.

also, arguably:

Do you play to win?

a) Yes, you totally play to win! The win conditions are…
b) Good play isn’t a win/lose kind of thing

In Fiasco, the creative agenda is very clear. As Angry says, Fiasco isn’t about surviving. It’s about beating the crap out of a character for fun and entertainment. We might also be tempted that for Fiasco, “Good play isn’t a win/lose kind of thing”. But! I’ve definitely played in games of Fiasco where I tried to win, if you define winning as being the guy that’s got the most going for him at the end of the game, is the least broken / humiliated / dead, etc etc. So, already, we get into shades of gray.

Now, for Fate, Angry makes the argument (I think) that Fate sits between Fiasco and his standard. If his standard is that survival “…is what a good player does”, then in Fate it “…sometimes isn’t as important as other choices.” But! I think even Angry would argue that there is room in his own standard for both play-styles. Sometimes, players in Angry’s game have to make hard choices. Do they they do what’s best for them or what’s best for the world? Do they give their lives protecting the kingdom, or live to fight another day? At the end of the day, I’d say the “standard” is much closer to “b” than it is to “a.”

But lets get into the nitty-gritty mechanics of it. Having played Fate, I think Angry is basing his argument off of how “Compels” and “Aspects” work in Fate. Angry freely admits he doesn’t regularly run Fate (Note: In a previous version of this article, I claimed that Angry has not run Fate. That was untrue, he has played in and run both FUDGE and FATE games), so it isn’t exactly a surprise that one of the most controversial aspects of the system is his sticking point.

See, in Angry’s mind (and many others), the Compel works like this:

  1. The player writes down an aspect that can be interpreted both positively and negatively
  2. The GM applies both interpretations equally, and the result is that the player has to live with the consequences / take certain actions that aren’t in their best interest.

However, from a closer reading of the rules and actual examples in play, we see it works like this:

  1. The player writes down an aspect that can be interpreted both positively and negatively.
  2. The player is given a “pool” of Fate points every game. He may spend a Fate point in order to “invoke” on of his aspects for either a re-roll or a +2 bonus to a result. An effective mechanical advantage.
  3. The GM may, at times, offer players what is called a Compel. A Compel is presented as a disadvantageous option based on one of the players aspects, usually drawing from a negative interpretation of the aspect, but not necessarily (“Because you have the aspect “Heroic Knight”, I think you rush in to help save the princess”).
  4. The player then decides whether to accept the compel, perform the narrative action, and gain a Fate point. Or! The player refuses the compel, and pays off the GM with one of their own Fate points.

Essentially, the Compel mechanic is a mechanic of agency and choice in terms of short term vs. long term. Accepting a Compel means gaining a temporary disadvantage in return for an advantage in the future. Refusing a Compel is the opposite, gaining a temporary advantage in return for one less advantage in the future.

“Wait a sec!” you might say, “Isn’t a Compel just a screw-job? After all, the GM decides when it comes up! It doesn’t actually give you any choice!”

Yes, well, look at DnD. In DnD, do you get to decide when the orc attacks you? Do you decide how much damage he does? No. You have choices you can make to mitigate the attack, but one way or another, you have a hard choice to make. Just because you didn’t “choose” to get hit by a Compel doesn’t mean the game lacks agency.

As a side note, I recently argued on twitter that Fate’s system is much more gamist than other “bennie” mechanics. The typical “bennie” system rewards a player for adhering to a genre, trope, or realism-based standard of play. You are rewarded with a bennie for “doing something cool”, ie, adhering to the simulation.

However, in Fate, the points are given to you up-front. You don’t need to earn them. They are a resource to be managed, not an advantage to be won by playing “right.” You can accept temporary narrative setbacks in the forms of “Compels” to gain more, but ultimately, how you manage your pool of points is completely up to you, not the subjective whim of a GM handing out “Awesome Points.”

To put it in more DnD-friendly terms, I like to think of the choice of whether to refuse or accept a Compel as equating to an All-out-Attack or a Defend Action. In an All-Out-Attack, you gain a temporary advantage (+ chance of you hitting your target) in return for a future disadvantage (+ chance of you getting hit). With a Defend action, you’re taking an immediate disadvantage (no attack, no other action, etc) in exchange for a future advantage ( bonus to your defense). DnD is littered with these kinds of choices. Yet no one suggests that players are “meant to fail spectacularly.”

I don’t want this to come across as a bash on Angry. There is a real, important, academic discussion to be had on the nature of games and the many axes they can fit into. Most of the criticism I’ve heard of Angry’s advice revolves around people not understanding that he is trying to perfect a very specific sort of game, and is doing a damn good job of it. Now, for me, personally? I don’t run Angry’s game. But I still pull from his work a ton and appreciate how in-depth and thoughtful his work is. I think that, across the many axes of game design and GMing, there is a lot of room for cross-pollination and pulling ideas. But, there is no “standard.” There are good ways to play games, there are risks taken, and there is greatness to be had.

2 thoughts on “Is Fate an RPG?

  1. So I don’t know how he plays his games. But to be clear on what Illusionism is:

    1) The GM tells the players they can do anything within ability of their characters; they are in control of their characters’ actions

    2) Then, in actually playing, the players don’t have that control, because the GM has a preplanned story and forces their actions when it goes outside of the plan.

    The broken part is lying to the players about what game they’re playing. When the players know they’re going on a railroaded game, and that their actual choices are going to be very limited? That’s Participationism. Not my cup of tea, but totally functional.

  2. Hey awesome! Someone who disagrees with Angry, but still “gets” and acknowledges (and not just in the perfunctory, insulting debate-club manner) where he’s coming from.

    Me, I love the idea of compels. I love my characters doing things that aren’t necessarily good for them… after all, I do things that aren’t good for me all the time. I don’t exercise enough, I drink more than I should, and some day I’m going to get shot for flipping off bad drivers in a major metropolitan area (I really need to stop).

    And we all do things that aren’t in our best interest sometimes. Some people do them quite often. Why?

    Now, without a system to represent distress vs eustress (distress is nearly getting hit by traffic, it’s just bad… eustress is a “good stress” like say me failing to exercise: it’s bad for me, but in the short term makes me feel good or think I feel good)… without that system, the model (aka the game) doesn’t explain why I do these things. Why do I throw insulting gestures at other drivers? All it can get me is shot in the face for 3d6 damage (probably crit), right?

    White Wolf’s storyteller system had Nature and Demeanor aspects of a character. Demeanor is who you are to the world, Nature is who you are deep down. Following your Nature would regain a Willpower point, which was your standard “extra die” kind of thing.

    And this is why I like Compels, this is why I like Inspiration, this is why I like any piece that aids you in understanding or at least post-facto rationalizing why your character did something that on the surface looks like it can only hurt them. It helps to model the things we do as human beings, so that our characters are people–not robots.

    But play any wrong way you want!

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