A Principle for Fate Conversions

For the last few…well, since well before Gen Con, I’ve been working on some Fate license conversion, notably the Achtung! Cthulhu Fate Core version. It’s caused me to cement ideas that I’ve had for a long time about converting to Fate, but haven’t articulated until recently. My main (not sole) principle on converting to Fate is simple:

Converting stuff for Fate is simultaneously easy and hard, in that it’s hard to know what you throw about because it doesn’t work in Fate. You have to have a sense of “Screw it, that will make for boring Fate rules as-is. But it’s a part of the world. How do we remodel?” Knowing when that’s true and not just lazy design, as well as how to achieve positive results, is what’s hard.

Also, remember that Fate is, at its core, a dramatic (in the classic sense of the word) adventure game, one where the players are more on par with the GM in narrative authority than is typical. Don’t fight against that.

To break it down some, it happened as I was reading over the rules for learning Mythos spells from Realms of Cthulhu, since it’s less granular than Call of Cthulhu. The rules state something like (my iPad is charging, so forgive the inaccuracy) “2 + d4 weeks.”

Warning: what I’m going to write isn’t in any way whatsoever guaranteed to be final rules for any product. I’m just spitballing.

Problem #1: Fate only has Fate/Fudge dice. Using other polyhedrals is (a) lazy and (b) tells Fate players to piss off.

Problem #2: Fate works in a sense of story/dramatic time, so even if something should be variable, that is a potential wrinkle.

Chicken-scratched on my steno pad is “How about [6 – Mythos rating] weeks.” And, eh, that mechanically might feel like it’s doing the job, but it misses one key point: Fate is largely about consequences and story arcs. So, shortly thereafter, I added “And in that time, you can’t spend time doing any intentional mental recovery.”

At the end of a period of learning a Mythos spell, you in other systems roll to see if it sinks in. If it doesn’t, you start over.

Problem #3: Fate doesn’t do well if failure merely continues with the status quo[1]  unless there’s an action economy element to the situation (a.k.a. a conflict). This is because it’s trivial to do things like create advantages or otherwise spend fate points to buy into success.

So, simply rolling to see if you learn it doesn’t work in Fate, when it does in other games. Aspect invocations give powerful character agency, and in non-complicated situations you need to assume that said agency will cause success. Therefore, you either have to (a) remove the need for a check or any sort or (b) make it interesting.

Let’s make it interesting.

At the end of said learning period, you cement the knowledge by casting the damn spell. You learn by doing, so if you don’t actually do it, no learning. And casting a spell (which I’m not going to go into in this post) is, well, let’s just say that my notes involve things like “You are so fucked if you fail” and “Hey Keeper, here’s all the shit you can decide to do, it’s all in your house.” (I use a lot of profanity as shorthand for remembering the right tone.)

If you fail, bad things happen. If you survive them, well, you still haven’t learned the spell right, so you need to study another week and try again. Even if said failure is success with cost (also, bad things happen), it isn’t success enough to cement the spell in your mind.

Sure, that isn’t accurate to the classic Mythos model, but is a dramatic interpretation suitable to Fate. And a Fate conversion can’t just be a literal translation; we see how well Google Translate does for languages, and we as Fate designers need to do better, and actually translate just as a linguist would.

Now, to jump elsewhere, regarding the Sanity rules I’m drafting up, there’s the point in other games where you randomly roll to see what mental affliction a character gets when the time comes.

Problem #4: Compounding problem #1, random tables don’t really work in Fate, because those dice create a bell curve, and there’s no good way to tell one apart from another if you’re trying some crafty way to create a linear distribution with them.

Which means those tables are a bad play in Fate. So, we go to the Fate ethos of being a dramatic adventure with on-par narrative authority. So, the solution there is easy: when Sanity would cause a character to take a consequence, that consequence is some form of mental debilitation akin to other Cthulhu games. Talk it out; the final says is more or less the GM’s, but taking into account what would suck for a player to play (either because he wouldn’t enjoy it or would just be terrible at it[2]).

Now, that’s more agency that in your typical Cthulhu game, but that’s what you gotta do in order to make it a game that respects both Fate’s system and Fate’s fan base.

Problem #5: Impact (like damage) is not separate from success.

This gets to be a huge problem when it comes to emulating another game’s physics. You throw a grenade — what does it do? You shoot someone with a high-powered rifle — what’s likely to happen? How does that compare to being shot with a .22? Stabbed with a knife? Sneezed at particularly hard?

The answer to this varies, but starts with a question: in this world, what should happen to PC-type characters? Maybe it’s a world where guns totally fucking kill, so you say “screw it, hits immediately mean consequences.” Or it’s one where guns hit hard, but heroic characters have a chance to deal with it, thus solutions like Weapons ratings. Or guns merely allow for ranged attacks, but aren’t any worse to deal with that fists. Whatever feels right is what you go with…

Problem#5: Fate isn’t granular.

…provided you understand that there really isn’t a middle ground in Fate, making this one of the biggest contentions when doing a conversion. Which is where  this problem falls. The difference between shifts is non-trivial, so even a single +1 bump is huge. (There was a time when I pondered a fantasy hack of Fate that used polyhedrals for damage, which maybe I’ll screw with in the future if I ever get back to my Halfling Nations setting. Just to see what would happen.)

If a knife gives you, say, a +1 to stress, and simply succeeding at an attack roll means a minimum of 1 stress, then the 1-stress box isn’t going to get used. Which prompts[3] the question: why the hell would anyone ever *not* fight with a knife?

If the answer is “duh, they wouldn’t,” this on the surface it looks like a decent hack. But I’m still going to heavily question anything that creates uninteresting forms of non-optimal play, at least with regards to Fate. In a game system that supports verisimilitude, that works; Fate does not by its very nature support verisimilitude or physics modeling.

Problem #6: Fate doesn’t inherently do mechanical nuance.

In Call of Cthulhu, you learn the Mythos skill by inches, representing that your mind is being slow-cooked by the unnatural horrors.

Fate has no “slow-cooker” mode. There are nine numbers that four Fate dice can generate. There are (by default) four ranks for skills, five if you count Mediocre. Increasing a die roll or a skill by even 1 is a statistically big deal, in comparison to incrementing a percentile skill.

Now, the rest of the skills are easy. To start, you just say “that skill is now a Fate skill,” and then you combine skills that makes sense, since skill bloat is very non-Fate. (Not that Fate mechanically can’t handle it; that’s about Fate fans having disinterest in large skill lists. I’m pushing it in A!C at 27 right now, though I’m happy with what I’ve got.) But skill ratings in a percentile game that have incremental impacts on your character’s agency? At best, you have to model that in big, less frequent jumps, if you’re to model it at all.

Since this is a Cthulhu game, naturally I’m picking the former, to model it in big jumps. But that means there isn’t any “oop, you accidentally learned a massive chunk of the Mythos at once!” mechanic, because the accidental and the incremental nature of learning the Mythos is intertwined. My solution to this is, I think, pretty cool, but it’s filed under “stuff I shouldn’t talk about right now because development reasons.”

(This problem, incidentally, is also why you can’t just hack Unknown Armies into Apocalypse World without a lot of work, because many of the spells in UA fit in a percentile nuance space, which AW also doesn’t inhabit.)

Problem #6a: Because of this, Fate is crappy at gear-porn.

It’s easy to model gear in Fate. It gives fictional positioning (you can’t use Shoot without a gun), maybe it has aspects (like Experimental Tech or Broken), and other things (lately I’ve been putting “equipment stunts” on some things).

But if you have a setting that’s rich in what gear does, or one that classically is obsessed with gear — cyberpunk, for example — Fate will let you down. That’s because gear-fetishizing is about nuance. My rifle has slightly more stopping power, but yours has a higher rate of fire. My hacker program cuts through ICE, but yours is twitchier and buffs your initiative. Now, you an easily model the fiction of such things with aspects and the like, but you cannot model the innate pleasure of gear-porn a player feels. So if your conversation has a gear-porn element, you’ve got to just be frank and say “hey, Fate does gear like this.”

Of course, the gear-porn element is also why Fate doesn’t do monetary resources well — there’s little point to it in Fate.

Problem #7: Fate emulates some genres and tones well, and some…very poorly. And that comes down to Fate being the RPG-with-a-GM with the most player agency and authority.

I’ve written before about how, if you’re looking for a game strong with survival horror, Fate is the last game to try. Survival horror is about denial of player agency, but Fate has tools that are counter to such play–things like creating advantages and invoking aspects to get you out of shitty rolls or to boost a result beyond what the dice could normally do.

The other week, I sat down to test our the Sanity system, which involved seeing if I could turn off those dials in certain circumstances, namely if when you’re in a “oh shit, Sanity check!” moment, if you’re temporarily denied being able to invoke aspects[4]. That didn’t work for two reasons: first, I forgot to use the rule for some of it (and that’s a sign of a potential rule problem); second, by completely removing the aspect economy, it didn’t feel like a Fate game anymore. This was something I was spitballing with Leonard Balsera about, whether that would work or not; we weren’t sure. But now I know that the mechanics of the idea are sound…but it’s just not a Fate game at that point.

Luckily, A!C is a pulpy Cthulhu game, so it doesn’t need to emulate survival horror. It does need to hold a sense of scale against horrific things, but not to the extreme that you can have with games that have more nuance and less player agency.


None of these are showstopping problems, but they are things to be aware of and work with when doing a real, earnest Fate conversion. After all, anyone can just shout “ASPECTS AMIRITE,” but actual conversion work takes thought, to bridge a game’s underlying fictional beats together with the beats and rhythm of Fate.

For you other Fate hackers out there doing big conversions, what issues have you stumbled into? How did you fix them? What did you learn from the experience, and have you come up with your own sense of Fate conversion principles?

– Ryan

[1] Or what’s commonly referred to as “is boring,” though I don’t like that dismissal because it typically shows someone’s misunderstanding of beat dynamics.

[2] Like someone who thinks “schizophrenia” means “multiple personality disorder,” or even just “I have conversation with people who aren’t real.”

[3] Not “begs.” Man alive.

[4] Was more to it than that, but no sense in writing up all the rules that didn’t work.


3 Responses to A Principle for Fate Conversions

  1. Mark Richardson says:

    One idea I have of providing more granularity would be to have an effect that adds 1 additional Fate Dice that is only used as a mid point to adding or subtracting a full point. While this adds dice it keeps the change within the context of Fate and it’s existing dice.

    So Say you have a “-0.5” as a Fate Die, you roll an extra fate die and lets say only count the (-) on that die this would make it somewhat negative but not always against you. The same could be done with Postive effects.

    Essentially you can fudge in a likely to help/hinder but not guaranteed to die as a bridging point between each full point of bonus/negative.

    It’s a raw idea.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s a really curious idea. The worry I’d have with that is it would make the beat for processing a roll longer, and a rule that’d be forgotten. But if you could get around that, it might work.

      But, that’s the very “fighting against Fate” that I warn about.

      – Ryan

  2. Jess says:

    This article needed to be written. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about since I have a number of settings and ideas for settings that I’d love to run in a more narrative environment. My players joke that I view Fate as my RPG philosopher’s stone, which may be slightly true. But the process of conversion is never easy and seeing you raise these points as obstacles to doing so helps me greatly. Thanks.