There are a couple things I’ve seen pop up again in the Fate community, which seems to pop up as new people discover Fate. People, you gotta understand two things about Fate:
To the people who say “It can do everything!” no, it can’t. Fate has a particular player dynamic and information economy that lends itself better to some types of play than others, much like how you can use a Leatherman multitool — which can cut things and screw in things and file things down — to bang a nail in, but that’s gonna take more effort and result in something less optimal than using a hammer.
Understand that when Leonard Balsera and I were sitting down to start the rewrite of Fate Core, we took this idea as a feature. We accepted that survival horror (where characters aren’t especially empowered), gritty combat (better executed by systems that give a damn about equipment), intense mysteries (where all the information creation is in the GM’s hands) are not strong suits in Fate. They can be done in Fate, so long as you also understand that Fate’s own sensibilities will twist them.
(Also, as a professional game designer, whenever I hear anyone say “this game can do anything/everything!” I hear “I don’t know what this game is about, and it does nothing especially well.” For of advice for those designing their own games: have a better answer or statement than that.)
To the people who say “Make it an aspect!” I wince every single time. To give a brief history lesson, Spirit of the Century had you go through five story phases of character creation, and come up with two aspects for each. Ten aspects was deemed too many — partly because GMs felt overwhelmed by the perceived (and incorrect) needs to keep all of them in mind for all players, and partly because creative fatigue meant that some of those aspects would either suck or just end up never getting used. The Dresden Files RPG introduced the high concept and trouble aspects, and pared down the five story phases to one aspect apiece. Still, seven was more or less slightly too many, so when we tinkered with Fate Core, we removed to story phases and brought the character aspects down to five.
That gave room for situation aspects (and to a lesser extent, game aspects) to shine. So when I see people say “oh, you want to do X? Just add an aspect!” I cannot do anything except see that as amateur aspect-spamming. This is especially true with people trying to model equipment.
Not everything needs to be an aspect. Some things are about narrative permission — you can’t shoot someone unless you have a gun. No aspect needed. Some things are just cool, like having (an example from a recent G+ post) a double-bladed weapon. And if something is really key to a character concept, then that’s a character aspect, stunt, or just something you note down when you make your character — not inherently an aspect in and of itself.
If something can be used or taken away and it is somehow different from most others of its kind, then maybe it’s a situation aspect — like the Fabled Double-sword of the Haleish or a cursed double-axe. Otherwise, you’re aspect spamming, and you’re breaking the information element of Fate’s economy.
Whenever you think “oh, this is another thing attached to a character, it could be an aspect!” stop, look at how that’s a high concept or other existing character aspect, or a stunt relating to privileged talent or extra (if it makes you better or different all the time, and not just on invocations), or decide if it’s just awesome color that you want to use to describe being interesting and badass. But don’t make it an additional aspect attached to a character except as a last resort. And maybe not even then. Your Fate games will be better for not aspect spamming.
Treat aspects, persistent and not, as their own economy. Having double-edged sword is as useful an aspect as I have arms – which unless having arms is unusual in your game world, isn’t worth taking up a precious slot of this actionable-information economy.
P.S. I realize we’re going to lose this war, but when you capitalize “Fate” as an acronym, it just looks ugly. We don’t do it anymore. Also, if you acronym-ize “Fate” in a third-party product, I’m going to assume that you’re either a joke or someone who isn’t a part of the Fate community trying to leech off of it.
 One of the struggles I had early with Achtung! Cthulhu’s Fate build was reconciling the pulpy nature of Fate’s player permissions with the horror elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. If not for A!C having a pulpy flair to it, that would be genuinely near-irreconcilable.
One thing I do when I’m running Fate, whether on the fly or planned in any capacity, is abstract the skills for NPCs in evocative ways, much like using skill modes form the Fate Toolkit. This is a simple idea, so a short post today.
For instance, instead of figuring out if some has Good Fight vs Fair Shoot vs Average Athletics and Notice, etc. — which is honestly a bit boring to me as a GM — I spice it up with something like:
- Good “Beating You Up”
- Fair “Eyes in the back of my head”
- Average “Crap With a Gun”
- Average “Not All That Smart”
Which I’d treat “Beating You Up” to cover most rolls in Fight — initiative, attack, defense, overcome, create, all that jazz. Eyes… is good for Notice, and so on. I call this “ad hoc” because I make them up and interpret them as needed, and like to use different names for different characters.
When I use this, I always name the skill, as I found that added a level of enjoyment when I was first introduced to this idea from Unknown Armies. I especially love doing this with monsters, like having a zombie horde with Fair “Devour the Living,” Average “Hit us all you want, wounds mean nothing,” and Good “The Living Cannot Hide.” Nothing quite like saying “I’m attacking with my ‘Devour the Living’ skill, what do you want to do?” to get action going.
And that’s why the idea works — not because it’s easier on the GM, but because it’s fun for the whole table.
Audience participation: Take one of the last NPCs you made for a Fate game. How would you stat up with colorful ad hoc skill modes?
You could also see this as action-based approaches rather than FAE’s color-based ones.
 Expect this treatment in Achtung! Cthulhu.
 I do more with monsters, like tweak stress, but that’s another topic.
One of the most dissatisfying things about being a creative person surrounded by successful creative people is feeling like you aren’t achieving progress because what you’re gaining isn’t at the same height as what your friends and colleagues have. And it’s something I see and hear all the time from others.
The straight dope is that I look at what I have achieved and compare it to, say, Jason Morningstar, Fred Hicks, Cam Banks, Kenneth Hite, Robin Laws, Matt Forbeck, Luke Crane, Jeff Tidball, the Dungeon World peeps (to name only a few of the people who I look up to due to their achievements), I fall pretty fucking short, that my creative life is stuck in 3rd while everyone else is cruising in 5th. That feeling makes me want to plot all sorts of crazy shit to “catch up” — or, if we’re going to unpack that sensation with some honest here, it makes me want to somehow feel like I have a portion of the relevance in the world than they do.
I see that struggle from relevance from others not unlike me, at least in feeling this way. Some are all trying so hard to make their first game into something bigger than it is, and others busting themselves on trying to create a whole line when their audience is small. I know what wanting that feels like, so I’m sympathetic to those drives. And if you’re one of those people, I have hope that you’ll get what you’re struggling for.
But I also wince when I see those moments, because I know the anguish that goes with it. The feeling like you’re fucking it up because you’re not hitting a speed you perceive is the “right” one. In those moments, I remind others (in no small part to remind myself):
- Skills take time to hone
- Audiences take time to build
- Moving forward slowly is still moving forward, not standing still
- It’s okay not to break out with your first published work; that’s what trying again is for
- Keep your eye on tomorrow
The last one reflects my time spent planning my suicide, and in that time feeling like I needed to rush to make Some Crowning Achievements. I now take a pill every day that helps me have a tomorrow, so I take advantage of that emotionally. I no longer look at trying to reach whatever perceived level of “internet notoriety” on a short timetable, because that is the path to disappointment and burnout.
I promise you that you’re moving forward, even if you can’t feel it.
(If you think I’m talking about you, then I might be. But the person who gave me the impetus to write this is the same as this post’s author.)
I started watching Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it premiered, and hearing all the comparisons to Arrow caused my curiosity to pique about that show. There are a lot of things you could say on the subject of those two serials set in a world of superheroes; Rob Donoghue recently said some smart things about the relationships on the shows’ early episodes.
From the first episode, I was hooked on Arrow. MAoS, not so much, but I’m watching it because history tells me that Joss Whedon is a slow builder. Here’s where the comparison, for me, turned to gaming — specifically on GMing and starting a campaign:
- Arrow is the campaign that an excited GM puts together for a group that doesn’t necessarily have buy-in to the game, and fills that first session with enough action, intrigue, and mystery to get people wanting to come back to the next session.
- Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the campaign that a long-term GM puts together for a group of friends who all know him well enough to trust that he’ll not drop the ball, and be okay spending the first few sessions slowing engaging the world in neat and tidy ways.
You need to know what sort of campaign you’re starting, as do all of your players. Are you looking to blast out with an Arrow-style campaign, or slow-build with a MAoS-style one?
There are pitfalls with each style, with the obvious one for the MAoS setup being that your players need to be on board and trust you with the slow build. (If you look at the Internet, you see some people who keep watching with faith, and others who are grumbling, so you might not have 100% of either at your table, but a mix.)
The Arrow setup can get buy-in pretty strongly, but whereas the MAoS one holds a general promise of “this will get more interesting once we lay groundwork,” Arrow’s makes a direct problem of “these things that happened in the first session will be important, and we’ll resolve what’s introduced in future sessions.” If you don’t manage the mystery and intrigue elements, and just try to pile on more in order to hide that you’re not good at resolution, it’s gonna crash and burn.
There isn’t much more to compare to, because they’re very different shows — there’s more fruit in comparing Agents of SHIELD to Leverage than to Arrow. (The exception being talking about how the larger worlds of their IP, but MAoS is still building.) Still, looking at the two shows is like looking at two different GM styles.
 Man alive, typing that out as-billed is annoying.
As game designers, we have to be careful to not let our own sense of “cleverness” turn into a poor experience for players. Often, we approach this line by making fiddly dice mechanics. When it comes to making games, here’s my philosophy: what’s easy for you to do isn’t inherently easy for everything, especially when you’ve gained plenty of practice at making your mechanic work because you’ve tested it over and over.
What I consider reasonable to have in a mechanic:
- Finding the highest (or lowest) die in up to ten dice
- Finding whichever dice in a die pool are of a certain number or higher, generally not more than ten
- Adding two single-digit numbers together
- Adding a single-digit number to a double-digit number
- Subtracting up to 5 from a number, or subtracting whole tens (10, 20, etc) from a number
What I start eyeballing (but don’t just automatically toss out):
- Die pools that involve more than ten dice
- Adding three single-digit numbers together
- Adding two double-digit numbers together
- Other subtraction
- Subtracting one die from another
- Multiplication involving a single-digit number
- Moving dice around
- Rotating pips/sides (rotating a 3 to a 4, or a 4 to a 3)
What I try to avoid entirely:
- Multiplication of two double-digit (or higher) numbers
- Applying individual rules on dice in a pool
 Mythender breaks this rule, but I was conscious of this while designing it. Because you earn those dice, and because you learn the rules when you have fewer dice, those times you’re rolling 30 dice have meaning (which don’t happen often), and in practice it’s worked out alright.
 Like GURPS’ 3d6. I can do that in my sleep, but I have watched over the years players stumble on adding three dice together.
 Like Feng Shui. This is less about arithmetic than it is about confusion over which die to subtract — something else I’ve seen over the years.
The Test & the Reason
When you’re playtesting your game, refrain from (beyond a demo or two) interpreting the dice to generate the result. Have the players do it. Watch those who do it quickly. Watch those who struggle, and if others have to bail them out.
This is important for two reasons: (1) constantly having to pause to interpret the post-roll beat can break the mood; (2) when you can’t figure out how to interpret the dice and always rely on others to tell you what you rolled, you don’t feel like an equal participant.