Adventuring Party, July 2018: It’s Not My Fault! (plus Fate house rules)

I wasn’t able to run my monthly game for a while due to needing to look for work in May, and starting a new job in July. The new job and the baby are keeping me busy enough, though, that I didn’t really have much time to prep anything for today. Instead, I showed up with four different options with various levels of pre-written or improvised. My players chose It’s Not My Fault!, a Fate Accelerated Edition game with random character and scenario generation through a deck of special cards (which ended up transitioning into +Michael Prescott's "The Moon is a Mirror" – – a terrific map/scenario). The players were all new to Fate, so I took the opportunity to try out a few house rules I’ve been kicking around. It was probably the easiest time I’ve ever had running Fate, and definitely the easiest time I’ve ever seen first-time players have with it.

I decided to only introduce a few house rules at a time rather than the whole list I was considering (, as I hadn’t had time to look at every It’s Not My Fault! card to assess where my tweaks might break them. So, we still rolled 4 fate dice, and still handled damage in terms of shifts on a success, but I largely dispensed with some other Fate mainstays, and It’s Not My Fault! was actually pretty helpful for this. In particular, I didn’t even bother to introduce them to....

... writing aspects on index cards, tracking free invokes, and distinguishing between aspects and boosts. Every concrete detail already established in the fiction was fair game to invoke as an aspect, without rolling to “create an advantage” first. The first time anybody invoked an aspect from established narrative details, it was free, no fate point required. So, for instance, when the players set out on their mission, they asked their client to provide a wolf pelt, some dried meat, and a rope, no roll required – and each of these things provided a free +2 later on when players remembered them and thought to use them. Near the end, I compelled an aspect on a player (which I knew he’d love and accept) even though we never actually wrote down it was an aspect, or even established what was happening with him: A sage had just sacrificed herself to transport him home from the moon, and I decided he gained some of her memories and personality in the deal, so I gave him a fate point he knew he’d never get to spend to encourage him to sacrifice himself so his own friends could get away. (Don’t worry, he also happened to unlock the secret of immortality by this point in the session.)

Of all the tweaks I made, this is probably the biggest departure from how most regular Fate Core players feel the game should be played. I’d experimented a bit with it before, though, and had heard from some players who do likewise, so I figured I’d just make it the rule of the day and see how it went for players who’d never seen Fate played any other way. And you know what? I don’t think I can go back. It made play go so much faster. Obviously, you spend less time taking notes and ticking boxes or shuffling around tokens. Scenes also play faster, though, as this approach also eliminates the necessity of “volleyball style” play, where players have to use their turns one-by-one to progressively set up advantages so one player can spike it at the end to succeed – any scene potentially already has a bunch of free invokes lying around! – but it still rewards cooperative setup when players take the time to do that (and mine did). Plus, I suspect this approach was a major reason we didn’t stop to answer rules questions nearly as often as I’m used to with Fate, I’m guessing just because it just feels intuitive, like a “Chekhov’s gun” rule: If some detail of a scene warrants enough attention to be mentioned, by all means, bring it up later for mechanical benefit.

... the four actions. I didn’t ask them think at all about whether they were overcoming, attacking, or creating an advantage, one of the biggest points of confusion I’ve seen new Fate players wrestle with – I just asked them what they wanted to do. To be fair, I still thought of the players’ actions in terms of the four actions at times, but only to help me advise them of the possible effects of what they wanted to do on their turn, or to adjudicate whether a stunt that specified a particular action could be used in a given situation. Still, as part of this approach, I didn’t really make a distinction between, say, what a tie or a success with style means for one action versus another. (The little rule summary cards that come with It’s Not My Fault! don’t make this distinction either, which I appreciate.)

Basically, if someone succeeded with style, I just gave them more of whatever they were going for – described some extra effect on a huge attack or defense roll (which, again, is basically fair game to invoke for free later), offered more detailed information when investigating clues or recalling lore, or awarding an even more impressive aspect when they were creating advantages (rather than 2 free invokes, which I honestly don’t feel like tracking). And if someone tied, I just described a complication like I would on a 7-9 in a PbtA game (which could range from something as simple to reduced effect to something as permanent as a severed hand fused to a PC’s forehead, depending on the stakes of the situation). I could imagine some die-hard Fate players twitching a little bit about how fast and loose that all sounds, but it fit my GMing style so much more easily, – which in turn, again, made things go faster, in combination with players just thinking in terms of answering “what do you do?” instead of “which action do I use?”

... numbered stress boxes. It’s Not My Fault! stress boxes are just 1 point each, and there’s no special rule limiting how many you can use at a time. This is so much easier for players who are familiar with the concept of hit points/health points, which is pretty much anybody who has ever played a traditional tabletop RPG or a video game RPG.

... Fate jargon and wordy aspects. I still used some terms, like “aspect,” “fate point,” “compel,” and “approaches,” as these seemed fairly self explanatory to me, especially since the character aspects in It’s Not My Fault! are super simple as aspects go: Alchemist, Con Artist, Swashbuckler, etc. Players had a super easy time comprehending briefly phrased, straightforwardly descriptive aspects. And I didn’t ask them to “invoke” aspects, but to spend a fate point to “use” or “exploit” them. And while “stunt” is a simple enough concept, I think calling it a “special ability” means just one less specific term players need to memorize.

There are some other things that I would like to dispense of in Fate which I couldn’t get around to cutting or replacing here. For one thing, I really dislike the standard stunt construction of “+2 to use one approach with a very specific action in a very specific situation.” It’s slightly more flavorful than the standard example of the “+1 sword” as the dullest magic item ever, but a flat numerical bonus is still pretty boring regardless. I couldn’t avoid this because It’s Not My Fault! comes with pre-written stunts, but I was pleased that very few of the cards we drew had these kinds of stunts on them.

Also – and apologies in advance, Fate fans who are about to cringe – I am not really a fan of fate dice. When rolling to see whether a fairly common action succeeds or fails, I’d rather look for a single value than pair off or sum up four dice. I mentioned after the game to my players that I was considering running Fate with a d20 next time I do it, and they were all for it. You could port It’s Not My Fault! directly into a d20 framework by saying that the default difficulty is 10, or if you want to get more frequent success at a cost, you could just specify success ranges (with 1-9, 10-18, and 19-20 roughly mapping to PbtA odds). This would screw up some stunts that specify effects based on a number of shifts, though, so I figured it wasn’t worth fiddling with until I think through it a bit more. Most likely, I’d replace the shift/progress/damage system with the one from Index Card RPG – a d4 if poorly equipped, a d6 with an appropriate tool or weapon, a d8 with magic or advanced technology, a d12 for extra powerful results, with targets having stress to clear in groups of 10.

I also want to think a bit more about how to deal with compels, which I find to be a fascinating paradox. I’ve seen people saying they hate compels, but like keys from The Shadow of Yesterday (and popularized by Lady Blackbird), even though to my mind, these things can work very similarly. Both are a way to encourage certain kinds of behavior and scenes by rewarding the player with a narrative currency, but – in a funny reversal of sorts, given the common complaint that Fate Core is more complex than it looks, and Lady Blackbird is delightful in its simplicity – compels represent the far simpler and more flexible of the two. Mechanically speaking, keys have a few different things to differentiate them from compels, but not by as much as it seems: They’re much narrower and more specific in their triggers (which actually leads to more repetition and less variety, which is not a point in their favor in my book); you can buy keys off (but you can also switch aspects, effectively replacing what you compel); and keys don’t necessarily always lead to suboptimal performance the way compels do (but many keys definitely do go in that direction). The only compel made in today’s session, described earlier, kind of suggests to me that the art of compelling is just to keep your eyes open for opportunities that players will relish. Still, I might try sometime coming up with a “sample compel” or “double reward compel” for each aspect, key-style, since the breadth of possibilities for compels can actually make it harder to know what to keep your eyes open for. I’m also considering trying something like the rules for acting from a “desperate” position in Blades in the Dark: When you act with a penalty due to an aspect, you automatically get a fate point. It’s less punishment than a standard compel, but I think it could lead to some fun scenes.

Whew! I must be making up for lost time with the number of words spilled on this game today. The short version, at least, is that It’s Not My Fault! (supplemented by one of Michael Prescott’s typically excellent maps when I ran out of steam for full-on improvisation) was a really excellent way to get a Fate game going with practically zero prep and no more than a minute or two spent explaining the rules – especially if you don’t bother using some rules at all. Don’t get me wrong: Fate Core as-written is an excellent system for players looking for a “traditional RPG” level of tactical complexity and opportunities for system mastery applied to “how can I simulate a certain kind of story?” instead of “how can I simulate realistic parameters for characters getting hurt?” But speaking as someone with very little time to prep or teach games, and enough familiarity with Fate to know what I can cut without breaking it, I think I got more out of using less.
The Moon is a Mirror
The Moon is a Mirror
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