Points of drama, part 2 – FATE

So, I felt the need to follow up my post on drama points after playing FATE last weekend. FATE is an open source rules system, so there’s a lot of variants out there. I haven’t read more then a couple and last weekend was my first go at playing, so take this as a comment on the particular version I was playing – Age of Arthur – rather than necessarily on FATE generally.

FATE is a fairly bog-standard skill-based system, albeit with the funky FUDGE dice to make it all feel a bit different. The bit of the system that I’d like to talk about here is the game’s use of fate points (I suspect that should be FATE points, but I’m damned if I can be bothered to press caps lock that many times). Each player has a pool of them, and the GM has a pool as well.

Fate points can be used to activate aspects, which are short phrases (or even single words) describing something about your character. Examples from our game were “boastful”, “thinks like a roman general”, “secretly prefers the company of pagans to other christians”. The important thing here is that they can be used in a positive way (to get a bonus on a skill roll) or a negative way (much like Leverage‘s distinctions). But in this case, a negative use of fate points means someone else compelling you to act in accordance with your aspect.

Here’s how it works. The GM can offer a player a fate point to act like their aspect says they should – so e.g. could force a boastful character to, uh, start boasting. If the player accepts, they get to keep the fate point. If they turn it down, that’s fine, but the GM gets the fate point instead. But in addition (and this is the important bit IMO) a player can offer another player a fate point from their pool in exactly the same way. In this case, turning it down just means the fate point stays with the player who was offering it.

The result of this is that players are encouraged to start spotting opportunities for other players’ characteristics to get them into interesting situations. And there’s an incentive for them to do so – there was a noticeable tendency in our game for people to try to funnel fate points to the person who needed them most for generating bonuses. It also means that the GM can encourage players to enter into situations that objectively look like a bad plan for their character, and reward them for doing so (which has the added bonus that it’s slightly easier for them to extract themselves from said situation).

It still felt like a slightly uncomfortable halfway house between completely sharing out GM responsibility a la (say) Fiasco, and centralised GM power in the more traditional mold. But the incentives meant that there was actually a good reason for players to use fate in a GM-like way, which could not easily be duplicated by any other means. Fate points didn’t feel counterintuitive or like a third wheel in this game; they fulfilled a definite niche. I begin to see the potential in mechanics like this.

Josh Fox

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

6 thoughts to “Points of drama, part 2 – FATE”

  1. I’ve always associated FATE and this kind of drama points with pulp genre–probably because the only FATE game I own is Spirit of the Century. Yet to play it though. The Gamegeeks video on gameplay is slightly different to your description and I don’t know if that’s because the Age of Arthur rules are a conscious departure.

    As for the pulp thing–I read an opinion once that realism and pulpy-ness lie on one axis, and you tune your game towards one end by the number of Drama points you allow.

    Can the GM actually use the points, or do they just hoard them if the player refuses?

    1. Well, any difference could equally be due to me getting it slightly wrong, I guess.

      The GM uses fate points in the same way as the players, i.e. to give their guys a bonus (+2) to their roll when they have a relevant aspect. They can definitely hoard them, but our GM’s philosophy was very much to try and encourage a regular flow of FPs around the table. Also, when the GM offers a FP to a player to do something against their interests, he doesn’t take it out of his pool, so there’s no disincentive to do so – and he gets to keep the FP if the player says no. So the incentives favour using them for the GM too.

  2. My feeling is you may be encountering GM’s who may not be comfortable using ‘story points’ either. I ran a Doctor Who game last weekend and the Story points as currency and tools to change the flow of the game become a source of drama themselves. More than once a player anguished on wether to spend a Story Point to succeed now or risk not having them when the story crescendos. As I added on part 1 of this thread I actively seek out story point systems these days. They create a sense of drama and pace most systems lack the ability to create.

    1. It’s funny, I consider that if you’ve got people agonising over whether to spend a point then you’ve maybe gone too far. The point of making story points (or whatever they are called for the game du jour) capable of generating dramatic events is precisely to encourage people to jump in with cool ideas for drama, not to turn the game into resource management.

      That said, as mentioned in the article I’m beginning to see the point of them. I reckon that we’re in a phase of game development where people are experimenting with what these tools can do, and maybe haven’t optimised them yet. We’ll see whether they can be improved over time.

  3. Just thought I would chime in as co-author of Age of Arthur to clarify things. Rabalais’ description of the Fate point mechanics in Age of Arthur is accurate, and there are some small changes in Age of Arthur from other versions of Fate I’m familiar with. They reflect the way Graham (the other Age of Arthur author) and I want to run Fate, based on earlier play.

    By the way, it was nice to meet you and your fellow Black Armada member at Furnace last month.

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