Yesterday I ran a table-top role-playing game for the first time in 30 years. I’ve mentioned before how Dungeons and Dragons occupied a fair bit of my teenage years and how I’ve used RPG mechanics generally to work out issues of worldbuilding for my writing. Well, over the course of several months and numerous conversations with a friend and coworker whose away-from-work friends have nudged him into the RPG world, I finally got up the nerve to run a one-shot for a couple of coworkers and their spouses. In this post, I’ll offer a quick review of the system we used, a summary of the adventure and game play, and some final thoughts from the writer side of me.
I first picked up the PDF for Fate Core (and several other pay-what-you-want Fate products) from Evil Hat Productions not for the game but for the architecture. As a writer, I wanted a way to quantify (1) how magic works in Saynim, the setting of the story I’m currently working on, and (2) what differentiates the various fantasy kindreds (elves, dwarves, etc.) from one another in that realm. So my original interest in Fate completely ignored whatever “use as directed” warnings may or may not have appeared on the label. But apparently Jim Butcher writes up D&D character sheets for the characters in his novels, so why not?
At the table, though, I saw how Fate could shine. As a game, all of us found the system to be rather elegant. Two of the four players had never tried tabletop RPGing before, but it was very easy for them to grasp the system. Anything they wanted to do that required a dice roll required the same dice roll—four special dice marked with a +, a -, or a blank—add the results, and apply the appropriate skill modifier: Fight, Stealth, Deceive, etc. They didn’t need to understand the terminology Fate associates with these rolls to differentiate between Overcoming, Creating an Advantage, etc. I was able to explain that as we went along.
Building the game was a breeze. Fans of Fate say it’s really more a toolkit than a game system, and that rings true to me. It can be applied to just about any genre—fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk, superheroes, etc.—with a little bit of tweaking, and there is a strong online community sharing their ideas for how to tweak. For example, one thing I realized early in my prep was that I needed a handle on how 18th-century muskets should work in the game. There isn’t anything like that in the core rules, but a Fate subreddit provided several examples of quick, simple rule hacks to simulate that style of combat. And needless to say, I had already devoured a ton of information about putting together unique magic systems from the Fate System Toolkit, the Fate Freeport Companion (one of the few resources I actually had to pay for!), and a number of other products.
Fate doesn’t have to be rules-crunchy, but i don’t see any reason it couldn’t be if that’s what the players and the GM want. I can imagine more detailed lists of weapons and their capabilities, lists of spells, rules for tracking wealth or ammunition, etc. It’s all good. At its best, though, Fate favors a more cinematic flavor of game. Characters are larger than life, and the rule of cool is expected to trump a strict simulation of the laws of physics.
For my purposes, with a table of newbies or near-newbies, I elected to keep things as rules-light as I could. To be honest, I didn’t even enforce some of my own “rules” about how magic works in the world of Saynim. Introducing the hobby, having fun, and finishing the adventure in a reasonable amount of time were higher priorities!
The pitch for the game went something like this: I want to run a high fantasy adventure that feels like a Western. By “high fantasy adventure,” I had in mind the kind of old-school D&D tropes I grew up with: elves and dwarves, melee combat, magical powers, etc. By “feels like a Western,” I was thinking of a frontier setting, gunfights, “the code of the West,” and the overall attitude (also present in old-school D&D) that life is cheap. (The tech level of the setting wasn’t 19th-century, though, but 18th. Think Daniel Boone or Last of the Mohicans, not Gunsmoke.)
I brought a bunch of pre-generated characters that blended both of those families of tropes in their High Concept aspects, and the party ended up being Anya, the Refined Elven Polymath (and resident “city slicker”), Saba, the Half-elven Gunfighter, Alana, the Elling Scout (an elling is basically a hobbit with the serial numbers filed off), and Culloch, the Shifty Human Horse Thief. I must say that, even for inexperienced players, everybody really got into their roles. Each of them had at least one moment of really neat role play. Special shout-outs go to Culloch and his kleptomaniac tendencies and Alana’s drinking problem!
Given the one-shot format, the adventure was pretty straightforward: the frontier town of Dunswale was beset by a gang of ruthless outlaws, and our intrepid adventurers (jury is still out on whether they were “heroes”) gathered clues, tracked them down, and used a combination of deception, fire power, and magic to drive them off and collect a reward from the town’s beleaguered ree. They no doubt then celebrated at the Drunken Dragon and regaled the tavern keeper with tales of their exploits.
GMing a Fate game was actually surprisingly easy. At least, the “muscle memory” of how I used to do it back in the day was still there. The rules were straightforward enough that I felt confident winging it. I know there were places where I flubbed the rules or couldn’t put my hand on a cheat sheet I know I had prepped beforehand, and I could have done a much better job of keeping the fate point economy moving along. But the game system was very forgiving—and thankfully so were the players! My sense is that a good time was had by all.
Running my story world as a game helped me see it from a different perspective. Did I learn anything? I’m not sure. Maybe. But introducing the world to others and seeing it through their eyes will no doubt help me convey it on the page.
I’ll confess to a certain satisfaction in bringing some of my side and background characters to life as the party talked about them or to them as the plot developed. I might have grinned a little when Culloch thought to go visit Goblintown looking for clues, and I was able to show him Brack, one of my favorite sidekick characters, as he argued with Mote Crankshaw over the best way to preserve their community, replaying a scene from early in my novel but in a different context.
Now that I’ve actually used Fate as an RPG system, I can see why a lot of people like it. It’s fast, versatile, and almost infinitely customizable: 5 out of 5 stars from me!
Of course, the people around the table are what really makes a game. In my experience, even a clunky game system can be fun if the players buy into it and keep the focus on having fun with their friends. In our group, everybody brought something valuable to the table, so I’d also give Dave, Katy, Katie, and Tyler 5 out of 5 stars. It’s a pleasure to have run the game for them.