Explaining Fate Core to Newbies

I’m thinking of running a game of Fate Core for some mates. Fate is sufficiently different to other role playing games that I thought I should pull together notes on the things to cover with the newbies. This is basically the Cheat Sheet from the rules with explanatory text and is based on the 2011 Fred Hicks post on The Core of Fate Core.


Fate Core Book Cover

Fate, the narrative game

Fate is a narrative game where the Game Master (GM) and players jointly create an entertaining and interesting story. The narrative is wrapped around awesome player characters – proactive, capable people who lead dramatic lives.

Collaboration is key to Fate. The GM shares responsibility for story telling with the players. Everybody looks for opportunities to make the events as entertaining as possible and for ways to highlight how awesome the player characters are. With that much creative input you can expect a storytelling experience full of twists … of fate.

Being narrative driven, in Fate you first describe what you’re doing in the narrative, and only then look for appropriate game mechanic to deal with that. The rest of this post is to outline the main rule mechanisms that support the narrative.


Game time

Fate is not about hard definitions of time (or distance or weight or size or anything for that matter), so the measures of time are more aligned with a TV series or a book.

Campaign: the entire series of books in a particular setting or all the TV seasons for a particular show
Story Arc: a TV season or book
Scenario: an TV episode or book chapter
Session: a single sitting with the players
Scene: time to resolve a situation
Exchange: time for all characters to take an Action


Skills

Skills represent a character’s basic capabilities and including both real skills, training, innate abilities, and what other game systems call character attributes. Skills enable a character to do one or more of the four Actions (Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, Defend). Skills are rated on The Adjective Ladder and require rolling the Fate Dice to succeed. Opposition to a Skill roll can be either active or passive where active opposition is also a Skill roll.

The standard Skills in Fate Core are: Athletics, Burglary, Contacts, Crafts, Deceive, Drive, Empathy, Fight, Investigate, Lore, Notice, Physique, Provoke, Rapport, Resources, Shoot, Stealth, and Will.

Fate is about interesting narrative so awesome characters automatically succeed at boring Actions. It would be dull to have to dice to see if a character succeeds at trivia. So don’t. Only make a Skill roll when you want your character to attempt something dramatically interesting.

The steps in taking an Action are:

  1. Describe what you are trying to do
  2. Choose the Action
  3. Choose a relevant Skill
  4. Choose any relevant stunts to apply
  5. Roll the Fate Dice
  6. Check the result against the opposition
  7. Invoke any Aspects you think apply and pay the Fate Point cost
  8. Apply the final result

Fate Dice (4dF)

A character rolls four fate dice (4dF) when they take an Action with a Skill. Each Fate die has two sides marked -1, two sides blank (zero), and two sides +1. So 4dF gives a range of -4 to +4.

Fudge/Fate dice

Fudge/Fate dice

The Adjective Ladder

Both Skills and and difficulty of passive opposition are rated according to the adjective ladder.

Value Adjective
+8 Legendary
+7 Epic
+6 Fantastic
+5 Superb
+4 Great
+3 Good
+2 Fair
+1 Average
+0 Mediocre
-1 Poor
-2 Terrible
-3 Awful
-4 Abysmal

Four Actions with Skills

A particular Skill enables a character to perform some or all of four Actions:

  • Overcome: get past an obstacle including situation Aspects
  • Create an Advantage: create an Aspect then invoke it for free
  • Attack: harm another character either physically or mentally
  • Defend: prevent Attacks or advantages on you

Opposing a Skill

Opposition to a Skill is going to come in one of two forms:

  • Active opposition: from a character rolling dice against you i.e. Skill + 4dF
  • Passive opposition: from an obstacle that has difficulty rating on the ladder for you to Overcome.

Four outcomes of a Skill Roll

Four outcomes are possible when making a Skill roll:

  • Fail: fail your Action or succeed at major cost
  • Tie (0 shifts): succeed at minor cost
  • Succeed (1–2 shifts): succeed with no cost
  • Succeed with style (3+ shifts): succeed with additional benefit

Shifts = Skill rating plus 4dF roll minus opposition

Notice that a “failure” can result in a success. This is because awesome characters should generally succeed. But to make it interesting they succeed at a cost, i.e. something bad happens to them in the story.

Stunts

Stunts change or improve a Skill in certain constrained situations. Options are:

  • +2 to Skill
  • add Action to Skill
  • create rules exception

A high number of Stunts reduces the character’s Fate Point refresh.

Mega-Stunts (or Super-Stunts or Stacked Stunts)

Where stunts have one benefit, mega-stunts include more than one benefit. Each benefit reduces the character’s Fate Point fefresh.


Aspects

Aspect are significant story elements – this is about story creation remember – so, at a superficial level, Aspects are descriptive phrases about things.

Aspects are always true so you don’t have to do anything special let your Super Man inspired super hero fly. However, Aspects can be invoked to get some specific game advantage at the cost of a Fate Point. Aspects can also be compelled to cause a disadvantage, and in this case the compelled character gains a Fate Point.

Character Aspects are key elements of the character including relationships, beliefs, catchphrases, profession, descriptors, items, etc. Examples: Sucker for a Pretty Face, Cybernetic Street Thief, In League with the Twisting Hand, Fear of Heights, Honour Bound to Avenge My Brother. Characters will gain temporary Aspects during the course of play e.g. Sand in the Eyes, Cornered or Covered in Slime.

The campaign, scenarios, scenes and locations also have Aspects. Examples: The Doom that Is to Come, Dense Underbrush, Tricky Lock, and Disgruntled Townsfolk.

Situation Aspects are those on the location or scene, and those temporary Aspects on the characters present. Characters often have to use an Overcome Action to deal with Situation Aspects.

Fate Points

The Fate Point economy is a key part of any game of Fate. The GM and Players get Fate Points to power Aspects i.e. invoke an Aspect or compel an Aspect.

Refresh

Each player character has a refresh level and the player gets at least that many Fate Points at the start of each session. The campaign will have a default refresh level.

The GM gets some Fate Points at the beginning of each scene to benefit the NPCs present. The GM also has a an unlimited pool of Fate Points to award players for compels or concession.

In Fate Core the refresh for a character is the campaign default modified by the number of stunts a character has; more stunts, less refresh. Typically a character get three stunts for free, and you can take up to two more stunts at the cost of lowering your refresh by one each. The GM gets a Fate Point for each character at the start of each scene.

Atomic Robo introduced a variation on refresh. Each character gets the campaign default refresh, simple as that. The GM gets a Fate Point for each character at the start of each scene, but modified by the stunts of the participating player characters; more stunts, more GM refresh.

Invoke an Aspect

The GM or a player describes what they want to do, then spends a Fate Point to take advantage of a relevant Aspect. An invoke means you can do one of the following:

  • roll dice again if you are unhappy with a Skill roll
  • add +2 to a dice roll result that were are unhappy with
  • declare something as true in the story narrative

If the Aspect is on another character, and you are complicating their life, then this is a compel and so the other character gets the Fate Point you pay to get the benefit.

Compel an Aspect

The GM or a player compels an Aspect when they use the presence of the Aspect to significantly complicate the life of a character. The target character gains a Fate Point from the instigator when they suffer a compel on an Aspect. The Aspect in question might be of the character or the situation (Scene, Scenario, Campaign). Refusing a compel costs a Fate Point.

A player can suggest the GM compel one of the player’s own Aspects. This can be done retrospectively. And it earns a Fate Point.


Conflict

Characters in a Conflict are actively trying to harm one another, whether physically or mentally. Physical Conflicts result in bruises, scrapes, cuts, and other injuries. Mental Conflicts inflict psychological trauma such as loss of confidence, self-esteem, or composure. So examples of Conflicts include a fist fight, shootout, sword duel, tough interrogation, psychic assault, or even a shouting match with a loved one. A Conflict is over when everyone on one of the sides has Conceded or been Taken Out.

Physical Conflict

Physical Conflict

Turn order

Turn order within a Conflict depends on certain Skill ratings of the participating characters. Notice is the primary Skill for determining Turn Order in physical Conflicts and Empathy for mental. If there is a tie in Turn Order then use a lower priority Skill to resolve the tie (see below). NPCs might all act at the same time.

In physical Conflict use this sequence of Skills to determine Turn Order:

  1. Notice
  2. Athletics
  3. Physique

In mental Conflict use this sequence of Skills to determine Turn Order:

  1. Empathy
  2. Rapport
  3. Will

Exchange

An exchange is the time it takes for all characters involved in a Conflict take a turn. On your turn, take an Action and then resolve it. On other people’s turns, Defend or respond to their Actions as necessary.

Zones

Locations are divided into zones. Characters can move one zone in one exchange while undertaking an Action. Moving faster than one Zone is an Action itself and requires an Athletics roll.

Fate Zones in Warehouse

Fate Zones in Warehouse

Some people don’t bother with a map and just use index cards with the zone Aspects on them.

Fate Zones for a Dungeon Bash

Fate Zones for a Dungeon Bash

Attack Action

Use the Attack Action to harm someone in a Conflict or take them out of a scene. Although physical Attacks are common some Skills allow you to hurt someone mentally as well.

Your target will oppose your Attack with a Defend Action. This is usually an active opposition but will be passive if you’ve caught your target unaware, if they are distracted, or if they are just an unimportant NPC.

Attack outcomes are:

  • Fail: cause no harm to your target.
  • Tie: cause no harm but gain a boost.
  • Succeed: inflict a hit on your target equal to the number of shifts you got. The target is Taken Out unless they can buy off the hit by taking stress or Consequences.
  • Succeed with style: Either exactly like a success or take the option to reduce the value of your hit by one to gain a boost as well.

You can only use Fight, Shoot and Provoke for Attack Actions.

  • Use Fight to make close range physical Attacks. Your target opposes with Fight.
  • Use Shoot to make long range physical Attacks. Your target opposes with Athletics.
  • Use Provoke to make mental Attacks. Your target opposes with Will.

Defend Action

Use the Defend Action to avoid an Attack or prevent someone from creating an advantage against you. That means you Defend in the other character’s turn.

Sword and buckler conflict - Attack and Defend

Sword and buckler conflict – Attack and Defend

Create an Advantage Action

Several Skills can be used to create an advantage in a Conflicts. Most of the examples are for physical Conflicts.

Use Fight to create Stunned or Disarmed Aspects on your opponent. Or to spot weaknesses in an opponent’s fighting style that you can exploit e.g. Predictable counter-Attack. Your target opposes with Fight.

Use Physique to grapple and hold someone in place to make them Pinned or Locked Down. Grappling might also reveal your opponent has physical impairments e.g. Bum leg. Your target opposes with Physique.

Use Athletics to confound your foes and create a Dazzled by acrobatic manoeuvres Aspect. Your target opposes with Will.

Use Deceive to feint in a sword fight, putting an opponent Off-balance and setting you up for an Attack. Your target opposes with Notice.

Use Provoke to create advantages representing momentary emotional states, like Enraged, Shocked, or Hesitant. Your target opposes with Will.

Use Shoot to take trick shots e.g. He shot a hole in my hat or keep someone Under heavy fire. In more cinematic games Shoot also allows you to Disarm people and cause Sleeve pinned to walls. You could also make the argument for creating Aspects based on your knowledge of guns e.g. like placing a Prone to Jams Aspect on an opponent’s gun.

Use Stealth to create a Well Hidden Aspect on yourself.

Use Will to create a Deep Concentration or Focussed Aspect on yourself. More useful in mental Conflicts.

Overcome Action

In a Conflict you will often use the Overcome Action to deal with an obstacle deriving from a situation Aspect.

Use Athletics to Overcome an obstacle limiting movement between zones.

Use Physique to Overcome an obstacle that requires the application of brute force.

Fist through the wall

Fist through the wall

Stress

Successful Attack Actions incur stress. Player Characters typically have separate Physical Stress Tracks and Mental Stress Tracks. When taking stress, the box with a number matching the amount of stress taken is checked off. If that box is already checked off, the next higher unchecked box is checked. If no available higher boxes exist, the character is Taken Out — removed from the Conflict – or take a Consequence to stay in the fight.

Consequences

Stress may be mitigated by Consequences. A Consequence is a temporary, negative Aspect the character takes on, usually filling one of a limited number of slots (one of each of Mild, Moderate, Severe and optionally Extreme). Characters that Concede a Conflict gain a Fate Point for each Consequence they gained during the Conflict.

Conceding a Conflict

Even awesome fictional characters can lose a Conflict. If you can see it coming then Concede the Conflict and take the opportunity to control the narrative around your “failure”. Basically you remove your character from the Conflict ahead of time. Three things happen after Conceding a Conflict:

  1. the character avoids being Taken Out
  2. the GM or player controlling the character decides what happens to the character in the story narrative
  3. the character gains a Fate Point for Conceding and extra Fate Points for each Consequence they gained in the Conflict

Being Taken Out

Being Taken Out is bad. You can’t fight anymore for starters. In addition the character who took you out gets to decide what your loss looks like and what happens to you after the Conflict. That could hurt real bad. Lethal even. And, to add insult to injury, you gain no Fate Points for the conflict.

Mobs of Mooks

Master villains in Action-adventure stories often have an army of minions with them – these are mooks in Fate. Nameless NPCs that fight in one or more mobs. Individually they are no match for player characters but they last longer when they fight as a group. Treat a mob as a single unit — instead of rolling dice individually for each mook in the mob, just roll once for the whole mob. Because of teamwork the mooks can combine Skills; only the mook in the mob with the highest Skill level rolls but gets a +1 to Skill for each other mook in the group with at least an Average (+1) in the same Skill. When a mob takes a hit, shifts in excess of what’s needed to take out one mook are applied to the next mook in the mob, one at a time.

Penguins Goons

Penguins Goons


Fate Fractal

The Fate Fractal (aka the Bronze Rule) says:

In Fate, you can treat anything in the game world like it’s a character. Anything can have Aspects, Skills, stunts, stress tracks, and Consequences if you need it to.

Although anything can be a character, reserve the Bronze Rule for when it will make the story more interesting. For example, being trapped in a building that is On Fire!. Only add the details you need when you need them.

Fate Core Character Sheet

Fate Core Character Sheet


References

Balsera, L., Engard, B., Keller, J. Macklin, R., and Olson, M. (2013). Fate Core System. Evil Hat.

Clevinger, B., Olson, M., and Wegener, S. (2014). Atomic Robo: The Role Playing Game. Evil Hat.

Hicks, F. (2011, 25 January). The Core of Fate Core. Evil Hat.

2 comments to Explaining Fate Core to Newbies

  • That’s a great post. I’ve been in an RPG group for years, and we gave FATE a try just the once. It was rejected out of hand – which is very unfair. We’re back to playing D&D5 after an abortive attempt at Apocalypse World too – though I suspect our issue was with our mindsets rather than these great systems – which are groundbreaking.

    Your post will help me assault the walls of ‘tradition’ in our group once more I think.

    • Steven Thomas

      Duc, I’ve been fascinated by the new generation of RPGs for some years, but couldn’t figure out how they are meant to work. Part of the reason I wrote this post was because I think I’ve only recently “got it”. I thought I’d try and see if I could articulate it.

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