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Small press RPGs continue to be printed. Perhaps they’ll never vanish entirely. Happily, one has proven that they can still generate buzz.

Some roleplayers are drawn to games that offer ever more spectacular powers to paste onto the same old ass-kicking, some are drawn to intriguing settings, and some—the system geeks—are drawn to interesting rules. System geeks believe that rules have a significant impact on play, and constantly prowl for clever new mechanics, whether rules applicable to an intriguing scenario or rules that streamline the standard flow of play or, ideally, rules that frame gaming itself in a fruitful new perspective.

System geeks are flocking to Evil Hat’s FATE system, offered as an open game license in the spirit of the FUDGE system from which it derives. (And, incidentally, resuscitating the FUDGE system’s reputation, which was long praised by critics but rarely played by anyone.) My fellow system geek Dave is excited about its possibilities; he’s sent me a .pdf of a draft version of Spirit of the Century (two-fisted) and lent me his books for Diaspora (space opera) and The Dresden Files (licensed from the Harry Dresden novels, yet another secret supernatural war in the dirty city). That’s a lot to digest in one go, especially as I adjust to a sharp reduction in free time, but I’m making my way through all three in rough parallel, skipping from chapter to chapter and book to book to examine mechanics rather than reading any one cover-to-cover.

As you might expect from an OGL, none of the rules are quite compatible, but they’re close. The basic approach is a synthesis of a skill list system and a trait-based system, with fate points tacked on. Characters select from a list of thirty-or-so skills, being allowed a certain number of skills at various degrees of mastery. (So, for example, one character might be an amazing marksman and a competent survivalist and mechanic and possess other skills besides; another might be an amazing occultist and competent con artist and researcher; but nobody could be amazing at two skills and competent at none.) Skills are fairly broadly defined, and characters could end up looking too much alike without aspects.

Aspects, the choose-your-own traits, can provide both bonuses to actions and complications, and are FATE’s defining feature.
Characters select a number of aspects to describe qualities that lie outside the skill list. A character with the aspect “alabaster man” might get a hefty bonus to impress people, especially authorities, with his skill and nobility, but might also find himself compelled to live on the straight and narrow at inconvenient times. Aspects can apply to people, places, and things; the Dresden Files continually offer the example “On Fire!” for a burning warehouse; in the course of a play, a warehouse that acts as the scene of a fight is accidentally set ablaze, and that aspect can also be employed to the players’ advantage (I want to escape while falling timbers prevent pursuit!) or disadvantage (The smoke and flames block your vision!) As a rule of thumb, players use aspects for bonuses and the GM uses them to trigger complications, but it can work both ways: an insightful player can guess at an adversary’s weakness and tag his aspects. (I think these goons are Not Too Bright; can I spend this fate point to get them to fall automatically for this cock-and-bull story?) A player can also volunteer to suffer for his aspect. (Um… I think my Badass Image requires me to escalate this situation. Can I get my fate point?)

In general, when a player uses an aspect to his benefit, he must spend a fate token, and when an aspect makes life hard for him, he earns a fate token, so wise players will take a few negative or potentially negative aspects to fuel their good ones. And fate tokens, as in other games that employ them, can be used to alter reality in a variety of ways: not just granting a hefty +2 to do something, but also to place temporary tags on scenes and NPCs (Black Bart now has the aspect “Losing his temper.”), create a happy coincidence (I just happen to have a set of wrenches with me!), or otherwise inject tropes appropriate to the scene.

Taken all-in-all? Promising. I like the use of aspects, though skills seem redundant. Even for a rules-light system, FATE seems to have a lot of different kinds of modifiers flying about, especially SotC, which adds stunts to skills, aspects, and fate points. My group tested it out in a one-shot, and so far players (myself included) used their fate points without creativity, preferring the +2 bonus over setting the scene and tweaking the plot, which seems to me a waste. The power level feels a little high, but then I prefer more street-level games to epic games generally. FATE doesn’t do anything I can’t do with Over the Edge, and takes more effort to do it.

But it does have the signature quality of being relatively rules-light and trait-driven while leaving a lot of power in the players’ hands. I prefer a narrative style, which requires a lot of power to be in the GM’s hands, but not everyone shares that perspective. FATE’s aspect system may work very well indeed as a compromise within our group, giving me (when I’m GM) the freedom to describe things broadly and interpret descriptors for maximum dramatic impact while leaving my players feeling like they’re still in control of what happens. I”m exploring the possibilities now.

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