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Dilemma of FATE

Dave loaned me his copy of Legends of Anglerre, the fantasy incarnation of the FATE RPG. Predictably, LoA varies from other FATE titles—not just by addition of rules specific to the setting, but in rules one might expect them to share. This variation is born of an open gaming license and a do-it-yourself attitude.

There’s nothing seriously wrong with that variation. FATE is, after all, a fairly simple system, only growing complex for players who roll up their sleeves and choose to accept the invitation munge around in the mechanics. Players who don’t want to dig into the game’s guts can just take whatever setting they like and adopt its rules wholesale, confident that those rules should work at least adequately. And the option of mixing and matching different rules is available for those who do, which can be especially helpful for those who want to use FATE in a setting for which there is no published rule set.

It does, however, carry a frustration for players who do choose to dig around and create the specific set of rules they want—which, given the nature of FATE, is going to be high. I want to use FATE rules for my next campaign, something in an Arabian Nights vein. As a system geek, I want to employ the specific rule variants that will produce the most Arabian Nights game possible. Yet, with a bare minimum of experience with FATE—four sessions of half-baked adventure meant more to give the system a test than to stand on its own—I have no way to judge this question.

In particular, different FATE versions take different approaches to the balance between three important player resources: aspects, flavor-text which defines a PC and may grant bonuses or penalties when relevant; stunts, which are very specialized abilities defined primarily by mechanics, and “refresh,” the starting pool of fate points which may be used to fuel the action—notably including the ability to activate aspects in a variety of ways. Spirit of the Century offers a fixed number of aspects, a fixed number of stunts, and a fixed refresh. The Dresden Files offers a fixed number of aspects, sets the refresh equal to that number, and reduces refresh by one for each stunt a player takes, trading free will (embodied as plot independence or “humanity”) for power. Legends of Anglerre offers an initial number of aspects and stunts, which grow as the campaign progresses, and allows refresh to vary, as long as it remains no greater than the number of stunts.

All of these approaches relating refresh to aspects and stunts, and others as well, might work just fine for any given campaign. Or they might not. Or they all might work passably, but only one truly well. I believe in the power of good rules to make a good game great, and I care about adopting the best rules possible to represent my game world. Yet, at the rate of a year or more per campaign, and three to five players all wanting their turn behind the figurative, GM screen, how is a system geek to test the possibilities quickly enough to make a good decision at all, much less before the hot new game comes along?

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