Initial Impressions of FAE
Unable to resist the siren call of
free pay-what-you-want and pirate cat-girls, I downloaded FATE Accelerated Edition (hereafter, and throughout most of the book itself, referred to as FAE – which makes me want to do a bunch of “Lost Girl” awful fae-themed pseudo-puns). As I recently mentioned, I feel Savage Worlds isn’t doing a good job modeling the kind of story Robin and I are telling in our current duet game and I’m willing to experiment with another system. A quick read-through and a single session’s worth of play have me thinking FAE might be the system I need.
(A caveat: Contributing to this shift in thinking is a shift if playing style. An increase in pirate campaign sessions and the wild ‘n’ wooly, action-oriented mess they were led to a greater desire on Robin’s part for more story-oriented, dialogue-heavy role-playing. I can’t blame Savage Worlds for not suiting my needs. It isn’t you, baby; I’ve changed.
I can, however, report that the tactical – heck, I’d call it tactile – dueling system of Honor + Intrigue was horribly unsuited for our playing style. I had fun with it, but I can’t blame Robin for hating that it usually took half an hour to resolve a two-person duel. In theory, Honor + Intrigue creates competent beginning characters; in practice, it leads to lots of swords swinging through empty air.)
I bought the FATE-powered Agents of SWING a while back and I’ve flipped through a friend’s copy of Spirit of the Century and both of those impressed on me that the core version of FATE is* ridiculously over-complicated for a supposedly simple, story-driven system. FAE is certainly streamlined and more intuitive than FATE; the rulebook is only an OSR-friendly 50 pages long (though it doesn’t contain a bestiary or magic items or anything like that – in no small part because it doesn’t really need them). I’ve read through it pretty quickly and I think I actually understand the rules.
…Which is pretty amazing, to be honest. When was the last time you spent an hour reading a new-to-you RPG system and felt you could run a game? Admittedly, FAE uses a lot of familiar concepts – FATE points have a lot in common with Savage World Bennies, aspects share some similarities with Honor + Intrigue careers – but there’s a lot of loose-goosey story-gaming concepts that seem much more explicable in FAE than they ever did in Agents of SWING.
FAE is definitely a story game, though, and if you have no tolerance for those than you won’t get much mileage out of the system. There’s a lot of deliberate meta-gaming going on that might pull many gamers out of the story; in fact, it’s built into the central mechanic: aspects.
Aspects are verbal tags that describe or suggest possibilities about a character, location, or situation. In addition to helping define a character or her situation in a game, aspects can be invoked by paying a FATE point to grant a mechanical bonus to a dice roll. Zorro might have the aspect “This bold renegade carves a Z with his blade;” his player could invoke that aspect for a +2 on the equivalent of an attack roll (because of the finesse needed to carve a Z), an intimidation roll (what do you think he carves those Zs on?), a fear check (he’s bold, after all), a thief skills check (he is a renegade), or many other situations. The GM can also compel aspects against players, creating story complications that reward the players with more FATE points to spend. In Zorro’s case, that “carves a Z with his blade” might be invoked by the GM to compel Zorro to leave his signature behind after breaking into the evil comandante’s office to have a look at his crooked tax records, thus alerting the comandante that Zorro knows about his secret plans.
In addition to aspects, characters are defined by approaches which indicate their facility for dealing with challenges in particular styles: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. Every character has access to every approach, which are ranked from best to worst on a +3 to +0 scale, and these are added to a roll of four FUDGE dice to determine success on actions that actually require a roll (which in turn have a difficulty range from 2 to 8+). How characters use and interpret these approaches – and the difficulty numbers assigned to tasks – is a matter of aspects and character concept. Batman and Superman could both have Forceful at +3, but Superman’s “More powerful than a locomotive” aspect means he wouldn’t even have to roll the dice to lift a car while Batman might have to beat a difficulty of 6 to lift it far enough for a trapped car crash victim to crawl free; conversely, they might both have Clever at +2 but since Batman is “The world’s greatest detective,” he’s going to have a much lower difficulty to solve a villain’s puzzle.
Such meta-fictive concepts would have driven me nuts as little as a year ago, but (as I’ve mentioned) my gaming style for duets with Robin has changed a lot… or maybe it hasn’t and I’ve just embraced the storygamer that was in me the entire time. The duets have always been more deliberately themed or high-concept than the group games – it’s more often a matter of me suggesting a setting or character type to Robin than the other way around, and such suggestions usually have an implied story arc – so embracing a game system that stresses deliberate storytelling instead of the emergent story of most RPGs is probably a natural change for me. I don’t think I’d try to use FAE with a normal gaming group,** but I think it will be a better choice for the duets.
*Or was. FATE Core is supposedly more streamlined. I’m reading it for further insights into running FAE, so I might have more to say about it later. My initial impressions are that the complexity is modular.
**But I have to admit those Batman and Superman examples make me want to run a Justice League game.