A sad bit of FATE

I recently ran a mini-campaign of Eis & Dampf, a German steampunk setting for FATE.

I had offered the game as a break from two recent campaigns: a heavily railroaded bit of Call of Cthulhu by a friend and my dungeoncrawling game In the Realm of the Nibelungs.

I had deliberately offered Fate as a throwback to a style we used to play, albeit with far more transparency. To wit, I explained that I would be guiding events as a GM: I would prepare situations, but also influence events for dramatic purposes, e.g. by applying Chandler’s Law. Also, I guaranteed that no PCs would die (or be crippled, ruined or sidelined).

I had fun fleshing out an adventure seed from a supplement (basically a map of a Venetian submarine base under a volcanic island) and the players got into the spirit of things (bringing inspirational material at the start of the game, for instance). The game wasn’t a total disaster, though I took a much dimmer view of proceedings than the players.

I had two problems with the game:

(1)

Many conflicts took forever to resolve. The biggest culprit was endless ‘story conferencing’ regarding the PCs’ actions. During a big fight in a lab, a player would declare “I grab a random syringe and plunge it into the bad guy”, only to receive a lot of advice from other players to do something else. Changing his action, he would then “smash test tubes all over the ground” to create an advantage to be leveraged later. Rolling would then often lead to agonizing about invoking various aspects, often with torturous justifications.

The problem of players discussing things far too much is totally on our group (and an issue which I have been aware of and adressing in my Nibelungs game), but was exacerbated by two factors:

(a) My adventure relied almost exclusively on ‘boss’-level villains. Attacking one of these in combat in FATE without stacking previously assembled free invokes and spending fate points was not just ineffective, but counterproductive — the boss would easily defend against direct, simple action and thus inflict stress upon the attacker.

(b) FATE allows post-roll adjustments, such as re-rolls or adding bonuses from additionally invoked aspects.

(2)

One player went all “Mother may I” on me, repeatedly – and I sensed, somewhat shamefacedly – asking me to greenlight lame suggestions. I variously reacted with “C’mon, man. That’s far-fetched.” to “Nah. I just don’t see it.” and outright “No way”. He usually accepted this with no fuss, but was clearly frustrated in one instance: He had wanted to (again) use Mechanics, his PC’s best skill, to use a crane to topple a stack of crates in a warehouse full of them, to create a chain reaction (ending in crates burying the bad guy at the other end of the warehouse).

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I had planned on doing character generation and completing the adventure in 3-4 sessions. The process took seven sessions.

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There was some excited post-game chatter each time (mixed with frustration at the slow pace), but I was relieved it was over. I had done a pretty good job of coming up with memorable villains, letting PC actions matter and creating cool set-pieces, but this style of play just isn’t my cup of tea anymore. I long for being surprised as a GM again! Also, resolving said set pieces had been a pain.

I privately swore off FATE, even though I knew failure had been mostly on us. However, weeks later, I mused about the game and endeavoured to try again. Same characters, same time frame (2-3 sessions now that we had PCs ready to play) but some changes:

(1) No post-roll adjustments whatsoever. Five instead of three fate points to compensate. In other words, you have to make up your mind which aspects to invoke (e.g. “More machine than human”) before you roll.

(2) Neither questioning nor criticizing a player’s stated intent or choice of skill and aspects by either the players or the GM. In other words, if you want to use your Mechanics skill and “Educated at a boarding school in the Eiffel mountains” aspect to hit someone over the head with a mechanics tome, go right ahead. Positive feedback for cool invokes is encouraged, though.

I had no delusions of fixing FATE, as I have far too little experience with the system. However, I would have liked to see if these changes positively affect our experience with the game.

Alas, the two players I brought this up with were not interested. I can’t fault them.

The underlying social problems, namely questioning the contribution of others and angling for advantage even if if that’s lame, would not have been solved this easily, but maybe we could have made some headway.

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2 responses to “A sad bit of FATE”

  1. I see a lot to agree with here regarding my own experiences with Fate and with its predecessor, Fudge. My only thoughts which may be relevant to you concern rolled failure.

    This is a rhetorical question; I do not want you to write an answer for me here. If you back up and regard all the rolled outcomes of play, throughout a session or adventure or whatever we call it … what happens to play if rolls fail?

    For example, your point about the boss-concept seems to me to be rooted in the notion that the players must win against this boss or else play itself, the whole thing, will fail out or be considered unsuccessful as an experience. A lot of people tell me, “oh, but of course, they could fail,” but upon examination, they admit or demonstrate that they would never actually let that happen. It would be bad GMing, bad story-guiding; we all know without admitting it that the alleged boss is a jobber, their job is to be defeated.

    Fate is very obviously, very determinedly designed to support this frame of mind. [The following is also rhetorical; please do not answer it here] Even given your observation and critique, are you sure that you are yourself free from it?

    In June 2023 Q&A, I discuss whether one “can” play Väsen without regard to its constant, systemic insistence on pre-scripted play and a nice jobber boss-fight (or group hug, whichever) ending every scenario. It’s all relevant to what you’re talking about here. I’m interested in any thoughts you have about what I say there, so if you’d like, comment at that post.

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