This article is a brief start to a number of discussions on the nature of how mechanics from the Fate Core Roleplaying Game can be used to augment general principles of roleplaying and tabletop gaming, particularly with GMing games. This first article is mostly a review of content present in the FATE reference document but formulated in such a way as to be independent of the system.
In design, Fate Core is an incredibly concise, simple, and effective system for tabletop roleplaying. My experiences with actual play of the system (e.g., with a variant of the game in Diaspora) around a table has had my feelings rather unsorted on its viability for actual play and enjoyment.
What I think that Fate Core definitely has value for is to provide inspiration for ways to better scaffold games, both in their management and in their creation. This particular article focuses on taking elements of Fate Core as inspiration for providing an organized framework to create adventures, regardless of any roleplaying system. What should be noted, too, is that this article will discuss concepts very much in the abstract due to the nature of Fate’s very large scope.
There is a very important part of the reference document that I would like to focus on. The rules in Fate suggest that a campaign should be made up on Scenarios or what I have also seen as being regarded as Acts. This is not a new term, and many have called these divisions many different things. Acts, Chapters, or Books are what just a number of terms I have heard for this sort of concept, but Fate defines the scenario as this.
[A] scenario is a unit of game time usually lasting from one to four sessions, and made up of a number of discrete scenes. The end of a scenario should trigger a significant milestone, allowing your PCs to get better at what they do.
Sessions Are For Problems
A scenario exists because of a collection of one or more open-ended Problems. A problem is merely a conflict of some sort that the PCs need to deal with in order to further the narrative of the story. But, as Fate emphasizes, you don’t always have to destroy the world when it comes to developing a problem. The windows into the narration, or the actual gameplay that is done around the table, are Scenes of direct narration. Everything else can be, and should be, abstracted in order to get to the most relevant pieces of the story present in these scenes.
Once the problem is resolved (or it can no longer be resolved), the scenario is over. The following session, you’ll start a new scenario, which can either relate directly to the previous scenario or present a whole new problem.
There is something to be said about this thinking — this notion of scenes. Sometimes roleplaying around the table can get off track and into narration that is not necessarily interesting or engaging. As a GM, steering the direction of the game into only focusing on these Fate-style scenes can be incredibly valuable. Knowing what the most relevant scenes of interest, I believe, may be something that must be practiced.
In that sense, you can look at it as being similar to what a good film editor does—you “cut” a scene and start a new one to make sure the story continues to flow smoothly.
Another interesting point of interest with regard to scenes is that they do not necessarily all have to revolve around the party or all of the PCs.
Don’t feel like you have to engage every PC with every scenario— rotate the spotlight around a little so that they each get some spotlight time.
Each scene, or even entire scenarios, can be partitioned to groups of, or individual, characters and then narration and play around the table can revolve around to each character in turn. A friend of mine GMed his games in a very similar fashion and ended up providing an incredibly engaging narrative because all of the story threads for each character ended up being relevant to each other and all equally interesting stories.
Sessions Are Scenes
A scene is a unit of game time lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a half hour or more, during which the players try to achieve a goal or otherwise accomplish something significant in a scenario. Taken together, the collection of scenes you play through make up a whole session of play, and by extension, also make up your scenarios, arcs, and campaigns. … So you can look at it as the foundational unit of game time.
The SRD goes on to explain how to develop scenes and suggests that scenes are intended to have two things defined. Firstly, the scene should have a purpose. Secondly, it should have an interesting event which it focuses on. Knowing the first means you know when a scene should end.
“Cutting in” just before some new action starts helps keep the pace of your session brisk and helps hold the players’ attention. You don’t want to chronicle every moment of the PCs leaving their room at the inn to take a twenty-minute walk across town to the thief’s safehouse.
Knowing the second is even more important as it allows you to steer the narration. If, as a GM, you do not have an intuitive understanding of what the PCs intend to do in a scene, the SRD suggests to “ask questions until they state things directly”.
Fate Core is driven mostly by the idea of Aspects, a useful way of tagging concepts onto characters or other entities. They effectively highlight the most important elements of a character, world, or whatever the concept is tagged onto.
An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to.
Similarly, aspects allow for an interesting way to record damage or lasting harm. For a character, this is referred to as Stress and Consequences. Stress is the ephemeral toll of a conflict and consequences are lingering, lasting effects; what is important is that both of these can be regarded as aspects themselves!
In this regard, we can use the message of aspects here to start guiding our way of developing problems, scenes, and sessions — instead of thinking about them as long-winded stories and lists and lists of details, get at what is the heart of the issue for each of the respective parts of an adventure. When it comes down to it, the rest will inevitably be improvisation because no pre-generated story stands the test of an encounter with PCs around the table.
Furthermore, this notion of aspects will go on to define a different way of considering adventures in the second part of this discussion on adventure design. Look forward to that, and as a sneak preview, consider the following item in Suggested Reading regarding the Fate Fractal.