Twisting Fate: Zero to Hero

This is part of a series of posts looking at some questions about Fate Core – usually questions I’ve had and seen repeated by others – and some of the underlying topics that may lead to these questions in the first place.  Take a look at the first post – Twisting Fate – for a better explanation of why I’m writing this.  Also take note of the obligatory disclaimer that I am not trying to “fix” Fate – it’s not broken.  I’m just trying to expand my own understanding and apply it towards my game.

I also want to acknowledge Rob Hanz.  I’ve encountered him a number of times on Google+, and his explanations have been invaluable to helping me understand Fate better.  Somehow I only came across the Book of Hanz and began reading it.  Not only are Rob’s posts a great resource for those of us still learning more about Fate, but they have also made me feel much better about the questions I have about the system.  There are definitely a lot of elements of the system that “click” for me now that didn’t before I read Rob’s advice, and many of the underlying “issues” I’ve had with things have at least been validated by some of his posts – as well as others.  So at least I’m not completely crazy.  (Or if I am, at least I’m in good company.)

Zero to Hero

I came across a post recently in which a player wanted to create characters that were “lower level” than the typical starting Fate character.  He was planning to run a long-term game in which the characters went from no-name average characters to eventually becoming world-saving heroes.  He had an idea of how to accomplish this and was asking for feedback.

I’ve seen questions similar to this numerous times, and I myself am also looking at different ways the character creation process could be modified to produce characters that are closer to what might be “average”.  In typical awesome fashion, the broader Fate community usually provides some insight and feedback, throws around some different possibilities, and answers follow-up questions.

That being said, in discussions like this, I have often seen two particular responses that got me thinking.  The first is an immediate reference to D&D and its style of character advancement.  (I’ll save a discussion of that cognitive leap for my post focusing on progression.)  The other discourages using Fate for this type of game.

Competence

Give a forum thread talking about “low-level” Fate characters enough time, and you are extremely likely to find a player post a quote from Fate that the game is “about competent, dramatic, proactive characters”.   The implication being that if you are seeking to run a game about more average or weaker characters, Fate might not be the best system to use.

It may very well be the case that the player in question might be better served by another system, but as Fate is often said to be designed to simulate fiction, it seems odd to suggest that Fate cannot be used to tell a story about normal, everyday characters that become something more extraordinary (a not uncommon trope in a variety of media).  I’ve asked questions about this in the past, and based on the ensuing discussions I’ve come to believe that there are a few reasons that veteran players sometimes jump to this conclusion.

In short, I think players place too much emphasis on the competent part of “competent, dramatic, proactive”.  When you start comparing what types of characters do and do not work well in Fate, being proactive is by far the most important element in this concept.  Characters that stand around and wait for things to happen don’t work well.  Being dramatic is also important to varying degrees depending on the genre – think of dramatic as being interesting or non-boring, and you’re on the right track.  Now, being competent is important in that only a very particular style of game will work if the player characters are stumbling around in a perpetual state of incompetence.  However, as long as the characters are passably good at something (or at least are likely to succeed periodically) the game can still work.  There are two important reasons why a game with less-skilled characters can still function just fine (and be lots of fun), but both require effort on the part of the GM – which isn’t to say that they require any effort beyond what is usually expected of a GM.

Lower Level Conflict

First, we have to remember that there are plenty of ways to make the characters seem normal, especially at first, and many of them require little or no mechanical difference.  Want to play more “average” characters?  Then just focus the game on a more “average” playing field.  Instead of tackling political corruption in a capital city or averting empire-wide catastrophe, just deal with the problems in your neighborhood.  Keeping the characters grounded in a smaller scale, everyday environment can go a long way to making them feel “normal” – especially in contrast to when they do eventually start taking on bigger issues.  Scale the conflict (little c, not talking Conflict mechanics here) down to an everyday level, and gradually scale the stakes and scope of the conflicts the characters face as they grow in power and influence.

Fate Core does caution players on trying to simulate every little negotiation, and rightly so, but keeping the conflict at a small scale doesn’t mean you have to deviate from that guidance.  Just make sure that the stakes of the conflict are meaningful to the characters and that the results of rolling the dice are always interesting.  Which brings me to…

Failing Forward

The other issue with assuming a high level of competence is necessary for Fate to work is largely rooted in traditional tabletop games: an aversion to failure.  If the players keep failing rolls, and the characters aren’t successful at anything, no one is going to have any fun.  To some extent, the could certainly be true.  Of course, if you scale the conflict to fit the characters, that shouldn’t happen too often.  More importantly, it ignores one of the the elements of Fate (and many narrative games) that make the system so effective at telling great stories: failure can be just as interesting as success (often even more so).

Fate Core presents this idea largely in terms of Success at a Cost.  One possibility is that the character doesn’t get what he wants, but it’s also possible he gets the result he was hoping for – it’s just that something else happens too.  Traditional games can pose problems when the characters really need to succeed at something in order to move the story forward, but that is easily remedied by the concept of failing forward.  The story moves forward no matter what, it just becomes a little more complicated.  Not only does this mean that a game about everyday characters can still be interesting, it also gives the GM all sorts of ways to propel these average people into decidedly more unusual circumstances.

I’m not going to go into a long discussion about how awesome failing forward can be or how to use it (run a quick search and you’ll find plenty of advice), but the point is that if failure is not that significant a problem in Fate, then neither is competence.

Maybe Not Zero… But One…

There are certainly approaches to using low level characters in Fate that can cause serious issues.  You can’t have a system as elegant and interconnected as Fate and not expect some ripples when you start tinkering with mechanics.  That said, given the flexibility of Fate, there are almost certainly at least a handful of ways to handle this kind of game that should work just fine.  If this kind of game interests you, there are plenty of posts out there with ideas of how to do just that.  Just don’t get discouraged if someone suggests maybe Fate isn’t the system for you.  You may have to check some preconceptions at the door and step outside of your comfort zone, but there’s a better than fair chance you can find a way to use Fate for your game if that’s what you decide you want to do.

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