Fate 101

Never played Fate before? No problem! We've put together a quick tutorial for Fate as we run it at the convention. Rules explanations will lean slightly toward the Dresden Files RPG in particular, but most of this also applies to Fate Core! Each section introduces a rule, and then follows up that rule with an actual example of the rule in action. Because Fate is such a roleplaying-heavy system, the crunchy, mechanical rules are actually less important than the rules about roleplaying, having fun, and helping others have fun. Please keep that in mind as you read, and don't skip the rules that look kind of fluffy at first glance.

We'll be making reference to the Fate character sheet during this tutorial. If you don't have one on-hand, you can follow along using Harry Dresden's character sheet, from Evil Hat publishing.

If all you want is a quick reference to a mechanical rule, you can just click on the rule you're looking for below.

Everyone should have fun. If someone isn't having fun, take the discussion out-of-character and try to find a scene with which everyone is satisfied.

A lot of games will dedicate a paragraph or two toward the Golden Rule of Gaming in their introduction, but in Fate, this really is the number one rule. If you or your fellow players (or your Storytellers, at times) are not having fun with the scene, then something is wrong.

The point of Fate is to tell an interesting story that everyone enjoys. If people aren't having fun, you should find a way to resolve whatever is getting in the way of that fun.

Example: Harry Dresden the Wizard has gotten into a tense scene with Johnny Marcone, a mobster. Some of Marcone's goons roughed up Harry recently, and Harry's done with being subtle. Harry's player opens the scene by saying "I'm going to burst through the door and slam Marcone into a wall with a spell."

Marcone's player has no idea what's going on; his goons acted independently, and he's not really interested in getting into a conflict with Harry. Harry's player sees that Marcone's player is shocked and uncomfortable, so he puts the scene on pause. "Sorry, I might have misinterpreted," he says. "I thought you sent some guys to have me whacked."

"Nope," says Marcone's player. "Wasn't me."

"Out-of-character," says the nearby Storyteller, "Someone just framed Marcone for attacking Harry. You guys can decide how you want to handle that in-character."

The two players discuss; their characters don't know about the frame-up, which could make for an interesting scene. But Marcone's player really doesn't want to just spend the whole scene getting beaten up — that doesn't sound like fun to him. Instead, they compromise; they decide that Harry will get in one good sucker-punch on Marcone and deal a consequence to him, for which Marcone's player gets a fate point from the Storyteller. One of Marcone's nearby bodyguards will put a gun to Harry's head, though, and then they'll sit down and talk it out like gentlemen. By the end of the scene, Harry will be forced to reluctantly apologize, and the two of them will shake hands and join forces.

Now that everyone's happy with where the scene is going, the Storyteller calls time-in. Harry doesn't have to break out any stats or mechanics to throw Marcone into a wall; because they've pre-negotiated the damage, they can just play through the scene and assume that it dealt the consequence they agreed upon. The two players have fun slowly coming to the conclusion that they've both been duped. By the end of the scene, they're now allies, even if they still don't entirely like each other.

If you're wondering what consequences and fate points are, don't worry — we'll get into them further down. Just understand that every scene is like an out-of-character bargain, where the end goal is to make sure everyone's enjoying themselves. This doesn't necessarily mean that everyone has to feel like they've won in every scene; it just means that people should feel satisfied with how the story is progressing. If Marcone's player happens to really enjoy the idea of getting beaten up by a Wizard, he could ask the Storyteller for more fate points and just take the beating; but Harry's player may not like the idea of his character hurting someone that badly for something they didn't do. It's up to the players involved to talk things out so that they're both reasonably comfortable with where things are going.

You're in charge — not your character.

Naturally, it's important to play your character the way they're written. But because Fate is about telling a good story, what you (the player) want to happen may not always match up with what your character would want to happen. For instance, if you aren't particularly invested in a fight, but your character would want to win that fight at any cost, you don't have to spend all your fate points and resources on trying to win that fight. You, the player, can concede a scene that your character really cares about. You, the player, can ask a Storyteller to knock your character out so that they don't fight to the death like a moron.

Example: Harry Dresden finds himself in hot water with a whole swarm of pixies he somehow managed to piss off. The character is quickly realizing how badly he underestimated the situation, and he really wants out of it. The player thinks this is hilarious, though, and he'd rather see Harry suffer for a little while longer.

If it was up to Harry Dresden, the character, he'd spend all his fate points trying to find a way out. The player doesn't want to waste the fate points, though. Instead, the player asks the Storyteller if he can accept a consequence in return for a fate point. Harry runs into a completely different scene, still being chased by pixies and screaming his head off. Karrin Murphy, his cop buddy, watches him run past yelling... then, Harry hits a brick wall face-first and knocks himself unconscious. Karrin sighs, shakes her head, and shoots her gun at the ground to scare off the pixies. Harry wakes up to find her standing over him with a raised eyebrow.

What's a fate point?

Fate points are the currency on which Fate runs. Characters start each session with fate points equal to their Adjusted Refresh — but players can accrue further fate points by taking compels against their Aspects which will get them into trouble.

You get fate points in return for bad things happening to your character, especially if those things happen because your character does something less-than-wise that's in-keeping with their characterization. This is called a compel. A Storyteller must always approve a compel for you to receive the fate point; different Storytellers have different standards for how badly they want a situation to affect your character before it counts for a fate point, but a good rule of thumb is that a consequence of some kind will always get you at least one fate point.

Once you have fate points, you can spend them to help your character be awesome, or to influence the direction of the plot. Here are a few things you can do by spending a fate point.

  • Add +1 to Any Draw: This is the lamest use of a Fate point, but you can do it. +1 to any draw you like. No matter what.

  • Tag One of Your Aspects for +2: If one of your Aspects applies and the GM agrees, you can add +2 to a draw instead. If more than one Aspect applies, you can keep spending Fate points on the draw until you're out, or until no more Aspects apply. That's a possible +14 to your draw, if all your Aspects happen to matter and you've got the Fate points for it.

  • Tag One of Your Aspects to Re-draw: If one of your Aspects apply and you got a crappy draw, you can just redraw and take the new result. You can keep doing this if you have another Aspect that applies.

  • Tag Someone Else's Aspect: If you think you've got one of someone else's Aspects figured out, you can spend a Fate point to give you +2 against them. The kicker to this is that you have to hand the Fate point over to the guy you just screwed over, and he might use it against you later.

  • Make a Declaration: By far the coolest use of Fate points — spend one, and you can declare that something just happens to be true about the scene. If the GM accepts your logic, you hand over the Fate point, and your happy coincidence occurs. Desperately need a lighter? You had one in your pocket the whole time! Stuck in an alleyway with nowhere to go? There just happens to be a fire escape nearby. Declarations can get pretty neat, and the cooler they are, the more likely that your GM will allow them. If your declaration has something to do with one of your Aspects, even better.

What's an aspect?

Every character sheet has seven Aspects, which are phrases that describe the character, for better or for worse. The character's High Concept is the Aspect which best describes their clichéd role in the story, while their Trouble is the thematic problem which keeps coming around over and over to bite them in the ass. Apart from these two Aspects, each character has five others which tend to have a lot to do with different stages in their lives. Characters can change one Aspect at the end of a session, if they feel that something which happened during the session merited the change.

A GM can award a player a fate point by forcing them to follow one of their Aspects in a manner which causes them grief; if a player really doesn't like the compel, however, he can buy out of the compel by spending a fate point instead of getting one. (See the section on fate points, above.)

Conflicts are first resolved out-of-character, then in-character.

If you end up in a conflict with an NPC, another character, or even the scenery around you, the first thing you should do is step out-of-character and establish the stakes of the conflict. What do you get if you win? What happens if you lose? What does the other guy / the GM get if they win?

Once you've settled on the stakes, both parties to the conflict should first decide whether it's even necessary to get into mechanical rules. If the stakes really aren't that important — if one player just wants to scare another player's character, and the second player is fine with acting scared — then breaking out the rules isn't really necessary. The two players can negotiate — maybe the first player pays the second player a fate point for going along with the scene — and everyone gets what they want.

If both parties have enough of a stake in the scene that the rules are necessary, then we get into skill checks.

How do skills work?

Skills are your stats, period. Characters have no strength, dexterity, stamina, etcetera, other than what's implied by their skills. Skills can be things like Athletics, which covers running and dodging, or Resources, which covers how much money you can shell out at a moment's notice. If you have a skill at 1 rank, you've got your feet wet; if you have a skill at 5, you've hit the peak of human skill and possibly then some. In order to use a skill, you normally roll 4 fate dice and add your skill rating; in our LARP, you'll be drawing from a statistically-balanced deck, with cards numbered between -4 and +4. Add your draw to your skill, and you have your total. Done. Almost every possible action in the system uses this mechanic to determine outcomes.

Example: Harry Dresden wants to use Lore to research a nasty villain that just pounded him into the ground. He gets back to his personal magical library and starts with the books; his player draws a card (+2) and adds his Lore skill (+3), for a total of +5 — a very respectable result. The GM figures that this bad guy was obscure enough to merit a difficulty of 4, but Harry's player exceeded the difficulty by 1, so he gets the info he needs and realizes that he's about to have a very bad week indeed.

What are stunts and powers?

Every character has Stunts and Powers that might affect their skill checks. Stunts and Powers both cost refresh — the only difference is that Powers are supernatural abilities, while Stunts are non-magical tricks or talents that anyone can take (for D&D aficionados, think of Stunts as feats). Most Stunts or Powers are made to modify your skill total in certain specialized situations, or to allow you to use certain skills for non-standard purposes — for example, letting you use Intimidate to piss people off instead of to scare them. All character sheets in our games come with full text descriptions for your character's Stunts and Powers, so as long as you read over them, you should be fine.

How does a character take damage in this game?

Each character has two health tracks, referred to as stress tracks — a physical stress track and a mental stress track. Stress tracks are determined by two specific skills, plus some Stunts and Powers, but we won't bother going into that, since your characters are pre-made.

Physical or mental combat are both possibilities in this game, and some characters excel more at one field than at the others. When attempting to deal stress, both parties involved in a conflict do a roll-off of appropriate skills in the confrontation, and the winner gets to deal the difference in damage to the loser (sometimes the winner has a weapon, which adds to total damage, assuming that they win the conflict). If the winner wants, they can instead opt to 'tag' their opponent with a temporary Aspect that's appropriate to the situation — like Distracted or Prone on the Ground. The winner can then tag the Aspect they inflicted in a later turn, or allow one of their allies to do so. You can use non-standard skills to tag people with Aspects in combat, which is why even the little guys can make a difference when everyone works together.

Example: Harry's sick of taking the archaic, proper way out, so he pulls out a gun and just unloads it on his vampire problem. He draws a +4 and add his Guns skill (+0), for a total of +4. The vampire draws Athletics to dodge and gets a -2, plus his skill (+3), plus some bonus stuff from one of his Powers (+2), for a total of +3. Harry beats him by 1, so the vampire takes 1 physical stress, plus 2 more for the gun — 3 physical stress in total.

If Harry had a mortal buddy nearby — say, Lieutenant Murphy — Murphy could feint at the bad-guy using her judo in order to put him off-guard — if she succeeded at her Fists draw against him, she could pin him with the temporary Aspect Off-Balance, which Harry could use next turn to get a free +2 on his Guns roll; that would increase his margin of success by 2 and give him a 5-stress hit instead of a 3. Ow.

When you take a hit to your stress track, you only mark off that slot on the sheet; so someone who took a 2-stress physical hit would only fill in the second physical stress slot on their sheet, and not the first one. If you cannot take a hit because that stress level has already been marked off, you must instead take the next-highest stress slot available. If you exceed your stress track entirely, you can either bow out of the conflict and lose, or you can take a Consequence to keep on trucking.

Example: Harry has 4 physical stress boxes on his track. The vampire hits him for 2, and he marks out the '2' on his stress track — he still has the '1,' the '3,' and the '4' available for later. If he takes another 2-stress hit the next round, however, he has to take it in his '3' slot, since '2' is already filled up. If Harry takes a 5-stress hit, he's in trouble — he's either going to have to go down like a punk or else it's time to look at Consequences.

What are consequences?

Most characters have four consequences available for use: a mild (-2), a moderate (-4), a severe (-6), and an extreme (-8). You can use these consequences to reduce the amount of stress from a hit by the indicated amount, in order to keep going when you really don't want to lose the conflict.

Consequences become temporary, mostly-negative Aspects which last for a longer and longer duration depending on the severity. If a bad guy inflicts a consequence on you, he gets to tag it once for free; or he can give it to one of his allies to tag instead. This goes both ways: if you inflict a consequence on an enemy, you can use it the very next turn to sucker-punch him at +2, or let one of your buddies take advantage of it.

Example: Harry took that 5-stress hit, but he really doesn't want to go down in this combat — he's pretty sure the vampire will eat him alive if he goes unconscious, so he's willing to fight to the last breath. Instead, he takes a mild physical consequence ("Broken Nose") and reduces the hit by 2 stress, to make it a 3-stress hit. He fills out the '3' in his physical stress track, and gets ready to hit the vampire back next turn.

If the vampire finds a way to sucker-punch Harry next turn by taking advantage of his "Broken Nose" — by slamming its palm into his nose again, for instance — it'll get a +2 on its next hit for free. Consequences can add up in a hurry, in this way, if you're not careful.

Mild consequences clear out the scene after they've been properly 'treated' — for physical consequences, this obviously has to do with medical aid, while mental consequences might require some time with a loved one or long-term psychiatric help. Moderate consequences disappear at the end of the session in which they've been treated. Severe consequences require a few sessions of play before they'll disappear. Extreme consequences clear out once in a blue moon, if you're very lucky and if you play long enough; they also require you to permanently change one of your existing Aspects to reflect whatever injury hurt you that badly (for instance, Played With Fire — Got Burnt for serious burns from a fire spell).

Example: Harry's "Broken Nose" needs to get straightened and have some time to heal before it'll go away. Thankfully, Murphy knows basic first-aid, and she's not affected by his annoying whining as she cracks his nose back into place. Mechanically-speaking, at the end of the scene after which Murphy fixes Harry's nose, it will cease to be a consequence. It doesn't mean that his nose isn't still broken... it just means that other people can't take advantage of it for a while. If Harry takes another mild or moderate consequence in the next few scenes, however, he might consider giving himself the consequence "Nose Got Broken — Again."