Tuesday, December 11, 2012

[Fate Core] Rules vs. Settings

This is a warning.
So! That Fate Core Kickstarter's been pretty crazy, am I right? It's great to see so many people excited enough about it to back the campaign -- exactly 3,600 people, as I type -- and also to see how many of them are new to Fate with this edition. That's awesome.

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of discussion about Fate Core in various places around the Internet, and a lot of it's revolving around what it can do. Most of the time, inquiries about this kind of thing look something like this:
Really enjoyed the Terra Nova TV series when it was on and was wondering if it would be possible to make that kind of setup using the FATE system?
(That's James Cartwright, commenting on the Kickstarter page.)

Or this:
I would love to see a strong example of a heavily race based system. Ideally in my mind an anthropomorphic animal game in the vane of Redwall, Mouse Guard, or Ironclaw.
(That's Jonathan Dietrich, also on the Kickstarter page.)

These both sound like great games to run with Fate Core. Terra Nova may have let me down as a show, but the premise was cool -- sci-fi tech and dinosaurs! As for the anthropomorphic animal thing, well, I own Mouse Guard and backed Cairn, so I'm in.

My reaction to this kind of thing is always the same: Yeah, of course Fate can do that. What does it really involve, anyway? Knowing the source material? Fate Core gives you everything you need to sort out the rest.
This is a pretty unfair attitude, I know. I'm so used to hacking Fate and talking about hacking Fate and seeing Fate hacks that at this point it's kinda That System Everyone Hacks to me. You want to do something with Fate? Great! Go do it. What are you waiting for? Again, unfair.

However, there's an actual point to be made here as well. As I also said on Twitter, there's a real difference in Fate Core between saying "I want rules for..." and saying "I want a setting that's like...." 98% of emulating a genre using Fate Core is knowing the genre well in the first place.

Do you need special rules for shooting a dinosaur -- rules that aren't already in Fate Core? I don't think so. I mean, sure, you'll want to stat up some dinosaurs, but that's definitely within the scope of the rules as written. Do you need special rules for playing a sword-wielding mouse (as opposed to a sword-wielding human)? If everyone's playing an animal, make sure everyone has at least one aspect describing what kind of animal they are. (And then, y'know, stat out some cats and weasels.) Hashtag done!

Let's take Fate Core assistant developer Brian Engard's Wild Blue setting as an example. Wild Blue is part Western, part fantasy-magic stuff, and part supers. It has new rules for the magic-and-supers stuff (in the form of gifts), because Brian had a specific vision for how those work in the setting that he needed to convey. It has a couple new skills that suit the setting. And... that's it for new rules. Because Fate Core does everything else.

But Jonathan Dietrich came back with this:
Which is a great question! I tried to answer it on Twitter, but Twitter's not the best medium for that sort of thing, so let's see if it I can do it justice here.

What we're really talking here when we talk about sci-fi dinosaurs or heroic rodents isn't rules, but setting. Most of what'd be in a good Terra Nova RPG built on Fate Core would be descriptions and stats for things from the show -- an implementation of the system, sure, but off the top of my head I can't think of anything especially new it needs in terms of rules or mechanics. (Of course, I'm no Terra Nova scholar or anything, so maybe I'm misremembering.)

Anthropomorphic animals? As a complete game, I'd want lots of descriptions of animals and examples of aspects and stunts for each. But what I can't imagine is that any of that would deviate from the tools that Fate Core gives you. Maybe -- maybe -- you'd want size and scale rules, but extras can do that as-is. (The Extras Toolbox will probably have those size and scale rules, but still.)

The thing is, the protagonists in these stories do things that "baseline" human protagonists do in Fate Core anyway. (Well, apart from, like, gathering nuts for the winter, I guess.) They don't shoot laser beams from their palms or have super-strength or bend the laws of reality or anything. Even if they're mice or voles or whatever, they do what mice or voles or whatever in the setting do -- which makes mice or voles or whatever the new baseline, which means you don't need special rules for them. If you know your source material and follow the directions in Fate Core, you'll get the game you want.

With all that established: What makes Atomic Robo so special that it need its own book?

This is a fair and complex question.

One, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener want to do it. I want to do it. Evil Hat wants to do it. Lots of Robo fans really want us to do it. So... we're doing it.

Two, ARRPG may be an implementation of Fate Core, but it has several significant divergences meant to engender the kind of play we want to see out of an Atomic Robo game. Modes simplify character creation and skills to get players playing ASAP. We expect some people who buy the book will be Robo fans first and RPG fans second, or totally inexperienced with RPGs, so right from the start "quickplay" was the default. (Fate Core's easy for first-timers to pick up too, of course; a lot of these core concepts of ARRPG were established long before I even set eyes on Fate Core.)

Y'know how I said I'm not a Terra Nova scholar? Over the past year, I have arguably become an Atomic Robo scholar. Eating, breathing, and sleeping Atomic Robo has had a huge effect on the game in a hundred little ways. Atomic Robo doesn't tell stories the usual Fate Core way, so ARRPG structures stories the Atomic Robo way. The game has mechanics that emulate some specific stuff from the source material, like a group of Action Scientists working together to apply science to a mystery, a quick method for handling the in-game invention of new technology, and the capacity of characters (like Robo himself) to greatly exceed normal human limits.

What else? Aspects are categorized differently. There are no phases. There's no refresh (another very early decision). PCs start with more stunts. There's a subsystem for building customized skills outside of the extras framework. ARRPG has the great GM advice from Fate Core, but with an eye toward telling Atomic Robo stories, and new tools to help you do it. And because I wrote it, it has a random table. Maybe two. Maybe a random number of random tables. We'll see.

(Incidentally, some of the above will probably make it into the Extras Toolbox in some form or other.)

On top of all that, it's a thorough sourcebook for Atomic Robo -- more information on the Robo-verse than you'll find in any other book, plus a bunch of great art from Scott, both from the comic and new stuff. As a fan of Robo, this might be my favorite part of it.

Anyway. What was I talking about? Something to do with rules vs. settings in Fate Core?

7 comments:

Jonathan C. Dietrich said...

"One, Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener want to do it. I want to do it. Evil Hat wants to do it. Lots of Robo fans really want us to do it. So... we're doing it."

That was the real answer IMHO. Atomic Robo is a setting, some tweaks, an extra rule or two. It sounds something very similar to what is suggested in this paragraph:

"Anthropomorphic animals? As a complete game, I'd want lots of descriptions of animals and examples of aspects and stunts for each. But what I can't imagine is that any of that would deviate from the tools that Fate Core gives you. Maybe -- maybe -- you'd want size and scale rules, but extras can do that as-is. (The Extras Toolbox will probably have those size and scale rules, but still.)"

I'm pretty sure you could play Atomic Robo using nothing but Fate Core as easily as you could play the anthropomorphic animals.You could do it with very little changes and be #done, or you could spend some effort and flush it out to make it MORE like Atomic Robo or the animals.

I imagine it is not a little task to create "lots of descriptions of animals and examples of aspects and stunts for each" and you are going to need a setting and as mentioned the animals may have some of the same issues as Robo... difference in size/scale or skill level/abilities for a dragon (playable in jadeclaw), a bear, a falcon ,and a mouse.

"(Incidentally, some of the above will probably make it into the Extras Toolbox in some form or other.)" ...meaning that there is less need for a Robo specific book!

Don't get me wrong, I WANT more specific books... it gives more examples of how you can use the rules in CORE and tweak and add to it to flesh out a setting. I want Atomic Robo to be made and hope it sells like gang busters. I just was a little hurt at how flippantly my idea seemed to be dismissed.


Mike Olson said...

Yeah, I'm sorry about that -- I didn't mean to dismiss the idea of it or to come off like some kind of arrogant jerk.

You could do it with very little changes and be #done, or you could spend some effort and flush it out to make it MORE like Atomic Robo or the animals.

I freely admit that I probably lack an in-depth knowledge of anthropomorphic-animals stuff. Based on what I do know, though, it doesn't seem like there's anything in particular about the genre (or... genre overlay... whatever it would be) that needs new rules. When you start writing paragraphs of description about what mice are like or what weasels or like, well, now you're writing a setting which very well could need/want its own rules tweaks -- e.g., in Mouse Guard, you'd have an aspect for your cloak, and your concept aspect would probably be a motto. But as a genre, I dunno.

...meaning that there is less need for a Robo specific book!

If they hadn't been invented for ARRPG, they wouldn't be around for the Toolbox. It's a real chicken-and-egg situation.

Jim said...

Good write up, Mike.

I am on board already.

While one "could" hack a game to make it work for another setting, I think those hacks sometimes lose something of what makes those settings interesting.

I'm excited about Atomic Robo RPG because I want someone steeped in the Atomic Robo world (can't get more steeped than the creator, can you?) to craft it into something that feels like the source material. I want mechanisms designed to elicit play that feels like it is of that world.

You mention Mouse Guard in your writing and, sure, people can hack just about anything to play in the Mouse Guard world. However, I would argue that the Mouse Guard RPG has been crafted so as to elicit play that is of Petersen's and not just running rampant through it. Sure, they are both fun. But if I really want the Mouse Guard feel then I will play with that specific RPG.

Similarly, I LOVE the Spirit of the Century universe. It's a cool idea and I appreciate the inspirations like Planetary. On the surface, there is some overlap between that material and Atomic Robo. One might argue that I could just hack Spirit of the Century with little effort to come up with a game that allows me to play in that world. However, I'll probably get Atomic Robo and switch between them as I think play will be different between them based on the setting and rule changes that distinguish one's play from the other.

Keep up the good work. Looking forward to what you come up with.

Jim

Declan Feeney said...

Mike, Its an unfair attitude because there are plenty of things FATE cannot do, or at least cannot do as well as other systems.

Want to play Battlestar Galactica. FATE may be the system for you, but if you want a game where the Cylons are an open secret at the table, and the game is all about the drama of the situation then you really should be looking at PTA or Smallville. Want to play a game about a wayward ronin being seduced by 5 women in 16th Century Japan so he will defend their village. I can guarentee that FATE will never fill in for Kagematsu. Want to play a game about a teenage girl falling for a glow-in-the-dark Vampire. You're probably going to find Mosthearts is a mile ahead in that department.

The issue of course is that there are certain assumptions baked into the FATE system. These are assumptions which probably work for the vast majority of games - the protagonists will be proactive, the protagonists will work towards a common goal, the protagonists are epic (or at least better than the majority of opposition they face), the protagonists bounce back from defeat more powerful that before (or atleast with more fate points). When the assumption conflict with a setting FATE really isnt the system to use.

Mike, Its an unfair attitude because there are plenty of things FATE cannot do, or at least cannot do as well as other systems.

Want to play Battlestar Galactica. FATE may be the system for you, but if you want a game where the Cylons are an open secret at the table, and the game is all about the drama of the situation then you really should be looking at PTA or Smallville. Want to play a game about a wayward ronin being seduced by 5 women in 16th Century Japan. I can guarentee that FATE will never fill in for Kagematsu. Want to play a game about a teenage girl falling for a glow-in-the-dark Vampire. You'll find Mosthearts is a mile ahead in that department.

The issue of course is that there are certain assumptions baked into the FATE system. These are assumptions which probably work for the vast majority of games - the protagonists will be proactive, the protagonists will work towards a common goal, the protagonists are epic (or at least better than the majority of opposition they face), the protagonists bounce back from defeat more powerful that before (or atleast with more fate points). When the assumption conflict with a setting FATE really isnt the system to use.

FATE is one of my favourite systems. I wouldn't want to have to choose between Cortex+, FATE and the Apocalypse world engine - since they are all fantastic, but I know they all have limitations, and none of them is perfect for every game.

Your reaction shouldnt be to think "Yeah, of course Fate can do that." You should be thinking is FATE the best system for this? Sometimes it wont be.

Anonymous said...

One good reason for the Atomic Robo game is that it introduces more of us to the source material. During the first playtest, I picked up one of the graphic novels and read it, my first exposure to Atomic Robo.

I agree that there are things Fate either can't do or isn't best for -- but Atomic Robo's not one of them, at least, not in my experience (caveat: I have only read that one graphic novel, and it's the one where HPL and Fort pay our hero a visit).

And, yes, knowing your genre well is key. And it's not as easy as it looks.

This is what will tell you, "No, Fate isn't the best system for this game" or "Here's what you do to tweak Fate for this game." You need to know, among other things:

1. What is the source material about?
2. What are the things you absolutely need the game to model?
3. How do you bake in the source material's genre conventions so that the system provides mechanical support to staying in genre?

So, for Atomic Robo, one key thing is that everyone needs to be able to Do Science! The Science mode rules support this. The brainstorming rules, while we thought they needed a bit of tweaking and streamlining, are totally awesome for coming up with scientific theories in play. I'm not sure I've seen another game that does that.

And, you can use a different system. The thing is, whatever system you use, you need to answer the questions about the genre. And, you need to map them to the strengths of the system.

I don't know the new Battlestar Galactica, but looking at Atomic Robo, I could totally do it with Primetime Adventures. It would be a completely different game -- which I hope is so obvious that folks are wondering why I bothered to say it.

Relationships, never unimportant in Fate, would be even more important in Primetime Adventures. The science would be mechanically less important because the system would gloss over more of it. If you're thinking, "But, then, what's the point of playing Atomic Robo?", use Fate. If you're thinking, "Yes! I just want to move right to the conflict and handwave the tech stuff," then you may well want Primetime Adventures.

Since I do like having a system that can do Scientific Brainstorming, I'd go for Fate. And I'd go for either of those two before going for GURPS or Tri-Stat or Hero. It is totally possible to do Atomic Robo in any of those, but neither support the things that drew me into the comic the way Fate's Atomic Robo does.

David S. Goodwin said...

I think the key to a setting-specific book is: what does it make possible (or easier) AND what does it make impossible (or at least harder)? Two sides of the same coin.

While you CAN deal with vast amounts of setting details by saying "oh, that's an aspect," a mechanic that makes a specific task easier changes everything. Suppose you had, I don't know, a dragon-training game. You develop a specific system for training a dragon: perhaps a "trust" stress track, rules for teaching the dragon new skills, special advancement options, a specific dragon combat system. Now players can design characters around that activity, and the game becomes about that in a very specific way.

Or, if you wanted to do Monsterhearts, maybe you come up with a string mechanic - you can put an Aspect on another character, and instead of scoring stresses against them you earn free tags on the aspect, or something. Again, it lets you do something you couldn't do as easily before, and it supports the setting & genre.

But what a system forbids is almost more important! Maybe you have a game about office politics, and you remove the physical stress track. Voila! You can't just hit your enemy, you have mentally and socially attack them. An option is off the table.

In D&D, choosing a class means losing access to other abilities. That turns out to be a big difference from games like GURPS - and that focus supports the D&D setting and genre. Restricting options encourages a certain type of creative and tactical play, which I think is just as important as adding options.

Which is why we need setting books and alternate rules sets. They let us bake different assumptions in to the game, and remove others.

Josh said...

I'm still hoping to see Kerberos Club somewhere in the fate core stretch goals. I know it's probably a long shot but a guy can dream right?