Master Your Fate–2: Make the World as You Go

TL;DR: Fate favors long-term commitments and proactive players, but you can offer the full-on Fate experience without one or the other and if you don’t care for why I care about it, you can jump right to the practical stuff.

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Worldbuilding is integral to the Fate experience. Unfortunately, it is not so easy. In short, it revolves around two problematic notions: aspect creation and player proactivity. The first is quite apparent in the Game Creation Worksheet which comes, in the vanilla Fate Core book, even before character sheets. So, game aspects may very well be your players’ first experience with Fate-induced writer’s block, even before characters’ aspects (see Fig. 1). 

Aspect creation during gameplay reflects characters’ competence and proactivity. Those two are a given in Fate games. However, good use of the game mechanics hinges on players’ proactivity, which is not. Expecting players to be proactive right out of the gate is the single most serious impediment to “playing Fate right.” But that’s a topic for another day because it calls for some game theory. For this post, I’ll propose two fixes:

  • Quick(ish) game-creation eyeing in the same direction as characters templates, that eases players into the kind of game-table negotiation a good Fate game requires.
  • Tips for helping players become more “proactive” based on a semantic property of questions (I kid you not).

There’s a little gloss-over on how the original Fate Core handles worldbuilding and Fate’s bias towards campaign gameplay, but you can totally skip it.

Fig. 1: Game Creation Worksheet from Fate Core. Issues are Aspects, Faces and Places have Aspects.

The Mandatory Gloss-Over (That You Can Skip)

In Fate, worldbuilding is part of the metagame and the game alike. And by “metagame,” I mean “game about the game” (as in “metalogic” and “metamathematics“), not “knowledge of the Monster Manual players use to survive random encounters in D&D.” Metagame worldbuilding comes first (when negotiating a setting) followed by in-game worldbuilding through one of the four basic actions—Create an Advantage (CaA for short)—which add Aspects to the game.

In the original Fate Core, the chapter on Game Creation comes immediately after the Basics and before character creation. It sketches a campaign setting that provides engaging characters and realistic gameplay examples throughout the book. It’s a brilliant idea. It’s also a slightly problematic one, because it gears Fate towards campaigns and long-term play and revolves too heavily on Aspects. In theory, it should be the first exposition of players and GM to the game mechanics and ease them into their use for character creation. In practice, it’s the first occasion for writer’s block.

If you have no issue with long-term commitments, A Sparks In Fate Core, by Jason Pitre, offers excellent tips to come up with Aspects and start thinking with them rather than about them. It’s also more explicit on the collaborative part of collaborative worldbuilding. Still, it reinforces Fate’s bias towards campaign settings and long-term play. But clocking at just over 30 pages, it’s easier to handle than the three chapters on game creation of the original Fate book (Running the GameScenes, Sessions & Scenarios, and The Long Game)—nearly 90 pages of quite dense advice.

And now for a three-sentence rant. Fate Condensed dusted the Fate system and made many things easier to understand and handle. It also completely dropped the ball on setting creation. And that’s a bit of a letdown. (End of rant.)

Then there’s the bit about characters being competent and proactive—and players, not. This is best left for much, much later, because understanding where it goes wrong requires some serious game theory modeling. So I’ll stay my argument until then, but I’ll introduce a fix without the theory.

Finally, given the title to the next section, I should mention that I’m aware of the Fate Codex entry “Cooking Up a Fate One-Shot.” It is a skillful distillation of the vanilla Fate Core setting creation rules in one short article. It also recommends two tweaks (using Conditions, and the Deck of Fate). If you have no issues with vanilla Fate Core setting creation, go for it.

One-Shot Fate

Fate is a fantastic game to run one-shots and try out setting ideas without excessive investments in worldbuilding nor game prep, provided that you extend some of the ideas behind template-based character creation from Part 1—that is, using the same underlying notion of themed-but-generic scenarios. 

Following the example from the first part, I’ll assume that you’re a GM, that you have given some thought to one classic story theme—here, heist stories—and have prepped your templates (that’s why this post comes second).  I’ll divide my tips in three subsections:

  1. Before game day: how to get everybody on the same page.
  2. Game day metagame: how to get some worldbuilding going on without committing to a campaign setting.
  3. Game day gameplay: how to play Fate “right” even if your players are not as active as you’d like them to be.

Before Game Day

First, I’d suggest a common courtesy: as a GM, you want to make sure your players are on board for the kind of adventure you have in store. Furthermore, let’s assume that you’re not starting from scratch—which I wouldn’t recommend for players new to Fate—and have some idea of a theme and perhaps even a plot. It would be best if you kept “free parameters” for the players, but you don’t want them to draw blanks when time comes to choose them. How to do that?

Well, here’ a simple procedure. A week or so ahead of game day, you should inquire about your players’ interest in a one-shot session with some constraints:

  • A Theme. The scenario should be “generic,” that is, adaptable to a variety of settings. Still, it should have a recognizable theme: a heist (as in Part 1), a tower defense, a missing person case, a scavenger hunt, etc.
  • A Party Constraint. Fate PCs have relation aspects, which are an essential part of template creation. To help the players wrap their heads around this, include a reason they would work together. Maybe they’re already a team, or perhaps they’ve just traveled together for a while and begun to appreciate one another. Or maybe an employer has contracted them already.
  • Any constraint necessary to your plot. If the plot you planned revolves around a twist of some kind that necessitates the world to have some form of magic or sufficiently advanced technology, mention it. Try to build a plot allowing for alternatives—for instance, either animated corpses or magical constructs (like golems) or automatons (clock- or steam- or diesel-punk) or robots. Propose the list of alternatives to players, and mention if the PCs know about it or not.

And that’s about it. Resist the temptation to get into more details; otherwise, you’ll add too many constraints and leave too little space for your players to influence the world. Now, creating a themed-but-generic scenario takes work, but I’ll leave the details out. If you need to fix intuitions, I sort of embedded a semi-generic heist plot in Rising to the Challenge-Part 1 (it’s not fully generic, but it’s easy to make it so; I’ll show how in a future installment of this series).

Metagame on Game Day

The world-building process I use for one-shots is a scaled-down version of Jason Pitre’s excellent collaborative worldbuilding toolkit A Spark In Fate Core. It is not only excellent (so much so that I have to repeat it) but also available for free. If your gaming group has an interest in more than a one-shot session, I strongly recommend that you’d consider going through at least some of the steps of the game creation process. You can get the PDF on DriveThruRPG

As or the steps I recommend, here they are:

  • Step 1: Ask each player (in turn) for inspiration for the setting—a tv show, movie, game, or book. GM, don’t forget to pick your own; it’s also your game!
  • Step 2 Together, characterize the genres for the inspirations listed at Step 1, in as few words as possible (no more than one sentence).
  • Step 3 Discuss some secondary themes explored by those inspirations—focusing on common motifs, if possible. Ask your players which one(s) they’d like to appear in the game.
  • Step 4 Decide on a genre—either mashing up those listed at Step 2 or make one up (again, as few words as possible).

Remember that you proposed a theme and (if you followed my advice from the last section) did so a week ahead of the game. Consequently, players’ imaginations should have built expectations ahead of the game—but they did not run entirely free: your suggestions “corralled” them. Yet, there could be a wide variety here. Someone may think about the “The Train Job” from Firefly (a sci-fi western in space) and someone else about R.E. Howard’s “Tower of the Elephant” from the Conan cycle (a low-fantasy sword-and-sandal). 

Group consensus is the rule here, but it should be a negotiation. You don’t have to go for a mash-up to accommodate everybody—you don’t have to aim for a low-fantasy sword-and-sandals western in space (but I’d play that!). That’s why Step 3 is there and is arguably the most important of all: in my experience, you can convince a player to accept a setting that’s not their first choice if you include their favorite motif from that setting. There’s more to Firefly than sci-fi western: the show explores family ties, mental health issues, romance, post-war reconstruction, etc. Howard’s low-fantasy incorporates eldritch horror and throws Conan into situations he is ill-prepared to deal with, but gets away from with brawn, will, and wits (generally in that order).

Another benefit of taking the time to discuss themes and motifs is that you’ll get a better idea of the kind of spotlight your players would like. Take notes and consider points in your scenarios to suggest side-quests that will match your players’ wishes. Again, there’s a lot to say about building plots that make room for side-quests but I’ve covered that topic partially already (there) and that should give you some ideas. Also, if your players’ wishes are too far apart, consider 1-character challenges as an alternative.

Game Day Gameplay (The Quick Version)

Okay, there’s a thing in the Fate community that grinds my gears something fierce. It’s the notion that players who are not proactive around the game table—as their characters should—do not play Fate “right.” And I’m not too fond of it. I won’t get into a rant, but I probably should say a few words about it anyway. So let’s say that I’ve had players with crippling social anxiety issues who successfully played proactive-and-competent characters. But the table had to help them a lot. Insisting that the players should be proactive would be just blind ableism.

Now, I intend to address this issue in future posts—heck, a forthcoming series—but for this post, I’ll suggest a quick fix that puts players in charge of worldbuilding by asking questions. The trick is threefold, with the suggestions in order of importance:

  1. Ask questions in turn, not to the table. For instance, begin a scene asking each player a particular question about that scene—about the situation, the NPCs, or whatnot.
  2. Address the character, not the player. That one comes directly from Apocalypse World and PtbA games. But here are my two cents (again, from playing with players with social anxiety): let the player answer as they wish, in- or out-of-character.
  3. Do not ask open questions. That’s the most important one. “What do you want to do?” is the worst question you can ask unless you want to build tension. A yes-or-no question is better, but the best questions are those that establish facts.

Here’s an example of what I mean: 

“Tell me, [Character Name], when did you [notice/understood/began to suspect][this-and-that]

The question implies that [this-and-that] happened and that [Character Name] knows it—but not everyone does, which plays on [Character Name]‘s competence. It leaves [Character Name]‘s player free to imagine how [Character Name] would react. Also, as a GM, you should try to imagine what aspect you could Compel if they tell you, “I don’t know” or something non-committal like “I GUESS [Character Name] would…”

Wrapping up: The Short Game

Fate Core explicitly favors The Long Game (as per the title on one of the ruleset’s chapters), and Fate worldbuilding looks towards campaign settings and long-term commitments. If you and your gaming group have the time for that, more power to you. There’s a drawback, though: if you go that road, chances are you’re going to preach to the choir and miss out on new players—players new to Fate.

However, I suggested that you can offer the full-vanilla Fate experience without asking your players to “convert” to Fate and without insisting that they should “play it right” or “play it differently than other TTRPGs” right out of the gate. Again, I have a lot to say about “playing Fate right,” but for today, it suffices to say that a few tricks can nudge the players into playing Fate “right” without asking them explicitly to do so. And I just gave you a few one.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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