May 14, 2009

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Part 2 - Fate

Its D-day. Omaha beach. Shells falling, flying. The landing ramp drops as your craft beaches; your platoon rushes forth. 4 take their last bloody breaths to machine gun fire before they can pull out of the water...

Yet in all the bloodshed and senseless death, Heroes are forged, and the darkest period of human history now has a glimpse of dawn breaking...
Note: If you don't read any of my poorly written posts, please read this one. I think this one can help D&D the most!

Back in college as I watched Saving Private Ryan in the theater it dawned on me. The difference between good intentions, and true heroes is only one thing: Luck.

Fate was all that separated them.

My buddies and I had recently finished a Dark Sun D&D campaign where we had no less than 75 characters die over 2 years. In the end the characters that survived had that same attribute: luck.

Sure there had been other campaigns that were run where when the PC's got in over their heads, the GM would make the baddies retreat or take us prisoner alive, even though that made no sense. In the end we felt cheated because we knew we really failed the mission but the GM had such a close minded view on the adventure it was going to turn out the same way no matter what stupid decisions we made.

Then we started a Shadowrun campaign. FYI: character creation in Shadowrun takes a while. Suddenly the quick death of a sniper rifle was a lot more annoying! So assuming that if we made enough characters and some would eventually survive, luck would still be all that separated them.

Can we SKIP that step and codify luck directly into the mechanic of the game? A game engine built with Fate as a defining attribute?

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had already been around for quite a while even back then and it had an interesting idea: each character had d3 Destiny points at character creation. When the player spent one they could literally say what happened next, no dice roll required. The DM could throw in a few permanent scars or villains who mysteriously escape, but overall the DM could not overrule what you said happened. As a player I used one to jump my horse over a small canyon to escape a gang of bandits. The DM had my horse die but I managed to catch a small tree root on the other side and pull myself up, receiving a crossbow shot that took my forearm off at the elbow; but now I had a cool steammagic artificial arm made for me by the grateful town wizard!


So I figured that's what we needed to make dangerous RPG settings playable. The basics of it were that you got to split your character points at creation up between the usual stats as well as a 7th "Fate attribute." Fate would determine how many Fate points you got per adventure / level / etc., and could be spent to essentially break the rules. Not spending ANY fate points on an adventure got you a 15% XP bonus, so we would keep a stimulus to try to survive on your wits alone.

Contrary to many other house rules we made up, the system worked! Suddenly the player, not the GM got to decide exactly how lenient the rules would be for them, with the trade off being lower beginning attributes. The Die Hards could still start their character at zero fate, spend their extra attribute points on enormous strengths and dexes, but if the dice killed them; they died, no excuses.

It worked fabulously. Suddenly the kid-gloves were off of the GM, encounters became a lot more 'real' instead of handed to us on a silver platter. Clever use of Fate points at key decisive moments made the "movie" we were all acting out always come through with great moments and fun. Villains now had a mechanic where they could realize that their "luck had run out" and they had better escape to villainize another day. Yet the players still got a great sense of accomplishment since they knew they depleted the bad guy of his fate points, and if he had not escaped, they woudl have surely had him. Furthermore, each time the players cornered him his Fate total would be a little less. It even as a side-effect resulted in an entire new "character class" where a character had very mundane stats but was supernaturally lucky. Sort of like Long shot from the old Marvel comics. And to top it all off we now had a way to decide who that elven sniper attacked first: the character with the lousiest Fate!

d20 Star Wars includes a primitive fate system with their Force points (took WotC long enough, WHFRP has been around for almost 20 years), but all they do is add the tiniest bit to die rolls, or auto stabilize. Its not really fleshed out very much. What we did all those years ago was a bit more extensive: (this is literally the chart we made copied from our 20 page house rule set)

  • Receive a hint/premonition
  • Re-roll any die roll:
  • Auto-stabilize bleeding wounds one category
  • Downgrade any lethal wound to injured and at 0 hit points (unconscious)
  • Downgrade any lethal wound to wounded and at 1 hit point (conscious)
  • Heal 33% of your stamina, and ignore pain for the rest of the encounter
  • Declare a natural 15 on any die roll
  • Alter any attack to a clean miss when possible (ie not a nuclear explosion) 3 fate points
  • Declare a natural 20 on any die roll 4 fate points
  • Spontaneously execute a magical spell, even if you are not a mage 5 fate points
  • (subject to GM approval of course)
I can't encourage enough for you to incorporate a Fate system of your own design into your games. We had a blast doing so. Please share with me if you have had any similar ideas or mechanics of your own that you use for D&D or other d20 games.

P.S. I think Tom Hanks has a really high Fate score.Back in college, as I watched Saving Private Ryan in the theater, it dawned on me that the difference between good intentions and true heroes is only one thing: LUCK.


  1. We found the same thing when we started doing the first playtests of Hardkore. The system was gritty in the extreme, damage and physics accurately modeled and even character advancement was set at rates people were proven to retain information and learn. With all that we found there needed to be a way to make players survive the dangers of exciting gameplay. Our answer was Karma (now Darma) and we tied it to the system's social rules. It worked out very well.

  2. Cool mechanic.

    We're also using a fate point mechanic in our "heist" style D&D game right now. In our version, instead of adding a specific fate point pool or attribute, we've hijacked the level system.

    There's an explanation of it on my blog.

  3. One thing I should probably clarify given the comments on some other blogs: you can taylor a Fate system in your campaign to your individual style - My fate system at character creation yeileded enough fate points to give the players an extra round or two to retreat when they realized they were in over their heads, not enough to carry the day. Of course you could tweak the costs of whatever you want to use the fate points towards to fit your style.

    THe reason I liked it becasue in EVERY movie you see there are points where you say to yourself "what if he got hit by a car when he drove through that intersection" and time swhen the hero 'concentrates' to make that arrow shot that cuts the hangmans noose your friend is hangin from. In EVERY movie, the heores are clearly playing with Fate, and since I am a fan of games that play like good gritty Ronin-like movies, that is why I like to incorporate a Fate system.

    Tom W

  4. Balancing how that system works is really the key... A good example is the Star Wars Campaign I am running that Tom is participating in. Characters get soooo many "force" and "destiny" points under that system that it is very difficult to design encounters that are appropriately challenging without bing complete death-traps.

    We also have some more casual folks playing with some power gamers, so when I ramp up the difficulty to 11 on those encounters I feel like the non-opimized folks get left in the cold a bit.

  5. You should check out the Song of Fire and Ice RPG, they call it destiny points but it seems like their version of luck is well balanced and suits their low magic, cinematic style. If the game had magic and a better setting, it seems like it would really rock.


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