Friday, December 31, 2010

Fate Universal Conflict System -- Part 1

There is a reason there are dice at the table. Without that element of chance, the sense of risk is missing, and suddenly the conflicts that form the center of role-playing feel hollow. There must be a chance (or, at least, the illusion of a chance) that the characters will suffer a loss -- physical, emotional, or even financial. But there is another central pillar of game conflict -- choice. From macro-scale decisions like what kind of character to play, moderate-level ones like when to fight or run, or micro-scale like when to go for a head-shot, without choice you’re not playing an RPG.

Most games reflect the hobby’s wargaming roots by providing detailed rules for physical combat -- providing both choice and chance -- but less so for situations outside a sword fight or gun battle. Some games -- D&D 4e, for example, have virtually no rules off the battlefield, relying on the players’ cleverness and the DM’s whim to determine results. “But wait!” you say, “there is the Skill Challenge.” And you’re right -- that system provide an element of chance and risk to any endeavor a D&D character can take. However, by reducing a task to a series of dice rolls without context, it removes the choice. On the other end of the spectrum, diceless systems like Amber or Nobilis remove the chance from the equation, allowing any conflict to be modeled, but with only narrative convenience determining which way events will turn -- betraying one of the pillars that most role-players rely on. Can we not have both chance and choice in arenas outside combat?

Evil Hat’s Fate system originally gained press with Spirit of the Century, and its spin-off OGL successors Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures, Legends of Anglerre, and Evil Hat’s own second Fate game The Dresden Files have all garnered great accolades. As well they should -- it’s a brilliantly simple, flexible system that allows for almost unparalleled player-driven, character-driven narrative control. In Spirit of the Century, the system provided comprehensive rules for physical combat, chase scenes, and a tantalizing glimpse at a social conflict system -- providing each character with both physical and social Stress (read: hit point) tracks, and sketchy rules on running social conflicts.

Diaspora took the rules presented in SotC in a number of different directions, but its most notable accomplishment being expanding the basic combat rules into four specialized systems: personal combat, starship combat, platoon combat -- and social combat. The social conflict system in Diaspora is nothing short of amazing, applying a level of tactical choice to arguments and parties just as significant as that of the physical combat. I will summarize: 

Conflict takes place on a map that lays out topics of conversation and metaphorical landscape as a normal RPG map lays out floor space and obstacles. Participants can try to destroy their enemies’ confidence by inflicting social Stress, or change their opinions by moving them from one part of the map to another, mechanically no different from pushing or pulling a goblin around a cave.

The Diaspora social conflict system is brilliant, but it doesn’t go far enough. The soldier has a place to ply his talents, the charmer has a place for hers, but the mechanic or doctor is stuck with a couple of die roles -- no tactical considerations, no choice.

And so I present the Fate Universal Conflict System:

All conflicts are essentially the same. A space -- physical or conceptual -- is divided into a number of zones, loosely defined as the space in which two people can easily interact (engage in conversation, fist-fight, etc). Each zone is labeled with one or more Aspects, short descriptors of the zone that can be tagged to provide a mechanical benefit or penalty to the combatants.

There are six basic types of Conflict:
Access: Any time a character is trying to get into somewhere, such as picking a lock or breaking into a secure computer system.
Physical: Any time a character is engaging in hand-to-hand conflict with another, such as a bar fight or battlefield.
Repair: Any time a character is attempting to fix or destroy an object, such as performing surgery or sabotaging a death ray.
Research: Any time a character is attempting to find something out, such as researching a spell or asking around on the street.
Social: Any time a character is attempting to gain a social or mental advantage over another.
Vehicle: Any time a character is engaging in indirect physical conflict, such as in a car chase or starship battle.

… and next time, we will venture into the rest of the Fate Universal Conflict System!