Is Freeform Roleplaying the Same as Playing a Game?

One of my favorite pastimes is freeform roleplaying. It’s the kind of roleplaying where everyone describes their character, creates an impending issue and then has at it. No rules, no lengthy character creation and, in most cases, no GM. But is it gaming?

Freeform roleplaying may be the ultimate pick-up game, but is it, in fact, a game? The dictionary on my Macbook defines a “game” as:

game |gām| noun1 1 a form of play or sport, esp. a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

According to that definition, we need rules to abide by and something to determine success (skill, strength or luck). Most RPGs use luck to determine success when they roll dice, but freeform doesn’t. Neither does it have many rules, if any.

I’ve played in quite a few freeform games that had basic rules (don’t take control of another player’s character, don’t do anything that would affect another player’s character in a negative way, etc.), but I’ve been in just as many games without any rules whatsoever. According to the definition above, we need to have rules to abide by.

Skill can play a role, but not much of one. How well you do is usually dictated by your skill as a storyteller or writer. But since you don’t “win” at storytelling (or roleplaying, unless you’re playing D&D killing games, which is all that product seems good at imitating), does your skill really matter except to increase the enjoyment around the table/forum?

And for the record, luck or strength matters not at all in freeform games. How much you can deadlift or squat doesn’t equate to storytelling (unless you’re telling the incredibly boring story of how you came to be able to deadlift so much). And since freeform “games” don’t use the traditional resolution method of rolling dice, luck isn’t a factor either.

Some freeform gaming groups have loose rules and a GM, and thus conform a little more closely to a traditional RPG, and my Macbook’s definition of “game”. But the more strict a freeform game gets, the less freeform it feels, to me.

Whether it’s a game or not, I enjoy it as both an activity to flex my storytelling muscles and a form of play (which is listed in the first part of that definition). But is it a game? Personally, I’m not sure it matters. It’s fun and I have fun doing it, that’s all I care about.

What about you diehard gamers out there? Is freeform roleplaying a game or a group storytelling activity?

Class and Race/Species Mechanics in Fate Core

Typically, when a class is applied to a Fate Core character, it is their high concept (sometimes with the race/species tacked on to it). I’m guilty of this as well, as can be seen in my Star Wars Fate Edition hack (although I suggested adding an adjective to help further differentiate). The problem with this is the same problem I have with aspects in general: they’re usually either too broad, or not broad enough.

Here’s an Option for Class and Race/Species Mechanics
Take what Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) uses as a description of aspects: they describe what you can do. Approaches (skills), on the other hand, describe how you do it. Meanwhile, Stunts are what makes you unique and awesome. I think the description of the aspect is better defined in FAE, but we’re talking about classes and races here.

Races typically describe “what you are”. Well, that’s not really covered by either approaches or aspects, but stunts say what make you awesome and unique, and sounds like a fabulous spot for a racial description. Since Fate has 3 stunts to start with, a racial stunt could be designated as one of those stunt slots, with the other two considered free.

But classes are awesome, too, though maybe not always unique. One of the two available free stunts could be used for the primary class benefit. Sorcerers need magic to cast, warriors need to be tough or powerful (or both) and rogues need to be stealthy. But a warrior can be stealthy and use magic, and sorcerers can often swing around a sword and hide under a table. The stunt is what makes them awesome at it, what sets them apart from others who just have a high level in that approach/skill.

This doesn’t remove the racial/class inclusion in the high concept, but it means that the high concept is free to be something more unique than just a listing of traits, as well.

In truth, there are many ways you can represent classes and races in Fate Core. This is just one.

The Sentry

Several years ago, I published a story with the Cynic Online Magazine (took me forever to find it; I kept looking for “The Critic”). It was my first published work of fiction and still the one I enjoy reading the most, which is saying a lot since I usually can’t stand reading my own work. I have\ improved in my writing since

I have improved in my writing (I hope) in the six years since this was written and published. Compare this story to my recent fiction and let me know if you agree.

UPDATE: The website that published it has since gone dead. You can now find the story here.

Character Importance as a Damage Mechanic

Here’s an idea. What if the character’s importance in the story dictated what they could affect in an action?

If your game has main characters (PCs and primary villains) and supporting characters (companions/allies and minions), as a character takes “plot damage” they are reduced in importance. Main characters are reduced to supporting characters and supporting characters are removed from the story.

Translating this to mechanics, main characters could be capable of affecting the story (changing the narrative by attacking enemies, placing advantages/changing the environment, etc.), while supporting characters are only capable of aiding the actions of a main character (combining skills in teamwork actions, etc.). And a character who is removed from a scene loses all agency.

Narrative damage could be akin to advantages in Fate, or complications in Cortex+. There could even be a mechanic to move up and down in narrative importance, like overcoming/removing a complication or enemy-placed advantage. Or, if a main character supports a supporting character in some way (healing, doing a favor, etc.) they are lending some of their importance to the supporting character, thus returning them to main characters (if they are capable of that level to begin with).

Taking a Fate fractal approach, supporting characters could also be represented by weapons. They are supporting of the character, and thus not capable of affecting change. They can, however, use their “skills” to modify their wielders, and may possess special abilities to further enhance a character.

Another way to mess with supporting characters is to treat them like an environment. A simple overcome action will remove them completely from a scene.

This may oversimplify game mechanics (or confuse them, depending on the game this is being applied to), but the idea of narrative importance is fun to play with, and it isn’t new. The Wushu RPG uses narrative importance a lot, but characters don’t move between levels of it. But maybe they should? I could see a Wushu character being reduced to a supporting character (passive minion or spending some of their dice to make additional descriptions for their allies) when they run out of Chi.

I don’t think I’ll use this mechanic anytime soon, but it was a fun idea that hit me, so I’m hitting you with it. (You should put some ice on that.)

Fate’s Influence on Other Games

If it’s not obvious yet, I’m something of a Fate Core fanboy at the moment. It’s such a streamlined system that focuses on the narrative of roleplaying rather than the mechanical crunch. And as a storyteller, that’s something I can get behind.

Recently, I’ve discovered how much influence Fate has had on other games, even games I played long before I discovered Fate and it’s myriad of implementations. This influence almost always has to do with aspect-like traits and the game in question’s resource economy.

It’s been mentioned to me that Fate’s aspects were inspired, in part or in total (I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak with authority on this), by Alderac Entertainment’s 7th Sea, which makes sense, given how Arcana and Hubris work so closely to the invocation and compel mechanics of aspects. Again, I wasn’t there, but I would assume that whatever mechanic inspired Nature and Demeanor for World of Darkness games also had a hand in the inspiration, as their Willpower mechanic is similar to fate points.

Obscure origins that I can’t speak to notwithstanding, it is clear where Fate’s aspects have influenced more recent games. Below are some examples (not all, as there are too many to list here) of games that use some version of Fate’s aspect mechanic in their design.

  • Green Ronin’s Mutants and Masterminds uses hero points as currency for awesomeness. Just like fate points, they are used to enhance rolls and edit scene details, in addition to other effects specific to their game’s design. In their third edition (or DC Adventures, depending on the version you have), they also use Complications, which are like aspects that can only be compelled to earn more hero points. M&M used to be my go-to game for all things roleplaying, and the system works fantastically!
  • True 20, also a Green Ronin game, used conviction points that functioned identically to hero points, and a virtue/vice system to compel the character to gain more conviction. True 20 even included a refresh mechanic and tied it to Charisma (if I’m not mistaken), giving that ability some rare utility not seen in other games.
  • Technoir, by Jeremy Keller, uses dice (called “push dice”) in place of a point-based economy. Positive adjectives can be “tagged” with push dice to add to the narrative and improve the chances of rolling better. Negative adjectives are always tagged, giving penalties in the form of “hurt dice” on all the character’s actions. Adjectives stick around for varying lengths of time, and can be increased by spending your push dice on them.
  • Probably the most obvious, and potentially best, Fate-influenced product is the Margaret Weis Productions’s Cortex+ system, specifically Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. Aspects in typical Fate games have always been a little hard to grok due to their completely narrative (and mostly unlimited) nature. MHR brilliantly divides the uses of aspects among the various traits within the system. Distinctions, the closest thing to traditional aspects, add a bit of narrative to every action (both positive and negative); plot points allow the basic uses of fate points; stunts and resources are essentially invocations that are tied to skills and powers (making nearly everything on the sheet and aspect!); and assets and complications fulfill the function of the various maneuvers that Fate Core wrapped into their Create an Advantage action; and SFX ever so awesomely stand in for stunts. The game may be a little hard to grasp at first due to how completely original and seemingly complicated the game design is, but once you get it, you’ve got a great game on your hands.

As I said, that is not every game to have been influenced by Fate mechanics, and I’m sure Fate has its own influences that I haven’t mentioned. The cool part of this is how the game industry, unlike any other industry I’ve been a part of, is willing to let others use parts of their product to enhance another commercial product, usually without any monetary exchange and almost always with encouragement!

I think this willingness for collaboration is what has made elements of Fate, and many other games’s mechanics (I’m obviously hyper-focusing on a single game here), mainstream in the industry. Personally, I look forward to seeing what new developers make of aspect uses.

(If I have misrepresented your game, please let me know and I’ll correct it.)

Star Wars Fate Edition

UPDATE: This version of Star Wars was based on the Dec. 4th, 2012 release of Fate Core. Not much has changed since then that has any kind of noticeable impact on these rules, except for the number of stunts players are allowed to start with (which was increased from 1 to 3). This will create some truly epic characters in this version of Star Wars. If that is to your liking, have at it – your Jedi will feel like Jedi and your smugglers will be able to start with a fully customized starship. This will create more of a feel you get from video games and some novels. If you want to remain on the level of the movies, keep the dials where they are with 1 stunt and 3 refresh to start.


This has been in the making for some weeks now. In fact, I’ve put off all of my writing projects because this deserved (nay, demanded) a high-level of attention to the details of it. I didn’t want to give one of my favorite settings, and my primary test for the Fate Core system, less than my all. Whenever I discover a new RPG system, my method of testing it is by creating a Star Wars conversion for it.

Star Wars has it all: melee and ranged weapons, artificial beings, species/races, vehicles, magic…by creating a Star Wars conversion, I get a sense of what a system is capable of on almost every scale.

I hope you enjoy reading (and maybe playing?) this as much as I did writing it.

Star Wars Fate Edition

Fate Core Mech(Warrior) Hack

The title says “Mech(Warrior)” because this could be any general mech hack where you get into huge robots and stomp around (although it borrows liberally from +Rob Wieland‘s CAMELOT Trigger!). This idea was inspired by +Addramyr Palinor, who mentioned the idea of a Mechwarrior hack for Fate Core. Now, I played plenty of Mechwarrior video games in the past, but I know very little about the fiction. So this is just a generic method of making mechs work, since that’s what I do know, that you can plug into your setting and play with.

Every chassis is allowed a single aspect and a stunt. The aspect should say something about the chassis (size, emphasis in combat, etc.). Something like B2 Scout Series Chassis or MechCorps Series 2 Juggernaut Chassis. You can invoke your chassis aspect whenever its size, function, etc. would be helpful; compel the aspect when you’re out of your element (like a colossal mech on a scouting mission) or the mech is otherwise a hazard for you.

The chassis stunt should be a mechanical representation of something implied by your chassis aspect (like scouts having increased speed or combat mechs having increased armor or the like).

The chassis aspect grants justification for the basic abilities of a mech (immunity to small arms fire, walker-type movement, etc.) but it doesn’t grant mech-level weaponry (but it can make normal attacks against non-mech targets with Fighting or Shooting) or special defenses against anti-vehicular or mech-level threats (although in some settings the mechs are so large that even standard anti-vehicular weapons are not powerful enough to affect them). For that, they need special equipment.

Modules are mission-specific mounts that attach to the chassis. They come in two types: modifications to the chassis and those that tax the capacitor. Every mech has 4 module slots. (A possible rules exception stunt for a character is to retrofit their chassis to accompany another slot.)

Chassis modifications are stunts that represent internal systems that enhance the mechs normal modes of operation. Such as improvements to the mech’s sensors and communications, armor, capacitor heat sinks, motor-servos that affect movement, etc.

Example Chassis Modifications
Advanced HUD. Gain a +2 to Notice rolls made to track or identify targets.
Heat Sink. Gain a +2 bonus to overcome rolls to remove Overheated-type aspects.
Structural Reinforcement. Gain Armor 2 vs. physical attacks.

Capacitor-linked modules are stunts representing mounts on the mech that tax the capacitor for energy beyond the normal demands of operation. Such as mech-level weaponry, deflector shields, flight or jumping boosters and the like. Continual use of such systems can cause the capacitor to become overheated. Because of the danger to internal systems (including the pilot) from heat build-up, safety protocols activate when the capacitor’s heat reaches a certain level, shutting down system access to the capacitor. Because of this limitation, capacitor-linked stunts are built with 3-shifts of effect, replace one skill with another at a +1 bonus or allow a rules exception without cost where it would normally merit one.

Whenever you score a success (or perform a rules exception) with a capacitor-linked module, you gain an Overheated-type of aspect. Redundant energy reserves will kick in to allow the mech to continue sub-standard operation (normal modes of movement and chassis modifications), but you can’t access any of your capacitor-linked modules until you remove the Overheated-type aspect. If you succeed with style while using a capacitor-linked module, you can immediately spend a boost to prevent heat build-up, thus avoiding the placement of the Overheated-type aspect.

Example Capacitor-Linked Modules
Blaster Cannons. Gain Weapon 3 on Shooting attacks.
Deflector Shields. Gain a +3 bonus to Athletics rolls to defend vs. Shooting attacks.
Jump Jets. Move to any zone as part of free movement, ignoring scene aspects that would normally hinder you.

Damaging Mechs
When a mech takes a hit, the player has to make a choice: take the hit himself (dealt to his mental stress or consequences), allow the mech to absorb the damage or spread the damage between the two. When the mech absorbs damage, it represents a module being destroyed or out of ammo and the player chooses to shut that module down (losing access as though it were overheated). The player can use their own stress or regular consequences to lessen the damage to the mech (or absorb it all themselves). Which modules take the hit depends on the damage dealt:

  • Mech absorbs 2 stress: Defender chooses a module to shut down.
  • Mech absorbs 4 stress: Attacker chooses a module to shut down.
  • Mech absorbs 6 stress: Defender and attacker each chooses a module to shut down.
Repairing Mechs
Once you return to base (or otherwise gain access to a mech repair facility), you can repair damaged modules by making a Mechanics (Crafts) roll with a difficulty equal to the number of modules that have been shut down +1. If you fail the roll, you leave the repair facility with one module still damaged (or removed) as repairs were still underway or replacement parts or ammo couldn’t be found in time for the next mission. If you tie, you leave the facility with an Unreliable aspect on one of your modules.
Character Consequences and Mechs
If you take a consequence that relates to your mech’s chassis being damaged (and thus in need of your character, or an ally, to repair it) you can use Mechanics (Crafts) to make the recovery check.

Alternate Initiative System (Fate Core)

After comments on my custom skills rules for Fate Core, someone brought up initiative and its use as a trapping.

I’ve always been quite hateful of initiative. In fact, I downright hate most initiative systems as they only serve to add additional bookkeeping to what otherwise should be a social, storytelling experience, not a war game.

Thankfully, Margaret Weis Productions created the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game. They have the best kind of initiative, narrative-based initiative (which, ironically since it’s his game that I wrote this file for, +Fred Hicks helped invent that initiative system).

If you want to see how the Marvel game does it, I invite you to purchase their very strong product. If, on the other hand, you’re a Fate gamer through and through, check this out!

Alternative Initiative System (Fate Core)

Custom Skill Toolkit (Fate Core)

I’ve been writing a Star Wars implementation for Fate Core, but skills have given me quite the hang up, so a few days ago I wrote a toolkit to help GMs of Fate Core create a custom skill list. Unfortunately, I seem to have forgotten that Core has more to do with actions than trappings (although both are important).

Thankfully, before I wrote a revision (which would have taken much contemplation on how to do) I learned there is to be a skill creation toolkit as part of both the Atomic Robo RPG and the Extras Toolkit (a Fate Core resource). So, I’ll wait for those instead of spending valuable time doing it myself.

In the meantime, maybe someone will find this helpful.

Custom Skill Toolkit (Fate Core)