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I've been running Pathfinder and D&D 4e games for my friends for a while now. We treat them more as social gatherings where a game happens. (Sometimes. :P ) Friends drop in and out on a weekly basis, so I don't have an established campaign. Lately, gatherings have become more popular among our friends and games like PF and D&D get clunky fast with larger numbers.

I always have at least 5 players, but next week for example, I'll have 8, and the week after, ten! With the two systems I'm used to, combat gets very slow, and often I'll have to remind players what just happened the last round. Sadly, it's starting to get un-fun.

What systems exist that keep gameplay fast and tight with larger numbers of players?

Specifically, I'm looking for an RPG system that hits all the following marks:

  • Is pen and paper/tabletop, and does not require large amounts of space (without minis is preferable, but anything that I can run on a dining room table is okay)
  • Is in a fantasy setting, or has no specific setting.
  • Has a character creation time of LESS than five minutes (as the first session I'll be making all the characters for them)
  • Has a "low-crunch" combat system with a minimal choice of options available to players. By 'minimal choice' I don't mean they can't do anything they can think of, I mean that the rules for doing so should be simple. For example, "attack, run, investigate, use a skill", and maybe 2-3 options per choice.
  • Each individual's turn should only take 15-45 seconds, about the same as a board game.
  • Is not -entirely- combat-oriented.
  • Has no, or very few, conditions to track. One or two like "wounded" is fine, but when you have to track 'fear', 'poison', 'ongoing damage', etc. or pretty much any "at the start of your next turn" effects, it gets tedious. I'd like to avoid it entirely.

Basically, with using D&D 4e and PF I've found having 8 players means 15 minute rounds, and I wanna get it down to, at most, three minutes a round with that many players. With that, and the above, in mind, what system would fit in a game that fast?

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our meta. All responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. Specifically here, if you haven't run a social gathering style game with 8-10 players, and justify it in your answer, it'll be deleted. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 9 '13 at 8:07
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Also see rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/2895/… which was a previous (but poorly specced) large group game request; I've put a historical lock on it for that reason. Your requirements are much more tangible now - but they still fit somewhere on the order of hundreds of games, and if I were you I wouldn't be afraid of adding way more requirements. It's reopened, but do add in more, and another warning to answerers that we delete non-Good Subjective answers without notice. –  mxyzplk Nov 11 '13 at 13:33
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"Not entirely combat oriented": what do you want it oriented toward? There's a lot of options here. Investigation and sleuthing? Horror? Exploration of the worst parts of the psyche? Exploration? World development? There's a lot of things that are "not combat", which you will either pay major or no attention to depending on the system. –  Jonathan Hobbs Nov 11 '13 at 21:57
    
I have deleted the answers which don't follow our game-rec requirements linked both from the first comment above and from the game-rec tag wiki. You are all welcome to try again, this time, basing your answers on your personal experience. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Nov 12 '13 at 22:52
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Is it a given that you want to be playing turn-by-turn combat at all? –  Alex P Nov 13 '13 at 19:36
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3 Answers 3

Sounds like one of the older (pre-3e) editions of D&D would suit. They were written when large groups were normal, and your bullet points match up exactly. I've only run a B/X D&D variant for a large group once, and it had problems, but slow combat wasn't one of them. This was in a campaign that had a variable attendance (on purpose), so most sessions were fewer, but a few sessions like that one were larger.

The problems that I did have were mostly from inexperience running for a large group, so I wasn't managing spotlight and attention very well, but I saw no obstacles aside from lack of practice to fixing those problems. (The effect of inexperience wasn't even that bad – the group had fun, got through an entire dungeon from start to finish, and the downside was mostly that I was feeling overwhelmed by managing the size of the table. The in-game stuff worked great.) Having run every edition of D&D except the 1974 edition, I can say that TSR D&D is categorically faster in combat, for exactly the reasons in your bullet points, than the WotC editions with their focus on the complexities of tactical combat.

There are a few variations on old editions of D&D, many of them retroclones that subtly tweak the rules to make them run even more smoothly than the originals. The one I used (and am currently using) is Adventurer Conqueror King System, but any Basic D&D retroclone is functionally identical in the aspects relevant to speed and party size, so you could pick up Labyrinth Lord or Swords & Wizardry Complete and get the effectively the same game as I've used for large groups. (Those come in free versions too, whereas ACKS starts at $10 for the PDF.) You can freely move between old-school retroclones too, so you can try one and move to another as you learn more about the minor differences and which flavour appeals to you and your group.

I've also played in a game of actual B/X D&D with about eight players under a DM that had more experience managing large groups, and it went very smoothly. We got through about four combats during that con slot, and those were only about 10% of our play time. The rest of the time was exploring, scouting, parleying with NPCs living in the dungeon, finding things, running away, debating the next course of action, and generally having fun in this fantasy world.


To address your bullet points:

  • Is pen and paper/tabletop, and does not require large amounts of space (without minis is preferable, but anything that I can run on a dining room table is okay)

    Older D&D didn't use (and didn't even work well with) miniatures during combat. Typically, miniatures were used, if at all, to show the "standing marching order". They weren't used in combat, because combat is much simpler.

  • Is in a fantasy setting, or has no specific setting.

    D&D fantasy is about as generic as you get – older editions of D&D created our current standard of generic fantasy roleplaying.

  • Has a character creation time of LESS than five minutes (as the first session I'll be making all the characters for them)

    Character creation is as quick as rolling 3d6 seven times (seventh is for starting gold), writing down a class, name, alignment, and equipment. Equipment takes the longest for new players, but for pregens (where you aren't all super-anxious about packing everything-and-a-10'-pole onto one character) it will be fairly quick. (Here, I'd actually recommend B/X D&D itself or any retroclone other than ACKS – ACKS is great, but it adds a simple skill-aptitude system to characters, which just tips character creation over 5 minutes due to the time it takes to choose which two skills to take for a new PC.)

    For someone with any experience, creating characters easily takes only 5 minutes. Your first PC will take longer since it'll be the first time you've used the character-creation rules and you'll still be getting the habits for where to look in the book, but the rest will be about 5 minutes each.

    Spell choice isn't a problem either: there are only about a dozen to choose from, and you only get about two (depending on the exact retroclone you use), and often they're assigned by random roll. Clerics don't get any spells in most older D&Ds until 2nd level, when they've proved their faith in the eyes of their god.

  • Has a "low-crunch" combat system (IE: minimal choice of options avialble to players) [I feel I should clarify this one further. By 'minimal choice' I don't mean they can't do anything they can think of, I mean that the rules for doing so should be simple. IE: "attack, run, investigate, use a skill", and maybe 2-3 options per choice]

    Combat is super-low crunch. Your mechanical options are move, melee, shoot, cast, withdraw, and retreat, and most rounds you will only actually have the choice of two of those due to your situation and equipment. Combat tactics remain the realm of creative use of the environment and how you arrange your forces; the most meaningful combat options are not actually tactical, but strategic: do we get into this fight or not, and have we ensured that we're able to overwhelmingly smash the opposition before we risk our necks? What equipment did we already choose to give us an edge?

    Old D&Ds also have very few HPs. Low-level combats are typically over in one to two rounds, simply because one side or the other is "done" by then and either dead or running/surrendering. 80% of fights are either cakewalks or suicide, so you rarely get into even fights that drag on and turn into battles of HP attrition, and when you do, it's because something went wrong or you're taking on a Big Bad (or both).

    Positioning is also less of an issue (and hence the lack of using minis). Partly, fast combats simply don't have much variation in positioning, because you engage the enemy and then the fight is decided. Partly, because mechanically you simply don't move around a whole lot: you melee-engage with a particular enemy and then it's hard to disengage safely without killing them. (That's what the withdraw and retreat actions are for, and takes care of the "opportunity attack" concept in an elegant way, too). What you tend to get (unless something went wrong) is a front-line of melee with casters in the back. Rogue-types are generally hanging around and sometimes not even participating in the fight, because rogues are not strikers – their strengths are before and after combat, not during. (Which is OK for rogue players, because fights are short and the minority of your table time.)

  • Each individual's turn should only take 15-45 seconds. IE: about the same as a board game.

    Yep. In general, a player's turn will be under a minute, if not under 15 seconds. When it takes longer won't be because the system is slowing you down – it'll be because something interesting is happening that you have decided is worth spotlighting and usually engages the whole group's attention. A round for our very-large group took a handful of minutes for a combat between over 20 characters (PC, follower, and enemy).

  • Is not entirely combat-oriented.

    The combat rules form a very small section of the rules. From a player perspective the majority of your mechanical interactions are combat but it's a minority of table time. From a DM's perspective the majority of your mechanical interactions are related to the PCs' exploration: random event rolls and reaction rolls and time systems and stuff like that takes up most of your mechanical attention. The actual focus of the game is on exploration (wilderness, underground, and town) and roleplaying situations, with fights being something the players will avoid unless necessary or easy. The majority of the time you'll be describing the PCs' environment and they'll be responding with things they do and what they poke, which won't often engage the mechanics for more than a moment if at all.

  • Has no, or very few, conditions to track. One or two like "wounded" is fine, but when you have to track 'fear', 'poison', 'ongoing damage', etc. or pretty much any "at the start of your next turn" effects, it get's tedious. I'd like to avoid it entirely.

    Almost no conditions. (Most things that are "conditions" in later D&Ds are fight-and-life-ending in older D&Ds.) You're either alive or dead, and special effects of spells are uncommon and usually a big deal: you're not dealing with layers of effects normally, because solving one effect is going to consume the group's attention. Poison isn't a condition: it's instantly deadly and should make the PCs run in fear until they're higher level. There's very few kinds of ongoing damage: acid and fire, which usually last one round. Fear isn't an effect you really need to track either: it doesn't debuff, it makes the target flee so they're out of the fight – and maybe lost/dead! Fear is something to, uh, fear about as much as poison.

    In particular, there are no "buff" spells as you know them. Those are a staple of WotC D&Ds, but they were invented for 3e and simply didn't exist before. There is much less of a focus on stats in older D&Ds, so there simply wasn't a need for that kind of buff spell before.

You didn't cover variable party size in a bullet point, but you mentioned it earlier and it should be touched on too. Early D&Ds with their focus on exploration-based play is much more forgiving of variable player attendance. The driving force behind play isn't a big, overarching plot, so you don't get that problem where a player with a plot-central PC doesn't show up one night and now you can't continue with the plot. On the mechanical side, party size is often padded with follower NPCs, which absorbs some of the variability and makes the party less sensitive to missing PCs.

In the campaign I mentioned at the beginning, we had sessions with two players all the way up to an overflowing table of eight (well, nine including myself DMing; a party of eight). The party itself was larger: there were about half a dozen followers plus pack mule, making it a party of 12ish going into the dungeon. The hardest part was spotlight time: when someone went ahead to scout, I had a hard time resolving that quickly without it being uselessly quick and balancing that with giving attention to the majority who were waiting behind for the scout to come back. Other than that, we had no trouble with combats (they were over really quick, with such an overwhelming force).

When we had fewer players, ACKS (aka B/X D&D) worked fine too. Due to the exploration focus and the ability to hire followers, the players could tune the difficulty of the game to their party size by choosing where to go, what fights to take on and which to flee from, and how many extra bodies to pay to come along with them. The small party sessions were not really different from a game-mechanical perspective than the larger party sessions.

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Dungeon World. I ran a game with 8 players and it worked like a charm with only one single modification to the system: I allowed more than one player with the same class. It breaks nothing and the original idea was to encourage diversity so don't worry about "breaking" that rule. See at the end my personal experience but for now let's answer every features you want from that game.

Is pen and paper/tabletop, and does not require large amounts of space (without minis is preferable, but anything that I can run on a dining room table is okay)

You need enough chairs for everyone and enough room to roll 2d6. That's it.

Is in a fantasy setting, or has no specific setting.

Dungeon World assumes a collaborative setting built with the players and is, by default, pure fantasy. One of my games turned out to have clockworks and steam powered dragons in it but that's just my group.

Has a character creation time of LESS than five minutes (as the first session I'll be making all the characters for them)

5 minutes is the time it takes to have ALL the characters done. The character sheets include everything you need to create your character. From type of eyes (crazy, bloody etc.) to equipment and spells available. They are available online for free so you can look at them and see for yourself.

Has a "low-crunch" combat system

The system works by triggering moves (by accomplishing what's required by the move) like attacking an opponent in melee is Hack and slash and dodging a lightning bolt is Defy Danger with Dexterity. You have the list of basic moves available to everyone (short and simple) and the players don't even need to learn them. Just present the situation and ask them how they react and when they do, ask for the appropriate roll. You always roll 2d6+mod. When you roll 6 and below the GM gets to do a move (a GM never rolls a die. A GM move is definite but open to players reacting to it). 7-9 will give you a success but at a certain cost. The GM can consult his list of GM moves for this or some moves specify certain choices the player must make. For instance a Wizard can that rolls an 8 at Spell casting can choose to either attract unwelcome attention, forget the spell for the day or disrupt reality and get -1 at spellcasting until he prepares spells again. A 10+ is a pure awesome success. A 6 is never the end of it. A 6 at picklocking a door may mean you make so much noise that guards behind the doors hears you (but you succeded!).

Each individual's turn should only take 15-45 seconds

A turn is as long as it takes to a player to formulate what he does. It can be as short as "I throw myself out of the way" and as long as "I draw my sword and wait for the good time to strike and I try to get behind his back when he strikes me and I cut his spine in half". The way moves are built, you can be as descriptive as you want. My players tend to be short and concise but when they are really in the mood they can take up to 12 seconds. Because the system is fast, players will be more attentive to the action because they never know when you'll ask them to dodge an arrow. That's right, Dungeon World has no initiative or specific order. It's like a movie. You describe the scene like a movie and ask the players to roll to know what's the next move.

Is not entirely combat-oriented

Not everything is combat in any RPGs but I understand what you mean. You want the system to support certain aspects of the game that aren't combat and it shouldn't be boiled down to succeeding a specific amount of rolls to call a social interaction over. Dungeon World has no skill restriction by class so in our group the fighter and priest are the diplomats and for some reason our bard is a jerk.

There are no official rules for crafting or how to deal with professions in Dungeon World but that's mainly because Dungeon World assumes a life of danger and adventure. In my campaign my players are running a popular inn called the Slayed Dragon and the rules for management and profits were made up by the players when I asked how profitable the place was. Dungeon World has GMing principles and one of them is: Ask questions and use the answers. So don't worry about the absence of specific rules for crafting or enchanting magic items. They either exist in the well supported Google Plus community or you can make them up with almost no efforts.

Has no, or very few, conditions to track.

You have your HP and a single condition per attribute (available on the character sheet). So when you are weakened (condition linked to your Strength) you take a -1 penalty on your Str. Conditions don't stack and last until you do something about it. For instance yesterday a player was bitten by a gnoll and he tried to push him away but failed his Defy Danger with Strength so I used a hard move on him and described how the Gnoll's bite was stronger and ripping off the flesh of his neck and the intense bleeding made him weak. So I told him he gained -1 to Str. Later he drank a healing potion (which allows you to either heal Hp or a single delibitating effect your choice). His Hp was quite low but the way I described the wound made him prioritize the bleeding.

My personal experience with a large number (6-10) of players in Dungeon World Dungeon World works incredibly well because the action is fast and it keeps everyone on edge. They never know when I'll ask them to react so they don't feel like their turn is when 8 other people are done rolling dice and moving pieces around. Since I don't have to roll anything it leaves room in my head for other things than numbers.

The challenge in Dungeon World is coming with consequences for every roll. I'd recommend if you are really good at improv. Also Dungeon World requires a good ability to describe situations that enables players. Playing with 8 players was actually a joy and I'd like to renew the experience. What's incredible about a large number of players is how quick the setting is expanding because players contribute to the setting with every Spout lore and questions you ask. It might be a good idea to put someone in charge of taking notes for you.

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I never would have considered Dungeon World just from theory, especially since the common wisdom is that 3-5 is the "sweet spot" for Powered by the Apocalypse games, but reading your experience I can totally believe it. You've made me look at a familiar game in a new light; thank you. –  SevenSidedDie Nov 13 '13 at 20:08
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Fate (specifically the most-recent incarnation: Fate Core)

I've been in multiple large-party scenarios with this system, for everything ranging from 8-10 person one-off convention games, to running a 9 month campaign with a rotating cast of 5-9 players (out of 12 different players who joined us at various points in the campaign), and this has been, by far, the easiest system I've ever played with a large number of players.

As others have done, let's look at your hit list:

Is pen and paper/tabletop, and does not require large amounts of space

Physical requirements are pen/pencil, paper, and 4 dice (Fate/Fudge dice or d6s will work in a pinch). A couple of small dollar-store whiteboards are nice for tracking temporary things like Zones (aka maps), and I keep a stack of index cards on hand for Aspects (you might have as many as a dozen for a full encounter, but rarely more), so something the size of a typical card table is more than enough for all of the system components, while the party can relax in whatever chair is handy (as long as they have somewhere to roll dice, we ended up using flat-bottomed bowls).

Is in a fantasy setting, or has no specific setting.

Fate Core is, by definition, setting-less. It is designed similar to Basic Roleplaying, d20, Savage Worlds, and other agnostic systems to specifically support any setting required, but there's tons of great supporting ideas and capabilities for Fantasy setting elements. Some of my favorites include the highly flexible options regarding magic spells, and the ability to portray detailed information about magic items simply by building them a character sheet of their own.

Has a character creation time of LESS than five minutes

This is one where there might be arguments. To me, Fate characters are extremely easy to build since they resolve around expressing an idea and a brief back story. A "Well-Trained Fire Caster" with "Anger Management Issues" who was "Rescued From An Orphanage" by a "Wise But Poor Family" is an entire character in one sentence. Skills to match would take a couple of seconds looking through the list, and using Fate Core's recommended skill pyramid makes it simple to even decide how powerful each is going to be. Things could be more complex if needed, but even then adding things like Extras (specific or unique abilities, substitutions, or exceptions to the rule) are still fairly simple to accomplish in a short time period.

Has a "low-crunch" combat system with a minimal choice of options available to players.

Fate Core's encounter system boils down to each player chooses an action they wish to perform from a list of 4 (some argue 5, but really, it's just 4), pick the skill they wish to use to perform the action, roll the dice and add their skill modifier (even at +0 skill modifier, so there's no difficulty with arguing over whether or not the "House-servant To A Highborn Noble" can help build a fortified defensive position... he'll just suck at it), and find out what happened from the GM (or frequently the rules give a simple "You usually need a 3+ for this" instruction).

For example, if the Barbarian says "I want to swing my Great Axe at the Goblin Warshield", he's just stated everything needed to figure out his action: he's making an "Attack" action using his "Fight" skill (melee), so he needs to roll dice and add his bonus, where his target number is the GM's roll plus the Warshield's defense skill (also "Fight" in this case).

Each individual's turn should only take 15-45 seconds, about the same as a board game.

Fate excels at this due to its narrative nature. Players describe what they want to do (possibly even helping figure out the mechanics needed as they learn a bit about the system), dice are rolled, and an outcome is determined. No charts to check, no criticals to confirm, no follow-up damage rolls. The only time we typically had discussions of any length is trying to determine how long certain actions would take (Summoning an Earth Elemental is no easy task!), but when we realized some actions like that might need time, we worked outside of the encounter (and sometimes outside of the game session) to determine certain 'pre-planned' actions and the time they would take ("Rocky" was a good friend, not to mention a great listener... just not that good at playing 'catch').

Is not -entirely- combat-oriented.

Another excellent part about Fate is that 'combat' and 'social interactions' are viewed as nearly identical, just affecting different parts of the target with different weapons. A thuggish rogue may wield a scimitar from the shadows with surgeon-like accuracy to slay his way through an alley full of guards, but a suave rogue may wield witty remarks, dashing good looks, and favors (real or forged) from the nobility to gain passage beyond those same guards without a single drop of blood shed.

Has no, or very few, conditions to track.

A physical damage track of 3-5 points, a social damage track much the same (both of which reset at the end of an encounter, so no need to keep up with them from one encounter to the next), and a set of possible long-term Consequences that you could count on one hand (or less, usually) are all that you need to worry about with Fate.

One other important factor I'll add for consideration: Low or no cost

Fate Core (and a lot of add-on material) is currently available as a pay-what-you-want system from the publisher as a PDF, or rather inexpensively for a hard-bound book. Very few publishers will offer an option like this, and cost can be an important barrier-to-entry for a lot of GMs and players. I've seen many great systems I'd love to play around with, but $60+ for a single book, or $99 for the "set of three" intro pack can get expensive after a while. Even the dice allow for some of the cheapest options with just using 4 common six-sided dice, instead of requiring a 7-dice set or even custom dice that aren't reusable for any other system (coughWHFRPcough).

Downsides and Disadvantages

I wouldn't be doing the system justice if I didn't mention a few of the potential downsides to Fate & Fate Core.

The largest of these I've encountered is the "D&D Generation Factor": some RPG players used to systems like D&D 3/3.5/4E/etc might have difficulty with a system as abstract and narrative as Fate. There's tons of discussion around here on game theory and Gameist versus Simulationist versus Narrative systems, so I won't go into the details here, but Fate favors lively descriptions of fantastical actions over page-turning to determine if the rules allow X feat to interact with Y item and Z class feature to deal infinite damage if they fail their fortitude save. The best way I've found to counter this is to forbid rule-books for the first two or three sessions, so they have to interact with the group and the GM to determine what they want to do and how to do it, instead of trying to find some loophole in the rules to power-game their way through. This may be something that can be very difficult to overcome with some players, so your millage may vary.

Another issue I've faced is players who prefer a Boolean "Success or Failure" result to their dice roll, and the fact that this really isn't how Fate was designed to work. For some players, they prefer having a fixed target number so they can focus their character development around reaching that number with every dice roll (examples include "Min/Maxing" a To-Hit bonus, or D&D 3/3.5's crazy huge crit range possibilities). A Fate GM will declare a target number for a skill check (or roll an opposed number), but after dice are rolled it's entirely possible for the dice-plus-modifier total to be less than the target number, but as a GM you can offer success... at a price (the hit might not do as much damage, the attacker might end up out of position or trip on his own feet, the door might be unlocked but everyone on the other side knows they're coming, etc). Fate/Fudge dice offer a statistical model that is much more of a bell-curve than the flat line of most other systems, and some players might not like this. Unfortunately my experience with trying alternatives requires messing with that bell-curve, and Fate mechanics tend to lose some of their effectiveness when you lose that curve, so I can't really offer any good alternatives from my experience.


I've played one-off games in probably 25+ systems, played 6-month or more campaigns in over a dozen systems, and I personally own more than 30 RPG systems (if you include variations-on-a-system like different implementations of d20, that number explodes), and ever since I've started playing Fate and Fate Core, I've been loving it above all other systems for both its simplicity and depth. While it's not the one-and-only system for all situations, it's certainly an excellent option worthy of a good look.

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I'm not sure Fate is a good idea for combat between 6-10 people. A significant part of Fate's storytelling system concerns Fate points; keeping track of the aspects of all people at the table is an extremely difficult thing to do, especially during combat. –  Emrakul Nov 18 '13 at 23:06
    
@Emrakul - I usually keep a 'cheat sheet' listing the player's Aspects to give me a quick reference (and usually I don't even need that too much after the first night or two, as good Aspects get talked about or used), and the Fate Point economy works fairly quickly as long as you have easy tokens to use for it (e.g poker chips that have been 'prettied up', such as glowing runic symbols glued/painted to the sides for Fantasy settings, or small clock gears for my Pulp Steam-Punk game). But yes, if tracking that information is difficult for you, then that is definitely a downside to Fate. –  David C Ellis Nov 19 '13 at 21:46
    
Well, it's not even as myself as the players. They need to keep track of each others' aspects, temporary and otherwise, as well as every state of gameplay. That's where the difficulty comes in. –  Emrakul Nov 19 '13 at 22:04
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