While this may sound like a rant against Fate Core that's not my intention. I'm just trying to understand what I'm missing.

I'm just beginning to learn about Fate Core. In the book it talks about being a collaborative storytelling experience, but I didn't realize what that meant until I watched an episode of Geek & Sundry's TableTop last night.

I guess you could say the GM offered some "structure" to the world or the story, but I still don't really get it -- it seems like the players were really the ones making everything up. The GM (who was one of the game's designers, btw) was just asking the players "what happens next" questions, and the players were telling the whole story as one big hypothetical "what if" session.

Instead of roleplaying, to me it just seemed like childish pretend-play; just unbridled imagination. That was fun when I was a kid, but as an adult I'm interested in more structure -- in experiencing a world that feels persistent and real beyond my own temporary involvement in it, and investing in my character's role and experience within that broader world.

What stood out most of all, was that the GM just felt the pushy kid in the group that always gets in the first and last word about what's happening, but has no real creativity. "What if then we get attacked by goblins? And then one of the goblins shoots you, and you die!" "No I don't!" "Yes, you do. Lie down, you're dead."

Is this really the GM's intended role when running Fate Core games?

Thing is, I'm fascinated with the variety of settings available for Fate Core and the uniqueness of some of the mechanics, so I really want to enjoy this game. Please help me understand how this is supposed to work?


In the comments, @AlexP offered an excellent example. The players enter a temple, and the GM asks "Who are the people who died here?"

The GM is making a significant contribution here. The question is informative ('people died here') and it also provides direction ('now the story will focus on the history of this place').

But this is still quite different from my experience with D&D. There, the DM essentially is the world, from the PC's perspective; so the DM would never ask this kind of question about the world. Rather, the players might ask the DM this question about the world. So I think this illustrates pretty clearly the difference I'm referring to.

So my essential question is, is this how Fate Core is intended to be played?


5 Answers 5


Yes, this is how Fate Core is expected to be played.

I'm not going to quote a bunch of Fate rules, I'm going to answer the underlying question of how do you learn to GM this way and what's fulfilling about it. I think my story parallels the development of the gaming industry on this point - it's a journey in becoming comfortable with player narration.

It is a big shock to people when they come from trad games where the assumption is that GMs jealously guard complete control over all aspects of the setting, because the players having it would reduce challenge, surprises, etc. I started gaming in the early 1980s, so I too was brought up with that strict Gygaxian firewalling as my default gaming metaphor. As RPGs came from strictly adjudicated minis games, it's not a mystery as to why this was the case. For the first two decades of RPGs, this metaphor held iron rule.

The first change to it came for me with the game Feng Shui (courtesy Robin Laws), which gave the advice that hey, if the PCs are fighting in a pizza parlor, and one of them wants to pick up a pizza cutter and slash some goon in the face with it, they should just be able to do that. They shouldn't ask you, they should just do it, but of course if they pick up a missile launcher from behind the counter you call BS. I trained my players into this quickly by telling them "if you ask me, I'll say no. If you just do it, then it's all good."

This resulted in faster, more dynamic, more interesting scenes. And what was lost? Me rolling randomly to determine if there was a pizza cutter nearby? Not letting someone do something fun they'd just come up with because it's not the move I would make in their place?

So this crept into our trad gaming even in our D&D games (and by our, I mean mine, but also in general gamers across the world). Why waste time and take away momentum for no value? Now came games that started to experiment with that more. In the name of heroism and story, more and more games began to have a "hero point" like currency that would allow a player to affect the story by cashing one in and saying "that guy missed!" or similar. It was before Fate; I can't remember the first game I played that let you cash in a couple "hero points" to make a fictional declaration, but then that became a thing. "Here's my 2 poker chips, that guy who busted in the door is actually my long lost brother from my backstory!!!"

Now, this could derail the GM's sense of their own story. But in general, the 2.5 decades of accumulated GMing wisdom by this time generally weighed in on the side of "stop being so in love with yourself and your 'story.' Go write a book if you want to tell a story, run a game to have the players participate meaningfully." Early D&D modules "on rails" soured the player base against that; there was a AD&D 2e Forgotten Realms module where you basically follow gods around doing their thing during the time of troubles... So that, plus the fact that usually there was some currency wrapped around it so it wasn't just you spouting off about everything coming in the door, became very common and continued to erode the trad "no player narration" model.

Then you had games like Fate that embraced that to a greater degree. Actually, early Fate was more like what I describe above, requiring Fate Point spends to influence the world. Spirit of the Century is basically a trad game with an option to point spend for declarations and more "wiggly" ability definitions than many games. Subsequent revs of Fate went more that way. With Dresden Files the codified idea of players participating in setting creation was added.

As more indie games played with more and more player narration, games like Apocalypse World and the other Powered by the Apocalypse became very popular, coming at the game from a largely opposite direction - the GM sets up some loose scenario but then the declarations of the players are what mostly drives the plot. As that's become ascendant, Fate has continued - both in the way it's written but also just in the way people play it - down that path. Fate as written may not be as freewheeling as what you saw in that video, but that playstyle with it is certainly not uncommon. So you might be in one Fate game that's a lot more GM-narrated and one that's a lot less, based on the table involved.

I also enjoy exploratory play, which player narration definitely strongly affects. But you don't have to play every game/campaign/etc the same way. While I'm still up for a good trad sim game with exploratory elements, our group has also played Fate, Dungeon World, and Fiasco games where much more of the situation comes from the players.

It might be helpful to compare - my group likes Paizo adventure paths. We have run a bunch using Pathfinder, for example Curse of the Crimson Throne - you can see a bunch of detailed session summaries at the link. But we also ran Mummy's Mask using Dungeon World, and have summaries of that result.

From the player point of view it was fun, and what we lost in exploratory simulation we made up in the game moving somewhere around 50% faster than usual, and not being stuck in situations where "our characters didn't have a reason to be there" as we often do in trad adventures.

In a player narration heavy game, the GM still has plenty of role to play. They control consequences of actions, and also they subtly guide the situation via framing (the "who died in here" example). They get to focus more, in fact, on coming up with neat new things to inject than in worrying about the minutiae, though they do have to think fast on their feet.

In conclusion, Fate can be played more or less this way, and you can start out with just introducing some player setting-building and narration and increase it as you get comfortable; it's a big change to make and it's understandable you feel some culture shock. But take heart in that plenty of trad gamers have crossed that chasm before you, and whether it turns out to be "your favorite" or not, there's plenty of things to recommend it, even if just as an occasional palate-cleanser.

I'll be honest, I am not a FATE fan because I feel like it isn't written as narratively as it should be (full disclosure, I haven't read the newest stuff, but have played it up through Dresden Files). It seems to me like a trad game with a little narration on top, and I'd rather play a sim game if I'm going to wrestle with rules or a full narrative game if I want that. It feels to me like that group was indeed bringing a lot of playstyle to the table that Fate doesn't prohibit but also doesn't necessarily prescribe. But that might make it even better as a bridge game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Fate Core and Fate Accelerated absolutely do enhance and refine the storytelling kernel of Fate, compared to Dresden Files and other earlier editions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Beanluc
    Feb 1, 2018 at 17:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm curious how this answer was accepted when the author admits not having experience with the version in question. It's a fine blog post, but ultimately doesn't address the querent's "essential question" other than a blunt yes. This answer would be much improved with an expansion on @Beanluc's comment. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 3, 2018 at 18:53
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ I would assume it’s because, due to my long experience doing this, I read through to the actual problem the OP had and gave advice to help, instead of answering the yes-or-no question on its face. If you missed it, the real question is how to get through the “system shock” of narrative games when starting from a trad background. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Feb 4, 2018 at 2:00

Pretty typical GM stuff

Fate Core actually has a pretty "traditional" GM role — the GM provides most of the setting details, manages adversity, keeps an eye on the big picture, and helps set the pace of play.

(Due to roleplaying culture, it's quite likely they'll end up being the host, the rules-master, and the scheduler as well. This isn't intrinsic to the role in Fate, but honestly it's not intrinsic to GMing D&d, either.)

What you're looking at

  1. You're concerned about who has authority over the setting:

    Oftentimes, we think of RPGs as "playing my character" without really examining what that means. Plenty of folks sit down to play D&D thinking "I'm just playing my character," and then five minutes later the GM asks, "So, what's your homeland like?" and they create setting details without really noticing they've stepped outside the narrow bounds of "my character" to the larger realm of "what my character is about." Many of these transitions are friction-free and non-disruptive. We may not even notice them because we don't realize we're introducing details to the shared space at the time — it was just some details that we assumed were true of the setting already, in the first place.

    In the video, the GM is speed-building a setting by pulling details from the players. This allows him to short-circuit some of the setup chatter to make a game that can fit into an hour-long video.

    Fate gives you broad latitude to "pull" from the players, but, to be honest, this isn't a new thing in gaming. It's just likely to feel a bit more explicit because some game structures, like Aspects and Compels, are more explicit about how you're manipulating fiction than many other games are. But the fundamental act is still the same; it's just the terminology that's altered.

  2. You're concerned about consistency:

    The GM's helping them manage that. That's why he's handing out little cards and helping them write stuff down on their character sheets. Their game is actually rather heavy on reincorporation — through the aspects on their character sheet and those little cards, both qualities of their characters and the current situation are constantly revisited as part of the discussion of "What happens next?"

    Due to the constraints of the presentation, they're playing an improvisational style that's light on clarification and negotiation. That may feel like "anything goes." They're actually negotiating quite a bit, it's just the answers are almost always "Yes, and."

    Fate isn't a game where you can't say "No" — just a game that tries to avoid forcing you into that situation. At your own table, you can slow play down a bit to focus more on setting consistency or tone, if you need to; the game won't break.

  3. You're concerned about who's talking how much:

    The GM's doing a ton of work in this example. He's just moving very quickly. You'll see he keeps saying "What next?" "What next?" "What next?" but in between, he's changing the situation. When they do something, he tells them how it affects the world, and how their opposition reacts, and then he immediately presses the players for follow-up. The NPCs are pretty "light," mechanically speaking, and he's focusing on the player-facing parts of the resolution system since he can do the rest of it very quickly.

  4. You're concerned about adversity:

    Okay, this is a little bit different from just setting authority. There's this little bit of game-design wisdom called the Czege Principle that states, "When one player both creates and resolves the adversity in a game, it's boring."

    But, again, watch carefully. The GM's introducing and managing the badness. He's working with the players, but he's the one mainly managing consequences — with the caveat that part of Fate Core is to present the other players with (hopefully interesting) choices about what happens when they fail.

Overall, it's all rather familiar stuff.

Which isn't to say that all games should be played and GMed the same way. One of Fate Core's selling points is that the rules are supposed to create a particular dynamic of interaction, help set the tone and pace of play (best suited for action-adventure stories, in my personal opinion). But, in big-picture terms? Ryan Macklin at that table is the GM doing pretty standard GM stuff.


The by-the-book answer

From the Fate Core Rulebook (p.4):

In any game of Fate, you’re either a player or a gamemaster.

If you’re a player, your primary job is to take responsibility for portraying one of the protagonists of the game, which we call a player character (or “PC” for short). You make decisions for your character and describe to everyone else what your character says and does. You’ll also take care of the mechanical side of your character—rolling dice when it’s appropriate, choosing what abilities to use in a certain situation, and keeping track of fate points.

If you’re a gamemaster, your primary job is to take responsibility for the world the PCs inhabit. You make decisions and roll dice for every character in the game world who isn’t portrayed by a player—we call those nonplayer characters (or “NPCs”). You describe the environments and places the PCs go to during the game, and you create the scenarios and situations they interact with. You also act as a final arbiter of the rules, determining the outcome of the PCs’ decisions and how that impacts the story as it unfolds.

Both players and gamemasters also have a secondary job: make everyone around you look awesome. Fate is best as a collaborative endeavor, with everyone sharing ideas and looking for opportunities to make the events as entertaining as possible.

So, not a lot different from D&D really.

What is different is that in a typical D&D game the DM is in charge of creating the world; in Fate, all of the players decide what the world is like. In effect, the world creation is ceded by the GM to the group, so the players really are "the ones making everything up".

In D&D the GM knows there are 4 orcs in this room; in Fate, a GM might ask the players "What would be the most awesome thing that could be in this room?" listen to the answers and decide from that milieu or their own ideas what is in the room. In both systems, the GM decides what's in the room, in D&D they do it before the session starts, in Fate they do it as the door is opened.

Both games have essentially the same play style:

  1. The GM describes the environment,
  2. The players state what they would like to do,
  3. The GM narrates the results.

In D&D the expectation is that this will have a mechanical resolution (but the GM can just decide); in Fate the expectation is that this will have a narrative resolution (but the GM can use mechanics).

The what-you-saw answer

Wil Wheaton says in the introduction:

The Gold Standard of getting the system out of the way so that the story can be the thing.

What follows is a piece of professionally produced video entertainment that deliberately illustrated that premise. The parts where the system did get in the way ended up on the cutting room floor.

I really enjoy TableTop and I have bought and enjoyed a number of the games that they played on the strength of it. However, it is not a "how to" series: it's professional actors, professionally directed, produced and edited in order to make entertainment. These guys are way better at improv acting than your average role-player. After all, acting is their career. Is it any wonder that what you see looks more like acting than role-playing(particularly when the boring bits get cut)?

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    \$\begingroup\$ FWIW, I'd never ask "What would be the most awesome thing that could be in this room?" -- that kind of prompt tends to be a block because it puts you on the spot without giving you anything to work from. I'd pull on a preexisting bit of setting or character, ask them what it means, and then build out of their response. Like, "Hey, your mom told you stories about this haunted temple. Who were the people who died in here?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Jan 31, 2018 at 2:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer misrepresents the GM role in Fate Core. World creation is not ceded to the players nor are the players making everything up (the GM is still very involved in those processes), and the GM asking the players questions like that is not only unworkable as Alex P pointed out, you appear to indicate it's representative of an ordinary interaction in Fate, which is not the case. If you didn't mean to make these implications, I suggest you revise to provide more representative description of the GM/player relationship, because right now what you've got in there sounds fundamentally wrong. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 31, 2018 at 9:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AlexP What you're describing is pretty much what I got from Dale M's answer, and also what I noticed in the video. For example, regarding the question "Who were the people who died in here?" -- you're saying the GM would ask this question of the player. In D&D, the players might ask that, there would likely be some sort of knowledge roll, and the DM would provide the answer -- because the DM is the world. So that example seems to illustrate the difference I'm talking about very well. \$\endgroup\$
    – Brian Lacy
    Jan 31, 2018 at 23:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like your allusion to a band of Schroedinger's orcs In both systems, the GM decides what's in the room, in D&D they do it before the session starts, in Fate they do it as the door is opened @doppelgreener When Dale says "the world creation is ceded by the GM to the group" is your rebuttal that it is more accurate to say 'shares the world creation task with the group' as being more accurate? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 2, 2018 at 13:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast That would be more accurate, yes. The GM takes an active, leading role in a collaborative exercise as the first among equals, exerting slightly more control than any one player but neither ceding nor taking full control. There is still preparation work conducted by the GM in advance, so it winds up being a 60/40 or 75/25 balance in GM/player creative effort. D&D by contrast feels like it ranges between 90/10 and 99/1 in most games. (I do also like the Schroedinger's orcs example.) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 2, 2018 at 13:10

Fate is very flexible in regards to how much GM direction is needed for play, though it doesn't do the extremes of being GM-less nor absolute GM controlled. If you have players that are very proactive and creative they can run a lot of the game themselves and Fate allows and supports this, but if you have players that are used to more traditional games, it can play that way as well.

I ran a game of Dresden Files where my players started off fairly passively following my storyline, but after they got more comfortable with how the system gave them the power to narrate things they routinely hijacked entire sessions away from me, forcing me to be even more creative to keep up with them. It was a blast for all involved because I didn't have to be the boss the whole time, sometimes I had to riff along with my players and improvise things, and rarely I could even sit back and watch them tell the story themselves.


As defined by the Fate Core book, the job of the GM in a Fate game is:

  • Deciding definitively when scenes begin and end.
  • Portraying the world and the NPCs.
  • Judge the use of the rules.
  • Create scenarios (and nearly everything else).

Within those categories there is a lot of leeway for individual GMs to add their own style to the running the game, it is certainly possible for GMs to hand a lot of narrative control over to the players (by asking leading questions and other methods), this is certainly a style that Fate supports given it's heavy leaning towards narrative gaming (mainly with the aspect mechanic). However it is also possible to run the game in a more "traditional" style.

The Fate system takes a toolkit approach to roleplaying, allowing freedom for the GM to imprint their own style on the game. Although the example you have quoted sounds like a fairly clumsy method of giving the players narrative control, personally I go for a mix of the two styles, having a slightly more traditional structure in the main but allowing players input in certain areas.

For example: If I were running an adventure set in a pirate port then I would have the important details of the port mapped out in my notes, if a player asks "Is there a blacksmith in this port?" and I've not considered that, then I'm fairly likely (unless I have a good reason not to) say "Yes" and then come up with the details on the fly, or I might say to the player "Yes there is, would you like to describe what he looks like?"


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