I usually play and run campaigns of a story-based, narrative nature, and have long been drawn to the FATE system, although I have only recently had a chance to start looking at it in depth.

I am about to start running a dungeon crawl game in a home-brewed setting, and was considering using FATE as the system for it, and finally getting a chance to use it.

However, as I have been reading the FATE rules, I am starting to doubt whether FATE is a good choice for this type of game.

Specifically - there will be very little human interaction until the end game, and then it will be with people who necessarily have no background connection with the PCs. The challenges they face will be typical dungeon challenges - traps, combat, and navigation complications - and very little in the way of group cohesion challenging interaction.

I love the look of FATE for story-driven games, but I'm not sure if it's a good choice for a game of this nature, has anyone tried this, and if so, how did it go?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would encourage people to only answer given the guidance on answering questions like this in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective - personal experience only please. "I'm sure it would be good" is off topic and will be deleted. Thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 9, 2013 at 1:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might want look into Dungeon World instead. \$\endgroup\$
    – okeefe
    Jul 9, 2013 at 1:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ FATE does already-competent characters very well. In all the (untested and unplayed, sadly) ideas I've had for dungeon-crawling FATE, I took that as an assumption and didn't aim to emulate low-level D&D-style dungeon crawling. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 9, 2013 at 3:28

4 Answers 4


To me, a dungeon crawl is a mechanics-first strategy-focused RPG that differs from a tactical board game both in its typical level of complexity and time commitment, but more fundamentally in its rewarding of player creativity. 'Plot' and 'Story' are completely irrelevant in a dungeon crawl and, while players do have characters and character interactions, these are vehicles for the strategic looting of the dungeon (and possibly the defeating of the BBEG, or other MacGuffin). My point is that, in a dungeon crawl, the entire narrative framework is a MacGuffin to drive the player characters' into challenging situations. The game itself is about the challenging situations and how the players- and only to a lesser extent the characters- overcome or fail to overcome them. The cost of overcoming obstacles is relevant, but the emotional impact of overcoming them is not. This is very much contrary to the fundamental concepts of most modern RPGs, which tend to be about characters, story, philosophy, or something else where the PCs don't really 'win' or 'lose'. In tactical RPGs (aka dungeon crawls) players really do win and lose (or, on a single-session level, lose or not-lose-yet, which feels more like winning the closer to losing you came); they 'win' when they 'beat' the campaign (which, if properly designed, has realistic odds of killing their characters, will kill their characters if they play stupidly, and will or has a chance to reward parties that overcome the campaign with exceptional success) and they 'lose' if their character dies (unless death was a deliberate decision on the part of the player typically to ensure the otherwise unlikely completion of some even more important goal, like the campaign being beaten or the party's survival. TPKs are always a loss).

If this kind of complex, mechanically driven, conflict-focused co-operative role-playing game is what you mean by 'dungeon crawl' as well, no, FATE is not a good choice of system and is, in fact, one of the worst systems you could choose.

FATE is both Soft-Rules and Rules-Light

Tactical RPGs want to be hard-rules rules-heavy systems.

In the first case this is to make the game possible by establishing rules by which the GM is always bound, so the players can exploit mechanical weaknesses in the GM's plan without worrying about the GM ruling that 'things just don't work that way' or some variant. Hard rules systems encourage GM trust and respect because, if the players know the rules of the game (which they must to a fair degree to play a Tactical RPG well, or at least play with other players who do), they can see that the GM follows the rules and use unusual system behavior to extrapolate that something weird is going on rather than the GM just deciding to ignore the rules. For example imagine a system that requires an average NPC to get a roll of 10 on a d20 when drinking alcoholic beverages to avoid immediately passing out from drunkenness per drink, regardless of how many drinks are taken. If the PCs observe someone drink a 6 pack of beer over the course of a day, in a hard rules game it would be appropriate of them to assume that the character is not an average NPC wheras in a soft rules game it would be appropriate to assume the GM decided the instant-knockout-beer rule is stupid. Being able to make these kinds of inferences reliably, consistently, and independent of the GM is important in a Tactical RPG.

A rules-heavy system is preferable because, in a Tactical RPG, more rules = more character options (though not all of these options are necessarily good). FATE has a uniform conflict resolution system that applies to all situations. This is good for some kinds of player groups, though not required for any particular genre of RPG, but awful for a Tactical RPG: all FATE characters are the same character, from a tactical standpoint! (ok, technically you could vary whether your skills/aspects are more focused or more broad, but the tactically optimal choice is more focused and this is clearly stated in the rulebook, at least for 2nd edition). Hackmaster, as an example of a system designed for Tactical RPGs (well, technically, to parody a Certain Game and its culture) , adds extremely niche special-case rules deliberately, in order to promote more varied, specialized characters. Most systems don't go quite that far, but good Tactical RPG systems are almost always rules-heavy.

Narrative/Character Focus

Early FATE is a character-focused game. Later FATE is more narrative focused. All FATE systems try to get as far away from being mechanics-focused and detail-focused as possible. The systems, especially 2.0 in my opinion, are excellent, groundbreaking works of art that revolutionized how people play narrative RPGs and how designers make narrative systems. That doesn't make them good for everything. FATE is designed specifically to discourage dungeon-crawling player behavior and dungeon-crawling gaming approaches, and it does a good job. When you use FATE for a real dungeon crawl, you are taking a finely crafted precision glass-blowing instrument and using it to smash down a door. There are other tools for door smashing. Use them.

You can certainly play a narrative-focused, rules-light game with easy conflict resolution in a medieval fantasy setting that involves the exploration of underground monster-filled ruins in FATE. You can do that quite well, in fact. But it would be easier and better to run a Tactical RPG, a Dungeon Crawl, in no system at all than to do it in FATE. And that's saying something.

As for personal experience, I have tried this, long ago, when I was young and foolish. It went badly but turned into a fun character-focused game.

I have seen other people attempt this, and it usually doesn't even go that well (I was lucky and had good players when I made my mistake).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I was nodding along until you got to the definition of tactical RPG, and what is necessary to make dungeoncrawling work. Unfortunately, the game that created the genre, and still the king of the sandbox style that turns what you describe as the essence of dungeoncrawling up to 11, very much contradicts these assertions about the necessary qualities for a dungeoncrawling game. The first section is super-perceptive though. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 7, 2014 at 0:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Doesn't it? D&D, including old school D&D, is rules-heavy, hard-rules, conflict focused, cooperative, and mechanically driven. What terms do you think are inappropriate? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 7, 2014 at 0:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, rules-hard. Rulings over rules seems to not count as rules-hard, as you've defined that. Old D&D isn't soft-rules, but it's much softer than what you're describing in the answer. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 7, 2014 at 3:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ That impression is part truth and part Gygax's PR over the years. (His view on rules vs rulings flip-flopped multiple times during TSR days.) AD&D itself doesn't contain the advice on limiting DM authority that you mention. For more on this: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/29367/… \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2014 at 19:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer The Lumpley Principle view on rules makes sense, yeah. But pre-declaring rulings isn't a logical consequence of the Lumpley Principle, nor does AD&D put a requirement on the DM to pre-declare rulings either. Rather, it gives the DM full power to make new rulings on the spot as called for in the DM's judgement, with consistency also up to the DM's judgement. It's a legit personal DMing philosophy that's compatible with AD&D's, but not a philosophy that can legit be attributed to AD&D's text or can be claimed to be what AD&D says to do. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 9, 2014 at 19:20

Fate is a great system choice when the narrative is more important than realism. If this is true of your group and the story you want to tell, then you can use it to great effect for your dungeon crawl, otherwise you may want to shelve it for another time. That said, a narrative-driven game is necessarily telling a different story than a numbers/realism-based game is, and you will focus on different things than "did my broadsword attack exceed his defense?" Your job will be to complicate the characters' lives with plot, more than with armies of bad guys (though sometimes the two collide in a Venn diagram of plotty battle).

there will be very little human interaction until the end game, and then it will be with people who necessarily have no background connection with the PCs.

@BESW and I ran a short Fate Accelerated session in chat the other day in which there was no human interaction at all. The session consisted of narrating the character's journey as challenges and contests, with quite a bit of discussion along the way -- one of Fate's defining features, in my experience, is the amount of narrative control that the game gives to GM and players alike, which will be something to consider for your dungeon crawl as well: your players can help you to give them the types of encounters that they're interested in seeing, but it does change the social mechanics at the table, especially for groups that are primarily interested in "winning and loot" or have become accustomed to the GM having absolute narrative control outside of player actions.

A quote from the Fate Core chapter "Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios":

The best scenarios don’t have one particular "right" ending. Maybe the PCs don’t resolve the problem, or resolve it in such a way that it has bad repercussions. Maybe they succeed with flying colors. Maybe they circumvent the problem, or change the situation in order to minimize the impact of the problem. You won’t know until you play. (FC 226)

To emphasize, one thing that helps with running an interesting, narrative-driven session is to give up the idea of planning every eventuality in advance. Or even some significant portion of them. Paint some broad strokes, and be prepared to work with your players to tell the story, instead of trying to corral them into the adventure you've planned. That transforms a dungeon crawl from a series of rooms with monsters and treasure and traps, and into a living thing that adjusts and adapts to the story that's unfolding. Which is, again, not to say that the story can't unfold into a bunch of angry orcs looking for blood, but the focus should be on the dramatic tension of the situation, not the logistics of the impending combat.

The challenges they face will be typical dungeon challenges - traps, combat, and navigation - and very little in the way of group cohesion challenging interaction.

This can be just fine. If your source of drama and interesting narrative isn't coming from tension between player characters, make sure it comes from somewhere else. Fate characters are all highly competent and motivated, but flawed or otherwise vulnerable to complications in their lives (in the form of their trouble and compels on their aspects) as well. Use this to your advantage. "Because you're Easily Distracted, it makes sense that while you're keeping watch in the night, you become enthralled with some rare fungus growing on the cavern wall, and don't notice the ratmen sneaking into camp to steal your supplies. Damn your luck."

Another tenet that I've gleaned from the Fate books: only roll when failure is interesting. If failure to accomplish some goal stalls out the story, it should probably be glossed over or omitted, or better yet, changed so that it doesn't stall the story. A failed navigation check that ends with the party hopelessly lost and unable to continue isn't very interesting. A failed navigation check that ends with the party at the business end of a lot of pointy sticks wielded by angry denizens wondering why intruders have stomped all over their sacred burial ground is interesting, and can lead to lots more great narrative (or at very least, lots more flashy combat).

A lot of dungeon crawls (in my experience) come replete with binary pass/fail conditions: I failed my dexterity check, I got hit by the spear trap, I take damage. When telling your dungeon crawl story with Fate, be sure to think in terms of "how does this encounter make the story more interesting?" If it doesn't, change it so that it does, or replace it with something else.


Coming from a D&D background, I always wanted to tell more cinematic, narrative-driven stories, but was constantly frustrated by my attempts to do so within D&D's mechanics. With Fate, I've had to let go of a lot of concepts like collecting loot as a reward (unless the loot itself is interesting to the story. Think Sting or Vera or Glamdring or the Elder Wand, for example), but I've found great success in telling the kind of stories that I want to tell. By adjusting the direction from which you approach your dungeon crawl, I think you can find similar success as well.


I used Fate in an approximation of a Dungeon Crawl. Specifically, it was a home brewed dark fantasy setting, and the PCs were trying to break a couple of key political prisoners out of a supposedly escape-proof dungeon.

It was fantastic! The main difference that I found (and liked, though opinions may vary) is that the dungeon didn't tell the story as in a D&D Dungeon Crawl. The dungeon was a part of the story, and a very real adversary to the players.

One of the things that I made a lot of use of was Fractals- making parts of the dungeons into characters rather than just skill checks to be bypassed made great use of the strengths of Fate as a system. By doing things in this manner, I didn't use detailed schematics- the characters had a map that they were given (a prop that I made) that was very sketchy of the inside and where the targets should be. They kept notes and scratched out parts of the map to make their own map, and that was the real schematic. I only had an idea of how I wanted the dungeon to actually be, and their actions, rolls, and declarations filled it in as we explored together.

In conclusion, I know from experience that Fate can be used for a Dungeon Crawl. The difficulties I think arise from the paradigm shift, if you try to cram Fate into a D&D style approach to the dungeon. Have a story behind the crawl, and a vision of what you want the dungeon to be, and proceed from that angle, using that as the narrative, and leave room for improvisation and player agency.


Fate can easily be used for dungeon crawls, assuming one makes certain key choices...

  1. Magic -
    • is there any PC magic?
    • If so, how does it work mechanically?
  2. Monsters
    • are they mundane or magical?
    • Naturalistic or simply there?
  3. Which flavor of Fate are we going to use?
  4. Why dungeons?
  5. Maps or schematics?

There are several different approaches to magic in various Fate implementations. The nature of magic determines much of the feel of a dungeon crawl. Not that PC magic is required for an adequate dungeon crawl, but the feel of it varies by that decision.

Picking which magic system also shapes things. If it's just a skill, it can be wildly inconsistent, or thoroughly consistent, but is limited only by the interaction of GM and players. If, instead, it's a procedural system as is used in either Legends of Anglierre or in Dresden Files, it's going to have a specific feel, and that will shape how players approach magic in the dungeon. I've not played DF or LOA, so I can only hazard guesses, but that's beyond the scope, so I won't.

Monsters need to be considered. If the monsters themselves are magical beasties, the variety in a dungeon can be much wider. If they have a naturalistic streak, then you need to provide ways for them to get food, water, and air; if not, then heck, anything goes. In any case, picking which isn't that big an issue, but it will be once the aspects start to get tagged.

So, next up is which Fate engine to use - and that's a matter of both personal choice and magic system; personal familiarity also helps.

Why use dungeons? Is it because you can more easily work the scenes? Or because Dungeon Fantasy is a favorite? Or is it because you are converting your D&D group and want to keep them in their comfort zone? The answers to these can help you pick which fate version to use. EG: Reskinning Fate Accelerated with roles instead of approaches is good for converting new D&Ders, but may be unsatisfactory for a group that's used to LoA or Diaspora already, and want the skills and stunts neatly worked out ahead of time.

Finally, Maps or Schematics? Dungeon crawls in Fate don't need the detailed maps that D&D 3.X strongly benefits mechanically from... but a detail map can easily be used when not essential. One can, however, define the dungeon in a manner of rooms, connections, and zones within the room, and look more like a hint-book map from an Infocom game...

There's a good bit to choose ahead of time, but it's a doable exercise. Personally, my "Dungeon Crawl" experience in Fate was in SOTC - the lair of the Queen Bee was, in every way that mattered, a dungeon crawl. No overt cast-on-demand magic, on either side, but the party bordered on street-level superheroes, and so did the villainess, and there was no issue at all with defining it as zones with walls.

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    \$\begingroup\$ How does selecting the type of monsters, type of magic, FATE engine, and granularity of the map determine whether the FATE system works for a dungeon crawl? Those look more like general questions for designing a dungeon, rather than figuring out if it can work for FATE. Can you flesh out your example to speak more to how the choice of FATE as the system affected the creation and running of the dungeon? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 10, 2013 at 0:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ It helps you and your group decide on what kinds of aspects to use, which version of Fate to pick, and what to expect. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Jul 10, 2013 at 7:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ So if some of those choices go one particular way or another, then FATE isn't appropriate for dungeons? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 10, 2013 at 19:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's not what I said, Paul. They determine which flavor of fate is most appropriate - Fate is not a unified ruleset - it's a collection of about 15+ games with the same task system and using aspects, but differing almost everything else... Picking the right Fate flavor to match the desired experience is the trickiest part. And, sadly, that is a general truth about Fate. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Jul 10, 2013 at 22:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Okay, so you need to pick a FATE system, and answering those questions can say which one will work better for you, but how does that help specifically with the dungeon crawl part of the question? This is a great answer, but it doesn't look like an answer to the question asked. Selecting a magic style and monster-plausibility-rating doesn't say anything about whether FATE is a usable system for dungeon crawls, and how you might need to adapt a dungeon crawl to fit FATE. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 10, 2013 at 23:37

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