I Can Only Assume You Want to Role-Play with Jimmy Pardo

I feel like I missed a beat somewhere. Never Not Funny‘s Pardcastathon charity auctions include playing a game of FATE with Jimmy Pardo — comedian, podcaster and “America’s Hair Dad” — and Eliot Hochberg, with Mike Olson, designer of Atomic Robo, running the game. This must be Eliot’s doing, as I can’t picture Jimmy having any idea of what a role-playing game is, beyond what he’s been told by Eliot and Garon.

As of this writing, there are six hours left on this auction, which benefits the charity Smile Train, which provides corrective surgery for cleft lips and palates. Bid on an auction, or go to Pardcast.com to donate!

And please, oh please, let them record the game as a bonus episode of Never Not Funny.

Strands of Fate

Back at the end of July, a friend ran a playtest session of Strands of Fate, a generic, cross-genre iteration of the FATE role-playing rules, as made famous by Spirit of the Century, and themselves an outgrowth of the venerable FUDGE system.

The premise was based on the film Scanners, about rogue, corporate and neutral psychics coming into conflict. Easy enough, although I think we shocked Neil by only one of us having seen the film, and that was his wife.

The thing I was most curious to explore about FATE was its much-vaunted aspects. They’re free-form character attributes like “Dumb as a brick” and “Can I buy you a drink?” In addition to being a place for a player to get creative in fleshing out their character’s personality, they have a mechanical element. A player can invoke one of their character’s aspects to spend a fate point to get a reroll, improve their existing roll or take authorial control of the scene for a moment.

At the same time, the GM can compel aspects, influencing a player character’s actions. “Ah, but you’re ‘Dumb as a brick,’ so you wouldn’t realize the contessa is really the cat burglar in disguise. Here, have a fate point.” Invoking and compelling fate points create an economy, essentially, meaning that fate points should be moving around the table, keeping authorial influence distributed among all participants.

After getting the tone for the other characters players were creating — a violent clown, an Akira knockoff and robot-loving would-be cyborg stand out in particular — I decided to go with Bill Murray. No particular reason. It just popped in there. Turns out I don’t have much insight into what Bill Murray would say when presented with an irrefutable choice to join up with rogue scanners.

Of the players at the table, Neil, myself and one other were at all familiar with FATE, I think. I figured that would be the case going in, as well as that there would be a relatively slow pace to the session, as everyone picked up a whole new lingo unlike what they knew from more traditional role-playing games. And that was the case.

When things did pick up a bit and we started experimenting with tagging and compelling aspects, I was, frankly, disappointed. Spending a fate point doesn’t do a whole lot. FUDGE, and by extension, FATE, has a fairly tight results spectrum: -4 to +4 on 4dFudge, or -5 to +5 if you roll d6-d6. Fate points in Strands of Fate can give a +2 to a result or allow a reroll. So you can turn a crappy roll into a mediocre roll, which still may not beat the contesting result, or you can gamble that you won’t get another crappy roll.

I had to bow out before the game ended, so I’d be curious to find out how the session progressed. Did everyone else warm up to aspects and fate points to the point they ever took authorial control?

The scenario I’ve seen other people describe, in which fate points fly around the table as people invoke and compel aspects is an attractive one. But I think it would take a lot of work to get there, not only in the players learning a new style of game to play, but also processing all that information. To compel an aspect, you have to know it’s there and retain the information for when it becomes relevant. I had nothing but sympathy for Neil and his cheat sheet of forty-eight aspects, eight from each of the six players who started the game that afternoon.

Aspects seem like an interesting idea, but they also seem like extra work without an overwhelming amount of benefit to make it worth my time to bother with them.