Hassle-Free Magic in Fate Core

Last year1 my group moved our campaign away from Pathfinder. We were concerned about complexity – every new feat or extra attack added an extra layer of bookkeeping. We were also concerned about power level. The GM wasn’t really interested in running a game where characters can easily turn into dragons or firebomb an entire battlefield.

We investigated dozens of different RPG systems, and playtested a handful of them. In the end we settled on Fate Core. The simple action resolution clicked for us, even if aspects took a bit of getting used to.

There is no “baked-in” magic system in Fate, though the rulebook includes a few suggestions for how to handle magic in a fantasy setting. We also perused a variety of homebrewed magic systems available online. We quickly established that Vancian magic and spell quotas were not important parts of our storytelling. In fact, every magic system we looked at seemed too crunchy for our tastes.

So we decided to play without one. Or, rather, we decided to leverage the spellcasting rules written implicitly into Fate’s skill system.

Time for a few mental gymnastics. What if, instead of thinking of skills as an abstraction of what a character is good at, we think of them as what a character is good at accomplishing? Athletics can be rolled to run, jump, swim, climb, or cartwheel. It can move you any way you like. So why not let a player roll Athletics to teleport or fly? Shoot does damage at a distance using guns, arrows, rocks, or shuriken, so why not a fireball? Rapport can be used to create the advantages I Like These Guys, so why not Charmed?

What really makes this magic system work is aspects, Fate’s trademark mechanic. The whole point of aspects is to sidestep rules-crunchiness by letting players explain things in their own words; those explanations then dictate the sorts of in-world actions that make sense.

For example, let’s look at my dwarven barbarian (Don’t Hit First; Hit Last) and Jan’s half-orc sorcerer (Mamma Dragon):

  Tor Byorn Yorgensen Nock
A fight is brewing Rolls Physique to create the advantage Girded Loins Rolls Physique to create the advantage Dragonskin
Kelp devils attack the boat Jump into the water and roll Athletics to swim like a Tor-pedo Take to the skies: roll Athletics for the advantage Flying
Weapon of choice His hammer, rolled with Fight Fireballs, rolled with Shoot

A big selling point of this magic system (apart from its simplicity) is that it's great for compels. Compels are probably the trickiest element of Fate. New groups often have trouble getting the hang of them. But they're absolutely crucial: compels are Fate's way of making sure that the mechanics of Fate serve the narrative, not vice versa.

For example, suppose Nock ends up in an Anti-Magic Field, preventing him from shooting fireballs. In desperation, he picks up a crossbow. He still has an excellent Shoot score, so you might expect him to be just as effective with the crossbow as he was with fireballs… except that would make no sense in the story!

This situation is solved by having the GM throw Nock’s player a fate point:

You’ve never held a crossbow before. Your first shot isn’t even close, and you can’t figure out how to reload it.

The table feels good because now the anti-magic field has introduced some real tension: their sorcerer has been neutered. Nock’s player also feels good, having just been paid a fate point to play along.

Fate’s greatest strengths are flexibility, simplicity, and balance; our magic system piggybacks on each one. Players have a lot of freedom to define their characters’ magical abilities through their character aspects and skill choices. The rules for casting spells are simple, even if the desired outcome seems complicated. And the power level of magic users never gets out of hand – the size of an effect is limited by the number of fate points fed into it. (Plus, in this system wizards have to balance their skills just like everyone else… they can’t power their entire toolbox by maximizing Intelligence.)

Of course, framed another way, those strengths could seem like weaknesses. Putting all the creative power in the hands of the players means that it’s not in the hands of the game designers. This system doesn’t come with rules about what can or cannot be done with magic, how to prepare spells, or how many level four spells a wizard can cast per day. This can be particularly frustrating for new players, who would sometimes rather pick spells from a list than come up with them on the fly.

The hacklable nature of Fate makes it hard to argue that there is a “best” magic system. Different things resonate with different groups. However, it does bear noting that this system adds the least-possible amount of complexity to the rules: none.

EDIT: It turns out Evil Hat already came up with this! They call it Aspect Based Narration.

  1. Ported from the past: 2014-01-17.