Odds and Ends
A few posts have got me thinking about this, and it's a thought that's been in my head for a while in other ways -mostly around the whole "if you're hacking, what are the 'safer' things to hack, and at what point are you mucking with the base assumptions of the system?" Much like Ryan Macklin's post, I tend to think of Fate as being a specific game, that does specific things. It can cover a wide variety of settings, but it does so in a very Fate-like way. There's things Fate is super-awesome at, and things that Fate isn't super-awesome at. When I want to do something that Fate isn't super-awesome at, I tend to just pull out a game that is super-awesome at that.
I don't consider that a negative on Fate in any way. I have a Jeep Wrangler. It's good at some things (transportation), awesome at other things (off-roading), and absolutely sucky at certain things (hauling lots of things, carrying lots of people, going fast). And making my Wrangler better at those things would almost necessarily make it worse at the things it does really well right now.
So I don't use Fate to play D&D. I might use Fate to run a game in a D&D setting, but I don't think it would feel much like the D&D game -I've previously described what I think it would be as more like "D&D: The Movie: The Game" (no, not the horrible movie, but an imaginary good one).
Yeah, I could hack Fate enough to run a passable "D&D game", but would it still be Fate in any recognizable way? I don't think it would, because the core questions and assumptions of D&D are very different than those of Fate. Which, again, isn't a knock on Fate or on D&D, much like saying that my Wrangler isn't as fast as a Ferrari isn't a knock on my Wrangler.
So, what are the things that I consider to be "Fate"? Not as some kind of purity test, but rather as a more general gauge -if I see a Fate build that hits 95% of these, it'll probably "feel like" Fate to me. But if I see something that's ostensibly Fate that only hits 10% of things, it probably won't push those Fate buttons very well.
This is, to me, one of the biggest. Fate characters are proactive. They make things happen. The game progresses as a result of their actions.
This seems like all games, but it's really not -it's an argument that railroading doesn't belong in Fate games. If you know what's going to happen, then at some level the characters aren't proactive. They're just looking for the magic "next scene" button. They have no real agency. And some games and styles are built heavily upon this kind of game structure. Which is fine -I just don't necessarily think it's a good fit for Fate.
It also makes it a good question whether investigation-based games are a super-awesome fit for Fate, either. Investigation-based games are usually about following the breadcrumb that is left, which is often not very proactive on the part of the players. It also makes the level of narrative control that Fate gives players somewhat problematic.
Fate characters are competent. They're good at stuff. Maybe not the best in the world, but whatever they're good at, they're good at it. They're not bumbling amateurs.
Skills, Aspects, Compels, Invokes
To me, this is the core of Fate. You can get rid of stunts and still have it "feel like" Fate, but if these four elements don't work more or less how they do in Core, it doesn't feel much like Fate to me.
The Phase Trio
This has been around, and almost unchanged, since SotC. It works, and how it generates interlinked characters is, to me, a pretty important part of the Fate experience.
Lack of character optimization.
As a game, Fate seems to almost go out of its way to minimize character optimization. Discussion of what stunts do is directly opposed to the idea of
"hey, let me find the combination of stuff that makes me awesome", as a general table veto is built into the process.
One of the things I really appreciate about Fate is the idea that skills represent your final ability to influence a scene -not your base ability that's then modified by a gazillion other factors. This ties in pretty heavily with the charop point above.
Lack of emphasis on system mastery
Fate is, to me, not a game about learning to manipulate the game system. It's a game about the fiction (as in, the stuff we're imagining in our heads), not the rules. The rules get out of the way more than anything, and it's hard to have system mastery be important if you're trying to de-emphasize the system.
Attempts to make Fate "crunchy" (that is, to make system mastery a more important thing) to me make games feel less like Fate.
Branches, not gates
Scenes in Fate games to me work best as a series of possible branches. They're not challenges to be overcome. If there's a 95% chance of success at no cost, there's no real point in having a scene.
Focus on opportunity cost
This is a big one to me. Unlike games that focus on system mastery and overcoming challenges, Fate to me works best when opportunity cost is shoved in the players' faces. That's a question that appears over and over in Fate -spending Fate points to buy a victory, success at a cost, accepting Compels -all of these point directly at the idea of "how much do you want this, and what are you willing to give up to get it?"
If a Fate game de-emphasizes this, to me it starts to feel less like Fate. Hacks to Fate that do things like require the pre-spending of Fate Points or the like feel less-"Fate" to me.
A focus on what's important in the story, not modeling reality
If you think on most fiction, the weapon that a given combatant uses isn't particularly relevant most of the time. The fact that someone uses an axe vs. a sword isn't going to mean that they lose in a scene. Sure, there are special pieces of equipment, but they tend to be just that -special. To me, a good Fate game approaches its systems in that way -what's actually important, in this genre? Do characters tend to lose fights because they're not armed with bigger weapons or sturdier armor? If not, then that shouldn't be how your game models it, either.
A good example of this is thinking about mecha. How many stats should a mech have, and how much of its combat ability should be based on it instead of its pilot? And that boils down to -'what story are you telling'? If it's about the pilot, and a good pilot in a weak or mediocre mecha can still be an effective combatant, then the mecha should only have a modifying impact on the pilot's skills, and the story will focus around the pilots. But if the story should focus around the attainment of awesome mecha, then they should have a larger impact. It's not a matter of what's "realistic". It's a matter of "what impact does this have on the game, and what elements do I want to be important in the game?"
Active instead of passive bonuses
A big thing with Fate, to me, is the idea that most bonuses are active -they're the result of things that you do. This fits in with the "proactive" part of characters as well. This compares to other games where much of the game is focused on "how many bonuses can I find a way to make apply?" That can be a great type of game -but it ain't (to me) Fate.
Skills tied to results, not actions
Another biggie. In many games, using a skill means you're engaging in a specific task that may have a variable result. In Fate, I see it more as "I'm
trying to accomplish this -do I succeed?" It seems subtle, but it's a pretty important point, and colors how a lot of mechanics get applied.
Bell curve results
Fate uses a randomization scheme that is heavily biased towards "average" results. It doesn't use a flat distribution. How that is specifically achieved, or exactly how biased it is, is somewhat more open -but a flat distribution doesn't feel like Fate to me.
Anyway, those are the main things I can think of, at least for now. I'm sure I'll add more later!
And these are just my opinions. They're not the word of God, and others will absolutely have different lists, and even things that they think I just got totally wrong. But, to me, this is kind of the core of what I consider to be "Fate" -and, if you look at it, a good predictor of what games I'll generally say don't feel "Fate-like" to me.