Fate is a Safe Place: Fate Core as a Tool for Inclusive Gamers
by Shoshana Kessock
A group of people sit down for a session of Fate Core. They bring with them their Fate dice, their pens, their stack of blank note cards. They also bring their unique life experiences and perspectives to the table. Together, they’ll craft a story in a space wholly their own. The question then becomes: whose stories get to be told?
Issues of representation, meaning the inclusion and treatment of people of different genders, sexualities, races, religions, cultures, the differently abled and more, can both explicitly and implicitly influence the way a game will go even before any Fate dice hit the table. The choices the players make at a game table when considering the issue of inclusivity will impact all aspects of play, from world-building and character creation to the adventures they’ll have during their sessions. Today, more people are conscious of the fact that it is imperative to make game spaces open and welcoming to all kinds of players. Everything from game artwork in a book to the roles that individuals fulfill in the game are in question to see if the game provides a safe space for players of all identities to feel included and welcome. Thankfully, Fate as a system automatically makes it possible to create safe spaces for all players and creates a low-risk environment for players to have fun, inclusive play. And much as it can sometimes make us nervous as a topic of conversation, inclusivity is vital to making games approachable, welcoming, and fun.
Inclusivity and Why It Makes Us Nervous
The word inclusivity is often used as shorthand for the overall topic of discussion that’s exploring how spaces can become more welcoming to diverse groups of people, with their unique experiences and stories. When we talk about inclusivity, or say that a space is inclusive, we are talking about making sure a place is open to people from all walks of life and all identities, without pressure, or prejudice, or aggression. Anyone is welcome and the things that make up an individual’s identity, that is to say for example race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, cultural background, economic class, religion, appearance or health status, are not discriminated against, stereotyped, or used to alienate someone. To be inclusive is to let people be who they are in a welcoming environment.
On the surface, this sounds like a no-brainer. Folks get together to game to have a good time, and that’s possible because people feel welcomed and accepted by peers. The issue becomes when those game spaces don‘t offer the opportunity for people of all kinds to tell stories about all kinds of people. When people come to the game table with their preconceived notions and prejudices, sometimes those ideas can get mixed into the game space and end up making someone feel unwelcome. When those potential preconceptions lead to a group in game, say women or queer characters for example, being portrayed in a negative or marginalized way, a player at the gaming table can find that portrayal uncomfortable, offensive, or even harmful. That same player then has the difficult task of deciding whether to allow their discomfort to go on in silence, or speak up and risk a confrontation with their fellow players. That kind of tension does not make for a fun, relaxed gaming environment and creates what can be called an unsafe space.
What makes a space unsafe? Let’s run through some examples that can create unwelcoming, exclusive spaces:
- A group is made up of both men and women, yet in game all the women are assumed to play support characters, side-kicks, or love interests for male characters.
- A group represents people of color in their game based on media-perpetuated negative stereotypes rather than as people.
- A group develops a game setting that automatically treats LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) characters as lesser than straight, cis-gendered characters.
Each of these is a way that discrimination gets used in a game setting and can make players feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. One perpetuates stereotypes that directly impact what a player can do in a game based on who they are or who their characters are, while the second is using stereotypes that can be harmful in a game, and the third takes real world issues of discrimination and makes them part of the game world with which the players will have to interact. Unless you intend on including those topics in your game for the sake of addressing these issues, these behaviors can make a space feel unwelcoming, uncomfortable, and unsafe.
Today, more people are conscious of inclusivity in games than ever before. Conversations about this topic are being discussed at conventions, on blogs, and across social media, as well as at individual gaming tables. Along with the important question of how do we make spaces more inclusive? is another question: why should we have to worry about this? After all, games are spaces where people come together to create fictional worlds, enjoy adventures, and have a good time. Bringing up issues of politics, gender equality, or sexuality and religion can force players to tackle difficult subject matter directly and asks everyone involved to take a good look their own notions and beliefs. Some argue that their tables are already diverse enough for their own players, and they’ve never had to talk about inclusivity as a Big Serious Topic, so why start now?
The answer lies in the assumptions people bring to the table about inclusivity conversations.
First, let’s dispel an idea right off the bat: talking about inclusivity doesn’t have to turn into a great political debate at your gaming table. Making sure that a space feels welcoming to everyone can be as simple as stating that you won’t have discrimination towards any kind of person, in or out of character. It can go one step further, by stating clearly what you mean (‘there will be no misogynistic treatment of women characters in this game’) and negotiating people’s comfort levels about certain topics. But as long as the baseline of being welcoming to all identities and people is established, it doesn’t need to turn into a real world debate. Remember, this is about making people feel comfortable at the table and the intent of conversations about inclusivity is to create a dialogue.
There is also a concern that these kinds of conversations can put players on the spot about their own beliefs out of character and lead to some uncomfortable finger-pointing. It takes trust in your fellow players to be able to be creative, and people who feel judged about who they are aren’t going to feel welcome to co-create. Therefore it takes an atmosphere of honest communication to reach an understanding. It’s important to keep in mind that most players, unless they’ve proven otherwise by their actions and behavior, don’t set out to make their fellow players feel unwelcome. After all, everyone has come together to share in a game, and that’s meant for fun and enjoyment. But when players come to the table, addressing differences in beliefs and how they affect play can sometimes be uncomfortable. Having a space to address those conflicts will make for an overall better game and perpetuate more diverse stories being told.
Thankfully, in designing both Fate settings and individual Fate game sessions, the players are provided with tools to create from the ground up with their own needs in mind. Fate provides a blank slate, an open framework that does not prescribe any sort of norms of its own. It is a system that allows the players to decide the baseline for their stories and then empowers them to create adventures. In a Fate game, everyone at the table has a voice and everyone has a place, and that is the basis of the creation of a safe space.
Creating Worlds and Deciding ‘The Rules’
Perhaps the best part about Fate as a tool for creating safe environments is the character and world creation rules that approach games as blank slates. When the players sit down to create the world, they might come to the table with a previously created setting in mind, or else they generate fresh game ideas collaboratively. No matter the source, the players always have the ability to pick and choose the rules of their universe. They might use the shorthand of worlds they know (example: “I want this to be like Star Wars meets Leverage”) but since they are handed the final say regarding what goes in their universe, they can transform that space in any way they please. “I want to play in a Buffy universe” could be the starting point, but a player might suggest they want to see male vampire slayers so they can change up some of the gender dynamics in the game.
With everything in a Fate game negotiable, players can also explore the ideas of what is normative (or considered accepted as part of the world view of dominant society) and what is transgressive (what is considered outside the norm). Games with settings provided with their system already come with the design choices made about whether their games are going to include more normative or transgressive material. One example of that would be a game in which multiple fantasy races were included for play. Prejudices and stereotypes from our modern world can filter down into the design of and the treatment of these made-up racial groups. Later, the players must then interact with those preconceived ideas and have to build their characters and stories into those narrowed decision spaces. If games are less held back by encoded limitations in design, then the stories told have the ability to challenge what beliefs people brought to the table when they sat down. In a game like Fate, the wide open creation space strips away the encoded limitations and provides the opportunity for players to start fresh, without expectations or preconceived prejudices.
That invitation to make each play session unique and custom to the players is a design idea that speaks to the very heart of inclusivity. In the end, the game is inherently about player decisions. Even those Fate settings already written can be seen as adjustable guidelines for the players’ own campaigns, with plenty of room for reinterpretations based on the wants around the table. Fate games therefore create places where players can build great stories together around their particular needs and wants, especially in terms of inclusivity.
To understand what the players around the table need to create an inclusive safe space requires a little communication. A great tool to approach having those conversations about what is and is not okay around the table is actually built right into the Fate system. Leonard Balsera covers some more great tips in his article from Issue 1 of The Fate Codex, entitled Game Creation Tips: Managing The Conversation. But there are two helpful questions mentioned in that article that are very important in terms of starting conversations about inclusivity during game set up. They are:
- What do you want to see in the game?
- What would you rather not see in the game?
These questions can open up a dialogue between players and set the foundation for understanding just what each player might consider important in terms of representation. These conversations don’t need to be long, but a player’s baseline ideas can be understood by their answers. Going one step further, the GM can use those answers to draw the boundaries of what is okay and not okay at the game, and then ask further questions during world-building to brainstorm new ideas for being inclusive.
A GM can use this communication tool to also help expand elements of the game world to further diverse representation in terms of setting elements, factions within the game, or the way specific groups are treated in the fictional world. For example:
- While players are creating the setting, a GM can take a look at the way different races are represented in the game. The GM can make suggestions about being more diverse in their racial representation if it’s lacking. They can also examine how racial groups may be stereotyped and provide suggestions about how those stereotypes can be handled differently.
- Players will create organizations and groups within their new game world. The GM can ask questions to find out more about the ideas, ethics, and politics these groups represent. If those ideas are very normative, a GM can suggest alternatives to change things up for these groups and make them more diverse.
- The same can be said when creating major NPCs in the game. When players begin creating leadership NPCs in the game, especially those in positions of power, the GM can suggest ways to make those leaders more diverse in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity.
GMs should feel free to challenge stereotypical representations of characters or characters thrown in to represent groups without being fleshed out. Suggest ways in which characters that have become stereotypes can be fleshed out to become fully realized characters outside of their representation of a specific group.
Players may bring preconceptions about physical capabilities, standards of beauty, health, and illness to the game. A GM may present alternative ideas about how to treat characters with health conditions, redefine body image norms, or defy stereotypes of physical or mental illness.
Since one of the GM's jobs during creation is helping players expand on world-building, these conversations aren’t outside of the normal scope of game setup. They do, however, allow GMs to challenge stereotypes and out-of-game societal norms to suggest ways characters and the world can be fleshed out in ways that expand the fictional space to allow for diversity.
By facilitating discussion, the GM can help create an inclusive space where everyone feels equally invested in what’s going on at the table through collaborative creation.
Character Creation as an Exercise in Inclusivity
Once the fictional world has been created around the table, the players will once again explore these issues of inclusivity in character creation. The Fate character creation system, being so customizable, automatically creates space for players to build characters however they like. This creates the opportunity for players to make characters that push norms and let them play outside their comfort zones. It also provides a place to write rich, complex characters within a collaborative character creation space that lets players discuss potential issues of stereotyping and uncomfortable representation.
Stereotypes and familiar archetypes are used when creating characters because they provide instantly understood points of reference for everyone around the table. When those traits create a negative portrayal of a particular minority group through a player’s portrayal, it can impact not only the in game events but the comfort of the other players out of character. During character creation, there’s a few questions players can consider and even talk about with one another to help flesh out characters beyond common stereotypical tropes.
- A character’s aspects can reflect beliefs and ideas about that character’s identity. What do the character’s aspects say about their relationship with their racial group, their ethnicity, sexuality, culture, and so on? What is their relationship with the way their society thinks about their identity? Also consider whether those aspects reflect stereotypes about the character’s identity. While stereotypes are easy to fall back on, they can leave your character flat and give you fewer opportunities for interesting compels of those aspects. If a character is, for example, a Loving Soccer Mom, that’s fun. But Mad Scientist Soccer Mom makes a more interesting high concept and gives the player and GM more nuance to work with.
- When creating your aspects, is the language you’re using in terms of gender, sexuality, etc. particularly harsh, negative, or derogatory? Avoid using language in a character’s aspects that puts another group in a lesser or negative light. Consider how those aspects, once compelled aloud, might make another player feel if they share an identity group with that character. For example, an aspect of Always There to Protect the Ladies indicates that, in that characters eyes, ladies are always in need of protection. Using more neutral language will help diffuse discomfort regarding how that aspect makes other players feel, unless that negative portrayal is purposeful and written in as an issue the character, and the players, want to tackle head on.
- When looking at the character’s stunts, what do they say about the character’s identity? Is the character only good at abilities that their identity group is stereotypically known for? Discuss with the GM what stunts the character might be “expected” to have if they were being stereotyped, and then find ways to defy those expectations.
- If the character being created has discriminatory behavior built into them, are the players prepared to deal with that subject matter at the table? Players might feel uncomfortable with bigotry, racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious intolerance, sexism, body shaming, or ableism being portrayed in a fellow player’s character and could find it disruptive to play if it were to come up without warning. Discuss with fellow players what their limits are and offer up the option of players calling a halt if they feel the character has gone over the line. Remember: the alibi of “this is what my character would do” does not negate bad feelings or offense created at the table. Better to discuss in advance to alleviate potential problems with portrayals while in play.
Using the collaborative style of creation built into Fate, matched with a little extra communication about inclusive play, will provide players the control over their game material and help make a gaming group into a safer space for all.
Trust Is at the Heart of Creation
Fate games are engines for creating amazing worlds, and creating them collaboratively around the table. That kind of freedom to create requires a level of trust that others will accept your ideas and comfort that a player’s beliefs and identity will be respected and accepted around the table. That commitment, mirrored in the character and world creation phases of the game, will build the foundation of a trusting play group that can have great adventures together. With that in mind, here’s some simple tips to keep in mind to make sure that the steps towards inclusivity taken during creation continue during gameplay.
- Fate Is About Empowering Players While Having Fun: If the world created during game set up is not enjoyable to the players due to an issue of representation, then adjust it during play. Make sure the players at a session have all bought into whatever gets created at the table and provide the chance for players to feel comfortable voicing play.
- Take Nothing for Granted: The paper is blank until the players make choices to create their world. Nothing is taken for granted, and nothing ‘just is that way.’ That goes also for during play, as actions unfold.
- Encourage Self-Expression and Freedom in Creation: Each person brings their own identity and experiences to the table. Encourage players to feel comfortable bringing their own unique take on characters into the game. Create the space for the players to feel comfortable not restricting themselves based on real-world power dynamics or societal norms.
- Reward Supportive Play: Consider rewarding collaboration by players to create inclusion in plot lines, world-building, and character ties during play. Rewarding those that promote positive atmospheres will do more to encourage safe space than being negative towards those that do not. Fate points are a great way to indicate positive choices made by players and can be used to encourage players stepping into uncomfortable territory away from their course of action.
- Encourage Open Dialogue Before, After, and During Game: Since this is a collaborative storytelling experience, keeping up communication before, during, and after play is key to making sure everyone is feeling comfortable, safe, and included. Encourage players to speak up if they have an issue without requiring explanations or justifications.
By encouraging positive representation and inclusive ideas during play, you will create a safe environment at the table for all involved. Understanding the needs and wants of the players creates ongoing trust that allows players to not only relax and have fun, but also gives them the space to explore difficult topics—if that’s what they want.
Regardless of the content however, these exercises in inclusivity through communication allow for game spaces to be more welcoming by establishing that everyone can tell their stories and express their identities equally. The safer and more respected the players at the table feel, the more comfortable they will feel creating amazing stories together.