Interview with Fred Hicks: Fudge, Fate, & Game Design

Back in July I interviewed Fred Hicks of Evil Hat Productions. Amongst the Fudge community Fred is best known as being one of the two lead designers behind the very popular FATE system (the other designer is Rob Donoghue). FATE is a derivative of Fudge that is the engine behind Spirit of the Century and the soon to be released the Dresden Files RPG. Evil Hat Productions has also released games Don’t Rest Your Head, another highly praised RPG that does not use FATE nor Fudge as its underlying system. Fred is also highly involved with Indie Press Revolution, a company dedicated to promoting and selling independently created and produced games and materials from various authors. And if that were not enough to keep him busy, Fred and his wife Christie recently became the proud parents of Evelyn Violet.

Despite being busy with so many projects and a newborn to care for, Fred was kind enough to spare some time from his schedule and answer a few Fudge related questions. Read on to learn why Fred thinks Fudge is a toolkit, why your Fudge game does not need to make everyone happy, and why you should try Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition at least once.

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SinisterForces: You are a celebrity of sorts within the Fudge community.

Fred Hicks: As I’m fond of saying to my wife (in jest), I’m hugely famous to a teeny tiny corner of the internet.

SF: Is that a good or bad thing for you? How would you describe yourself to other fans of Fudge? (Feel free to include your personal history with Fudge here if you like.)

FH: Jeez. Uh, hm. I’d say I’m someone who got drawn to Fudge during my college years in the early ’90’s in large part because I was a constant system-tinkerer, and Fudge finally felt like the right toolset to do that.  But over the years, with a lot of play, I came to feel that while Fudge was good at giving me a full toolbox — and the easy ability to invent new tools as I needed them — it didn’t give me a lot of good *pre-built* parts to work with.  That’s what lead to creating Fate with Rob Donoghue: the desire for a more plug-and-play experience with Fudge.

So I guess if I’m describing myself to a Fudge fan I’d say that I’m one of those guys who writes the “How-To” books they sell at Home Depot, only for Fudge.

SF: You’ve had success with FATE, SotC, and The Dresden Files game is eagerly anticipated. Why is FATE thriving and yet many Fudge games are not as popular as FATE/SotC? Luck? Marketing? Game design? Production quality? All of the above or none at all?

FH: Well, let’s set aside the whole question of marketing in the game hobby industry.  The nature of marketing itself is changing in the 21st century, and beyond that few games and game companies generate the kind of business needed to really fund a “proper” marketing effort besides.  But to really dig into that — man, that’s an entire interview by itself, and a tangent at that.

I don’t think it’s a case of production quality, either.  There have been some solid-production-values presentations of Fudge games out there (which isn’t to say there haven’t been a few bargain basement ones too), so I think that’s easily dropped from the list.

All success has at least something to do with luck, so I’m going to say yes to that part, and move on.

Where does that leave us with the options from your list?  Game design.  And I think that’s at the heart of it in a way.  But I don’t think that’s an innate flaw with Fudge so much as a problem with what folks *do* with it.

It’s like this: Fudge is an incredibly adaptable game engine.  You can bolt all sorts of things onto it, and it’s still Fudge when you get to the other side of it.  From one perspective, Fudge could totally be the Borg of gaming, assimilating great ideas from all over and folding them into a common chassis that makes those parts all work together.

But for all of that adaptability, I don’t think a lot of commercial Fudge implementations out there actually do much adaptation.  Out-of-the-box Fudge in many of its presentations simply does not surprise many gaming customers.  Many implementations simply come off as very… expected.  Which is a problem.  I think an element of surprise, of something fresh and new and different — even if it’s getting “fresh and new” by combining two old familiar things in a new way — is really crucial to getting traction with J. Random Gamer.

Consider this as well: Fudge, the core of Fudge, is a toolset that goes into the hands of a GM, and she builds the game system he wants to out of that.  If that’s the basic thing that’s happening with any GM using Fudge, done fairly easily, then what does a commercial Fudge product offer her?  If she’s buying it, it had damned well better do something with Fudge she wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do herself in a similar amount of time and effort.

It’s a rare Fudge product that truly breaks that barrier, if you ask me.  And really, that’s where Rob Donoghue and I started with Fate.  Fudge had lots of tools, but not — for our tastes — sufficiently extensive examples of what to do with them.  So Fate’s earliest forms were simply extensive examples of what to do with ’em.  Fate 2.0 has 8 magic systems in it for a reason — something a GM could drag and drop into his own design whole cloth for a much quicker game set-up experience.  We also played Borg, like I was suggesting — aspects were entirely born out of Rob thinking about how you pay points to get your disadvantages in 7th Sea, and then blending that together with some things I’d done with Gifts in a Fudge game I’d run back in 1999 set in the Amber universe.

And that’s where the traction came from, for Fate, and eventually for SOTC and so on: lots of time-saving examples, solid how-to advice, and the element of surprise — something new, born out of a little adaptation and assimilation.

SF: Is FATE a Fudge game, or is Fate a new game that evolved from Fudge? Why?

FH: These days, sort of both.  I think Fate is a recognizable descendant of Fudge, and you can still cross the streams between the two without the universe exploding too badly.  But in terms of what each one gives folks at this point, I think that in practice they’re separate entities.  Maybe it’s a MacOS/Windows/Linux thing — they all can be used to operate a computer, but it’s a rare person who happily uses more than one of those options.  Groups of preference have emerged, and the more those groups pursue their preferences, with that energy feeding back into each thing, the more those things will move apart from one another.

I’m a fan of staying alert to your roots, though.  I can’t see a future where Fate will really be *truly* decoupled from Fudge, unless someone decides to ditch the dice and the adjectives, move to a dice pool system, etc, etc.  Some fundamentals of the basic chassis itself would have to change, and those aren’t things I’m expecting to go away.

But what do I know?  I’m one of those lunatics who’s happy to assert that 4th Edition D&D is indeed still D&D.

SF: Evil Hat Productions has great games that are not based on the Fudge system, such as “Don’t Rest Your Head”. Do these games require a different approach when designing material for them? If so, why is Fudge unique? If not, why use Fudge over other systems?

FH: I’m gonna go back to my toolbox metaphor.  You can’t stop me!

So, Fudge is a strong toolset, but it’s a strong general toolset.  The toolset has all your basics — the wrench, the screwdriver, the hammer, etc.  But you still wouldn’t open that toolbox if you had to slice some sheet metal into strips.  For that you’d probably look to a specialty tool, like a circular saw with a cutaway blade.  And you’d need some extra safety gear to work on it, besides.

That’s essentially the thinking that divides Fudge (and thus Fate) design from other design, for me.  Fudge is not really the

sort of thing you pop out if you’re going for a very specific, very controlled effect in your game, if you ask me — it’s for building a solid, covers-the-360-degrees system for roleplaying.  I like it for big, solid performance work that cleaves a little closer to familiar-ground territory for gamers.

Don’t Rest Your Head, on the other hand, in terms of its system is about putting the player on a relentless collision course with the consequences of his decisions, about racing him to the edge of a cliff and playing a game of chicken with the effects of gravity.  Fudge, frankly, brings too many distractions to the party for me to use it for something like that.  To build DRYH from Fudge, I’d have to cut away most — probably all — of its Fudge-ness.

To switch metaphors, it’s the difference between taking my car for a drive and getting in the seat of a formula one racecar.  They might both be cars, but the contexts in which they’re appropriate, and how they handle, are vastly different.

SF: What do you want to see the Fudge community produce? New interpretations of Fudge as complete game systems? Settings? Adventures? What is not being produced that should be?

FH: I’m gonna go back to what I’ve said before, here: I’m looking for freshness and surprise.  Do something no one else has done with Fudge before.  I’m talking about doing something genuinely new — not a new setting grafted onto a familiar rule set.  Give us a reason to pick up your game because it has a surprising new way to represent superpowers — and loads us up with plenty of prebuilt examples.  Show us a game where the adjectives are used to rate the likelihood that your destiny will follow a certain path — and then make it work in a way that produces unexpected, wonderful stories in play.  Don’t be lazy.  You selected Fudge as your rule set — work to make it work.  Don’t just grab a hammer out of the toolbox and bang a few nails; engage in some real craftsmanship with your carpentry.

SF: What is one thing that you would do to improve the Fudge community? The sky’s the limit here.

FH: That *I* would do?  Man, I feel like Rob and I already made that effort, with Fate.

I think Fudge needs variety over retreads.  One of the reasons I rarely participate in discussions of “standard” Fudge any more — aside from my incredibly dwindling free time — is that none of the discussions are really new.  Fudge has been around for near on to two decades, right?  And yet some of those same conversations are still happening again and again — the ones about alternate dice rolling approaches, a new way (that’s one of the same old ways) to do Attribute Plus Skill stuff in a way that doesn’t break the adjective ladder horribly, and so on.  It’s like nobody really believes in their heart that there’s any undiscovered country out there for Fudge.

Part of this happens due to folks digging in their heels and loudly suggesting that radical change is bad.  So if I was being really uncharitable, I’d suggest that maybe separating those influences from the community could improve it.  But really, that’s harsh and unnecessary, so long as everyone’s willing to agree that Fudge is what it is — a system where everyone can build what they want from it, even stuff that not everyone will like.

That’s really the danger of generic, one size fits all systems.  People want to preserve the “fits all” when they start building a specific thing out of it.  But that really misses the point: if you’re doing something specific, you should be giving it a custom fit.  It’ll stop working for everyone, all the time — but that’s not failure, it’s success.

So what would I do to improve the community?  Get a lot of folks more passionately invested in quirky, unusual perspectives on what to do with Fudge — and then build them, and share them, and celebrate how they don’t all fit together.  (Celebrate first.  Then, someone will come along and gain a new insight on how they could fit together.  That’s a path to innovation.)

SF: Name three non-Fudge games all Fudge fans should check out.

FH: I’m really enjoying reading Arc Dream Publishing’s Wild Talents Essential Edition right now.  The way Wild Talents puts powers together, and the interactions between the various moving parts of the One Roll Engine system, is absolutely ripe for a light spot of Borg-style assimilation.

To toot Evil Hat’s horn a little, I’d also suggest folks check out Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies.  It’s a game of sky piracy and clockwork musketeers written by Chad Underkoffler, based on an update and upgrade of his Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) system.  PDQ is a kissin’ cousin of Fudge, if you ask me, so the cross-pollination possibilities here are really ripe for the taking.

Finally, honestly, I’d say they should check out the new, 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  I’m enjoying the hell out of running and playing it, but even setting that aside, it’s an object lesson in what I’m talking about — grabbing onto a passionate, new perspective on what to do with the same-old-same-old, and producing something fresh and exciting and surprising.  Love it or hate it, every designer out there should be able to take something constructive away from the experience of the game.  If they don’t, they aren’t looking hard enough.

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Thanks again for the interview, Fred! It was a pleasure, and I really enjoyed it.

What do you think about Fred’s opinions and suggestions? Leave a comment below and share your feedback with the rest of us!