[This post was supposed to drop on the 20th…Oops! SCR]

This is an odd question, as it seems to suppose challenging means difficult, rules-wise. That’s not the tack I’m taking. For me, the most challenging system I’ve learned is Fate.

What? Fate’s so super simple!

Not if you’ve been playing for some time. In the olden days — 30 years ago or so — the GM or DM was in an adversarial position to the players. You came up with the world, the challenges, and you sought to outwit the players, and vice-versa. Narrative control rested heavily with the DM. DM was God.

Later, games moved toward a less adversarial position, but the GM was still the guy who came up with most of the aspects of the story and the world the players moved through. Fate, and many indie games, try to shift this over to the players. It can be a laudable goal, and can lead to a more enjoyable experience for the entire group…but I also think it can cause a game to suffer from too many cooks in the kitchen. This has certainly been the case for several groups I’ve played with, where the players either aren’t ready to take up the mantle of throwing aspects on the board, or who are more focused on their characters and don’t want to do the worldbuilding.

Fate and many of the indie games have a “pick up game” quality to them. Low prep, quick in, play, get out. This works brilliantly for certain genres, and not so well for ones that involve, say, mystery solving, where the players want to be surprised. That’s not as likely when you’ve hashed out how the monster works in a committee. Fate and indie games often are aimed, I would suggest, at those players who frequently GM or want to.

Our experience — and this is a small sample group, mind you — is that games where the narrative control is purposefully thrown at the players can lead to confusion. Everyone needs to have a good handle on the rules, not just the GM. The most common complain I’ve heard for Fate, for instance, is along the lines of  “I don’t know how to do the scene aspects.” Not everyone is quick on the quip or the good aspect…nor should they have to be.

This push (and it is a push, not a pull) to make the players more involved in every aspect of the game runs counter to most RPGs, which typically have had one person leading the way. The head chef, if you will, with the players cooking or playing sous chef; the GM sets the overarching themes and story, the players lend the spice, the surprise, and the character to the story. Maybe a better metaphor would be writer/director and actors…the story and look is the purview of the first, but the second often get the accolades. The director can sin a good performance or story, but the actors or players can save it with a great performance.

When Fate and other games of this sort work well, they really work well. With the right group, the use of aspects, the sharing of aspects of the story can improve upon the play and be immensely rewarding. However, I don’t think systematizing many of these elements of the story is needed. I don’t know how many times a player has made an observation that improves a scene — “You said it was raining, how much harder is it to make this turn at speed..? Wouldn’t my Jag make the turn better than their Escort?” You don’t need to throw an aspect, we all get that a car chase at night in the rain is harder for everyone. Fate takes something that often happens at the table naturally, and tries to regulate it, and in doing so makes these moments of play less organic and natural, and more mechanical.

I find that difficult. It’s not hard from a rules standpoint; it’s hard because it tries to force rule into something that was just understood.