First, let me explain why you should throw away all those nerdy dice (except the d12, the best die) and only play RPGs with cards from now on. Card-based RPGs are better in every way, preferably playing-card-based – the probabilities can be adjusted by the system with more precision, there are more ways to shift player and GM control of a situation through hand size, refreshes, draws and plays, and in general cards are just one hundred percent better than dice in every situation forever.
Well, okay, maybe not in every situation. Designing for playing cards is harder than designing for dice (quick, what’s the probability I can deal you five cards and you won’t have a pair? Wrong.) So there’s a lot of half-baked card-based RPGs out there. And because a lot of gamers grew up rolling their nerd dice, they can’t get over a hand of cards like they can with the instant feedback of a die roll. A good friend reported to me he was grouchy over a recent playing-card based game we played because “I was looking at my hand, and thinking about the mechanics, and not thinking about the game”. Well, you could do the same with dice and a character sheet! But you learned not to, so you don’t. There’s definitely some cultural shifts that gamers have to make in order to have fun with entirely new and different types of resolution systems.
You may have passed over Hand of Fate because you saw the cover, you looked inside, saw the art was your typical low-priced fantasy art and the layout was your typical rpgnow fantasy RPG offering, but I gave it a second look because it uses playing cards and I love playing cards. I think you should give it a second look too. There are several reasons:
First, this is an exceptionally complete, concise game. It contains not only character creation, a magic section for a magic system that includes a spell list, a GM’s section giving a simple explanation of the GM’s job in the game, a monster section, a setting outline, a sample adventure and an appendix of tables, all within 170 pages. In this millennium, when there are 5-600 pages of “core” D&D or Pathfinder, it’s great to see an organized, cut-down fantasy RPG that nevertheless covers all the bases.
Second, it includes a narration-passing system to permit player contribution to scenes and situations, but puts the GM in the position of a coach or referee to help keep everyone on track with the right types of tone and content. It’s often difficult to handle narration-passing games that are using fantastic situations because the lack of boundaries means players can feel adrift, not sure whether they should use their power to contribute a new, bizarre thing or keep it down to earth. (There’s a reason the best Fiasco playset is the Nice Southern Town, for example.) Hand of Fate urges GMs to help players with their contributions with suggestive questions, providing ideas, and generally keeping things moving in the right direction while still being open to their ideas. It strikes a good balance that’s definitely needed for fantasy and which other fantastical narration-passing games sometimes lack.
Now let’s talk about the system. It’s of moderate complexity, starting with three core attributes, Power, Intelligence and Cunning, and breaking each of those out into 3 sub-attributes. By combining the various numbers of these attributes with skill ratings, you develop a relatively small number which is your Hand for a particular task. You draw your Hand, and if the cards you draw are the right type, you could get bonus cards to generate a higher total. Beat the target number and succeed at what you’re doing, gaining some of the aforementioned narrative power to describe how your character succeeds.
What’s most interesting about this system is the way that special Talents are handled. Say you have a Talent that lets you effectively smash someone with your shield (note that you can always say you’re smashing someone with your shield if you’re successful at fighting checks, this is a separate mechanic). You get to activate that Talent when you draw an Ace or Jack of Clubs – the greater rarity of the card pull means that the impact of your Talent can be dramatic – you force the opponent to discard their current best card, even if it means they don’t get bonus cards. As you improve in a talent, you can expand what cards can “activate” it. This creates a feel that makes using your special abilities exciting. You don’t feel like you’re just tapping a power, instead you’re taking advantage of an opening or exploiting an opportunity.
There are many magic systems offered, from the benedictions of calling upon gods, to sorcery based on four elements. Each has their own unique spin, which although it enhances the flavor of the magic, it does make it harder to evaluate whether it hits the same probability high points as the base system does. Indeed, the main way I can see to improve Hand of Fate is actually to simplify it – to boil down all those different magic systems into the main card pulling system. It would take a lot of work and maintaining some pretty strict rules about balancing the probabilities and potential outcomes, but I think it could be beneficial. As it stands, I don't see how one could reasonably expect a GM to grasp all the different magical subsystems. (In fact, the "monster manual" portion primarily focuses on just creating unique special effects for the monsters, a system to do that would be fine.)
All in all, this is a solid, well-put-together playing-card based game, which means that it tickles my fancy and gets a favorable review from me. There are simple bookmarks and it’s easy to navigate. I definitely recommend checking it out.