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Saturday, 19 September 2015

The Tools of FATE

The FATE System Toolkit is part of the sextet of books funded via Kickstarter for FATE Core, the newest version of Evil Hat Games’ ENNIE award winning light and cinematic generic RPG first seen in Spirit of the Century back in 2006. It began life as the guide to magic for FATE Core, but as the Kickstarter grew and grew, things kept getting added to it, many of which have nothing to do with magic. In each and every case, the FATE System Toolkit asks what the GM wants the new rule or approach to the rules to do and how it fits into the game. It never mandates that its solutions are how something should be done, but rather how the mechanics can be ‘hacked’ to get it done. As it states up front, the FATE System Toolkit is not ‘the’ toolkit for FATE Core, but ‘a’ toolkit for FATE Core. In other words, “Here is how you could do it” rather than “Here is how you should do it”.

In keeping with the Bronze Rule in FATE Core—that anything can be treated as a character—the first things that the FATE System Toolkit looks at are Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects underpin FATE Core and here we get a range of suggestions as what else they can do in addition to the options given in the main rulebook. This includes invoking them for effect rather than a bonus to a roll, such as a dwarf where he is underground and knows which way is North; detonating situation Aspects, that is going from ‘Weak Structural Integrity’ to ‘Collapsing Bridge’; representing quests as Aspects, for example, ‘Sabotage the Imperial Annihilation Station’; and making gear important by giving it Aspects, such as ‘Brutal Orc Cleaver’.  Skills are given a similar range of options, ranging from Professions as Skills or replacing Skills completely with adjectives that describe how a character does something, like Forceful, Graceful, Clever, or Resolute, to working into modes or bundles and even replacing them totally with Aspects. Modes package the skills into bundles for easy character generation and give bonuses to skills that duplicated between bundles. This is one of the options to replace FATE Core’s Skill Pyramid and enables a GM to design modes to fit particular genres or campaigns. Stunts receive a similar if much shorter treatment, including tying them to Aspects or gear rather than Skills, having pre-requisites—much like there was in Spirit of the Century, and so on.

The original way in which the hobby categorised characters is looked at in ‘The Big Game’ rather than campaigns as a whole. So we are shown a way to do Class and Race with Professions such as Fighter or Thief and Races like Elf or Orc. Both are packages that emulate an older style of game as much as FATE Core can. These come with an interesting side note that explains what we mean by Race in game terms. The new Origin Story method of character creation uses flashbacks rather than necessarily forging connections between the characters as per the FATE Core book whilst the Bronze Rule is applied to a scenario structure to use Aspects as the framework, a list of events leading to a crescendo that if reached means that the bad guys are winning! Special Circumstances covers particular situations, for chases which can be designed as challenges or contests and handling motivations and instincts in social interaction, whilst the section of Customized Tools is more a collection of odds and sods, from getting into the nitty gritty of Stress, Consequences,  Zones, and Refresh to creating your own FATE dice.

Given its original purpose, it is surprising that the FATE System Toolkit devotes less than half of its pages to its original purpose—magic. Even then it devotes more of those pages to examples than it does to discussing how to build magic systems for FATE Core. This starts out with what the magic system is designed to do and what its aims are before specifically looking at its tone, source, availability, cost, and limits. Once their ramifications are discussed, it looks at how magic can be modelled through the use of Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Over all, it does not amount to more than a few pages, but they are a thoughtful few pages, prompting the GM to think about his intended design.

So where the section is lengthy section is in its examples—and really good examples they prove to be. Stormcallers power their ambitions by tapping into the five Great Storms raging at the heart of creation—Earthquake, Flood, Glacier, Inferno, and Thunder, whilst Storm Summoners conjure the elementals of these storms to do their bidding. Each example can be used independently, but they nicely go together with the Stormcallers being a development of the magic system in Evil Hat Games’ The Dresden Files RPG. Thematically, The Six Viziers is a ‘Great Steppes of Russia’ inspired system where the characters are marked with a tattoo of one of the great constellations—or Viziers—in the sky and are thus capable of great actions with their skills. In comparison, The Subtle Art opts for the understated effect, that is, the placing of temporary blessings and curses—or Aspects—upon a target. It has a much grittier feel than the other example systems. All of these magic systems are great, but the highlight is Voidcallers, essentially the black, black magic version of the Stormcallers. Instead of tapping into an elemental storm, a Voidcaller draws on the Void for aid and ‘great power’, but this comes with consequences—consequences of the GM’s choosing. This begs to be used as the basis for ‘things mankind is not meant to know’ campaign and as written does not necessarily come with tentacular trappings, but there is nothing to stop a GM from adding these if so desired. Accompanying each of the worked examples is a ‘30-Second Version’ that summarises the system in easy to digest thumbnail fashion. Very useful—and that is before you get to the full details which beg to developed into a fuller setting.

Rounding out the FATE System Toolkit is a set of subsystems, ones that enable the GM to take his game into different directions and enable him to do different things in his game. These include Kung Fu, Cyberware, Gadgets, Monsters, military Squads and Mass Battles, Swashbuckling Duels, Vehicles, Superheroics, and Horror games. Of these, Kung Fu has been more recently done for the Wuxia genre with the alternate takes given in Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade and Jadepunk: Tales of Kausao City. Military Squads and Mass Battles are handled as characters and character-versus-character—as per the Bronze Rule that turns everything into characters—just as you would expect, whilst the Monster rules  do a good job of handling Very Large Monsters across multiple zones. So good for fighting truly big dragons, kaijū, or monsters like those of the computer game, Shadow of the Colossus. The Duelling subsystem works in a similar fashion, enabling characters to swashbuckle back and forth across zones as well as giving advantage to the duellist who makes the best use of the terrain in each of the zones in addition to their opponent’s psychology. Both the Cyberware and Gadgets subsystems enable characters to build great devices, that is with advantages and weaknesses, whilst the Vehicles subsystem calls for the characters to emotionally invest in their joint-owned Mystery Van/Firefly class spaceship/Babylon 5.

Lastly, the FATE System Toolkit suggests ways in which FATE Core can do horror, a genre that it admits that it is ill equipped to handle. By turning up the Compels for an Oppressive Atmosphere, turning up the difficulty of any obstacles for Impossible Circumstances, and turning down player character resources—fate points, stress, and consequences—for Stark Desperation, the FATE System Toolkit shows how FATE Core could do horror, especially the more cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s works. These suggestions would also work nicely with the Voidcaller magic system given as an example earlier in the book.

Physically, the FATE System Toolkit is a sturdy hardback. It is well written, cleanly presented, and illustrated with some excellent artwork. This through, does not mean that it is without issue. Most RPGs involve one or more elements of the technical. Indeed the roleplaying game can be best described as ‘technical fiction’, their requiring technical information—or rules—to help the GM and his players participate in the fiction or setting. The FATE System Toolkit is more technical than fiction, which means that it is probably drier than most RPG supplements. Which does mean that FATE System Toolkit is not always the most engaging of reads and it explains why it took this reviewer more than one attempt to read through it, but to be fair, that is as much an issue with this reviewer as it is the book. In fact, it is probably more the former than the latter given that ideas in the FATE System Toolkit gives are imaginative and fun. There are, undeniably, great ideas in the FATE System Toolkit for adding this or that a FATE Core game as well as, of course, for tinkering with different elements of said FATE Core game.

The rules and mechanics to almost every roleplaying game are written in stone. Their designers will doubtless note in the forward to said game that the game and thus the rules you have are now yours and can tinkered with or played the way that you want. Then they leave all of the effort making and implementing those changes up to you. Not so the designers of FATE Core. They give you a book that is entirely devoted to thinking about and implementing those changes to make FATE Core your game. Then they give you examples. Really good examples.

You never need anything more than FATE Core to run or create a FATE game, but the FATE System Toolkit may well be ever so useful when the GM and his players come to do so. The FATE System Toolkit is a thoughtful tinkerer’s guide to getting under the hood of FATE Core.