Review of the Fate System Toolkit

The Fate System Toolkit is more than a dossier of alternate rules for Fate Core.

It’s an education.

Have you ever had one of those conversations where someone explains a more advanced technique for a hobby you’re getting into, and it retroactively helps you comprehend the techniques you already know even better than you did before – even if you never use the more advanced technique?  The Fate System Toolkit is an extended version of one of those conversations.

It’ll be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Fate Core.

That was the shortest review in history.  A+, would review again.  If that’s all you need, go directly here to get the game.  It’s a $5 USD/pay-what-you-want PDF or $20 USD for the hardcopy.

But just in case you want more, let’s dig into the details.  Be warned, this is more a summary of what the book covers and how than a review as such, because everything is interesting and informative.

Also, something worth saying upfront: the art is fantastic.  It’s evocative, interesting, fits what’s currently under discussion, and shows good diversity of shape, skin-tone, gender and all those other things often forgotten about in RPG art.  Plus, I really want to know more about the Uranium Chef setting.

Structure.

The book starts out at exploring the basic building blocks of the Fate Core system and then becomes more and more specific as it digs into the kinds of alterations which can be made.  This is part of what makes it such a good educational primer for the system: Fate Core itself takes great pains to explain why it works the way that it does, and goes so far as making suggestions for adjustments; the System Toolkit takes us completelyunder the hood complete with easily comprehensible exploded diagrams and shows what happens when you adjust the gears and the gain in different directions.

The metaphor!  She is becoming mixed!  Hopefully there’s something sensible in there.

Anyway, we open withan explorations of how to think about game systems and their adaptation, right down to the difference between Rules and Rulings means in practice and another angle on considering the Bronze Rule/Fate Fractal.  It’s an example of why I like this book: nothing’s taken for granted, and it’s providing tools to help you not need the book a lot of the time.

The Basic Building Blocks

Aspects are next up, exploring ways of providing different levels of benefit depending on how well a given Aspect fits the situation, together with ways of ‘exploding’ a Situation aspect, and exploring how ‘Invoking for effect’ might look like in Core.  And that’s before we explore the more specific alterations you might want to apply for particular genres of game, such as Gear and Quest related Aspects, and how to lower the power level of Aspects overall for a less pulpy feel.  Finally, Conditions are a solution to two totally independent problems which might happen to overlap: players who have trouble coming up with interesting Consequences, or genres of game where specific flavours of Consequences would better reflect the desired vibe.

All of these reflect the trend from the general to the specific, and they are elegant shifts to how we can think about the game.  Shifting the benefits from Aspects depending on how well they fit the situation isn’t something which necessarily needs to be formally part of a game in order to be relevant to the occasional situation (see Rules vs Rulings), but simply knowing they exist will add to the mental, well, toolset which both players and GMs are approaching their games through.

Skills work the same way: an exploration of how and why they already work the way they do, then examining different results you can get from fundamentally changing that relationship.  This includes changing the size/shape of the skill pyramid and/or the length of the overall skill list, or how to go for freeform skills.  This section looks at Approaches from Fate Accelerated Edition together with how to change them, Professions, Skill Modes (which feature in the upcoming Atomic Robo RPG), and ditching skills entirely in favour of running only with Aspects.  I think it’s fantastic that the Fate Core line has developed in such a way that rules-variants which aren’t included in the Core book can be explored along with shifts to the ‘normal’ ruleset, because it emphasises that Fate Accelerated Edition IS using the Core rules – as are all of the other Fate games released since the Core went live, even if they are shifting things to fit their individual contexts.

Given how Stunts work, the initial section examines how they relate to the rest of the Fate Fractal by decoupling their initial relationship with Skills, and seeing what happens if you associate Stunts with Aspects or Gear instead.  Then we explore what happens if you adjust their cost (broken down further into shifting the number of starting stunts, refresh, and native stunt cost itself), their focus, and how flexible they are.

How to Change the Basic Flavour of Play

This section is about bigger changes to the system and their consequences, along with changes to better fit particular styles of game.

One of the parts I appreciate is that often they’re different combinations of changes which have already been covered in the initial sections explored in more detail for how and why they fit certain kinds of game.

We have discussions of how to create skills to reflect Professions and Races, with a specific nod to recreating D&D – and a sidebar that I think is a great inclusion which digs into the problematic associations to using ‘race’ the way RPGs traditionally do.

There’s also a way of rearranging character generation around having an Origin Story, what happens if GMs ‘pre-compel’ aspects as part of adventure design, how to use chains of Aspects as part of designing adventures/campaigns, and how to change the power level of your game.

This is all big-picture stuff, and welcome inclusions for things to think about before the players get together for group setting and character generation.

Tweaked Implementations

This is about modifying particular implementations of the system already featured in Fate Core, which is consistent with how the Toolkit becomes more and more focused and specific as it develops.  Everything here involves taking specific parts of the rules and ‘zooming in’ on how to make them fly when doing particular jobs.

It opens with how to expand the ‘Contest’ rules for chase sequences, and adds motivations and instincts to the existing social conflict dynamics.  Later on, we dig into how to expand the role/complexity of handling Wealth in your games, differentiating between Sidekicks and Allies, and how to bring back ‘supplemental actions’ if you have missed them from earlier incarnations of Fate.

The book drills down into changes which can be made to Stress, Consequences, Zones, and the handling of when people Refresh their FP.  After that, we move into rules for how to change the pace at which players can fundamentally change the setting due to their actions, including zooming all the way out to a summary montage covering a long period of time.  There’s a look at how to handle differences in scale if you want to make such a comparison meaningful to play, although I’m interested that this is the only occasion I can see where an alternative rule from another book isn’t folded back into the discussion, since we don’t explore the way scale is handled as an option from the Day After Ragnarok adaptation using Fate Core. (EDIT 02 Feb 2014: Mike Olson pointed out that the System Toolkit started life before the Fate edition of Day After Ragnarok, and that they were developed by entirely different houses.  Given it’s one of the only elements I noticed was missing, this highlights how inclusive the material in the Toolkit is.)

If you’re not a fan of basic Fate dice, there’s a section exploring either ways to build your own or to replace the Fate-dice with different arrangements of d6s until you get results you like better for your playstyle.

There’s a larger sections which explores different ways of exploring the impact of weapons and armour on your games/settings, including a neat way of using different coloured dice to get a different depth of resolution from each dice roll.

The Main Course: Magic.

The Fate System Toolkit began as a twinkle in the Fate Core Kickstarter’s eye, and was initially just going to be a magic section.  As the Kickstarter took off for the stratosphere, that magic section expanded, and then grew to include everything else in this whole book. The magic system is at least half the total content in the Fate System Toolkit, and as you might expect, it is full of Good Things.

Its overall pattern mimics the broader strokes of the text as a whole: it starts with a great exploration of what magic systems mean for any tabletop RPG, then zooms in to what magic systems mean for Fate.  This includes discussing how to attach magic to skills, to aspects, or to stunts and extras, together with what some of the changes to flavour and experience will be as a result.  Once that’s done, we move on to looking at particular implementations of those ideas for different tones and purposes, which then further drill down into how to adjust them further.

It should also be noted that given some of this discussions involves the fact that magic can’t exist out of a context which explains how it works narratively, each of these magic systems comes with its own system.  Rather than breaking down my response to each one individually: they’re great, interesting, evocative, suggest characters left, right and centre, and I want to Play All The Games in them.

The Stormcallers system relies primarily on a specific magical skill, with some heavy lifting done by Aspects as well.  It’s an interesting fit for an Avatar: The Last Airbender-esque context given the elemental nature of both magic and mages, though shifted so that magic is more powerful in shaping the battlefield by creating advantages than in attacking directly.

The Six Viziers system provides the substrate that I’d use for an Exalted game using Fate Core, in that rather than magic being a singular skill, it expands the scope of what skills can do to fantastical levels.  Essentially, you pick a particular Vizier to associate yourself with, and this gives the benefits of two focused stunts, each of which allows you to achieve impossible things.  An example would be a stunt for the Vizier of The Giant which boils down to “You cannot be restrained and there are no bonds or barriers you cannot break.”  It’s fantastic, elegant, and just plain interesting.  The section at the end about how to further adjust the context includes how to raise the power level, which is like a gigantic flashing sign declaring EXALTED THIS WAY.
The Subtle Art is entirely grounded in the Create an Advantage action for a Magic skill, and one of the things which appeals to me about it is that it’s a magic system which doesn’t look like magic: there’s a possibility that some people practicing it are actually deluding themselves and claiming responsibility for coincidence.

Storm Summoners extend the Stormcallers setting so that you can work magic by summoning and binding spirits who do the work for you – including an optional sub-system explicitly inspired by Pokemon.

Void Callers are… creepy.  Deliciously creepy.  It’s a system which could stand alone, or could supplement the Stormcallers/Storm Summoners setting, and allows you to summon Horrible Things which are deeply, hugely helpful… but where – even leaving aside the specific risks – they are also part of an alien ecosystem intent on spreading beyond control.  One of the things I love about this is that it’s a magic system where casting spells is pretty much always going to work… the hook is that the worse you roll, the more out of control the result is going to be.  And oh yes: the person casting doesn’t know the target numbers.  Roll high, folks!  Heh heh heh.  This could work fantastically for sympathetic NPCs who nonetheless Have To Be Stopped.

After that there’s an explicit discussion of building your own magic systems, including  sub-options for blood magic, borrowed power, and a wide variety of other tasty things.

Tinkering At The Very Specific End Of The Scale

The final part of the book contains tools for dealing with the things which won’t be relevant outside particular kinds of games, but without which those games won’t function.

Kung Fu is the first element through the door.  As is traditional throughout the book, the Toolkit asks sensible questions about what Kung Fu is going to mean in practice within your game, and then looks at how to make that work in the Fate Fractal before providing a worked example.

Next up there’s systems for Cyberware, both in terms of prosthesis and augmentations.  Gadgets and Gear looks at how to combine aspects and stunts to create interesting equipment like magnetic grapnel guns or rings of truth.

In a section which made me smile the entire time I was reading it, there’s a discussion of how to handle monsters in Fate – things without human motivations or restrictions, and which have abilities simply beyond what could be covered by stunts and extras.  It’s glorious, and includes a section on Very Large Monsters which take up more than one zone of a conflict, some of which feels like a great way to emulate boss fights from videogames.

There’s an extended discussion of mass combat in Fate, whether by having players with squads as their character rather than people in a squad, or scaling all the way out to commanding whole battlefields.

If you like swashbuckling games with scope for interesting tactical duels, you’ll love how the Toolkit explores that idea: there’s an entire section focused on ways of arranging duals so that they don’t hang on who the better fighter is, but instead on who takes better use of the (physical/mental/emotional) environment.

Next, we zooming in on different ways of handling vehicles in your games, including how to handle a Cowboy Bebop-esque scenario where everyone is linked by sharing a ship, and then digs into how to tweak the Fate Fractal for superhero games.

The section finishes with a flourish, exploring the fundamental problem of how to have horror games in a system where the players have a great deal of narrative agency.  It’s clever, clearly written, and thoughtful.  Beyond that, it’s a fantastic illustration of how much you can shift the experience of play in Fate by applying the principles covered throughout the book before this point.

Conclusion

So, there we have it.  If any of these elements sound interesting to you, or if you like the idea of upskilling in general, then I recommend getting the book.  Here it is.  If you are having trouble grokking the basics covered in Fate Core, I recommend this too: it might help to have someone walk you through exactly how the interactions going on under the hood work, which is what this book does.

There’s little point in using our traditional grade summary for the Fate System Toolkit, so I’ll apply the logic used in the book and modify for purpose.

Grade Summary

System: A+.  Fantastic and consistent, adding a great deal of depth of resolution to what’s found in Fate Core.

How Easy Is It To Explain The System To New Players: A+. Not only is this easy to explain, I think it will actively help people comprehend the underlying principles of the Fate Core system even if they don’t use the more advanced flourishes.

Practicality of Use in Play: A.  The layout of the book makes perfect sense for being an educational dialogue gradually drilling deeper into the details of what’s under discussion, and becoming more and more specific and advanced over time.  There are some sections which drilled down into a specific example of their element before shifting back to covering other examples to a broader degree, but I can’t see how that could have been avoided.  As a reference guide during play, I think the strong contents page and index will provide enough of a framework to find what you need.

Entertainment Value: Varies between B+ and A.  The focus of the book is clarity, for which I would give it a definite A.  At no point is it a chore to read, and some sections are actively entertaining or funny in how they present things.  The section on Magic has time and space to go into more detail for characterising its settings, and they’re a highlight.

This is a great book.

– Kev.

4 thoughts on “Review of the Fate System Toolkit

  1. esophagus says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your next write ups thank you once again.

    • Kev Kev says:

      Thanks! I’m pleased it’s useful. Reviews of the two Fate Worlds books are currently under way, and with luck they’ll be up over the next week or so.

  2. Mike Olson says:

    “I’m interested that this is the only occasion I can see where an alternative rule from another book isn’t folded back into the discussion, since we don’t explore the way scale is handled as an option from the Day After Ragnarok adaptation using Fate Core.”

    I believe development on the Toolkit predated development on DAR Fate — or, at the very least, development on the two was siloed, with Atomic Sock-Monkey overseeing DAR and Evil Hat overseeing the Toolkit. I don’t remember us having any exposure to what was going on with DAR at the time; otherwise, I’m sure stuff from that would’ve been included, too.

    • Kev Kev says:

      That makes perfect sense, thanks! I keep forgetting that development was being handled by different houses, so that’s a blindspot of mine. I’ll edit a note back in.

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