On toolkits

This is meant to be part a review of the Fate System Toolkit, and part an appraisal of a whole approach to game writing. Some games openly present themselves as toolkits: GURPS and Hero come to mind. What does it mean for an RPG line to be a toolkit? It means that either rulewise, settingwise, or both, it gives the reader a menu of options rather than fixed, prearranged content. Rulewise, it is along the lines of: do you want a very detailed approach to combat (body locations, damage types, detailed stats for arms and armour) or would you rather go for something quick and dirty? Do you want to play stuff like NPC reaction or the PC’s wealth mechanically or would you rather just handwave it? Settingwise, it is for instance: Do you want your fantasy deities to intervene directly in your game, or should they just belong to a system of beliefs? Would you like your swashbuckling game to be set in the Caribbeans, or rather “IN SPACE!”? The whole philosophy, obviously, is much more burdensome to GMs than a more ready-to-go approach. Nobody, I am sure, has ever set up and played a GURPS game “in minutes”, as Savage Worlds authors want us to believe we can do with their game. This has obvious drawbacks, but I think it was and still is a healthy countermeasure to the Splatbook Way of Publishing. By this I mean the TSR/White Wolf way of detailing one setting in one hundred supplements, some targeted at GMs some at their players. These were classically extremely verbose, had a very bad playable information over word count ratio, and had metaplot at their conceptual foundations: we the authors tell you what happens in our fictional world, and how you characters might fit. I happily concede both the indie folks and the Old School revivalists that this was what marred RPG publishing in the Nineties. Ultimately, it might even have played a part in my leaving the hobby at the end of the decade. At the same time, a pure toolkit approach, one which gets very austere and technical, might leave a GM with too much to do, especially if s/he is somebody with some kind of real life concerns. I must confess that I still miss the golden balance of some third edition GURPS books, which gave you many concrete, playable building blocks to work with.

Coming to Fate, their toolkit is what it says to be, except when it is not. Methodologically, it is a very uneven book. At times, it merely suggests minor tweaks to Fate Core’s ingredients (aspects, skills, stunts). Some of these are ingenuous and useful, other are so obvious to feel like wasted space (“if I give these guys extra stunts they are going to be more powerful? You don’t say!”). I think some of this stuff could have been included as options in the core book, and others just left out. A second type of information are rules for special situations or settings. Most of these are very smart, but again, at times there is just not enough information to make them of much use: the discussion of martial arts (‘Kung Fu’) boils down to ‘choose whether you prefer to have a specialized skill or do with Fight, Athletics and Physique’. On the other hand, the specialized rules for swashbuckling duels are indeed new and sophisticated, and should work if anybody is interested in the genre (even though the notion that sarcasm can win a fight is bound to remind us of Guybrush Threepwood). The most articulated contributions are also the ones that convinced me the most: the rules for squad action are a well-crafted extension of the conflict rules on a tactical scale, while the (entirely independent) rules for mass combat make for an interesting game-in-the-game. Somewhat disproportionally, a large portion of the book is devoted to rules for designing magic systems, and to five worked out examples which cover a pretty wide range of fictional magic. This chapter truly is to Fate what Thaumatology is to GURPS: it takes you on a tour of the possibilities for both the crunch and the fluff. The comparison is also quite revelatory of the philosophical differences between the two games, which are, though, just too many to discuss here. So in the end, while this Toolkit is not by far as well designed and consistent as the core book, I must acknowledge that it is a close-to-mandatory read for anybody interested in detailing their own Fate settings, especially if magic or other special powers are in the mix.

Energy swords: a shopping guide

In the aftermath of a vicious polemic on a new design of lightsabers, I would like to guide in the rich market of energy bladed one handed melee weapons. The name of the weapon of the Jedi is trademarked, so it comes as no surprise that it does not show up in any RPG, with the exception of licensed Star Wars games. Still, being such an iconic ingredient of certain Space Opera settings, it was introduced in many sci-fi RPGs under names such as “laser sword”, “force sword” or, most often, “energy sword”. Since the model of such imaginary weapons is so obvious, it is interesting to compare the treatment they receive in each game. It is a Star Wars fact that lightsabers, while at a disadvantage for being melee weapons in an age of (ultra-tech) missile weapons, were very powerful. In spite of looking and being wielded much like a sword (more precisely, a one-and-a-hand sword like a katana or a longsword), they are portrayed as capable of feats that no steel word could ever achieve: they cut with ease through any material, including steel and high-tech plastic armour, they sever limbs as they were butter, they can parry energy beams.

The first stat to consider is sheer damage. The games differ greatly in this respect. GURPS and Star Wars D6 are alike in setting the damage roughly equal to the damage of a medium calibre energy gun: that is, much higher than traditional melee weapons, but not the highest among personal weapons (GURPS has 8d6, and Star Wars has 4d6). The difference is that GURPS straightforwardly implements the movie feats above by adding an “armour divisor” of 5: this means that the damage reduction value of any armour or material was to be divided by a factor of 5 when attacked by an energy sword. From this, together with GURPS rules on incapacitation, it follows that most objects will be cut and limbs will be severed effortlessly. Star Wars D6, on the other hand, leaves it at that. In the economy of the game, though, it makes a difference that Jedi character can learn to use their Force powers to enhance both their skill with the sword and the damage it makes. So high powered Jedi characters can end up inflicting damages well beyond even the most powerful beam rifles (15d, 20d). It is not obvious how canonical this mechanic actually is: the movies clearly hint at the fact that Force training was needed to learn the skill of sword fighting, but there is no evidence that the sheer damage inflicted was improved. In game terms, though, this mechanic helped in making Jedi characters, which started very weak, extremely appealing once their Force abilities had significantly improved. If I understand correctly, the very popular Star Wars Saga Edition did something comparable: the base damage was among the lowest, but could be improved with feats gained upon leveling up and other bonuses. Strangely enough, these included a strength bonus, while the whole point of energy swords seems to be that they cut regardless of the kinetic force applied. GURPS reflects this by setting a fixed damage for energy swords while making the damage of ordinary melee weapons depend on a character’s strength. Savage Worlds borrows from GURPS the notion of an Armour Reduction: energy swords ignore all but the strongest high-tech armour. They inflict a damage, though, only moderately higher than steel swords. Basic Role Playing (AKA ‘the Golden Book’) is a good compromise: armour values are halved against energy swords, and its damage is roughly double than the damage of a katana. Interestingly, it sides with Saga in applying strength bonuses to energy swords.

The ability to parry (and redirect) beam shots is explicitly dealt with in GURPS and in Star Wars games. Quite rightly, all these games assume that such skill requires Force training and/or martial art training: in Star Wars D6, one specific Force ability must be learned, in Star Wars Saga it is a talent (Deflect) that must be learned, in GURPS it requires both the advantage Weapon Master, and other requisites including some sort of sixth sense or ESP power.

All considered, the games do their best to mimic the movies without unbalancing the game with a be-all and end-all weapon. In fact, in most games the weapon seems to be there for flavour rather than a smart tactical option. It is perhaps not surprising that the game that concedes the most on the spectacular side is the original Star Wars D6, which, I read on the web, has often been criticized for its overpowered Jedis. Do I need to say it? Back in the day, we loved it.

The Other Strands of Fate

The only version of Fate I am passably acquainted with is Fate Core, but these days I am peeking at other incarnations of the system. I have this embarrassing, outdated fetish for universal systems, so my curiosity was soon captured by Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) and the older Strands of Fate (SoF). The systems also relate in interesting ways with the matters discussed in my last post.

FAE is basically a strongly reduced version of Fate Core, offered by the same publisher. It is quite overtly conceived as a gateway to Fate and RPGs in general. It is extremely concise (less than 50 pages) and sold very cheap. Again, it is a nice book and the writing is good. Both the style and the art (by the anime-inspired Italian artist Claudia Cangini) suggest an attempt at reaching a younger audience. How effectively? I do not know: a simple version of D&D (say, the old red box or the new Starter Set) seems massively easier to learn than the heavily “metagaming” Fate, be it accelerated or not. When it comes to substance, the reduction of Fate Core seems to revolve around getting rid of the skills. In place of the 18 skills (which were pretty generic already), FAE has six very general approaches, which rate how good your PC is at solving problems Carefully, Flashily, Forcefully, Quickly and Sneakily. As far as I can see, the rest of the game is pretty much the same, minus some optional add-ons. Honestly, I do not think I would be interested in playing FAE: to my antiquated eyes, Fate Core is already streamlined to the extreme, I would not ask for anything simpler even if I had to prepare adventures for a large group in under 20 minutes. On the other hand, I think FAE is admirably consistent: it effectively gets rid of 95% of anything beyond the core dynamics of fate points (aspects), leaving you with just a modicum of crunch (numbers) in the guise of approaches. Real enthusiasts of this attitude might actually come to prefer FAE to Core, precisely in virtue of its more radical choice. A quick review of Fate-inclined blogs confirms this prediction.

SoF is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Besides a number of difference in the core notions (emphasizing Stunts, here called Advantages), the biggest differences are (a) in the character generation method, explicitly formulated in a point-buy fashion and (b) in the extensive amount of crunchy lists of equipment and vehicles. SoF, in brief, implicitly addresses the second of my problems with Fate Core: here, as in traditional games, which weapon you wield or which spaceship you drive does make a difference. This proves that nothing prevents you from coupling the core dynamics of Fate (aspects, fate points) with a modicum of simulation. More generally, the core SoF book is a solid, comprehensive, truly universal rulebook. Given my huge love for the old GURPS(3e) rulebook, I confess that I find the approach very attractive. At the same time, the creative team behind Fate Core did, I think, a better job at making the game readable and playable. If I feel like playing in an arbitrary setting with a good degree of technical detail and a very refined character creation, I would probably go for GURPS itself, but it may be just me.