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.

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