I’m a fan of Fate Core, and my favorite additions to the Fate Core family have been the purple books, the System Toolkits. What makes Fate so interesting to me is the level of modularity and genericization available in the rules, which both let players run pretty much anything they can imagine in Fate. With all that flexibility, though, comes the simple fact that there are a hundred ways to do anything, including some really inventive ones that any single player probably didn’t think of.
The Fate Space Toolkit takes a structural approach similar to that of the Fate Adversary Toolkit, where the book is split up between new mechanics and several worked examples which illustrate how the new mechanics can be used in play. The mechanics are split out into new options for character creation, space travel, space combat, and aliens. These mechanics then make appearances in five settings. The Gods Know Future Things is a post-scarcity sci-fi setting based in part on the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks which puts players in control of AI-driven starships (something you Transit fans may want to read into). The High Frontiersmen is an alt-history Cold War setting which grapples with both the nationalism and the racial politics of 1970s America in a scenario which turns both of these up to 11. Mass Drivers is inspired by The Expanse and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and centers on asteroid miners struggling in a low-margin capitalist economy. Millennials is a setting where the characters are being sent to represent humanity in front of an alien exhibition. And finally, Pax Galactica is a far-flung setting where the characters are merchant princes roaming across the entire known galaxy. Each one of these represents a different aspect of space sci-fi in terms of scale and plausibility, and the breadth makes for some good opportunities to highlight the new mechanics.
The mechanics discussed in the toolkit range from pedestrian to out there, and the section starts on the pedestrian side of the map. Character creation options discuss many of the strategies we’ve seen in other Fate settings and system toolkits, including renaming or expanding the skill list, suggested lanes for aspects, and stunts for both old and new skills. One thing I like here is that there is extended discussion of how the skill list can be altered to align with campaigns that take place entirely or almost entirely on spacecraft.
One thing I like a little less is that these new skills and recommended skill splits don’t come with a discussion of how the length of the Fate skill list affects the power level of the game. That is covered at length in the System Toolkit, but a sidebar bringing this consideration back to an aspiring GM would not have been amiss. There are a number of extras described as well; of interest to me is that both the Rank and Tech Level extras are detail which, to me at least, betrays the fact that Fate is secretly a rules-medium or even (dare I say it) a crunchy game. The extras are elegant, but get to a nearly GURPSian level of detail should a GM want to use it.
Speaking of GURPSian level of detail, the space travel rules absolutely run the gamut. I chuckle to myself reading this section, because any game that makes even a nod towards physical plausibility has to get into the, well, physics.
This book actually does a wonderful job of boiling down some rocket science by comparing high specific impulse and low specific impulse as well as high thrust and low thrust on a simple 2×2 chart. The book goes through both plausible and implausible rates of speed with loving detail, and yet doesn’t get too stuck in the numbers. GURPS this is not, but rules-light it ain’t either. The guide details out three different potential faster-than-light travel conceits and then works an example for each, making this section great for a world builder who gets stuck on the physics (i.e. me). There’s then a discussion of how to build out a map depending on how travel works, going through the pros and cons of zonal, nodal, and completely free travel, as well as how to structure campaigns around different modes of travel.
The spaceship section is fantastic because of its breadth. As we’ve come to expect thanks to the bronze rule, there are rules for treating spacecraft as characters, as well as rules for the craft becoming relevant aspects, and of course more grounded modes of emulation that treat the ship as a segmented item. This does tie into the combat section, as spacecraft are given their own stress and consequences which play directly into ship-to-ship combat.
The space combat chapter does not skimp on the potential detail, at all. That said, considerations of momentum, delta-V, and relative motion are, while discussed, mostly hashed out as aspects, ensuring that the rules themselves don’t get caught up in the physics discussions and mostly stick to the familiar zonal combat map. The more interesting (ahem) aspects of space combat come out when defining character roles and ship properties.
One thing the Toolkit provides is a whole list of different ship roles, giving you the opportunity to play out Star Trek by placing your characters in command, helm, and engineering, or throwing some Traveller into the mix with space marines, gunnery crews, and fighter pilots. The game leans into this further, defining a ship as having specific stress and consequences for each duty station. This makes for some tough decisions when the ship takes a hit, and also allows the Fate framework to provide some nice and crunchy combat opportunities. Of course the detailed combat system would benefit from knowing where you’re fighting, and the Toolkit provides that as well.
The Alien and Alien Worlds section is mostly a combination of discussion and some great random roll tables. The discussion is necessary because it ties the chapter back into an overriding theme of the book: plausibility. The difference between a considered physiology and the “humans with makeup” aliens of Star Trek and the like are fairly dramatic, but the Toolkit makes a solid attempt to accommodate the range with different charts and prompts for alien creation. The same stands for world creation, and though the standard Fate Die chart has only 15 results, the random charts are well designed and evocative within the constraints posed by the mechanic. Gas Giant, Neonworld, and Artificial Habitat are all described with the same amount of solidly evocative prose. On the other hand, if you want to stay with the physics theme, you can roll for surface gravity and axial tilt and subject your players to them accordingly. There is a fair amount of detail in the toolkit, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that a reader isn’t going to fully appreciate the potential within these rules (and a few extras) until they read the worked examples.
The God Know Future Things is derived heavily from the Culture of Iain M. Banks, though here the characters are the Minds which inhabit and run the massive starships of that setting. The aspects are designed such that a player consider both their Mind and their Hull, and the imperative is to advance human interests among the stars. The challenges of the setting come out when considering the muted drives of a post-scarcity society, and the implied non-violence of the setting.
The High Frontersmen takes place in an alternate history 1979, where history diverged after the initial launch of Sputnik. In this version, involving orbital weapons platforms, Moon bases, and Richard Nixon, the US is significantly more authoritarian and racist. The setting encourages characters who are Black Americans and Cossack Women to more fully investigate the themes of racism, sexism, and marginalization which are already an undercurrent of the time period. Of interest in this setting is a doomsday clock; depending on what the characters do they may save the world or find themselves in a new and interesting post-apocalyptic setting.
Mass Drivers is a setting of asteroid miners and the corporations who exploit them. One of the overriding conflicts is between the Greenbelts, who believe that wealth must trickle up to the Earth and Mars before it can trickle down, and the Blackbelts, who understand that the primacy and influence of Earth over their livelihoods is limited, and take a more anarchistic approach. Even the ship design phase of the game can do in a hierarchical, democratic, or anarchist mode, which determine who can alter the design of the party’s ship and with what authority. The overall rules tend towards realism, with a ship needing to exhaust heat on a regular basis and the sphere of influence for the campaign limited to the asteroid belt.
Millennials is about a group of humans being sent to represent their species at an exhibition 35,000 light years away. Not as much concerned with plausibility, Millennials more represents Star Trek, especially when examining what the characters do in the systems they cross during their journey. While the campaign is mostly based on exploration in the vein of seeking out strange new worlds, the party’s emissary holds a terrible secret, which can help drive an overarching plot as the characters get closer to their final destination.
Pax Galactica is meant to be a far-flung space opera, being inspired by Dune as much as it is by Traveller. While there are heavy-handed considerations of Galactic citizenship and the associated intrigue of status, the characters are more likely to be driven by the desire to make money and make a name for themselves in that way. With a lot of potential for both intrigue and profit, Pax Galactica makes for a sandbox in the more traditional interpretation of the term, and adds in some intriguing (and fairly portable) trade good rules.
In space, no one can hear you roll your eyes at another physics section. That said, even if the rocket science is inescapable, in the Fate Space Toolkit it serves as a perfect example of just how well space campaigns and concepts are distilled here for Fate Core. In addition to distilling a range of sci-fi campaigns excellently, the Fate Space Toolkit is also a primer for what detailed Fate looks like. I won’t lie, reading this book inspired me to consider a number of free-wheeling space campaign ideas, or at least consider revisiting them since I last outlined them and determined how much work they’d take. If you have any interest in sci-fi, especially sci-fi which pushes beyond the properties we already know, the Fate Space Toolkit is worth a look. All the detail of a more crunchy system, much more elegant approach and distillation.
There is another thing worth noting, while you’re all still reading. The Fate Space Toolkit was caught in an awkward spot in Evil Hat’s product planning cycle, and it almost didn’t see the light of day at all. My copy of the Toolkit, as well as the one you’d buy on DriveThruRPG, is a “prototype edition”, without any internal art. Evil Hat has been able to adjust from their previous budget woes, but this product is caught in limbo. If you have any interest in seeing the Fate Space Toolkit in print, or even just with some solid art direction, consider buying the prototype edition. If they have enough sales they’ll be able to buy art and offer a print-on-demand copy, and your Prototype Edition will be upgraded to the artful version at no cost. If you like the purple books, the system toolkits, there’s no better time than now to show your support and help the line continue.
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Thanks to Sean Nittner of Evil Hat for providing us with a review copy!