Fate Space Toolkit
Creating a Fate Space Game
Creating a Fate Space Game
Creating a setting for a Fate Space game works as in Fate Core (pages 18-27). In fact, taking time to create a Fate Space setting together is even more necessary, since it lets your group get on the same page about the fictional universe in which you’ll play, and about what issues or themes your game will focus on. Science fiction is a big, sprawling genre, and people will come to a science fiction game with lots of different assumptions about how things work.
Brainstorming the Game
Before actually creating the setting, then, your group will want to discuss the game you’d like to play together. The following questions can help guide that conversation. Typically, the GM leads and facilitates while taking notes and recording the answers, to be used as inspiration and guidance throughout designing the setting.
- Genre: Is there a science fiction subgenre that you want the game to emulate or invent? For example, hard-hitting near-future space techno-thriller? Far-flung, rip-roaring space opera? Gritty military SF? A space-colony coming-of-age story? Pangalactic planet-of-the-week picaresque? Sneering retropunk rodomontade, a la Buck Rogers meets A Clockwork Orange?
- Inspiration: Are there particular fictional touchstones from literature or film that you want the game to resemble? Star Wars or Star Trek? Battlestar Galactica or Firefly? The Expanse or Ancillary Justice? Starship Troopers or The Forever War? What elements of the game should most closely mirror that fictional setting? How might it depart from that setting?
- Connections: Will the characters be tightly connected—for example, as members of the same spaceship crew or military outfit—or will they be chance-met and potentially independent operators, with the potential to go haring off on their own on a whim? Or will they be rivals and competitors in the same arena, with alliance and enmity as strategic possibilities? Building connections during character generation can help cement the party, giving them a reason to stick together, but allowing characters to go off on their own gives a sense of openness and freedom of action that may be particularly appropriate in some kinds of space adventure.
- Plausibility: What level of plausibility do you want for the game? Are there particular science-fictional tropes that are especially desirable or particularly unwanted—robots, cyborgs, psionics, nanotech, or aliens, for example? As a group, set your game’s plausibilometer rating.
- Focus: Do you want to focus on one or more outer-space-related activities—for example, space piracy, alien diplomacy, interstellar trade, space exploration, spaceship-to-spaceship combat? Or do you prefer a broader sort of campaign that touches on some or many of these topics?
- Characters: Are there particular character archetypes or roles that you want to be possible or even encouraged? The hotshot pilot, the grizzled mercenary, the daring fleet officer, the stuffy space bureaucrat? Are there character types that you think are too banal, cliché, or trite to be fun?
- Aliens: If the setting includes aliens, how alien should they be? Completely incomprehensible and bizarre, or psychologically strange but human enough to be playable, or is being an “alien” merely a rationale for a character to have cool albeit implausible stunts, talents, and special skills? What kind of “otherness” do aliens represent in the setting?
Defining the Setting
The answers to the preliminary questions in the previous section essentially serve as design specifications for your setting. The next step is for someone to actually pin things down and create the setting. Typically this is the GM, but it is not unheard of for one person to design a setting for someone else to run, or people could even collaborate, creating the setting together and then playing in it.
World-building can be fun and satisfying, but it can also be a lot of work. The most practical strategy is to create just enough material to begin playing as quickly as possible. Minimally, a setting can be described with these elements:
- The Pitch: A short statement summarizing the where, when, and what of the game, emphasizing what makes it awesome.
- Scope: Specifics of tone, period, and extent, expanding the pitch and nailing down some of the setting details.
- Issues and Aspects: Key setting elements and their expression as aspects, tying the setting into the fate point economy.
- Faces and Places: An outline of the initial situation, giving places to go and people to meet. It also helps define the specific elements of science fiction present, such as advanced technologies, alien artifacts, and extraterrestrial beings.
The pitch lays out the essence of your Fate Space game. It is an elevator pitch for the campaign—a few sentences demonstrating why this game is fun or unique. It includes a sense of what the characters do, what drives them, and what role outer space plays. The setting designer can be a GM designing the game for their home group, a third-party designer writing up a setting for others to use, or the players themselves working together in a “design committee” to create their own setting as part of the first session. Most of the time, we’ll assume a fairly traditional model—a setting designed by a GM with input from a regular group of players.
Later in this book, we’ll present the following five settings as examples of Fate Space game designs.
- The Gods Know Future Things: Posthuman AI ship-minds in relativistic space arks shepherd the precarious Human Diaspora as it slowly expands from Sol, becoming stranger and wilder the further it goes.
- The High Frontiersmen: An alt-1979 Cold War political spy thriller where the Earth is girdled by manned orbiting nuclear-armed battlestations, as double agents pass each other messages at a jointly occupied moonbase trying to stave off an atomic apocalypse.
- Mass Drivers: 23rd-century space freighters living hand-to-mouth in the Asteroid Belt trying to keep body and soul and ship and crew together, avoiding the squeeze by the big corporations as much as they can.
- Millennials: The starship Millennium, Earth’s first interstellar vessel, with a contingent of the planet’s best and brightest on board, makes its way to the capital of the Galactic Civilization to prove that humanity has the right stuff to join up.
- Pax Galactica: Privileged citizens of the far-future Galactic Principate travel the spacelanes aboard luxurious interstellar liners as part of the entourage of a member of the galactic elite, to see the galaxy, or in pursuit of some vital mission.
The scope of your game comprises its tone, period and extent. In combination with its plausibilometer setting, its scope lets you all know what sorts of fictional resources you are able to draw upon when creating characters and adventures. In other words, the scope establishes the range of science-fictional tropes available. Often, it provides the rationale and justification for incorporating the preferences expressed by the players while brainstorming the game, and drives the creation of setting issues and aspects.
The tone of your setting will either be epic or personal.
In a game with a personal tone, the characters will face problems that typically matter only to the people that they know personally: their friends and loved ones, their families, or at most their community. The obstacles are ones that affect the characters directly.
By contrast, with an epic tone, the problems that characters face and are trying to fix are consequential on a much grander scale, to people they don’t know personally and will probably never meet: their country, their homeworld, future generations, up to and including the entire universe to the end of time.
A personal game is intensely interested in the interactions among the PCs and a few NPCs. GMs, you can implement this by paying close attention to character aspects and using them to drive the action of the game; by connecting milestones to individual goals, ambitions, and achievements; and by emphasizing interpersonal interactions and decisions as the focus of play. You can reduce the value of invoking situation aspects, making character aspects more important, or you can require that at least as many character aspects as situation aspects must be invoked for any given action. You can limit your use of the Bronze Rule, so that characters are always interacting with individuals rather than with groups, organizations, or other large-scale entities.
An epic game, in contrast, cares more about the big-picture consequences and ramifications of the characters’ actions and choices. GMs, you can implement this by driving the action more with situation and setting aspects; by using milestones to build and shape the setting (Fate Core, pages 263-265); and by allowing individual PCs to interact meaningfully with larger groups, organizations, and entities via the Bronze Rule (Fate Core, page 270). You could also reduce the value of invoking character aspects, which would get players thinking about how to invoke situation aspects. You could use scale rules in the Fate System Toolkit (page 67) to give large-scale actions an advantage, again getting players to work toward gaining control of things that would let them take large-scale actions.
Each choice about tone has its own advantages and disadvantages. A personal game lets the players shape the direction of the game and puts the narrative spotlight on their characters, but without strong character motivations and connections it can seem somewhat unfocused. An epic game makes the PCs important to their universe and lends consequence to their choices, but may wind up subordinating the PCs’ stories to a larger plot arc in a way that makes the characters less interesting and the game more linear.
Many games will wind up being mixed in tone, but it is good to establish up front toward which end of the tone spectrum—intimately personal at one end, and grandiosely epic at the other—the game should lean.
Note that what we are calling “tone” is called “scale” in Fate Core (page 21), but we want to reserve “scale” for indicating mechanical differences in size and duration.
The period of your game indicates its relationship in time to the world of the present. Usually, it will be at some more or less distant point in the future, but it may also be more complicated.
Near Future: As soon as tomorrow, as late as a few hundred years from now. The advantage of this period is that you can use details and trends from Earth’s history and current events as background material. The disadvantage is that greater plausibility requires stricter attention to real-world considerations. Perhaps A Dystopian World Order exists on Earth in which Flooded Coastal Regions Worldwide have given rise to an Enormous Spaceward Migration underwritten by Wealthy Megacorporate Oligarchs who reap the benefits. This setting seems somewhat more plausible than a future where A New Space Race has arisen due to the Superpower Rivalry Between India and China, which in turn seems much more plausible than one where the United Nations Terraforming Authority Is In Charge, marshaling personnel and equipment and directing missions to extract resources from space to preserve and extend human-supporting ecosystems on Earth and other planets. In general, the more dramatically convenient the political, social, technological, or other changes needed to get to the particular future you want, the lower you’ll need to turn the plausibilometer dial.
Far Future: More than a few hundred years from now. Numerous discontinuities between the present and the far future mean that there’s no easy way to make projections, but this can also be liberating, lowering obstacles to the suspension of disbelief. Far-future stories might be set where Earth Is a Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland whose survivors have One Last Shot at the Stars, or where humanity is thriving and Scattered Across the Galaxy, so that Earth Is a Dim Memory or Vague Legend.
Alternate History: Alt-history settings explore “counterfactuals” like What If They Hadn’t Canceled the Apollo Program? or What If the Russians Beat the U.S. to the Moon? They tend to be set in an altered version of the past or predicted future that feels a little disorienting while still echoing contemporary concerns. A description of the resulting culture may be as simple as The Nineties, but with Commercial Space Flights to Orbital Habitats or may require several aspects to explain, such as A Nuclear Sword of Damocles over the U.S., The Kremlin Is the 800-Pound Bear, and Insular and Isolated.
Retrofuture: The future as imagined by the past. These are usually but not necessarily low-plausibility settings, including Buck Rogers-style Raygun Gothic, heavy on the pulp, with aeroplane-styled rocketships. Other examples include swept-fin chrome-plated 1950s-style Rocketship Galileo sci-fi with Bug-Eyed Monsters (BEMs), Little Green Men (LGMs), and Space Nazis, as well as Hugo Gernsback-flavored “scientifiction” with Hail Victoria moonshot cannonades and with most solar planets not only capable of harboring life, but boasting extensive civilizations often inimical to planet Earth! Players pick this genre because they like its “color” or fictional trappings. Steampunk, which blends a Victorian-era setting with clanking steam-powered alternative technologies, belongs in this category.
The extent of your game is the physical space across which space travel takes place in it. This affects the diversity of alien life and cultures that the setting may plausibly encompass, among other things. It’s always useful to draw a map of the extent, but even writing down an aspect to define the extent can help. Here are some examples.
Interplanetary: The sun and its satellites, both natural and artificial. This extent allows for games with very high plausibility, since no recourse to FTL is needed to get our heroes to the scene of the action. Some games will range over The Entire Solar System, while others will focus on The Inner System: everything inside the orbit of Jupiter. Other games will be almost purely orbital, focusing on getting to space and maybe the Moon, with Mars a distant dream.
Local Space: The stellar neighborhood immediately surrounding the Solar System, out to maybe thirty, fifty, or even a hundred light-years. There are Hundreds of Star Systems in that radius, but perhaps only A Handful of Inhabited Worlds. The Solar System in general and Earth in particular is probably the most important center of civilization. At this extent, Earth-like worlds and even traces of sentient aliens have very low plausibility, although the Search for Alien Life or Hunt for Habitable Planets may be a big deal.
Near Space: The stellar neighborhood Inside a Few Hundred Light-Years of the Solar System. It may contain Dozens of Habitable Worlds. Settlement may come from a central point—Earth and Its Colonies—or there may be multiple centers of civilization in some degree of contention with each other—Warring Successor States, perhaps. The presence of at least A Few Earth-like Worlds is more plausible, and Contact with a Sentient Alien Species or two wouldn’t raise any eyebrows.
Galactic: The Entire Milky Way or its equivalent a long time ago and far away. Multiple Waves of Expansion, Settlement, and Contraction may have created A Broad and Diverse Tapestry of Civilizations, both human and alien (or posthuman) on a myriad of worlds, worldlets, and artificial habitats. Alternately, humanity may have fallen into a Galactic Dark Age with only A Few Beacons of Civilization Still Burning, or the entire galaxy may be groaning Under the Heel of an All-Powerful Galactic Tyrant.
Issues and Aspects
In creating a Fate Space game, the main addition to Fate Core is considering how space travel works and what other technologies exist. However, both of these considerations emerge from thinking about the game’s big issues, which are usually at least implied by the pitch.
Defining a game’s issues and aspects is fundamental. According to Fate Core (page 22), the things that spur characters to action are a game’s “big issues.” Big issues will imply what Fate Core calls “story questions”: implicit challenges and plot hooks that drive the action. Here are some examples of issues and their associated story questions.
- Alien Invasion!: Can we stop them? At what cost? What will we do if it seems like the aliens are winning? What will we sacrifice for victory?
- Uranium Rush in the Asteroid Belt: What does it take to strike it rich? What happens when we succeed? What happens if we fail or give up?
- Grand Tour of the Galaxy: How will we respond to the alien beings we meet and the alien places we visit? What local entanglements and resentments will we encounter? What problems are we carrying with us that will bear bitter fruit as we travel?
The big issues that define the setting may be treated as aspects. This means both that they are generally true in the setting and that they may be invoked for a narrative or mechanical effect under appropriate circumstances. They may also be modified or revisited at milestones. It is possible to drill down into a big issue to assign it specific aspects, which may themselves be treated according to the Bronze Rule (Fate Core, page 270) and fleshed out with other statistics. The Fate term for such quasi-characters—whether extraterrestrial hiveminds, alien societies, robot armies, natural disasters, or planetwide transportation networks—is setting element.
- Orbiting Zithari Invasion Fleet, an aspect of the alien invasion. GM might invoke to create obstacles related to orbital bombardment or enemy surveillance; PCs might compel to establish advantageous details about the composition of the fleet (ill-prepared for sustained planetary blockade!) or its routine (small blind spot in its orbital pattern provides an opportunity for stealth!). It is probably accompanied by Zithari Ground Occupation Forces.
- Space-Mining Megacorporations, an aspect of the uranium rush. GM might invoke to create obstacles related to the megacorps’ deep pockets and profit-driven decision-making; PCs might compel to establish interorganizational rivalries and competition as well as bureaucratic inefficiencies.
- Pretentious Galactic Elite, an aspect of the galactic grand tour. GM might invoke to create obstacles related to enforcing status hierarchies, pecking orders, and cliquish insularity; PCs might compel to establish cultural norms or ways of life that give them an advantage, such as being “in” with the haut monde.
In other words, you can treat a big issue as if it at least potentially possessed some combination of aspects, skills, stunts, stress, and consequences, all while treating it as an aspect in and of itself. Usually, adding stress and consequences is more appropriate for games with epic tone, since it allows PCs to more easily push for significant, broad change in the setting, like “I take out the whole Alien Invasion!” Normally, affecting a big issue requires reaching a significant or major milestone (Fate Core, pages 264-265) by dealing with specific foes, antagonists, or problems.
Setting Aspects as “Black Boxes”
We’ll use the term black box to refer to any potentially important science fiction setting element. These are technologies or scientific contrivances, and in some fiction their likely consequences are not fully thought out before their introduction. For example, script writers don’t often consider things like how the nonscarcity economy implied by the existence of food replicators in the Star Trek universe affects the Federation (but see Manu Saadia’s Trekonomics for an extended discussion of the replicator). Though a technology that can manipulate matter at a molecular level is both really powerful and really interesting, it’s not the point of the show, so it gets moved into the background.
So in effect, a black box is Just the Way Things Are, without further consequence or implication to the setting. It signals that certain problems—like “How do we get our food while we’re in space?”—are not interesting in the fiction. At least, not most of the time. But in a Fate Space game, it is often worthwhile to keep track of black boxes for the times when they can lead to challenges or opportunities that might prove very interesting, indeed!
For example, any of these fictional details can be treated as a black box:
- Antigravity in the deck plates
- Hyperspace technology
- Personal teleportation belts
- Extended human lifespan
A black box is probably not going to be an aspect in the game, at least not when it’s first identified. Not all fictional details in the setting have to be aspects, which are simply details that are sufficiently consequential that we give them mechanical hooks.
However, once established, a black box can become a plot point in an adventure, even if most of the time it is ignored. Suddenly the grav plates are on the fritz; the power crystals are slowly depleting while the ship is trapped in hyperspace mid-jump; the calibration sensors on this TP-belt are out of alignment; or the captain’s nanogerionic therapy regimen has caused a harmful mutation. Any of these can be an issue that requires time and attention during play. Thus, black boxes can imply, inspire, and collect aspects that make the setting feel more plausible and coherent. For example, the black box “personal teleportation belts” might inspire the following aspects:
- We Don’t Need Roads: Transportation infrastructure tends to be very limited, since you can teleport anywhere you want to go.
- Security Mazes: Security and privacy rely on disorienting intruders and keeping them off-balance, since preventing physical intrusion is very difficult.
A fun and productive way to collaborate in fleshing out the setting is to have players suggest interesting details associated with the setting elements that have been established. Then, in play, GM, pay attention to the possibilities implicit in the ongoing stream of talk that is your game, whether or not those possibilities have been formally established as aspects or identified as black boxes.
During setting creation, a player suggests that their ship’s life-support system is really a sophisticated nanotechnological microecology, complete with food chains and carbon dioxide-oxygen cycling. It’s a background detail, offered for its coolness and strangeness, and it’s readily accepted by the group, since it means they can safely ignore the ins and outs of the life-support system.
Later, during play, the GM wants to complicate the characters’ lives when they arrive in orbit around an alien world. She “opens up” the black box of the ship’s life-support system and creates an aspect for the ship, creating its Sophisticated Nanotechnological Microecology as a new aspect of the ship. Having done this, the GM decides that it would be fun if a glitch—precise cause to be determined later—has made the ship’s photosynthetic nanolichen go haywire, and creates a situation aspect Too Much Oxygen! that can be invoked to cause oxygen narcosis on the bridge or an explosion on the observation deck. She expects that characters will use their skills to diagnose and repair the problem while dealing with the aliens, whom one Xenophobic character suspects of sabotage.
Some GMs and groups will want to make this process more systematic. If you wish, you can keep a list of black boxes with specific details and relevant aspects, recording new entries as they are identified in play. Other groups will find it more enjoyable to keep the elaboration of black boxes as a completely ad hoc process.
Take care to avoid having too many aspects in play at once. Enforce a limit of two to four setting aspects, including both big issues and “opened up” black boxes. In any event, one of the most important black boxes in a Fate Space game is space travel. Implementing this technology is discussed in greater detail in Spacecraft and Space Travel.
Faces and Places
Defining important setting elements is a key to getting the game started. People and locations—faces and places—provide hooks for players to hang their characters’ stories on. In creating a setting, the setting designer introduces some faces and places so that players will have rivals, foils, targets, and others with whom to interact, both as part of the backstories they create for their characters and as part of the ongoing fiction. When designing faces and places, keep in mind that they will be subject to a great deal of character attention and interest, and may change as a result of character action.
The Space Map
It is also a good idea at this point to sketch out a space map to help give players a sense of the extent of the setting. Each sample setting in this book has a space map, and the creation of space maps is discussed in greater detail in The Space Map.
Aliens and Alien Societies (Different Cultures)
The presence or absence of aliens and their role in the setting, including specific alien species and civilizations, can be included with the faces and places to help players create characters. This is also where the setting rules about aliens can be introduced. In some settings, aliens will be very common and a new alien species—even a spacefaring one—can be introduced by anyone as a setting detail; in others, the presence of aliens on a given world will affect play significantly and will require the GM to bring them in. This is discussed in greater detail in Creating Aliens.
More broadly, you can identify any sorts of cultural distinction in the setting. For example, in the sample setting The High Frontiersmen, some PCs may be Russian cosmonauts while others will be American astronauts.
Specific extraterrestrial planets can be identified in the faces and places, again to aid character creation. Similarly, rules and procedures for coming up with new worlds can be tailored to the setting depending on its extent. This is discussed in greater detail in Aliens and Alien Worlds.
Aliens and Other Strangers
For many people, science fiction is an opportunity to explore new and unexpected possibilities in a socially safe space. Even gonzo ideas can often be accommodated easily without changing the mechanics: an alien character might have exactly the same rules as everyone else, but the fiction allows the player to have cat ears and a long tail. Fate is robust enough that a science fiction-inflected aspect like Bionic Arm, Neural Interface, or Uplifted Dolphin acts just like any other aspect.
However, aspects can also be invoked to declare a story detail, so while creating the setting and characters, your group will want to discuss the possible range of narrative effects of science fiction aspects, so everyone is on the same page.