Fate System Toolkit
Making Your Own
Now that you’ve seen a wide array of examples, here’s your opportunity to make the game your own. This should be a simple process, but that’s never the whole story—it’s one of those things that seems complicated at first, but gets easier and easier each time you do it, until you get to the point where it’s so instinctive that it’s hard to grasp how it was ever a problem. Wherever you are on that arc, hopefully we’ve got something here to help you out.
First, set aside your notions of balance. It’s an important concept, but not the way it’s usually used. Balance does not exist in the abstract—it is a specific element of play, and should always be looked at through the lens of play. Nothing is imbalanced on its own, it is only context that makes it so. A power that makes one character an omnipotent god might seem unbalanced, but when all the characters have it, that’s the foundation of a really neat game. It’s all about context.
If so, how do you balance your power designs? Think about three things—balancing them within the group, within the setting, and within play.
When you design a power system, you need to make one of the following assumptions:
- Only some characters will use it.
- Every character will use it.
If you are designing a power that only some characters will use, then you need to think about how that power compares to other things that characters can do and what characters are trading off to get that power. At its simplest, this means you must have a compelling answer to the question “Why wouldn’t I buy this power?”
Stormcallers is designed with this in mind. The reason you wouldn’t buy Stormcalling is because you’d need to sacrifice a skill slot—and an aspect—to buy in, and since Stormcalling is mostly combat-applicable, it’s a fairly equitable tradeoff. Even that carries the assumption that there are also things like weapon and armor rules in play. Without that assumption, Stormcalling is just a superior combat skill, and there’s no reason not to take it.
But notice that the trick of balancing that came from another part of the game itself. This is illustrative of something important about balance within the group—the purpose is to make sure that each player remains active and engaged. If you make one part of the game much cooler than the rest, then you should expect players to gravitate to it, and either support that or find other ways for them to be cool.
If you go the other way and assume that all your players will take a power, the sky’s the limit. You’ve diminished the risk of any one player overshadowing the others. Six Viziers is designed this way, and it illustrates the strengths and dangers of this approach. The abilities of the system are incredibly potent, and would be horribly spotlight-hogging in a game where only one character had them, but since everyone has similar potency, that’s not a danger. However, because the powers are so potent and diverse, care has to be taken that none of them dominate the game.
Nothing makes either approach better than the other—the logic of your power system will usually reveal whether it should be some-characters or all-characters. But that distinction needs to be clear to you when you design it. A system that tries to do both is one begging for abuse and inconsistent results.
Setting balance may seem like a strange idea, but it’s critical to good power design, because power design is setting design. Your power rules are an assertion about how the world works, and you need to think them through as such. Questions you need to consider include:
- Who can use the power system?
- How many users are there?
- How proficient/potent are they?
- How does the power impact the role of people who wield it?
- What are common results of the power in the setting?
- What are large-scale results of the power in the setting?
Obviously, the more tightly you constrain the power, the less you need to worry about these things, but that runs the risk of the power feeling like an overlay on the setting rather than a true part of it. As a bonus, the more you think through the logical ramifications of the power, the better you will be able to balance it—in every sense of the word.
Voidcallers is a great illustration of a magic system balanced against the setting. Note that there are very few mechanical checks on the use of magic in Voidcallers—it’s almost all setting elements, both in terms of the behavior of practitioners and the impact of powers. Anyone can use the power, so practitioners put up hurdles to keep others from using it, and in doing so, hide information about their numbers and proficiency. The impacts of the power are all pretty terrible, but are—so far—held in check by luck or good intent. Change that, and you change the power.
Pro tip: Want to shake up a game idea? Look at the answers to your setting balance questions and change one of them, and see what it does. For example, there’s no large-scale result of power in Voidcallers by default, but what if you change that? What if something ate Manhattan? Something so big and awful that it could not be covered up or hidden? What changes then?
Balance in Play
This is largely an extension of balance within the group, but it hinges on the question of how the powers drive play. Some games with powers are largely about the powers in question, such as supers games, or magi games in the tradition of Ars Magica. Other games, like classic adventuring or horror games, simply fold powers into the larger shape of play. Figure out which one your system does, and tune your powers appropriately.
On a more practical, mundane level, pay attention to how the actual play of your system works at the table. If the mechanics demand more of your attention—because they require more rolls, for example—then it’s a good chance that power is sucking attention away from non-powered players. This can be addressed through thoughtful GMing, but better if it’s not a problem in the first place.