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I’m working on a new Fate implementation as a personal project, deriving mainly from Fate Core, and I’d like to use skill modes for its skill system — I feel modes would be extremely suitable for this implementation and produce very desirable and enjoyable results. I’m having significant trouble though: I can’t work out what the default modes should be, or how they should look.

I’ve read the Fate System Toolkit’s guidance on skill modes multiple times, and I understand they represent broad areas of competency. I’ve played Atomic Robo, which uses modes, and have very much gotten the hang of character creation and creating new modes within that setting to positive effect.

However, guidance on creating modes from scratch for a totally new game design is very thin on the ground, and Google turns up nothing extra. There must be a body of thought out there on designing these things, but I can find no signs of anyone having written about it. The more I work with them, the more I recognise I don’t understand. Among the questions buzzing through my head that I'm keenly aware I don't know the answer to:

How do I identify the key areas of competency to represent? (Atomic Robo's authors understood it needed action, banter, intrigue and science.) What is the impact of a larger or smaller number of modes? How do I determine how many skills should be in these modes, and what is the impact of modes generally having a large number of skills (5-8) vs a small number (3-4)? How do I determine if I should want a skill to be in many modes or few modes? (I understand that many modes makes it likely each character’s an expert at it, few modes makes that unlikely.) What approaches for mode creation work well, and how should I be attempting to draft these up and piece them together?

I understand there’s no right answers here. I understand I’ll work out what works best in playtesting, and that playtesters may come up with even better modes than I design. But I’m still at the stage of producing something to playtest, and my playtesters may flail as badly as I am in coming up with anything unless they also have some guidance.

How do I work out how to design my game’s modes? Or, where in the world can I find guidance about this?

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Skill Modes to me are a nice balancing point between Fate Core's Skill system and Fate Accelerated Edition's Approach system, so I look at them as a mix of both.

How to identify Skill Modes

I look at this from the Approach point of view: if you had to create Approaches for your setting, what would they be? Those will most likely be very similar to your desired Skill Modes, just without the "-y"/"-ly" ending. For example, in a Horror Investigation setting (hmm, lets call it "Cthulhu Cthucks") you might have Sneaky/Cleverly/Quickly/Forcefully/Supernaturally as Approaches, and you could transform those into Skill Modes of Sneak/Clever/Quick/Forceful/Supernatural.

Number of Modes

The number of skills and number of modes should have at least a loose correlation, if not a direct metric between them, based on the fact that a skill appearing in more than one mode can quickly be Focused or Specialized through Reinforcement. This also depends directly on your desired power curve: if you want your PCs to be "slightly better than average" then you want to avoid creating too many opportunities for Reinforcing Skills, but if you want them to be "gods among men" then you want to encourage Reinforcement by reusing key skills in multiple Modes.

The impact of a larger number of Modes will be to give a better chance for players to Reinforce skills, but this will also dilute the effect of Skill Modes in general, and could quickly make the whole idea pointless (i.e. If you have 14 skills and 10 skill modes, why not just have a better pyramid and simplify your mechanics?).

The impact of a smaller number of Modes is that you will need to add more skills per mode (depending on how large your skill list is), which can result in a very flat (but high) power-curve for your players (12 skills with only 4 modes means roughly 1/3rd of all skills are Good or better for each player, and with 3 players it's possible for the party to be "Good" at everything).

Number of Skills per Mode

Just like the number of Modes should have some level of correlation with your Skill list and your desired power curve, the number of Skills per Mode should have a correlation between your number of Modes and your power curve, keeping in mind that Modes might also include Extras or Aspects. This should be strongly affected by your desired power curve, as 4 Skills per Mode over 3 Skills per Mode means additional Skills at every rank.

Since the Toolkit definition says the players will pick 3 Modes, having only 3-4 Skills/Extras/Aspects per Mode will mean that they only have those 9-12 total Skills (or less, depending on Reinforced Skills), which defines a certain power curve and could either cover all skills in the list or leave intriguing gaps. Having 5-8 Skills per Mode will result in 15-24 total skills (which means that unless you have a huge Skill list, there will be lots of Reinforced Skills), forcing the power curve higher and probably covering almost all skills.

Skills in multiple Modes

As the Toolkit says, unless a skill would end up in 90% of your Modes, it shouldn't be too much of a problem to have it in multiple Modes. This can also be used as a way to make certain the players are competent in certain required skills (e.g. in our "Cthucks" game, I might put the Investigate skill in a lot of Modes to make sure they always have at least some competency in it), nearly 'forcing' (well, strongly encouraging) the players to have at least certain required components of your setting built into their characters.

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I've been trying a similar thing, and modes just didn't cut it. So I'm in the process of devising something combining the default skill pyramid upgrades for players, but simple (mode like) creation for new characters and NPCs.

The system is intended to create a generic system applicable to a lot of genres / settings. Skills are intended to be abstract, with (broad) stunts making them concrete and setting / character specific. This also fixes problems with players wanting to divide skills differently within the same setting. For instance you could could have both a Sciences / Languages Lore split AND an Urban, Rural and Naval Lore one.

Players start at power level 3 to adjust for those stunts applying to multiple skills. Creation consists of ordering two lists of up to six aptitudes and intents, and is simpler to set up than modes, since you don't need to do any calculation, just fill in the blanks on some prefab flash cards. Especially for quick NPC generation you only need to put in the most important ones, and can decide on the rest if/when needed.

The result has 36 (6x6) skills, which is twice the amount of Fate Core skills. I've been trying to lower the amount to 5x5 or 4x4, but haven't been able to do that without losing differentiation between mental and social, or forceful and skillful approaches.

See Rough Sketch Google Sheet. Feel free to use as inspiration, or even better, comment / discuss there if anyone wants.

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