Return to Arkham

Last night, some friends and I got together to try out the new Arkham Horror Third Edition boardgame from Fantasy Flight GamesThis new edition dropped about two weeks back, and I was initially pretty reluctant to buy it – I had pretty faithfully bought each of the Second Edition supplements that came out over the years1, so the thought of starting over with a new version that would probably spawn a whole raft of its own supplements was… uninspiring, let’s say.

Add to that the fact that we didn’t play AH much anymore because of the bloat. It seemed to take longer to set up, longer to play, and the rules kept getting more arcane2. There’s also a storage issue: Arkham Horror Second Edition is a huge game with all the supplements, and storing it all in a manner that makes it possible to actually keep the components sorted to minimize set-up times is a hassle.

But.

I love AH2e, even though the thought of setting it up and playing it is daunting. I loved the First Edition when I got it long ago, in the Before Times. So, even though I wasn’t planning to buy it, I was watching the pre-release information coming from FFG, curious to see what they were doing with the new version of the game. And that wore down my resistance3, so I preordered it from my FLGS4, and picked up my copy on release day5.

So. Let’s talk about the game itself.

It comes in the standard FFG-style square box. Stats on the outside say 1-6 players, 2-3 hours play time, and that it’s aimed at ages 14+. Nothing too startling about any of that, though I note that the play time estimate seems a little closer to our actual first-session play time than I expected, so it’s probably a closer time estimate than I’m used to seeing on board games. Also, it’s nice that the game works as solo play, but it’s a pretty elaborate set-up, so keep that in mind if you want to tackle things solo.

The premise of the game is the same as previous editions: your gang of desperate, soon-to-be-dead-or-crazy investigators roam the fictional streets of 1927 Arkham, Massachusetts, trying6 to keep unspeakable evil from wreaking havoc.

AH3e differs from previous editions in game structure by borrowing the scenario idea from Eldritch Horror and Arkham Horror Card Game. Where, in previous versions of AH, you picked the Great Old One you were going up against and that made minor changes to the game changes, in 3e you choose a scenario that changes pretty much everything: board lay-out, types of monsters, types of anomalies, timing mechanisms, objectives, everything. It also frames everything narratively, so it creates a more coherent story of the play experience7. So, for example, after we lost the game last night, we all agreed about the moment things turned against us, and what had happened in the game fiction – not just the mechanics – to do that8.

Set-Up

Like previous editions of the game, set-up is a bit of a fiddly job. There’s lots of cards and tokens, and a fair bit of sorting to get together the specific bits needed for the scenario you’re playing. I had planned to get everything set up before folks showed up to play, but then we changed venue, so I spent about 20 minutes to a pre-sort of the components to make sure the set-up process was a quick and easy as possible. Set-up on the site took around 10-15 minutes, and that included a fair bit of chatting amongst the players, so it can probably be cut down to less than 10 minutes with more deliberate focus. So, including sort time, set-up from box to ready-to-play looks to be about a half-hour. Slightly less than AH2e.

This is the board at the start of The Approach of Azathoth, the recommended first scenario. Note that I’m using the deluxe investigator figures from previous editions of the game, and I’ve got some nice plastic stands off to the side for the anomaly markers. Also, an official RickFest souvenir dice tower, limited edition.

Of particular interest is the modular board. It’s double-sided: you get five tiles with a total of eight different neighbourhoods. Two neighbourhoods – Northside and Easttown – have duplicates in the mix, to allow for a little more variety to the neighbourhoods that can be mixed in play. They’re nice, thick cardboard stock that lock together like puzzle pieces, along with the seven different street segments. The town is different for each scenario, and the board generally has a smaller footprint than the AH2e core game board9.

One really nice touch for this edition is the special cards for investigator starting equipment. In previous editions, if you were playing a character that started play with, for example, a car and a tommy gun, you had to search the appropriate item decks for those cards, pull them out, and put them with the character. Now, there’s a deck of investigator starting equipment cards, with the investigator art on the backs to make it obvious who they belong to. You still have to look through a deck, but it’s just one deck, and the card art makes it really easy to pull out the ones you need.

Note that each scenario has very clear instructions for setting up that mesh into the general set-up instructions. General set-up has you build the board, while the scenario card tells you what neighbourhoods to use and how to connect them. General set-up tells you to build the monster deck, and the scenario card tells you which monsters to put in it. And there’s a scenario-specific deck of cards that look like the neighbourhood encounter cards we’ve seen in previous editions that get put aside in a special holder. That sort of thing.

Game Play

The game is broken into rounds, and each round has four phases:

  • During the Action Phase, each investigator gets to take two actions. There’s a list of eight or so standard actions – Move, Attack, Ward, etc. – and different cards and abilities can provide options beyond those.
  • Then comes the Monster Phase, when the monsters on the board get to move according to their AI rules, and attack. Attacks are nice and simple – they just do the listed damage to the investigator they’re engaged with. No rolling, so it doesn’t slow things down.
  • The Encounter Phase comes next. This has always been pretty much the heart of Arkham Horror games – you draw a card based on where you are in town, and read what happens to you. This is where you most often have to use your skills to prevent bad things and acquire good things.
  • Finally comes the Mythos Phase. In previous editions, this is when you would draw a card for the Great Old One and commit the appropriate atrocities. AH3e borrows the idea of the chaos cup from the Arkham Horror Card Game, putting a mix of tokens into a bag and having each player in turn draw two tokens and resolve them. The tokens are a mix of good and bad things10, and are set aside when drawn. Once the bag is empty, all the tokens are returned to the bag, and it starts again. This is one of the timing mechanisms of the game, charting the descent of the situation into chaos and ruin.

You run through each phase in turn, then go back to the top and do it again. Repeat until the world is safe or destroyed.

One thing of interest is that you don’t know what you need to do to win when you start a game. Goals are laid out by cards in the Archive, which is basically a choose-your-own-adventure-style deck of cards. You add one or two to the Codex11 at the start of the game, and these cards tell you your initial goals, the pass/fail conditions, and any special rules. When you meet the pass or fail condition, you’re instructed to flip cards and read the back, or add other cards to the Codex, showing the next step on the path to victory or destruction. This is the piece of the game that charts the overall narrative of the game.

Advancement of the game, both in good and bad directions, is governed by two factors: clues and doom

Clues

In AH2e, clues were a simple resource that let you reroll dice and seal gates. In AH3e, they are more narratively supported as actual clues: evidence your investigators can gather that’s related to the central mystery of the scenario, and then figure out to find the next goal. Clues are spawned in neigbourhoods when you pull the appropriate token from the bag in the Mythos Phase12. The card with the clue information has a back that matches one of the neighbourhood encounter decks, and you shuffle it into the top two cards of the deck, so the clue sits among the top three cards. Having an encounter in that neighbourhood thus gives you a one in three chance of a scenario-appropriate incident that provides an opportunity to claim the clue.

Clues can be spent to reroll one die on a test. This is not a terribly efficient way to use your clues. Most scenarios only advance in a positive direction when you add clue tokens to the scenario card. This is done with a Research action, which is an Observation test13 that lets you move one clue per success from your character’s card to the scenario card. This means that, to take a Research action, you must already have one or more clue tokens on your investigator. Narratively, gathering a clue means finding evidence, and Researching lets you figure out what that evidence means.

So, yeah, you want to add clues to your scenario card. The Codex will tell you how many you need to advance the plot, but adding more is not a bad thing, because there are some times you’ll have to spend them from the scenario card to advance the plot.

Doom

Doom is the flipside of clues14. It shows how bad things are getting in Arkham. In AH2e, doom was just a track on the Great Old One card that, when it filled up, woke up the terrible ancient evil to eat you all. In AH3e, doom is added to locations in neighbourhoods, and causes bad things to happen as it accumulates there.

In three out of the four scenarios15, getting too much doom in a given location creates an anomaly, which are 3e‘s counterpart to 2e‘s gates. Once an anomaly exists in a neighbourhood, any new doom is added to the scenario card. Doom on the scenario card is similar to clues on the scenario card: get enough of it, and the plot progresses, but not in a direction that will make the investigators’ lives easier. Let this happen too many times16, and you lose the game.

The way to prevent, or at least mitigate, this is the Ward action. If your investigator is in a space with doom, you can use one of your actions to test your Lore skill, removing one doom from that location for each success you roll. Keeping on top of doom is vital for keeping the game going long enough to have a chance of winning.

Our Game

Our game lasted about four hours, which is only an hour longer than the time estimate on the box. For a first run-through, that’s pretty good. I think I’ve already said a couple of times that we lost. Here’s pretty much the moment we really knew it was over.

Okay. We had just pulled a headline card (one of the other timing mechanisms in the game) that cost everyone 1d6 Health and Sanity, split however we wanted between the two stats. Everyone rolled 5 or 6, so we were all pretty beat up. Then, a Reckoning pull put a whole bunch of doom on the board, spawning three anomalies. We hung on for a few more rounds, and got things largely cleaned up, but the time spent cleaning up the current mess meant we couldn’t really work towards the actual goal, and it all fell apart.

And thus, because of our failure, Azathoth arrived and destroyed all life on earth.

Sorry.

Tear-Down

Tear-down of the game took about 20 minutes, mainly because of the fiddliness of sorting all the various components. Most of the scenario-specific stuff auto-sorts itself during play, so there’s not a whole lot of messing around with doing that – just looking through the location decks for the scenario-specific clue encounter cards, which have a different enough face that they’re easy to spot. So, not a trivial clean-up time, but not overwhelming either.

Play Advice

After running through the game once, I have some advice to help it run smoothly and in a timely manner. These are mainly things I learned by not doing them well enough during the game, and regretting it. There’s no real strategy here, because I haven’t developed any beyond, “Clues good. Doom bad. Monsters bite.”

  • There are two-side player markers that you can flip to show that your investigator has acted. USE THEM. The Action Phase lets you choose the order in which your investigators act each round, and there are lots of moving bits to the different actions, so it can be easy to lose track of whether or not someone has acted. Use these markers religiously.
  • Appoint one player to monitor and announce each phase. There are nice reference cards for each player, so use these to keep track. Again, there are lots of moving parts, and there can be digressions in play because of various things triggering other things. Giving one player the responsibility to keep track of what phase you’re in and what comes next can really help avoid having to make timing corrections.
  • Read your whole investigator card. I mean, there’s some flavour text that you can avoid, but I almost missed the fact that the investigator I took randomly17 was essentially permanently cursed, only succeeding on 6s on his tests. Made him a real challenge. So, read the whole card, and all the starting cards you get, and keep track of your various abilities. There are a lot of them.
  • Read all of the cards that affect the entire game out loud. Other people hearing the stuff may be able to help you avoid misinterpretation and mistake. It’s a co-operative game, so use your team.
  • Spend a minute or so at the start of the Action Phase to strategize. You get to decide the order in which the investigators act, so take advantage of that to make sure you’re doing things efficiently and effectively.
  • Clear your schedule. This is a game that takes time and attention to play. Not paying close attention or trying to rush things will really impact your enjoyment of the game.

Conclusions

Four of us played, and we all had a lot of fun. One of the group is generally reluctant to play these longer games18, and even she said that she had fun, and was looking forward to playing it again.

The scenario-based design really works well to build a story out of game play, and to emphasize the mystery and horror aspects of the game, especially on the first play of any given scenario, when you don’t know how the story will unfold. It also provide a strong structure for future expansion releases.

The physical design and structure of the components is typically high-end for FFG games. I sleeved all the19 cards, because I think the game’s going to get a fair bit of play, and the extra sorting and shuffling you do with the scenarios is going to increase wear on the cards. I also use a cheap set of plastic bowls for the various20 counters and tokens used in the game, making it easier to draw them during play, rather than just putting them on the table in the baggies I store them in.

Also, it looks nicer.

Of the 12 starting investigators, 10 have shown up in previous AH family games21, and 2 are new to this game. That meant I had the deluxe, painted investigator figures for all but two of the investigators. I also had some nice plastic stands for the anomaly markers that I threw in the box.

The Broken Token, my favourite creator of deluxe game crates and game organizers, has a product page up for an Arkham Horror organizer, but no organizer product listed on it, yet. I’m watching that space, though22.

This game is, to my mind an improvement over the second edition in a number of ways, including speed of play, replay value, and mechanically supported narrative. It’s still a non-trivial investment of time and money, but if you liked second edition, you’ll probably like this, and probably like it more. And it’s nice to have an AH game that fits in one box again. So, if Lovecraftian board games are of interest, I strongly recommend you check this out.

  1. And there were a lot of them! []
  2. Ba-dum CHING! []
  3. So, congratulations to the FFG marketing department, I suppose. Working as designed. []
  4. Amuse N Games, if you care. You should. They’re pretty great. []
  5. I was surprised to also get the Deluxe Rule Book with my preorder. Thanks, Brian and Scotia! []
  6. Largely unsuccessfully. []
  7. This was implemented in Eldritch Horror specifically, but was a little rough there. The AH3e version of it is nice and smooth. []
  8. ONE stupid headline! Just ONE! []
  9. This may change with the supplements that I assume are coming, and will probably add some more neighbourhood tiles. []
  10. Mostly bad. The only really good one is the one that puts a clue on the board. The other “good” one is blank, so the goodness is just that nothing bad happens. []
  11. The game’s fancy term for an array of cards that charts the narrative status of play and current goals. []
  12. You also start the game with three clues on the board. []
  13. That is, you roll dice equal to your investigator’s Observation skill, and count each 5 or 6 as a success. []
  14. Literally, in this game, because the tokens for doom are the other side of the tokens for clues. []
  15. I haven’t looked carefully at the fourth scenario, yet, so I can’t speak to what doom does in that one. []
  16. As we did, last night. []
  17. Rex Murphy. []
  18. To be fair, the version of AH she’s most familiar with is 2e, which can take 6-8 hours or more to play. []
  19. Many, many. []
  20. Many, many, many. []
  21. AH2e, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, Mansions of Madness. []
  22. Now, the page shows the AH2e box and publication date, so I don’t know if they’re making a product for 2e or 3e. Fingers crossed. []

Tachyon Squadron

Tachyon Squadron  is a Fate Core game of a squadron of starfighter pilots at war. You play pilots in the eponymous Tachyon Squadron, defending a star system against an oppressive empire bent on conquering it.

It’s important to note that you play pilots – not mechanics, not intelligence agents, not the hangers-on of the squadron. You play the pilots. And central to the game is engaging in space combat missions, most of which involve at least some dogfighting in your starship.

I point this out because these constraints do a lot to focus the game on the experience its designed to emulate. It’s not a generic science fiction game, or even a generic military science fiction game. It is specifically a game about science fiction fighter pilots. The mechanics of the game are fine-tuned to provide fun support for this type of story, and the setting elements give a solid underpinning for the game world that allows the GM to build a coherent, logical series for the players to play through.

Now, this is a Fate Core game, so it’s certainly possible to go beyond the narrow focus of this book to play a broader, more generic science fiction game, but Tachyon Squadron doesn’t do much help you with that. Which is fine; the game in the book is solid and fun as it stands.

The Book

Tachyon Squadron is a digest-sized hardcover, like most of the RPGs coming out of Evil Hat Productions. It’s a solid book, with nice, thick pages and interior colour art. Evil Hat makes really gorgeous books, and this is no exception. The art is nice, and the layout is very clean and readable.

The System

As a Fate Core game, there’s a lot of familiar stuff in here. For the core systems, Tachyon Squadron points you to the Fate Core book, so the TS book is a fairly slim volume1. It uses all the standard elements of Fate Core, with aspects, skills, stunts, and fate points. You’ll recognize most of the elements on the character sheet, though there are a couple of different applications for some elements.

Page 10 of the rulebook has a nice little boxed text section called Tachyon Squadron for Fate Core Veterans that does a good job of pointing out what’s different in this implementation of the system.

Character Aspects

Character aspects mostly work the same as in other Fate Core games. The high concept aspect is exactly the same as in other Fate Core games. There is no trouble aspect; instead there’s a two-part decompression aspect, showing how the pilot blows off steam between missions – one healthy method, one… not so much. So, you get decompression aspects like Excellent Therapist/Hitting the Bottle.

Two other character aspects are relationship aspects, which show your pilot’s ties with the other members of your squadron. This really helps reinforce the ties2 within the squadron, emphasizing the tight-knit nature of a combat unit.

The last aspect is totally free to choose, and is an extra chance to make your pilot unique.

Gear Stunts

Special bits of technology is a common thing within science fiction games, and Tachyon Squadron takes an interesting approach to gear. One of your three starting stunts is a gear stunt – a stunt that you have because of a piece of equipment your character owns. Instead of the standard bonus or use of a different skill that stunts normally give, gear stunts let you maximize one die on a roll – turn the die to the side.

This gives gear a little bit of different flavour than non-gear stunts, and maximizing and minimizing dice offers another mechanical handle to attach various things3 to.

The Engagement

This is the core of the game, in a lot of ways. It’s the central piece of new Fate Core mechanics that the whole rest of the game revolves around. If you are looking at Tachyon Squadron as a source from which to loot stuff, this is the main thing you’re gonna want to loot.

It’s very cool.

The engagement is how the game handles space battles, including dogfights, battles with capital ships, raids on space stations and ground bases, and all other kinds of battles involving starfighters. It’s a fairly simple, narrative system that doesn’t require miniatures, yet still manages to capture the thrilling movement and desperate action of a space battle.

It involves a ranked play area, with slots marked out for a range of numbers, usually -3 to +6 or so. There’s a slot at the top for Undetected, and a slot at the bottom for Special. Ship markers are placed on the ranks based on a Tactics roll, and can attack any ship ranked below them. Ships can also maneuver to change their ranking, to gain special advantage, to lock on an enemy’s tail, to shake an enemy off their tail, and all the rest of the things you want to see in space combat.

The rulebook spends some considerable time4 explaining how the system works, with copious examples. It’s very clear explanation, and a really clean system for running something that could be ugly and complicated. It might be a little bit harder to follow if you’re not familiar with Fate Core and the way overcome rolls and create advantage rolls work, but those aren’t difficult concepts to master.

There’s also a new damage system for starfighters, so you can capture the feel of having different systems fail during combat, just like in the movies. Again, it’s a clean, straightforward system that allows you to show surprising depth in play without resorting to excess complexity.

Campaign Play

So, Tachyon Squadron is set in a defined universe. A star system has just declared their independence from an oppressive empire, and a freedom-loving space superpower that just finished a war with that empire is funneling fighters and pilots to the newly independent star system to help it defend itself5.

You are among these pilots, in Tachyon Squadron6.  Your job is to use your space combat skills and very limited materiel to hold off the attempts of the enemy empire from retaking this star system.

There are clear instructions on how to build individual engagements of various flavours, including how to scale the difficulty of these engagements. There’s also a nice, step-by-step guide for building a series of engagements that tie together into a campaign arc, and two sample campaign arcs in the book.

Joining together a few of these campaign arcs can tell the entire story of the conflict in the system, from the first attempts at reconquest to the abandonment of these plans as not worth the effort7. In all, it provides a firm foundation for building a story that extends just exactly as far as is interesting to you.

Conclusion

I really like Tachyon Squadron. The source material is not necessarily my favourite stuff8, but it’s fun. The game design to reproduce the fun parts of that source material is sheer bloody beauty. It’s clean, it’s flavourful, and it’s fun.

This is another one of those games that, after reading it, I really want to run it.

If you like the idea of roleplaying space dogfights, as seen in Battlestar Galactica and Robotech, you should definitely check this book out. If you want a masterclass worked example of how to design a game to focus on a particular subject, you should definitely check this book out.

If both those things are of interest to you, you need this book. So go get it.

  1. 184 pages. []
  2. And the drama. []
  3. Like spaceship damage. []
  4. Over 40 pages. []
  5. Think of the Eagle Squadrons in World War 2. []
  6. The other two squadrons, Axion and Graviton, are (mostly) friendly rivals of Tachyon Squadron. []
  7. Or, of course, to the evil empire’s victory. That’s possible, too. []
  8. You can really tell that Clark Valentine, the writer, loves the source material, and has thought long and hard about what is good about it. []

Crooks… in… SPAAAAAAAACE!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here, and I thought I’d try to get back to it with a review.

I’ve just finished reading Scum and Villainy, a new science fiction RPG from my heroes at Evil Hat Productions. It’s a Forged in the Dark game1, meaning it uses the same core system as Blades in the Dark2. It came out this year3 around GenCon, and I just got around to reading it now.

Short review: it blew me away, and I want to play it.

So, the basic premise is that you are, well, space crooks. You’re the crew of a small spaceship in a small collection of star systems, and you’re… well, if you’re not total outlaws, you’re definitely shady. There are three distinct flavours of crew you can join, based on the kind of ship you choose:

  • Stardancer is for illicit merchants, smugglers, and blockade runners. Think Firefly.
  • Cerberus is for bounty hunters and extraction specialists. Think Cowboy Bebop or Killjoys.
  • Firedrake is for rebels and revolutionaries. Think Blake’s 7 and Star Wars Rebels.

The basic components of ships, jobs, and character types lets you reconstruct pretty much any space-focused science fiction universe you might like, as long as the main characters are a small, stalwart crew of underdogs4.

The Book

If you’ve bought any of Evil Hat’s roleplaying games before, the book is going to look very familiar. Digest-sized hardcover, with thick, solid covers and pages, and lots of black and white interior art. The book is physically durable5, and the layout is very clean and readable. There are even nice page-edge markers that let you flip quickly through the book and see what section you’re in. In short, it’s an attractive, useful book that’s going to last even when you’re using it for reference at a cluttered game table.

Basic Mechanics

Task resolution in the game is really simple. You build a pool of d6s, roll them, and look for the highest die. You get total success with a 6, partial success6 with a 4 or 5, and fail with a 1 to 3. The rolls are mainly Action rolls, based on one of your 12 action types, with dice added or removed based on circumstance. There are also Fortune rolls, which are used mainly by the GM to answer questions that are out of the control of the characters – how crowded is the spaceport, how many people in this village survive the alien plague, stuff like that. Also, Resistance rolls let you mitigate negative consequences that your character might face.

Two interesting twists on the mechanics of rolling are the ideas of Position and Effect. Position is one of three states – Controlled, Risky, and Desperate – that in many ways set the stakes for the roll. Position is determined mainly by the fiction, with the players and GM coming to a consensus before the dice are tossed. This is important, because Position determines how severe the consequences of failure7 are.

Effect is also determined by GM and players based on the fiction. It basically sets the expectation of what success on the roll means. It’s governed by things like relative scale and situational advantages. For example, trying to shoot down a starship with a handgun is not going to have a low Effect, while trying to intimidate a lone bookkeeper when you’ve got three well-armed mercenaries backing you up is going to have a high Effect.

Together, Position and Effect frame the Action rolls, making sure the players and the GM have a shared understanding of what’s going on, how much danger is in the air, and how much good can come from success.

Play Phases

Scum and Villainy, like Blades in the Dark, splits play into three different phases:

  • Free play
  • The job
  • Downtime

Free play is pretty much what it says on the tin – you just play, making whatever rolls the fiction calls for. This is the time when players are generally trying to deal with the aftermath and loose ends of their last job, and track down or decide on the next one. Free play generally lasts up until the crew picks a job and decides to work it.

The job is when the crew does the job. They steal the thing, or smuggle the stuff, or capture the bounty, or sabotage the stuff, or whatever. It’s the main actiony part of the game, and is set up to run in a quick, exciting, and surprising manner. The job lasts until the job is done, win or lose.

Downtime is a more abstracted phase that follows the job, where the crew collects their pay, heals up, blows off steam, repairs the ship, works on their long-term projects, ducks out of the system ahead of the police, and stuff like that. Downtime lasts until each player performs their share of downtime actions, then things revert to free play.

At first glance, this looked to me to be very mechanistic, and kind of dry. But upon thinking about it a little more, I decided that I really liked this aspect of the system. It sets clear expectations of each phase, so players and GMs have a shared understanding of what’s going on, and what’s at stake. It allows the game to implement slightly different mechanics for each of the three phases. It gives solid focus to the activities of each phase, minimizing digressions. And it builds in a rhythm and pacing familiar to anyone who watches episodic TV.

Characters

Scum and Villainy uses the playbook idea I first saw in Apocalypse World. There are a set number of roles that your character could take, and each one has its own special abilities and restrictions, spelled out on the character sheet. Instead of stats, you assign ratings in the different actions, and you pick your starting ability from your character list. As you advance, you can select additional abilities.

There are seven types of character: Mechanics, Muscles, Mystics, Pilots, Scoundrels, Speakers, and Stitches. Each one is pretty clear in its focus, but the choices you make during character creation add welcome distinction to the role.8

In addition to your action ratings and your special abilities, you also select a Heritage to reflect where your family comes from and a background to show how you grew up. These sound like a pretty fine distinction, but there are categories for each that you choose from, so it becomes more clear what each means.

You also need to choose a Vice – the little indulgence that helps you blow off steam and deal with stress. These aren’t necessarily what we think of as vices, including things like religious faith and family relations, but also include stuff like drink, drugs, gambling, etc. It’s anything that helps you feel in control and lets you balance yourself.

Each character also comes with a list of people you know besides your crew. This is an interesting mix of folks that link you into the setting, giving you a list of contacts, friends, rivals, and other faces. So, instead of having to ask the GM if you know anyone who can get you an unregistered blaster, you can ask if your buddy Shod, the arms dealer, can hook you up. This is just a beautiful way to make the characters feel like they have a history, and brings the background characters of the setting to life.

Character creation doesn’t seem to take long, but you wind up with an impressive depth of information about your character before beginning play. Not everything – in fact, there’s a section in the rules discussing the desirability of leaving details undetermined at character creation so that they can be discovered during play9. But the characters are flavourful and distinct, based on the character creation decisions.

Ships

The ship is an important component of the crew. Each type of ship is optimized to focus on a specific kind of job10, and has a playbook much like a character. You get to customize your ship somewhat during the creation phase, which allows you to skew or sharpen your focus somewhat. You also have to choose ties to various factions who helped or hindered you in getting your ship and crew together, so you start the game with some predefined relationships that you can lean on and that can lean on you.

Ships can advance, like characters. You can add new functionality, improve different parts, and generally grow it just like another character. Considering the emphasis placed on ships in this type of science fiction, it really works for the genre.

Setting

The setting is a network of four star systems in the Procyon Sector11 linked by jumpgates. In all, there are about a dozen planets, and maybe half that number other locations spelled out. It’s all part of a backwater area of the galactic Hegemony, which is a moderately oppressive and corrupt12 science fiction society. Tech is unevenly distributed, as are political power and sentient rights.

Procyon Sector is strewn with different types of environments, influences, secrets, and power struggles, making it a rich place to mine for story ideas. It’s a limited number of locations13 but the variety and the messiness of the connections give enough interest to keep the game going.

Besides star travel and blaster pistols, Scum and Villainy contains a lot of other popular science fiction tropes, including a space wizards14, alien races, xeno-archaeology, and sentient robots15. As I mentioned earlier, you can cobble together an homage to pretty much any science fiction universe you care about.

Brilliant Things

So, there’s the broad strokes of the game. It’s not an in-depth examination, and I’m sure you’ve spotted some holes as you’ve read through my thoughts. I’m going to address some of the holes below, as I call out a number of things that I think are absolutely brilliant about this game. Note that a number of these aren’t original to Scum and Villainy, and are just features of the Forged in the Dark games.

  • Devil’s Bargain: When you’re getting ready to make your Action roll, you start looking for extra dice to add to your pool, because more dice means a better chance of getting a full success – maybe even a critical. One thing you can do is accept a devil’s bargain. This is when the GM offers you an extra die for the pool in return for something bad happening in the fiction. So, maybe you get an extra die to shoot at the bad guy, but then your blaster jams, or you throw the cops off your trail, but it means they stumble onto your friend in a compromising position. It’s a way to elevate the stakes of the roll, giving you more risk for a better chance of success. It’s a wonderful little temptation to throw at your players, much like a compel in Fate.
  • Load: This is a great way to bypass the planning delay that choosing your equipment for an adventure can bring. Instead of having a detailed list of everything your character is hauling around, you pick a load level for the character. Then, during play, you spend your allotment of load to have the items you actually need in the moment. Each playbook has a couple of lists on it – one for generic items you might have, and one for items specific to your character type. Thus, anyone can say they’re carrying a blaster pistol or a communicator, but only the Scoundrel can decide to have forged documents.
  • Engagement Roll and Flashbacks: One of the big stumbling blocks in running a game focused on heists, capers, and missions is that, instead of  being a game about heists, they can become games about planning heists. I’ve spent sessions sitting around, discussing plans, and not getting to actually implement them until the next session, and then finding that half the planning was wasted, because the thing we planned for never happened16. In Scum and Villainy, you decide what your objective is, choose a basic flavour for the plan – assault, deception, infiltration, mystic, social, transport – and one initial detail. Then, you jump into the job, taking all the planning as given. You make an Engagement roll to determined how things start, and get on with things. When you run into something that you wish you had prepared for, you have a flashback, to show how you actually did prepare for it during the planning that happened off-screen. Not only does this allow play to bypass lengthy17 planning sessions, it means that you only have to deal with plans that make a difference, and that’s awesome.
  • Clocks: I think the first time I saw the clock idea in an RPG was in Apocalypse World18. Clocks are essentially timing/tension devices, a visual representation of changing situations. You can start a clock for any impending event, which means drawing a circle and splitting it into however many wedges you want. When something happens to make the event more imminent, you colour in a wedge or two and, when all the wedges are filled, the thing that the clock was tracking happens. The beautiful thing about clocks is that they sit right there in front of everyone, so they can see their progress, and can see what fills them up. It’s as good as a soundtrack for ratcheting up tension. Of course, clocks don’t just track bad things – they also show how close you are to finishing big projects and things. Either way, it’s great visual feedback on what’s happening.
  • Factions: In addition to the four systems and twelve planets of the Procyon Sector, the book documents 36 different factions. These are power groups of various strengths, abilities, and goals operating in the setting, ranging from the powerful and connected Engineering Guild to the hard-scrabble opportunistic street gang Wreckers. During character and ship creation, the crew winds up entangled with some of these factions, owing them favours, or being owed favours, wiring the crew into a dynamic mess of politics and scheming. Each faction has its own goals and resources, and they develop their own relationships with the crew, often based on how friendly the crew is with their friends and enemies, and how useful the crew is to them. This gives the setting a feeling of life beyond the characters, as the different factions jockey for position and pursue their goals, changing the setting as they do so. It also serves as a rich source for jobs for the crew.

Conclusion

I’m a huge fan of this game, despite not having played it yet. It draws on the structure created in Blades in the Dark, and shows how it lies at the root of some of the most popular science fiction stories of our time. I think the cultural touchstones of the science fiction settings are a little more accessible than the industrial pseudo-Victorian fantasy basis of Blades in the Dark, which may make this book a little more popular than it’s design parent19.

If you’re looking for an action-packed science fiction RPG that privileges story, if you want something that focuses on the underdog in an exciting universe, if you like caper and heist stories that don’t get bogged down, this is the book for you.

  1. I find the naming of the… I don’t know what to really call it, maybe the genus of the game? I find it a little odd. I mean the first time I saw it was with the Powered by the Apocalypse games based on Apocalypse World, and that seemed kind of cool, but I’m not sure how much I like it as a trend. I’m torn. It strikes me as good branding, but it also strikes me as a little bit precious. So, yeah. I dunno. []
  2. Which is also a really cool game. The core system is fantastic, and I like seeing it get reapplied to other genres. []
  3. 2018, for you folks in the future. []
  4. So, not so good for most Star Trek franchises, or for Battlestar Galactica. For BSG, though, there’s Tachyon Squadron, which I want to review next. []
  5. I’ve been hauling it around in my bag for a couple of weeks, and leaving it open face down on tables overnight, and stuff like that, and it still looks pretty much brand new. []
  6. Think the 7-9 roll in a Powered by the Apocalypse game. []
  7. Or cost of success. []
  8. This makes it much more viable to have multiple players playing the same character type without stepping on each others’ toes than in the Powered by the Apocalypse games. []
  9. Which reminds me a little of the practice of leaving a couple of aspects undefined in Fate games to be determined during play. []
  10. Though, of course, that doesn’t mean it can only do that type of job. []
  11. Not necessarily having anything to do with the real Procyon, of course. []
  12. Has to be, right? Otherwise it’s harder to make the argument that PC criminals are actually heroes. Especially if you’re playing in the rebel mode on a Firedrake. []
  13. Not unlike the ‘Verse of Firefly or the Quad of Killjoys. []
  14. As exemplified by the Mystic character type. []
  15. Ur-bots, in this case. []
  16. My players remember the Amber game, where this was common. []
  17. And potential fruitless and frustrating. []
  18. Except, as I recall, it was just used for tracking injury to the characters there. Maybe also impending threats? Can’t say for sure. Pretty sure it was used for tracking impending threats in Dungeon World, though. []
  19. Though I strongly recommend getting both, if you can. They’re worth it. []

RickFest IX Postmortem

Don’t worry. Nobody died, despite the killing cold1 that has become a RickFest tradition. It did, I think, thin out attendance a bit. We still had around 20-25 people over the course of the day, which is not bad, but some injuries and illness and other commitments kept some of the regulars away, otherwise we might have broken our attendance record.

For those who don’t know, RickFest is my annual game day. I rent a community centre hall, load in a bunch of games, make a big pot of chili, and invite whole bunch of my friends to come by between noon and midnight to play games, eat food, and hang out. It’s a potluck, drop-in affair. This was the ninth2 RickFest, and a survey conducted a couple of years ago led to us adopting the tag line The Sixth Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Here are some pictures of the festivities:

I loaded three big duffel bags with games, stuck an extra one in my messenger bag, and hauled 56 games (57 if you count Codenames and Codenames: Pictures separately) into the community centre. Overkill? Maybe. But I like giving folks a good variety of options.

Illimat was the first game of RickFest. It’s a very attractive game, but there are some elements of the rules that seem a little arcane. I have read the rules and watched a couple of videos, but haven’t actually played it yet. The gang here were having a bit of trouble figuring it out. Still, it got a couple of plays, so it can’t be too bad.

Tak is based on the game in Patrick Rothfus’s novel A Wise Man’s Fear. Rules are very simple, and strategy is quite deep. I taught it to one of my friends as our first game of the day, and he proceeded to beat me three games in a row. It’s lots of fun.

My friend Dave is into miniature games the same way I’m into board games and RPGs. He brought out his demo setup for Infinity, which always looks so cool that, when I see his stuff, I start thinking about diving into minis. It doesn’t help that he is a really great painter, and all his models just look gorgeous.

Dave also brought out The Captain is Dead, a game that I had been looking forward to trying. Unfortunately, I was caught up in something else when all the spots filled up. Judging from the laughter around the table, it’s a pretty good game. I ordered myself a copy this morning.

This might have been what I was playing when The Captain is Dead filled up: Batman Fluxx. Fluxx games are always fun, and this is no different.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate is a D&D take on Betrayal at House on the Hill. It looked fun, though I find the art on the tiles a little busy and confusing. That may just be a product of me not looking at them in the context of playing the game.

Dreamwell is a beautiful game that I got through Kickstarter. I’ve had it for a couple of years, and it’s got a fair bit of play at RickFests, but I’ve never been one of the players. I need to correct that. Everyone says it’s fun.

Kodama is from Action Phase Games, just like Dreamwell, and I got it through a Kickstarter, and it is also beautiful. It also gets a fair bit of play, and I have never played it. I really gotta fix that.

One beautiful game that I did get to play is Inis. In fact, I played it twice. Not only that, I actually won once! It’s surprisingly simple and quick to learn, and the game can turn in an instance, all without relying overmuch on random elements – no dice rolls, for example. And having a part of combat be the participants talking to each other to decide if they actually want to go to war is pretty good. Lots of fun, this game.

Since King of Tokyo premiered at RickFest V, it’s been a perennial favourite. It’s quick, fun, easy, silly, and you get to be a giant monster. ‘Nuff said.

Erik brought Labyrinth, and I got to give it a try. It was simple and fun, with lots of flavour. I played Sarah and, what with how often Jareth showed up to mess with us, I spent too much time asleep for us to save Toby from being turned into a goblin. Considering the final showdown has the Sarah player reciting the culminating speech of the movie from memory while gazing into the eyes of the Jareth figure, it’s probably just as well we didn’t get that far.
We did get to do the Dance Magic “You remind be of the babe” riff, though, so that’s something.

Lazer Ryderz is beautiful neon and Nagel 80s glitz. It’s also a really fun game. Greg Stolze has shared one of his house rules with me:
“When we played this, we house ruled that every time you said the game’s name, you had to do so in a high, 80s-hair-metal falsetto and then make a guitar solo sound.
‘LAY-suh.. RIIII! DUHS!!!'”

I love Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu. Like most Pandemic-style games, it excels at pulling the rug out from under you at the most inconvenient moment. I don’t know how this game ended.

This game of The Mountains of Madness, I am told, ended in a victory. I find that statement suspect, based on my experience playing the game. But I will accept it as truth.

Witches of the Revolution looks like a lot of fun, and I’m generally a pretty big fan of Atlas Games. The folks playing it seemed to be enjoying it. One day, I will play it, too.

This is Nora. Her parents recently taught her to roll dice. Now she’s rolling the dice for them as they play Zombie Dice. It makes me proud that RickFest fosters such exemplary parenting skills.

So, that was twelve hours of gaming goodness. I’ve got the car unloaded, now, and most of the stuff put away. Another RickFest in the books.

Of course, next year is RickFest X. I’m going to need to come up with something special.

  1. For my non-Canadian friends, in Winnipeg, “killing cold” is neither hyperbole or metaphor. We’re talking temperatures that can cause actual death pretty quickly if you’re not dressed for it. []
  2. We think. We didn’t start keeping track until a few years in. It could be the eighth, or the tenth, but we arbitrarily decided on a count about four years ago and made that the official one. []

Speedy Dresden

My heroes over at Evil Hat Productions have just released Dresden Files Accelerated, fulfilling one of the stretch-goal promises of their incredibly successful Fate Core Kickstarter1. This is a version of The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game using the Fate Accelerated implementation of the Fate Core rules2. Now, some of you may know I’m a big fan of the original DFRPG, and of Fate in general, and I’ve already mentioned that the folks at Evil Hat are my heroes

What’s the Difference?

Back when it first came out, I wrote a post about FAE. In short, FAE is a rules-light, fast-play, simplified version of the Fate Core rules. DFRPG is one of the complex iterations of the Fate3 rules, notably because of the magic system4DFA is a simplified, fast-play version of DFRPG.

The Basic Mechanics

Like FAEDFA uses approaches instead of skills. The six approaches for DFA are Flair, Focus, Force, Guile, Haste, and Intellect5. There are the standard four action types – Create Advantage, Overcome, Attack, and Defend – and the four standard outcomes – Succeed, Succeed with Style, Tie, and Fail.

Actions and conflict work pretty much the same as in FAE: roll dF, add it to your approach rating, and compare it to a target number. Levels of success in combat turn into stress, or into free invokes on created aspects.

Of course, there are aspects. Can’t have Fate without aspects. They work the same as in other Fate games, giving a bonus or reroll when you invoke them and spend a Fate point, and earning a Fate point when compelled.

There are, however, some new bits of mechanics that do some really interesting things.

Mantles

DFRPG used a thing called a Template to define your character’s basic powers and abilities. DFA calls roughly the same thing a Mantle. There’s a total of 24 Mantles in the book, covering everything from a clued-in mortal to magical practitioner to Santa’s seneschal6.

Each Mantle has a set of core stunts, optional stunts, and unique conditions7 that provide the special abilities and flavour of each character type. Mostly, you pick a single Mantle for your character, but a few Mantles, like Changeling or Red Court Infected, act more as templates – you create a character using one of the mortal Mantles, then add the supernatural Mantle.

You start with all the core stunts of your Mantle, and with the unique conditions. You also get one free stunt from the list of optional stunts. And, as with standard Fate games, you can choose to take more stunts in exchange for giving up a point of Refresh per stunt.

Conditions and Stress

Conditions are a very cool new piece of mechanics. Functionally, they’re like stress tracks in Fate, or predetermined consequences. Really, they’re aspects with an On/Off switch8. Each condition has a series of checkboxes – some have as few as one checkbox – and, in given situations, you mark one of the boxes9. Once the boxes are ticked, the associated aspect is turned on, until you meet whatever requirement the condition has to clear it.

Example? Sure!

Magical Practioners10 have a condition called Exhausted. It’s got one box. With the Evocation stunt, you can boost the effect of your spell by marking the box, which gives you some bonuses on trying to, for example, blast a vampire with sunlight. While the condition is marked, you have the Exhausted aspect, and the GM can invoke that to mess with you. In addition, in any scene that Exhausted would be a factor, the GM gets one free boost against you. If you take the necessary time to rest up, you can clear the condition, and you are no longer exhausted.

So, really, conditions are the category to which stress and consequences belong – tick the boxes and get a temporary aspect. And stress in DFA is reshaped a bit to help it fit that model better. By default, characters have six boxes of stress, and the conditions In Peril and Doomed. Stress is not divided into the mental, physical, and social tracks of DFRPG – there is only stress11. In Peril and Doomed act as predefined consequences – you can tick one of those conditions to offset greater amounts of stress. If you can’t buy off all the successful shifts of whatever you’re dealing with – punch, shot, fireball, psychic blast, or anything else – you’re taken out.

Now, as I mentioned in a footnote, some conditions kind of work in reverse: they start out marked, and get cleared in certain situations, turning that conditional aspect off. These are basically aspects that give your character special abilities, like Police Powers or Medical License, but that can be revoked due to your actions.

Why do I think this is such a neat little piece of game design? Because it’s a simple, adaptable way to create great variety and model a lot of different powers without having to come up with entirely new sub-systems for them. It is incredibly flexible, there are a whole slew of worked examples in the book to help you come up with new implementations, and it doesn’t increase the complexity of the characters very much. I mean, there’s always some increase in complexity when you add a new thing to track for a character, but because it’s so very similar to stuff you’re already tracking, that increase is minimal.

So, yeah. Conditions are pretty cool12.

Stunts

I haven’t done an actual count, but my impression is that DFA has more actual stunts listed in the book than Fate Core does. It certainly has more than FAE does. This is because it takes everything that was a power in DFRPG and makes it a stunt. And also because the stunts integrate so closely with conditions that clear definitions of what some stunts do in relation to the conditions is pretty much required.

There’s also a discussion about how to create your own stunts, using the method from FAE.

Magic

This is the section I was most interested in13, when the game was announced. I was really curious to see how the flavourful-but-complex magic system from DRFPG was going to be implemented in the much-simpler FAE structure of DFA.

First, let’s talk evocation. Evocation is a stunt, and it lets you use elements to perform the four types of actions allowed in Fate Core. It’s got a couple of conditions tied to it – Exhausted and Burned Out – to model the way channeling that much raw energy can just tire you out. It’s just a standard action, tied to your approach, that you get to describe in a magical style; so, instead of a Forceful gun attack, it might be a Forceful fire attack. There’s none of the math that the DFRPG system required14, and a single roll instead of one roll to gather power and another roll to focus that power.

There’s also no need to track how good you are at the different elements. There are stunts that can give you a bonus using a certain element with a certain approach to accomplish a certain action, but that’s much simpler than the DFRPG method of calculating and tracking it15.

Overall, I like the new evocation. It’s cleaner and simpler and, though it may lack some of the risk and apprehension of the DFRPG method, it is loads faster and easier.

Now for thaumaturgy. While evocation gets about half a page of write-up in DFA, thaumaturgy gets its own chapter. Now, it’s a chapter of 13 digest-sized pages, compared to DFRPG‘s 26 full-sized pages, so it’s not really all that much. It is more complicated than evocation, of course – it’s more flexible and more powerful. In DFA, it’s only a single roll16 to use thaumaturgy, rather than the multiple rolls to prepare the spell and gather and focus the power in DFRPG.

There is some math in this type of magic. You really kind of need to do a little math to have the sort of flexibility that thaumaturgy has in the source material17. You build spells by determining what stunts and/or conditions the spell brings into being. So, if you want to, say, use magic to turn you and everything you’re carrying into a cat, that’s +4 for the Physical Transformation (lasting) condition, and +2 for the Shifting Adept stunt, giving the spell a difficulty of Fantastic (+6). See? Simple math.

Now, instead of having to make up a Lore deficit18, you add up the costs, based on the conditions and stunts in the spell. So, for our shapeshifting spell above, it requires four costs: one for the stunt, three for the lasting condition. Then you make the roll against the difficulty. How well you roll determines who gets to pick the costs; you, the GM, or both taking turns.

Costs are narrative complications or resources expended: time for completing the ritual, rare components you need, help that you need19, special circumstances like times or places, or the spell not quite working correctly. This basically replaces the before-the-roll spell preparation in DFRPG with an after-the-roll determination of the story of the spell. It also determines if you need to make any other rolls for the spell to work – maybe it takes a roll to get you hands on a bit of the target’s hair, for example.

Note that this method makes thaumaturgy much more reliable and safe than in DFRPG, though a bad roll may result in the GM picking costs that you can’t obtain or aren’t willing to accept. This means that, if your ritual spell fails, it’s usually because you choose for it to fail rather than expend the resources or accept the costs required. And that’s interesting to me.

One last note about thaumaturgy: there are four example spells in the chapter, each about a page long. Two of those examples don’t actually use the ritual magic rules, and are examples of when to use these specialized rules and when to use the standard FAE-style actions. This is incredibly useful in opening up the concept of only using these more complicated rules20 when they actually add something to play, and modeling things using the regular mechanics otherwise. Good advice, and good examples.

A few other notes about magic:

  • Sponsored magic is handled by stunts and conditions in the mantles. It really helps simplify the whole sponsored magic stuff, which was a weak part in DFRPG ((To be fair, it was really cleared up in The Paranet Papers, which I reviewed here.)).
  • The Sight is a condition called The Third Eye, and using it is risky to your sanity. Clear, simple guidance on it.
  • Soulgaze is a stunt, and again, there’s clear, simple guidance.
  • Enchanted Item is a stunt that lets you pull a useful magic item out of your pocket once per session. Individual, permanent magic items, like the Wardens’ silver swords, are singular stunts on their own.

All in all, the magic system in DFA does a really good job of simplifying the DFRPG magic system without sacrificing very much in the way of flavour or flexibility.

Scale

The Dresden Files novels have creatures of vastly different levels of power facing off against each other. Supernatural creatures vs. mortals, wizards vs. fey nobility, stuff like that. DFA has the concept of scale to address that. There are five different scales: Mundane, Supernatural, Otherworldly, Legendary, and Godlike. Going up against a force of a different scale provides the higher-scaled side a significant bonus, based on the difference in scales.

This bonus is a big deal, but there are ways around it, as demonstrated in pretty much every Dresden Files story out there. As DFA says:

Wizard Dresden is an expert at finding the Achilles’ [sic] heel of superior foes.

Other Stuff

Just a quick rundown of some other things I think you should know about the game:

  • It’s got all the customization stuff you’d expect from an FAE game: building your own setting, GMCs, stunts, Mantles, and so on.
  • It’s also got a complete prebuilt setting, with GMCs and playable characters.
  • The advancement system is very simple, but there’s some good advice on advancing the setting along with the players.
  • It’s great fun to read, with lots of useful examples and amusing marginalia.
  • The art is clean and evocative, and there’s lots of it.
  • It’s a digest-sized book, like all the other Fate Core books.
  • The background covers up to Skin Game in the Dreden Files books. So, y’know, spoilers.
  • It’s waaaaaay easier to carry than DFRPG.
  • Our Story and The Paranet Papers for DFRPG are useful sourcebooks for DFA, but aren’t required.

Conclusion

I really like this game. Really. Reading it has got me looking at my game schedule to see if I can fit a new game in21, because I want to gather a group to play.

It’s a nice version of Dresden Files, vastly simplifying the system without sacrificing the cool flavour and flexibility of the game. If your a fan of Harry Dresden in any of his incarnations, I recommend picking it up.

You know you want to.

  1. To be clear, the stretch goal was that they would develop DFA, not that you’d get DFA as part of your Fate Core Kickstarter. They were very clear that this was not going to happen right away. And it didn’t. But it did happen, just like they promised. []
  2. Think I’ve linked enough things in those two sentences? Feels like a lot of links. []
  3. Note that it predates Fate Core. []
  4. If you don’t believe me, I wrote a lengthy series of posts talking just about the DFRPG magic system. Take a look at the Spellcasting section here. []
  5. Only slightly different from FAE‘s Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. []
  6. Not even kidding about that last one. []
  7. I’ll talk more about conditions below. They’re cool. []
  8. Which I think is brilliant. []
  9. This is not entirely accurate. Some conditions start as ticked checkboxes, and you clear them in response to certain situations. []
  10. Like Wizards, for example. []
  11. This is the same in FAE, and I liked it there, too. []
  12. Forgot to mention another default condition everyone gets: Indebted. This lets you track favours that you owe to others. Nothing dangerous about that, right? []
  13. And the longest section of this review. Sorry. []
  14. Take a look here to see what I mean. []
  15. Which I discuss under Calculating Your Bonuses here. []
  16. Kind of. Keep reading to find out about costs. []
  17. That is, more powerful spells need more complex rituals, so you need some way to determine how powerful the spell is in order to decide how complex the ritual is. []
  18. What am I talking about? You can read about it here. []
  19. Remember that Indebted condition? []
  20. “More complicated” compared to the other DFA rules. Not compared to DFRPG. []
  21. Not quite yet, unfortunately. Maybe in a couple of months. []

Fate of the Nephilim: Magic in General

A quick note about the information presented below: I’m not going to be explaining all the ins and outs of the Nephilim game. If you’re really confused by stuff, I urge you to grab the pdf of the game to follow along. You can get it at the Chaosium site, and the entire line is available at RPGnow. It’s well worth the purchase. And Fate Core is available from Evil Hat Productions. Also very much worth it.

Now, we’re really getting into the heart of Nephilim. The game is all about non-human, magical creatures – beings made of magic, who perceive the world through magical senses, who interact with the world using magic, and generally use magical thinking because it works for them1. And so the game has no less than three different magic systems.

Elements

All of the systems revolve around manipulation of the elemental fields. The elements, referred to as Ka,  represent both physical and spiritual components of the world – the Nephilim tend to not differentiate between those two states as much as humans do. The divisions into the elements are basically just fluff2, so there’s not any call to make changes. That means we’ve got the five elements staying the same as in the Nephilim book:

  • Air Ka
  • Earth Ka
  • Fire Ka
  • Water Ka
  • Moon Ka3

In addition to these elements, there are three special elements that exist and affect the Nephilim, but that the Nephilim4 don’t interact directly with:

  • Black Moon Ka, created by the mad Tyrannosaur prophet-king Mu and still used by the exiled Selenim
  • Orichalka, the deadly, Ka-destroying power of Saturn
  • Solar Ka, which infuses humans

These three types of elemental energy are each going to require some special rules to handle in-game.

Astrological Modifiers

One of the main features of the Nephilim game is the effect of the celestial bodies on the elemental fields. There are elaborate rules for it, and even (if you bought the GM’s screen) a special wheel dial that you could use to calculate the appropriate modifiers and enthronements for the current game day, based on date and such. It was pretty cool.

It was also a pretty irritating amount of work.

So, I want to include the influence of the planets on the Ka fields, but I don’t want to have to do the math every game day to figure out which elements are enthroned, which are diminished, etc.

Fortunately, Fate Core has a structure in place for determining these things – aspects. Easy enough to let characters use the Create an Advantage action to declare or uncover the current astrological modifiers. And while that may prompt them to always try and place their most favourable element in ascendancy, you can offer compels to get them to pick a different aspect.

The modifiers in Nephilim vary in amount, but aspects all work the same way. This means that there should be a fairly limited variations in the range of aspects that can be placed. I’m thinking just stick to Enthronement, with the name of the enthroned element. So, Fire Enthronement, Moon Enthronement, Sun Enthronement, Orichalka Enthronement, etc.

Each elemental enthronement gives a bonus to can be invoked for a bonus to that element, and as a penalty to two other elements5. Here’s the list from the Nephilim rules:

  • Air opposes Earth and Moon
  • Earth opposes Air and Water
  • Fire opposes Water and Moon
  • Water opposes Earth and Fire
  • Moon opposes Fire and Air
  • Orichalka opposes all other elements

There are no Black Moon enthronements, by default, though I can see that being a cool story-based thing to throw in when dealing with the Selenim6. Sun enthronements in Nephilim are more complicated – they cause the Ka fields to fluctuate, meaning the bonus elements change randomly. So, it becomes a much more flexible aspect, though I’d also use it to give bonuses to any humans, and use it to cause the characters’ simulacra to assert themselves, causing problems.

Of course, you can just use the planetary days and planetary months tables in the Nephilim rulebook to actually calculate the proper enthronement. Without having to give it a numerical value, this is easy enough to do. It does, however, require you to track the days of the week and the zodiacal months of the year to be able to do this7.

There are also Grand Enthronements, when the elemental fields are supercharged. These happen when the planetary day and the planetary month match, both lending power to the dominant element. So, Tuesdays in Aries are Grand Enthronements of Fire, for example, and Saturdays in Capricorn are Grand Enthronments of Orichalka. I can see doing one of two things to model Grand Enthronements: either increase the bonus/penalty for invoking the aspect to +3/-38, or give the aspect a couple of free invokes.

I think the +3/-3 is the better choice, because the characters can get free invokes by rolling well on the Create Advantage action, and can replenish those free invokes by taking an action to Create Advantage again. So, the +3/-3 strikes me as more meaningful.

Ch’awe

Ch’awe in Nephilim is magic points, spent to power spells. As such, my initial thoughts have been to make a stress track for Ch’awe, and take hits there when casting spells – basically, the way that Mental stress is used in DFRPG. Lately, though, as I think about it, I’ve been wondering why I’m creating a new stress track, when the Mental stress track could serve just as well. See, I made the decision pretty much without thinking, initially, and all I can see in retrospect is that I maybe wanted to emphasize the magical nature of the Nephilim by giving them this battery.

And now I’m not sure it was the best idea.

In addition to this, I’ve been reading Dresden Files Accelerated9, and they add a neat little piece of Fate technology to the game: conditions. Conditions are sort-of predetermined, flavoured consequences10 that act as batteries for various powers. Thus, a magical practitioner gets the Exhausted and Burned Out conditions that they can mark to boost the power of Evocation.

Something like that might work well with Ch’awe, and it might make it easier to bring in concepts like Khaiba11 and Shouit12. I’m going to have to think about this some more, and do some deeper reading of DFA.

Types of Magic

In Nephilim, there are three broad types of magic available to the characters:

  • Sorcery is the oldest and most primitive, letting the Nephilim directly manipulate Ka fields to obtain results.
  • Summoning is contact and interaction with beings from higher realms of reality, composed of various Ka fields.
  • Alchemy is the manipulation of physical matter through magical ritual and the use of an athanor.

The differences between the magic types are mainly differences of tone and theme, rather than mechanics. There are little things – you need to create various alchemical powders in your athanor for Alchemy, you need to draw a summoning circle for summoning – that are in-game differences, but the actual mechanical process for the different types of magic is the same – know the spell, roll your skill, pay the cost.

I think that, in the Fate Core implementation, I’ll have to delineate some clear guidelines for what kinds of things each type of magic can do, and also convert a number of the spells in the Nephilim book to show how they work in the new systems. I’ll also have to check and see if there are more qualitative differences that I need to address.

I was thinking that cribbing from the DFRPG system for thaumaturgy would probably be the way to go13 – it’s a very flexible system that pretty much covers any magic working you care to imagine. The downside is that DFRPG thaumaturgy is somewhat complicated and math-heavy, and when I ran my DFRPG campaigns, play would inevitably slow when a ritual came up.

Now that I’m reading DFA, I’m liking their take on ritual magic. It’s still got a little math14, but the actual mechanics for building spells is much streamlined. It does a couple of interesting things with costs that, while they are great for the Dresdenverse, may not be quite what I want in Fate of the Nephilim, but that shouldn’t be too tough to fix.

Circles

In Nephilim, each type of magic is divided into three different levels, called Circles. Each type of magic has a different funky name for their circles – Sorcery has Lower Magic, Higher Magic, and Grand Secret; Summoning has Seals, Pentacles, and Keys; Alchemy has Black Stone, White Stone, and Philosopher’s Stone15. Each Circle is a different skill in the game, and you need to have 90% in a lower Circle before you can take the next one.

I want to avoid a glut of different skills in this conversion. Skill ranks in Fate Core are limited and pretty powerful, so diluting them among too many different skills is, in some ways, penalizing to the players. My solution is to have one magic skill for each of the three types of magic, and to place the Circles as thresholds within each skill. So, first Circle is at Average (+1), second Circle is at Good (+3), and third Circle is at Superb (+5).

I’m going back and forth on what that means, spell-wise. The Circles are only meaningful if there are some spells that are reserved for the higher Circles, so I’ll have to figure out exactly how I want to work that. Summoning has different groups of creatures summonable at different Circles, which is easy enough, and Alchemy is clear about the fact that Black Stone is about destruction and White Stone is about creation. But Sorcery is far muddier; I’m going to have to do some more reading of the Sorcery section in Nephilim and Liber Ka to sort out how to handle that.

Spells

This is another area that’s a little muddy. And it’s mainly muddy because of Liber Ka.

In the core rules for Nephilim, you need access to a physical focus for the spell to be able to cast it. This doesn’t vary for any of the three types of magic. Now, the copy of the spell can be written in a book, or inscribed on the Ka of an enchanted item, or whatever – you just need to have the copy available to you to be able to cast it. This means that the characters are often trying to recover their old toys, and occult libraries, and so on, so that they have the spells they need.

They can also have the spell tattooed on their own Ka, so that they always have access to that spell and don’t need the focus. This is a limited resource; you can’t have too many spells tattooed, because reasons.

I see no problem with this as it stands. There’s already a list of occult books and such in the Nephilim rules, and the tattooed spells16 work nicely as stunts, so I’m good.

The catch is, as I said, Liber Ka, which contains an alternate Sorcery system that allows for free-form spell creation on the fly. It provides a set of rules for coming up with custom rituals to achieve custom goals, not the very prescribed spells present in the core rules. It’s a good rule set, too; I had a lot of fun with it, back in the day, and it reminds me of the thaumaturgy rules in DFRPG and DFA.

But that kinda flies in the face of the “you need a physical focus” thing.

I seem to recall that there was a discussion of that issue in Liber Ka, so I’m going to have to reread it and see how they handle it.

Coming Up

Okay. When I started writing this post, I was going to provide a rough idea of each of the magic skills. But as I wrote about the underlying questions, decisions, and thoughts I had about magic in general, this thing somehow got long. And I still need to do some reading and thinking before I can write up each of the magical skills, including at least a few sample spells for each.

So, next up in Fate of the Nephilim17, I’m going to tackle Sorcery. After that, I’ll have another post for Summoning, and one for Alchemy.

Keep an eye out.

  1. Years ago, I did an article about magical thinking in Nephilim and casual divination using the structure of magical thinking in the game for a friend’s zine. I have no idea what became of that article, which is a shame, because I’d like to reread it and see if I had anything useful to say, or if it was all a bunch of pretentious crap. []
  2. In that they provide an in-game division and variety to the magic systems, but don’t really have a mechanical impact, beyond being descriptors to hang some bonuses and penalties from. []
  3. Weird thing I just noticed. I automatically alphabetized the four classical elements, then just appended Moon, out of alphabetical order. Some part of me rebels against putting Moon in before Water to maintain alphabetical order, because that would mean inserting it into the classical list of four. It seems I might be a geek. []
  4. Generally. []
  5. Mostly. Orichalka and Sun Ka are both different. []
  6. Or maybe a resurrected dinosaur sorcerer. Like you get. []
  7. This isn’t difficult, but it’s one more item of bookkeeping, and I like to minimize those. []
  8. With the fact that the standard +2/-2 from an aspect is a pretty big bonus or penalty in Fate Core, I’m hesitant to make the Grand Enthronement bonus/penalty any more than that. []
  9. Which is pretty awesome, and I’ll be doing a review of it soon. In the meantime you can buy it here. And you should buy it. []
  10. Also, some are benefits. They are a nicely flexible piece of game design kit. []
  11. The transformation into a raw, bestial form as the Nephilim loses control of it’s Ka fields. []
  12. The loss of control of the simulacrum as it’s soul overrides the Nephilim’s. []
  13. And I’m pretty familiar with those mechanics. []
  14. Adding so simple it’s really more accurate to call it counting. []
  15. Note that there are no spells listed for Philosopher’s Stone, because so few Nephilim have achieved this level, Alchemy being the newest type of magic. []
  16. I keep calling them “tattooed spells,” even though the actual game term is “inscribed spells.” But I used the word “inscribed” to describe something else in the last paragraph, so there it is. []
  17. There’s going to be a post or two about other stuff before that gets posted, though. []

Those REALLY Meddling Kids

EDIT: I got some feedback from Robert Bohl, the author of Misspent Youth, pointing out a couple of errors I made in talking about the game. I’ve added those inline, below. Thanks, Robert!

I found out about Misspent Youth from Tabletop1, and went and bought the game pretty much immediately after watching the episode. It’s an RPG that draws on the current ideals of YA dystopian science fiction – the world is messed up, and a group of plucky kids2 fight the system to claim their freedom. So, y’know, stuff like Hunger GamesDivergentReady Player One, and so on.

Mechanically, this falls more on the story game end of the RPG continuum, with a fairly light system and lots of authorial control in the hands of the players. Still, for all the light system and player control, the structure of each session is pretty tightly defined, and the whole of the game is focused on producing a very specific kind of story and play experience.

Focused and specific doesn’t have to mean narrow, though. While a lot of the modern dystopian stuff is pretty formulaic3, and Misspent Youth is really tweaked to run those kinds of stories, there are a couple of extended examples in the game that show how you can take other stories that don’t really fall into those patterns and shape them to work in the game. For copyright and IP concerns, the serial numbers are filed off, but there’s a breakdown of how you could run both Star Wars and ET as Misspent Youth games.

It’s all about how you choose to set up the game, and that starts with the Authority4.

The Authority

The Authority is the Man that is Keeping You Down. In keeping with the source material the game is inspired by, this can be a totalitarian state, with weird restrictions on large portions of the population, such as you see in Hunger Games. But it can also be something less monolithic, less ubiquitous, less pervasive, less public. So, you could put together a secret conspiracy that only controls one small area of society5, or set everything at a school where the folks in charge are pricks6, or whatever.

You design the Authority together as a group, GM and players, at the start of your first session. It starts with brainstorming about bullying – what bullying behaviours really get under everyone’s skin, and then using your brainstormed list to help you pick some defining characteristics for the Authority from a set of lists. At the end of the process, you have a Name, Description, Vice, Victim, Visage, and Need for the Authority. Everyone also gets to invent a System of Control: a thing about the Authority that gives it power over people.

The key idea is to make an antagonist that everyone really hates, embodying the worst bullying aspects that you’ve brainstormed. It’s got to be something that enrages you, not something where you can sit back and say, “Sure, they’re bad, but I can understand why they do the stuff they do.” You’re building an enemy. Don’t pull punches.

Of course, one of the group has to play the Authority, as the GM. That means that, while the Authority should be total Bad Guys, they also need to be comprehensible. The GM has to be able to make sense of what they do and what they want.

There’s also a bit of discussion about picking a rating for the game. Dealing with issues of authoritarianism, rebellion, oppression, and freedom means that there are themes and actions that come up that can be… unpleasant. Having a discussion early in the game about what sort of tone you’re going for, and what level of violence/profanity/whatever is acceptable really helps let everyone immerse themselves in the game, without having to worry too much that they’re going to be faced with something that spoils there fun in play.

The Young Offenders

So, player characters in this game are a group of teenagers, age 12-17, and are called YOs – Youthful Offenders.  You create these as a group, brainstorming and helping each other sort out concepts and convictions.

Convictions are the heart of the characters. They are a set of five descriptors about who your character is and what he or she believes. Three of these convictions are closed, meaning you choose them from a list, and two are open, meaning you get to pick anything for those. The closed convictions are Means, Motive, and Opportunity, while the open convictions are M.O. and Disorder.

These are not skills, although they – especially M.O. – can describe what you can do. They are more like aspects or approaches from Fate Core or Fate Accelerated Edition, in that they say more about who your character is than what he or she can do.

Each conviction starts free, and each can be sold out in play for a guaranteed success in a scene. So, if your Means conviction is Smart, you can sell it out, and it changes to Pedantic, but you then win that scene. This is powerful and tempting, but hazardous – selling out a conviction is permanent, it brings you closer in harmony to the Authority, and the entire game series ends when one YO has sold out all five convictions.

Yeah, this is a game, at its core, about selling out. About lost innocence, and capitulating to the powers that be. Your YO can’t really die in the game, but his or her soul can. Friendships, trust, hope, all of that can be lost, and those are the big threats.

Scenes

Each session of Misspent Youth is played out in a set of seven scenes, in a specific order:

  1. What’s Up
  2. Fighting Back
  3. Heating Up
  4. We Won
  5. We’re Fucked
  6. Who Wins7
  7. Dust Settles

This sequence of scenes gives a definite arc to the session, and mixes in a variety of different feels and moods. It helps keep the events of the game in a story-like structure, rather than being a series of events that a story is imposed upon. Each scene serves a specific function in play, and has a particular focus and intent.

Each scene also brings in elements of the world – either an Authority Figure or a Friendship Question. Authority Figures are pretty much what it says on the tin – a face of the Authority that is going to be important in this scene8. Friendship Questions are questions that were created when the players created their YOs, and can shift the focus from an external antagonist to internal strife as the secrets and truths that the characters have tried to hide are brought to light.

EDIT: Friendship questions aren’t created at the same time as the YOs. They are created at the start of each session. Thinking about it, this makes more sense to me; it allows players to reflect changes in the relationships between the YOs from session to session.

Everyone at the table takes turns setting a scene, including picking a where and when, picking an Authority Figure or Friendship Question to form the focal point of the scene, and saying what happens in the first five seconds of the scene. Then, the scene kicks off and the roleplaying begins.

I have to say that I really like the idea of the scene structure. It gives a strong focus to the game, keeping things moving forward and putting a bit of a clock on the story. It also drives towards conclusion, helping to keep things from just kind of trailing off. With each player taking a turn to set a scene, it helps to make sure that everyone gets input into the game, and shares the spotlight time around. And the choice of Authority Figure or Friendship Question really helps keep the scenes connected to the world and makes sure the stakes are compellingly high.

Struggles

Once each scene, and only once, there is a struggle. This is when the Authority wants something to happen, and the YOs oppose it, or vice versa. It can be physical combat, a chase, an escape, an argument, an infiltration, or any other event where one side is trying to do something and the other side is trying to stop it.

The Authority declares when a struggle starts, though it may be prompted by the actions of any player. So, the Authority may say something like, “Unkown to you, the cops have surrounded the restaurant you’re eating in, and are starting to move in. We’re starting a struggle.” Or, a player may say, “I’m not afraid of the gang. I pull my switchblade, flick it open, and tell them to back off,” and the Authority says, “Sounds like a struggle’s starting up!”

When a struggle starts, the Authority declares an objective – what the Authority wants to achieve in this scene. The YOs then collectively declare a hope – what they want to achieve. Now, whoever wins stops the other side from getting their objective or hope automatically, so you want to pick a proactive goal. If the Authority’s objective is to send the YOs to a juvenile detention facility, the YOs shouldn’t choose the hope of NOT getting sent to juvie; they get that if they win, automatically. They may want to choose something like embarrassing the officer who arrested them in front of his boss.

Struggles are when you use dice in this game. Well, the players do, anyway. The GM never rolls. It’s a fairly light system mechanically, involving claiming numbers and rolling 2d6, and trying to match numbers selected by the players and not the GM. If you roll a number that hasn’t been claimed, you claim it. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by you or another YO, the YOs win the struggle. If you roll a number that’s been claimed by the Authority, you lose the struggle. This is the point that you can sell out a conviction to claim a win, if you want. In amongst the rolling and claiming, you’re narrating what you’re doing, using your YO’s convictions. And the Authority narrates the Authority response, and claims another number.

This system is extremely adaptable to cover pretty much any kind of conflict, obstacle, or challenge you need in the game. It can represent a desperate fight lasting a few seconds, or it can model weeks of careful planning and politicking. The necessity of tying any YO action to a conviction really highlights the ideals and values of the characters, while the temptation of selling out for an easy win adds a nice dark side option.

Conclusion

There’s more to the game, of course. The author provides a lot of solid advice about how to run the game to really make it do what it’s designed for. He shows off some more advanced tools for getting the most out of the game. And there are a lot of good examples of everything, and some nice character sheets9, and other sheets. Everything, from the game’s terminology to it’s graphic design, is focused on driving home the idea of youthful rebellion, and it really works. I haven’t had time to actually try playing it, yet, but it’s on my list.

Right now, the game is only available in .pdf format, but Robert Bohl, the author10, let me know that, towards the end of June, he will be launching a Kickstarter for a new print edition of the game, plus a supplement. I’m definitely jumping onto that campaign for print copies of both, because this is something I want sitting on my shelf.

I urge you to check it out, and to keep an eye peeled for that Kickstarter.

EDIT: The Kickstarter campaign is scheduled to start Thursday, June 29. Now you know.

But I’m not the boss of you.

  1. At the time of writing this, the episode in question hasn’t made it to Youtube, yet. It’s only on Alpha. []
  2. Teens, by default. []
  3. No more so than any sub-genre, but there it is. []
  4. Not this Authority. []
  5. Like, maybe, the Pride in Marvel’s Runaways comic series, or the government agents in Repo Man. []
  6. TapsAnimal HouseToy Soldiers, etc. []
  7. I mistyped this as “Who Sins” at first. That could make for a cool game, too. []
  8. Usually as an adversary, if that was unclear. They’re bad guys. []
  9. They’re called Permanent Records. []
  10. Okay. When I bought the game in .pdf format, Robert Bohl reached out to me, asking where I’d heard about it, what made it interesting to me, etc. I answered him, and we had a little discussion, and he told me about the forthcoming Kickstarter. Why am I telling you this? Because it was a very nice, friendly thing for him to do, and it deserves to be noted. Not only did he write a great game, he’s the kind of guy who cares about his audience, and wants them to have fun. []

Those Meddling Kids

Last summer, my heroes over at Evil Hat Productions released Bubblegumshoe. Unusually for Evil Hat, the game is based on Pelgrane Press‘s GUMSHOE system, rather than on Evil Hat‘s own Fate Core system1. It is2 a teen detective story game, drawing heavily on stuff like the Veronica Mars TV show, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and Three Investigators book series, Scooby Doo cartoons, and so on. You play kids who are trying to solve mysteries.

I got a couple of my friends3 to agree to giving it a try4, so over the winter, we played through a limited campaign. It was a single mystery spread over three sessions, with an intro session devoted to setting the game up. We had a lot of fun with it.

The Book

The physical book is a digest-sized volume, about the same size as the Fate Core rulebook. It’s 272 pages, on sturdy, glossy paper, with a lot of black-and-white art throughout, a clean and open layout, and wonderful little elements of marginalia5. There are the requisite chapters on the system mechanics, building characters, and such. There are also a few chapters on getting the right feel for a teen mystery game, and a number of different settings – with rules tweaks for many of them – allowing you to set your game in different environments.

One of the nicest features of the book is that it contains five example mystery spines – essentially outline examples of how to put together your own mystery. One of these then gets an in-depth write-up, showing you how to take a simple spine and flesh it out into an entire scenario. I found that looking at the spine and the fleshed-out version was really helpful in figuring out what kinds of things I needed to think about in building my own story.

The GUMSHOE Bits

If you’re not familiar with GUMSHOE6, it’s a system designed for investigatory games. It’s built to address the problem that running investigations in other games often encountered – a bad roll could derail the entire game, as they players then don’t get a clue that they need to solve the mystery. With GUMSHOE, you have a set of investigatory abilities and, if you say you’re using the right one in a situation where there’s a clue to be found, you find that clue7. For other things you try and do that aren’t directly gaining clues – running, jumping, climbing trees8 – there’s a very simple d6 system.

One of the big things with every GUMSHOE game is that the list of abilities is tweaked to match the setting and reinforce the themes. Bubblegumshoe‘s abilities are focused on the kinds of things that make sense for teenage sleuths. Some particular tweaks to the system that I liked:

  • Grownup Face replaces Cop Talk from a lot of other GUMSHOE games. It serves the same function – gives the character credibility and access with authority figures – but instead of letting you be taken seriously by police, it lets you be taken seriously by adults. Important for teenage detectives.
  • The Cool ability functions effectively as both Health and Stability in normal GUMSHOE games. You run out of Cool, you’re out for a while. This, along with some changes to the Fighting ability, does a great deal to minimize a potentially problematic element: it means that you don’t necessarily have to have teenagers beating each other to death in your game. It also reinforces teen drama tropes, by making embarrassment and social power plays effectively life-or-death9.
  • For investigative abilities, the list is very focused on what a teenager might reasonably have access to. So, you get a Photography ability, and you get a Reasearch ability, but you don’t get a Forensic Pathology ability. And to make sure that you can still have access to some of the more esoteric investigative abilities, the game gives you Relationships.

Relationships

Okay. So, your fifteen-year-old yearbook editor may be really good sussing out whether someone’s kind of out-of-place with the clique they’re hanging with, but not so much with running a license plate to see who a car is registered to. That makes sense. But it does impose some limits on the types of clues you can reasonably expect your players to be able to collect.

Well, similar to the Sources idea I talked about in Cthulhu ConfidentialBubblegumshoe gives each character a number of Relationships – people that they know and that are important in their lives. And these Relationships can have abilities that the characters don’t otherwise have access to. So, your character doesn’t have any hope of using forensic accounting to unravel the community centre’s finances, but her aunt is a CPA who can take a look at the books and give you some insight.

In Bubblegumshoe, though the Relationships serve the same mechanical function as Sources in Cthulhu Confidential, their roleplaying dimension tends to be more important. You need to spend time and effort10 maintaining your relationships. You need to keep your mom happy and not get kicked out of school. You need to diss your high school nemesis and back up your BFF.

This keeps things closer to the kinds of source material stories the game tries to emulate – real life11 often intrudes upon and complicates your cool mystery-solving efforts.

Combat

I mentioned earlier that Bubblegumshoe uses the Cool stat as both Health and Stability12. This alone does a fair amount to help turn combat non-lethal, which is, I think, a necessary element, both in modeling the source material and in making it more comfortable for adults to play this game13.

Now, there are ways to hurt other characters physically in the game. The Fighting stat lets you, well, fight. Note that, in keeping with most of the source material, most fights are bare-knuckle affairs, schoolyard scuffles. Pulling any kind of weapon is a huge deal, and is usually14 used as an intimidation tactic. Getting hurt is serious – there are four levels of health: fine, scuffed, injured, and dead. Without a weapon, it’s hard to get to injured, and really hard to get to dead. With a weapon, it’s a lot easier, but it takes some Cool and other ability spends to ramp up to being able to seriously imperil the life of another.

So, physical combat is fairly quick and dirty, with serious in-world penalties for doing it – suspension, grounding, criminal charges, law suits, etc. Social combat, on the other hand, gets it’s own mechanical subsystem.

Throwdowns

Social combat is the focus of most confrontations in this game. Shaming, frightening, or otherwise dominating your opponent15 is the equivalent to a big combat set piece in other games. Getting the quaterback to back down from a confrontation, or tricking the cheating popular girl into incriminating herself, or making the villain so angry he or she takes a swing at you – all of that comes down to a Throwdown.

The Throwdown system is a little bit involved, factoring in allies on both sides, who’s taking the lead, who’s on their home turf, and who has things to support their side of the combat. Taking hits reduces Cool, and running out means you lose – you get laughed at, or lose your temper, or say something stupid, or everyone just turns on you. There are techniques and strategies you can employ, just like in physical combat in most games16. It can turn pretty intense, which is what you’re looking for.

Settings

One thing I love about Fate Core is that it has good, structured methods for building your setting and game milieu at the start of play. Bubblegumshoe has incorporated that piece into the game, letting you and your players build the location and environment for your campaign, fully integrating the themes, places, and characters you want to see in play. The book leads you step-by-step through the things you need for your game, plus it gives you a lot of background discussion to help you make the decisions during play, and to understand what is and isn’t going to work.

And if you don’t want to do that, there’s a fully fleshed-out town already built and written up in the book: Drewsbury17. In addition to Drewsbury, the book has eight other settings, not as fully statted, but with enough background – and some rules tweaks – to show you how to use them with the basic setting building method to get a good start for the game. These include some paranormal elements, some science fiction elements18, dystopian societies, super heroes, and scouting. It gives you the tools to play everything from a Smallville-style game19 to a Lumberjanes scout troop to a Scooby Doo gang, complete with animal sidekick.

One last thing I want to point out about settings: there is an actual mechanic for modeling the bad part of town. Locations where your character isn’t supposed to go – because of age, because of gender, because of clique or social class or neighbourhood or whatever – get thresholds. This is a number of Cool points you have to pay to take part in a scene in that location. So, if you want to go into the Teacher Lounge at school, or the biker bar across the tracks, you need to pay a point or two of Cool, reflecting that you are out of your element and at risk. I just think this is a great little mechanic for getting players to worry about going places that their characters would worry about going.

Lester Bay

As I mentioned way back at the start of this post, I got a couple of friends together to try the game out. We wound up creating a small town on an island in the Queen Charlotte Strait of BC20 in the early 90s. My players decided they wanted to play younger characters – 13 years old – and that they wanted some supernatural elements in play.

Character and setting creation took a session, then I put all our notes into a setting bible21, and mapped out the mystery. The plan was for a three-session game, so I made a mystery that I thought we could get through in that time, revolving around the vandalism of a mural at the local community centre. Scheduling meant we needed to take a bit of an extended break over the Christmas season, but we got the three sessions in and finished the adventure. Everyone had fun.

That said, I learned some lessons that I think are useful, so I’m sharing them.

First, if you’re using some supernatural elements in the game, you need to be careful that they don’t overshadow the main mystery. My initial plan was that the mystery itself was mundane, but the created disharmony between the town folk and the nearby First Nations village caused some supernatural events. And the characters latched on to those elements as the focus of the investigation, because of course they did. They were far more interesting than somebody breaking a window and writing a slur on a mural. So, bad planning on my part. Distracting.

Second, make sure you and your players have a solid shared understanding of what it means to play kids. This was especially important because of playing such young characters. Teenagers just don’t have the freedom and agency that adults do, and are heavily constrained by society and parents and peers. That limits the ways the characters can deal with some standard RPG obstacles so, as a GM, you have to make sure there are ways for the characters to get clues that are appropriate for their age. And, as players, you have to remember just how frustrating it can be to have your options limited by your age, and how you used to get around that. So, a discussion of these types of expectations before we started playing would have been helpful.

Finally, and this applies to all investigative games, it’s easy to get caught up in the roleplaying but, as a GM, your focus must be on getting information to the characters. They can’t proceed without the information and, especially when their options are limited by the age of the characters, you need to make sure they always have something to do, some thread to follow.

Just my thoughts.

Conclusion

Bubblegumshoe rocks. It’s well-written, really evokes the source material, and is a great deal of fun to play. If you like teenage detectives and investigatory RPGs, this is a must-have. It gives you the flexibility to play light games or dark games, modern or historical or futuristic games, and to add in pretty much any element from YA media that interests you. The system is robust and simple, though the paradigm of GUMSHOE can take some getting used to if you’re coming from more traditional RPGs.

So, yeah. Get it. All the cool kids are already playing it.

 

  1. Though, to be honest, I think the niche of teen-hero-Fate-game is kind of already filled by The Young Centurions. []
  2. As it says on the cover. []
  3. Thanks, Chris and Sandy! []
  4. Talking my friends into playing games, even trying new ones, is not much of a challenge. What is more challenging is trying to fit another game into everyone’s schedules. []
  5. Not as dense and focused as the DFRPG marginalia, but it’s a nice visual touch to the design. []
  6. Shame on you! No, no. Sorry. No shaming here. But I think you should check it out. []
  7. That’s not a great explanation. It makes it sound like a guessing game, where the player just lists all his or her abilities, and when the right one comes up, the GM gives them a plot coupon. I talk in more detail about how the system works in general in this post. []
  8. As Eddie Izzard says. []
  9. Which is the way I remember them feeling in the long-ago time when I was a teenager. []
  10. That is, scene time during play. []
  11. You know what I mean. []
  12. Which is to say, as both HP and Sanity points. []
  13. The idea of running a game where having a modern teenage player character decide that the optimal strategy is to kill a rival is a little too close to some of the more horrific real-life news stories I’ve seen. I do not think I would play that game. []
  14. And most effectively. []
  15. Preferably, but not necessarily, in public. []
  16. In Bubblegumshoe, there are more techniques and strategies available in Throwdowns than in physical combat. []
  17. Drewsbury is good, but I found it to be a very American place. That’s not a bad thing, but keep it in mind if you’re planning to use it. []
  18. Gotta give a shout out to Veronica Base, Mars for the effort to use the name without violating IP law. []
  19. Though for that, I recommend digging up the Smallville RPGBut still. []
  20. That’s British Columbia, a province of Canada, for my non-Canadian readers. []
  21. I’m not sharing the setting bible. I thought about it, but I wrote up some stuff about one of the coastal First Nations groups that is the result of very light research, and I’m not comfortable sharing something that I, as a white dude, wrote about another racial/cultural group that I did that little research on. []

Hush! Hush! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

I just got a message from Pelgrane Press to confirm my shipping address for my Cthulhu Confidential preorder, the premiere book in Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE One-2-One line. I figure that means I should probably tell some people about the game.

The premise behind the line is pretty simple – adapt Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE line to make it really sing if you’re playing with just one GM and one player. I’m not going to talk too much about GUMSHOE itself1, but I do want to talk about the new system2 and some of the choices made.

What’s In The Book?

The book itself is 315 pages, so it’s a big, meaty volume. It’s got the same look and design as the Trail of Cthulhu line, with the greenish overall colour and the wonderful and evocative Jérôme Huguenin cover art. The authors are Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman.

The actual game rules take up about 60 pages, and a lot of that is advice about how to run the game effectively – as is pointed out, running for one player is decidedly different that running for more than one. Even two players really lessens the intensity of focus that the GM and player require. Without a larger group for brainstorming and kibitzing, there’s no real downtime for the two folks sitting down to play this game. Both player and GM are always on.

After the rules come three sections, each focused on a different city, different PC, and different scenario. So, you’ve got Dex Raymond, the hardboiled L.A. detective; Vivian Sinclair, the determined N.Y.C. investigative reporter; and Langston Wright, the war veteran and scholar in Washington, D.C.

Wrapping up the book are the appendices, with reference material and hand-outs for playing and running GUMSHOE One-2-One.

Cards Everywhere

One of the conceits in the core GUMSHOE system is that you find the clues you need for the story to advance. That carries over into GUMSHOE One-2-One, as expected. What I hadn’t considered before reading this book is that, without the buffer of other players and characters, it gets much easier to stall the story3 through non-investigative things. Sure, if you search the garden, you find the strange footprints by the pond, but if you can’t climb over the wall into the garden, you can’t search the garden, right? In standard play, this is handled by the resilience of the group – if you can’t climb the wall, surely someone in the group has some points left in Athletics to get to the other side.

Same thing, but even more so, with combat. TPKs are a threat in any game, especially when combat is as deadly as it can be in GUMSHOE. But when there’s only one PC, it gets that much riskier – a single bad die roll, and everything is just done. Over.

On the other hand, if you just let the character succeed at everything, there’s no sense of risk and no sense of accomplishment in play. The chance of failure is what makes success mean something.

GUMSHOE One-2-One has completely redesigned the way General Abilities work to address this issue. While it still uses a d6 resolution, like GUMSHOE, it allows you to roll multiple dice4. There are two target numbers, representing two types of successful outcome: a Hold, which is  an okay or middling result, and an Advance, which is the best result. You need to roll higher to get an Advance than to get a Hold.

If you don’t roll at least high enough to get a Hold, you get a Setback5 – a problem that arises from whatever it was you just attempted.

And this is where the cards come in6. When you roll an Advantage, you often receive an Edge, which is a little bonus that you gain from being awesome. When you roll a Setback, you often receive a Problem, which is a little complication that you gain from not expressing you awesomeness through die rolls. Both these things are tracked using cards, telling you what type of Edge or Problem you now have, and how it affects the game. Sometimes, these things go away, like spending an Edge for the bonus it gives you or fixing the Problem narratively, but sometimes they stick around for a while.

Here’s the coolest thing about this system: most challenges have Edge and Problem cards specific to that challenge. There are some generic ones7, but mostly, the Edge or Problem you get is directly related to the challenge you just faced. And it’s a perfect way to keep the story advancing even if the challenge was too much for the character. Here’s an example:

Note that this is a combat challenge. If the character gets a Setback, he or she winds up not dead, but chained to an altar, which directs you to another scene. Also, if the character gains an extra problem (by rolling an extra die), he or she can wind up Clawed by Deep Ones, with that problem card.

So, as a case progresses, the player will have a shifting array of cards, tracking different Edges and Problems. Each chapter has a few pages of the collected cards for that scenario, ready for you to print out8 and cut up. That lets you get set-up and ready for the game pretty quickly.

The Sources

Another issue you have to deal with in converting GUMSHOE to a single player and single character system is the fact that it becomes problematic to make sure all the investigative abilities are covered. In normal GUMSHOE, each character can take a few, with a focus on a few specialties, to make sure you’ve got someone on the team with the ability find pretty much every clue. In the games I’ve run, it generally means that, at most, there are one or two investigative abilities that no one has put any points into.

With only a single character, you have the choice of either letting them have all the investigative abilities, so that each character is largely the same, mechanically speaking; of making sure that there are only clues for the investigative abilities that the character has; or giving the character access to investigative abilities that he or she doesn’t have through some other means.

Enter the sources.

Each character has a list of sources, with notes about what investigative abilities they provide, their personalities, and their relationship with the character. So, like a detective novel, part of play is the investigator going to talk to an interesting person who can help them with information or analysis. It turns finding a clue into an interactive roleplaying scene.

The Characters

The Cthulhu Confidential core book gives you three fully fleshed out characters to play, and the free download The Red Mist on the Pelgrane site gives you another one, along with a scenario for her. In addition, the appendices include the basic ability lists for ten more characters for other GUMSHOE genres, including Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Night’s Black Agents, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, The Gaean Reach, TimeWatch, and Bubblegumshoe.

There’s a short section on creating investigators so that players can play a non-pregen character, but it stresses that the pregens are specifically tuned for their scenarios9, so making big changes from the pregens may cause problems in play. Still, it’s got all the information you need to build a character from scratch.

The included characters are a more diverse lot than you see in most historical period gaming. You have Dex Raymond, who is a Sam Spade/Phillip Chandler type, the tough, white, male detective of the noir pulps. Then, you get Vivian Sinclair, who is a female investigative reporter. Third is Langston Wright, an African-American war veteran and scholar. In The Red Mist, you get Phyllis Oakley10, a female dealer in rare books.

Vivian and Langston also have information about how women and minorities were treated, both historically and in the pulps that inform this game. There is a discussion with each about scaling the types of treatments facing non-white, non-male11 characters, allowing the player and GM to set the level of horribleness of humanity that both are comfortable dealing with.

The Cities

Each of the three character chapters includes a write-up of the character’s home city. For Dex, that’s Los Angeles; for Viv, that’s New York; and for Langston, that’s Washington, D.C. These write-ups include the historical context – the 1930s for New York and LA, the 1940s for Washington. Also included are some maps, important locations, and important people.

And a fairly rich sprinkling of story hooks to build new scenarios.

More than a lot of game books, the cities in Cthulhu Confidential work almost like characters in and of themselves. I think this is a product of the tight focus on a single character for play in each of the cities, which lets the city write-up focus on a more coherent theme and presentation, rather than being written for wider appeal and purpose. Anyway, the result is a real feeling of immediacy for each of the cities.

The Scenarios

The Cthulhu Confidential core book comes with three scenarios, one for each of the three characters:

  • The Fathomless Sleep: How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.
  • Fatal Frequencies: In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?
  • Capitol Colour: Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?

In addition, there’s a free downloadable adventure, The Red Mist, available on the Pelgrane site.

Each of these scenarios is focused specifically on the character for whom it was written. Though they can probably be run for the other characters12, I would want to go through them in detail, and make a number of changes to the Edges, Problems, and challenges to make sure they all still make sense for a different character.

Because of the way the new challenge system works with the cards, and because of the fact that there’s no real downtime for the GM to think about stuff will the players are talking to each other, I think it would be very difficult to run Cthulhu Confidential as an improvised investigation, the way The Armitage Files worked13. I also think that prepping a scenario is probably a bigger job for the GM than in Trail of Cthulhu, because of the need to more carefully design each challenge, especially coming up with Setbacks that don’t derail the game.

That’s why I think it’s so valuable to get these four14 complete scenarios with the game. Not only do they give you ready-to-play scenarios, but they also serve as solid models to pattern your own scenarios after.

Conclusions

I haven’t had a chance to try actually playing15Cthulhu Confidential scenario, so I don’t really know how all this works in play.

That said, I really like the way the game is built. The main changes to the system address problems that I didn’t know were problems until I saw the solutions, so that gives me confidence in the thinking and playtesting behind the game.

The characters, cities, and scenarios are all meaty, and look like a lot of fun. The book is well-written and physically attractive.

I say it’s a winner. I just need a guinea pig to help me try it out.

  1. I’ve already talked about Trail of Cthulhu here, and chronicled my Armitage Files campaign here. []
  2. Yeah, it really is a new system, though heavily based on the original GUMSHOE stuff. []
  3. And thus the game. []
  4. Assuming you have multiple dice in the ability you’re using. []
  5. I am very pleased that it’s called a Setback and not a Failure. []
  6. You were wondering, weren’t you? []
  7. And a whole host of generic Edge and Problem cards in the appendices. []
  8. Or photocopy, if you’re working with just the physical book and not the pdf. []
  9. Or vice-versa, I guess. []
  10. Who can be renamed Phillip Oakley. []
  11. And non-straight. []
  12. Or for an original character. []
  13. Though there’s an interesting article about running The Armitage Files using Cthulhu Confidential here. Still, the article says it’s not easy. []
  14. Actually five: with my preorder of Cthulhu Confidential, I got a pre-layout version of The House Up In The Hills, another Dex Raymond scenario. []
  15. Or running. []

Songs Lost and Forgotten

A few years back, I picked up a book called The Hum and the Shiver, by Alex Bledsoe. It wound up taking me forever to get to reading it, so I finally got the audiobook1, which just happens to be read by one of my favourite narrators, Stefan Rudnicki. And I loved it.

There are currently five books in the Tufa novels: The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, Chapel of Ease, and the one I’m currently reading, Gather Her Round2. They tell the stories of an insular group of people living in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, a group of people who have some strange connection to music and the magic that it can make. Each of the novels stands alone as a single story, but each one also layers in a lot of information about the Tufa3 and their community of Needsville, and their history4.

The upshot of this is that you get a growing richness to the books, and a real sense of the community. There are some little side threads that weave through a couple of books, telling more of the stories of some secondary characters. And Needsville changes, based on the events of the book, large and small.

The first thing that attracted me to the books was the idea that these were mining the same vein that Manly Wade Wellman dug in with his Silver John stories. There’s the emphasis on music, and the backdrop of Appalachia, and some of the dramatic polarity of city vs country.

There are also elements of some of Charles de Lint‘s stuff, especially his Newford books5: modern world with old magic still lingering, tight-knit communities of outsiders, emphasis on music and old stories, stuff like that.

There are some interesting themes in the Tufa books6, themes that I like quite a bit. There’s the aforementioned tension between city and country, which could also be phrased as new vs. old, or tradition vs. innovation. There are looks at responsibility vs. freedom, and the weight of the choices you make in life. Ideas of what an insider or an outsider is.

And there’s lots of exploration of death.

Bad things happen in these books, sometimes to good people, sometimes to bad. There’s a thread running through all the books that shows how the death of an individual changes the world around them. Some of what happens is genuinely heartbreaking, though the stories themselves are pretty life-affirming. But to get to the new day, you’ve got to go through the night.

The books also take a look at traditional definitions of good and evil, and does a great job of showing why they aren’t clean. With few exceptions7, everyone has understandable reasons for their choices, even when they are not really good choices. Even though the Tufa are divided into two camps, and the two camps have somewhat different values8, neither can be said to be purely good or purely evil.

I like that.

And, of course, those who know me know that the music angle will always hook me9. Especially as it draws on folk music10, and has been useful in pointing me towards artists and songs that I hadn’t heard of before. Alex Bledsoe has even put a Tufa playlist up on 8tracks:

Songs that evoke the feelings of mysteries, sadness, isolation and hope of the fictional Cloud County, TN. Some of these songs are also mentioned in the Tufa novels.

This series has totally hooked me. I grab the new books whenever they’re published11, and I usually also get the audiobook, just so that I get to have Stefan Rudnicki tell me another beautiful story in his glorious voice12.

You should check them out.

  1. These days, I do a lot of my fiction “reading” via audiobook, usually on my commutes. []
  2. It’s the latest one, as I write this. []
  3. That’s what they call themselves, and that’s what outsiders call them, too. []
  4. I don’t want to give away too much, but you find out in the first book that
    Spoiler
    they’re descendants of the Tuatha de Danann, exiled from the British Isles in the distant past.
    It’s a pretty big revelation in the first book, and forms sort of a foundation for a number of plot points in the later books. []
  5. Okay, these are all good. All of them. But my favourite has got to be Someplace to be Flying. It stands alone more than a lot of the other books; if you’re not gonna start at the beginning with the short story collections, I recommend this one as a taster. []
  6. Okay. These are what I get out of the books. I can’t claim that they’re universal, or that the author intended them. But such is the nature of talking about someone else’s art. We all get something different out of it. []
  7. Looking at you, state patrol officer from the first book! []
  8. Though not as different as they like to pretend, I think. []
  9. Those who don’t know me could probably guess that from the quotes on this blog. []
  10. Like the Silver John stories, like the Charles de Lint books. []
  11. And, if I sometimes regret that Alex Bledsoe isn’t giving me more Eddie LaCrosse books right now, well, he gets to write what he wants. I’m not the boss of him. And I’m grateful for both series. []
  12. Honest to god, both his voice and his performance are just amazing. Deep, rich, warm, expressive – first time I heard him do an audiobook, I made note of the name so that I could find other stuff he’s read. []