Atomic Robo RPG

I’ve been waiting anxiously for the Atomic Robo RPG since I heard it was coming out. I got a chance to try it out last year at Games on Demand at GenCon, and had an absolute blast playing Robo. Earlier this week, after spending a week or so teasing us all with glimpses of the book1, Evil Hat went ahead and launched the preorder2. Now, as is typical with these fine folks, when you buy the game from them3, you also get the .pdf of the game at no extra cost. With the preorder, you get the .pdf right away, so you can read through the game4 while waiting for the physical copy to get printed.

Surprising absolutely no one who knows me, I’m pretty sure I was in the first two dozen preorders – Fred Hicks tweeted that there had been 24 preorders, and mine had already been placed. And then I spent the next two nights reading it.

TL;DR – The game is great. It’s a nice implementation of Fate rules, really captures the feel of the comics, and can be hacked to support a wide range of set-ups similar to Atomic Robo. I heartily recommend buying it. FOR SCIENCE!

The Book5

More than any other company these days, Evil Hat books are cleanly and clearly laid out, and ARRPG is not an exception to that rule. The pages are attractive and inviting, and the overall design is practically invisible, while helping you find your way through the book and get the most out of it. This kind of invisible design is hard to do, and so wonderfully helpful when reading the book.

Mixed in, as might be expected, is a lot of art from the Atomic Robo comics. Indeed, most of the examples in the book are panels and sequences from the comic book, with little talking heads plugged in to explain the mechanics in use. Besides being helpful in understanding the game and how to play it, these examples made me dig out my comic books and reread them all, just because they reminded me of all the fun moments in the series.

There’s also a good index. A good index has become more valuable to me than gold as I have gotten older. I don’t have as much time for prep, and often wind up looking things up on the fly during a game. For that, nothing beats a good index, which most game books traditionally don’t have. Evil Hat has been reversing this trend with their releases, which feature meaty, professionally done indices, and that makes me happy.

The Characters

ARRPG has what is, I think, the second most complicated character generation I’ve seen in Fate games, with the first most complicated being DFRPG, with it’s point-buy powers. Now, before that scares you off, it is still massively less complicated than most of the big name RPGs out there. In the time it takes to create a single D&D 3.5E character, you can have all the characters in an ARRPG game up and running and half-way into the adventure.

ARRPG gives you two6 methods to create characters. One, which they call the E-Z No-Math Character Creation7, has you pick three different character modes8 , which are groups of skills, from the default four of Action, Banter, Intrigue, and Science. You then rank the three modes you picked, and bump up those skills that feature in more than one mode9. You also, because this is a Fate game, choose aspects for your concept, each of your modes, and an extra aspect they call the Omega aspect. Finally, you calculate your stress boxes10. And, of course, somewhere in there, you need to come up with a name.

The other character creation method is called Weird Character Creation. It works pretty much the same as the E-Z No-Math method, but pulls the curtain aside a bit to show you the underlying point structure that makes it work. This allows you to build new modes, called Weird Modes, for your character. So, if you wanted to build, say, an atomic-powered robot created by Nicola Tesla in 192611, you can construct a Robot mode to give him12. The method is pretty straightforward, though I had to read the entire chapter on modes, skills, and stunts to get all the pieces to fall into place13 with the skill costs and how to build new skills for the Weird Modes. There are a number14 of ready-made Weird Modes in the book, for everything from dinosaurs and warbots to pilots and reporters.

There are also two flavours of stunts in AARPG: stunts and mega-stunts. Stunts are exactly like stunts in other Fate games – little tricks that make your skills work a little better for you in certain situations. Mega-stunts, which you can only take if you have a weird mode for your character, are more powerful, incorporating multiple stunt-like effects15. Everyone gets five stunts, whether of the normal or the mega varieties. The cost for taking mega-stunts is that it gives more fate points to the GM to use against you.

One interesting thing about ARRPG character creation is that, despite how it sounds above and how I said it’s one of the most complicated chargen implementations in Fate, it’s designed to get you up and running very quickly. The book recommends that you just choose your modes, a couple of aspects, come up with a name, and figure out your stress boxes, then jump right in. You can fill in the rest of the aspects and stunts16 as required on the fly.

The exception to this is weird modes and mega-stunts. These require some thought up front to construct and implement, so it’s best that you nail these downs before the game starts.

I have to admit, I was a little confused on my first read of the character creation chapter. My confusion cleared up a lot when I got to the chapter on modes, stunts, and skills, but between the two chapters is one on aspects and fate points17. What I’m saying is that, if you get to the end of the character creation chapter scratching your head and wondering if you’ve missed something, hang in there. The answers are coming two chapters down the road.

Other Rules

The rest of the rules are, for the most part, pretty standard Fate fare. There are some tweaks to the skills18, but other than that, there are just four big innovations:

  • Across the Fourth Dimension: The stories in the Atomic Robo comics cover events from shortly after his creation up to 2021. Now, when I say “cover,” what I mean is that there are stories and flashbacks19 set throughout almost 100 years of Robo’s life20. And they aren’t necessarily told in chronological order. The game has a lot of advice for how to get that kind of feel in your campaign, and the ability to throw non-weird characters together in ten minutes means that it’s completely feasible to jump around in time at the game table. So that’s cool.
  • Invention: What would a game about action science be without the ability to kit-bash and create new pieces of tech as required in play? Boring, that’s what! So of course the game contains rules for how to construct useful and obscenely dangerous devices that you can use both to solve problems and create new ones. It’s a neat little system that lets you assemble cool toys, trading functionality against risk and time.
  • Factions: This is a special implementation of the Fate Fractal – the idea that everything in Fate can be treated like a character, with aspects, skills, stunts, etc. Here, it’s used specifically to flesh out Tesladyne and the resources that the action scientists can call on, but the implication that you can do the same thing to M1221 is pretty clear. It gives me a lot of ideas about how to run a campaign aimed at destroying22 an agency or organization, rather than just concentrating on the big boss that runs it. Very cool stuff.
  • Brainstorming: I saved this one for last, because I think it’s the coolest. You know how, in the movies and comics where scientists are featured, there’s always that one23 scene where they have to put together the clues, figure out what’s going on, and come up with a solution? That’s the brainstorming mechanic in ARRPG. Everyone involved in the brainstorm gets to roll dice and use their science to come up with clue aspects for the problem and, if they get enough successes over a number of rounds, they can figure out the problem. And that problem is whatever the players say it is at that point. Yeah, the players get to decide what the big problem is. Oh, they have to stay within the bounds set by the clues, and a careful GM can steer things to a degree, but at the end of the day, if they successfully brainstorm the problem, they get to determine reality. Which is awesome. Of course, then they have to come up with a plan, but they’ll have a number of aspects created by the brainstorming which they can use when they implement the plan. This is just sheer genius, as far as I’m concerned.

Hackability

As I was reading the game, it became clear to me that Atomic Robo and Hellboy both use very similar narrative set-ups for their comics24. It would be trivially easy to play a BPRD game using this system. All you’d need to do is build a couple of weird modes, a few mega-stunts, and maybe replace the flexibility of the Science mode with an Occult mode. It would maybe take an hour to get the whole thing worked out.

Other suggestions online I’ve seen have been for Ghostbusters, and again that seems a pretty easy port. It would also be a good setup to use for one-shots based on disaster movies, like Armageddon or The Core. And, of course, any of the 50s-style science-horror movies like Them or Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman or Godzilla or The Blob are influences on the comic book, and thus make for excellent adventures.

And lifting the mode method of character creation25 or the subsystems for cross-time play, invention, factions, and brainstorming is easy. These are easy bolt-ons to other games, or pieces to build a new one.

Summary

Atomic Robo comic books are pretty much perfect in their mix of action, science, and humour. I love them to death. The Atomic Robo RPG does a great job of creating a game that give you the experience of the comic stories. The production values on the book are exemplary, and the rules adaptation is note-perfect. It’s available for preorder now, and you get the .pdf right away. If you’ve made it through the above 2000-word review and STILL aren’t rushing to buy it, I’ve gotta question why you bothered reading this far.

It’s got ACTION. It’s got SCIENCE!

IT’S GOT A ROBOT AND CARL SAGAN AND THE GHOST OF THOMAS EDISON!!!

How have you not already bought it? GO NOW!

  1. Thus earning the “evil” part of the company name. []
  2. I’m thinking that’s about enough links for one paragraph. Yeah? []
  3. Or one of the retailers participating in their Bits and Mortar initiative. []
  4. And, incidentally, do a last, crowd-sourced check for typos. []
  5. Well, obviously I don’t have the book, yet. But you know what I mean. []
  6. Really, three, because you can split the difference between the two main ones. []
  7. I’m torn on the name, here. There is a tiny bit of math, but really, it’s the kind of addition that could fairly be called “counting.” []
  8. If you’ve read the Fate System Toolkit, you’ve seen the mode idea discussed there. []
  9. This is the counting thing I was talking about. Or mild addition, if you prefer. []
  10. A little more counting. []
  11. Just to pull an example out of the air. []
  12. Or her. []
  13. Maybe it’s just me, though. []
  14. And that number is 13. []
  15. Along with some effects that couldn’t be achieved with a normal stunt, like being bulletproof. []
  16. And use the skill improvements that every character gets but that I haven’t mentioned until now. []
  17. Does this mean the book has a problem with structure? I don’t think so. I thought about this a lot, and I see why the character creation chapter doesn’t have all the information you need – it would bulk it out with a lot of information that would need to be repeated elsewhere. And the chapter on fate points and aspects should come where it does for gamers new to Fate games. But as someone already familiar with the basic Fate system, the separation of the material was a little confusing at first. Now I get it. []
  18. Most notably the Science skill, which gets its own subsection called Science: It’s Special. []
  19. And one flash-forward. []
  20. If you bring in the Real Science Adventures comics, you get to see Tesla and his adventuring companions even earlier than that. []
  21. Or the BPRD. []
  22. Or otherwise rendering ineffective. []
  23. Sometimes more than one. []
  24. And Scott Wegner’s art in the early Atomic Robo books showed a great deal of Mike Mignola influence. Over time, it’s evolved into what is very much his own style. I love it. []
  25. As shown in the Fate System Toolkit. []
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4 Responses to Atomic Robo RPG

  1. Barry says:

    First you get me totally hooked on the comic… now this… 🙂

  2. LogicMouse says:

    Okay, Rick. Ya got me. I was on the fence about picking this one up as I haven’t read any of the comics, but especially after your description of the Invention and Factions concepts, it’s definitely a must buy.

    Thanks. 🙂

  3. Mike Olson says:

    Thanks for the kind words! Glad you’re enjoying it.

  4. Rick Neal says:

    @Mike Olson: Thanks for the great game! And I am enjoying it very much.

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