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. []

ShotC Playtest – Bone Thugs

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

I had planned to get this post done a lot sooner, but life1 got in the way. Our session was more than a week ago, and I had planned to do the post immediately2. But, as I say, things got in the way. What that means is that I am not as fresh from the game as I wanted to be, and I may be light on some details. If any of my players read this, and care to elaborate on or correct any of my stories, well, I’ve got a comment section down below. Go nuts.

Because only one of our players was familiar with Fate games, I spent the first part of the evening giving the group a primer on how the rules worked. We talked about aspects, skills, the ladder, fate points, invocations and compels. I also talked about three ways to make dice rolls: actual dice3, the Deck of Fate, and the Deck of Fate app. We settled4 on using the Deck of Fate.

I had also printed up cheat sheets for each character. On one side, I had the cheat sheet from the Evil Hat site5; on the other, I had the full text of each character’s stunts, and the rules for mini-montages. All in all, including the examples, the introduction to the rules took about an hour.

I had spent some time building our movie’s general plot: I came up with three acts – one for each session – with the general outline for each. Then, I spent some time preparing a number of scenes and the connections for the first session, fleshing it out into something actually playable.

I found, after the game, that I had prepared a number of scenes that just didn’t come into play, because of decisions and choices made by the players, and also because of time. Still, I much prefer to be over-prepared than under-prepared. And, at the end of the playtest, with appropriate permission, I may post the entire scenario in the playtest samples. We’ll see.

So, we jumped in with a few of the characters6running into Anthony van der Waal7 being accosted by a trio of Bone Thugs. Our heroes made short work of them, rescuing Anthony, and bringing him back to Hank Fitzgerald‘s lab, where Deetz was able to interrogate the ghost possessing Anthony.

Okay, I messed up, here. I had been planning for Anthony to have been possessed by Billie Holiday, though I was planning to refer to her as Lady Day. But some of my friends went to see a Janis Joplin tribute show a few days before, and somehow, that made Janis Joplin stick in my mind. So, while Anthony called the possessing ghost Lady Day, when Deetz was interviewing her directly, I said her name was Janis Joplin.

Yup, I’m a dope.

When I realized that, I stopped referring to her as Lady Day. It didn’t correct the error, but it minimized it. And no one commented on it. I probably got away with it, but maybe not8.

Anyway, from the discussion with Janis Joplin’s ghost, the heroes learned that there had been more possessions lately, and that the Bone Thugs had been tracking down and… doing something to those who were possessed. They also learned that the situation with Anthony and Janis was a little different – Anthony was a somewhat limited fellow, and didn’t take very good care of himself, but Janis was actually looking after him and helping him improve his lot, earning some money with busking and reminding him to bathe and eat and such. It was a symbiotic relationship, so they decided not to Ghost-Punch Janis out of Anthony. At least, not yet.

This led Hank and Ia to head to the police station, where Hank’s uncle Liam was a detective sergeant. There, they got the lowdown on the Bone Thugs, as far as the police were concerned:

  • The Bone Thugs are a local gang of long standing.
  • They are working on expanding there territory.
  • In the past few months, they’ve suddenly turned from a group of undisciplined9 thugs into an effective army of biker criminals.
  • Their leader, Mandible, has rather unexpectedly turned into something of a strategic and tactical genius.
  • The Bone Thugs are causing problems by distributing a type of meth that seems to drive the people crazy when they take it. The description of the craziness made Hank and Ia deduce that the victims had been possessed by ghosts.
  • Hank took advantage of Ia and Liam chatting to copy as much as he could of the Bone Thugs’ police file.

So, with that information, the gang started investigating. Ike and Deetz interrogated a captive Bone Thug, playing good cop/bad cop10, and found out where the Bone Thugs hung out11, and who was cooking their ghost meth12. They thus formulated a… well, let’s be kind and call it a plan. Really, it was more a loose collection of aspirational ideas.

Ike decided to head off to Velma’s and see what he could find out. He went as his cover identity, Pierre Chambeau13, claiming to have been booked to perform at the bar. This seemed kind of impossible, but he, against all my expectations, made it worked. With the aid of Moog1415, who was working at the bar as a jukebox, he did an interpretive dance about the sorrow of the death of comrades. It won the gang – including Mandible – over so much that Paul wound up with the aspect Honorary Bone Thug.

The rest of the group, meanwhile, was kind of bogged down in figuring out how to set up a drug buy to get their hands on some of the ghost meth in order to… well, they weren’t quite sure about the next step. I had a scene involving some Bone Thug meth dealers written up, but the group was just talking about it.

It was getting late, so I had Liam call Ia16 and let her know that there were some police reports about a house party getting out of hand, and rumours of Bone Thug meth being involved. In most cases, I would have suggested a montage at this point, but our heroes had been clever and lucky enough to not have incurred any consequences. Instead, I suggested each character take advantage of the mini-montage to show how they individually geared up for the expedition to the crazy party.

I unleashed a swarm of partygoers under the influence of broken and insane ghosts on the four of the heroes who arrived at the party17, things got nuts:

  • Hank had a partial ghost tried to invade his mind18, and Deetz worked to shake him free of it.
  • Ia used her prana blast to supercharge Ike’s Ghost-Punch ability, and they managed to clear the possessing spirits out of the whole mob in record time.
  • Doctor Zero, lagging behind the others, followed a pair of retreating Bone Thugs down the stairs and into a trap set by Mandible to take care of some Tarantulas, the gang that currently controlled the area they were in. So, into the middle of a rumble.

At this point, one of the players wanted to compel one of Doctor Zero’s aspects, but wasn’t certain how or which aspect to compel. I suggested to her that, if she compelled his Spirit of the Weird aspect, I had an idea. If Doctor Zero agreed, of course. He did, and so I had Mandible recognize Doctor Zero, and reveal that the ghost possessing him was an echo of Doctor Methuselah. They squared off in social combat in the middle of the rumble, and Ia, watching from six floors up, gathered up all her fate points and all the aspects on the board, and sniped Mandible with a prana blast that laid him out in the middle of the argument.

We wrapped things up quickly, after that, with Ike using the Honorary Bone Thug aspect to get the group into the lab where the ghost meth was made. There, they found a number of clues that UGen Medical, a biotech conglomerate and all-around evil corporation, was responsible for teaching the Bone Thugs how to harvest ghosts and grind them up to empower their meth.

That brought us to the Call to Action milestone, and I got each player to talk about how they were getting ready to take on UGen. The general tone of their statements sounded very heist-like, so the big advantage I’m giving them on the next session is Inside UGen Security.

And now I have to write up that session. Should be fun!

  1. And cheesemaking. []
  2. Well, the next day. []
  3. I have a lot of Fate dice. []
  4. After a strong recommendation from me; I find the little prompts on the Deck of Fate cards to be very helpful, especially for players new to Fate. []
  5. Listed as Fate Core Cheat Sheet and Veterans’ Guide on this page. []
  6. Doctor Zero, Ike Thermite, Ia Shakti. []
  7. Cannot read. Can talk to animals. Possessed by a ghost musician. []
  8. So, why do I bring it up? Because it bugs me that I made this dumb error, and because, if any of the players did catch it, now they understand what happened []
  9. Still dangerous. []
  10. And learning how to use the Create Advantage action to co-operate. []
  11. A bar called Velma’s. []
  12. Some dude named Hoke Mason. []
  13. Avant-Garde Performance Artist, Overbooked []
  14. Robot with a heart of gold. The ladies love him. []
  15. I’ll be honest – I was not all that hot on the existence of Moog on the cast list. It struck me as too silly. But then, thinking about it, I came around. After all, even one of the Rocky movies had a robot in it, right? []
  16. She had made a more favourable impression on Liam than his own nephew, Hank, had. []
  17. All five of the characters went to the apartment building, but Doctor Zero lagged behind because of an Old Coot compel. []
  18. To be fair, they had tried to invade everyone’s mind, but Hank was the one who made a bad, bad Will check. []

ShotC Playtest – Between Sessions

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Just a quick update to talk about some stuff we did with Shadow of the Century over the past couple of weeks.

One of our players was not able to make it to the pitch session ((It happens. Real life trumps games.)). She still wanted to be part of the playtest, so we created her character via e-mail this past week and the week before. She’s experienced with Fate games1, so coming up with the aspects went fairly quickly. The roles went easily, as well, and we created a role and stunt – both of them Gonzo – to reflect her history as a Prana Warrior.

All the other players pitched in via e-mail to do the Crossing Paths section, and we actually finished that in just a few days, which was faster than I expected.

I also decided to try doing the Cast section with the player, and take part myself, because I had neglected to during the pitch session. But you need three people to do it properly, so I enlisted another gamer friend to help out2. I also took a little extra care explaining what we were looking for in terms of the facts for the names – there were a number of facts in the characters that aren’t all that gameable3. So, we’ve got an extra nine characters in our cast pool.

And then I spent a few nights putting together stats for the villains, and writing up a notes for the scenario. I just finished, which is good; tomorrow is our first play session of the playtest.

So look for the post about that early in the next week.

  1. She was in the DFRPG playtest as Sydney Rae and Gerhardt Rothman, and in my Feints & Gambits campaign as Rogan O’Herir. []
  2. I could have got one of the others of the playtest group, but I didn’t want to give one player more influence over the game than the others. []
  3. Silly is fine, and we’ve got some silly ones. But we’ve also got some that just don’t really come up in play without a lot of circumstances. This is my fault, not that of any of the players. []

ShotC Playtest – Pitch Session

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Last night, I got together my playtest group1 for our first session of the playtest. The first session in Shadow of the Century, as in most Fate Core games, is all about establishing the framework of the game and creating characters. Because it’s modeled on 80s-style action movies and TV shows, it’s called the Pitch Session2.

First step of the Pitch Session is determining the format of the game – series or movie. This a choice between a longer, more episodic game (the series), or a shorter, more focused game (the movie). After a fairly brief3 discussion, we settled on a movie. The reasons for this were the fact that we’ve only got 3-4 sessions of play, and the fact that, as a limited game, the movie format means we can really let go and embrace the wackiness and gonzo nature of the game.

Next step is setting the Gonzometer. This is a determination of how over-the-top the game elements and characters are allowed to be. On one end of the scale, you’ve got stuff like Miami Vice and Magnum P.I., on the other end, you’ve got things like Flash Gordon and Ghostbusters. In addition to setting the crazy level of the game, it also adjusts the skill points and skill cap for the characters.

This conversation took some time. While the Gonzometer has four settings, they’re not hard-and-fast, nor clearly defined. They can’t be, after all, as the subject material doesn’t conform to the Gonzometer settings4. After a lot of talk about what each level meant and what kind of stories we wanted to tell, we eventually settled on setting 3: Big Trouble. This is the default setting of the game, and allows a fair bit of craziness, but assumes it’s in the shadows, and most people don’t know about it.

Step three of the Pitch Session is coming up with the issues of the game. This is how the group decides what the game is about. With the movie format, you create two issues: one that tells you what the big problem is, and one that introduces a complication or subplot. Because most of the character concepts5 were focused on shadowy doings and secrecy, the players decided that they wanted an issue to address that. We came up with the issue Secret War Against… and then had to do some talking to come up with who the war was against. Eventually, we settled on Secret War Against the Ghostmasters. We didn’t bother defining the Ghostmasters at this point; there’s a whole step for that.

One thing we did decide about the Ghostmasters is that one tactic they use is summoning ghosts and implanting them in innocent vessels. They tend to keep the ghosts quiescent when they do this, but the personality of the ghost has some subconscious influence on the host, and indulging the urges and desires of the ghost can start to wake it up, until the ghost is in control. So, our second issue became Possessed Innocents.

Now, with the issues of the game decided, we start with the characters. Creating the characters in ShotC, unlike in other Fate Core games, takes place in two stages, separated by more steps fleshing out the setting. The first step involves creating the aspects for the characters, and the second step involves finishing off the more mechanical bits of character creation.

Only one of my players was familiar with Fate games6, so I gave a talk about aspects, and what to look for, cribbed mainly from here. This bit, as expected, took a fair bit of time. But we got through it, and everyone was pretty happy about the result.

Next step was building the cast – a collection of NPC character seeds that we can use to fill in various roles in the campaign. Each player gets three index cards, and writes the name on the top of each. Pass to the left, then each player adds a fact to each of the three cards they’ve received. Pass to the left again, and add a fact to the new set of cards. You wind up with three times the number of characters as there are players, each with a name and two facts. This pool of characters can be used to fill in for other characters that are needed in the game – a friend, a contact, a rival, a foe, whatever.

I made a mistake running this phase. I just had the players do it, rather than grabbing three cards myself and participating. This has two downsides: I’ve got three fewer characters in the pool than I might have had, and I didn’t get a chance to shape the game with my input7 by adding facts to six other characters. I’m trying to decide if I should do something to correct this, when I work with the player who missed the session to create her character. She didn’t get to do this part, either. The problem is that there are two of us, and you really need three to do this properly. Maybe I’ll rope in one of the other players to do this part again8, or maybe I’ll impose on one of my gamer friends who’s not in this playtest. Still thinking about it.

Anyway, we came up with twelve characters, each with two facts. Some of them are pretty wacky, and one deserves his own TV show, but I think we can make use of them.

Phase six is the villains. This is were we flesh out the opposition a little more. We already knew that the main antagonists are the Ghostmasters, and we knew about one of their tactics. So, I wrote the name Ghostmasters on the top of an index card, and passed it around the group for each player to add an idea about who they are and what they do. We wound up with this9:

Ghostmasters

  • Each member of the Ghostmasters comes from a different culture or tradition (Taoist, Voodoo, etc.)
  • There’s lots infighting and conflicting priorities among the members
  • They love to gamble and place bets, which is how they compete for primacy in the group
  • They are all terrified of non-existence, the worst fate they can imagine for anyone

In further discussions, we decided that the Ghostmasters have gangs of ghostly ninjas10 that they use for enforcement. They also have the previously mentioned tendency to store ghosts in innocent vessels11, and this led us to another idea for a lesser threat – the Bone Thugs12, a street gang whose leader has suffered a severe personality change once the ghost stored in him woke up and took control. That strikes me as a nice, introductory problem to start the game with, leading to more confrontations with Ghostmaster minions leading to the final confrontation with actual Ghostmasters.

The final step was finishing off the characters. First, we worked out how all the characters had crossed each others’ paths. Then, they all picked their three roles. This is when we started incorporating some of the gonzo/spirit character elements, as one character was a Centurion, one had the ability to see and speak to ghosts, and one had learned ancient Kung Fu techniques for fighting ghosts13. Three out of the four players also created their own roles for their characters, and came up with gonzo – or spirit – stunts.

Yes, after the roles, and the skill calculations, they picked stunts. There’s a list of six stunts with each role, and you can pick from those, or you can build a stunt using the Fate Core rules. If you’re playing a Centurion or a gonzo character, you also start with an extra-good stunt (that you have to make up), and one less Refresh.

Then it was just some calculations for determining Stress and Consequences. Then done.

I asked the players to leave their character sheets with me so I could post their characters and the other stuff we came up with here on my blog. One player said his was too messy for me to read, and that he’d send me a typed version by e-mail, so I’ve got only three of them posted so far.

I also have to flesh out the villains a little before I can post more about them. But I’ll do that in the next couple of days.

Last thing we did was come up with the name of the movie we’re playing. Using that, I’ve done a quick pitch for the game below:

Ghostpuncher I: Legacy of the Voicless Dragon

The last disciple of the Voiceless Dragon hunts the Ghostmasters, a group of necromancers who slaughtered his sifu for teaching ancient Kung Fu exorcism techniques. Now, he is drawn to a city in turmoil, for the Ghostmasters are here, playing their strange and wicked games. His only help is a small group of outcasts and freaks: an old friend of his sifu, with many secrets hidden in his past; a young woman who can see and speak to ghosts; and a half-crazy inventor trying to repair a broken world. Together, they must stand against the chaos and madness the Ghostmasters are unleashing on an unsuspecting populace.

So, that sounds pretty fun to me.

  1. Well, 80% of it. One player couldn’t make it. []
  2. As in, a TV or Movie pitch. []
  3. Brief for us, anyway. []
  4. The Gonzometer, after all, was developed a quarter century after the 80s. []
  5. Note that, in the prescribed Pitch Session sequence, you don’t start making characters just yet. But the sequence is a suggestion, and coming up with character concepts is one way that players get excited and start thinking about the game. So, all the players had at least a rough starting idea of what kind of character they wanted to play. []
  6. The player who couldn’t make it last night is also familiar with Fate, having played in my Feints & Gambits DFRPG campaign. I’m going to see about getting her character built over e-mail, with the other players participating. []
  7. I want to be clear here that, by “shape the game,” I’m not saying to steer it in the direction I want at the expense of the players’ ideas. But the GM is a participant in the game, and discounting input by a participant – even the GM – is not the way to do collaborative setting creation. In other words, I get to have my say along with the players, but my opinion does not override theirs. Nor do theirs override mine. Same team. []
  8. Though that means one player will have had twice the input. []
  9. I’ve edited it a bit from the raw ideas the players gave me in order to link things together a little bit. []
  10. They’re not actual Japanese ninjas. They are multi-cultural spectral spies and assassins. But ninja is good shorthand. []
  11. We talked mainly about this being people, but I’ve been having ideas about other types of vessels since last night. []
  12. I know. []
  13. His sifu, the Voiceless Dragon, was another Centurion, killed by the Ghostmasters because he was teaching people how to fight ghosts. That old chestnut. []

Into the Shadows

Shadow-of-the-Century-Playtest-Draft

Kinda coming full circle here.

The good folks at Evil Hat Productions have started beta playtesting of Shadow of the Century, a new Fate Core game. As they usually do, the Hat folks had me sign a Disclosure agreement when they accepted my playtest application – I’m supposed to talk about my experience playtesting the game in public.

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that’s how this blog got started, when I was playtesting The Dresden Files RPG.

So, I’m going to be talking about Shadow of the Century playtest here. And I’m starting today with an overview of the game based on my reading of the playtest document.

A Fate Core Game

First things first: Shadows of the Century is not a stand-alone game. It requires Fate Core rules to play the game – that’s where you’ll find all the mechanics for rolling dice, the four actions you can take, how fate points work, how conflict works, etc.

Fate Core rules are available on a pay-what-you-want deal1, so you’ve got no excuse for not having them2.

What’s Shadow of the Century About?

The first Evil Hat game I ever saw, read, and played was Spirit of the Century. It’s a pulp game, featuring the remarkable members of the Century Club having adventures and fighting foes like Gorilla Khan, Der Blitzermann, and Dr. Methuselah.

Shadow of the Century takes place in the same world, a half-century later. The members of the Century  club are dead, disgraced, imprisoned, in hiding, on the run. The hope has been drained from the world, and the Man3 is keeping everyone down. It’s a dark time for the world. Heroes are needed.

Thankfully, a new generation of heroes is rising up. They aren’t the innocent idealists of the Century Club4 – they are streetwise, rough-and-tumble folks who sometimes blur the lines in their attempt to help people.

Well, not all of them. Some are kids who belong to the Hu-Dunnit mystery club. Or engineering students at the Cross School. Or selfless paramedics and drivers with Phoenix Rescue. Or…

This game is set up to emulate the action movies, TV shows, and cartoons of the 80s, the same way that Spirit emulated the pulp and noire of the 20s and 30s. So, when you think of things like The A-Team, Miami Vice, The Greatest American Hero, Big Trouble in Little China, this is the game to do it.

Gonzo and Spirit

Now, there’s a real difference in the craziness that is acceptable in Miami Vice versus, say, Big Trouble in Little China. You set that craziness level withe Gonzometer, which helps determine what kinds of characters and story elements are acceptable. At the low end, you get bad-ass-but-mundane folks like Thomas Magnum and his friends standing up to corrupt organizations and crime cartels. At the high end, you get Flash Gordon and his ilk fending off interdimensional invasions and time-traveling robots.

Heroes can, depending on the Gonzometer setting, have varying degrees of special abilities. These usually cost a little more, and don’t so much increase the power of the characters as give them a few more options and add narrative colour to the descriptions of the character’s actions.

That’s for the New Wave Heroes – the heroes of the 80s. There is an option to play a Spirit; one of the original members of the Century Club, born in 1900 and embodying a universal idea about the world. For example, Jet Black is the Spirit of Today, and Mack Silver was the Spirit of Trade. Where as New Wave Heroes’ abilities are “powered”5 by Gonzo, Spirits’ abilities are powered by Spirit.

This means that one of the first choices players make is whether they are playing New Wave Heroes6 or a Spirit. If playing a New Wave Hero, the player then needs to decide is whether the character has any Gonzo abilities.

Roles

Building characters uses Roles. I first saw this idea in The Atomic Robo RPG, another Fate Core game7. The Shadow implementation of the idea is a little simpler and cleaner, and leads to what I expect to be pretty quick character creation.

The idea behind roles is that you pick three, which give you a boost to certain skills and a list of potential stunts. There’s a list of 16 roles in the book, and easy instructions for creating more. Each role gives you a +1 to four skills, so if you’ve got a skill in two roles, it starts at Fair (+2). If it’s listed in all three roles, you start at Good (+3).

After the roles are picked and the skill boosts noted, you get to pick a total of three stunts from the lists in each of your roles. And you get a few more skill points to spread around your skills8.

Aspects

This is a Fate Core game, so of course aspects are central. Your character has five aspects, only two of which – High Concept and Trouble – you need to define before play begins. There are the standard9 phases of character creation coming up with ideas for your aspects and brainstorming with the whole group.

Other Cool Stuff

There are a number of other things in the game that deserve a brief mention.

  • Montages. As the song from Team America: World Police says, “Even Rocky had a montage.” 80s action shows loved them, and there are rules for putting four different kinds of montages into play to add advantageous10 aspects to a scene.
  • Mobs. Groups of mooks treated like a single combatant. This was a feature in Spirit, and I loved it so much I ported the idea to every Fate game I’ve run. The rules for mobs in Shadow are the first form I’ve seen updated for Fate Core, and they take care of some of the problems I’ve seen porting the old rule to the new system, so that’s good.
  • Milestones. Milestones are the points at which characters can be advanced. The Shadow rules for milestones are carefully tuned to represent the source material – the more an adventure runs like an 80s action show, and the closer the characters cleave to the tropes, the better they’ll hit their milestones.
  • Organizations. Some of the big bads in the game are the criminal and corrupt organizations of the world. Shadow shows very clearly how to use the Fate Fractal11 to stat up these organizations quickly and easily, each one taking about an index card of space to completely detail what they can do and what they want.
  • Campaign Frames. The game also has three campaign frames, for groups that want to start playing right away and don’t mind using pregenerated characters. They all look fun, though my favourite has to be Team Black, an A-Team kind of campaign with Jet Black12 cast as Hannibal Smith.
  • VHS. It’s a clever abbreviation for variable hyperdimensional simultanaeity. See, the mathemagician, Dr. Methuselah13, has rewritten and overwritten the timeline often enough that it’s kind of worn and tattered. There are holes – into other times, other dimensions, other realities – that can cause problems. Now, how prevalent VHS is is tied to your Gonzometer setting, but it gives you some cool ways to add in strangeness and otherworldly danger.
  • The Backstory. The game gives a fair bit of detail on how the world has changed since Spirit, and what’s happened to a lot of the big players. I’m not going to give too much away, but I think they’ve done a great job on showing how the shining, hopeful early part of the century turned into the dark, despairing 80s. It’s a good read.

What’s the Plan?

Well, we’ve got until May 20 to run our playtests and get our reports in. I’ve got a group of five players signed up for this little romp, and we’re planning our Pitch Session for next week. I want to get three or four more play sessions in before the deadline.

I plan to post a report on this blog after each session. I may also post some other stuff on things I think about the new system during play.

I’m not going to be posting a lot of specifics, though. I’ll talk about how the sessions went, and the cool stuff we did, and the cool things the game allows, but I’m not going to drill down into the actual mechanics and such. Evil Hat will be getting those reports from me, but not the public. This is a beta playtest document, and subject to change – there’s no point in talking about details that aren’t final. Take a look at the DFRPG playtest stuff for examples of the kind of stuff I’ll be posting.

 

I hope you follow along on our little adventure. Feel free to ask questions but, again, I’m not gonna get too specific. I will answer what I can, though.

It’ll be rad!

  1. Yeah, that means that you can download it free and pay nothing. But a lot of work goes into game books – show them a little monetary love. The game’s totally worth it. []
  2. Are they good rules? I certainly think so. I wrote about it here. []
  3. Not a specific man. Just the Man, as in, “The Man is keeping me down!” []
  4. Now disbanded and outlawed. []
  5. Not really powered – there’s different nomenclature for the origin of the abilities to show that New Wave Heroes and Spirits are qualitatively different. []
  6. Though this is the default assumption. []
  7. They call them Modes there. You can read my review of ARRPG here, if you’re interested. []
  8. There is no Skill Pyramid, or Skill Columns. The roles make sure you have a good rating in the skills important to your character concept, and there’s a skill cap so you can’t dump 8 skill points on Shoot to only know how to use guns. []
  9. Or almost standard, any way. []
  10. And alliterative! []
  11. The Fate Fractal is the idea that ANYTHING in the game can be statted up just like a character, using a couple of aspects and a couple of skill ratings. It’s a powerful idea that really opens up the idea of quantifying things like storms, cities, police departments, diseases, etc. Anything. You can read more about it here. []
  12. Jet Black is a Centurion who flies with a jet pack. He, Sally Slick, Mack Silver, Benjamin Hu, Professor Khan, and Amelia Stone feature in the fiction line from Evil Hat. []
  13. At least a thousand years old, and able to twist reality to his whim using strange and mystical mathematical equations. []

Don’t Turn Your Back

 

Don't Turn Your Back

Don’t Turn Your Back

Quick disclosure: I am a friend of the Hat. I like the company, I like their games, I back their Kickstarters, and I even did a little writing for them once upon a time. I try not to let that influence what I write about their games, but it’s fair to say that I am predisposed to like them. And I only write about games I like. So, take that for what it’s worth.

I backed the Kickstarter for this game, and I got it a few weeks ago1. Last night, I finally had time to get a couple of friends together2 to play through it.

It’s a combination of deckbuilding and worker placement, set in the Mad City of Evil Hat’s Don’t Rest Your Head RPG. The Mad City is the city you might wander into if you go long enough without sleep, populated by nightmares and lost souls. In the board game, you’re one of a group of folks in the Mad City, trying to win the favour of the Wax King. You do that by calling in favours of your own and doing little jobs for him throughout the City – this is represented by playing your cards, which represent folks who owe you favours, in the various Mad City locations for different scoring possibilities. Candles are victory points, and the goal is to end the game with more candles than your opponents.

I’m not going to go into details about the rules and play, because Evil Hat has the rules available online, as well as a video tutorial of play. You can check those out for a better job than I could do explaining the rules.

Turn two, after card placement but before scoring and acquisition. It's a pretty game.

Turn two, after card placement but before scoring and acquisition. It’s a pretty game.

We had a lot of fun with the game and, strangely, I actually wound up winning by a single candle. Some specific observations:

  • The game is for two to four players. We played with three.
  • There is an interesting timing mechanism for the game: you have a number of Law cards, which change each turn. When the last Law card is played, it’s the last round of the game. You play with eight cards for two or four players, nine cards for three players. This confused me a bit until I figured out it’s a balance thing – the number of Law cards is set to allow each player to be First Player the same number of times.
  • Play happens in a couple of phases: first, everyone plays their hand of cards into the Mad City, one card at a time. Then, when all the cards have been played, you evaluate each section of the Mad City to see who scores what or who can acquire new cards. Then, you clean the cards off the board, draw a new hand, and pass the first player card. Repeat.
  • This game rewards mastery. Having a solid idea of what the advantage/disadvantage of each Mad City section, and a good idea of what the cards do is the first step. Repeated play will let you figure out the different values of the various sections, when it’s worth committing a card and when it isn’t, and when it’s okay to send a card to be encased in wax as tribute to the Wax King.
  • There are many ways to earn candles in the game – the Laws in District 13, the High School payout, various Bizarre Bazaar abilities, acquiring new cards in the City Slumbering, and sending cards to be encased in the Wax Kingdom. I’m not sure yet if it’s viable to focus on one or more advantageous to try and get a little bit of everything3.
  • The end-game scoring bonus from the encased cards in the Wax Kingdom can be surprising. It cased a fairly substantial swing in our final scoring.
  • Play time is listed as 45-60 minutes. I generally find my groups doubling the listed play time on board games, as we tend to be very social and not entirely focused on the game all the time. Also, I’m usually teaching games to one or two people who don’t know them and answering questions. This game ran about 100 minutes, which is easily in the ballpark for my adjusted expectations for a first play of a new game with that listed time frame.

The verdict? This is a fun game. It’s beautiful and well-designed. The components are top-notch. Price-wise, it’s about average – $40 is not unreasonable, but it’s not super-cheap, either. Which is fine.

I wouldn’t call it a gateway game. The play and strategy are somewhat convoluted and arcane – it smooths out after a couple of rounds, when everyone’s got the idea, but it can be a stumbling block for newbies. Also, the heavy reliance on the background of the Mad City can be confusing to those who don’t know it. If that encourages more people to  check out Don’t Rest Your Head, that’s all to the good, but it may be a hurdle for people really getting into the game.

More technically, I think the combination of deckbuilding and worker placement mechanics is interesting and well-executed. It’s something I haven’t seen before, and I4 like the depth of strategy and variety it gives to the game.

So, yeah. This is not a game for someone who’s new to the hobby game community. But for someone who likes Don’t Rest Your Head, or who is well-versed in modern hobby games, it’s a great, flavourful addition to the library.

  1. Almost completely off topic – Evil Hat Productions is really very good about Kickstarter fulfillment. Usually, you look at the expected delivery on the Kickstarter site as a laughable pipe dream, but the folks at the Hat treat them as actual deliverable milestones. Kudos for that. []
  2. Thanks, Chris and Elliot! []
  3. I won, and I had a little bit of everything, but I only won by a single point over a player who had focused on acquiring cards. []
  4. So far, anyway. []

Monsters Wearing Evil Hats!

So, I wrote a few months ago about the game Monster of the Week. The second edition of the game has just been released – today – by the new publisher, Evil Hat Productions. It is, as I noted in my earlier post, a fantastic game, and the second edition has more material that makes it even better. You should go buy it.

To help encourage you to do that, and for those who already have, I’m linking some mysteries that I’ve created for the game. I mentioned these in that earlier post, and someone asked to see them. I checked with author Michael Sands and publisher Fred Hicks, because I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes1, and they gave me the go-ahead. So, here you go: three2 mysteries, written up in the note form I use for them.

  1. Unnatural History is a mystery put together from one of the two example mysteries in the book. I fleshed it out a little, and organized it into a structure that I found I liked.
  2. The Desrick on Yandro is inspired by the short story of the same name by Manly Wade Wellman. It’s one of the Silver John stories, and I love it. So, backwoods town with something scary out in the dark.
  3. Project MAROON SPHINX is more of an X-Files kind of mystery, with something going wrong at a government research lab. This may be the loosest of the mysteries, as the Keeper will need to decided where in the countdown the players enter the game, and what the town looks like at that point.

There it is. Buy the game. Download the mysteries. Let me know if you run one of them, and how it works for you.

Most importantly, go kill some monsters.

  1. Or illegally distribute anyone’s copyrighted material without permission. []
  2. I have a fourth, but upon reviewing it, I think it needs significant work to be ready for anyone’s eyes but mine. []

Monster of the Week

I’m not sure if I first heard about Monster of the Week from Fred Hicks’s posts about his game, or from someone at GenCon. I do know that Fred tweeted about his game, and that’s what really brought it into my active thinking. I ordered a copy of the game from the author1, and soon had a group who wanted to try it out.

It was about that time that Evil Hat started looking for someone to playtest the scenario in a new edition of the game that they were going to be publishing. Specifically, they wanted someone who had never run the game before to try out the new GM advice and the intro scenario, and I happily volunteered for that. I had also fleshed out a couple of other scenarios myself, and was interested in seeing what a published scenario for the game might look like2.

So, what’s the game like?

First off, it uses the Apocalypse World engine, and it hews closer to the original than some other games based on AW. That’s neither good nor bad; the AW engine works great as a rules-light system, but some of the innovations of other hacks of it3 are very good, and I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. That said, the Investigate a Mystery move, which is kind of the centrepoint of the game, is quite neat.

The variety of playbooks for this game is awesome. There’s enough in the book and available free online to run pretty much any type of monster-hunting group you like. There’s some value in following the book’s advice and deciding what kind of group you’re playing before deciding on playbooks – that way, you can make sure that you’ve got the mandatory hunter types covered, and no one’s too far out of line on the concept. That said, it’s not a terrible thing to have everyone pick a playbook and see what kind of group that makes, determining your group concept from the player choices.

From the playbooks I had, it would have been easy to run a game based on any of the following sources:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Angel
  • X-Files
  • Fringe
  • Warehouse 13
  • Hellboy
  • Supernatural
  • Night Stalker
  • Hellblazer
  • Doom Patrol
  • Stargate: SG1
  • The Dresden Files

A little tweaking could expand that list vastly.

Most of the moves presented in the game are pretty typical for AW games. The two really interesting ones are Investigate a Mystery and Use Magic. Both of these are basic moves, meaning any character can try them, and both feed directly into the feel of the game.

Investigate a Mystery is how you gather information about the current puzzle you’re facing. Like most other perceptive moves in AW games, a successful roll gives you a choice of questions from a list to ask the GM. This is, as might be apparent, your go-to move in trying to figure out what kind of monster you’re facing, how to hurt it, what it wants, and where it is. But to be able to ask the questions you want, you have to do something in the game to justify being able to answer that question. So, if you want to ask the question, “Where did it go?” you have to describe you character looking for tracks, or scanning for energy signatures, or whatever. Asking, “What can hurt it?” means you’re doing some research in a lab or library, or are examining the physical evidence at the site of an incident.

This adds a lot of colour to the game, allowing different characters to participate in the investigation without requiring them all to do the same thing. Each character can focus on his or her own style of investigation, and all can contribute to finding the solution.

Use Magic, strangely enough, lets the character use magic4. It’s a pretty simple system, letting the character pick from a list of effects, make the roll, and then possibly have to deal with some GM-chosen glitches. For example, in one game I ran, the characters used magic to interview a dog. They rolled a 7-9, so I decided that they could only speak dog for the next hour or so. The GM can tack on other requirements, too – weird ingredients, bizarre rituals, inconvenient lengths of time, etc.

There’s an option for big magic, as well. Big magic is basically plot device magic – it can do pretty much anything you want, but the GM decides what you need to do it, how it works, what sorts of complications you face, and what happens when you screw it up. It’s fun and nasty.

Now, I got two chances to run MotW. The first time, I deliberately ran the intro scenario. The second time, I gave the players a choice on what scenario I’d run5, and they chose the intro scenario. So, I got to run it twice.

It’s a surprisingly complex little mystery. Not in that it’s tangled6 or difficult7, but in that there’s a number of threads leading in and out of the main story, a number of side stories that are more or less important depending on what the players latch onto, and some interesting motivations for various NPCs in play. There’s a real depth to the information provided – more than I needed in either of the games, but each game needed different bits of the info, so it was nice to have it there.

Each play-through of the scenario went surprisingly differently. There were some commonalities, as there would have to be, but the freedom of the system and the amount of background information provided by the adventure made it easy for the characters to go in whatever direction seemed most interesting to them and still solve the central mystery.

Final verdict? We all had a tremendous amount of fun with the game. It was a blast to run, and generated some neat stories. I hope we play again.

After all, I’ve got four more mysteries8 all typed up and ready to run. It would be a waste not to use them.

 

  1. A very nice guy, who shipped it to me from New Zealand. []
  2. While the original rules had two different mysteries sort-of fleshed out as examples, they were each spread through several pages of the book, and weren’t presented as complete scenarios. []
  3. Like the Defy Danger move in Dungeon World []
  4. Subtle and confusing name, I’m sure you’ll agree. []
  5. After eliminating a couple that didn’t fit the characters or group concept. []
  6. Most of them are at least somewhat tangled. []
  7. Though there is that, too. []
  8. Including one based on a Manly Wade Wellman story. []

Fast Fate

In case you missed it, I wrote a moderately long post about Fate Core. To be totally honest, I hadn’t intended to write that post, but as I was writing this post, I realized that it would make a whole lot more sense if I gave folks a look at Fate Core before tackling Fate Accelerated Edition.

So, what’s Fate Accelerated Edition? Here’s how they pitched it during the Fate Core Kickstarter. Basically, it’s the quick-start rules for Fate Core, pared down to a 32-page1 book. Describing it that way doesn’t really do justice to what Clark Valentine and the rest of the Evil Hat team has accomplished here.

FAE is not just an introductory game, or a set of quick-start rules. It is a fully functional implementation of Fate, tweaked for getting people playing fast even if they’ve never gamed before. It’s not just the kids’ version of Fate2 – it’s certainly as welcoming to younger gamers as it is to beginners, but there is an elegance and refinement to the system that will, I think, appeal a lot to older, more experienced players looking for something light and flexible.

I haven’t played FAE yet, but it may be my favourite implementation of the Fate rules yet.

Now, that statement is not intended to denigrate any of the other Fate games I love. I’ve just found that, as I’ve gotten older, I look for different things in game systems. There was a time I was deeply enamoured of complex, simulationist games and of rich, detailed rulesets, and elaborate sub-systems, but that time has passed. Now, I look for simple systems that will make it easy for the GM to improvise and supports player creativity without imposing too many mechanical constraints on their choices. Fate games fit that requirement, but FAE fits it best of all.

FAE runs on the Fate Core engine, but they’ve made a number of changes to simplify things, and to focus the play style in certain ways. If I don’t comment on something below, you can assume that it works just like in Fate Core.

No Skills

One of the biggest differences in the game is that there are no skills. The things your character can do are decided by the type of game you’re playing and the aspects your character has. So, in a game about mystical martial artists with control over the elements3, it’s reasonable to expect characters to be able to do fun, cinematic wuxia moves, like leaping up on to an enemy’s sword and kicking him in the face. And, if you have the aspect Wizardly Honour Student, you should be able to cast some basic spells4 and tell people all about the history of your magical school.

This covers the kinds of things you can do, but it doesn’t cover how well you can do it. That part is covered by approaches.

Approaches

Approaches replace skill ranks in determining how good your character is at any given thing. They don’t talk about what you’re doing, but about how you’re doing it. There are six different approaches: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky5. Characters get one at Good (+3), two at Fair (+2), two at Average (+1), and one at Mediocre (+0). So, when you’re trying to do something that you may or may not be able to do, you decide what approach you’re using, and make your roll using that.

I love this approach6 because of the way it makes you think about your character’s actions in play. If my highest approach is Careful, I’m probably going to be doing things in the game that reflect that – planning, finding things out, fighting defensively rather than charging blithely in, etc. On the other hand, if my highest approach is Forceful, not only am I going to be front and centre in any fight, I’m going to resort to intimidation or stubbornness before persuasion and compromise.

Example? Sure! Let’s say we’re playing a pirate game, and three characters are fighting off some boarders. Anna has Forceful as her highest approach, Beaumonde has Clever, and Clement has Flashy. Anna’s best bet is to dive in, pressing the enemy hard, and trying to drive them back. Beaumonde is probably going to look around for ways to trick his opponents without actually engaging them – gaining advantage rather than attacking. And Clement is probably going to be swinging from ropes, rallying the defenders, and maybe dueling the enemy captain one-on-one. Three different characters, three different styles – all supported and reinforced by the mechanics of the game.

Quick Game and Character Creation

The process outlined in Fate Core for creating the game setting and characters is streamlined in FAE, with the goal of getting people up and playing in half an hour. Game creation especially is pared down – basically, it comes down to having a quick conversation to decide some very basic parameters of the game world. Things like, “We’re playing kids attending a school for wizards,” or, “This is a game set in a 19th-century steampunk world with zombies.” Just enough to give everyone a starting point for thinking about the game world.

The biggest change to character creation7 is the removal of the story phases . Players pick a High Concept aspect, a Trouble aspect, and between one and three other aspects, depending on how many good ideas they have for aspects at this stage. If you leave an aspect blank, you can fill it in during play. Character aspects in FAE take on even more of the duty of filling in details of the world, thanks to the pared-down version of game creation, which helps put the characters even more solidly at the centre of the game.

After the aspects are chosen, everyone gets to pick their approaches, as described above. One of the nice touches is that the book provides six archetypal distributions of the approaches, so you can quickly grab the approaches for, say, the Brute or the Trickster or the Swashbuckler. Then everyone picks between zero and three stunts – again, stunts you don’t choose can be filled in during play.

Simple Stunts

Stunt creation is simplified in FAE, boiling it down to a very clean way of coming up with your stunts. It uses the fill-in-the-blank approach that clarified compels in Fate Core, and I think it’s just brilliant. There are two categories of stunt, the first using the following sentence:

Because I [describe some way that you are exceptional, have a cool bit of gear, or are otherwise awesome], I get a +2 when I [pick one: Carefully, Cleverly, Flashily, Forcefully, Quickly, Sneakily][pick one: attack, defend, create advantages, overcome] when [describe circumstance].

Now, this leads to stunts like:

Swashbuckling Swordswoman: Because I am a swashbuckling swordswoman, I gain a +2 to Flashy attacks when crossing blades with a single opponent.

The other stunt type uses the following template:

Because I [describe some way that you are exceptional, have a cool bit of gear, or are otherwise awesome], once per game session I can [describe something cool you can do].

This gives you stunts like:

Gadgeteer: Because I am a gadgeteer, once per session I may declare that I have an especially useful device that lets me eliminate one situation aspect.

You can have up to three stunts for free. Each stunt after that costs a point of refresh.

No Extras

In Fate Core, extras are the special powers, magical gear, and other things that make your character different from the rest of the world. There are no extras in FAE – that role is filled by character aspects. So, if you have an aspect like Weather Witch, you don’t need an extra like Meteorological Magic to be able to whistle up the wind. You have the Weather Witch aspect, so you can try to do that. The GM will ask you how you do that – i.e., what approach you use – and tells you to roll.

Potential Issues

Okay, I really love this iteration of Fate, but I can see some things that might be problematic for some people, so I’m going to call them out here. These are not problems with FAE8, but they are points to consider as you try and decide if this game is for you. You need to think about these things.

  • It may not provide the level of mechanical detail you want. Using approaches instead of skills means that carving out a niche for your character based on what he or she is good at doing9 doesn’t work too well. You can use aspects for this, but for some people, that may not be satisfying. And you may find approaches just too broad in what they cover.
  • Unless you’re trying to emulate a specific world – The Legend of Korra, or Harry Potter, for example – you may find yourselves having to do a lot of improvisation to fill in details of the world you decide to play in. If you’re good at that sort of thing, that’s not a problem, but if you’re not, it may demand a bit more prep time to create those details between game sessions.
  • The removal of the story phases from character creation means you lose that handy tool for tying the characters together from the outset. Maybe they’ll do it anyway, but you may have to spend the first part of play getting the characters together and pointed in the same direction.
  • The lack of extras, and the reliance on aspects, makes it very easy to play like a munchkin. As with all rules-light systems10, communication and trust between GM and players is vitally necessary to prevent one character stealing the spotlight from everyone else by taking advantage of the openness of the rule set and ignoring the implied understanding of co-operative play between the players.

So, think about those points when you’re deciding about this game. I think FAE is a great game, but it is not the perfect tool for every game or every group. Understand what it does well, and what it doesn’t do well, and you’ll have a better chance of getting a good play experience out of using it11.

Mix and Match

I’ve been talking about FAE and Fate Core as if they’re two different games, and they’re not, really. One of the things that make me so excited by FAE is the way it shows how you can hack Fate Core, to tweak the play experience in very specific ways12.

It also gives you a number of modular pieces that you can pull out and add to Fate Core, or vice-versa. Want an FAE game that has more developed original setting? Use the game creation rules from Fate Core. Folks in your Fate Core game having trouble coming up with stunts? Give them the two-page stunts section from FAE. Tack the extras system onto FAE to standardize weird powers. Use the approaches in Fate Core to simplify the skill system. Mix and match and blend until you have the mixture you like best.

So?

I think that FAE is my favourite implementation of Fate. I like Fate Core hugely, but the simplification of FAE appeals to my aesthetic sense a little bit more. It is a beautiful, elegant, clean system that makes it easy for folks to get into Fate games, and has me wanting to launch a new campaign – any new campaign – with a group of players to try it out.

Oh, and it’s only gonna cost you five bucks when it comes out. Did I mention that? Thus you have no excuse not to buy it and try it. But don’t do it just because it’s cheap.

Do it because it’s awesome.

  1. Though I should note here that the .pdf pre-release candidate I received as a Kickstarter backer is currently 48 pages. Some of that is index, cheat sheets, and art. []
  2. Though it slants towards that sort of feel with the wonderful, cartoony art that Fred has been previewing. []
  3. Just for instance. []
  4. Hell, even some advanced spells; you’re an honour student, after all! []
  5. Shadows of Esteren uses something kind of like this, but the how is paired with a skill in a more traditional way. []
  6. Though I can certainly see why others might not; I’ll be talking about that, too. []
  7. Other than use of approaches rather than skills. []
  8. Really, I see most of them as features rather than bugs. []
  9. Rather than how he or she is good at doing things. []
  10. I don’t think Fate in general is rules-light, but FAE certainly is. []
  11. This advice, of course, applies to every game system. I want to mention it explicitly here because of how much I’m gushing. Gotta be balanced. []
  12. The Fate Toolkit and Fate Worlds books coming from the Kickstarter will help with that, too. []

Changing Fate

This post is kind of long, so I’m starting it off with:

TL;DR

Fate Core is smoother, clearer, and better put together than any previous iteration of the Fate systems, including my beloved DFRPG. Important clarifications and simplifications have made it more accessible to newcomers and easier to understand and run for veterans.

So, the folks at Evil Hat have recently1 completed a Kickstarter to publish the latest version of their Fate game system: Fate Core. As part of the Kickstarter, Evil Hat has shared preview .pdfs of the new book with backers – that’s what I’m using for this little article.

Fate has gone through several iterations since its inception, but these have mainly been subsumed in specific game systems, such as Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. This is, as I understand things2, the first setting-free publication of Fate since Fate 2.0, about 10 years ago.

I say “setting-free” rather than “generic,” because the game makes it pretty clear that it is not really a generic game3. A quote from the book to illustrate:

Fate doesn’t come with a default setting, but it works best with any premise where the characters are proactive, capable people leading dramatic lives. We give more advice on how to bring that flavor to your games in the next chapter.

The upshot of this is that, while the system will work with pretty much any setting you can envisage – fantasy, modern, science fiction, horror, urban fantasy, spy thrillers, whatever – the rules are constructed and tuned to reward a specific style of play, with competent characters taking risks to control their own destinies. I’ll talk a little bit more about what all that means in the sections below.

So, while you may wind up playing a cyber-soldier in a dystopian future or a talking rabbit in a mostly idyllic meadow or a lost soul trying to find redemption after death, the play experience will recognizably be a Fate play experience. The basic system, the characters as the centre of the game, and the types of actions that are encouraged or rewarded will be similar if not identical. You’ll know you’re playing a Fate game.

Let’s look at some particulars.

Game Creation

The assumption of Fate games is that players and GM alike spend some time constructing the setting, creating a shared understanding of the world and what type of game you’re going to be playing. This sort of collaborative world-building has been floating around the various Internet forums and pages for several years, and entered official Fate games with DFRPG.

The city-building chapter in DFPRG is wonderful, giving guidelines and advice for creating a setting that offers a lot in the way of adventuring opportunities and ties the characters strongly to the world and to each other. The advice in the Fate Core book has been smoothed and streamlined, obviously tuned from the feedback from DFRPG players over the years. It is focused, providing concrete steps to create the type of game that everyone wants to play, with all the necessary hooks to make for a playable world to fit the characters into.

This chapter pretty much single-handedly transforms Fate Core from a standard setting-free system book into a toolkit for building games. Reading through the section, I had many different ideas for games, and the example they give of a sword-and-sorcery game being designed and constructed clarifies all the high-level concepts with solid, workable examples.

In addition to the advice in this chapter, Evil Hat will be publishing a Fate Worlds book, with twelve fleshed out settings, from Arthurian mecha adventures, through small-town supernatural drama, to WWII mad science airship combat. Drafts of these various settings have been provided to Kickstarter backers, as well, and they all look pretty good4.

Character Creation

Characters are the core of any RPG, but Fate games, especially those built using the game building advice, there is such a strong interaction between the characters and the setting that character creation has a very definite effect on shaping the game. The character creation in Fate Core is similar to every other Fate game, but most like DFRPG. It has been simplified and streamlined in a couple of different ways, especially by reducing the number of aspects and phases.

The process is pretty simple, and again encourages a collaborative effort. You come up with the High Concept and Trouble5 aspects for your characters, writing up the necessary background info. Then, you get one adventure and two guest-starring roles in other people’s adventures, with an aspect for each, giving you a total of five aspects.

This is fewer than in any of the previous Fate games: SotC had ten aspects for each character, and DFRPG had seven. Reducing the number of aspects speeds up character creation and helps focus the characters a lot more. It also means that you need to make sure that every aspect you have pulls its weight, generating fate points and letting you spend them. From the GM point of view, fewer aspects means there’s a little bit less for you to keep track of, making your job a little bit easier. As for downside, well, I don’t really see one. There were always a couple of aspects on character sheets with the larger numbers that just never got used very much. As I said, this focuses things.

The skill selection process uses the skill pyramid idea from SotC, with the pyramid topping out at Great (+4). This is something that’s easy to adjust, either by raising or lowering the cap, or by going to a skill column idea with skill points, as seen in DFRPG. The upshot of this choice, though, is that picking skills is a little faster without having to fiddle with the columns and skill points – just choose and rank the ten skills you want, and you’re done.

This builds characters with real skills and abilities – characters who are good at things right from the start. While there is the ability to advance and get better at things, you don’t start as a green rookie with the life expectancy of a mayfly, and a need to be wary around house cats. That said, there are ways to change this aspect – essentially, you can dial things up and down the level of competence pretty easily, especially if you take some cues from the Power Level setting in DFRPG.

Stunts

I’m talking about stunts separately, though picking three stunts is part of character creation. Yeah, everyone gets three stunts, which the characters design in collaboration with the GM. So, stunts work just the way they do in DFRPG, though you get three for free and can buy up to two more, for a total of five. Each extra stunt, however, costs a point of refresh.

The explanation of building stunts is more clear and precise than in DFRPG – the changes they made to the text aren’t huge, but they make a big difference in how easy it is for players6 to design their own stunts. As examples, you get a few listed stunts illustrating each of the different kinds of things you can do with stunts.

Refresh

Refresh is still an important part of characters, but it’s not the central issue for characters that it was in DFRPG. Everyone gets three refresh by default, and you can spend up to two points on stunts or extras during character creation. Refresh still determines how many fate points your character starts with each session.

This is another setting that can be easily dialled up and down, increasing or decreasing the general power level of characters. If you build a game with lots of wacky powers for the characters, you probably want a larger pool of refresh to allow players to spend it on the extras you develop.

Extras

Extras are the special abilities and powers that some games require. These can range from magical powers, to specialized tech and vehicles, to organizations and locations that the characters have access to.

Extras are one of the ways to tune the setting developed by the players in the game-building phase. They show what unusual resources the characters may possess, showing what’s possible in the game world. The chapter on extras talks about how to create and define them, and offers a short list of different types of extras to use either as-is or as examples.

One of the more important parts of this chapter is the discussion on determining whether an extra costs refresh and, if so, how many points. It spells out the major concerns and considerations, and walks you through the determination process, supported by a few insightful sidebars in strategic locations. It’s all good, useful advice for building your own game.

While extras do a good job of adding flavour and depth to your game, it’s pretty obvious that they are not required for any game. Indeed, the building of extras in the chapter leverages all the ideas of aspects, skills, and stunts from previous chapters to show how to put extras together – canny GMs might choose to bypass extras and just deal with what they mean via aspects, skills, and stunts7. This approach works very well for games with a low weirdness factor, but other game types may have you wanting more powerful8 possibilities, represented by a list of available extras.

Aspects

This is a Fate game, so aspects are the beating heart. Every iteration of Fate has a new discussion about what they are, why they’re important, and how to pick good ones, and Fate Core is no different. Every iteration of this discussion gets clearer and more helpful, and the one in this book is the best so far.

Some of the terminology in this section has been overhauled to minimize confusion – removing the “tagged” term, for example, and just sticking with “invoke.” The use of compels gets a very welcome clarification, taking a bit of a cue from the plot point economy in the Cortex Plus games, I think, to solidify the fate point economy in a very useful way.

There is also a good explanation of situational aspects, which helps to emphasize the cinematic, collaborative, free-wheeling way that aspects can feed into play. The idea of assessing and declaring situational9 aspects have been cleaned up and simplified, again taking a bit of a burden off the GM.

Probably the best thing about aspects in Fate Core is the detailed and clarified description of compels. They’ve been broken into two types: event compels and decision compels, with clear examples structured around fill-in-the-blank sentences10:

You have _____ aspect and are in _____ situation, so it makes sense that, unfortunately, _____ would happen to you. Damn your luck.

You have _____ aspect in _____ situation, so it makes sense that you’d decide to _____. This goes wrong when _____ happens.

There’s also a good discussion about compelling your own character, and compelling other characters. All in all it makes the use of compels in play much simpler and clearer.

One other thing about the aspects chapter that I want to call out for special comment is the Using Aspects for Roleplaying section. I’ve been playing games with aspects11 long enough that I’ve sort of intuitively internalized the advice offered here on using your aspects to guide roleplaying, but it’s wonderful to see the idea explicitly called out and discussed in the rulebook.

In all, aspects haven’t changed much, but the explanations surrounding how they work have been clarified.

Actions

One of the places where Fate really became complex was in the skills section. First in SotC and then in DFRPG, the skills chapter was a big list of every skill and every way you could use a skill. It was wonderful for completeness, but it added a bit too much complication to the available actions. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this sort of thing, but I found that, while it gave a lot of guidance to GMs for handling skills, it added what amounted to a bunch of mini-systems for each skill.

Fate Core addresses this in a really useful way. The designers took a look at the way all the subsystems worked and pared it down to the essentials. They found that each of the skills basically does some combination of four basic things:

  • Attack: This is how you hurt someone with the skill. A successful roll deals stress12 to the target. Not every skill gets this ability, but creative play may allow a character to use a non-attack skill for a special attack13.
  • Defend: This is how you stop an attack from hurting you. As with an attack, not every skill gets this ability14, but special circumstances and good creative description may earn you some leeway from your GM.
  • Gain Advantage: This is essentially the new version of performing a maneuver from previous editions. Every skill gets this action by default. It establishes a new aspect on the situation or on a character that the character can then use for a bonus, or allows a character to take get a free invocation on an exiting aspect.
  • Overcome: Overcome is the action you use when you want to… well, overcome some obstacle or difficulty. So, that’s what you’re doing if you try and pick a lock, but it’s also what you do if you’re trying to remove the On Fire aspect from a room you’re currently standing in. It gets you past obstacles and removes situational aspects. In a lot of ways, it’s like the opposite of gain advantage and, like gain advantage, it’s a default option fro every skill.

The detailed descriptions and examples of each of these four actions in the book make their use rather intuitive. They also focus on opening up the possibilities for the skills rather than restricting them15, giving guidelines for how to tell which category of action a player’s intended use of a skill falls into, and offering suggestions for how to adjudicate it.

Following up the explanations for what you can do with skills, there’s a section on outcomes – the four different levels of success you can achieve – fail, tie, succeed, and succeed with style. This last one, succeed with style, was called spin in earlier iterations, and applied only to defence rolls. Now, it’s essentially a critical success that gives you a little bonus, depending on the type of action you’re attempting.

The next chapter spells out the structure of using skills in more complicated situations than just rolling to beat a given threshold. There are three of these structures:

  • Challenges deal with multiple overcome actions to defeat a given obstacle. Really, it’s a way to get more characters involved in a task – fighters holding off hordes of zombies while the thief tries to pick the lock and the wizard unravels the magical wards on the door, for example.
  • Contests represent two (or more) characters striving against each other for a goal, but not trying to harm each other directly. So, arm-wrestling, races, stuff like that.
  • Conflicts are fights, whether physical or not. This is two or more characters actively trying to harm each other.

I think it’s important to note that the different structures here are identified and examined, not to force you to use them, but to demonstrate the different ways that skill use by different characters can interact in dynamic, interesting ways. In this way, like the rest of the rules in the book, it’s a collection of suggestions for how to use the bits of the game mechanics to create exciting, fun stories. What I’m trying to say is that, as with the other Fate Core rules, you shouldn’t let yourself be restricted, but inspired by the suggestions and examples.

Mechanically speaking, actions are the engine of Fate Core, and they have been cleaned up, clarified, and polished from previous iterations. Like most of the rest of the rules, they have benefitted from the careful consideration of the designers and the years of play by a large, dedicated community.

GM Advice

The Fate Core book is chock full of GM advice, spread through every chapter, in the main text and in the numerous sidebars and examples. There are three chapters, though, that deal specifically with how to be a GM in a Fate game:

  • Running the Game talks about the gritty details of what to do when you’re sitting in the GM chair during a Fate session.
  • Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios gives practical advice about how to put together the story for a Fate adventure.
  • The Long Game explains how to string the individual adventures into a longer campaign.

These chapters do a great job of bringing together the entire toobox of Fate Core, making the thinking behind the mechanics clear, and showing the utility of the more abstract concepts presented in the book. More than anything, though, they work to transfer the designers’ understanding of the system to the GM, teaching what questions a GM should ask, and how to judge the answers to those questions.

All the GM advice is aimed at giving the GM the tools to run a Fate-style game, a game where the coolness of the characters is paramount and blends seamlessly with coolness of the story to generate a play experience that transcends both16.

Art

I’m not much of an art guy. I like nice pictures, but I can’t really discuss them in an intelligent, insightful way17. So, I’m not going to try and do that.

What I will do is tell you that I really like the art in the book. It’s all grey-scale, but it’s very well done grey-scale art. What I like most about it is that pretty much every picture gives me an idea for a game setting for Fate Core – kung-fu gorilla with a cybernetic brain, mystical police detective, biplane pilot with flying saucer silhouettes painted on her plane, sword-and-sorcery adventurers, dead guy in a mystic circle… I could base a game world on pretty much any single one of these.

To add to this coolness, there are three or four series of pictures, each of them fleshing out a given game world. So, there are several pictures of the kung-fu cyber gorilla, for example, each showing him18 in different situations, each of which adds a little more to the character and his implied world.

Summary

If there’s a single word I’d use to describe Fate Core, it’s “polished.” Every iteration of the system, its obvious that the designers have taken the opportunity to look at the game, see what’s working and what’s not, and shape it more and more towards their ideal game. Systems get smoothed out and clarified, explanations get better, and stuff that doesn’t work gets changed or removed.

There was nothing wrong with Fate19 in any of the previous iterations, but it’s obvious that the designers have been getting better at what they do and clearer in their vision of what the game should be. They see how the game works, what it does best, and tweak it to emphasize and focus on its strengths.

It’s a setting-less system, though, designed to be adapted to your chosen setting. That said, most of the specialized sub-systems from other Fate games, such as the magic system from DFRPG, could be adapted to the Fate Core system with trivial effort.

In short20, this game is awesome. If you like Fate games, you need to get it. If you’re not familiar with Fate games, this is a good way to start.

And if you don’t like Fate games, well, then there’s no helping you.

  1. Well, kinda recently. It wrapped up a few months ago. []
  2. Which is imperfectly at the best of times. []
  3. An argument can be made that there are no really generic game systems; most promote a pretty specific play style and experience. []
  4. Of course, some will appeal to you more than others. That’s the nature of things. But there’s something in the mix for pretty much everyone. []
  5. I talk about what this means in this post for DFRPG. Note that there are no templates by default in Fate Core. []
  6. And, of course, GMs. []
  7. The one place that might not work is in calculating cost for the extra if the GM decides that what the player wants is good enough to be worth charging a point or two of refresh. []
  8. Or more codified. []
  9. Or character aspects. []
  10. Lenny Balsera, in an interview, chortled about how he put Mad Libs into Fate Core. []
  11. Or similar things, like Cortex Plus‘s distinctions. []
  12. And potentially consequences. []
  13. Especially if you’re using the conflict structure and set-up to model something else, like a mystery or a chase. []
  14. Though more skills get the defend action by default than get the attack action. []
  15. Which is, counterintuitively, the opposite of what the lengthier descriptions in previous iterations did. []
  16. Pretty pompous phrasing, I know. But it’s true. []
  17. “Dude, that picture’s cool!” is pretty much the extent of art critique vocabulary. []
  18. I’m assuming it’s a him. He’s wearing traditionally male kung-fu silks. []
  19. In my opinion, anyway. []
  20. Yeah. Waaaaaaaaay too late for that, huh? []