Tachyon Squadron

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

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

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

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

The Book

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

The System

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

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

Character Aspects

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

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

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

Gear Stunts

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

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

The Engagement

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

It’s very cool.

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

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

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

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

Campaign Play

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Crooks… in… SPAAAAAAAACE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Book

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

Basic Mechanics

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

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

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

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

Play Phases

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

  • Free play
  • The job
  • Downtime

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

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

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

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

Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ships

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

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

Setting

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

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

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

Brilliant Things

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Speedy Dresden

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

What’s the Difference?

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

The Basic Mechanics

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

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

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

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

Mantles

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

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

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

Conditions and Stress

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

Example? Sure!

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

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

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

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

So, yeah. Conditions are pretty cool12.

Stunts

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

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

Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few other notes about magic:

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

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

Scale

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

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

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

Other Stuff

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

You know you want to.

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

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. []