Monster of the Week

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

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

So, what’s the game like?

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

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

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

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

A little tweaking could expand that list vastly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Fast Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Skills

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

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

Approaches

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

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

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

Quick Game and Character Creation

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

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

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

Simple Stunts

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

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

Now, this leads to stunts like:

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

The other stunt type uses the following template:

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

This gives you stunts like:

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

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

No Extras

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

Potential Issues

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

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

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

Mix and Match

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

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

So?

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

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

Do it because it’s awesome.

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

Changing Fate

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

TL;DR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at some particulars.

Game Creation

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

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

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

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

Character Creation

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

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

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

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

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

Stunts

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

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

Refresh

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

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

Extras

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

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

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

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

Aspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GM Advice

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

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

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

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

Art

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cards! Cards EVERYWHERE!

I’ve had a few new games for a while that I’ve been wanting to try. They’re card games – well, mainly card games. Race to Adventure is more of a board game that just uses cards to build the board, but if I call that a board game, then how about Infiltration? You build the board in that game with cards, too, but cards feature more prominently as things you play, so is that a card game or not? At least Sentinels of the Multiverse is very clearly a card game. To keep things simple1, I’m calling them all card games, mainly because the main thing you do in setting up each game is shuffling and dealing, whether it’s a nine-card deck or something larger.

Anyway. Onward to a point.

I wanted to try these games, but was having trouble getting folks to play – at the Tabletop Day thing, everyone was into the stuff they’d seen on Tabletop, and my regular gaming schedule meant that getting my friends to commit was problematic at best. So, I finally bit the bullet and invited a bunch of people over, bribing them with dinner and dessert2, on the condition that we play through all three games.

And so, this past Saturday, we did that. Here are some shortish thoughts on each of the games.

Race to Adventure

Race to Adventure

Race to Adventure

I got in on the Kickstarter for this game, and it showed up in my mail several weeks back3. Once I got my friends to commit to the evening, I laid the game out to make sure that I could teach it to folks quickly, and walked through a game. Even playing solo4, it was quite a bit of fun.

The idea behind the game is that each player takes one of the iconic members of the Century Club, the centerpiece of the Spirit of the Century RPG from Evil Hat. Your goal is to travel to nine more-or-less remote places, complete missions, and return to the Empire State Building with all nine of your passport stamps filled in. The main mechanic in the game choosing which of the six items – zeppelin, biplane, magnifying glass, jet pack, map, and lightning gun – your character gets for your turn. Three of the items5 let you move in different ways, while the map and lightning gun let you complete missions at your destination to earn your passport stamps, and the magnifying glass lets you earn clues, which are also needed to complete your missions. The strategy part of the game is about getting the item you need at the right time – you pick your item in turn, and you may find one or more other players hogging an item you badly need.

There are a couple of other little quirks, likes a time limit on getting your rescued Atlantean prisoner to safety or removing the curse you pick up in Egypt, but that’s the game in a nutshell.

The game is pretty simple to learn and play. It took me maybe ten minutes to explain the rules and lay everything out, and we jumped right in. Overall, the game took about a half-hour to play, though I can see it going much more quickly once folks get into the flow of things. The default play method is for everyone to choose their items and then take their moves and actions simultaneously. We took turns, mainly to make sure we understood properly what was going on. In later games, I expect things to move more towards the simultaneous action, which would speed play up.

There are some nice nods to replay value, as well. First, the locations are laid out randomly in an three-by-three grid next to the Empire State Building starting tiles. The different placement of the tiles – especially Atlantis, the United States, and Schweiz – will change your strategy and the flow of the game. Secondly, you can flip the locations over to reveal the shadow locations, which are more difficult versions of the standard locations. By varying the number of shadow locations, and which cards you change to shadow cards, the game difficulty can be scaled up. Thirdly, there are three expansions for the game: Dinocalypse and Hollow Earth expansions, based on the Dinocalypse Now! novel by Chuck Wendig, and Strange Travels, which provides rules for a sixth player, solo play, and alternate board layouts. Between these three expansions, there’s a lot of new stuff to keep the game interesting and exciting for some time.

We had a lot of fun playing this game. It was light and fast, with some interesting strategic choices to be made. I think it was the hit of the evening. And, for those who care, Benjamin Hu was the first to return to headquarters and shout, “I have returned!”

Sentinels of the Multiverse

Sentinels of the Multiverse

Sentinels of the Multiverse

The second game of the evening was Sentinels of the Multiverse, a fixed-deck comic book card game. Each player chooses one of the heroes to play and gets the 45-card deck that represents that hero’s powers and abilities. The players co-operate against a supervillain with a 25-card deck , in a location represented by a 15-card deck. All the decks are predetermined – there is no deck-building aspect to the game6, you just get your deck, shuffle it, and do your best to play it.

We played with five heroes: Ra, Mr. Fixer, Tempest, Fanatic, and Bunker. These weren’t necessarily the simplest heroes to play, but they were the ones that caught the eyes of the players. I ran through the villains for everyone, but got drowned out with the shouts of approval when I got to La Capitan7, and then we chose Rook City – the Gotham City analog – for location.

The game is pretty simple in execution, but elegant in design. The fundamentals of play are straightforward – the villain and environment decks work in a clockwork-like fashion to simulate their challenges, and every turn, heroes can play a card, activate one of their powers, and draw a card. As usual in card games, individual cards can play with the way cards are drawn and played, and the strategy of the game comes in how you play the hero cards in your hand.

Again, as is typical of card games, the interactions between your hero cards can produce synergies and combinations that pay off in big ways. These interactions aren’t always readily apparent, however, so playing an individual hero’s deck is a skill that will develop over repeated plays. While this points to some interesting replay value, there are a lot of heroes in the game that I’d like to try, which means that I’m likely to suck at the game for some time to come.

The game was fun, though. We pulled a bad card from the villain deck right off the bat, which brought in La Capitan’s crew of nasty henchmen, and that was not good. To add insult to injury, two or three of the four crew members had effects that attacked the hero with the lowest HP each villain turn. Poor Tempest was taken out in only two or three rounds.

Most of the rest of us followed. At the end of the game, Mr. Fixer was the last hero standing, and he managed to take down La Capitan with under five HP left of his own. It was tense toward the end, and I’m not a huge fan of player elimination8, but the mechanics that come from flipping a hero card over to the taken-out side are actually pretty cool, reflecting heroic sacrifice, renewed resolve of the surviving heroes, and stuff like that. Very flavourful.

Overall, the game was a lot of fun. The learning curve was sharper than for Race to Adventure, because of the complexity of playing the various hero decks. For players not familiar with hobby card games like this, it can be pretty opaque for the first little while. It also took significantly longer than the first game – about ninety minutes. A lot of that was learning the game, though, so I expect subsequent games will go faster.

And there will be other games – with the expansions, I have 18 different heroes, 12 different villains, and 12 different environments. The combinations available boggle my mind and pretty much guarantee that I’ll be trying another game soon.

Infiltration

Infiltration

Infiltration

The third game had the most complex rules and set-up. There were cards to sort, cards to shuffle, cards to lay out, cards to deal, tokens to sort, tokens to lay out, and characters to pick. The explanation of the rules was not as clear as I might have liked, and I hadn’t had time to do a solo run of the game to make sure I knew what I was doing, so I was less confident in running this one9.

As it turned out, this one ran smoother than Sentinels of the Multiverse. The card interactions, goals, and usage were all very straightforward and well-spelled-out on the cards themselves. Once the first round was done, everyone understood what was going on, what they needed to do, and how to do it.

In the game, you play various criminals in the cyberpunk universe of Android, another board game from Fantasy Flight. The goal is to break into a corporate installation, make your way through the two floors (and secret room) of the building, and loot it of all available data. Of course, just stealing the data is only half the job; you also have to escape before the corporate goons arrive, lock down the building, and arrest everyone still inside.

You have a hand of cards to help you accomplish your mission. Everyone has four cards to advance, retreat, download data, and interface with the technology of the place. In addition, everyone starts with (and can receive more) four item cards that give you special abilities and then are usually discarded.

Every turn, you play one card, and then resolve them in player order, and then check to see how much time you still have left using an alert tracker device. Moving through the building is accomplished primarily by using the advance and retreat cards, and each room you reveal will have some data and probably something else in them. The something else can range from a secret door to a special room, through data that you can’t get at unless you defeat the tech lock on it, to NPCs that might just gut-shoot you when you walk through the door10.

This is not a co-operative game. The winner is the criminal who is both outside the installation when the goons arrive AND has the most data downloaded. If you’re still inside the building (i.e., still on one of the room cards) when the goons show up, you lose. You can leave the building at any time through the room you came in, but you cannot re-enter the building once you leave. Thus, a lot of the game is risk assessment and management: how much longer do you think you can stay in the building, what’s the best use of your time, etc.

We had a lot of fun with this game. The constant-but-irregular increase in the alert counter, counting down to the arrival of the goons, added some very nice urgency to the game, and the rooms that we found all had something interesting going on. I’m not sure if the fact that we didn’t get much past the first floor is typical, but it felt a little frustrating – there were all these other rooms that we just weren’t getting to. Even the player who resigned herself to not escaping, and just pushed higher into the building, hoping for an emergency exit11, didn’t manage to reveal all the rooms.

But play was face, fairly simple12, and entertaining. It’s definitely going on the list for replay.

But What About Dinner?

Dinner was tasty. We all enjoyed it.

The Games in Question

The Games in Question

  1. Well, that ship’s pretty much sailed, huh? Yeah, I get that I’m being obsessive and pointlessly pedantic. Deal with it. []
  2. Pulled pork sandwiches, coleslaw, and potato chips, with home-made blueberry dumplings and home-made vanilla ice cream for dessert. Not a bad bribe, if I do say so myself. []
  3. Yesterday, I got the rest of my Kickstarter goodies, including the very nice messenger bag. []
  4. And not even using the solo rules included in one of the Kickstarter stretch goals, just playing three characters by myself. []
  5. Zeppelin, biplane, and jet pack, of course. []
  6. And I, for one, am immensely grateful. I never got the hang of the deck-building parts of other card games, and never enjoyed it. []
  7. “She’s a TIME PIRATE! How can we not fight her?” []
  8. “You lost the game. Now go sit in a corner while the rest of your friends continue to have fun.” “But I want to have fun, too!” “No. You have proven unworthy of fun. Now go. You’re embarrassing both of us.” []
  9. Especially teaching the game last in the evening, when people were getting more tired. []
  10. This is what happened to me on about the second turn. Being injured in the game sucks, and I was injured right up to the end. Never did get off the first floor. []
  11. There are a couple of other ways you can leave the installation besides the entry room. These all seem to require sacrificing some data, but pop you right out of the building instantly, so sometimes it could be worth it. []
  12. Though some of the choices were hard. []

Digging a Little Deeper

So, judging from the traffic coming in this past day, people are very interested in the Dresden Files Role Playing Game preview sent to the playtesters a couple of days ago. I’m still working my way through the books (did I mention it’s almost 700 pages?), but I figured I’d do two things to help satisfy the desire for information.

First, I’m going to invite questions. Want to know something about the game? Leave a question in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer it. One proviso: I’m working from the preview and, while it’s fairly complete, there may still be some last-minute changes. From what I’ve seen, I doubt it, but you should know.

Second, I’m going to put a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the two books below, with a brief comment on what’s in each chapter. That’ll give you some idea of what to expect when the book comes out and you go buy it.

Because you are going to buy it, right? Right.

Volume One: Your Story

This book is about playing the game. It’s a combination of player book and GM book; the co-operative nature of setting up the game advocated in the book makes this a natural choice.

Chapter One: Harry’s World

This chapter gives a short overview of default game world, based on the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher. It lays out some important concepts that you need to understand about the underlying assumptions of the world and game, including a section on Maxims of the Dresdenverse.

Chapter Two: The Basics

Here you get the bones of the FATE system, the modified version of FUDGE that’s the engine driving the game. It covers the mechanics of your character sheet, the dice you roll, what they mean, and how to use Fate Points.

Chapter Three: City Creation

Part of the fun of playing DFRPG is creating the city to be a home base for the game. This chapter walks you through the steps, including showing you where in the process you create the PCs. The system is more structured and focused than the playtest version, and you wind up with a nice collection of aspects and NPCs for your city, as well as some good dynamic situations for your players to deal with.

Now, there’s a sidebar in this chapter that talks about how you don’t really have to do this step as a group with your players. They recommend doing it as a group, though, and so do I. Why? because that way you make sure that the city you build has all the pieces for the kinds of stories and conflicts that your players are interested in dealing with. And it’ll give you some interesting surprises throughout the process.

Chapter Four: Character Creation

In the previous chapter, they recommend that you do the character creation as part of the city creation, to help tie the characters more tightly into the setting. This is a good idea. They also recommend doing character creation as a group. I think this is essential for any FATE game. The novel phase of character creation pretty much demands it.

They also mention the idea of having the GM create a character, and I found this to be a great idea in the playtest. We had multiple playtest character generation sessions, and I created a number of NPCs this way. It gave me a nice stable of NPCs with ties to and history with the PCs. I’m going to go one step farther than their recommendation, though; I’m going to suggest holding a couple of extra character creation sessions to have your players help put together some NPCs.

Chapter Five: Types & Templates

This is where they list the different types of characters available, and what powers and stunts you need. The options outlined here are:

  • Pure Mortal
  • Champion of God
  • Changeling
  • Emissary of Power
  • Focused Practitioner
  • Knight of a Faerie Court
  • Lycanthrope
  • Minor Talent
  • Red Court Infected
  • Sorcerer
  • True Believer
  • Were-Form
  • White Court Vampire
  • White Court Virgin
  • Wizard

There’s also a discussion about what to do if you don’t want to play one of these archetypes, but instead want to play something different, like, say, a Ghoul. Really, it’s pretty easy and flexible.

Chapter Six: Advancement

I haven’t looked closely at this section yet, but along with the standard information about how the characters advance, there’s also a section on how your city advances, which I think is a brilliant idea.

Chapter Seven: Aspects

Aspects are the meat of the system. They’re what makes FATE work. The discussion in this chapter spells out everything you need to know about them, including the kinds of things that make good Aspects, and what I call the Aspect Trick – picking Aspects that do double or triple duty for you.

Chapter Eight: Skills

Not much to say about this chapter. It’s skills -  the list of them, how to use them in different situations and for different purposes, stuff like that.

Chapter Nine: Mortal Stunts

Stunts are what give mortals their edge in the game. The way things balance, mortals will be the ones with the most stunts available to them. These are usually special ways to use some skills, or a different thing you can spend a Fate Point on, little things like that. Nothing huge, but stunts can really add flavour and variety to a character.

The chapter consists of three pages of rules for creating your own stunts, and then about nine pages of example stunts. This is very nice; one of the things my group had asked for during playtest was an expanded list of example stunts. And Evil Hat came through in spades.

Chapter Ten: Supernatural Powers

The counterpart to the stunts of the previous chapter, supernatural powers are the extra gravy you get for playing a supernatural character – the things that set you apart. These are expensive, and really cut into the Refresh Rate of Fate Points. This is the primary balance mechanic between mortal and supernatural characters, the thing that lets you play a Karin Murphy alongside a Harry Dresden. There’s about thirty pages of these, and it covers a wide enough range to let you build just about anything you want.

Chapter Eleven: Playing the Game

This section covers pretty much the entire mechanics of the game – it’s about thirty pages (well, twenty-eight), and handles actions and physical, mental, and social conflicts. Except for spellcasting, this is all the system you need. The system is great for running very cinematic, action-packed scenes, and we found that physical conflicts were threatening enough that the players were worried every time one came up that their characters would die. This is, I think, important for a game – there needs to be some risk, or success and failure stop mattering. It also led to some great roleplaying, as players (and characters) did their best to figure out ways to avoid the risk of combat, sometimes even just running away.

Chapter Twelve: Living With Magic

Here’s where the nature and flavour of magic in the Dresdenverse are laid out. Here, you find out about things like hexing, The Sight, soulgazing, the Laws of Magic, Thresholds, and Wizard biology and senses. The next chapter tells you how magic works, but this is the chapter that tells you how magic feels.

Chapter Thirteen: Spellcasting

It’s a game about modern magic, based on a series of books with a Wizard for a main character. You better bet that spellcasting gets some love, here. I’ve already talked a little about how the system has been changed to bring spellcasters into balance with the other character types. There have been a couple of other things added that really fill in some gaps: first, along with Evocation and Thaumaturgy, they’ve added a section on Sponsored Magic, which is essentially what you get when you make a bargain with a demon or a god. Second, they’ve included a nice list of examples of all the different things discussed in the chapter: evocations, thaumaturgical rituals, focus items, enchanted items, and potions. Very useful, because this is the most complex part of the game.

Chapter Fourteen: Running the Game

This is the GM chapter, and covers the GM side of all the things spelled out in other parts of the book. As is usual with Evil Hat stuff, it’s solid, useful, and detailed. The advice is practical and insightful, everything focused on telling a good story with the game.

Chapter Fifteen: Building Scenarios

One of my favourite bits of Spirit of the Century is the section on building adventures. This chapter does at least as good a job, showing how to build the kinds of situations and events you see in the Dresden Files books. It’s all about connections, in this game, tying you into the city and characters you’ve already created, so that everyone has an emotional investment in what’s going on.

Chapter Sixteen: Nevermore/Baltimore

All through the city-building chapter, they use the example of Dresdenifying the city of Baltimore. Here, they give you the results of of the fleshed-out example, a ready-to-play city for your use.

After this, there follows a glossary and index, as well as copies of the various forms and sheets used in the game. The index isn’t filled in, yet, but the rest of the stuff is complete and useful.

Volume Two: Our World

This is the setting book for the game, though some of the setting elements are covered in Volume One. As I said previously, you cold probably play the game without this book, but I think you’re really going to want it. Especially if you’re a fan of the books.

It looks like the book is going to open with a new story by Jim Butcher; for now, they have the short story Restoration of Faith as a placeholder.

Chapter One: Old World Order

Here we’ve got the low-down on the various power groups in the Dresdenverse and how they relate to one another. There’s a detailed discussion of the Unseelie Accords, as well as a lovely little section called Supernatural Conflicts That Could Kill You RIGHT NOW. Fun stuff.

Chapter Two: What Goes Bump

This chapter has a complete, detailed, statted roster of monsters, spellcasters, animals, and mortals. This does double-duty, both as a section of adversaries, and as a blueprint for building characters. It also has a very useful little list of how the various different supernatural baddies stack up against each other, so you can answer that vital question, “Who would win in a fight between a Faerie Queen and a Dragon?”

Chapter Three: Who’s Who

And this is where you find all your favourite characters from the Dresden Files. And the ones you love to hate. And the ones you’ve completely forgotten about. This section is amazingly complete – even if you never play the game, if you’re a fan of the Dresden Files, this book is a wonderful guide to the world.

Chapter Four: Occult Chicago

Carrying on in that theme, here we have Harry’s city: Chicago, in all it’s supernatural glory. Yeah, that’s right. Between the two books, you get two, fully-worked up cities, in case you don’t want to create your own, or if you need some inspiration. Because of the wealth of source material in the series, Chicago is a little more fleshed-out than Baltimore, and it’s got a lot of good information for play.

That’s it. After that, you get the index.

So, there’s the look at the two volumes of the game. I gotta say, it’s impressing me more and more as I read through it. It’s good stuff. I can’t wait to buy my hard copies this summer.

But that’s enough out of me. What are you folks interested in? What questions can I answer? Let me know, and I’ll do my best.

In My Hot Little (Virtual) Hands

Yesterday, those of us who were lucky enough to be part of the Dresden Files Role Playing Game playtest received a special treat from Fred Hicks of Evil Hat: .pdf copies of the (mostly) finished game.

Guess what I spent last night reading?

I’m not done yet, but I wanted to talk a little bit about my first impressions of the game. Keep in mind that not everything in these files is quite complete; of particular note, the introductions and indices are blank, the short fiction by Jim Butcher isn’t in there yet, none of the page references are completed (page XX), and a few – but not really all that many, from my initial look – pieces of art are missing. That said, here are my initial observations.

The books are gorgeous. The layout is attractive and readable. It’s busy without being distracting or illegible. The marginal notes are a nice touch, being comments from Harry Dresden, Billy the Werewolf, and Bob the Skull from the game world. They entertain, give insight into the game world, and help to clarify some rules points.

The books are big. Combined, we’re talking about nearly 700 pages. Now, from my initial glance, it seems like you might not actually need the Our World book, as all the rules for actually playing exist in the Your Story book. Having said that, the Our World book contains all the statted creatures and characters that you might want for running the game. For example, you can create a changeling character using only the Your Story book by making up the powers and abilities of a fey of a given type in conjunction with the GM, but the Our World book will give you a list of different types of fey and their powers and abilities, so you don’t have to do that work. And it’s always nice, speaking as a GM, to have a bunch of statted NPCs to throw into the game spur of the moment. You might not need Our World, but I really, really think you’re going to want it. Especially if your a Harry Dresden fan, just as a reference book for the world.

City building is substantially fleshed out, with more detail and structure, to help you create the kind of setting you want to play in. The running example is Baltimore, and it turns into a very interesting place as it gets Dresdenified.*

The section I went to pretty much right away was Spellcasting. See, during the early playtests, Wizard characters pretty much walked all over other character types, not so much because of their powerful, but because they were so flexible. A Wizard could, with a little time and effort, be great at anything, which caused them to overshadow other characters from time to time. The specific issue was with Thaumaturgy, which lets Wizards do pretty much anything they can imagine. I wanted to see if this was dealt with in the final version.

It is dealt with. Wizards still have their signature flexibility, but the price of using magic is higher. They get worn out and damaged (and possibly crazy) faster, which leads them to husband their resources more. The difficulty of accomplishing some of the bigger things with Thaumaturgy is increased, meaning that, if you want to do this, you’re going to be spending more time, more effort, and taking a bigger risk to get it done. I think it’s a very nice balance that lets a Wizard accomplish almost anything if they have the time, materials, and dedication, but limits what they can do within the game to things that are simpler and don’t step on the toes of the other characters.

That’s about all I’ve got for now. I haven’t finished reading both books (did I mention 700 pages?), but plan to do that this weekend. So far, I am very impressed with what I’ve got in hand. Kudos to the folks at Evil Hat for putting together such a fantastic game, and thanks again to Fred for making these files available to us playtesters.

It’s got me wanting to run a new Dresden Files game in Winnipeg.

 
 
 

*Yes. That’s a word, now. Why? Because I said so. Back

Deadly Island Pick-Up Game

Tonight was supposed to be our Shadowlands D&D 3.5 game, run by my friend Clint, but we had to cancel because one of the players is sick*. So, four of us were sort of at loose ends, looking for something to do rather than just call the evening off. I suggested some board games, but Clint asked if there was any one-shot I was prepared to run.

Now, running some one-shots is one of my goals with my change in gaming priorities, so I suggested possibly Mutant City Blues or Trail of Cthulhu, two games that I’ve been wanting to try, but haven’t got around to, yet. The problem was prep time; This was at about 1:00, and game time was 7:00. I didn’t have time to adequately prep the games, create characters*, re-read the adventure, and get back up to speed on the system, and also take care of the other stuff I have to do today.

And then I remembered Spirit of the Century.

Some time ago, I came up with and organized a Spirit of the Century Pick-Up League, with the bold plan of encouraging the play of the game in our group. We created characters, posted our character novels, and played a session. Everyone had a good time, and we agreed we should do it again.

That was more than two years ago. Life gets in the way, sometimes. But tonight was a great opportunity to resurrect the League, throw together an adventure, and play SotC again.

That’s what I did.

I broke some of the rules in the League Charter*, in the interests of time. I cribbed the adventure from the adventure design section of the rulebook, where they have the skeletons of five or six different adventures mapped out for the GM. And I didn’t send out an invite, both because of the time and because I wasn’t hosting the game. I cobbled together two pages of notes, shoved the rulebook and my Fudge dice in my bag, and away I went.

I started with the characters – Sky Knight, Artemis Argo, and Myra Hawkridge – going on the maiden voyage of the New Golden Hind*, a galvanic turbine driven ship designed by Dr. Hubert Toynbee. The ship, designed to run at a steady 70 knots and to withstand extremely rough seas, was going to make a crossing from Liverpool to New York, and the members of the Century Club were going to go along for the ride.

On my notes, this section of the trip took up about half a sentence. In play, it ran to about an hour, because everyone was having fun with the idea of the trip, and I kept elaborating on the ship, and playing up Toynbee’s intense scientist mode. So, we stuck with this bit for as long as people were enjoying it.

When I felt the time was right, and there was no more to explore on the ship, I moved on to the next scene: the terrible storm that wrecks the ship and strands our heroes (and a bunch of extras) on a mysterious jungle island in the North Atlantic*. There they found a cave for shelter, and spotted some old ruins up the side of an extinct volcano.

After getting shelters set up and water found and food gathered, our heroes took off to explore the jungle. They were called back to camp by gunshots, and found that velociraptors had attacked*, carrying off one of the sailors. Being pulp heroes, the characters set off into the jungle, following the trail. Along the way, they fought some velociraptors of their own, and some pterodactyls, and a sabre-tooth tiger*.

Then, of course, the Ultramegasaurus showed up and chased them. This was a (completely fictitious) dinosaur that was too big and fierce for them to actually hurt, but Argo used a great little feature of the game to declare that the thing’s vision was movement-based, like a frog or a T-rex, and he and Myra froze while Sky Knight lured it away.

When the group made it up to the ruins, where the trail led, they found a mostly-insane scientist had saved their sailor from the dinosaurs, and was trying to use him to bargain for a way off the island and away from the evil Dr. Methuselah – one of the game’s iconic archvillains, with the ability to use math to alter reality. It seems Dr. Methuselah was planning to bring through a host of Ultramegasauri through a time-gate that had already brought through other dinosaurs, smilodons, and the tropical climate*. As the poor deranged scientist was begging to be taken away, Dr. Methuselah solved him out of the reality equation, and he vanished.

Which led to the showdown in the time lab, which ended with Argo throwing a stone chair through the time machine and Sky Knight and Myra co-operating to decapitate Dr. Methuselah, thanks to their arcane or hyper-technological abilities.

Of course, that didn’t stop Dr. Methuselah from continuing to talk.

So they stuck his head in one box, his body in another, and, now that the time portal wasn’t messing with radio transmissions anymore, Sky Knight called in the Draco to pick everyone up and snow started to fall.

The game was a blast, and everyone had a lot of fun. I think that I’m going to have to start working to revive the League, have another character creation session for those that don’t have characters, and get things moving again.

Because I want someone else to run a game so I can play.

 
 
 

*Hope you feel better soon, Fera. Back

*Y’know, Pelgrane Press, some generic pre-gen characters for your GUMSHOE games downloadable from your website would be a great thing to add. Just sayin’. Back

*I made ’em, I can break ’em. Back

*It started out called The New Argo, but then Tom chose to play Artemis Argo, so that name didn’t work anymore, and I had to come up with a new one on the spot. I think I did pretty good. Back

*Yeah, I know. But it’s a pulp game, and when you get shipwrecked in a pulp game, it happens on a jungle island. And probably dinosaurs will show up soon. Anyway, I explained it in-game. Back

*See? Dinosaurs! Back

*I did mention this was a pulp game, didn’t I? Back

*Told you I explained it. Back

Home Again

I’m back from GenCon. As always, it was a real blast. I got back around 9:00 last night, and had to be up for work this morning, so my recollection is kind of chaotic, but I want to talk a little bit about it while it’s fresh.

Here we go, in no particular order:

  • Once again, I spent my time with Scott Glancy of Pagan Publishing and Jared Wallace of Dagon Industries, both fine gentleman. We shared the both with Shane Ivey and the Arc Dream Publishing crew, and they were a good bunch of fellows, as well.
  • Greg Stolze spent a lot of time in the both, flogging his games Reign and Dirty World. I got to know Greg back in the days I was writing for Unknown Armies, and it’s always a pleasure to spend some time with him.
  • Ken Hite, one of my favourite connoisseurs of the weird and the real and the intersection of the two, stopped by a few times. He’s got a new book out: Tour de Lovecraft. It’s a collection of his blog entries, and takes you on a tour through all 51 of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories. Good, good stuff. I bought two.
  • I got to touch base with Fred Hicks and Lenny Balsera of Evil Hat. They were both pretty busy, but it was good to shake hands and attach faces to names. Nice folks.
  • At the Pagan booth, we had the printer’s proof of one of their next books, Mysteries of Mesoamerica. My good friend and GenCon traveling partner, sculptor Clint Staples, wrote a big chunk of the book, and it’s been a long time coming out. But it’s more than worth the wait. This book is absolutely beautiful!
  • Had dinner a couple of nights with Gwen and Brian from Sigh Co. Met them last year, and they’re very nice people. Good to see them again.
  • Fantasy Flight Games is rapidly becoming the powerhouse of the show. I bought a new expansion for Arkham Horror from them that I didn’t even know was coming – The Black Goat of the Woods. There were about four other games I would have liked to pick up, but the budget can only be stretched so far.
  • Last year, I passed on the Campaign Coins, and I regretted it. This year, I bought the starter set, and feel much better about myself. They’re very nice.
  • Also picked up Aces & Eights, BRP, and Alpha Omega. Haven’t had much chance to get into them yet, though. Look for thoughts in future posts.
  • Didn’t get to play in Scott Glancy’s playtest this year, but he did talk to me some about the scenario and his thinking behind it. I just want to go on record as saying that there is something broken inside his very soul if he can come up with stuff like that, and I thank him for it.
  • Seemed to be a larger female turnout this year. More, there seemed to be more females buying game product for themselves this year. I like to see this; the hobby has a lot to offer everyone, regardless of gender, and it’s good to see it grow.
  • For those interested, the final tally for the count on Saturday was 43*.

So, it was a good trip, and I had a lot of fun. Thanks to everyone I spent time with down there. You guys are what makes the trip worthwhile.

 

*Those who know don’t need to ask. Those who ask don’t need to know.

First the Blood, Then the Fire

Looks like the second round of the Dresden Files RPG playtest is about to get underway. While the first round was the Bleeding Alpha, this one is the Burning Alpha, and it’s got a new graphic:

DFRPG Burning Alpha Playtest

DFRPG Burning Alpha Playtest

[EDIT: I am a moron. I haven’t been able to figure out how to put a graphic in this post yet.]
[EDIT: Got it. I think.]

We who were involved in the Bleeding Alpha are getting to see the files and try them out, and still talk about them, but the focus on this round is really on new folks trying out the game. The canny Evil Hat contingent is setting up a special mailing list for the Burners, while still encouraging us Bleeders to use our list.

So, what does that mean for me?

I don’t know that I can get the old gang together for another extensive playtest – it’s summer, now, and people are scattering. Also, I’ve run some number of one-shots and short adventures in the past several months, and people are starting to push me to do a longer campaign again. I don’t want to start a campaign using a test ruleset, so…

Besides, I’m still trying to find the time to do a test run of Mutant City Blues.

Still, I’m going to be reading the revised rules, and I’ll probably talk about some of the changes here. I may even revisit some of the play reports and characters, to show how they would change in the new rules.

Also, I encourage the new playtesters, you Burners out there, to send me a link to anything you post about the game. I’ll put it up here, and we can help keep people up to date on what’s happening.

The blood has been spilled. Now, the fire will purify.

Mutant City Blues – Initial Look

So, Simon Rogers over at Pelgrane Press did a nice thing: he sent me an early draft of Mutant City Blues, an upcoming GUMSHOE game. The idea (floated to him by the inestimable Fred Hicks, of Evil Hat fame) is for me to take a look at it, give it a try, and talk about it on my blog here.

Well, that was more than a month ago, and I’m just getting around to it now. I got distracted by the shinies of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and it just kept me from giving Mutant City Blues the attention it deserves.

Mea culpa.

Now I’ve finished a read-through, and I want to talk about my initial thoughts on the game. I plan to run a playtest in the next couple of weeks, though summer vacation time is upon us, and that means it’s a little harder to nail down enough players. I’m working on it, though.

Anyway.

Mutant City Blues is another GUMSHOE game, one that I think I’ll actually be able to get my players to try. Why not the other GUMSHOE games? Because they’re all horror games*, and horror doesn’t rank high on the list of styles my players enjoy**. Fair enough.

Mutant City Blues, though, is a superhero police procedural. If you’ve ever read the comic book Powers, or Alan Moore’s wonderful Top 10, you have a good starting basis for the world. Superpowers are more common than in Powers, and less common than in Top 10, but the feel and style are pretty similar. The setting also has hints of influence from sources like the Wild Cards novel series, Marvel Comics style mutant social issues, police procedurals in the vein of Michael Connelly or Ed McBain, and, of course, the ever-popular CSI and Law and Order TV series.

It’s a pretty rich background, and more space is devoted to it than any of the other GUMSHOE books to date. There are in-depth discussion of how super powers interact with the world of law enforcement, and with society in general, that help to give what could be a very flighty game a solid, grounded feel. In particular, the sections on how super-powered police officers fit in with the rest of the force really shine.

On the super power front, this game takes a very different approach from anything else I’ve seen. First of all, everyone has the same origin: a flu-like virus referred to as SME (Sudden Mutation Event). So, no magic rings, no alien babies saved from doomed planets, no radioactive arachnid incidents, etc. You get a bad cold as a mysterious virus rewrites your DNA, then you can tie people up with your hair.

You also don’t have free rein to pick your powers separately; they are arranged in a special diagram, showing the links between different powers, and the drawbacks generally associated with them. You get a certain number of points, pick one power you want from the chart, then have to spend more points as you move around the chart from that initial choice to take other powers. For extra points, you can skip over intervening powers, but every step costs points. Some of the powers are drawbacks; you can’t skip over them, but at least they don’t cost you any points. They show the types of problems normally associated with the kinds of powers you have.

So, let’s say I want to have super-speed and lightning-fast decision making. I can do that, but I wind up with a tendency to attention deficit disorder, because that drawback is between the two powers I want. I also am very unlikely to be able to command fish, which is way over on the other side of the chart, and it would cost a lot of points to move over there.

This may rankle some players. It sets arbitrary limits on what power groups you can reasonably have, and it can be a little difficult to figure out at first glance. The thing that I find interesting is that the system has been worked out, not so much to balance things, but to simulate the game-world idea that super powers tend to occur together, and that scientists are starting to understand which types are more commonly found together. It creates verisimilitude in the setting, and only incidentally balances the characters.

Very strangely for a superhero game, powers are not really balanced against each other, and this is deliberate. After all, in real life, people are not point-balanced, so why should RPG characters be?***

There’s also a sidebar that talks about what you should do if you don’t want to use the primary game-world conceits of grouped powers, a single origin, and little to no power balance, which is nice.

The largest section of the book (72 pages in the draft I have) is the listing of super powers and explanations of how they work. There’s a nice wide variety, and there are some that can be used as investigative skills, allowing you to find clues, as well as the more common powers that work like generals skills.

I haven’t talked about investigative skills and general skills, have I? Well, I mentioned how the GUMSHOE system works in this post, but maybe a little more detail is in order.

GUMSHOE is pretty focused and optimized for investigative games. It’s all about finding the clues and trying to interpret them.

Notice that I didn’t say “trying to find the clues.”

If there’s a clue available, and you’ve got the right skill to find it, you find it. Period. No rolling, no chance of failure. All you have to do is use the right skill.

That makes sense, right? I mean, the drama in CSI is not about whether or not Hodges is going to be able to identify the gritty white powder on the duct tape holding the victim’s mouth shut. The drama is about how Grissom interprets it and what he does about it.

Same thing here.

Finding clues takes investigative skills. These are pretty granular, with technical ones like Evidence Gathering and Fingerprinting, and interpersonal ones like Flattery and Flirting. You get a fair number of points to buy investigative skills; the number of points you get is based on the number of players in the game, and is balanced to make sure that you can cover all (or at least most) of the investigative skills no matter what size the group. So, you get more points if there are only two players than if there are six.

General skills are things that don’t get you clues. Things like Scuffling and Driving. These work more the way skills work in other games, with rolls and a chance of failure.

Super powers come in both flavours, which is where this little digression started.

So. 213 total pages. 72 pages of super powers. 61 pages of world background. 15 pages of tips for GMs and players. 19 pages for the introductory adventure. 2 pages for the table of contents. That leaves 44 pages of GUMSHOE rules, including character creation, system, lists and explanations for skills, and super powered combat. GUMSHOE is a pretty lean system.

And what do I think of it?

So far, I’m pretty intrigued. The setting and system really appeal to me, and I think I’ll have better luck floating a superhero police procedural game to (most of) my players than a horror game of any stripe. Now, I’ve got to send out the call for my testers and run the intro scenario.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

* As an aside, I think that the system fits very nicely with horror games. Horror games, in general, seem to mesh really well with mystery and investigation modes of play.

**My friend, Michael, just got back from Spain, and he’s a big Cthulhu fan, so I should be able to talk him into playing in a Trail of Cthulhu playtest.

***That’s actually a much deeper argument for another day, having to do with player perceptions of fairness and entitlement rather than anything that is intrinsic to an RPG in and of itself. But, as I say, for another day.