A lot slower session, which will hopefully balance the fire the posse jumped out of and the frying pan they’re heading into.
So, a retcon. Zeke’s player decided to retcon the ending of the last session so that Zeke died a heroic death, grappling the werewolf with his last breath, shoving it under the mire with his hammer, and going down into the sludge. This was under the assumption that Zeke wouldn’t want to live as a werewolf, but wouldn’t commit suicide either, so the player figured this was the best route out of a potentially interesting character development.
But, since the party has already cornered the market on Six Foot Tall Man-Mountains What Kill Things, his replacement option—occult investigator—filled about six niches the party was lacking entirely, and was welcomed aboard.
So, the actual session.
Having returned to the village from whence they originated—Troika Sinclaire having woken up in the process—the posse bravely decided to bed down for the night. Troika and
Raizo Warlord Kang decided to sleep in the abandoned saloon, Jeremiah found an old wall to sleep next to, while Sam Steele opted for an actual bed. The next morning, they decided to head back into the woods to search for the werewolf nest, and finish them off.
Sam worked up plans for a Gizmo; the original idea was for some kind of rudimentary Smelloscope, but in actuality it turned out to be an elderly bloodhound which acquired the fucking terrible name of Bingo. Buying some loot donkeys to carry whatever gold and magic gems the werewolves undoubtedly retained, they set out across the woods and thicket after the missing girl, Sam having purloined an article of clothing thick with the missing girl’s “scent.” Yeah, they went there. Pervs.
After talking with a prophetic departed Zeke, and when Bingo returned them to the trains from whence they’d departed, the posse decided there was nothing more of value here and went to Denver, terrifying the countryside with tales of werewolves in the meantime. Upon arrival, Sam Steele assaulted bar patrons again with vintage frontier gibberish of the rough Canadian frontier, then went to talk to his Masonic contacts, while everyone else stayed at the hotel. Bumping into occult investigator Tony White, Sam found out Mr. White had been referred to them by a mutual connecting.
Arriving back at the hotel, Sam berates Jeremiah into action. Jeremiah heads out to his local Ranger contacts, where he’s almost killed (again), and “discovers” (again) that he’d blown up a mountain, killing thousands and resigning from the Rangers over the incident. (Learning Curve: social skills are useful, too!) Directed to a nearby town called Bakersville, one of many affected by the explosion and its ensuing wasting death, the posse headed out in that direction. Sam trades in his lonkies for a horse. Jeremiah scrapes up enough money to buy one of the lonkies.
Bakersville is now a ghost town—literally, as Sam and Mr. White discover. The occult investigator, and Troika, investigate, meeting the groups’ contact in town: a man named Texas Red, who didn’t make it out of the blast zone. Most of the party rents expensive air-filtration suits to survive, and trundle slowly upwards to the crater set in the middle of a mountain range—basically, picture if Mount Saint Helens had been one peak in a long continuous range of tall mountains. And if it was flattened a bit more, and then filled in with debris and rainwater.
So, White questions Red to figure out what happened, and discovers that the guy that Jeremiah, Warlord Kang, and Zeke (along with an Injun and Red) killed—Sherman Henry Miltworth, mad scientist and minor Smith & Robards competitor—was blown out of the world because of something he was working on dealing with tiny particles that exist somewhere in the ether. (You know, atoms.) Also, weaponized ghost rock, and Reckoner-powered future gadgets. He built his mercantile empire on the backs of his mechanical men, sent out to burglarize Union, Confederate, and Canadian weapons shipments, which Miltworth then improved upon using his own pyrotechnic flair, selling the end results back to the warring states. Robots which, by chance, had ambushed a Canadian train and slain most of Sam Steele’s merry mounties.
Meanwhile, Jeremiah gets his suit aquatically adapted by Sam, adds on a Bingo-powered oxygen system, and descends into the lake—Sam conveniently dumps some chemicals in to make the water glow. Finding not much but rubble and melted cannon, Jeremiah stumbles into a vault-like door set into the wall on his way out, which he then opens, and (of course) Jeremiah is sucked into the passageway, snapping his lifeline.
Sam ends up throwing Bingo’s air-supply treadmill into the lake, and using this as a raft, he, White, and Warlord Kang paddle their way off to rescue Jeremiah. They find him in the remains of the bunker, surrounded by cans of P.M. Potts’ Potted Meat Company’s Potted Meats, along with a very dead Sherman Miltworth. Also, his infernal clanking robotic butler, which was effectively slain before it could reveal any interesting plot information. With the butler burning behind them, the posse bravely paddled their way back to Troika, having done their duty and collected some waterlogged blueprints and a probably case of ghost rock fever.
Failing to pay a fate chip to make Bingo a permanent Gizmo, the strain of powering Jeremiah’s oxygen supply is too much for the old dog and he suffers a catastrophic failure of his circulatory system.
So, Deadlands. Three sessions in and we’ve got the rules hacks pretty much nailed down now, namely balancing the initiative system so that the spread didn’t result in either 1.) half the party holding four cards and the other half holding one, or 2.) the entire party holding three to five cards. Our fifth character finally appeared: Troika Sinclaire, former outlaw and ne’er-do-well who was left for dead, suffered a vision quest, and is now giving up parts of the white man’s ways to get back to nature. (So, a gone native Shaman.)
Session 1 – Point Insertion
The characters wake up to find themselves hogtied in a barn, with short-term amnesia and sketchy memories of the last four months. The last thing they remember was a New Years’ 1878 celebration, where they were out drinking and partying—only, each remembers the posse holding different roles (one thinks Ezekiel the Blessed was the bartender, Zeke remembers the Ranger Jeremiah Johnstone handing out drinks, etc.). That and a selection of clues (e.g., props to make up for the lack of plot—photos, stock certificates, and the front page to a Tombstone Epitaph). Easily breaking their bonds, then arming themselves with whatever junk they can find, when Warlord Kang jumps down from the rafters.
So, a note. Four of the five Posse members took a Veteran draw, and the ninja ended up with a free mysterious background from snagging a joker during character creation. His joker gave him Doppelganger—and, being a man of the Orient, the logical pick was Warlord Kang, tyrant-king of his own Shan-Fan (San Francisco) based criminal syndicate and leader of the Iron Dragon Rail Corporation. Pretty much your standard Yellow Peril caricature made flesh. No shit, he looks like Ming the Merciless:
Of course, only two people recognize that he’s Warlord Kang: Sam Steele, Moutie, and Zeke the blessed. So, Sam arrests him and want to bring him forth to Ottawa to be hung for his crimes. After arresting the others for being “drunks.”
Moving right along, the exterior is filled with cornfield and dust, rolling hills in the background, and a forlorn farmhouse. Going inside, they find the farmhouse is filled with blood and some of their gear—the more noticeable and/or stabby parts. And that’s when Zeke notices the dust cloud coming ’round the hills, which looks to be a posse of some sort.
After Warlord Kang discovers some bodies in the well, including an undead girl, Sam demands that they investigate, and rescues a ghost—making the others question his sanity. Having spent quite a while in the well, the riders show up, being a frothing-at-the-mouth lynch mob. Warlord Kang does the sensible thing and hides in the corn, while everyone else parlay. Through much work, they work the leader of the mob down to a “sporting chance” and gives them to the count of thirty before they ride whooping after them into the corn. They manage to escape by diving into a cave the ghost girl shows Sam, and they sneak they way through some caves.
Emerging on the other side, Warlord Kang guts some locals, including some Sam and Jeremiah tied up, and Zeke struts off back to the farm to bury the corpses. As they’ve already been buried, the lynch mob moving home in a well-organized fashion, the posse notes the date: April 4th, four months since their last memory. With that knowledge in mind, they ride off to get train tickets to get to DODGE CITY, where Jeremiah’s guns are known to be held.
They ride on a train that is ambushed by werewolves, and almost all die in the scuffle. They don’t, which is the important part.
Session 2 – Residue Processing
Battered and bleeding, with the train’s workings beyond their ken, the posse treks off to some lights in the distance, which turns out to be a near-abandoned canning factory, property of the E.M. Potts Potted Meat Co. (easily identified by the blue cow on their cans’ labels). Heading inside, Warlord Kang sneaks away, while everyone else marches into the main office, chatting down the sole survivor: the disrupted Bruce, with a shattered arm. Revealing that the head of the company was doing experiments on livestock and Mexican immigrants, some howling in the distance attracts the posse’s attention. Finding himself abandoned to the elements, Bruce commits suicide.
Meanwhile. Having noticed a room full of sharp cow-gutting automated saws, and finding a sleeping Troika Sinclaire locked up in a cage in some kind of office, Warlord Kang stumbles into some werewolves when attempting to avoid the howling things. He ninjas away, only to stumble into some more werewolves. One smoke-bomb later, he starts hiding himself in the ventilation system, and after the rest of the posse got out of the death-room, stumbles onto the werewolf breeding pit, a nest forged out of bones and bits within the central control office.
The rest of the posse gets in through the processing factory’s open doors, which slam shut behind them just as the automated saw system kicks in. Not wishing to go through them, Zeke attempts to kick the door open—and succeeds in bashing open the aluminum siding. At which point he is grappled by a werewolf. As Sam and Jeremiah shoot at the pressure pipe powering the saws to disable them, Zeke grapples the werewolf and beats it to death. Peering outside, they see… more werewolves. Zeke and Sam decide to crawl through the meat trough in the center of the room, underneath the saws, to get to the door at the other side. Jeremiah attempts to hold the werewolves back, but is badly wounded, and falls into the trough to crawl his way to safety. As he emerges, the saws finally turn off.
Regrouping, they fortify themselves in the office where Troika Sinclaire finally awakes. They debate proper strategy when they realize they’ve been trapped by werewolves, plans to climb to the roof are brought up and brought down, as are plans to run out, kill a cow, and drag it back into the room as a werewolf lure. Eventually, they run off while setting some dynamite next to the ghost rock boiler (that Warlord Kang had spotted in his immaculate escape), bringing the whole building down, and causing a massive stampede of cattle that glow eerily blue under the moon.
Regrouping once more, they make their way to the ruined factory’s train, and fending off the alpha wolves and the wolflings, make their escape thanks to Science!.
Outside of town, Zeke asks them to stop because he will not ride on stolen merchandise. Instead, he rides Troika’s horse Swiftwind while Warlord Kang runs alongside him.
Session 3 – …in noctu luna lacrimat
Finally arriving in Dodge City, having converted their stolen train into a steam wagon, they disassemble. Troika falls into a miraculous and eerily session-long coma. Jeremiah goes to the telegraph office to warn the Agency of the werewolves, and gets entangled with sheriff Bat Masterson. Sam gets into a bar brawl with an unkempt man wearing a Lance Corporal Mountie uniform. Zeke walks off to find Jeremiah, and also gets embroiled with the local law, who is trying to figure out why Jeremiah abandoned his roots to become a wanted man who blew up a scientific institute in Colorado. He does send a deputy to get Sam out of trouble, who then buys the uniform off of him.
Save for Warlord Kang, the group opts to spend the night in jail, where it is attacked by the ninjas of Warlord Kang. Attempting to capture them using smoke bombs and knockout gas, the ninjas cause havoc before they are put down. Jeremiah and Zeke go back into their wall-less cells, while Warlord Kang runs off with some of the dead ninjas’ gear, and Sam goes to get the law. One midnight trial later, and the posse is riding back to Denver, to find out more about the explosion they were reputed to cause.
When the train they were on was stopped by a strange coincidence—a stopped, empty, and surprisingly familiar-looking train heading from the direction they are now currently going—Jeremiah is roped into a missing persons investigation on behalf of one of the locals. Heading out into the woods, they find an abandoned mill in a swamp, the tree branches littered with little occultist charms.
Progressing further, they find a stone circle in the center-ish of the swamp, lined with candles, the circle containing scattered bits of feathers and honey. Lighting the candles and filling the area with torches, Zeke stumbles upon a crudely-made broadsheet advertising the Enlightened Order of the Weeping Moon, a Victorian-style gentleman’s club that is very exclusionary and which primarily exists in California, Oregon, and Back East.
While debating their next course of action, a massive werewolf, black as the night, covered in even blacker snaking tattoos carved into its fur, jumps into the middle of the circle and attacks. During the pitched battle, Zeke is mortally wounded, and Jeremiah is battered, but by the skin of their teeth they survive. At which point they hear more howling off in the swamp, and skedaddle.
I’ve had a couple people ask me this, since I have a lot of good memories of playing Classic, and own a surprising number of the books. (Also, I have some Great Rail Wars miniatures stored away for a rainy painting day.) One of my friends actually got a bit miffed about it, since he’s a huge fan of Classic, and wondered why we didn’t stick with Classic Deadlands since it is such a “simple and elegant” system. Well…
First off, there are a number of positive things I will say about classic—it’s awesome, it’s got a unique charm, it’s my ideal balance of style and substance—but “simple” is not a descriptor that anybody in the world uses to describe the Classic rules. I consider Star Wars d6 a simple system—skill-based dice pools, no special abilities to shop for, no derived stats or rolling on random tables, no need for GM fiat since it has plenty of rules depth. It has its flaws (e.g. character advancement power curve, buckets-of-dice) but when you can make a character in about a minute, without needing to consult any rulebooks, it’s a simple system. Dread is simple, it’s fucking Horror Jenga. Marvel Superheroes is simple (roll dice, consult chart); ICONS is actually more complicated in some ways, but also damn simple, hence why it’s a good pick-up game. Cyberpunk 2020 is relatively simple (d10+stat+skill vs difficulty, ye-haw).
Elegant is in the eye of the beholder. Some people consider THAC0 an elegant system. For what it’s doing—retaining the AD&D decreasing scale of armor class while compacting it into a single line chart and simple math equation—yep, it’s much more elegant than combat matrices. But I don’t consider it “elegant” in the slightest. Some people find HERO elegant, though I consider it too math-intensive and way too crunchy for my tastes. d20 uses an elegant base mechanic (roll one d20, add modifiers) for everything, but becomes UN-elegant through the bloat of modifiers and mechanics it feeds off. My definition of an “elegant” mechanic is one that’s effective and streamlined, something that’s graceful (or has ornate richness on a metagame level) yet also straightforward, easy to use. An elegant RPG is one free of unnecessary subsystems and rules bloat, yet with its own style and flair, and good mechanical synergy.
My first thought was White Wolf’s Storyteller system until I realized I was just thinking of the dice pool/system resolution, not the sheer level of fiddly crunch that goes into my favorite of its game lines (Exalted, Werewolf, Mage), two of which have stupid-high learning curves. (Exalted’s rules fit the “ornate richness” bill, though.) Something like Adventure!—stripped down Storyteller, fast and streamlined—I’d say is ideally elegant. Star Wars d6 is one of the most elegant systems ever devised—and I say this being less of a fan of d6 compared to my friends. CthulhuTech’s Framework is pretty elegant on its own, ignoring the weird tier effect when your party is a dude in a two-story living mech, a dude in a killer mythos symbiote suit, and Bob the guy with a shotgun. I hate to sound like a raving fanboy, but my prime candidate for an “elegant” game is Fate—simple and streamlined, yet with a surprising amount of heft to its crunch, and a lot of versatility. Hence why I keep trying to run a real, full campaign with it. Houses of the Blooded fits the same bill.
Deadlands is a crunchy game with three layers of mechanics (dice, cards, chips), with sub-mechanics on each layer. Heck, most things have their own mechanic to keep track off (knacks are new chip mechanics, relics are a free edge and hindrance, spells use different card draw levels, et al). It’s nowhere near the high-end of crunch on the RPG scale—it’s not D&D, or even old White Wolf, and something like HERO, the Warhammer 40k RPGs, or GURPS make it look downright light—but compared to the games of its era it’s not very simple; in fact, it’s pretty damn complicated. It’s a bit bloated and clunky when you have different mechanics for resolving everything, and that can make it user-unfriendly. (Also, it requires more dice than the average gamer owns.) Also interesting to note that Deadlands creator Shane Lacy Hensley found his own game bogged down in combat, and broke out the Great Rail Wars rules for big battles.
Simple? No. Elegant? Depends on your preferences. I think the system has great depth and complexity, but that’s the exact opposite of simple and elegant. I also say it’s pretty brutal; coincidentally, so is Dresden.
Why Don’t I Use Deadlands Reloaded?
I realize most gamers love Savage Worlds, but its popularity eludes me—I’ve never particularly liked the system. (Yes, I have played in it; three different games, two different GMs, somewhere around five sessions before we all got bored and went to another system.) In fact, I find it pretty lackluster and a clumsy mess, particularly Reloaded. Savage Worlds just feels odd when everyone’s a bog-standard human, and Reloaded made it a lot easier on characters in general (which takes away some of the typical Deadlands flavor) while taking away some of the gnarly style/substance mechanics (poker draws for everyone, neat chip effects) that fans had to kitbash into the system. While most (if not all) of its settings and Plot Point campaigns are brilliant and/or unique, the system’s many eccentricities astound and annoy me. It’s something like an indie-storygame but for D&D players: safe and accessible because it can use miniatures and has tactical rules, but is rules-light enough to be considered a new, weird, unique system.
It’s a cinematic game that uses miniatures (being derived from the Deadlands miniatures game, Great Rail Wars); it has a low standard difficulty (4) yet someone who’s buffed themselves to a godlike d12 fails 33% of the time on that die (and 66% of the time on their Wild Die d6); higher-level combat is toothless until someone penetrates a PC’s armor and they explode into meat chunks; its Plot Point campaigns have the bad habit of ruining all the world’s secrets, and even screwing over world-specific races; the early books were dominated by the equivalent of the Microsoft Paperclip, Smilin’ Jack, with his overblown tough-guy talk.
It’s a tactical game where the tactics don’t matter. It’s a cinematic game where it’s a challenge to be cinematic. It’s a generic toolkit, which often leaves things flavorless. It takes parts of Deadlands (most of the rules; die types, card initiative, etc.), Star Wars d6 (wild die and feel), TORG (action deck, health system, test/trick/taunt), and D&D (the tactical parts), throws them into a pot, and Savage Worlds is the result; hence why the mechanics can be disjointed and over- or under-developed. (Why does it use cards? Because Deadlands used them for initiative and TORG had its action deck, and both of those were cool, so we’re using them too. That makes us cool, right?)
For having “Fast, Fun, Furious” as its tagline, it may be speedy and efficient, but I didn’t have a ton of fun, and “furious” seems a bit out-of-place. Unless that referred to Smilin’ Jack.
To me, it straddles the fence precisely at the awkward middleweight position in the gaming hierarchy, enough so that it becomes a hindrance: why not move up a step and play a real game with more developed and crunchier mechanics (e.g. Classic Deadlands, 7th Sea, White Wolf, TORG), or move down a notch and play something more versatile and rewarding of cinematic action (e.g. Fate)? To me, Fate does everything Savage Worlds is supposed to do and (for me) didn’t: you can have fast, furious combat (even on the mass scale); it doesn’t need any more bookkeeping or GM prep; it’s a generic toolkit game which easily becomes flavorful and connected to a setting/campaign; and play is a lot more fun (because of its unpredictability and versatility) while being very rewarding as well.
It’s been a while since I had the free time to post anything, so numerous posts have become backlogged in my mind. They’ll be backlogged a bit further since I wanted to start out my attempt at liveblogging my Deadlands game, and see if that goes to any more fruition than my attempts to liveblog Pathfinder or Starblazer.
So far, we’re most of the way through character creation. I’d hoped to jump into the action last night, so that everyone would know what they were getting into, but since one of the players needed more time to work on their character (and several others needed some polishing) we’ll hold off until next week. Regardless, the party:
- Sam Steele, agent of the RCMP (that’s the Mounties to you and me), law man on a mission, gunsmith, survivalist, and all around badass pulp hero. (Literally, he’s based on a real person, name and all, who would have been as well-known as Bat Masterson or Wyatt Earp had Canada dominated the dime-novel/pulp marketplace.) Lots of wilderness lore and survival, some investigation, a bit of Presence and Endurance, has the only Resources in the party, and uses fists to back up his longarm. The tinkerer is coming out via Science!, and Sam has a couple of nifty gadgets; he’s tweaked out his Winchester ’76, has an armored battle redcoat, and his pith helmet and obligatory Mad Science Goggles peek into the ether so Sam can tell if someone’s lying or not.
- James Johnston (name forthcoming), agent of the Texas Rangers, law man on a mission, gunsmith, Big Damn Hero, and all around badass. The players for the Ranger and the Mountie showed up with very similar concepts—lawman gunfighter, beloved by all, who must help those in need, who tinker with their guns—yet went in totally different ways. The Ranger, for one, went full-bore gunfighter, with tricked out LeMat Undertakers thanks to weird science, though he’s more into repairing his devices than making them with Science!. He’s also a lot more into intimidating people and using his reputation, though he also has a lot of wilderness survival skills.
- Name Forthcoming, witch hunter. The party’s blessed, who is Solomon Kane’s 1870s equivalent. For some reason, we decided he had a stupid big hammer, and the player went along with it. (Not sure if he stuck with the John Henry part that we suggested to make the hammer make sense, but we shall see.) After spending all his points, he ended up with a relic Hammer of the Cross, a holy hammer which smites evil (much as the character). With some decent buffs to tale-telling and talking, he can also distribute Fate Chips, heal the sick, and his mere touch harms abominations. Though he’s not the best at ranged, get him up close and he’ll tear apart adversaries. Though I see he should probably switch some skills to take advantage of his powers.
- Name Forthcoming, ninja. The player wanted Martial Arts in the supernatural sense, and ended up going full-blown ninja—which probably sounds out of place, until you remember that Deadlands had a lot of weird stuff in California, and the Great Rail Wars had an entire faction (Iron Dragon) of ninja and ronin miniatures. So, a lot of crouching tiger, hidden dragon kinds of abilities, buffed up with inhuman toughness, smoke bombs, and a kusarigama. Lots of stealth and deceit and disguising, filling a niche that the party was in desperate need of.
- Name Forthcoming. Originally was going to play a former eeeevil gunslinger who is trying to redeem himself, thanks to some magical trickery. But having two powerful law dogs and a Blessed with the Lord’s Hammer made that idea a bit untenable, so he’s going back to the drawing board and rethinking the concept.
All of the characters other than the Blessed and the last one are Veterans of the Weird West, though the last one was seriously thinking about it. The law dogs got some of the less-awful but still fun hindrances from the draw, though the ninja got a couple of choice ones.
One of my favorite new game mechanics was the idea of plot stress, introduced in Cubicle 7′s FATE products, Legends of Anglerre and Starblazer. In essence, it creates a structured framework for how a plot/event/campaign will play out—a reactive ticking bomb, in a way, that progresses towards your plot’s end-goal. It consists of “plot stress” (health) boxes, usually 2-3 boxes on each of four stress levels. These are are ticked away when things occur in the game to complicate or progress the expected situation—these will often come off a predetermined list you’ve cooked up, but can really be anything that impacts the plot. When each stress level is filled up, the campaign takes a “Consequence” and alters the situation by progressing down your pre-determined plot avenue.
Let’s have a concrete example that’s not so freaking abstract, and less complicated by FATE terminology.
My current ICONS game—villains forced to run black ops for the SHIELD knockoff, ala Suicide Squad—got a weird multidimensional theme because half the players were connected to the infernal realm for one reason or another. One was a demon sent to Earth Superman-style, raised ignorant of his heritage and prophesied Dark Scion destiny; one player was a wealthy Golden Age bank robber whose family cavorted with demon-binding to extend their lifespan, and another was playing his demon-power-infused manservant. My original inspiration was a little Savage Worlds setting called Necessary Evil, wherein the players are villains in a world under alien attack, forced to fight off the alien invasion because said aliens captured all the world’s superheroes right before the campaign starts.
I liked the idea of a demonic incursion better than a squid-headed purple alien attack, so I switched that; really, the invasion and playing villains are the only things I remember from Necessary Evil, so that’s all I stole from that. The demons are an extra-dimensional race with lots of political infighting (kind of like drow, now that I think about it), with one or two houses after the Dark Scion character to save him, while the rest want to kill him—sealing the fate of the world by denying the prophisized events to come about, which will eventually cause the end of the world. Since the other two were tied to a different demonic house, the politicking and complexity worked out nicely.
Plot Stress Consequence Description   Minor Various factions put hit squads near PC bases   Major Cosmic events distract superheroes    Severe Demonic rifts open; search for Dark Scion    Extreme Destruction of Earth looms overhead
Dealing “plot stress damage” is based on in-play events. Say, killing a group of demonic assassins might do +1 to it; traveling to another dimension or making themselves known might do +2; revealing critical information did +1 (and there was plenty of that, thanks to one player accidentally creating an observation imp and forgetting about it); tagging something related to demons or the infernal realm might do +2. As things turned out, I’m re-structuring the stress track since the demonic invasion was triggered way early by inter-party politics, paranoia, and the mentalist trying to mindjack the avatar of Chronos, Liege of Time and Master of Your Future, heading into the far past to capture the Dark Scion for himself. (Yes, the Greek titan, plus some Galactus, if Galactus was a 29th-Century being of pure force and limitless energy. Rolling a 15—a Massive Cosmic Success—followed by two 10s and an 8 meant that the player almost, but not quite, succeeded.)
Another example, from my increasingly modified Pathfinder Serpent’s Skull game. I’d re-skinned large chunks; the first module’s boss monster Yarzoth (cleric of an evil Kull-style serpentfolk race; I was playing up their alchemical and magi-tech abilities) escaped and became an ongoing threat, and the serpentfolk threat increased, as was my end-cap goal of level 20 for the campaign. The stress track kicks in when the players arrive at an ancient ruined city (think El Dorado done in full sandbox mode) in the third module, tied to the rise and fall of the serpentfolk’s dead god.
This kind of tracking method is incredibly helpful when you’re dealing with a sandbox scenario with tons of triggered and plot-related events, let me tell you.
Plot Stress Description   Players tracked, ambushed by serpentfolk   Assassination attempts on player allies    Serpentfolk unleash alchemical monsters    The Dead God Rises! Ritual begins
Plot stress was built more around the setting and plot than the previous example. Exploring the city district where the serpentfolk lived dealt +1, and cleansing it of serpentfolk life did +2. Finding an avenue into the subterranean realm dealt +1; the El Dorado city was the bulk of module three, and triggering the key events to the next two modules (linked to it in plot and theme) also dealt plot stress. There were also a few other things—and my plot stress track did away with consequences, and expanded thing out by a bit, since my plan had been to take the plot past what was written.
The idea of plot stress pretty abstract—it follows movie logic in that some things happen at just the right time because it’d complicate things or look cool, because of the Raymond Chandler rule (when things get boring, men with guns enter the room), or because plot-wise everything would have led up to it by then. It’s a metric for the GM to determine when the game moves forward and track large-scale plot occurrences; it takes the “eyballing-it” method I already do and gives it a nice framework to build around. Most of the plot stress triggers were built in advance, though they anything else that was relevant would add to it. (Finding a way to kill Yarzoth might have started the track with three boxes checked, for example, and making an alliance between any of the serpentfolks’ traditional rivals would add +1 to +3 depending on who was contacted.)
In general, I don’t plan my games out ahead of time like most normal people. Instead, I tend to come up with a more checkpoint-oriented design: here are a bunch of key plot events, situations, or cool shit I want to include that will lead to each other, and successively, to some sort of end goal. How or when they happen is more up to actual play and the events within the game than anything else. Hence my love of plot stress; it codifies my Handwavium method with something less hand-wavey and more frameworked, yet still vague and flexible.
When people mention that FATE is a “rules-light” game, or that it isn’t “mechanically stable” or “crunchy enough,” that triggers a knee-jerk reaction from me: “Huh? Are you drunk?” Because while FATE is a very streamlined and simple game, it’s anything from “rules-light.” Seriously, if you think it’s light, go crack open a copy of Starblazer or Strands of Fate and read through it. Hell, Dresden Files is two huge books packed with mechanics. It’s not so much “rules-light” as much as it is “thinking of rules in a totally different manner”—namely, more metagame, and on an ever-expanding scale.
Moreso, FATE has hard mechanics to run things other games deal with on a more roleplay/story/fluff basis. Want to play out a conflict between an invading alien empire and good old Planet Earth? Want to run a war between the thieves’ guild and the assassin’s guild or a religious crusade against demonic invaders in D&D? An internal power-struggle between branches of the Aztechnology megacorp in Shadowrun? Jump into some jetfighters or mecha and continue run-and-gun gameplay without a hitch? You can do any of those, very easily, in any system. However, games rarely support these with game mechanics, leaving them in the realm of the abstract. But FATE can do any of those, and more, mechanically. Thanks to the power of the FATE Fractal.
The Fractal itself is simple, a framework for GMs to hang whatever they want off of it, and goes along the lines of “anything can be represented in-game as a character.” Which sounds pretty simple and straightforward—duh—until you stop and realize the full potential of this tool.
It’s not like this is the first time someone’s introduced a sub-set of game mechanics that can be defined as “something bigger than a character, but made as if it was a character.” In the Kingmaker adventure path for Pathfinder, the city and empire rules are based on the same tried-and-true d20 system formula used for characters—they have skill bonuses, and make checks with them to generate income or resist rebellion. CthulhuTech, MechWarrior, and several other games use glorified (and much expanded) character generation rules for building mecha. GURPS builds vehicles and constructs much in the same way it builds characters. The new Song of Ice and Fire RPG has rules to handle family lines and their holdings which aren’t far removed from its rules to handle characters.
Most of the above examples are extrapolated from the Starblazer, Anglerre, and Dresden Files books, which have rules for everything: organizations, vehicles, items, empires, monsters, cultures, cities, families and lineages, and more. Where in most games these things are too abstract to handle, FATE takes these abstracts and slaps them into a character roll. (Ironic, given that the game governed by abstracts instead of hard variables.)
The difference is that FATE expanded the scope dramatically, and allowed almost limitless scope and scale in its conflicts. The rules are fast, smooth, and cinematic enough to handle just about anything—and as usual, the GM can come up with some unique ways to handle situations, at their own jurisdiction. The advantage of using similar rules to run larger entities means that players are already familiar with them, meaning they don’t slow the game down as you learn new rules.
The names, scope, and scale might be different, but the mechanics work just the same. While a character might use their Guns skill to attack a space alien, which defends with its Dodge or Athletics, an alien empire might roll its Control to send in troops to quell a rebellion, and the defending planet or government resists with its Security skill (and invokes its Planetary Defenses Aspect for a bonus). A dogfight might involve one fighter jet making a maneuver—an Immelmann Turn—to place the “Where’d He Go?” Aspect on enemy fighters, something you could tag to give bonuses to dodge or remain hidden, or give a bonus when making a “surprise” attack. Maybe the thieves’ guild would make a Resources maneuver to try and buy out the assassins’ guild’s backers out from under them, giving them the Aspect “Support Network Collapse.”
It’s a beautiful thing that gets people thinking outside the box on how to handle situations mechanically. A vehicle or item, even an organization, those are obvious examples. But since everything can be a character, that adds limitless freedom to the GM, provided they’re open to some creative planning. Some of the posts on the FATE blog showcase this: the obvious simple way to handle a fire is to make it into an “On Fire” aspect. If you wanted to go out of the ordinary, go more in-depth, and full-blown meta as a GM, you could use the Fractal to run a “fire” consuming a burning building mechanically.
Give it a stress track, allowing people to try fighting it with extinguishers and hoses. Heck, if you want, go crazy with that: the more the fire spreads, the hotter it burns, so maybe its stress track can increase when it makes a successful roll or by generating Spin. Give it skills to represent a fire’s functions, like Smoke (to asphyxiate), Spread (to consume more zones), Intensify (to burn hotter), or Blaze (to burn). It now has two “attack” skills (Smoke and Blaze) to add complications and give threats to the would-be firefighters, thus creating conflict; a “movement” skill (Spread) that might allow it to cover more Zones/area and work its way to success; and a skill with a lot of uses (Intensify)—maybe that can act as a regeneration skill, “healing” its stress boxes, or can be used to make maneuvers, or used to increase any other skill it has.
And bam, you’ve just turned a situation into a character via the Fractal. Weird, yes. Effective, also yes. Remember: What your players don’t see can be as weird or meta as you want it, and they don’t always have to know just how your mechanics work.
Mostly I’ve been curious about their statistics and whatnot, since I have the half-baked idea to switch dice mechanics depending on scene/setting or something for the Starblazer game I’m building: a more cinematic world uses d6-d6, while a space hulk horror session uses 4dF because it’s weighted towards zero.
The main thing to keep in mind: FATE, and Fudge, are systems based on “margin of success.” Having a Good skill means, most like, you’ll succeed on a Fair task/challenge; hence the dice systems pushing a bell curve aiming at zero. You still need to over-succeed to the point where you don’t just succeed with a Fair result, but generate some spin to do extra damage or decrease the time spent/increase quality. That’s changed a bit since Spirit of the Century came out—at least, in that other publishers are moving a little away from the idea with more “extreme results” mechanics.
4dF: Using Fudge dice goes back to the Fudge system, Fate’s progenitor, but there is a lot going for them. (A lot of people swear by them for all Fate games, at least.) The idea is to generate a total between +4 and -4, with a bell curve aiming straight at 0; to get there you roll four d6′s, each one having two “+” sides, two blank sides, and two “-” sides, then adding the results together. (If you’re a fan of math, you can do this at home with normal d6′s by rolling high/medium/low and factoring as +/blank/-.)
Because it’s a dice pool, things work very well towards creating the desired bell curve around zero: it’s unlikely you’ll roll many -4 or +4 rolls. In fact, the majority of your rolls will be within one step of zero, giving a lot of +1 and -1 results. That’s what Fate originally wanted, putting an emphasis on your skills and less on blind chance, though making things chancy for those low-ranked Average skills.
1d6-1d6: This was introduced with Starblazer Adventures, and goes in the opposite direction. You’re rolling two dice, one generating a positive number and the other generating a negative number, and adding them together. Here, you have two independent variables doing multiple things: you want one to roll low, and another to roll high. And you have to do the dreaded maths.
Unlike Fudge dice, this system is pure chaos; while (statistically) the bell curve is still around zero, with a lot of 1 and 2 results, things are expanded a bit in both directions. You’re a lot more likely to roll an extreme result; while those fives aren’t going to show up that often, the chances of rolling a three or four (+ or -) is a lot more likely than with Fudge dice.
Thus, it’s a tradeoff: less certainty of results around zero, but a lot of chaos and the chance for a big +5 payoff. 4dF is somewhat predictable and safe in its bell curve. d6-d6 theoretically has the same bell curve, but with higher end variables, leading to high risk, high reward. More importantly, it’s the system to use if the FATE game in question rewards shifts (successes by three or more).
(I have to admit, this is the one I’m leaning towards liking the most; its extreme results fit best with pulp and space opera in my mind. I recommend using light and dark dice to keep the numbers separated, or go with negative pips and positive numbers or something.)
2d6-7: Another option, to keep things simple: roll two d6′s, sum them, and subtract seven. You’re still ending up with the same -5 to +5 variable as with d6-d6, giving you the chance for major success or critical failure, but is a much more traditional formula. It’s a lot easier for newer players than rolling high-med-low or remember which is the negative die.
4dF is a predictable dice pool; d6-d6 is pure fate. This style is somewhere in between, and follows traditional RPG dice mechanics of “high is good, low is bad.” However, it falls back into predictability: you need both of your dice to roll high consistently, otherwise you’re boned. One system’s +5 and -2 would be a nice solid +3, but here, it’s a flat zero. (Of course, flip the modifiers around and you have a -3; those modifiers are something you just can’t control in d6-d6.)
It lacks the stability of 4dF and the random chance of d6-d6; on the other hand, it’s simple, straightforward, and lacks the random chance of d6-d6, putting it closer in stable predictability to 4dF.
3dF/5dF: There’s been some discussion about the benefits of using more/less Fudge dice. Either way disrupts the 4dF zero-based bell curve, but both have results more along the lines of 4dF’s predictability than some of the more random dice systems.
2d6, take lowest number and add die +/- modifier: Here’s one I saw posted on forums a while ago that some gamers are now using. Roll two d6, a negative and positive die (in some cases, 4d6, two positive and two negative); then, take the lowest numerical roll, and apply the modifier (+/-) of the die it’s on. Sixes (or tied sixes, I forgot) are treated as zero. Thus a roll of +3 and -1 would take the lowest numerical value (the one) and apply its dice modifier (negative) as the end result. By contrast, +2 and -6 would have an end result of +2.
It’s an interesting system, but I’m not sure I’d use it. It’s even more chaotic than d6-d6, which is hilariously chaotic to start with, while cutting out its random chance for extreme results. It’s chaos, but a systematic, streamlined one that minimizes the chances for huge success or failure. Most of the problem would be selling players on a system that has its own learning curve.
There’s always the option to use Technoir dice, which is a fascinating (if complex) system of spending Fate points as additional dice. Something like ICONS’ use of Determination to succeed at a task plus archetypical stunt/edge/action dice. Again, I like it for its games theory aspect, but when my prospective players are new to FATE (and me) I’d rather stick with something simple for them.
And there’s a system for making FATE rolls with a tarot deck.
One final note: I’m curious as to how 4dF works with ICONS. Most FATE characters have a skill pyramid with a single +5 or +4, while most starting ICONS characters rarely have attributes ranked lower than 3-4. 4dF is the closest of all these systems to having a pure bell curve of zero, so my assumption is ICONS characters would succeed constantly with 4dF, hence why the raw chaos of d6-d6 was used.