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.
I’ve thought for a while about how FATE handles vehicles through the Fractal. When I first read through Starblazer, my mind immediately jumped to MechWarrior-esque mecha combat, or perhaps Battlestar Galactica-style fleet battles. I love stupid-big war machinery duking it out, though I’m not as huge on the strategic/tactical emphasis that gets in RPGs, namely the grid/miniatures thing, which often gets in the way of the requisite cinematic flair I’m looking for.
It’s pretty clear that adding in mecha, or other vehicles, can be done using the same rules Starblazer has for starships—use the same general rules, file off the serial numbers, subtract some of the aerial emphasis skills/stunts for new ground-based ones (or whatever). FATE is fantastically modular in that regard, so that makes snapping up your own vehicular rules easy.
And making some rough attempts at FATE versions of popular BattleMechs saw me running into some interesting questions: it can be done, and done easily, but doing so in a simple, unified, and fun way required some planning. It made me stop and rethink how the existing FATE rules work, what I was trying to do within them, and how new rules might simplify or circumvent complications.
Which, over time, got me to thinking about scaling. Rather, how the various “scales” interact with each other. The FATE Fractal is one of the greatest gaming inventions of all time—I’ll get to that in an eventual post. In many cases, you wouldn’t expect one part of the Fractal to impact another mechanically: the struggle between the warring thieves’ guild and assassins’ guild organizations (Legends of Anglerre pg. 187) might involve conflicts between mobs or armies (Anglerre pg. 234), but they are two separate ends of the Fractal. The organization rules operate on one level, the mass combat rules operate on another; while the two Fractal bits can interact with each other on a meta/roleplay level, the thieves’ guild isn’t going to be rolling its organization skills against the unit skills owned by the assassin’s guild’s 10 Longboat wolf pack.
FATE’s Vehicle Rules
Meanwhile, vehicles, one of the roughest parts of the Fractal in need of some attention. Most of the few things that irked me about Starblazer were related to vehicles. The use of size as a scaling device for one. It’s hard for characters interact with them mechanically: say, they can man anti-aircraft guns to fight off attacking fighters, but a pedestrian can’t take down an orbital space station with their SAM popgun.
Hence soft-limits of how size-scale-wise Thing X can interact with Thing Not-X: something can attempt to shoot other things which are within two Scales greater or smaller than it is, so a person (Scale 2) can shoot at a medium freighter (Scale 4) and hope to damage it, but not at the advanced alien battleship (Scale 6). (This will come up later.)
I’m also not a huge fan of how light some of the options are; the low end of the spectrum—most vehicles, smaller spaceships—will have skill pyramids and stats that make any decent character’s look godlike. Such as, vehicles and starships with their skill pyramid’s apex skill of Fair (+2). That’s right; most ground vehicles are actually weaker and less impressive than characters—which makes sense to a degree, in the epic sense—mostly because of the linear progression of power: if a vehicle was made more powerful, then a planet-destroying orbital death-station would need to be made more powerful in return, otherwise you’d have guys in pickup trucks fighting off incursions of ‘mecha and flying alien dreadnaughts.
But while it makes sense within the starship Fractal’s linear power curve—Fair (+2) light fighters are gnats compared to the Death Star—it creates that weird situation where the Scale 2 human can shoot down Scale 2 jet fighters—jet fighters!—with ease. (+5 guns and 5 stress boxes vs. +2 maneuver and 3 stress boxes, who will win?) And those Scale 2 characters could theoretically gun down Scale 4 space frigates with their assault rifles and shotguns, since they can interact with things up to two scales above their own. Epic and cinematic, yes. And while I think it should be possible, I don’t think it should be this easy.
I’ve seen some other people comment on this as well, saying they beefed up the RAW starships to give them a more epic, Star Wars-y feel. To be honest, I agree with them, but there’s no easy way to go about beefing up starships and vehicles (while leaving their overall power hierarchy intact) without either GM Handwavium at the extreme ends, or some new mechanics.
Again, the Fractal freaking rocks, and because FATE is so modular and easy to mod, you can make it whatever you want it to be. The Fractal statistics can be as fluid as the GM wants them to be, depending on a.) how crunchy they want the game to be, b.) how current/powerful they want something to be, etc. For example. In the future high-tech world of Starblazer, representing, say, an F-14 Tomcat might have a skill pyramid that looks something like this (based off the size Medium (3) light fighter):
F-14 Tomcat (Jet Interceptor) Scale: Medium (3) Fair (+2): Maneuver Average (+1): Missile Weapon, Targeting Computer Structural Stress: 3; System Stress: 3 Stunts: Afterburner; Aspects: Highly Maneuverable, add 2 more Consequences (standard four)
Very basic: a supersonic jet fighter with some simple air-to-air missiles and a good targeting computer, relying more on its maneuverability to survive. In the far-future game, it’s nowhere near as capable as an interstellar dreadnaught, and because all the aircraft/starship rules use the same side of the Fractal, its stats represent this. It’s smooth and simple. I’d also like it to have more heft, because duking it out in Tomcats with these stats wouldn’t last very long—or be particularly epic.
(Pity the fool in something less advanced, like a Fokker triplane, which would fall off the low-end of the stat spectrum… of course, if your game is ludicrous enough to involve World War triplanes attacking space dreadnaughts, just make them as awesome as they can be.)
Meanwhile. For a late-1980s, in a Cold War G.I. Joe style game, an F-14 Tomcat knockoff (cough Skystriker XP-14F cough) would be one of the most advanced aircraft in the world. Let’s say the GM wants the aircraft to have a little more grit, e.g. expanded and crunchier statistics, enabling some hot and lengthy Top Gun dogfighting between Cobra and the Joes:
F-14 Tomcat (Jet Interceptor) Scale: Medium (3) Good (+3) Maneuver, Targeting Computer Fair (+2): Missile Weapon, EWS, Sensor Suite Average (+1): Missile Weapon, Missile Weapon, Projectile Weapon, Ablative Armor, Structural Stress: 5; System Stress: 5 Stunts: Afterburner, Beyond Visual Range, Multiple Target Tracking; Aspects: Highly Maneuverable, add 4 more Consequences (standard four + one Armor consequence)
Two different approaches to the same Scale 3 object that has the exact same capabilities, size, appearance, and objective, but with two very different methods of approach (and mechanical focus).
EWS, of course, stands for Electronics Warfare Suite, and is straight out of Starblazer. It, the targeting computer, and the sensor suite would represent its solid computing systems. I threw on some “new” Stunts the GM might come up with to add some mechanical punch from the jet’s impressive avionics, which are still mostly unmatched thirty years after its debut. The missile attack at +2 would be the longer-range Phoenix missiles, with the two +1 Missiles would represent the various Sidewinder and Sparrow payload, and the Projectile standing in for the 30mm gatling gun. A bit overly technical gun-porn for FATE, but my goal was to get it on-par with characters, in terms of heft/crunch and survivability. And Starblazer has this weird thing with slapping on additional attacks for the heck of it.
Of course, you could keep improving the thing as often as far as you wanted, but this is FATE after all; it’s never going to have the same crunch to it as tabletop BattleTech or Mekton or HERO. Besides which you’ll run out of skills to put on the sheet after a while; I wouldn’t want to improve the above, since it’d require coming up with more skills, or going stupid and adding a missile skill for each friggin’ missile it carries.
But when this is representative of a piece of technology near the highest end of the spectrum—I’m not sure what would be above it on the scale chart, and thus have better stats… a Night Raven? Orbital bases? Invading Transformers? If the above is a decently powerful example on a certain scale, invading Autobots would be so much higher up the scale as to be silly. So while I’d like vehicles to be around on par with that second Tomcat, more like characters and less a couple of low-ranked skills, keeping up that level of crunch as you progress up the Scale becomes… problematic.
Regardless, I think FATE could use a ruleshack to better manipulate scaling. The current rules are fine and smooth, but I’d personally like vehicles to have the same level of crunch as everything else on the Fractal spectrum but without breaking the scale down or turning into colossal walls of skill pyramids. Most organizations, armies, and cities presented in the Anglerre Companion have as much or more stats than starting characters. Why not vehicles?
But I’ll deal with that… next post.
So, in a recent post, I pointed out why the new Marvel Super Heroic RPG had an awesome initiative system, and that I was adapting it to ICONS.
Talking it over and thinking about it, I’ll probably adapt it Fate-based games in general. And in a system a little more granular than ICONS, it deserves a little tweak to buff it. Namely, a stunt. Probably more than one, but at least one to throw a bone to the dextrous character—the rogue, the swashbuckler, the gladiator, someone who controls the battlefield through speed and efficiency.
Athletics is the clear-cut Skill candidate here, under the Speed trapping.
Unnatural Speed [Athletics]
Requires Fast as a Leopard.
You can leverage your incredible speed to your advantage, enabling you to act earlier than anticipated and throwing others’ out of sync. When you take the first initiative action in a round, you gain a +2 bonus to any one roll. Alternately, you may spend a Fate Point to join the initiative at any point, preempting whoever had been chosen to act, much like what the GM can do with NPCs. Doing so grants you a +1 bonus to a roll. This does not allow you to act more than once in a round, thought it does permit you if you have some other method to take multiple actions (gear, a spell, etc.).
Sometimes I feel like I’m stitching together some horrible Frankensteinian amalgam… it’s something that Fate lends itself to well, if only because the Fate Fractal makes such things a snap. Most Fate-based games I see on forums or Obsidian Portal follow the same method, so at least I’m not alone.
It’s also a little hard for players to figure out, when I’m using my Starblazer core book, use bits of Bulldogs’ rules, and tell them I’m running “Fate.” The interrelated nature of all the various Fate games means they’re easier to jam together, riff off, and steal from than most other game systems; even mashing up different WoD games or d20 supplements can lead to some uneven balance issues or notable gaps.
- The Marvel Heroic RPG has a great initiative system I just talked about ripping off a few posts ago. Fate needs a decent initiative system that works, and has the same flow as the game on a meta level, and I think that’s the one to rip off.
- Plot stress from Starblazer and Anglerre is the greatest thing ever… when used right. Rather, when there’s a good place to use it. Pretty much the only time I’ve used it was as a ticking bomb in a zombie game; each time the players spent Fate points, the plot started taking damage, and after a while something would happen… more zombies would show up, help would arrive, that sort of thing. I’m still a huge fan of the original example in Mindjammer—trying to infiltrate a base, the plot takes damage whe the players mess up.
- Bulldogs! has this amazing idea of giving everything negative Aspects; it starts out when you’re getting your starting equipment: if you end up with something you can’t afford, slap on a negative Aspect to be compelled in a tough spot. That blaster might be an Energy Hog; that mystical black blade might be Trying To Dominate Me!
- Hell, take Bulldogs’ new applications for Aspects and turn it to eleven. We have Aspects on organizations, vehicles, equipment, cities, countries, cultures… why not go full-blown with them and start putting them on plots, sessions, or entire campaigns? The game with Band of Backstabbers is going to be a lot different than the one with Cutest Ninja Assassins Evah.
- I’m growing to like how in ICONS players have smaller Fate Point (e.g., Determination) pools, but need more to make Determined Efforts—thus, compels. After running Starblazer, it always felt like players had too many points, unless they had too little, leading to avoiding compels because there’s no need. Or being forced to take them, after making five re-rolls to avoid blowing the ship up. And speaking of compels…
- … and I’m still on the fence about forcing players to pay off a compel from their point pool, since it’s an easy way to abuse/strongarm players without any points left. I’ve noticed it’s something left out of some Fate games, and while I realize it’s a mechanical balancing thing, it’s one of the big areas for abuse in the system. If people actually abused it at all. (This was also a problem I had with TORG, and some other games before that: players stockpiling hero/action points, so that there was no need to be epic, or spend cards, or do whatever to gain more at a risk or cost.)
- Half of the time I end up wanting to compel things that aren’t related to a character’s Aspects at all, either because they’d lead to interesting results, or because it’d fit with a PC’s personality. I’ve shied away from this simply because it breaks the Fate economy down, getting rid of the expected rules and boundaries the players are used to, but I’m thinking of a “bribe” method, a compel that the players don’t have to pay off—either accept or decline—which otherwise follows the compel method.
- 7th Sea and Exalted have set my mind up to reward players for rule-of-cool, epic cinematic action. The irony in Fate is that rewards work the opposite way—by making things more complex, by taking short-term failure for long-term gains. With smaller Fate point pools, you have the freedom to reward these actions more often without overbalancing things in favor of the players—in other words,they still have to take compels now and then, so the Fate point exchange stays the same.
- My TORG games, and the way players attempted to abuse the Drama Deck (and backfired), was influential. Well, that’s pretty much compels in a nutshell: complicate the situation in some form or another and earn rewards for doing so. It’s a bit of a learning curve, especially as a GM, to get people used to the idea that setting things up for failure will pay off in the long run. It does run counter to logic—bad things giving you good things, it’s a weird connotation—but I’ve noticed people like to take compel-able Aspects just because it’s fun.
- Strands of Fate is a bit too GURPS-esque for my Cubicle 7-based Fate mind, but there are a few ideas I love from them. The big one is persistent aspects. In Fate, when you’re sneaking around in a dark building, you have to pay a Fate Point and tag the Aspect “Dark Building” to get a mechanical bonus from the Aspect. Yes, even though it’s dark, you need to pay to… make it dark for you. In Strands, you can tag the darkness for free; things like Under Cover and Pitch Black are persistent, and thus free tags, unless you alter them somehow (e.g., get out from under cover, set off a flare, etc).
So, I started running my Starblazer game a few weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving cropped up. So far, we’ve only run the one session, but I think it went pretty well (from what I heard from the players).
I’ve been working on science fiction setting ideas over the past two summers, but hadn’t yet had an output for them—my old group had established games what needed finishing, and finding new gamers can be an arduous task. What I did know was what system I wanted to use: Starblazer Adventures. (Come to think of it, you can track back most of the setting construction to the point right after I purchased the Big Red Book.)
FATE is a very dynamic system, flexible and fast and with plenty of granular crunch to tack on if needs be—essentially, everything I wanted from Savage Worlds, and was disappointed with repeatedly. (Though I can blame a lot of that on bad GMs who knew the system less than the players.) Still, I had some reservations about it; namely, finding people interested in it, and teaching them how to play. So far, I’m trying to take things slow and add on new concepts after some familiarity with the basics.
While I had some general ideas on setting, most of the basics of the actual game I left up to the players. (Too many disparate ideas, and tying them together would result in some hybrid abomination of space noble mecha jockeys working for the military police. Who were also rebel/pirate infiltrators.) In the end, the players opted for a Firefly-esque one-ship smuggler group, with the following characters:
- Han Sulu, Womanizer Out-Law
- The doctor from Cannonball Run (literally)
- Ex-military operative, assassin, and bullet sponge
- Genius engineer with a fascination for Precursor alien relics
They ended up with a simple transport run, wherein they had to smuggle a group of mercenaries into the Neo-Russian Bloc so they could pull a heist on a military-industrial company. In hindsight, not as much for the characters to do, but I knew it was going to be a short session when we spent an hour or so dealing with starting equipment and backgrounds. It ended up more comic than I’d planned when the doctor wormed his way in for an interview at the company the mercs were hitting.
Despite their frequent hopes to flush oxygen out of the cargo hold, killing all the mercs, they let them live. And they were paid with an alien macguffin, which I don’t think anybody realizes the importance of yet. (Probably best, though it does remind me I need to flesh out the setting some more.)
After that, I threw in the Orbit Five one-sheet from the amazing World Without Syn—partly because I love space hulk, and partly because I wanted to keep it simple. The only downside was the short time-frame, so it ended up going pretty quick and skipping a lot of the horror depth to finish on-time. The actual one-sheet is fantastic, if a bit short (the one-sheet nature); it has a fantastic application of Plot Stress, and good examples of zones (as well as setting Aspects, in each zone).
I switched the alien entity into a kind of corrupted AI, trying to force the players to do things for it; they decided to brave the security warbot and get the hell out than find out what the ship wanted them to do. Also, the original is very vague in why the players would show up here, other than altruism (the distress beacon); my group needed fuel, so the AI-masquerading-as-Captain told them they could salvage whatever they needed.
Two things in FATE I’ve noticed so far:
- Despite what I’ve heard people crying about, high rolls are very, very frequent, even in d6-d6. I’ve been leaning towards what other people have been doing for difficulties: White Wolf-style Good (+3) or Great (+4), with extra effort increasing the ingame results (as-written). Also, I need to remember to factor time into the equation; it may take forever to do something, and extra successes decrease the time spent.
- Mooks are worthless on their own, partly because of the above. This dates back to when I ran a modified form of After the Rise for a late Halloween game; when a player makes an effort of +8, he can single-handedly clean out an entire mob of zombies. Even with basic Great characters, Strobe alone was cleaning house. (Granted, it became a lot more interesting when the game jumped the tracks, and I had wanted to run something mindless to get people’s minds away from stress to begin with.)
My last post went over the three science fiction FATE games in a brief, sweeping overview, but something I’ve wanted to do for a while now is look at how the different FATE games would handle different existing science-fiction settings and worlds. How would each one depict Star Wars or Star Trek, for example?
The Best Fit for Existing Settings?
Star Trek: Diaspora‘s collaborative storytelling would make the most sense given Trek’s history of long-table diplomatic debates. Here’s a simple analogy. Starblazer would be original Trek (or the better episodes of Voyager), somewhat campy, a blend of action, exploration, and diplomacy over science fact and reality. Diaspora would be TV show Picard, where he’s wise and philosophical and would rather work things out so we can all live happily together, with lots of character development and some great plot twists (“Hey, what if my character was assimilated by the Borg?”/”How about taking the Aspect Laquatus of Borg and going from there?”). Bulldogs! would be movie Picard, where he’s out to save the day and does amazing stunts to do so, saving everyone from the Borg in the last ten minutes.
Babylon 5: Again, if you’re interested more in the diplomacy, exploration, or espionage angle, I’d say Diaspora, since it can cover the combat and whatnot as well. Starblazer would be a natural fit, with its organization mechanics. Bulldogs! could do it, but its rules are a lot more action-heavy than Babylon 5 comes across as.
Star Wars: Hands-down Starblazer; it has the tools to replicate any SW alien, vehicle, even force powers (through the existing psychic skill rules, though I’d probably trim those back to the old Control/Sense/Alter standbys). A Bulldogs! take on Star Wars is also a good option, since it’s got a bunch of existing alien races and very focused rules. Diaspora would have to sacrifice much of its Hard SF tone, but could also easily fit the world: compare some of the weirder Star Wars developments—Luke has a sister, Vader is his father, etc.—I’m sure developments like those would make a helluva lot more sense if they came from Diaspora-style collaboration.
Battlestar Galactica (new): Diaspora‘s fast-and-loose rules for social combat and starship combat would be ideal fits for the new Galactica; they’re damn good rules, and would fit wonderfully for this. Starblazer would be interesting, since you could build up the fleet as an organization (and culture, if you buy Mindjammer and tweak it a lot), plot stress could be used to countdown to Cylon infiltrations or attacks, and it has plenty of rules to handle starship battles and internal turmoil. Bulldogs! has the right tone if you wanted to go more of a two-fisted action movie route. In any case, the game would need to gain a fine layer of grit, and perhaps add in Aspects related to the show’s paranoia and depression.
John Carter of Mars: Starblazer, with some things taken from Legends of Anglerre. Again, the other two could do it, but it’d be interesting, and I just don’t see their mentalities—collaborative storytelling and over-the-top action—fitting the established Barsoom feel.
Dune: If you want to focus on character development like what Paul went through, or the ecological/political/social sides of the Dune world, Diaspora. Starblazer is a close second, since it has the rules to create sandworms, and has the mentality and tools to follow on the more action-y and combat-heavy game you’d probably want from Dune: warring factional houses, political turmoil, assaulting a Sardaukar base with your Fremen…
’70s-’80s Anime Collection – Star Blazers, Robotech, Gatchaman, Megazone 23, Gundam, VOTOMS, Silent Mobius, Akira, et al: Again, I think the pure flash of the setting and infinite bag of rules would make Starblazer the game to turn to; the other two could do them justice, but Starblazer‘s flexibility and toolkit nature gives it a leg up. Of course, the over-the-top tone nature of Bulldogs! would be a great asset as well.
Firefly, Farscape: Bulldogs!, because the tone and style match, as well as the “bunch of people on a ship” setup. Again, something you could build easily in Starblazer, and something you could do in Diaspora, but it’s more or less Bulldogs! as written with a few setting tweaks (e.g., remove aliens and laser weapons for Firefly).
Blade Runner: As a more cerebral movie with deeper questions—am I human, what is human, what does it mean to be alive—I’d lean towards Diaspora. These are concepts for the players to develop over the game. If you went with the book, or played off the investigation nature of the game… still Diaspora.
Starship Troopers: I’m going to assume the movie, though if you really wanted to play the book, you could just skip the rules altogether and have someone yell at the players for hours about civic duty and fascism, Citizen. (Would you like to know more?) Bulldogs! and Starblazer would make the most sense here, action-heavy and with a good emphasis on combat. That said, Diaspora does have great small-unit rules, and Legends of Anglerre has good mass combat stuff.
Stargate: Bulldogs! fits the tone best, but I’d add in some of Starblazer‘s build-everything rules (and its fantasy cousin, Legends of Anglerre, for the time-lost cultures the SG teams eventually bump into). When I first read about plot stress in Starblazer, I thought of Stargate: SG-1. (Take a few points of plot stress, foothold incursion. Some more stress damage, and Thor needs help because the Replicators are back.)
MechWarrior, BattleTech: Much like their anime influences, Starblazer‘s got the rules to hash these together. It may not appear so, but look again at starships and apply the ideas on a different scale. (Better, if you’re not handling starship combat or chases in favor of mechs, just using them as space semis, nobody will be any wiser when you use starship stats as baselines for mecha construction.) The other two games could do it, you just wouldn’t have a baseline (dynamic starship building rules) to start from.
The Bottom Line
Again, the big thing to remember is that these games are flexible in terms of style and theme. It’s comparatively easy to run a pulpier game with Diaspora, or hard SF with Starblazer. What’s inflexible, though, are the mechanics… unless you’re willing to drop existing ones or kitbash your own from scratch. Diaspora is very rules-light, so if you like a crunchier game, look at the other two; on the flipside, if your idea of “building” aliens is to have players choose related Aspects, pick Diaspora.
If you want to use the FATE Fractal to cover everything and anything with FATE’s light mechanics, Starblazer has the means of doing that. It can handle such things as organizations or culture shock/culture wars with mechanics, much less aliens, psionics, robots, and star monsters. Its rules for starship combat are involved and crunchy, without being D&D levels of tactical. And while you can build the same stuff in the other games, they have less to start from, whereas Starblazer gives you a set of rules for everything it details.
But, pray tell, you want something crunchier than Diaspora but without all the work or heavy mechanics of Starblazer? Bulldogs! is a very good choice, flexible mechanically when it needs to be, more action-heavy than Starblazer wants to be, loose enough for Diaspora-style fast rules-light storygaming, and with an established setup that the other two lack. Its only downside is a hard copy costs almost as much as Starblazer, and it’s one-sixth the size.
So, with the release of Bullodgs! there’s now three science-fiction FATE games out there. Why three games for the same genre? Don’t you think there’s too much overlap? Nope, as a matter of fact; they’re three angles of approach for multiple problems/goals. Diaspora is as different from Bulldogs! as it is Starblazer, and visa versa, when you cut out the aesthetics and get down to the maleable, granular FATE rules. The real questions are: Which game does what I want it to do? How do you differentiate between them? What are their advantages?
When you cut out the aesthetics and return down to the base system…
Diaspora is centered on collaborative storytelling, moreso than most other FATE rpgs. Its rules expand into the abstract, or act as mini-games to represent situations or conflicts; it’s more minimalist in its rules than Starblazer or Bulldogs!, and emphasizes collaboration between players and GM. It’s colored in ’70s Hard SF tones, but those are easy enough to replace; the core of the game is its high-collaborative, high-player-agency nature.
By contrast, Starblazer Adventures is a massive freaking toolkit. Do you want to have alien races, psychic powers, star empires, starships and space battles, monster menaces, killer robots? Any or all of that? Starblazer has the rules to make them, which are easily adaptable to making anything else under the sun (for example, rip the starship rules off to make mecha or crunchier vehicles). By contrast, it has little to no established setting, and what’s there—based on the old British Starblazer comic—is broad strokes generic. But here’s the tools to build whatever setting you want; with some spit and elbow grease, you can mock up whatever you’d like. It’s the crunchiest of the three SF FATE games; you can tell because it’s the one that has a GM screen.
Bulldogs! is closest to being a stand-alone, finely polished, traditional RPG. It’s a well-rounded adaptation of FATE core (Spirit and Dresden), retaining their feel and rules as well as their connectivity to other FATE games. Unlike Diaspora, there’s not a huge emphasis on collaborative rules, and unlike Starblazer, it provides baselines to expand on instead of just the basic building blocks. It does have a lot of flexible building rules like Starblazer, though, just on a micro scale: think guns and starships. Bulldogs! has a core setting, the only one of the three to do so—you’re playing mission-running couriers. Those mission-runners are over-the-top badasses, I should note.
If I could pick something to represent each game…
Diaspora would be old-school Traveller, back with the Imperium and all that. It can handle non-Hard science, like FTL travel—space games need that—but might look askance at some of the Spinward Marches’ stranger stuff (the anthropomorphic lion and wolf dudes that Traveller had).
Starblazer Adventures would be something retro in serial form: Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen. Or Star Wars, since it has all the rules to construct that universe, and Lucas was just ripping off the pulps anyways. Unless you wanted to use it to build something else, in which case the best example is whatever you were using as a blueprint/goal.
Bulldogs! would be Firefly, Farscape, Andromeda, Star Trek: Voyager… any ship-bound group of misfits kicking ass and doing cool-looking stuff, even though they grate on each other, but with enough flexibility for drama and roleplaying. Take any of those series and make them a little more action-packed, like a good SF action movie, and you have Bulldogs!
The Bottom Line?
If you want a FATE science fiction game you can just jump into and play with people who know nothing of FATE, look into Bulldogs! Especially if they can get a print copy that’s cheaper… Price wouldn’t be a problem, except it’s tiny compared to FATE games and is very direct and clear with its rules, which is a plus for new players. (That said, the sample adventures in Starblazer: Mindjammer make for a great entry into FATE.)
If you want the ability and freedom to build everything and anything, look into Starblazer and put on your metagame hat. It’s loose in terms of setting, has no plot, and is very demanding on the GM if you’re interesting in taking the versatility to its full advantage and choose to ignore/expand upon the existing material. I love it for its versatility, though its size and content is imposing.
If you want a game that emulates old-school ’70s Hard SF, is very fast and loose, ultra-rules-light, and heavy on collaboration, look into Diaspora. Its chapters on starship scenes and social combat are eye-opening, it’s very polished, and the most focused FATE game to date. That said, its level of non-traditional nature can be a major turn-off to players who aren’t into that sort of thing. It’s possible to rip off the Hard SF vaneer; if you don’t like the collaborative focuses, you’re going to need another game that lets you remove it—Bulldogs! or Starblazer.
If you want a FATE game that’s connectable to all other FATE games, has great ideas to use, doesn’t change any of the existing FATE mechanics, and is as crunch/fluffy or collaborative/traditional as you please… look into all of them and pick-and-choose from the insane assortment of rules. It’s easy enough to tack on parts of Starblazer to the others, or incorporate the build-a-weapon rules from Bulldogs! or Diaspora’s social combat. That’s what I ended up doing.
If you want a sci-fi game that’s on the other end of the spectrum—crunch- and setting-heavy—the Warhammer 40k RPGs and Mongoose Traveller are both excellent choices. (Of course, FATE is just… more fun.)
One of the stumbling blocks for people trying to get into FATE is the sheer flexible, modular, granular nature of the system. The base assumption some friends were working with were that it was either a traditional roleplaying game done rules-light (ala Savage Worlds or Star Wars d6), or a “storygame,” some abstract narrativist vehicle with mechanics tacked on (ala Burning Wheel). Read about FATE on the internet and most likely those are the assumptions you’ll come up with. That’s misleading.
The truth is that while FATE isn’t a traditional roleplaying game, nor is it the penultimate narrativist system that posters on The Forge hype it as. Rather, it’s something of a toolkit for designing your own roleplaying experience. If you want to incorporate strong narrativist elements and expand player agency, you can build that. Or you can build a more traditional game that’s highly cinematic, fast, loose, and rules-light, but one that runs and looks closer to a “standard” RPG (whatever that is).
A lot of this goes back to the game’s FUDGE background: it was one of the most customizable games in existence. FATE changed the rules up and devised its own style, adding in Aspects and other player-driven content. But FATE’s mechanics—skills, stunts, Aspects—has been regimented and uniform; most FATE games follow in the footsteps of Spirit of the Century, changing a few basics to suit a setting or tone.
Diaspora made a few changes in its quest for a Traveller-style Hard SF game, but oddly, most of its changes were related to narrativist shared-story and not Hard SF. Dresden Files, on the other hand, slimmed down the system, added in new rules, stress tracks, and otherwise pointed FATE in the direction of a setting—urban dark fantasy—and slammed into the bullseye. And now we have ICONS, showing what you can do with the system: the mechanics have been developed towards four-color supers rather than left loose for GM manipulation.
The FATE games on the market go either way. A number play up the build-a-game angle and are essentially glorified toolkits taken to the extreme: Cube 7′s output, Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre. I love them for their toolkit angle, putting all the power and flexibility of a powerful, flexible system into the hands of a GM… but they’re not games to pick up expecting a finished product.
Consider. In D&D, things are simple: the world is self-explanatory, challenges are picked from lists corresponding to party strength. In FATE, details are left vague for GM interpretation and manipulating: a GM has to deal with such minutia as figuring the physical (game-world) representation of the Resources +3 the group just acquired. Take how player-driven the characters are (the importance of Aspects and Consequences); FATE’s mechanics are just as GM-driven (and GM-reliant) as the characters are player-driven. That’s a turn-off for a lot of people, for whom a more “finished,” focused game like Bulldogs! or ICONS would be a better choice.
The reason I single out ICONS is because of how far it drifts from “established” FATE games. ICONS replaced skills (to a greater or lesser extent) with a set of FASERIP-style attributes, changed up what FATE points can do, and put in a Powers system to show that, yes, FATE can be a supers system. Many call it “not FATE but FATE-based.” (Probably based on the fact that strong inter-narrative control isn’t spread between players and GM as in Diaspora or Spirit.)
I think that’s a misnomer. Instead, it’s an example of the kind of finished-product RPG you can build with FATE by manipulating the existing mechanics to custom-tailor the product for the intended setting and tone. It’s a hyper-focused incarnation of FATE, and I think we’ll see more specialized FATE-powered games in the future.
Looking at FATE as more of a build-a-game than a finish product could really benefit the system—I’d love to see third-party companies do specialized games like ICONS, to properly blend form and function, setting and mechanics. I think it also explains why ICONS has had a successful following from day one, and why it clicked so well with my old group.
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.