[FATE] Science-Fiction Showdown

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 stock Evil Hat FATE (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 rather than fast, narrativist, and cinematic—the Warhammer 40k RPGs and Mongoose Traveller are both excellent choices.

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