[FATE] Musings on Vehicle Scaling

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.

Nothing against Cube 7, but I wish Evil Hat had come up with a generic FATE logo so I’d have something else to use.

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.

Sliding Scaling

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.

My source data. Note that it has ejection seats. And a non-reflective panel.

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.

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