Worlds In Shadow Review

So, my view is that the Fate Worlds books are doing two things, really really well. The first is obvious: giving you an assortment of settings and toolkits for inspiration that also serve as great pick-up-and-play campaigns. The second is that for someone who’s just picked up the Fate Core books and is wondering what to do with it, the Worlds books serve as excellent examples of how to implement those rules, specifically to support a desired setting, theme, or playstyle. Fate is probably the most modifiable system I’ve ever seen, where each Fate game or edition of the rules has something I want to pull out and slap on to all the others. It’s also a dead-simple system to re-skin, re-tool, or hack without altering the unique Fate feel of either setting or system.

Fate Core Cover

By that I mean that the Fate Worlds books make you consider how to apply the rules to a specific campaign world. Some of them are using more-or-less stock Fate Core, while others have had rather sweeping changes. They were made by different designers, coming with different viewpoints of what makes Fate work or how to merge the rules and the setting or feel they were going for. And I think looking at those worlds will be an excellent starting point for new Fate GMs hoping to understand the system: its versatility, its flexibility and tinker-friendly nature, its ability to be refined into a specific application or made more generalized for others. Because the worlds are all quantifiably Fate Core, and by being different they can teach you a lot about the system.

Worlds In Shadow, like its sibling Worlds On Fire, is a rather chunky 280-page softcover retailing for $15. (None of that $.99 crap, fifteen flat, as in three five-spots.) It has six “worlds” which range from toolkits to set adventures to entire campaign worlds to rather sweeping settings, with a lot of diversity in its contents. The titular worlds In Shadow are darker than those On Fire; several of them focus on elements of intrigue, horror, and mystery rather than the more two-fisted, action-packed worlds in the first book. I heartily endorse both of them, as for $30 you’re getting a real steal. (For some reason during the Kickstarter, I decided to pledge for the Worlds books instead of the Toolkit, a choice I will never regret making simply because of how awesome the worlds are.)

Crimeworld

What is it? A toolkit for incorporating elements from crime fiction, particularly cons, heists, and infiltration ala all of Ocean’s 11, the train robbery scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and conning your way past guards by acting like them in Where Eagles Dare.

What does it teach us about Fate? Crimeworld treats these elements as methods of conflict resolution and not a specific genre, hence why I call it a toolkit—its a variety of systems and sub-systems. What it does perfectly is re-create the archetypes of the genre in Fate form, integrated using the Fractal: everything is treated as a character. The target, the opposition, and the mark all have their own aspects to establish why everyone wants it and what kind of complications will arise. The defenses guarding the target—be it a bank vault’s security system or traps in a crumbling Aztec temple—have their own High Concept, Trouble, and sets of skills to foil intruders. It’s so straightforward I wonder why nobody thought of it before.

The way it breaks down is an excellent use of the Fractal to create simple but complex and narratively interesting elements. I really don’t want to spoil the details, especially since it’s written in this beautiful genre jargon that would take far too long to translate, and are explained via iconic genre movies. Even if you only have passing familiarity with heist movies, Crimeworld gives you enough examples and explanations for their use to latch your own ideas on to. Despite being one of the shorter worlds, it alone makes Worlds In Shadow worth the price of admission.

Would I run this? I don’t see Crimeworld as a specific world to run, though it does rekindle my interest in a Mission: Impossible/Spycraft type game. Instead, it’s more a set of excellent rules (and some great theory) that I’ll roll into any other Fate game that needs or wants crime elements.

Timeworks

What is it? A campaign idea and ruleset entwined as one; the players work at the Timeworks corporation, travelling back to re-arrange past events based on their current clients’ instructions. Think Inception but with time-travel. There’s a lot of great ideas just asking for you to drop in some characters and a plot.

What does it teach us about Fate? There’s a few simple modifications to the system—new skills and applications therein—but most of those are to support the more sweeping changes to the system, to handle time-travel. A lot of it is heavy with Inception-like ideas, like Anchors, which tether a character back to their real-world past. My favorite elements are timeline aspects and timeline stress, both of which use the Fractal to treat time as a player.

Timeline aspects are aspects overlaying the specific time the players are in, so something like the 1930s may have The Great Depression as a high-concept and Racism Is Normal as a complication; they can be compelled, invoked, etc. as normal aspects. I’ve always loved the idea of having specific aspects for a campaign, scene, setting, plot arc, etc., and I really like how Timeworks implements that idea. Timeline stress is a way to handle all the changes you’re making to the timeline, where you have to soak the stress damage or the timeline itself shuts down—which may be a good way to lock down a timeline under attack by others trying to change the time-stream.

Would I run this? I love the idea behind it, and it would make for a fantastic campaign. Though I see myself more likely taking its ideas and attaching them to other Fate-based ideas I’ve had. Pair it with Crimeworld and you’re starting to see an Inception-style game take form. Its ideas of timeline aspects and timeline stress I’d apply directly to a Fate hack of TORG, applying them to the cosms rather than time.

The Ellis Affair

What is it? A ’20s pulp adventure  where the players criss-cross the pacific to solve a mystery with world-shaking repercussions. It feels less two-fisted than Spirit of the Century, and the focus is much more on mystery and intrigue. It’s a canned adventure which, as-written, would fill a five-hour session or two.

What does it teach us about Fate? The Ellis Affair is very structured, and you could say that it’s a good example of how to structure Fate in the style of an adventure module: the inclusion of scene aspects is helpful if you’re struggling with how to incorporate those, and I think the way it handles mystery elements is slick. It doesn’t use Gumshoe-style “you find the clues wherever you succeed at” in specific, but gives you multiple options to find “clues” leading to the next event. It also includes some Fate Core rules for gambling; I may be the only one, but I still miss the Gambling skill and stunts from Spirit of the Century, and it was nice seeing gambling abilities incorporated back into Fate Core.

Would I run this? To be honest? Possibly maybe. It’s a solid adventure for what it’s doing, but it didn’t really grab me. I could see running it as a change of pace since it seems best suited to a very short game—something like a palate cleanser before I launch into a long-running game—but there’s many other worlds in these books that appeal to me more, so I don’t see myself starting with this one. If you love the idea of a yellow peril mystery in a foggy 1920s pulp setting that’s a notch less over-the-top than Spirit, give it a spin.

Fate Worlds - No Exit - coverNo Exit

What is it? A campaign idea where the players try to escape The Complex, an apartment building that provides every desire you’d ever want. It’s a game of brooding, psychological tension, about eroding memories and gaining clarity. While less structured than The Ellis Affair, it provides you with the setting, NPCs, and plot idea, then sets the players on their road to freedom… or their road to hell.

What does it teach us about Fate? No Exit is sort of a counter-argument to the belief that Fate doesn’t handle horror, thrillers, or tension. The plot itself is about disentangling yourself from a creepy apartment block and its augmented reality; its sections include “Internal Strife and Discovering Clarity” and “Sacrificing Memory and Loss.” The Complex erodes who you were, and it’s up to you to get that back: recovering your self, avoiding the other inhabitants, and getting the hell out.

While it is almost entirely running on stock Fate Core—the only new additions I saw were the Clarity skill and using memories as mechanics—its application of those rules into a psychological horror setting is a thing of beauty. The Complex itself is (again, using my favorite friend in the world, the Fate Fractal) a character, who uses its skills and aspects to keep the players hedged in. The idea of The Complex builds on the best elements of horror: isolation, no aid from authority, fighting against the world itself, no exit. It’s an evocative setting that melds form and function in ideal balance.

Would I run this? Yes, yes, a million times yes. While the more module-type worlds like Tower of Serpents and Ellis Affair were finite because of their plots, this one has a finite lifespan simply because I see a limit on how long it’ll be fun for players to run around The Complex without escaping or being taken out. But as a huge fan of horror games, I could see running this as a short campaign, say over the month of October… possibly longer if it proves to be a hit.

Court/Ship

What is it? A campaign idea where body-snatching aliens are invading the court of Louis XV, already overrun by a horde of human schemers and some supernatural elements like vampires. It gives you plenty of setting and background ideas, some NPCs and new mechanics, and aside from some general suggestions gives you free reign to make a game out of it.

What does it teach us about Fate? This is one of those ideas that comes out of left field, and I love it for that—intrigues in Louis XV’s court is interesting, but lacks a certain sizzle. Alien body-snatchers in a modern setting is great, but a tad overdone. Throwing alien infiltrators ala Galactica’s Cylons into Louis XV’s court intrgues gives you a crazy-awesome-interesting idea that also plays to the strengths of the 18th century court setting (e.g., mystery, social conflicts, and political intrigue).

Even if the concept doesn’t hook you, there’s a lot of neat new ideas it presents. I love that it gives suggested “timelines” for short, medium, and long-running campaigns; I like the idea as a GM, having specific goals to achieve and depending on how long we’ll be playing for. The new skills are custom-tailored for the court setting, and includes skills like Intimacy, Nobility, and Dance, all of which are equally important in a setting where politicking and social one-upsmanship are cornerstones. The idea of secrets (which, upon their revelation, give you bonuses to your roll) is genius. Last but not least, the sample NPCs throw in elements like “is a secret werewolf” or “created a monster,” throwing in supernatural elements if you want to include those as well.

Would I run this? I love the setting for its boldness and experimentation; while all the Fate Worlds are unique and creative, this one is by far the most out-there. That also can be a burden; most players I know aren’t champing at the bit for games with heavy social dynamics and political intrigue, aliens or no aliens. It’s a damned fine read, even if I never end up running it.

MerGN-ACamelot Trigger

What is it? A campaign idea that re-imagines Arthurian Legend in the style and imagery of an ’80s mecha anime, e.g. RobotechGundam Wing, or Mekton. Like most of the other campaign ideas, it gives you a background, setting, and cast to populate whatever kind of campaign or plot you and your players want.

What does it teach us about Fate? Let’s start by saying stonking great mecha! Camelot gives you a simple but diverse selection to build your individual mech from, including stunts-as-gear, aspects, armor (consequences in disguise), repair rules for armor, salvage, transforming mecha, using vassals (extras, in the forms of cruisers and honor guard) to soak hits for you… in short, a complete basic toolkit to create a mecha game. Sure, something like Starblazer has more options and crunch, but it’s straightforward enough that you can easily expand Camelot Trigger’s details, or even just bolt it onto Bulldogs! or Starblazer. It’s a great example of how to handle complex elements in a simple, streamlined way… using my friend the Fractal.

On top of that, there’s a variety of new skills and skill uses, a richly developed backstory that merges Arthur’s myth and tropes with our solar system, and some suggestions for how to use the original love triangle (Arthur – Lancelot – Guinevere) in new and intersting ways. All of that is good, but c’mon, it’s all about the mechs. It’s a great system, and I can see implementing it for other “big war machine” type games.

Would I run this?  Camelot Trigger ranks as one of my favorite of all the Fate Worlds, though there’s I’ve called so many of them “one of my favorites” that that term has been devalued to the point where children use bundles of it for building blocks. I grew up watching Robotech and Voltron, and remain a huge fan of ’80s mecha anime like Armored Trooper VOTOMS and Five-Star Stories. Needless to say, I’m in love with the mashup. Camelot Trigger is what I would be running for my college gaming group if I hadn’t moved out of the area.


3 thoughts on “Worlds In Shadow Review

  1. Your reviews of both Fate Worlds are some of the best I’ve ever read! Concise, to the point, and the three-question structure is perfect. They give me the information I need to form an idea of what _I_ could like, and that’s something that very few reviews accomplish so well.
    Thank you.

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