This game is my hack using:
- the rules of War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus I wrote for Evil Hat Productions (PDF available on a pay-what-you-want basis on DriveThruRPG, and Open Content rules on Fate SRD);
- the Warhammer 40,000 (WH40K) setting,
- particularly as presented in the Dark Heresy role-playing game from Fantasy Flight Games/Ulisses Spiele, and
- borrowing the random tables from my husband’s Fiasco 40K playset for, well, Fiasco.
Why? Because on the one hand I don’t enjoy the native system for Dark Heresy, it’s just not my cup of tea; and on the other, we have a bazillion WH40K miniatures which were handy to demonstrate the miniatures rules for Fate from War of Ashes: Fate of Agaptus.
I had four players, including my husband Edmund. The other three players (the very nice Gregg, Thomas, and Jon) were new faces to us and to each other. Edmund is well-versed in both the WH40K universe and in the Fate rules I was using, of course. However, the other players had minimal knowledge of either setting or mechanics. Their role-playing background was primarily from games like D&D or GURPS, and were there to learn about the Fate system. Setup
While I usually run four-hour games, I had scheduled this one for six hours to have plenty of time to explain rules. I had prepared a schedule that started with a brief introduction of setting and system, then character creation. (You can read my GM notes here, with no polishing. Yes, I know it’s skimpy on scenery detail; that’s what my notes always look like.)
The four characters were:
- Tech-priest Barria Mactator (Thomas)
- Darnia Flinch, scum fixer (Jon)
- Lyndon Smokes, Ogryn bodyguard (Gregg)
- Corporal Milkweed Thistledown, Ratling scout (Edmund)
(The character sheets as they were after character creation; more stunts were added in play.)
Instead of the 60 minutes I had planned, (I usually take 30 for this phase!) we took an hour and 45 minutes. The reason was that I had made the unconscious assumption that people who would show up to play this would be either WH40K fans or Fate fans; it had simply not occurred to me that people who were familiar with neither would want to play, let alone that this would be the case for all of them except Edmund.
Then the scenario opened in media res with:
Hive Tourmaline, Middle Level. The Inquisitor has disappeared during a brutal firefight and the ensuing cave-in, and the survivors of his retinue have been cornered by a genestealer cult. The party is also hopelessly lost, since communications are on the fritz and they have lost their local guide.
I gave them a short moment to assess their situation, then the brood brothers started to swarm. And I discovered that with all the miniatures I had brought, I had forgotten the bag of plastic hive gangers I was going to use as part of the brood. Ah well, this was mortifying but not critical; we used miniature poker chips to proxy for the mobs of expendable minions.
Although the adversaries were only there to teach the Fate rules, especially the miniatures rules, and show that the PCs were badass against ordinary forces, the conflict stretched on. The primary reason is that I was trying to explain the rules and the underpinning logic very clearly—that is what the players had said they wanted to learn, so I did not want to leave them mystified. By the time the party had dispatched the brood brothers, we were now four hours and ten minutes into a six-hour game.
Depending on whether the PCs decided to save the Inquisitor, retrieve the relic, high-tail it off Corundum IV before Exterminatus was declared, or something else entirely I had not thought of, I had planned to have them do some (not all) of the following (for which I did have miniatures):
- Explore locations in the hive;
- Fight off genestealer hybrids;
- Negotiate with or fight off (non-corrupted) hive gangers;
- Negotiate with or fight off a rival inquisitor’s retinue;
- Find the body of a tyranid lictor (foreshadowing the final fight);
- See tyranid warriors in action and maybe fight them;
- Combat or escape finale with a live lictor.
I always try to prepare lots of possible encounters and use just the ones that fit with the group’s interest. That means that yes, I always have more material that we will be able to play through. That’s the whole point. But I was still unprepared for being so far behind after the intro encounter!
Clearly, we were going to have to head directly for the endgame portion, although I did have them encounter en route the body of the dead lictor (apparently killed by an inquisitor’s power weapon), surrounded by hundreds of dead soldiers from the Planetary Defence Force, so they would know that tyranids had landed and Exterminatus was a possibility.
The party decided to find the relic and, if possible at all, grab it, use it for collateral, and buy passage off-planet with a rogue trader. Combining tech-priest Mactator’s data access, Darnia’s knowledge of hive inner workings, and the occasional flash of insight from Lyndon and Milkweed, they zeroed in on the location of the relic.
I encouraged the players to create lots of advantages in preparation for difficult rolls, including through the use of flashbacks. For example, they might remember a conversation they had overheard earlier on the inquisitor’s ship, or a previous similar challenge they had solved.
They tracked the relic to the part of the current Lower Hive which, a very long time ago, used to be the Upper Hive. It was kept in a long-forgotten and largely buried Imperial shrine that now served as the vault for a “curio” shop, i.e., the front for a ring or scavengers, looters, smugglers, and tomb-robbers. The area had clearly been the site of some fighting not long ago, and a mob of hivers were barricaded inside, expecting the next wave of genestealers.
After convincing the hivers to assist them by promising them passage off-planet, Mactator and Darnia explored the depths of the crypt beneath the shrine while Milkweed and Lyndon set to hold off the approaching xenos. The tech-priest, unable to resist his fascination for unknown technology, salvaged a piece of a forbidden think-machine, plugging it right into his binary cortex. (Thomas wanted a fate point!) He would soon discover that the heretical tech helped him compute but forced him to blaspheme whenever it was used.
Darnia and Mactator found, inside a massive reliquary, a fragment from the tomb of Saint Drusus carved out of a tyranid claw and sending strong psychic emanations when unshielded. After locating a secret exit, they sent Morten (the hiver scavenger) to get they comrades while Darnia used her Null ability to hide the relic from psychic detection.
By that time, Lyndon and Milkweed were uncomfortably close to being overrun by genestealers, so their were happy to fall back. Lyndon, with his great strength, helped Barria Mactator extract the the relic from its reliquary and Darnia kept it hidden. They then gathered the hivers and escaped through the secret exit, just ahead of the xenos hordes. They made their way to the upper levels, managed to find Rogue Trader Kaylene Kilimnik, and convinced her to take everyone on board. Now they only had to gene-test everyone to make sure no xenos contamination had made it on board…
The players seemed to have a good time, and afterwards everyone stayed on to exchange contact info, which my husband points out is a good sign. But I felt disappointed after the game. It hadn’t been bad, in fact it had been quite congenial; but somehow it had fallen far short of my hopes.
After a bout of post-game soul-searching, I realised I had been disappointed because it seemed like none of the things I had put the most effort in had had a chance to shine:
I wanted to showcase the Fate miniatures rules, but as it was my new players seemed disconcerted enough by the basics of Fate that I held back on the rules for manoeuvres, Roar, and lethal damage. The episode stayed in teaching mode almost throughout, we only got a short portion of play at the end when we got to a real feeling of playing rather than learning the rules. I had the impression that the players walked out thinking Fate was really complicated, despite my efforts.
I wanted people to spot uses of specific setting elements and think, “That’s a good way to model that!” but the players were not very familiar with WH40K so there wasn’t that click of recognition.
I wanted to hear what players thought of the PbtA-style playbooks for character creation, but they were too unfamiliar with even Fate, and had never heard of Apocalypse World and other games Powered by the Apocalypse, so again there was no click of recognition.
I wanted to hear how people felt about the use of flashbacks and similar cinematic techniques, but that was largely out of the group’s comfort zone.
Here is what I think I did wrong:
1. I failed to plan for the case I had, with players familiar with neither setting nor system. In retrospect, it was pretty obvious.
2. I failed to think about the likely KublaCon attendance. Among the RPGs offered, it’s about 25% D&D and its direct descendants (not counting organized play like the D&D Adventure League or Pathfinder Society), 50% other “traditional” games (e.g., Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, etc.), and 25% indie/hippie/small press/story games.
This is not bad at all, offers a good deal of variety but it means indies are not super-strong and this may not be the best place for demoing a system through a hack. A good, straightforward use of a published game without any hacking, or even an explicit playtest, would have been a lot easier for newcomers to grasp.
3. Dammit, I forgot some of the miniatures! (This didn’t really affect the game, it just rankles.)
Nevertheless, I think I will try to run it again at Big Bad Con, perhaps with a warning in the game description that players should be familiar with the basic Fate system.
Thank you to my very nice players Gregg, Thomas, Jon, and Edmund for putting up with my experiment!