Ariadne’s Spindle: The Truth Is Out There

We had our Session 0 for our Fate adaptation of The Expanse, leaving me with scribbled notes for adventure- and world-building.

Focus and Sub-Genre

Our strawpoll on themes and genre resulted in the following votes from four players:

Political intrigue: 3
Action and suspense: 2
Character drama: 2
Spaceship combat: 0
Mystery and investigation: 3
Horror: 0
Espionage: 3
Wacky hijinks and banter: 2

Setting Issues

At the moment I’m going with the following issues:

  • The Truth About Eros
  • The Churn Throws Unlikely People Together

Faces and Places

Some of the movers and shakers at the UN and their extended network will probably feature in the backdrop. We discussed the following characters from canon:

  • Sadavir Errinwright
  • Chrisjen Avasarala
  • Cotyar Ghazi
  • Arjun Rao

In addition, we have a new NPC, Thomas Marshall III, the CEO of Marshall LifeTech and father to one of the PCs. He moves in rarefied circles and has some pull with the UN.

Players also mentioned Tycho Station as a place they would like to check into, and Camina Drummer as someone to interact with.

Venus, with possibly old half-built orbital staging platforms meant for the abandoned cloud cities project.

The rings/gates have not yet made their appearance at the start of our campaign. (In other words, we’re aiming more for Outland than Stargate.)

The Main Cast

Our four main characters:

Thomas Marshall the Fourth

Tom is a young man of 22 and he’s the only son of Thomas Marshall the Third, the CEO of Marshall LifeTech, a big player in life support systems. Tom has a lot of crazy conspiracy theories and his father indulges his little “journalistic” endeavors, but Tom lacks experience with the hard edges of the real world. Tom has managed to convince his family to fund a “fact-finding expedition” to Venus to follow one of his many flaky theories, but Thomas Marshall III made sure to add one trusted member to the crew, a young diplomatic attaché called…

Gabriel-Adan Zhao Cantador

Sometimes familiarly called Gaz, Gabriel-Adan Zhao-Cantador is an independent consultant, formerly affiliated with the United Nations Diplomatic Service. Zhao-Cantador was raised in a family on Basic in one of the Earth-Moon LaGrange-4 point. During school, [TBD] inspired Zhao-Cantador to push for a space at the Lower University. Zhao-Cantador studied political science at university and then accepted a position at the United Nations Diplomatic Service before being seconded to the Diplomatic Intelligence Directorate for further training.

While posted as a legal attache at a small station in the Belt, Zhao-Cantador exceeded his authority in authorizing refugee visas for Belters in need of relocation to Earth-jurisdiction, setting them up on Basic Assistance without prior clearance. Had this been a matter of simple corruption, the right people would have been paid, and the situation would have been ignored.

It wasn’t.

As a result, Zhao-Cantador was summarily recalled to Earth, and placed on paid administrative leave. While awaiting disposition of his career, Zhao-Cantador was referred to a meeting with Thomas Marshall.

Keilana Kamealoha

A proficient if quirky xenobiochemist and the first (and possibly only) child born on Triton. Their parents were also xenobiochemists, sent to examine exoplanets with the big Triton arrays for signs of life. Extra mouths were unwanted so everyone was on some form of birth control, but mom and dad were on a timetable so they smuggled a fertilized embryo up with the rat and monkey embryos. Hilarity ensued. Born and raised Triton among a great community of science nerds.

Cécile Izakawa

Born on Eros, from a proletarian family. Her dad was a union representative on a drydock of Eros. Her mom worked menial jobs like cook, EVA suits repairs, whatever she could do to feed her kids.

Self-made woman who had to get her education through work and apprenticeship. She started working when she was 12 on small ships tasked to remove dangerous debris from stations vicinity. Tough jobs that involved EVA, piloting drones, heavy machinery. Later she got also involved in the commercial aspect of the trade: negotiating price of scrap or removal of hazardous material. When she reached her twenties, realizing that she’d be stuck in dead-end job if she didn’t switch career, Cécile got involved with smugglers and low grade criminals which opened her horizon to more profitable job opportunities. Now she wants to know the whole truth about Eros and everyone she lost there.

Cécile is a tall lanky woman. She sports very short hair usually by habit. It’s cleaner and you don’t get Belter lice this way.

The Expanse in Fate: Ship-Building

On with our adaptation of The Expanse to Fate! Along with character creation and ship combat, spaceship construction is one of the most important pieces in this system conversion. Compared to character creation, however, we don’t have as good an internal blueprint for how ships should be modeled in a role-playing game.

As I explained in my interlude, how detailed the ship rules should be in a specific campaign depends on how interested your group is in directly controlling ships and how often this element will show up in the story. At the most basic, ships may be a backdrop, important but more of a scenery aspect the way space stations or planet-side locations may be. At the other end of the spectrum, ship-to-ship combat may be a your characters’ bread and butter.

I gave my players a mini-survey to see where their interest lie: Political intrigue, Action and suspense, Character drama, Spaceship combat, Mystery and investigation; Horror, Espionage, or Other. The two options that go no votes were horror, which didn’t surpris me, and spaceship combat, which did. I had my answer: keep the spaceship combat rules light for my players, don’t burden them with detailed mechanics they’re not interested in using. (Good thing I asked first!)

Therefore, I will use the lightest version possible in my own campaign; in essence, I will treat the AGE System ship profiles as narrative descriptions. Does it say the ship has a med bay? OK, your PC gets a bonus for recovering from appropriate conditions such as Injured or Wounded. Does it have an advanced sensor package? You’ll see other ships coming a little earlier in the fiction.

However, I promised you a more detailed version and here it is. I largely based it on Tachyon Squadron and its supplement, the Spaceship Construction Toolkit, but I do follow The Expanse RPG as closely as I can, especially in the technology lingo.

Continue reading “The Expanse in Fate: Ship-Building”

The Expanse in Fate: Ships Happen (Interlude)

In case you’re wondering about the next installment in our series, I’ve been musing about ships and space combat. I have one way of doing things based on staying as close as possible to the write-ups in The Expanse RPG, and another based on the ship rules from Tachyon Squadron and its supplements.

It’s going to come down to what my players want for a series framework: if they’re going to go have a lot of ship-to-ship battles where their PCs are in charge of the action, then I want solid rules – meaning derived from Tachyon Squadron. But if they are going to be mostly bystanders like the captured crew of the Knight aboard the Donnager, then just lightly adapting the AGE System rules and using them in broad strokes suffices.

Both approaches can be used in parallel. I can write up both sets of rules and make them available for fellow fans; however, as GM I want to start with what’s immediately useful to me and will not confuse my players. That said, I promise you I will give you both, in time.

Finally, if you do not care about staying close to the published game The Expanse RPG but only about the books or television series (e.g., if you don’t already own the RPG nor plan to), and want a Fate solution, you might want to take a look at Evil Hat’s Fate Space Toolkit. It contains a handful of ready-to-go campaign settings and one of them, called Mass Drivers, would be a good fit for The Expanse and particularly for a Belter campaign If you’re starting from scratch, it’s an excellent choice.

That said, I love the amount of useful material in The Expanse RPG and its supplements so I will continue to use it a lot in my Fate version.

The Expanse in Fate: NPCs

Continuing from my previous post: let’s look at creating some GM characters. This is a spot where Fate really shines for me, making my life easy as the game moderator. You see, while it’s true of any role-playing game, Fate is one of the few that openly acknowledges that adversaries don’t need to be statted the same way as player characters. At all. They don’t even need to use the same skill list. For example, here is a way to make very minor antagonists, a.k.a. mooks:

  1. Make a list of what this mook is skilled at. They get a +2 to all rolls dealing with these things.
  2. Make a list of what this mook is bad at. They get a −2 to all rolls dealing with these things.
  3. Everything else gets a +0 when rolled.
  4. Give the mook an aspect or two to reinforce what they’re good and bad at, or if they have a particular strength or vulnerability. It’s okay if a mook’s aspects are really simple.
  5. Mooks have zero, one, or two boxes in their stress track, depending on how tough you imagine them to be.
  6. Mooks can’t take consequences. If they run out of stress boxes (or don’t have any), the next hit takes them down.

This method is found in the Fate Accelerated Edition but used widely throughout the Fate range of implementations. It works very well for the lowest category of speedbump adversaries, dangerous mostly when in numbers or as impediments to slow the PCs down and let the real target escape. For example, I give you the hooligan: Continue reading “The Expanse in Fate: NPCs”

The Expanse: Ariadne’s Spindle

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times recently, I have put in a lot of work in creating modules for Evil Hat Productions on the Roll20 virtual tabletop (VTT). Of the 36 modules I have worked on, 29 have been Fate modules, 21 of which have been released on Roll20 already. And this really drove home the point that circumstances have driven me to a Fate-less gaming schedule right now: none of the games I have played this year are powered by Fate. This is unacceptable and there was only one thing to do: start a Fate game.

Setting-wise, I have been itching for a long while to play hard science fiction. Rather than going for a ready-statted Fate setting, I decided to adapt The Expanse. It’s funny, of course, because the book series and later television series have their origin in a role-playing campaign led by one of the authors (GURPS, I believe). A couple of years ago Green Ronin Publishing picked up the license and published The Expanse Roleplaying Game based on their AGE system, which I had played in Dragon Age and run in Blue Rose 2nd edition.

I feel that Fate is a great system to run and play exciting adventures in this setting, and it certainly makes preparation easy for me as GM. On the other hand, The Expanse RPG is crammed full of information and I want to get as much of this goodness as I can, not reinvent the wheel. This led me to hew as close as possible to the original character stat profiles.

Player Character Creation

Here is how I paralleled the AGE character creation in my Fate version. The steps listed are those from The Expanse RPG and the notes describe how I adapted them.

Continue reading “The Expanse: Ariadne’s Spindle”

Big Bad Con is the best! – Part 3

Program, badge, buttons

Sunday Supers

(This is my continued recap of my weekend at Big Bad Con.)

I had once again gone to bed well after midnight and thinking about what my husband Edmund had to miss by going home to give the cats their medication every night. He was running the second instance of “The League of Extraordinary Felines: 1954” in the morning, but I had signed up for a different game because I thought Edmund’s scenario was the same one I had played two or three times.

I knew Edmund was hoping to see me in his game, I knew  I was going to have fun playing a cat again, so I used the online to cancel my signup for the other game (which really sounded awesome, by the way, but that’s Big Bad Con for you: too many awesome games.) I was really glad that, thanks to the online system, the GM would know I had dropped and someone else would be able to sign up to take my spot.

I got up even blurrier than the morning before—where is the gamer resilience of yesteryear?—but I packed my bags for later checkout and went to Starbucks to grab coffee since a 20-oz Starbucks latte was only 35¢ more than a 12-oz. drip coffee downstairs! To be virtuous, I also got us some fruit salads for breakfast, then made my way to the game room.

“The League of Extraordinary Felines: 1854” was a new adventure featuring last year’s characters, using the Mutants & Masterminds 3rd. ed. system (Green Ronin Publishing.) Our group was composed of Kendra, playing Pluto, master of the mystical arts; Sarah, playing Dinah the fairy cat; Christine (not the same Christine as Saturday) playing Ta Miu the master of eternal life and time; Xander, playing Mr. Twitchett the gadgeteer and tinkerer; and me, playing Growltiger the brick.

It’s the fourth time Edmund runs this setup at a convention and so far, no one has ever signed up because of the system; at best, people remember playing it at some point, but all say that they signed up because they wanted to play a cat! As usual, we had a lot of fun. We investigated murder most foul, faced giant Sumatra rats, then confronted the immense Ratzilla! Growltiger was formidable against minion rats, and Ratzilla was defeated thanks to the combined cleverness of Mr. Twitchett and the rest of the team.

After the cat game we grabbed a couple of burgers and fries from the hotel restaurant (they are quite good and I nominate this as the best value for the dollar on the menu), and headed for the last game of the weekend. Edmund and our friend Adi were signed up but I had been unable to snag a spot in time. I was hoping to crash the game, but I saw mid-morning that one player had just dropped so I immediately contacted the host! So that’s another thumbs-up for all-online signups.


Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne

The game was Witch: The Road to Lindisfarne (Pompey Crew Design), a GM-less story game where a witch convicted of bringing the plague is taken to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, where a harsh ritual will be performed to cleanse her.

Our party included all six characters in the playset: our host Gretchen Burneko as Ham the Romani guide; Justin as the demanding Sir Hayden; Edmund as the somber Sir Thorne; Alyssa as Brother Armand, wrestling with his faith and conscience; Adi as the witch; and me as Berrick, Sir Hayden’s squire (yes, I kept thinking “Baldrick.”)

It was an intense game and everyone gave great role-playing performances, particularly Adi who was a most splendid, unsettling, and heart-wrenching witch.

The game and the weekend were over all too soon; we said our goodbyes and headed home, tired but pleased with our time at Big Bad Con.

RPG a Day: Word!

19. What’s an RPG item that features awesome writing?

Here are three role-playing games I’ve enjoyed reading as much or even more than I have enjoyed playing.

Weapons of the Gods (Eos Press) featured Brad Elliott as primary system writer, and Rebecca Borgstrom (now Jenna Moran) authoring the fiction and setting material. It is one of a very few RPGs containing fiction I enjoyed for its own sake.

Unknown Armies (Atlas Games) is best known for Greg Stolze and (in the first two editions) John Tynes’ snarky, idiosyncratic, witty writing. I have loved every edition and I was honoured to have a small part in helping write the third edition.

Mutants & Masterminds (Green Ronin Publishing) is another that has known three editions, every one of which I loved. I particularly enjoyed Steve Kenson’s sharing of his thorough knowledge of the superhero genre and explaining his reasoning in making design choices so that game-masters can use the same tools. It really helped me realize what I’m looking for in GM advice.



I salute the Blue Rose


Fans of role-playing games are likely aware that the Kickstarter funding campaign for a new edition of Green Ronin Publishing’s Blue Rose RPG is in full swing. If you didn’t know, then go read io9’s interview with line developer and original co-writer Steve Kenson. Hey, while you’re there, I’ll borrow a pull-quote from Steve to describe the genre that Blue Rose emulates, romantic fantasy:

“Romantic” refers to a style and a point of view that’s generally positive, hopeful, and cooperative: good people can make a difference, true love can and does win in the end, we can make the world better, people of good conscience can work together (and even disagree) but still coexist peacefully, and, ultimately, there is good in the world and it’s something worth fighting for. That romance often includes interpersonal relationships, from boon comrades to passionate love, and such things are both the reasons why characters take action and the rewards they receive for their efforts.

Blue Rose will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year! It’s crazy how quickly time passes. One thing has been nagging at me every time I see someone say that the game was “ahead of its time” in 2005 for its inclusiveness of gender, orientation and even body type diversity.

Ahead of its time? Please. Let’s give credit where credit is due:

The Blue Rose RPG is exactly the kind of game that helped move the gamer and geek mindset forward.

The kind that show that games matter, that they are not just a few hours’ entertainment. They are that, yes, but also so much more. Because the times, you see, they may be a-changin’ but they have to be dragged a-kickin’ and a-screamin’ into it. Otherwise nothing ever advances.

So thank you, Green Ronin. May the Blue Rose bloom pure and bright for a long time.

Titansgrave: Yes!

titansgrave-logo-croppedAs a card-carrying (not really) gamer geek, I just had to watch Wil Wheaton’s Web series Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana, part of the Geek and Sundry programming.

This is a ten-episode series in which we follow game-master Wil Wheaton and his four players through a short role-playing campaign based on an original science fantasy setting and using Green Ronin Publishing’s Adventure Game Engine (AGE) system, which also powers their licensed Dragon Age RPG and the upcoming second edition of Blue RoseTitansgrave will soon be released as an adventure and setting sourcebook for AGE.  This professional show offers the high production values missing in amateur recordings of role-playing sessions and is meant to address geeks who are not already role-players.

I’ve posted a review of Dragon Age RPG a few years ago on In short, AGE is a pretty traditional system but a pleasantly streamlined and consistent one. Some of the suggestions for changes which I had at the time are addressed by this most recent version of the system, such as expansion of the use of stunts. But intrinsically, it’s not a hippie game and it should not feel disconcerting for most gamers.

Therefore, it makes a perfect example of how easy it can be to “say yes” as the GM even without fancy system features to support it. I really appreciate that Wil Wheaton has been giving great examples of this throughout the show so far. For example, when a player says she wants to do something fancy and cool, Wil doesn’t say “No, you have to wait until you know whether you have stunt points for this.” Instead he says “OK, and if you have stunts points, [insert cool effect here] may happen.”  I have yet to see him just saying “No” to a player’s idea.

He also wants the characters to have exciting adventures, not just walk along dotted lines through the scenario. When the rolls are failures, he describes the results, or encourages the players to describe them, in terms of bad luck or the opposition countering, not in terms of player characters’ ineffectiveness. Something happens and throws a new twist or danger. And Wil asks his players to create details, to name characters, and so forth, and uses these details to shape the story. Sure, he could fill in all those little details himself, but this is more fun and gets the players more involved, more invested.

I sure hope GMs are watching this!

Review: Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Set 1

[This review was also published on]

TL;DR: A slick, well-made homage to the roots of fantasy role-playing aimed at introducing new players to the genre.

Others have produced good reviews of the system, including one capsule review from Lev Lafayette and one playtest review from a GM’s perspective by Extrakun, which provide useful detail on the game mechanics. Rather than repeat what they have said, I’ll let the readers refer to these and I will simply provide my feedback on actual play from a player’s perspective, with some comparison to Green Ronin’s other popular system, True20.


I am reviewing the PDF version as well as the print set. The PDF is very pretty, fully bookmarked, easy to get around. The print box set is good quality, thin little books, easy to read and attractive. The writing is clear and the editing generally good. The art is generally good to very good, though sadly one of the pieces I least like is the cover.


I have only a basic acquaintance with the setting of the computer and console game on which the pen and paper RPG is based. For what it’s worth, it looks to me like the CRPG does a good job of bringing more character development to the genre than the average CRPG or MMORPG.

The pen and paper RPG Set 1 (which I will only refer to as the RPG in the rest of this review) presents succinct information on the setting, but for a newcomer it’s all pretty vanilla fantasy. Although it’s billed in all versions as “dark fantasy”, it feels like “regular fantasy” to me (while something like the Midnight setting for d20 would definitely qualify as dark.)

The setting info targeted at players is brief, which is good if you don’t want to scare away newcomers, but the GM has to give periodic info downloads on various setting aspects. I don’t find the setting arresting in itself, and I frequently found myself wishing we’d go visit another Green Ronin setting instead, Freeport. (They would mesh just fine.)


Character Creation: For a system that is supposed to be simple and friendly to newcomers, I don’t find it so straightforward. I think the instruction that screws it up is actually the very first one: start with a character concept. Wrong.

Characters are generated old AD&D-style by randomly rolling three dice for each stat, in order; at the end, you can switch two stats of your choice. It would be a lot easier to just roll the dice and see what you can make out of those stats than to try to match them to a design concept. Next time, that’s what I’ll do; it’s easier than gritting your teeth over stats and options that don’t match the initial concept. Other players in our group also had the same impression.

In truth, I heartily detest random-roll character creation systems; they always mean vastly mismatched starting characters. Naturally, when we started our group, the other players had totals of +17, +16, and +13 in roll modifiers. I had +9, including a point wasted on the Magic stat. That said, I like to think I used what I had well in order to stay as effective as possible, create a niche for the character, and avoid being completely redundant. Therefore, I can’t call this a crippling flaw.

Nevertheless, I recommend using one of the two options from the Set 2 Open Playtest, which either allow you to rearrange all your ability rolls as needed (Option 1) or even better, to use a point-buy system in which everyone gets +10 to distribute among abilities (Option 2).

I like that the character creation creation steps help players flesh out some background about their character — where she is from, what is she like. One of the last steps of the process is to identify some personal goals and ties, which help the GM construct stories in which the PCs will have a stake. GMs, the characters’ goals and ties are one of your most useful tools, so don’t forget about them!

Character Classes and Starting Options: Another disappointment in terms of freedom to build from the character concept is the limited choice of starting Talents, which prevents serious customization. You’ll do fine if you want to play a standard thief or ranger (use the Rogue class), magic user (Mage), or fighter (Warrior).

However, if you want to start with a beast master (as animal training is very popular in Ferelden), you can’t start with the talent Animal Training and you can’t get it until you are at Level 3, when you get a second talent. Similarly, if you want to make a dedicated healer (magical or not), horseman, minstrel, etc., you have to wait until at least level 3 before you can be as good at it as the thief is at thieving and the warrior at hitting things. That may seem very quick for people used to playing 23rd level characters, but this is the box set for levels 1-5, so you have to be halfway through the useful life of Set 1.

Basic Die Roll System: For most challenges, you roll three six-sided dice and total them, adding your applicable ability score. This feels very much like True 20 Lite with 3d6 instead of 1d20, and a few embellishments like the use of the Dragon Die instead of Conviction Points (see Stunts, below). This is a pretty good approach. I prefer the normally distributed results of 3d6 over the flat curve of 1d20; and the style of rules will be readily understandable to most players of True20, d20, D&D, and other variants.

Stunts: If you roll doubles, you can do “stunts”; the value of the Dragon die generates stunt points which can be used for special actions. For example, rolling 1 and 4 on the regular die, and 4 on the Dragon die, would count as doubles (4, 4), with the Dragon die score indicating that you produced 4 stunt points. The original list of available stunts in Set 1 is limited, but the Set 2 Open Playtest version expanded their use so I’m looking forward to the official Set 2 take on stunts (which is just coming out this week).

The bad: These stunts are after-the-fact affairs; you only know whether you can use them after you have rolled the dice. As a result, you may get the chance to execute stunt when you are uninspired or circumstances make the list of stunts inapplicable, and you can be denied the opportunity even when you have a clever idea.

Another quibble – it seems like getting triples should allow for even more awesomeness. When we had a player roll 6, 6, 6, I really wanted him to do something extra special, not the same as if he’d rolled 6, 1, 6.

The good: On the fairness side, any two characters that have the same attack modifier value always have exactly identical odds of getting a stunt. In addition, you can’t “run out” of chances to perform stunts because you’re out of points. Finally, some players, especially newcomers – and this game is aimed at them – have trouble coming up with creative ideas in the middle of the action, so the stunts help guide them toward more colourful fights.

Overall, I liked having the stunts and the creativity options they opened beyond just “I attack with my biggest weapon” over and over.

Advancement: The level system is more reminiscent of various versions of D&D than True20’s because it’s based on accumulating experience points, with the increments between levels constantly increasing. It takes 2,000 XP to get to Level 2, then another 2,500 to make it to Level 3, then 3,000 more to Level 4, etc. The typical experience awards are probably fine if you’re playing on a weekly basis, but very slow if you’re playing less frequently or via e-mail or forum. When you level up, your character gets various improvements all at once, generally fairly modest.

Personally, I prefer the method used in True20 for level increases: rather than tallying experience points, the GM just declares at dramatically appropriate times that everyone gains a new level. In games where abilities can be improved on a continuous basis with experience gained (i.e., without levels), the experience awards make sense, but in level-based games they are just one more thing to keep track of without appreciable benefit.


Most of the criticisms I have leveled at the game, particularly regarding character creation and the experience system, are the same ones I uttered when first introduced to AD&D in 1983. In other words, there is a style issue, a deliberate decision to embrace an “Old School” feel, that I never embraced in the first place.

That said, the actual core mechanics are sound, consistent, and simple enough to avoid bogging down the action. I find my sweet spot with this game includes mixing in some rules from True20, but I like the Dragon Die and the use of stunts, as well as the choice of 3d6 for the core roll mechanic.

This is a good choice for nostalgics longing for a cleaner, more consistent, and better-looking version of old-time fantasy games. It’s also a good choice for even a moderately experienced GM to introduce new players to table-top role-playing.

If you are a big fan of the computer game, I understand that the mechanics are not at all similar, but give it a chance. You’ll find it’s pretty easy to learn and use, even if it looks like you can’t replicate you high-level character from the computer version.