RPG a Day: Two great tastes that go together

27. Favourite idea for merging two games in one

I have to go back to my on-the-fly conversion of octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks) to Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions) at Big Bad Con 2013. It’s not a genre mashup but a system mashup, and it worked like a charm.

#RPGaDay2015

Character sheet: octaNe-to-FAE

RPG a Day: Ambush on the trail…

4. Most surprising game
Another tough one. Although the period is not specified, let’s go for “within the last year” just to narrow it down, and I’ll say Motobushido from Alliterated Games. I was first attracted by the art and the seemingly quirky genre mashup, but my expectations were only for a fun afternoon of gaming every once in a while. But this game goes much deeper than the concept suggests, provides real drama, and offers clever tactics, enjoyable mechanics, and the best card-based resolution system I’ve encountered in RPGs.

#RPGaDay2015

Post-Apocalypse Gaming

As a follow-up to my review of Mad Max: Fury Road, let me point to previous posts about a few role-playing games that are excellent matches for the genre, Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games), octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks), Motobushido (Alliterated Games), and my hack of Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions):

Apocalyse World (Lumpley Games) octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks) Motobushido (Alliterated  Games) Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions)

As a bonus, check out the various games based on Car Wars (Steve Jackson Games), and Dream Pod 9’s Tribe 8.
Car Wars (Steve Jackson Games) Tribe 8 (Dream Pod 9)

Mad Max: Fury Road—Spoiler-Free Mini-Review

Mad Max and Furiosa at the Salt DesertFirst, I would like to thank the self-described “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) who alerted me to the fact that I needed to see this movie with their claim that it is feminist propaganda. I was lukewarm about seeing it in theatre, but they convinced me and I’m glad they did—so here is my spoiler-free review.

First, the style.

Mad Max: Fury Road is full of nearly non-stop action, pausing just long enough between plot segments to let you get your bearings. It has enough explosions to keep Michael Bay happy, and beautifully choreographed fight scenes.The stunts are so over-the-top, you’ll think it’s all computer graphics but in fact the CG enhances bad-ass old-school pyrotechnics and stunts.

The cinematography is gorgeous, with the post-production perfectly highlighting the drama through visual details. The use of different colour palettes and monochrome scenes in different hues serves as a language of its own to convey themes. The aesthetics are straight from the 1980s—the good part of the 80s, that is—but backed by today’s movie-making technology and lots of money. The soundtrack by Junkie XL is excellent and crazily topical.

The visual elements show not only mastery of a subgenre which director/producer/screen co-writer George Miller practically created, or at least greatly shaped (the post-apocalypse road movie), but also of other contributions and inspirations, including other movies, comic books, and games. George Miller is not stuck thirty years in his own past like some movie-makers, but has moved with the times. The casting is quite good and in some instances delightful. It’s also a who’s who of people with extensive family connections in the world of stardom.

The editing is tight, and used to support a “show, don’t tell” approach that I wish was more frequently used. Explanations and implications are there, but no narrative time is wasted in belabouring the obvious. If you’re the kind of people who likes for things to make sense, it’s there but you have to pay attention, there will be no lengthy exposition. If you don’t care, you can just follow the action uninterrupted.

And now for the substance.

The fearful MRAs are right: this movie is everything they hate. The fact that it’s also everything they usually love is just hilarious bonus. The movie’s bad guys so well represent the MRA platform!

Mad Max: Fury Road is chock-full of very clear messages about institutions, social mores, attitudes, and current issues that are squarely driving on the left side of the road. Interesting points are made about environmental degradation, aggression, territoriality, concentration of wealth, resource waste, religion, authority, education, and more. And the status of women is only one of these topics, but it’s beautifully handled.

For a spoiler-heavy review of the subversion of sexist tropes, go see Donna Dickens’ overview on HitFix—but only after you’ve seen the movie if, like me, you enjoy discovering a work of fiction with fresh eyes.

And I so greatly appreciated that the narrative was there, that it was not just gratuitous special effects, and that it was handled deftly. Miller does not talk down to his audience.

In short, it’s great fun and I want to see it again on the big screen.

Mad Max: Fury Road - Oncoming vehicles

Motobushido: Swords and Static

Motobushido coverWe played Motobushido (Alliterated  Games) today and it was a blast. First, the group at the table was in the right mood and everyone played their character beautifully. In descending order of precedence, we had:

  • Edmund as the Sensei (game-master);
  • Jacob playing the Taicho (pack leader), Haruna Tar-Face;
  • Fish playing the Shigaka (historian/chronicler), Nobuyoki;
  • Kit playing the Kusawake (scout), Shiro;
  • Matt playing the Migi Ude (enforcer), Haachi; and
  • Me playing the Shinmai (recruit), Michiko.

Everyone was so much fun, knew their chanbara tropes, and was a cooperative story game player. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have conflicts among the party — on the contrary, we had dramatic confrontations, but because the players wanted to bring twists, not because we were at odds as players. Everyone was delightfully wicked about needling each other’s motobushi and reviving old grudges. I would have loved to play a continuing series with this pack.

The setting is somewhat inspired by Apocalypse World;

In this game, your group will play a pack of motorcycle-riding samurai – motobushi – in the days after a great war ravaged the land. You were soldiers in that war, but your side ultimately lost. The how and why of what has come before are all up to you. You will work as a group to define your own aspects of that war, including any cross-genre story elements your group desires. You will then play out the lives of these motobushi as they travel around in a world which largely rejects their ideals, and tell the stories of their trials and adventures, their wins and their losses, and their inevitable grim fates.

MotobushiLike in AW, a lot of the characters’ and setting’s history is created by the players. You don’t use dice but two decks of playing cards, one for the Sensei and one for the players. Most actions can be merely narrated; you only use the cards when it’s time to take risks (“Gambit”) or fight (“Duels.”) At first, the system is disorienting for those of us used to dice; it looks like no other role-playing game I can think of.

Of all the RPGs I’ve played that used standard playing cards to resolve actions, this has the most enjoyable, tactical and interesting system. It blows the ones in Hillfolk/DramaSystem or Prime Time Adventures out of the water, for example. It’s not just a matter of having more cards, or higher cards; a lot of strategy can go into deciding when to escalate or concede, in order to save an advantage for later.

I’ll try to write more at some point when I have time, but I really enjoyed this game.

[Edit: Edmund posted a much more comprehensive review, from his perspective as GM.]

Fate: A Tale of Conversion-on-the-Fly

Randy's truckThis tale is late, but my writing time in the last quarter has been spent primarily on the War of Ashes RPG. Despite the lateness, I want to share this gaming experience because I think it may be useful to others. It’s on my mind because I’m wrapping up one of the last details for the draft of the War of Ashes RPG, the creation of short sample adventures.

When I was on Games On Demand duty at Big Bad Con in October, I had two options prepared: a FAE Muppet Show game or an octaNe game. Players sat down at my table, interested in trying Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) for the first time but not too hot about the Muppets. Two were actually in the wrong age bracket, too young for the original Muppet Show and too old for the Disney re-launch; and one was my husband, who had recently played the Muppets game and had not played octaNe in a long time, so was ready for some post-apocalypse mayhem.

I wanted to give my players the game that would entertain them most, and somewhere in the back of my mind I had been making connections between the two systems; the spark went ZzzaPP! and I decided to run the game I had planned for octaNe but using the FAE system.

I’ve already talked about the game premise here: Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA contract employees, hired to retrieve the pets left behind by policy holders who were Raptured. The game writes itself! I had prepared an EEBP_brochure which I asked the players to fill; this would obviously be our adventure, the pets they had to save. The key points were these: Continue reading “Fate: A Tale of Conversion-on-the-Fly”

Book Review: “Hillfolk” and “Blood on the Snow”

Hillfolk coverToday I’d like to review Robin D. Laws book Hillfolk and its companion volume Blood on the Snow (Pelgrane Press, 2013).

Disclaimer: This is going to be a backwards review about everything but the core topic! You see, I don’t feel ready to review the game Hillfolk or the DramaSystem rules engine that powers it. I like to base my reviews on sufficient playtesting and so far I’ve only hosted one game. It went very well, but that’s not enough to speak with confidence on it, given that the system is intended to shine in continuing series.

However! This pair of books is an odd one, in many ways unlike your standard role-playing game, and I think it may actually be a good idea to review its other aspects separately. So here you are, this is a book review and not a game review. I’ll give you the latter after more playtesting.

Background

Blood On The Snow coverThis project attracted attention in the fall of 2012 with its Kickstarter crowdfunding. When the Kickstarter phase opened on October 3, Hillfolk was intended to be a small standalone project, described by lead author Robin Laws as “a 128-page book from a team of five people”.  The book was going to be a 6″ x 9″ pocket-format paperback “game of Iron Age conflict” based primarily on narration rules and a token-based economy, the text was complete, many of the illustrations were already prepared, the layout concept was known, and it was a pretty focused project seeking $3,000 to go to production.

Then Kickstarter caught fire, as it sometimes does; the project was funded within a few hours, and Pelgrane Press had to start rolling out stretch goals faster, earlier, and more often than anyone had hoped for.

At the same time, all this interest generated its own buzz; Kickstarter backers were able to look at the draft and many talented people started thinking: “Oh, you could use this system to play ___!” Next thing you know, people were submitting series pitches for games to run with DramaSystem besides Iron Age conflict, while others were sending their thoughts about “hacking” DramaSystem and about best practices to run games. These supplied a stream of stretch goals that really got the crowdfunding going.

In the first few days, I was mildly interested but not swept off my feet; the Iron Age setting seemed nice, well-written, but it’s not the kind of setting that gets me excited. But the flood of series pitches made the enthusiasm contagious; people whose previous work or blogging I really loved were throwing in sparkling settings like jewels on the river bottom, and I had to dive with the rest of the community.  (No, not lemmings! Bad reader, bad!)

As a result, when the Kickstarter phase ended 2,185 backers had pledged $93,845, or over 3,128 times the original $3,000 goal, and the project had become “two books of twice [the original] size, and a team of approximately eighty contributors”; the books were going to get hardcover and colour interior treatment, and the format had to change from the planned small size to full size because otherwise they would be too thick to handle properly. There was even material leftover that would become monthly series pitches released as PDF by Pelgrane Press, available by subscription.

The Result

So here is what Kickstarter backers got; I don’t want to detail every single option and tchotchke available, but the key points are:

  • For $10, you were able to get the final PDF versions of everything: Hillfolk, Blood on the Snow, and nine months of series pitches.
  • For $41 in the U.S., you got all this plus two hardcover books, shipping cost included. (If you have followed recent conversations on the Kickstarter model’s pitfalls, you know that shipping is a big issue. I’ll leave the discussion of international shipping to more knowledgeable people.)

In this review I want to talk essentially about everything the Kickstarter stretch goals added these books as books, i.e., excluding the other types of rewards like tokens, cards, or music; and also, perhaps strangely, excluding the core game for the reasons stated earlier.

Hillfolk is a 238-page, 8.5″x12″ (22 cm x 30.5 cm) hardcover book with glossy pages and colour illustrations. The first 65 pages are devoted to the system, the next 12 to the original “Hillfolk” Iron Age setting as essentially an extended series pitch, and the rest of the book offers thirty additional settings!

Blood on the Snow is 207-pages long and otherwise presented in the same form. It’s a companion book meant to enrich the reader’s experience with DramaSystem by offering advanced play and game-mastering advice, hacks such as a live-action role-playing (LARP) version, and 33 more series pitches.

I can’t think of any other role-playing product that offers this many alternate settings, or where so much of the material is effectively bonus material.

The Books as Objects

"Did I just get what I wanted?"The two books are hefty but pleasant to the touch. The art varies mostly from good to gorgeous, and even the monochrome art such as the pieces created by Jan Pospisil for the original, smaller-scale project benefits from the rich greys and sepias you can get with full-colour printing.

The covers are a bit too understated for my taste; they feature otherwise very good drawings by Scott Neil but placed in negative  as white images on a muted background, brown for Hillfolk and dark blue for Blood on the Snow. Both drawings show only the Iron Age setting. The books are so understated and give so little hint of what they contain that if I had not followed the Kickstarter, the only reason I would thumb through one at a game store is if I managed to notice Robin Laws’ name in thin font at the top.

The layout also goes for sober, elegant, and muted. It would have been a very good layout if the fonts selected had been at least two points larger. I don’t know if it was originally going to use that font size, or whether the change in book format and addition of so much material made some font reduction necessary, but both the PDF and the print books are terribly difficult for me to read now that I have reached the advanced age of 48. I can’t say for sure but I think it would have been too small for me even before my reading vision started deteriorating. I don’t have that problem with any other game books, but reading those two just kills me. To add insult to injury, the columns of text are narrow, making reading choppy, but the white margins are huge.

In fact, when I really need to study to understand, for example when I read system minutia, I have to rip the text section from the PDF and turn it into .mobi file I can read and zoom as needed on my Kindle. Unfortunately, it’s a huge amount of work to do that, particularly because of the staggered column format that turn text into mad-libs, so it would be a prohibitive effort to do for the whole books and even just for the system sections. Finally, the PDF files are not bookmarked. This is one of the reasons I’m not finished with playtesting DramaSystem: it’s so damn hard to read this.

The forms such as character sheet, list of recurring characters, etc. are usable but uninspired, and not very well sized to handle player handwriting. They remind me of the home-made character sheets we used to hatch on our word processors for White Wolf system hacks 20 years ago.

The Series Pitches

Let’s look at the bonus content: sixty-four series pitches including the original “Hillfolk” premise, plus nine more through the monthly subscription for a total of 73 game settings. The list of contributors is stunning, it’s like reading the list of cameo appearances in the movies Around the World in 80 Days or Mars Attacks.

What is a series pitch? In general, it’s a summary of the setting, key issues, key characters, etc. to propose a new series, such as television or graphic novel series. In our case, these are pitches for us to use, as the directors and editors of our own “shows”. Each pitch contains ideas of questions to explore in play, ways to ratchet up the stakes and suspense, and suggested names, relationship, and details to make the series come alive.

For me, the series pitches are the delicious chocolate centre of these two books. First, because that is how exactly how I start building a game idea; second, because it doesn’t matter if I end up loving DramaSystem or not: they are entirely usable in any genre-appropriate system of your choice. And third because for me they also spark lots more ideas of setting pitches to create.

I love that every single one of the writers who contributed a pitch is someone whose stuff I have read and loved elsewhere; some are not even primarily known as game authors but in other fiction media like comics (e.g., Gene Ha) or television (John Rogers). Some are directly employed by different publishers and just don’t end up contributing to the same books outside of this. Some are people whose articles, forum contributions and blog posts I’ve just enjoyed reading for years, and it’s my first chance to read their fiction.

Because the premise of DramaSystem is that the players are at the core of the action, the main characters in a continuing dramatic series, each pitch is created with this drama in mind to emulate the flavour of shows and books like Battlestar Galactica, A Game of Thrones, Firefly, NYPD Blues, or Lost. They offer hooks to create interesting characters, whether placed at the centre of power or skulking in the shadows. I love that the settings and genres represented are so varied.

I’m not sure how much the PDF alone will sell for; the books are still offered as a pre-order on Pelgrane Press’ site for the print+PDF bundle at US $30 or £19. But if the PDFs end up reasonably priced, I would recommend them for GMs who have a favourite system (e.g., GURPS, Hero, Fate, Heroquest) but like to try settings. (If it stays at $30 each, I would recommend checking whether you also like the system first.)

The “Masterclass” Advice

While I can’t discuss it in detail until I write my system review, I found the GM advice in both books to be very helpful. In particular, I used the advice on single-play session found in both books and was grateful for it. The hacks seemd full of clever ideas to customize the game to your group’s preferences.

Like the GUMSHOE system I reviewed recently, the core of DramaSystem can also be used as an add-on layer with another game system of your choice; the MasterClass advice provides useful tips, and studying the dramatic versus procedural discussions will be of great interest to GMs who like to run story-based games.

In fact, even if one never plays DramaSystem (which would be a shame but as usual, So many games, so little time…), the concepts discussed, the scene-setting process, the analysis of dramatic exchanges in fiction, etc. are all well-worth reading if you are the kind of gamer who got a lot out of such games as Primetime Adventures, Apocalypse World, The Burning Wheel, or Dust Devils.

If you try DramaSystem and like it, then I would say that for sure Blood on the Snow is going to be a worthwhile companion book for you.

Conclusion

Because I got in during the Kickstarter and got the books and PDF for a really good price, I can say that no matter how often I end up playing DramaSystem, this will have been a worthwhile purchase for me. I know I will use these ideas in my games. But dear Lord, if they ever put out an ebook version for sale at a reasonable price, I’m buying it.

To the 80+ writers, artists, and other contributors to these books: I want to hug you all, you gave us something new and exciting that I didn’t have in other game books.

My recommendation to game publishers for future Kickstarter stretch goals: I would place much more value on ebook format (such as .mobi or .ePub) than on special dice, bonus fiction, or even colour printing.

My recommendation to game publishers for layout: a game book is something that needs to be used quickly and clearly, no one has the time to decipher scribbles in play and if reading it makes one’s eyes water, it should be for the drama and not the font. I don’t care how elegant the layout is, you’re not publishing a coffee table art book.

All in all, very good books but not without peccadilloes.

Apocalypse World and Fate: Flavours

Following my earlier post comparing Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games) and Fate (Evil Hat Productions): expanded observations on how the two games feel at the game table, both as player and as gamemaster.

Cover: Apocalyse WorldThe Apocalypse Tastes Funny

The biggest difference between the two is that Apocalypse World comes with a default setting. I suspect that it would be very difficult to grasp the game’s value if it had started as a pure system, because you need to experience it to see how the parts come together. So yeah, it was a good choice to release it attached to a setting.

But I don’t like the flavour of this setting.  That’s a strange thing to say, I know, because most of it gets created in play, and also because I absolutely love some very similar settings in other games, most obviously Jared Sorensen’s octaNe (Memento Mori Theatricks).  But the seeds of setting contained in AW, in the character playbooks and in what the rules reward, produce a world that is unpleasant to me and more importantly, characters I don’t want to play.

It’s a subtle effect, and I can’t very well describe it except as “the wrong flavour,” like some people love Coke but hate Pepsi, love regular coffee but hate chicory coffee.  The flavour is obviously pleasing to some people, and equally obviously unpleasant to me.

I believe this dislike is largely due to the feeling that the characters are invited, mechanically-speaking, to exploit, manipulate, dominate, and generally use others (PCs or NPCs).  That’s not what I like to play.  And yes, you can play someone who doesn’t do that, but there is no built-in reward for it — on the contrary; that means you will pass up on opportunities not only for success in play, and not only for advancement, but also for getting involved in the action.

  • For example, characters gain experience for seducing or manipulating others (pp. 87, 179, 186, 197).
  • Several moves involve using others or bending them to your will: pack alpha, seduce or manipulate, most sex moves, most brainer moves, etc.

I guess my disconnect starts with the play agendas (pp. 96 and 108). I appreciate that the agendas are clearly expressed; the players’ agenda is listed as:

  • Play your characters as though they were real people, in whatever circumstances they find themselves—cool, competent, dangerous people, but real.

The gamemaster’s agendas are:

  • Make Apocalypse World seem real.
  • Make the player characters’ lives not boring.
  • Play to find out what happens.

But those are not my objectives.  They don’t work for me, or at least they don’t suffice. I take “real” here to mean vivid and believable, which is nice, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of my gaming either as player or as gamemaster.  “Not boring” is also uninspiring; we all have “not boring” hectic or frustrating days that still don’t provide any drama or entertainment, so I hold my gaming to a higher standard. And finding out what happens only matters if something in the game captured my heart.

Finally, a pet peeve: each session one player and the GM each highlight one stat on your character sheet, and these are the ones for which you’ll mark advancement or experience this session, each time you use these stats. Thus, each player’s path to reward for a given character is shaped entirely by two other people’s choices every episode. I prefer to choose for myself in which direction I want my character to evolve.

In Play

So my play experience with AW, even with sterling GMs and players, was not bad, but it didn’t tell me why people were in love with this game. From the player’s side, the mechanics work fine and have the advantage of offering a known mechanical result for every move and die roll, greatly limiting the GM’s power to be arbitrary; but I didn’t care because I’m used to high-trust games and great GMs.

To make things more of an uphill battle for me, the two most popular published hacks of the system are Dungeon World (Sage Kobold Productions) and Monsterhearts (Buried Without Ceremony)—and I like neither dungeon-crawling nor teenage angst stories, despite my interest for the innovations that both bring to the system.

Cartoon version of the TardisIt’s only when I played in Jeremy Tidwell’s own Companions hack that I finally started appreciating the AW system. Jeremy did a lovely job of using the AW tools to match the flavour of the better Doctor Who moments. In his hack, you play the former Companions of the Doctor after his death.  The TARDIS has started acting on its own, and mysteriously fulfilling his agenda, forcing the companions back into their old lives as its agents.

Companions replaced the exploitive and manipulating elements of the original setting and their mechanical implementation with beautiful, simple little rules bits that instead promote self-sacrifice, suspense, and sometimes giving up a confrontation when the stakes are wrong (“Run!”) It provided excellent Whovian flavour to every game.

I had a great time playing Companions and the action did start getting greater than the sum of the parts; I eventually decided I needed to try running it myself to get a different perspective.  And indeed I started to understand the attraction of the AW system: it’s a book for GMs.  It’s essentially a system of recipes to make the GM’s life easier in prepping for and running games, a codified book of GMing advice, most of which I agree with (with the exceptions above).

The big AW challenges for me as GM were linked to proper use of the moves:

  • Getting used to thinking in terms of moves felt constricting, although I think with practice they just become building blocks. If you constantly lack the right moves for a setting, maybe you need to re-examine the list, see if any have been misunderstood, poorly expressed, or need tailoring.
  • Fairness and disclosure are necessary of course, but also mean giving all the necessary information at the right time for players to pick their moves. In other words, sometimes you need to sacrifice part of a “big reveal” or suspense moment in order to paint a very clear picture for the players before they can act.
  • Moves funnel the action, so it’s possible to get into a sort of domino effect where because move A was used then the next most logical choice will be B, then C… A skilled GM could probably use this like a quasi-rail for a plot, an unskilled one could paint herself in a corner. If no moves readily presents itself, you’re essentially in a video game cut scene, waiting for the game to load to the next decision point. The GM needs to immediately present something that will generate move options.

A down-to-earth problem: Getting around in the AW book, finding the info you need when you’re on the spot, can be a bother. It’s perfectly well organized as reading material or while you’re prepping, but it’s not as smooth when you’re looking for a specific reference in the middle of the game because each element is discussed in several different places in the book.

Chewing Bits of Fate

The Cunning Cat CaperMy original experience with Fate, like a lot of gamers’, was with Spirit of the Century, which in turn was based on an earlier version of the system.  The structure reminded me of Theatrix (Backstage Press), a game I had dearly loved, though the resolution mechanics were of course different. I liked Spirit of the Century well enough, but my experience was not more “pulpy” than it had been with Adventure! (White Wolf), Hollow Earth Expedition (Exile Game Studio), or Feng Shui (Atlas Games).  I tried playing, I tried running, and it still was just “nice.”

I felt that there were too many character aspects to use them all, let alone want to try creating temporary aspects in play. I kept feeling I never had the right skill or it never was high enough. I described the game at the time as “The most complicated simple system I’d ever played.” A few years later came The Dresden Files RPG, and we played that too because both my husband and I kept thinking we were missing something with these two games, we weren’t “doing it right.”

And we weren’t.

Everything changed with Fate Accelerated! I’ve described in a previous post what the changes were in Fate Core and Fate Accelerated, so I don’t want to repeat it here; suffice it to say that my concern regarding the number of aspects and the clarity of why you’d want to create temporary aspects in play were completely addressed.  The new system’s choice of four clearly explained actions types with a gradation of success, and FAE’s approaches instead of a list of skills, made all the difference.

As soon as we tried to play it, the light bulb came on. The very first time I used the action “create an advantage”, everything became clear. And newcomers to role-playing picked this up effortlessly! Those who are still struggling with Fate, especially Fate Core, are almost always long-time gamers like me. We have gamer cobwebs in our brains, we keep thinking in terms of having the right skill for the specific test, but that’s not how Fate works. Fate is powered by what we imagine and provides the scaffolding and tools to build it.

Then I went back to play Fate Core with its longer list of skills and finer dials, and now it really works! I was doing it wrong all along. Armed with the experience I gained with Fate Accelerated, I now feel comfortable with the level of detail in Core and it no longer bogs me down.

In the particular game where I realized this, we had only two players, a smart and really nice young woman and myself; we picked from a collection of pre-generated characters (it was at a convention) and we deliberately picked two characters that in many ways were alike—thus making sure that certain skills were not, in fact, covered by the party. Instead of worrying about whether we had a certain skill, we used or created circumstances to our advantage, we made use of our strengths and worked around our weaknesses. It was a flawless game. It was the kind of evening when you think, “The authors of this game wrote it just for this.”

Conclusions

  • Very often, one needs a little practice with a new system before its qualities really shine; this is why I no longer write game reviews based only on reading the system, but only “actual play” reviews.
  • Sometimes the system only comes into its own once you’ve tried it from the GM’s perspective; a lot of its virtues may be hidden to the players.
  • You also need a setting, characters, and plot you’re interested in, plus half-way decent GM and players, if you’re going to appreciate a game.
  • It’s possible to play a game for years without really “getting” it.
  • However, while some gamers who feel they do “get” it are quick to yell “You’re doing it wrong!”, sometimes there are barriers to play right there in the book.
  • Sometimes these barriers can be removed by trial and error, by playing with different people, by a rules revision, etc.
  • And by the way, sometimes, a game is just not going to be for you no matter how much other people like it.  That’s OK, it means neither that it’s a bad game nor that your a bad player, just that it’s not a good fit. Maybe some day someone will make a hack that changes everything, but until then, you have your choice of other great games.

Gamemaster Toolkits: Apocalypse World and Fate

This will be a little contrast-and-compare exercise to look at two recent roleplaying games that have been very popular in the story game community (also known as hippie games, indie games, etc.) The games are Apocalypse World (Lumpley Games, 2010) and Fate Core System/Fate Accelerated (Evil Hat Productions, 2013). I will note the very few places where the two builds of Fate differ as far as this analysis goes. Cover: Apocalyse World
The two feel very different in action, whether you are player or gamemaster. But I’d like to start by telling you what they share. Fate Core Cover

Similarities

Even physically, the books have similarities: they are both small format books of 300 pages each which present self-contained games; everything you need to play is in the books, you need not plan on buying any supplements.

Both have strong roots in the gaming community, the two publishers having had the good fortune, taste, or sense to involve in development and playtest of their games an impressive number of people who are super-connectors in the story/indie/hippie game community.  Looking at the list, there were so many people I’ve played with and many more I regularly exchange with online.  That alone goes a long way to explain the interest the games have received.

Both provide best play experience with groups of 2 to 5 players and a GM in multi-episode story arcs, although both can also be used for one-shot games.

Both put story forward, with the objective to provide the players and their characters with exciting adventures; both get this process started with cooperative world and character creation, characters that are created by “filling in the blanks”, and encouraging GMs to say “yes” to the players’ and build on them. Players are also encouraged to build on their own actions and on one another’s, through the use of “take +X forward” in Apocalypse World and through the “Create an Advantage” action in Fate.

Both roleplaying games put a lot of work into make the GM’s life easier. If you do your homework, learn how the systems work and use the players as a source of ideas, you can keep your game preparation time astonishingly short after the first episode. In addition, both systems are “hackable” and gamers are encouraged to share their own “hacks” for different settings. Both provide a wealth of useful advice for the gamemaster.

Both are fractal in the mathematical sense, with complexity arising from simple, open systems with scalable rules. In practical terms, it means you can change the scale of play, of adversaries, of the world, etc. by treating them in the same manner at every level, for example, using Aspects, stress boxes, and skills or approaches in Fate, and using countdown clocks, stats, and moves in Apocalypse World. It also means the resolution mechanics for all types of challenges and conflicts, be they physical, social, mental, etc., are essentially the same.

There are other roleplaying systems that use a fractal approach; for example, one could make a case for the Mouse Guard RPG, but AW and FC are the only two I can think of right now that have intentionally built this as a universal GM tool and hackable feature.

Differences

OK, let’s contrast these two a bit.

Apocalypse World

Fate Core System

Goal: Tell stories that seem real, make the characters’ lives not boring, find out what happens. Goal: Tell stories about people who are proactive, competent and dramatic.
Characters are customized: by picking from a menu of options. Characters are customized: by giving them unique and descriptive Aspects.
Resolution mechanic: Roll two six-sided dice and add one of five stats with a typical value of -1 to +3. Result below 7 is a miss, 7-9 is a weak hit, 10+ is a strong hit. Produces a normal curve with shifted average with constant variance. Resolution mechanic: Roll four fate dice with possible values of -1, 0 and +1, and add an applicable Skill (Approach for FAE) with a typical value of +0 to +4. Results includes fail, tie, succeed, and succeed with style. Produces a normal curve with shifted average and constant but narrower variance than AW.
Action adjudication: Each character gets a choice of “moves” with specific mechanical benefits for success, picked by the player if the move is a hit. Action adjudication: Rules contain ample examples of skill adjudication based on success level.
Players can improve a roll by: Helping one another at the cost of an action and the risk of suffering failure together; adding a forward modifier (usually +1 or +2) earned in a previous action. Players can improve a roll by: Helping one another at the cost of an action and the risk of suffering failure together; spending a fate point to call on an applicable Aspect; adding a free use of a temporary Aspect earned in a previous action.
It’s fun for players because: of the Chinese menu approach; you know exactly what you should get when you make a move; the system is quick and simple to learn; the system provides tactical options. It’s fun for players because: The use of temporary Aspects gives your imagination unrestricted possibilities; the system is quick and simple to learn; the system almost disappears from view in play; the system provides tactical options.
It’s disappointing for players when: you don’t “get” or don’t like the flavour of the setting; you can’t fold what you want to do into one of the moves available to you; the template or move you picked doesn’t do what you thought it would; you feel limited by the menu options. It’s disappointing for players when: you get hypnotized by whether you have a certain skill or not rather than focusing on creating advantages; you’re having an off night and don’t feel creative enough to take advantage of Aspects.
It’s fun for GMs because: It limits game preparation to an opening situation for the players and lets you build on their reactions; it makes it easy to create new critters, characters, gear, moves, and episodes; you never have to roll dice. It’s fun for GMs because: it makes game preparation easy; it allows you to stat or convert anything on the fly; it allows you to treat the adventure or plot as a character, making you feel more like you’re on the same level as the players; it makes it easy to handle surprises from players.
It’s disappointing for GMs when: you have trouble chaining the moves together to make the action flow; you have trouble finding information in the book during play; you want to hack the system for a new setting but have a lot of work to do in order to convert the moves and create templates. It’s disappointing for GMs when: you’re not comfortable improvising using Aspects; your players come from a more “traditional” RPG mind set and don’t “get” the use of Aspects.

Tomorrow Three weeks later I add some comments about my experience in play, how the two games “feel” to me. In the mean time, I welcome your observations on the two games!

Fate-full lessons: Gaming notes

Fate Core CoverWith the number of Fate games available at this past weekend’s Big Bad Con, I had plenty of opportunities to take note of best practices and tips to make a game come alive.  I wanted to develop them here, but just listing the bullet points I realized I had too much for one post.  I’ll be developing these as I write the War of Ashes RPG instead.

Fate games in general

FATE Accelerated coverStart with Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) — then Fate Core and Fate-derived games will make sense.  Crazy, beautiful sense.

Fate is very doable with two players, possible with one-on-one adventures, but shines with 3-5 players.  Six or more PCs is only for well-coordinated groups, or in intrinsically chaotic settings like The Muppet Show.

Use sticky notes, possibly colour-coded, to keep track of temporary advantages, boosts and consequences.

“Create an advantage” is the key action—not “Overcome,” even though the latter feels like the most familiar if you come from traditional role-playing games.  It makes your character “competent, pro-active and dramatic” by allowing you to plan and sacrifice so you can succeed your way.

Tactical options in conflicts are largely provided by the players’ choices in creating advantages.  The system is very simple but allows you to build complexity in the results.

Thus, narration folds into mechanics.  The advantages you create, the aspects you choose to use, the order in which you invoke free aspects all seemingly have the same immediate mechanical results, but from there will take the adventure in very different dramatic directions.

For the GM:  Running Fate games

Prepping

Create game and scene aspects, and don’t forget to use them in play.  They make one conflict or obstacle “feel” different from the next.

Ryan M. Danks’ Fractal Adventure design method is pure distilled genius.  I’ve mentioned it in several recent posts and I will discuss it again when I write after-play reports, but you need to hear it again.  It allows the GM to essentially have her own character sheet for the adventure.

The perceived difficulty level of an adventure depends on the number of players, the ability of PCs to help each other, the number of stress boxes used, and the choice of stunts for antagonists.

While running the game

Put aspects created by the GM on PCs (and free invokes) in plain sight to ratchet up tension; use the coloured sticky notes mentioned above.

Running conflicts can be remarkably easy on the GM if you use Fate’s full potential, especially with the Fractal Adventure design method.  It’s one of the rare systems where using more of the system makes the GM’s life easier.

Stealth and avoiding the Big Bad: very stealthy/sneaky characters have the potential to bypass major GM characters and therefore deny the GM a chance to create her own advantages in play.  This may be a good or bad thing depending on your flexibility as GM; plan accordingly.

One-off and convention games

Use semi-finished pre-generated characters and have players customize them as part of the game.

Include a (cooperative) player who already knows the system in your group of newcomers.

Edit: Everyone loves the bookmarks.  A cheat-sheet that fits on a bookmark makes players happy!

For RPGs in general but particularly suitable for Fate

Use relationship maps like crazy.

Cinematic techniques: flashbacks, flash forward, meanwhile…, cut scenes, parallel scenes, montages, etc.

Comparing Fate to other systems

FAE vs. PDQ: PDQ characters are even more customizable, and combat easier, but FAE offers more tactical potential.

FAE vs. octaNe: So very compatible.  Use the Styles as five approaches (Daring, Ingenuity, Craft, Charm, and Might OR Magic at the individual player’s choice) and the scores +3, +2, +1, +0, +0; and create aspects based on the octaNe skills.

FAE vs. SotC: OMFSM, Spirit of the Century is going to be so much fun with Fate Accelerated.

Fate vs. D&D and other trad games: That will require its own post, but it all begins with “Here’s how I…” rather than “Can I…?”