RPG REVIEW

Issue #46, March 2020

ISSN   2206-4907 (Online)

FUDGE, FATE,& FRIENDS
 

FUDGE, Fate, and Spirit of the Century Reviews … Fate Core Hacks .. Robots of Diaspora … Collaborative Legends of Anglerre … Undying Empire … Gulliver's Trading Company .. and more!

Table of Contents

ADMINISTRIVIA

EDITORIAL AND COOPERATIVE NEWS

FUDGE AND FATE REVIEWS

SOME HACKS FOR FATE CORE

TECHNOLOGY AND ROBOTS OF THE DIASPORA

THE BLACK BULL, A GULLIVER'S TRADING COMPANY JOURNEY

LEGENDS OF ANGLERRE : COLLABORATIVE CAMPAIGNS

LEGENDS OF ANGLERRE : UNDYING EMPIRES

CRPG REVIEW : LINKS AWAKENING REMAKE

MOVIE REVIEWS: WE SUMMON THE DARKNESS

ADMINISTRIVIA

RPG Review is a quarterly online magazine which is available in print version every so often. All material remains copyright to the authors except for the reprinting as noted in the first sentence. Contact the author for the relevant license that they wish to apply. Various trademarks and images have been used in this magazine of review and criticism.  Use of trademarks etc are for fair use and review purposes and are not a challenge to trademarks or copyrights. This includes FUDGE by Grey Ghost Press, FATE by Evil Hat Productions, Legends of Anglerre by Cubicle 7, Diaspora by VCSA etc. Cover art from Evil Hat Productions, displaying FATE licensing. Links Awakening published by Nintendo. We Summon The Darkness distributed by Saban Films. Squirrel mechanic and table kicking from FATE Core system by Kurt Komoda.  

EDITORIAL AND COOPERATIVE NEWS

Editorial

Welcome to the (extremely late) 46th issue of RPG Review, and it's well about time that we had a special issue dedicated to FUDGE, FATE, and many derived settings and games based on this model. It certainly has been one of the most remarkable game system families of this century, an easy "pick up" game which adheres to simple principles and complex elaborations, more than a bit of narrative input from the player's perspective, a little bit of GM/player competition, and it is certainly remiss of us to wait over ten years before having a special issue dedicated to this game system family. To be fair, we have published numerous FATE-related articles in the past. In recent issues there has been Simon Stainsby's FATE Red Planet play notes and scenarios (issue 38), and of course several articles on the FATE-based Gulliver's Trading Company, starting from Designer's Notes in issue 3 to The Far East in issue 39)

It is appropriate, however, that we begin with reviews of some of the big name FUDGE/FATE games, specially the FUDGE 10th Anniversary edition, FATE's Spirit of the Century, and the FATE core rules (4th edition, 2013), all by yours truly. This is followed by four articles by Karl Brown who apart from being a bit of a FATE aficionado is a goddamn machine when it comes to putting this material together. In particular, Karl has provided articles on "Technology and Robots" for Diaspora, a hard-SF game, "The Black Bull", a scenario for his own game, Gulliver's Trading Company, and two articles for that big-hitter of FATE-based RPGs, "Legends of Anglerre", specifically one on developing collaborative campaigns, and a 19th British Empire occult-horror version with Undying Empires.


What is missing? Plenty! Members of the Cooperative, for example, played for several months in a FATE Cats and Call of Cthulhu mash-up called "Cats Against Cthulhu" based in a fictionalised version of Wonthaggi. We were also hoping to have an interview with someone from Evil Hat, the purveyors of FATE, but alas that did not eventuate either. There was high hopes for a FATE/GURPS comparison and crossover, a review of the Eclipse Phase derived, Humanity's Fate, and another of Dresden Files. All of which should tell us something - FATE is
huge and especially popular among the narrativist-orientated independent game designers and players who want to run an epic adventure without getting too bogged down into minutia.

What does that mean? It means that before too long we will certainly have to publish a second issue of RPG Review dedicate to FUDGE/FATE games. Certainly there are many other big games systems that are deserving of attention, one certainly does not deny that. But we've given some of the big players their own special issues, and some of them multiple times. FATE too, deserves this sort of attention.

Be all that as it may, the next issue of RPG Review is dedicated to "Health & Healing". Karl wanted it to be "Plagues" but we needed something a bit broader than that. And my goodness we're really going to dive deeply into this very appropriate topic. Hit Points? I mean, what the hell are they anyway? Is Call of Cthulhu's SAN just hit points for the mind? Fortunately we have a number of gamers out there with more than a little bit of medical knowledge, so all will be revealed in RPG Review #47. Until then… Stay safe!

Co-operative News

Look there is no other way to put this; the RPG Review Cooperative has had an awful past few months, thanks to COVID-19. Some of our special social events, such as the Annual Fruit Bat Picnic, or our regular Astor Movie Nights, let alone our face-to-face gaming sessions, have been put on hold. Noble Knight games, who placed an order for Papers & Paychecks and copies of Cow-Orkers in the Scary Devil Monastery, had their shipment delayed because of the virus, as have a number of our backers. Our apologies, and we plead patience for these unusual circumstances to come to an end.

 

This said, we have had some fairly significant successes; we did attend Melbourne's major gaming convention, Arcanacon, and once again our second-hand stall was a major feature and interest of the convention of which attendees specifically note as a highlight. The first supplement of Papers & Paychecks, Cow-Orkers in the Scary Devil Monastery, was released in print and PDF versions, completing a long overdue promise to our Kickstarter backers (which is much better than some major companies, one must mention). And, our ever resilient gamers, are making their way through the COVID-19 pandemic with a variety of online technologies. It is almost as if gamers have been preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse for years.

 

You know leaves us completely uncertain? When this will end. Which causes a couple of problems, not the least being our planned conventions. You see, the Cooperative had the very bright idea of a Cyberpunk convention to be held on July 4. It seemed sort of appropriate, don't you think? Except there is no way that's going to happen, barring the world-wide discovery of a vaccine, distributed by crop-dusters across the globe (ha! that'll send the chem-trail anti-vaccers into a spin). It also makes the prospect of another RuneQuest Glorantha convention very slim indeed. And due warning is given, there is a possibility that we will never have a vaccine for COVID-19. After all, we've never developed a vaccine for any other coronavirus in the past, why do you think this one will be any different (and no, throwing money and researchers at a problem provides the potential for a vaccine, not a guarantee; necessary, but not sufficient).
 

What to be done? Well, in your editor's own small manner, I came to the conclusion that I can sell off the bulk of my rather vast collection of RPGs and donate the proceeds to Medecins Sans Frontieres,who are doing extraordinary work in countries with few resources to fight such a pandemic. So, if you're looking for games to buy and want the money to go to a good cause, contact me: lev@rpgreview.net ; it's the least I can do.

FUDGE AND FATE REVIEWS

by Lev Lafayette

 

Fudge 10th Anniversary Edition (Steffan O'Sullivan et. al.,; Grey Ghost Press, 2005)

 

Introduction and Physical Product

 

 
Weighing in at some 320 pages of quality paper this hardback book is well-bound and certainly needs to be. Fudge (not FUDGE) 10th, as I will refer it to now on, is quite a mighty tome for something that isn't quite a complete roleplaying game in its own right. Rather, as fairly explicitly stated on the cover, it provides "building blocks for better roleplaying". In a nutshell, it consists a kernel of a system; a traits ladder by which attributes and skills are assigned values (superb, great, good, fair, mediocre, poor, terrible), and a system of 4DF, that is 4d6 with 2 +s, 2 -s, and 2 neutral results. Add that die roll to the values and one has a result, for opposed or unopposed actions, and with wound levels based on a track. Outside of that, much depends on the GMs intervention to work out exactly how their gameworld applies this general system.
 

The organisation of the text is well over twenty chapters, covering everything that one could hope for in a generic roleplaying system. There's a four-page table of contents, a two-page index, and character sheet. Page numbers are clearly marked and pages are provided chapter titles and subtitles. The writing style is friendly, charming even, and the text presented in two-column justified with a serif font with good level of whitespace. The artwork is primarily from public domain and accredited clip-art sources with a handful of exceptions. Most of it is quite good and contextually appropriate, although the cover is awfully bland.

 

CharGen and System

 

Fudge characters have traits, divided into attributes (relatively fixed), skills (relatively learned), gifts (bonuses that don't easily tranlate to the trait ladder), faults (negatives for the same), and supernormal powers. From the outset however, FATE makes it clear that it's up to the GM to determine what number of attributes are available, or to what number and what level of skill depth will be required for their own game setting, although sample settings are provided to give the GM a guide. Further the game differentiates between what it calls "subjective" and "objective" trait values; what is really meant is "qualitative" (superb, great, good etc) and "quantitative" (+3, +2, +1 etc). Skill cost levels can vary according to the relative difficulty of the skill (like in GURPS), or the broadness of the skill category, and traits can be traded among each other (e.g., 1 attribute level equals three skill ranks). An option is also provided for random character generation. Supernormal powers consist of various magic, miracles, psionics, cybernetics etc. There is consideration of scale effects, especially differentiating between scale and speed, as to account for significant species variations; a Superb Intelligence (scale: Rabbit) still isn't going to do well at grade school!

 

With the core game system already explained, Fudge does give alternative methods of resolution which generate roughly the same result, with minor variations in success chances. So instead of 4DF, there is conversion options for a 4d6 (positive and negative groups), a 3d6 method, and percentile methods. Further description is provided for unopposed, opposed, and group tests. An option for critical results is provided, with the GM expected to flesh out the details of a critical chart, along with a contributing author providing for an alternative diceless resolution method, heavily based on thematic considerations and qualitative input. Later in the book a method of character development through petitioning form in-play use, or training, is provided. Further on, there is a simple alternative character generation method entitled "Five Point Fudge" which allocates points to various skill categories which are then used to apply levels of competence.

 

There is, of course, a combat system in Fudge, based on opposed rolls. Combat rounds are an indeterminate period of time and are potentially simultaneous at the GMs option. Offensive factors are based on weapon, scale, and deadliness of the weapon, and are contrasted with the defensive combat factor which includes scale, armour, and damage capacity (equivalent of hit points or constitution). Various situational modifiers are provided, along with generic offensive and defensive postures. The victor in the contested roll adds their success to the damage applied by the weapon. Wound levels are described as Undamaged, Scratch, Hurt, Very Hurt, Incapacitated, Near Death, and Dead, with increasing modifiers to capabilities on the wound level acquired. Again, numerous alternative implementations are offered, including a die roll for varying damage applied. Healing reduces wound levels, but with additional time required of one week per level for realistic implementations.

 

Somewhat out of place is a core list of skills, gifts and faults. Over one hundred and twenty base skills are provided, plus additional specialisations, as required by either the GM or desired from the player. Each skill is typically provided a couple of paragraphs of description, and often with direct in-game example effects. In addition there is around thirty gifts and some eighty flaws described from a couple of sentences to a paragraph. It would be fair to say that many of these seem to bare a striking resemblance to those listed in GURPS as advantages and disadvantages, which is unsurprising give the author's contributions to that system.

 

Setting Options

 

The overwhelming majority of the book is setting-specific examples, starting with a collection of sample NPCs in a "Tips and Examples" chapter, which does a great deal of justice to the design principles, illustrating a variety of of colourful characters from historical and and fictional settings. A personal favourite is the karma-trapped ghost with some impressive trivia skills. The chapter also includes a collection of normal creatures, with statistics, including with some humour (a cat, for example, has the gift of Nine Lives).

 

The Five-Point Fudge system is applied for character creation examples for the chapter on Fantasy Fudge, which includes a small set of specialist setting skills (e.g., Alchemy, Spell-Casting) along with Gifts (Magical Talent) and Faults. Importantly of course there are the magical powers (necromancy, transmutation etc) with their magical feats, in-game requirements, and restrictions. These may be used in a skill-like fashion as a couple of examples suggest. It is, as with all things in Fudge, very much up the individual GM and their setting on how it is applied. In addition there is some fantasy NPCs, a short sample scenario, and some twenty fantasy creatures to make up a bestiary. An extensive sample magic chapter has a system which involves broad spell groups, and specific spells with described effects (e.g., a combat spell group with spells of "Beast Fury", "Damage Opponent", "Degrade Weapon/Armor" etc), degrees of power for specific spells, mana to power spells, spellcasting skills, enchantment rules, and stress for unfortunate side-effects.

 

Other example setting chapters include Fudge Psi, for psionic powers, Fudge Superheroes, Cybernetics, Netrunning, Vehicles, Dogfighting (no, not involving dogs), Weapons and Armor, and Fudge Fu for martial arts. The Psi chapter is quite short with powers categorised as "Very Broad" (e.g., ESP), "Mildly Broad" (e.g, Telesense), and "Narrow" (e.g., Clairvoyance). Psi powers are associated with skills which begin at no level, and with a "Psychic Reservoir" to power psychic actions, along with "desperate" options. This contrasts with the superhero chapter which uses Gifts to provide scaled-up attribute-like effects for strength and speed, and with gadgets providing a means to introduce the scaled power. Sample characters have superpowers such as "Scale 12 to resist all forms of bodily damage" or a rocket-gadget which provides "Scale 8 for jumping" with a +8 jet flame for damage.

 

Also following a GURPS-like approach is the suggested rules for cybernetics, costing both Gifts or money, or both. About twenty different cybernetic systems are offered typically providing a fixed benefit of some sort. There is an option for limiting cybernetic systems according to attribute levels, or nervous system damage, or even mental disorders. As usual, there is only minimal detail on how such systems should be implemented. There is also rules for the "full cyborg"with scale bonuses to strength and damage resistance. A couple of sample characters are provided. A related and subsequent chapter covers netrunning, where the quality of the 'deck (Terrible to Legendary) determines the  quantity of the programs it can run simultaneously. The general environment follows the comically unrealistic approach to computer systems which treats the network as an some sort of virtual reality with "doors", "passageways" etc albeit with almost appropriate programs for monitoring and intrusion.

 

Two chapters cover vehicles. Recommended standard attributes for vehicles are Durability, Size, and Speed, with scaling factors applied. Weapons (because vehicles often come with weapons) are Damage, Range and Target Size (that is, what they're designed to hit). Scale size and mass are differentiated from the human norm due to materials used (humans are mostly water). Almost forty Gifts and Faults are available to vehicles and their weapons, along with the application of a dozen skills or so. A half-dozen example vehicles completes "VehGen" rules; this is followed by maneuvers and combat, which has suggestions on how to interpret damage. Of note is the "dogfight" chapter, with an additional attribute, Maneuverability. Several options are provided on how to combine pilot skills with maneuverability. A variety of ship specific aspects, as equipment, is provided before moving into the dogfighting proper, which involves rolls for distance, maneuvers, positional advantage, then missile locks, weapon firing, and damage resolution. A short weapon list provides for ODF (offensive damage factor), range, and rate-of-fire.

 

An equipment chapter starts with a four-page essay on the role of equipment, and especially weapons, in Fudge, before describing the addition of new values for weapons; speed, reach, lethality, along with their bonuses "to hit" and "damage", an option for weapon-specific criticals, ranged combat, scatter for projectiles, explosions, a spray table for automatic weapons, variant rounds, armor values versus attack type, armor penalties due to weight and restrictiveness, hard vs soft armor differences, the use of shields, and so forth. It is all quite crunchy with around a dozen pages of tables for the different weapons and armour. It is also an interesting juxtaposition with the final rules chapter on martial arts, entitled "Fudge Fu", which makes use of "styles and moves". A character uses particular moves (e.g., disarm, feint, grapple, kick, takedown) following the relative degree of success from their contested style (wrestling, karate, boxing, aikido, capoeira, savate) check. The actual moves available depends on the style and the skill level.

 

A final chapter makes a pitch on the benefits of Fudge, arguing that the "lack of specific detail" is a strength. This could be the case, but as the rules are writ, it is not. It is far too vague, it doesn't checklist the options, and requires too much work for the GM. The essay sits the game somewhere between the simulation approach used by GURPS and on a trajectory towards the narrative-heavy approach commonly used in FATE. And where the rules do exist, more or less, in something vaguely like stone, this is evident. At times Fudge can be quite detailed, for example the very specific scale multiplier values for strength and speed. At other times the appeal to "mother may I?" or "handwavium" is quite frustrating. Despite the pretty good range of genres and material that Fudge provides in a physically rather impressive tome, a GM will find that they have plenty of additional system work to do with Fudge. In other words, it doesn't really provide enough "building blocks for better roleplaying", but rather some suggestions on how to build those blocks.

 

Style: 1 + .5 (layout) + .5 (art) + .5 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .8 (product) = 3.9

Substance: 1 + .5 (content) + .3 (text) + .5 (fun) + .2 (workmanship) + .2 (system) = 2.7

 

Spirit of the Century Review (Robert Donoghue, Fred Hicks, Leonard Balser; Evil Hat Productions, 2006)

Introduction and Physical Product

 
 

Using the FATE 3 game system, Spirit of the Century is an unashamed high-pulp action adventure game, that was very well-received, winning the 2006 Indie RPG Award for Independent Game of the Year and the 2007 Silver ENnie for Best Rules. The evocative cover, featuring a gorilla in a bi-plane in conflict with an airship and character with personal winged jet-pack is indictative of the sort of gaming experience. The gorilla, for what it's worth, is a sample player character. So is the character with the jet pack.

 

The review here is for the softback edition of the book, weighing in at a substantial 411 pages (excluding advertisements) in a large paperback format, includes an impressive four-page table of contents and eight-page index. Each page is single-column justified with a serif font, and each page is market with chapter and page number. The writing style is most formal, a perhaps a little wordy (and very wordy in places), but otherwise quite a pleasure to read with a multitude of examples of play and elucidations of the system. There isn't an enormous amount of artwork, but what is there is technically well-done, evocative, and usually contextual.

 

System and CharGen

 

Common to FUDGE/FATE games, Spirit of the Century ranks ability as a ladder with variation from a +0 norm which descriptives to a value, e.g., Academics, Good (+3), Pilot, Poor (-1). Resolution is 4dF, or Fudge dice, which are d6 with two +s, two -s, and two blank. The 4dF die result compares against a target number to determine success e.g., a Good academics result against a Fair difficulty would be a success. There is no separation between skills and attributes, but there are Aspects, which are relationships, beliefs etc. Where an Aspect is beneficial it can be Invoked, which costs a Fate Point; where it is negative, the player can volunteer or the GM can Compel, which can gain Fate points. In addition there are Stunts, which are to FATE what Feats are to d20-derived games. Fate point themselves start equal to the number of Aspects a character has and can be used to invoke an Aspect (as mentioned), gain a bonus to a roll, reroll dice and the like. These are refreshed at the end of a session.

 

Appearing in a somewhat unexepected place in the text (between the Aspects and Skills) chapters there is a "How to Do Things" chapter which elaborates the game system. Each point of success above the target value is a Shift, which can be used to reduce required time or increase quality. Actions are defined as simple (fixed target), a contest, or a conflict which has more complex resolution with multiple exchanges that can inflict stresses on the loser of an exchange (to either Health, for physical or Composure, for mental and social damage), which can generate consequences, and even take the character out. Rather than taking a consequence, a character may choose a concession (e.g., surrender). Depending on the stress track, consequences are either mild, medium, or severe taking minutes, hours, or days for recovery. There are minion and companion options for those that are not fully-fledged characters with bonuses and reduced stress tracks.

 

Character generation in SotC starts with picking a broad character idea (academic, explorer, scientist etc), with an emphasis on what the character is doing. Each character (who should have a cool pulp-era name), chooses two aspects per phase of their Background (youth), War (the Great War), Novel (the title of their first adventure), and two Guest Star appearances (appear in other character's novels). After this characters have skill allocation, five at average (+1), four at fair (+2), three at good (+3), two at great (+4), and one at superb (+5), that is, 15 skills total. Finally, the character can pick 5 stunts for their character.

 

Aspects, Skills, and Stunts

 

Whilst the basic background, game system, and chargen is completed in under thirty pages, the glorious details elucidated in the Aspects, Skills, and Stunts chapters make up almost ten times that amount. Character Aspects are quite freeform, they're the sort of things that players should select. Descriptive aspects are encouraged for flavour and to drive the narrative; "Strong" is boring, "Strong as an Ox" is more interesting - and may create a situation where the PC has to test their strength against an Ox! It is pointed out that "Bad" Aspects are a sure path to more Fate points. Essentially, where a character has an Aspect, it is recommeded that the GM use it as an opportunity to introduce in play, although with each PC having ten Aspects it certainly would be quite wild to have all of them in each session, and the Fate Points will be flying thick and fast - and this is not a bad thing! Locations and other characters can also have Aspects and these can be "tagged", and characters may use an Aspect to Declare a narrative input or make a Maneuver to apply Aspects to a sceme. A short list of suggested Aspects is provided.

 

There's a fairly modest list of twenty-eight genre-appropriate skills, categorised as Combat, Craft, Knowledge, Mundane, Perception, Physical, Subterfuge, and Social. Each skill comes with a good level of description, usually a few paragraphs at least, but also with additional "trappings", that is, specific implementations of the skill. For example, the Athletics skill is described in the general sense in a two paragraphs, but there is also a paragraph specifically for Jumping, one for Sprinting, one for Climbing, one for Dodging, one for Falling; and so to it goes throughout the skill list providing a pretty thorough range of activities.

 

Skills are also associated with Stunts, which provides situational abilities and even minor powers. Stunts often come with prequisites, and often another Stunt, and offer increasingly powerful abilities within their narrow scope, which makes them a sort of difficult skill specialisation. So 'Fast as a Leopard' requires 'Marathon Training', but acts as dependency for 'Faster Than a Leopard'. Other Stunts are so powerful that they require the expenditure of a Fate Point when used, for example Disguise of the Mind, which allows a character to inhabit the mind of another persona, including their skills; obviously this is a type of power.

 

Equipment, GMs Advice, Setting

 

A 'Gadgets & Gizmos' chapter provides an equipment overview that is appropriate to setting, in a mundane manner, but also genre, in a superfictional manner. There is a modest amount of personal equipment provided with costs associated with the Resources skill. This is also the place that one finds engineering rules, especially for adding particular aspects to a mundane piece of equipment as well as developing the extraordinary gadgets of the setting, which often have to be treated as Aspects themselves, if they are personal (think Wonder Woman's lasso). Take it a level higher, then one has Artifacts. Unfortunately this chapter is not nearly as well developed as it should be and, indeed, needs to be to really flesh out both the mundane world and the fictional gadgets of great power.

 

The 'Running The Game' chapter is wordy very firmly settled on providing adjucation on character actions, with detail providing on how to go about this for each skill. A lot of the information here could quite easily go in the Skills chapter as the information provided is hardly GM-specific; the Climbing modifiers for darkness, slipperiness, and height being a very obvious example of this. On the other hand, one does find an interest in maintaining the flow and spirit of the game in the description for the Investigation skill, concentrating on the worthwhile overall suggestion of envisaging success and failure and how it contributes to the story's development.

 

This is contrasted with the following 'Tips and Tricks' chapter which is about running the game more than adjucation within the game system. Here is the place for plot devices and narrative developmemt (including a simple pulpy structure), the necessity of decision points and keeping the action flowing, acting as the eyes, ears, and sometimes even knowledge of the characters and providing that information to the players, and generally having the GM act as a cinematographer. Finally the chapter concludes with a few suggestions about character advancement and development.

 

The final chapters is 'The Nether Adventure', a sample scenario which is always a good thing to include in a core rulebook in my opinion, and 'Secrets of the Century', which elaborates the default settting and especially the special society that the PC heroes belong to, the Century Club. Having a scenario provides a complete game within the one publication and let's you run it now. It's pretty well structured, being based in the default setting of heroic PCs in the Century Club, being involved with some society events, some rather interesting "scientists", a bit of archeology, and some fantastic geography. Add it to some mystery, murder and otherwise, along with iconic locations and mighty gadgets and one has all the making of pulp goodness. At the very end, almost like an appendix, there is a selection of quick stunt packages and sample PCs and NPCs.

 

Conclusion

 

Spirit of the Century provides a very good introduction to the FATE game system and the style of game which it works particularly well for. The game mechanics are very flexible and do require an involved level of adjudication on the part of the GM. There is little in the way of falling back to a simulationist perspective, especially in this setting. In some ways the game can also be strangely and unnecessarily constrained; for example with all characters having the same distribution of skills in their pyramid and the same number of aspects. Fortunately the game system is relatively open enough that one can tweak such things without causing too much damage.

Stylistically this is a pretty good exposition of the pulp genre, covering the main bases quite adequately. The form factor of the book is just fine, although the layout and density of the text could be quite distrating and hard to follow, as the difference in font-size between headings and sub-headings is not exactly obvious. Of course, if the major complaint about a game is the aesthetics, then one can infer that the game itself is a pretty good product; and that is certainly the case of Spirit of the Century.

 

Style: 1 + .5 (layout) + .5 (art) + .9 (coolness) + .6 (readability) + .5 (product) = 4.0

Substance: 1 + .6 (content) + .6 (text) + .8 (fun) + .6 (workmanship) + .7 (system) = 4.3

 

FATE Core System (Leonard Balsera, Brian Engard, Jeremy Keller et al, Evil Hat Productions, 2013)

Introduction and Product

 

At around 2/3rds of an A4 size, the well-bound hardback of Fate Core (aka Fate third edition) and just over 300 gloss pages, the back cover blurb makes a lot of strong claims, about the ease of character and world generation, "rock-solid" storytelling advice, a clear game system, and all in effect of being a "new and improved" version of the award-winning Fate system. All of which is fair enough, and indeed you want a game to aspire to such things. A hat-tip is given to the copyright notice which provides "express permission" for copying for personal use. The type is serif, single-column justified with inverted black-and-white for sidebar information. Each page has clearly marked page numbers and chapter title along with sufficient space for references to elsewhere in the book. The two-page table of contents and one-page index is sufficient. The black-and-white artwork throughout is usually competent, somewhat evocative, usually contextual, and using images of sample characters is a nice touch. The writing style is mainly formal and is easy to read but is really on the verbose side. There are eleven major chapters (Basics., Game Creation., Character Creation, Aspects and Fate Points., Skills and Stunts., Actions and Outcomes., Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts., Running the Game., Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios, The Long Game, Extras), plus various appendices.
 

GameGen and CharGen

 

The Basics chapter has an obligatory "what is roleplaying" and "what is needed for play" introduction, which does emphasise the collaborative and narrativist orientations of the game ("make everyone look awesome"). This includes an  excellent overview of the character sheet, explaining the various subheadings and their relationship to the game, and a summary of the game system, which is roll 4dF (d6 with two pluses, two minus, two neutral), use the result to modify base skill level, compared with target level or opposed roll, determine degree of success or failure. An important part of the Fate system is the use of Aspects, which are non-skill abilities or restrictions which can be invoked for a bonus or re-roll, or compelled. When invoked they cost a Fate point, a metagame resource, when compelled a point is provided, as a sort of compensation.

 

Further promoting the designer's creative agenda the chapter on Game Creation emphasises the elements of proactive characters (and players), competent characters, and dramatic situations. Apart from that there is the normal environmental considerations; setting, scale, main issues, major NPCs, what skills and stunts are common and available, and the process of creating the PCs. It's a handy basic GM and player advice chapter that is thorough in providing examples, albeit within the somewhat limited model. Some particularly nice features include the conversion of issues into Aspects and the emphasis on every player creating a protagonist.

 

Character generation starts with the "high concept" of the character (a one sentence description of who and what the character is) and their "trouble" (a major hindrance to their character's goals that isn't related to the high concept) as two central aspects.  Following this the characters have a phase trio; firstly, the character's first true adventure, and two phases on how the other player characters became involved in the current adventure. The stories are then traded and the other players add their characters become involved. Thus there are relationships between the PCs from the outset. Each phase adds an Aspect to the character (somewhat less than previous editions of Fate games).

With the Aspects determined, characters are allocated a fixed number of skills in a pyramid structure; one at great (+4), two at good (+3), three at Fair (+2), and four at average (+1), although an option does exist for a varied column system. Characters also have a number of stunts,  between three to five, with more than three costing Fate point refreshes ("the more cool tricks you can do, the more you’ll need to accept compels to get fate points"). Every PC also has two stress tracks, which basically determines how much physical or mental damage they can take, modified by the character's physique and will "skills".

 

Action Resolutions

 

A primary manner to players to have some sort of narrative buy-in for Fate is through Fate Points. The primary mechanism to gain or spend Fate Points are through Aspects. Aspects may be part of the game setting or situation, or for the character. The latter includes personality traits, backgrounds, professions, relationships, goals, status, etc. In addition to Aspects, there are Consequences which describe a lasting injury from a conflict (e.g. Dislocated Shoulder, Social Pariah). The designers argue that Aspects should be double-edged, "Nerdy McNerdson" rather than "Computer Genius", providing for opportunities and complications, and should provide multiple plot devices, "The Legion Demands I Prove Myself" rather than "I Must Prove Myself". Invoking an Aspect costs a fate point and can provide a +2 bonus after a die roll, or a reroll. Some Aspects (e.g., setting backgrounds) provide a free invoke, which can lead to a +4 bonus. At other times the GM can compel an Aspect and the PC's situation is complicated; usually they received a Fate point as a result; or it can be awarded retroactively for a player who creates their own complications following an Aspect.

 

Skills are defined as broad competencies and are the basis of what the character does in the game (overcome challenges, create an advantage, attack and defend). There is no distinction between "stats" and "skills", so Agility, Empathy, Notice, Physique, and Will, are all skills. In contrast, a Stunt changes the way a skill works providing a special, additional benefit, with increasing levels of power and flexibility with a prerequisite system. In addition there's quite a lot of advice on creating Stunts. There are around 20 default Skills,  often with several paragraphs devoted to each, explaining their relationship to actions and potential Stunts. As with other games with similar abilities, one must wonder why Stunts aren't specialisations or high-level versions of a skill.

 

The chapter on "Actions and Outcomes" reiterates the core mechanic of the Fate system and the outcomes approach. The four main results are "Fail", "Tie", "Success" and "Success with Style", the latter is one succeeds by three or more. There is no equivalent "Fail with Ineptitude". "Fail" doesn't always mean "failure" either; it can be mean "succeed with serious cost".  In combat situations a success translates either as stress or consequences, according to the defender's wishes, and if they can apply neither they are taken out of the conflict. Developing the ideas further, the "Challenges, Contests, and Conflicts" chapter differentiates between the three; a Challenge is a complicated action, a Contest is when two or more characters have the same goal, and Conflicts when they are directly attempting to harm another character. In Conflicts turn order is important; physical conflicts use Notice, mental conflicts use Empathy. A character may take damage as physical or mental Stress depending on the damage received; when Stress is exhausted they must take Consequences, which can be mild, moderate, or severe, with appropriate effects and recovery time. An extreme consequence exists which, in addition to the damage, replaces an existing Aspect. A player may concede in a conflict, and take the loss. Character death is recommended only for narrative purposes.

 

GM Advice and Setting Information

 

A chapter on "Running the Game" does what it says on the tin, starting from the perhaps unusual perspective of starting and ending scenes. This makes some sense when considering Fate's explicit design statement in this chapter that "Drama is better than realism" (it isn't innately so, but it is for this game), and which is reflected in action checks; all actions are meant to have a result, the worst die roll is one where nothing happens. Setting design is defined as a collaborative process as a player who really isn't into the game setting will seriously effect actual play. Difficulties are set in accordance to character skill, not what would be realistic, but rather what could be justified. Nameless NPCs tend to have an aspect or two, and maybe some stress boxes depending on their competency. But they are not fully-fledged characters are subject to this a narrative "mook" approach, or even worse still, "mob". More major NPCs are given names, skills, stunts, and more developed stress tracks. Some decent advice in particular is given to "right-sizing" the NPCs  according to scene in terms of quantity and ability.

 

This is followed with a "Scenes, Sessions, and Scenarios" chapter. It starts with Scenarios, and specifically the building of said plots and narrative devices and, as is appropriate, draws heavily upon the Aspects of the characters, and indeed between characters to create a dramatic tension, along with obstacles and antagonist NPCs.  The chapter then moves into Scenes, the foundational unit of the wider development into Scenarios, Story Arcs, and Campaigns, each representing a milestone of increasing significance. Notice something missing from the chapter? Sessions. There really isn't much here on describing the options or environment for actual play or, for that matter, managing player personalities and expectations.

 

"The Long Game" chapter explores story arcs and campaigns. This is also the point where game world changes and character changes are considered. At the end of each session, characters may switch ranks value of skills, switch stunts, purchase a new stunt with refresh, or rename an aspect. At the end of a scenario, characters can gain a skill point (still with column restrictions), recover and rename serious consequences, and with major milestones, rename extreme consequences, add refresh, advance a skill beyond the normal limits, or even rename the high concept. Again, the narrative orientation is evident here; there is no "realistic" reason why column restrictions should apply for skills, or that character development is based on narrative advancement.