Sunless Fate 3

Welcome to the final (at least for now) installment in the series converting Atomic Robo rules to run a Sunless Sea-inspired game. Previously, we covered character and ship generation, as well as ship combat, trading and zeafaring. This post will have little to do with rules, instead focusing on exploration and mystery of SS, and how to run such a game.

Mystery

FL and SS are games of mystery, of being submerged in a weird world and gradually piecing together how it works, what all those strange names mean, hint by hint. This approach is fascinating, but not quite replicable in a TRPG. Where written fiction can offer a tantalizing hint and leave you wanting more, an RPG character can always choose to push further, dig deeper, roll the dice. Indeed, given the overall ethos of “proactive, competent and dramatic” characters of Fate, you can expect them to do just that, often successfully.

And that’s not a bad thing! What might have taken you years to figure out in FL (no, seriously, years), they’ll discover in weeks. Or, perhaps, they already know all this as well. In fact, how well the GM and the players know the world of Fallen London will fundamentally alter the way your game plays out. There are three rough categories your group may fall under.

Scholar of Correspondence

The GM is the titular scholar, the one person who’s played the games and studied the lore. Everyone else just thought weird steampunk naval game with talking rats sounded neat. This is the situation in my gaming group. Rejoice, for you are about to introduce your players to the deep, dark, and marvelous world of Neath. It is a delight, watching comprehension slowly dawn on them, seeing theories form and be discarded, and finally observing them explain to one another how things work.

In this case, the Secrets skills are a major way by which you can feed information to your players. The Brainstorm mechanic of AR will likely be of limited use, only applicable when the mystery is “local”, not related to the lore.

This is the least Fate-like situation, with players constrained by their lack of knowledge from making declarations about the world. There are definitive answers you have that PCs can gradually uncover. In fact, you can have entire games revolving around learning a particular secret of Neath.

Masters of the Bazaar

The majority of the players are already familiar with the setting, perhaps they even know it better than the GM. Players and GM are co-conspirators, together delving into the familiar damp darkness. The players know where mirrors lead and how red honey is made. You won’t get a gripping plot out of simply revealing the deep truths of the Neath. On the other hand, you don’t need to lay out the groundwork for things to make sense. All it takes is a subtle implications for the wheels to start spinning.

The Secrets skills are mainly there to justify characters knowing what players already do. Brainstorms are more fitting, with players unlikely to propose something contradictory.

A Sea More Sunless

None of you know what’s going on. You just got out of New Newgate, or said goodbye to your first captain. It’s all so exciting and a little bit intimidating. Worry not, for you are about to embark on an adventure. You are in the same position as your characters in the computer games. Much like in the Masters of the Bazaar case, you are co-conspirators. But instead of treading familiar waters, you are staring at a blank map. What you discover will be largely up to you. This game will be inspired by FL and SS, rather than based on them.

For you, the Secrets skills are there to make declarations. What is a lorne-fluke, why do devils even want souls, are blemmigans a hive-mind? You decide. Similarly, Brainstorms become a way to establish potentially far-reaching truths about the world.

The lore

Whatever your situation, you will want to check the existing lore every now and then. The best way to obtain it, unsurprisingly, is to play FL and SS. It may be a good idea to revisit a location the party is about to enter to refresh your memory before the game. In addition, both games have fan-made wikis, though the text in them is quite limited. There’s also Saint Arthur and Saint Beau blogs, extensively covering both lore and gameplay of FL and SS respectively. The blogs are incredibly spoiler-heavy, so peruse at your own peril.

It’s easy to be trapped in the official lore, there’s so much of it. It’s tempting to simply replicate the characters and mysteries you so enjoyed, and that’s fine. But don’t feel constrained by them. You may not always know the answers. Some of the questions are yet unanswered. You may get things wrong. And that’s fine, too. This is your game, your own Neath – that’s very important to establish from the outset.

Preserving the mystery

Running a mystery game in Fate is not exactly a new problem. Here are a couple of ideas you may wish to adopt for running Sunless Fate, mostly applicable to a Scholar of Correspondence group. If your group falls under Masters of the Bazaar or A Sea More Sunless, there aren’t many grand lore-related secrets that players don’t already know (or don’t know along with you). Unless, of course, the GM adds more.

If you don’t want to reveal the true nature of something, don’t make the adventure about it. This may seem obvious, but is still worth discussing. The mystery of the adventure will be solved, one way or another. The mysteries of the Neath don’t have to be. You can have an adventure set in Parabola, with adventure-specific secrets to uncover and problems to overcome, without the adventure being about Parabola. Let the players draw their own conclusions, hazard their own guesses, feel their way through the shadows.

The openness of Fate may seem like a problem. How can you keep something hidden, if players are supposed to know or be able to discover the aspects of everything and everyone? Here, we can learn from FL. In it, you are informed when your situation changes, when you have gained or changed a quality… but not necessarily what that means. You become a Scholar of Correspondence long before you know what Correspondence is. So throw weird names and concepts at your players. They may use Empathy to find out the Weary-Eyed Captain they’ve met is a Pawn of Dawn, but what that actually means will have to be revealed in-game as the aspect is invoked.

Exploration

The map of the Zee is a mystery in its own right, with much of SS revolving around uncovering it, island by island. Here are a few options on how to handle it.

The known Zee

The simplest option is to use an existing map, be it an official print, a screenshot from your favorite SS run, or the one you can find on the SS wiki. You trade some of the exploration aspect of the game for the convenience and prettiness. Unless your group are Masters of the Bazaar, though, there’s still exploration to be had. Just because the party knows names and locations of every island, doesn’t mean they know what goes on there. Isle of Cats sounds delightful, does it not?

Geographical drift

To imitate the ever-shifting Zee and allow for discovery of the map, you can prepare a deck of square index cards, with one island, reef, whirlpool or just empty water per card. It would make sense to have cards’ size be equal to a unit of distance on your map (see Zeafaring in the previous post). Whether you use the existing islands and names or make up your own is up to you. If you wish to be more faithful to SS, you may want to make individual decks for different regions of the Zee – the SS wiki explains how it is broken down.

Start with a sheet of paper large enough to fit your cards arrayed as a complete map. Putting a grid on it may help. Normally, the edges of the map remain static: Venderbight is always to the north of London, Irem is in the north-west corner, etc., so you may wish to put them down first. When the party begins their journeys and reaches a blank spot on the map, simply draw a card and glue it into place. Or copy the image of the island on the map, or use a digital tool and avoid the messy paper business entirely, whatever is the most convenient and produces the desired result. Ideally, you’ll have another artifact at the end of the game, a map of your journeys. Trace the path you take over it, too. Note where be dragons. Own it.

The blank canvas

An approach even more random than the previous one, best suited for A Sea More Sunless group. Again, start with a blank gridded sheet of paper, with the size of a cell equal to the unit of distance you chose. When the party reaches a blank square, roll fate dice. Each ‘+’ is a potentially inhabited island, a single landmass if the dice are close, individual islands if they’re far or separated by other dice. Each blank face is simply water. Each ‘-‘ is an uninhabited rock, a reef, a whirlpool or something else not terribly useful and potentially dangerous. The actual position of dice relative to one another matters – the features they represent are arrayed in the same way. Let the players draw and name the resulting island(s) on the map.

The sheer weirdness of the Neath can’t really be inferred from a random roll a three, but perhaps a randomly determined faction that runs the place will start you thinking. Again, roll fate dice. Start in the top left corner, “Seekers of the Name”. For each ‘+’ on the dice, move right one column. For each ‘-‘, move down one row.

+
+
+
+
Seekers of the NameAdmiraltyTomb ColonistsRubbery MenSpider cultists
-
KhanateLondonersPiratesChelonate
-
Clay MenPiratesLondoners
-
DevilsRats
-
Fingerkings’ puppets

Running Sunless Fate

This is still Fate, naturally. All the advice on running Fate games applies here. At the same time, the world of FL is so unique, the games set in it can’t help but be different, too.

In the deepest matters of the Bazaar, always look to love

This is what many FL stories come down to: love. A great motivation, but one often overlooked in games. We’re used to greed, hate, madness, lust for power at the center of our conflicts. No one cares why a necromancer raises a zombie horde, or a mad scientist builds giant robots, or a cult leader summons eldritch horrors. That’s what they *do*. Their purpose in the story is to be villains. This game often doesn’t have a villain.

What it has is classic story fuel: people who want something, but can’t get it. People lived on the islands of the Zee before the PCs ever set their foot there, and they may still live there even after the PCs leave. Likely as not, there’s no catastrophe for PCs to prevent, everything is in a state of equilibrium. Unhappy, perhaps, tense, definitely, but equilibrium. PCs abhor equilibrium. They are a new element, proactive, competent and dramatic. Maybe they are just what a local desperately needs to change things. Or maybe they just blunder into it like all PCs do.

And at the center of it all, the cause of desperate needs and tensions, the one thing left in the ruins of the equilibrium, is love. In the broadest sense of the word.

A reckoning is not to be postponed indefinitely

Neath is a grim place, if you look past all the quirkiness and humor. Which is why it’s crucial not to look past them. Still. While death may not be final here (and that’s very important to remember!) there are many ways one can lose oneself. The stories of the Neath are stories of love, yes, but they’re also stories of what people give up and how they change in the name of their love.

It’s this change that Fate conveys better than most systems: changing a character’s aspects is a powerful statement. Since we got rid of collateral consequences of AR, it would make sense to re-introduce the extreme consequence of Fate Core. The usual aspect adjustment that comes with milestones fits the less traumatic occurrences.

And speaking of consequences, being haunted by strange dreams works great as one. If a character struggles to overcome their nightmares, suggest a success at major cost: a trip into the Mirror-Marshes.

It is possible for your characters to become monsters. Cannibalism is always on the table. Whether or not that’s something you want to explore, is for your group to decide. No, a reckoning will not be postponed indefinitely. The longer you postpone it, the more you deserve one.

Seven is the number

Sunless Fate lends itself well to an episodic game. The islands are isolated, individual. In a typical scenario, the party arrives on one; gets into all sorts of trouble as they try to replenish their dwindling supplies, repair their ship or simply gawk at the locals; discover the weirdness of the place and maybe even solve it; then move on to the next island. The journeys between them are a connective tissue, but rarely the focus of the adventure.

Such structure presents a unique challenge: most NPCs your party encounters will only be present for a session or two. While that’s true for most campaigns, the dark waters of the zee separating the islands make departing more final. It may be hard to care all that much about the strange locals and their troubles if you’re not going to be seeing them ever again. Therefore it becomes even more important to tie the NPCs and their stories to the PCs via their aspects.

And if the players like (or like to hate) a particular NPC, consider having them come along as a zailor or a passenger, or finding other ways for them to travel. The PCs aren’t the only ones with a ship, after all.

Searing enigma

If you do adopt the episodic structure, consider naming each episode with a Correspondence word, one you’ve seen mentioned or made up on the spot. As long as it’s cryptic, strangely specific and vaguely inhuman, you can’t go wrong. So far we’ve had Hurtling Forever Towards the Earth, The Disgrace of Dying at the Place of Birth and Tracks in the Illimitable Void, to name a few.

As an optional rule, you can award a Searing Enigma to the PC who went out of their way to uncover a secret in a session, and reveal the name of the episode as you do. Yes, this mixes up Correspondence with Searing Enigmas a bit, but the thematic similarities make it work. Only reckless pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge should result in a Searing Enigma.

What is a Searing Enigma in this context? An aspect with a free invoke, much like any other trade good. Being as they are flashes of insight into the deeper workings of the universe, it can be used in any context. Their baseline price would depend entirely on how frequent they are. Seven is the number, but perhaps four will do if they “drop” every game. Regardless, not many merchants would be willing to trade in them. Instead, perhaps a few of enigmas can be used to buy or construct an exotic ship part.

It’s worth pointing out that my players have unanimously decided the only acceptable use for Searing Enigmas is on the last roll of the campaign.

All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well

Despite all the madness and fates worse than death, there is an undercurrent of hope in FL, a veneer of levity. The balance between the two, the horror and the flimsy, is what makes this world so special. It is Lovecraftian, yes, but the rats talk. You can lose your soul, but you can wear a sentient mushroom as a hat, too. Whatever else you do, keep this tone.

And do let me know how your game goes.

Sunless Fate 2

Welcome to the second part of the conversion of Atomic Robo rules to run a Sunless Sea-inspired game. The first installment dealt with character and ship generation, a mostly straightforward matter of applying existing rules. This post will cover ship combat, trading, and zeafaring, all of which required invention of new sub-systems, some of them a departure from what Fate normally does. But one thing at a time.

Ship combat & massive entities

Illustration by Oinkfrog

Illustration by Oinkfrog

The idea of different scales of combatants is not new to Fate. In this implementation, some entities, tasks, and obstacles, notably ships and giant monsters, are designated as massive. A massive creature cannot be harmed by a non-massive one. A massive obstacle cannot be removed by non-massive characters, though it can be overcome. A massive task cannot be completed. In short, regular non-massive characters can interact with massive entities, but not defeat them. You can dodge a giant crab’s claws just fine, just don’t expect to be able to punch it out.

There is one exception to this rule: by invoking an aspect, likely created specifically for this purpose, a character can directly attack or otherwise deal with a massive entity. Inflicted consequences are great for this. Expending trade goods such as gunpowder barrels (see Trade) works, too. Narrative as always trumps all, so if it makes sense for a character to deal directly with something massive, even if there aren’t any relevant aspects, go for it.

Normally, however, you will want to have a massive thing to deal with another massive thing. Your ship will fight giant zee creatures, not your characters personally. Which is not to say your characters won’t be crucial to actually winning the fight. Majority of the time, the PCs will be creating advantages for their massive ship to use. The captain will make sure the crew’s Disciplined, the engineer will keep the Engines Roaring, the gunnery officer’s will maintain the Cannons Aimed.

In addition to improving the skill checks of your ship, the aspects created by its officers can be invoked to let the ship take extra actions, as long as they use a skill the ship hasn’t used this round. For instance, your ship may fire upon the pirates with Iron, create advantage of Evasive Maneuvers with Veils because the navigator has invoked Frantically Spinning Wheel, then have her crew repel the boarders with Hearts due to the captain’s invocation of Patriotic Speech.

If the PCs could just keep doing the same thing over and over, it would quickly get repetitive, lots of dice rolled for little effect on the story. (Un)fortunately, when massive entities clash, everything is endangered. Whenever a massive entity attacks, it causes Calamity in one of the zones of its target, such as one of the decks of the ship slammed by a lifeberg. If the massive entity actually inflicts stress or worse, it causes Calamity in two different zones. What sort of Calamity? Anything and everything. It can be a negative aspect (Rolling Cannonballs, Spreading Fire) increasing the passive opposition of tasks in that zone and ready to be compelled, an attack against everyone present in the zone (shrapnel, lorn-fluke yelling in Correspondence), an enemy that got on board (a guinea pig shot over from a pirate ship, a drownie there to drag someone away in the confusion), valuable cargo that got knocked loose in the hold, etc. The purpose of Calamity, other than driving home just how chaotic and disruptive such conflicts tend to be, is to give PCs something to do that isn’t just giving Patriotic Speeches repeatedly.

While this chapter mostly discusses conflicts, and conflicts involving ships at that, the same idea applies to other situations. The crew of your ship is massive, too, and can be used in various ways – that’s what the Hearts skill is for. Chopping down enormous mushrooms for fuel is a massive task, made all the more difficult by stalking panthers and hallucinogenic spores. In that particular scenario, the mushroom forest itself could be a massive opponent – don’t you just love the Bronze rule of Fate?

Massive rules summary

  • Regular non-massive characters cannot defeat massive entities, unless an aspect is invoked for permission.
  • When a massive entity attacks, it causes Calamity in one of the target zones. It causes Calamity in two target zones if it inflicts stress.
  • Aspects placed on the ship can be invoked to allow it to take multiple actions, as long as each action uses a different skill.

Rightsizing the massive opposition – a bit of math

So how does this actually work? You can expect the PCs to use their best skills while helping the ship. The gunnery officer is probably decent at Combat, otherwise they wouldn’t have been hired for that position. Which is to say, their skill will be +4 or +5, potentially as high as +7 with a stunt. I would suggest the passive opposition to acting in somewhat adverse conditions out in the Zee should be Good (+3) or so, though circumstances may vary. This means the PCs will succeed at creating advantages for their ship or their crew most of the time, even without spending fate points, and successes with style will be frequent. However, Calamities will soon keep some of them occupied, and some of the invokes will be spent on extra actions. This translates to a bit under 1 free invoke per PC each round. In a party of 4, this means they’ll have 3 or so free invokes to spend on their ship’s action and defense against the massive opposition. Which is to say that the opposition’s skills should be about 3 points higher than the PC’s ship’s (or crew’s) for this to be something of a challenge.

Running the massive opposition

While we’re interested in what the PCs are doing during a ship battle, we probably don’t care all that much about what the officers on the opposing ship do (and albino eels don’t have officers to start with, unless you count the ones they’ve swallowed). So while the PCs will be doing all sorts of things, GM’s turns will be quite brief. To cover for a lack of officer actions, massive NPCs get another skill, Mirrors, which acts like Notice. If the NPC is meant to be a serious threat, consider letting them act twice in a round, following the same restrictions the PCs have.

Sample massive opponents

Giant Crab

Tiny Brain, Huge Claws

Iron +4, Veils +3, Mirrors +3

Armor:1 (physical), Weapon 1.

Pirate Ship

So Drunk They’re Flammable

Iron +4, Hearts +4, Veils +6, Mirrors +3

Ramming Speed. The pirate ship can attack with Veils, as long as she is in the same zone as her target.

Boarding party. Once per scene when the pirate ship rams an enemy or is otherwise in their vicinity, she may immediately make a Hearts check to have her crew board the enemy as a free action.

Hallucinogenic Mushroom Forest

Wet Mushy Darkness

Spores +3, Lurking Predators +5

Deeper into the ‘Shrooms. For each unit of fuel PCs log, the forest’s Spores skill increases by 1.

Too much?

These rules are quite detailed, and you may not wish to use them all the time (or ever!). Fortunately, Fate lets us zoom in and out of the action as we deem fit. Often, an encounter on the zee can be handled as a contest or a challenge instead. In that case, consider letting players roll the ship’s skills that they’re responsible for, instead of their own skills. In this variant, the PCs either give a Teamwork bonus to the skill check, or allow the ship to take an extra action. This slightly simplified approach works for conflicts, too.

Trading & goods

This is a tricky topic. Carting goods around the Zee is a major part of SS, as well as running out of fuel, food, and money, especially in the early game. It’s very granular: if you have 50 echoes and spend 30 of them on fuel, you’ll only have 20 leftover for food. Which sounds like a basic arithmetic problem, but that’s not how Fate works. Fate doesn’t do running out of resources. It does the story of running out of resources. In it, you don’t have 50 echoes, or 5 units of fuel you could spend them on. Money is typically represented by a skill, perhaps with its own stress track. For an example of such a system, see what Diaspora does.

You’ll have to make a choice as a group. If you’re fine with such abstract system, great. Borrow it from Diaspora, or another Fate version of choice. If there’s interest, I may take a crack at writing up my own version. However, it’s my opinion that SF needs to work with actual numbers. Here, then, are simple trade rules.

Goods

The amount of stuff you have is measured in numbers: 5 fuel, 3 casks of mushroom wine. So is money, which includes echoes as well as jade, glim, moon pearls, nevercold brass slivers, all traded and exchanged as currency across the Neath. Some of the goods take up space in the cargo hold, some don’t, much like in SS. The amount of available cargo space is determined by the weight class of your ship: light ships have 10, medium 20, and heavy 30. Note also a sample stunt in the previous post that increases these limits.

Goods as aspects

Those 5 units of fuel? They’re 5 invocations stacked on the Fuel aspect. In a situation where burning extra fuel would be beneficial, like when you’re trying to outrun another ship, you can spend those invokes in the regular manner. Bribing someone is a matter of spending a Money invoke for permission, then perhaps one or two more to improve your skill roll. Similarly, an attempt to acquire (rather than buy)  something is a Create Advantage action. Consequently, a success with style would mean two invocations of the thing are acquired. The item’s baseline price (see below) serves as a good starting point for the difficulty of such action.

To use our favorite mushroom forest as an example, the crew ordered to harvest the mushrooms for fuel would be rolling Hearts to Create Advantage, opposed by the forest’s Spores, potentially getting 2 invokes/cartloads of fuel with a single check.

The only limit to the goods-as-aspects approach is that you can’t spend fate points to invoke them.

Prices

We start with a list of goods and prices that are given for them, on average. The one presented in the table below is not quite the same as SS, and frankly, it is not authoritative. It is merely an example which you will no doubt build upon and modify to suit your game.

For each port the PCs visit, you’ll have to decide which of the goods are bought and sold there, and how the prices vary from the baseline. Sometimes it will be apparent: food and fuel are cheap in London, red honey is cheap on the Isle of Cats, etc. Often, though, you won’t have much of a clue. In that case, for each good you decided is available, roll 2 fate dice and adjust the price according to the result. When dealing with a particularly pricey item, roll 4 fate dice. This will allow for some variation of prices integral to trade.

Money and their replacements are always worth 1, and buying or selling goods is usually a simple arithmetic operation.

Trade GoodBaselineLondon
Food42
Fuel21
Bale of Parabola-Linen66
Cask of Mushroom Wine22
Crate of Human Souls44
Firkin of Prisoner's Honey22
Firkin of Red Honey46
Empty Mirrorcatch Box1010
Sunlight-filled Mirrorcatch Box2025

None of this is binding. Circumstances change, and prices follow. If there’s a very profitable route PCs discover, consider: why is it that way, who else is using it, what happens if it’s overused, who are the sellers and buyers, what’s their story? Much like SS, the game isn’t really about trading. It could be about amassing a fortune, sure, but the act of shipping around stuff is mostly there to provide a reason to travel from place to place and engage in stories of those places.

Zeafaring

It’s a new topic, and that means it’s time for a new discussion with your group. Just how large is the Zee? First thing you’ll need to decide is how far 1 unit of food and 1 unit of fuel will get you. If you happen to be using the wonderful print of the map, the distance between the meridian lines is a natural choice. SS itself has slightly wider meridians, breaking the map into 6 columns, if that is your preference. This choice determines how hard it is to get around, and how often PCs will have to make stops along the way to replenish their supplies.

With that figured out, how long does it actually take to travel that distance? A day, a week? My personal preference is 4 days, as it echoes a mechanic we’ll discuss in a bit. On the one hand, the exact amount of time spent probably doesn’t matter all that much. On the other, it’s these details that give substance to the game.

As already mentioned, a ship expends 1 unit of food (a barrel?) and 1 unit of fuel (a cartload of coal?) per unit of distance traveled, with each journey costing at least 1 of each. If the ship makes a few closely placed stops along the way, an argument can be made to count that as a single trip. Should you wish to reflect a fuel-efficient engine in the mechanics, a stunt to modify fuel consumption would be entirely appropriate.

Every journey starts with the navigator plotting a course. In this case, an Overcome check with the Navigation skill. The opposition would likely start at 3 and be influenced by the length of the trip as well as whatever hazards are in the way. Success means the navigator does their job well and the ship goes where you wished to go. Success with style means you round down when counting the units of distance traveled, to a minimum of one. Through a cunning use of currents, freak gusts of wind and plain fortune, you shave off precious days of travel. If there is no rounding to be had, the ship gains a boost for the journey instead. Failure means the trip is going to be more erratic – see below. If none of the players elected to play a navigator, it would be a good idea to hire an NPC.

On the way

Illustration by Oinkfrog

Illustration by Oinkfrog

There you are, course plotted, engine purring, hold full of supplies. Time to zail! If only things were so easy. The Zee is unpredictable, and the crew is not to be trusted either. Following is a simple system designed to give the GM some ideas as to what might happen along the way. It is entirely up to them when and how to use it.

For each unit of distance traveled, roll 4 fate dice. If the Navigator failed to plot the course, reroll one die showing a blank face – the journey takes just a bit longer, with more opportunities for things to go wrong. This isn’t a skill check, instead the values on the dice suggest the nature of the occurrences to be had on the way. Minuses rolled indicate an internal event, while pluses hint at something external happening to the ship. The more of a symbol present, the more significant the event. One or two mean a brief scene, three might take some time to resolve, while four could take over a session.

The following list is merely suggestions, largely lifted from SS and FL. Once the game is underway, there will no doubt be plenty of plot lines that can come up during these journeys. It is also a great time to compel aspects: a bunch of proactive and dramatic people are stuck in a tiny ship for days or weeks on end, with nothing to do but be proactively dramatic at each other.

  • A bad omen disturbs the crew
  • Crew asks to tell them of the Surface
  • Nightmares among the crew
  • A game of cards, betting secrets
  • You’re out of candles. Again.

– –

  • A fight has broken out among the crew
  • Spoiled supplies
  • Stowaway discovered
  • A zailor becomes violent, ranting about Storm
  • A zailor is not who they claim to be. Undercover admiralty agent? A snuffer??
  • A spontaneous game of Stabbin’ Jack

– – –

  • Engine breaks down
  • Fire!

– – – –

  • Sorrow-spiders infestation
  • Mutiny!

+

  • False-stars shift. Could their new arrangement be fortuitous?
  • Man overboard
  • Fog
  • Passing a buoy. Is that a note?

+ +

  • Monsters: Auroral Megalops (young giant crab), bat swarm
  • Clinging coral threatens to crack the ship
  • Large rocks fall from the ceiling, threatening to damage the ship
  • Sudden whirlpool
  • Castaway on driftwood

+ + +

  • Drownies singing
  • Sinking island – what treasures might it hold?
  • Drifting ship ahead
  • Pirates!
  • Monsters: jillyfleur, bound shark, albino eel
  • Volcano rises: “Stone pigs cough”.
  • Killing wind
  • Off course

+ + + +

  • Monsters: Lifeberg, Mt. Nomad
  • Lost!

Ship log

ship log

Illustration by Cybele Wong

These events may come off as disjointed, a series of random encounters along the way – because they are. A log of the journeys, recording such occurrences would go a long way towards tying them into a more cohesive narrative. You could have one player responsible for keeping the log, or pass it around. If you choose to do this with an actual notebook as opposed to a digital doc, you’ll have a cool artifact at the end of the campaign.

Coming next

Exploring the Zee and its mysteries, GMing advice. A much smaller post (I hope!), we’re almost done. EDIT: I was wrong.

 

Sunless Fate

Have you ever wanted to play a roleplaying game based on Sunless Sea? With a tagline like “lose your mind, eat your crew”, how could you not. It’s a game of zailing (yes, zailing) a steamship in the weird underworld of the Victorian Gothic universe originating in Fallen London, a free narrative browser game and now an iTunes app. Try them if you haven’t, this post can wait.

Back already? That was quick, you must have run out of fuel. This is a first post of several, discussing a conversion of Fate, specifically Atomic Robo, to run a Sunless Sea game. If you don’t have the Atomic Robo rules, you should be able to get away with just Fate SRD, but I’ll be writing with the assumption that you have ARRPG in front of you.

Lastly, FL and SS are mystery games, rarely stating things upfront. That mystique is hard to preserve when writing about character options. There may be very minor spoilers ahead!

Oh, and I’m in no way associated with either Evil Hat or Failbetter Games, this is a fan work, etc., etc.

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Like an insatiable glove

In many ways, Fate is just about a perfect system for SS, with only a renaming of some elements required to make it more “sunless”. Not everything fits, though, so here’s a brief overview of things that stay the same and things that change. Since Fate is a giant toolbox of a ruleset, it’s entirely possible that you’ll choose to implement some of the discussed elements differently. To make this easier for you, throughout these posts I’ll offer commentary on why I made the choices presented and discuss alternatives.

Terminology

Basic modes of AR are renamed to their FL counterparts (see Character generation, below). Issues and volumes become zee stories (or tales of terror, if you prefer) and uncanny incunabulums, respectively. There are so many flavorful terms and names in FL and SS, use them! And speaking of names, the naming scheme of Adjective Noun used by both games can double as NPCs’ concept aspects. Given that you’ll likely be moving from island to island, I suggest you retain it. “Affable Factor” is so much easier to remember than “John Smith”.

Fewer explosions

AR regularly features giant robots and walking pyramids. In order to face them, AR PCs are some of the most powerful Fate characters out there. SF characters aren’t quite as ostentatious, or at least not as prone to blowing things up while inside them. With that in mind, the PCs in SF start each zee story with only 3 fate points, their ship (Tesladyne replacement) doesn’t have its own fate points, and there are no collateral consequences.

Making your home in the Neath

Zee is your home. Zee is your enemy. A fickle mistress, a mysterious bastard. Before everything else, decide together what zee is for you. Give it two aspects that will be almost always present in the game. Is it Deep, Dark, Marvelous? Vast and Perilous? Is it filled with Suffocating Darkness? Are there Unfathomable Depths below your tiny ship? All these descriptions and more are true, but you have to settle on the ones that matter the most in your game.

Ship generation

The ship you’ll be zailing in is essentially a shared character, just as much a part of the game as any regular PC. She even has her own mode and stress tracks. The rules for ships are a cross of Tesladyne and equipment rules of AR, with some key differences.

Ship mode

Depending on the size of your ship, her mode rating will be +1 (light, think starting SS ship), +2 (medium) or +3 (heavy). It’s up to you which ship you have, what kind of game you want to play. No matter what weight class you choose for your ship, to distinguish her further you collectively decide which of her skills you’ll focus (increase by +1).

Iron

Combined firepower of your ship.

  • Overcome: Clear the path!
  • Attack: Fire all cannons!

 Hearts

How well trained, equipped and loyal is your crew.

  • Overcome: Crew, do thing!
  • CA: Stand firm!
  • Attack: Charge!
  • Defend: Brace for impact!

Veils

A dual skill, responsible for both your ability to sneak and speed around the Zee.

  • Overcome: Full speed ahead!
  • Create Advantage: Silent run!
  • Defend: Evasive Maneuvers!

SS players may notice Pages and Mirrors are missing from the list. Both of these skills are covered by individual skills of officers such as Secrets and Notice.

Ship aspects

These work much like Tesaldyne aspects do, i.e. the ship has a Mission Statement and two Pressures, with Pressures re-evaluated at the start of each uncanny incunabulum along with a new Title aspect. However, since there’re no collateral consequences (unless of course there are), it’s entirely up to you how these get changed.

While those aspects describe what the ship and her crew are after and how the world around them may resist, they don’t say much about the ship itself. That’s what the ship’s Concept and Trouble aspects are for.

Ship stress & consequences

The ship has two stress tracks, Crew and Hull, starting with 2 boxes each. If her Hearts is at least +2, she gets a third Crew stress box, and a fourth one if her Hearts is +3. Veils similarly affects the Hull track. Just like a regular character, the ship has a mild, moderate and severe consequence slot. Unlike a regular character, clearing her stress boxes is not just a matter of ending a zee story. You simply can’t do it at the zee, shore leave is required. Of course, all sorts of things can happen to the crew on the shore.

Ship stunts

A ship starts with two stunts, representing superior equipment, training or construction. How and when she replaces them or gains new ones depends entirely on the events of your story. The ship doesn’t “level up”, but you might build a unique engine for her. How often should that happen? As usual, up to you.

Sample stunts

Iron plating. Armor: 1 (physical).

Cannons! Weapon: 2.

Fishing vessel. When you roll three blank faces while zailing (see Zeafaring in the follow-up post), gain 1 food.

Merchant vessel. Gain extra 5, 10 or 15 cargo slots, depending on the weight class of your ship (see Trading in the follow-up post).

Fastest ship in the Neath. Absolutely faster than other ships (always succeed at Overcome checks with Veils when racing other ships), but at a cost.

Seasoned crew. If you run out of food, you can gain a mild consequence to gain 2 food. You can still do this without the stunt, but the chosen zailors wouldn’t go without a fight and the resulting consequence may be moderate or severe. Also, seasoning.

Alternatively…

There are many other Fate games focusing on ships out there. If you dislike the rules presented here (bearing in mind that it’s only half the picture without the follow-up post), maybe you’ll find something to your liking in one of the following games: Aether Sea, Sails Full of Stars, Deep Dark Blue, and no doubt others. All the games listed are Pay What You Want, so you can check them out for free and pay the creators if you like what you see.

Character generation

The standard modes of AR, Action, Banter, Intrigue, and Science transform seamlessly into FL’s Dangerous, Persuasive, Shadowy, and Watchful. The skill Vehicles becomes Zailing, while Science becomes Secrets. Possible sub-skills of Secrets include Secrets of the Zee, Seeking, Rubbery, Correspondence, Elder Continent, and many others.

Weird modes is where this gets interesting. The player characters are likely to be the officers and captain of a ship, as that allows them the most agency. Following are weird modes they may wish to take. Some have sample stunts, some don’t, for no particular reason other than what I found amusing to write. In addition, there’s a few weird modes covering some of the more colorful Neath denizens. These and more are all present in the Sunless Fate Skill Calculator which works just like the Atomic Robo Skill Calculator I made earlier, but, y’know, for Sunless Fate.

Engineer

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Illustration by Cybele Wong

(costs 6 character points)

  • Contacts
  • Engineering
  • Notice
  • Physique
  • Zailing

Weird skill: Engineering

  • Overcome: Make mechanisms work or stop working.
  • Overcome: Remove mechanical consequences from the ship, provided you have sufficient spare parts.
  • Create Advantage: Overcharge mechanisms. Figure out existing aspects of machinery.

Surgeon

(costs 9 character points)

  • Contacts
  • Deceive
  • Empathy
  • Notice
  • Surgery
  • Rapport
  • Will

Weird skill: Surgery

  • Overcome: Treat ailments, natural and bizarre.
  • Overcome: Assist in overcoming physical consequences. Treating crew’s consequences requires shore leave.

Sample stunts

Off-Label Prescription. So long as you have free access to your medical kit, you can use Surgery to defend against hostile mental actions.

Walk it off you big baby. You can overcome a physical consequence in the middle of a conflict by examining it and declaring it Not A Big Deal. It still occupies the slot and comes back after the conflict is done.

They should get that looked at! At the beginning of a conflict, roll to create advantage with Surgery for free to declare a physical weakness in an important NPC opponent.

Tsk-tsk. When you inflict a physical consequence you gain two free invocations on it instead of one.

Chop job. You can overcome crew’s physical consequences while at zee. Limb loss may occur.

Leeches. You have +2 to create advantages with Provoke targeting anyone you’ve treated before.

Gunnery Officer

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Illustration by oinkfrog

(costs 7 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Engineering
  • Notice
  • Physique

Navigator

(costs 5 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Navigation
  • Notice
  • Secrets (Zee)
  • Zailing

Weird skill: Navigation

  • Overcome: Avoid zee dangers such as reefs by using a chart. Navigate by the false stars. Create a chart of zee dangers. No, covering an entire page with ink doesn’t count.
  • Overcome: plot an optimal course (see Zeafaring in the follow-up post).

Cook

(costs 6 character points)

  • Combat
  • Contacts
  • Notice
  • Physique
  • Rapport

Sample stunts

Combat Chef. When you enter a conflict with a creature similar to something you’ve cooked before, gain a boost based on your prior experience. Be prepared for raised eyebrows if you declare “pirate” to be such creature.

A Crew Fights on Its Stomach. You have +2 when using Rapport to create advantage by talking about the meals you’ll cook later.

Rattus Faber

(costs 8 character points)

  • Burglary
  • Combat
  • Engineering
  • Notice
  • Provoke
  • Stealth

Sample stunts

I asked the wonderful RPG.SE community for help with rat pun stunts. Not at all sorry.

Rattle. +2 to Attack with Provoke when you really get into someone’s face.

Ratificate. +1 to Create Advantage and Overcome with Engineering when dealing with rat-made items.

Karate. +2 to Defend with Combat when your opponent is larger than you.

Brodents. You get +3 instead of +2 when invoking aspects created by other rats.

Curator. You can use Burglary instead of Secrets to learn about (Create Advantage) valuable old objects.

Gratuitous Puns. get +2 to Create Advantage with Provoke if you incorporate a rat pun in your insult.

Wrath. You get +2 to attack with Combat if you’ve crossed off at least one stress box this scene.

Migration. You can move two zones instead of one as a free action on your turn.

Cheese it! Once per zee story you can concede a fight after rolling to defend against an attack.

Penetrate. +2 when using Burglary to break into places (Overcome). (This does not help you get out.)

Clay Man

(costs 9 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Empathy
  • Physique
  • Will

Sample Stunts

I AM CLAY. Weapon 2 with fists, Armor 2 against physical attacks (3 benefits).

MOVE ASIDE. Absolutely stronger than a human, but at a cost.

I OBEY. +1 to Physique and Will to Overcome whatever prevents you from doing what you were told to do.

Rubbery Man

(costs 7 character points)

  • Burglary
  • Empathy
  • Notice
  • Secrets(Rubbery)
  • Stealth

Sample Stunts

Pathetic. +2 to Overcome with Deception when you excuse your actions with an incomprehensible blubber.

Do You Recall How We Came To This Place. +2 to Create Advantage with Empathy when interacting with all things rubbery. 

Tomb Colonist

(costs 6 character points)

  • Athletics
  • Combat
  • Contacts
  • Physique

Sample Stunts

90% Scar Tissue. Armor 1 (physical).

Friends with the Boatman. Once per zee story when you’re dead, spend a fate point to declare you come alive. 

Seen It All, Done It Twice. +2 to Will when Defending against fear or accusations of impropriety. 

Coming Next

Trading, zeafaring, giant monsters, mysteries, exploration, and GMing.

Atomic Robo Skill Calculator

Atomic Robo is one of the latest incarnations of Fate (not to mention an excellent comic). It is great, but that’s not what the post is about. There are many reasons to love that particular version of the system, and modes are on top of that list. On paper, it sounds easy: just pick your modes, assign them ranks, and you’re almost done. This is especially attractive for NPC creation. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to say your robot crocodile has Beast +2 and Action +1, you’ve got to remember which skills belong to those modes, too.

It is a minor annoyance, but why suffer spending a minute on it when you could spend a few days writing an automated spreadsheet to calculate everything. Which I now present to you: ARRPG Skill Calculator.

A few words on how to use it: first and foremost, for the love of all that is holy, only edit blue fields! Everything will go haywire otherwise. And speaking of editing, you’ll need to copy it to your Drive to actually work with it. The entire purpose of the spreadsheet, at least to me, is the cell containing all the skills in one line – it’s made my own prep so much easier. If you need to add new weird modes, there are a few examples in the ‘Modes’ sheet to get you started. If you add a weird skill, update the ‘Skill cost’ sheet. And… that’s about it, really.

I’ve put an absurd amount of effort into getting Science working with just about any combination of silliness you can put into it. Try using the Gearhead mode to see an example. There are limits on how many weird skills you can have in the spreadsheet, and how many Science specializations a single character can have, but hopefully you won’t ever hit them. Obeying the rules is entirely up to you – there are a few sanity checks in place, but I’m sure you could find ways to make an “illegal” character with it if you wished to. Also, the spreadsheet does nothing to handle milestones, because hahahahahano.

Do let me know if there are any bugs you find, or if you have any suggestions for improvement.

Boss Decay

We’ve all been there. You unleash an awesome boss monster on the party, expecting it to last good solid 5-6 rounds, only for it to suffer from premature evisceration. So what do you when your dracolich drops on round 3? You can leave the players unsatisfied, or cheat and pump up its hp, or use this one weird trick.

This idea only applies to D&D and D&D-like games. And it doesn’t mess with any of the math of the system, either!

Double the hit points of your boss. Decide how many rounds you want it to last, the aforementioned 5 or 6 is fairly standard. Divide the original hp by this number to find the boss’ decay, then round it to something easy to use. Finally, give the boss a trait: the first time it is hit in a round, it takes extra damage equal to the decay number. That’s it. 

So if you have, say, a Tarrasque with 1200 hp that you want to last at least 6 rounds (a setup with nice, round numbers), give it 2400 hp instead, with decay of 200. If the party is doing as well as you expect them to do, on round six all the extra hit points will be gone, and they will be facing the original 1200 hp Tarrasque, hopefully about to defeat it. If they have unleashed crazy synergies or maybe simply 5 crits in 3 rounds, they’ll kill it on round 5 or maybe 4 instead, the undecayed bonus hp acting as padding. Importantly, good tactics or plain luck will still have mattered.

Once the decay is done and all the bonus hp are gone, you’ll probably want to “switch off” the decay trait – everything is back to normal. Or maybe the boss turned out to be tougher than you thought, and the party actually needs the help decay provides to finish it off.

A possible tweak involves dividing the decay number by 2 or 3, and having the decay trait trigger corresponding number of times per round, but only once per player. This removes the emphasis from landing one attack each round, instead bringing it back to fighting the boss, though I don’t expect this to be an actual issue in play.

This idea is, in a way, a reverse of 13th Age’s escalation die. Whereas the ED guarantees the battle will eventually swing in PC’s favor, boss decay guarantees the swing will not be too abrupt.

First Impressions: Goblin Quest

Goblin Quest

Oi, listen up. I found this here Goblin Quest game. That makes me the Goblin King Boss. Y’all gottsa do what I say, or else I’ll hit you with it. And I say we’re gonna play Goblin Quest. 

Task One: Explain what goblins are

That’s us, dummy. Look at yourself. Small, green, smelly and stupid. But you have brothers! Or maybe sisters, no one bothered to check. We run around and get into trouble. We also die sometimes, but that’s not too bad. There’s always more goblins. We are foot soldiers in the army of Evil. That means we fight people’s feet, mostly by having them trip over us. There’s also other Evil folks here, black wizards and orcs and hobgoblins and bugbears. The book talks about them, so we know who we’re dealing with. But we are the most importantest, that’s why the game’s about us. 

The world is our ostrich. What we think goes. We are like hyperactive five-year-olds that way, finding treasure in dung heaps, cobbling warmachines out of cooking pots and getting ourselves gruesomely killed. If we think we can do something, we probably can. Or we could die. There’s lotsa dying. 

We have clutch-names and just names and Ancestral Heirlooms and Expertise and stuff. We write it all down, and we draw ourselves on the goblin sheet. That’s important. It’s also very important, the book says, to speak in goblin voice. Silly book, how else would we speak. 

Task Two: Explain what Goblin Quest is

It all starts with a plan. We make one. Mine is better, because it has more boom. But maybe we can add boom to your plan, that also works. Once we know what we want to do, we make a list of three tasks. No, that’s four fingers. No, that’s six. Where did you get six fingers? Awesome, I’m sure that bugbear wouldn’t mind. We make a list, and for each task we make another list. Lotsa lists. We can also have a Goblin Master order us around, but we don’t need one. 

Then we roll some dice, Fiasco-like. Fiasco. That’s like. That’s like when other people pretend to do things like us, but not as awesome. There are tables with Things Wot Can Go Wrong, and we pick some from the ones rolled. Then we are off on a quest!

Going task by task and stage by stage, we describe what we do, and then we roll a die. If some of our things from the goblin sheet apply, we roll more dice. That’s good and bad: all results apply. Which means we could succeed more, or we could get ourselves killed quicker. Make that good and good. Each stage has a difficulty, we only need that many successes to move on. It don’t matter what we do, as long as we advance the plan. And eventually we’ll have advanced it all the way to the end. We’ll all be a little wiser, and a lot deader by then. 

Task Three: Play Goblin Quest

It’s that simple, even a goblin can play it. With three goblins (at a time), we finished the game in under three hours, including rules and setting explanation. The game doesn’t outstay its welcome. And it’s funny, because it gets out of the way and lets us be funny. The octopus-wizards and the idiot orcs and the irrepressible goblins help. And speaking in goblin voice is important. It breaks down the barriers, making it that much easier to be silly with your ideas.

Sometimes, the dice can screw you: we found the bugbear kitchen to be a deadly place, full of hungry bugbears. Sometimes, the dice can be on your side: panicking, jumping up and pulling on a wizard’s fake beard actually works. Walking through a magic circle with said beard because you’re now a wizard doesn’t, though. It’s also possible for the dice to stall you on a single scene, until you start running out of ideas. But eventually they relent, and you move on.

Two of us have actually run out of goblins by the very end. One of the goblins had shown up on a trapeze as we were flying away on a griffon, rolled two wounds on his first action to steer the griffon, and failed to stick the landing. A very swift goblin, that one was. There’s very little strategy in the game, very little one can do other than have fun with it. Which is liberating: you don’t worry about making bad decisions. Of course you’re making bad decisions, you’re a goblin.

It’s possible to make your goblins too silly, though. If none of the things on your chara-, er, goblin sheet apply, you’re stuck using only one die. But it’s also in your hands to change the situation so that you can get that Expertise: Competitive Belching into play. I did stall a very slowly moving gargoyle with it. The gargoyle may have been roaring slowly, but I think I won that competition.

And the story you get in the end, ridiculous and hilarious in equal measure, it’s a kind of story that can be retold to others. Rarely does this happen with other games. Most other games have distinct cool moments, and sometimes an enjoyable plot that’d take too long to convey. On the other hand, “so, we were goblins and decided to steal the shiny thing in the sky because it was destroying our night. We liberated fighting roosters from bugbear kitchens (they may have been ducks, we kept calling them cockatrices), climbed to the top of the Black Wizard Tower borrowing chairs along the way, did a countdown (hardest task in the game) as the armies of Good attacked, and flew up on our chairs tied to flightless birds. We did kiiind of get the shiny, and actually killed the elf queen in the end by landing on her.”

It’s not a kind of game you can play often, though there are plenty of rules hacks in the book to give it a different flavor which we are yet to try. But as a back-up plan for when someone fails to show up to the games night, it’s wonderful.

Musings on the Apocalypse

Catchy title, if not entirely accurate. You see, I want to ramble about Apocalypse World Engine games, but I haven’t actually played AW itself, only tremulus, its lovecraftian horror offspring. Still, I’m under the impression the games are mechanically similar enough (sharing the engine and whatnot) that this is a reasonable basis.

At its most basic, the mechanics of AWE can be described as “when you do something you may not succeed at, roll 2d6 plus an appropriate stat; on 10+ you do it, on 7-9 you’re going to have to compromise with the GM, and on 6- something interesting, usually bad, happens.” Player moves provide some constraints and mechanics for specific outcomes, and GM moves provide a slate of options to choose from. It’s not entirely accurate either, but we’ll keep this definition for now.

The issue many critics of the system have is that there’s no mechanical connection between what the PC do and what the GM can spring on them as the result of their failure. Something interesting happens. If a PC is trying to lock-pick a door into a seemingly abandoned mansion without being detected and rolls 6- on an Act Under Pressure roll, anything could occur. The lock could get jammed. A groundskeeper could come round a corner. Or a maniac swinging an axe. Or a distant wolf howl could send shivers down their spine. Or a bullet could hit them. Or… You get the idea. It should make sense, naturally, but that’s left entirely up to GM.

That’s not the way a straightforward game like D&D would handle it. In it, you fail – you do nothing. Maybe you get to try again, maybe something occurs to prevent you – but not because you made the roll. The same groundskeeper could show up. The same maniac, the same bullet. But not because of the roll. Even in games which embrace the “fail forward” ethos like Fate (and 7-9 is failing forward in AWE), the outcome of a failed Overcome roll like trying to open a door could be either simply failing or succeeding at a major cost. Such as “if you stick around long enough to get it right, you will be spotted by the groundskeeper whose footsteps you now hear.” It would be quite odd for a Fate GM to offer an axe-swinging maniac as the cost for success.

And this trips people up. Sometimes, it trips me up. I’m quite happy to see an axe-swinging maniac appear in a horror game, but why should my Reason stat impact the probability of it happening? How does failing to open a lock make the maniac come out? It’s entirely possible to avoid making such moves, to only have events occur that logically follow from the action itself, but the system doesn’t demand you do so, and I believe that’s purposeful.

That’s because AWE doesn’t have a task resolution system. It has a narrative rhythm system that masquerades as a task resolution system. It doesn’t tell you whether you succeed or fail, it tells you whether a good or a bad thing happens.

There are no difficulties in AWE, you always roll the same dice against the same numbers. There’s close to nothing players can do to stack the odds in their favor, they can only try and make some outcomes narratively inappropriate. Whatever PCs do, whatever happens, roughly the same proportion of good and bad/interesting outcomes will occur across every game.

But what about stats, you may ask, wouldn’t they affect this? And indeed they do. But once you start to consider AWE from this point of view, stats take on a different role too. Rather than helping or hindering characters in their tasks, they encourage players to match their actions to their characters’ capabilities. It’s not that having a low Reason score means you’re more likely to meet an axe maniac while you pick locks. It’s that you shouldn’t be trying to pick locks if you have low Reason. And if you’re desperate enough to try, the tension is already high and bad things will be happening to you. It’s narrative logic of tension and drama, not of skill and consequences.

We’ve started with a definition of the core mechanic of AWE, and I warned you it wasn’t quite right. That’s because you don’t roll dice when something may go wrong. You roll them when a move is triggered. The rules encourage you to not think of the moves or mechanics at all, until you need them. To never go “I use Act Under Pressure to pick the lock,” but “I pick the lock and, oh, looks like I’m Acting Under Pressure.” The rules act like an impartial observer, sometimes interfering to introduce a new direction in the story. In a way, AWE may work better if the players didn’t know the rules at all. Without the tangible link between lock-picking and axe-swinging maniacs, there’s no contradiction.

Is this the intended interpretation of the way the mechanics are meant to function? Probably not. But that’s what I get after squinting, turning my head just so, and staring at AWE for a while. The deeper, almost subconscious workings of the system. The narrative truth behind the mechanical lie. But perhaps we need the lie of actions and consequences to get us to follow along, to fool us into thinking we’re in control while the narrative rhythm does its thing behind the scenes.

Musings on Hit Points

This is going to be a little bit different. I don’t really have a point I want to make, nor am I attempting an exhaustive analysis of the topic. Rather, it’s a bunch of thoughts on it, which may or may not lead somewhere. Expect such posts to be shorter and (more) rambling than usual. 

Some of my players have admitted recently that they didn’t enjoy the combat in Fate that much. They felt that often there was little threat to their character, and while the narrative side of it was fun enough, the actual mechanical impact of a turn in which they inflicted one stress upon the enemy, and would need to do so several more times to finish the fight, was lackluster. They had contrasted it with D&D 4e, in which the mechanics were interesting to them (to one more than to another), and so they didn’t mind the long fights.

It makes sense: the fun part of Fate is the narrative, and all its mechanics merely help to move it along. The actual rolling dice and inflicting damage part is plain – it’s how you inflict the damage that’s interesting. And it’s my fault for failing to make all fights exciting in their own right, not just because they’re a fight. 4e had a reverse problem, that I had more or less solved for myself: while the fights were interesting, their outcomes were not. The solution was to offer different outcomes, not just the predetermined victory of PCs.

But back to the topic at hand. A conclusion one can draw for the stated complaint is that hit points (stress boxes, in this case) make a round of combat matter less. Indeed, had each roll posed a risk of inflicting lasting consequences, there would be no boring rounds of hit point attrition. Why do we even have hit points? In a way, hit points are only interesting when they run out – that’s when something changes. Note that when talking about hit points, we also talk about variously varying damage they ablate, so I won’t mention it specifically.

Mechanical element

Hit points are a piece of the mechanical puzzle, along with attack and defense skills or parameters, dice sizes and pools, position on the map, etc. By manipulating these elements we play the game. They offer us a chance to demonstrate a mastery of mechanics, take risks for a chance of rewards, make mechanically meaningful decisions.

In games like D&D 4e where mechanics are a source of fun, it is obviously an important role. The more elements there are, the more interactions between them the designers can come up with, the more varied the abilities and resulting experience will be.

In games like Fate where mechanics offer the backbone on which the fun parts rely, this is somewhat less relevant. You may not care about taking some damage as that has no bearing on the plot… unless you take a few more points of damage and receive a consequence, or get defeated, or don’t attempt something dangerous you would have otherwise.

Protection from Goblin Dice

Hit points are a buffer against a random bad roll or three that would cause an unexpected and, presumably, undesirable result. Swingy, dangerous combat could be a goal of the system, of course. In that case the hit points would be set low relative to damage (see low levels of earlier editions of D&D), or there would be some alternative side-effect of fighting, like crippling critical hits. In most modern games, though, it’s unfashionable to have a character die from a stray bullet.

It’s a question of just how much of an impact random chance should have on the game. The more hit points, the more time there is for statistical averages to reassert themselves.

Verisimilitude

It’s got to feel “right”. A barbarian should have more hit points than a wizard, and a bazooka should do more damage than a rock. Hit points are one of the easy ways to signify and communicate the relative potency of weapons, characters or events. How hot is that fire? 5 damage hot.

Time to be cool

Related to the previous two items, hit points determine how many rounds a fight takes, and that determines how many actions players get to make. Again, it’s got to feel right. It’d likely feel anticlimactic if you were to defeat your archenemy with one punch. You want the time to exchange insults and blows. To use your abilities and prove you are better, not just luckier. Unless, of course, abrupt death is part of your game’s genre.

The reverse is also true: time afforded by hit points becomes unwelcome if there’s not enough interesting stuff to fill it, narrative or mechanical. If your fight is 5 rounds of going “I attack” while standing immobile in front of your enemy, you can probably do with a few less.

The journey, not just the destination

It’s not just who wins, but how they win. By focusing only on the final outcome of a scene, which side runs out of hit points first, you lose what makes the scene interesting. It’s no better than replacing a social encounter with a single Diplomacy check. Yes, the NPC we’re talking to will either agree to help us or not. But ideally we actually enjoy the act of talking to them. Similarly, ideally we enjoy the action not just for its outcome. Ideally, each hit point lost is a single step on a journey. It’s up to us, players and GMs alike, to make that journey exciting.

First Impressions: Fate Core

Fate is not exactly new. The system has been around for over a decade, in many different guises and variations. The latest iteration, Fate Core, was released in 2013 after a massively successful kickstarter, and I finally got around to running it. We’ve played through a small campaign of superheroes in Sydney which started off ridiculous and lighthearted and ended up ridiculous and dramatic. Here’s how it went, and what I thought of the system itself.

Origin Story

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We’d spent the first session on character and setting generation. Following the advice in the rulebook, we made up setting troubles and aspects, and just talked of the overall mood and elements we wanted to see. There’s a lot of emphasis on group consensus and player creativity in Fate, and this initial session is a great introduction for players unaccustomed to having a say, not to mention GMs unaccustomed to having to listen.

This is currently my preferred method of starting a campaign: I still have the week between sessions to come up with plots and ideas, and players have all contributed and know what the game will be like. A marked difference from the start of a more “traditional” game where a GM shows up with their own pre-written campaign and players take part in it. No, it is our game in Fate.

Which is not to say that the game creation session is necessarily a smooth experience. The intertwining first adventures of the characters you are meant to make up, from which their aspects are to be derived, felt too restrictive or too insignificant to base an aspect on. The initial independent adventures were fine, but coming up with the way other characters tied into them turned out to be a drag as not all original ideas supported the suddenly complicated multi-faceted plot. I don’t think we’ll use this approach next time, as discovering aspects in game is more fun anyway.

The setting aspects we’ve created at the start had barely been used as actual aspects in the campaign, but were there to tell us what was important. It’s an area I’d like to work on some more, as it seems like a fascinating idea. Chalk that up to inexperience.

Aspects

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Already mentioned a few times, aspects are a major element of Fate, the thing that ties the narrative to mechanics. Each aspect is a pithy phrase describing a character or a situation. It’s something to shine the spotlight on, the important part in a scene. When aspects help you, you can spend fate points, a meta-currency, to improve your roll. When aspects disadvantage you, you earn fate points for going along with it – the aspect compels you.

This is a crucial part – because aspects are tied to the fate point economy, there is little reason to be concerned about their “misuse”, the broadness of their interpretation. Players still pay precious fate points for it, and it’s up to them to say what is an appropriate application of an aspect. But should they go to far, it’s up to the group consensus to call them on it, not just the GM.

Aspects are how I thought about my scenes and my characters before I knew aspects existed, much less played Fate. They are the noteworthy, stand-out, cool parts. They are the plot points, what stories revolve around. It’s a cheat in a way, a short-cut. In other systems, I’d come up with a distinctive idea for a scene or character and then figure out how to express it mechanically. In Fate, aspects translate that very idea into mechanics on their own. They are not always the most appropriate tool for the job, of course, and Fate offers other mechanics to represent different ideas.

Aspects are also very tricky to get right. Another thing that requires experience, figuring out what ideas and phrases work, and which never get used. Thankfully, the rulebook is full of suggestions and advice on this and other topics. It really goes out of its way to teach and demonstrate how the game is meant to be played.

Vagaries of Fate

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The system uses weird 6-sided dice, with a minus on two sides, two sides blank, and a plus on the last two. You always roll 4 dice and add up their values, which means the bell curve they form is very sharp, the result likely being within 2 of the skill value. Together with the low variation in skill values (lowest is 0, max for starting characters is usually 4), this means each skill point is important and the ability to add +2 or reroll by spending a fate point is of huge importance, while still preserving the possibility of an outlier roll which shakes things up.

Should things not go your way, you have multiple ways to mitigate this. The already mentioned fate points; the stress boxes which let you soak up some harm; consequences which let you soak up even more harm but become an aspect for some time, thus having an impact on the further scenes; succeeding at a cost. All these, the costs and the consequences, are what you pay to stay in the scene, to have your say. But if none of these are enough, if everything fails and things are gloomy and you’re no longer willing to pay the price, you can concede, and be rewarded for it with fate points. The victor will determine how it ends, but you still get a say. Unless you pushed it too far, ran out of everything and are taken out. That’s the ultimate price you may be willing to pay – risk anything and everything happening to your character.

That’s another major element of Fate: something always happens. No matter the roll, no matter the action, one way or another, things always progress. The story doesn’t stall. Well, almost always. The Attack action is distinct in this regard, as it doesn’t normally offer any options for the attacker or defender to do anything if dice indicate a failure. It’s the only part of the game where you can “whiff”, wasting your turn and your time, and I look forward to Fate Core: Core Harder that solves this.

But coming back to the Something Always Happens dogma, there is an incredibly important advice given in the book which applies to all games, not just Fate: only roll if both success and failure are interesting. If only failure is desirable, offer a fate point to have the PCs fail without a roll. If only success is interesting, offer a success at a cost.

Another achievement of Fate, due to rewards for compels and conceding, is that a failure of PCs is not a failure of players. The story goes on, and the system gives players fate points to regain the upper hand and succeed. In fact, fate points can be viewed as a reward for players for going against the interests of their characters for the sake of a better story.

Deceptively simple to learn

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We’ve covered aspects and dice. Other than that, there are skills which offer flat bonuses to activities, stunts that modify them (or the rules, which is trickier), four types of actions and four types of outcomes, and that’s pretty much it. We’ve had a player entirely unfamiliar with the system join us for the last quarter of the campaign, and jump right into the action. The game is very easy to pick up. But that simplicity is deceptive.

The problem, at least for me, is that Fate makes sense. You nod along as you read the rules. You see patterns in the way the four outcomes are almost identical for the four actions, with understandable variations. It all fits together. But because it makes sense, the little details don’t stand out. And once it comes to actually applying the rules you have to remember if tying on an Overcome roll is meant to give a success at a minor cost or a boost (the former), or if you can check multiple stress boxes at once (you cannot). I’ve read the rulebook several times, and only by the end of our 10+ session campaign was I somewhat confident in my rule knowledge.

On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter if you give out a boost or a success at a minor cost. Nothing will really break. As long as you understand the overall intent of Fate, you won’t go wrong.

Hard to master

TeamVanquish_cover_4_3What Fate offers are simple versatile tools. It’s easy to pick up a brush and smear paint onto a canvas, it’s much harder to actually paint something worth looking at. The system may offer all the brushes and paints and whatever it is painters use (you can tell I’m not one), but it’s your clumsy hands that will be fumbling with them. Coming up with good aspects is hard. Judging which mechanic to use is sometimes hard. Offering good compels is hard, offering good costs is hard, integrating player aspects into the plot is hard. But many of these difficulties are not actually difficulties of using Fate. Rather, the are the difficulties of cooperative storytelling. The rules help in this endeavor much more often than hinder.

It’s easier when you don’t have to worry about players running out of fate points, but that just means you’re not worrying about PCs being uninvolved with the plot. Weak compels mean you’re not really putting your PCs in trouble. Weak aspects mean you can’t identify what’s important about your character. It’s not your fault, either. Cooperative storytelling is hard. With a decade of roleplaying experience under my belt, I’ve learned to get my ideas out onto the table reasonably well. But mixing them up with the ideas of others is something I’m still learning, and Fate is pushing me in this direction.

Facets of Fate

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Not only is Fate a toolbox, it’s a customizable toolbox. Unsurprisingly, the book on customizing it is called the “Fate Toolkit”. Remove stress, change the way skills are distributed, do whatever you want with it. Just like you can unsuspectingly break the rules without breaking the game, you can purposefully change them to better suit your needs. And there are plenty of existing settings and mods out there for you to use or steal from. This has actually been a source of some confusion for us: a player had tried the Dresden Files version of Fate before, and another has seen Fate Accelerated. Similar but different, they compounded my shaky knowledge of the rules.

As we’ve played a supers game, we referred to the Fate supers book, Venture City Stories for its mechanics. It left a bit of a mixed impression, in that we’ve never used some of the rules it suggested, the drawbacks of powers or their special effects, and barely used the collateral damage ones. In part they were too fiddly, but mostly I think it was that we were still learning the system and having those extra bits was just too much to keep in mind. And then we’d already established how things worked, and re-introducing these elements just didn’t seem worthwhile. Still, the overall idea on how to represent superpowers worked, and worked well.

Another comic book adaptation of Fate has recently come out, the Atomic Robo RPG. Being the latest iteration of Fate, it actually solves some of the issues I’ve mentioned, and makes a few other interesting changes. It makes for a great introduction to the system.

Playing the same game

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That’s what it comes down to, all the talk about collaborative storytelling and player input. In other games, the GM adjucates, guides, decides, prepares. The roles are fundamentally different, it’s a different game the GM plays. In Fate they do all this too, but not from a position of power. They negotiate, they consult. Together with the GM, the players gleefully conspire against their characters. Together with the players, the GM drives the story forward – to where they all want to go. The campaign we’ve played wasn’t just our game, it was the same game.

Take a closer look at the illustrations of this post (aren’t they gorgeous? They were all made by one of the players, Oinkfrog). In the credits box on the side, under “Story”, it lists all the players, not just the GM. This wasn’t the result of some discussion, that was just the way Oinkfrog felt about it. And I couldn’t be happier.

So what are you waiting for? Fate Core is Pay What You Want, so you can get it for free if you’re still unconvinced, and pay them later. Try it!

 

Paradigms of Play

…in which Magician talks of himself in third person and reinvents GNS. Well, not quite. GNS (at least as far as I understood it) concerns itself with the desired experience, the agenda of the game: to win, to tell the story, to be true to something. What I want to discuss are different approaches to play itself. The process, not the end result. The paradigms of play. Note, that unlike GNS which suggests a game shouldn’t try to fulfill more than one of its letters, these paradigms are sometimes changed during play, typically in different kinds of scenes. And unlike GNS, I will not be trying to give one-word pithy names to these ideas. It’s not a finished thought, after all, but an exploration of this concept. Here, then, are the paradigms of play I’ve identified.

Fiat Gated Ingenuity

In this paradigm, players come up with creative solutions to problems they face, with (typically) GM acting as the final arbiter as to whether these ideas work out. Rules may be used to resolve individual steps but rarely if ever apply to the entire solution. Social interaction is often handled this way: PCs discuss issues at hand, making a check every now and then if prompted; GM determines how convincing their arguments were, and what NPCs decide to do in the end. Looking for something is another example, and one that is frequently discussed in this context along with the next paradigm. Players declare where and how they look. If they didn’t think to look under the bed, they fail to find the monster hiding there.

FGI requires players to overcome challenges.

Abstract Game Mechanics

In this paradigm, player characters overcome challenges via the interface of abstract game mechanics. It doesn’t really matter what they do, as long as there is a line on a character sheet or in a rulebook that lets them do it. Combat, typically the most rules-heavy part of a game, tends to work this way. This is also what skill checks were made for: in D&D 3e we don’t really know what a rogue does when they search for and disable traps. Rogue-ish things. The GM’s influence is much more limited here, they get to set the difficulty of a task and sometimes to judge the applicability of a rule in question.

AGM requires player characters to overcome challenges.

Mechanically Supported Creativity

This paradigm lies somewhere between the other two, yet is distinctly different. Game mechanics are still king, but a creative justification of their use is required. A primitive example of this approach can be found in skill challenges of D&D 4e, where players may have to look for an explanation as to how they use their best skills to overcome a seemingly unrelated task. A more refined version exists in Fate Core, where looking for a trap might see characters create such aspects as The Wall is Hollow Here and Location of a Draft.

MSC requires players to describe how their characters overcome challenges.

A question of playstyle

Naturally, these paradigms of play are not absolute, and any given situation in a game is going to exist somewhere in between. There are no firm boundaries between them, and each group has to find their own playstyle, their own approach. My own D&D 4e game handled combat as a straightforward AGM affair, mostly used pure roleplaying (read: FGI) for social interactions and tried to use the MSC approach to non-combat challenges.

A large part of this is what tools a system provides in support of these paradigms. Though even if a system doesn’t support a paradigm, this can be overcome to some extent with houserules or playstyle. For instance, a common houserule of giving a bonus to a well-described action, to some extent formalized in D&D 5e as Advantage on a roll, gives some mechanical weight to player creativity, thus moving a very AGM-centric system towards MSC.

Of particular interest here is AD&D and its predecessors, however you count them. Although it lacks rules for exploration, there arose a culture of FGI that was almost universal, transmitted not through the rules text but through published adventures, Dragon articles and, crucially, word-of-mouth. This leads to a curious situation where a modern gamer giving AD&D a shot is likely to have an entirely different experience from the one they would have had back in the day, despite using the same rules. Rules of AD&D do not transmit its culture, and a different playstyle is likely to arise from their literal reading.

Clash of paradigms

A system may have tools, but it is up to the group to use them, one way or another. Just because there is Advantage in 5e doesn’t mean everyone will play it in a MSC manner. If anything, it is the worst of both worlds: it does little for those seeking a FGI experience (it’s not about getting a bonus to the roll, it’s about not making the roll in the first place), while leaving Advantage for creativity purely beholden to the GM – a significant drawback for MSC. Which is not to say Advantage is a bad rule, far from it. But it really needs players and GM to be playing within the same paradigm, and 5e doesn’t do much to enforce that. While Fate’s fate points superficially share the same fiat issues, they are the foundation of the system, interacting with it on multiple levels. Fate points tie into aspects, which are not only often created by the players but explicitly moderated by the group as well. Fate strongly encourages the MSC paradigm and requires group consensus to run at all, making it much less of an issue.

Elaborating on this further, there are two classes of potential issues here. First, the system may not handle the chosen paradigm well. Once again, I turn to D&D, my muse, my curse. Despite, or probably because of, the fact that it doesn’t exist, it attempts to sit on all three paradigms. It can’t afford to pick any one paradigm for anything as there are those who have always played it the other way. The exception, as usual, is 4e, which was quite honest about its methods and functionality, and people still attempted to play it differently. 4e tried to stick to AGM in combat and largely ignored everything else, and the backlash was immense.

A system can’t support all three paradigms for all possible contexts equally well, that much is obvious. It could try, with lots of self-reflection and explicitly optional rules, but that’s not something D&D does. And the more a system relies on one paradigm for a context, the harder it is to utilize a different one within that context. 4e is so reliant on AGM combat rules that willfully breaking them FGI-style basically guts the entire system. A large part of this blog has actually been devoted in the past to introducing MSC elements to 4e combat, enabling and rewarding player creativity while not invalidating the core game mechanics. A lesson learned as a result of all those efforts is that it’s frequently more efficient to emulate “creativity” by presenting non-standard mechanistic options to players, rather than trying to embrace the truly original solutions they may come up with. The rules framework of 4e simply doesn’t leave much space for off-the-cuff innovation within it, page 42 notwithstanding.

Inventing dynamite or a boom-stick falls squarely into this category. In this particular case, a player utilized the existing rules for alchemist fire but bundled many such items together, trivially overcoming challenges by the sheer destructive force of their creation. The game can’t handle the ten-fold increase in damage output as PCs are not “meant” to do that: creativity breaks its mechanics.

It doesn’t exactly help that one of the paradigms, FGI, considers rules to be secondary to the fiat judgement. It is this approach that results in the so-called Oberoni fallacy, where any problems rules may have are considered to be immaterial because rules are already trumped by the GM. Seen through this lens, one of the main criteria for good rules is how easy it is to ignore them. This is in stark contrast to the desire for clear unambiguous rules which enable the AGM playstyle, which in turn is different from the desire for rules flexibility that would let player creativity integrate into the game. None of these criteria are necessarily exclusive, but any given system ends up either emphasizing one over another, or being an unfocused mess. Yes, I’m once again talking about D&D, how perceptive of you to notice.

The other class of issues is due to a clash of paradigms within a group, be it between fellow players or a GM and a player. As an extreme example, imagine a GM presenting a puzzle to players, only to have them declare they roll Intelligence to solve it (GM expects FGI, players go with AGM). Alternatively, imagine players flooding a dungeon with a decanter of endless water – an FGI solution to an AGM problem. And it’s not just the players who can be the cause of a clash: the infamous tucker’s kobolds can be seen as FGI used by GM (with themselves being the fiat arbiter, never a good sign) against characters who are not on the same playing field, trying and failing to respond to ingenuity with game mechanics.

The hobby even has many derogatory terms for those playing against the expectations of the group: rules lawyers, munchkins, rollplayers. Curiously, all these refer to players who prefer mechanics more than you do. For the other end of the spectrum the best I could find or remember were “special snowflake” or “magic tea party”, though those’re not quite the same.

As an aside and perhaps a topic for a future post (whenever that may come), it’d be curious to look at these paradigms through the lens of Games People Play.

A new perspective

That’s what I hope this post will give you. Since I’ve started writing it, I kept seeing examples of paradigm mismatches, some of which I’ve provided above. Armed with this new terminology, perhaps we’ll be better suited to tackle them. And of course, the definitions are not set in stone, feel free to challenge them.