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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).
Combined firepower of your ship.
- Overcome: Clear the path!
- Attack: Fire all cannons!
How well trained, equipped and loyal is your crew.
- Overcome: Crew, do thing!
- CA: Stand firm!
- Attack: Charge!
- Defend: Brace for impact!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(costs 6 character points)
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.
(costs 9 character points)
Weird skill: Surgery
- Overcome: Treat ailments, natural and bizarre.
- Overcome: Assist in overcoming physical consequences. Treating crew’s consequences requires shore leave.
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.
(costs 7 character points)
(costs 5 character points)
- Secrets (Zee)
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).
(costs 6 character points)
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.
(costs 8 character points)
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.)
(costs 9 character points)
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.
(costs 7 character points)
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.
(costs 6 character points)
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.