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.
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.
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 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?
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 Name||Admiralty||Tomb Colonists||Rubbery Men||Spider cultists|
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.
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.