Wednesday, July 11, 2012

FATE games

FATE is a flexible,tailor-ableRPG engine, with official licenses for Harry Dresden, Diaspora and Starblazer Adventures and Spirit of the Century.

FATE makes a number of interesting design choices; some of which I like and others I don't agree with.

First off: the dice. FATE uses 'FATE dice' (a.k.a. FUDGE dice) which are D6 with two '+' sides, two '-' sides and two blank sides. You typically roll four at a time, thus getting a range of -4 to +4 with an average of 0. Onecoulduse regular D6 and just note that 5&6 are a +, 3&4 and neutral and 1&2 are -.[The only other version of rolling a positive/negative range I have seen is rolling two D6 or two D10 and subtract one from the other: resulting in a range of +-5 or +-9.]My experience with FATE dice, however, is that I hardly ever roll a positive result. Sometimes I have terribledice luck.

FATE sorta balances this with Aspects, which can come from characters, locations and situations. Tapping an Aspect gives a flat bonus to the roll and is a narrative opportunity for the player to explain how the Aspect is a boon to their action. Players can even add new Aspects to themselves, opponents and locations by attempting a Maneuver action; success means they get to place a new Aspect. You can alsocompelother people's Aspects to force a penalty to their rolls, or straight dictate their actions.

Characters in FATE don't have fixed sets of Attributes, stats or ability scores. They are a collection of Skills, rated from Terrible (at -2) up to Legendary (+8). If you character doesn't have it written down, you're considered to have a "Mediocre" (+0) rating in that Skill. The difficulty numbers for attempting actions are rated on the same "Ladder". A "Great" Difficulty task requires +4 or better total. This, coupled with the dice mechanic, provides both a rational and a quantitative way of measuring ability, challenge and the effort a character makes.

Characters also have Stunts. These are rule-modifying or outright rule-breaking 'feats' the character possess. These are highly setting specific: In Harry Dresden the can represent magical powers; in Diaspora they could mean your character is trained on military-grade gear; In StarBlazer Adventures they represent alien abilities and other pulp sci-fi abilities, and so on.

Conflicts in FATE are fairly open structured. Maps are drawn as needed but scale and accuracy aren't necessary; they are for purely relative values/locations. One can even map out social conflicts, which I like. Characters (and other combatants) have Stress tracks to mark 'damage.' Once your stress track is full, you're out of the conflict. Players can opt to take Complications at varying levels to reduce incoming damage. Complications are essentially negative Aspects that opponents can tap in future tests and conflicts. 'Damage' is simply the difference between an attack roll and a defense roll.

FATE also has a dramatic economy measured in Fate points. These tokens of story flow allow players to boost their rolls (or reroll them), as well as tap aspects, complications and create new ones. Compelling someone else's action because of their Aspects costs you a Fate point, which you give to the compelled player if they accept. Fate points are also introduced by the GM for good and dramatic roleplaying.

Character advancement is a bit of an odd duck, but it makes sense in that FATE is a story-focused game, and not a exercise in counting experience points and gold pieces. It also differs from game to game (Diaspora having the lest detailed character advancement system), but in essence: the GM determines when the characters have reached milestones in their story arcs, and at these milestones players may make incremental changes to their characters' Skills. Aspects are the most easily changed; they can be tweaked before a game session even begins as they are highly subjective. Stunts can be swapped out as can your Skill ratings for minor milestones. For major milestones you can add new Stunts or Skills.

Overall, I like FATE in concept. I'm not thrilled with my experience with the dice mechanics, but the conflict system seems robust, flexible andscale-able. Complications and Aspects add a wonderful freeform and subjective element when most games get too detailed and deterministic. I like how character growth is also tied to story, and dissuades players from trolling for every XP point they can get. FATE is another one of those games that I have yet to actually play, but I am looking for an opportunity to give it a go.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Flashbacks in gaming

I have this idea for a game: The characters are all veteran soldiers and the war that has gone on for generations has just ended. Given detached duty, the PC's must make their way home. On the way, they must deal with the demons of their past and the aftermath of a conflict that seemed would never end. There may be ongoing battles, refugees, rogue units and the emerging post-war politics It'sWing Commander IV meets the Macross anime with some bits of the TV showsLost and Firefly thrown in. Why Macross? I'm a fan of transforming fighter-planes after all :-)

Part of the idea is that the characters are all very experienced, veteran heroes from the conflict. They've been at war for years and carry with them a wealth of experiences both good and bad. As the story goes forward, it also casts back into the past of the player characters. We learn about their past as they also strive to creating a new future. This may manifests in two ways that I see

1) at moments of crisis in the 'modern' timeline, when PC's need a dice boost or other boon, they can invoke a quick flashback in narrative form; they then must eventually pay back that karmic debt by more roleplaying after the immediate conflict.

2) given that the characters are veterans of the conflict, there's not a theater of that conflict they haven't been to, so everywhere they go there should be backgrounds, contacts and unresolved issues located there. These hooks should mostly be up to the individual players to bring into the game, but also available to the GM.

As a game mechanic, how does one handle flashback as a system? Few games deal with this directly. The only one that comes to mind is: Fireborn, where you simultaneously play ancient dragons in the age before and their human re-incarnation in the modern age. I don't own this game, but it's available cheap on DriveThruRPG, so maybe I should go ahead and get it.

So I open this post to discussion: How do/would you handle flashbacks in a game?

Friday, July 6, 2012


And now for something completely different... Microscope.

Microscope is less a roleplaying game than a collective worldbuilding game. A round-table non-linear game of free-style history building. In Microscope, players don't have player-characters, character sheets or even dice. You have a stack of 3x5 notecards and pencils and that's it.

Let me backup and explain that again.

As a group you begin by discussing in broad strokes what your setting and history is going to be about. You define the tropes that are and aren't included in that universe. You define the beginning and end points of your history (the 'bookends'). Then you take turns going around the table, adding details both large and small to your collaborative history. The player who's turn it is has complete narrative control over what goes on, generally, so long as they don't contradict the established tropes and go beyond the scope of your history bookends. It's a completely non-linear process: On one turn a player creates a fantastic city. On the next turn someone else destroys it. For the rest of the game all players can continue to add events involving that city between it's creation and destruction. All Periods, Events and Scenes have relative order, but not explicit order (you don't assign dates to your events except as color to the narrative). If one player's input seems to derail the 'story,' there's no limit to how to bring it back on track.

The three levels of playable details are: Periods or broad history (think "The Bronze Age", or "Man's first explorations of space"), followed by Events ("The Tribes migrate to the Rivers," "The Federation and The Empire war over the Delta Sector."). Events consist of Scenes ("The Emperor confronts the Senate over Solarian slavery," "The Hero Galoka befriends the Huluzian tripartate"). You cannot play a Scene before it's encompassing Event and you can't play an Event without a Period to place it in. There's no limit to the number of Periods in your history, or the number of Events in a Period, or Scenes in an Event. Game ends either when the allotted play time has passed, or players are satisfied with what they have accomplished.

Microscope is amazingly simple, yet fundamentally deep and awesome in it's potential. It's rulebook (as such) is small and easily portable and is also available in PDF form which reads well on tablets (I have a Nook color).

While one can play Microscope entirely by its self, I think one of it's greatest potential uses is for worldbuilding for other games. Worldbuilding is best done collectively, which gives all involved players investment and involvement in the setting they are going to play in. The only change to Microscope is that when you get down to the Event and Scene level, that's when you break out your other game books, roll up characters, and play the resolution to that Event or Scene.

Microscope is just the thing for creating organic, collaborative settings and histories that have player investment and the potential for depth and inspiration to play more or other games in that setting. It's a numberless, diceless variant on the concept of the The Great Game that was used to create 2300AD's back-story and can be used much the same way.

I've only recently gotten my hands on a copy of Microscope and haven't gotten a group together yet to try it, but I am looking forward to it. Once I've gotten some actual play underway, I'll revisit it here and post some more.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


(I will be reviewing both the original GDW 2300AD game, as well as the Mongoose Publishing port of their Traveller rules for 2300AD here) 

In it's first edition (1986), 2300AD was titled "Traveller: 2300AD" but this was later dropped to remove confusion with GDW's Traveller game line. "2300AD: Mankind's battle for the stars" was released in 1988. In 2007, QuickLink Interactive released a "2320AD" source book as part of their D20 Traveller rules (I admit, I do not own this. I was not fond of the "D20 all the things!" rush of the last decade).
Then just this year (2012), Mongoose Publishing released their 2300AD setting book, which uses their Traveller ruleset to play in the 2300AD setting.

2300AD's setting grew out of GDW's original Twilight:2000 game (no, it has nothing to do with sparkly faeries- i mean 'vampires'), in a process call The Great Game. A hodgepodge ruleset for running countries and nations as a whole. It was played by the writers at GDW to cover the three centuries of time from the nuclear apocalypse of Twilight:2000 to the futuristic setting they were looking for in their new game. This means that 2300AD has a more organic back-story than most roleplaying games; being the product of several players input as well as random circumstances, rather than a unilateral vision from the outset.

Of course, some of the elements of that backstory are hilariously outdated nowadays. The third world war that started the "twilight" period supposedly happened in the 1990's. Germany was still divided into two states until the 2200s until they went to war with the French Empire (yes, you read that right. French. Empire.). Russia is still a communist power. Texas has seceded from the US and is now an independent nation. One has to think of it as alternate history for it to make sense.

On the other hand, the Twilight-to-2300 period allowed for a kind of 'international renaissance' to take place. The culture'verse of 2300AD is very international in feel. France and China have the most colonies with America coming in barely third. Many nations have off-world colonies. This makes for much more colorful character backgrounds and international intrigue.

The newer books have expanded greatly on concepts barely hinted at in the original materials. The difference between life on the "Core" worlds and "Colonial" life is more exaggerated in more detail. My only problem with the Mongoose 2300AD book is a lack of information about the various aliens of the 2300'verse, but I'll get back to this later.

2300AD is gloriously "hard" sci-fi. The designers allowed for one science bending alteration to known physics (i.e. the Stutterwarp drive to allow FTL), while everything else remains limited to extrapolations from current science. For example: there are fusion reactors, but they are huge and require lots of maintenance and attention. Real-world science has given more nuanced details to rather flat ideas (gene therapy for colonists to survive their new homeworlds is more pronounced, for example). The international flavors also influence the technology of the setting: the French love their elegant railguns, the Americans make great warships; the Australians make the best plasma weapons and the Germans still make the best tanks (hover tanks, but tanks none the lest).

The FTL of choice for 2300AD deserves special note. The Stutterwarp Drive, in my humble opinion, is one of the most interesting and well-conceived theories of FTL travel in nearly all sci-fi I have read. It is one of my favorite concepts, and I keep coming back to it when considering new sci-fi settings. I won't go into details here (maybe in another post about FTL in general), but the short of it is: Stutterwarp allows for fun as well as rational faster-than-light travel, without the loopholes and problems of so many other FTL concepts (relativistic rocks, for example).

Then there are the aliens. 2300ad breaks from a lot of 'pop' sci-fi by making their aliens truly alien. The aliens of 2300AD are enigmas; mysteries to be unraveled or avoided. They are NOT appropriate as player characters, which makes them all the more interesting than "like humans just with funny foreheads and Nietzsche'ian philosophies". From the existential threat posed by the Kafers, to the biotechnology masters of the Pentapods (which are the least human and yet the closest thing we have to an ally), 2300AD makes aliens interesting again.

So why don't I play it?

Hard sci-fi is a difficult sell to a lot of gamers who are used to high fantasy and superheroes. "Does that mean I have to know physics and math and computers and stuff? No thanks," is the common refrain. 2300AD is a great setting, and would be fun to write fiction in, but as a gaming setting? That's a harder sell. 2300AD also suffers, like early Traveller editions, from the simulationist/gamer mentalities of most of GDW's games of that era. It's personal combat has some interesting ideas, but feels more like a table top game than a roleplaying game.

So what do we learn from 2300AD?

  • organic settings have a lot more depth than those with direct design. 
  • A good FTL concept makes the game better
  • Settings drawn from real (or alternate) near-history are easier to invest in, compared to completely (ahem) alien histories/cultures.
  • Really alien aliens are cool!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Mekton (specifically Mekton II and Mekton Zeta) is one of my dear loves far as RPG goes. It has evolved from a tactical game, to a roleplaying game and back again to hover somewhere in between. Mekton Zeta (the latest edition) has strong roleplaying elements but can also be played as a tactical game.

I'll admit it, I am a big fan of mecha. When I discovered the BattleTech board games I was thrilled. But as good as BattleTech is as a pure wargame it's lethal as far as characters go. Why bother naming your pilots? They're not likely to survive the engagement. War is hell and all that. BattleTech is also more of the walking-tanks variety of mecha genre. In looking for more character-driven giant robot gaming, a la Macross and Gundam, I found Mekton.

The Interlock system, the heart of Mekton, is a Stat + Skill + Dice roll versus a fixed target number (or another Stat+Skill+Dice roll). I am more than a little fond of it.While the core rules are based around an average of 5 in ten stats and a Skill range of 1 to 10, there's no reason not to make your own changes. This allows a more wargame-feeling setting to give each unit a single Stat+Skill value to simplify things.

Another thumbs-up to the Interlock/Mekton engine is that there's no difference in the core dice mechanic when dealing with people, big robots or giant starships. There are scalar differences, sure (people take Hits of damage, mecha take Kills, etc), but they all attempt and accomplish their actions in the same fundamental way. The key thing to remember is: it's the pilot that does things - the mecha merely modified and amplifies the character's actions. This makes it possible for an experienced pilot in a run-down agricultural mecha to tangle with lesser minions in military-grade mecha and come out on top. A very anime feel!

Most of the fun of Mekton is building your mecha to thrash about with. This is nearly a game in and of its self, called the Mekton Technical System. The core Mekton Zeta rulebook has the basics down, but an entire second book, Mekton Zeta Plus, is dedicated to expanding the MTS with tons more choices, optional mechanics, and subtle but powerful rules about scaling designs up and down the spectrum.

Ultimately, the Mekton Technical System is a gearhead grognards dream; you can build anything using it, provided that you're willing to abstract somewhat. The MTS rarely uses real-world measurements, only relative ones; you can define for a given campaign what the unit conversions are as you like. All that matters between two designs are the relative differences. (In comparison, GURPS Vehicles is based on real-world engineering and numbers; you know exactly how big your mecha is and how much those fuzzy dice added to the weight of your design.)

This same awesome level of number-crunchiness is also MTS's main problem. I find it better to let the Hero and the major Villain's mecha to be fully detailed using MTS construction rules. The optional Mekton: The Movie rules allow for streamlined mecha design and destruction which is great for grunts and minor supporting cast.

Sadly, while I have designed many, many mecha and crafted several settings, I have yet to actually get a game of Mekton played. The other gamers I play with on a regular basis just aren't into the giant mecha genre. Someday... Someday...

So what do we gleefully take from Mekton?

  • A strong core mechanic that scales well between personal, mechanized and larger-scale action is a very desirable thing.
  • Relative-value design systems are more flexible than real-world value systems.
  • On The Other Hand: a system with too many stats and numbers to crunch will bog down in those numbers when you least need it to.
  • Creating such systems from scratch, however, is a difficult endeavor; remember that Mekton had ten years of playtesting, development and tweaking from the original "White Box" edition to MZ. The MTS is robust and well balanced because of extensive playtesting, feedback and tweaking.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Traveller 5 kickstarter

I didn't cover this in my first post about the Traveller game because at the time the T5 Kickstarter project hadn't closed yet, but now that it's successfully funded I am writing this addendum.

'T5' is the latest edition of the Traveller RPG franchise, and possibly the most fundamental revisiting to the setting and mechanics. I am looking forward to seeing how this turns out. The promised various 'Maker' engines described remind me of the 'Burning x' modules from Burning Wheel, and with Marc Miller's usual attention to detail and process, I imagine these Makers will easily be turned into scripts and spreadsheets. It would surprise me if a set of mobile/tablet apps are in the works...

One of the major changes is in the Tasking system: Difficulty determines how many dice are thrown, and the target number is the sum of Attribute + Skill + modifiers, which you want to roll less than in order to succeed. 

Sadly, I won't get my hands on this until the end of the year, but MAN what a Christmas present that'll be!

Eclipse Phase

Eclipse Phase describes its self as a "roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror.

The central element of Eclipse Phase is exploring Transhumanism by jumping in with both feet first. Your characters in EP track their EGO and MORPH separately. The EGO is transcendent and effectively immortal, while the MORPH is (sometimes literally) a vehicle for the EGO. If your Morph dies, your EGO can be downloaded from backup into a new Morph. Your EGO can even be transmitted across vast distances to be 'sleeved' into a temporary Morph for the duration of your stay. The concept of effective immortality and the ability for the EGO to switch bodies as required is fascinating. It takes some of the edge off playing characters who are utterly committed to causes; sure you may die, but with proper backups, you effectively live on. It both blurs and expands upon physical identity characteristics. An experienced character can say: "I've been male, female, even a six ton transgenic crustacean modified to survives the depths of Europa's seas."

EP is a also a very social setting. The absolute explosion of private habitats across our solar system and beyond, combined with the death of the old world cultures, have given rise near infinite range of social groups that can be explored. These newer cultures are and societies struggle in the post-apocalypse setting for survival, dominance and ideology. Reputation across social networks is the new credit rating; often more important than cash money in a semi post-scarcity setting.

When EP talks about horror, it doesn't mean Friday the 13th kind of splatterfest. EP's concept of horror is more like the movies Alien and Prometheus and the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft. Horror in the sense that characters will be exposed to intelligences utterly alien and the sheer scope of humanities' insignificance in the universe. This can be a tough element to pull off, but EP gives the GM lots of tools to work with this element.

Now I normally HATE percentile game systems. Hate, hate, hate with a burning loathing. There's something about the implied limitation of having your characters abilities and statistics measured in percentiles, and then rolling percentile dice to determine success/failure that annoys me on a instinctive level. however, Eclipse Phase works for me. I think it's due to the way that character EGO and choice of Morph interact that makes just about any other game mechanic ineffective at properly portraying this dynamic. 

On the downside, every time you switch Morphs, you have to re-factor your character's effective statistics, which can be a little complicated to keep track of. EP is a game that benefits from computerized gaming and character sheets almost have to be spreadsheets in order to handle the changes well.

There's also the potential for bad burnout in a setting where no matter how hard your characters and players try, sometimes it doesn't matter one bit. The universe is too vast, complicated and we're just too small and powerless to stop the godlike forces set in motion against us.

What does Eclipse Phase teach us?

  • Bold settings attract bold ideas and potentials for roleplaying
  • Transhumanism is fascinating.
  • The right game mechanics enforce the desired feel for the game.
  • You have to find the right balance between existential horror and empowerment for characters in a setting like this. it takes the right kind of players to not only get into playing EP, but to thrive there as well.