Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fate RPG: System Guide for New Players (Revised)

I've become a Fate enthusiast in the last few years. I’d begun playing with the mechanics just before the Fate Core Kickstarter launched. Now I’ve run it online and f2f, and I’ve adapted several Fate elements into our long-running homebrew, Action Cards. Since Fate Core’s arrival, it has been well supported by Evil Hat and third-party publishers. The recent Fate Core episode of Tabletop might inspire some players to check the system out. So I’ve revised this list to help new players figure out what’s available for the system and what they need to buy.

I’ve broken this into several parts, beginning with the core rulebooks. I then look at other Fate products from Evil Hat. For this revised version, I’ve stuck with just first-party products from Evil Hat. I hope to put together a sequel list which now looks at the expanded universe of strong third-party games for Fate. Also, though I mention it later under Online Resources, I need to give another shout-out to the Fate Roleplaying Game SRD site. It has the best online support for Fate players new and old.

What Is Fate?
Fate is a universal rpg, like GURPS, Savage Worlds, or Hero System. It offers a more abstract approach to than those systems. Fate builds on the earlier Fudge System and has had several editions/ evolutions. It uses a set of unique dice- six siders with 0, +, and – sides (2 each). Rolling a set of four yields a value from +4 to -4, with most results in the middle. A 2d6 variant is possible, subtracting one die from the other, but it offers more swingy results. Players generally roll dice for actions, add a value (skill or approach), and compare it to the opposition’s value. Fate gives players several ways to affect and modify dice results after rolling.

That’s the basic resolution mechanic, but what actually goes on in the game? Different players will have different takeaways about that. Here’s what’s interesting and important to me:
  • Fate builds on simple concepts to define characters: Skills, Aspects, Stunts, Stress, and Extras. These can be easily tweaked and changed. Most operate with an elemental principle, making it easy for players and GM to tweak.
  • A few skills can define a setting. Players usually add skill values to die rolls. The pool of skills for Fate can be tight: 18 for base Fate, 14 for Atomic Robo, and 6 for Fate Accelerated. These connect to the four actions: Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, and Defend. That mechanic makes it easy to figure out what a skill can do.
  • Aspects are awesome. These are descriptors for a person, place, or thing. They have a quick and easy mechanical effect in play. When you “invoke” an aspect you can gain a +2, reroll dice results, or create an effect. Things like aspects on a scene (Stacks of Crates, Darkened Corners) encourage players to interact with the environment. Trouble Aspects operate like disadvantages or flaws in other systems, but offer more player control and actual utility at the table. Other games use aspects as well, but I appreciate how tightly they’re baked into Fate’s structure.
  • Fate’s damage system makes for colorful results and hard choices. Damage is called Stress and has two tracks: physical and mental. The abstract nature of Fate means many different kinds of conflict can happen using the same base procedures. When players take stress, they have deal with it immediately through marking a box off their stress track and/or taking consequences. Consequences are essentially wound aspects which create problems as the fight drags on.
  • You can easily craft different character roles and powers. Stunts are something like feats, talents or advantages in other systems. Fate has a simple set of options for defining these, making it simple to create new ones. Extras represent more potent or unusual special abilities. Fate’s abstraction means that these can be easily built from other parts of the system. If players want an effect for their character there’s a way to define these via collections or combinations of stunts, skills, or aspects.
  • It doesn’t take me long to shift Fate to new campaigns. Like other Universal systems, you have to spend some time doing additional tooling to fit the game to the genre or setting you want to play. Fate makes that easy and builds in player collaboration to create campaigns from the start. That makes it easy to use out of the box, with just a few choices needed about how to handle niche elements like Magic, Powers, Cybernetics, and so on.
  • Fate’s Bronze rule is that anything can be created and treated as a character: cities, plots, factions, obstacles, and so on. This means they can be defined with skills, aspects, stunts, and stress tracks. That’s a powerful tool for the GM in defining the world. It makes prep focused and simple, while allowing players to richly interact with these abstract ‘characters.’

Caveats: Fate operates differently from many other games. Those accustomed to lighter rules or more narrative games, might be unsure about how ‘present’ the mechanics are. If you’re accustomed to games with more defined rules for cases and exceptions, Fate can be hard to grok. It took me some time to finally get how Aspects worked. The abstract mechanics can take getting used to. For example, some gamers are comfortable with superpowers handled purely as aspects, while others want a more rigid list of choices. This potentially means GMs have to negotiate with players and tweak rules to get what they want. But that’s a fact of any universal system and Fate offers a host of tools and examples for that. Another stopper can be the Skill Pyramid. In my experience players can get annoyed/lost with that. Fate also has a restrained system for character advancement. Some players prefer characters get something after every session (exp, development points). Finally, some people hate Fate dice. I’ve had that reaction in my group.

The base book for Fate Core. This contains all the rules needed to play. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to refer to this as the Core book for this entry. Note that there’s another complete, but highly simplified version of the Fate Core system available, Fate Accelerated (see below).

The Core book offers a universal version of the system, not tied to a setting or genre. Many examples use a generic fantasy backdrop, but you can easily see how to adapt the system. After basic concepts, the rules move to campaign creation- showing how players and the GM can collaboratively decide the genre, tone, and issues for a campaign. This leads into character creation chapter which the Core book emphasizes as its own play. Players generate aspects for characters using the “Phase Trio.” Each creates a story for their character and then passes it to the next player. They then add their role in that tale. This connects players at the start, show who the characters are, and aids in developing aspects.

The rules then move into chapters covering elements of the characters: Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. It presents a streamlined set of 18 skills and three stunts associated with each. It presents clear mechanics for adding more. That connects to the next section, Actions and Outcomes, which covers resolution. Fate Core offers four kinds of actions. Overcome is the broadest. Players use this when trying to get past an obstacle: climbing a wall, investigating a crime scene, running a race. Opposition can be passive with a set difficultly or active with an opponent rolling. Players use Create an Advantage to add an aspect to someone or something: setting traps, creating a good mood, finding weak spots in a castle’s defenses, tripping an opponent. Finally Attack and Defend inflict or protect from harm in conflicts. Different skills have different access to these four actions. Levels of success affect results. Ties offer a small advantage, while beating a target by 3 or more means Success with Style which confers extra benefits.

These mechanics come into play in Contests, Challenges, and Conflicts. Conflicts add mechanics for Stress (damage) and Initiative. For conflicts with a spatial or relational set up, Fate uses abstract zones to define the battlefield. A neat element of Fate conflicts is Concessions. Badly hurt character can, before the dice are rolled, concede a conflict. They’re taken out, but have a say in what happens to them. They lose, but avoid truly terrible Fates.

The rest of the Core book presents advice on GMing Fate, character advancement, and extras (with examples). The short version of all that is the Core book provides all the basics to play Fate Core. It presents the material well, with plenty of example and sidebars. The page design makes getting through the book easy and the consistent art style sells the universal feel. I’d recommend this as the starting point for getting into Fate. It’s reasonably priced for a hardcover ($25, or less online) and available Pay What You Want as a pdf on RPGNow.

A condensed version of the Fate Core rules. There's some debate about whether Fate Accelerated (FAE) should be considered its own system. While it maintains Fate Core’s basic concepts, it feels distinct to me. Some supplements specifically serve FAE and it has a separate community on G+.

Fate Accelerated aims for speeding through character creation. Rather than Skills, characters have scores in six different ‘Approaches’: Careful, Clever, Flashy, Forceful, Quick, and Sneaky. When facing a challenge players can suggest what approach they're taking and how it works with the situation. Some approaches more obviously fit (Forceful perhaps for kicking a door in). But others can be applied by providing appropriate narration. Picking the highest score approach might seem logical, but the player and GM negotiate about what fits. Approaches by their nature may have additional effects. For example, a Careful approach might take longer, eating up valuable time. The rest of the system- Aspects, Stress, Action Types, Consequences- remains intact but stripped down. FAE presents stunts via two Mad-Lib formulas, defining a +2 bonus to a specific action or a cool thing they can do once per session.

FAE presents all of this in just 48 pages, including artwork, reference sheets, GM advice, and sample characters. That's kind of amazing. The simplicity stands out and it offers a great introduction for new gamers. The price point and size means that it could be used to test the waters of the Fate with a group. While it might be slim, FAE has proven robust. Players have hacked the mechanics for many different settings and games. Approaches, for example, can reflect the logic and dynamics of a setting, like classic D&D stats for a fantasy game. Fate Accelerated's a solid game and lends itself to on-the-fly adaptation. Most importantly there's a strong linkage between Fate Core and FAE. That means supplements and materials for one can easily be ported to the other.

This supplement, released in parallel with the Fate Core rules offers tweaks, hacks, options, and examples for the system. Rather than feel like a collection of things left out, The Toolkit comes across as kind of masterclass. We have a gaggle of smart veteran GMs gathering to throw around variants & changes and discuss the implications of those. The first several chapters look at the key character elements: Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. These present new ways to handle them and importantly discuss the impact of those changes on play. Other chapters cover campaign design, niche events like chases & social conflict, playing out combat, and beyond. A large section, 70+ pages, presents ideas for designing magic systems. That includes five distinct examples. The final chapter lays out options for many different sub-systems including Kung Fu, Cyberware, Gadgets, Monsters, Warfare, Duels, Vehicles, Supers, and Horror.

Nothing in the Toolkit is essential to playing Fate (Core or Accelerated). You don't get the sense that this material makes the base rules feel unfinished. However GMs looking at how to reshape Fate to fit their style, an existing property, or a particular genre will want to pick this up. It is a grab bag and not everything will be useful for every GM. But the general models will provide a great insight and inspiration.

Evil Hat has released four volumes of Fate Worlds. Each volume s several adventures, campaign settings, or genre frameworks. The first two collections came from the original Kickstarter; the second two volumes from bundling later pdf Worlds of Adventure. How are these useful? First, they offer easy variant Fate settings GMs can use to try out the system. Second, the authors have developed exciting and original universes, worth playing in Fate or any other system. Third, they show how a GM can create new and varied campaigns. Each plays with Fate's system for player interaction and issues. GMs can pick up tricks from these slightly different approaches. Fourth, several entries model new mechanical elements. We see new subsystems for mutations, capers, superpowers, air combat, and a host of other concepts.

While all the entries are solid, each volume has some that hooked me. Volume One, Worlds on Fire, has "White Picket Witches" a CW-esque supernatural television drama. It hits the right beats and shows how to run a game of social conflict with strong inter-group tension. "Fight Fire" presents a game of Firefighters. That sounded unappealing to me (or at least difficult to model). But this chapter gives a variety of mechanics and ideas on structuring these stories. Now I'd love to run or play such a game. "Kriegzepplin Valkyrie" presents a game of post-WW1 dramatic air-warfare. It has an great set of vehicle rules, as well as ideas on how to tune Stunts to a particular setting.

Volume Two, Worlds in Shadow, includes "Crimeworld" and you should buy this. Written by a showrunner for Leverage, this offers advice for running capers, heists, and con games at the table. While it's tuned to Fate, the concepts could easily fit any rpg. If you're a GM who enjoys running these scenarios, you ought to pick this up. "No Exit" takes on psychological horror. Some (including myself) has suggest Fate's less useful for horror because of its focus on player-empowerment. This set up works around that and shows how aspects can be engines to explore and haunt the characters. "Camelot Trigger" has mecha rules; nuff said.

Volume Three, WorldsTake Flight, has a classic feel with four settings. “Frontier Spirit” delivers a planetary colony setting. It has some echoes of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and The 100. But the threat isn’t really sci-fi, more supernatural in the form of spirits which threaten the settlers. The ritual and technology rules are especially interesting and adaptable. The volume also has “Sails Full of Stars” an alt-1800’s space fantasy with colonial conflict and pirates. “The Three Rocketeers,” Dumas inspired space opera, and “Gods and Monsters,” mythic world-shaping, to round it out.

Volume Four, Worlds Rise Up, leans darker. It has a great mix of striking different settings. That includes “Nest” which inspired a mini-campaign I ran. Here children who once rescued a magical kingdom have grown up and become mundane. They’re now called back from our world to save the lands again, but they may not be up to the task. Solid, fun, and easily adaptable. “Behind the Walls” is the grittiest of the WoA. Here you play survivors in a prison after a nuclear attack has cut off the outside world. It’s an interesting combination of the Walking Dead’s prison setting and aftermath media like Jeremiah. The collection includes “Master of Umdaar,” an homage to Thundarr the Barbarian, and “Psychedemia,” a surprising deep look at psionic students trying to use their powers to negotiate peace.

As of this writing, Evil Hat has released “Worlds of Adventure,” supported by a Patreon project. Each offers a unique campaign sourcebook. After their release through Patreon, they're available Pay-What-You-Want through RPGNow. They're well-done and offer GMs an easy campaign to bring to the table. All are worth looking at for GMs interested in what they can do with Fate. Two sets have been collected in “Worlds” books listed above. Some have only been released as pdfs. Chronologically these are:

The Secrets of Cats: A world where empowered cats secretly use their talents to protect helpless humans. Includes a setting, magic system, and unique stunts. Comes with a sample adventures.

Save Game: A strikingly illustrated campaign where players take the roles of characters from forgotten video games. In a retro world of information they battle against an evil glitch. Includes cool mechanics modelling video game elements via skills and stunts. Adventure/campaign presented.

The Aether Sea: For FAE. Fantasy sailing ships in space. Riffs on games like Spelljammer, but keeps a classic fantasy feeling. Includes a magic system and rules for building and handling ships in play. Sample adventure.

Romance in the Air: Romance and drama meet skyships and turn of the century events. I especially like the description of it as Last Exile meets Downton Abbey. Offering cool twists on skills as well as a vehicle system. Includes an extensive grand tour adventure/campaign.

Eagle Eyes: For FAE. Cop noir in ancient Rome. A good use of this historical setting. The supplement includes mechanics for lasses and invocations of the gods. Has a tight presentation of the setting. There’s a good section on investigations and mysteries.

Slip: A modern strange campaign. In this world beings from other realities have begun to bleed into our own. You play members of Vigilance, a group dedicated to fighting against this invasion. Many members possess psychic talents to aid in this fight. The game includes some interesting roles with benefits and costs. It also has a mechanic for running the invasion itself- “The Convergence”- as a character with its own rules.

House of Bards: A political game set in a fantasy city. House of Bards echoes House of Cards and A Game of Thrones. It has a stronger PvP elements than many other Fate settings. There’s some interesting ideas on social mechanics, including notes on fleshing out Contacts as a skill (which can be used to attack in this setting). Worth picking up if you’re doing any campaign with a strong social or negotiation focus.

Deep Dark Blue: A near-future game where resource depletion has sent explorers into the ocean in search wealth and advancement. Characters serve on a single ship and there’s some emphasis on building that as a shared location. Lots of stuff on underwater adventuring, including ship to ship combat.

Knights of Invasion: Aliens attack a medieval society. A more directed world, KoI presents a mini-campaign in three acts. It has some new skills, rules for period-appropriate elements like siege weapons, and a fully-fleshed setting.

Morts: After a zombie apocalypse, jobbers—called Morticians—get the unpleasant task of keeping things secure and dealing with internal incidents. Has a “worklife” comedy edge, but then veers into lot of material for magic and running supernatural creatures as PCs.

Nitrate City: For FAE. A strange event brings the people and creatures of the movie world to life in 1948 Hollywood. Los Angeles becomes a cinematic city, filled with pulp tropes and noir atmosphere. Think Who Killed Roger Rabbit’s Toontown, but with more realism and integration. The “Flicker” effect serves as a campaign element, to differentiate it from your usual pulp setting. Offers a novel take on approaches.

Under the Table: The tagline tells it really well: “Arthurian mythology meets Prohibition-era gangster fiction in this retelling of the Round Table set in a magic-infused alternate timeline during the days of Prohibition.” Has a few new mechanical elements, but is mainly focused on presenting the setting and characters.

Good Neighbors: A strange modern game set in Still Hollow, a small town on the border of the real world and the fae realm. Each player has two characters, one from each world. You battle against “The Industry” a group dedicated to exploiting this decaying but potent town. Uses troupe play, with events in one world affecting developments in the other. A neat take on how to present a highly structured game with phases.

Blood on the Trail: Vampires in the Wild West. Rather than the broader supernatural of Deadlands or even Owl Hoot Trail, BotL has a darker frontier haunted by dangerous monsters. Good material on the history, a mapping mechanic, and rules for handling an ongoing journey (and avoiding dying of dysentery).

Loose Threads: Characters at the margins of fairy tale stories try to help those who might otherwise be destroyed by magics and fantasy. A high concept setting, it focuses on the idea of costs literally in the setting and in the Fate mechanics. New systems deepen that concept.

Ghost Planets: The PCs are members of the Xenohistory Corps, tasked with investigating the ruins and artifacts of the many dead aliens civilizations discovered in space. The backstory hints at something like the Reapers from Mass Effect or the Mizari from Emprey. Has some new skills as well as a new take on research tied to character concept.

Red Planet: Soviet retrofuture space exploration by Jess Nevins, the master of Pulp History. Has some minor mechanical changes, but is primarily interested in laying out the campaign concept and setting.

Andromeda: Big picture, epic space opera. The rag-tag remnants of humanity have fled to another galaxy only to come face to face with a host of alien empires. Has a long and interesting list of inspirational material. Use the Deck of Fate to explore this massive scale setting. A neat mechanic approach worth checking out for GMs who want to radically hack Fate.

Uranium Chef: For FAE. Tongue-in-cheek space comedy. It seems like this might be a slight concept, but the supplement’s longer than most other WoA settings. Contains a sub-system for dealing with the eponymous culinary competitions. There’s a reality show element which reminds me of World Wide Wrestling and InSpectres. Has mechanics for seasons, specialty episodes, and a full sample adventure.

A supplement based on the world of the Kaiju Incorporated card game. In it you play corporate drones doing rescue and clean up in the wake of giant monster attacks. Has a hit-or-miss comedic tone and art style. Usable with Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. It borrows some game tech from Atomic Robo (see below) for character creation. Actual event resolution uses an interesting event generator, which shifts the play highly structured scenes and turns.

This is a sourcebook for the Spirit of the Century pulp setting. While SotC uses an earlier version of Fate, this sourcebook has Fate Core mechanics throughout, in particular archetypes and new stunts. Mostly the book offers a complete pulp history for the setting, using the lens of a fictional magazine publisher. Jess Nevins knows his sources and brings them to bear. Recommended for any GM planning on running a pulp game.

Presents superhero setting of ambiguous morality. Includes a new and useful approach to superpowers. Originally released as a World of Adventure, Venture City Stories, Evil Hat expanded and re-released it as Venture City. You can see my review of the original here. That includes a link to an actual play video using the rules. The new edition adds many more sample characters, a stronger list of example powers & themes, and some mini-adventures. Venture City takes a minimal approach to power design. It offers a simple, customizable framework. That separates it from some of the other third-party Fate supers games which have been released (Daring Comics and Wearing the Cape). These take a more granular approach to the mechanics.

A complete, stand-alone version of Fate Core covering the Atomic Robo comic universe. It's a large, solid book with incredible layout and illustrations. Most importantly it captures the feel of the original comics and the emphasis on "Action Science." That's a modern pulp with high pseudo-science weirdness. Atomic Robo takes a streamlined approach to mechanics, rearranging and paring the skill system. It emphasizes on-the-fly character creation in stunts, aspects, and skills. It also brings several new or tweaked mechanics to the game: brainstorming, factions, organizations. Atomic Robo shows how Fate can simulate a particular genre. As well, it offers some of the best examples of play. Recommended if you're interested in the comic or the idea of modern pulp. You can see my review here. The One-Shot Podcast has some actual play here.

A “Windpunk” adventure game in the vein of Avatar the Last Airbender and Korra. Originally created for another system, this version adapts the world to Fate Accelerated. Players take on the role of youths tasked with solving problems and bringing peace. The focus includes non-violent conflict resolution and creative thinking. Do’s explicitly designed to be a family-friendly game. It’s a good example of how Fate can be modified to handle certain tones and limits.

A forthcoming adaptation of the Dresden File Roleplaying game to FAE. I’ve run this and I’ve written up my thoughts here. DFAE offers many new and interesting mechanics: unique conditions to define player archetypes, mantles representing role powers, and simple ritual magics. It’s a solid game and really shows how the rules can be tweaked and expanded. Well worth picking up for fans of The Dresden Files and/or urban fantasy.

“Roleplaying in a Grimsical World of Fantasy.” This adapts the War of Ashes miniatures game to Fate. This world consists of several cute & cuddly but highly violent races. WoE: FoA uses Fate Accelerated approaches with mechanics for playing out mini-compatible combats. About half the book’s devoted to the setting and background, half to character creation and mechanics. If you’re interested in seeing how you can bridge the gap between Fate’s openess and more traditional elements like minis, check this one out.

This adapts the Spirit of the Century setting (mentioned above) with a couple of major changes. Mechanically it uses Fate Accelerated, which massively streamlines the rules. As well, like Do: Fate of the Flying Temple, Young Centurions aims to be an all-ages product. Young heroes battle against sinister forces. The world’s four-color, embodying the brightest aspects of pulp literature and cinema.

There are several unique secondary products for Fate. Generally each player will need a set of Fate Dice. Evil Hat and other manufacturers produce these. They can also be found listed as “Fudge Dice.” The Deck of Fate is a set of cards to use as a Fate randomizer. This 96-card deck includes cards covering the distribution of result across the dice, as well as inspirational phrases. Two sub-sets can be used for generating random approach values for Fate Accelerated or aspect starting points for any character.

Even before the Fate Core Kickstarter, Fate had a strong online community. That support has continued, with developers and players chatting and blogging about ideas. I recommend checking out the personal blogs for any of the Fate designers. I've gotten a ton from Rob Donohue and Ryan Macklin's work in particular. Other useful online resources include:
  • Fate Roleplaying Game SRD: Randy Oest put together an amazing and highly usable site. This takes all of the open material from Fate Core, Fate Accelerated, and the Fate Toolkit and organizes it. I keep this open to refer to whenever I'm working on Fate. Essential.
  • Community Fate Core Extensions: If you're looking for cheat pages, character sheets, rules variants, or adaptations to any existing game or property, you should check here. Some awesome tools available here. You can see links to various hacks (like my ambitious failure, Scions of Fate).
  • G+ Fate Community: G+ has vibrant community looking at play styles, rules implementations, and setting hacks. A great place to post questions. There's a smaller but equally rich community covering Fate Accelerated.
  • Fate Points: While it seems to have podfaded, Fate Points still has a set of interesting podcast episodes available.
  • Fate Codex: Mark Diaz Truman has a Patreon campaign developing a semi-monthly e-zine of dynamite Fate materials. Supporting the campaign gets you access to the current issue. I believe previous issues can also be purchased. Worth it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Islands in The Veil: Cyberpunk PbtA

They say as you get older, your taste in music ossifies. That it’s harder for something new and novel to break through and grab your attention, create joy for you. I wonder if that’s true for rpgs? In the last year I’ve read a bunch I thought would grab me. I thought they’d hit the sweet spot of excitement I got when I first read the Ghostbusters or James Bond 007 rpg. Most didn’t.

The Veil did.

The Veil’s an amazing rpg which embraces modern cyberpunk-esque themes and ideas. I don’t know how else to explain it. I ran two sessions of it online for The Gauntlet Hangouts. I dug it and it left me wanting more. More than a formal review, I have some thoughts on it and why it works for me.

I’m struck by the differences in The Veil’s approach to cyberpunk and my own experiences with that in games. I first encountered Cyberpunk 2013 in ’88 while at a shop in Chicago. Within a couple of years, it’d become a major rpg and trail blazed a whole series of like games (GURPS Cyberpunk, Cyberspace, CyberHERO, and of course Shadowrun. Cyberpunk 2020 became a go-to game for our local group up through the late 1990’s, with my late friend Barry in particular running many campaigns of it. Working at the local game store, I also got to peek in on other gamers’ approach to these games.

One thing divided me from many of the players and GMs: I’d read a lot of cyberpunk fiction: Gibson, Walter Jon Williams, Pat Cadigan, K.W. Jeter, George Alec Effinger. I wasn’t an expert or even that deeply into it, but I’d read these authors. That wasn’t true for many in our group. Some picked up bits and pieces. But for the most part, their vision of cyberpunk came from the RPGs rather than any novel or short story source material.

On the other hand they knew some sources I didn’t. Looking back it’s pretty clear that three anime heavily shaped their imagination: Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and most importantly Appleseed. I wouldn’t see those until much later; GitS not until this year. I hadn’t read the associated manga either. Appleseed leaned heavily into the chrome and military side of things. That complemented the typical games we encountered: we always played Edgerunners carrying merc missions of questionable ethics. We’d shift that formula from time to time, for example we got vampires in our cyberpunk once Ianus released their Grimm’s Cybertales and related products.

The Veil comes from another place. It’s the product of someone who has absorbed and synthesized the divergent streams of cyberpunk media: books, films, rpgs, etc. In doing so he’s made a game that has the anime feels and themes without being a caricature. The Veil’s cyberpunk without being entirely about murder, chrome, and loadout. It also manages to handle transhumanist themes while remaining comprehensible and connected to humanity. That’s something Transhuman Space, Eclipse Phase, and Mindjammer don’t do for me. It doesn’t feel like a regurgitation of older cyberpunk games, religiously sticking to the same play style and only redressing the setting.

My disclaimer: I know Fraser Simons from online gaming; I’ve gotten to play with him several times. We even played The Sprawl together. That’s how I originally heard about The Veil. Honestly I only backed it because he seemed like a smart and earnest dude. I was prepared to be pleasantly bland about the game, probably praising its awesome look. But after getting The Veil to the table for two sessions I want more. It’s clicks for me. Years of gunbunny, amoral, and nihilistic cyberpunk had turned me off. The Veil flips that for me. It aligns with what I want out of a game.

The Veil’s a PbtA cyberpunk game, so it has system approach drawn from Apocalypse World and like games. It has a looser setting than other rpgs in the genre. Here player/MC collaboration creates the world. We’ve seen that before with The Sprawl, but it has a strong story structure. The Sprawl deliberately echoes classic burning chrome and grimy operator cyberpunk games, with a mission approach focusing play. The Veil has one key setting conceit, the Veil itself. The setting, however you create it, has a level of augmented reality everyone’s plugged into. Several actions in the game tie to the Veil literally and metaphorically. At first I wasn’t sure about that, but in play the device has brought cool moments to the table. Only after playing a couple of sessions did I realize how much you could shape the concept of the Veil itself: how it works, what it does, how potent it is, who has control.

Like most PbtA games, players have a set of basic moves. These tie in some of the cool concepts of the setting (the Veil as an info source, honor debts implied by giri). Fraser’s structured these moves smartly. More than other PbtA adaptations he keeps autonomy and choice in the players’ hands. There’s less of the “pick things that eliminate bad stuff hitting you” choices within the moves. The same smart approach carries over to the playbooks.

The Veil has twelve of playbooks. They’re all striking and distinct, carving out their own niche in the fiction. Each has a small, but evocative set of unique moves. These support the playbook’s theme but offer enough difference that picking a particular one at the start makes a statement about how you see the character. But as important as the moves, each playbook contains background questions and decisions. These aren’t just the usual relationship and backstory questions. They ask you to define fundamental aspects of the world and your role in it.

For example, The Veil includes the concept of Giri, an honor debt. It takes the place of debts, strings, bonds, from other PbtA games. The choice of terminology plays into some anime tropes. Characters who act as “Street Samurai” don’t have to be just killers, they tie into a moral code. Giri’s a global system with some supplemental moves. It serves as a mechanic for all characters.

But you also have the Honorbound playbook. This character builds on and changes the concept of giri within the setting. They enforce giri. The Honorbound player decides their “workplace” for & its relation to giri. They can define it as traditional, commercial, ritualistic, legalist, hidden. They also select circumstances which generate giri, a hugely important point. Whether you incur an obligation when you offend someone’s honor or breaking commercial contracts speaks volumes about your world. The kinds of penalties available to an Honorbound say something as well.

Sherri and I spent a long car ride talking about what the different formulations could mean. What if giri’s recorded and public? If it is transferrable and even sold on a market? You could also read/build a HB character just as a cop or a sheriff. Maybe it’s about wergild and keeping the peace through a balance of enforcers. What if the Honorbound acts behinds the scenes? There’s no officially accepted system for giri, but the HB’s order believes in one. They might be terrorists trying to shape society. If persons can incur giri, can an institution? an artificial intelligence?

Each playbook has something that it buys into and changes within the world. The Catabolist deals with cybernetics and inplants. The Apparatus about artificial life. The Architect about the metaverse & Veil. The Wayward about what lies about of the urban world. What the players choose as playbooks has dramatic impact on the game you’re going to play. That’s compounded by the background choices players make to flesh those elements out. That’s true in the best PbtA games, and the The Veil embraces that more than most. The combination and interactions of the playbooks within a group creates a distinct play universe.

I haven’t talked much about the actual mechanics of play. If you’re familiar with PbtA, everything within The Veil should be easy to pick up. You may not get the implications of everything at first glance, though. It really builds emergent play. For example, characters don’t have “stats” like other games. Instead, they have states which represent emotions: Mad, Sad, Scared, Peaceful, Joyful, Powerful. So while rolls represent proficiency in the abstract, they’re more about characterization. The Veil has a “Feeling Wheel,” something I thought was dumb at first glance. It breaks down those emotional states into subtypes. It comes from therapy for emotional express.

My experience with tracking emotions in Headspace has made me doubly shy. But once we got the system to the table, I saw the beauty of it. Choosing your feelings helps explicate your character to yourself, the MC, and the other players. The wheel offers a non-intrusive vocabulary for that. As important, it almost always puts the choice and power in your hand when you go to make a roll. You don’t have to remember that X move uses Y stat. That’s gone. Instead you decide how this affects you. That’s smartly combined with an emotional spiking mechanic that makes spamming a particular stat dangerous. I dig it very much.

Sherri used to use the term “machine-love” for games, movies, and anime, that love The Tech. Gun lists, mecha suits, sweet bikes, hot chick robots—any media with a fascination with chrome and weapons. There’s a lot of old school cyberpunk where that’s your first impression. Characters are archetypes; they’re not fully fleshed beings. They’re iconic rather than evolving. The characters might have a unique spin or background, but they remain objects: dead, metal tools just as much as the equipment they carry.

The Veil doesn’t feel that way to me. It isn’t just that it uses the tag approach to cyberwear and guns. Its more about how it connects the characters’ lives to their place in the world. That makes it an open game. The Veil takes to heart the “play to see what happens” PbtA admonition. Each PC ends up with a ton of interesting material to play from. You can wrestled with the questions of place and identity we’ve seen in media like Ex Machina, Witch Hunter Robin, Accelerando, and beyond.

But that may itself be something of a weakness- or at least make it more challenging to bring The Veil to the table and get everything out of it. Character creation’s a deep part of the process. Players have many decisions, not just picks. They’ll begin to weave a tapestry in that first session. I knew that’d be a challenge in about five hours, split in two. I thought establishing setting details ahead of time would cut that cognitive load. That helped but we still put a long time into the CC process. We engaged with some of those elements in play, but we had many more directions we could have gone in.

Because of that we came away from those two sessions wanting more. Honestly as soon as I can figure out how to schedule it in, I’m going to run a longer term campaign of The Veil, either online or f2f. I think you’d need at least six, probably more like 10-12 sessions to get at the depth offered here. That makes scheduling challenging. The structure of the game and that richness also means I’m uncertain about offering this to my 6 player face-to-face group. I think The Veil benefits from a tighter PC party.

To be fair, I made a conscious choice to play from the book and engage the cc rules. Fraser has a quick-start, called Glitch City. That has a crafted setting and pre-gen characters. As well, the supplement he’s currently Kickstarting, The Veil: Cascade, has more material on how to scale this. I’ve backed that.

Any things that bother me? Yes, The Veil follows Masks in not actually putting the playbooks in the book itself. That really bugs me. We have sections discussing the elements of those playbooks, but not the questions and set up elements of those characters. We do get one page with images of the two pages of the playbooks, but they’re so small as to be unreadable. It frustrated me in Masks and I hope to god this isn’t the trend going forward for PbtA games.

I need to wrap up and I haven’t even gotten to the form factor of The Veil. It’s gorgeous, with clean layout and great artwork. The pdf uses a white text background (yeah!). The softcover’s a-effing-mazing. It’s solid, larger than trade size. The glossy paper—something I often don’t dig—works here. I cannot believe this is Fraser’s first release. It’s one of the nicest rpg products I’ve bought.

Overall, Sherri and I love The Veil. It’s jumped to the top of my “must play more” list. As I mentioned above, at the time of this writing there’s a Kickstarter going on for the supplement. You can buy that alone or with the core book there. You can also just buy the core book via that campaign or from Indie Press Revolution. Highly recommended.

Gauntlet Hangouts Actual Plays

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Dresden Files Co-op Card Game: Hot, Fast, Replayable

I’m a board gamer, a terrible one, as well as rpg enthusiast. I’ve got a decent BG collection and a terrible win rate. I prefer games with just enough luck that I can blame something else for my loss. Cooperative games serve that purpose as well- I can point to “collective” bad moves rather than my dumb play. So I dig Castaways, Marvel Legendary, Pandemic Legacy, and related games. Evil Hat’s new Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game falls squarely into that niche. And it’s one of my favorite games of the year.

DFCCG’s set in the Dresden Files universe (aka “Dresdenverse”). As I’ve mentioned, I have an “GM prep” level of knowledge about vs. a reader’s knowledge. This game delves deep into that world. On the one hand you have character sets, each with a divider, two special cards, and a twelve card deck. Each has a nice flavor and decent illustrations. They cover all of the biggies. None of the DF experts I played with went “Oh, they should have had X.” They also have thirteen card case decks, each one built around a particular novel complete with those events and characters. There’s also a larger “Brief Cases” deck if you want to randomly generate case.

The board has two rows of six cards. You shuffle and deal out the case cards to those rows. Each card has a “range”, so those furthest to the left are at range 1, furthest to the right are range 6. Card effects can only reach a certain distance. Each case contains enemy, mystery, obstacle, and advantage cards. You add damage tokens to enemies to remove them; clue tokens to mysteries to clear them. Obstacles and advantages have specific cards to clear them. In the end, you’re trying to have more mysteries cleared than enemies left on the board. Do that and you win. Anything else, you lose.

Each player shuffles their deck and draws a number of cards based on player count. More players, fewer cards. Here’s the thing: unless a special ability or card result triggers it, you don’t draw any more cards. That’s it. Those cards are a huge resource. Fate Points are the other resource, you have a shared pool of these you spend to play cards. To get those points back, you have to discard a card as your turn, regaining FP equal to the card’s cost.

You also have Talents, special tricks which usually activate when you discard for fate, and a Stunt you can (usually) only activate once per game as an action. If you know the Fate rpg, you’ll recognize the game’s terminology. For example, you play a Create Advantage to gain Advantage cards with an immediate benefit. You play an Overcome to remove an Obstacle card which has a global negative effect. As well, you use Fate dice for randomization. I dug that and it didn’t get in the way for non-Fate folks. In fact, I’m kind of hoping it might serve as a gateway for non-rp players into DFAE or the regular DFRPG. It’s clever.

Throughout the game you have a tight, tight economy. You can use your Stunt once, and it’s usually potent. You have a limited hand of cards; you can talk these about generally but can’t show or give the specifics to other players. The table has to to negotiate about the use of fate points and replenishing them. Timing means that you may have to discard a valuable card just to keep the game from ending. If you can’t do anything, you have to pass—but that costs a fate point.

Which brings us to the end game. If you have to pass and there’s no FP, you go to the Showdown. If you try to play a card with a randomized FP cost and it’s more than your fate pool, you go to showdown. If the team agrees that you’ve hit all that you can do in the main play, you can go to Showdown.

Each case has a Showdown card. In this phase, you get one more shot at any enemy or mystery with at least one token. You roll a number of Fate dice listed on the case’s showdown card. Positive results add more tokens, potentially taking the card out. If your group has Fate points to spend, you can *slightly* raise their odds. The costs and odds depend on the case. That makes deciding to go to showdown an important calculation. It’s a neat shift and breaks the gameplay up. You finish a collective discussion on how to mitigate chance and risk. It’s a different kind of puzzle than you’re facing the first part of the game and makes a distinct final act.

Puzzle’s a good way to describe DFCCG. But it’s not a fixed one. You have several set up variables. First, the character selection impacts play. Each one has different abilities and a different balance of card types. The latter’s helpfully noted on the card dividers. Second, you have how case cards actually land on the table. If a problematic Obstacle’s further away, you may suffer under it longer. If you have a clot of bad guys at the front, it will be harder to solve mysteries. That changes up your play every time. Finally you have what you actually draw to start the game. There’s ratio of different cards, but your hand still might end up heavy in one aspect, forcing you to shift strategies.

DFCCG has the same modularity as Marvel Legendary, and that’s something I adore. The Brief Cases cards I mentioned earlier have a set guidelines for different case deck compositions. That’s complemented by different Showdowns you can pick or randomly choose to shape the challenge. There’s a lot of replayability. I’ve played the first case (Storm Front) six times, with player counts from 2 to 5. I didn’t get tired of it. Playing on easy (the max starting Fate in your pool), I’m 50/50 win/loss. Each game felt tight. The second case, which I’ve played once and lost, feels different than the first. There’s smart design across the board here.

It’s also a game you’ll finish in 30 minutes, often less. Player count doesn’t heavily change that- it played well at all sizes. Even including teaching time, I don’t think we’ve broken that range. I love, love Legendary, but this game has the advantage over it in play speed and set up time.

I backed the Kickstarter, so I got the full spiel. Dresden’s base set comes with five characters, five cases, plus some side jobs cards. Each of the three expansion sets have two new characters and two cases, plus add-ons for the side jobs deck. I think you could easily play and get a solid value out of just the base set. The expansions augment rather than change, so I’d say pick them up if you dig the game. They add a lot.

With seven plays, I’ve only just begun to dig into the game. We haven’t pushed past Case #2 (Fool Moon), but I’m looking forward to it. I’ve enjoyed it and all nine other players I taught and tried it with dug it. It has gone over with Dresdeverse aficionados and newbs equally well. This is definitely going to be my go-to ‘fast co-op’ game as well as a pick-up game I’ll always take with me. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

MC Miscellany: PbtA Changeling the Lost

I left out MC advice in my Changeling the Lost PbtA hack. I usually like “GM” sections from PbtA games because they present a strong sense of the intended flavor and play. But as mentioned in a Gauntlet thread today, a much of that boils down to “do something one of the PCs is likely to care about” or “do something compelling.” Jason referenced an article from Black Armada on that concept.

With that in mind, I’ve written these Agendas, Principles, and Moves to remind me of the cool and player-connected things I should keep in mind for CtL PbtA. I’ve left out most of the classics (trade harm, tell consequences & ask, offer an opportunity). Those are in play as well. What I present below is either an addition or refinement.

Here’s what Urban Shadows says:
At the highest level, your job is to balance three agendas when you MC:• Make the city feel political and dark.• Keep the characters’ lives out of control and evolving.• Play to find out what happens.
The last two work clean, But I’d rephrase the first. Make the city seem dark and the Freehold seem conflicted. Their city, the larger community outside of the Freehold, is both sanctuary and threat. It contains past lives, hidden secrets, hints of the Keepers, and more. Likewise the Freehold will always be conflicted. At the highest level the four linked Courts have competing interests. They also take on authority to protect from a more dangerous authority. As well the Courts have internal divisions.

Display the split between the City and the Freehold.
The PCs live in both worlds. Leaning towards one side over the other has costs. The Freehold cannot provide all their needs and the real world rejects the lost and unrecorded.
Push together and pull apart the motley in equal measure.
The motley should be the characters’ anchor. Show them the value of it, then apply a crowbar. Let them build their motley, but don’t destroy it. Since players can invest in their Hollow, irrevocably smashing that’s bad move.
Put the characters at the center of conflicts and choices.
The PCs have a value: maybe they’re unique, maybe they’re pawns, maybe they’re leverage. Catch them up in disputes and conspiracies. Make their varying allegiances a source of tension.
Name everyone, know what they want.
Everyone wants something- know that desire.
Remind them of their past: their lost life and their Durance.
The PCs should be haunted. They lost many of their pre-Changeling memories, torn away by the thorns of the Hedge. But they’ve likely deliberately hidden away their memories of Arcadia and what they did there. If they’ve established details about their experience, echo those. Draw a parallel between that and the present. If they haven’t, ask them how this moment reminds them of something from their time in Arcadia or activates a lost memory from before their change.
Show the risk and value of trust.
Changelings fear commitment and obligation; they have a hard time trusting. Favors don’t incur debts. Unless someone asked and made a deal, they’re under no requirement to pay back. Yet in a motley you have to trust against your nature. The Freehold itself is built on trust in an institution. And eventually the untrustworthy and the isolated become pariahs. You should show all of these considerations.
Spam weirdness and beauty
Changeling calls itself a game of beautiful madness. It isn’t a gore-fest or overtly sinister game. The tension’s more subtle, things are off-kilter. Hint at weird beneath the surface: fantastic, lovely, uncanny, spoiled. Think Twin Peaks, In the Company of Wolves, Dark City, The City of Lost Children. Consider how to echo the inevitably of fairy tale lessons in a modern world.
Make the Princes vivid
The ruler of each Court should be a fascinating, attractive, and dangerous figure. They exemplify the Seasons as they appear within the Freehold. Make them larger than life. Show the necessity of the Freehold as a means of explaining their choices.
Color the supernatural
If you introduce supernatural elements, monsters, and foes from outside the changeling paradigm, still consider how it fits with that world. How would changelings interpret these things? What would they look like? There’s a danger in bringing in too many outside elements, but one of two later on can make a good contrast. I recommend the Prometheans especially for this.
Remind them that they’re neither human nor Fae
They’re strange. The Mask hides them, but the Mein still remains: emotionally and physically. They have needs which make them parasites on others. They can’t trust their own reactions. And they’re also dangerous to be around. On the other hand, they’re not fully Fae. Obviously they’re not True Fae Keepers. But they don’t have a fully “fae” nature: they haven’t given themselves over completely as some did, they aren’t beings created of magic, they aren’t the downtrodden and resentful goblins. They still have a soul and human desires.

Draw them into a dispute
The Courts are hotbeds of deals, arguments, and enmities, many unknown to the PCs. They find themselves knowingly or unknowingly trapped in that web.
Hint at the Keepers’ attention
Odd happenings, signs only their former master would know, suggestions of a turncoat Fae. The whispers of a Keeper’s work should be enough to send most right-minded changelings to ground.
Force a Clarity check
Make them Stay Strong in the face of terrors, heartache, and moral questions. Being surprised by someone from their past life or durance. Do checks when they: share a moment of intimacy with a mortal; commit violence against an innocent; avoid contact with Changeling society for a long time; dwell on the cold streets. Mark Clarity if they fail.
Impose a Debt
Debts have power and reduce autonomy, so reserve this for a hard move. But sometimes the players have to call on aid to get them out of a spot.
Mark a Condition
This is harm and more. Conditions represent emotional states. The fiction can dictate what should be marked. Or the player can show something about their character by what they choose to mark. This will in turn force them to make decision as to how they clear that condition.
Warn of Impending Danger
Somethings coming for them. Hint at pursuit, suggest betrayal, threaten associates, bring the hammer down. If they don’t act that danger will come to pass. Consider their NPC debts. Bring their rivals on stage.
Bring them Face to Face with Their Past
This can be soft: they see something they used to treasure, a car model they once owned, a changeling who looks like someone they betrayed during their durance. This can be harder: they run into a family member, they see their fetch, they’re confronted by someone from their durance. The harder the move, the more you can and should frame things. You can reveal secrets about their taking, their family, and their fetch. For a softer approach, you can suggest that someone knows more about these things.
Call in Debts
Someone calls in their marker. That forces a choice and possibly a move to avoid it. Either way things change. Consider each PC has a constant debt to their Court. The Season provides basic resources, someone they can go to in disputes, and other services. In return, they’re expected to help out. I wouldn’t hit this all the time, but call on these to remind them. The same holds in reverse, the Court’s obligated to aid at least a little. But more aid means they’ll likely ask for larger services eventually. On the flip side, offer them a debt and draw them into a web.
Separate the Motley
Obviously you can do this physically, but it’s worth remembering to do this emotionally and politically. Play on Seeming divisions, Court allegiances, and friendships. Force hard choices.
Intrude on Dreams
While I don’t dwell on dream mechanics in this version, we know that changelings have a strong connection to that realm. Even those not trained in Onieromancy have vivid dreams. Use this as a channel for other moves. Stage dangerous visions, recalled pasts, and even the intrusion by outsiders here.
Crack their Mask
They reveal more about themselves then they intended. You can have a human pick up something subtly wrong or even have their mask completely slip for a moment. You might put a question to them about their agenda, giving that info to an NPC. It is also a chance to have them express their Seeming, Kith, or Seasonal nature as they see it. That’s an opportunity to learn how their experience shaped them into their specific form.
Call on catches
Catches are costs. Sometimes they get away from Changelings. They forget to pay things or allow mystical debts to pile up. Now they have to do something—maybe silly, maybe dangerous, maybe costly to reset the balance or face even more challenges. Consider this a variant on “Activate their stuff’s downside.”
Show the bite of the Hedge
Perhaps a principle above should be make the Hedge dangerous and valuable. That’s true. It is also omnipresent. It takes effort to enter, but sometimes it bleeds through. That may be random or the result of a Changeling’s action. What do they do when things spill out into the real world? What do they do when someone falls into the Hedge?
Shifting perceptions
In CtL, Clarity shapes perceptions. I don’t handle that mechanically in this version. Instead, those shifted and shattered visions should be a GM move. It can be as soft as a misreading or as hard as being trapped fantastical illusion. Make them question their perceptions.
Deplete a resource
Everyday life should be tight for a motley, at least at the start. They’re beholden to others for money, connections, and more importantly identification. That last one can be withdrawn at any point. Beyond those mundane questions, changelings have to call on glamour to clear conditions. Perhaps a dance club they haunted for desire goes bankrupt. Now they have to find a new place to replenish themselves.
Make a Seeming or Court Move
Finally, while I haven’t specifically written these out, consider these elements strongly in your moves. The Courts have desires and they will act to carry those out. It might be as small as a little favor. It might be the Season moving to gain influence in new places. It might be a war for control. OOH Seeming moves are internal. It means forcing them to act in accordance with their nature or suffer a cost.