Thursday, May 25, 2017

Cyberpunk, Gauntlet 100, and JRPGs

CYBERPUNK ON TARGET
On Tuesday I forgot to mention the latest Play on Target podcast episode, this time covering cyberpunk. I should've paired it with my History of Cyberpunk RPGs. We recorded before I’d had a chance to play Shadowrun Anarchy, Kuro, or The Veil. Playing those and digging through the genre's history has given me new perspective and enthusiasm for it. It has even more potential than we conclude.

Play on Target’s been a little infrequent because of schedule changes. I’m happy with the recent episodes because we now have Sherri Stewart on board for additional commentary. She brings a different perspective to the table. If you haven’t had a chance, check out our most recent shows: GM Best Practices, Character Creation, and Endings.

100 GAUNTLETS
The other show I’m part of, The Gauntlet Podcast, just hit its 100th episode. I joined that a little over halfway along. The 100 number’s misleading since the Gauntlet had been operating as a gamers network for some time before that. Jason also mentioned some “lost” episodes exist. 

For this “anniversary” show we crowd-sourced a random table of questions ahead of time. We rolled to generate q's for our hosts, as well as members of the Gauntlet community. It’s a confessional episode that ends with a kobold. We also now co-release those shows on YouTube for those who prefer that for their playback.

GAMING JAPAN
A couple weeks before that I interviewed Andy Kitkowski for the Gauntlet. He’s worked on Heroine of Heiankyo, Tenra Bansho Zero, and the forthcoming Shinobigami. We talked about his translation work, the challenges of bringing a game over from Japan, and history of rpgs there. It’s a great conversation which touched on a ton of things I hadn’t known about. In particular it’s worth listening to the end to hear about Japansese “Replays” and their importance in that community. I’m only disappointed that we didn’t get to talk about Persona 5.

ABANDONED JAPANESE RPGS (TANGENT WARNING)
Finally on a related note, I’ve been thinking about JRPG video games since I’m almost done with Persona 5 (at least my first playthrough). In particular I’m focused on the cost/awesome ratio from these games. Sherri and I buy a lot of tabletop rpgs, many more than we’ll ever get to the table. Some we use as sourcebooks; others e just enjoyed reading. Taken that way, they don’t offer a great cost/awesome ratio.

Yet I’ve always thought of video games as a more expensive hobby. But I’m not sure about that. We have a lot of console games; many we haven’t finished and some we haven’t played. But we’ve still managed to invest a lot of time into many of those unfinished games. I started to sketch out a list of those: video games we’ve sunk at least 40 hours into but didn’t complete. It’s a longer list than I’d like, and many of these games sucked away significantly more than 40 hours of play.

Sherri had a good analysis of this. On the one hand, rpgs run directly at the table or used to inform play end up involving more players. That multiples their utility. On the other hand, while they’re both rpgs, video games offer abnegation, something you really can’t get from a tabletop game. Unless it’s a terrible game…

Anyway here’s my list of shame…

GAMES WE STOPPED BECAUSE OF DISTRACTION
Things happen. New shiny things appear. Then the gravity of the game’s overcome by the pull of other experiences. It’s hard to point to a concrete reason why, with some exceptions. Several of these we set-aside in mid-grind, thinking we’d just take a break. But of course, once you’ve done that you have to relearn the gameplay when you come back, Easier to just start over or give up.
  • Ar Tonelico
  • Dark Cloud 2
  • Digimon Cyber Sleuth
  • Disgaea
  • Dragon Quest Heroes
  • Dragon Quest VII
  • Fantasy Life
  • Infinite Space
  • Kingdom Hearts
  • La Pucelle Tactics
  • Nomad Soul
  • Persona
  • Persona 2 Eternal Punishment (twice)
  • Persona 2 Innocent Sin
  • Persona Q
  • Radiant Historia
  • Shadow Hearts
  • Shadow Hearts Covenant
  • Skies of Arcadia
  • SMT: Strange Journey
  • Tales of Symphonia
  • World of Final Fantasy

GAMES WE STOPPED BECAUSE OF BUGS
These really hurt. The first three all fell on Sherri’s watch. In the case of the first two, the bug occurred right at the end. You couldn’t patch PS2 games, making it a lost cause.
  • Atelier Iris 2
  • Atelier Iris 3
  • Mana Khemia
  • Suikoden Tactics (if being too hard is a bug)

GAMES WE STOPPED BECAUSE WE WENT “WHY-TF AM I PLAYING THIS?”
For each of these I can remember exactly where I went “nope.” In some cases, like the most recent Star Ocean, we kept playing, figuring there would be an interesting plot turn. The signs points to it, but alas no. Lost Odyssey stopped me from sheer combination of massively long badly written texts and gross character models. Chaos Wars made me stop and consider what I was doing with my life.
  • Blue Dragon
  • Chaos Wars
  • Cross Edge
  • Final Fantasy 9
  • Lost Odyssey
  • Star Ocean 3
  • Star Ocean 5
  • Wild Arms 4

GAMES WE STOPPED “THIS CLOSE’ TO THE END
Our most guilty secrets. Sherri and I enjoyed, even loved, all of these games. So why did we run all the way up to the finish line and stop? In some cases we saw we’d have to grind, in others that we still had sidequests to finish. But many of these represented no wanting to leave that world, as stupid as that sounds.
  • Azure Dreams
  • Bravely Default
  • Digital Devil Saga 2
  • Final Fantasy X-2
  • Final Fantasy XII
  • Grandia 2
  • Mana Khemia
  • Rune Factory Frontier
  • Star Ocean 2
  • Suikoden V
  • Valkyrie Profile 2
  • White Knight Chronicles 2
  • Xenoblade Chronicles


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

History of Cyberpunk RPGs (Part One: 1988-1992)

LOG LINE
In the last year, I’ve been turned around on cyberpunk rpgs. Between Kuro, The Sprawl, and especially The Veil, I’ve seen new approaches that dig into the parts of the genre I find interesting. They’re about characters, not loadouts, creds, or maximum metal. The Veil has a Kickstarter going right now, a “post-cyberpunk” add-on for the system. Fraser Simons has done an amazing job synthesizing modern cyberpunk ideas and lit. That pushed me to look at the early rpg sources.

I started this a little reluctantly. On the one hand, it’s a break from the Universal RPG lists (which are slowly killing my soul). On the other, what’s cyberpunk? I’ve confronted this genre definition problem before. But cyberpunk seems the exemplar for loose borders. In the end, rather than go to Wikipedia or draw up tight guidelines, I’ve gone purely subjective. If it feels like cyberpunk I’m putting it in. Since I usually loosen my guidelines on these lists as they roll along, I’m just cutting out the middle step.

So everything here falls into the “cyberpunk” folder in my head. What’s not on this list? Paranoia for one thing. RPG Geek lists it as cyberpunk. The user who inputted that data picked that genre classifications. I can see a little where they’re coming from, but they’re wrong. Paranoia’s its own beast despite the tech, AI, and dystopian vision. Mage the Ascension isn’t either- despite several elements have a cyberpunk feel: Digital Web, Iteration X. They make up a fragment of the Mage setting.

As always: Your Plugged-In Dystopian Future May Vary.


COMMAND LINE
While I’m focusing on core books, I include a few notable sourcebooks and supplements (by my reckoning). Ironically, I only list books with a physical edition. I might include an electronic release if they’re notable and of significant size. Some selections came down to a judgement call. I’m sure I missed some, so if you spot an absent cyberpunk rpg from 1988-1992, leave a note in the comments


1. Cyberpunk 2013 (1988)
First! Cyberpunk 2013's amazing for many reasons. It arrives in the wake of Gibson's work and especially the highly influential Mirrorshades anthology. Beyond books, we hadn't seen cyberpunk themes or styles in other media. In the few places we did, like First Comics' Shatter, they took more from Blade Runner's look than anything else. But CP 2013 breaks now ground and arrives in with so many key ideas in place.

The original's an old-school boxed set with booklets. "Friday Night Firefight" offers the tactical combat engine at the heart of the ‘Interlock’ game engine. It's crunchy, featuring hit location, movement tracking, and detailed weapons. FNF would support one stream of Cyberpunk's future fandom: people who wanted gunbooks and mercenary stories. "View from the Edge" contains the character creation and netrunning rules. It focuses on theme over crunch. The rules emphasize three principles of the setting: style over substance, attitude is everything, and live on the edge. CP 2013 sets the template for most rpgs in this genre: Rockerboys, Media-types, Corporates, Fixers, and more. The netrunning system’s mostly a series of flowcharts. That subsystem requires a lot of prep and it would get more involved in later editions. The final book "Welcome to Night City" sets up the world with a timeline that look especially weird from our present day.

Cyberpunk 2013 establishes and invents the expected mechanics for games in the genre. It also spawns elements which came to characterize cyberpunk as a whole for years to come. There's nothing quite like CP- tonally or mechanically- before this. It's particularly interesting to see that sci-fi authors Melinda Snodgrass and Walter John Williams playtested this. WJW returns again later on this list. The product looks good for the time: clean black and white with an art style highly influenced by Nagel. I also had to laugh when I saw the various tables throughout the book, clearly done on an '80s era Macintosh.

2. CyberSpace (1989)
I'm an acknowledged Rolemaster goof. It's my guilty pleasure RPG. Back in the day I even tried, and quickly gave up on, SpaceMaster. CyberSpace adapts cyberpunk to the arcane mechanics. It is "stand-alone," but I'd hate to jump into this without a deep background in the system. It's streamlined, closer to MERP than core RM or SM. But it still has tons of tables and numbers. There's an endless skill list, detailed weapons, granular experience gain lists, and more. The game throws readability out the window by going for a dense, three-column, small-font presentation.

It's a game where you have to roll to see which is your dominant hand.

CyberSpace has six professions: Sleaze, Sneak, Killer, Net Junkie, Jockey, and Tech Rat. These last three have a lot of overlap which feels weird. The Netrunning mechanics are opaque. They're presented haphazardly, a trait of ICE rules writing. You have to detail out all your programs with their associated size, ratings, and effects. There's a freaking table of computer languages with a couple of dozen entries, each with types, costs, and application restrictions. It's a game that really reflect the late ‘80’s and what some gamers wanted out of systems. More details, more detail, more details.

Despite the weirdness, CyberSpace sold decently. Players who enjoyed Cyberpunk 2013 picked it up because there wasn't much out there. It also had interesting and well developed setting material. That's easier to grok in the supplements (Death Valley Free Prison, Chicago Arcology) than the core book. On the plus side, the first printing has one of my favorite covers, done by legendary Swamp Thing artist Rich Veitch). They'd later drop that for some reason.

I list this because it’s the first of the relatively few cyberpunk "licensed" products. In the future we'd be more likely to see media go the other way with Shadowrun and Cyberpunk material as novels, video games, and card games. Hardwired’s a novel written by Walter Jon Williams, a playtester for CP 2013. You can see how Williams' approach fed into that game. His work leans to action and military sci-fi.

The sourebook itself gives players an entirely new world, with additional roles and new systems for Netrunning. In particular the hacking systems seems more grounded in real world approaches to data structures. The sourcebook also includes sample adventures. Hardwired feels like a natural addition to Cyberpunk. You can see how its concepts and presentation style affected the Cyberpunk’s second edition. But this would end up a one-off supplement, not supported by later books. The following year would see Cyberpunk 2020, rendering some of the rules here incompatible.

In English, “Shadow Divisions.” This French rpg presents the corporate-controlled, dystopian near-future society of 2030. It echoes the style elements of cyberpunk and definitely wants to buy into that genre. But only the cybernetics rules come the close to fitting with that. The game has players as underground agents fighting against the establishment. That includes various alien factions which have landed on our Earth. Also, the PCs are mutants with psychic abilities. I put it on the list because it clearly wants to appeal to cyberpunk fans. LeGrog lists it with the genre as well, so I'm willing to go along.

5. Mutant (1989)
Mutant's the chameleon of Swedish rpgs, shifting through several different versions. Modern gamers can try out two completely distinct descendants in Mutant Chronicles and Mutant Year Zero.

Mutant and Mutant 2, both built in the Gamma World tradition, lead up to this new edition. However with the cyberpunk rage, Target Games decided to release a version of Mutant borrowing from that genre and Judge Dredd. While the game kept its dark, dystopian future with mega-cities, it ditched all of the classic radiation-created craziness. So mutated animals, youthful exploration of ruins, and the like vanished. Mutants still existed but as transformed humans, often discriminated against. Devastated lands between the cities remain, but this aspect is downplayed (as it was in the Judge Dredd rpg).

This version is referred to as New Mutant or Mutant 2089 to distinguish it from the previous versions. It did decently enough to generate about a dozen supplements, several expanding the cyberpunk and netrunning elements. Like Cyberpunk 2020 or Shadowrun, Mutant 2089 shows the "apocalypse as backdrop" or perhaps "shitty future" genre. It's interesting to see how far the dystopia goes in these settings.

6. Shadowrun (1989)
Cyberpunk with magic. It ought to be double mumbo-jumbo, but it works. Shadowrun became hugely popular in our neck of the woods, appealing to younger gamers especially. It created a split between Cyberpunk "purists" and Shadowrun-ners. I still know people who dig the former and scoff at the latter. I know I did for a long time. Shadowrun's interesting in that it embraced the metaplot as well, creating several ongoing stories that hooked players. Eventually Cyberpunk would try that, but never as well there.

Shadowrun's amazing longevity comes with a cost. The rules have become more granular and convoluted over time. Multiple editions from different publishers hasn't helped this. Instead it’s meant players have gotten re-releases of earlier publications with just enough changes or additions to make them necessary. SR's also notorious for bad editing and proofreading. I'll point to my review of Shadowrun Anarchy for more on that. The evolution of real world technology has also changed the setting itself- forcing them to create a meta-event and reboot which brought wi-fi-esque supernatural connections into the rules.

Willaim Gibson had an interesting response to Shadowrun, "...one of the things that we were really conscious of was appropriation. Appropriation as a post-modern aesthetic and entrepreneurial strategy. So we were doing it too. We were happily and gloriously lifting all sorts of flavours and colours from all over popular culture and putting it together to our own ends. So when I see things like Shadowrun, the only negative thing I feel about it is that initial extreme revulsion at seeing my literary DNA mixed with elves. Somewhere somebody's sitting and saying 'I've got it! We're gonna do William Gibson and Tolkien!' Over my dead body! But I don't have to bear any aesthetic responsibility for it. I've never earned a nickel, but I wouldn't sue them. It's a fair cop. I'm sure there are people who could sue me, if they were so inclined, for messing with their stuff. So it's just kind of amusing."

Shadowrun's first edition did well and generated a large set of sourcebooks & modules. We'd see a second edition just a few years later in 1992. By that time it'd become clear that Shadowrun was a success. The second edition isn’t a full-scale overhaul. Instead they clarified rules, fixed problems and added some material from the more popular supplements. 1992 also saw the release of a Japanese translation of the game. I’m curious about how well it did over there.

7. Cyber Age (1990)
Subtitle: "28 minutes into the future." A small French rpg, the cover text reads, "Vous avez aimez Blade runner, New York 1997, Outland, Warriors, Tron, Total Recall et Max Headroom. Découvrez Cyber Age le monde tech de l' Europe de 2080.” Even without a translation you can see its sources. The book itself is a cyberpunk sourcebook for the SimulacreS rpg from Casus Belli. They would release a revised edition in 1995.

8. Cyberpunk 2020 (1990)
BOOM. Cyberpunk 2013 lit the fuse and Cyberpunk 2020 walks towards the camera silhouetted by the explosion. It isn't that the rules undergo major revisions. Instead has tweaks, changes to layout & presentation, additional elements (like Medics), and combines the rules into a single sourcebook. All of resulted in a sharp, complete, and useful core book. Smart design and clean DTP work made this great. Cyberpunk 2020’s new look drew attention to the coolness of the rules, for example showcasing the Lifepath system for generating characters.

The number of supplements released by R Talsorian blew up. Players and GMs alike bought the Chromebooks. Imagine a shopping catalog for magic items and you have the draw of these. The company released sourcebooks for the major corporations, guides for different roles, player & GM supplements, guides to netrunning, and more. The setting got deeper treatment with Eurosource, Pacific Rim Sourcebook, Night City and Home of the Brave. Some of that was great; some of it was problematic. R Talsorian also let other companies produce materials for the game, leading to new and interesting directions (the Necrology trilogy for example).

R Talsorian develop other lines and eventually rethink the game itself. A sequel rpg, Cybergeneration, appeared. You can read that game as a distancing from what Cyberpunk had become. The last releases for the Cyberpunk 2020, The Shockwave Trilogy of modules, appeared in 1997. A third edition would be attempted and hated on by the fans. More on that in future lists.

9. Cyborgs (1990)
Another French cyberpunk rpg, this time set in 2020 Brest. Characters enforce law and order for a corporation, using their enhanced cyborg abilities. This is a small product (sixteen pages) with a limited release. According to the Guide du Roliste Galactique, "Cyborgs is the work of a student of the CES of Keranroux in Brest, and was sold at the shop "L'Amusance" of the city in the early 90s. It received the support of the Guild of Britain Games of Simulation, Who took out a second edition in a special issue of his newsletter." It received a similarly small scale supplement, Hard Tech, covering new items and technology.

10. GURPS Cyberpunk (1990)
This is legendary for having sparked an FBI raid of the Steve Jackson Games’ offices, seizing developmental materials and hardware. Apparently their communications and research led the FBI to believe the company had contact with major digital criminals, operated some kind of hacking front, or planned to publish a "how to" book on cybercrime. (Note: this is the story put forward by SJG and passed down in our circles. See the intro of this book for how they framed this. Other sources suggest the raid merely came because of the author's online activities. I'm leaving this with that spin for you to decide). Eventually SJG rebuilt the book and won decisive court victories against the FBI a few years later.

GURPS Cyberpunk is a genre sourcebook. It’s one of the early ones, before SJ Games polished their format and presentation. It has the expected character creation options, world-building advice, and campaign creation ideas. More importantly it has chapters on technology and cyber-implants. The latter's often a sticking point for these early games that want balance and crunch. How do you allow players access to these things? Money? Points? Humanity? Consider the detail here against the streamlined approaches of The Veil and The Sprawl. They skew insanely light in comparison, though more detailed than many PbtA games.

Of course, GURPS Cyberpunk provides a large section on Netrunning. It is detailed, it is dry, it is mechanical. The rules have many options, but at heart they aim for a pseudo-realism. They're great if you want to get a picture of how people saw hacking in the early 1990's. They're also striking if you dig deep and complicated rules with lots of moving parts. Our group loved and ran GURPS for many years, but we avoided these mechanics.

Steve Jackson never released a more modern version of this sourcebook. We did get GURPS Cyberpunk Adventures, GURPS Cyberworld, and GURPS CthulhuPunk. In many ways, the imaginiative space and thinking for cyberpunk in GURPS shifted over to tech books and the standalone Transhuman Space rpg. You also have to wonder if there wasn't a conscious decision to give up trying to stay ahead of the tech curve with these rules.

11. TORG (1990)
The multi-dimensional rpg TORG offers two worlds with a cyberpunk bent. I'm not that familiar with the game, but here's what I can glean. The first, the Cyberpapacy, combines theocratic power with VR reality called the "GodNet." This focus on cyberspace extends to an artificially created hell into which sinners can be cast. Despite the gonzo weirdness of TORG, the Cyberpapacy offers a cyberpunk vision we haven't seen elsewhere. Rather than corporations or fallen governments we have a Church as the corrupt authority to rail against. That Church is the source and supporter of cyberware and VR experiences. It's a lot more Philip K Dick-ian than the usual stuff. This is detailed in The Cyberpapacy and The GodNet supplements, both released in 1991.

The second world, Nippon Tech, is much more a gritty, criminal cyberpunk setting. It is described as the "Mega-Corporate" reality. We get less of the tech as a focus, and more about the society and its hierarchy. Nippon Tech offers a bastardization of Japanese culture. It's a little odd and swings between subtle ideas and over the top concepts. I like the material on corporate wars, but the presentation of pseudo-Asia's less cool. This material is detailed in Nippon Tech (1991) and the Tokyo Citybook (1993).

12. Dark Conspiracy (1991)
Managing a game store for many years educated me in the fandom for different rpgs. You learned the target audience and what elements drew them to the games. Deadlands gamers skewed younger, Rolemaster players had a holier-than-thou attitude, more grognards than you'd expect bought Toon. All of that insight made me avoid some games, in particular Dark Conspiracy. I'm not sure what it was, but in our area it attracted a group of argumentative, trolling, gun-carrying-at-the-table enthusiasts. I recall vividly two of them screaming for an afternoon about Darth Vader vs. Boba Fett.

Dark Conspiracy is marginally cyberpunk. We don't have the usual trappings of a VR cyberspace, hacking, or technology as the disruptive element. Instead we have a near future dystopia with cybernetics, robots, corporate maneuvers and a demonic invasion behind the scenes. I normally wouldn't have put it on the list, since DC doesn't call itself cyberpunk. But reviewers and commentators repeatedly mention cyberpunk in describing it. The cover definitely has that vibe. Some supplements, like DarkTek lean more into these ideas.

13. Heavy Metal (1991)
Not based on the magazine or movie. Instead this is a French game with a thin veneer of cyberpunk. It reminds me a little of Judge Dredd with a mega blocks isolated and at odds. The world's tended by the corporation “Oxygène” and its robots. But there's a sinister truth behind them and the PCs battle against their extermination of humanity. Reviews on Le Grog describe the game as "too political" with a stark dichotomy between eco-freedom fighters and evil capitalists. They also point to the lack of player freedom given the tight premise. Heavy Metal got two supplements, Killing Teknology-- the expected chrome equipment book-- and Urban Guerilla-- a campaign module.

14. When Gravity Fails (1992)
The other Cyberpunk licensed sourcebook, this one is based on a series of novels by George Alec Effinger. It’s a world where “…where Casablanca collides with Blade Runner…”  The Marid Audran books were set in a New Orleans analogue and had a strongly Middle Eastern flavor. At the time I dug the world these novels presented. They were Effinger’s only real foray into cyberpunk. Health problems meant he never published that much (this is an edited correction, see Wikipedia).

When Gravity Fails is a little over 100 pages. It has a timeline up through 2199, a useful presentation of the world & campaign city, several additional character roles, new tech and equipment, and a sample adventure. Some of the tech’s really interesting for its social implications.

For example ‘Daddies’ are socketed chipsets which store memories, training, and sensations. These give users artificial abilities. In the WGF setting, these became ubiquitous, changing labor and expertise. The development of ‘Moddies’ built on that. These allow users to rewire a subject’s brain, an invention originally designed for neurological therapy. Eventually these evolved into artificial personality overlays. You could chip one in and become someone else. Alternately, you could have that done to you. The fallout from this—abuses, addiction, identity theft—forms the backdrop for the novels. It’s a great concept and one worth exploring in play.

The other new element When Gravity Fails brings to the table is a treatment of Arab culture and Islam in the future. This is OK. I’m glad that we have this material. Religion and its associated culture rarely got treated in cyberpunk of this era. The other rpg version we’ve seen is the the cartoonish Cyberpapacy. When Gravity Fails isn’t anywhere near as garish as that. It does suffer from exotification and stereotyping (“ugh, proverbs as the culture touchstone again”). It also assume a regressive version of Islam, with repressive treatment of women.

Finally, the art leans hard in two directions: super-sexy and weirdly stereotypical Arabian. Sometimes both. For the latter there’s some attempt at fusion of fashions, but characters more often look like they came out of Al Qadim. It’s a mixed bag, but overall I think the striking ideas here outweigh the bad stuff. YRMV. If nothing else, it’s a great example of cyberpunk world-building based on a central theme.

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.

FATE WORLDS
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.

WORLD OF ADVENTURE
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.

OTHER EVIL HAT FATE SOURCEBOOKS
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.

STANDALONE FATE GAMES
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.

FATE ADD-ONS
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.

ONLINE RESOURCES
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.