Sunday, September 29, 2013

Some More Fate Dithering... Ignore If You Can

So I've got a tentative test run of a one-shot Fate adventure set for late October, possibly the 29th. But the more I dig into the system, the more I worry.

There's a lot I really like about Fate, in theory at least. The characters are fairly fast and simple to create. Task and combat resolution is really flexible, and for a non-tactical game, offers a lot of interesting and creative strategies. Although it's hard to imagine how it would actually play out, you can do "combat" on an intellectual or even social level. So that instead of inflicting physical wounds, you could inflict a Consequence on someone like "Humiliated in front of his peers" or "Revealed to be a fraud," which can be invoked to create an advantage against them.

But then there's that word, "Consequence." There is no real damage system in Fate, just as there are no statistics to form the basis of one. You have no Strength or Constitution score, and therefore no hit points against which to inflict damage. Instead, you inflict Consequences, which are basically negative aspects against a character. Ironically, this can create a combat that's more like the kinds of fights you see in books and movies, and I dare say more "realistic" than a more traditional hit point-based simulation. A character receiving a Consequence will have something like Fractured Rib or Cut Over the Eye, instead of saying, "Ouch, I lost 10 points." Although there's no fixed mechanical penalty in the rules for such conditions, the character is required to honor those consequences in further play.

That's a hard hurdle for me to get across, though. Although intellectually, I can see the value in such a system, I also see how it can be abused by players looking to exploit advantage over the table. I've played with a lot of power-gamers who would look for every exploit they could find in the rules to "beat" the Game-Master, or the scenario, and I can foresee lots of debates over the table from people looking to make a Severe Consequence not so severe, or looking to take a Consequence that's really no hindrance at all. And even people who aren't power-gamers could find it confusing not to have firm rules in place--"Okay, so I'm Groggy. What exactly does that mean in this fight?" Its fuzziness makes it flexible, but can also make it frustrating.

And then there's the issue of concession. Fate has rules for conceding a conflict, which, again, to me seems like a cool mechanic. Not every fight should end in a complete slaughter of your opponents. But there is a certain level of "heat of battle" that comes into play at the table, where players will make their characters fight until they drop. Not only that, but there are some players who hate the entire concept of surrender on either side. If their opponents surrender, the players will just kill them while they're helpless. Avoiding a fight by negotiation or allowing a helpless opponent to live is simply not in their gaming vocabulary.

But concession is a pretty big part of Fate, mostly as a way to allow the PC's to survive an encounter they're losing. Problem is, why should the NPC's accept a surrender or a negotiated cease-fire if the PC's would not? Once again, it's a mechanic I think is pretty cool, but I don't know how it would play at the table.

What else? Oh, there's also the mechanics that allow characters to change the game world by declaring new aspects on scenes and characters. On the one hand, I think it's a neat mechanic to allow collaboration at the table, and it's something I've actually done a few times in our non-Fate campaigns, where I've made a suggestion that some condition outside my character apply in the scene and the GM, not seeing a problem, agrees.

But it's hard enough keeping a campaign on track when players' actions so frequently try to push things somewhere else. In a campaign world like the one I'm setting up, which will have major secrets and revelations, how do you keep that under control if players can, on a whim, suddenly decide to declare a change that undoes a secret that they haven't yet learned? I suppose the answer is, "As the GM, you simply say 'no.'" But once again, I foresee arguments from players who say, "This is in the rules, and you let X do Y, so why not me?"

But this is why I want to playtest, to see if the problems I anticipate might be overblown, and to see if the fun factor overrides those concerns.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Some More Thoughts About That Smeaton Character Sheet

So this is going to be some just off-the-top-of-my-head ramblings about the new character sheet vs. the old, with some digressions into general game design stuff. So happens that these old game materials I'm running across are things that came to light during the gradual clean-up that occurred during the Great Power-Down and was never finished. The end result was that the piles of stuff scattered around my house were more organized by common themes than before.

So along with the notes on the campaign world I ran across yesterday was Smeaton's original character sheet. I'm not going to include it here, because there's a lot of stuff. But if you compare it to the minimal Fate system character I posted last time, it's incredibly complex. Eight basic attributes, three derived attributes plus a damage modifier for Strength, 29 skills, and some gear. Oh, and his middle name was Hamish. I'd forgotten that.

So on the one hand, it looks as if the Fate character sheet could not possibly yield a character as complex as Smeaton was in the original game, with his 10 skills and 5 aspects. And to a certain extent, that's true, a I'll discuss in a moment. But when you look at what actually goes into playing a character, the Fate sheet has all the high points covered. It's a matter of emphasis. The old sheet, following the old-school game paradigm, lists a lot of skill percentages, but not much about Smeaton as a person. The focus of the character sheet is on mechanical resolution, with the role-playing side left entirely up to the player. This is a valid approach; I said at the time, and I still think that the Atlantis campaign was the best game I've ever played in.

But the skill resolution system was often very frustrating, with the entire party trying and failing to climb a twenty-foot rope in one session, and another character spending an entire combat locked in a futile struggle with a single minor enemy while everyone else was mowing through people to get the battle won. True, Fate Core's skills aren't as granular. If I take Fight in Fate Core, I am equally capable with fists and swords and knives and clubs, whereas in the Atlantis game, I had to take separate skills for all those. This does give a different flavor to combat, especially with the very different skill advancement system, but I don't think it's a game killer.

The emphasis in Fate is on role-playing, so that the mechanics of the game center on it. Therefore, aspects instead of attributes. Much of the game runs on Fate Points. You invoke aspects and spend Fate Points to get advantages, such as my trying to solve a mystery by invoking my "Ex-artilleryman" aspect to contact my old military buddies for information. On the other hand, I can also receive Fate Points by accepting a disadvantage based on my aspects, like being distracted in a fight by a cool piece of tech, which gets my "Hell of an Engineer" curiosity going.

But here's the thing that prompted me to write a follow-up. While there's no role-playing emphasis on the old sheet, one of the pivotal role-plating elements of Smeaton's character developed from the skill system, or more correctly, the skill buying system.

See, when making up our characters, we bought our skills using two pools of points. One pool was for Core Skills, the kinds of things all adventurers end up needing to do, and the kinds of things that aren't necessarily taught in a classroom. Fighting, listening, climbing, sneaking: these are all core skills, and there are never enough points to go around.

The other pool is Knowledge Skills, the kinds of things you CAN learn in a classroom (and which are far less useful in game terms). And in the four games I've played under this system, I've always ended up having more Knowledge Skill points than I can really spend, given the GM-imposed limits on how good a skill can be at the start. I end up buying a lot of skills that I never really use.

So in Smeaton's case, I ended up having some spare points and bought skill in the clarinet, for the hell of it. But this throwaway skill got me thinking of a justification, which is what led to Smeaton's love of poetry and eventually, his Secret Romantic aspect.

So although those points were wasted in terms of game effectiveness, they ended up being something like an aspect in Fate or a disadvantage in Champions: a means to ask questions about my character and deepen his personality.

Playing with Fate

Found some more notes and sample character write-ups for my dieselpunk/pulp adventure campaign world. Still waffling on what system I want to use, but in the meantime, I decided to try adapting an old character to the Fate system to see how it would work.

So here is Dougal Smeaton, my ex-military engineer from our Atlantean campaign. I followed the basic model from Fate Core, and not the model from Spirit of the Century (the pulp adventure game that first got me thinking about Fate) which loads up a lot more aspects and skills.

Dougal Smeaton


A hell of an engineer:
  • Benefits: Knows how to design, build and repair machinery
  • Hindrances: Thinks of things mechanically, has trouble believing in it if he can't understand how it works

Truth in the bottom of a glass
  • Benefits: High tolerance for alcohol, knows a lot about whiskey and brewing, has unique insights
  • Hindrances: Often drunk, bad reputation

  • Benefits: knowledge of military customs and skills, experienced campaigner, military contacts
  • Hindrances: bad memories of the war, sense of duty may lead him to put himself in danger

Secret Romantic
  • Benefits: knowledge of poetry, loyalty, passion
  • Hindrances: may do foolish or dangerous things for the woman he loves, trouble when secrets come to light

  • Benefits: Strong, courageous, loves to fight
  • Hindrances: may resort to violence when other approaches might be smarter


Physique (Great +4)
Fight, Crafts (Good +3)
Shoot, Athletics, Contacts (Fair +2)
Notice, Provoke, Rapport, Language: Atlantean (Average +1)


Grappler: +2 on Physique rolls when grappling
Better Than New: when succeed with style on repair, add a free situation aspect

Physical Stress: _ _ _ _
Mental Stress: _ _

This would be the sheet for Dougal as he was starting out. It carries all the bullet points of his personality in the aspects (the "Secret Romantic" aspect was one that didn't really exist when I first made up the character--it developed during play--but there is a mechanism in the rules to allow aspects to evolve to reflect the character as he develops). The high Physique skill reflects his large size and strength, and gives him extra physical stress boxes. "Crafts" would be the equivalent skill to "Engineering." In our game, Engineering might actually have been split out into a separate skill. If there were a lot of differentiation of skills, however (say, Fight being split into Boxing, Grappling, Sword, Knife, Spear, etc), then there might need to be a bigger skill pyramid to start, with 15 skills instead of 10.

By the end of the campaign, Dougal would have increased several skills, plus added a few. He would also have several Extras to represent things like his flaming sword Angfar and his companion, the beautiful Princess Leda.

On a normal character sheet, you wouldn't list out benefits and hindrances for aspects the way I did above, but I think it's helpful in this context to show some of the ways they could be interpreted during the game. Aspects not only reflect personality, but are also ways to give the character advantages or disadvantages throughout the game. One interesting mechanic is that you can use aspects to give you bonuses to rolls, after you've made the roll.

So, for instance, when Smeaton learned of Leda's vision that he would die protecting her from a demon, he still foolishly went up against it solo (compelling his Secret Romantic aspect and gaining a Fate point). But during the fight itself, he could have invoked both his Two-Fisted (loves to fight) and Secret Romantic (protecting the woman he loves) aspects to give him bonuses to his Fight rolls. He could have invoked those aspects to mitigate the effects of bad rolls or to reroll completely. On the other hand, because the opponent was so superior, he could have chosen to invoke those aspects only after really good rolls, enabling him to stack a lot of damage at once and defeat a superior opponent. It would be a gamble, but then, the whole fight was.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Not Doing What I Should

The long powerless hiatus sticks with me in terms of not getting done what I should be getting done. I need to finish my script for this year's radio show, and I need to get back to work on one of the novels I started a few months ago.

But instead, I'm still concentrating all my fire on building up this role-playing campaign world I started noodling with a few years ago. It's really taking shape and I'm getting really excited by the possibilities. But I'm still trying to decide on a rules system.

I've got basically five possibilities right now. I had been looking at FATE Core. I just finished reading through the system rules a couple of days ago, and while I think it looks like a fascinating and flexible system, the concepts are so counter to what any of us are used to playing that I'm scared to pull the trigger and run a playtest.

Then there's Hero System. I actually statted out some NPC's in Hero long ago, but the amount of work it would be to run the entire campaign in Hero just boggles my mind.

That's why I tried to write a stripped-down version of the Hero engine specifically for this game, but got bogged down trying to figure point costs for the radically different rules I was starting to develop. And in the end, it didn't look as if they would turn out to be that much less work.

Then there are the open-source game systems, Open d6 (which is based on a rule system first developed for West End Games James Bond series, and later adapted for Star Wars), and Action System, which is a weird second-generation spin-off of Fuzion, which was an amalgamation of R. Talsorian's system and Hero.

With the exception of FATE, they're all kind of old-school crunchy, which I like, but...

With the exception of Hero, I've never played any of them, so I'm uneasy about trying to build a campaign around them. It seems as if FATE would be easiest, followed by Open d6, probably, but I just don't know for sure. But it seems as if I'm getting close to the point where I need to start putting down some actual numbers instead of just brainstorming ideas.

And meanwhile, I need to break past my reluctance and get some actual work done.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Return to Champions, Session 2

So we finished out the combat from last week's Champions session, which once again took a little longer than I anticipated. One problem: the scenario just had too many NPC's, or I should say, it was designed for a more gradual progression. Taking on a couple of enemies at a time [ETA: with the entire party working together] would have been more doable and probably progressed a little faster.

As it was, things degenerated into a huge brawl featuring everybody fighting at once almost immediately when the party got to the location. With 4 PC's, 5 super NPC's and a big pile of agents, it took a long time to work through the phases. If I hadn't held back most of the agents (with good in-game justification, though), things would have gotten unmanageable.

As it is, I think I calibrated the difficulty pretty well. People were flagging by the end of the long combat, but there was some genuine peril and triumph in there. Two of the supervillains ended up being pretty easy to beat, and the third, Ripper the Tank, proved himself to be durable and extremely strong. When he set up for a haymaker on one of the characters (a move designed to inflict maximum damage), the party got genuinely worried. But one of the other characters was able to come to the rescue just in the nick of time (which, I'll admit, I timed so that it would be possible).

But because Ripper's defenses were so high, he was able to last through several attacks with just three Stun left. It finally took a character pushing her attack so hard she actually did Stun damage to herself in order to penetrate his defenses and finally put him down, which proved pretty dramatic, I think.

All in all, a mostly fun two-session scenario, I think. However, as much as I still love Champions, I may be just about done with it. I used to think I would love to run Hero System for any genre--I've got the Fantasy Hero and Justice, Inc. and Ninja Hero and Super Agents game books, none of which I've actually played--but outside of superheroes, I'm thinking Champions is just too much work for too little reward. The Speed Chart and the rolling of tons of dice gives superhero combat a really unique flavor, though, so if I ever decided to run a Diggerverse campaign (unless I finally get off my ass and finish the stripped-down rules I was trying to write), Champions would be the choice, I think.

But for my pulp-era campaign, I'm currently leaning toward Fate, with a greater emphasis on role-playing and faster combat resolution. I will probably try putting something together for a test run in November, after I've gotten Halloween behind me.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Back Behind the Screen

So a couple of weeks ago, in the final throes of no-power-having (which I'll write about pretty soon), I'm visiting some game friends in their house with lights, and efamar mentions that she would like to try Champions. I keep talking about it, and Sargon keeps talking about it, how complex yet fun it can be, and she just wants to know for herself.

And the thing is, I've been thinking about trying to gamemaster again for a few years now, but hadn't gotten the nerve for a few reasons. I'd been trying to put together a very large game world that was a little too ambitious, I had been trying to adapt the Champions design into something a little simpler (coming up with some similar approaches to the guys who did the Fuzion system) with not much success, and with Sargon already running our once-a-week game, I wasn't sure people would have time to fit a second game into their schedules.

But efamar wanted to try it, and jormungandr said he wanted to give it a go as well, and when efamar said that Sargon had expressed a wish to get to be a player instead of a GM at least once, I decided to give it a try.

But instead of trying to launch a big campaign in a new world, I decided to start small. One of the biggest hurdles to new Champions players is designing a new character. There are so many options and variations, and so much math, and that's only after you've wrapped your head around the concept of the effects-based system Champions uses. It can take hours to put together a good character--fun hours for a certain brand of game geek, admittedly--but it can be off-putting to new players.

So I decided to use a fairly small pre-generated adventure with the players using introductory characters from the 4th Edition Champions rulebook. The adventure was the classic "School Holiday" by Aaron Allston, published in The Space Gamer magazine in 1982 (later expanded into School of Hard Knocks for GURPS Supers). Because the adventure's NPC's were designed with 1st edition rules, however, I also used characters from either the rulebook or from Classic Enemies (4th Ed.), sometimes with slight changes to names and powers. I threw in a quick introductory Danger Room fight to get people used to the way combat works before throwing them into the big fight. I ended up getting way more into it than I expected to.

The actual night itself was fun, after a rocky start. A couple of players weren't in great moods coming in, and I don't know if the two-page quick-start rules I sent out were actually helpful at all in introducing concepts, so the Danger Room fight didn't go quite as quickly as I'd hoped.

When the PC's got to the hostage situation at the school, they leapt forward a lot more quickly than I'd expected and hit from two fronts, so the fight was a lot less self-contained than anticipated. The encounter was supposed to be pretty challenging, but doable as long as the characters took on a few enemies at a time. We ended up running out of time in the middle of the big fight, with one character alone against a few of the enemies in the final room (he tunnelled ahead) while the others were fighting against the rest upstairs.

I was a lot more out-of-practice behind the screen than I'd anticipated. The last time I gamemastered was in 1987, so we're looking at over 25 years. It was fun, but I had forgotten a lot of the rules on things like Flash Attacks and Entangles, so I spent more time consulting the rulebook than I prefer. But people said they enjoyed it, and we're planning on getting together perhaps week after next to finish out the encounter, and beyond that, who knows?

I'm getting the itch to pick up that old campaign I was designing, although I'm having trouble choosing a rules system. Part of me wants to stick with Champions, but putting together NPC's and things is really time-consuming. Another part of me is really curious about something rules-lite, like the Fate System. You don't get that satisfying crunch of improving skills and watching your numbers go up, but it seems like it could be really fast, fun and flexible, ideal for a group of people who wouldn't have a lot of time for either preparation or play. And I've downloaded a lot of d6 system stuff that I've never gotten to play, as well, so there's that.