Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Fate Core & Fate System Toolkit

Fate Core is the long-awaited “generic” incarnation of the FATE roleplaying ruleset, having previously been seen in various game-specific incarnations in lots of games (“Spirit of the Century”, “Dresden Files”, “Diaspora”, etc). It’s a “state of the art” version of the system, combining various good ideas and dumping some other baggage which hasn’t worked out so well. The result is quite stunning, frankly; this is the version of FATE I would use for pretty much anything. The book, in digest format, is very clearly laid out and organized with lots of examples, and the art ranges from “ok” to very good. The system is generic, but the book contains hints on how to fine-tune it for various different genres.

FATE itself is somewhere between low- and medium complexity. It uses special dice (so-called “fudge dice”), with minus (-) and plus (+) symbols on d6 dice instead of numbers. It’s easy enough to use normal d6 dice if fudge dice aren’t available, so it’s not a big deal. The game is very abstract, and instead of hard numbers and “stats” instead focuses on “aspects”, which are… pretty much any sort of condition, aspect or property you could attach to something. A good aspect should have potential for both good and bad as far as the character is concerned; for example, a character aspect of “Afghanistan war veteran” could be used by the player to justify various feats related to previous army experience, but the GM could also use it to provoke flashbacks to nasty situations are inopportune times (provided the player agrees). All this works on a “Fate Point” economy, characters have “fate points” which can be used for bonus, and which can be regained when the GM tags an aspect as an obstacle for the players (among other means). This gives players to create aspects which are interesting and which aren’t purely positive for the character. and all this helps move the game along and build the plot.

The combat is similarly abstract. It, too, runs on aspects, and tends to avoid hard numbers. Distances are abstracted into “zones”, and there is absolutely no need for miniatures, measuring tape or any of that tactical wargame stuff. Damage also avoids any sort of “hit points”, and instead has a separate “stress track” for mental and physical “damage”, and three “consequences”. The stress represents small stuff you can easily shrug off with some bit of rest, while consequences represent the serious stuff: broken bones, severe mental trauma, etc.

Fate System Toolkit is an expansion book to the system, and while fun it’s by no means essential. It’s a “hacking guide” to the FATE ruleset, with lots of guides and examples of how to modify the system, and what the effects and drawbacks of each approach is. If the core game doesn’t quite fit your needs, this book is worth checking out for various hacks, but otherwise it can easily be skipped. Since the core engine has been fine-tuned quite a bit, modifying it blindly is not a good idea.

The System Toolkit also provides hints on how to go about creating new races and character types (and how to balance them), and how to add various different types of magic systems to the game. Again, useful if you are tweaking the system to fit your game world or idea, not so useful otherwise.

I would recommend Fate Core to anyone who has played & liked a Fate system game, and to anyone looking for a fun, semi-lightweight “generic” game system to run their game with. As long as you are fine with abstractions (this game is not for simulationists!), it’s a very smooth game engine. There is a small learning curve, though, especially for groups more used to “traditional” game systems and unused to “indie” game concepts. Figuring out how aspects work and how the fate point economy works can feel a bit weird in the beginning.

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Minireview: The Worldwound Incursion (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 1/6)

The Worldwound Incursion opens up the new “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, set near the demon-infested Worldwound. I was a bit sceptical of how interesting a “legendary heroes fight demons” adventure path would be, but at least this first installment is promising. The path ties in with Pathfinders “legendary characters” rules options, which give extra power to the PCs so that stories can reach “epic scope” without needed ridiculous levels of character experience.

The initial setup is great, and something a bit out of the norm. The crusader city of Kenabres is hit by a massive demonic assault, and the PCs happen to be the only survivors at ground zero. All this is kicked off “in medias res”, with actual play beginning with the survivors dusting themselves off at the bottom of a vast underground chasm and figuring out “well, what now?”. No “meet stranger at pub”, no “ally X asks for help”, just “shit happened, you are a bunch of random people in the middle of it, go”. As a bonus, a few NPC survivors, each with different agendas, are also included. How the PCs deal with them and whether or not the NPCs survive has repercussions later on. All in all, this is a great way to kick off a campaign, and makes it easy to figure out PC motivations for what comes later. The included NPCs were also quite interesting.

Strong start to a new tale.

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Minireview: Tears at Bitter Manor (Pathfinder)

The Pathfinder stand-alone module format has recently moved to a “fewer releases, bigger modules” format, and I for one think the change is a good one. Even though the “new style” module so far have been merely ok in quality, the format does make room for more involved plots. Here, in Tears at Bitter Manor, that extra space is used to introduce a plot more centered around investigation than combat – always welcome, in my book.

The plot involves an old band of retired adventurers who meet up with each other once a year. This year, one of them has failed to show up, and since this coincides with some other dark events in the region, the PCs are asked to look into the matter (various possible hooks are described in the module). Of course, all this would work best if the NPC band of retired adventurers had been introduced to the PC earlier, in other contexts, but that sort of thing isn’t always possible. In any case, it is assumed that the PCs take up the case, and of course there is a sinister plot behind it all. Isn’t there always.

This is a decent adventure, but it could be better. The main bad guy isn’t all that interesting, and the NPCs themselves could be a little less stereotypical and more interesting. They aren’t bad, it’s just that they are a bit bland. I did like the fact that not all of this is combat, though, so in the end it’s one more in the “decent but nothing fantastic” pile.

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Minireview: The City & the City, by China Miéville

The City & the City is a deeply strange book… but then again, since it’s by China Miéville, that’s a given. I absolutely love many of his books, while sometimes, most recently in “The Kraken”, I can see what he’s trying to do but it just leaves me cold. This book lands squarely in the “absolutely loved it” department, in fact I think it’s one of his all-time best.

This is a stand-along book, not connected to any of his other stories. It’s set in the dilapidated city of Beszel, in some vaguely Eastern European country. It’s also set in the city of Ul Qoma, which… ok, here I have to post a warning, since it’s impossible to discuss this book without some spoilers.

So, you have been warned. If you have yet to read this book, I suggest you stop reading this, right now, and go read the book. Welcome back, afterwards.

Ok, so Ul Quoma both is Beszel and and very much is not. It occupies the same physical space, but it logically separate. Citizens of Beszel do not see citizens of Ul Quoma, and vice versa. Oh, they could see them, but they are conditioned since childhood to “unsee” things that do not belong. If you want to visit Ul Quoma from Beszel, you need to go to the border checkpoint (in the center of both cities), and then, having officially crossed over, are free to go back to the same exact spot – at which point you can see Ul Quoma, but cannot see Beszel anymore.

Sometimes, people accidentally see things they are not supposed to, they fail to “unsee”. This can result in bad things happening. Very bad things.

All this very slowly dawns on the reader, through the narrator: inspector Tyador Borlú of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad. A native of Baszel, he describes everything in a matter-of-fact tone which, initially makes everything seem just like a routine police procedural. Slowly, the reader becomes aware just how weird this supposedly-normal city is, and that it’s about much more than a routine murder mystery.

The plot? Initially, it’s about a murdered young woman, a citizen of Ul Quoma found in Beszel – with no record of her having crossed over. Slowly, Inspector Borlú is drawn deeper into a plot that seems to involve much deeper and darker things, including a legendary “third city” co-existing with the other two, hiding in some mysterious dimension just outside reach. Sometimes people get too close to the real truth, and vanish, never to be heard of again.

It’s a fascinating and unique tale, with hints of Kafka and others. It teeters on the edge of “science fiction”, while arguably not being that. It also has elements of urban fantasy, without quite being that either. The fantastic, partly anonymous faux Eastern Europe locale even has some themes in common with Al Amarja (from “Over the Edge”), without being tongue-in-cheek.

An impressive book from an already impressive writer.

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Minireview: Of Predators and Prey

Of Predators and Prey is an anthology of stories (edited by Justin Achilli) based on the new “The Hunters Hunted II” book for Vampire: the Masquerade; in fact, it was one of the Kickstarter stretch goals. Despite being a “secondary” artifact of a roleplaying source book, this is a pretty good collection of stories and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not every story is a gem, but there’s a lot more good than there is bad or mediocre here, some of the stories offer quite clever twists on the basic “vampires versus vampire hunters” theme.

While this is connected to the V:tM roleplaying game, I think this would work quite well for readers not familiar with the game, also. No game terminology is used, and the internal world of the vampires is kept quite mysterious since this book focuses on the “mortals” (who, more often than not, have no idea they are in over their heads).

Good lightweight entertainment, especially for readers who know and like the game. Of course, “lightweight” does not mean “bright and happy” here, some of the tales told here are very bleak.

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