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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Base Raiders

Base Raiders is a somewhat different “supers” game. In a way, it’s a sort of post-apoc superheroes game. Here, the world has seen the rise of superpowered individuals, and has gotten used to “superheroes” and “supervillains” duking it out. Then, with no warning, they all vanished at the same time. Nobody has seen them since. Now, later, a new generation of low-powered “supers” are appearing on the scene… and are discovering that the now-vanished old guard left behind vast caches of superweapons and whatnot, locked in their various headquarters and villainous lairs. What’s an enterprising “superhero” to do? Some breaking and entering, that’s what! It’s against the law, but who cares?

So, in a way, it’s a setup for superhero dungeon crawls, where the “dungeons” are now-vacated complexes left behind by other “supers”. So there’s ample justification for deadly traps, desperate minions defending their now-gone “master’s” property, and of course run-ins with the (ordinary) authorities. Even if the raid succeeds… what do you do with a cache of super-science tech that nobody, including you, understands anymore?

It’s a fun concept, and probably works nicely in play given a suitable gaming group. It’s powered by Fate (close to the version used in Kerberos Club), and isn’t too horribly crunchy. The book could have uses some more clarity and examples on how things work, in my opinion; while Fate veterans should have no problems, not everything was totally clear to me, ruleswise. Also, while we’re talking (slight) negatives, the art here isn’t all that good. Understandable, since good art is expensive, but it does detract a bit.

Despite small niggles, this reads like a solid game and it puts a slightly new spin on an old gaming trope – a couple of them. actually.

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Minireview: Fate Worlds: Worlds on Fire / Worlds in Shadow (Fate Core)

Worlds on Fire and Worlds in Shadow form volumes one and two of “Fate Worlds”, supplements for the Fate Core ruleset which contain an assortment of game settings for various styles and genres. The books are the result of stretch goals from the mega-successful Kickstarter for the core game, and what was initially projected to be “a few example settings” grew into two sizable volumes. Good ones, to boot.

The books don’t really follow any strict themes, though there is a small “fire” theme in the first volume and the settings in the second one are maybe a slight bit “darker”. All settings are presented in nice, compact fashion, with setting descriptions, suggested core rules tweaks, example NPCs, and story seeds all laid out. The art is generally good, of the same quality as in the core game book.

“Worlds on Fire” contains a fantasy setting (“Tower of the Serpents”), a setting simulating a TV series (“White Picket Witches”), a real-life firefighter one (“Fight Fire”), a weird but wonderful alternate-history WW1 setting (“Kriegzeppelin Valkyrie”), a strange post-apoc setting (“Burn Shift”) and a Wild West setting with superpowers thrown in (“Wild Blue”). So yeah, quite a mixed set, but they are all good (in very different ways).

“Worlds in Shadow” starts off with a section devoted to the “crime caper” genre (“CrimeWorld”). This isn’t a setting as much as it’s an intro on a genre (think TV shows like Leverage and movies like Ocean’s 11). Next up is a setting where the players work for a time-travel agency with an agenda of changing history in a way which suits the aims of the agency (“Timeworks”). Naturally enough, this has some sinister implications. Next, there a 1920s “pulp”- themed romp (“The Ellis Affair”) which is ok but maybe not up to the same quality as the other offerings. After than there’s “No Exit”, which explores how to do horror in Fate Core (not something it’s best at, generally). It’s a great and creepy affair, playing on the concept of memory. Next up there’s perhaps the most bizarre setting in these volumes, in which players fight an alien invasion as members of Louis XV’s (decadent) court (“Court/Ship”). For some reason, it reminded me a bit of some Dr. Who episodes – in a good way. Last is… well, another contender for the “most bizarre” setting, in which players enact Arthurian legends with big stompy robots (mecha), in “Camelot Trigger”.

Overall, these books are a fantastic collection of very unique and imaginative settings and game tweaks, covering a huge swathe of genres and play styles. Even if you don’t want to use any of these “as is”, there’s a lot of info and hints here on how to tweak Fate Core into various different directions. If you like Fate Core, these are very much worth picking up.

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Minireview: Nova Praxis

Nova Praxis is a new(ish) scifi roleplaying game, in the “post-cyberpunk / transhumanist” genre. I guess the closest comparison would be with Eclipse Phase, but where that game includes a strong horror element with humanity’s future survival as a species on the line, this one is more Mass Effect. The system is based on Strands of Fate (though modifed), and is thus a bit more crunchy than something like Fate Core. Not much, though, system-wise this is a fairly lightweight deal.

The game depicts a humanity forced to expand to the stars after Earth is destroyed in a “grey goo” scenario (runaway weaponized nanotech), which in turn was triggered by a Singularity (in the computational sense). An AI named “Mimir” becomes self-aware, and before shutting itself down for unspecified reasons it spews out a bunch of blueprints for ultra-advanced technologies (including stuff in the “star drive” category). Various factions scramble to gain (sole) possession of these, and the ensuing wars lead to Earth’s destruction. In the game’s “current day”, humanity is mainly ruled by “The Coalition”, a post-scarcity society composed of various Houses, remnants of old-Earth countries and megacorporations. Those unwilling to submit to the rule of the Coalition are called Apostates, some of which have a long-running guerilla war against the status quo. Player characters are expected to either be working for one of the Houses as “troubleshooters”, or to be Apostates “fighting the man”. Nothing strictly enforces this, of course, that’s just the default assumption.

On the organizational side, the book is very well put together, with information needed for (say) character creation being quite clearly outlined without too much need for page-flipping. The PDF is exceptional, with a massive amount of internal links; it’s probably the best example of what the PDF format can offer for tablet use. Well done, guys.

There is no default conflict in the game world, other than the Coalition vs Apostate one. The good point here is that neither of those is portrayed as the “good guy”, so there’s room for lots of types of stories. Just like Iain Banks’ “Culture” books, most of the interesting stuff tends to happen in the fringes of society. Emulating a “Culture”-type story (or “Mass Effect”) with this game would probably be quite easy.

All that said, I wasn’t totally thrilled with the game. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s well-presented, has a solid game system, and allows for pretty much all current space opera / transhumanist tropes… but maybe that last bit is what bothered me a bit about this. The game copies ideas and concepts from all over (which is good), but in the end it’s just not very unique as a setting. Compared to, say, Eclipse Phase, this just feels a bit… bland. Of course, the GM will build his/her game on top of this base setting, and that game most probably won’t be bland at all. It’s a solid game, with much to recommend it, but a bit lacking in the “original ideas” department.

Regardless, I do recommend that you pick up a copy of the PDF. It’s extremely well presented.

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Minireview: Diaspora

The FATE ruleset (originally popularized by Spirit of the Century) seems to be on a roll nowadays. Dresden Files uses a new incarnation of it, Strands of Fate is a generic toolkit based on it, and now we also have a science fiction game using as FATE variant as the core rules engine. Diaspora is subtitled “hard science-fiction role-playing with fate”, making it a rare thing: a roleplaying game focusing on “hard” science-fiction – not all that many of those around, in general.

The game posits a universe where humanity has spread to the stars using “Slipstream gates”, one-to-one wormholes between (apparently) random destinations – thus the name “Diaspora”. Other than the basic setup, the game actually doesn’t nail down all that much about the game world, the idea here is to create the game world (i.e. set of solar systems) in a collaborative manner, using a very neat rules subsystem. Having tried this out in practice I can say that it really does work, the systems we ended up with were all very interesting and different from each other. This is not a unique concept of course, Burning Empires has a similar collaborative world-building prelude to the actual game play… but it’s still a fairly rare thing to see it codified like this.

So, because the actual game world background isn’t set in stone, there isn’t much page count devoted to it; most of the book is rules and subsystems, along with commentary on how to use them. There are subsystems for combat, social/mental “combat”, space combat, squad/platoon-level combat, and organization-level combat in the abstract sense (two competing marketing campaigns, for example). It all uses the same base system, and allows you to “drill down” (or zoom out) of any conflict situation and still have a rule set to resolve things with. Very cool.

Characters have Aspects, Skills and Stunts. Each character has ten Aspects, created during a collaborative character design session with input from the whole group… and yes, ten aspects is a lot to keep track of. On the other hand, the Aspects that don’t see actual use can be swapped out for others later, so it should allow for the actual character intent to emerge, after some time. The large number of Aspects does mean that the players need to be very proactive here, having just the GM keep track of things would probably not work very well.

All in all, the game seems to deliver what it promises. Other than the existence of faster than light travel, the game is very “hard science fiction” in approach, and tries to avoid “magic technology” while allowing for very high tech levels where normal tech might as well be magic to the less developed societies. The game posits the idea that a high enough tech level inevitably leads to some form of collapse: if the society does not kill itself via super-weapons, at some point it encounters a “singularity” and evolves to some form that is not really human (or relevant to the rest of humanity) any more. Some staples of science fiction are absent here; for example, I kept wondering why the space combat sections didn’t include such obvious things as automated combat drone swarms and other highly automated combat systems – but of course, it’s easy enough to add those if you want, and putting the emphasis on human analysis (as opposed to automated systems) can lead to more interesting game situations.

I can recommend this game to anyone looking for an interesting modern game engine to run science fiction games with. Other than the included world and associated assumptions, you could probably run something like Traveler with this quite easily, along with many other hard(ish) science fiction settings. The fact that “social combat” rules and organization-level conflict rules are also included is also a very nice touch. The writing is very clear and concise, and many core FATE concepts are explained much more clearly here than in Strands of Fate, for example.

As for comparison between this and Strands of Fate…. I can’t say, really. Diaspora is tuned towards one type of game: a hard science fiction -based game, set in multiple solar systems by default. Strands is a generic toolkit, and can do a lot of other things “out of the box”, at the expense of a bigger page count and somewhat more confusing presentation in places. Diaspora’s world creation minigame is awesome, nothing like that (obviously) exists in Strands. Both games include subsystems to handle various types of conflict, allowing you to “zoom” over a scale of different sizes and types of conflict. I’d personally use Diaspora for what it’s meant for, and Strands for other genres (assuming I wanted to use FATE, that is), but at the moment I haven’t really used either one yet (though our world/character design session for Diaspora was quite promising).

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Minireview: Strands of Fate

Strands of Fate is a generic roleplaying ruleset, based on FATE (base system used in Spirit of the Century, Diaspora, Dresden Files, etc). Unlike those games, Strands of Fate attempts to be a truly generic and genre-independent ruleset, in the manner of GURPS. It’s possibly the most “mainstream” FATE implementation to date, since in many ways it’s a hybrid of more traditional rule systems and FATE core. That doesn’t make it “lightweight” in any sense: the book is huge, and there are lots of subsystems and quite a bit of crunch.

Of course, it’s hard to say how it works in practice without actually trying it out, but based on a read-through it seems pretty nice. It redefines and renames some base FATE concepts: FATE “Skills” are replaced by the combo of Abilities and Aspects, Stunts by Advantages, and some terms like “shifts” and “tags” are done away with. Characters have Abilities, which are expanded versions of FATE Skills (they cover both traditional skills and more generic abilities). The numbers on these tend to be lower than in base FATE, since the true character differentiation happens with Character Aspects, Specialty Aspects and Advantages. There is a nifty expansion on Persistent Aspects which lets you use them to model dynamic but ongoing stuff like “on fire”. There’s a lot of stuff, including different tech levels and realism. It’s all quite impressive, especially since it’s more or less modular. There are rules for resolving “social combat”, vehicle combat, and lots of other situations – the big page count is partly due to the book including a ton of specialized subsystems for various situations, with advice on how to use them.

There’s a lot to like here, assuming you like FATE in the first place. The book covers a lot of ground, from gritty fantasy to superhero antics, and includes subsystems ranging from direct one-on-one combat or debate up to mass combat and other more abstract situations. While a genre-specific ruleset has a lot of advantages, I can also see the advantages in having a generic go-to ruleset – for example, I could see myself possibly using this to run Over the Edge or Tribe 8 over their “native” systems. Of course, I say this based on just reading the thing, and I’m not totally sure how it works out in practice, though people have reported generally favorable things. It’s a big book, and I’m not familiar enough with FATE to really understand all the details or to really have an opinion on them.

So, generally favorable impression here. The layout is clear and easy to read, though nothing spectacular, and the art is the same (ok, but nothing special). I did find the book a bit overly verbose in places, for example Diaspora (another FATE variant) manages to explain many core concepts more clearly and concisely. I also ran into quite a few places where concepts were used before they were properly defined; not a problem when using the book as a rules reference, but a bit confusing when reading the thing for the first time.

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