My project of getting to know different RPG systems and worlds continues.
The Fate system has been criticized quite widely in that it is simple to game the system and that it doesn’t really matter what you do, since anything you do has basically the same effect. This is certainly true, if you approach it through a D&D mindset, where success and failure are defined by game mechanical effects and not fiction, but it couldn’t be further from the truth as far as the intention of the system goes.
The system requires a level of buy-in by both players and the GM – that effects implied by the mechanics are primarily applied to the fiction and become true in the fiction, and the numeric effect should almost be less important. Everyone has to do their part – the GM has to describe everything through the story (instead of just marking 12 hit points off the target) and so do the players. It is often a collaborative effort – you discuss and agree upon appropriate results together. The GM functions as the final arbiter, but often it is more interesting to see, what the player thinks should happen, when he is hit by a blaster shot or something.
From a D&D mindset, it is true that when you overcome an obstacle it doesn’t matter, how you are overcoming it, as long as you roll successes with the dice, but that forgoes the intention of the system. It is very different to climb over the pile of rubble or to throw a grenade into it to clear it away, or to use the nearby bulldozer to clear a path through it. Not only did you (purely mechanically) overcome an obstacle and you are now on the other side of the pile of rubble, but the pile might still be there or it might be a fire that’s about to start and spread to nearby buildings, or there might be a nice clear path through the pile that others can easily follow. If you are gaining an advantage and take a note that says you have advantage, you are following the mechanics, but if your character seeks higher ground to gain a better shot, then in addition to having an advantage, your character is now on higher ground. The idea behind all of this is to generate really dynamic scenes that create interesting fiction.
The system functions partially similarly to PbtA systems – when the fiction seems to imply that throwing dice would be interesting (there is both a chance of failure and the failure could be interesting), then you pick up the dice. The results are then fitted back into the fiction – not only do you need to describe any mechanical results, but you need to narrate, what actually happened. There are obvious differences to the PbtA system, where there are “playbooks” that set the tone for what is important in the setting of a specific PbtA game. Fate is more generic – obviously there’s some tuning of skills (in medieval settings you might have a skill to ride animals, while in sci-fi settings the skill might be replaced with a skill to pilot star ships) – but the system aims to enable anything you might want to do with it. They have released a bunch of toolkit expansions that aim to give guidelines for tuning the system to various settings that might have specific needs.
I’m not going to go into detail about the system, but reading through the book I was feeling that this is exactly what roleplaying games should always have been. The story comes first, cutting to interesting scenes is encouraged, throwing dice, when failure is not interesting, is avoided, results are a part of the fiction instead of “he hits you with the sword for 3 points of damage”, systems are kept as simple as possible, in order to keep the game about the story instead of the rules.
Petri has written a ton about the system and done it well. His articles require you to know the system in advance, but they are very good, so if you are interested to delve deeper, I suggest you go and read them.
The system doesn’t come with a setting, but it does define a style of play – you are meant to be playing capable characters, who take an active part in the fiction, and as already mentioned, the GM is encouraged to cut to interesting bits and not spend time on crossing the forest, if nothing important is going to happen in the forest. Although there’s no one right way to play RPGs, this is my cup of tea.
There is one more bonus with this book – it is the best book I’ve read about roleplaying in general. It’s good for the players, but it is exceptional for the GM. Most RPGs tend to have a ‘what are RPGs’ or a ‘how to play/GM’ section or even both, but they tend to be on the level of: “One guy is the GM and he tells you a story. You tell your characters actions in the story. Difficult situations are resolved with the rules.”, or: “Remember these mechanics, have these tables at hand, remember to review the main points of the adventure you are going to be running before the session, this way you can balance a scene to the level of the characters of your players.” Fate Core goes to an entirely different level, where the focus is on building scenes, story arcs, campaigns, building tension, building around your players and their characters, how to orchestrate the game that everyone is having fun and everyone is having agency in the story. Most RPG players are people capable of reading the rules and following them, but what most people lack, is the capability to create memorable stories and this book helps more with that than all the other RPG books I’ve read put together.
You might’ve caught on to the fact that I’m highly impressed with the system and the book in general. You would be right, if you did.
Trail of Cthulhu
I wanted to read a Gumshoe game and since Cthulhu also interests me, this covered two birds with one stone.
Gumshoe is a system intended for investigative games. The Achilles heel of many investigative games is that the players miss clues or that they miss a couple of critical dice rolls and do not gain the clues. The brilliant idea with Gumshoe is that the players automatically gain the clues, if they are in the right place (and have the right skills – more on that in a bit). The investigation part comes from putting the clues together and figuring out, where to be next to find more clues.
The not so brilliant idea with Gumshoe is the ‘if you have the right skills’ bit. Not sure, if all Gumshoe games have the same system, but at least in Trails of Cthulhu you have Investigative skills – things like archaeology or interrogation or even evidence gathering – and you only gain the clues, if there’s a person present with the appropriate investigative skill. So you go to the dig site during the night to do your own digging, but your party doesn’t have the archaeology skill – tough luck, no clues for you. This means, and the rules highlight this on several occasions, that you need to min-max on the party level so, that your party has at least 1 point in each individual investigative skill between them. This seems… useless. You are going to have the skills or fail, so you are going to have the skills, so why have the skills in the first place, why not just assume that they are there and leave that bit of mechanics out? There is the case of assigning more than one point in order to gain extra clues in some situations and at least the starting characters are not going to be able to cover all investigative skills with extra points, so there’s that… but the whole exercise takes away from player agency – you are not building a character according to your desires, you are building a character according to the needs of the system.
That covers investigation, and I’m certainly stealing the main idea for my other games, but the game covers other systems as well. Well, just combat. So the system basically covers investigation and combat, which seems highly incomplete. The idea behind investigation is exceptional, but the execution is lacking. The combat system seems like something copied from another more established system with the serial number filed off, so nothing special there.
How about the Cthulhu bit then? Well, it is very classic Cthulhu. Early 20th century, dilettantes, academics, forbidden artifacts and madness inducing secrets. Most Cthulhu stories seem to be either about people accidentally stumbling upon or intentionally seeking out something beyond their comprehension. Gumshoe fits the intentionally seeking out part very well, but the resolution isn’t supported – fight or flee and go insane in any case…
Still, the system is interesting enough that I’m considering running the introductory scenario to get a handle on how the thing actually plays. If I would be running a longer investigation heavy Cthulhu campaign, I would take the idea of giving away the clues freely, and probably switch over to Fate Core, or if I felt like tinkering a bit and going for the traditionally weak protagonists of Cthulhu stories, maybe write some appropriate PbtA playbooks.
Scum and Villainy
I’m going to discuss the Forged in the Dark system below in the Blades in the Dark section. I should’ve read that first, as the system is clearly built for that and with Scum and Villainy things often seem a bit hacked and not fitting as well in the seams.
The world of Scum and Villainy is a serial numbers filed off version of some space opera. The slightly (according to space opera standards) claustrophobic default setting brings Firefly to mind, but the Attune skill seems like a direct Star Wars force ripoff. Well, it’s space opera in any case and I could easily see myself running the system as is in the world described in the book or in any of the more established space opera settings I’m familiar with.
It’s kind of sad, that this wasn’t released as a space opera toolkit for Forged in the Dark, since the world is… bare. There’s a couple of star systems with some livable systems and some space stations and stuff like that, but all of those are barely described. Reading the book I often thought about, how I would this and that system into Star Wars / Firefly, but it barely evoked any desire to run the world of Scum and Villainy.
Something on the Forged in the Dark system – with Blades in the Dark, it feels like the world and the system fit together seamlessly, but here it seems like parts are barely glued on. With Blades in the Dark it seems that the world and the system are feeding into each other, but here they’re not. Not sure, if the world or the specific fit of the system to the world is at fault, but I was left with a feeling of ‘it would be a lot of work to plug all the holes and to make the world a living and breathing place.’ I would assume it’s a bit of both, since even considering using the system with other fictional worlds, I would have to go through a lot of work to make it work. A pity, since this felt like a natural fit for many ideas I have, but ends up not delivering.
Blades in the Dark
The Forged in the Dark system was created for this game, which presents the system and a world. The system is a PbtA / Fate Core inspired system. The dice are from PbtA, but the playbooks are lighter and the game is more based on Fate Core like skills. The specialty of the system on a dice throw level, compared to those two, seems to be the system for determining dice throw difficulty and resulting effect. Where the other systems mostly wing it, here there are step-by-step guidelines for considering things like scale, potential for effect etc. Things like, if you are shooting an arrow at an army to stop it, you aren’t going to have much effect regardless of your skill and the throw of dice.
Other than the specifics of throwing dice, the system defines a cycle for campaign play. You are supposed to be a crew that performs (mostly criminal) jobs. The job is where you start and what is likely to be the core of each session of play – for your first session you have a job and you jump right into the middle of performing that job. For the following sessions you are likely to have a selection of jobs from where you choose the one you want to do and you, again, jump right into the middle of the action. Jobs are followed by downtime. The job results might feed in to the downtime, or not, but connections (things like rival crews, contacts feeding you jobs, officers of law hunting you down) are going to come knocking and they are likely to result in further job leads. After downtime, you pick the next job and start over.
As mentioned, the job is the core of the game and there’s beautiful mechanic that makes sure, that you are going to be concentrating on that instead of on everything around it – you cut right into the middle of the job. The only bit of planning is selecting your approach. There’s a given set of approaches that are supposed to cover any kind of a job. After choosing your approach, you throw the dice once, to give an indication of how the approach is working for you. On a bad result, the guards detect you before you have your hands on the price, while on a good throw, you might already be making your escape, before the scene is entered. In any case, the GM looks at the job, the approach, and the dice result to determine, where to cut in. When you inevitably run into a situation of, we would have thought of this, if we had been given the opportunity to plan, you may jump into a flashback. So you think you would have a couple of horses stashed in the dark corner of the back alley behind the mansion for a quick getaway – jump in to flashback scene and describe, how setting up that bit went. The flashback mechanic does two things and both of them beautifully: 1) It cuts out the planning, which can be tedious especially, if the players can’t agree on a plan. 2) It makes sure, that the resulting “plan” is actually relevant. You don’t end up wasting hours on bickering about the best way to steal horses, then stealing them and placing them in the back alley, and then finding out that the job didn’t go that way and the hours were wasted on a thing that wasn’t needed. Instead, when you burst out of the back door into the alley, you can go “We have horses there around that dark corner”, and the GM will go “Ok, how’d they end up there, jump into a flashback” and they are there. No bickering, no plans that didn’t matter. It’s just beautiful.
The world is a medieval inspired magical setting, where the world has been broken and there’s an eternal night. The setting concentrates on one city surrounded by walls, and makes sure that outside the walls is uselessly dangerous. The result is claustrophobic (I used the word with Scum and Villainy as well, but this is a completely different scale of claustrophobia).
There’s a couple of pretty original (at least to me) ideas, but the whole is nothing too special. There’s character that’s very much special to this world, but that character is not always extremely compelling. It is fitting to the system and the ideas the system has about playing RPGs, and that’s the strength of the setting.
There’s not too many pages to describe this closed up place, but since it is so small, the pages seem to be enough. All neighborhoods have been described, the major landmarks, gangs, cultures, etc. Everything is detailed enough to get your mind racing with ideas, but leaves enough blanks to give those ideas room to grow into a world of your own.
Combine the world rich with ideas with the system that organically grows the campaign from a seed of a crew, a couple of initial details and the first job, and you have a game that makes jumping right in easier than anything I’ve previously seen, and compelling enough, that I’m highly likely to actually GM this game. Most of the campaign ideas I have bouncing around in my head would require quite a bit of work before I can even get them off the ground, and that’s their biggest weakness – I might manage to make one or two of them a reality, but it’s hard to even get started. Then I come across something like this, and it’s just too easy to leave those ideas be and run with this instead.
Just a beautiful little game begging to be played and doing it really well. Love it.