When we think about Urban Fantasy, we tend to think about “what if all that magic stuff from folklore were real, and showed up in modern life.” There are variations on that theme, but the crux of it is imposing old folk stories on the reality we live in. Taking that one step further, what if we started colonizing space, and we found out on various planets there were nature spirits and local beings that reacted much the way humans once assumed they did on Earth?
When Frontier Spirit talks about genre, it mentions being “supernatural adventure,” which is accurate, but it shares many tropes with what we view as Urban Fantasy these days, except it’s lightly settled planets out in space. Players are portraying characters that are clued in to the supernatural, and are using their unique perspective to keep the supernatural from disrupting the lives of the settlers.
How Does It Manifest?
The book is 43 pages long, and has the same formatting as most of the Fate Worlds of Adventure line, with very clean, professional looking formatting throughout. It is very easy to read and reference. The artwork is interesting in that the colors and the lines are very reminiscent of folk stories, with a lot of detail, but used in a way to convey dream-like imagery rather than realism.
The first section of the book explains the premise of the setting. In this case, we have reached the stars, and found out that there are various spirit beings that inhabit the new worlds we have found. To keep the peace between these sprits and the settlers, Mediums are sent to communities to read the signs and sometimes communicate directly with the spirits.
Welcome to Your New Home
While the introduction mentions Mediums traveling to worlds to help mediate between spirits and settlers, that implies a broader setting than this section. Specifically, the supplement will assume that you are on a specific world. The core assumption isn’t that you will travel from world to world, but that you will set up shop on the detailed world included.
Because you are on the frontier, there is a discussion of what humans have as technology and how much of that technology is available to settlers (which turns out isn’t much). There is FTL travel between worlds, but once you are on the planet, the overall tech level is a bit behind our modern world. Communication satellites are mentioned, but instantaneous communication across the world is rare.
There is a section about “camps and cliques,” but this mainly focuses on NPC descriptions for a few important NPCs in the setting. I must admit, none of them seem overly compelling to me. They have suggested aspects, but aren’t given full character write ups (see later, though). Some of the aspects don’t even get a lot of support in the backstory for each NPC. For example, Colusa Beo has an aspect of “Don’t You Dare Bring Imogen Into This,” which is her wife. I reread her entry, because with an aspect like that, I expected her wife to have died, or to disagree with her on some important matter. Apparently, she just doesn’t like others mentioning her wife?
This section generally explains that the setting assumes there is a spirit world, and the more agitated a spirit gets, the more the spirit world manifests in the tangible world that people interact with. Mediums are people that have had encounters with the Otherworld and can now perform certain forms of ritual to allow them to either communicate with spirits or to send their consciousness into the spirit world.
The bit to me that was especially interesting in this section is that sprits aren’t so much spirits of a given river or mountain. They are sprits of something that natural element represents. A river spirit might be the spirit of water wearing away stone, and a mountain spirit might be the spirit of keeping anything from passing into the valley beyond. When human activity starts to cut into the execution of their portfolios, that’s when spirits get agitated.
Frontier Sprits uses standard Fate Core conventions. Slight customizations include making sure that an aspect portrays your first contact with the spirit world, and stunts that represent the ritual you use to channel or project into the spirit world. There is a bit of simplification of the skills of Fate Core, and characters can take a High Technology stunt that represents their access to one of those fancier high tech gadgets that people in the more civilized parts of the galaxy get to use.
While there isn’t a lot that gets used differently than Fate Core, there is a lot of interesting detail about exactly how Mediums enter the spirit world, what it looks like, and what form the ritual can take.
The last section of the mechanics chapter is more GM facing, explaining how to utilize existing Fate rules to portray the spirits and their aspects, how they manifest, and giving some mechanics on resolving disasters, a common way in which sprits will manifest their displeasure.
Much like the player facing rules, none of this is entirely new material. Disasters are, for example, a form of Challenge as presented in Fate Core. The detail surrounding how to make these items into something specific to the setting makes for a good read, however.
Digging a Deeper Hole
“Digging a Deeper Hole” is the sample adventure for the product, and it introduces the Aribeth Plateau. Several NPCs, spirits, and their lesser aspects are details. The overall narrative moves towards the idea that some of the settlers are taking short cuts with nature and doing more harm than they should, and the Medium needs to find out about the hidden bad practices and figure out a middle ground between operating the mines and not upsetting the spirits or despoiling the land.
One of the NPCs from the previous section is reintroduced here, but with full character stats this time (stress, skills, etc.). This is one of the first things that felt as if it could have been done more efficiently. There isn’t much about two of the NPCs that gets used in this adventure, and neither one is particularly compelling. This NPC is the most interesting of the three, and could have just been summarized here.
Thematically I was a little disappointed as well. Elsewhere in the book, it mentions that humans displease spirits by disturbing their portfolios, but they may not even be doing something overly destructive to the environment. It also mentions that Mediums might negotiate with spirits to set up festivals or ritual offerings that thematically go along with the spirits’ interests, and this might be an acceptable resolution for the spirit. I liked that clever aspect to figuring out what is bothering the spirit, and devising local festivals or observances that might appease the local spirits.
The sample adventure is more overt, however, with someone just doing something destructive. While the PCs could still come up with a clever resolution, it’s obvious that the spirits are pretty much in the right about humans being a problem. While I can see that as one type of adventure in this setting, I like the idea of working up to that kind of problem, with a healthy helping of the cleverer compromises between a capricious spirit and clueless, but not overtly destructive, humans.
For the premise introduced, it feels a little too constrained to assume that everything will happen on this one planet. Once that constraint is introduced, the planet doesn’t have much in the way of character. The implied gameplay of mediation isn’t utilized to its fullest in the sample adventure. Several places stress that Mediums need to pull their weight as regular colonists and that aspect of their lives is just as important as their job as Mediums, but again, the sample adventure doesn’t do much to reinforce anything other than their full-time status as Mediums.
The descriptions of the Otherworld, rituals, and spiritual manifestations are imaginative and interesting. The concept of designing ceremonies and observances to appease a spirit seems like it could be a lot of fun.
Frontier Spirit paints a vivid picture of the spirit world and a campaign of negotiating with the supernatural on the edges of colonized space, but then puts a few too many constraints on the concept. Traveling from planet to planet performing these rituals would have added a bit more spice, as would having a planet that was a bit livelier. When the book attempts to be a toolkit, it doesn’t give enough tools to function (what does a campaign look like, how do you have adventures that don’t involve spirits, what happens if spirits are completely intractable, how busy can a Medium be with the spirit world on a frontier planet).
When the book tries to be a sourcebook or an adventure, it doesn’t present enough compelling interactions or characters to sell the setting or the adventure. It wastes space on bland characters that it doesn’t use, and doesn’t follow through on concepts that it tries to introduce.
Overall, this book presents a great concept, and does a great job of painting the supernatural elements in bright, evocative colors. It hooks you into a very interesting concept. It just doesn’t have enough focus to tell you exactly what a game should look like, or follow up on its most interesting elements.
Good for the concept, and an entertaining read, but not in the top tier of the Worlds of Adventure line.