Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Andromeda (Fate Core)



Language and communication are very important. When a term gets used, sometimes that term is very broad, and has different connotations to different segments of the audience. For example, the term “space opera” has been used for Flash Gordon and Star Wars, and in that context, it means a broad action epic that involves space travel and alien worlds, but revolves around personal action. Sword fights, dogfights, and gun battles abound.

Space opera can also mean that the themes of alien worlds, war, and epic storylines are less focused on individual heroes taking on hordes of bad guys individually, and more about that individual influencing large and important events.



The inspirations for Andromeda are mentioned as the Lensmen series, the Foundation books and Dune, among others. Because inspiration can get glossed over at the beginning of a book, it’s important to put this out there up front in the review. As I was reading the first third or so of the book, I was wondering why something like Battlestar Galactica wasn’t mentioned as an inspiration, having very similar themes. This becomes apparent as you read further into the book, because your characters aren’t acting on a scale of second or minutes, and they aren’t acting as individual heroes. This is a game about turns that represent weeks, months or years, being acted out by characters that are members of factions.

Look and Feel

The book has consistent formatting with other Fate Worlds of Adventure books, which is to say that it looks very much like the Fate Core book, with clean, professional formatting and little artistic flourish common to some RPGs today. This makes the pages very readable, and leaves the tonal aspects of the game to the prose and to the accompanying artwork. The artwork is a little odd. It features the same range of characters in different situations, but the details shift from almost cartoonish in some instances to fairly detailed and more comic book-like in other frames. The more cartoonish illustrations, especially, don’t fit the overall tone of the book. The PDF is 60 pages in length, which includes individual character sheets, an Ark tracking sheet, and an alien culture character sheet at the end of the book.

Introduction

This section includes the inspirations for the book, and explains how and why the book approaches some items the way it does. The setting introduces four main factions to which the player characters will belong, and introduces the idea that the campaign will take place on a world ship travelling from the Milky Way to the Andromeda galaxy, after disaster befell all of human civilization back home. Additionally, the assumed play style of the game is to use the Deck of Fate—a deck of cards with numerical outcomes, phrases, and symbols on them—rather than Fate/Fudge dice. This is in part to allow the generation of secondary points beyond the regular Fate points. These points are used to advance agendas and trigger certain special abilities in play.



I’m going to say this up front, and I apologize if I’m off base. I think it was a mistake to try to sprinkle Esperanto into the text to make things feel more “futuristic.” There are already a lot of moving parts to this variation of Fate, and adding in some words that, to a native English speaker, might have some awkward structure or pronunciation, just adds to the mental energy needed to process the text.

This isn’t any kind of statement on the validity of any language. To me, it just doesn’t add more than it complicates. In settings that are tied to a real world culture that sprinkle in words from those cultures, it feels more natural to me. Knowing that Esperanto is a constructed language that is only being used to feel “futuristic,” I can’t get comfortable with it. 

Creating Alien Threats

This section of the book has a pretty robust section on creating alien species that the ark will encounter. This will determine their demeanor towards the humans, the specific stats of the alien culture, how many points they have in their various pools, and what their name and appearance is.
You can make up your own results based on these charts, or just pick and choose. You can make up cultures on the fly and improvise how they function at the table with the charts as a guideline. The text calls out that these are all valid ways of utilizing the information presented.

I really like the variety of alien aspects presented in this section, and it’s actually kind of handy for coming up with random alien cultures for other games. You can generate points for the alien’s various pools, and modify their stats based on the chart options. What kind of stats do you have in this game, and what do the pools do? The text hasn’t done much to explain this yet.

Creating the Space Ark and Factions

This section includes information on how to determine who is on the ship, what they are carrying, if they arrived in the beginning, middle, or towards the end of the migration to this galaxy, and what shape the ship is in physically and culturally. This informs your creation of characters in the next section.

Creating Characters

This section explains how to create your individual character. This includes picking a faction (mentioned above at the beginning of the game), then picking aspects based on your authority on the ship, your agenda, and free aspects that may relate to your history or relationships with other characters or factions. There are also some sample names given in this section.

This is also where we learn that in this version of Fate, you don’t get stress boxes. Everything goes right to your consequences, unless you spend points from your pools to negate stress on a one for one basis. In general, there is a pool that represents more social resources, and one that represents more physical resources. When you successfully complete an action, you get extra points to assign to these pools.

The skills that you use in this game are limited to Physique, Intellect, Presence, and Empathy, and the example stunts resemble the structure that stunts take in Fate Accelerated, which makes this game’s resolution a hybrid of special rules, Fate Core, and Fate Accelerated.

Extras

There are some stunts in the previous section that characters can spend refresh on, but this section also presents the option of spending refresh on Extras, in the form of special actions that your character can take, based on their factions, or the ability to have companions that can operate either on the personal scale or larger. While it’s been mentioned one or two places, the exact scales and what it means to act on different scales still hasn’t been explained yet.

Agendas

Characters, factions, and alien species will have agendas, and those agendas have multiple tiers for the amount of time they would take to accomplish. For example, to advance an agenda one step further towards a goal that can be completed in a single lifetime, you are spending two points out of a relevant pool. To advance something that might take multiple generations, you spend four, and so on.
Agendas and the pools that feed into them get a little complicated. When you draw a card, the symbols on the card tell you what kind of points you get, and if you don’t spend them to advance an agenda, then they convert into the broader pool of similar points that you can use to do things like trigger feats or negate stress from social or physical situations.

Advancing an agenda causes you to write an aspect that represents an incremental goal towards the next step in that agenda. This is also the way that you track advancement in this version of Fate, as completing aspects of your agendas, and the scale of the agenda, triggers your ability to change aspects, rewrite consequences, and other advancements that other versions of Fate often assign to the completion of individual sessions, story arcs, or important milestones.

Taking Action on the Galactic Stage

This section explains a lot of what was previously hinted at. You don’t take turns that last only a few seconds or a few minutes. The GM frames the general situation that is going on and determines the time scale involved. It could be hours, days, weeks, or years. Once the situation is established, characters explain how their characters are broadly affecting this situation and act on those plans.
That means that if an alien threat is selling mind-numbing drugs to your population to get their hooks into them, you aren’t acting against an individual pusher, you are describing the actions you are taking in the next few days to determine how devastating the drug is, where the pushers are located, and possibly concocting a chemical blocker to eliminate the effects of the drug on the population. You don’t fight off a raiding party of hostile aliens, you plan a defense of the ark against either fast raiders, that can be driven off in an hour or so, or dig in to avoid or resist a large assault fleet.

The individual factions are ranked, and player actions are always taken in the order of ranking, with the the “space admirals” acting first, then the social/religious faction, engineers, alien threats, and finally, the common populace. I understand the logic of this, but there is something that also kind of bothers me about this structure as well. I wish there had been a few mechanical supports for juggling this structure around. Ironically, for the added complexity added elsewhere, this is where the setting chooses to keep things simple.

There is advice for the GM to stage a scene aggressively, but broadly, and to use the descriptions on the card from the deck to flavor what happens at the beginning. Players can also bid on the ability to draw the card and chose the descriptor, starting with the highest ranking PCs. Given how broadly drawn some of those phrases are, I’m not sold on how useful this aspect of scene framing is, and player bidding seems like a lot of effort for what amounts to picking a scene aspect. It almost feels like an attempt to add one more function of the deck to the game to justify using that as a resolution method.

After a scene, if the scene represents at least “weeks” in game terms, players roll for aging on the characters, and the GM will roll for wear and tear on the ark and cultural changes to the factions.
I understand that part of the point of these rules is to reinforce a generational time frame, but it also feels like a lot of rolling, especially if you frame several “week” scale scenes in a row. While the check against the “Weeks” scale of time is +0, it still feels odd to have aging potentially kick in at that time period. Players are instructed that if they have an aspect related to health or longevity they can invoke it to ignore making this roll, but honestly, this is one of those things that I feel might have been better just to tell the GM “if you act on this scale, compel a setting aspect to advance the character’s age.” 

There are scale tables in this section for general scale and the clock, which helps to put some of the previous rules into context. Having a larger scale companion, for example, lets you use them at that scale without the bonus defense that the alien threat or circumstance may have due to its scale.



Communication Breakdown

This may just be me, and if it is, I really want to read about it from anyone with a different perspective. That said, the order of information presented is a little frustrating to me. I understand that the information is presented in the order that you would generate the setting, from the top down, and that you need that information to inform the characters that you create. However, presenting the information in that order does not clearly convey what a game session is going to look like, and these rules aren’t just a checklist of what you need to do when you start a game, they are teaching you about what kind of game this is and how it is intended to be played.

I’m going to resist going too far down this path, but I have noticed this tendency in several Fate products, where the presentation of the big ideas comes way before a clear communication of what the game is about, and what the PCs will be doing. 

I’m not sure that the pools are as streamlined as they could be. As it stands, it feels like you have two types of points that are generated, and if they aren’t used right away, they then convert to what amounts to specialized Fate points, and the game also has regular Fate points as well. It feels like a nice idea that is still one step too complicated.

Human Ambition

I really like the scope of what this game is trying to portray. Having actions take place over the scale of days, weeks, or years really shows what I had previously mentioned on the blog about the versatility of Fate as a toolkit. While I may not have been thrilled about the particulars of how it works, I also really like the idea of advancement being tied to moving agendas forward. That is the kind of mechanical reinforcement that really helps keep players onboard with the type of game the products is trying to facilitate. 

A New Home

In general, this is an ambitious product for the scope and size of the Worlds of Adventure supplements. It has some really good ideas. Because its sheer ambition and scope, and for showing the different kind of game you can create still using the Fate framework, this book is probably worth your time if you are at the intersection of Fate and sci-fi in your interests. That having been said, this may be an investment when it comes to mental energy, either to juggle all of the moving pieces in the game, or to alter the existing structure to do something similar, but in a way that works for you. It definitely feels like in some places there is more structure and complexity than is needed for the payoff at the table.

*** (out of five)

Monday, February 27, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Red Planet (Fate Core)


I grew up in the 80s. I know a lot of people that grew up in that time period remember things like The Day After scaring the crap out of them, and being in a heightened state of concern over Global Thermal Nuclear War. I get that, and I remember that, but maybe I’ve always been a glass half full kind of guy, because I remember a lot of hopeful stories about “hey, we just figured out the Russian guys we met are friendly” at the same time.

Sure, a lot of those stories were kind of awkward and definitely skewed towards “we taught them how awesome capitalism was, and now we’re all humans, deep down.” Ironically, that kind of ideological conversion plays right into the product I’m reviewing.

Red Planet is a book about pulp space opera adventures, but it’s through the lens of the Soviet side of pulp future sci-fi. In this case, the book is about a fictional future communist state where everything works the way communism does on paper. This means casting not only the USA as potential bad guys, but also the USSR, for being a failed model of communist. I won’t go too far into the details ahead of the chapters themselves, but it’s worth noting the unique approach being used by the setting.



Utterly Functional and Utilitarian Appearance for the Masses

Like Ghost Planets and most of the other Worlds of Adventure products, Red Planet is formatted in a very simple manner that matches the formatting in the Fate Core book itself. It’s clean, easy to read, and lacks the flourishes of a lot of modern RPG books, but still looks very professional. The artwork is clean and very colorful, and has a definite pulp/comic book feel to it. The PDF is 60 pages long.

Introduction and Welcome to the Red Planet

There is some introductory fiction in the form of a commencement speech at the beginning of the book, and then the chapter launches into an explanation of pulp, the assumed technology level of Red Planet and how science is treated in the game, and a quick tour of what the solar system looks like in this setting.

Early on this chapter hammers home the point that this setting is based on the pulp fiction produced by Soviet era sci-fi writers, but the setting itself doesn’t present the USSR as the good guys. There is a whole page detailing bad things done by the USSR, and states that this is a space opera assuming that not only could a communist utopia exist, but that communist utopia has its own axe to grind with the USSR of this setting.

The setting itself is essentially an alternate reality where there were three communist revolutions, the final one seeing the Union of Materialist Republics breaking away from the USSR and moving to Mars. The USSR are oppressive bad guys that use communism as an excuse to oppress the people, the USA has let corporate interests take over their political process and corrode their idealism, and the Mars based communists are the only guys “doing it right.”

Beyond the political scene on Earth, however, this alternate universe has a lot of pulp tropes in evidence. All of the planets in the solar system have breathable atmospheres, although some are far more livable than others. There are sentient alien species on Mars and Venus, and there are alien animals all over the solar system and space pirates hang out in the asteroid belt. 



Character Creation and Classes

This section of the book concerns itself with altered skills and new stunts native to the setting, as well as presenting the different castes of the culture, which carry with them bonuses to certain skills. Of particular note is that a character can change class depending on what they have done and what they feel they can contribute, so these aren’t assigned at birth and adhered to forever.

Because this is a pulp setting, many of the stunts emphasize two fisted action and daredevil piloting stunts. 

Another noteworthy addition to the Fate Core rules is the section on Conversion. Some bad guys are meant to stay bad guys, but because this setting is trying to emulate the bright optimism of many of the pulps from this era, having a conversation with an American or USSR spy, or giving a speech to the oppressed masses of a space colony, can allow you to convert people to the superior ideas of your native government. It’s a simple system, but it is also one that could be useful to port to other games where characters might try to proselytize and recruit to their cause.

Spaceships

What a game or setting chooses to detail definitely helps to show the assumed tropes of the game, so having a section on spaceships tells you that dogfights and starship combat is something that is supposed to happen (if you didn’t already get that from some of the feats in the character creation section).

This section also has some stats for planes and dirigibles, as atmospheric piloting is just as “pulpy” as shooting through the void of space. There aren’t any major additions to the Fate rules here, but individual ships or vehicles are given aspects, notable weapons and armor, stunts, stress, and consequences.

While not expressly called out before now, this particular setting for Fate uses the weapon and armor rules, meaning that combat is a little bit more granular in this game.

Common Technology

Various pieces of technology are called out in this section. Tools tend to just have an aspect to them to explain what they do fictionally, while weapons have weapon ratings listed for them.

Typical Non-Citizens

This section has the Earth based spies, other dimensional bad guys, pirates, aliens, and space-born animals called out as examples of what PCs might run into in the setting.

34 Chernykh

The sample adventure has the PCs chasing after a thief into the asteroid belt and finding a larger conspiracy going on. Owing to the pulp inspiration, it jumps right into the action, and there are some interesting adventure specific challenges and options for doing things like using the Conversion rules from the character creation section.

At the end of the adventure are some pre-generated characters, and these are useful to show the range of PCs that can be created for the game. 



Terrible Rhetoric

I would have liked to have seen a bit more in the way of campaign frameworks. The setting is very broad and varied, and it might have been nice to have a couple pages detailing that maybe PCs will be spies, and this is how this should play out, or maybe they are fighter aces, and this is how that would play out. 

Rousing Speeches

This book does a lot with a relatively short amount of space. The solar system is a pretty broad setting with a lot of adventure potential hinted at. Normally that kind of depth of setting in a book this size would come at the expense of specific rules for the setting, but there are several setting specific stunts and rules applications as well.

Glorious Renown

For a product of this size with kind of an established format for the product line, this book gets a lot done. There are a lot of implied adventures that would take quite a few sessions to explore, and the book also has a solid number of examples to see how to use the setting and the types of characters that are assumed in the game.

If you like sci-fi, pulp action, and Fate, there aren’t many reasons to skip this book, and a lot of reasons to bump it up on your list of things to look at.

**** (out of five)