Tuesday, 17 January 2012

FATE: Monster Hunters!

To launch my gaming odyssey, I decided to run a FATE game over January and February, inspired by the Monster Hunter computer game franchise (not to be confused with the various Victorian-era monster hunters that seem so popular nowadays). The setting would be primal, with small communities of humans eking out an existence in the shadow of giant, terrible creatures. Among each tribe are those charged with protecting the community from the ravages of such beasts - the Monster Hunters! Using powerful weapons and cunning hunting techniques, these individuals could chase off or even take down the great behemoths.

I decided to make this world slightly more primitive than that of Monster Hunter; a neolithic world with no great towns or cities. The PCs would be part of a small group recently exiled from their tribe, seeking to establish a new community. The PCs were all Hunters, charged with protecting the dozen or so other tribespeople.
  • +Paul played Dezzi, a muscular engineer who wielded a great hammer.
  • Barb played Markel, a stealthy archer.
  • Rohin played Zeb, a shaman who preferred animals to people.
  • Matt played Bonoff, a loud-mouthed letch who also tended to act as distraction and bait.

The exiles trekked for most of a day, heading across a desert and reaching an area of mesas and canyons covered in lush jungle by the afternoon. The tribe was attacked by fast, man-sized raptors, but the hunters saw them off. They soon built some huts in a clearing by a stream, and settled in.

Axehead, an apex predator on the jungle floor
Over the next several sessions, the hunters dealt with a growing village and personal politics, eventually tracked down and cleared out a raptor nest including a Raptor King, hunted a T-Rex-sized Axehead (which Bonoff managed to intimidate by roaring back at it instead of running away), and saved the village when a giant Sky Serpent strayed too close and threatened to destroy everything!

Sky Serpent, a canopy predator
As our first attempt at playing FATE, it was a little awkward. There were some good moments, such as when Paul made a declaration that the rock the raptors were living on was actually a type of "flash-powder" conglomerate, simultaneously getting a free tag when slamming his hammer into it to make a small explosion, and also lining up a potential source of explosive powder for advanced weaponry (although he didn't actually end up working on any). Apart from that, though, there was very little in the way of declarations, invoking for effect, or manoeuvres to set up follow-on moves. I also struggled a bit to come up with decent ways to compel their Aspects, although this was probably a combination of my inexperience, and the Aspects maybe not meshing perfectly with the situations they found themselves in.

The setting was also probaby a bit ambitious for a first game. The unusual, primitive setting made it tricky for the players to think up good Aspects, or even Stunts - almost all of which were picked straight off the brief list of samples. As GM, I had problems balancing the difficulties of encounters. If I accidentally threw in too many raptors, the minion/mob bonuses made the enemy groups too powerful, and I almost overwhelmed the PCs a couple of times.

On the other hand, I was probably not experienced enough to be able to put together truly challenging large monsters as boss fights. I couldn't make the large monsters' skills too high or they'd be unbeatable, but even with extended Stress tracks they mostly got taken down in only a few rounds because they were being assaulted by three or four hunters at once. Having looked back and thought about it a bit, I could probably have a better go at designing such creatures - either with massively extended Stress tracks, higher armour, or figuring out a way that you need to disable them in stages before you can finally take them out completely. I doubt we'll be returning to this particular system and setting combination again, though.

Oh, I did find the Time Increments ladder to be very handy though! Basically, if you succeed at a task, you can choose to use any excess successes to either do it better, or do it faster. If you fail, you can sometimes choose to take extra time in order to gain a basic success. This was very useful when figuring out how long it would take to build parts of the village, and what quality they were. In general it prevents the need to make multiple rolls until a task succeeds, and is a mechanical approach I've become quite fond of.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

FATE: First Thoughts

FATE would be the first game in my 2012 gaming odyssey. I'd read a lot about the system on the RPG.net Forums, and thought that Aspects sounded pretty interesting. An Aspect is a brief statement or description that shows who a character is, rather than what they can do (which is covered by Skills and Stunts). Aspects can provide bonuses in relevant situations at the cost of a FATE point, but they can also be used to earn FATE points when they lead to complications in the character's life. For example, a warrior might have the Aspect "as strong as an ox." This can be used to the character's advantage ("invoked") when a feat of strength is required, but it can also lead to complications. For example, while chasing someone who squeezes through a narrow space, the "strong as an ox" Aspect can be "compelled" to make it harder for the character to squeeze through because of their massive physique.

Aspects can also be invoked or compelled "for effect", which means they do something to the story apart from providing a straight bonus or penalty to a die roll. For example, "Respected NYPD Detective" could be invoked for effect to say that a beat cop who responds to a disturbance is one the character already knows. Likewise, the same Aspect could be compelled to restrict the character's choices and make their life more complicated; a detective may have to follow procedure instead of doing something more convenient but unlawful.

I found the concept of Aspects intriguing because they allow players to gain mechanical benefits from motivations and goals, personality traits, and other intangibles that most games don't track. In many games, when you come to a point where you need to make a roll and something of vital importance is on the line - "if I don't make this roll, my sister will fall to her death!" - all you can do is appeal to the Dice Gods and hope for a good roll. With FATE, you can not only track what's important to your character, but gain a mechanical advantage when it comes into play.

In addition, FATE distributes some narrative control to the players; although the GM has to give their approval, they aren't the only one who can introduce details and elements into the story. Players can spend a FATE point to make a minor narrative declaration - in effect, supply a convenient detail. Players can also use their characters' skills to make declarations - they make a statement, and then roll on a relevant skill to see if it is true or not! The difficulty of this is based not on realism, but on how interesting and useful it would be if the statement were true (or not). The aforementioned "invoke for effect" can also introduce new elements into the story, or colour those already present. In this way, FATE is a game where the group truly collaborates to create a shared story.

Aspects, Skills, and Stunts are the three basic pillars on which FATE characters are built. Skills work pretty much as they do in any other game, although their performance can be affected greatly with Aspects. Stunts are ways in which the character can break the rules; granting permanent skill boosts or allowing one skill to be substituted for another in a specialised area, providing companions or sidekicks, or other more esoteric modifications.

FATE's Different Aspects

There are many different versions of the FATE system, each of which has its own approach to Aspects, Skills, Stunts, and various subsystems specific to each game.

I picked up Spirit of the Century (and Trail of Cthulhu) on a visit to an out-of-state game store over the 2011 Christmas/New Year break. When I got home I did a little research into the evolution of FATE, and discovered that SotC was the first iteration of FATE 3.0. Most of it was a pretty interesting read, and it took the time to explain itself in detail. However, this verbosity also reduces its usefulness as a reference book, as you need to hunt through more pages to find a specific ruling. Also, I'm not a huge fan of the pulp genre, and I was a bit turned off by some of the setting elements. Probably my least favourite part of the book, though, was the Stunts section - so many of them, each with its own effect and prerequisites. Things like this tend to turn me off, because it requires the players to read and digest a sizable chunk of rules just so they can make properly informed choices about their character. When it's voluntary, like choosing to make a wizard and having to read through a list of spells, that's a different matter.

I ended up buying Strands of FATE because of its wildly different approach (although as of Jan 2013 I've yet to do more than read through some of it). I also picked up a copy of Free FATE, a 48 page stripped down presentation of FATE 3.0. I decided to use this slim version to run my first FATE game; partly because it explained things clearly and succinctly, but also because it had broken down that massive Stunt chapter into just a few pages, and included basic templates so you could easily build your own.

In 2012 I ran two FATE campaigns; Monster Hunters, and The Rocks are Talking!