Struggling with Fate

My sources of perplexity with Fate Core (I would not call them “objections”) are two, one much more substantial than the other. The substantial problem is how heavily “meta” the game must constantly go. In traditional games, for players to talk not about what their characters were about to do, but about the kind of character they were, the in-game abilities that they had etc. was the exception rather than the rule and, at least in many people’s opinion, was in fact the low point of a session. Most people worked from the assumption that the core of the game was acting the characters, not talking about them. Fate demands that the implications of the aspects for a character be discussed by the players and the GM at every turn: just read the game examples in the book. “Hey GM, don’t you think that since I am The Most Famous Ventriloquist this guy should know my name?” “Hey Player, don’t you think that your Anger Management Problems should kick in now that the guy is calling you a sucker?”. It is not the exception, it is the rule. This, besides feeling “artificial” to me, also runs the risk of changing games of Fate into  “tvtropes: the role-playing game”. In practice, players are encouraged to resort to highly recognizable features that can be agreed upon by other players and the GM without too much hassle, in other words: resort to clichés. The aspects themselves, in the examples given in the book, are phrased in terms of fictional clichés. This might be regarded as a weakness: while traditional RPGs built quite a lot on this or that cliché, they were not themselves built upon clichés.

The second source of perplexity is that you can abstract reality away only up to a point: sometimes, it is detrimental even in a perspective of fiction emulation. Let us take the most stereotypical (but by no means unique) example: damage. The default assumption in Fate Core is that every weapon (including your bare fist) inflicts the same damage and armour is only there for show. You are given options to introduce a finer grained treatment of arms and armour, but the authors discourage you from doing so with an argument which sounds somewhat disingenuous. What is the point, they say: if you say some weapons make more damage, the PCs will want to have them, and you will have to give them to the NPCs in order to keep some balance, so you see, it’s all zero-sum. Well, not really. The existence of a range of different damage classes for weapons and of protection values for armour opens interesting tactical problems, not to mention the fact that it is generally assumed even in a non-simulationist, purely fictional perspective: in few (if any) movies or novels you take off a tank by throwing stones, but in Fate nothing (nothing mechanical, that is) prevents a PC from succeeding at that. Mind you: one could argue that the default view fits nicely in the general architecture of the system. More precisely, of a system that has a greatly abstract take on injuries and death. In Fate whenever a PC takes damage the GM and the player simply decide what consequences the PC must take, with only very general guidelines to follow. Death for purely technical reasons (“the PC took too much damage and died”) is virtually absent from the game. PCs should die only insofar as it is cool for them to do so! Also, PCs and NPCs are dealt with altogether differently. Average NPCs (“mooks”) cannot even take consequences: if they are hit, they are taken out. In a way, abstracting away from a lot of technicalities makes sense in the context. Still, all this is a far cry from everything we knew from traditional games: not everybody wants this.

So, in sum, would I play Fate? Of course. But I would only go for it depending on the players and the setting. Very cinematic adventure settings (think Indiana Jones or Star Wars) would work especially well, other stuff less so. As for players, I am under the impression that Fate could only really work with very experienced players, better still if they have quite a bit of experience with GMing as well. It presupposes a high degree of awareness of the problems of writing settings and scenarios, not to mention a degree of ingenuity (especially in exploiting aspects) that many players (those who have never GMed or have but hated it) might just not have under their belt.

What I have learned about Fate Core

Among other things, I would like to share my impressions on games and game systems. For obvious reasons (“a distant age”, remember?) I mostly focus on old stuff. But since my curiosity on the development of the hobby is genuine, these days I am also doing my best to catch up with the 21st century. It seems to be the case that in the last five-ten years only two games have emerged as real trends and as contenders in the hopeless struggle against D&D: Fate and Savage Worlds. Interestingly to me, they are both generic systems. I have always been partial to solid rule systems that could adapt to different settings: to me GURPS has always been a golden standard, and I was delighted to learn of the existence of a Basic Role Playing rulebook. In the old days, I was not above playing Simulacres, a little universal system most of the English-speaking worlds must have never heard of. One of the obvious weaknesses of systems of the D&D family, I thought, was that they adapted so badly to other genres (non-fantasy settings, or even unfamiliar fantasy settings). You can imagine my astonishment when I found out that in the early years 2000s the d20 craze had made a pseudo-D&D the de facto standard for all sorts of settings… but I am digressing. Now I would like to post about my impressions of Fate.

Even in my relative ignorance of the recent history of RPGs, when reading Fate Core System I could immediately detect an influence of the indie post-Forgite scene, in that the book strongly emphasizes the following two points. First, it is a collaborative narrative game: it does have a GM, who is expected to do much of your traditional GM stuff, but players are expected to contribute to the narration directly in ways other than acting their characters. Second, it reiterately distances itself from simulationism: Fate models fiction, not reality. This is the underlying justification of many heavy abstractions (of encumbrance, movement, damage) which are likely to feel unfamiliar to traditional gamers.

Both tenets are somewhat realized in the central technical notion of the game: aspects. Characters have aspects, situations have aspects. What is an aspect? A trait, written out in plain (if at times whimsical or clichéd) English. It describes properties that are narratively relevant. Character aspects are the kind of things that GURPS models with advantages and disadvantages: personality traits, social status, ways of life, mental and physical strengths and weaknesses. The best aspects should be a synthesis of advantages and disadvantages: the reason is that aspects must enter the game in two opposite ways. An aspect can be invoked by a player in order to justify a bonus (either a +2 to a roll, or a reroll), or can compel the characters (on suggestion of the GM or one of the players) by forcing them to face bad consequences of the same trait. This duality is mediated by fate points: invocations costs a player one fate point, compellings makes a player gain one fate point. So the aspect “Soldier of the Legion” should involve both military proficiency and a heavy duty.

I find the mechanic interesting, and I find it to be a dynamic version of the old GURPS idea: in GURPS, advantages cost points, and disadvantages give you more points. Points, though, are to be spent on character creation and no later. Fate makes an analogous dynamics a constant of the game. A more peculiar feature is that Fate extends the same notion of aspects to situations as well. Anything in an action scene must be though of in terms of aspects by the GM, and these aspects are there to be invoked and compelled.

Besides aspects, PCs have skills, which are chosen from a list of eighteen pretty generic abilities (Fight, Will, Lore, Athletics etc.). These have the form of bonuses (+1 up to +4 or higher) that are added to the result of four fudge dice in a check. The result is compared to a difficulty threshold and measured in terms of shifts (margin of success). Skills can be exploited to do various things: to overcome an obstacle, attack, defend and, most important, create an advantage. An advantage is nothing but a situation aspect which is favourable to the PC: a cover against enemy fire, an escape route, the friendly attitude of a certain NPC. This last mechanic ties action resolution pretty tightly to the notion of aspects.

One eventually realizes that fudge dice tend to give results centering around 0 (zero). This means that what really makes the difference is first, your skill rating, and second, whether you invoked any aspect for a bonus. In other words: depending on their skills, PCs are going to almost always succeed at tasks of a certain difficulty, and almost never succeed at tasks of higher difficulties unless they resort to aspect invocations. This is not undesirable, under the assumption (on the authors’ part) that PCs are heroes and most tasks should be easy to them, reserving the real challenge for narratively crucial moments.

Somewhat to my suprise, I liked Fate. I reasonably like it as a system, but I especially like it as a book. Fate Core System is a superbly written rulebook. Everything is introduced gradually and thoroughly, with clear formulations and the right amount of exemplification. The only technical notion which feels a bit rushed off was boosts, which were soon clarified in a semi-official errata. For the rest, in spite of the universal insistence of Fate fans that most traditional gamers “will not be able to get it”, I think I managed to develop a more than passable understanding of the game. In the next post, I will express my perplexity at some features of the game.

Bree and the Sandboxes

When I played most often, in a time when Internet was a semi-unknown novelty, I did not know the term “sandbox”. Still, I would not have had any problem in understanding its meaning. It was entirely obvious to me that 80% of a roleplaying session was about letting the players decide what to do and where to go. Maps were much appreciated and, at times, revered. Unusually, I was initiated to RPGs with a group who was playing BECMI’s X1: The Isle of Dread. When I started to read and play D&D myself, BECMI’s Expert Set more or less exhausted my interest in the game: RPGs were about travelling and facing dangers, most often in the open. In a way, my generation (in a provincial country like Italy, that is) was equidistant from old-school dungeon-crawls and from heavily structured, “railroading” adventures. Both these styles were represented in published modules, but neither was felt as especially paradigmatic.

I played my only few MERP sessions in Bree and the Barrow-Downs, it must have been 1994. I played a sylvan elf something (mage or bard), my dearest friend was the GM. We struggled quite a bit with character creation (we used the Italian translation of the first edition, so we had none of the nice prefab characters included in the second). Probably, we also misunderstood a bunch of rules. Nonetheless, even then as a player I perceived Bree as a well done setting. Today, reading the module for the first time, I am pleased to confirm this ancient impression. This module is, quite simply, a perfect sandbox. Not necessarily the most exciting, or ambitious: from my still limited knowledge of the MERP catalogue, Goblin-Gate and Hillmen of the Trollshaws seem to offer more meat. But in its own little way, Bree is a very solid work.

It must be borne in mind that while MERP was designed to let you play in any chosen time of the ME timeline, it explicitly privileged the XVII century of the Third Age. This choice, criticized my many, had in fact two clear advantages: first, it gave you a setting which resembled the books just enough to give the players a sense of familiarity while not letting them take everything for granted, and second, it made it possible for the GM to write expansive campaigns without necessarily destroying the official history of ME. In the case of Bree, the choice has many interesting consequences. At this time, Bree is still one of the main hobbit settlements, the Shire having been founded only few decades before. The kingdoms of Arthedain and Cardolan, at the boundary of which Bree stands, are still in existence, while struggling. Interestingly, the haunting of the Barrow-downs is also very recent. If your Tolkien-Fu fails you (like mine failed me), remember that the Barrow-wights are not the ghosts of the people buried in the mounds themselves (namely, ancient warriors of Cardolan fallen while fighting Angmar) bur rather evil spirits sent by the Witch-King of Angmar to desecrate those very tombs.  Angmar, remember, is also still standing and is in fact moving aggressively to take down the two northern kingdoms. This, while taking away the charm of “age-old haunted ruins”, makes the thing more interesting role-playing-wise: the haunting is a new and strange phenomenon, which deserves investigation.

Turning to the mounds themselves, consistently with the sandbox orientation, they are laid out in painstaking detail. You come to know the identity of all the illustrious guests, both dead and undead, and the respective treasures.  The often criticized abundance of minor magic items is there to be seen: but one should not forget that when Tolkien let us in a Barrow-down it was in fact replete with special weapons. The only real problem with the description is a common one in MERP, which was never the strongest game in checking its stats for consistency: the powers of the wights are described very concisely and confusingly, and, even worse, they do not match with those given in the MERP rulebook or in other undead sources either. Here, no energy draining power is explicitly mentioned, and the properties of their Paralysis and Sleep spells are not spelled out in full. Obviously, I can only advise the GM to find the version s/he likes the most and stick to it.

The town of Bree and its suburbs are described in the greatest detail that you could ever want from a gaming book. There are beautiful colour maps with number keys for notable buildings. Everyday life and the key NPCs of the town ca. T.A. 1700. Wealthy farmers and hobbits with secret hobbies, families of do-no-goods and their bandit friends, a spy from Rhudaur, a contingent of Royal Guards to watch the borders in these troubled times. Above all, it is moving to see how lovingly MERP cared for details, even the farthest from the stereotypical fantasy action adventure: love affairs and the farming economy are detailed at length, and nice sketches of the local political institutions are also included. Like in most other MERP books, there are data and description for the flora (including medical herbs) and fauna (animals and wandering monsters). The adventure-hooks sketched in the module are numerous, and can easily be elaborated upon if the GM feels like it.

All in all, an excellent first attempt at a sourcebook-type adventure module, which gives especially beginning characters plenty of reasons to begin adventuring and, why not?, to make the town their base.

MERP or MEWT (“Messing with titles”)?

Before my (few) readers die for a Tolkien overdose, I plan to do no more than a couple of posts about the prehistoric MERP stuff I recently bought (often incredibly cheap, see here). Before I go for it, some practical information is in order for those retrogamers who (like me) are beginning to recover the old catalogue and are not entirely familiar with the publication policies of the publisher (Iron Crown Enterprises). The most complete lists of the MERP catalogue have been posted here and here. Reviews of MERP titles do not abound on the internet, but you are likely to find these two blogs interesting.

The first edition of MERP (thin, colourful booklets) was built around two main product types: campaign modules (60-70 pages) and adventure modules (30-40 pages). The criterion distinguishing them was the page count and no other. Campaign modules tended, obviously, to be more like sourcebooks, and were especially strong on the history and geography (often faithfully adapted from the literary corpus, always at least compatible with it) of a Middle Earth region. The modules, though, also included much “ready” adventure material (detailed layout of key locations, NPCs for the PCs to interact with) and many adventure sketches. Adventure modules, on the other hand, fell in one of two very different categories. First, they could be adventure modules proper, with pre-arranged adventures à la D&D. In this case, the format was the following: three adventures (sometimes related to each other) of ascending level, from about level 1 to about level 5. It was possible to run the three as a mini-campaign or in isolation. From what I have seen, the quality varied a lot, but the main problem was always that the adventures were (by necessity) somewhat generic: in fact, at times the authors even boasted that the adventures could be adapted and be run “anywhere in Middle Earth”. This way, one risked a certain blandness. The adventure modules of the second category were usually much more interesting and were, in fact, smaller siblings of the campaign modules: they detailed smaller regions, or even single locations, in greater depth, and had some adventure sketches. Some of the best MERP material that I have seen so far belonged in the latter category. Unfortunately, the publisher was very opaque when it came to distinguish the two: regardless of the category, most MERP modules had merely “geographic” names (“Pirates of Pelargir”, “Gates of Mordor”).  Some, but not all, the adventure modules of the first kind were sold as “ready-to-run adventures”, which helped a lot. Others, though, had no reference whatsoever to their real nature.

The second edition of MERP (thick softcovers, black covers), now even rarer and more collectable than the first, got rid of the adventure-modules (both kinds) and expanded greatly on the campaign modules, presenting exhaustive treatments of macro-regions of Middle Earth: Angmar, Arnor, Southern Gondor etc. From the very little I have seen, the result was excellent (if at times disorienting in the sheer amount of information). Unfortunately, the end of the Tolkien license in the late 90s prevented the publisher from completing the catalogue. The paradoxical results is that while some regions got multiple books (Mirkwood, Angmar), some of the key material of the first edition was never redone for the second (the most glaring example being Northern Gondor/Rohan).

The Hobbit or “Roll for random treasure”

Last week I have reread The Hobbit for the first time in my adult life. Also, for the first time in the original English: as a kid, I had the now superseded Italian translation published by Adelphi (I wish I had kept it, but I must have lent it to some younger friend in the late 90s). Besides enjoying the book in itself, I was also led to reconsider much of what I had been told with respect to the nature of Middle Earth as a RPG setting. MERP, the classic Middle Earth RPG of my time, has come to be regarded as abysmally bad as an adaptation of Tolkien’s literature. Rightly so? Let us see.

If one tries to sum the book up for the purposes of playing, there is plenty of traveling, both on horse and by foot, foraging, swimming, climbing. Many of such comparatively trivial activities often result in damage and small injuries (Bilbo gets scratches and bruises from climbing a tall tree in Mirkwood, dwarves fall from various heights and get injured). Social interactions are important but generally simple in nature: in particular, reputation and prejudices are paramount (e.g. many people do not like dwarves, but the King under the Mountain rouses popular enthusiasm in Lake-Town). Exploration of both wilderness and dungeons is also prominent. An impredictable array of both mundane and “arcane” treasures is hoarded even by common monsters (the Trolls). Combat does not occur every day, but when it does, it is generally quick and is implied to be quite gruesome. It is also most often fatal. A huge and powerful creature (Smaug the dragon) is killed by one single called shot. Weapons dedicated to Orc-slaying (Glamdring, Orcrist) are especially effective and seem to produce very brutal damage. They also detect the proximity of Orcs by glowing and offer especially flashy visual effects when used to fight them.

Magic spells are often observed, and their effects are quite conspicuous, if not D&D-esque in their magnitude. Gandalf performs a lot of explicit spell casting: various light effects, two killing flashes (directed offensive spells), things are set on fire, smoke is manipulated, some form of disguise and/or misdirection was apparently used at Goblin-Gate (“and there he sat down and worked up the best magic he could“). Magic effects are also performed by the Elvenking: sleep, the doorlock in the great Halls. The dwarves themselves pronounce some ancient spell of concealment on the treasure they have just buried, even though we are not told whether the spell has any power or is a mere ritual.

All of these things are modeled quite nicely by MERP. In fact, better than old-school D&D systems, which had at most a very rudimentary skill system and relied heavily on random tables less detailed and less naturalistic than their MERP counterparts. As I will comment more extensively in future posts, MERP’s rulebook consisted mostly of character creation (both stats and background), rules and tables for combat, physical actions, social actions (the respective attitudes of the peoples toward each other are presented and discussed), traveling (time management, encounters) and foraging (beautiful is the information on herbs). A certain abundance of low-powered magic items has always been criticized as unfaithful to the sources, but in the light of the novel I would not take it for granted: treasures are choked full of ancient weapons, which would count as magical in MERP terms. Physical action, like combat, is dangerous for all the parties involved, and not always effective, like in the novel. Critical hits can kill huge monsters in one single attack, and slaying weapon more so (see above). The magical effects by Gandalf, the elves and the dwarves are all covered by low-to-mid-level spells in the MERP spell lists: e.g., Fire Law, Light Law, Spirit Mastery, Unbarring Ways. Is this the absolute best fit for Middle Earth magic? It cannot be, since it was plainly borrowed from the preexisting generic fantasy Spell Law. But as a whole, it does not seem to be the case that the game system is “pathetic”, or “hilarious” in its reproduction of Tolkien’s novels.