Wednesday, August 24, 2011

FATE Science Fiction Roundup Part 1: Bulldogs

Bulldogs! is a FATE-based science fiction RPG by Galileo Games, written by Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard. It is available in print and PDF format through Indie Press Revolution and PDF on DriveThruRPG.

Bulldogs has color cover artwork and color art on the interior. Jamie Posadas worked on both cover and interior art, and Kurt Komada is also cited for interior artwork. Most interior art consists of full-color single character illustrations without backgrounds or with simple backgrounds and a few objects, though there are a few full-page pieces with detailed backgrounds. The art is generally well done, with a style not too far from what you might see in a “Lilo and Stitch” cartoon (though perhaps the less well known Titan AE might be a better reference point).

Bulldogs weighs in at a lean 170 pages in the PDF version (counting the front cover), which makes it leaner that Spirit of the Century, Dresden Files, or Starblazer adventures, and about the same order of magnitude as Diaspora.

Setting and Species

Bulldogs has an assumed setting and situation. The characters are presumed to be crew on board a “class D” cargo transport, meaning “high risk” (in terms of the cargo or the region it is being transported to/through) for a large company called TransGalaxy. Class D freight is not a glamorous profession, so most characters are assumed to have gone in to this line of work out of necessity.

The action is set in “the Galaxy”, though astrophysics-nerdy folks like me who look at the map will realize the action is far more reasonably contained in an area far smaller than a galaxy. There are two major empires dominating most of the “Galaxy”, who came to an accord after a costly and indecisive war. There is a broad swath of unaligned systems called the Frontier Zone that separates the two empires, filled with groups of smaller states and independent worlds, not to mention a good measure of autonomy and lawlessness. Further, there are dozens of alien species extant in the region. Overall, this gives a feel a bit like that of the Farscape universe, Mos Eisley from Star Wars, or Star Trek’s Neutral Zone. There is no mention of Earth, so one might assume that this is a “galaxy far far away” type setup, or a future history that has forgotten Earth (like the backdrop of the Master of Orion III game.)

There are 10 species provided in the book as playable PC races. These include the likes of Arsubarans (humans in all but name), Dolomites (trilateral beings that are both massive and dexterous), Robots, and Urseminites (bad natured teddy bears). The races are defined by an interesting two-tiered approach. Most races have 1 or more species abilities, which basically work like Stunts in that they count against the characters “Refresh” (starting Fate point allotment). Interestingly enough, humans (rather, Arsubarans) are not the one race with no default species abilities; it is the Templari (a ruling race of one of the major empires). The species ability mechanism has a feel very similar to that of the template supernatural ability system in the Dresden Files RPG. Many of the races are human like and some are animal-like (snake, lion, teddy bear), so those of you out there who have bile for this space opera convention my want to steer clear.

In addition to species abilities, all PCs choose two species aspects from a list of six. The six species aspects are a list of stereotypes that are often true of a given race, but no single character embodies all of those stereotypes in actuality. This creates a nice middle ground between providing substance to a race (something that I feel some FATE variants fail at) and giving races believable variety (something many traditional games fail at).

If the 10 species provided with the game aren’t enough for you, a system for creating new species is provided.

Campaign Creation and Aspects

Most FATE games have some sort “creation sequence” allowing the players to collaborate on the setting and create interconnections and background details for their characters. To date, at a minimum this has included a 5-phase background collaboration, but most FATE games after SotC have included a more detailed “setting creation” step (Dresden Files’ city creation, Diaspora’s cluster creation, and SBA’s collaborative campaign creation).
Bulldogs deviates from this formula a little. First off the (to this point) traditional five phases are absent. There are still 10 aspects, but instead of the “two per phase” approach, each character in bulldogs is assumed to have 2 heritage aspects from their species, 4 aspects from their background, and 4 aspects based on the character’s berth (position/job aboard the class D freighter).

The only part that the characters collaborate on is creating the ship and captain. The creation sequence is a bit less regimented that that of other games, simply soliciting inputs of the players to define 3 aspects for the ship and 3 for the captain. These aspects are not personal aspects of the characters (unless one of the characters happens to be the captain), but the character’s berth aspects are chosen against the backdrop of the collaborative ship creation.

Several sample aspects are presented at each stage. As in Starblazer Adventures and Dresden Files, each aspect is presented with a sample use when invoking and a sample use in compelling the aspect. This presentation is very useful in getting the concept of aspects and their uses across to players.

Skills and Stunts

As with most implementations of FATE, there is no distinction between traits that are traditionally called skills and those that are traditionally called “attributes” or “statistics”. Most activities one would do are resolved by testing against one of 28 skills, which include physical traits like might and endurance that would not normally be thought of as skills in other systems.
The skills list is fundamentally similar to those in Spirit of the Century, with additions, deletions, and mergings appropriate to an SF era. The list is fairly concise, and avoids the “skill glut” that happens in Starblazer Adventures. The skill listings themselves are actually an improvement over SotC; each use of a skill is more clearly and succinctly laid out and categorized than in SotC.
Purchasing of skills is a middle ground between the pyramid approach of SotC and the purchase point approach of SBA and DFRPG. In essence, the point buy scheme used by SBA and DFRPG is used, but the sample skill packages presented in DFRPG are given descriptors (like “jack-of-all-trades” or “dual focus”) and are assumed to be the default method of initial skill selection. This hopefully will address some of the “fidgetiness” associated with simply turning the players loose on the point buy method.

As with Skills, Stunts follow closely from SotC, with era-appropriate adjustments and additions. Like DFRPG, the idea of prerequisites for stunts does not exist, and the stunts listing is more concise than SotC. The stunt section starts with a short method on making your own stunts, and the listed stunts are presented as “examples” of that method, but if you look back at SotC, you can see where most of the stunts came from.

Unlike SotC, Bulldogs does not regard resources as a skill, but as a derived characteristic, but has a modifier and is rolled against like a skill. This seems to be done to limit the wealth of characters, and create for a motley band that has to struggle to keep their ship in good repair and fueled up.

One difference from many other instances of FATE is that there is only a single stress track instead of the 2 or 3 tracks most other variants. I’m unsettled on whether this is a good move or not, but can think of one situation in which it is good. In my SotC-based Rocket Corps games, intimidation tended to come up in the middle of combat, which was very in genre but not really recognized by the game. As such, it seems to me that different sorts of conflicts can happen in the same setting, and keeping a single stress track wouldn’t be bad; one can represent the particular sort of impairment when assigning consequences comes up.

Other bits

Gear (including weapons and armor) is simpler than in Diaspora and Starblazer Adventures, but still more nuanced than SotC. Weapons have a damage rating which created a minimum stress damage from the weapon, which is reduced by armor. One setting assumption is the existence of personal shields that are more effective against beam weapons than slug throwers and melee weapons. This creates a place for melee weapons in the game.

Ships are likewise simpler than in SotC and Diaspora, but lack some of the nuance of those systems. Ship maintenance is a big deal, and again, helps to create a driver for a group of desperate and poor PCs trying to make ends meet.

Most of the GMing advice section is distilled from SotC, with the familiar bits on success and failure, difficulty for declarations, and scene framing. Adventure design is a bit briefer, and some attention is given to alternate campaign setups if you don’t want to go with the default “class D freighter” setup


Bulldogs is an intriguing, if late-coming, entry into the field of FATE based SF games. Nonetheless, I feel it may gain some traction in that it comes at the SF gaming experience from a bit of a different angle. It specifically tries to target a specific gaming experience, the sort of Firefly/Han Solo “morally questionable character mucking about in the dark back alleys of the galaxy” sort of experience.

It does this while not trying to be the “toolkit” that Starblazer Adventures and Diaspora try to be. This lets your group get to the gaming quickly, giving you a nice light setting and premise to chew on for a bit.

Though it does lack the depth of some of the subsystems that its rivals have, one nice thing is that these FATE games are presented with similar enough philosophies that you could use bits of them together. You could pull in the empire and ship systems of Starblazer Adventures if you wanted to play out some of the conflicts between the great empires of the Bulldogs setting in the backdrop. You could also dip into the unit combat section of Diaspora if you wanted to portray bush wars on backwater worlds, or you could plug into Diaspora’s ship system if you wanted a bit harder feel to the ships like Earthforce ships in Babylon 5.

As to what Bulldogs might offer these other systems, I would offer the species and the species creation system as the most immediate examples, though I also prefer the skillset presented in Bulldogs to the variants in SBA or Diaspora. Though I like the Diaspora tech system, in play I prefer the more nuanced way that Bulldogs handles weapon traits (setting a floor on damage instead of a flat bonus to the skill.)


Monday, August 22, 2011

My Experiences with the FATE RPG System

As a lead up to my FATE Sci-Fi RPG roundup, I though I would delve into my experiences with FATE to date, for the benefit of those who may have questions about how the system actually plays out, and for a bit of perspective of where I am coming from when I write the reviews.

My first major foray into FATE was using Spirit of the Century with my “home group”. The game was generally well received, acknowledged for its fast pacing. I did learn that the PCs were a bit too difficult to challenge and fights took a bit too long for my taste using the rules-as-written in the book, but I soon learned of the variant FATE rules that had been posted by Evil Hat that made it a bit easier to threaten PCs. I also thought that players of the less combatant PCs had some difficulty embracing the idea of doing maneuvers with non-combat skills instead of trying to get by with their meager combat skills.

I first ran a Spirit of the Century game at a DC Gameday. I did bring pregens, but made the mistake of letting one of the players make their own character from scratch. Stunt selection took way too long for a 4 hour gameday slot. But I considered the interactive nature of SotC chargen to be a shining feature, so I resolved that in subsequent runs of the game, I would have pregens complete up to the third step of the backstory generation, and let players pick the last two steps (four aspects) at the table.

After I had a disappointing experience running a Mars game using a D20 Modern-based engine at GenCon, I considered that FATE may make a better engine for this sort of action. I decided to take the Iron Lords of Jupiter setting for D20 Modern (in issue #101 and 102 of Dungeon magazine) and adapt it to the FATE system. To add my own spin on things and make it more pulpy, I made the background of the “stranger” (Earth) characters be that of a retro-future World War II; this channeled a bit of the Flash Gordon inspiration for the Iron Lords setting.
My hack used SotC as a basis, with some minor changes. I used a shorter damage track, added bonus stress damage of at least +1 to all weapons (to emphasize the threat of weapons), and split the academics skill into “Earth lore” and “Jupiter lore”.

I ran this setting at subsequent GenCons and Gamedays. For the most part, these sessions were very well received. They delivered a very wide-eyed seat-of-your-pants sort of gaming experience, which was just what you want for a Con/Gameday game. The biggest plus to me was the way that it got player buy-in and allowed them to add things to the setting that they were interested in seeing in play, such as certain villains or situations. Many players also really dug the chance to personalize the characters via the last two phases.

On the down side, some players just did not seem comfortable with the concept of aspects. Also, in earlier games, few players caught on to using maneuvers to stack aspects and take down a big target, with the result that combat seemed to drag. Happily, my most recent game at GenCon 11 seems to have broken from this pattern.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

FATE Basics

I intend to write a trio of reviews of FATE-based science fiction games* soon. As a reviewer, it has been my idiom to do a pretty thorough rundown of the nuts-and-bolts of a game. But I don't exactly want to repeat the same speel 3 times about the basic FATE mechanics. Instead of that, I'll post the skinny on the basic aspects of FATE here, and point the curious this direction.

* - Being Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures, and Bulldogs.

FATE Basics

FATE 3.0 is a roleplaying system created by Evil Hat Games, and used as the basis for their Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files RPGs. The FATE 3.0 system has been released under the Open Gaming License, allowing third party publishers to use the system for their own games. Third party games released using FATE include Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures, Legends of Anglerre, Bulldogs, Agents of Swing, ICONS (very modified), and Strands of Fate.

FATE features 3 major character building blocks: Skills, Stunts, and Aspects (though some small press offerings try to do away with stunts, in what I consider to be a baby/bathwater move.)

Skills are the basis of most actions, and include traits that in other games would be “stats” or “ability scores”. Skills include athletics, might, guns, academics, and pilot. Skills are rated on a “ladder” which includes descriptors and an associated number (like Good (+3) or Great (+4). Most tasks are resolved by identifying a skill appropriate to the task, roll a set of “FUDGE dice” (see below), and adding it to the skill number. The resulting number will also have a description on the ladder. For example, if the GM calls for your character with Good (+3) pilot to make a pilot roll, and roll the FUDGE dice and get a +2, this would give you a total of +5, or “Superb”. As long as the difficulty of the task is Superb (+5) or below, you succeed.

FUDGE dice were created for the FUDGE system, on which FATE is based. FUDGE dice consist of 4 six sided dice; the dice have “+” on 2 sides, a “-“ on two sides, and two blank sides. The “+” is read as +1, blanks as 0, and the “-“ as -1. As a result, rolling the FUDGE dice (or “4dF”) gives a number from -4 to +4. Some variants of the game (like Starblazer Adventures) simply have the player roll two different colored d6, treating one as positive and on as negative, and adding them together; this gives a results from -5 to +5, and is not as center-weighted as rolling 4dF (so you’ll get extreme results more often).

Stunts are special areas of expertise that modify particular actions for the character; these are approximately equivalent to feats, edges, or advantages from other popular RPGs. Example of a stunt would include shot on the run, wrestling, or universal gadget.

Aspects are perhaps the most distinctive element of FATE. An aspect is a descriptor describing beliefs or tendencies of the characters. Unlike skills and stunts, whose effects are succinctly defined, an aspect may apply in a variety of situations (as ruled by the GM), and can help the character or hinder them.

All player characters (and many NPCs) have a store of FATE points. When they wish to use an aspect to assist them, they spend a FATE point; this allows a bonus to a roll, a reroll, or sometimes a tangible in-game benefit. On the other hand, when an aspect hinders a character, they earn a FATE point; this may consist of a bonus for an enemy or a behavior or a situation causing a problem for the character.

Next Time?

There you have the basics of FATE. Next time around, I'll be relating some of my experiences using FATE as a gaming engine.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Secret Volcano Base: The New Era

It's been some time since I have posted to this here blog. But for the fist time in a while, I have some thoughts brewing in my head that I want to share.

I am still playing Fantasy Craft, but I am sort of past the "experimental" stage. It's matured into a nice workhorse of a fantasy RPG that is serving my group and I well.

This being the case, I shall soon turn my attention to other games on my horizon. I may even possibly start reviewing again. This is as good a place as any, though you may see the reviews repeated over at ENWorld is pretty much off the docket; the reviews page never really recovered from the port and the culture over there has evolved such that interest in anything I do will probably differ from mine extremely.

I will be looking at a few different games on my radar.

First, a GM in my group will be running Cublicle 7's Laundry RPG for us. For those who think that I am actually contemplating a gaming about washing my soiled linens, the game is actually based on a series of books by Charles Stross about a supernatural spy agency in the UK called the Laundry, after one of its original shell outfits. It's basically espionage in the universe of the Cthulhu mythos with some slightly altered assumptions about magic.

After a very successful GenCon, my interest in the FATE system has been re-invigorated. I am toying with the possibility of reviewing some FATE offerings, the newest of which is the gritty space opera adventure game Bulldogs! Those with a keen memory of third party D20 products will remember that there was a d20 game by that name; this new game is based one the FATE system but uses fundamentally the same setting. It's very pretty and I can't wait to talk about it.

As part of this experiment, I hope to also do a comparative glance at two other FATE-based SF games, Diaspora and Starblazer Adventures.