Review: Fate Worlds – Sails Full Of Stars

Steampunk planetary romance / naval adventure across the solar system that doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be, Sails Full Of Stars is one of the Fate Worlds series of short settings for the Fate RPG, and is available here, and in print in the Worlds Take Flight anthology. It takes a neat, grabby setting and paints it in broad brush strokes, before adding in some complex and not-always-clear ship combat rules.

The Fluff

It’s 1850. The world, and indeed the Solar System, is dominated by three great powers – Napoleon’s France, the Ottoman Empire, and China, who first discovered how to travel between planets using handwavy rheosilk that catch currents between planets. Navigators read the vibrations of these currents by ‘sounding’ glass spheres and so the solar system is now full of massive rheoships hauling cargo, being pirates, and smuggling goods. Oh, and dragons. They were there before, though.

The presentation of the setting is great, but I can see how it might frustrate some. What is given is very broad-brush, with all the detail left for GMs (and players) to fill in. For instance, it doesn’t mention whether each empire has a base on every planet, so you have to sort of infer this from an idea of the tropes the designer is trying to pull in (and from some extra detail in the starting adventure). It gives a paragraph for each planet, so we know that Venus is full of dangerous jungle – but no clues as to what animals might live there. Mars is full of Martian ruins, naturally, and the promise of ancient tech / alchemy – again, all left up to be filled in. And there are the dragons, who allegedly gave the gifts of sailing the cosmos to the Chinese around 1200, but they are left similarly vague.

It’s an interesting technique, but compared to the other Fate Worlds it can feel a little sparse. This is clearly an epic setting with lots of moving parts, and a conscious decision by the designer to show the overall picture and leave the minutiae to the GM, but it feels … unfinished. Where some of the other Fate Worlds get round this with random tables and an explicit permission to make it up as you go along, this feels altogether more serious, which makes it feel more constrained. Perhaps it’s because there isn’t as tight an idea for what the PCs actually do in SFOS – in the sample adventure, they’re Traveller-style edge of the law merchants, but you could just as well be spies, explorers, privateers or mercenaries based on the implied rules and settings here.

The Crunch

There are a few variations from Fate Core here – two new skills; Alchemy lets you craft compounds – left a bit handwavy even for me, and perhaps more concrete examples of constructions would have helped. Sail is much more clearly defined, as a lot of ship combat rotates around its use. Also, around twenty new stunts – an excellent way for settings for Fate Core to define themselves and give the flavour of their genre – which is useful.

There are detailed – and tactical-feeling – rules for Rheoship combat which look like they capture an age-of-sail style ship combat with vast crafts trying to outmaneuvre each other using only the rheospace winds. There are a few bits that I’m not sure I can get my head around – such as how many actions you actually get to take in a round (I’d assume one per PC) and an absence of difficulties for most of the tasks (my usual Fate approach of Fair (+2) or Good (+3) difficulty probably applies here). There are also some variant rules for mass combat, which need the Fate System Toolkit – to account for crew actions like boarding and capturing a ship – again, very age of sail.

I’d need to see these in action, but I suspect they are very good – they are just sometimes a little hard to parse, but I’ll put faith in Fate’s resilience against any rules shonkiness. The ship combat would definitely work for an age-of-sail conflict, and as we’re not exactly overwhelmed with games to play 19th century naval adventures (except for the excellent Beat to Quarters) there’s probably a niche for them.

The One-Shot

I can see this being a great setting for one-shot play, providing the GM is fine with filling in plenty of the setting blanks. There are lots of ideas for satisfying one-shot adventures that leap out, and as usual it comes with an adventure as well.

If I’m honest, though, the adventure, Secrets of the Red Planet, feels a little flat. It’s not quite as clearly presented for running as I’m used to (I’d need to make some bullet-points of scenes to run it, as they are often long paragraphs with plenty of options) and it has some twists for the PCs that might lead to disgruntlement from players. It feels a little like an example of the setting and what PCs might do rather than an adventure to play for. In fact, I’d write my own.

It also doesn’t have any pregen PCs, which is a shame as they would’ve been a great chance to show some points of detail about the setting. Again, there’s enough promise here for me to want to make my own, but it’s a shame there aren’t ones supplied, though I guess word count was an issue.

Overall, an intriguing setting, and a shame it’s not as immediately usable as some of the other Worlds of Adventure supplements. I will definitely give it more thought though, and it’s on my convention / one-shot prep list to do some work on it – I’ll try and remember to share it here too.

The Long And The Short Of It

I’ve recently been in the position to plan (and in one case deliver) one-shots that have stretched the time constraints common to one-shot play. In the first, I ran a game of Vampire: Dark Ages over a full day; in the second, I prepped a 30-45 minute demo game of Hunters of Alexandria, a FATE-based historical fantasy game from D101 games.

The Long Game

A few months ago we hatched the plan for the Vampire game; a two-part, weekend-long game where I would run in the Dark Ages on Saturday and my co-GM would run (with the same PCs) a modern-day Vampire: The Masquerade game on the Sunday. What started as an epic plan led to a fair bit of chin-scratching at the challenges of it; apart from a few terrible experiences as a player in my teens, I had never run or played Vampire. All of my fellow players / GM had a wealth of experience with it. Part of my choice of Dark Ages was that I didn’t need to learn the extensive Camarilla bureaucracy or pretend to know what, for instance, a Primogen was (I still don’t – I think it’s a sort of clan boss or something? I smiled and nodded when it came up in game).

I began by reading my source book (the excellent Constantinople by Night) and making a massive R-Map of all the factions at work, and then started working out which bits I should focus on. I’m not sure I gave the authentic Vampire experience with my game, which was a race against time to find the four relics stolen from the Hagia Sofia, but I think they had fun – and it led to a more satisfying conclusion in the modern day as they re-tracked down their enemy.

In terms of what I did differently to a normal one-shot, I just had more stuff and didn’t push as hard. I put in a couple of encounters that weren’t immediately resolved, and basked in the opportunity to call back to them three or four hours later. I couldn’t quite shake my one-shot conditioning, starting the PCs in a prison cell and having them broken out by a mysterious NPC, which in retrospect was probably an unnecessarily hooky hook, but it all calmed down once they had their mission.

What would I do differently? I might, well, prep a bit more. I pulled more of the plot out of thin air than I would have preferred to; I joked at the time that I was running Vampire using Apocalypse World – I had Fronts and Countdowns for all my factions, and tried to bat through whatever choices the PCs made, but a few more ‘scripted’ encounters could have set up a more satisfying conclusion. I’d do it again, though, and am even now planning some shorter con games of Vampire (again probably Dark Ages so there’s more sword-fights with witch-hunters and fewer cocktail parties).

The Short Game

I spent last weekend at UK Games Expo, working on the D101 Games stall; we had space for demo games, so I prepped one for the FATE-based Hunters of Alexandria (HoA), a monster-hunters historical fantasy game. This was much easier prep. I didn’t actually get to run the demo, and am trying to work out when I will, but it was a blast to prep and I’m looking forward to when that opportunity arises.

I took a 3-scene approach and used the pregens in the book – they come with a range of skills, and some character portraits that looked grabby. There’s a skill check / overcome task to research some murders, a chase, and then a showdown. I’d be confident I can run it with in 45 minutes for up to 3 players; shorter for fewer, and that it gives a good overview of the FATE system. I’d post it here but there’s still a chance it might see the light of day in publication, so watch this space.

I found prepping the shorter game much easier, and I’m tempted to try it for a few more games in advance for conventions etc (aren’t there some Games on Demand things offering similar short offerings? Interested in these) as I think it can be a good taster for games.

Have you run, or played, in a particularly long or short one-shot? What was your experience?