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.

Review: Fate Worlds – The Three Rocketeers

In a sentence: Musketeers in space. Or in space, powered by SCIENCE!! Rocket packs, force swords, and outrageous accents unite in P K Sullivan’s Fate setting The Three Rocketeers (TTR), available here in .pdf and also gathered in the Worlds Take Flight print supplement. It also manages to hack Fate to do away with Skills entirely, and create something with about the complexity of Fate Accelerated (FAE), and in some ways cleaner. It’s not quite as lovably gonzo as Masters of Umdaar, but it comes close.

The Fluff

Musketeers in space! That is pretty much all you need to know. France, Britain, The Holy Roman Emperor, and Spain are planets instead of countries, but everyone behaves pretty much like they did in 1625 in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. The PCs are Rocketeers, guarding Queen Marie-Helene of Gallia (France), and carry rocket packs and force blades (which are often based on 17th century fencing designs). They do exactly what the musketeers do, but in space. There’s minimal setting information, but definitely enough; it’s handwavey space opera where economics and long-term consequences of space travel are not things to worry ourselves about.

Oh, and the Holy Roman Empire has a Star-Pope, of course. And a Simian Guard of Cyber-Apes. Who carry force halberds. It’s great, or awful, depending on your tastes, that it is literally the plot and conceit of The Three Musketeers in Space (FYI, I think it’s great).

The Crunch

There are two big rules hacks in this Fate World; the first is Aspect-only play. PCs in TTR don’t have skills, instead picking 6 guided Aspects. Each action, they decide how many of these are relevant to the action, and get +1 per Aspect (+2 for their Rocketeer aspect, because, well, musketeers in space). They can roll against a fixed opposition, or against NPCs who are dealt with just as in FAE – which saves the GM having to add up modifiers or worry how many Aspects are relevant. These Aspects can also be invoked as normally in Fate for rerolls or bonuses.

I like the idea, and I’m surprised it’s restricted to just this setting – I can see it working for any high-pulp Fate game of derring-do. It’s going to lead to some stretchy definitions unless your players are good at self-regulating, but it’s not as if FAE doesn’t require that as well; I think on balance I probably prefer it to FAE’s loose Approaches style.

The second one is Conspiracies – the GM stats up their opposition as if it were a FATE character, allocating a Skill pyramid to Conspiracy-ish approaches like Secrecy and Influence. These then provide static opposition as the PCs try to uncover the Conspiracy, and the GM can also spend a Fate point to use a Conspiracy Approach instead of an NPCs ability.

It’s a really clear explanation of the FATE Fractal that is high on concept but light on concrete examples, and it’s followed in the starter adventure included. I will definitely use this as a reference for other settings and games – but more on that later.

The One-Shot

You might have gathered by now that this is a setting that lends itself to a one-shot well; I can’t really imagine running it for longer without players starting to think about, well, space travel, or the interstellar economy, or why the Star-Pope is guarded by uplifted gorillas.

The starting adventure captures the feel of the game nicely – it’s a 3-act conspiracy where they first discover (and are evaded by) a lieutenant of the conspiracy, then infiltrate a palace to confront them, before learning of the real threat and having a massive showdown with them.

I think there might be a touch too much content even for a 4-5 hour session, so if running it I’d be prepared to narrate or montage some of the middle scenes to allow for the structure to stay as tight and epic as it is. It’s as railed as it needs to be to hew to the plot structure, but you need that many rails for a one-shot, and there’s a few investigative bits to break up the action.

But, what I can’t help but think is that it would be too easy to take out the space stuff and run a ‘straight’ 17th-century musketeers game full of pulpy action. Or, to use a more familiar reference (to me at least), a Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds adventure.

I should add, if you want a good taste of the setting, system, and gonzo-potential of the setting, I would recommend checking out the One Shot podcast where they play this setting, run by P K Sullivan. I’m usually no fan of listening to Actual Play – it’s a poor substitute for, well, actually playing, but this is something else.

Review: Fate Worlds – Masters of Umdaar

In a sentence: There are Lazer-Wolves in the sample adventure.

This tells you all you need to know, and it’s not a bad thing. Lazer-Wolves. With a “z,” like you came up with them before you knew how to spell “laser”.

The Fate Worlds of Adventure supplements are some of my favourite resources to turn to for one-shot planning; they each present a setting, rich in adventure and possibilities, with Fate rules guidelines (always including some variant rules for the setting), and a starter adventure. There’s a lot of them out there, so I’m going to be posting some snapshot reviews of them – they’re all really good one-shot fodder, but there’s rather a lot of them and so it can be tricky to get your head around what they are good for.

Masters of Umdaar is available from RPGNow as Pay-What-You-Want for the .pdf; if you want it in print, it’s also part of the “Worlds Rise Up” Fate Worlds collection, along with three other Worlds of Adventure.

The Fluff – Archaeonauts Assemble!

Masters of Umdaar (MOU) presents a science fantasy world where tyrannical Masters rule a fantasy world; you play the brilliantly-named Archaeonauts, hunting down lost technologies to try and defeat the Masters and restore freedom to the land.

In tone and style, at least to someone of my age and cultural origin, this reads and plays like a more-gonzo He Man and the Masters of the Universe game – PCs will be one of 15 bioforms including Mutabeasts, Chimeras, and the relatively mainstream Amazons and Mutants, and are certain to be employing a mixture of magic, technology, and anything else that can be easily handwaved. The setting and sample adventure are unashamedly gonzo; the adventure includes Lazer-Wolves, only a slight shift from the flying laser-eyed bears of the lovably bonkers World of Synnibarr RPG.

The Crunch – Cliffhangers and Random Gonzo-ness

MOU uses the Fate Accelerated (FAE) system as its base, but adds some tweaks. Character generation adds an optional random bioform element, random tables for Powers, Weapons and Adaptations (basically Stunts) and gives some suggested “class”-based allocations of Approaches. This, with FAE’s adaptability, comes up with interesting characters and pushes your players (or you, if you’re making pregens for a one-shot) towards embracing the gonzo in your game.

It also includes a new type of Scene, the Cliffhanger, which is an absolutely excellent way to model deathtraps / skill challenges / just about any extended scene in FAE. By allocating which Approaches will be most succesful, it allows flexibility for players to choose how to solve problems while still allowing the GM to be prepared for the scene to work. Even if the thought of laser-tailed canines leaves you rolling your eyes, if you have any intention of running a high adventure FAE game, this supplement is worth buying for these rules.

The One-Shot – Like Wolves, but with Lasers, sorry, Lazers

It’s the ideal setting for a one-shot; the Saturday morning cartoon feel means the tropes and high-pulp action are easy to get into, and the laughably simple premise points the players directly at whatever adventure goals you have planned. While the character generation rules are fun, I’d still provide pregens for this game though – even with the random rolls, Fate is most fun when you’re playing, and the stunts and aspects add a bit of crunch that will slow the game down to the speed of the most leisurely player when you really should have your PCs fighting mutants and hanging from metaphorical cliffs.

Having run the sample adventure as written as a one-shot, I’d recommend it with one caveat – it is quite quickly over. There’s a social Challenge scene, a fight, a Cliffhanger, and a big fight at the end – but the implied pace of the encounters is unlikely to give your players much pause for thought. If you want to fill a slot with it, while you could add more sections to the plot, I would be tempted to tack on a follow-up adventure to find another Starblade of Su’ul (honestly…) and weave this into the original plot.

Have you had any experience of running or playing in MOU as a one-shot? Or looked at importing Cliffhangers into a more vanilla FAE game?