Atomic Robo the RPG

DSCN2170Atomic Robo premiered in 2007 as a six-issue mini-series, quickly gaining a cult following and branching out into the two ongoing titles “Atomic Robo” and “Atomic Robo: Real Science Adventures”. The story chronicles the adventures of Atomic Robo, a self-aware mechanical man created by Nikola Tesla. Each story arc focuses on a different era in the life of Robo, beginning in the 1920s and continuing to the near future. The stories imitate the pulp action novels of the 30s and 40s, with a healthy mix of Tom Swift in the recipe. Robo’s foundation, Tesladyne, employs “Action Scientists”, which pretty much sums up the book’s approach to storytelling. Recurring antagonists include Dr. Dinosaur (an intelligent deinonychus) and the ghost (phasically fluxed corporeal entity) of Thomas Edison. The creators premiered a free webcomic release for the entire series in January 2015 as a promotion for the tenth volume of the series, “Atomic Robo and the Ring of Fire.” The creators are currently running a Patreon campaign to continue support of the Atomic Robo comic.

Evil Hat Productions produced the stand-alone role-playing game in 2014 with the involvement of Atomic Robo creators Brian Clevinger and Scot Wegener. The system is based on their Fate Core product, but includes the full rule set in the Atomic Robo book. No additional books are needed.

DSCN2171High Concept: Atomic Robo and the Fate System should never be separated. The book series emphasizes fast action with improbable stunts, starkly astounding science, and zippy banter that proves inevitably ironic. The role-playing game uses Fate’s variable attributes and flexible stress track to force game structure to imitate art. Characters tag their aspects and spend fate points to influence the story and make themselves more successful. When it’s time to break out the action science techno-babble, the elaborate challenge system for Brainstorms enables players to break out the dice and gabble away with a reasonable chance of inducing a variable phase flux field in the transphasic modulator simply by reversing the polarity of the power coupling and aligning the rheostat 90 degrees to reality. And if that doesn’t work, a good, solid punch usually does the trick. This is the kind of thing at which Fate excels.

Trouble: As with all Fate games, Atomic Robo requires massive amounts of buy-in and creativity on the part of the players. On the spectrum of role-playing games, Pathfinder would be on one end as a technically detailed tactical tabletop simulator and Fate occupies the other end as an exercise in group storytelling. There is a limited amount of tactical gaming in the system, enough to satisfactorily handle a fight between Tesladyne action scientists and the men in black of Majestic 12. Atomic Robo as a game theme lends itself as much to wacky ideas and radical puzzle solving as it does to rock-em-sock-em … fight scenes. Fate is really a pretty good match for the setting.

DSCN2172Phase Trio: The production value of the book is phenomenal. It’s printed on high-quality, thick stock, glossy paper in full color with a satin matte cover finish that’s so smooth to the touch. It contains the entire rule set for the Fate System, so no extra investments are needed. Every section is fully illustrated using panels from the Atomic Robo comic with the characters appearing in bubbles as if they’re playing the game and voicing over the panels. It’s priced at $35, weighs in at 300+ pages, and is the same shelf dimensions as the graphic novels so that it looks really nice next to them on your bookcase. The PDF loads quickly without any heavy background graphics and sells for only $10 on DriveThruRPG. Plus, Evil Hat is a member of the Bits & Mortar movement, so if you buy the book from your friendly local gaming store the publisher will send you the PDF version for free. My one real complaint with the production value is that a book this size really should have been a hardcover volume.

Success With Style: If you’re a fan of Atomic Robo or pulp science adventure in general, this is a fantastic treatment of the genre. The book lends itself well to adventures in the style of Gil Gerard’s Buck Rogers, Tom Swift, or Doctor Who. If you have any kind of interest in this genre or in the Fate System at all, this book is a superior treatment of the system over the Fate Core book, though you may still benefit from the Fate Toolkit. Action role-players to arms!

Freeport: City of Adventure (Revised)

DSCN2098Freeport has been Green Ronin’s signature setting of pirate adventure and Cthulhoid madness since the early days of the d20 System boom. The setting launched with the ENnie award-winning adventure “Death in Freeport”, and has seen several other adventure modules as well as multiple setting expansions centered around the flagship title “Freeport: City of Adventure”. In 2006 the setting went “system agnostic” with the publication of the “Pirate’s Guide to Freeport” which contained no system stat blocks at all. This book was followed (slowly) by a series of “Freeport Companions” for different systems, all containing similar information tailored to different game systems. At this point, the line includes companion books for True 20, 3rd Era (d20 System), Savage Worlds, Pathfinder, and Fate.

In 2013, Green Ronin funded the production through Kickstarter of a single massive tome combining the Pirate’s Guide and the Companion material as well as a metric ton of new stuff produced just for the book. New monsters, new characters, and new adventures all drove the page count of this new volume to a whopping 544 pages, all of it written specifically for the Pathfinder system. The printed copy costs $74.99 if you can lift it. There are two PDF versions; the first is the whole book at $29.99 and the second is the player’s guide, lifting just the classes, gear, and spellcraft from the main book for 133 pages priced at $9.99. The big question is, “Is it worth it?”

DSCN2099If the premise of the setting appeals to you at all, the material is well-written with excellent graphic design. The book looks great. It includes rules for insanity and corruption that allow characters to sell a piece of their soul for increased power. All of the signature classes are revised to keep up with changes in the Pathfinder system, and the monsters are very evocative of the twin themes of pirate adventure and cultic horror. The adventure module is easy to follow and serves as an excellent introduction to the game. The stat blocks are easy to read, the classes are easy to understand, and the rules are all clear and concise. The technical writing on the book is exemplary in its expression of the setting and theme.

My one complaint is the setting material, which is presented in the same kind of dry, history textbook format that has dominated RPG design since the 80s. The city is divided into districts with details about the businesses and personalities dribbled in gazeteer style. The characters are all segregated into a single block of pages disconnected from the geographic locations they influence. It is mildly interesting reading if you’re researching in preparation for a game, but it doesn’t form any kind of coherent narrative at all. Even the historical summary at the beginning of the book is written as if it were an academic paper. At every point that the rules served to reinforce the themes of the book for me, the setting information did nothing to maintain it. As a GM resource, this is all-encompassing and complete. As player material, it’s really pretty dry.

DSCN2100So what do you do if you already have the previous books? (Not that I, um, know anyone like that…) Are the new monsters, characters, and adventures worth the hefty price tag? If you judge the book just on the new material, counting rules revisions as new material, maybe only 25% of the book cannot be found elsewhere. And of the revised material, much of it can be had from the player’s guide excerpt. This book replaces both the Pirate’s Guide and the Companion for Pathfinder, and includes quite a lot of material about the cults as well, without actually being a reprint of “Cults of Freeport”. The Pathfinder, True 20, or 3rd Era player will find much of interest in this volume. Unfortunately there is little to appeal to fans of Savage Worlds or Fate that cannot be had from other sources for a much lower price. For the completist, this volume is absolutely essential. For the casual fan, it’s more likely to be a PDF or player’s guide purchase.

Welcome to Freeport! Come for the pirates, stay for the cosmic horror!

Eagle Eyes

144754The concept of Roman Noir is not one that seems immediately natural to me, but this setting makes it quite convincing.

“Experience Roman noir firsthand in Eagle Eyes, the latest Fate World of Adventure from Pete Woodworth. Battle cynicism, corruption and murder in the shadow of the Coliseum. Play Eagles, the Senate’s private investigators, and use every means at your disposal to get at the truth behind everything from “ordinary” murders and robberies to high treason, noble intrigue, military coup attempts, and perhaps even the strange and terrible excesses of the Emperors.

Life is cheap and the dust of Rome soaks up a lot of blood, but the rewards for those that survive are beyond the dreams of lesser men.” (Publisher’s description.)

Battery PositiveThe book provides a decent overview of Roman life insofar as that information is useful to running a game and creating characters. The adventure builder is very nice for constructing a quick framework suited to impromptu noir tales, which typically take a good deal more effort. The flavored Fate Phase Trio provides excellent direction for the campaign as a whole and what the players want to get out of the game. Layout and readability is the high quality we’ve come to expect from Evil Hat.

Battery NegativeThis book attempts to center stories on the unraveling of conspiracies within the setting. Unfortunately, constructing a conspiracy or using it in a game as a current or impending issue is given no treatment; the conspiracy is simply described as stress track which the characters are attempting to take out in order to end the story – and few details are provided on just how that is accomplished. This book lacks either the focus of a directional campaign or the detail of a complete setting. Campaign advice may be summed up as “emulate this list of tv shows.”

Battery 3 barsThere are a few example adventures built using the generator, but they are only story seeds. Not bad, but I would have liked to seen them fleshed out. The art direction is heavily shaded and lacks detail. I suppose its evocative, but it’s not to my taste. Overall, I don’t think this book added anything to mechanics of the Fate system as far as using them in a noir or Roman setting, but I think it was more useful for running a Roman Noir campaign than simply reading the Wikipedia entries on the subject.

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Cosmic Patrol

DSCN1997Cosmic Patrol from Catalyst Game Labs appealed to me the instant I saw the book. Such classic iconography with the rocket ship surrounded by orbiting bodies. A name so evocative of the pulp stories and radio serials that I love. Elegant graphic design in an attractive digest-sized hardcover. Wait. Digest size? I suppose that’s when I knew that something was about to go terribly wrong. After all, RPG books are supposed to be the full size of a 8.5×11 sheet of paper. It’s only reluctantly that Savage Worlds and Fate won me over to the 6×9 novel-sized format. Certainly Palladium’s decision to publish the new edition of Robotech: the Shadow Chronicles in manga-sized trade made the book completely undesirable from my point of view.

I was rushed, so I passed by the core book and grabbed the Quick-Start rules instead. Let’s take a look.

Create Your Character: (D10) The hardcover books are certainly very attractive leatherette numbers with nice quality paper stock inside. The graphic design is simple, though I don’t have a large sample size. It is formatted for easy reading and graphical elements are laid out intuitively. The iconography and language is very evocative of the genre.

DSCN1998Formulate Cues: (D8) It’s very clear from the outset that this is a story-based game rather than a number-cruncher. As such, the characters have very little definition in the form of game stats. They do get plenty of definition in the form of Cues, short phrases that define your character’s goals and motivations. These Cues are used to direct the action during the game. The minimal stat blocks are rated in values from D4 to D10 and are used in a combined dice roll. The whole system is very similar to the Cortex system from Margaret Weis Productions. It’s mathematically simplistic, and serves mainly to push the action in the direction of the Cues, Plot Points, and Narration.

Begin Narration: (D4) “Cosmic Patrol” does not require a gamemaster for play – instead the responsibilities of the Lead Narrator (LN) rotate from player to player throughout the game.” (From the rule book.) Immediate deduction for sloppy terminology; the grammatically correct word is “Game Master”. I’m not a fan of story stick games, but I’m not holding it against this one. Unfortunately, the turn structure is ambiguous, actions are resolved against a purely random die roll, and no effort is made to manage the Plot Point economy. As far as game mechanics go, this one lacks cohesive structure and would benefit from chucking it all in favor of pure narration.

Earn Plot Points: (D4) This is really where I think the whole thing falls apart. Every action in the game requires the expenditure of Plot Points, which are handed out to players within the game by other players and by the Lead Narrator. Each Lead Narrator takes a “scene” to perform their narration, but this hardly matters since story narration may be performed by any player in any scene. The whole idea is predicated on the “Yes, and…” methodology popular in improvisational acting. The experience is heavily dependent on the presence of a script and the willingness of players to act in concert with that script, despite rulebook claims to the contrary. There is so little in the way of mechanical structure or background elements that players are literally making everything up as they go along.

Achieve Story Objectives: FAILED. This game is going to go off the rails pretty quickly. There are literally no limits to what characters can do and no framework within which they must act. It’s not a game at all but a storytelling activity. As far as that goes, the stories are really pretty cool and the books are worth reading as improvisational scripts. This would make a neat exercise for amateur actors and acting students. Possibly it is ideally set up for LARPing, as the narrative sequence depends on the Plot Point economy. With the right group of people, this could be a blast; with the wrong one, it’s going to be an unmitigated disaster.

Now Available DTRPG

The Invention of Lying

l_1058017_8af16772Weren’t expecting this, were you? Based on the trailer, my impression of the movie was that it was going to be a lighthearted romp about people who misunderstand each other and then find each other emotionally, surrounded by a materially improbable setting. I expected the very embodiment of two words I have come to dread.

“Chick Flick”

Don’t wait for the part where I relent and say I was sadly mistaken. This is a chick flick. Snag a notepad and watch it anyway.

The materially improbable premise is that “people never evolved the need to lie.” The phrasing is important. Relationships between people are based on their potential for a positive genetic match in their children. Wedding vows consist of the words, “Do you promise to stay together as long as you want to and to protect your offspring?” A man on the street screams to nobody in particular, “Why are we wearing clothes and living on top of concrete? We’re just animals!”

In addition to lies, this world also lacks hyperbole, fiction, and religion. Marketing consists of a man on the tv asking people to drink Coke because it’s famous and you’re used to it. Entertainment consists solely of documentaries which are read verbatim from a script, there being no such thing as people who pretend to be other people (ie, actors). Religion is simply absent; medical professionals at a hospice are confident that after death is only oblivion.

The movie is mildly amusing. The humor is of the “scandalous” variety, where personal and intimate topics are discussed publicly and in detail without a trace of self-consciousness. Every conversation is one of full disclosure. The people in the movie have no sense of modesty or propriety, and accept both compliments and insults with the same equanimity. Businesses and products are labeled with stark honesty, such the “Place to Abandon Old and Unwanted Persons Hospice” or the “Convenient Place to Have Sex with a Near Stranger Motel.” My favorite is “Pepsi – For when you don’t have Coke.” It’s…. mildly amusing.

And then Mark (Ricky Gervais) learns how to lie.

Hijinks ensue for 15 minutes or so, after which Mark discovers that he can do something else that has been subtly lacking from the dialog. He can encourage people by telling them that life can and will get better, that they have a value not attached to their current economic or physical status. He tells a dying person that oblivion does not follow death, that instead we are reunited with our loved ones in a kind of paradise. It seems so natural from our position on the other side of the screen to offer encouragement and hope for eternity, but remember… as far as the movie is concerned, it’s a lie.

The lie goes global overnight.

In a world of perfect honesty, where people do not treat each other with disguised rancor or concealed hostility, where humanity is merely a civilized animal that seeks to pass on its genetic material, people suddenly discover that compared to the hope of eternity, the present world is meaningless. The world looks to Mark for more answers. He gives them in the form of 10 codified statements regarding life, the afterlife, and how to treat each other. There is additional nonsense here, but among Mark’s claims is that there is a man in the sky who makes all things happen both good and bad. And then something else interesting happens.

Humanity rejects the man in the sky as cruel and heartless, ultimately accepting that there is nothing they can do about him anyway so he should just be ignored. Things eventually return to a semblance of normalcy, with the addition that people now know about the man in the sky.

More chick flick stuff happens. I… wasn’t really paying attention. I was thinking through the ramifications of the premises and what it says about our world. The film is a fascinating study on the nature of humanity and what it could mean to live in a world without God. I found it particularly honest that even though all religions are essentially treated as deliberate falsehoods, the movie acknowledges that hope for eternity is an essential part of both the human condition and the ability to be truly happy. There is quite a bit here to discuss, and the movie isn’t nearly as offensive as I thought it was going to be.

CGC LogoThis review was originally written for the Christian Geek Central forums, so using their scoring system I give it a Relevancy score of 10 out of 10, and a Quality score of “Chick Flick”.

Forward the Foundation

"Isaac Asimov on Throne" by Rowena Morrill
“Isaac Asimov on Throne” by Rowena Morrill

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is most well known as the winner of the Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, the only series to date to which the award has been given. Asimov himself assumed the award had been created to honor J.R.R. Tolkien and was surprised to receive it. The original short stories were published between 1942 and 1950 in the pages of Astounding Magazine. These were later collected, and additional material added to form the novels known as the Foundation Trilogy.

The impact of the Foundation stories has been felt in every form of series fiction written since its time, and most significantly in the fiction written for tabletop and electronic gaming. Until Foundation, attempts to build a cohesive mythology around an entirely fictional setting had been mostly accidental and abortive. It’s possible that Asimov’s work was taken more seriously than E.E. Smith’s Lensman series (with which it shares many similarities) due to Asimov’s emphasis on science and problem-solving rather than action, and his choice of humans as the protagonists instead of Smith’s Arisians. It also seems likely that Asimov’s writing was more approachable than Tolkien’s heavily literary style.

DSCN1965In Foundation, Asimov describes the formation and continuance of a great galactic civilization, as predicted by the discipline of psycho-history and safe-guarded by the twin Foundations. The stories are predicated on the continual development of humans along evolutionary and societal lines. The First Foundation is responsible for preserving the store of galactic knowledge and advancing civilization. The Second Foundation is responsible for locating persons with telepathic ability and ensuring their continued genetic advancement. This combination will eventually bring about a Golden Age of civilization.

Like many of his peers, Asimov was a devout humanist. He viewed religion as antithetical to reason, a harmful force impeding the moral and civilized progress of humanity. Asimov argued that a society based on reason would ultimately work for the betterment of all, that those who acted in accordance with rational thought would choose actions that served others rather than themselves. Asimov also argued that the majority of people chose to act according to their base desires rather than rationally.

Asimov’s viewpoint still reflects the dominant themes of modern science-fiction, that reason and religion are ultimately incompatible. It also holds that a majority of humanity is not rational, and therefore not moral. There is a logical fallacy in this thinking that equates rationality with morality, two separate modes of behavior. Ironically, Asimov acknowledges this fallacy, especially in the character of The Mule, and acknowledges without addressing the problem it poses to his arguments.

Asimov’s literary construction of the Galactic Empire has been continually emulated in the years since, and continues to form the pattern for series fiction that uses empire-style civilizations. Asimov’s characters are likeable and relatable, if not necessarily memorable or extraordinarily iconic. His heroes tend to be scientists and mathematicians, and they overcome difficulty based on their capacity for reason rather than physical prowess.

CGC LogoThe Foundation Trilogy is one of the most influential works of science-fiction ever written. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy a Quality score of 9/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.

Dungeons & Dragons 5e Starter Set

DSCN1944Summer of 2014 saw the release of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons in a box set designed to introduce new players to the game. The box includes a rule book, an adventure book, pregenerated character sheets, and a full set of dice. It retails for $19.99.

Create Your Character +0: The production quality of the box is fairly average. The dice are a nice, marbleized deep blue with bright white numbers. The rule books use thick, glossy presentation pages, and the character sheets are on heavy-weave linen. Both books are coverless, saddle-stitched jobs. A 64-page rulebook and a 32-page adventure book. The included rules are meant to take characters as high as 5th level, and the adventure booklet maps out this structure very well. The box set plays as a quaint little self-contained game that will provide four or five complete gaming sessions.

Roll for Initiative +3: Much of the violence and occult material has been removed from this starter set. Some mention is made of necromancy in the adventure material, and there is an encounter with a banshee. Magic is described as essential to the flavor of the Dungeons & Dragons experience, but the magic contained in the box emphasizes evocation, abjuration, and illusion – a power set that intentionally resembles super powers. There is a nice variety of monsters to beat up, but the nastier or more horrific critters don’t show up.

DSCN1993Attribute Modifiers +3: The new 5e rules scarcely resemble the 4e set at all; it feels much closer to the previous 3.5e rules. Character abilities have been trimmed significantly. Character level now provides a single proficiency bonus which applies equally to skills in which a character has proficiency, and that bonus caps at +6 for a 20th level character. Weapon usage is now a skill like any other; there is not a separate Base Attack Bonus. Characters receive attribute pumps and class features as they level but not Feats. Characters can now gain “advantage” or “disadvantage” as a situational bonus, taking the better of two twenty-sided rolls. Character creation includes occupation and background elements that help determine skill proficiency and provide “Inspiration” for characters to use during the game. All in all, the range of mechanical variation has been drastically reduced, allowing radically different characters to maintain parity of effectiveness and significantly reducing the amount of math involved.

Saving Throws -2: I would have rather had a single, 96-page perfect bound book instead of two stapled magazines. A box set should have maps, and they missed an opportunity to include either maps of Phandelver Mine (useful) or a map of Faerun (sweet). I don’t even have to have the sweet, poster-sized treasures of yesteryear, full-page printouts would have been nice to have. It compares quite naturally to Pathfinder, but comes up short for a resolution system that feels dryly uniform.

DSCN1994Armor Class +0: The dice are really nice, and this box is entirely self-contained. It’s a great introduction to role-playing games in general and Dungeons & Dragons specifically. The art direction is beautifully painted and epic in feel. The adventure touches all the elements of the genre, and is superbly constructed both for playing and to use as a model for your own scenarios. It compares quite naturally to Pathfinder, and the reduction of value ranges in the math means a pleasantly smaller standard deviation in execution.

Roll to Hit: This is a great gift item for a new role-player or a board-gamer who wants to try something different. Experienced gamers won’t miss anything by leaving this on the shelf, and may be better served to just spend the extra money on the hardcover. On the other hand, the price point is low and it will definitely scratch that fantasy itch. Modified 14 on 1d20.