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

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.

CR System

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The Challenge Rating System that Pathfinder uses is a holdover from D&D 3.5. This time around, Curtis and I dive into the math underneath building opponents and dig into where it works and where it doesn’t. We share some of our own observations, and offer up a more simplistic alternative – just go for it!

Fateful Concessions

Curt and I fire up the reaction chamber to talk about some of the documentaries we’ve watched recently. We review “Rewind This”, about the VHS tape collector’s community, “The Game Masters”, profiling the lives of several people who are into pen and paper RPGs, and “The Dungeons & Dragons Experience” a general treatment of the hobby. Following the movie reviews we discuss the mechanic of Concession in the Fate System, a counter-intuitive method of conflict resolution that has still made its way into our games. The Kickstarter for Opposing Forces is still funding, so don’t forget to check out the project and help make an awesome game book!

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Stress Track Over 9000!

618px-Over_9000The Fate System measures health, willpower, composure, structural integrity and even the progress of a scene using the Stress Track mechanic. This measurement tool flexes to adjust to the current situation; it is not meant to emulate the absolute durability of an object, but the relative importance of the subject to the dramatic potential of the scene. The Stress Track interacts with every skill usage in exactly the same way, but the dramatic intention of the skill dictates the way in which results are applied. In Fate Core, the four actions used to affect the Stress Track are Overcome, Create Advantage, Attack, and Defend.

Nitpicking the Stress Track

Before addressing the four actions and their usage, it is important to understand the way in which Fate qualifies results. Fate always favors the successful roll; we’ll call this rule “Fortune Favors the Bold” or FFB. To quickly review some terminology, every point by which an action succeeds is called a “shift”. After a Stress Track is full, the first shift is used to declare an action successful and every two shifts after that creates a Consequence. For example: in combat, Player One uses an Attack action and Player Two uses a Defend action.

Case 1: Player One beats Player Two by 2 points. Because P1 used an Attack action, those 2 points are applied directly to P2’s Health Stress Track. This is a familiar situation.

Case 2: Player Two beats Player One by 3 points. Most tactical simulators simply declare the attack a failure and move on. But Fate always favors the successful roll. P2 inflicts 3 points of Stress using the Defend action. The Defend action targets the Stress Track associated with P1’s Attack skill, inflicting 3 points of Stress. The first shift is used to declare the Defend action successful. Every two shifts after that creates a two-point Consequence. Fate Core refers to this Consequence as a “Boost”, a bonus that may only be used one time.

Aside from the terminology, there is no difference between this outcome and the outcome described in the “Actions and Outcomes” chapter of Fate Core (FC 140-143). So why get nitpicky? By applying the Stress Track terminology to everything, it allows us to treat every instance of a die roll in exactly the same way. We no longer need to artificially differentiate between Defend, Attack, Create Advantage and Overcame once we realize that all of these actions attempt to create Stress, differing only in target and intention.

After we acknowledge that every Aspect and Skill has a Stress Track, and that most Stress Tracks have zero boxes, we can scale difficulty by adding boxes. For a character this may take the form of a Stunt like “Kung Fu Like Water: your Fighting Skill has a Stress Track of 2 boxes; opponents may not gain a boost from a Defend action until all boxes are full.” An Overcome or Create Advantage action may be extended or divided among players by adding boxes to the Stress Track in order to represent a more difficult or longer-lasting problem. That same Create Advantage action may be used to reinforce an Aspect, making it more difficult to overcome by adding boxes to the Stress Track.

A final definition is needed. We must now differentiate the Stress Track that can cause something to be Taken Out as separate from all other Stress Tracks. We will call this the Functional Stress Track. Depending on the nature of the scene, it may be Health, Composure, Willpower, Sanity, or anything else suitable to the action. All other Stress Tracks are referred to as Transient Stress Tracks, because they are viable targets for actions but will not yield a Taken Out result.

Applying the Four Actions

Once we acknowledge that due to FFB all actions create Stress, we can also acknowledge that actions differ only in target and intent. There is really only one action, Create Stress, which is governed by the use of Skills. Skills may then be defined by their targets and intentions, creating greater differentiation and a more clear delineation of usage that opens up a range of tactical choices for use as Consequences, Aspects, and Boosts.

AttackAttack: target an individual’s or object’s Functional Stress Track for the purpose of Taking Out the target and inflicting a permanent or semi-permanent Consequence.

 

DefendDefend: target the Transient Stress Track of an incoming Attack Skill for the purpose of preventing Stress and gaining a temporary Boost.

 

Create AdvantageCreate Advantage: target a Transient Stress Track within an individual, object, or the scene itself for the purpose of creating a permanent or semi-permanent Consequence or Aspect. In a duel, you attempt to Blind your opponent by throwing sand in his eyes. In a rap showdown, you attempt to Infuriate your opponent by dissin’ his momma.

OvercomeOvercome: target the Functional Stress Track of a permanent or semi-permanent Aspect in order to Take Out the Aspect and create a Boost. The classic example is of picking a lock. A door has the Aspect “Locked.” Until this Aspect is Taken Out, the door may not be bypassed. If the Aspect has a Stress Track of zero, a single roll may be sufficient. More boxes means the task could take longer; not a problem unless you’re being pursued by Cultists of Kali-Ma!

Remember that Fortune Favors the Bold! Even when a player is rolling against a static difficulty number, that static difficulty is considered to be taking the Defend action. If you fail in your attempt to Create an Advantage or Overcome an Aspect, the target succeeds in their Defend action possibly gaining a Boost. This can result in the lock becoming Jammed, the rapper Flipping the Script, or the duelist Catching You Off Balance.

The Stress Track represents so much more than simple Hit Points or Willpower ratings. This measurement of difficulty is the touchstone around which the entire Fate System scales. Correct application of the Stress Track creates more intense dramatic moments, opens up more tactical choices, and reins in power mad players by presenting a more complex challenge.

For more where this came from, help me produce Opposing Forces: a tactical manual and gallery of opponents for Fate Core, now funding on Kickstarter!

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Taking Zero

FUDGE_4dF_probabilityMost RPGs are predicated on the 50% success rule. Heroes will succeed half the time they attempt a task. Fate Core takes a quantitatively different approach by predicating on the 100% success rule. Heroes are equal to any task which they attempt to undertake. The static skills test throws the differences between the two approaches into stark contrast and highlights the effectiveness of each.

The 50% rule is seen most clearly in skill tests against a static difficulty. Pathfinder and the d20 games even have an option for players to automatically succeed at tasks within a certain difficulty range. This is known as Taking Ten or Taking Twenty because it assumes an average die roll. This type of mechanic evolved from the roots of the game as a tactical simulation, under the philosophy that success should be based on tactical choices rather than luck. When adapted for dramatic simulation, the die roll represents the effort of the characters in a very real way.

Fate Core also includes the option to bypass the die roll in order to assume success of any static difficulty which is equal to or less than the character’s skill. We will call this rule “Taking Zero”. Like Pathfinder, it also assumes an average die roll. The Fate Core book instructs players that dice should only be rolled when the outcome is in question or degrees of success or failure will make the game more interesting. It is, in effect, the same rule.

How does this change our approach to the game?

IdealIf this were an exam, Pathfinder would be Pass/Fail, and Fate Core would grade on a curve. When you Take Ten or Take Twenty, your character may succeed at progressively more difficult tasks without undue stress. The opportunity is limited by the circumstances under which a character may choose to Take Ten or Twenty. If your skill is insufficient, you simply fail at the task. Another solution must be found.

The key difference lies in the way that Fate Core penalizes failure. By Taking Zero, your character succeeds at a task, but there is a minor cost. That cost may be expressed as a small penalty to a future action or as a complication within the story. But in Fate Core, success is always an option. Did your character fail the skill test by three shifts? No problem. He succeeds, but the price is progressively higher the greater the extent of failure.

This changes our approach to the game by allowing the characters to always succeed at static tasks but at the cost of future complications. Because the Fate Core system relies primarily on dramatic simulation rather than tactical simulation, the penalty for failure is seldom as straightforward as the loss of Hit Points. In this way, characters accrue penalties and complications to be leveraged against them during the course of the game. Because later penalties are directly related to previous success, this form of resolution creates stronger storytelling by using a callback to previous events. It is one of the tenets of circular storytelling.

Application in Action

In the early game, characters trade initial success for a more difficult challenge down the road. The easiest way to do this is to apply the cost of Taking Zero as an Aspect against the characters that opponents can tag for free in the late game, we’ll call this Stacking Consequences. But this is Fate, and players may well wish to bank negative Aspects which they can tag for Fate points when they start to run low.

In the mid game, Taking Zero keeps the characters on track and prevents derailing due to unexpectedly difficult challenges. It works the other way around as well. When prepping for the endgame, players can accept higher difficulties when Creating Advantages too be used later. In this case, a die roll is still required, but a quick glance at the probability chart shows that even when the target difficulty number is zero the chance of success on the die roll is about 60%.

In the endgame, this principle prevents the action from getting bogged down when a single task becomes critical. Fate Core has a related mechanic built into the system; characters may concede a conflict and retain some control over their fate. Extending this concept against static skill checks lets players essentially “concede” to the difficulty of the task and continue to participate in the story even when their skills have failed.

Taking Zero and conceding a conflict both manage the difficulty of an adventure as it progresses. If the point of the game is to move the action forward and keep the party from getting bogged down in the details, you will find them to be essential tools in your GM toolbox.

“Opposing Forces” is a tactical manual and bestiary of foes for Fate Core. Now funding on Kickstarter! Check it out!

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Dark Sun Apocalypse

Curtis and I continue our Doomsday Prepping, focusing this time on how to get ready for the advent of the Dark Sun, when a rogue asteroid spins our planet into a closer orbit, turning the world into a desert planet. Curtis got some new toys, and we do a bit about using the new Dwarven Forge miniature dungeon. The pieces are really spectacular, and there will be pictures posted into the blog later in the week. Other topics include updates on our plans to attend Fear the Con 5, Free Comic Book Day, and the premiere of The Avengers this weekend. Check out the artwork from Atomic Earth, and send us some feedback to mindspike@criticalpressmedia.com!