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

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!

Double Disney

maleficent-2014I’m joined in the reaction chamber by Petra and we take on a double dose of Disney films. Maleficent is the box office darling right now, but our reaction to the film is less than enthusiastic. By the same token we finally get around to watching The Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer – a film that was nearly universally panned. And we got really excited about it. The short version of the podcast is: skip Maleficent and go see The Lone Ranger.

Don’t forget, this is the final week to get in on the Opposing Forces Kickstarter, so jump in!

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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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Adventure Journals

silidormap500I’m joined in the reaction chamber by Tom and Cathy Thrush of Urban Realms. Their current Kickstarter project is running concurrently with my own and I think there’s a lot of shared interest. Urban Realms publishes fantasy maps and related material. The Adventure Journal project is a set of journals specifically designed for recording your adventures and filled with thematic design work. They’re very cool; check them out! The Opposing Forces Kickstarter is still running, providing ready made characters and gaming advice for your Fate Core games.

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