Brancalonia: D&D Meets a Lighter-Hearted Blades in the Dark

Those of you who’ve been with me for a while know that I’m not a big fan of the systems used for D&D. The older and wiser I get, and the more I come to understand game design, the more I see the justification for the choices the system makes. It seems that a lot of times, my upset with the design choices are amplified by traditional (mis-)interpretations of the intent of those systems. At the end of the day, D&D is a game people love, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring that system over others. For me, though, I prefer my games a little harsher and grittier, and while I think D&D should best be considered a toolkit along the lines of Fate or Cortex (certainly not marketed that way but treated that way by DMs by long tradition), I find that it would take as much or more work to kitbash D&D into something approximating what I want as to design a system particular to my tastes. In fact, a few weeks ago I got some of my gaming friends together in our first post-vaccination meet-up to discuss putting together a fantasy game using highly-modified D&D rules (for all my complaints about the system, I listen to actual play podcasts and get a desire to play all the same). Instead of spending a lot of time discussing changes and systems, as I’d expected, we relatively quickly came to the decision that they’d (and I don’t disagree) that I devote my time to setting and system for Avar Narn and that they help playtest rules.

That’s a long walk to the real beginning of this post, mostly to explain that I don’t usually review or spend a lot of time on D&D-related books or systems as part of the blog. Brancalonia, though, is just that captivating.

Brancalonia is a setting (with rules modules) for 5e D&D, taking place in a “spaghetti fantasy” version of late-medieval/early modern Italy. Those of you who know my background understand that my interest is immediately piqued. Even without my deep love for the Renaissance in Italy, a mashup of fantasy and the spaghetti western genres sounds like two great tastes that taste great together. In execution, the “western” influence gives way more to the Renaissance themes of misrule, the Commedia Dell’Arte, and the best parts of early-modern humor. The fantasy is low without being gritty (think of a greasier, sleazier, ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold sort of vibe).

The mechanics of the system accomplish this in several ways. First, the restriction of characters to level 6 (a common change to evoke “low” fantasy in D&D without much fuss), though there are character advances that may continue to occur after hitting maximum level. Second, the inclusion of subclasses that evoke the feel of the setting without requiring massive overhauls of the core D&D classes. Third, a bevy of rules additions (more than modifications) that reinforce the feeling of Brancalonia. Short rests are changed to a full night and long rests to a week in line with the suggested rules modification in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. The long rest is then incorporated into a downtime “Rollick” system.

Other rules include a system for Brawls (a non-lethal combat type indicative of both semi-good-natured contests between rivals and conflicts between criminals who know that drawing steel changes the context of the fight into something of interest to the authorities–to say nothing of lethality), methods for tracking characters’ bounties for their misdeeds (and the potential consequences thereof), the aforementioned “Rollick” system and rules for relationships to the characters’ band and company as well as an upgradable hideout. The standard D&D economy is changed not by complex changes to numbers in costs but by the vast lowering of the amount of gold characters are likely to have at any given time, limitations on magic items, a system for squandering winnings (reminiscent of Barbarians of Lemuria) and rules for “shoddy” equipment–what the characters will most often be using.

I make mention of Blades in the Dark in the title of this review not simply because it’s the previous game I reviewed, but because the systems in Brancalonia remind me of a (lighter) version of Blades in the Dark crew rules. Rather than managing the relationships between rival gangs as in BitD, the Knaves of Brancalonia are “Bounty Brothers” more often than deadly rivals. But the game does follow the same sort of job–downtime–job cycle as BitD, with a simple but perhaps more formalized system for managing the group’s hideout and its available amenities (described as Grandluxuries). The jobs set to a group of Knaves is implied to be a little more varied, both in context and geography, than the heists of Doskvol.

Also like BitD, characters regularly engage in their vices during downtime in Brancalonia, though the results in the latter are more often amusingly complicating than the self-destruction of the former. The best summary of the relationship between the two, I think is that Brancalonia takes itself less seriously, creating a picaresque tale of rowdy louts rather than a depressing story about desperate criminals.

Some notes about the writing itself: the game was originally written in Italian, and I get the feeling (or make the assumption) that part of the mastery of the feel of the setting is the immersion of the writers in both Italian culture and European history in ways that a Yank like myself can only dream of. The translation into English leaves a text that is clear and easy-to-understand–as well as very well-written. The book could have used some more editing, but the issues I find are typically minor mispellings and particularly the omission of certain letters in words (including within chapter titles!). Still, I found nothing that endangered comprehension or that reasonably compared with the first released draft of the latest Shadowrun rules.

I really can’t over-emphasize how well-written the setting material is. Not only from the standpoint of well-constructed and stylistically-impressive sentences, but also of language that evokes the feel the setting aspires to. I imagine both the original writers (the team of Epic Party Games) and the translator (Sarah Jane Webb) are to be commended for this feat. To boot, the artwork is amazing and highly evocative. I daresay that it’s worth the price of admission alone.

I must admit a certain forlorn agreement with all of the “What our party thinks it is/What our party actually is” memes when I see them, and herein lies another strength of Brancalonia–its tone is that sort of light-hearted foolishness often achieved by players of fantasy RPGs to begin with, so what may be considered a falling-short of the transcendent heights of “great roleplaying” in other conditions is right in with the theme and style of the game in Brancalonia. This alone is a huge strength.

If you’re a less-experienced GM looking for the style of BitD in an easy-to-run system, or a group who couldn’t care less about roleplaying as “Art” so long as everyone is having fun (always the first principle of committing free time to an RPG, I think, even if you want to make “Art” as well), a group looking for a grittier but light-hearted D&D setting, a new gamer wanting to learn to play RPGs, an aspiring designer looking for an excellent example of setting writing (rather than excellent worldbuilding–it may be that, too, but there’s so much material to draw on to create the setting that I’m not sure that it deserves that categorization), or a veteran gamer looking to do something decidedly fun and different, Bracalonia is definitely worth checking out.

Is it just me, or are we in something of a golden age for Italian game designers? I think of The One Ring as well and expect we’ll see more games of note from this group of designers as well.

Blades in the Dark: A Different Kind of Fiddly

As I’d mentioned before, I’ve been, off and on, playing in a campaign of Blades in the Dark over the past few months. I’ve played or run several other iterations of the Powered by the Apocalypse system, but this has been my first foray into actual play of a Forged in the Dark Game. Rather than give a traditional review–as so many have already done this capably–I’m going to leave some remarks about specific “issues” with the game (read “nuances” rather than “deficiencies”). Most of the things I’ll talk about are really aspects of the same issue: BitD requires a very skilled GM to run well.

All Improv, All the Time

That may be an overstatement, but, as with PbtA games, the “freeform” and “narrative” focus of the BitD system puts a lot of pressure on the GM and requires a lot more from them. Every roll requires some level of interpretation, and there is less scaffolding for that interpretation or how to work out the consequences of certain actions as with other, rules-heavier games. There is, of course, an upside to this; otherwise, John Harper’s game would not have become such a successful system being adapted to so many other games.

The benefits mostly accrue to the players, however, at least in practice as I have experienced it. In D&D, for instance, the existence of certain feats and class abilities implies restrictions on characters who do not have those abilities. Not a rogue? You can’t Backstab, so you’re not as likely to choose to sneak up on someone and stab them in the back. Yes, BitD does have “classes” and “abilities” in the playbooks, but these tend to give added bonuses to certain actions without depriving others of meaningfully taking those actions that a more tactical game does not. I’m always telling players, “don’t look at the rules; tell me what you want to do and we’ll figure out how to use the rules to do it.” PbtA and BitD naturally push in that direction. But that also means that the GM has to be ready for anything and can’t be too committed to any particular expectations.

With the game’s mechanics focused on creating “success at cost” results, the GM is constantly forced to, on the fly, come up with reasonable costs and reasonable degrees of success under the circumstances. Likewise, the importance of “positioning” within the game, somehow both a rule and a complete abstraction, gives the GM a shove into the deep end of GMing. Clocks can make for excellent pacing tools and representations of certain obstacles, but if they’re not used regularly and with consistency between uses, they serve only as a doodle representing GM fiat.

I want to be clear here: BitD doesn’t make it hard to run a game. Quite the opposite. It does, however, put a lot of extra responsibility on the GM to make the game go well, and if the GM doesn’t either have a virtuoso intuition for such things, or a good deal of experience with games that have more support for interpreting results, things can go sideways very quickly. When things go well, though, the player freedom and the pace of the narrative created by the system makes for excellent gaming.

So Many Rulings

This is, perhaps, only a specific instance of the general issue of the above, but here it is: There needs to be a discussion of what “success at a cost” means and consistency in the application of that very common result. Starting characters in BitD start with only a few dice in a smattering of skills. While there are very well-designed resources that allow characters to push past their normal limits, the resource-management of which underscores the desperate feel of the setting, the skewing of results toward success at a cost means that the GM has great power (and, thus, of course, great responsibility) for how capable the characters seem to their players. If costs for successes are relatively low, the characters feel capable, triumphing in the face of overwhelming odds. If costs are always made significant, the characters feel like imbeciles, way out of their element and having no business trying to pull heists in Doskvol. This quickly becomes frustrating to the players, and not much fun.

This is, I think where “positioning” comes in. A “properly” paced heist in BitD begins with small costs for success but allows those costs to add up over time until new and significant complications arise. Likewise, there should be an “aim small, miss small,” mentality, where cost is directly proportional to the risk of the action undertaken. The rules explain this, and do a pretty good job of doing so, but the devil is in the details, and when the GM is worried about coming up with a new cost for that unexpected action, keeping track of all this pacing, tension-building, and consistent rulings begins to feel like juggling chainsaws (at least, if you feel that your players are as volatile as chainsaws).

There are a few techniques that may help here. First, of course, is practice. Second is maintaining the “conversation” of the game with the players–it’s completely okay for there to be some back-and-forth between GM and players to establish consequences and costs of an action before the player makes the final decision to take it. This is a game about calculated risks more than overwhelming surprises; so using the “conversational” form of narrative roleplaying is, I think, exactly what is intended here. For bonus points, get the players to make suggestions about results. “I want my character to try to climb the building. I know its raining and dangerous, but the storm also masks his movements. How about a clear success is climbing without issue, the cost is knocking free a loose brick that makes the guards that much more suspicious, and failure means a fall?” If everyone is participating like this, the game becomes (a) much easier to run and (b) more interesting in the telling.

I’ll admit that, even as someone very interested in narrative style games, my background in more “traditional” GM roles sometimes makes it difficult to switch into that other style.

Seduction by Mechanics

Here’s something that hit me quite unexpectedly in playing BitD. The rules for managing your crew, its relationships, holdings, and lackeys is very cool. But there’s an issue with having mechanics for these systems that seems more defined than those for playing through character scenes: it’s easy to fall into the trap that the rules are the sum total of Crew management. Go on a heist, calculate results, make decisions according to the rules, plan next heist. That’s clearly not what’s intended; the crew rules are there to facilitate story, to bring to mind more plotlines and character arcs aside from playing heist after heist after heist. BitD should have a fair amount of Gangs of New York or Peaky Blinders in it–dealing with the shit your lackeys get into and the beef you start with rivals should form a substantial part of play of the game beyond the processes, mechanics and selections that facilitate the crew section. While BitD does have an innovative approach to running heists (or at least a very cogent and elegant iteration cobbled together from the ideas of previous games), it’s not just about the heist. This is evident in the fiction and examples interspersed with the rules, but leaving many of the details of Doskvol to mere implication may subconsciously reinforce the tendency toward a focus on heists rather than other interactions with the world. Again, added weight on the GM. Maybe not unlooked for; worldbuilding (even fleshing out the framework of a provided world) can be an extremely satisfying aspect of GMing in the first place.

Conclusion

All of this is to say that BitD is probably not the sort of game to cut your chops as a GM on. Unless you’re very confident in your ability to run the game well, it wouldn’t be at the top of my list to introduce new players with, either. Running the game well requires a working knowledge of the GM’s narrative and practical toolbox; some familiarity with story structure, tension-building and drama; good improvisational skills and adaptability; and more theorycraft of roleplaying games than most competitors require. But, for some thing, you only get what you give.

“Fluff,” Lore and Mechanics

“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee, [fluff]!”

I absolutely hate the word “fluff” as it is applied to gaming worlds. If I understand correctly, the term was first used by wargamers to discuss the information given about the world in which their chosen wargame takes place (for me, it was first used in “Warhammer 40k fluff.” The word is, of course, derisive, with the connotation that “fluff” is not necessary, but only a nice addition to have. I understand why some wargamers might have coined and still use the term if they only carry about the actual game they’re playing itself (they want to know which options make for the best Tyranid warriors but don’t give a fig about Tyranid biology, for instance), and the word makes this plainly evident.

Even in the wargaming realm, though, I think the word does a disservice. Maybe I’m just not as competitive a wargamer as others (or maybe I think I’m not until I sit down to a game and take it overly seriously!), but the narrative of an unfolding combat is just as or more interesting than all of the rules themselves. Games overly based on the army you bring and the synergies between unit selections quickly bore me over games where on-the-field decision making and use of resources takes center stage. I want to know a reason the forces are fighting for me to be interested in outcomes more than winning and losing. I think that’s a more fun approach, too, as you can celebrate the sudden reversals in fortune for your opponent with them instead of lamenting as “unfair” every time the dice turn against you.

As a curious aside, I find in interesting that some fictitious settings get “lore” or a “legendarium” while others have only “fluff.” I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies, but I’d love to locate the line. It’s not simply that games have fluff and speculative fiction has “lore”–the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age worlds are often spoken of in terms of “lore” and not “fluff.” Maybe some of this is just a matter of how seriously a particular person takes a particular settings; almost certainly some of it is a matter of semiotic fluidity and carelessness with words.

But I do think it matters. Over the past fifty years, roleplaying games (and games based on fantasy and speculative fiction in general) have increased both in popular appeal and in the seriousness with which the writing of gamebooks and the playing of the game are taken as artistic and literary pursuits. Academia is studying and writing about roleplaying games more and more, and I think that’s an amazing thing; there may be more to learn about how humans examine and work through their own existence in the roleplaying game than in the solitary virtuoso’s classic novel.

When it comes to roleplaying games, I absolutely detest the word, “fluff.” I like a good set of mechanics for a game and I have a great interest in analyzing, modifying and creating RPG mechanics, as some of the posts on this blog demonstrate. I don’t want to fall into the trap of proclaiming the “one true way of roleplaying,” so take my opinions for just that: opinions. But I believe that the setting in which a roleplaying game takes place is not only just as (or more important than) the hard-coded rules, but that the setting and lore surrounding the game are part of the rules.

Those of you who read my RPG-related posts with some frequency know that I gravitate toward narratively-focused games, and especially Fate. But my posts on character-building for Shadowrun are probably the most-read posts on the entire site, so I’m not averse to rules-heavy games either. Still, the games I favor tend to explicitly incorporate setting as mechanics. Fate uses Aspects as a mechanism for those things that are narratively important to affect the dice resolutions, Cortex Plus and Prime do the same thing in a slightly different way. These rules are both focused on providing flexible mechanical systems to handle those points of narrative where randomness and insecurity of outcome is beneficial to the game, while keeping the narrative at the forefront. There are not rules for every case, nor do these rules get too bogged down in exceptions, combos, etc., leaving both Fate and Cortex as RPG toolkits for those gamemasters who like to tinker with and personalize their rules without having to start from scratch.

Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse take a different, maybe even more direct, approach to setting as mechanics. They call this narrative or fictional “positioning,” and they don’t need hardcoded rules to do it. The premise is simple–when deciding how successful and effective an action is, we look at the context of the action to make the determination rather than resorting to a “margin of success” or other explicit rules. In a gunfight with a knife and you’ve out-rolled the opponent? Maybe you’re able to get a good slash on the opponent and disarm him. Had you been using a gun of your own, maybe the result would have been a John Wick-style headshot, since you’d have had a much better fictional possession relative to your opponent.

Both systems can use the “hardness” of a GM response, cost of success or degree of success or how many pieces of a clock are filled in for a more specific tracking system.

But neither of these system is necessary to use the “setting and situation as rules” approach. In fact, I think it’s fair to argue that all games to this to a greater or lesser extent. Even Dungeons and Dragons, where you might have a discrete dice roll for damage or to determine whether a condition is suffered, many tests (especially skill tests) are wide open to interpretation of result by the GM. Genre, setting and situation can be drawn upon to determine results in such cases.

A few notes on this:
(1) I think that this is part of what OSR gamers are looking for–greater acknowledgment of setting and situation for resolution rather than specific rules for every action authorizing what can and cannot be done. There’s an opportunity cost for writing rules for specific actions, one most evident in feats and abilities for characters, I think. If there’s a “Great Leap” ability that allows for a jump attack, there’s, at the very least, an implication that characters without this ability can never make (Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy-style) badass jumping attacks.
(2) Also with reference to D&D, the opposite situation–when mechanics are treated as the physics of the setting, even when that doesn’t make rational sense–occurs. I think that this is part of what drives me away from the D&D system as a whole (among other things). I think of Jake Norwood, writing in the preface of his awesome game The Riddle of Steel, when he states that part of the impetus for creating his game was a D&D experience where his character stood on the edge of a cliff, a horde of orcs rushing towards him, and he realized he’d take less damage jumping off the cliff than fighting the orcs. It’s okay to say, “if your character does this, he will die”–even if the rules say otherwise. Unless you’re trying to play a goofy slapstick game (power to you if that’s how you roll), everyone at the table should understand that logic trumps rules when they’re in conflict. A good example, I think, was how the Serenity RPG handled being thrown into space without protection. The rules state (in paraphrase): “The character dies. If you really need to, roll all the dice on the table and apply that much damage.” Note that I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for a game to have a mechanism for resolving falling damage, only that that mechanism should give way to the fiat of death (perhaps modified by whatever “barely escape from death” points the system has) when it is logically appropriate.
(3) No rules system can cover all situations, nor can it possibly account for all of the minute variables that might factor into a resolution roll, so by necessity we resort to using setting and situation (as our form of internal consistency and logic) to structure resolution rolls in the first place. Is this a one-die penalty for difficulty or two?

And, of course, the lore of a setting tells us what types of things are likely to happen in that setting, what things are extremely unlikely, and how actions or events are likely to play out. You can, and sometimes should, homebrew and modify rules to reflect those realities, but the truth is that you don’t necessarily need to if the setting itself provides the North Star in guiding the structure and interpretation of rolls.

For all of these reasons, I’d argue that setting is a much a part of mechanics (or at least should be considered such) as everything that falls within the “rules” section of the books. When that’s the case, there’s no such thing as “fluff,” there’s only information about the setting that helps us understand how to position the mechanics we use when playing in that setting.

Cyberware in Fate (Theory and Planning)

In my previous post, I mentioned that I’m working on some Fate hacks for Star Wars and Shadowrun. As I continue to develop ideas for those hacks, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on handling cyberware in Fate (with some ideological commentary on handling cyberware in roleplaying games in general).

Let me begin by saying that I love the complexity and diversity of cyberware and bioware in Shadowrun, even if it verges on turning character creation into “Accounting, the RPG.” Without hesitation, I’ll state that it’s the character creation systems in the official Shadowrun rules that most draw me to that ruleset. Running the game with the Shadowrun rules, though–that leaves something to be desired. I’ve spent a few evenings reading through the Cyberpunk Red rulebook (having also spent a good deal of time recently playing Cyberpunk 2077–review forthcoming), and I find the cybernetics in that game limited–frustratingly so–when compared to Shadowrun.

(As an aside, since I grew up with Shadowrun and not Cyberpunk (even before I started reading all of the fiction of the cyberpunk genre), it’s hard for me to be satisfied with a cyberpunk setting that doesn’t also include magic and elements of the fantastic. I’m tempted to worldbuild my own, fantastic, post-cyberpunk setting, perhaps for use with the RPG ruleset I’m developing for Avar Narn. Since, without a Patreon, I have some more flexibility in my worldbuilding endeavors, and since I’ve already put down the cash for a lot of functionality in WorldAnvil–a result that in my mind has been worth the whole Patreon idea even though it didn’t pan out–this might be something you see posts directing you toward in the future.)

Back to our irregularly scheduled post. Is there a good way to capture the complexity of Shadowrun-style augmentation in Fate? Of course there is–I just have to find it!

Core Approaches
The “basic” system for handling cyberware in Fate simply uses aspects and stunts (see Fate System Toolkit p. 152). Really, these are almost mini-stunts, given the difference between “minor” augs and “major” augs. This is a good start, but the Fate system can do a lot more, and, as you know, I like to play with the system and see where it might reasonably and usefully be pushed. If you’ve looked at my partial attempt at a Tom Clancy’s Division ruleset in Fate, you’ll see that I’m willing to push the envelope of the Fate system beyond its initial intent. On the other hand, it’s the initial intent–narrative focus and efficient play–that draws me to Fate in the first place, so I want to temper rules mods and modules I come up with in light of that. There’s nothing wrong with creating a new system that uses Fudge/Fate dice, but I’d like my creations to still reasonably be called implementations of Fate rather than hybrid abominations distantly inspired by Fate.

So, how do we expand on the Toolkit system? We invoke the Fate Fractal, of course! There are a few things that this will assist us with:

(1) By creating an overarching Extra, we can apply some facets of augmentation across the board. This should help implementation of ideas like Essence.
(2) By the same token, making Augmentation an Extra allows us to fine tune some of the cost of cyberware with Flaws, conditions and other character traits that can be bundled in with an Extra.
(3) While the core of stunts and aspects will easily account for many (perhaps most) cyberware/bioware/geneware/nanoware items, we’ve got other interesting options to play with.

Other Tricks
Among those interesting options, weapon and armor ratings immediately come to mind. Once I sort out exactly how I’ll handle weapons and armor, it will be easy to address augmentations like subdermal armor, integrated weapons, etc.

Even better than that (in my mind, at least), is the use of the idea of Red and Blue dice. The Toolkit describes the Red and Blue dice system on page 72. In the form presented, Red and Blue dice are used for weapons and armor, respectively. But there’s no reason they have to be. We can use the idea of Red dice as a mini- (almost micro-) stunt. “Roll a Red Die when using the Athletics skill.” This gives you a 1/3 chance of having a +1 boost to the result. Far less than the typical +1 or +2 from a stunt, but it still represents a tangible benefit (actually it’s, in raw statistics, the same benefit as a +1 to X skill in core Shadowrun, though this plays out differently because of the reduced granularity in Fate). As an additional benefit, this allows us to spread around a lot more small bonuses, allowing for characters with many different augs without having an insane character budget for extras.

Some other rules tricks I’m considering using: increase the Shift value of a Condition/Consequence; add a new Condition/Consequence; add additional Stress track boxes; modify stress box values.

Tags, Traits and Aspects
I’m also thinking about modifying the idea of “tags” in PbtA games. In Apocalypse World games, “tags” tell you something about the narrative but don’t necessarily have a mechanical component. For instance, a firearm with the “loud” tag doesn’t change the numbers on a roll when it’s used, but it should influence the types of moves the GM takes in response to its use.

Transhumanity’s Fate (the official port of the Eclipse Phase setting to Fate rules) uses a similar concept, which they call “Traits.” Traits act as “sub-aspects” or reminders of the purview and scope of the aspect to which a trait is attached. In many ways, this is that the Toolkit’s description of some “minor augs” works, like adding “low-light vision” to your cybereye.

Depending on how you look at it (or upon specific implementation), what I’m thinking about doing is actually closer to PbtA’s tags than Transhumanity’s Fate’s “traits.”

This is because Aspects actually have (at least) two functions. While an Aspect can be invoked to gain a mechanical bonus, an Aspect in Fate is also “always true.” So, at least as I understand and run the system, if someone has a Low-Light Vision trait, the existence of that trait justifies a lack of increased opposition to a roll based on poor lighting, even without the Aspect being invoked and a Fate Point being paid. This is one of those things that seems to take some settling in before new players grok Fate RPG.

If that’s how you run things, then it would be possible to divorce that “always true” portion of an Aspect from the “invoke to get a +2 or reroll” part of an Aspect. What does that leave you with? If the statement is attached to another Aspect, then it’s really pulling the duty of a TF “trait.” If it’s not attached to an Aspect, but you still treat it as “always true” for narrative purposes (we might say “for narrative positioning”), then it’s closer to a PbtA “tag.”

Implementation determines whether this is a distinction without a difference. If the augmentation system ties these “always true” statements to a stunt and not an Aspect, we’re pretty clearly in the realm of “tags.” Why would that be useful? A few reasons. Let’s look at the Fate Toolkit’s cybereye example.

The Cyber-Eye is a “minor” aug (meaning three to a point of Refresh) that gives a stunt-like effect (+1 to sight-based Notice rolls). This can be expanded by adding Aspects to the Cyber-eye, of which Low-Light Vision is one. But these added Aspects are also “minor” augs, meaning you potentially get three Aspects for 1 Refresh. Any problems that arise from doing things this way are minor at best and probably negligible, because the fact that there’s going to be overlap between many of these “minor” aug Assets and because, y’know, common sense and fair play. On the other hand, the low cost of these additions is better justified if they have only the “always true” element without the ability to grant a +2 or reroll. This helps fight the (again, potentially non-existent) problem of “Aspect bloat” but still makes those little tag-like tweaks worthwhile, because they still provide narratively and mechanically-significant information about when a roll should be necessary, what can be accomplished by a roll, and what reasonable opposition to a roll should be, all in line with the fiction-first approach of Fate. Example: having Thermal Imaging as a “tag” on your Cybereyes allows you to get information about the heat coming off of a vehicle’s engine in addition to make and model with a Notice roll–no additional mechanics needed and keeps the Fate Point Economy in check.

The only concern I’ve got with this approach is where it may require additional parsing and whether that additional parsing will add enough complexity to the system that the detriment outweighs value. Example: you can choose the “tag” Low-Light Vision for your Cybereyes, or you can choose Zoom Magnification. Should Zoom Magnification be a “tag”, an Aspect, or a stunt? Is it too weird to have sub-choices on an augmentation that vary so widely in mechanical effect? To be determined.

Essence and Humanity Loss
Both Cyberpunk and Shadowrun indicate that human augmentation directly results in reduced empathy, reduced “humanity.” I understand the need for Essence as a balancing issue in Shadowrun; I understand Humanity Loss in Cyberpunk less, since all characters have equal access to cyberware.

From a setting perspective, or philosophical or theological perspective, I find humanity loss and Essence rules to be strange, unsettling, and somewhat offensive. The reasons are many, but let’s focus on a few:

It’s extremely difficult to determine the psychological effects of human augmentation. If you read my theological or philosophical posts, you know that I’m an existentialist in my approach to both pursuits. I believe that our experience as embodied beings is very important to how we understand the world and our place in it. Our experiences with and relationships to our bodies are very complex things–we can talk about BMI, magazine covers, messaging about “ideal bodies,” anorexia and bulimia, and many more indicators of the nuanced and often troubled ways in which we relate to our material forms. But I defy the belief that someone who has a prosthetic is somehow less human than I am–that humanness is an inalienable part of their self. The argument made in Cyberpunk and Shadowrun on these grounds is horribly ablist.

Yes, a person’s humanity can be twisted and corrupted, made hard by experiences or choices. But I’m not convinced that fitting a piece of metal or a cloned and genetically engineered organ to one’s body is, by itself, the kind of experience that leads to such a loss of self. People who are benefited by prosthetics treat their experience of loss and restoration (however partial) in different ways–just like we all take different approaches and establish different paradigms with regards to how we each think about our own body. This paradigm might involve feelings of depression, despair, uselessness, failure and many other negative feelings that touch and trouble our relationships with self and others, but that’s a far cry from the “I feel 15% less able to relate to you or to feel compassion because my arm is made of aluminum” that our leading cyberpunk roleplaying games seem to expect.

The books in the Altered Carbon series (and the TV show), and the Eclipse Phase game (in d100 or Fate form) both take a more believable, more philosophically defensible and–perhaps most important–more interesting approach to the psyche and human augmentation. In both settings, psychological trauma can arise as a consequence of resleeving for many different reasons, but these are mostly involved with the experience of embodiment itself, of suddenly looking different or occupying a body that feels very different from what you expected. This is not the same as being psychologically traumatized by what is, at its core, enhancement surgery. Moreover, the psychological traumas of Eclipse Phase and Altered Carbon are treated with as much nuance (and perhaps empathy) as other types of psychological trauma, rather than being this unavoidable downward spiral of emotional intelligence.

Shadowrun perhaps goes farther in making a spiritual argument as well. The value of this is in adding complexity to the way the magical and supernatural elements of the game function, but the core assumption: that voluntarily changing your body results in spiritual detachment between body and soul, is a tenuous one. I can’t with any definitiveness say that it’s wrong, but it strikes me, personally, as wrong. Your mileage may vary.

Fortunately, the Fate system is more resistant to balance issues than Shadowrun is (which, despite having Essence, is full of potentially game-breaking mechanical constructs), so Essence issues do not need to be treated in as much detail as in the official Shadowrun rules. That leaves me with a design question: (1) cater to my own beliefs, suppositions and predispositions, or (2) adhere to fidelity to the setting and mechanical conceits of core Shadowrun for sake of fidelity to the system being ported. At this point in time, not sure how I’ll go. Were I designing this hack with more of Cyberpunk in mind than Shadowrun, I have to say I’d be inclined to ignore Humanity Loss altogether and let cyberpsychosis be a thing that happens in the world, but not to player characters.

Dresden Files Accelerated, “Mantles” and PbtA-Style Playbooks in Fate RPG

With our Innumerable Isles game, my gaming group is just starting to get comfortable with how the Fate RPG rules work, many of them coming from a strong background in heavier “crunch,” less narrative-focused (rules-wise, at least) games, like D&D, Shadowrun, WFRP and the previous generation of 40k RPGs (Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, etc.). Given that I both have a very fond place for how Fate plays and I understand the frustration of jumping around from rules system to rules system, I’ve decided (as I’ve mentioned before) that most of the games I’ll be running for the near future will use the Fate RPG system.

I am working on my own RPG system for the Avar Narn setting, with some ideas about some additional settings to build for use with my fiction and that eventual ruleset, but I also really enjoy tinkering with the Fate system without having to entirely reinvent the wheel for core mechanics and basic systems.

So, as two of my many side projects at any given time, I’m working on putting together my own hacks for Star Wars and Shadowrun, two settings I’m likely to revisit with predictable frequency. In doing so, a few ideas have been storming around in my brain.

My experience with my group and the Fate system is that, when it comes to character creation, at least, my players would like to have additional guidance–particularly when it comes to creating Aspects and choosing stunts. And then there’s my own proclivity for thinking about ways to have the ruleset reinforce tone, character and setting. The Playbook approach of the Powered-by-the-Apocalypse games goes a long way into simplifying character creation by providing a ready character idea with thematically focused abilities that, as a whole, maintain some flexibility within the character concept.

Generally, I’m not the biggest fan of character “classes,” as I personally prefer maximized flexibility in character creation. However, character classes and roles as distinct and discrete constructs have definite value in roleplaying systems–that’s why they’re so common in the first place. Among other things they: (1) help ensure each player in the group has an area in which their character holds the spotlight, (2) buttress the crafting of character concepts, (3) simplify and speed up character creation, (4) reinforce ideas about setting and theme.

Both Shadowrun and Star Wars are settings conductive to the use of “classes” or “playbooks,” having iconic archetypes to draw from. In Star Wars, we have the Jedi (of different types), the Smuggler, the Soldier, the Bounty Hunter, etc. (the FFG Star Wars system provides many different such archetypes). Likewise, Shadowrun characters tend to fall into archetypes as well: the Street Samurai, the Mage, the Shaman, the Rigger, the Hacker/Decker, the Face, the Infiltrator, etc.

PbtA would make each of these playbooks (indeed, you can find PbtA hacks for Star Wars and for Shadowrun, as well as The Sprawl and its supplements, which handle cyberpunk games with or without fantastic elements in the PbtA system).

I can’t say definitively whether the PbtA-style Playbooks influenced the writing of Mantles in Dresden Files Accelerated, but it sure seems like they did. Regardless, the DFA‘s Mantle system is a stroke of genius; it provides a great example of how to apply the Playbook philosophy to the Fate rules (whether Core, Condensed or Accelerated).

If you’re not familiar with DFA‘s Mantles, these are used to flesh out different character concepts or archetypes, both mundane and supernatural. Each Mantle includes some core Stunts for the Mantle as well as a list of additional stunts for selection in character creation or advancement. Sounds like a Playbook’s “Moves,” right? Where things get really interesting is that (since DFA uses Conditions instead of Consequences), each Mantle gives a character additional Conditions. Some of these Conditions have a track, boxes in which can be checked to power the stunts in the Mantle’s list. Others are binary and may do all sorts of interesting things–like shutting down the use of particular stunts. An example is the Law Enforcement Mantle, which has a “Police Powers” Condition that allows the character to do the things expected of a law enforcement officer as well as a “Suspended” Condition that prevents the use of Police Powers when checked–you’ve overstepped your authority and someone’s demanded you “turn in your badge and gun,” as the cop films would have it.

So, the Mantle grants thematic “Moves” and often includes thematic Conditions and even subsystems unique to that character type. If every character has a Mantle, and the Mantles are at least roughly balanced (to the extent that the game you’re playing and the players you’re playing with need balance), then there’s no need to resort to Refresh costs to apply a Mantle.

So, the Mantle carries with it the structure of the PbtA Playbook. As with PbtA, you can always allow a character to have Stunts (or Moves) not from the Mantle’s list when it makes sense for them to do so.

In DFA, Aspects and Skill (Approach, really) ratings are determined separately from the Mantle, so you get the Mantle’s structure combined with the vast freedom of creating your Aspects and the basic difference between characters of the same Mantle by how they arrange their Skill/Approach arrays. You can add to the structure of a Mantle by providing example Aspects players can choose from, suggesting or requiring apex Skills or Approaches for a Mantle, and/or building a selection of Extras that a Mantle is required to take or from which they may select (a Shadowrun Rigger needs drones, right?). Conversely, by leaving the selection of Extras divorced from the Mantle, by having a “general” stunt list available to all characters, and by leaving Aspects and Skill selection untethered to Mantles, you preserve overall character freedom while gaining the thematic and mechanical benefits of using Mantles. For a happy medium, give “suggested” Aspects, Extras, and Skill arrays that can be used by those players who want to make their character quickly but that may be modified or ignored by the players who want more freedom in crafting their particular character.

Here’s the downside: it’s a lot of work on the GM (or whomever is putting the mechanics for the game together) to build Mantles (or, as I’ll prefer to call them, Archetypes)–particularly if you’re trying to create a broad selection of Archetypes with unique Conditions and Stunts (or at least only minor overlap). I’ve found myself with the DFA rulebook open in one tab, a number of other Fate rulebooks open in successive tabs, and the Flow app open on my iPad all at once to take notes, mark things out, and generally brainstorm ideas as I list and define Archetypes. For me, it’s the kind of creative work I enjoy anyway, and I think it will improve games I run in those settings by both scaffolding players in their character creation and providing some thematic focus to character creation for the setting and particular narrative.

As I work on my personal adaptations of Star Wars and Shadowrun to Fate, look for me to post those rules, Archetypes and ideas to the blog for your use and/or modification, should you like them. At the very least, if you like Fate, go pick up a copy of Dresden Files Accelerated. It’s a great use of the Fate system standing alone, and I’ve found it to be an excellent source of ideas for hacking an already-incredibly modular RPG system.

Afterword
If you’ve followed the RPG aspects of my blog for a while, you’ll know that I previously started a hack of the Cortex Plus/Prime rules for Shadowrun (as well as posting some of my most popular articles with build advice using the official Shadowrun rules, with an eye at Sixth Edition but many of the points applicable to the 20th Anniversary or 5th edition rules as well). I’ll likely go back and finish the Cortex version at some point, as it’s another system I very much enjoy (and very much enjoy tinkering with). There are some parts of me that keep telling me that, as narratively-minded ruleset with (arguably) more crunch than Fate, it’s a better overall candidate for a Shadowrun game, and some of the same ideas in this article can likely be used with Cortex as well. But for now, I’m going to stick to Fate.

Rules for Piracy in Fate

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been running an RPG campaign of fantasy piracy in a nascent setting I’m calling “The Innumerable Isles.” I ended up doing a lot of work (drawing upon my The Fate of Piracy series from the not-too-distant past), to come up with some rules for pirate games in Fate.

You’ll find attached below a PDF with the rules as I currently have them. Within those pages, I’ve included a system for using Professions as Skills, rules for Ships as characters (as well as assembling and customizing a ship), general guidelines for character creation, rules for handling piratical particulars (a ship-to-ship combat system and some easy ways to run the ruses used by pirates to tempt unwary prey), and even some fantastical elements (including a magic system).

The ruleset should be easy to employ for either historical games or in fantasy games set in an age of sail analogue.

I’ll follow on soon with some background on the Innumerable Isles setting (although I am turning my main focus to writing down more of my Avar Narn material in preparation for my Patreon launch with the start of the new year) and with some additional tools for the rules included here (including some random encounter charts!)

Tom Clancy’s Division Tabletop (Fate) RPG

I’d been recently gearing up to run a tabletop game (using the Fate RPG) set in the world Tom Clancy’s Division. First, my potential players asked for more granularity than Fate usually offers, so I created the attached rules for weapons, equipment and encumbrance.

About the time of getting through the first draft of the rules for character creation (and the accompanying program), discussion among us turned to the fact that this setting might just hit a little too close to home right now to fully be the kind of distracting amusement we could all use. At the same time, two of the other people in the group both offered to GM–if we played D&D.

So, this project has been put on the shelf, maybe indefinitely (I have to admit that, if I had my ‘druthers, I’d have stuck closer to the Core rules of Fate without all of the added complexity). Nevertheless, this was a very interesting exercise for me in game design, particularly in pushing the boundaries of the Fate system’s intent without (hopefully) breaking it.

Anyway, the rules I’m including here are for character creation, as I hadn’t gotten to the rest of the rules (settlements, group combat, etc.) that I’d intended to write. They could be easily adapted to any higher-granularity modern military-style game; feel free to take what you want and leave the rest.

I’ve included a character-generation spreadsheet that will help calculate all of the weapon design and encumbrance matters for you, as well as some premade weapons and archetypal character builds to provide some examples for the system as a whole.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, as I can apply comments and criticisms to my future design efforts, whether for Fate or for something else.

Division Fate Character Creation Unfinished
Fate Division Archetypes
Fate Division Character Spreasheet In-Progress v2
Fate Division Weapon Premades

 

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the D&D

I generally don’t like D&D as a gaming system. So how did I get here? Well, given the general downtime for everyone, I started working on a roleplaying game to be played virtually with some friends. Since the Shadowrun game tapered off, I haven’t had a game running and there’s a part of me that’s just not happy whenever that’s the case.

I suggested to my friends a game using the Fate system based on the Tom Clancy’s Division games. I spent a lot of time working on some custom rules for the setting (which I’ll post in their unfinished state in a separate post) before two things happened: (1) several of us came to the conclusion that that setting probably doesn’t provide enough respite from every day life in the COVID-19 world, and (2) two other members in the group both offered to GM/DM if we played Dungeons & Dragons. I do a lot more running of games than playing in them, so, despite my reservations, I quickly agreed and we set about negotiating a rotating GMing situation, with our first game set for this Friday.

Here are some of the (admittedly subjective) reasons I’m not a big fan of D&D:

  1. I would prefer a more “realistic” rules approach to combat, particularly than large hit point pools, armor as making one more difficult to hit and no penalties for taking damage until you’re out-of-action.
  2. I don’t like classes and levels, generally. I tend to think that these constructs detract from roleplaying and character development in their rigidity. For instance, only Rogues get sneak attack bonus damage–other characters are mechanically incapable of taking full advantage of an ambush, no matter whether they’re a soldier whose survived a thousand ambushes himself or a gutter punk getting lucky with a sudden knife attack.
  3. As a corollary, D&D is a game (like Shadowrun) with a ruleset that draws me into ours of obsessive character-building to try to find the exact build that will do all the things I want it to, even while knowing that the character generation’s economy of resources won’t allow for it and I can’t (and shouldn’t) try to play characters that are good at everything.
  4. I see D&D as a system that pushes a game toward combat and the gamist side over the roleplaying side based on its design. As you know, my preference leans heavily narrativist. Basing XP on kills makes me uncomfortable on many levels–from the ethical and theological to game design itself. G.K Chesterton once wrote (and I agree): “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” But that’s a big leap from killing 100 orcs because, well, they’re orcs and “orcs bad!”
  5. Encounter building and levels work together in a way that, if playing strictly by the rules, makes some fights unwinnable. I fully believe that some fights should be unwinnable if the players aren’t resourceful, clever and maybe a bit lucky, but D&D as written militates in favor of a straight-up fight of hit-point attrition and forces the good GM to make-up whole cloth how alternative approaches work. Yes, we can talk about “rules versus rulings,” but I’d argue that, when we have to have that conversation at all, something it lacking in what the rules are communicating. That’s not to say that rules should address every eventuality and should be rigidly followed–far from it. The problem here is that the D&D books might say that they encourage this kind of player creativity that requires responsive and flexible GM/DM adjudication, but the rules give the impression of the opposite, and few tools are provided to assist in making such ad-hoc judgments. Put another way, I don’t like that Level 1 characters (or 5 or 8 for that matter) don’t have a chance against a dragon simply because they haven’t ground out enough levels yet. In addition to the ways the rules are written complained of above, a skills-based system over a level-based one can go a long way in this regard.
  6. The assumption that combat is the way you overcome monsters bugs me. Why not more interesting possibilities? Ghosts that you don’t hit with magic swords but that must be banished or appeased in some other way that relies on wits and skills more than fighting?
  7. D&D Physics. This is perhaps my biggest gripe, and it’s admittedly about certain players rather than the rules themselves. Some players assume that the rulebooks represent the physics of the worlds D&D games take place in–if something is technically allowable by the rules as written, no matter how ridiculous, then it’s a loophole in the spacetime continuum that should be exploitable by a player. One example: the player who thinks that, as long as he succeeds at a Deception/Persuasion check, he can convince anyone of anything, no matter how blatantly untrue or unlikely. Another, from 3.5e: a ladder costs less than two ten-foot poles, but is comprised of two ten-foot poles plus some other stuff. You do the math. If I remember correctly, in the forward to The Riddle of Steel roleplaying game (an amazing game on many levels, if not the easiest to run), Jake Norwood described a game of D&D where he realized he would take fewer hit points of damage jumping off the cliff he stood atop than fighting his way through the oncoming orc horde as an inspiration for creating a game with much more realistic combat (he’s also a talented western martial artist, so he was just the type of person to write that game).

Okay, that’s a fair amount of griping, and none of it’s new to anyone. While there are alternatives to D&D (some very good ones), D&D retains the large majority of market share in fantasy roleplaying, despite decades of competition. Why? For one, it’s the only name that most would-be roleplayers know. Additionally, it’s got a special nostalgia factor for a lot of gamers my age or older and a solid place within popular culture that grows every year (2 episodes of CommunityStranger Things, the Greetings, Adventurers! and The Adventure Zone podcasts, etc., etc.). But most of all, I must admit, it’s just a fun game. I’ve played several campaigns of D&D in the past, none of them especially-long running but usually going for a few months or so, and not one of the things I’ve mentioned above really factors into my overall-fond memories of those games.

I’ve decided to enter this upcoming D&D campaign with an eye toward throwing aside some of my complaints and design differences and enjoying the game for what it is–a time-tested engine for running enjoyable high-fantasy games. The other players in my group are all fans of D&D and familiar with it (to varying degrees, but certainly moreso on average than any other system I’d choose to run) and, if all goes well, I may well commit to (personally) running more D&D for them in the future.

Okay, so how am I stopping worrying and learning to love the D&D? Some counterarguments to my complaints above I’m trying to keep in my mind as I undertake this adventure:

  1. Hit points aren’t meant to be a reflection of damage (though they often are treated that way). They’re more like Stress in Fate RPG: a narrative indicator of the leeway a character has before receiving a serious injury. A character who loses hitpoints has lost some of that vigor and focus that keeps her from being injured and comes closer to the possibility, but shouldn’t be thought of as having taken a blow (instead having barely turned it aside, etc.). There are a few points that, as a GM, I’d have go along with this: (a) narrate hit point damage as a near miss and degradation of performance but not a blow actually received; (b) use lingering injuries when hitting zero HP to drive home the fact that that’s when injuries occur; (c) use alternative mechanisms over HP to adjudicate unavoidable damage where appropriate (falling, etc.). Under this approach, it makes good sense that armor serves as a buffer to having to use up HP rather than as a dampener on HP lost, so I get a double rationalization with this mindset!
  2. Classes really are a good conceit for certain types of roleplaying games. In D&D, classes give everyone’s character a chance to shine, clear delineations of where characters fit within the team of players, and accentuate’s cooperative, synergistic play as a group.
  3. Levels can make sense, too, within the conceit of the game mechanics. If we’re literally talking about the accumulation of experience that makes adventurers better at what they do, levels are an appropriate shorthand for that, even if not the choice I’d personally make in game design.
  4. A good GM can use the rules in creative ways (or modify/ignore them) to overcome issues about the game being too combat-focused or too restrictive in the allowance of creative problem-solving, and the occasional unbalanced encounter can be a good reminder to players that discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.
  5. I tend to take a very particular approach in what I want from roleplaying games–I expect deep immersion and something approaching high art. I rarely get it, so these expectations are just setting myself up for disappointment. If I’m willing to focus on entertaining stories, interesting characters, exciting encounters and generally having fun, I’d likely enjoy running games even more than I currently do. In other words, maybe I should just get over myself. D&D is an excellent system having fun and telling entertaining stories if I forego my pretensions. I retain the belief that RPGs can lead to deep, immersive stories with significant impact on the players’ thoughts and lives–but they don’t have to be, and if my gaming friends frankly aren’t that interested in that kind of roleplaying, maybe I should lighten up and just have more fun with them! After all, I am a writer, so I do have some outlet for the deep and artistic (if that’s actually more than just pretension and something that actually pervades my writing…).

So there it is. D&D may not be my first choice of RPGs, but there are certainly things about it I like, and could potentially grow to love. Now, if I could just figure out how to build the character I want to play…

Professions in Medieval and Early-Modern RPGs

As I continue to work on rules for the Fate RPG (continuing my Pirates/Age of Sail setting rules and the Fate Control Panel and Fate rules for Avar Narn), I find myself more and more drawn to the design idea of using “professions” over “skills” in late-medieval and early-modern roleplaying games (the most common historical analogues of fantasy settings).

I’m not the first to think of this concept. While not actually used in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, by using “Professions” instead of “Classes” to group skills and abilities, that system made initial steps in this direction. More recent games–13th Age, Barbarians of Lemuria and Shadow of the Demon Lord, for example–have wholeheartedly adopted such an approach. Even the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons has nodded in that direction with its “Backgrounds,” though it still retains discrete skills.

I’m going to make a few arguments as to why I think this approach is better than using more discrete and granular “skills”:

(1) Flexibility and Creativity
One of the things I don’t like about a discrete skill list is the way it causes players to think. Skills cause players to think that their characters can only act in ways specifically described by the skills on their list. In my mind, this is a microcosm of the idea of language shaping cognition–players tend to assume that the skill list represents something about how the game is “supposed” to be played and–especially for less-experienced players–tend to think that they’re “breaking the rules” or somehow trying to pull something if they can’t directly articulate the skill they’re using for their action.

This is counter to the “fiction-first” approach to gaming. I want my players to put themselves in the character’s shoes in the circumstances at hand and, without reference to their character sheet (except as a reminder of the sorts of things the character is good at, I suppose) tell me what they’re trying to do. Then, we can go to the rules and figure out some mechanics. In other words, skills push players toward “mechanics-first” thinking.

To be fair, this complaint goes beyond “narrative” or “fiction-first” gamers. I’m not a member of the OSR community by any means, but I am given to understand that one of the factors driving the OSR is the feeling that early editions of D&D, with their attribute bonuses without skills, allowed for more creative action by players. But that only further makes the point.

A list of professions gives players the information they need (“what are my character’s experiences and strengths?”) without pushing to very granular modes of action (“I can Deceive my way out of this, or I can Jump over the rooftop to get away, or I try to Hide, but I don’t have any other applicable skills”). A player who says, “Okay, my character has been a Courtier and a Soldier, how might he try to get out of this situation?” puts the fiction first and removes barriers to the player’s creativity in selections of actions.

I personally think that this really opens up in Fate if you use the combination of Approaches with Professions (in place of Skills) as laid out in the Fate Codex, Volume 3, Issue 2 (Merging FAE and Fate Core). What’s the difference between a Flashy Courtier and a Sneaky Courtier? Drama, that’s what!

(2) Professions Build Character History
Saying that a character has the “Stealth” skill doesn’t say nearly as much about the character as the character having the “Thief” or “Scoundrel” profession. The skill does beg many of the same questions, but the profession evokes them much more fully and makes us think about a phase or era in the character’s life rather than a simple explanation for how the character acquired a specific skill.

Further, overlap between professions actually allows for character diversity. A character with the Scout profession and a character with the Scoundrel profession probably both know how to be stealthy, but they learned to do so under different circumstances and for different purposes.

If we take the ideas in the two proceeding paragraphs and apply them to character creation, we should quickly see that this pushes us into asking questions about the character and not the skills during character generation. The player isn’t choosing whether the character has the “stealth” skill so much as thinking about how the character acquired it and the other circumstances of the character’s life around that acquisition. In other words, the player is making decisions about the character to get the skills, rather than selecting the skills and then retroactively justifying them.

I think that professions support taking this even farther with character creation systems that offer greater narrative potential than simply point-buy or array-assignment systems.  Simple systems certainly have their place–character creation in Barbarians of Lemuria is exceptionally friendly and simple.

In my opinion, a profession system begs for a “lifepath” system in character creation, allowing us to build the character by moving through his or her personal history. I’ll probably talk more about lifepaths in another post later on.

(3) Professions Are Reflective of Early-Modern Cultural Rigidity
Historically speaking, even as the changes that would lead to more social mobility were taking place, Western Europeans thought of their societies as easily compartmentalized under the “Great Chain of Being”: by the circumstances of their birth, a person was positioned by God where he or she was supposed to be. A peasant seeking to become a lord rebelled not only against society but against God.

A character’s choice of profession implies something about her social status–even in the modified (and often whitewashed) settings our fantasy games often take place in. I wrote in a previous post about leaning into the medieval mindset for fantasy writing and gaming; this is a design mechanism for doing so, I think. A character who has the Courtier, Soldier and Scoundrel professions occupies a different social status than one who has the Tradesman, Scout and Farmer professions, or even one who has the Soldier, Scoundrel and Traveler professions.

One of the areas where this makes the biggest difference, I think, is in social skills. A player who has the Persuade skill (perhaps rightfully) assumes that his character is persuasive to all people at all times. That’s rarely the case in real-world experience. If that character has a high rating in the Courtier profession but no skill in the Farmer or Merchant professions, the character is likely persuasive in the rhetorical speech and etiquette of the nobility, but might well be laughed at when trying to apply Cicero to an earthier and more practical sort of folk. That difference creates verisimilitude and depth to the setting (and probably helps remind players that, no, their character cannot just persuade the guard to give him his armor and weapons simply because he has a certain number of points in Persuade).

If you don’t want to add on additional systems to your game to accentuate the importance of (and difference between) levels of social status, the use of professions by itself will go a long way.

(4) Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic
I’m thinking that I should write a separate post entirely about handling knowledge skills in roleplaying games, but for now, I want to point out another benefit of using professions over skills. In Tudor England, about 8% of women and 24% of men could read and write well enough to sign their own name unassisted–provided I’m remembering my statistics correctly. Regardless of the actual numbers, literacy was on the rise but far from universal.

Some roleplaying games seek to capture this, requiring character resources to be dedicated to the ability to read and write if the player wants her character to have that ability. That’s good for immersion in the setting, but it creates other design problems in balancing the cost of that ability versus others (and balancing against our modern prejudice against those who are unable to read and write). When using professions, you can kill two birds with one stone: characters who have put points into certain professions (or a certain number of points into certain professions) are assumed to be able to read and write; those who have not are assumed not to be able to.

This helps sidestep the need to justify the ability (though the GM should find ways to accommodate players with believable backgrounds that break our assumptions and stereotypes) by corresponding the ability with those we would (logically and historically) expect to have it (say those with the Scholar or Priest professions).

The same goes for scientific and mathematics skills. Greek, Roman and Islamic scholars (and other ancient peoples in cultures from around the world) had advanced understandings of geometry, astronomy and other mathematics even before the late-medieval or early-modern periods in Europe. Under the Tudors, “tally sticks” allowed some record-keeping even for those with a relatively basic ability to conduct mathematic operations and perhaps no ability to read and write. Differentiating the likely arithmetical abilities of different characters becomes much easier when we have some idea of their background, experience and training rather than a list of skills on a page.

(5) Professions Evoke Setting
Your list of available professions tells players about the world they’ll be playing in. A world with Duelist(s) and Pirate(s) is very different from one with Knight(s) and Monk(s) (or Pirate(s) and Ninja(s?)).

(6) Built-in Contacts
If using a system like Fate, with its “Contacts” skill, then the use of Professions gives you both specificity and breadth that (I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, n’est pas?) increases immersion, because the professions can be used to generate contacts of the type of people someone with experience in the given field is likely to know.

In Fate, this can be supplemented by allowing the invocation of Aspects to allow the introduction of contacts a character may know aside from the channels of his place in the world at large.

Conclusion
As usual, I’ve rambled on a bit more than I originally intended to do. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve given you some good reasons to think about converting skills into professions in the next campaign you run, regardless of system.

The Fate RPG “Control Panel” v0.5

I made a mention in a recent post about a project I’ve been working on. It’s far from finished, but I’ve grown too excited about it to wait until it’s finished before I post it for initial use, review and comment.

As I’ve also mentioned before, there’s just so much I like about the Fate RPG ruleset (in its various incarnations) and its adaptability that I intend to use it to run all the games I run for the foreseeable future (you can see my post on (Roleplaying) Gaming as an Adult). The Bronze Rule (or Fate Fractal, depending upon your preference) and general modularity of the system makes it a prime candidate for seamlessly running a wide-variety of game genres, from soap-opera drama to the farthest-flung speculative fiction and everything in between.

Having read a good number of Fate RPG settings and system tweaks (from the official toolkits to community-created content), I understood that this system is highly customizable while retaining its core fiction-first and efficient-play philosophies. Until I began this project, I did not fully understand just how customizable the system really is, Working on this project has given me an even more profound respect for the system and its writers, but has also really helped me to grok how things can (and should) fit together and how the rules may be manipulated–large scale or subtly–to accentuate different parts of the fiction being portrayed at the table.

The project itself is a responsive Excel spreadsheet that uses drop-down menus and stacked levels of questions to guide the user through customizing the Fate ruleset to a desired setting. This allows the user to efficiently make selections without having to sort through the (rather voluminous) books using the Fate System to find various systems and ideas that can be “borrowed” for your own game while keeping a high-level view of the overall ruleset in mind to avoid losing the fiction-first and relatively-light crunch of the core system (unless you want to turn Fate into a fiction-first, high-crunch system, which it can also do!).  Use of this system is likely to do for you what it has done for me–give you a profound respect for the innovations that make the Fate system so versatile and efficient while also being highly-evocative of setting and theme.

I think that the system is in shape to be very functional as it is, but I have a lot more in mind for it. Additionally, as I use it to build rules configurations for my own use, and as I post my own Fate rules concoctions on the blog, I’ll add presets to the selections to allow you to easily incorporate those same systems into your rules modifications. For existing settings, I do so only by general reference to the setting to avoid any copyright issues, but you’ll still end up with a set of configurations that will allow you to create a rules booklet particular to your setting more efficiently than collating everything by hand.

So, here it is in all its premature glory: what I’m calling the Fate RPG “Control Panel.” I very much look forward to hearing your reviews and criticisms, understanding how you’re using the Control Panel, and hearing your suggestions for modifications, expansions and improvements. Note that I have not yet added full explanatory notes, so you may have to guess a little at what certain selections mean. Additionally, not all Extra sheets, skill lists, weapon/armor lists etc. are complete.

Fate Control Panel v.5 Public

(N.B.: Please download a local copy of the spreadsheet before making selections or changes. Also, you will need to enable Macros for everything to work.)