Taking FATE For A Test Drive

For all the blather here on Dispatches about old school gaming (and there is a fair amount of that), I tend not to talk about how much I enjoy a lot of new school gaming. I've made mention of Dungeon World more than a few times, I really enjoy Monsters & Magic and I've even been known to play D&D 4e enthusiastically (nope, no edition warrior here). Like tons of folks out there, I kicked on the FATE Core Kickstarter awhile back and have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to use the thing. I really enjoy the concept that naturalistic descriptions of things can turn into game elements just by the folks playing the game agreeing what it means, making the authority on the game itself not some remote writer of rules but rather the group at the table. I especially enjoy the FATE Accelerated Edition because it simplifies many of the rules from Core by chucking Skills in favor of Approaches. This change is subtle but meaningful and pervasive: instead of discussing the sorts of things that you get a bonus to doing, you instead describe the sorts of situations under which you get the bonus. Thus, shooting someone wouldn't use a Shoot skill in FAE, but could use Careful (if you were prepared to take a shot, say from a covering position), Quick (if you were responding to a surprise threat or trying to take lots of shots) or Sneaky (for that super-sniping ambush you have planned).

Last night, +Jason Hobbs+Ray Case & I started off with a simple idea: we wanted to give FATE a shot and were likely to use the FAE rules to create a post apocalyptic world similar to a cross between Thundarr the Barbarian and Deadwood. Ha! How cool does that sound? I told the guys to come up with a short list of 2-3 things they definitely want to see included (which Hobbs completely ignored and instead started coming up with all these details for a character that we ended up hacking to pieces). In our preliminary discussions, we talked about the idea that the development and perhaps even defense of the community was key (which is sort of present in both Thundarr and Deadwood), the level of technology, some of the many tropes of the post-apocalyptic and Wild West genres and just before we started up the hangout, brought it all crashing down as we reached a fundamental disagreement over what this, that or the other meant, with the promise that "we'll work out what we're all talking about in a moment when we're actually talking not just typing."

When we fired up the hangout, and spent the requisite amount of time screwing around before getting down to business, we realized that what we were actually interested in playing was less "Thundarr in Deadwood" and became more "Lewis & Clark after the apocalypse." This concept worked out great, and we changed our initial ideas to be more American colonial than Wild West, with the players hailing from a charter colony in a largely unexplored territory, one on the cusp of collapse, with the players needed to push them toward prosperity (Current Issue: "The Colony demands results!"). Behind that, back home in the "old world," a decadent imperial government (that we likened to pre-Revolutionary France) hungers for the goods and treasures that could be brought back from distant lands and could easily decide that the colony is being mis-managed and send its own imperial governor to take over the colony (Impending Issue: "The Empire looms"). Amid this atmosphere of urgency, we tacked on some details about the local geography: a "forbidden zone" houses technology from a bygone era that the colonists believe presage certain doom, a poisonous fungus forest not unlike the Toxic Jungle from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds wherein great botanical secrets may lie, the wilderness houses echoes of our own modern society and the fundamental fact that the tools with which to survive, thrive and prosper are, in fact, out there somewhere.

In talking about the characters that Jason & Ray wanted to play in this environment, we ended up having to talk quite a bit about the nature of humanity. Jason knew he definitely wanted there to be anthropomorphic animals (that was one of his 2-3 things), so we had accepted a degree of transhumanism there, but how far would it go? In the end, we decided on something we're calling "Iterative Evolution," where evolution can take sudden and drastic leaps in a particular direction, not requiring an established trend in lineage toward that direction and allowing "speciation" based on acquired traits. In short, DNA "learns" and can pick up lessons very swiftly. Thus, Ray's character, rather than being the "uplifted mutant catman" we were afraid he wanted to play (goddamn cat people!), became a human who had evolved into becoming an ambush-style alpha predator, which led to some fantastic discussion about just what that would entail. Tivit, Ray's predator, serves as a ranger and guide for the colony's many expeditions into the interior, making his home in the Forbidden Zone (Aspect: "It's not forbidden to me!"). Jason had the firmest grasp on what he wanted to play before we got together, which of course meant that it was harder to write for him than for Ray. Jason's character, Pierre, was a student of he famed Professor Eldier, learning a brand of super-botany (right now, we're calling it "bio-gadgeteering," but that's far from a final name, more of a descriptor), but when the Professor died, the professional guild of super-botanists tried to cover it up and bury not just Eldier's disappearance, but also Pierre! Now Pierre works for the Colony as an unlicensed, unguilded "bio-gadgeteer" and naturalist while trying to find the secrets of Eldier's disappearance.

I love the amount of game hooks we were able to work into a short (well, about 3 hours, so not that short) bullshit session. The fact that all three of us were designing the setting together meant that there was going to be stuff to interest each of us and that we each want to game with. The setting ended up less Deadwood and more Lewis & Clark, and the Thundarr-ness of it seems to have aged a bit to include vast, decadent empires, but I feel that we hit more closely to the game we want to play than if we had just thrown tropes up on the wall and ticked off the ones we wanted to opt into. The setting and the characters still need some polish, but we're definitely on the right track here. Now I just need a map...