Friday, December 27, 2013

Design Journal: Steampunk, Gaslamp, Victoriania...How To Not Be Any Of Them?

As we move into the new year, I'm going to be posting roughly weekly design journals as I craft a new, as-of-yet-unnamed fantasy setting for Fate Core. My goal is to have all of the pieces in place by summer, so I can actually get to running it.

I'm a huge fan of the Thief franchise of PC games, as well as Dishonored. I'm currently playing Thief Gold, with the goal of getting through The Metal Age and Deadly Shadows before the end of February. If I finish before the new Thief game consumes my time, I'll probably replay Dishonored with the DLC that I didn't have before (and my new surround headphones). I am also a fan of a lot of older fantasy, particularly Fritz Leiber and other offerings in the vein of Amazing Tales (and, of course, Lovecraft), and devoured every Thieves' World book. Pulp, noir, and sword and sorcery are more my cup of tea than high fantasy.

I want my setting to incorporate a number of elements from these seemingly disjointed influences. I'm deliberately avoiding "medieval fantasy" as the setting's basis, but otherwise all I have so far is a few embryonic ideas, and a reasonably good looking map (which I will post at some point). But the one thing I'm completely unsure of is how to steer clear of the whole thing getting slapped with a "steampunk" or "gaslamp" label. Because my intention isn't for it to be any of those things (I don't even particularly like steampunk, at least as any kind of cohesive "genre"). I suppose that I should just build the setting I want and damn the torpedoes. Comparisons to this or that are going to inevitable and there's nothing I can do about it. For sure, there's not going to be any gears in my setting. Or gas masks. Or goggles.

Ironically, even though I'm trying to steer clear of those genre labels, I think it's best in these situations to actually learn something about them. As I said, I'm not a steampunk fan. I don't know it beyond pictures I see of people's costumes or when I see a steampunk RPG title cross some news feed or in a post. So I figure at the very least I should familiarize myself with what's already out there. Luckily Age of Ravens has a great rundown on the history of steampunk rpgs. That looks like as good of a place for insight as any.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Year In Review

Hopefully everyone had a great holiday season. It's been a busy one for me at home and at work, so I have haven't gotten a lot of blogging done.

It's been a year since I resurrected (or, more accurately, performed CPR) on this blog. I started out with a bang, by posting about the Vampire: Undeath trainwreck. Since then I've been somewhat all over the map as I've tried to find some direction. I've been moderately successful, sticking mostly to Fate Core topics and commentary on the gaming industry in general.

What I've decided to do for this retrospective post is link to the top 10 posts by pageviews. I'm ignoring search labels and links to static pages (even though one in particular dwarfs most of the posts).

10. RPG Realism And Why It's Crap
9. Post-Apocalypse Exploration "Triangle Tables"
8. Plagiarist Of The Week
7. Things I Hate In RPGs (And Sometimes Gamers)
6. Is Fate Unchallenging?
5. Managing Campaigns With A Large Cast of NPCs
4. Cerberus Gaming Combine Joins A Lofty Cadre...
3. Necessary Selling Points For A Heartbreaker
2. Why Fate Core Is Awesome
1. I'm In A Different Hobby Than Most Gamers

There were some "hot-button" topics in the top 10, but overall if I look at the top 30 I'm pretty satisfied that posts with substance as opposed to sensationalism (which was never really their point in the first place) fill a majority of the slots. But I'd be remiss if I did a review and didn't mention a few posts that I personally really liked, but didn't bubble to the top (after all, the top 10 I've listed already have high numbers of people having read them).

Humorous (And Horrible) Gaming Experiences - I really enjoyed reliving these oddball happenings.
Ludonarrative Dissonance - Discovering new terms for existing things is always fun.
Non-Protagonist Characters
Gir (And How Awesome Fate Accelerated Is) - It's Gir.
Your Character Knows More Than You Do
Recursion In RPGs - Because, recursion.

In the meantime, there have been several Kickstarters come and go. I have my physical Fate Core books, my Fate dice, and I'm ready (in spirit at least) to start up a couple of games. I've started preliminary work on a fantasy setting using Fate Core, which I will be documenting as I go (and hopefully I'll have the first set of posts on mapping up next week). Hopefully, this year will be as fulfilling as the last!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Help Out Some Good People

+David Hill and +Filamena Young's house was broken into. They had computers stolen, and it was just another crappy thing to happen to them recently.

You can help them out in one of several ways.

Both of them are awesome people and make great games, and all around make the gaming community a better place. But beyond that, absolutely nobody deserves to have something like this happen to them - particularly with Christmas just a few days away.

As an aside, I know that a few assholes have decided to chime in on threads discussing what happened. I'll just give some forewarning on this post: keep it to your fucking self. It's not appropriate and trolling discussions about a family that has been victimized is the lowest of the low.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nova Praxis Review

I’m going to kick off a new cycle of reviews with a game that I finally finished reading (it’s only be the better part of a year): Nova Praxis. With that, I’m also trying to get a rhythm and structure down to how I approach reviews so they’re informative without just rattling off a bunch of facts about the product (like how many pages are devoted to this or that, or dry chapter breakdowns). Most importantly, I’m eschewing any kind of rating scale at all.


Nova Praxis is the latest game from Voidstar Studios. It features a transhumanist-style, post-cyberpunk setting. Earth was pretty much rendered uninhabitable by a grey-goo type scenario, and mankind has since populated the stars. Society has changed, ideologies have changed, but ultimately people remain the same. The player characters are presumed to be edgerunner/troubleshooter types, either living on the edges of or beholden to a tarnished utopia. There are cybernetics, sleeves (the ability to download a consciousness into a new body), virtual reality, drones, and minds that exist only as software.

Nova Praxis’ Fate Pedigree

Before going any further, some comment on Nova Praxis’ flavor of Fate is probably useful. Nova Praxis uses a variant of Strands of Fate, which is itself a Fate variant. The game was apparently developed somewhat before and concurrently with Fate Core, but it sits firmly on the Strands side of the divide. Mostly this means the system tends to be a little more “crunchy” than Fate Core in terms of modifiers and extra systems...yet at its heart it’s still Fate (4DF, aspects, stress tracks, etc.). Overall, Nova Praxis is not as dense with subsystems as, say, Starblazer Adventures but still features a number of them. There are some departures from Strands that slide Nova Praxis a little closer to Fate Core. It eschews abilities for skills, and goes back to using stunts instead of advantages. It also reduces the number of character aspects to start with to 5. These changes bode well for Fate Core fans wanting a science fiction game, as it makes adapting it all the easier, but the game is solid on its own.

The Book

Well, in this case, the "enhanced PDF". Hands down this is one of the best looking and most feature-packed PDFs of any game I’ve read. The experience on a tablet is likely even better, but I only have a PC. Every page has a side menu on the left for accessing chapters and buttons on the right for moving from page to page. Chapter headers have menu buttons to go to specific subjects that seamlessly take you to the text. Every other PDF I have looks primitive in comparison. Plus, it’s fully bookmarked. There’s an appendix with a variety of NPC templates, glossary and the aforementioned character sheet. The artwork, as seen in the screen captures scattered throughout this review, is full-color, evocative and very high quality.

My copy has a slight problem with the back and forth arrows turning weird colors when I click on them. I may have an outdated PDF, or it could be my version of Acrobat or even my PC. If the case it is an outdated PDF that’s no fault of Voidstar’s, who have been on-the-ball with updating the PDF and getting it out to customers. I probably just haven’t downloaded an up-to-date version. My only real complaint is that the borders seem kind of busy, but not in a “ZOMG, why’d they layer the text over an image of Donald Rumsfeld?!” way. They don’t really detract from reading.

The Setting

The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to the setting’s history, locations, culture and politics. The setting is compelling, given that the Singularity kind of came and went with the birth and unexplained shutdown of the first true AI, named Mimir. Prior to shutting down it essentially spit out a ton of technological advancements (called Mimir-tech) - so many, and so advanced, that there are entire disciplines dedicated to decoding its archives. This technology is where pretty much everything comes from in Nova Praxis. This leads to humanity taking to the stars, but even in the wake of the end of scarcity and unparalleled technological advancement, doesn’t do anything to end conflict - it just makes it worse.

The end of a bitter war between two superpowers results in one side releasing the technophage - nanites that reconstruct matter into war machines. The technophage spirals out of control, and mankind is forced to try to fight it, then try to stop it, and eventually run from it. Earth is abandoned, leaving billions to die. The governments of the two superpowers become all but insolvent, forcing the largest corporations to have to step up and take charge. This leads to the formation of the Coalition, and the establishment of the current house system.

Coalition society is post-scarcity, at least in terms of ensuring that what is left of humanity has a baseline standard of living. The result is a society where the citizens have all of their basic needs provided for and have the freedom to do absolutely nothing - in exchange for near constant monitoring of every aspect of their lives. The Coalition economy runs almost solely on reputation, with those who contribute the most having access to more wealth. Predictably, there are those who who are unwilling or unable to live under the aegis of the Coalition and the Houses - they are called Apostates. Some hold-outs even try to continue a guerrilla war against the Coalition. Obviously, the Apostates, Houses and others exploit as many loopholes in the system that they can - otherwise it would be a pretty boring place to tell stories in.

Overall, I find the setting to be perfectly serviceable but not “Wow, that’s really awesome!” inspired. The aesthetics are good, and there are good justifications for why there would be groups of troublemakers running around stirring shit up. The structure of the Coalition with the Houses falls a little flat for me, but that’s mostly a taste preference. What the setting has in spades is a good mix of general tropes, ranging from a cyberpunk dystopia to Mass Effect-style space opera. It’s easy to drop things in that match any number of themes. I could see doing something in the vein of the Unincorporated Man, or even Blindsight, just as easily as a simple cyberpunk-style run with a Mr. Johnston and a double-cross and everything.

The Rules

Nova Praxis is basically Fate with a few differences. In case you’re not familiar with Fate, here’s the general rundown I included in my Fate Core review:

  • Uses Fate (or Fudge, same thing) dice, specifically four (notated as 4DF). Two sides are marked with a +, two sides with a -, and two sides are blank. They are read by adding up the results, so ++ - is a +1.
  • Skills are rated from 0 to 6 or higher. They add to the die roll. There are no attributes.
  • Most importantly, uses descriptive "tags" called aspects. Aspects represent things that are important - to the character, to the scene, even to the campaign - and can be used to justify influencing the story or results such as getting bonuses to die rolls, rerolling bad rolls, creating a special effect or merely being used as a justification for an action. Aspects can be used by (called invoking) and against (called compelling) characters, and characters can take actions that will add new aspects into play.
  • It uses a currency called Fate Points that players spend to use their character's aspects (called invoking). Players receive Fate Points when their aspects are used against them (called a compel).

The differences in Strands of Fate mostly revolve around nomenclature, the use of aspects and some specific cases regarding die rolls. Rolls that succeed over the difficulty can generate Spin, which follows the standard pattern of allowing the player to create a short-lived aspect. Rolls that fail to generate enough shifts generate Stall, which can result in a negative penalty or just something bad happening - a short-lived, negative aspect. Likewise, situational modifiers can be positive or negative, and compels can be used to impose a penalty on rolls. The game also multiple scopes for aspects, and doesn't allow more than one aspect from any one scope to be used on rolls. The system also keeps the concept of Persistent Aspects from Strands of Fate.

Since the game sits on a balance (and a rather nice one) between more traditional role-playing systems and Fate Core (which I’m taking as the “standard” to compare it to), there are a number of subsystems and specialized rules. For example, there are rules for sweeping beam weapons, falling, poisons and diseases, etc. Personally I’ve kind of moved away from needing or wanting these types of rules, but they are definitely useful as baseline examples for how to handle various situations that can come up in play.

There are two subsystems stand out: Rep-Ratings and Sleeves. Both of them are tied intrinsically to the transhuman nature of the setting, and so are totally appropriate to be given focus with their own rules.

The character’s Rep-Rating is an abstraction of the complex system that exists in the setting for tracking a person’s contributions to culture and society. Rep-Ratings are used in place of money, as well as calling in favors. They can also be used to limit membership or acceptance into various social institutions, schools, etc. People can give one another bumps or hits to their rep ratings pretty much at will, although it affects their own Rep-Rating when they do so.
Sleeves are new bodies that a mind can be downloaded into. They come in two types: biosleeves and cybersleeves. In order to utilize them, a character needs to undergo Apotheosis - effectively digitizing their mind. There are a number of stock sleeves available for characters, each with a cost, aspects, physical skills, built in augmentations, points for customization and any special rules. Not all characters are Apotheosized, although many augmentations can be purchased without the need for a sleeve.

Character Creation

As part of this review I’ve created a character, straight out of the rules and following the steps listed in the book. Nova Praxis comes with a form-fillable character sheet at the end of the PDF, and the same sheet is available as a stand-alone PDF. You can see the completed character here.

One thing I like about character creation in Nova Praxis is that various components - such as skills - are listed right there in the appropriate step. There’s lot a not of flipping between sections. The only exception is stunts, which makes sense. If they were listed with the stunt selection step, you’d just have to flip past all of them to get to the next section.

Unlike Fate Core, Nova Praxis does not include the character concept as one of its aspects. What it does with aspects though is something I’ve always liked: the aspect alphabet. While not hard rules on what the aspects have to be, they provide a nice guideline for the kinds of aspects that make well-rounded characters. The aspect alphabet goes in a bucket list of cool things to do for any Fate game, along with the mad-libs style template for phrasing invokes and compels from Fate Core.

Beyond aspects, characters have a starting state: Pure, Sleeved or as a SIM (basically software). The inclusion of an option and support for playing a character that is basically pure software is really interesting, as SIMs can control surveillance systems, download themselves into sleeves, and control drones. Each state has it’s own benefits in terms of bonus skill ratings, refresh and free stunts. After the state is determined, the player chooses skills. There are 20 skills total, plus three physical skills. The separation of the physical skills seems like it was a good way of dealing with characters that can have a wide-range of physical abilities (or, in the case of SIMs, none at all). Likewise, sleeves and drones have at the very least their own allocations of physical skill ranks.

To make it easier to distribute skill ranks, there are three skill sets (Specialist, Expert, and Generalist). The skill ranks between the sets are not the same - Specialist grants 22 ranks, with the highest skill rank at 5. Expert grants 30 with a max rank of 4, while Generalist gives 38 and a max rank of 3.

Finally you choose stunts, determine your character’s allegiance, choose gear and calculate starting Rep-Rating and stress boxes.

When creating a character I ran into an annoyance and a couple of issues. The annoyance was the character sheet - while it covers all the basics, it could have really used dedicated spaces for the character’s current state and allegiance. As it stands I jammed them under Notes. That’s relatively minor.

One of the issues was when calculating Physical stress. The first time that it's explicitly stated that humans are Size 0 is on page 151, under "Lifting Things" and there is no size chart in the game aside from vehicles (which starts at Size 1). It took some searching to find this out, and only after that I remembered that humans are Size 0 in Strands of Fate. Again, this may be changed in any revised PDF that may exist, and it's far from a showstopper. Still the character creation process is fairly straightforward, and the layout and writing make it relatively painless (aside from the dilemma I face any time I create a character in a vacuum).

Finally, there’s choosing starting gear. The method used to determine how much gear the character has is to determine the highest cost that the character can purchase and then choose one piece of gear for each step down to 0. So if, like my character, the starting value was 7 I would choose one piece of gear that costs 7, then 6, then 5, etc. I was barely able to squeeze in the types of items I thought this character would have, and had to do a lot of rearranging to fit in with the n = n - 1 pattern. The personal computer had to go in a slot one higher than it should have (so I added an aspect modification, which increased the cost by 1), and I left the 1 and 0 slots empty. To be fair, I restricted gear purchases only to what was actually listed without making anything up, which might be an unrealistic situation (more on the gear selection below).


There is a whole chapter devoted to gear, and it gives some decent guidelines on restricted items, modifying gear, augmentations, as well as building sleeves, drones, and vehicles. The examples are rather sparse for weapons and equipment (one of the reasons that I struggled with equipping my character - I wanted to do it straight out of the book without adding anything). Strands of Fate actually has a slightly more varied equipment list, with a few items that would definitely have been useful in Nova Praxis (such as equipment kits).

Now I’m not a gearophile, but when there is an equipment list I like to see a good mix of generalized gear and special, setting-specific items. For a game like Nova Praxis, this would have been especially helpful. Personally, I would just wind up filling in the blanks with items from Strands of Fate, or other games such as Blue Planet, Jovian Chronicles, etc. Similarly, there are only a handful of sample drones and vehicles given. While the rules are there to build your own, it would be nice to see at least a small variety of stock vehicles for immediate use, as well as to get a feel for how “canon” vehicles and starships are statted out.

Some Room For Improvement

There are a few things I would have liked with a little more meat in Nova Praxis. First, some more utilitarian illustrations or description to give a better feel for the setting. One thing that I find with some settings is the zoom level is far enough out that there’s no real impression of how things are “day to day”. In contrast, Blue Planet does a good job of conveying what life on Poseidon is like in just the Player's Guide. The same goes for Jovian Chronicles in terms of living in various installations, what shipboard life is like etc. I suppose the difference is that both of those game lines are well developed with multiple books, while Nova Praxis packs everything into one. Still Voidstar might have included a few zone maps or illustrations of locations, vessels, stations, etc. The same goes for more example vehicles. Similarly, while each House has it's specialties listed there's little indication if there's any overlap. Is House Dalianis the only starship manufacturer? Does House Jinzhan manufacture them and, if so, how are they different? Likewise, I thought that the information on compilers was a bit on the skeletal side - enough to grok how they affect the setting and are used, but still leaving me with a couple of questions (particularly regarding PCs purchasing them).


Nova Praxis is a solid post-cyberpunk, transhumanist style roleplaying game. For anyone familiar with the genre it doesn’t hold a lot of surprises, but it does offer a good foundation for nearly any style of game that a group might want to run. While the setting could definitely work with nearly any system with minimum fuss, the tailored version of Strands of Fate that it is built on serves the game very well. The PDF is extremely well designed and organized, even if the links are a little on the busy side - just not enough to be a true distraction.

Nova Praxis is available from
DriveThruRPG for $14.99, as well as in digital and hard copy from the Void Star store.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Language In Fate Core

No, not the language skill (the most useless kinds of skills in any rpg, IMHO, at least the way most game handle it). No, I'm talking about the use of language in Fate Core and how it affects the theme and mood of any particular game.

There are a lot of questions that I see related to how to make Fate Core more "this" or "that". They usually revolve around mechanical concerns, probably because in most games that's how you handle enforcing certain things. If you want to make a game more comical, you exaggerate certain elements or restrict things (like removing lethal damage). If you want to make a game more "realistic", you do x, y and z. A lot of this has to do with most games not having other tools to make those kinds of adjustments.

With Fate Core, though, we have aspects - and aspects are at their core language. How aspects are worded, and thus interpreted, can have a huge impact on the game. Humorous aspects reduce how serious the game is, while dour (or even darker) tinged aspects can change the atmosphere dramatically. For example, consider Shaun of the Dead compared to most other zombie apocalypse fiction. Shaun might have the aspect:

Buy Milk. Ring Mum. Dodge Zombies (lifted from one of the taglines of the film)

While in a more serious game, a character might have the aspect:

Survival At Any Cost

The wording sets the tone, and this is true for any of the aspects in the game - character, situation, boosts, campaign, all of them. This isn't to say that there aren't mechanical means to deal with bringing about a particular mood - only that aspects are going to be the linchpin of that effort (and in a lot of cases, not much more will be needed). This extends to how aspects are invoked and compelled. Hostile invokes and cutthroat compels have been suggested as a means of creating a "grittier" (or at least more unfriendly) game. The same goes for any other theme, especially since the wording of the aspects are going to speak to how they are invoked and compelled.

So I guess my point here is when hunting around for ways to tweak out Fate Core, look toward how aspects are worded and what the table wants them to evoke. If that doesn't quite do it then maybe look at other adjustments to the game system. This doesn't necessarily apply just to Fate Core either - how players around the table talk during any game is going to have a major impact on the mood of the game. That's really kind of pointing out the obvious. The difference is that Fate Core (and games that are similar) have the language baked right in.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Thanksgiving Vacation Inspiration

For Thanksgiving this year we went to Sedona, AZ. I had always thought it was just a resort town, so I didn't really know that Sedona is known for a number of things:
  1. New Age tomfoolery
  2. Hiking trails
  3. A number of Native American sites in the surrounding area

The chiquitos are more likely to be of extraterrestrial origin
The New Age tomfoolery isn't so much interesting (except maybe from an urban fantasy perspective). However the country around Sedona is absolutely breathtaking and inspirational.

While we didn't get to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked exploring, we did get out to Palatki to see the ruins there. Palatki is known for having a couple of cliff-dwellings (mostly crumbling) as well as a grotto with pictographs and petroglyphs. Just seeing it is a humbling reminder that for every ancient civilization that GMs and game designers write about, there are real world examples often right under our noses, stretching back thousands of years. That shit's real.

Cliffs near Palatki. Every butte or cliff in Sedona needs a fortress on it.

The dwellings at Palatki are built right up against sheer cliffs, with overhangs that protect them from the elements (which is one of the reasons that they are still there). These were two-story structures, sometimes three or more. The Sinagua (not the actual name of the people) did not utilize the wheel, have a system of writing (that we know of) or use metal implements. They were still able to build some pretty impressive dwellings. What's really clever about them is that by building them along the cliff-face, they eliminated the need to build one entire wall.

First floor dwelling entrance

Second story of dwelling

Additional dwellings along cliff
The two dwellings were strategically placed on either side of an area where rainfall ran off the cliffs above, creating a huge waterfall. The guide said that when there's heavy rain, there are multiple spectacular waterfalls - they were more than likely the source of the settlement's fresh water.

On top of that, the site contains a grotto that has preserved some pictographs - some of them dating back to the "archaic" period of prehistory, at least 5000 years ago. There aren't many identifiable symbols - a lot of them are very abstract, although I was able to spot a number of animals. A couple, such as the weird alien-looking humanoids are thought to be depictions of shaman or a Sinagua girl (they put buns in their hair when they reached the age of majority, hence the horn-like protrusions. There are also multiple culture's pictographs crammed into the grotto - ranging from the prehistoric, to the Sinagua's art, to later comers such as the Apache.

Animals and Sinagua girl

The black markings such as the ladder and horse figure are most certainly Apache, because the Sinagua didn't have horses
In addition, there's a good likelihood that they used various markings for more than ceremonial or decorative purposes. One pictograph depicts mountain peaks with black triangles underneath certain portions. Those peaks just happen to line up with the shadow cast by the cliffs across the valley - and the black triangles align with the position of the sun at different points during the year. Another shows what appear to be waterfalls coming from the cliffs. Who knows what that was supposed to represent - maybe part of a map?

Anyway, all of this real life stuff has given me some inspiration for a potential fantasy setting. It's not Native American-inspired, per se- I'm not sure that I could do it justice without in some way being offensive. But I know that I want to aim for that overall time period in human history, or at least a fantasy analog. I have a few ideas bouncing around, I'll just have to see how the seeds of inspiration grow out of them.