System Review: InSpectres, Conclusion


A Clue!

There’s not a lot else to say about a system that takes up twenty or so pages in a small-format book. Four skills, a universal resolution mechanic, and a simple method for the GM to create difficulty: there aren’t a lot of moving parts to go wrong. Other systems have lots of fiddly bits that are easy to exploit, hard to master, and can blow immersion at inopportune moments. InSpectres is purpose-built: work as a group to create wacky monster mystery; have fun.

However, the core concept around which the game is built is easily transferable to pretty much any other system: you can’t really get stuck in an investigation because the players are inventing the clues and giving them meaning. Most mystery games have a justified reputation of being really easy to screw up unless the GM is excellent and the players are in sync with his or her style. It all comes down to how it’s nigh impossible to make scenarios without a breadcrumb trail of clues (that may look suspiciously like a railroad if done really wrong), and missing enough of them (or getting them and not understanding them) is sufficient to completely, well, derail the adventure. It’s such a problem that the Gumshoe system (used in Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulu) is designed around a method to ensure clues in mysteries can’t be missed by bad rolls.

InSpectres turns the problem on its head. While I have no actual data on the subject, my strong suspicion is that typical RPG mysteries are way more interesting to the GM than to the players. It’s very easy to go from “players feel clever for figuring this out” to “players are grudgingly collecting their plot coupons so they can get to the fight scene.” InSpectres invites full player investment through the simple expedient of giving them complete agency over the plot. There’s no worry that players are going to be bored by the clues they find, because they’re inventing them. Sure, they trend toward the wacky, but it’s wacky fun, and that’s something that can be much more hit or miss in traditional investigative games. With a more serious setting, crunchy system, and play contract, you might even get rid of the wacky while keeping the fun.

InSpectres is a purpose-built game engine around an intriguing core concept. It works really well in and of itself, but the really cool thing about it is that it’s basically a low-impact testing method for an idea that could be easily ported to virtually any other game with minimal difficulty. Why don’t we just let the players define the clues? After a couple of sessions of InSpectres, you’ll have fewer objections to the idea than you might think.

Thematic Characters, Part 3


Playing the Game, Continued

In addition, the dice pool might be increased by:

  • All other players with their Faces in the scene can contribute one of their relevant Face Traits to the die pool for free.
  • Any player can spend a Plot Point to add another relevant Trait (Face or Misc) that they control to the roll (this can be done after seeing the result of the roll).

For example: In the above example, if Dominique is on the scene she can use her Connected (d10) trait to help talk the cops out of pursuing Chavez. After the dice are rolled, if Chavez had nothing higher than a 6 (and sees the GM’s roll is slightly higher), he might spend a Plot Point to add his Humor to the roll as well.

As is standard in Cortex Plus:

  • The total of the roll is the sum of the two highest dice results.
  • Any 1s showing on any of the dice can be used as complications.

The winner of the roll works with the GM to describe a victory in line with the actions used and that explains any complications generated. Also give a plot point to the owner of the action that was used to win. For example, if Chavez carries out a Righteous Execution, the plot point will go to Dominique’s player, as it’s her theme’s action.

When 1s are showing, this is a Complication. This can be activated by the GM (for a player’s roll) or by any player (for the GM’s roll; the active player gets to decide who spends if multiple players want to pay to activate it).

  • If the GM activates a complication, the player with the least plot points gains one. If a player activates a complication, he or she spends a plot point from his or her total.
  • The 1s rolled can be spent to generate a new miscellaneous trait and/or alter an existing one as the trait is relevant to the action being attempted:
    • Spend 1 to buy a new trait at 1d6 or 2d4 or add 1d6 to an existing misc. trait.
    • Spend 1 to increase the die size of one die of an existing misc. trait (including one just created when there were multiple 1s rolled).
    • Spend 1 to remove the lowest die from an existing trait (i.e., a trait that hurts you).

For example: Dominique is trying to execute a corrupt cop, but the GM wins the conflict and he escapes. However, the GM rolls two 1s and Dominique’s player pays a plot point to activate the complication, suggesting that, in his flight, he drops his “Custom Handgun (d8).” When the GM narrates the result of the scene, Dominique will gain access to that misc. trait. Later, the GM may activate one of Dominique’s own complications to have her lose the gun as well (dropping the lowest die from the trait and effectively eliminating it).


A Face can be killed off or otherwise removed from play by a simple narration (if the player can’t find any relevant dice to resist or chooses to allow it) or as the result of the GM’s victory narration. An Antagonist can be killed off in the same way (except it is based on the player’s narration). Whenever this happens, the owner of the removed character gains a plot point. Unless the owner is fine with the result, the removal should leave room for the character to return (e.g., an offscreen death): the player can spend 2 plot points to return the Face in the current session after at least one scene has passed, or can spend 1 plot point to return the Face in the next session. No matter what, a new Face can be introduced in the next scene with different traits (but the same dice array as before). Ultimately, Faces are disposable, and the only real problem with a loss of one is that the new Face may take a couple of scenes to get up to speed.

At any point that makes sense in the narrative, a player (or the GM) can declare any contest a Victory contest.

  • The acting player spends 2 plot points.
  • The losing player loses 1 plot point (the owner of the winning action gains a plot point as normal).
  • If the loser is reduced below 0 plot points, the owning theme of the action used by the winner declares Victory.
  • The victorious player (or the GM) describes the successful completion of a relevant agenda in keeping with the theme, thus showing that theme proving its primacy.

For example: Dominique and Chavez are sneaking into the evidence locker when their players realize the GM is out of plot points for his “Corrupt down to the bone” theme. But he does have a bunch of relevant traits and an action to catch them…

  • Dominique’s player can roll A planned infiltration as a victory contest and, if successful, narrates: “The dirty cops race into the locker only to find the files missing that prove they killed Mayor Voss. Just then, the door clangs shut and Dominique waves the folder at them, ‘the DA will be very interested in these.’ She sneers at Chavez, stuffing his heroin into a bag, ‘We’re even. Don’t let me ever see you again.'”
  • Chavez’s player can roll “It’s time to get out of here!” as a victory contest and, if successful, narrates: “Chavez snatches up the impounded heroin and an armful of other shiny stuff as Dominique grabs what looks like evidence files. The corrupt cops show up just in time to see a door slamming and hear the getaway car tearing off into the night. That evening, the news is abuzz with the story of the blown drug bust and interesting files about the death of Mayor Voss coming to light. ‘See, kid,’ he grins as he kicks back in front of the TV, ‘I told you it would all work out.'”
  • Of course, if the roll goes in the GM’s favor, there’s probably a player that is now very close to being subjected to a Victory contest of his or her own…

In any case, Dominique’s player may decide that her vengeance is sated and introduce a new Face looking for revenge in the next session. Meanwhile, Chavez’ player may stick with him to see what kind of cowardly inanity he can introduce to the next story.

Character Improvement

After each session, each player may do one of the following:

  • Increase the size of an adjective or verb die by one step (to a maximum of d12). For example, Chavez raises Lie to d6, increasing the pool for “You can’t prove anything!” to d10 + d6.
  • Reduce the size of an adjective or verb die by one step (to a minimum of d4). Introduce a new adjective or verb (whichever was reduced) at the same adjusted amount. Combine it with an existing trait to make a new action. For example, Chavez reduces Retreat to d10 (from d12). He can now create a new verb at d10, and picks Gamble d10. He makes a new action “What the hell, I feel lucky” (Unexpected d6 Gamble d10).

(Next week: some more thorough examples) I got distracted and wanted to write about something else. Thematic Character examples at some point in the future if the demand is great enough!

System Review: InSpectres, Part 2

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In Play

The game system for InSpectres can be described almost completely in a few sentences, but it has some potentially unexpected ramifications in actual play, so I’ll hit the ones I encountered.

The Ridiculousness Bar

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is a game that gives players a high degree of narrative control in a lightly sketched, humorous setting. This means that you’ll very quickly deal with the situation of raising the ridiculousness bar. This is a problem* for a lot of high-player-control pickup games (I’ve had the same thing happen in Capes, for example). Effectively, when one player creates something strange, campy, or even farcical, that is now the new threshold for how things work in the game world. In the few sessions I’ve run, I’ve encountered (in rough order of least to most insane):

  • A rent-a-cop that did away with a mall janitor by planting shaped charges in the sewers timed for when he was passing by
  • Phase nets
  • Cat-possessing evil spirits infesting a predator preserve so they can make ghost babies by having cougar sex
  • Phase whales (which the phase nets were needed to catch)
  • One of the player characters being declared a cyborg invented by another player character’s dog

It’s a pickup game, so it doesn’t really matter, but if you have a threshold beyond which you’d feel a game was too silly to play, you might want to set expectations for the other players up front.

* You may, in fact, actually consider this a feature. Please game with people with the same tastes as you when playing InSpectres 😉 .


Something that took me a couple of sessions to notice is that stress is deceptively potent as a GM tool. If your players are anything like mine, they’re going to make sure they have their niches covered: with only four skills, it’s pretty easy to make sure at least one person has the full four dice for each skill. With 4d6 (keep highest) and success on 4-6, you’re going to fail rolls less than 7% of the time and you’re going to roll 6 over 50% of the time. The required franchise dice melt away when your players can consistently get 1-2 per roll.

Stress lets you limit that. You can roll it for literally anything stressful, and it can be liberally seasoned throughout the session. One-die attacks are especially useful, as they are rarely very bad, and even have the chance to award a Cool die that protects against future Stress, but they still make the players nervous. And, as the franchise dice start rolling in, you can bring out the more climactic levels of Stress to further lower success chances. If done correctly, Stress allows you to create a power law franchise-die-to-time distribution: the players get the first half of the dice required very quickly, but then have to work harder and harder until they’re inventing like mad to scrounge up that last die to end the adventure before they’re stressed-out wrecks.

Roll Pacing

Players are conditioned to roll in RPGs. They say they want their characters to do something, they pick up the dice, and they let fly. You have to break them of this habit.

Introductory InSpectres scenarios can feature a dozen or fewer franchise dice required to complete the session. You get 2 dice every time you roll a 6 and, as noted above, that’s roughly half the rolls with a 4 die skill. A standard player barrage of “I’ll talk to the client, you research the client’s house, and you start working on some anti-ghost technology” could get you over halfway done with the session in less time than this took to read.

Instead, rolls need to be fairly sparing and only called for as the GM requires for pacing. “Say ‘yes’ or roll the dice” finds another good home here: there’s no reason not to just narrate minor victories early in the case when there’s no compelling reason for conflict. Wait for the players to get spread out (when they can’t necessarily bring their specialist to bear on a particular problem) before rolls start happening frequently, and, as explained above, make sure you begin liberally using Stress to reduce die pools as the session heats up.

Even with a completely inexperienced group, InSpectres scenarios don’t take long, but proper roll pacing is the difference between a 15 minute game with limited twists and an hour one that your players will be crowing about to their friends outside the group tomorrow.

The Confessional

Of all the systems in the game, the confessional is the one that feels the least integrated. It’s a mechanic to turn Ghostbusters into Ghost Hunters: it creates the premise that everything the characters are doing is being filmed for reality TV. So, the first root problem with it is that players that are in a Ghostbusters mindset will probably forget to use it at all. And those who do use it, might wind up abusing it.

The system is intended to do two things:

  • Allow players to comment in-character on the other PCs and, thereby, assign them new traits to roleplay (they get bonuses if the do); e.g., “and we wouldn’t have gotten into any trouble if Jim wasn’t a Pyromaniac…”
  • Allow players to put in a short stinger that changes up the way the group was conceiving of the scene; e.g., “and if we’d known about the old Indian curse on the place, we wouldn’t have agreed to spend the night…”

It’s effectively a way for a player to snatch total narrative control of the scene without a die roll. It can create your coolest or your most insane moments in the game. The confessional gave one of my sessions, “but what we didn’t know was that the man that we’d been talking to died a year ago today…” and immediately kicked an aimless mall adventure into an interesting ghost story. It also gave us “And he’s a cyborg… programmed by my dog” which kicked the ridiculousness bar super high and baffled the player running the new terminator for a canine Skynet.

So I guess I’m saying that the Confessional may be worth dropping entirely if your players aren’t all on board, and is at least worth setting some play contract boundaries to keep it from being used to seize the game’s narrative.


Thematic Characters, Part 2

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This is the expanded system mentioned last week. It uses the Leverage variant of the Cortex Plus system, as that seemed to fit the system language I wanted the best, but you could easily retool the concept for another system.

Theme as Character

Each player in this game takes on the role of a theme. Each player also has one or more face characters that he or she roleplays directly and which serve as representatives of the theme. But the theme itself is where most of the character’s stats lie. Faces come and go as the story demands, but the theme grows and persists.

A player’s theme should be a modified noun or verb or a short phrase: it needs enough terms involved to make it truly distinctive (and more specific than, say, a Nobilis domain). The theme becomes something that the player is trying to, though actions in the game, make true in the game world. GMs may want to create a list of theme components that are appropriate to the game desired, or have the players go nuts and see what comes out (though, even then, a list for players that have trouble picking things like Aspects is probably a good idea).

While the players pick their themes, the game setting does have an independent reality apart from the players. That is, the GM (possibly with player input) defines the setting and central conflicts in the world, but the players will ultimately define what is significant by use of their themes.

Some example themes are:

  • Vengeance: sudden and cold
  • “Fight” and “Flight” are both valid responses
  • Nothing done of love has ever come to evil
  • Information wants to be free
  • It’s never too late for diplomacy

Thematic Attributes

Once a player chooses a theme, it’s time to assign it attributes and actions.

  1. Choose five adjectives that seem related to the theme. Assign d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4 to them.
  2. Choose five verbs that seem related to the theme. These are effectively skills, so the verb should be as narrow as the GM is comfortable with (and to have minimal overlap between PCs). Assign d12, d10, d8, d6, and d4 to them.
  3. Pick an adjective and match it with a verb. Remove them both from the pool. Match another adjective and verb. Do this five times until each adjective is paired with a verb.
  4. Create a specific action as a short phrase that makes sense for that combination. The dice pool for that action is the combination of the adjective and verb dice.

For example:

  • Vengeance: sudden and cold
    • A righteous execution (Vengeful d12 Gunshot d10)
    • A necessary deception (Cold d10 Lie d6)
    • A simple staredown (Quick d8 Intimidation d4)
    • A sucker punch (Sudden d6 Punch d8)
    • A planned infiltration (Calculated d4 Stealth d12)
  • “Fight” and “Flight” are both valid responses
    • “It’s time to get out of here!” (Pragmatic d12 Retreat d12)
    • “You can’t prove anything!” (Cowardly d10 Lie d4)
    • “Floor it!” (Fast d8 Driving d6)
    • “How you doin’?” (Unexpected d6 Charm d8)
    • “Backstab!” (Cheap d4 Shanking d10)

Additionally, sketch out a face character. This is a character that is driven by your theme, and who you will portray in the game. But he or she is ultimately disposable, and you may find yourself quickly switching to another face when the original gets killed, captured, or is just offscreen for a while. For some themes, the face going out quickly and dramatically may happen all the time.

A face gets three Traits (typically verbs or adjectives): d10, d8, and d6. For example:

  • Dominique Voss, daughter of the late Mayor Voss: Connected d10, Rich d8, Beautiful d6 (Vengeance: sudden and cold)
  • Guillermo Chavez, the ganglord with 9 lives: Forgettable d10, Humor d8, Gunshot d6 (“Fight” and “Flight” are both valid responses)
  • Wallace Jones, aspiring family man: Mechanic d10, Drive d8, Friendly d6 (Nothing done of love has ever come to evil)
  • Piety “1mp10u5” Li, rebellious teen: Hacking d10, History d8, Interesting d6 (Information wants to be free)
  • Conner Mactiernan, police negotiator: Unthreatening d10, Trustworthy d8, Gunshot d6 (It’s never too late for diplomacy)

Playing the Game

The core rule of the game is the common advice, “Say Yes, or roll the dice.” Specifically, nearly all activities in the game can be safely narrated. When a player wants to do something, if it doesn’t conflict with the opposition themes or traits, the GM should work with the player to describe a successful result (though the degree of success can be limited by the mood of the game and the description of the Face involved). Players should give the same leeway to the GM: resist objecting to a narration unless it can be contested by a theme or trait. Effectively, dice are only rolled when both sides have a numerical representation of the conflict.

To this end, for every story, the GM creates an opposition theme. This is done mechanically very similarly to the PCs: pick a theme, assign dice to adjectives and verbs, and then create actions. The GM’s job is slightly different in that:

  • The opposition theme should be something broad enough that all the player themes might have a reason to come into conflict with it.
  • Instead of 5 adjectives and verbs, the GM gets 2 per player of each. At 3+ players, the dice wrap back to the beginning (e.g., with 4 players, the GM will have 8 adjectives and verbs: 2d12, 2d10, 2d8, 1d6, 1d4).

Like the PCs, the GM creates a Face, which in the GM’s case is effectively the main antagonist for the story. This villain gains one trait die per PC, counting down from d12 (e.g., with 4 players the villain will have d12, d10, d8, and d6).

Whenever narration reaches a state where the outcome needs to be resolved with dice, the GM and the active player create a dice pool and roll (if in doubt, the active player is the one whose Face instigated the conflict). The dice pool consists of:

  • The most relevant Theme Action: This can be an Action on the player’s own sheet or one on any other theme sheet including the GM’s (remember whose it was).
  • Up to one relevant Face Trait: This is one of the three traits (likely more for the GM) that represents the active Face’s individual qualities.
  • Up to one relevant miscellaneous Trait: This is a trait that has been created from complications during the course of play (see below).

For example: Chavez is trying to avoid being caught for a particular crime. He rolls “You can’t prove anything!” (d10 + d4) plus Forgettable (d10) plus Airtight Alibi (2d6) (a misc trait he’s created earlier in the session) for a final dice pool of 2d10 + 2d6 + 1d4.

(Continued next week)

System Review: InSpectres, Part 1


Who You Gonna Call?

Let’s not beat around the bush: InSpectres is merely an expensive license away from being the modern Ghostbusters RPG. It’s a game where you play a misfit band of everymen who’ve joined a small startup, franchised out from a central organization, that charges locals to deal with their supernatural problems. It’s funny, intentionally referential, and is directly tuned to use weird technology to fight the occult. Sure, you could use it to represent pretty much any modern monster-hunting setting you’d like… but you’ll spend your whole time knowing what the real inspiration is.

The game is a small, 80-page, one-volume work by indie great Jared Sorensen. While it’s pretty obviously inspired by Ghostbusters, it uses that to look into the world of business franchises with a dash of reality TV. It accomplishes all of this in the tiny space by keeping the game system very simple and focused. So this review is probably going to be shorter than usual.

Core Mechanic

The basic idea behind the system of InSpectres is running an investigation game where the PCs can’t fail to put together the clues to solve the mystery… because they’re creating the clues and giving them meaning themselves and the GM is just working to weave them into something of a narrative and provide conflict.

Each PC has four broad skills rated 1-4 (and a flavor trait that can give a bonus to skills in the right circumstance). When the GM calls for a roll (generally to uncover a clue), the player rolls a number of d6s equal to the relevant skill and keeps the highest die. If the result is 4+, the player gets to describe what he or she found, and rolls of 5-6 also earn Franchise Dice. Each scenario has a budget of Franchise Dice: once the players earn that total, the session wraps up with a victory.

Once per scene, players may also invoke a “Confessional” (a reality TV-style foreshadowing or character sniping directly to the camera) that allows creating new information without a roll (and may add new traits to roleplay to another character’s sheet).

Finally, players have bonus dice assigned to various things like Library Card and Bank that they can deplete to add to various rolls. Franchise Dice earned are largely spent to build back up these reserves after a case.

The GM’s role is largely reactionary after setting up the initial scenario, basically just trying to distill whatever clues the players invent into more game and keep the pacing on track so victory follows logically on getting the last die. The GM doesn’t get access to dice or stats, but does wield two mighty powers: deciding when a roll is called for (and, thus, maintaining pace and spotlight by keeping players from just rolling for everything) and invoking Stress. Effectively, anything from a monster attacking the character to just being cut off in traffic can cause a Stress roll of a variable number of dice. The player keeps the lowest die and compares to a chart: lower rolls result in long-term penalties to dice pools. Effectively, Stress makes the game harder as time goes on, and requires Franchise Dice to buy off after the session (“taking a vacation”).

The mechanics are so simple they can be described in totality in less than 20 pages, but they create some intricate results in actual play…

Part 2

Thematic Characters, Part 1

Comments Off on Thematic Characters, Part 1

This weekend I saw Your Highness and Bunraku. Both of them got me thinking about heroic characters and giving them explicit, system-fueled goals. Obviously, Aspects are a great, simple way of doing this, but I have something more complicated in mind. This week’s system is meant to be grafted onto other games (particularly D&D). Next week’s post begins an attempt to expand it out to a game engine that can stand on its own.

Character Theme

Each player character develops a theme that informs his or her character’s role in the game. Themes are short phrases with at least three significant terms. Example themes include:

  • Unhesitating, righteous vengeance
  • Situational cowardice is often justified
  • Deceitful charm comes with a smile
  • Interesting secrets are always uncovered
  • Unexpected kindness bears rewards

The goal is to pick a core noun (generally an idea) and differentiate it with at least two other terms. GMs are encouraged to come up with a list of nouns appropriate to the campaign before character generation for the players to pick from (or roll to choose). Random tables of appropriate adjectives and verbs to add might also result in unexpected but interesting themes.

The theme is a concept that is core to the character and drives his or her behavior. Stories featuring the character feature the theme as a driving force, or put that theme into conflict with a contradictory idea.

Theme Aspects

Once a theme is established, the player picks two action nouns with at least two modifying words each. All three terms should be directly relevant to the theme and, ideally, derived from the adjectives of the theme as well. These are situations in the game where a bonus is available due to playing to theme. Again, GMs might want to come up with a list of available actions. Examples include:

  • Unhesitating, righteous vengeance
    • A vengeful strike upon a betrayer
    • Alacrity in the face of unexpected betrayal
  • Situational cowardice is often justified
    • Evasiveness when running scared
    • Hiding from superior enemies
  • Deceitful charm comes with a smile
    • Lies to friendly strangers
    • Negotiation with an unpalatable agenda
  • Interesting secrets are always uncovered
    • A vital discovery at the last second
    • Discernment of a stranger’s lies
  • Unexpected kindness bears rewards
    • Diplomacy when force seems required
    • Favors asked of a previous beneficiary

The goal with these is to create subsets of actions that are going to come up reasonably often in the game but far from every roll. However, each should also be something that the players have some control over driving scenes towards. Essentially, working to get the bonus for an action should drive the game to support the character’s theme.

The bonus for an action should be small but significant to the system (+2 in d20, +1 in games with a smaller range, +10% in a percentile system, etc.). Any player in the game (or the GM) can use any theme aspect available to any PC (the player that owns the aspect might suggest it to other players when it’s relevant). It costs nothing to take this bonus.

Each time the aspect is used by another player or the GM for a successful roll (i.e., the action in keeping with the player’s theme won out), the owning player should place a check by it. The player can trade in four checks across all owned aspects at any time to get a point of whatever the fungible dramatic currency of the game is (action points, drama points, fate points, etc.). This should encourage players to drive the plot towards goals that support their themes, because getting the others involved in their own narrative yields immediate rewards.

Improving Aspects

The GM is also encouraged to create themes for each story that have their own aspects relevant to the threats of the plotline. These need not be directly revealed to the players, but if they are, and the players make use of the aspects, the GM also builds up dramatic currency for the opposition.

Whenever the GM uses one of his or her aspects in direct conflict with a player’s roll (that uses a player aspect), and the player-aspect-increased roll wins (or gets agreeably superior result if not in directly contested rolls), the owning player should underline the aspect. For example, the GM uses “The living cannot hide from the dead” as a vampire hunts for a PC who uses “Hiding from superior enemies” and wins the roll to remain hidden.

At the end of a session in which a PC underlined an aspect, he or she can improve it by removing a modifying term (thus making it more broadly applicable) or can add another aspect relevant to the theme with two modifying terms.

Going Forward

The system above is basically a fairly minor rules hack of FATE aspects designed to be grafted onto any game. Next week, though, my intention is to use it as groundwork to create a new system where the themes are the most important rules aspect, driving all rolls in play.

System Review: FATE 3.0, Conclusion


The Open Game License is to tabletop RPGs as Open Source is to computer software. Or at least that seemed to be Ryan Dancey’s goal when he convinced WotC to institute it. Open Source development is as intended to generate improved code that can be used by the originator of the project as it is to make free software available to the masses. It’s questionable whether D&D ever used it as a true analog: Despite years of OGL d20 supplements, next to nothing made by third parties seems to have made its way back into D&D’s core. But as a side effect that may have even been unforeseen by Dancey, smaller publishers like Evil Hat have been quietly working to make OGL to Open Source a real comparison as their own original systems reap the benefits of public exposure.

FATE started as a couple of guys with an interesting take on attributes and skills plugging in the OGL FUDGE dice mechanic and posting the results online. An interesting quirk of the hyperconnectedness of geekdom meant that they were friends with a rising urban fantasy author who wanted to license an RPG to someone he trusted to do his setting justice. Over less than a decade they went from pure indie shop to a largely mainstream publisher* and every step of the way has been with flow back and forth through the OGL. The change from SotC to the DFRPG included crowdsourced testing and the proposed rules for “FATE Core” show clear signs of being clarified by non-Evil Hat implementations of the system. When the lead developer of the system isn’t afraid to send players to non-core implementations of the system to address their rules concerns, something about OGL has gone very right.

I’m really bad about generating more nitpicks about things that I consider nearly perfect, as the perceived issues stand out better when they’re few and far between. And that’s why this review series has ballooned to half again as long as any of my others (even accounting for two games being reviewed): I think FATE is a nearly perfect system. That’s not to say it’s the best choice of engine for any kind of game you might want to run, but for the things for which it’s appropriate, it’s excellent. It’s a system up-to-date with many of the latest indie innovations. It’s something you could be equally comfortable running for unrepentant hack-and-slashers and Forge elites. It’s a modular collection of really neat system tricks you can steal for other games.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend FATE to a pure toolkit GM; the engine doesn’t work as well if you’re not actively using it. I wouldn’t run it without house rules, but I don’t run anything without house rules; FATE, at least, seems pretty explicitly designed to accommodate fairly major changes without cascading consequences throughout the system. I probably wouldn’t suggest it as a gateway game for new GMs; it has a lot of subtly nifty features that I suspect require some kind of basis for comparison.

But if you’re that increasingly common kind of individual—the experienced mainstream gamer looking for a system that leverages the cool stuff internet collaboration has come up with over the last decade while still feeling like the kind of system you’re comfortable with—I cannot recommend FATE enough. Used correctly, you’ll see system-driving-play benefits you can’t get anywhere else. And, even if it’s not your thing, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find a few system ideas that you can’t help but take with you to become house rules for your normal game.

It’s a good game and, via the OGL and general user responsiveness, Evil Hat seems intent on continually making it even better.



* Evil Hat is kind enough to post complete sales figures. None of the bigger publishers seem interested in even giving a ballpark of their sales. So it’s very difficult to determine at what point you can even call someone “mainstream,” especially these days. Given the speed at which the kings of RPGs in the 90s are fleeing to more reliable revenue streams, my suspicion is that, if Evil Hat isn’t very close to being mainstream, then the term means even less now than it ever has.

Dresden Files Evocation Tweak


This is a simple house rule designed to address my issues with evocation in the DFRPG mentioned last week. The specifics are largely derived from the aquarium scene in Small Favor (and may include very minor spoilers).

Reserving Power

A character with Evocation may choose to draw power without immediately using it. Drawing power is an automatic, supplemental action performed once per exchange (often immediately before casting). The character can draw shifts of power up to Conviction for 1 mental stress. Each shift of power drawn beyond Conviction increases this stress by +1 (Conviction 3 drawing 5 power would take a 3 stress hit).

This power can be used immediately or reserved. A caster can continue to draw power on subsequent exchanges, even if already reserving power. Multiple exchanges of reserved power are treated as a single pool (i.e., they are not tracked individually per exchange). Any unused reserved power is lost (harmlessly) at the end of the scene.

If the power is used immediately, the evocation roll proceeds normally.

If some of the power is reserved, the amount used for any particular evocation roll is treated as the difficulty of the roll for fallout/backlash purposes (e.g., if a wizard draws 5 power but only uses 3, saving 2, the difficulty for the Discipline roll is 3, and all elements of the spell will proceed as if the wizard had only used 3 power; the wizard will then have 2 left over for another spell on the next exchange).

Reserving power stores magical energy inside the caster’s body in a way that is uncomfortable at best, and requires concentration to maintain.

A character that has at least 1 shift of power reserved by the end of his or her turn gains the temporary aspect “Reserving Power.” This aspect can be assessed as a supplemental action by any other caster by succeeding at a roll of Lore vs. the target’s Discipline (the GM may provide a bonus to this roll if the caster is reserving a lot of power, at his or her discretion). The aspect can be tagged for any roll that would benefit from the caster having split concentration, or for an attack on the reserved power (see below).

Another character that believes the caster is reserving power (either through the assessment or just guessing), can attempt an attack to upset his or her concentration. The skill used for the attack is anything that would make sense distracting the caster enough to lose focus, and it is resisted by the caster’s Discipline (i.e., it’s similar to a maneuver, but it does damage). If the attack succeeds, the shifts convert reserved power instantly to Backlash on a one-for-one basis (up to the number of shifts of power reserved). For example, a wizard reserving 3 shifts of power is distracted with 2 shifts, immediately taking a 2 shift backlash hit and leaving only 1 shift of power remaining. If the distraction had gotten 4 shifts, the wizard would have taken a maximum of a 3 stress backlash hit (and had no power remaining).

Ambient Magic

Most casting uses the natural background magic of the world: the caster draws it in, shapes it, then sends it back out as a spell. Stress from evocation represents the exhaustion this exercise causes.

Some places may have higher than normal background magic (represented by an appropriate aspect) where drawing in power is less tiring because it is easier to gather. A caster may tag this aspect to treat Conviction as +2 when drawing power in that area. For example, in Storm Front, after Harry had assessed the “Power in the Storm” aspect on the story, he could tag that aspect to draw up to 7 power (Conviction 5 +2) for only 1 mental stress whenever he had access to the storm’s energy.

Other places may have reduced background magic (also represented by an appropriate aspect). This aspect may be compelled during a power draw to reduce the power gained by half (round down); stress is still dealt at the amount intended for the draw. For example, Harry is trying to stop a massive ritual for which the villain has been channeling massive amounts of power for quite some time. He attempts to draw 6 shifts of power and the GM compels the “Massive Ritual” aspect; if Harry’s player accepts, he’ll only gain 3 shifts of power and still take 2 mental stress (but will get a shiny fate point).

Rare places (like being trapped in another wizard’s circle) may cut the caster off from background magic entirely. In these cases, the caster is limited to power currently reserved before being trapped, or his or her own life energy. When drawing on personal life energy the entire power draw is treated as a single physical attack (which can be reduced with consequences normally), and the normal stress cost (1 + excess beyond Conviction) is treated as a second, mental attack. For example, if Harry (Conviction 5) tried to draw 7 points of power when in a magical dead zone, he would take 7 physical stress and 3 mental stress. GMs are encouraged to reward casters very heavily with Fate points for trapping them in a magical dead zone.