15th of December: Bulldogs


Tempt your Fate in action packed space adventures!

Author/Designer: Brennan Taylor and Brian Engard

From: Bundle of Fate

Fate has gone through a lot of development, from the main breakthrough with Spirit of the Century to the current wave of games using Fate Core and Fate Accelerated. Bulldogs! lies in the middle of that evolution, coming out after the success of SotC, but before the birth of Core and Accelerated.

Bulldogs is a space opera game, taking place in The Frontier Zone between two competing empires. Big interstellar corporations are among the movers and shakers in this region, and the players are employed by such a corporation, manning a Class D freighter carrying cargo around the frontier and encountering all sorts of mayhem.

When starting a new campaign, the players and the GM create the ship and the captain together, assigning aspects to them and talking about the basis for the crew. The book stresses that the GM should have no more say in this than the other players. It also recommends that the captain be controlled by the GM, and not be a player character. Then each player will create their own characters, choosing a species from the list or making one up, devising aspects and assigning skills and stunts. Stunts work much like they do in Atomic Robo: The book comes with examples of stunts, but the idea is that you should design your own stunts.

The book is neatly laid out, with clear headings and a logical structure. As a nice little touch, each chapter has an associated picture, and a circular cutting from that picture is in the top corner of every even page of that chapter.

My impression: In many ways, Bulldogs! seems to be a mix of Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo. Just like Ashen Stars, you are travelling around your section of space, solving problems and having adventures. It also features a similarly varied set of alien species. But the tone is much lighter than in Ashen Stars, and more like Atomic Robo – the same ridiculous attitude and silly hijincks. The alien species would also be more at home in the zanier world of Atomic Robo than in Ashen Stars: one is a race of mad, trigger happy teddy bears, for crying out loud! Many of the others are anthropomorphic animals of different kinds, like a race of big cats, a race of humanised snakes and a race of a-sexual, cloning slugs. I suppose this goes with the more gung-ho, action oriented kind of space opera featured in this game.

Where Ashen Stars and Atomic Robo both have a very firm description of what you will be doing, Bulldogs! has only some vague indications. You will be delivering goods, often of a dangerous and unstable kind. And then? Well, then action happens, of some unspecified kind. Th game does indicate that it might be a good idea to involve players’ aspects in the creation of scenarios, but that is about it. There is no recommended structure for a scenario, and no outline for how you should put a campaign together. This is somewhat disappointing, not least because the players’ immediate circumstance – as something akin to galactic FedEx’ers – doesn’t naturally lead to great games.

To be frank, I was somewhat surprised when I saw what the basic premise for the campaign was. You are hauling stuff, which is a trade that is most successful when you just land, unload and take off again. Not what you’ll want to be doing every Wednesday night for some excitement. Now if you were freelance haulers, you’d be negotiating contracts and sometimes ending up with a deal going south. But no, you are corporate wage-slaves, getting your assignments from HQ. Granted, you are going to be transporting dangerous and volatile cargoes, but that also seems to have a limited novelty factor.

At the back of the book are some alternative suggestions for campaigns that sound more interesting. You can be a mercenary crew, explorers, an espionage crew or perhaps even pirates! I am left to wonder, though, why none of these were chosen as the basic model for a campaign, or maybe just written into the chapter as equal ideas. All of these seem to more readily afford a varied series of exciting adventures.

As stated before, the captain is supposed to be an npc. This doesn’t seem an obvious choice to me either. The game states that in this way, the captain can be an adversarial force who can help create problems for the players. Fair enough. But it also means taking a fair deal of agency away from the players. Unless the first part of the campaign involved getting rid of or sidelining the captain, I think I would prefer to have a player assume the role of captain. That way, it will be a player having to deal with HQ, making unpopular decisions and taking the spotlight during a tense dogfight. And I’m not worried about one player nominally having authority over the others – a bit of PvP can mean hours of fun play that the GM doesn’t have to initiate.

I like the universe of Bulldogs! and the tone of the game seems fun and very appealing. Having the players and the GM make the space ship together as part of character creation is a great idea, as it makes the ship a unifying part of the party, and implies a conversation about the kind of game the group wants to play. I could easily imagine Firefly as a prototype of a campaign of Bulldogs! where the ship is like an extra character in the party.

Unfortunately, the game seems unfinished, or at the very least, unpolished. To my mind, no modern roleplaying game is complete without some form of instructions in making the kind of scenarios and campaigns it wants you to play. This game provides mostly alludes to the kinds of situations that could arise, without really telling me how to put it together. The whole GM-section of the book is 9 pages out of 170, with several going to general moment-to-moment advice on running a game of Fate – much of which is practically identical to advice from the superb GM-section in Spirit of the Century – and two pages being the alternative campaign ideas. “Adventure Design” is barely half a page of vague advice. A pity they didn’t adapt some of Spirit’s excellent advice on creating adventures.

I do have faith in my abilities to create an interesting campaign of Bulldogs! But with so many cool and interesting games beckoning, I’m likely to skip it for a game that provides me with more structure to create a good basis for fun and engaging games.

How would I use this: If I ever wanted a fun game of rogue operators in space, in the vein of Firefly, I might very well look to Bulldogs! (I might even think this game would better emulate that series than the actual Firefly roleplaying game). I’ve said this a lot throughout this advent calendar., but it might also be a good game for young roleplayers with an experienced GM.

9th of December: Atomic Robo


Save the world with Action Science!

Author/Designer:Mike Olson et- at.

From: Bundle of Fate +3

Today, I’m taking a look at the Atomic Robo RPG from the Bundle of Fate +3. This was a difficult one to choose from – I was tempted to go with Baroque Space Opera instead, and Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of Myst beckoned as well. But I’ve heard some interesting things about Atomic Robo, and so I decided to go with this instead. And by pure coincidence, this turned out to be a fun-house mirror image of Itras By from yesterday.

Atomic Robo is based on a series of comic books about the atomic robot, Atomic Robo. Robo was created by Nicola Tesla, and since his creator’s death, he has been in charge of a company building on all the super-science secretly invented by Tesla. And so today, Robo leads a band of Action Scientists going out to battle nefarious conspiracies trying to take over the world.

(What is an Action Scientist, you ask? The book has a good example to explain it: Imagine an archaologist, carefully excavating some site, or maybe dating potsherds in the lab. Now think of Indiana Jones, going on adventures, dodging traps and discovering mystical artefacts in remote locations. Action Scientists are to science what Indy is to archaeology.)

The Atomic Robo roleplaying game is built on the Fate system, with a few special quirks of its own. As in other Fate games, a character consists of a number of skills, some stunts and some aspects. Atomic Robo organises the skills in “Modes”, gathering a set of skills to do with the same type of actions. Each character has three modes at different levels (one Good, one Fair and one Average), choosing from the four Standard Modes (Action, Banter, Science or Intrigue) or creating or adopting a ready-made “Weird Mode”. Weird Modes are skill sets that are tailored to a concept beyond the generic Action Scientist mould of the gamer. Example Weird Modes include Robot, Dinosaur and Reporter (cause reporters are weird, man).

Stunts are ways your character can bend the rules of the game. The game recommends building stunts on the fly, and provides a list of sample benefits a stunt can provide, like a bonus to a roll or an exception to a rule. Weird Modes often provide mega-stunts that provide benefits beyond those of a regular stunt, but a mega-stunt also comes with drawbacks to counterbalance.

Finally, each character will have five aspects: one concept aspect (like “I am the atomic robot” or “Ape professor”), one aspect for each of the three modes, and finally an “Omega Aspect,” giving the character a direction or a goal. The concept aspect should be created before the game starts, but the other can be created during play. Each aspect gives you one Fate Point that allows you to influence the game. You gain more in different ways, including when you surrender a fight or when your aspects complicate things for you.

The GM version of this is the Budget and the Reserve. For each scene, the GM receives a certain budget of points to spend on making lives difficult for our heroes. When an NPC aspect is compelled, the GM gets a point into his “reserve”, to bring to bear in a dramatically appropriate scene.

Throughout the book, bits of the comic is used to illustrate aspects of the game. So when explaining the use of Compels, it shows a scene from the comic where Atomic Robo is compelled. This visualises the mechanics, and gives the book a lot of colour and interest.

My impression: This is in many ways the opposite of Itras By. Where Itras By allowed for a wide range of stories and characters, but did not really give enough guidance for how to do so, Atomic Robo gives a lot of guidance and step-by-step instructions on how to use the system, but it seems a bit narrow in the kinds of stories and characters you can play.

This may well be because the game is supposed to be a beginner’s introduction to Fate. The game seems tailored to helping both players and game masters get into the game as quickly as possible. For the players, there’s a quick and easy way to build characters that allows you to begin within twenty minutes. Saving the creation of advances, aspects and stunts for during the play allows the players to create mechanical elements for when they need it, and hopefully have a good sense of who each character is, and what they need to work. There is also a more in-depth mode of character generation, for when you want something a bit different.

For the GM, there are random “plot generators”, loads of useful advice (both generic and specific to Atomic Robo), plus the financial aspects of the Budget and the Pool. I think this might help inexperienced GMs to understand the game better. On the other hand, I think I might be annoyed at the restrictions inherent in the very mechanical way this is built.

The game has a very particular kind of story in mind, and has a couple of neat little sub-systems to assist that. First of all, the Brainstorm. This allows the players to come up with a hypothesis for something in the game – which is then true! It’s potentially a fun tool to putting some Science! into the game, and making players help give the world flavour.

Second of all, Tesladyne, the company the characters work for, has skills, and can be developed by the players. This is a great way of giving some cohesion to the game, and making everyone feel like part of something bigger

All in all, I like the game. In some ways, it feels a little like a modern version of Spirit of the Century, and I think it does a good job of capturing a certain kind of science fiction story. Also, it’s a very easy and accessible version of Fate, and I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this to an inexperienced GM, knowing the budgeting system and the other structures in the game would help them make a good game. Similarly, building characters with modes makes it very easy to create solid characters, without spending hours poring over lists of skills and stunts. Creating things on the fly means I could help players by saying “What do you want to achieve right now”, and then creating an aspect or Stunt in the moment.

On the other hand, it lacks some of the charm of something like Spirit of the Century. The more firm structure is also more rigid, and I suspect I might get frustrated with the ways the game wants me to run things. Also, I’m not sure I like the GM budget – while it’s a good way of helping new GMs make a balanced game for the players, I think I prefer fudging things when playing a relatively traditional game like Atomic Robo.

How would I use this: I would play Atomic Robo with a group of newbies, to introduce them to Fate, particularly if I ever teach adolescents again. I might also try taking it out for a spin if I ever wanted a one- or two-off game of enjoyable action to play with more adult players. On the other hand, I don’t think this would ever replace Spirit of the Century as my game of choice for silly, pulpy adventure fun.