One Hit Wonders: Fading Suns

Had our second installment in our series of “lets try these games we’ve always wondered about.” This time I was behind the GM’s screen running a game that’s always rated high on my list: Fading Suns. For this run we used the 2nd edition version of the rules which came out in 1999.


Pre-Game

Picking the game for this run was a little easier. At the end of last session, we just picked a game based off of general concensus, biased by who was willing to run. It went significantly faster than discussing it over email, but did have it’s own difficulties. It’s always hard to guage levels of interest in so informal a discussion, with the risk of passivity letting games that don’t really have a strong interest for the group as a whole winning out. But overall it seemed to work out okay.

As the GM, I had the fun of trying to understand the rules in order to try and teach others. It’s a task I normally hate, but since this was a relatively informal session and there was the understanding that we were all in it to screw up together, it wasn’t that onerous. There were two things that touched all phases of play that I’ll bring up right now. The first is that the book is very reminiscent of the old World of Darkness games, in both good and bad ways. From character creation to the structure of combat rounds, it was clear that the authors of the game had previously done Vampire and Werewolf. The second, and biggest, problem I ran into, both in this process and while running the game, was that the presentation of the rules was a little haphazard. Sometimes it was just poorly explained, requiring some reverse engineering of examples. Sometimes it was that the rules were just put in crazy places. Sometimes the rules seemed to make assumptions and so it wouldn’t explain something. And sometimes there just wasn’t a rule for what you wanted to know about. It would seem like there should be a rule. But there wasn’t. For the most part I felt like I got my head around it. The system was relatively simple once you got the basics down.

To make my life a little bit easier, I bought one of the PDF-format canned adventures from the Fading Suns Web site, specifically “Ruinous Folly.” (For one player, who had previously only played in games I’ve run at ACNW, the sight of me reading boxed text was particularly humorous.) The adventure was not the sort of thing that I’d have expected. As an Amber player looking at a feudal setting where the characters are assumed to be members of the church, noblity or merchant class, with a wide panorama of worlds as a backdrop and the suggestion of the game being a “passion play in space,” I guess I assume a game of ensemble cast members, personal goals, sweeping political agendas and maybe a bit of mythology. The adventure was a good one, but it seemed little different from the sort of setup that you’d get in Shadowrun or D&D. Ultimately I guess I’m a little torn. On the one hand, it’s clear that the adventure was designed with the likelihood of being run at a convention, even suggesting the pre-gens if you were running this for something like a convention. I recognize that it can be hard to create a generic adventure where you don’t know who will be playing or what characters you will have.

I don’t know what I would necessarily do differently. I just broadly wish there’d been more to highlight what set the game and setting apart from any other RPG. I had a similar frustration with a Nobilis demo I played in: You’re godlike beings in a realm of heavy scheming and metaphorical conflicts, but the demo adventure was little more than a mission. You were given a job, you went from Point A to Point B, beat some things up along the way. It was a mission with an exciting backdrop, and it gave a sense of the basic mechanics, but it had little of the mythopoetic grandeur I associate with Nobilis. This ended up being a motivation for me doing my own Carnivale-themed Nobilis one-shot at ACNW a couple years ago. (I don’t know that I did any better, but I was inspired at least.)

For this game we ended up having the same three people who had played in the previous installment of One Hit Wonders. There had been interest from several others, but when the day actually came we had some serious attrition.

Character Creation

Since the adventure came with pre-gens and people were interested in diving straight into playing, we didn’t go through the normal character creation process. Which is a shame: I thought the system (once I got past some of the initial challenges) was pretty conducive to quickly generating characters. The career path system, especially, looked like it was good at providing a basic framework for your character’s background. There was also a “custom” character creation system that bore a striking similarity to every Storyteller game ever made. My only signifiant complaint about the character creation system itself is that there were something like 50+ skills available, many of which had a half dozen or so sub-skills underneath it. There were other aspects that could have slowed down character creation, but most were optional. You didn’t need to take cyberware, for example. But skills… that could have been something heavy to wade through.

The players doctored up the pre-gens slightly, changing names or noble houses as they saw fit, bought gear when there were obvious gaps in the equipment that they had. What we ultimately had was a noble with a diplomatic background, a noble with a scoundrely background and a Brother Battle monk geared towards raw badassery.

In Play

The “Victory Point” system was relatively basic in terms of play. You used the sum of your attribute and your skill to determine a target number, then tried to roll as high on a d20 as you could without going over the target number. (evilandi jokingly, but accurately, referred to it as “The Price is Right System.”) The higher you got, the more “Victory Points” you could earn. Victory Points could translate into accomplishments towards a larger goal for an extended test or dice for damage or armor in combat. The way it handled complimentary skills seemed really neat and a bit prophetic: You would make a check on your complementary skill and the degree of success on that check added to your main skill check. It is my understanding that D&D 4e uses a similar mechanic for its skill checks, which is an approach that has it’s appeal for me.

The large number of skills kind of bit me in the ass here as a GM. It was hard to know what skills to have players roll against, especially when there were sometimes three or four that seemed like they could be the same thing. As the same rolls came up over and over again, some started to stick with us. (Wits+Knavery being a common one.) I was also unclear on what you were supposed to do if they didn’t have the skill in question. Presumably someone should be able to ask around for information, even if they don’t have the Inquire skill or tell if someone is lying without the Empathy skill. What I ended up doing was just having them do a straight attribute check. There could have been a rule I missed in my ecclectic method of reading through game books, but otherwise I couldn’t find anything.

The big downside to the system was the automatic success/failure setup. Any roll of 19 or 20 was an automatic failure, with 20 being a critical failure. So in any skill check you made, you were guaranteed to automatically fail 10% of the time. On a certain level it was academic because there wasn’t anyone who had any stats would make a 19 or 20 a viable roll. In fact, most of the time we were aiming for 10 or lower. But the look on the players’ faces when they rolled a 20 was anguishing. There wasn’t much guideline for what a critical failure meant. (At least that I could find.) We were colorful and sadistic in our descriptions of critical failures, but we were really shooting in the dark.

On the other hand, there was only a 5% chance of “automatic success.” A roll of 1 always succeeded, but it was an absolute bare minimum success. If you rolled exactly the number you were trying to roll equal to or lower, then that was a “critical success.” Which was sort of a mixed blessing. A critical success gave you double the Victory Points. If your target number was 4 or 5, though, then you really got a minimal benefit from getting a critical success.

And then there was combat.

This was where it got its most confusing and frustrating, where the rules are not as clear as you would like. I had a rough handle on it, but we got a lot of things wrong or missed rules and had to add them in later. The system hearkens back to the old World of Darkness. You could take up to three actions in any given turn. Taking two actions gave you a -4 penalty to your target number. Taking three actions gave you a -6. And, with a few notable exceptions, these could not be the same skills. Keep in mind an average target number was often around 10. This penalty was also supposed to be applied to your initiative, but we missed that rule early on and opted not to enforce it later after we saw how heinous combat could be. (Actually, that was the case of a lot of the rules we missed. Had we included stuff like knock down and stun, this would have been a much shorter adventure and not in a good way.)

Moving was considered an action. Dodging was considered an action. If you wanted to run up to someone and then hit them, you had to take two actions. It leant a certain degree of peril to any conflict, with lots of missed dice rolls. Once you took a certain level of damage, then it was just a downward spiral into death. But on the other hand, it was very hard to kill someone with a single hit. A typical shot with a blaster rifle might do 4 to 6 boxes of damage, but most characters had a minimum of 8 boxes and sometimes got as high as 13. There were some spectacular successes, mainly by the warrior monk who typically had a target number of 16 for any of his combat rolls and had some pretty good luck with some of his damage. But otherwise it was pretty ugly and fumbling.

Damage was also a little strange in that there was only one kind of damage. There wasn’t anything like “bashing damage” or “stun damage” or “subdual damage.” There also wasn’t anything like “damage overflow.” You were on your feet until you were dead. A box of damage took a month to heal in the game due to the rather low-tech medical options available. You could get these high-tech healing substances called “Elixers,” though, which were basically healing potions that had to be administered by someone with appropriate training. And they were comparatively cheap, all things considered. “Can’t get good medical care” versus “healing potions.”

I found the combat frustrating the first time through, but now I’m less certain how I feel. Clearly only the hyper competent bad asses were really going to do well in a fight. And, really, you needed to bulletshape your character if that’s what you wanted to do. Otherwise combat would be a long, slow and clumsy affair as you flailed semi-ineffectually against one another with the occasional gratuitous damage. The non-combat oriented PCs generally did okay, but we ultimately get one PC killed. (Had I been more ruthless, I might have scored my first TPK.) The adventure, I think, assumed you’d have more characters and more combat guys. As such, the pre-gens represented a party of six, with two tanks, one jack-of-all-trades guy with a bit of combat, a healer and a couple social guys. (Though what two nobles, two priests, a reporter and an alien mercenary would be doing “in business together,” let alone hiring themselves out to random nobles who approach them on a planet, I don’t know. The joke at the table was “porn,” but there was no strong rationale for why they were together.)

In retrospect, then, the combat mechanic mostly designed discourage players from casually starting fights. Because you are going to suck at it and you will probably die. There were some weird exceptions to this mentality, since there was a startlingly elaborate martial arts system. (Not as startlingly elaborate as Conspiracy X, but still pretty startling.) But mostly it seemed like that was the goal.

Compared to the Leading Brand

I liked including this header in the previous post-game report, but it’s hard to identify a competing “leading brand” for this game. It’s a nine year old game, representing many peculiarities of that period in roleplaying game development. And it’s a very specific genre that doesn’t overlap with a lot of other sci fi real well. But I did manage to pick three games to compare it to below.

  1. Star Wars: There were several sci fi games that came out around the time of Fading Suns, but not many really touched on that more mystic, space opera vibe. And only one of which that I’ve actually played. The first iteration of the d20 rules for Star Wars came out about a year after Fading Suns 2e was published. On the one hand, the rules for Star Wars (and, really, all of the WotC’s games from D&D 3.0 forward) were much more clearly explained. They seemed to really raise the bar for the level of clarity in explaining game mechanics. On the other hand, d20 Star Wars is mechanically just D&D in space. Fading Suns allows you to start out as a wealthy duke with extensive holdings, in line to claim even more power. You could also be an experienced duelist to boot. Star Wars basically has you start out as some moisture farmer from Tatooine wanting to go to Toshii Station to pick up power converters. It, like all d20 3.X games, has a normal starting character really be basic and minimal. There was a d20 conversion for Fading Suns at one point, which I had a chance to flip through at the game store while prepping for the one shot, and it seemed to suffer from the same problems in translation. A first level character could not have the same level of rank and wealth that a starting character in the Victory Point System.

    So in terms of character creation and advancement, Fading Suns definitely wins out. Really, any game that uses class/level systems is going to lose out for me here. In terms of in-play mechanics… it becomes a tougher call. The Victory Point System’s way of determining degrees of success, combined with the complementary skill system, is more appealing to me than d20’s straight rolls against a target number and “synergy bonuses.” On the other hand, d20’s combat feels much simpler and more streamlined that the system in the Victory Point system. It’s not as gritty, but it’s also less likely to give me a headache.

  2. Vampire: The Masquerade/Werewolf: The Apocalypse: Since the creators of the game originally came from working on Vampire and Werewolf, it seems only fair to compare the games. In terms of setting, I’d say it’s generally comparable. Fading Suns seems a bit more robust than the settings for the old World of Darkness, though there is still some of that same closely defined world view. Just as it seemed strange that there would be one organization governing all of the vampires world wide in V:tM, similarly it seems like the world as presented in the main book seems a bit more constrained. An interstellar empire covering dozens of worlds, and there are only five major noble houses, five major church factions and five major guilds? Fading Suns does, however, leave the door open for a near infinite number of lesser houses and factions, which is a step of improvement from the clans and tribes of Vampire and Werewolf. There are still some oddities. Just as you had “the feminist werewolf tribe” and “the Italian mob vampire clan” in the old World of Darkness, Fading Suns has things like the decadent major house being called “Decados.”

    In terms of mechanics, I generally think I prefer the Victory Point System. I tend to prefer streamlined, minimalist systems. Though the combat system seems generally comparable in structure to the old Storyteller system, the dice mechanic seems much more streamlined than the mix of target numbers of successes and with handfulls of d10s rolling about the table.

  3. The new World of Darkness: I bring this into the mix because both it and Fading Suns are, in a way, evolutions of the old Storyteller system. As an example, Fading Sun‘s character creation had at least two different “advantage/disadvantage” systems and a number of little elements that could have been made advantages instead. But you could see how they would come into play by comparing it to the old World of Darkness. There were Blessings and Curses, which were analagous to the Merit/flaw system from the old World of Darkness and mostly applied to small, personal abilities and limitations. There were Benefices and Afflictions, which roughly correspond to Backgrounds from the oWoD, representing outside resources. There are skills that have no ranks (mostly languages) that just have a fixed point cost. There are combat maneuvers that are loosely grouped under “skills” but really are their own system entirely.

    After reading through all of these, I kept wondering, “Why don’t they just make them the same pool of abilities? Why can’t they all just be ‘Advantages.'” And after a bit I realized that this was exactly the approach that the new World of Darkness took.

    From the way that Fading Suns sets up character creation, I can kind of understand why they’d do this. Much like in the Storyteller system, you get a special pool of points just for Benefices that encourage you to have resources tied into the world: ranks, income, allies, artifacts. Everything else is some some spiff or hinderence that enhances your personal abilities. The nWoD lumps all of these into a pool of points called “Merits.” You get a pool of these points and they can be spent on any sort of perk you might want. You could have an assortment of allies, income and rankings. Or you could be a giant with extensive martial arts training and live an utterly friendless existence.

    I’m generally inclined a bit more towards the nWoD structure, but I can see the benefit of some of what Fading Suns tries to encourage. I’m really torn on how best to emulate that in something like nWoD without leading the baroque assembly of abilities in Fading Suns. I have no great answers.

    In terms of actual dice mechanics, I’m a little torn. The Victory Point System has a certain elegance to it, which I prefer over having huge pools of dice to huck. But when it comes to something like combat, where it boils down to one single roll with none of the opposing dodge pools or soak rolls, I’m definitely in favor of the new Storytelling system.

Final Verdict

I continue to love the setting. Reading through the book again had me constantly thinking of characters I’d love to play. This is an evocative setting that makes me want to play around in it. To give a counterpoint to my gushing fanboy attitude regarding setting, one player thought that the setting was a little too much. As he put it, it was as though they started out with this basic Dune-like setting and filtered it all through a gamer lens until it became more like “swords and sorcery in space.” In addition to it being a neo-feudal setting in space, you have psychic powers, divine miracles, angels, demons, Lovecraftian monstrosities, lightsabers, cyberware, John Carpenter’s The Thing, non-Western cultures re-imagined as alien races and space-faring barbarians, ancient ruins filled with wealth and resources for those brave enough to explore them… the only things it lacks is the kitchen sink and Yul Brennar. It’s the sort of mishmash of ideas that make game settings like Deadlands, Exalted and 7th Sea so appealing to me. But I could see how that could also be annoying to some people. It provides a grab bag of resources that you can draw upon for your games, allowing a wide array of characters and stories. But it also combines things in ways that may not realistically fit and will give some historically minded scholars fits.

In terms of mechanics… I can take them or leave them. They don’t bother me so much that I would refuse to play. (This is not, after all, the Hero System.) The general concensus at the table is that the rules would work much better if we had a chance to play another session and get the hang of it a bit better. It wasn’t until the end of the session that people really felt like they knew what their characters could do. But even with getting comfortable with the system, there would be a strong temptation to use a rule system that fit my tastes better if I was running it. I could see both Star Wars Saga Edition and the new World of Darkness working pretty well for this. Saga Edition, like most other d20 incarnations, suffers from characters starting at low ability and social influence early on. The feat and talent system really doesn’t lend itself well to emulating characters with political power or wealth. Those, much like many non-quanitifiable abilites, are left more to GM fiat than mechanics. At the very least I’d need to start characters off at 6th or 7th level if I wanted to have them be at comparable capability. nWoD, on the other hand, does well at giving characters social and political power, but is not really designed to handle having a mix of humans and non-humans. And I’m not sure how well magical powers for mortals works in nWoD, but that could probably be used for theurgic and psionics. One thing that might not convert, and I would need to think about whether I would want to adapt it, is that Fading Suns’ emphasis on varying techology levels. The system penalizes characters for trying to use advanced devices. A character familiar only with Victorian level technology might not be able to use a laptop very well. It would take some jury rigging to find a satisfactory way of recreating that (assuming I even want to.)

The two things that would drive me more towards using the Victory Point System would most likely be either sloth on my part (a powerful force, I assure you) or a very streamlined 3rd Edition (which I gather is in the works). Of course, any plans regarding system for games I plan on running always boils down to the eternal question of: Seriously, when will I run this?

Our next game will be tatterdamelion running Dark Matter using the Alternity system. For those unfamiliar with it, Alternity was the system that Wizards of the Coast put out before they ended up with the d20 mechanic. (though Wikipedia is telling me that it was a property they acquired when they bought TSR.) The game was primarily geared towards sci fi settings. Dark Matter, specifically, is the game of modern supernatural horror that they put out that looks suspiciously like Call of Cthulhu, Chill, Unknown Armies, etc. There is the possibility that thadeusxmachina might run Unknown Armies after that.

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