An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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The FATE and the FUDGE-ious

The RPG industry needs the RPG hobby more than the hobby needs the industry – and perhaps one of the best examples of this is how a major commercial success in the industry, in the form of Evil Hat’s FATE engine, began first as a hobbyist variant of FUDGE, one of the earliest RPGs to be designed in part as a collaborative process between hobbyists on the Internet.

In keeping with the history of these systems, I like to make a point of spelling out their names in full; FUDGE is of course the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine, whilst FATE is FUDGE Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, or more properly Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. In both cases, their publishers have tried to put the genie back in the bottle by retconning away the acronyms, but attempting to revise or cover up history is the act of a fundamentally dishonest person so I’m not going to perpetuate it here. (Plus the more irritating sort of fans – and, for that matter, designers – get really entertainingly fussy about how it’s “Fate, not FATE” these days. Pro Tip: If you wanted to push that line maybe you should make it clearer on the logo, gang,)

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine

The Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine originated on Usenet – Steffan O’Sullivan, its main designer, finally stepping up to co-ordinate the “let’s all design a game together” project that newsgroup users had regularly floated but hadn’t yet followed through on. An initial statement of basic principles came out in 1992, and then the main Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine quickly coalesced around it; though later book releases via Grey Ghost Press would tack on additional worked examples and the like, the core principles of the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine were more or less filled out in 1993.

These principles included a prototype of open gaming: in order to ensure the game’s survival was not reliant on any one participant (always a risk in Internet-based projects), the rules were released with a licence allowing their reproduction and propagation on a non-profit basis. (It’s later been fully OGL’d.)

The Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine is not, however, a product ready to pick up and play straight out of the box. Rather than pinning down a whole lot of details in the core rules, with the result that the assumptions made there carry over to particular genre or setting implementations, O’Sullivan and his collaborators instead present extremely broad basic principles but leave a lot to be defined. For instance, the basic concepts of an attribute – a score rating a property that everyone in the setting possesses – or a skill (a score ranking expertise in an ability or knowledge base that have to be learned), or a gift (a special ability not numerically ranked), or a fault (a drawback or character flaw) – are introduced, but there is not a set list of attributes, skills, gifts or flaws.

Instead, the assumption is that the referee will define these for the purposes of their particular game – deciding what attributes are in play, what skills are available, and so on. You even have the idea of spendable Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine points being available for players to use, but only suggestions for what they may actually do rather than hard and fast rules.

The main thing the core Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine offers in terms of something that is actually pinned down and defined is a die-rolling mechanic and a means of translating numerical scores to verbal descriptions (the latter mostly being a means of translating a prose character description into Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine stats). That dice mechanic is the idea of rolling 4DF to generate a number from -4 to +4, a DF of course denoting a Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine die with two blank faces, two faces offering a +, and two faces presenting a -. Roll the dice, add stat and skill, compare to difficulty and you’re done.

What the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine offers, then, is a resolution mechanic and guidance on how attributes and skills and the like interface with that, and an expectation that you’ll do the work of adapting that to get a finished game out of it. For those who like the idea of a “toolkit”-style generic RPG system but who find that most offerings in this vein are too rules-heavy, it’s a great prospect, but others may prefer looking to more specific implementations of the system where more of the ground work has been done for you. Implementations such as Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition

FAE, AKA FATE Accelerated Edition, AKA FUDGE Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition, AKA Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition is the cheap and cheerful, free to download, $5 booklet version of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. It’s meant to provide a) a nice, easy introduction to the game and b) an iteration of the system which you can pick up and play really quickly (a factor which also nicely serves a), since the less of a barrier you put between a beginner picking up the book and beginning play the more likely it is said beginner will actually attempt to play the game).

In principle, having such a product is a really good idea. In practice, the booklet infuriates me. Part of it is that it absolutely stinks of being spoken down to. It’s not just that the text is simplistic and written in a kid-friendly way – that’s just a good idea for this sort of product – so much it reads like a babysitter or especially patronising teacher talking down to you, rather than like a peer addressing you.

That’s a big problem – beginners hate being spoken to like they are kids, and kids themselves can detect when they are being patronised and will be quickly turned off by it. This lapse in presentation even extends to the artwork – it’s not terrible, but it’s hardly good (I’d put it on the level of “promising DeviantArt illustrator”), and when you look at it next to the artwork gracing the cover and pages of the Core System (which the Accelerated Edition is likely to be sold next to in game stores) it’s pretty obvious that the Accelerated Edition was done on the cheap.

That’s not an impression you ever want to give; the D&D Basic Set never looked like a cheap, tatty second-class product in the same way that the Accelerated Edition is clearly a second-class, low-standards product when compared to the Core System. That was part of the secret of its success – and even then, you had a substantial number of kids skipping the Basic Set to AD&D entirely because they wanted to go directly to the “grown-up” version. Indeed, the decline and fall of basic D&D under TSR can largely be tagged to the extent to which AD&D was clearly the premier, flagship line, and basic D&D was increasingly the second-class neglected younger sibling.

Aside from being patronising and being graced with sloppy art, the prose of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition ends up falling between two stools. On the one hand, it wants to carefully and clearly introduce you to all these concepts… but on the other hand, the severely limited page count forces it to truncate all those explanations massively, to the point where somehow it manages to incorporate just enough of its slow, patient, explain-like-I’m-five cadence to make me feel patronised but at the same time junks enough text to make the explanations actually quite hard to follow.

That’s a shame, because the Accelerated Edition deviates from the Core System in quite an interesting way which deserves to be unpacked further and with more clarity. See, whereas the Core System incorporates skills as per the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine baseline but goes without attributes, the Accelerated Edition junks skills and essentially uses things called Approaches, which are effectively like Attributes in that they are scores everyone possesses. The main difference between Accelerated Edition-style Approaches and the sort of attributes you get in other RPGs is that they don’t so much describe a personal quality as a strategy for problem solving – so, for instance, you don’t have Intelligence to represent your intrinsic brain power, but you do have Clever to represent how good you are at devising and implementing smartarse schemes.

I suspect that in actual play this would get quite old in a long-term game – most games would devolve into players looking for some way to justify doing what they do in a Clever or Forceful or Flashy or Quick or whatever way corresponds to their highest Approach score – but for the purposes of playing simple characters who reliably and repeatedly fall back on the same limited set of approaches to problem-solving it’s not so bad. In general, Approaches as a concept are a good idea. It would be an even better idea to have a fuller explanation of them in the Core System or System Toolkit (rather than the somewhat terse treatments they get there) to allow people who prefer them to use it in that context if they wish. The problem about presenting them in the Accelerated Edition is that they are not part of the default Core System, and I consider that a problem.

With any such beginner product, whether you’re looking at the D&D Basic Set or the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Accelerated Edition, the idea is that you want to provide a nice, smooth on-ramp which will get people hooked on your system and keen to buy other products. Back in the day, kids who started on the D&D Basic Set wanted to graduate to the Expert Set or to AD&D; you can expect that beginners who start on the Accelerated Edition will sooner or later want to graduate to the Core System (and given the way the Accelerated Edition talks down to you I suspect that point will come sooner rather than later, if they get the impression that the Core System is the one which isn’t patronising).

Having that serious disconnect between the two in terms of the use of Approaches instead of Skills isn’t much of a speed bump, but it is still a speed bump, and if there’s one thing you absolutely want in the transition between your introductory product and your full-fat product it’s zero speed bumps, or at least zero speed bumps of such a nature where you could have avoided them if you wanted.

In short, the Accelerated Edition is not the best introduction to Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment; at most, it’s a particular implementation of the system which just about fits the “quickstart” criterion, but I suspect a lot of people (especially if they are carrying conceptual baggage from other games that doesn’t apply here) will struggle with it. It could work nicely and smooth in the hands of a group who have already got to grips with Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, but if you already have a handle on the system you don’t need an introductory product to begin with.

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Core System

The Core System, conversely, is a marvellously executed introduction to the system. It’s not a grossly overinflated book by any means – it’s a comparatively slim volume compared to the monster rulebooks that have been put out for the likes of Spirit of the Century or The Dresden Files, two previous RPGs run on earlier iterations of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment. However, it does give itself enough space to allow the prose to breathe, which in turn means that the designers can do a far better job of unpacking and explaining concepts to the reader – which they by and large manage to do so without sounding like patronising teenagers trying to convey a concept to an impatient five year old.

In fact, the Core System book is remarkably clear. There’s a very brief shortlist of game rulebooks I would be happy to just hand over to a group of beginners and expect them to be able to run a satisfying game for themselves straight out of it without any further help from experienced gamers, and the Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Core System rulebook is one of them.

The Core System makes a number of small changes from baseline Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine principles – there’s tweaks to the scale connecting adjectives to numbers, for instance, and attributes are not used at all in favour of exclusively using skills – but for the most part it runs on the familiar 4DF-plus-modifiers principle. The keynote difference is in Aspects and in the associated point economy.

Aspects are essentially like Gifts or Faults in Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine, in that they don’t have a numerical rating directly connected to them and they describe something significant about whatever it is they are applied to – whether that’s a character, a setting, a specific location or whatever. As well as establishing these facts in the fiction, Aspects are also available to be invoked for situational bonuses or to be “compelled” to impose a penalty on someone by spending Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment points accordingly; invokes cost points, whilst compels provide points to the PC thus inconvenienced. The bonus or penalty is a flat +2 or -2 to the die roll, or the option to reroll; unless you’ve rolled extremely poorly it’s almost always better to take the +2 bonus, because that both elevates the minimum result you can get and the maximum result and represents a chunky enough bonus on the 4DF bell curve to be decidedly worth it.

Much of what is novel and exciting about Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment follows on from developing the Aspect idea, to the point where it’s been swiped by various other designers for otherwise-unrelated systems – the idea of compels comes up in the GM intrusions in Mahna Mahna, for instance. There’ve been a range of implementations of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment over the years, but the Core System is a pretty decent iteration of it and I have no especially major complaints concerning it save for how GM compels work. (It’s particularly good at communicating what sort of game the system is especially well-suited to, rather than pretending that the system is equally useful for everything.)

See, in the rules as written you can accept the compel and take a Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment point, or spend a point to refuse it. The problem I have with it is that, since you’re already incentivised by the point to accept the compel, there’s no particular reason to refuse a compel unless on an OOC level you don’t think it would be fun – and I don’t see why people should have to pay in an in-game currency to make an out-of-character expression of misgivings about a particular plot development.

I tend to feel that if you took out the “spend a point to refuse” rule then it’d make things run substantially smoother. It means the player whose PCs’ Aspects are being leaned on can refuse even if they are shit out of points, and it eliminates any umming and aahing along the lines of “I don’t actually think this will be any fun, but I am low on points, eeeeh….”, so you can make the decision purely on whether the new complication sounds enjoyable and move on.

On top of that, the book could probably do with a bit more discussion on judging the magnitude of the complication you throw in from a compel. If one of the PCs has to spend a Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment point in the process of resolving the complication, then the party is no better off than they were before it happened (and if the person who spent the point is the PC whose Aspect gave rise to the complication, then literally nothing has changed). If they had to spend two points, then the complication may as well have been refused, and if they had to spend three or more points then the complication has largely left them worse off.

Now, of course that’s an exclusively game-mechanical look at the situation – it’s possible that in the fiction the complication ended up opening the door to getting some sort of additional in-character advantage which was all worth it in the end. But it isn’t necessarily obvious to design complications like that – nor is it necessarily obvious that a string of harsh complications can get the PCs into a points hole. (It can get especially vicious if the GM establishes early on in a campaign that their complications are harsh – that’ll nudge people into refusing them more often, making it harder to prove later on that you’ve eased up.) Additional discussion on this point could have been extremely useful.

Still, these are small nitpicks in what is basically a very nice generic system for traditional RPG play, especially if you want to run the sort of game where high realism and fine detail isn’t so important and big, broad qualities that can be expressed snappily as Aspects rule the roost.

Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment System Toolkit

This, along with the two volumes of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment Worlds, represents the “bonus material” for the Core System. The various Worlds are pocket settings exemplifying various ways of warping and twisting the Core System, none of which really jump out at me but which may be worth it if you are absolutely stuck for setting ideas; by comparison, the System Toolkit looks under the hood of Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment and suggests ways of expanding or modifying it for particular purposes, as well as offering additional discussion to help you understand why things are the way they are. Especially welcome is the nice thick chapter on designing magic systems, which through worked examples and general principles is a big help in providing such material.

The booklet is capped off with a discussion of the particular problems of running pessimistic cosmic horror-type stuff with Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Engine Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment, since that’s a genre which tends to fly in the face of most of the baseline assumptions of the system; whilst I think the little tweaks it suggests represent sufficient drift that you may as well just use a system designed from the ground up for that purpose instead, it’s nice that they’ve considered how to do it and it may be useful for those wanting to run a more horror-themed interlude in an otherwise baseline Freeform Universal Donated Gaming Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment campaign.

Giving Some Love To Ryan Macklin

As you might remember from my review of Dungeon World, my respect for one of the coauthors of that game shot up when he strolled into a forum discussion to lay the smackdown on his own fans. Specifically, he came in to ask them to kindly quit promoting crazy hype about Dungeon World which didn’t actually reflect the game’s strengths.

Well, Ryan Macklin, one of the contributors to FATE Core, has done much the same thing and I love him for it. I particularly like the direct attack on “FATE can do anything!” because one thing which always irks me when I visit is the tendency of its userbase to latch on to a particular “ darling” and promote its use for every possible campaign concept, no matter how inappropriate. They did it to Savage Worlds, they did it to Wushu, and it serves nobody.

That said: sorry Ryan, but I remember when FATE was FUDGE Adventures in Tabletop Entertainment and I’ve enough affection for FUDGE to still regard FATE as being a variant of FUDGE – a very, very successful variant, mind, but still a variant – so I’m going to keep using the all-caps and regarding it as an acronym. Despite what you and the folk behind FUDGE might think, you don’t get to wave a magic wand and pretend your acronym didn’t originate as an acronym. You know who else likes to redefine or define away acronyms? Byron Hall of FATAL fame. Not classy company to be keeping, dude.