Review of Base Raiders

Product Summary
Name: Base Raiders
Publisher: Slang Design
Line: Strange Fate
Author: Ross Payton
Category: RPG
Cost: $29.99 USD Print + PDF, $15 USD Bookmarked PDF (Base Raiders store page)
Pages: 260
Year: 2013
ISBN: 978-0-9827265-2-5

Base Raiders is an interesting concept: taking the idea of the old-school dungeon crawl and bringing it to the context of the Fate system.  It’s an interesting idea, because on paper it seems to me that a lot of what I associate with dungeon-crawls isn’t what I associate with the level of narrative control available to Fate games.  Dungeon crawls are all about exploring and surviving an environment when you have very little power, narrative or otherwise, and it’s all a question of coming out alive.  Fate, by comparison, is all about telling a collaborative story, and the threat of Save Versus Death isn’t really part of the experience.  Base Raiders is an interesting cocktail of the two ideas, with some bumps along the road.

Some of the issues I have with the arrangement of Base Raiders are the exact opposite of what I expect to have with RPGs: I actually think it’d work better for me if it spent less time on its setting and alternate history.

The logic behind Base Raiders does make sense: it’s a setting where normal people explore the secret lairs of super heroes and super villains in order to steal their gear, and where a new order of heroes and villains make themselves as a result.  In order for that to make work, there have to already have been superpowers in the setting, and everyone needs to know about them, and they need not to be around anymore.

The book frontloads an alternate history explaining the role of superheroes in society, and I think it might have been better to cut to the chase: go straight to ‘Ragnarok,’ the mysterious event where everyone with superpowers vanished.  It’s possible that I’m just coming at it from already being familiar with the whole superheroes idea, but it seems reasonable to conclude that people interested in a setting involving exploring the lairs of superpowered people are going to be familiar enough with the idea that we can skip the details.  As it is, the upshot is the same melting-pot presented by Marvel and DC with aliens and superscience in the same stew as ancient magic, gods and demons.

Actually, I just had an idea: it feels like the setting is designed to be all things to all people, when guidelines on how to have the player group collaboratively decide on a superheroic background for the world might have worked better, like happens in the Dresden Files RPG and other Fate staples.  Maybe that’s just me.

There are also some odd elements of cultural homogeneity.  It would work better if the book said, “This covers how America is handling the after-effects of Ragnarok,” because at the moment the entire world responds the same way.  Police in every country take the same steps for the same reasons, citizens feel the same way about aliens everywhere in the world…  it feels like a sweeping generalisation.  The really interesting parts that fall out of this section are America-specific, raising interesting questions about how different groups might respond to superpowers left lying around: the political left is inclined to let people modify their own bodies if they wish, and winds up uneasily on the same side as 2nd Amendment campaigners who consider laser-vision on the same level as the Right To Bear Arms.

Likewise, there’s a section about superpowered bases which just feels odd.  There are attempts to explain why every superhero or villain had to have a hidden base that was off the grid, and it feels forced to me: it seems simpler to just say “Everyone knows that some people built hidden bases.  There were a bunch of heroes and villains, so it stands to reason there’s a bunch of bases out there somewhere.”

It’s a bit unfortunate, not because this stuff is all bad so much as it’s right at the front of the book.  Providing context for what follows is a reasonable approach, but for me personally it’d have been better to let us paint the lines ourselves or otherwise get through it faster.

After that, we’re on to the rules.  Base Raiders is based in the same Strange Fate rules as the Fate edition of The Kerberos Club, which I love to bits. The basic gist can be seen here in the “Fate in a Nutshell” section, or you can check out The Kerberos Club review.  The interesting system wrinkles that are added in Strange Fate are power tiers and the ability to make your own skills.  These are elegant rules which I think add a lot of depth to what can be done with the system, and there’s a page of examples where I’ve used Strange Fate for adapting characters from popular culture available here.

Power Tiers boost the ‘oomph’ of a power.  Mechanically this is very simple: for each difference in Tier, you replace one Fate dice with 1d6 before adding your skill to the result.  Each d6 can never have a negative result, so at minimum it’s the best possible result you can get on a Fate dice.  It then escalates from there, particularly when spending 1 Fate Point allows you to reroll your dice – something people are likely to do if their d6s are insufficiently high.

Strange Fate also lets you build your own skills.  ‘Normal’ skills come with their own anatomy on display, showing you the ‘Trappings’ they are built out of, and you can create specialised skills by connecting those components together. For example, if you want to make a Cat Burglar skill, you’d take all of the trappings under ‘Burglary’ and put them in with the trappings from ‘Stealth.’  If you wanted to go further still and create a skill for Parker from Leverage, you’d add everything from ‘Athletics’ to the pile as well.

Everything good about the rules from the Fate edition of The Kerberos Club appears here, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.  The system is fantastic and can be turned to many purposes, so it’s something I really recommend if you don’t already own The Kerberos Club.  If you do already own The Kerberos Club, it’s less of an addition to your toolset.  But.  There are still new elements that can usefully be added to your arsenal.

There’s a Goals system which allows characters to nominate how and in what ways they intend to change the world, or otherwise have an impact on the setting.  This is interesting because it provides a more concrete framework than previous Fate games like the Dresden Files RPG, in that the players have to decide what their goal looks like, and then decide when to allocate what is essentially XP towards that goal.  This means different players will be progressing towards their aims at different rates.  It could certainly be usefully applied to the context of The Kerberos Club, as characters decide how they want to shape the Empire, and the option of using it is something I’m going to be talking over with the players of a new Kerberos Club game I’m starting soon.

There’s a system for building bases together so that the players have input, but where they can still be surprised by what happens, and a system of figuring out how looting bases translates to increasing your personal wealth and power.  If you wanted a transferable system for bringing Encumbrance rules to Fate in an interesting way and connecting that to character advancement, this is the place for you.

The only thing which is a bit weird at the system level is the section detailing how different superpowered power-sources interact.  I completely see the merits of the idea: people jury-rigging their own powers so that they’re both mystically infused with energy and injected with super-soldier serum might have weird side-effects.  The only issue is that the system is in-line with the rest of Strange Fate in that it lets you trade Refresh for more power, which leads to a complaint I never expected to have: It feels almost too voluntary.  It’s the first time that I’ve looked at an RPG and thought to myself, “You know what this needs?  A random table to decide how badly you get messed up.”  Even as an option, it’d have added some depth for me.

Where the book really starts to sing is at the end, when we get to the sample characters and the sample dungeon/campaign.  The sample characters provide interesting examples of pre-built Unique and Strange skills and are generally just good points of inspiration for what can be done with the system.  Hell, one of them has the Trouble Aspect of “Actually a Rabbit,” which isn’t something you see every day.  All of these characters could be cheerfully recontextualised for other games using Strange Fate, or as points for you to reverse-engineer to learn about the system.

The sample dungeon, “The Zombie Factory” is anchored to an interesting and deep history of a nominal superhero, but would have worked equally well without the depth of setting at the beginning.  One of the things I like about this section is that along with the richness of detail about the environment and how it all works, there are explorations of many different roles the same base could play in different stories, and different ways of arranging the encounter.  I always appreciate that kind of flexibility in design.  My only real complaint about “The Zombie Factory” is that there’s a detail which seems inconsistent, in that it’s noted if the PCs sell a sentient AI into slavery it’ll cause them problems with the alien Underground of the setting, but there’s no corresponding discussion of the potentially positive, potentially complicated consequences of liberating it.

So there we go.  Base Raiders is an interesting toolset for anyone whose players would like the idea of breaking into the Batcave just because they can.  However, it spends a significant wordcount getting to that point in the book, when it feels like readers would have been equally well served by a less detailed approach.  Alternatively, it could have opened the setting up to frame around what the player group are more interested in by using the same kind of group setting generation methods as other Fate games.

Grade Summary:

Setting: C to C+. It’s competent but not terribly interesting, particularly since it ultimately leads to exactly the same place as the comic worlds we’ll be using for inspiration anyway. Also, there’s very little integration of the setting to the system: there’s no real discussion of Aspects held by different equipment, powers, or areas covered in the Setting sections, so it feels like the two are very segregated.  A very stark comparison can be made to The Day After Ragnarok (Fate Core Edition), where the setting information presents itself into accessible Aspects constantly.

How Easy Is It To Explain The Setting To New Players: B- or B+.  This varies significantly depending on how closely you intend to use the setting as written.  Simply going with “Everyone with superpowers has vanished, but they’ve left their gear and places of power behind.  Who wants to go spelunking?” is evocative and really fast.  Digging into the precise details of the setting included in the book, like how the alien Underground relates to Base Raiders is more complicated – particularly if players start asking questions like “Well that’s how America is handling it, what about here?”

System: A or B.  The system is great and I really, really recommend it if you don’t already have The Kerberos Club.  If you do, it still adds useful components that would work well in either setting, but it’s less of a “Wow!” moment at that point.

How Easy Is It To Explain The System To New PlayersA. If the players are familiar with Fate, then highlighting Power Tiers and how to build Strange Skills by connecting trappings together is about all you need.  If the players are unfamiliar with gaming at all, it’s still so focused on asking who the character is that I’ve found it a reasonably intuitive leap for newcomers to make.

Is Character Generation Safe?A-. The thing which makes Strange Fate so safe to dig into is that building a new skill puts its anatomy on display, and you can use existing ‘mundane’ skills as recipe books to work from.  There are no hidden interactions that might trip someone up.  Starting characters built at the lowest level available are also solidly powerful, meaning players are unlikely to be disappointed by what they can do.  The component added by Base Raiders where different powers can interact in exciting ways isn’t something I’m 100% sure I understand, but it’s still leaning towards the Safe side of the spectrum since players have to choose the consequences they deal with.  Plus, it seems like something that’ll come up in play rather than character generation.

Practicality of Use in Play: NA.  Given that the rules for the underlying system are the same as from The Kerberos Club and arranged the same way, I’m inclined to assume it’d be in the A range, but I haven’t run a live game directly yet.

Ease of Running Sample Adventures: A. The sample adventure/dungeon is evocative and interesting, and gives a lot of agency to the players in terms of how they want to handle the situation.  I also like that it could feature as anything as a minor detail in a campaign to the climax of an entire season’s worth of stories, or anywhere in between.  The fact the book also comes with base-generation rules and sample characters also lowers the barriers to getting started, since players can either use them whole-cloth or reverse engineer parts that appeal.

Entertainment Value: B- overall (C to start with and B+ to finish). The start of the book does feel like it’s belabouring the point more than necessary: we’re already on-board with the idea of base raiding being cool, so explaining how and why we got there in such detail seems unnecessary, but that might just be me.  As the book goes on it gets more and more interesting, with the most entertaining parts being the sample characters and “The Zombie Factory.”  It’s just unfortunate that the hooks which are really interesting and deserve to catch the attention of readers aren’t closer to the front of the book.  I will say that Ross Payton’s Base Raiders fiction called “The Scrap Man” was a well done piece for providing a different angle on the Base Raiding phenomenon, and I thought it was entertaining and powerful.  I’m looking forward to reading “Pariah,” which is available from the Base Raiders store.

– Kev


One thought on “Review of Base Raiders

  1. marcus says:

    Helpful review thanks! Knowing that it uses the strange fate engine definitely inclines me towards buying this product.

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