Review of Fate Worlds Volume 1: Worlds on Fire

The Fate Core Kickstarter yielded a vast harvest of fruit, and the Fate Worlds books are a big part of that harvest.  Each of the two books contains six games/settings which are completely independent of each other.  The introduction to the books from Fred Hicks notes that the whole idea was that each author “create a world, support it with Fate Core rules, and keep an eye out for doing something different with the mechanics – something an enterprising reader might steal for their own games.”

I think they do a fantastic job.  Given that each module is independent of the others, my plan is to review each section individually on the axis which matter most for them: the quality of the setting, the quality of the rules, and the entertainment value of reading the module.

Fate Worlds Volume 1: Worlds on Fire

Tower of the Serpents, written by Brennan Taylor, edited by John Adamus, with art by Kurt Komoda.

This is an entire section of a fantasy campaign focused around one city, Riverton, and more particularly its criminal underbelly: the Darkside.  The campaign begins with the PCs being offered a job, develops as they uncover an entire nest of conflicting factions demanding their service, runs them through an entertaining dungeon-crawl, and then the hornets-nest of the aftermath.  Basically, they are tasked with retrieving a specific item from the titular Tower of Serpents, and it turns out everybody wants it – and everybody is prepared to apply all sorts of pressure to get it.

The Tower of Serpents was educational for me because of how differently I’ve read it on separate occasions. The first time through, I was absent-mindedly approaching it as a player, and it felt claustrophobic and that there was No Way Out Of This Mess.  Reading it again, I see that as a GM that’s the point: there’s no direction the players can go which doesn’t involve adventure – barring the possibility that they refuse to take on the job in the first place, or tell people to Shove It once they realise how fraught everything will be.  The great part is that even if the PCs refuse the engage with the scenario, the game can go on: the chapter might close on the Tower of Serpents, but there can still be stories spun up from the spurned factions left in the PCs wake, together with the question of “What happens if someone else managed to complete that job?” Essentially, it’s not going to seem claustrophobic in play – it will organically develop in response to what the players do, which means the trouble they get into will be because they get into it.

As such, it’s a very well designed adventure, and a great example of how to unleash the fully functional Story Machine that is the Fate Core system on what otherwise seems to be a traditional – though interesting and entertaining – fantasy dungeon scenario. I like that there’s plenty of discussion of how things might unfold if players go in different directions, and that there’s notes about what the core ‘job’ of a given scene is supposed to be. This means that GMs have some help winging it if/when players inevitably jump out the window and scream they’ll never be taken alive during a negotiation scene, or other local equivalent.

The art is likewise great, showing lots of diversity of body types, nationality and gender.  Plus, it’s great to see that this scenario is clearly one which the sample PCs from the example fantasy setting in the Fate Core book encountered, since that helps flesh things out.  It’s possible to read it with their Aspects in mind, and see how the points of tension might get extra-specially exciting with them involved.

Grade Summary:
Setting: B+. Interesting and could fit into a wide variety of fantasy games.
System: A. I’m cheating here slightly since I don’t see any new mechanical wrinkles to Fate Core deployed in Tower of the Serpents, but it’s such a fantastic illustration of how to apply the principles covered in the core book and make them sing that I can’t begrudge it that.
Entertainment Value: B/B+. An easy, clear read, though not one which I’d characterise as being actively fun in its own right.

White Picket Witches, written by Filamena Young, edited by Tom Cadorette, with art by Kel McDonald.

I had an interesting time wrapping my head around this one, because it does a really good job of showing how to game in a fundamentally different way than I’ve experienced myself.  The whole idea is that White Picket Witches presents a way of adapting and mixing the kinds of television which are grounded in interpersonal drama and magic.  Another issue is that I’m not hugely familiar with the drama end of the spectrum, but I’m familiar enough to see what the goal is here, and to conclude that it’s doing a good job of the adaptation.

I love the art as well, and it does a great job of putting across the vibe.  I think my favourite piece of art is the first one, depicting a party where pretty much everybody is baring a different flavour of contemptuous sneer in someone elses’ direction.

The biggest element which makes White Picket Witches work from my perspective is the way it’s framed, with a lot of emphasis that the players and the GM make up both the actors, the production crew, and the audience of the story they’re involved in.  It takes something which could be hugely antagonistic (“Everyone’s playing characters with contradictory agendas in a highly-strung soap-opera world!”) and makes it sound hilariously entertaining to put together by front-loading that everyone’s goal isn’t to win their character’s agenda, but to floor the gas in the direction of The Drama.

This is involved in actually playing White Picket Witches in many ways, including using Aspects to ensure that everyone at the table has ways of influencing the emotional tone of scenes by manipulating things like the soundtrack, and other tools to think with such as specific casting notes for the characters.  Something which delighted me was a specific discussion of how to play with this, possibly by changing who was cast to play the same character between the pilot episode and the rest of the show – if the juxtaposition would be interesting.

I was initially uncertain about how confident I was that I could make a WPW game work because my first read focused on the Draaaaama and the collaborative component didn’t click so well.  Looking at it now I’m practically certain that was more my issue than anything found in the module itself.

In terms of the basic focus of play, White Picket Witches uses a variation of Approaches from Fate Accelerated Edition such as Brilliant, Savvy, Dangerous, Powerful, etc, and presents the distinctions between them in a clear and evocative fashion.  My main initial thought was that I couldn’t see how to build someone like Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer using this method of character building, but I am thinking that this is because I’m trying to match a different genre than fits the purpose.  If we pick people from something like The Secret Circle or Teen Wolf, where all of the characters were BIG in different directions, then it seems a practically perfect fit.

My main take-away point there is that WPW seems laser-targeted on emulating a particular genre of TV, so ensuring that everyone at the table is on the same page for what that is and how it works is going to be extra-specially important for making the game sing.  My feeling is that it’s not about urban fantasy, it’s about soapy urban fantasy – but that might not be an obvious distinction depending on what kinds of TV the players have watched.  This might be a case where a list of points of inspiration – like the one in Kriegzeppelin Valkyrie – might have helped, or maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, there are also rules for creating Places of Power, which are basically the scenes in which dramatic sequences are set.  These are important because they let the GM or one of the other players directly influence conflicts between characters, all in aid of producing the most interest/dramatic outcomes.  Face Offs provide rules for how to handle those conflicts themselves, and how other players than the two most central to the tension choose sides, before the Place of Power itself starts changing things up.

There’s a good example at the end of how this plays out in practice.

Also, I forgot to mention magic, which works via themed stunts and which is divided into five different distinct, interesting types.  I think these would work well if someone wanted to take them out of the WPW context and move them into other games.

The writing throughout has the occasional issue with clarity at the sentence level, but the intent is always clear – even when this issue surfaces when discussing the details of how mechanics work.

Grade Summary:
Setting and System: A. This is an interesting one, since the setting IS the mechanics and the mechanics ARE the setting – they’re inextricably entwined. My impression is that they’ll do a great job of emulating a particular kind and feel of story – and better than that, that they’re pretty good at training someone unfamiliar (ie, ME) with what that’s going to look like and some of how it’s going to work.
Entertainment Value: B+.  The examples of how the players at the table played the game made this work for me and did more than I expected to emphasise the fun of pointing characters at each other in a head-on-collision of recrimination and emotional scars before working together to orchestrate how far the shrapnel of the fallout goes.

Fight Fire, written by Jason Morningstar and Leonard Balsera, edited by John Adamus, with art by Jesse Parrotti.

Fight Fire does a fantastic job of opening a window into the life of firefighters – including elements I’m not sure I’d find fun to play, but that’s more about me than the quality of the module.  It discusses the day to day requirements of the job, the kinds of people who make the job work, and what they do when things are actually burning.  There are fire-fighting specific skills and discussions of how they work in practice, and they’re going to combine in-play into one hell of a dramatic, tactical game.

It also makes fire-fighters very human, which on the one hand is awesome.  My issue is that things like workaholism, feeling alienated from one’s family, depression, and all sorts of entirely realistic things on that score are too close to the bone to be enjoyable for me.  That’s not the module’s fault, and I know my preferences are far from universal.  I also think that they’re going to add an interesting dimension to the tactical firefighting that I mentioned earlier, even if they stamp on my buttons.

For me, the true stars of the show – which is impressive, given how cool I think the rest of Fight Fire already is – are the rules for handling fire.  They are magnificent, and looks purposefully designed to be lifted out of context and ported into other Fate Core games.  The rules show how to handle fire as an Aspect in interesting fashions beyond simply sticking “On Fire!” onto everything, how to use Fires in Challenges as per Fate Core, and how to handle them as NPCs.  It’s the NPC section that had my eyebrows climbing with impressed glee.

Fire and Smoke get their own skills and their own stunts.  Importantly, we also get discussion of what fires of different kinds want, and how they get what they want – along with how they relate to environmental aspects in a variety of exciting and potentially dangerous ways.  They are a virtuoso performance in how to wring glorious things from the Bronze Rule/Fate Fractal.

My one complaint is entirely tangential to anything substantial: readers learn a great deal in general about how firefighting works, including the practical differences and challenges between venting for air and venting for life – but I’d love to know more about how it’s done.  It’s unreasonable to expect Fight Fire to spend more time on the subject than it does, given we already have enough to make the game work, but it speaks to how well it’s written that I might expect that level of detail on a factual subject from a game module.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A+. This module will let you run interesting games based around fighting fires even if you don’t want to use the system.  It’s evocative, detailed, and passionate about the challenges firefighters deal with every day.
System: A+. Essentially, it’s fantastic.  I know that I am going to be using these rules for handling fires in all sorts of non-firefighting contexts, and my players will simultaneously Not Thank Me and think it’s awesome.
Entertainment Value: B+.  Clearly and entertainingly written about a topic I’ve not seen this kind of passion about before.  The very subject matter means it might not be something I’d read for pure entertainment – even if it didn’t have button issues for me – but it’s very strong stuff nonetheless.

Kriegszeppelin Valkyrie, written by Clark Valentine, edited by Amanda Valentine, with art by Rich Longmore.

First, let me say that Kriegzeppelin Valkyrie is a module of singular beauty and I am delighted by basically everything in it.  You can pretty much skip the rest of the review now and move on, but I’ll go into more detail for those that want.

In the wake of WW1, a mad scientist with a vast robot airforce launches raids across Africa and the Middle East with the clear intent of gathering enough resources to take over the world.  The players are the ace pilots of the world, veterans of the First World War, gathered together regardless of their country of origin to prevent the mad scientist’s nefarious schemes.  Will they work together to save society as we know it?  Or will their egos and/or nationalism get in the way of unity?

Hint: Yes.  Yes it will.

Kriegzeppelin Valkyrie is what happens when someone throws Battlestar Galactica, Top Gun, The Dirty Dozen and The Red Baron in a blender, and I know this because Clark Valentine says so in the introduction.  The module does a fantastic job of framing itself so as to point its audience in the right directions, and I also appreciate the note about the deliberate attempt to avoid any including any PCs derived from historical figures who did scummy things.

KZ provides a modified skill-list from the Fate Core standard, including new skills like Swagger, which works like you’d expect.  There are a large list of stunts for combat flying which could easily be recontextualised, and some great elements designed to promote appropriately balletic dog-fighting duels.  Then there’s another wrinkle: you have the option of keeping Boosts gained during combat for after combat… to be deployed in selling the story of how awesome you were during the battle.  That’s a great example of including a mechanic which will promote genre-appropriate tension simply by existing: even if nobody is using it, nobody can entirely trust anyone else to be telling the truth about not using it.  Alternatively, if everyone is playing with a more open hand, it’s still always an option to be considered.

The mechanics for the antagonists are also really glorious: the biggest hook for me is that they learn, and how they learn opens up all sorts of storytelling wrinkles.

If anything, the only section of Kriegzeppelin Valkyrie which I felt could be more fleshed out is the challenges of travelling across Africa to the secret base itself.  I really appreciated that there were multiple options and routes, but it felt like a case where making use of the Fate Triangle from Gullerbutry/David S. Goodwin could be used to randomly generate challenges for different sessions/episodes.  At that point, though, I’m being greedy given the strength of what we’re already provided with – particularly since I’m happy enough to come up with something like that myself.  As it is, there are sample encounters and resource-scarcity problems on the road to the climactic battle at Mount Kilimanjaro, and that’s a phrase which makes me smile even to write.

I’m also delighted by the spread of available pre-generated pilots, given they are men and women (whoo!) drawn from historical figures of many nations, meaning that a) we are in no way limited by the prejudices of the time, b) while able to mine nationalistic conflicts for drama if we so choose, and c) get to play the roles of some seriously fascinating people.  Plus, as a further example of how easily Fate can be spun to produce particular kinds of stories, every single pilot shares a key aspect.  I won’t spoil it, but it’s a thing of beauty: as soon as you see it, it will tell you all about the kind of fun you are about to have.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A+. It’s a fantastic mash-up of things worth mashing up, and does a great job of sign-posting where the Fun Will Be Had.  If you desperately didn’t want to use Fate for a KZ game, this will give you the tools you need to rebuild it in something else.
System: A+. Likewise, anyone wanting to embrace the romanticised dogfight for pulpy shenanigans should look no further, since the rules here could easily be lifted out for application anywhere that aerial duels would be appropriate.
Entertainment Value: A/A+. It’s exciting to read because it speaks so cleanly of the kind of game that can be run with this, and the glorious stories which will thereafter be told.

Burn Shift, written by Sarah J. Newton, edited by Matthew Bowman, with art by Jennifer Rodgers.

My strongest impression of Burn Shift is that it’d make a fantastic place to start working from for a Fate adaptation of Tribe 8 – which is a good recommendation all on its own.  It presents a specific angle on a post-apocalypse world, and in an approach sure to endear any setting/module to me, discusses a wide variety of options for the kind of story that the people playing the game want to explore.  This is all about what happens next, rather than focusing on what has been lost.  It reminds me of The Day After Ragnarok in this regard, and I loved the hell out of that.

Along with an in-depth exploration of how to reflect the kind of narrative your players are interested in within Burn Shift, there are rules for amending Fate Core‘s rules for the new context, along with extra stunts and – where BS starkly differentiates itself – rules for the extra abilities characters in the setting might have, either due to exposure to the mutagenic Burn or through access to ancient technology.  There are rules for how characters might evolve as a result to exposure during play, and the challenges involved in figuring out machines.

Every character is also connected to a Community, and these Communities have mechanical weight in play both via that connection and by functioning as NPCs using the Fate Fractal/Bronze Rule.  They can change and evolve through play, and how the players assist or hinder Communities matters a great deal.  All of the PCs could be from one village and try to expand its security/influence over time, for example.

The bestiary is huge and imaginative, and there are likewise a rogue’s gallery of environmental problems which can ambush and attack the players.  One of the things I like about Burn Shift is that the world is itself a threat to health and survival, and it is going to be the primary antagonist to the players a great deal of the time.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A-. The specific Burn Shift setting has a lot to recommend it – for example I was initially concerned that the intelligent animals were going to be the equivalent of orcs, but I was pleased to find the situation much muddier and greyer than I initially thought.  However, it didn’t catch my imagination in itself as much as it did as an engine for building other post-apocalyptic settings, and at that it excels.
System: A+. I can’t think of anything that Burn Shift is missing for creating interesting post-apocalyptic games.  You could use it for Tribe 8, or for STALKER/Roadside Picnic, or for Mad Max, all with equal utility.  Hell, it could be used as a great starting point for Princess Mononoke if we shifted the context slightly, particularly given the focus on how the PCs relate to communities and how communities interact.
Entertainment Value: B/B+. It’s clearly written and easy to read, but not seeking to entertain in itself – and that’s fine.

Wild Blue, written by Brian Engard, edited by John Adamus, with art by Molly Ostertag.

In a strong field of contestants, Wild Blue stands out by having the strongest and most interesting narrative ‘voice’ out of everything in the book.  If you’re interested in a wild west complete with superhuman powers, magic and monsters, then this is for you.  It’s like Bastion, except with a different flavour to its weirdness, and the art from Molly Ostertag of Strong Female Protagonist is fantastic and evocative.

There are rules for shifting skills for the WB context, along with handling Gear as aspects – and gear matters, given that you’re out by yourself(ves) in the wilderness of the Blue Lands with all the authority that a Warden’s cobalt star gives you and no backup coming.

Gifts are where WB gets even more interesting.  Everyone eligible to be a Warden has a Power, and every power has a proportional Cost.  We’re talking being able to read minds, but your target knowing one of your worst secrets when you do.  Exploring how Gifts and Costs work both as discrete mechanics and in relation to the wider machinery of the Fate Fractal/Bronze Rule is most of the work of Wild Blue. It’s fantastic stuff, and can easily work outside this setting.

The setting itself looks fascinating: trees which float higher as they age, meaning that people have built floating railroad tracks over a wilderness filled with outlaws and magical monsters.  The setting details different regions, each more lawless and wild and the last, complete with NPCs and problems.  It just plain looks like fun, like presenting readers with a distant horizon and nothing but adventure between here and there.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A. The Blue Lands would be great to explore no matter what system you wanted to use for them, and there’s enough information here to make adaptation easy if you should choose.
System: A+. The mechanics for how to be a super-powered gunslinger in an unfriendly wasteland are just fantastic, and could easily work out of context.  It wouldn’t take too much rejiggering to try to attach the Community rules from Burn Shift as well, if people wanted to play around with being the citizens/denizens/lawfolk/outlaws of a town out on the frontier – like a magical version of Deadwood.
Entertainment Value: A+. The way Wild Blue presents itself is via narration from an old Warden named Whitehorse, which is interesting, evocative and sometimes simply powerful in its delivery.  This is clearly delineated from the rest of the text via what I will refer to technically as Layout Wizardry, and it brings the module to life.

Overall Conclusion: AFate Worlds Volume 1: Worlds on Fire is a fantastic addition to the Fate Core arsenal, and even if you wind up with no intention of using these specific worlds in your games, I guarantee they’ll give you helpful ideas for how to implement the Fate Core rules.  Much in the same way as the Fate System Toolkit, the book is an education and a collection of worked-examples all together.

Fate Worlds Volume 1: Worlds on Fire is available here for $15 USD in softcover + PDF, or $7.50 USD PDF.

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