Thursday, December 18, 2014

Playtesting Strange Stars

"Greetings from the Mighty and Benevolent Vokun Empire!" With these words booming planetside from an orbiting space fleet, we began our first playtest set in Trey Causey's Strange Stars universe. I'm 95% done with the Fate Strange Stars rules that will follow the release of the Strange Stars setting book. Tonight's playtest focused on testing and refining some factions rules I have created using the idea behind the so-called "Fate Fractal." Based on the notion that almost anything in a game can be represented similarly to a character, we have created rules for running the prominent factions of Strange Stars, as well as guidelines so that GMs can create new factions..

One of my goals with the Fate Strange Stars rules is to have factions be something that players can tap into as a resource. That's fairly straightforward. The thing I wanted to test was rules that enable the use of factions as a tool for the table to participate in environment creation and evolution in a manner similar to Microscope. Through a series of exchanges in which factions cooperate and compete, recent history can be developed by the players as the backdrop to a new roleplaying campaign.

What we played out in the session was the rediscovery of a long lost star system in the Zuran Expanse, a region of space sandwiched between several large interstellar polities. Players took on the roles of the Alliance (the closest thing to the United Federation of Planets in this setting), the Vokun Empire (a ruthless and decadent polity led by a species of feuding Harkonnen-like alien clan elders), the Instrumentality of Aom (an interstellar theocracy that uses peaceful conversion where possible), the Zao Corsairs (space pirates so ruthless and successful that many other space pirates pretend to be them), and the Airrotten Unified Assembly (the one party state ruling the system's two inhabited worlds).

The new arrivals knew that the Airrotten system had ruins dating back to the ancient Radiant Polity era. Since Radiant Polity tech was more advanced than the mainstream technology of the current era, this was the primary point of interest for a couple of the other factions. Creating the conditions for access to these caches of ancient tech was one goal of the new arrivals. Another was adroitly pursued by the Vokun player, who quickly saw the value in obtaining Airrotten war captives from the Zao Corsairs to use as genetic stock for new servitor species. (The Vokun Empire is a racially stratified polity in which subaltern species play specific socio-economic roles; the Vokun are pretty nasty folks to have as either overlords or neighbors.)

People played their factions well, getting into "character" as their faction very quickly. Since my factions system uses six custom Approaches rather than the more granular skill set in Fate Core, it was important to see the Approaches in action and learn whether they made sense to players. People thought they did. However, the four Actions need some examples for the factions level of play, especially in a factions sub-system that includes the potential for PVP play. (Note that if you are signed up for the Strange Stars game at Con of the North in February, we'll be doing traditional roleplaying with characters - NOT PVP gaming.)

The players had a lot of great ideas for how the factions system could be clarified and improved. We'll be implementing a number of those, including building-in mechanical rewards for inter-factional deal making and mutual assistance. One astute observation was that the Fate economy slowed down due to the lack of Compels. This was probably because the GM was playing one of the factions, and not paying sufficient attention to the Fate Point economy. That being said, one player asserted there was no need for a GM with this kind of set-up. A lot to consider there.

One positive outcome was how many Aspects were in play simultaneously at the table. I'm usually forgetting about scene Aspects entirely and not necessarily doing the best job of tracking the Aspects that players discover or create during the game.

What was different this time? I used Avery Dry Erase Flash Cards for each of the two Airrotten planets, as well as to write down individual aspects and place them on the table (in "orbit" around one planet or the other) as we played. That made a real difference and added a lot of color and texture to the story. One downside of the flash cards is that they tend to smear ink across the card rather than completely erase the ink. They are still a great resource and I am going to continue using them!

(The "encounter" side of the Jadepunk playmat is another option, but our very generous host usually places a couple bowls of snacks in the table's center, and the players have mugs with beverages - so not the ideal set-up for using a mat.)

What's next? Refining the factions rules a tad! The time has also come for a careful rereading of the Fate rules for Actions; I get confused by the difference between Create an Advantage and Overcome Actions. So it's back to the book for a refresher!

I'm looking forward to running the full Fate Strange Stars RPG at Con of the North, so if what you see here as piqued your interest - and you're in town - stop by and play in this session. In fact, I may use what developed in the factions play last night as the scenario seed for the roleplaying.

We'll also have some opportunities to offer demos of the game next year at The Source. Stay tuned for details!


  1. I signed up, but I have no idea if I got in. If you have the option to save seats, put me down!

    1. If you preregistered, I bet you got in! I always bring extra character sheets anyway!

  2. It's great to hear about people interacting with stuff you made up. I look forward to hearing more details!

    1. People asked some great questions about the setting too so I'll send you those this weekend.

  3. I was just thinking on how all of the factions played were, well, capitalists. Even exploitative colonizers. And how rare it is to see in RPGs any depiction of communist, socialist, or even altruistic behavior.

    Just a passing thought...

    1. A telling observation, considering the GM! Of the interstellar factions, Rachel's - the Instrumentality - probably came the closest. The object of colonization was pretty close to one too.