While I was experimenting with things for the Free Traders campaign, it occurred to me that I might be duplicating Bulldogs! So I acquired that game to check it out.
In a Nutshell: 170 page PDF by Galileo Games. It’s the love child of Firefly and Star Wars, raised on the wild frontier by the FATE game system. What’s not to like?
If You’ve Never Played FATE before: Everything in FATE – characters, locations, items – has aspects, which you can think of as qualities both good and bad which affect the outcome of dice rolls. Point-buy character generation, extensive use of Fate Points to bring aspects into play and thus gain bonuses, rerolls or narrative control.
Introduction (2 pages)
This explains the central conceit of the game (the PCs are deeply flawed individuals crewing a heavily-insured tramp freighter on suicide missions) and gives paragraph outlines of the other chapters. It also has a map of the Galaxy, which is basically the Federation on the left, the Empire on the right, and a buffer region called the Frontier Zone between them.
The Galaxy (8 pages)
So, the Federation (the Union of the Saldralla) and the Empire (the Devalkamanchan Republic) fought the Thousand Year War, which ended in an uneasy peace; now they glare at each other across the Frontier Zone.
One of the beauties of FATE is I can just list the aspects those regions have, and you’ll know pretty much instantly what you get:
- The Frontier Zone: Patchwork of Jurisdictions; "On this planet, I am the Law"; Your Rep is All You’ve Got Out Here.
- The Union of the Saldrella: Peace at Any Cost; The Union Stands as One; Troublemakers Disappear.
- The Devalkamanchan Republic: Papers, Please; Never Mouth Off to a Templar; Iron Fist of the Empire.
These are expanded into something like a page for each major region, and similarly there are a handful of planets and organisations, each described with a paragraph of text and a couple of aspects.
FATE Basics (4 pages)
FATE is a descendant of FUDGE, and relies on special d6 called a "dF"; two sides are marked +, two sides -, and two sides are blank. To do something, you roll 4dF and add up the marks, giving you a result between +4 and -4. You then add modifiers, for example your skill level, and compare the results to The Ladder, a list of outcomes ranging from -4 to +8. For example, if you roll +2 and add a skill level of +3, you get a result of +5, which the Ladder describes as "Superb"; then you get whatever the GM thinks a Superb outcome is for that roll.
The GM can also assign a difficulty to the roll, which is the minimum number you need to score in order to succeed. For example, the GM might assign a difficulty of +3 to a task, in which case the +5 roll above would beat the target by +2, which is merely "Fair". In play, that would be described as getting an effect of "two shifts".
Characters are defined by their Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. They also have Fate Points, which are the local version of bennies, edge or action points.
Aspects are short phrases that define a character, such as "One Woman Wrecking Crew" or "Everyone Has A Price, Mine Is Just Very Low". During play, aspects are invoked to help a PC, or compelled to complicate his life. If one of your character’s aspects is applicable to a die roll (perhaps One Woman Wrecking Crew in melee combat), you can spend a Fate Point either to gain a +2 on your roll, or to reroll it. If your aspect could get you into trouble ("Everyone has a Price…"), a deal may be offered ("Your pal there has quite the price on his head, it’s tempting to turn him in,"); you either pay a Fate Point to avoid the consequence proposed, or accept the consequence and get another Fate Point.
Places and items have aspects too, and you can invoke or compel those in the same way. This steady trade of Fate Points for narrative control is the engine that powers the game.
Skills are rated using the terms on the Ladder, so you could either say "I’m a Superb pilot" or "I have Piloting +5", according to taste.
Characters also have a Stress Track, which replaces hit points or wounds, and a Resource number, which measures how rich you are in a semi-abstract way.
More on all of those below; this is more of a taster chapter to give you a quick overview of the system.
Alien Species (24 pages)
This chapter covers ten of the most common races, and provides rules for creating your own. I could see myself playing Bulldogs for a long time before needing any other races. The ten basic ones are:
- Arsubarans: Your basic human. Tough, adaptable, ubiquitous.
- Dolome: Big, blue, three arms.
- Hacragorkans: Space orcs. Green, bad attitude, lots of tattoos.
- Ken Reeg: Green, metaphorically slimy; slippery salesmen and ruthless crime bosses.
- Robots: ‘Nuff said.
- Ryjyllians: Samurai catmen; think of them as Aslan, mri, hani, or whatever those cat guys in E E ‘Doc’ Smith’s stories were called, their name escapes me for the moment. Anyway, most SF settings have a feline Proud Warrior Race, and this is them.
- Saldrallans: Cold-blooded both literally and metaphorically, ruthless snakemen.
- Templari: Purple-skinned Nazis in Spaaaace!
- Tetsuashans: Slug people.
- Urseminites: The result of a genetic engineering programme to produce nannies or pets that went horribly wrong. Look like teddy bears, but are homicidal perverts. These are my favourites.
Each race, including the ones you make up, has six stereotypical aspects; two mental, two physical, and two historical. A character may pick any two of the ones for his race. For example, Templars choose two from Superior Species, Imperfection is Unacceptable, Submit or be Crushed, To the Purple be True, Arrogant, or Martial Discipline.
There’s a point-buy system for building new races, listing a bunch of aspects they could have and the relative cost for each.
Crew Creation (10 pages)
Each player creates their own character, but the table as a group creates the ship and its captain.
Before doing this, the table jointly decides on a power level for the game. This is similar to the group’s Rank in Savage Worlds or level in d20 systems; it affects how capable the PCs are, which is implemented by a maximum skill level, maximum number of skill points, and maximum number of Fate Points. The levels are Fresh Meat, Trouble, Hard Boiled, and Serious Badass.
The ship has three aspects: A concept, a problem, and a strength. The example given is the Black Watch, which has "This thing still flies?", No Original Parts, and Deceptively Fast.
The captain is an NPC, because he (or she) is generally more of an adversary or patron than an ally. The captain also has three aspects; Concept, Trouble (how he makes life hard for the crew) and Leadership (how he runs the ship). The example captain has Disgraced Ex-Nova Legion Officer, Mean Drunk, and Better to be Feared than Loved.
To create an individual PC, the player picks or builds a race, then assigns the character 10 aspects; two of which come from his race, four from his backstory, and four from his current berth aboard the ship. The examples are things like "Apparently Murder is a Crime" or "No-One Wants A Blind Pilot", and convey the kind of play style one can expect from Bulldogs, which is to say fast-moving and none too serious.
Next, you spend 20 to 35 skill points, depending on the game’s power level; these must be spent in particular patterns, say "3 skills at +3, 2 at +2, 5 at +1", and anything you don’t explicitly take defaults to +0. Notice that in FATE, skills include things that most systems would call attributes.
Next, you pick stunts. Each stunt reduces the total number of Fate Points you start a session with by one, so you need to think carefully about his. Your race also factors in here, because effectively each race has built-in stunts. Stunts have their own chapter, below.
Note that unlike, say, Diaspora or Spirit of the Century (oh hey, I forgot I had that! Another one for the review queue!), character creation is done by the individual player, with no collaborative input from the rest of the table.
Again, this is more of a capstone chapter, showing the interaction between stunts, aspects and skills during character creation. You get the details on each in subsequent chapters.
Aspects (12 pages)
I’ve covered the basics enough for a review, I think, so I’ll limit myself to mentioning declarations and tags. You can spend a Fate Point even if no roll is being made to invoke an aspect as descriptive detail; this is called a Declaration. A Tag is when you invoke an aspect without spending a Fate Point, which can happen the first time you create or discover an aspect in a scene.
Doing Things (16 pages)
This expands on the core mechanics. Earlier I spoke of shifts; you can use those to make a task take less time, get a better result, or conceal what you did.
If you get at least +3 shifts, you can use Spin – effectively, a critical success with some game effects.
Combat is a series of task rolls, with characters acting in descending order of Alertness for physical conflicts, or Empathy for social ones. Actions are typically manoeuvres or attacks.
Damage taken crosses off boxes on your Stress Track, which is usually three boxes long. However, those three boxes represent a one-point hit, a two-point hit, and a three-point hit; if a box is full, you mark off the next higher one instead. So, if you suffer two 2-point hits in succession, you cross off the "2" box and the "3" box – and now you only have the "1" box left, so anything other than a one-point hit will take you out, since you have no suitable box to cross off.
You can avoid suffering damage by taking a Consequence, which is a temporary aspect like "Bruised". There are various levels and types to be had, and the more serious one are permanent injuries. If you have no more boxes and have used up your maximum permitted number of consequences, you are Taken Out, and whoever did that gets to say what happens to the PC. However, when you take a consequence you may concede the conflict; effectively, you are then Taken Out on terms that you, rather than the attacker, dictate.
Consequences wear off with time and appropriate action – for example you might take Heartbroken as the consequence for a failed date, and remove it by getting drunk with your buddies.
This is also the chapter with rules for minion NPCs, poison, explosions and environmental hazards in it.
Advancement (2 pages)
This occurs in Milestones, which can be minor, significant, or major; the GM gets to say when a milestone happens and what kind it is.
A minor milestone typically happens at the end of a session and lets you refocus the character without really improving it much; swap a couple of skills around, or reword an aspect.
A significant one happens at the end of a scenario or plotline, maybe every 2-3 sessions, and gives you a minor milestone plus one additional skill rank.
Major milestones essentially step up the power level of the game, and are tied to game-changing events like completing a long story arc. You get a significant milestone, plus a new stunt, plus another Fate Point, and you can delete one permanent consequence of wounding.
Skills (24 pages)
You’ve seen the overview of how these work earlier in the review, and earlier in the book. There are less than 30 skills, each of which can be used in half a dozen different ways. Each skill gets a bit less than a page of expansion in the chapter.
Stunts (16 pages)
Stunts are ways in which a character can bend, or even break, the rules. There is a list of predefined stunts, several for each skill, but the assumption is that a player will create his own stunt to enhance one of his skills in specific circumstances – for example Target-Rich Environment to give him a bonus on his Guns skill if he is outnumbered.
Gear (16 pages)
Resources is explained first; it’s effectively a skill, starting at +1, advancing when you make a big score and dropping when you buy expensive stuff. Then we find out about using it to buy things, getting loans, and so forth.
As you probably know, I don’t go in much for equipment chapters, so I’ll just say this covers armour, weapons, personal items, lifestyle, and making your own stuff.
Ships (14 pages)
Actually, this system covers all types of vehicles, not just starships; but that is the main focus. The chapter includes a point-buy construction system, maintenance costs, a discussion of how ships are meant to be used in the game (primarily as a plot device, but secondarily as a home base or battlefield), rules for chases in space and ship combat, repairing damage.
There’s a note on what happens when PCs shoot starship weapons at individual people (come on, you know they’re going to); essentially, if it’s bigger than you, it’s easier to hit but harder to damage.
There are a handful of example ships and vehicles, and a deck plan for the iconic Class D freighter, the Black Watch.
Running the Game (9 pages)
Here’s your setting-specific GM advice, although actually it would work well for any of my games. The highlights:
- If neither success nor failure has a dramatically interesting outcome, you don’t need a die roll.
- Set task difficulties low; the game is more about how outrageously well the PCs succeed than about whether they do so. If they do fail, that should be outrageously entertaining also.
- Use a basic battlemap – divided into 6 or 9 zones – filled with features and hazards the PCs can interact with. List them as aspects of the scene on notecards. (It doesn’t specifically say this, but you could reuse the cards, I think – any docking bay has to have a fuel hose, right?) There’s an example battlemap which I like very much.
- Make the NPCs engaging and make sure all PCs have something to do.
- Embrace crazy schemes and action over contemplation. This is really the core of the game.
You have a couple of pages on adventure design and alternative campaign themes (mercs, free traders, spies, explorers, pirates)…
…and then the book concludes with the usual quick reference and character sheets.
Colour covers wrapped around easy-to-read, two-column black on white text with purple highlights. Colour illustrations in a cartoon style. Simple, efficient, gets the job done.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
Bulldogs itself has no adventures or pregenerated characters in it. That is a significant omission, but I let them off because both are available as free downloads – I’ll talk about them in my next review post.
I’m pretty sure I would have chosen a different sequence for the chapters, but they work well enough as they are.
I keep finding stuff that I like written for the FATE rules; maybe I should try them out in earnest. If I do, Bulldogs would be the place to start, as it has the simplest and cleanest explanation of the core rules I’ve found yet. I really like the idea of aspects and how they’re used, but the wounding system is irritatingly complex. There’s probably a simpler alternative somewhere online; I could knock one up myself easily enough, but FATE has been around a while and probably someone else has already done the heavy lifting.
I like to experiment with games by playing them solo for a while before unleashing them on my players. I can’t see how to do that with Bulldogs, or indeed any other FATE-based game, because of the way aspects are invoked and compelled. Maybe I should ask around the Mythic forum and see if anyone is doing that already.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. If there were a Savage Worlds version of this I’d be all over it, but I don’t fancy changing rules system again. There was a d20 version once, I think, so maybe Savage Bulldogs is a possibility someday.