Review: Bulldogs FATE Core Edition

“The Black Watch is a tough ship, and the crew wants to represent that. They decide to spend their last starting upgrade point on light armor. They name it SPACETURTLE SHELL, actually claiming that their ship is covered in the shell of harvested spaceturtles. Because they can.” – Bulldogs!

I reviewed the previous FATE edition of this here, and there is a d20 version which I haven’t read; but because I really liked Heart of the Fury, and I am considering whether to run it under FATE at some point, I picked up the new edition as well. Now read on…

In a Nutshell: Tongue-in-cheek space opera for FATE Core. 220 page PDF from Galileo Games, $10 at time of writing.

CONTENTS

Up front: There are some concepts you need to know before you read on, as they appear a bit out of sequence in the book.

Aspects and tagging. Aspects are things that would be attributes, advantages or disadvantages in most systems; the difference in FATE is that the player makes them up. Rather than having Strength, Dexterity and whatnot you decide what attributes matter for your character, for example “One-Woman Wrecking Crew” or “Nobody wants a blind pilot”. Aspects can be invoked or compelled to give you bonuses or penalties on dice rolls.

Fate points. These represent luck or narrative control. Typically you can spend a fate point to reroll a dice roll, or add a flat +2 to it. You gain fate points when aspects cause trouble for you. The ebb and flow of fate points is what powers the game in play.

Refresh. This is how many fate points you start with; 6 by default, but your character’s racial abilities may adjust that.

Introduction (2 pages): The premise of the setting, namely that the PCs are deeply flawed individuals crewing a heavily-insured tramp freighter on suicide missions. Pointers to key changes to the generic FATE Core engine made for this setting. Overview of the book’s chapters.

The Galaxy (14 pages): Here we find the basics of the setting; PCs will mostly find themselves in the Frontier Zone, a buffer zone between the Templari of the Devalkamanchan Republic (purple-skinned space nazis) and the assorted species of the Union of the Saldralla (a peaceful democracy, which stays that way because troublemakers quietly disappear).

FATE Core Basics (7 pages): I reviewed FATE Core here, so I won’t go through that again, but I will look at stress, conditions and consequences – partly because they are different from the usual FATE Core rules, and partly because they are the parts of the system that give me the most trouble.

In this version of Bulldogs!, stress is ticked off on condition tracks, e.g. “Stunned”. Once every box on a track is ticked, the condition becomes an aspect on your character; this normally clears when you accept a compel on the condition, e.g. “You’re stunned, so the thug can push you off the roof.”

If you can’t, or don’t want to, tick off any more boxes on a track, you must take a consequence, e.g. “Broken Arm”. These are harder to get rid of and can be invoked to make your life difficult, e.g. “Remember, you have a broken arm, it’ll be really hard to do that.”

One track worthy of note is Credits, which has 10 boxes; you start with 9 ticked, meaning you’re dirt poor; as you earn money you clear them, as you buy stuff you tick them again, and if you ever get all 10 clear at once you can buy yourself out of your contract with your employer (and start a new character).

Alien Species (34 pages): There are 10 playable races. Each has six racial aspects, of which a PC must choose two, and certain species abilities, which affect the amount of refresh the PC begins play with. There are also rules for creating new species.

Crew Creation (12 pages): Players are encouraged to create their PCs as a group, not least because they collectively create their ship and its captain (who is normally an NPC and often an adversary). Each player chooses a species and seven aspects, then picks skills, stunts, and gear. Every PC has three consequences slots (one mild, one moderate, one severe – more on these later) and four conditions, each with a stress track; Winded, Angry, Stunned and Broken. I can see what they’re doing here, but my aversion to hit points is well-known and the idea of tracking four separate sets of them is depressing – probably my biggest objection to the Rules As Written.

The ship has three aspects: A high concept (a general description, perhaps “decrepit free trader”), trouble (what’s wrong with it, e.g. “bits keep falling off”), and an advantage (what’s its redeeming feature, possibly “surprisingly fast”). The captain likewise has three aspects; what did he do to end up here, what trouble does he cause for the crew, and what is his management style? The example given is a Disgraced Ex-Nova Legion Officer who is Ever Intoxicated and whose style is Better to be Feared than Loved. While each PC has fate points, the crew as a whole also has some – these are used to invoke the ship’s or the captain’s aspects.

Aspects (17 pages): So, we know already that a PC has seven permanent (ish) aspects. These fall into the following areas: Racial (two from the list for your race), Aptitude (what are you good at, perhaps Silver-Tongued Devil), Class D (how did you wind up here, maybe Huge Gambling Debts), and three for your current berth (how well do you get on with the captain and two other PCs, for example I’d Follow the Captain to Hell, Rolley is my Brother, and Secretly in Love with Dahlia). Aspects are about who the PC is, and who or what is important to him; they are at the heart of the “fate point economy” which drives play. In addition to these seven aspects, which are part of the character, there can also be temporary aspects such as “Blind Drunk”. Note also that anything in FATE can have aspects; a place, an item of equipment, a character, the campaign itself. Things you can do with aspects:

Invoke an aspect, usually by spending a fate point and explaining how this helps you. This lets you either reroll your dice, or add +2 to a roll.

Compel an aspect, either on yourself or someone else. This causes trouble for a character; they can either accept the complication and earn a fate point, or spend a fate point to stop it happening.

To an extent, aspects are the players telling the GM what they want to see in the game.

Doing Things (22 pages): FATE has non-standard dice, d6 with two blank faces, two with a plus sign and two with a minus sign. Checks are made by rolling four of them against a target number, and can generate a failure (less than target), a tie (same as target), success (1 or 2 more than target), or success with style (at least 3 more than target). If you beat the target number, the points you beat it by are called “shifts”. There are five things you would roll for: Overcome an obstacle (what most games would call a skill roll or skill check), create advantages (aspects that will help a future roll), discover (learn something), attack (hurt someone) or defend (avoid an attack or negate an advantage created against you). There is a quite complex set of outcomes depending on what you’re trying to do and which of the four outcomes you get, but in general you get what you want, get what you want with some sort of cost, or get it with a benefit; costs and benefits are often temporary aspects. Beyond that, actions can be simple, challenges (complicated), contests between characters, or conflicts (combat). That sounds complicated, but I suspect once you are used to it, it flows very smoothly.

The bit I normally struggle with in FATE combat is consequences. If you fill one of your stress tracks (“hit points”) but still need to take stress (“damage”) you can pick a suitable consequence such as Grazed or Broken Arm; this is a temporary aspect which your foes can invoke for free. What this version of Bulldogs! does that I don’t remember seeing in any previous FATE product is provide a list of example consequences of each type! Fantastic, but how hard was it to do that, purveyors of other FATE products?

Advancement (3 pages): Advancements are triggered when your employer pays you; you can make money on the side, but that doesn’t improved your character. Recovering from “wounds” consequences seems to count as an advance, mind.

Skills (20 pages): Characters normally have 10 skills; one at +4, two at +3, three at +2, and four at +1. The default skill cap is +5, meaning no skill can ever be higher than +5. Skills are about what the PC can do; there are 18 in all, so they are fairly broad – Fight, for example, covers any close combat weapon, while Shoot covers any ranged weapon.

Stunts (17 pages): Stunts fill the same ecological niche in FATE as advantages, edges, feats and what have you in other games. By default, characters begin with two stunts; a stunt can allow you to swap one skill for another, use a skill in specific circumstances which would normally preclude it, or give you a +2 in a particular situation. The more powerful ones cost a fate point to activate. The bulk of this chapter is filled with example stunts.

Gear (11 pages): This is the first time an equipment chapter in an RPG has interested me in some years, and it’s because of the way gear is handled. You have two gear points to begin with, and you can use boxes on your credit stress track to get more, which you can replenish by getting paid.

Let’s take weapons for example. You have Shoot as a skill, obviously. That means you have some sort of basic ranged weapon, just enough to let you use the skill. Light weapons get an aspect you can invoke for free once per session. Medium ones do the same, but targets can’t use the Winded or Angry tracks to absorb their hits. Heavy weapons do all of the above, and targets can’t use the Stunned track against them either. You can also spend more gear points to get special features like Concealable or Autofire. Other gear has similar rules-bending attributes.

So, you always have the basic equipment you need; gear is for cool toys and trademark weapons.

Ships (19 pages): The PCs as a group have a ship; they choose how big it is and buy initial upgrades using a fixed pool of points. (Bigger ships have manoeuvring penalties but more boxes on their stress tracks.) Combat is a lot like personal combat, enough that I won’t drill into it in detail. The ship construction rules actually work for any kind of vehicle, and example ships are provided. Travel is at the speed of plot, and maintenance is handwaved (except for repairing combat damage).

Running the Game (18 pages): Advice for the GM, although unusually the players are actively encouraged to read it. This is stuff like when to call for dice rolls, how to set difficulties for them, what the consequences might be, designing social and combat encounters, minions singly and in groups, (minions are disposable, low-powered, nameless NPCs, similar to Extras in Savage Worlds) and the more robust supporting NPCs and villains. Bulldogs encourages action over contemplation and this shines through in the GM advice; this game is a comedy thriller. There’s also a nod to other campaign types, but I think the expendable merchant crew is the perfect setup for the game.

We close with an index, the Open Gaming Licence, and character and starship sheets. No sample adventure, but then there used to be half a dozen free ones.

FORMAT

6″ x 9″ format (roughly 229 x 152 mm), single-column black text on white, full colour illustrations every few pages, gets the job done. The art style is cartoon-like, but then to be fair so is the game.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

It’s not clear what weapons and armour cost. I can infer that light examples cost one gear point, medium ones two, and heavy three, but I would prefer that stated explicitly.

There’s a “see page XX” on page 160 which I think should refer to page 166.

I’d like to see the return of the Ports of Call supplement and the free adventures – maybe they are being upgraded for these new rules?

CONCLUSIONS

I dislike games with custom dice, and anything FATE-flavoured has those. Functionally, they are equivalent to 4d3-8, which is no better. However they are straightforward enough as custom dice go.

Full marks for the best explanation of the FATE rules I have seen yet, and bonus points for explaining consequences in particular. This book simplified and clarified FATE, which has always mystified me somewhat, into something I might actually play.

Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I’m of a mind to tweak this setting a bit and use it as my default space opera game (5), and the rules should be tried out at some point (4).

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