Review of The Kerberos Club (Fate Edition)

Name: The Kerberos Club (FATE Edition)
Publisher: Arc Dream Publishing
Author: Benjamin Baugh; Mike Olson
Category: RPG (virtual)
Cost: $39.99 Print + PDF; $24 PDF
Pages: 372
Year: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9832313-8-7

This is going to be a short review, at least in comparison to some of the Vast Tomes I’ve done, because I’ve already reviewed the book in another incarnation. That review is available here, and I recommend you check it out, since the setting and concept is reviewed there in depth.

Failing that, here is a link to where Shane Ivey of Arc Dream kindly provided a good chunk of the Introduction to the book as a teaser excerpt. It should give you a good impression of the setting and the vibe of the writing.

My focus in the review of the FATE edition is to concentrate on the new mechanics, and how they work. If anyone is interested in seeing me bend those mechanics to weird new purposes by using them to adapt things like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Unknown Armies, and The Wire, then examples are available here.

For anyone in a hurry, I’ll put this up front: This is a great book with a standalone rules system, and comes with an imaginative, evocative setting complete with an adventure and pregen characters. It introduces new mechanics into the FATE stable that I’m entirely impressed by. I can safely say that I am more likely to play this edition of The Kerberos Club than I am the One Roll Engine version, because my current player group is more likely to get this one off the ground – and I really liked the ORE edition, so this is high praise.

For the sake of transparency, the version of the FATE edition I’ve read was a complementary copy kindly provided by Shane Ivey. The PDF is high quality, well bookmarked, and prints beautifully. I intend to purchase a copy of the book in both print and PDF as soon as funds and time permit.

Now, on with the show!

For anyone uninterested in reading the review where I cover the fluff in more depth, the underlying setting of The Kerberos Club is an alternate-history Britain and British Empire of the Victorian Century, and an alternate history that diverges from our own more and more as time goes on. The Kerberos Club itself is a “gentleman’s club” of dubious reputation, and known for its scandalous ideas, like that of treating women, foreigners, the poor and even the Irish as human beings. The Club is home to any number of individuals touched by the Strange, and possessed of eerie powers. It is a way for these people, frequently outcasts from society, to band together – and also to defend Queen and Country from Strange threats that loom or lurk. Probably the fastest way to pitch the concept is to describe the game as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen RPG, except that on deeper investigation it’s more nuanced than that.

Every incarnation of FATE thus far released has presented a variation to its core theme, and The Kerberos Club is no exception with its FATE edition: the system it presents has enough variations that it’s being referred to as ‘Strange FATE’ for the sake of clarity.

Anyone familiar with the basics of FATE will be right at home here. There are Fate Points and Aspects, Stress and Skills.

However, within this underlying mechanical framework, Strange FATE presents two clear and distinct ‘killer apps’ that I’ve found myself borrowing for other FATE games.

The first of these is ‘Power Tiers,’ which are discussed here on the Arc Dream site. The core concept is that you pay Refresh to raise the tier of a given skill. For each tier of difference between yourself and an opponent for a relevant interchange, you replace one of your Fudge dice with 1d6. Such a d6 cannot go negative, and thus always contributes at least +1 to a roll. Thus two Superhuman opponents would share a Power Tier, and roll 4dF plus whatever their skill rating is, whereas one Superhuman fighting a Mundane foe will be rolling 2dF + 2d6, again modified by their skill rating. This introduces more variety to the outcome of one-sided conflicts – making Collateral Consequences, where the surroundings take damage instead of the PCs while creating dire problems at the same time, all the more important.

The next big contribution to Strange FATE is Unique and Strange skills. Along with a comprehensive list of traditional skills, Strange FATE allows for the creation or modification of new skills by adding new Trappings. The simplest example is that the basic Burglary skill allows for getting past security and casing intended targets. However, a Unique skill that also included the ability to climb and to be stealthy could be called ‘Cat Burglary,’ and accomplish the same task but with broader scope.

This is done by spending Skill Points. Traditional skills merely cost 1 skill point per level of rank you wish in them, so 4 skill points leads to a +4 at the given skill. Unique and Strange skills are slightly more complicated: a clearly organised map of the different trappings is provided, so that it is more expensive to combine entirely different trappings together. (The Trapping Map is discussed here. This may be the laziest review ever, if only because Shane Ivey and others have put so much effort into providing easy access to information about what sets the game apart.) This means that creating the right combination of Trappings will cost a number of Skill Points in itself, and then more are added to buy the relevant rank. So, hypothetically buying a +4 rank in a Unique skill could cost 9 skill points for all of the trappings, then another 4 points for the rank.

There is a simple, elegant advancement mechanic for all of this, which means that existing Unique or Strange skills can be amended so as to include new trappings over time – so that a hypothetical character can expand the repertoire of their Cat Burglar skill as they develop. It’s very flexible: you can increase the ranks you have in a skill, increase the Power Tier of a skill, or increase the trappings associated with a skill, at different points in the development of the story, and different milestones.

Unique and Strange skills differ only in that Strange skills can have higher Power Tiers, and are more likely to complicate life for the character. They are how to build super powers, and the system is flexible enough that I have yet to find a setting that cannot be handled out of the box.

Unlike Spirit of the Century, there is no list of Stunts; instead there are tailorable extras and flaws that can be associated with given skills in exchange for skill points, or a rebate for same.

(For an example character built in the system, check out an example built by Shane Ivey here. As I say, laziest review ever.)

So, what are the downsides, you ask? As it happens, there are very few.

The adaptation from the ORE version is very strong, and I like how the mechanics meld with the setting. The only element of the change I consider unfortunate is that short paragraphs for each of the pre-gen characters which showed how they could very easily be recontextualised into villains rather than heroes are missing. This is a very, very minor issue, and I mainly noticed because of how impressed I was with them in the ORE version, where they underlined the tone of the writing and the characters as being a deliberately grey, fitting the setting. They qualify as ‘missing’ only in as much as I liked them enough to notice, and I cannot begrudge Mike Olson the loss of what would be less than 100 words across a whole adaptation. The writeups for antagonists in the book do include a short section describing how they might become members of the Kerberos Club, which emphasises how little distance there is between hero and villain nicely.

The next point is not a downside so much as a point of reference. Until now, each edition to the FATE stable has presented unique variations on the core themes of the system, and thus allowed fans to easily hack, mix, match and hybridise from different books to our heart’s content. With The Kerberos Club, it’s looking like a point is being reached where that easy cross-pollination cannot be entirely taken for granted.

Both the Dresden Files RPG and The Kerberos Club have mechanics hung around the idea of reducing the Refresh points of a character in exchange for mechanical benefit. In both cases, the mechanic is elegant and entirely workable – the only reason it’s worth mentioning is that it means hybridisation between the two examples of FATE is going to need to decide which side to prioritise. The other point of distinction between the two is that the DFRPG uses a carefully arranged separation of skills as a way to prevent any given spell-slinger to be a mechanically perfect wizard: one skill must always be prioritised. The capacity for skills to be combined for purpose in The Kerberos Club might easily upset that particular pivot-point.

However, it must be said that the direct likelihood of people wishing to mash-up the DFRPG and The Kerberos Club is not high, and anyone interested in that level of hackery will undoubtedly find a work-around. I mention it because it’s an issue which has simply never arisen before. My only other point of concern in coming into the FATE edition of The Kerberos Club would be that there would be a trade-off: a more flexible system for tailoring skills would lead to a higher maintenance character-generation, which might reduce the enthusiasm of people new to the bells and whistles. In part, my thread for adapting Strange FATE is a laboratory for me to test out how complex it is, and so far I am impressed at how time-consuming it’s not. It’s entirely possible that the extra time taken to tailor personalised skills and powers would have been spent reading over the set skill-list from other FATE incarnations and – if you’re like me – getting stuck at the +1 skill phase because there are either too many skills I want to include for a character, or too few.

In summary, this is a very impressive adaptation, and will mark the first occasion I’ve decided to purchase the same setting in two different systems. It does the source material justice at the level of its mechanics, and those mechanics can be cheerfully repurposed to very different contexts.

The book comes complete with its own alternate history timeline, a rich vastness of information about the period and the people in it, and a rollicking high-stakes adventure complete with chases and world-shaking events.

If you want to explore the weird and Victorian, I can’t think of a better book to do so through.

Grade Summary:

Setting: A+. The book is a fantastically rich resource for running any kind of game set in Victorian England or its empire, or even if you just want to know more about the period. It drips inspiration from every page, and would be very easy to use for other systems.

How Easy Is It To Explain The Setting To New Players: A. This is quite straightforward: everyone has some idea of what Victorian England was like, and adding superpowers is an interesting but reasonably intuitive leap.

System: A+. I like Strange Fate even better than I like the One Roll Engine, and I’ve yet to find a character who can’t be easily represented in it.  It’s flexible, fluid, and provides all sorts of inspiration for how to handle characters in interesting ways.  It’s also very easy to remove from the Victorian context of this book, as can be proven by its appearance in Ross Payton’s Base Raiders, and in the examples on the BRC Strange Fate resources page.

How Easy Is It To Explain The System To New Players: A. 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.

Practicality of Use in Play: A. The Strange Fate incarnation of the book takes all of the clear compartmentalisation of the One Roll Engine version and builds on it.  The critical core of the book is 80 pages worth of rules explaining how to build characters in depth and make everything work, and then the rest builds on it.  Clearly signposted, well organised, and cleanly written.

Ease of Running Sample Adventures: A. ‘The Adventure of the Black and White Decks’ is based around an interesting concept and filled with detailed notes and suggestions for how to adapt it depending on the player group and what they decide to do. It seems wonderfully flexible and user-friendly as a result. Even beyond the specifically pre-written adventure, the book has a tremendous number of adventure seeds, all explored to varying degrees of detail, and it’d be very easy to hang a campaign on each or all of them.

Entertainment Value: A+. This is a wonderfully fun book.  It’s written in an interesting voice, and there are a lot of places where it made me laugh a great deal.  The alternate history section is full of oblique references to things that are of minor relevance… except they’re not, and they turn up again later.  It’s a great exemplar of “An RPG Book That I’d Read For Fun.”

– Kev

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