Review of Fate Worlds Volume 2: Worlds in Shadow

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 2: Worlds in Shadow

CrimeWorld, written by John Rogers, edited by John Adamus, with art by Melissa Gay.

CrimeWorld is a fantastic both as a game resource and as a piece of writing in its own right, and is so good that it justifies the purchase price of the entire Fate Worlds Volume 2 book on its own.  I’m guessing that’s a clear enough position statement, but I’ll go into more detail for the sake of it.

Basically this is a primer for the necessary steps of capers, be they cons where you dupe someone, or heists where you break into somewhere you shouldn’t be.  The examples are crisp, clear and interesting, and drawn from all kinds of familiar sources in popular culture.  Connections are made to Leverage where appropriate, including some fascinating behind-the-scenes insights.  What’s not to like?

As CrimeWorld works through the steps, there are explanations for how they can be folded usefully into tabletop RPGs – with specific emphasis on Fate.  Really, the module itself does a better job of explaining itself than I could.

The art is also very cool, presenting a diverse cast of women committing Glorious Heists of different forms.  It’s distinctive, interesting, and looks like they’re having fun.  Extra points for being all kinds of ages, body-types, and a diverse range of racial backgrounds.  High approval.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A+.  There isn’t a specific setting as such, but this is a fantastic primer for how to tell crime/heist stories in any context – be it writing fiction or designing games.
System: A+.  One of the things which impresses me about CrimeWorld is that although it provides great tools for how to handle heists in the Fate Core system, it provides enough hooks and levers that you could use it as a resource for any game using practically any system.
Entertainment Value: A+.  Above all else, it is a clearly written, highly enjoyable and informative read.

Timeworks, written by Mark Diaz Truman, edited by John Adamus, with art by Damon Westenhofer.

Much as with White Picket Witches in Fate Worlds Volume 1, Timeworks is a setting and ruleset inextricably entwined together, and it’s a very fun read, as well.  The basic concept is that the PCs are employed by an entirely legitimate corporation called Timeworks with an unfortunate habit of redacting large amounts of text in its documents to new staff.  This helps to support the distinctive voice of the writing, and there are some quite hilariously aggravating moments due to redactions as you read through the module.

The job of Timeworks personnel is to travel back in time and rearrange events to better suit the corporation’s clients, which isn’t sinister at all.  The rules, at heart, present how to attack an entire timeline using the Fate Core system, and it is both fantastic and clear.  I can also imagine all sorts of ways to recontextualise it outside of Timeworks itself, making it a useful tool for anyone who has been previously flummoxed for how to handle timetravel in a significant way as part of games.  The guidelines here are direct enough that they would be a useful read even if you didn’t want to use Fate itself, though in comparison to CrimeWorld it’s more specifically relevant to a Fate context – and that’s not a bad thing.

The TimeWorks setting itself is the ruleset for changing timelines, and the corporate context.  All kinds of cleverness has gone into making the human element of the game interesting, and explaining how operatives can, well, operate outside of time while still affecting it.  There are also sinister threats waiting for time-travellers out there, with some great options for precisely what might be going on which don’t nail down the story so much as provide points of inspiration.

I had no sensible idea about how to handle time-travel in games without resorting to closed-loops or what would likely count as railroading. Now, thanks to TimeWorks, I have a much better clue regarding how to get things off the ground in a way that everyone still has agency – and where the GM doesn’t necessarily know how things are going to turn out.

The art is good, but quite realistic (with an interesting exception or so) meaning it doesn’t stand out and grab as much as some of the other art in the collection.  I’m not sure how something can be Of Good Quality and yet lack a Grabby quality, but that’s where I’m at.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A.  Evocative, creepy and intriguing, the TimeWorks corporation is a great seed for storytelling.  I also like the contextual details about what operatives are expected to sacrifice and risk as part of time-travel, together with the… unique challenges of the job.
System: A+.  The system is one of those examples which leaves me thinking “it’s so clever and simple that it’s amazing it hasn’t been done before.”  I consider it a perfect template for any game involving trying to make significant changes to known events, whether that’s due to a prophecy or something more Timey-Wimey.
Entertainment Value: A+.  It’s just plain fun to read.  If you like sinister corporate thrillers presented in ways that are darkly comedic, this is for you.

The Ellis Affair, written by Lisa J. Steele, with Jonathan Turner, Bill Collins, Robin Holly, and Allen Wilkins.  Edited by John Adamus, with art by David Flora.

This module failed to ‘click’ or otherwise grab me, but I’m guessing it’ll work for other people.  The basic premise is a pulpy tour of the 1920s Pacific as the PCs try to solve a mystery of earthshaking consequence.  It’s the setting/narrative which doesn’t appeal to me for some reason, possibly because I’m over stories which rely on New Technological Developments For Peaceful Purposes Which Will INEVITABLY Lead To War And Must Be Destroyed. Also, despite not being handled in a racist fashion, it’s fundamentally a Yellow Peril story and even though it makes sense for the era… it does nothing for me.

What The Ellis Affair does do well is provide an example of how to structure a mystery campaign in a clear, adaptable fashion, and I think that’s content which will be useful outside of its specific context.  For those who might be interested, there are also dedicated rules for gambling which seem interesting, and which could again be borrowed for games where that makes sense.

The art seems solid and depicts appropriately pulpy characters and shenanigans, but didn’t sink into my memory for some reason.

Grade Summary:
Setting: B- for me, undoubtedly higher if it’s your sort of fun? There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the module itself, so this probably says more about me than about it. I was uninspired.
System: B+. Useful, clearly explained frameworks around structuring campaigns in a way that means what the players do matter, but the GM can still keep track of what necessary information is in each section, in order to provide multiple trails to forward the plot.
Entertainment Value: C+.  I confess, I got bored.  BUT!  Given that the premise didn’t appeal, it seems unfair not to acknowledge that this was probably a foregone conclusion, and probably just me.  It seems like the module does a good job of working through the elements of the unfolding mystery in a clear fashion, and it highlights the important fulcrums of the narrative as it goes.  If the premise itself interests you, this could be an interesting read.

No Exit, written by Shoshana Kessock, edited by John Adamus, with art by Jonathan Wyke.

One of the things ‘known’ about Fate games is that they can’t do horror.  Shoshana Kessock disagrees, and few who read No Exit will contest the point.  What she expertly illustrates is that the same tools which provide players agency can function equally well to heighten tension and psychological horror/doubt.

This is another module where the rules and the setting support each other to an almost inextricable degree – almost, but not completely, purely because some of the tricks here are things I can see being pulled usefully out of its context. And what a creepy context it is!  The game is focused on ‘The Complex,’ an apartment block which is self-contained and fulfils all of your needs.  All of them.  Why would you ever want anything outside?  No one sensible wants the fuss and nonsense of the outside world.  You’re safe here.  Everyone is safe here.  You don’t want to be making a fuss, do you?  It might disturb the neighbours.  And nobody wants that.

The influences at work here, and I like that they’re explicitly discussed, include Silent Hill and Lost and Wraith: The Oblivion.  The Complex is eroding who you are, who you remember being, and memory is hugely important both to the game and its mechanics.  One of the things which delights me most about No Exit is that it puts memories on the menu: there are mechanics by which players can nominate specific aspects as sacrosanct, but everything else is open for new revelations as part of play.  It’s a fantastic, elegant mechanic and was one of those moments where I made approving “oooooh!” noises as I read.

The rules for how PCs develop Clarity during play are great, as is what the skill can be used for.  I also loved how the module handled the Complex as a character and how it relates to its minions.  Basically, this is overall great fun.

The module concludes with an extensive discussion of what a satisfying end to the scenario could be, and gives you the tools to figure out what’d fit for your group and their PCs.  Then there’s an equally extensive discussion about essentially the philosophy of psychological horror in RPGs and how to bring that out using Fate.

The art, throughout, is appropriately unsettling.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A. I’d consider the setting and system as one thing if it weren’t for the fact that No Exit does make the rules modular enough to be considered separate; with that said, the setting is hugely informed by those rules, and work very well in that context.  It’s a worked-example of what you can do with the rule-set, even if the Complex specifically doesn’t appeal.
System: A+.  Very finely focused on delivering a psychological creepfest, and with some fantastic wrinkles to handling things using Fate which bring that element out.
Entertainment Value: A-.  It’s clearly written and emphasises what is most interesting about the module.  The only downside is that the bleakness of the context, while appropriate, means it isn’t fun.  Your mileage may vary on that score.

Court/Ship, written by J. R. Blackwell, edited by Amanda Collis, Karen Twelves and Sean Nittner.  Photography by J. R. Blackwell.

“Covertly fighting an invasion of flesh-eating alien body-snatchers with the help of your basic human schemers plus secret vampires and other hidden supernatural elements amid the decadent court of Louis XV sounds boring!”

Said no one, ever.

Court/Ship is one of those concepts which you can look at, peer at from all sides, and wonder what on earth lead to someone having this idea.  But it works!  Ideas practically write themselves!  I feel similarly about The Day After Ragnarok – once someone did it, you can see all the pieces they picked up to build some glorious sculpture (or fantastic war machine stomping down the mountain-side), and even though you know the pieces were always already there, it never occurred to anyone until someone else did it first.

“ARE YOU A BAD ENOUGH DUKE TO SAVE THE KING?”  Okay, sorry, I’ll stop that now BUT IT’S SO EASY to see points of inspiration for this campaign.

If you’re not already interested in the concept, I’m not sure what else I can say.  But I’ll go into details and we see what happens.  The campaign applies the greatly useful approach from Fate Core of presenting a timeframe of immediate, medium and long-term issues, problems to face and questions to answer as part of framing (or developing!) the game.  There’s a wealth of information about the aristrocratic court of Louis XV together with why it presents a single-point-of-failure for a chameleonic alien invasion.  It’s just fun stuff.

There are rules for new skills, and I am delighted that Dance is something which matters to the court, so it matters to the game.  I’m guessing Mr. Blackwell knows some people who’ve been professional dancers, too, given the stunt which says “Replace Dance with Endurance because Obvious Reasons.”  {I am paraphrasing to a significant extent.}

Along with Dance, we have the new skills of Intimacy and Nobility to cover inveigling yourself into someone’s life and vulnerabilities and in being seen as More Important Than Others.  Those are cool.

There’s a whole extra mechanic surrounding Secret Aspects and how they might be used, risked or discovered, which I can see being a great addition to any game of intrigue, courtly or otherwise.

One of the things I love about Court/Ship is that the pre-generated characters are where other supernatural elements are covered, as an option for people to explore.  It’s a strength of the Fate Core system that something which is Just Part Of The World can be presented almost as an elegant afterthought, without derailing anything else within the context of the campaign.

Basically it’s a great read.  Rather than artwork there is photography with some fun make-up effects, and that does a good job of putting across the vibe.  It’s also not something I’ve seen done in RPGs before, so huzzah for experimentation!

Grade Summary:
Setting: A.  The wealth of information here means that anyone who wants to play any game set around particularly the French court prior to the revolution would find this useful, and it’s a good resource for 1750s Europe overall.  The aliens themselves could cheerfully be lifted out of this context and placed elsewhere.  All in all: Fun times.
System: A.  Likewise, every mechanical tweak is a great additional to the growing Fate Core toolset, and can fit into a wide variety of interesting circumstances.  Hell, the rules for handling supernatural critters could work nicely for an urban fantasy game if people didn’t want to build their own angle on the topic.  Plus, it illustrates the flexibility of Fate Core as a whole.  Also, the rules about Secret Aspects are a particular highlight.
Entertainment Value: A+. This is a damned fun read.  It feels like the writers and editors were energised by the whole concept and having fun themselves, and that kind of energy is infectious.

Camelot Trigger, written by Rob Wieland, edited by Tom Cadorette, Mike Olson, and Brian Engard, with art by Brett Barkley.

Camelot Trigger is likewise an energetically weird idea.  “Let’s slam the mythology surrounding King Arthur’s legend into Mecha and see what happens!”  And I can say from reading it that what happens is extremely entertaining.

We basically wind up with a world with some surface similarities to Eclipse Phase in that we’re in the future and outside the end of an oppressive and nasty period for humanity.  In this case, the noble Mecha Knights drove away the maniacal AI MerGN-A and humans have found themselves niches throughout our solar system.  But… how long will peace last?  *OMINOUS CHORD!*

The setting is entertainingly gonzo, involving the different feudal societies of humanity and how they relate.  It’s interesting to see how different angles on the Arthurian legend and mould have been spun off each other, and it’s fun to read.  I can technically imagine someone using a different system for the setting, but left to my imagination I can’t see why anyone would: if you want Mecha Knights having tournies and the like against the backdrop of Dark Prophecies, why go anywhere else?

The system is where things really shine: big stompy fighting robots with pilots aren’t the same perennial bugbear that psychological horror has been seen as being for Fate, but they’re still in an area people have had trouble wrapping their heads around.  What is too much crunch?  What is unsatisfyingly little?

Camelot Trigger solves the argument by showing all sorts of fun things you can do using the Fate Fractal/Bronze Rule.

There’s an entire suite of new and/or recontextualised skills with their own Actions and Outcomes, together with Stunts.  Building your Armour itself involves deciding on what your body locations are (which reminds me pleasantly of Monsters and Other Childish Things), and then placing systems.  Placing systems adds a great deal of depth, but isn’t hugely crunchy – and I mean that as a compliment.  You choose between Internal and External systems for any given location, which apply different rules to the overall character/mecha under construction.  It’s all very elegant, and means you have a great deal of leeway in tailoring your armour to what you think would be fun.

Part of the depth comes from the way that Systems interact with damage, in that Consequences involve turning off specific systems for a time.  Going without a given system means very different things depending on what you’re losing, and whether it’s Internal or External.

There are also optional rules for playing combining-mechs on the lines of Voltron, or grittier games where you can only repair your Armour if you have appropriate Salvage from defeated foes.

It’s a great system and I can see it being gleefully lifted out of context and applied to any Fate game involving piloted war-machines.

The art is, well… there’s a reason it’s the campaign on the cover of the book.  It’s fantastic, imaginative, evocative and interesting.

Grade Summary:
Setting: A-.  The setting is vibrant and interesting, the only caveat I have is that I can’t see why you’d want to use the setting without the system.  However, it’s also a great illustration of how you can make setting come to life by applying elements of the Fractal/Bronze Rule to characterising things in ways that matter to play.
System: A+.  It’s glorious.  If you want mecha-themed games in Fate, this is a fantastic place to stop.  And finish.  I’m planning on educating myself by writing up the mechs from Pacific Rim and putting them in the Game Resources section, so word on that as it happens.
Entertainment Value: A. It’s a really fun read.  Putting it in the voice of ‘MerLN’ is an entertaining entrypoint into the setting, as are many of the ways the details of the campaign are presented.  In conclusion, it’s cool because it made me laugh.

Overall Conclusion: A. This is another fantastic resource, and well worth the price. Any of the campaigns on offer will increase your understanding and mental tool-set for approaching Fate games, even if you don’t use them directly. Hell, given that CrimeWorld more than justifies the cost by itself, there’s no reason anyone interested in Fate or even RPGs overall shouldn’t check it out.

Fate Worlds Volume 2: Worlds in Shadow is available here for $15 USD in softcover + PDF, or $7.50 USD PDF.

2 thoughts on “Review of Fate Worlds Volume 2: Worlds in Shadow

  1. John Adamus says:

    Thank you so much for your most kind and detailed review.

    • Kev Kev says:

      No problem! I figured I’d write the kind of review that I’d think of as covering the topic to useful depth, and that meant a lot of depth because it was so substantial.

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