I intimated in a previous post that our playtest group encountered difficulties with the War of Ashes system, at least in the beta form that exists at the moment. After running a second session, and having some time to think about it on the flight from Britain to America, I think I’m able to better put those concerns into words.
Part of the problem seems to be a game that’s pulling in a lot of different directions. War of Ashes is an adaptation of an existing game, and the flavour of that setting is a core part of the RPG. That setting, to me, suggests cuteness, silliness and adorably earnest adventurousness. It’s something Fate can handle more than capably, Fate being a system that takes competent, dramatic characters and empowers them to engage with their surroundings proactively. And the compel system, which encourages problems to arise as much from character flaws as anything else, is a great trigger for comedy.
But on the other hand, the original War of Ashes is a wargame. And like Warhammer and Iron Kingdoms before it, there is an expectation that it will come with a level of mechanical crunch and strategic challenge, especially within its combat system. One of my worries is that bogging down a game of whimsical fluffiness in hard numbers and tactical debate once combat starts is a bit of a disconnect, but I guess that’s exactly what the War of Ashes wargame is about. My more significant worry is that I don’t think Fate is the best system to bring that vision to life. Fate action is character focussed and its combat is abstract – circumstantial modifiers like terrain, outflanking and outnumbering aren’t really something it cares about unless it’s something that the character chooses to focus on. Whilst tagging on rules that handle this minutiae is possible (and indeed, that’s exactly what War of Ashes does), I’m unconvinced that it’s worthwhile to do so when there are other systems that handle that level of nuance better. Or at least more naturally.
Having said that, I don’t really want to talk about my conceptual problems with a War of Ashes Fate game. That ship’s pretty much sailed at this point. Rather, my argument is that the bonus combat rules for this game aren’t achieving the results that I think they’re supposed to.
A lot of the new rules in War of Ashes are interlinked, and their main touchstone is its approach to zones and movement between them. Zones – loosely defined areas of space and/or fiction where an action takes place – are an oft-forgotten but nonetheless useful part of Fate Core. They determine your ability to make attacks against other characters (for close combat, you usually have to be in the same as your target) and limit the amount of ground you can cover in a turn (you usually get to move one zone for free, but that can use your action to move further, or oppose attempts to keep you in your zone).
War of Ashes goes one step further. Every single zone in combat gets its own aspect, and a single free invocation on it, that you can use to give yourself an extra bonus when you narrate how you take advantage of it. The rules for moving between zones are also more extensive, with new actions allowing you to not only claim bonuses when moving and attacking, but to forcefully move your opponent as well. Finally, new rules concerning “Weight” provide sufficient bonuses to outnumbering (or “Outweighing”) your opponent in any given zone. If you outnumber an opponent 2-to-1, it’s essentially a +1 bonus. If you outnumber an opponent 4-to-1, then attacks become “Lethal” – and Lethal attacks allow you to auto-kill most NPC mooks with even a single hit of stress.
The intended result, I assume, is to encourage players to think carefully about their positioning in combat. With well-planned manoeuvres, PCs can force their enemies into zones where they can invoke untapped zone aspects, claim weight bonuses, and restrict the amount of opposition they face at once. Many of the games other rules tie back to this same thing – for example, invokes of “Froth” aspects (which are essentially super-aspects that you create by sacrificing the use of 3 out of 6 Approaches) can be spent to force movement or increase weight, and Swarms of critters are immune to conventional damage when they outweigh enemies in a zone. It all provides an extra dimension of tactical thinking, which is what raises the usual routine of combat in RPGs into a minigame that is fun to play in its own right.
Which all sounds great in theory.
HOW IT PLAYS OUT
The main problem is that if you want to move your opponent, or if you want to move yourself more than one zone, you will usually be sacrificing your action for the turn to do so. And whilst the advantages to movement are notable, 90% of the time they won’t be notable enough to be an attractive option. Moving opponents is a particularly questionable use of a turn – yes, you can force them to move a zone, but unless you trap yourself in that zone too, they will probably use their free move next turn to advance straight back where they were (possibly getting a “Charge Move” bonus when they do so). Whilst sometimes moving an opponent can be useful anyway (say, if you want to reduce the amount of weight in a zone to give an ally an advantage), you can usually achieve the same effect by JUST KILLING THEM – which means that in any situation where you have a realistic chance of thinning enemy numbers, attacking will almost always be the more permanent (and more interesting) solution.
Since manoeuvring is of questionable value, the only real consideration you have to factor into movement is making sure you’re within range to attack. Because War of Ashes has a pseudo-Dark Ages setting, most characters attack using melee weapons, which means they need to be in the same zone as their enemy. The end result? EVERYONE ends up in the same zone as each other, with all other zone aspects going unused. And when some or all characters on both sides end up in the same zone, it’s rare for one side to outweigh the other by the 2-to-1 margin required for weight to make any difference. The status quo of combat in Fate (everyone takes turns either attacking or creating an advantage) remains unchanged. And when most of the book’s suggested uses of Froth are related to manoeuvres – something the players have now mentally filed under the category of “things I don’t care about” – even that becomes undesirable.
So as I see it, there are two things that could help make manoeuvres a more useful proposition: allowing them to be used in addition to conventional actions, or increasing their effectiveness. Since the rules for weight and zone invocation seem plenty useful on the (currently very rare) opportunities when they’re used, the former seems the more promising solution.
My suggestion is to allow characters to sacrifice their free move for the turn to “Drag” an adjacent opponent into your zone, or “Knockback” an opponent out of your zone. No dice rolls required – the fact that characters can resist forced movement is part of what makes it such an undesirable option (“I gave up my turn and didn’t even succeed in moving this guy?”). If the only restrictions on movement, either your own or your enemy’s, are situation aspects to be overcome, then that provides additional incentive for characters to move around the board to find useful zone aspects. It also incentivises players to create their own advantages to lock down movement, or to take overcome actions to remove them. In other words: if you don’t want to dragged away from your friends involuntarily, roll to create an advantage and form a “Shieldwall”. Suddenly the calculus of “do I attack or don’t I” is not quite as obvious and uninteresting as it was before.
This is entirely unplaytested, so I don’t know if it’s a workable solution. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to run a few more playtests and try out a few ideas with my mechanically minded friends. If I do, I’ll be sure to critique my own rules as harshly as those currently in the beta.