The War of Ashes beta playtest comes to a close today. Since the beta test began, I’ve run a session of character generation, a two-part adventure, and a one-off game that was essentially just one big combat to try out the new mechanics some more. That’s given me plenty of time to enjoy what I like about the game, but also plenty of time to work out what I think needs work, and even suggest some changes of my own.
Below is a compilation of everything I’ve come up with. It’s intended to be my final word of War of Ashes before I move onto gaming pastures new. Where possible, I’ll be trying to avoid repeating myself, so see here and here for my other critiques of the game.
MASSIVE DISCLAIMER: all the design I’m talking about below is reflective of the beta version of the game. If you’re reading this from the future (if you’re a time traveller, say, or less realistically this blog has become popular and you’re plundering the back catalogue) then what I’m about to say may not apply to the War of Ashes game that you can actually pick up in stores. Who knows, maybe some of my suggestions made it into that version!
MASSIVE DISCLAIMER 2: none of the suggestions I’ve provided for new rules have been playtested. I meant to give them a try but ran out of time. Sorry. Guess they won’t make it into print after all.
THE WORLD OF AGAPTUS
A significant chunk of the rulebook, currently the entire front half, is dedicated to the universe that War of Ashes is set in. Each of the four factions get their own section, before this segues into NPC profiles for significant faction leaders and the native wildlife of Agaptus. The world itself is flavourful, distinctive and funny – when I gave the brief overview in character generation, everyone was excited about jumping in.
This is all good stuff, so I don’t really have anything useful to comment on. I guess I’m more crunch-guy than fluff-guy when it comes to design. It’s a bit weird that all the faction leaders are statted as “minions” (nameless mooks) rather than “adversaries” (which are supposed to be the named, important people), but that’s a matter of semantics rather than anything else. These aren’t people you’re likely to get into actual brawls with.
Given that Agaptus is a world of factional conflict between species, it’d be useful to have the common soldiery of all playable cultures statted, not just the Kuld. In my games at least, it was far more common for the players to be battling enemy factions than wild animals, and since there are already sections that list all the different unit types for each army, it seems strange that there aren’t stats to accompany them. It would certainly save GMs the hassle (though I do now have my own takes on several unit types if it’s useful for anyone).
Character creation in War of Ashes is a lot like regular Fate Accelerated, which is definitely a good thing. What is new, though, is the list of faction aspects and faction aspects that PCs take to connect them to their wider culture. It’s a great way of informing setting through mechanics, speeding up character generation by presenting choices from a limited list, and delivering the “racial bonuses” expected for a fantasy RPG. Best of all, once a player has chosen their high concept/trouble/faction aspects, approaches and faction stunts, they have more than enough of their character defined to begin play right away. Which is cool.
Again, I don’t have much to complain about here. Maybe it’d be nice if faction aspects/stunts were suggestions rather than mandatory (dissatisfied players will be swapping them out at the first milestone anyway), and some of the faction stunts look a lot more powerful than others. The Jaarl “Trained Roccio” stunt is extremely strong, for example.
It’s weird that equipment stunts are in the “Playing the Game” section, whilst faction stunts are here. I’d put them both in the same place, probably in the character creation section. And an expanded list of equipment stunts (maybe by faction?) wouldn’t go amiss either.
COMBAT (Weight, Maneouvers, Lethal Damage and Zones)
I talked about this plenty in this post, and sadly did not get a chance to playtest my suggestions there as hoped. Playing another combat since then has not really changed my opinion. There are good ideas here, but unless these new mechanical options are presented much more attractively, I just don’t see them being used in play.
One new observation: the game suggests providing each zone in a combat area with its own aspect, but to save the GM having to come up with a dozen aspects at the start of the fight, provides rules for players to come up with their own zone aspects as the fight is in progress. At no point during the three fights I ran were players actually tempted to utilise this option. I guess if players are going to spend their turn creating an advantage, they’d rather describe something cool their character is doing than something cool that’s happening in the background. In practice, this means that unless the GM wants fights to break out in featureless zones (this happened to me on more than one occasion), they have to define every aspect for every zone when they first draw the map… or more practically, as part of their prep before the session. This isn’t necessarily a criticism – plenty of combat heavy RPGs require extensive prep from GMs before a session – but I think it’s at least worth noting.
What might be worth implementing is some minor bonus for outweighing an opponent in a zone, even when you outweigh an opponent less than two-to-one. As it stands, there are many rules that modify weights (like charge moves) that don’t get used because they fail to modify weight sufficiently to actually have a mechanical consequence. If the enemy has a five-weight mob of mooks in one zone, your own weight can be anything from three to nine guys without it having any impact on play. And I think that’s a shame.
Froth is a special kind of super-aspect that represents a character focusing on a single approach to an almost superhuman degree. When characters want to enter froth, they do so with a create an advantage action. Being in froth is useful, because you can use invokes on your froth aspect in ways you can’t normally, like moving opponents, inflicting lethal damage and other less mechanical effects (like amazing deductive leaps or feats of strength).
There are also many, many drawbacks for attempting to enter froth, which are:
- The difficulty for entering froth is determined by a fixed series of criteria, which can be quite punishing. In the worst of circumstances, difficulties run to +6 (!).
- Whilst in froth, your usual range of approaches are restricted from six to three.
- There are only six different aspects you can create, and once you’ve removed the approaches that you’re terrible at or are too difficult for you to enter (see point 1), you might only be left with options of limited use in your present circumstances. Contrast mundane create an advantage actions, where you can almost always create something specifically tailored for whatever you’re trying to do.
- All of the froth aspects are easy for the GM to compel in ways that will cause you trouble, and refusing a compel costs you two fate points AND removes the froth aspect immediately.
- Froth aspects only last for one scene and then automatically disappear… unless your GM is compelling them, in which case they last long enough to cause you problems.
- Harshest of all, failing to enter froth inflicts a consequence on the character attempting it, which is an enormous disincentive to even try.
As is probably clear from the tone of my list above, froth wasn’t something that saw an enormous amount of use in our games. It seems to be another good idea that just doesn’t yet have the mechanical punch to compete with the mundane action types provided by vanilla Fate Accelerated. It didn’t help that, on the list of ways in which froth invocations can be used, six of the ten suggestions revolve around weight and zone manipulation – which as we’ve already established, just isn’t something players care about in the current iteration of the game. The one time that froth was used for anything other than lethal damage in our games was to increase an attack’s range by one zone… but as one of my player’s pointed out, spending an action creating an advantage and picking up a rock to throw would have accomplished that effect just as well.
We also never used froth outside of combat. Part of that could have been a failure on my part to explain it as an option, but the book isn’t a huge help in this regard – almost all of the suggested effects are combat specific, and whilst players are encouraged to invent any effects they can think of, their ideas are always likely to be inspired by whatever examples are provided for them to bounce off. And when confronted by an obstacle, it seemed more intuitive for players to roll to overcome that obstacle directly (to find the clue, or lift the gate) than to roll to enter froth and spend the free invocation to accomplish their goal automatically.
Suggestion: would it be so bad if froth was something characters could enter for free? Not generating free invocations, but placing an extra situation aspect on the table, with the extra-special invocation options available by spending two fate points instead of one… and the limited-approaches and double-cost-compel-refusal still in force. At most, spend-a-fate-point seems a harsh enough cost. An action, a difficult roll and a punishment for failure seems like overkill.
DIVINE INTEREST AND MAGIC
I like the meddlesome role that gods play in War of Ashes, and I like the way that Divine Interest is tracked as a form of stress to discourage PCs from attracting divine attention. However, the rate at which the party ends up embroiled in divine plots seems to be staggeringly fast, and there doesn’t really seem to be anywhere to go from there. The worst offender for filling up Divine Interest is the “any time you score +7 or higher” option, which in our games happened all the time. With adventure approaches setting most difficulties at +3 or higher, and most NPCs having a +1 or +2 Skilled bonus for their typical actions, any roll in which a GM spends fate points (or even just rolls well) will usually result in players earning Divine Interest or failing. It can be quite demoralising for players to face that lose-lose scenario repeatedly in play.
I also enjoy the Agaptan take on magic, and how it manifests exclusively as bargains with divinity, with all the fun and complications that go along with that. But like froth, the representation of this is just create-an-advantage-with-added-downside, which is neither a particularly attractive mechanical option, nor something that feels, well, magical. As irritating as it can be to learn whole new sub-systems for magic in other fantasy games, it at least produces something distinct that allows those with superhuman powers to stand apart from their mundane brethren. In the War of Ashes beta, all magic users use the same ritual list, so they don’t seem that distinct from each other.
Having a predetermined method for determining ritual difficulty (again, like froth) is also problematic. Even when the difficulty works out lower than for a mundane advantage, there are still reasons not to choose magic – Divine Interest, mostly – whilst in situations where the difficulty works out higher, there is NO reason to use magic. Honestly, I’m not sure what to suggest here as a fix. My own attempts to introduce magic to Fate have usually involved some kind of Spells skill, but War of Ashes doesn’t even use skills. I’m told that Fate Freeport and the Fate Toolkit have a plethora of suggestions about how magic can be used in a fantasy game, but honestly, anything that makes magic feel as special to use mechanically as it is in the fiction would be an improvement for me.
This process, as I talked about in detail here, seems a really excellent way of designing encounters of consistent quality, especially for less confident GMs. It’s something that I’m sure could be fiddled with even more to produce distinct genres or styles of game – Ryan M Danks, the original designer of the fractal adventure concept, tells me that for his new game Jadepunk, it has been brought down to the level of “scene fractals” that GMs can design in seconds.
The main problem I have currently is how high the adventure approaches are valued, which allows mooks to consistently outperform PCs in play. Readjusting the four approaches to be rated at +3/+2/+1/+0 would produce something at least matching the PC level of ability, rather than the +5/+3/+3/+1 it is currently. This is also something I’ve talked about before, so I won’t talk about it again. It’s the only thing marring an otherwise elegantly designed subsystem.
Looking back at the feedback I’ve provided above, I’m aware I’ve been very critical of the War of Ashes beta. That’s probably an accurate representation of my thoughts, but I’m still apprehensive about sharing it with the world – I’m sure that an enormous amount of effort went into designing the game to get it this far. I hope this will be interpreted in the spirit with which it is intended, as constructive criticism to help produce an excellent finished product. I don’t see a lot of bad ideas in this game – in fact, I see good ideas, that if rendered more mechanically attractive, would lead to a lot more interesting tactical options in play compared to a normal Fate game. And speaking as a huge Fate fan, that sounds very appealing indeed.