So here’s something new – an actual play report of a game I ran last weekend. Whilst I run a lot of Fate Core games, this session was also my first time trying out one of the Patreon settings that Evil Hat have been putting out for the system. The one I chose was “Save Game“, and I downloaded the PDF for two reasons. Firstly, because I was already familiar with Rob Wieland’s brand of Fate from “Camelot Trigger”, a spacebound mecha game of Arthurian legend from the Worlds In Shadow setting expansion, which I consider to be one of the most mechanically accomplished hacks for Fate Core that Evil Hat have released to date. Secondly, I knew that Save Game’s fun set up of 8-bit heroes battling doomsday virus epidemics and jumping puzzles would be extremely relevant to the interests of many of my friends. With a strong enough elevator pitch to enable one-shot play with minimal exposition, it was exactly what I needed to end the December drought of roleplaying campaigns triggered by my players’ seasonal responsibilities.
We had four hours to play, and I planned a quick 45 minute character generation followed by three hours and a bit of actual roleplay. Because some elements of char gen in Save Game are randomised, I hoped that would facilitate a speedier character generation. PCs in Save Game choose their high concept aspect, trouble aspect, skills and stunts in much the same way as normal for Fate (though stunts, known as “special moves”, have a bit more formula for selecting them, similar to the stunt templates in Fate Accelerated), but their three remaining aspects are chosen differently. Each is a “signature aspect”, a special item in their inventory, and to reflect the bizarre assortment of inconsistently themed devices that 8-bit heroes tend to accrue, fudge dice are used to randomly select groups of words that are relevant to the aspect in some way.
Like I said, I hoped this would be quick as well as fun. Selecting aspects for a Fate game is enjoyable, but also time consuming – because they’re created in a vacuum rather than selected from a list, the consequence of presenting unlimited choice is often analysis paralysis. I reasoned that dice choose faster than players do, and for some aspects we even had individual words randomly selected using a D100.
Unfortunately, whilst making as aspect out of nothing can be difficult, making an aspect inspired by the words “sewer-pistol-neck” or “banana-glove-tire” isn’t necessarily much easier. So character generation ended up taking two hours, half our allotted game time, even after skipping out the third signature aspect stage and giving characters four aspects instead of five. The players didn’t seem too upset about this – the only obvious solution would have been to provide pre-genned characters, and I’m certain they would not have been as keenly appreciated as the bizarre and colourful cast that the players came up with themselves. Besides, character generation was fun in its own right, as good a way to spend a roleplaying session as anything else.
So once character creation was complete we had:
- Ken Freedamme, gun-toting all-American hero. Also known by the alter ego “Captain ‘Merican Justice”, Ken rode a motorbike that transformed into an eagle bazooka.
- Benedict Hollandaise, hard-boiled egg detective. Carrying a monocle, deerstalker hat and bottomless bag, Benedict struggled with physics problems, on account of being an egg.
- Super Kawai-Chan, pirate sentai schoolgirl. Her earrings transformed into mecha, and her undead hamster transformed into pretty much anything.
- Mr Bobo, monkey butler sidekick, whose levels tended towards the unnecessarily complicated. Though driving a banana sidecar and carrying a magic umbrella that summoned a rain of chainsaws, Bobo couldn’t speak. Because he’s a monkey.
Save Game is set in a crossover kingdom of video game legends invaded by the forces of “The Glitch” – a corrupting force that has driven the greatest heroes of the land insane, trapping them in battle against the uncorrupted and each other. The campaign is split into five stages, each a unique environment with its own challenges to overcome, culminating in a boss battle with the realm’s former protector. I read out each of the five stages to the players, and let them choose which one they wanted to attempt. The dark and haunted medieval forest of Tempylvania attracted interest, as did the skyscraper-dominated surfer town of Tar Zangeles, but in the end the players elected to stage an assault upon Opera Fortress. This pitched them into conflict with Princess Orianna Sopralto, famed opera singer, and former captive of the clockwork fortress; following her corruption by the Glitch, she had assumed command of the realm entirely (Orianna’s leering face dominates the cover of “Save Game”, so it seemed a particularly appropriate choice for the first level). With the “Stage Select” completed, I stuck on an 8-bit rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit and got started.
With only two hours to play, I split up the action into three long scenes. The first involved penetrating the walls of the Opera Fortress, a clockwork barrier of gears and chains in constant motion. Whilst this was primarily a platforming challenge, I knew I wanted there to be a physical danger as well, to use up the players’ resources before they made it to the boss (I imagined the threat as black-and-white suited henchmen throwing piano keys from the ramparts, but it could have just as easily been the spinning machinery itself). To achieve this, I ran the fight as a Contest Under Fire, which seemed to work quite well. The main challenge as a GM was coming up with new ways to produce a “change of circumstances”, since Mr Bobo kept getting tied rolls over and over again. Meanwhile Kawai-Chan and Ken scrambled to the top of the wall quite quickly, though Ken lost a life in the process (Save Game characters don’t have consequences, and can have as few as 1 stress box, so losing a life is actually quite common). I compelled Benedict’s “Poor Physics” Trouble aspect to make his climb more complicated, but once two PCs had made it to the top, they were able to throw out enough advantages (and kill enough bad guys) to make a difference. The scene ended with Kawai-Chan’s undead hamster transforming into a plank, so that Mr Bobo to ramp off it with his banana sidecar and regroup with the others. It made about as much sense in context.
Scene two was a much shorter social encounter. Whilst following the signs inside the fortress that directed to the Princess’ imminent performance, the group had a run-in with Sirtzendorf, Orianna’s nemesis and the fortress’ ex-commander. The deposed supervillain’s spirit endured within a small music box, and possessed vital intelligence for defeating the boss. I allowed the group to make a Spot check to find the music box, and a Chat create an advantage action to put his information to good use. In this case, the Chat roll was required to tell outrageous lies – Benedict promised to find a body for Sirtzendorf’s spirit to possess, if he would reveal Orianna’s weak spot. Believing him (the fool!), Sirtzendorf pointed the group to Orianna’s half-mask – a mass of oozing Glitch energy from which most of her power was derived.
At this stage the group was ready for its final boss fight. They found the Princess on stage, beginning her show-stopping performance, accompanied by a troupe of clockwork dancers and a crowd of adoring admirers. The dancer-bodyguards were despatched in short order (the PCs earned a huge combo pool of Fate points in the process), and a rain of chainsaws put the audience to flight. Orianna herself was a tougher prospect, her deafening melodies pressing upon Mr Bobo and taking one of his lives, but Benedict was able to use the mystical powers of a “Hax” stunt to steal her Siren Wail stunt for himself (prompting him to announce “The Egg Must SING!”, as quoted up top). Rocket-jumping into the sky, Ken Freedamme was able to blast the Glitch mask off Orianna’s face with a bazooka, bringing the fight to an end. The group celebrated with a hamburger party, conveniently forgetting about their promise to Sirtzendorf entirely. Side quests are not required for game progress.
I’m generally hesitant to review something when I’ve only played one session of it – two or three games seems a reasonable request for providing a fair and balance critique. But my earliest impressions of Save Game after one session of play are:
- The setting, both as a basic concept and in the details fleshed out for the five stage, provides enormous fun. I deliberately picked players who I thought would respond well to the 8-bit theme, so maybe I just got lucky, but in no time at all people were taking to describing their actions in the language of video games, flavouring the narrative accordingly. The five stages, as well as being genre appropriate, are also a great way of structuring the campaign.
- The presentation of new mechanics also reinforce the tone – coins instead of fate points, lives instead of consequences, combos, hax, unbeatables etc – and are interesting adaptations of the Fate Core system in their own right. Whilst I can’t imagine removing consequences from Fate for any other genre, it’s interesting how well the game gets by without them here. Similarly, decisions about when to start and end a combo introduce an extra level of strategy and risk to combat, which is nice.
- Characters can chuck around A LOT of fate points in Save Game. Not only do you get fate points for killing enemies, you get fate points when your FRIENDS die, and automatically come back with more when you use up a life. This is somewhat redressed by the large expense required to buy anything at the Bit Mart, but in practice this just means that players hoard their fate points for mundane “+2” uses for the best rate of return.
- There seems to be an issue with stunt balance. Like Atomic Robo, it seems to be bringing some structure to creating Stunts, perhaps to level the playing field. In practice though, some abilities are still much more consistently used than others, and produce greater narrative impact. Maybe “GM’s discretion” really is the best way to balance these – creating a framework that supposedly does the balancing for you gives the illusion that moderation on the GM’s part is unnecessary.
- There were a few bits where I could have used a bit more rules clarity. Zeroes get a number of fate points equal to the number of players multiplied by the stage number – is that per stage (seems pretty pitiful on Stage 1) or per scene (sounds pretty appalling on Stage 5)? Is that in addition to the “fate points equal to the number of players per scene” that GMs in Fate Core get generally? Similarly, the Zeroes are supposed to be accompanied by “jacks” and “rovers”, but I couldn’t find stats for either in the book.
- Other than that, the book is actually really great for providing NPC stat blocks.
Even though I only planned to run Save Game as a one-off, the nature of the game structure means that picking it up again to another stage would be painless, and all the players indicated they’d happily do so again. It would even be pretty straightforward to sub in a new player and character if required (length of character creation aside). I look forward to giving the game another go, and seeing how it compares to my initial experience.