For the first session of Research & Dragons, I chose the following variables to test:
- System: Fate Accelerated.
- Style: Period Political Intrigue.
- Method: Zero Preparation; Player’s Create the Setting (at the table).
Needless to say, I was terrified, but in a good way!
So how this is going to work is I will outline how the session went, and then I will break it down into an analysis of these three variables and discuss my findings. At the end is the Verdict, where I trace out my findings and advice. If you don’t have time to go through everything, at least read those three short paragraphs!
We began play at 3:00 PM on Saturday 12th, September 2015. The idea for this particular experiment was born in the car heading back from a camping trip, and immediately after a short Facebook conversation about some themes, and organisation. We came to the idea of running a no-magic “medieval” courtly intrigue game with no direct combat. All ‘combat’ would be social intrigue. We had some ideas for the setting - such as a warmer planet with 2 suns, a culture of veiling yourself in public, and some ideas pertaining to noble title passing by right of virtue rather than familiar bloodline.
Then came game day. The limit of my preparation was to print out character sheets, the game creation sheet for Fate Core, and a list of names for males, females, and places (I chose Babylonian names, as I haven’t used them much before). With our materials gathered, myself and four players - Alex, Amelia, Felicity, and Genevieve - sat down to discuss the game.
I quickly sketched out the core rules of Fate Accelerated. In brief, you roll 4d6 (we used normal dice instead of Fate Dice, and substituted 1-2 for a Minus, 3-4 for a Blank, and 5-6 for a Plus) and add your Approach (a score from +0 to +3) to beat a target number or an opposed roll. You have Aspects, which can be words or phrases that describe a factor about your character. You can invoke Aspects to gain +2 to a roll, or to reroll your dice, but this costs a Fate Point. You regain Fate Points by having your Aspects be Compelled by the GM or other players to make something bad happen to your character as a consequence of their nature. Done. Rules sorted.
Next was setting creation. I began by prompting my players with a few questions, but very quickly they began riffing off each other’s answers, and I had to madly take notes. They developed in full steam ahead of me, with me throwing in suggestions here and there to liven up the tension. Using the Fate Core Game Creation Sheet I was able to guide this a little better, and asked them for the major movers and shakers, as well as the centres of conflict, and the current issue and incoming issue of the world.
In the end we got some truly unique results. In addition to the features I mentioned above during our Facebook back-and-forth, we developed that the world was in a pre-Dark Ages, Iron Age level of technology, with a political landscape similar to that of the Roman Empire, the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and in some ways the tribal nature of Dark Ages Scotland.
We discovered that there is pseudo-religious tension between those who worship the suns and walk freely beneath them, and the aristocracy which believes in veiling themselves from the sun and living nocturnal lives in veneration of the moon. We learned of the divided nature between ‘puritan’ aristocrats who believed in more traditional monogamous and insular (read: almost inbred) families, and the ‘liberal’ aristocratic movements where a matriarch and a patriarch of a noble house have countless suitors and mates, and the children of an entire house belong to everyone.
We discovered two guilds: The Guild of Roses, for female courtesans who traded their skills for the fruits of their own wombs (taking in children to use as wards and playing pieces in foreign courts), and The Guild of Thorns, for male courtesans, who trade in information garnered from their attentions. We learned of the strict laws that forbid the two from consorting with each other for fear of the power they would wield.
We also learned of a curious custom where nobles have “Senses” or “Censers” (the richer you are, the more you have) - servants who act as an extension of your body for that given sense. So a noble could have an Eye who is expected to observe and tell their master everything they see, or an Ear who listens to another noble’s Mouth, or even Feet who carry you on palanquins, and Hands who give and receive gifts and signs of affection. The play of veils, and the use (and ignoring/recognition of a Censer) becoming the main dance of these ridiculous nobles.
And the beauty of all of this? I did very little. I sat back, and watched as my players became not only engrossed in the world they created, but deeply invested and engaged - plotting and planning openly.
It was, therefore, time to move to character creation. We began with High Concept Aspects, and then Troubles, which were easy to determine given the nature of my players’ engagement. Next came, in a similar style of Fate Core a process of each player dictating a situation in their past for which they gained another Aspect. Another player would then jump in and dictate how they made it more complicated or helped, and in turn gained an Aspect and determined a familiar bond between characters.
By game start, we had a well fleshed and interesting setting, with 4 characters who were ripe for political intrigue. What we didn’t have, however, was a starting point. This was quite difficult for me, as the players and I knew the issues at hand, but the characters didn’t. I was faced with the weird job of cleverly and interestingly informing players about things they already knew. Luckily, my players were willing to just banter at each other, and the awkwardness I felt in my ability to deliver the beginning was quickly overridden.
We played for several hours, during which the characters learned of several interlinked plots to overthrown the Queen, a mysterious southern continent that was at the centre of this web, and also learned of the major players. We didn’t, however, have time to finish the session with anything remotely close to a satisfying ending, and perhaps this one-shot will need to be extended out to a mini-campaign (or more, depending).
The System: Fate Accelerated
The Fate Accelerated system, augmented with bits and pieces from Fate Core, is truly wonderful. Whilst it required a little bit of explaining up front, the mechanics were simple enough that players were experimenting with them right out of the gate and having a lot of fun even during character creation!
The flexibility of the Aspect, Stunt, and Stress systems allow for exactly this sort of game. However, I am wary of the advancement mechanics and the utility of the system for anything more tactical.
Fate Accelerated seems entirely suited to political intrigue and social combat, with the Actions and Stress system making immediate and perfect sense. You try to butter up the Queen? That’s Creating an Advantage. You’re discrediting an opponent? Attack them with your Clever!
Interestingly enough, and this was proved through play, the mechanics work best as a player-vs-player system, which was incredibly enjoyable. Combat took some time to do, but it was mostly because we were working through heavy intrigue. Even still, everyone was keenly engaged during the play experience.
Perhaps my favourite facet of the system is the transparency of the game. There is no illusion that the GM is the authority, and that the other players are the audience for the GM’s story. In truth, I was a casual observer for much of play, and merely stepped in to provide rulings (and even then, it was a discussion at some points). This is a wonderful thing because, without prior rules knowledge, within a single session players (who themselves have never GMed before) were able to grasp and adapt the rules to the situation.
There is one thing I will say about the system, though. You cannot play Fate Accelerated, or Core I presume, and think to win. This is a standard of all roleplaying games, but in Fate it is painstakingly obvious. If you want to see your player characters succeed over and over, then find another system. Fate is about exciting and dramatic tales involving exciting and dramatic characters - and drama means things go wrong!
The Style: Period Political Intrigue
Political intrigue is hard. I was terrified that it wouldn’t work, and am entirely indebted to my players for it working. Without them as strong and motivated characters (and players), the game simply would have fallen flat and been an utter disaster.
However, there were a few key things I noticed that I can impart:
Fewer NPCs who have greater weight between them is good. If there are too many NPCs, it becomes confusing to follow, but if you have a powerful few then it flow a lot smoother.
Allow the PCs to drive the fiction. No matter what you as the GM may feel is interesting, the players are the ones who will engage and give you your greatest resources, so listen intently and throw back everything they do. For instance, one of the greatest points of tension came about because a player failed a Careful test in their scheming, and a powerful NPC just happened to be there. This was emergent - I had no intention of the Queen being near the discourse, but it was the most exciting and dramatic thing that could occur at the time, so I made it so!
I will definitely be running more political intrigue games in the future, and this single session has given me so much fodder and experience already.
The Method: Zero-Prep, Player Setting
This was terrifying. Honestly, don’t do this if you’re inexperienced. I’ve been GMing for 17+ years, and I found it stressful at times.
However, it was also amazingly liberating. This game was the first game where I truly felt that they players owned the fiction as much as I did. I don’t think anyone left last night thinking that I did a good job running it, but rather than we all ran it together amazingly!
Despite this, I feel there are steps to take to prepare oneself better for this kind of session. A list of questions to ask the players would be ideal, rather than a flat open expanse of nothing to come with. Whilst I was lucky enough to have the players run away with the idea and build it themselves, it could easily have led to Blank White Paper Syndrome, in which case a few ideas to bring it back on topic would have been useful.
I would also suggest reading appropriate fiction beforehand. I have been reading Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest, and I found myself more than once falling back on ideas and assumptions about how to improvise from the way the characters within the story act and improvise. Because the book is largely political intrigue, it enabled me to well picture how a session should run, and the outlines of the objectives:
Someone wants something for some reason. They can’t use violence to get it. They must convince, coerce, connive, and mostly corrupt to get it. Go from there.
Fate Accelerated is an amazing game that can be taught in minutes, and can be extended out to infinite settings. It does seem, however, to be limited in the play styles it supports. If you’re looking for crunch or tactics, look somewhere else. You will not find that here. This is a system about flexibility without forsaking depth.
Fate Accelerated can be downloaded for pay-what-you-want at Evil Hat Productions.
Political intrigue is a tricky style to play, and requires deep player engagement. Do not attempt to use it with guile - ironically - because it won’t work. Be up front to your players that intrigue is the state of play and that there is no room for shooting/stabbing first. You can’t do that. It won’t work. But that isn’t to say you can’t defeat people. Political intrigue is all about rising to the top, and you can only do that by stepping on the people below you!
Zero preparation, in addition to letting the players create the setting on the day of the game is a scary but rewarding experience, and will allow you to grow as a GM. It isn’t for the inexperienced, but is something I feel every GM should try at some point. Lastly, even though it is zero preparation, prepare to be unprepared. Read what you can, know the rules well, and know your players. They are your setting, your cast, and your entire game. Play them.