Friday, December 27, 2013

Base Raiders: Tomb of Dr. Horrible

No superhero rpg history list this week; they'll return in two weeks. Today I offer a review of a great new supers rpg, Base Raiders.  

The Hulk dropped a mountain on them in one campaign. In another they’d aged out and died or been quietly eliminated by the government. In one campaign their enemies had run the world for generations, killing them off before they could become public. Another began with a titanic clash between the two sides at a secret prison complex. My favorite combined natural disasters and supernatural invasion to vastly reduce their population.

Killing off heroes is a way of life for supers campaigns.

For some GMs that provides a way to clear the decks and give the players room to operate. It puts the focus and responsibility on the PCs. It can also be a way to deal with a campaign world with extensive history and rich backstory. Instead of inviting buy-in, that detail can instead encourage player opt out. This cuts across campaign genres.  Consider the Wrath of the Immortals in Mystara and the Sundering in the Forgotten Realms.

Ross Payton’s Base Raiders is a complete Fate-based superhero game which begins with this premise. The world has a rich and diverse history of super-powers. Think of Astro City or all of the weirdness present in either of the Big Two universes. Anything went from alien invasions to Atlantaen mindworms to replicant robots to masked vigilantes to demon lords. But that’s over now- as all of the potent and powerful supers of any stripe vanished in a mysterious incident they call Ragnarok. That’s a solid premise, but Base Raiders takes it further.

It adds questions of government paranoia, fame seeking, and a sense of collapse. Most importantly focuses core play on the base raiding of the title. When those heroes, villains, and other weird beings vanished, they left behind bases- in some cases dozens of them. These marvels contain secrets, materials to scavenge, hi-tech toys, and the possibility of new powers. The PCs are supers- or at least have heightened abilities. They’ve joined together to raid these bases for various reasons- finding a lost loved one, shutting down a danger, discovering a cure, locating a source for new magics, finding vast quantities of filthy loot. They have to fight past traps, failed experiments, and sentient guardians of all shapes and sizes. But they must do this quietly for fear of alerting the authorities or competitors. Base Raiders is “Super-Powered Dungeon Crawling” as given in the subtitle, but that’s not all it is.

Ross Payton sent me a pdf of Base Raiders as a review copy. After spending about fifteen minutes with it, I went online to buy a printed copy. I wanted a physical copy to flip through and mark up. I have more pdfs than physical books these days, but I haven’t made the transition fully. When I hit something with as many cool ideas and concepts as Base Raiders, I need to work through it fully. Does the game stand up to that thorough read-through?

I’m tackling this review a little differently. Usually I offer an overview and walk through the sections in order. This time I want to split things into three areas: what it looks like, how the system works, and what the setting’s like.

Base Raiders isn’t a small supplement, with 260 standard-size pages. It offers a complete game with both mechanics and setting well presented. The layout’s cleanly and simply done. It has a nice balance of white space and you can get through the text easily. It’s a few minor tweaks away from being excellent. The illustrations range across the spectrum. You have a few highly detailed pieces, some nice consistent character illustrations, and then some lazier and more cartoony art. The cover’s a little busy but it conveys the game’s piece. The Fallout-style advert pieces sells the idea of a super organization offering Vault-like base construction. Base Raiders does have a couple of small presentation problems. Some columns break oddly across pages. That happens in some key reference spaces which is why I noticed. That rarely interfered with my ability to get the rules. Overall it works.

Base Raiders uses the version of Fate, Strange Fate, created for Kerberos Club (reviewed here). This pre-dates Fate Core and so offers a more complicated architecture. It feels more like Legends of Angelerre, The Dresden Files, or even Stands of Fate. It still isn’t a complex system by any means, but it does have a lot of moving parts and a more involved power/skill construction system.

I’m guessing most readers know Fate- a set of system mechanics which have gone through several versions. Designers have used the basic engine for many versions, including universal game. Fate has a simple resolution system with a roll + skill versus a target number. The roll runs from -4 to +4 or -5 to +5 depending on the dice used, with a significant bell curve at zero. Margin of success generally adds to effect. Aspects are Fate’s other significant element. Aspects represent qualities on persons, places, or things. It allows for quick descriptions with mechanical effects. Aspects can be invoked, often by using the limited resource of Fate points, to gain a reroll, bonus, or to create an effect in a scene.

Fate veterans will find a game that sticks pretty closely to the basic concepts. PCs can have a large number of aspects- some of them tied to their powers. Assessments, Declarations, and Maneuvers all have slightly different rules. Stress “rolls up” to the next available box. Shifts cause effects, but there’s no spin rules. The system drops Stunts in favor of the powers and extras rules. Base Raiders keeps the key elements intact and extends on them with several new concepts.

The most significant of these is the handling of powers. These can be represented by Unique or Strange skills. For the most part these are the same, but the latter covers actual powers. To use them a character must have a source of powers and each Strange skill must also have a drawback. Unique skills can represent training or background (like Underworld Networking or Dark Knight Vigilante). Basically players create Unique and Strange skills by assembling a set of trappings for the skill. Trappings represent the most basic uses for skills. Even common skills are defined by these trappings. For example the basic Melee Weapons skill includes Strike, Strike + Range, Parry, and Information. Burglary includes Examine, Security, and Information. Players used to Fate Core’s more universal approach to skills may find this too granular. To assemble a skill package, players use the skill trappings chart. Related trappings cost less to add and the system’s smartly done and balanced. Drawbacks and extras can be used to reduce the point cost. At the cost of reducing the character’s Fate Point refresh, these skills can be raised in Tier which increases the effectiveness.

That’s the element perhaps most problematic in Base Raider’s particular flavor of Fate. Power Tiers change the dice mechanic in play. A character using an Extraordinary Tier power against a Mundane Tier defense rolls three Fate dice plus 1d6. A greater shift, say Superhuman against Mundane, means more dice shifted. That dramatically changes the game. On the one hand it does simulate the difference between superbeings and humanity. On the other it creates a kind of arms race. Characters without a single high tier offense and defense skill will find themselves outclassed quickly. In play it creates weird situations and imbalances.

I’ve run several times with this dice mechanic and Fate- both with Base Raiders and with a Scion hack. Players either disliked or merely tolerated the system both times. I spoke to several of the players to get their sense of things. In particular the veteran Fate player in the Base Raiders game thought that the idea was interesting but swung things too wildly. He suggested a 1d3 or 1d4 might work better. I haven’t tried that solution. I don’t think the game’s broken- clearly Ross Payton and others have gotten workable and successful campaigns out of it. The mechanic made sense in Kerberos Club; it offers weirdly unbalanced PCs who are dangerous to even be near. I’m less certain of it here.

Beyond that Base Raiders offers several interesting mechanics which could easily be borrowed for other Fate games. It includes Strange Fate’s system for handling collateral damage (a must for a supers game). Some tiers of trappings add interesting new effects. Players pick Archetype and Backgrounds which provide examples as well as aspect slots. Character and team goals have an impact on mechanics and advancement. Some of the most interesting sub-systems cover power interactions and base building. The latter especially offers ideas on how players and the GM can collaboratively craft a new base and plot hooks for the group. There’s a “loot” system which encourage players to scavenge from the bases they raid in order to convert them into usable resources.

The background, GM material, and sample base make up a little over half of the book. It might seem overkill to spend so many pages describing a world only to tear it down, but it really works. The complexity and crazy detail forms the wreckage out of which this new superhero world will be built. It offers an interesting new take on balance in such a world and what happens when that’s completely toppled. GMs and players will find great material to forge exciting plots and interesting characters. Any superhero gamer ought to read this. The Build-a-Base concept, how supers organized, the underground black markets, organized crime’s response- Base Raiders has many flashes of brilliance.

Two themes run through the rules: the bases of the title and the idea of self-advancement. The setting offers a logical reason why so many bases would exist. In some ways it’s more logical than a fantasy world filled with dungeons. Superbeings with access to nano-contruction devices went wild crafting labs, prisons, fortresses, and sanctums. And they didn’t stop with a single facility. The central idea- going into a super base can be done as a classic dungeon-crawl- works really well. The book describes many kinds of bases and offers great ideas for the how and why of that. Black marketeers and the Underground offer PC Base Raiders has the right mix of tension and support. Raid plots may involve tracking down, researching, and preparing for a raid.  The public has an insatiable curiosity about these secret bases, rival factions want the power which can come from them, and the authorities want to stop anyone from entering. The PCs themselves may have many different reasons for breaking in.

That leads to the second theme, the potential power which bases may offer. The heroes and villains who vanished represented the most dangerous and powerful beings on the planet. Those remains…not so much. Many civilians (and potentially many PCs) have begun to hunt for get-superpowers-quick schemes. From super-soldier formulas to ancient scrolls to untested armor suits there’s a mania for becoming one of the lucky and chosen. Imagine the power of the internet harnessed to this kind of obsession. It makes for an interesting contrast between characters driven by this hunt and those with more altruistic needs (finding out the secret of Ragnarok, discovering a cure for a loved one, finding answers about one’s own origin). That’s a great and playable set of concepts.

Ross Payton brings these ideas together well. While the game pitches itself as a dungeon-crawler, it doesn’t have to be just that. In fact that hook overshadows some of the other ideas present. A typical dungeon-based game would have more in the way of “magic-items,” monsters, and location dressing. Base Raiders focuses as much on the broader picture. Base raiding could easily be used as the starter for a longer, more conventional superhero campaign. The PCs gather together for just a job and instead bond as a group. They learn secrets in their first few runs, gain new powers, and eventually expand their horizons. They can become the new paragons in this post-collapse world. The presence of the bases then offers a ready supply of future villains to fight. I could easily imagine running a pick up campaign from that starting point.

The example base may be the only weak point of the material. And even that’s more about what my expectations than the write-up itself. Payton provides an interesting and dangerous setting in The Zombie Factory (spoilers: see cover). The five-level dungeon comes complete with maps, traps, and a dangerous set of foes at the lowest level. There’s discussion of how to tweak the material and it feels like a useful toolkit. But it doesn’t seem to work as well as a demo module for a couple of reasons. First the set up assumes that the players come to the base via a teleporter from another base they’ve already raided. That detail’s key to the layout and trap of the setting. So you either have to handwave that or come up with another base for the group to go through first. Second the base has a semi-omnipotent defense AI who essentially blackmails the PCs into carrying out its wishes. That’s not a great way to start things out. Both times I ran the scenario I made major modification to remove those issues. The Zombie Factory’s a great base, but works better as a later campaign element. I’d like to see a demo module which stresses the cool aspects of base raiding and perhaps even the heroic elements. The players have to get into a base to stop something bad from happening. At the same time another group has also broken in. I’d like to hook the players with the fun and dungeon-crawly bits of the setting before bringing the hammer down. The book could also use some simple and balanced pre-gen characters representing archetypes. The example characters given vary in power level and a few have weirdly open power sets. That means GMs will have to tweak them to make a good team.

I really love Base Raiders conceptually. The world’s smart, interesting, and well presented. I’m a fan of superhero rpgs and I’ve been assembling my history lists of the genre. That means I’ve gone through many setting sourcebooks from default classic worlds of big ticket games to the smaller and edgier backgrounds niche smaller presses offer. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a character concept or plot I want to lift. Base Raiders presents one of the few supers settings I’d want to play out wholesale. Each chapter offers multiple new ideas. This is one of the most interesting and game-inspiring superhero rpgs I’ve read in a long time.

But I’m probably not going to use the system. I might tweak it or adapt some of the elements for our house homebrew. The introduction indicates that conversion guidelines for Savage Worlds, Mutants & Masterminds, and Wild Talents will be available on the website by the end of 2013. I’m really looking forward to those. I’d love to see stronger demo module and some balanced pre-gen characters for play. Beyond that this setting demands another sourcebook offering even more material and ideas. For example, Payton could assemble a set of generators for random base creation. Imagine something like Frog God Games’ awesome Tome of Adventure Design, but tuned to superheroes.

Who should buy this? Anyone interested in superhero games- regardless of system. GMs will find much to love here. The material here could at the very least offer a great new set of plots and arcs for any supers campaign. I’d also recommend this to Fate hackers. Payton plays with the Strange Fate system and adds some interesting new tweaks and sub-systems. It isn’t Fate Core, but if you like playing around with the nuts and bolts of the system, you will find some cool ideas here. It moves away from a streamlined stunt & aspect approach I’ve seen people online present or even the shopping list structure of Icons. Finally anyone who enjoys novel world-building in an rpg book.

I’ve posted a couple of Actual Play sessions of Base Raiders. Both use a heavily modified version of the base given in the book.
This one has video and audio and uses the Base Raiders system as is. 
This one is audio only and uses a version of Base Raiders adapted to our homebrew Action Cards system. 

tl/dr: buy it.