Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Atomic Robo: RPGs I Like

I’ve had a chance to read through the Atomic Robo: The Roleplaying Game a couple of times now. Here’s what I think.

The book’s gorgeous. Atomic Robo’s a substantial 6.75 x 10.25 softcover. It uses full-color interior art on glossy, heavy weight paper. The book has heft and feels good when you hold it. The only knock against it I have is that the spine’s a little tight and I can’t quite bring myself to break it. The interior artwork’s entirely drawn from the comic or (I’m guessing) produced by Wegener for the book. The layout’s solid and highly usable: clear chapter breaks, easy to spot headings, great white space. It all shows careful craftsmanship on Jeremy Keller and Adam Jury’s part. There’s a solid ToC as well as a complete index. It’s always worth pointing out a good index because it helps make these games playable and many books skip them entirely.

As An Atomic Robo Book…
Licensed RPGs have to walk a fine line between being a role-playing game and being a sourcebook for the setting. That’s especially true for settings with a smaller history to draw on. The Star Wars and Conan licenses can get away with a sketchy outlines in the core rules. Games covering niche products like this (or Hellboy or Bubblegum Crisis) need to present more background. On the other hand, some games go too far in that direction and offer little game. Atomic Robo strikes a strong balance.

But it does that by integrating the art, tone, and feel of the property into the gaming material. As with Evil Hat’s previous licensed game, The Dresden Files, this feels like Atomic Robo all the way through. Mike Olson manages to echo the flavor of the comics in every chapter through a combination of voice, great examples, and graphic design tricks to continually bring the characters from the comics to the fore. And somehow it doesn’t feel intrusive. I’ll admit that when I read through Dresden Files the sidebars and interruptions sometimes knocked me out of the reading. I didn’t have that problem with Atomic Robo.

If you’re coming here purely looking for more Atomic Robo stuff because you love the comic, there’s a bunch of it. The opening has a good nine page overview of the setting. But more importantly there’s an awesome timeline of the universe at the back. Between that and the character write ups, which cover nearly everyone who has been in the comic, you end up with about 70 pages of material. A devoted fan would buy it just for that and then would have the added bonus of seeing how this world could be gamified. If you’re a fan of another RPG system, say Savage Worlds or True20, and want to adapt Atomic Robo, you’ll want to pick this up. Beyond the background material it offers a wealth of ideas of how to bring comic elements to the table.

As An RPG…
Atomic Robo offers a complete rpg in a single volume. It uses the Fate Core system, but is stand alone. Players will want to pick up a set of the specialty Fate Dice to complete the game. It is a narrative/ description heavy rpg, focusing more on player interaction and control over the environment than involved rules systems covering all situations. In that regard I’d says it’s to the lighter side of complexity of Savage Worlds or Cinematic Unisystem.

Atomic Robo aims to make character creation easy. The overview of the process takes only twelve pages and includes a quick on-the-fly approach. I should note that this section has plenty of examples and a handy illustrated breakdown of the process. The subsequent chapters follow the same process illustrating Aspects, Stunts, and Skills with smart restatement of concepts from place to place. Atomic Robo allows players to create a wide range of character types. While it offers some templates, it can be a more open process than many gamers have played before. Allowing players to make choices later during play helps moderate that. Like other Fate-games Atomic Robo relies heavily on the concept of Aspects. These descriptors like “Grimly Pragmatic” or “The Ghost of Menlo Park” define characters, action results, the environment, and so on. More than anything else, when I see questions about Fate, they revolve around aspects. Atomic Robo does a great, great job of illustrating how players use those in play. All through the books we have numerous examples, often funny, of those.

That’s important for the GM side, since Aspects can often be the most difficult thing to adjudicate for starting GMs. Atomic Robo includes an 85 page GM section. Like other games includes some general advice for running at the table. But more than anything else it offers comprehensive help in running a specifically Atomic Robo campaign. From factions to flashbacks to conspiracy construction to using Tesladyne at the table, it aims to create a particular feeling.

Everywhere Atomic Robo gives gamers the tools to play and run Action Scientists.

As a Fate Game…
If you’re already a Fate gamer, should you pick this up? The short answer is yes. Why? Because it is doing some really interesting stuff with the system. It handles skills in a different way, through Modes, which are collections of skills: Action, Intrigue, Banter, and Science. Players have a value in a mode and then can further buy up specific skills within that mode. This makes character creation easier and also streamlines the overall process (i.e. no pyramid). The game only has 13 skills, plus Sciences. All of that goes a long way to carrying the feel of the setting. You could imagine it as an approach between Fate Core and Fate Accelerated.

This approach could be used for other genres- changing the modes and the skill choices. Such a stripped down approach forces you to look at what’s happening in a particular setting and what the play’s going to be like.

Atomic Robo offers several other innovations. In particular the “brainstorms” mechanic both fits the setting and adds a cool new tool. Essentially a brainstorm uses collaborative problem solving and definition. Players apply their skills and the successful winner gets to establish a hypothesis. Eventually a solution develops through several combined statements. It’s an interesting idea and I can imagine adapting this to a world with magical puzzles and problems. The faction system presented here could also be used for other games easily.

The real strength of the material lies in some of the clear explanations and examples. I think these offer guidance for how to present Fate concepts to players. Beyond that Atomic Robo shows how you can keep essential Fate Core and still tune the game to a particular genre and setting.

Final Thoughts
This is a dynamite and amazing looking book and game. I recommend it for Atomic Robo for both fans and role-players.