Monday, December 8, 2014

Venture City Stories: Super Capsule Review

While I’ve run Venture City Stories, I realized I hadn’t done a write-up for it. VCS delivers a micro supers setting for use with Fate Core. The product's brief, coming in at 30 pages of material. Evil Hat released it as part of their Patreon Project and you can find it “Pay What You Want” at RPGNow. Since EH’s running a promotion, I decided to do a quick overview. I’m going to come at this from a couple of directions, but to be clear I like Fate. It works for me as a system. In particular we've integrated many elements from it into our local homebrew, Action Cards.

Presentation
Venture City Stories is cleanly laid-out, following the template established in other Fate products. It looks good, with highly functional sidebars and call-outs. There’s a wealth of solid art here for a small product. Illustrator Tazio Battin delivers with an excellent and evocative style. The images manage to capture the sense of a world with high level supers and street level conflict.

Premise
Venture City is a focal point location, a grim and murky urban center with corruption run through it. It exemplifies the rest of the setting: a world questioning supers and a deeply blurred line between good and evil. It reminds me a little of Hub City from the DC Universe. The whole tone feels close to Marvel’s Ultimates universe. You could also compare it to Aberrant, but dialed back significantly.

Setting Material
A little over two-thirds of the book presents Venture City. It opens with a nice overview of the issues and problems facing both the world and the city itself. After quickly setting the stage it moves to explore the details through people, places, and groups. I like the focus on concrete concepts players might interact with, rather than just a history and gazetteer. It’s a sketchy presentation, but it works especially well for two reasons. One, it manages to leave the GM room to imagine connections and come up with plots. Details are given, but they’re more hooks and ideas. Two, the connecting material in sidebars shows ties between the segments and illustrates how larger plots and stories could connect.

I like the setting, particularly because it is both grey without being gritty. At the same time it presents a living, breathing world. The Fate elements blend seamlessly with the background. Sometimes when I read supers settings, I’ll grind to a halt when we switch from info to stats & mechanics. Venture City Stories handles that well. It offers an awesome model as a Fate product. Is it worth it for non-Fate GMs? Let me come back to that at the end.

Super Powers
Fate players can celebrate having several different Super power sub-systems available. A quick look at the community extensions or the G+ group offers a host of options. We have several published versions as well, including material from the Fate Core Toolkit, “Wild Blue” in Fate Worlds, and the heavily reconstructed ICONS Assembled. Venture City Stories gives a simple system covered in only three pages.

Essentially players come up with a core concept for their power. They break the important features of that power into discrete stunts. Each power has a Drawback; really a trouble aspect for it. But it also has a set of Special Effects- microbenefits which can be called on when a player succeeds with style on the use of their power. They can also use their power in overdrive which gives them an amazing result, but inflicts a Collateral Damage effect. One of the examples is a Speedster able to travel anywhere in an instant but tearing up the streets behind them.

It like this structure. It worked pretty well when I ran Thirty Days to Save Science City. I’ve also tested it out with our homebrew and players seem to grok it fairly well. They especially enjoy the idea of the boosted power with a consequence. The Special Effects mechanic takes some getting used to. It means players must think about their powers in a different way. It reminds me of Dragon Age’s system of post-roll stunts. Venture City Stories's length works for and against it. The added mechanics are tight and streamlined. But at the same time I would have liked more examples- both of play and of character builds. Despite that, I’d recommend Fate Supers GMs take a look at Venture City.

Other Concepts
Venture City Stories also uses Factions as a key mechanism. We’ve seen things like this in other Fate games (Legend of Anglerre for example). Here Factions are defined by a slogan (public image) and a secret (true problems). Factions also have ratings in six skills: Bureaucracy, Espionage, Resources, Security, Tech, and Violence. The rules don’t take much time explaining those, assuming GMs can figure that out.

I like this mechanism. When I put together my online session, I leaned heavily on it. I essentially assembled the setting by coming up with different factions. To the structure above I added some GM-facing details: Hooks and Ways In. Hooks are just quick plot ideas involving the group. I avoided any detail on these; I wanted them as improv material. Ways In are the people, places, and thing players might actual contact in play. In the past when I’ve done games with multiple factions or groups, they’ve remained nebulous and then I have a harder time connecting the players to them. Here I began by thinking at the concrete level. Then when players did investigations and research, I had a line to throw. These can frame successful contacts and the like. This prep approach doesn’t take long if you avoid doing more than sketching 3-5 ideas for each. And there’s significant long-term payoff.

Final Thoughts
Fate players should pick this up. The presentation of the city offers a good model for building other locales. They might also like the supers system- though I suspect GMs will want to hunt around for some other example character builds (as I did). It takes some getting used to, but generally I dig it and it offers a slightly new approach. If you’re looking to do a pick-up Fate supers game, Venture City Stories has a solid system and an easily playable open setting.

Non-Fate Supers GMs will find a rich and interesting supplement. It has more of what I want a supers citybook to do than most. On the other hand, it leaves me wishing for more. But the low cost and the quality of the material means that most superhero gamemasters ought to at least check it out.

Notes on my adaptation of Venture City Stories (Session Summary and Discussion Part One & Part Two)